The Danger of the [Bracket]

The [bracket] has been the focus of some rather heated debates in the study of religion in recent years, and poses a particular challenge for Latter-day Saints. This debate was typified in a Harvard Divinity Bulletin exchange between Stephen Prothero of Boston University and Robert Orsi (et al.) who was then at Harvard, but has now moved to Northwestern. Prothero criticized Orsi for his methodological choice to “bracket” the truth claims of the religions he studied. He explains, “I have come to believe that the endless bracketing that I have always taken as my charge is viable only as long as our work exists in the splendid isolation of the Ivory Tower. In the rough and tumble of the real world, it is not possible, and likely not desirable.” He described the process of Religious Studies scholars who did not say what they really thought was a “good or a bad thing” as a “cat-and-mouse game.”

Orsi argues that these “judgements” are at best predictable and uninteresting, and essentially add nothing to the analytic responsibility of Religious Studies to understand the objects of study. At worst, however, these judgments actually impede a sympathetic assessment by allowing one to stand in judgment, rather than be challenged by the religious. Prothero’s position is a return to the fantasy of the objective scholar who is able to exercise the judgment of the colonialist on whether the “primitive” people, those “crazy for God,” are “good or bad.” In contrast, Orsi suggests that suspending those predictable judgments means “seeing one’s own world from the place of the other, to be able to imagine different ways of living and to try to understand them in their own terms; and it means—whether a scholar works as a historian or an anthropologist—that one’s own world is likely not going to look the same, to be able to claim the same taken-for-granted authority, to hold the same givenness, as it did before one set out into the archive or field.”

This debate coincided with the publication of Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, and I recall that Bushman invoked this debate to explain his own methodological approach to Joseph Smith. Bushman’s critics had suggested that as a believer, this bias had seeped into his writing, which explained why he chose to suspend judgment on teh veracity of the religious claims of Joseph Smith. Bushman countered that he was only attempting to understand how Joseph (and his contemporaries) perceived himself, how he would have explained his actions in his own context. He stated that he clearly sided with Orsi on the suspension of “judgment” in the study of the religious.

As Latter-day Saints, we of course are sympathetic to Bushman’s approach which leaves the door open, as it were, to the truthfulness of Joseph Smith’s claims, and attempts to understand him on his own terms, rather than the reductive theories offered by his critics.

The flip side of this bracket, however, is that we must actually be willing to consider alternative explanations. In reality, this is a highly secular approach to religion, despite its systematic sympathy. In the recent posts on the possibility of the study of religion at BYU, the bracket has been cited as the principle reason that it would fail, and never be accepted.

So how do we explain this position? Where should LDS situate themselves methodologically; with Prothero or with Orsi? What Prothero allows is for scholars to excerise the judgment in either testimony or ridicule. He opens the gate for that “bit of judgment” that he sees as the scholar’s right to deem something “good,” which might include the truthfulness of Mormonism. The result of this, however, is that we must also allow for scholars to exercise condescension without restraint. If we side with Orsi, we must methodologically restrict ourselves. We must treat Mormonism the same way that we would treat wahabbi Islam, or snake-handlers, or contemporary Catholics; and not just in our writing, but at the existential level. Orsi demands that the religious other exercise upon our minds, to change and shape our assumptions, not at the level of conversion, but at the level of what it means to be human.

We cannot have it both ways. We cannot invoke Orsi to justify our sympathetic accounts of Mormonism, and Prothero to allow us to dismiss other religions. Nor can we invoke Prothero to allow us to testify, but Orsi to be poltically respectful of other religions. These are not merely questions of scholarly method, but of our very orientation towards the world, ourselves, and truth.

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  • BrianJ

    I’m feeling very naive, because I can’t see the [huge] negative to the Orsi approach. I don’t mind considering alternative explanations—does that mean that I can’t reject them, though?

  • smallaxe

    I’m feeling very naive, because I can’t see the [huge] negative to the Orsi approach.

    In a community such as ours it can be conceived as “checking one’s testimony at the door” (although Orsi explicitly denies something like this), which amounts to denying part of who one is. Refraining from judging the truthfulness of other traditions can also be construed as doubting the truthfulness of one’s own tradition, or being open to the possibility of another tradition being ‘true’. Think of it this way, we all know the cliche of not judging a book by its cover. In the case of LDSs (and we are not the only one’s guilty of so doing), all to often it’s not the cover of the book which is judged, but whether the author is a (active) member or not. Which side s/he is going to come down on in the end, is deemed to be the most important. To bracket can be seen as not coming down on either side.

  • smallaxe

    Prothero’s hyperbole aside, I don’t think the approaches are so much different (especially given his last few paragraphs), except that Orsi might call for a longer (indefinite?) suspension of judgement. Both call for an awareness of the self in the study of the other; both, I would imagine, call for a thick description in the terms of the other when describing their practices, and both are open to the possibility that one’s self will be changed in the process. To put it in more pedestrian terms, Prothero seems to be saying, “Stop pretending like we have no dog in this fight!” And Orsi’s response is, “We’ve never been pretending, it’s just that the discussion (‘fight’ is a far too gendered word) isn’t over yet.”

