Symptoms of Parallel-o-Mania

I recently came across this presentation by Daniel Peterson given at the annual FAIR Conference in 2009. Admittedly I haven’t read much of Peterson’s work, but from conversations I’ve had with others I get the sense that he’s rather well respected in the field of Islamic Studies. I know he’s also very involved in Mormon Studies. I gather that he’s one of the best comparativists that LDSs have since he’s deeply knowledgeable of Islam and Mormonism.

That said, his presentation raised several red flags for me. I’ve discussed some problems with parallel-o-mania previously. At a more general level, parallel-o-mania is a kind of irresponsible comparison of religious traditions. I’m not qualified to conclude that Peterson has in fact been irresponsible in this presentation; but I did want to point out the kinds of things that tend to signal bad comparison.

When ever I come across these kinds of things I raise an eyebrow and ask a specialist about the accuracy of the claim. Perhaps some of FPRs resident specialists will chime in. None of the items that follow mean that a comparison is necessarily bad or irresponsible. However, good comparativists recognize the difficulty of effectively doing any one of these things and therefore tend to avoid some of them, or at least tread lightly when doing them.

  1. Claims that the notion of ‘x’ is universal. While I believe that human beings have shared characteristics and experience the world in similar ways, I’m skeptical of any claim to universality made at more than a general level. Peterson, for instance, claims that the motif of ascension to God is universal. This is more than a general claim about human beings experiencing spatial dimensions in a certain way (never mind the presumption about a universal notion of God). Peterson goes on to explain that it “presupposes a structure of the cosmos” where Heaven is up and Hell is down. Even cast in less culturally specific terminology, I’m not sure that the notion of UP as GOOD and DOWN as BAD is necessarily universal.
  2. Culture-hoping. Understanding one culture is difficult enough. In studying America, for instance, one should be aware of the fact that American culture is diverse and extends far beyond any one region or any one person’s limited exposure. Peterson seamlessly moves between Biblical culture, Islamic culture, American culture, Babylonian culture, Egyptian culture, Greek culture, Indian culture, European culture, and others.
  3. Time traveling. Similar to culture-hoping, understanding one time period is difficult enough. In discussing the cultures above Peterson moves between the periods of the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, contemporary Mormonism, 6th century Christianity, the Roman Empire, and other periods.
  4. Discipline jumping. Learning to interpret texts is different from learning to interpret paintings, buildings, or people’s actions. In order to substantiate his argument Peterson employs textual interpretation, architectural interpretation, archeological interpretation, and the interpretation of art.
  5. The conclusion has a very pragmatic value for the author. This bothers me much less when authors/presenters are upfront about their motivations. LDS scholars who always come up with answers to issues that naturally fit an LDS world view are likely allowing this world view to determine their interpretation of the material.

Many of these comments are rooted in the realization that studying any one time period of any one culture with any one discipline is a task that can take a lifetime. LDSs such as Peterson could be very good comparativists because of their sustained engagement with multiple traditions. The best comparativists are those who recognize their limitations, and yet creatively engage multiple traditions (often for reasons they are self aware of). For most comparitivists this means comparing two different time periods in one culture, or comparing a narrow selection of things from two cultures.

IMO Peterson would have been better off sticking to Islam and Mormonism rather than trying to run the gamut. Granted, it’s possible that Peterson is just brilliant and is responsibly using every source. My hunch, however, is that he’s incredibly smart but not a genius. I imagine that there are other pieces that he has written that raise fewer red flags (and this, of course, was a presentation and not a published article); but my hope is that LDS comparativists tread lightly through the comparative enterprise and convey fewer symptoms of parallel-o-mania.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    “LDS scholars who always come up with answers to issues that naturally fit an LDS world view are likely allowing this world view to determine their interpretation of the material.”

    I think that I have just recently abandoned trying to do this in my own work. I am now a bit unsettled but also liberated.

    Back to the OP: I think we want a Nibley-type figure who can tie everything together. The problem is that Nibley was not that good at it (though I think he was aware of his own limitations).

    Peterson, I think to his credit, it trying to bring in a broad LDS audience into the discussion he is having.

  • http://mormonwar.blogspot.com Morgan Deane

    I find your posts about the dangers of comparative studies both interesting and useful in my own studies. Thanks.

  • http://www.libertypages.com/clarktech Clark

    I really don’t want to get into an other meta discussion. However I wonder relative to universal claims if you think the fact some phenomena are near universal entails some structures are near universal. So, for instance, the resurrection or reincarnation symbols don’t seem that fantastic when you think the same sort of thing happens with the seasons. (Plants “die” in the fall and are “reborn” in the spring) Likewise the idea of visiting the Gods seems fairly natural and since the Gods typically aren’t close, an ascent makes sense.

