BYU and the “Culture Wars”

 

An aerial view of Brigham Young University’s campus in Provo, Utah

 

I understand that, at least to this point, those interested in Professor Ralph Hancock’s recent article in the wonderful monthly magazine First Things cannot access it unless they’re subscribers.  And the printed version (in the March issue) hasn’t yet appeared.

 

Here, with Professor Hancock’s kind permission, is the penultimate paragraph of his article.  It gives some sense of the article’s general thesis:

 

BYU’s distinctive mission has already been seriously compromised by indulging the illusion that we can accept without reservation the understanding of humanity that is implicit in the academic mainstream. A cultivation of alternative intellectual frameworks open to our essential religious commitments is urgently needed if the currents of contemporary intellectual culture are not to carry the university irreversibly away from distinctive religious moorings. Leadership as courageous and perseverant as it is wise will be required over the next generation to meet the challenge of the secularization of the academic world. We may not want the culture wars, but they want us. To pretend to neutrality in today’s moral and intellectual environment is in effect to endorse the ascendant secular and reductionist orthodoxy. 

 

I very much share Dr. Hancock’s concerns.

 

Posted from Waikoloa, Hawai’i

 

 

 

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  • Brock Lesnar

    Dan, thanks for providing the additional information.

    Are there specific examples of this cultural war going on right now at BYU, or was this just a general statement?

    My experience has been that BYU has been involved in a cultural war for well over 100 years, but the unique relationship between BYU and the Church will always preclude BYU from becoming an entirely secular institution. You have to remember, BYU’s board of trustees is composed almost entirely of Apostles and General Authorities, actively involved in almost every single operation of BYU. They ensure that the management of BYU proceeds in ways that accommodate the mission of the Church as the primary focus. BYU’s academic mission is secondary to the Church’s mission.

    So, in the end, it’s a fine line BYU has to walk. If they stress too much on
    the secular, then the religious aspect suffers. If BYU focuses too much on the
    religious, then their academics suffer.

    I think the Church leadership has done an admirable job of walking this tightrope. I think they will continue to do so.

  • joseph peterson

    so basically the “if you’re not with us you’re against us” argument, said more eloquently.

    • DanielPeterson

      Not even close.

      • RG

        How is it not? (And, yes, I read the whole article.)

        “We may not want the culture wars, but they want us. To pretend to neutrality in today’s moral and intellectual environment is in effect to endorse the ascendant secular and reductionist orthodoxy.”
        The logic seems to be: There’s a war going on. LDSs should be on one side. To see oneself as neutral in this war is to endorse the enemy.

        • DanielPeterson

          Good grief.

          • joseph peterson

            enlighten us small-minded liberal folk, please, we are but poor in mind and faculty, so regale us with good griefs and other helpless quips, but maybe also answer the question, so we may all be edified together.

          • DanielPeterson

            Please be serious.

            I won’t insult you by thinking that you really, genuinely, believe that your one-line summary of Professor Hancock’s argument comes within light years of adequately representing it.

            I understand the desire to respond in a dismissive, partisan way. Resist it. Overcome it, and you’ll read more clearly. Make an effort to understand Professor Hancock’s position.

          • joseph peterson

            I am confident you understand the desire to respond in a dismissive, partisan way, since you give in to that desire with most (not all) of your responses. So naturally, I appreciate the empathy. I wasn’t the only one with the question, however, and I don’t think, given the emphasis you put on that solitary paragraph from Prof. Hancock’s argument to underscore and finalize your point, that it is an entirely partisan, or dismissive question. But that is perhaps where we differ? Or perhaps where you just employ dismissiveness as an avoidance tactic for open dialogue.

            Note: Where I would get partisan, at this point, would be that, at no matter the real reason, I would assume the latter.

            I won’t assume. I am inclined, but I’ll leave it at that.

            Also, Prof. Hancock is quite the brain. Respect.

          • DanielPeterson

            JP: “I am confident you understand the desire to respond in a dismissive, partisan way, since you give in to that desire with most (not all) of your responses.”

            You simply seem to be irritated by the fact that I disagree with you on political and economic issues.

            JP: “perhaps . . . you just employ dismissiveness as an avoidance tactic for open dialogue.”

            I’m publicly engaged in open dialogue, or in formulating materials for open dialogue, most days of every week. It’s a matter of where, and with whom, to spend my twenty four daily hours.

          • joseph peterson

            to use your words: Not even close.

