Role of the Scholar Pt. 1–A Priority of Questions?

At a recent conference held at Yale for LDS students doing work in Religious Studies, one of the issues that was broached but not really expanded on was the relationship between the Church and the scholar. In the next few posts I would like to unpack the issue a little more.

In this post I would like to pose the notion of priority in questions–are some questions inherently better than others? As scholars are we “progressing” in asking the questions we ask? Are we “moving beyond” the old questions that once interested us, or are we simply moving on to “different” ones?

The background for this comes from the fact that I am no longer interested in the types of questions I used to be. Debates about Coke and the Word of Wisdom, or progression between kingdoms after death don’t interest me anymore. Looking back at those questions I can’t help but wonder if I’ve “progressed” onto new issues, or if other things have simply struck my fancy (or perhaps I’ve “regressed”).

I’m not necessarily looking to make my experience paradigmatic in any way, but it does seem to follow similar trends of those I know working on “advanced” degrees (related to religion, at least). The bigger question of course, is whether there is a hierarchy of questions, or at least a hierarchy to a style of questioning (perhaps related to the questions that are asked). As scholars do we want to establish our “progression” as the norm (assuming some sense of unity constituting an “our”)? One argument I’ve heard in support of this is that an added level of self-reflexivity, which is part of “scholarly” questioning is something all members should develop. The recent post by Jupiter’s Child about the lack of self-reflexivity of things posted in the Daily Universe is evidence of this.

Too Close to Call? Daniel Peterson in the Deseret News
Daniel Peterson and Admitting Defeat
Historical events as the basis of religious belief
The Quest for the Historical (Mormon) Jesus
  • redcatalyst

    I am hardly a scholar, but this idea seems a bit silly. I have lots of questions about religion, etc–and enjoy this blog. Yet I have never found such questions as whether or not Coke is part of the Word of Wisdom as a big question–it seems trivial to me.
    Does that mean I skipped past that and am more progressive? more advanced in my logic?
    (However, The idea that some people find those questions interesting is very interesting.)
    It seems that if scholars of religion think that they have moved on from “lowlier” questions, they think to highly of themselves, as if only religious scholars would come to such questions.

  • jupiterschild

    Good questions. I’m wondering about this too, and it strikes me that we might just be well-trained scholars–in that we ask the questions that are current foci of scholarly attention. 20 years from now the questions will have changed, though I’m not sure to what extent this constitutes progress. Certainly there is some made, but I’m not sure the path doesn’t meander quite a bit.

    That said, I think Redcatalyst‘s comment gets at the fact that there are some things that we don’t have to get bogged down in, that we can leave behind without looking back. (This of course doesn’t mean that a large portion of the Church doesn’t get bogged down in it.) But it’s important to reflect on our current theological questions, lest we be guilty of invoking the “TK Smoothie” spoken of elsewhere on this site.

    And, finally, I think it’s important to look at some of the basic questions with a desire to figure out more than just the answer to the basic questions–but rather to look at our process of answering questions. (e.g.: TT asked a question long ago that I’ve never answered for myself nor have I seen it answered: “Is there a Mormon hermeneutic”–a way of interpreting that differs substantially from other ways of interpreting scripture?) Another example: I had a long discussion with a Jewish professor of Jewish studies on whether or not Coke is legally verboten in LDS culture. He was fascinated by the process by which the tradition arose, even with the fact that not drinking coffee involves an interpretive moment.

    Parting shot: Redcatalyst, I may be hearing you wrong, but it seems like you called the idea lowly and then went on to say that religious scholars think highly of themselves for calling ideas lowly.

  • Ann

    This reminds me of an adage I once heard about progress: “In many ways we are as confused as ever. However, we are confused at a higher level and about more important things.”

  • smallaxe


    For the most part I think you have restated what I was trying to express in the original post. Perhaps I could have explained myself more clearly, but I did not mean my post as an assertion that there in fact is a progression in questions. Instead my intention is to explore the reasons why certain questions are valued by certain people at certain times, and from there to pose the issue of “progression”. In other words are there general trends as people spend more time answering common questions? And can we understand this in teleological terms? I am most certainly not trying to assert the superiority of someone who studies religions as her/his profession; but I must admit, religion is one of the interesting things where studying it doesn’t necessarily make you an “authority” of it by most people’s definition, whereas the currency of the brain surgeon as an authority of the brain is much more universal. Neither am I saying that the “scholar” (or a group of scholars) are the only one(s) who should determine what their relationship is with the Church (not that you necessarily implied this either). The larger issue I am pushing toward here, is that given that there are more and more LDSs studying religion should they not at least be considered “experts” in a certain sense? And if so, then in what sense? How can the church utilize their expertise, so-to-speak?

    I guess the question I would have for you is, why do you think the issue of drinking Coke is “trivial”? On what grounds do you consider certain issues trivial? How universalizable are those grounds? The question of why certain people find these “trivial” questions interesting, and others do not, is the very question I am trying to pose.

