Studying Mormonism in the Academy
But this is a bit like thinking, "God made my body; why would I need medical knowledge about my body?" Or: "God made the universe; why would I need to study chemistry or geology or biology?" Such rhetorical questions entail errors in both logic and Mormon theo-logic. Moreover, such sentiments are out of touch with new attitudes and policies issued by the Church itself, which has cited with approval the development of Mormon Studies in secular university settings.
A parallel expression of open attitudes is expressed on the official LDS website, whose Newsroom section maintains (since June 11, 2009) a remarkable, healthy statement on history. This statement is legitimately a religious document, offering a kind of theology and philosophy of the role of history for members of the church. But while, as a religious document, it is highly conscious of God's hand in dealing with the Mormon people, it is also a remarkably open and thoughtful document, whose spirit amounts to an invitation to a deeper partnership with professional-quality historical inquiry. The statement observes that,
The Mormon worldview compels a historical consciousness.... [And] the Mormon historical consciousness impels one to step outside the comfortable confines of the present [and to] develop empathy to understand the past.... To preserve history is to shape identity.... The new Church History Library is the substance behind the growing emphasis of transparency in the Church's interaction with the public.... It is in the interests of the Church to play a constructive role in advancing the cathartic powers of honest and accurate history. In doing so, the Church strives to be relevant to contemporary audiences that operate under changing cultural assumptions and expectations. A careful, yet bold presentation of Church history, which delves into the contextual subtleties and nuances characteristic of serious historical writing, has become increasingly important. If a religion cannot explain its history, it cannot explain itself. [Quoted from "A Record Kept".]
Among LDS believers hoping to integrate the life of the mind with the life of the Spirit, this has to be encouraging language.
The teaching of Religious Studies in a university classroom in Salt Lake City, and the fostering of a program in which one can Minor in Religious Studies, is apt for the foreseeable future to require clear, thoughtful, imaginative, patient-but-not-reticent expression. It is also going to require sensitive attention to institutional and cultural context.
This is not a secularized Europe, which is in need of not only Religious Studies but also something like what has been launched at Trinity College in Connecticut by my friend Mark Silk: a Center for the Study of Secularism. In Europe, a professor might need to instruct students with such a preface as this: "There was, before your time, a civilization - the majority of civilizations that preceded and are contemporary with you - that constructed reality very differently than you do...."