            I like that we have different opinions. I know you are publicly engaged in open dialogue most days of every week, I wasn’t referring to that. Zoom in, professor, to the conversation at hand, and seek to communicate within the context of this specific conversation, that is the avoidance I’m alleging, and none other.

            Kettle: You didn’t tell me what hue of black you are in the context of the question I just asked you.

            Pot: Oh Kettle, I talk about all the shades and hues every day of the week in other situations. Pish Posh.

            But to your remark about the 24 hrs, I totally understand. Which alludes to one instance in where you never cease to amaze me, professor. You always seem to deem responding to me as worthy of your limited time. And for that I’m honored. Even flattered.

  • Metatron-Enoch

    I think President Boyd K. Packer stated it better: “In recent years I have felt, and I think I am not alone, that we are losing the ability to correct the course of the church. You cannot appreciate how deeply I feel about the importance of this present opportunity unless you know the regard, the reverence, I have for the Book of Mormon and how seriously I have taken the warnings of the prophets, particularly Alma and Helaman. Both Alma and Helaman told the church in their day. They warned about fast growth, the desire to be accepted by the world, to be popular, and particularly they warned about prosperity. Each time those conditions existed in combination, the church has drifted off course. All of those conditions are present in the church today. Helaman repeatedly warned, I think four times he used these words, that the fatal drift of the church could occur in the space of not many years. In one instance it took only six years.” (Helaman 6:32; 7:6; 11:26) (Elder Boyd K. Packer, “Let Them Govern Themselves,” Reg. Rep. Seminar, March 30, 1990)

    • brotheroflogan

      Thanks for sharing this.

      • Metatron-Enoch

        Any time! I’ve come to realize that there are elements of the Church, who do not seek to build the Kingdom of God. Instead, they are subversive, but one must be cautious. These types hold power and position, destroying those who uncover their treachery. Here is a quote to think about:

        “Sometimes we hear someone refer to a division in the Church. In reality, the Church is not divided. It simply means that there are some who, for the time being at least, are members of the Church but not in harmony with it. These people have a temporary membership and influence in the Church; but unless they repent, they will be missing when the final membership records are recorded. It is well that our people understand this principle, so they will not be misled by those apostates within the Church who have not yet repented or been cut off. But there is a cleansing coming. The Lord says that his vengeance shall be poured out “upon the inhabitants of the earth . . . And upon my house shall it begin, and from my house shall it go forth, saith the Lord; First among those among you, saith the Lord, who have professed to know my name and have not known me” (D&C 112:24-26). I look forward to that cleansing; its need within the Church is becoming increasingly apparent.”(Ezra Taft Benson, To The Humble Followers of Christ, Conference Report, April 1969, pp. 10-15)

      • Metatron-Enoch

        Also, I wish to make it clear that the brethren have tried for years to get the membership of the Church to wake up, but obviously their pleas fell on deaf ears. Now, we are infiltrated by all manner of evils. Let us remember, the Lord will rectify the situation in due time.

    • joseph peterson

      excellent quote, I’ll pick this cherry off of the quote tree, thanks.

      • Metatron-Enoch

        Are you thanking me because you understand the implications of this quote, or is it just a tongue and cheek gesture? This quotes is pointing out that MEMBERS are in open rebellion against the Lord and his ways.

        • joseph peterson

          oh, well, I’ll take it to mean the church, when he says the church. call me a literalist.

          • Metatron-Enoch

            Ah…I see. You only mean to use the quote as ammunition for your agenda in fomenting dissent against the leadership and brethren. Do what you will, but you will fail none the less.

          • joseph peterson

            you found me out.

  • Mormon Luther

    I think Ralph is using a fitting metaphor to highlight his position. While the secular portion of the world’s educational systems (which is already nearly all of it) is talking about tolerance, Ralph and Dan are talking about war.

    One of my criticisms of the public version of Ralph for a long time has been that he talks in generalities. What are the secular ideas that are so threatening? gay marriage? evolution? secular humanism? peace? academic freedom?

    Perhaps those are in the article that isn’t meant for the public.

    Regardless, why don’t we just talk about the ideas instead of declaring war?

