As you may know, I am an advanced student at a local VCR repair school in South Dakota. Recently, I have been listening to a number of people, and a reading a number of books, on the issue of the VCR in modern life. Representatives from a number of VCR manufacturers are examining this technology in light of the contemporary technological, informational, political, and diverse age in which we live. These questions have got me thinking in a similar way about the conditions of modernity (and post-modernity if you wish) that relate to the way that religion is conceived, including Mormonism. Therefore, I hereby convoke an all-blog symposium to address the following topics over the course of the next 45 days. Prizes will be given to the best blog posts. To enter, simply give the link to your post in the comments on this thread. If you do not have your own blog, but would like to participate, you may submit your entry in the comments on this thread. The following topics are proposed:
1. Mormonism and pluralism. In the age of globalization, we come to interact with religious others in more profound and meaningful ways than missionary work, and as we come to learn and appreciate the depth of other religious traditions, we are forced to wonder if our exclusivist view on truth sustainable and defensible. Do inclusivist notions in Mormonism satisfy the theological and political dilemma that exclusive claims to salvation through Jesus Christ, or Mormon rituals? Can a Mormon pluralism exist, or must we take the burden of exclusivism along with fundamentalists of other religions?
2. Skepticism of authority based in the inaccessibility of revelation- How should modern Mormons regard the authority of revelation? In the contemporary church, at least at the top levels, revelation is rarely appealed to as a source of authority (though at the local level many leaders appeal to it to buttress their personal decisions). What sorts of standards will be applied to mediate the potentially disruptive element of revelation, even revelation from important church leaders?
3. Critical Study of the scriptures, both ancient and modern- Many religious traditions coping with modern challenges to historicity and infallibility have opted for the metaphorical, spiritual meaning of the text. Is this an option for Mormons given the challenges that critical scholarship provides to traditional understandings of the text?
4. The relationship b/t Mormonism and the State- There is no question that publicly and as a matter of policy, Mormonism reveres the Church/State divide, but has crossed it at times in its history. Further, Mormonism began as a nation-building movement. Many Mormons do believe that their religious convictions should impinge on their political views. Both conservative and liberal religious groups seem to agree. How should this relationship be figured?
5. Missionary work, Americanization, and neo-colonialism- Proselytism has suffered serious critical blows in recent decades as the relationship between European hegemony, cultural imperialism, colonial rule, and the spread of Christianity was exposed. Given that Mormonism is inseparably American, and has often used this heritage in shaping its public image abroad, what is the relationship between Mormonism and neo-colonialism? How does Mormonism see itself as an extension of American Manifest Destiny, or the Western Man’s Burden?
6. The Family- The nuclear family appears to have been a rather short-lived expiriment of the post-Industrial Age. How will Mormonism respond to the increased diversity of family lives, including divorce, same-sex couples, and increased fragmentariness of traditional family structures. How will the emphasis on the nuclear family affect the church’s ability to form larger social communities?
7. Sex, Gender, Sexuality- Since the second wave feminist movement, Mormonism has both resisted and accommodated the changing landscape of the role of women in the church and society at large. What will the future look like, and how should Mormonism address the new realities of a highly skilled female workforce? What will happen to the “traditional” gender roles many church members cling to in their understandings of gender? How should the perennial issue of women’s leadership in the church be addressed? Along these same lines, homosexuality is reaching the height of its liberation movement (belatedly). How should Mormonism respond to this issue, perhaps using lessons from its interactions with the Civil Rights and feminist movements over the last five decades?
There is no reason to limit this symposium to these particular questions when dealing with the issue of modernity. I have tried to articulate what I see as some of the issues that we face. For Jews, the last century brought both the Holocaust and the State of Israel, both of which defined modern Judaism. Islam is continuing to grapple with its status as a colonized religious tradition and making relevant its rich juridical heritage in a modern arena which has a different set of values, while also tempering radical responses to this condition. Buddhism has had to articulate its level of engagement with the sociopolitical realities of this world, as the Burmese monks have shown. Hinduism has attempted to rethink the caste system and its relationship to Islam. Christians have struggled with science, its anti-Jewish heritage, and its obligations to address global poverty and oppression. Perhaps I have overlooked some of the fundamental issues that Mormonism will have to face. Feel free to lay out the issues as you see them.
We cannot turn back the clock and embrace the by-gone values and world-views of a previous age, nor does nostalgia for the past do justice to the potential of Mormonism. Nor is retrenchment a viable option. History has shown that retrenchment rarely works. Progressivism nearly always triumphs, even if belatedly.
The goal of such a symposium is to begin the long intellectual process of thinking about why Mormonism is relevant to the modern world. Richard Bushman is undertaking a similar sort of project with the number of conferences he is helping to sponsor with Mormon scholars. One of the questions that he has explicitly mentioned has to do with explaining Mormonism’s appeal to outsiders. I think that this project is invaluable, but in doing so we are inevitably engaged in the project of making sense of Mormonism to insiders as well. I look forward to a rich and sustained engagement with these and other issues.