    For all their problems the mythic structuralists at least had some basis for their theorizing in terms of an universal mind in the idea that there was some common psychology to humans. Thus we ought expect to see repetitions of common structures in different situations. Admittedly they screwed up how they demonstrated this frequently. And the LDS conception which sees a primitive remembrance probably has the same issues.

    What I think needs to happen isn’t to abandon universal or quasi-universal structures. They just need to be better grounded in psychology, cognitive science and the like. Of course that’s problematic for those Mormons who wish to appeal to shared veiled memory or diffusion of ideas. However those ideas often have their own problems. (i.e. if we’re behind a veil of forgetfulness why should we expect to find remnants of shared memories; if most cultures had little of the gospel revealed and were embedded inside larger non-gospel based cultures why should we expect to find much diffusion? )

  • SmallAxe

    Peterson, I think to his credit, it trying to bring in a broad LDS audience into the discussion he is having.

    No doubt (although I imagine the audience was primarily Anglo-Americans); and this raises an interesting issue. Would his presentation been as appealing had he only relied on Islamic and LDS sources? Part of the appeal as it stands is its breadth. Without the breadth I suppose one would have to work even harder to put together an engaging presentation. The point of the presentation could no longer be the ubiquitous nature of ascension.

  • SmallAxe

    However I wonder relative to universal claims if you think the fact some phenomena are near universal entails some structures are near universal.

    Sure. I suppose I’d say that I follow Lakoff and Johnson to a certain degree as far as their conceptual metaphor theory is concerned–we experience similar aspects of the world in similar ways (both bodily and cognitively), and therefore tend to conceptualize the world in similar metaphors. I would take this are more of a general claim, though; rather than a universal claim. While I haven’t looked at it, I believe Edward Slingerland (someone who’s picked up this idea of conceptual metaphor theory cross-culturally) addresses some of these issues in What Science Offers the Humanities .

    This need not be an issue, however, for comparative studies. Lots of comparativists use terms like “primary theories” for shallow points of convergences among cultures and “secondary theories” for how each culture has deeply nuanced, but also divergent, accounts beneath the primary theory; or “vague categories”, etc.

    I suppose part of this also hinges on the issue of motivation for comparison. For certain kinds of comparisons, explaining why similarities exist are a central component. There are other, often times more interesting (at least in comparing religions), reasons for comparison. Rather than arguing that Islamic theories of ascension and LDS theories of ascension are manifestations of the same truth, for instance, we can analyze both traditions and ask how the Islamic theory of ascension can shape our temple experience. Or how LDS theories of ascension can shape a Muslim’s Hajj. These serve a different pragmatic end; but they also tend to lead to more accurate descriptions of each tradition (although I suppose on could do this by still assuming that they come from some universal source).

  • http://www.libertypages.com/clarktech Clark

    I haven’t read all of Peterson’s essay – more the excerpts at Mormanity. I really liked what I read there. I *personally* think that the Merkabah literature offers a lot to Mormonism. For instance I think reading Mosiah 15 in light of such literature is far more illuminating than the typical practice of reading it in light of 19th century debates over the Trinity.

  • smallaxe

    The Mormanity link is: http://mormanity.blogspot.com/2010/05/temple-as-place-of-ascent-to-god-great.html

    There’s a lot to like about the presentation. Peterson’s thesis for it is as follows: “Our goal, ultimately… is to talk about ascensions worldwide, and to organize them so that non-Mormons will profit from it, but Latter-day Saints who are familiar with the temple will see patterns, and I’m hoping some of you will see some of that today.”

  • http://www.libertypages.com/clarktech Clark

    Slightly tangental, but one thing that always fascinated me about the Jewish sources is how a heavenly ascent became transfigured into a descent. I don’t know how many of you have read the literature which is actually pretty numerous. There are tons of really interesting little texts although obviously 3 Enoch is the most famous. But there are these really interesting little bits of evolution to the textual development which are at least as interesting as “the big picture.” Especially when the textual tradition gets taken up by gnostics and Christians. (I’m not well versed on the Islamic use of such traditions)

  • Jettboy

    “I *personally* think that the Merkabah literature offers a lot to Mormonism.”

    Clark, can you expand on this in relation to Mosiah 15, or point me in the direction of an explanation?

  • http://www.libertypages.com/cgw Clark

    Check out Blake Ostler on it, although others have said much the same thing. (I think Paulsen has an article relating the two) The idea is that Jesus in that passage is to be taken paralleling the Lesser YHWH ala various Merkabah texts rather than as modalism.