    “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” ― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

  • Ralph Hancock

    Here is an excerpt from my FT things that may partially respond to the interest in more specifics. The underlying question is really: can we understand human things (social science,humanities) in a way compatible with any conceivable interpretation of the Gospel without questioning the paradigms that dominant in the mainstream disciplines? (If you don’t believe there are dominant paradigms out there, but only neutral and objective “scholarship,” well, I think that is wishful thinking, but that’s a longer discussion.) –rch

    “While the mainstream academic suppression of all questions of transcendent purpose and of associated moral limits was taken as a given across the disciplines, and while most researchers and teachers deferred intellectually, in their specialized professional capacities, to the authority of a rationalist and reductionist framework of understanding, they were not for the most part concerned to draw the moral, political, and religious implications. While the authority of a reductionist scientism and an ethic of limitless personal freedom grew steadily in the human sciences and humanities, most BYU professors were happy to consider their scientific or scholarly work as “value-neutral” and to compartmentalize religious and moral beliefs in a “private” domain supposedly exempt from the ordering paradigm of their discipline. Even the relatively few professors knowingly committed to the moral and political implications of the
    secular-progressive paradigm often felt no urgent need to convert less
    enlightened students.”

    Another example, just a kind of straw in the wind, I could mention (that isn’t in the article): I believe I have shown that Joanna Brooks has a militant agenda (at least last time I checked, and along with her partner John Dehlin) to change the church (aka “open it up to…”) to align with progressive-liberationist agenda. (Am I the only person alive to criticize her in print, at least as a careful, scholarly reader?) Now there are FAVORABLE, not to say sycophantic reviews of her famous MORMON GIRL in both BYU Studies and in Mormon Studies Review. Can you imagine that either would have published my painstaking criticism, based upon a careful reading. No — that would be “divisive,” unseemly (i.e., conservative, = taking positions like GAs in General Conference). Pas d’ennemi a gauche: we may not agree with Brooks about everything, but she is one of us, one of our academic guild, and we would never be so impolite as to take her arguments seriously by engaging them.

    So consider our outcome: at allegedly conservative BYU, Joanna Brooks is practically mainstream, and I am … you know, that conservative at BYU. That unusual “conservative”… at BYU.

    • RG

      Ralph, just to be clear, your evidence for the secular drift of BYU is a quote by Craig Harline taken out of context and favorable reviews of _Mormon Girl_ in BYU Studies and MSR. Did I miss anything?

      • Ralph Hancock

        Right, that’s all there is. No need to read the whole article or anything else. Now you know all that I know. I have never had and never will have any further thoughts or evidence. So you can rest. (and out of context? I was there, and I’ve read the article 10 times.)

        • RG

          Oh, I missed your reference to your faculty meeting where others didn’t seem to be as enthusiastic of your criticism as you’d like.

          Seriously, if you have some evidence, trot it out.

          Regarding the Harline paper, why don’t you show exactly where he advocates relativism, “dismisses enduring principles,” or that “history teaches us that resistance to “change” in the name of some supposed higher principle is pointless”?

          For those without access to the article, the presenation can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W-o23SurnGA

        • GrimGrinningGhost

          militant

    • GrimGrinningGhost

      Hancock asks “(Am I the only person alive to criticize her in print, at least as a careful, scholarly reader?)”

      Well, you got “reader” correct. I’ll grant you one out of three.

      • DanielPeterson

        Stop being an ass, GrGrGo.

    • Jon

      I share your concerns. I’m especially concerned that Professor Brooks’ “testimony” is featured on the Mormon Scholars Testify website. She shouldn’t be given such a platform for her progressive-liberationist agenda and heretical views. It makes her seem a mainstream LDS academic.

      • Brock Lesnar

        Jon,

        That was a funny post.

        Seriously Dan, you’re too smart for this nonsense. Brooks and Dehlin are not threats to BYU. While Hancock is busy charging windmills, BYU will continue its mission, just like it has done the last 100 years.

        BYU is in good hands.

        • DanielPeterson

          If you think that Dr. Hancock is arguing that Brooks and Dehlin are, as such, threats to BYU, you’ve completely misunderstood him. It isn’t even remotely about them.

      • joseph peterson

        as if being progressive is somehow not allowed within mainstream LDS academia? “there is room for you here” – Uchtdorf

        • kiwi57

          Mister Peterson,

          There is a difference between “being allowed within” and being the ones setting the agenda.

          For instance, you are “allowed within” Dan’s blog, to comment thereon. But you don’t get to dictate either the subject or the content of any of his entries.

          Or hadn’t you noticed?

          • joseph peterson

            dear SISTER Kiwi37,

            1. Are you insinuating that liberals are allowed to be mormon but not to set the agenda?

            2. Actually, with Dan’s blog, I have to disagree. He wrote an entire post in response to one of my questions. So in that instance I’d say on a grass roots level, and with great lobbying on my part, I did get to influence (dictate) the subject and content of at least one of his entries.

            So I didn’t notice. Carry on. Good health to you.