  • redcatalyst

    I actually do think there is great validity in people being labeled as scholars of religion, and knowing more about certain facets of it than others. It is a valid discipline, as much as any other. Yes–I believe there are experts–and feel this blog is full of them, on some level:)

    “I guess the question I would have for you is, why do you think the issue of drinking Coke is “trivial”? On what grounds do you consider certain issues trivial? How universalizable are those grounds? The question of why certain people find these “trivial” questions interesting, and others do not, is the very question I am trying to pose.”

    Sounds like a question posed for anthropologists.

    Frankly, it just didn’t matter to me.(I guess if I wasn’t lazy I could actually think about why I care about and pose the questions I do and categorize them–like saying this one is trivial) However, it is a valid question when we want to know why it is an issue at all. As you mentioned, it may simply be that the questions that people pose to themselves and others are merely a matter of personal interest and personality.
    I don’t really see trends. I see lots of people concerned about Coke and the WW–and many that don’t in all stations of life, etc etc. While I tend to think of it as purely personality, I suppose it could be more cultural than I am willing to admit. I just don’t see it having anything to do with scholarship, not even a little.
    Perhaps we are on the same page after all?

  • smallaxe


    I think we may be on the same page.

    But at the same time, I don’t want to regulate this issue merely to the anthropologist. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that there are not cultural/circumstantial reasons as to why questions are asked. If I lived in a predominantly evangelical town, my concerns would certainly be shaped by my interaction with them, for instance. However, I do see a trend that people who continue to ask questions tend to make a shift (although not a complete shift), to valuing questions rather than answers–they tend to learn to be comfortable living with more ambiguity. I don’t think this is limited to those who study religion. I am wondering if this is a ncessary trend. Is this something that “naturally” happens as one continues to question? And to what degree is it good? To be honest, I want to find a sense of progression in what I’ve personally gone through, and in what I have seen other friends go through, and I’m not sure that we shouldn’t say that this is something all people should go through (although admittedly that statement makes me uncomfortable for several reasons–it could be arrogant, and this process may not be the most positive alternative).

    Bear with me as I continue to think through this…. I would definately agree that there are perhaps certain times when the “Coke question” is an important question (not just what it means culturally, but normatively); and so maybe it makes sense to talk about a certain style of questioning rather than questions in themselves. Is there a progression in styles of questioning? To draw upon the earlier example, should we not say that a certain amount of self-relexivity is a developed trait and a necessary element in good styles of questioning? This may or may not have any bearing on “scholarship” but that’s not the question I am asking. Instead I’m wondering whether self-reflexivity (to use one example) as a tool of the scholar is one which everyone should develop.

  • Clark

    Debates about Coke and the Word of Wisdom, or progression between kingdoms after death don’t interest me anymore. Looking back at those questions I can’t help but wonder if I’ve “progressed” onto new issues, or if other things have simiply struck my fancy (or perhaps I’ve “regressed”).

    Probably more of a “been there, done that” aspect to such debate. (I feel the same way, btw) Occasionally I’ll weigh in to add some thoughts when folks discuss such issues. But frankly it’s typically not worth the effort to go look up the relevant facts to me. I’ve had the discussion, know my conclusions, and don’t care to spend the time to have to derive it all again.

    BTW – request for your new css stylesheets. More space between paragraphs would make things much, much more readable if you aren’t going to indent first lines.

  • smallaxe


    Thanks for the note on the sytle sheets. I certainly agree that an important dimension to this whole discussion is the fact that new questions are often more appealing than the old ones, especially when we feel that we’ve already adequately addressed it for the particular situation we find ourselves in (I, like most people, only scratch where it itches); but would you say that there is/are more mature styles of questioning? And thereby there are (at least implicitly) less mature ways?

  • Clark

    I don’t know what maturity would mean in this context. It seems to me once the basic issues are dealt with where one goes depends upon ones interest. For instance I focus in on philosophy and science. But I’d be the first to recognize most don’t find that interesting. Others focus more on social issues, which I don’t find as interesting. Is one more mature than the other? I can’t see how.

  • smallaxe

    I think I have two responses to this. First of all, it sounds as if you saying that there is a necessary progression beginning with “basic issues”. What does it mean to deal with the basic issues? And how is this different from claiming that there are certain tools which everyone should develop and which are held as normative?

    Secondly, as far as maturity is concerned, would you not say that there is mature and less mature philosophy? And furthermore that there are significant similarities in developing mature philosophy and mature views on social issues? Take the example of dealing with ambiguity. Can one mature in these areas without learning to accept at least some level of ambiguity? If such, then is this to be taken as normative? Should all members of the church attain to this as well? (although excatly how much ambiguity should be the norm is debatable)

    I guess where I am going with this is to pose the question of complexifying faith. People who are “thinkers” tend to approach issues (what ever issues they are interested in) in a more complex manner (and there is not necessarily only one complex manner). Is complexity value-worthy? Should we seek to complexify faith or will the result just be confusion and chaos? Sure, some complexity is good, but are we in effect expecting members to “progress” to a more complex world view? (speaking here generally and not to imply that there aren’t already many members who do this)