    As for BYU I think we should create an approach in LDS-friendly terminology. Instead of ‘suspension of judgement’ we can use ‘seek to understand before being understood’. And instead of using a textbook from an outside source we could write one entitled, Seven Habits of Highly Effective Religious Studies Scholars . Maybe Orsi and Prothero would even endorse it on the back cover! …for those who do not know, I’m joking here of course…

  • TT

    I agree with SA 2, for clearly stating the potential problem with Orsi. Perhaps I wasn’t as convincing because I agree with Orsi, but it seemed that it was Orsi’s approach that was seen as most suspect by many commenters in the BYU RS major posts. I was trying to explore the tension there that allowed for Bushman’s book, but was seen as too controversial to be taught at BYU.

    SA 3, I agree that rhetorically Prothero and Orsi sound the same, at least in the last paragraph. I see, however, that last paragraph as somewhat problematic in light of his earlier statements, which Orsi’s piece picks up on. I think that he sees the possibility for sympathy and transformation as impossible so long as the predictable “judgments” of RS scholars remains an integral part of the academic process.

  • Clark

    It’s an interesting question. At times I was frustrated with Bushman because he didn’t engage certain issues.

    The problem is that even for a believer a prophet is not always a prophet. Consider some of Joseph’s treasure seeking. Did Bushman always follow his principle there as opposed to more central themes in LDS truth claims?

    Maybe he can get away with that issue more with Joseph. But let’s say someone did the equivalent with Brigham Young. Could they write positively to the LDS community without engaging in the question of whether he was right on issues like Adam/God, certain racist preaching, and so forth.

    As soon as you let the camel’s nose in the tent though things get tricky. Perhaps trickier for a Mormon than someone just saying, “let naturalism rule.”

  • BrianJ

    Ahhh, I get it. The Orsi approach is dangerous because of how I will be perceived by other Mormons—which could be particularly dangerous if I taught at BYU. In my first comment, I was thinking about the danger of Orsi in my personal life and also in research.

  • smallaxe

    I think there is an upshot to an Orsi kind of approach at BYU, despite the fact that at first glance it seems antagonistic. I believe John C. holds a position similar to this. RS, by definition, is not involved in (immediately) judging the rightness or wrongness of what’s described. It rather strives for an accurate (i.e., sympathetic) analysis. The institution of the church plays the role of then ascribing what ever value it wants to the findings of the scholar; but here both have (seemingly) clear roles that do not intrude on the territory of each other. The upshot of this approach at BYU is that the scholar’s role is clearly demarcated and s/he is under no obligation to cross it. This is over-simplified in some respects, and may not necessarily be what Orsi has in mind, but I imagine John C. could jump in to elaborate, as we’ve had past discussions about this.

    Personally I’m a little slow to buy into a fact/value distinction. Do you think Orsi’s approach requires it?

    SA 3, I agree that rhetorically Prothero and Orsi sound the same, at least in the last paragraph. I see, however, that last paragraph as somewhat problematic in light of his earlier statements, which Orsi’s piece picks up on. I think that he sees the possibility for sympathy and transformation as impossible so long as the predictable “judgments” of RS scholars remains an integral part of the academic process.

    I guess I wanted to read the Prothero piece as being primarily hyperbolic until the end; but even so doing I can see how you arrive at your reading. The question would seem to hinge on the possibility of a ‘sympathetic judgement’. In other words whether one could be open to transformation but also make a value judgement. While theoretically I believe there could be such a thing, in practice it’s much more difficult to realize. As such it would seem that the field is a better place when ‘bracketing’, but I see nothing theoretically wrong with not.

  • John C.

    I suppose that I am the sort of Mormon who believes that we benefit from casting a wide net in the search for truth. I don’t see any problem with bracketing the truth claims as Orsi suggests in an RS dept, while leaving the truth claims open to discussion in a RE dept. In fact, the insertion of truth judgments is most of what I find objectionable about the way world religion is taught at BYU at the moment. We are not actually learning about or from other religions if we only approach them in an attempt to prove ourselves correct.

  • Daniel Hadley

    Great post! You’re correct that Orsi’s way is often more difficult and uncomfortable – which is why it is so uncommon in academia. Duffy published a sort of meta-analysis of scholarship on the BoM, which found that although scholars almost always claim to take a neutral approach to the text, they seldom hide their judgements. This is true of both secular and faithful scholars. They profess Orsi, if you will, but write like Prothero.

  • RoastedTomatoes

    I think the major challenge of the Orsi approach (in concept if not in practice), and the reason that I don’t think it’s really ever been fully implemented in Mormon studies, is that it requires credit to be granted to the whole range of a community’s understandings and not simply an orthodox or authoritative account. Bushman’s book, for example, does not really represent the subjective understanding of the Nauvoo period of Joseph Smith’s life held by many or most of the believers who didn’t choose to follow Brigham Young. By presenting a “Brighamite” narrative for this period of Smith’s life in the Orsi mode but basically never even considering what a “Josephite” narrative of the same period might have looked like, Bushman really doesn’t live up to the idea of a suspension of “judgment.” The judgment is made more obscure, involving a choice of which worldviews to sympathetically represent rather than an explicit argument, but it is nonetheless real.

    Since a non-judgmental perspective would in principle require not only an attitude of acceptance toward other faith traditions but also toward non-LDS-authoritative belief systems within the Mormon tradition (a far more toxic idea for most Mormons, I would guess), I think this is really a non-starter as a serious proposal in Mormon Studies. I think it will, for most scholars, remain the strategic but nonetheless superficial move that Duffy argues it to currently be.