          • Metatron-Enoch

            Can you please define for me your definition of liberal?

          • joseph peterson

            nope.

          • Metatron-Enoch

            Seeing that you stated earlier that you are progressive, you are a so-called liberal. You’re not really a liberal in the tradition of Jefferson, Madison, Von Mises, Bastiat, etc. Instead you cloak your real identity by using this term. Rather you should go by what you really believe in, meaning authoritarianism.

          • joseph peterson

            seriously, how do you know so many secret things about me? Please, tell me more about what I am and believe.

          • Metatron-Enoch

            Maybe you should study what it means to be a real liberal by studying about the Last Knight of Classical Liberalism. http://www.amazon.com/Mises-The-Last-Knight-Liberalism/dp/193355018X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1392872128&sr=8-1&keywords=Ludwig+Von+Mises+Last+Knight+of

    • Jon

      “Now there are FAVORABLE, not to say sycophantic reviews of her famous MORMON GIRL in both BYU Studies and in Mormon Studies Review. Can you imagine that either would have published my painstaking criticism, based upon a careful reading. No — that would be ‘divisive,’ unseemly (i.e., conservative, = taking positions like GAs in General Conference). Pas d’ennemi a gauche: we may not agree with Brooks about everything, but she is one of us, one of our academic guild, and we would never be so impolite as to take her arguments seriously by engaging them.”

      I missed the review in BYU Studies (which issue was it?), but I’ve written to Professor Welch regarding your comment here. If BYU Studies does, indeed, have a problem with publishing your criticism of Brooks’ book, I would say that it’s time for a new editor and editorial direction.

      • RG

        Well, this should be interesting given that BYU Studies also published Harline’s piece, which is the only clear evidence Hancock offers for his argument.

      • joseph peterson

        Is this the Jon that I know? Who’s father is the subject of Dan’s post?

  • brotheroflogan

    We need thinkers like C. S. Lewis. And John Lennox.

    • brotheroflogan

      And Phyllis Schafly.

  • RaymondSwenson

    Utah has always had a major university with a mostly Mormon student body and a faculty firmly within the mainstream paradigms of academia. It is called the University of Utah. I earned two degrees at the U of U, and enjoyed it immensely. Nevertheless, it was always a somewhat hostile environment for the ideas of Mormonism, which would usually be articulated by a student and responded to by professors with skepticism or incredulity. The faculty who are actively LDS appear to have felt restrained in expressing their personal beliefs, to the point of not letting students know their religious affiliation. But this was mitigated by the fact that Mormon students know they are in a hostile environment, and they have access to an LDS intellectual oasis in the Institute of Religion next door.

    The problem with BYU becoming more like the University of Utah is that students are not expecting to have the Mormon worldview undermined at BYU. It can become a kind of bait and switch. If the intellectual implications of Mormonism are not being worked out at BYU, they have little chance at other universities.

  • MormonDem

    There are several problems with Ralph Hancock’s article, but for me — a relatively young, politically somewhat liberal, devout Mormon who works in academia — the biggest problem is that it actually betrays what I see as a sad *lack* of faith among the “old guard” at BYU (both the hardline social conservatives and strident apologeticists): you all seem to think that Mormonism can only thrive within an intellectual climate that takes Mormonism as its epistemic foundation. In other words, you seem to fear that Mormonism needs its own tautological feedback network in order to survive, and that it can’t participate meaningfully in any dialogue that takes place on any broader intellectual plane–that, in fact, such planes are inherently hostile to Mormon faith. (This is simply a capped-and-gowned version of the larger Mormon cultural inclination to perceive all scrutiny as antagonism.)

    I can hold my own within my discipline, within the language of that discipline, without the legitimacy of my faith being threatened. (And I include in that statement the discussions of Mormonism that take place within my discipline.) I do not have to pass out pass-along cards with my conference paper handouts to be a good Mormon, nor do I need to renounce my Mormonism to be a good scholar. (It’s Hancock, not people in my discipline, who imagine irreconcilability here.) Hancock imagines more hostility towards his Mormonism from his own BYU department full of Mormons than I’ve ever experienced towards my Mormonism beyond the borders of the BYU campus. He bemoans the fact that he can’t seem to muster the troops to rally around his socially conservative cause; the possibility apparently doesn’t occur to him that he’s preparing for battles that other faithful scholars honestly and legitimately don’t feel invested in because they’re not the most important ones to them. That apparently terrifies Hancock, as if his faith in Mormonism is inextricably bound up with his political positions and that the intellectual fungibility between the two is the only thing that allows them to live. Ralph (and Dan), there are legitimate, smart, devout Mormons who don’t share your politically rightward views, and we’re still here going to the temple and not drinking coffee and having a bunch of babies and doing our home teaching and putting the chairs away after the block. Boo!

    And yes, some of us may have been more enthusiastic about Prop. 8 than others. Which would be more of a concern to the future of Mormonism if it hadn’t also recently survived outright rebellion from the Utah GOP on the issue of immigration, or grumbling from the rightwing rank-and-file about the Church’s stance of firearms in chapels, or the MX missile. Indeed, if I were Ralph Hancock’s inversion, I’d be writing a piece for Mother Jones bemoaning how little concern there was at BYU about the Book of Mormon’s indictment of wealth disparity or Spencer W. Kimball’s warnings about the military-industrial complex. (Hey, that’s actually not a bad idea come to think of it…). Why is it so hard to accept a Mormonism that can accommodate healthy debate on such issues between co-congregants?

    A related irony is that the old guard’s current crusade against postmodernism (or “relativism”) relies precisely on postmodernism’s recognition of multiple epistemologies–Ralph himself specifically complains that academia persecutes those who subscribe to the alternate “language of learning” (Ralph’s term) that religious inquiry entails. I would think that intellectual members of a church that sends tens of thousands of missionaries out every year to challenge people to accept the leap of Moroni’s promise would be somewhat more self-aware about how much their own truth-seeking tendencies rely on postmodernism’s epistemic accommodations.

    • joseph peterson

      this seems like a fair, or at least valid criticism. What say ye, professors Peterson and Hancock?

    • Anyotheruser

      “you all seem to think that Mormonism can only thrive within an intellectual climate that takes Mormonism as its epistemic foundation.”

      It’s not that, it’s the missed opportunity. Taking another epistemic foundation that is either incomplete (because, for example, it a priori rejects the possibility of divine intervention) or contains ideas that are false will affect subsequent inquiry. On some questions, that may not matter too much, but it will certainly affect both the conclusions, and the very questions that can be asked in others. It is that last point that has the greatest weight with me – I find the dominant paradigms within academia *limit* so much of what could otherwise be asked.

      Incidentally, if you want to write articles about the Book of Mormon’s concern at wealth disparity or President Kimball’s concerns about militarization, please go right ahead. I think they’d be very interesting.

      • MormonDem

        “I find the dominant paradigms within academia *limit* so much of what could otherwise be asked.”

        I find that many people imagine certain paradigms to be dominant when, in fact, they are not. I also find that sometimes scholars whose work is less compelling to colleagues within their discipline assume too quickly that the problem has to do with hostility towards their methodology or framework rather than the actual content of their work. I have also observed that if people like the work you do, they generally couldn’t care less what your religious background is.

        Part of the problem here, as I alluded to in my final paragraph of my previous comment, is that Mormons, who generally look and seem pretty WASP-y, and who have been struggling mightily for 100 years to try to be assimilated into the mainstream of American culture, often imagine themselves to be in the middle of that mainstream and thus not able to draw upon the respect for alternate modes of inquiry that postmodernism has opened up for other groups of people (who have made great strides, in the humanities especially, in looking at various disciplines through the lenses of various ethnicities, religious experiences, gender issues, sexualities, etc.). If Mormons would accept the fact that, no matter how many presidential inaugurations the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings at, we will always be weirdos in America, we would have the collective cultural courage to develop strong, rigorous, creative, and deeply Mormon (not just American-conservative or generally-God-friendly) methodologies and paradigms, and we would produce scholars whose work is compelling enough to garner respect for those paradigms (alongside the various others that exist in academia). Some young and promising Mormon thinkers are pointed in this direction already. Many of them are at BYU. A lot of them, to our great benefit, are elsewhere.

        “Incidentally, if you want to write articles about the Book of Mormon’s concern at wealth disparity or President Kimball’s concerns about militarization, please go right ahead. I think they’d be very interesting.”

        Well, that would fall outside my areas of specialty, even though it falls squarely inside my areas of political sympathies. And at any rate, Hugh Nibley already did quite a bit of that…

        • Anyotheruser

          Not all Mormons are striving “to be assimilated into the mainstream of American culture” – some of us are neither American nor located at American institutions. Since Amerocentrism seems to retain an unconscious hold even (and sometimes in my experience, especially) among those who are self-critical about their culture, I am beginning to think this is profoundly liberating.

  • John C.

    Where is lucy? It’s not a Hancock thread without lucy making an appearance. I’m so disappointed!


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