Thoughts on "Mormon Scholars Testify"

Mormon Scholars Testify is a website which seeks to give “LDS scholars the opportunity to express their views and feelings about the Gospel of Jesus Christ and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Daniel C. Peterson, who originally conceived of the site and collects testimonies for inclusion, described it as a “personal missionary enterprise” inspired by Elder Ballard’s call for more members to use the Internet to spread the gospel.1 In this post I want to chat about the purposes of such a website.

There are over a hundred posted testimonies to date which can be browsed randomly, by name, or by academic specialty. What’s the point of such a site? It restricts submissions to “scholars” and makes sure to cite their credentials at the end of each testimony. At face value, it seems like one giant collection of arguments from authority. The site itself offers this suggestion:

There are some who may feel that people of education and learning can’t be religious. It is hoped that these testimonies will help dispel that myth, educate, and give insights into the thoughts and feelings of LDS scholars.

Perhaps this point helps (at least partially) explain the knock-off site, Ex-Mormon Scholars Testify. To borrow a concept from Piers Benn, the Ex-Mormon site counters “the problem of reasonable Mormons” with the “problem of reasonable non-Mormons.”2 Peterson describes the problem of reasonable Mormons this way:

The argument isn’t “Smart people believe in Mormonism, so you should, too.”  I’m not that stupid, I hope.  But there is an implicit argument, for those inclined to consider Mormonism with at least some minimal degree of open-mindedness, to the effect that, if you think Mormonism too simple, too shallow, too obviously false to be even worth a moment’s attention, you might want to reconsider your view:  Plainly, intelligent and informed people do find it profound, rich, and convincing.  The scholars featured on the site are just such people. I would say the same thing about Islam and Catholicism and Judaism and other faiths, of course.3

In a paper on agnosticism, Benn wonders to what extent does the knowledge that reasonable people are theists give atheists a reason to take theism seriously (I’m shifting the discussion to Mormon/non-Mormon). He believes that such witnesses themselves are not necessarily compelling because they suffer from problems that all arguments from authority and consensus suffer from. However, he adds, despite being “unsound proofs, they may still retain some weaker evidential force.”4

That evidential force seems to be what Peterson says is the “implicit argument” of the testimonies: perhaps not all Mormons are dupes and perhaps you should take a closer look if you believe otherwise. The site collectively is a challenge to critics and a way to sneak in Pascal’s wager, or encourage people to “give place,” as the Book of Mormon says (Alma 32:27).5

Benn would add that “for the same reason [Mormons] should feel challenged by the fact that there are reasonable [non-Mormons].”6 I don’t think Peterson would object to that point, and he might shift the discussion, as the critics also likely would, to the actual reasons given for the respective positions. While the collective testimonies in total represent the overall point that not all Mormons are uneducated or necessarily foolish, the individual testimonies do something much different for me, an already-believing Mormon. Peterson describes what he expects in the individual testimonies:

I’m not looking for academic arguments for belief, but I genuinely appreciate it (and I think the readers will appreciate it) when authors include in their testimonies something about how their own studies, research and/or intellectual and cultural life has interacted with (perhaps even reinforced) their spiritual lives or their lives as believing members of the Church.7

To this end, Peterson said when he solicits testimonies he gives very little direction as to what he expects, but allows submitters much leeway in what they choose to include. I’ve enjoyed selections from scholars including Boyd Peterson, Grant Hardy, Terryl Givens, Richard Bushman, and others. I’ve been surprised by the content of several of the testimonies, which might not be the sort of thing you would expect to hear in your average Fast and Testimony meeting.

Which brings me to the real reason I put this post together in the first place. Not simply to argue that there is nothing inherently fallacious in putting together an argument from authority, although there can be problems with such arguments as well as counter arguments which ought to be considered (feel free to disagree in the comments). But more than that, to point out that I’ve enjoyed the site for many of the individual testimonies I’ve read there. I really like hearing the perspectives of these thoughtful people and considering how unique Mormon testimonies can really be, despite the somewhat repetitious F&T meetings.

A bunch of questions mashed at the end to spark some discussion:

Would you recommend any of the testimonies from MST to friends or family? What are your thoughts on the site in general? Would you contribute to the site? Why or why not?  Benefits, drawbacks, etc. I’m looking for some feedback on what people think of it.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] R. Scott Lloyd, “New Web site: ‘Mormon Scholars Testify,’” Church News, 23 December 2009.

[2] See Piers Benn, “Some Uncertainties About Agnosticism,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 46 (1999): 176, 179.

[3] Patheos staff, “Mormon Scholars Testify: An Interview with Dan Peterson, Scott Gordon, and Tanya Spackman,” patheos.org, 8 April 2010.

[4] Benn, 177-8.

[5] Pascal’s wager can be simplistically summed up as encouraging a person to “take an irrational belief-stance for the sake of prudence,” (Benn, 175), but I prefer to see it in light of Ben Rogers’s description: “[Pascal's argument is]: ‘well, as  a first step to believing in God you have to try believing in God. You will then begin to examine in a much more sympathetic light, the case for Christianity, and you begin taking part in all these bodily exercises…” (Philosophy Bites podcast, “Ben Rogers on Pascal’s Pensées,” 30 July 2009). This seems to comport well with Alma 32.

[6] Benn, 187.

[7] Patheos staff, ibid.

  • Julie M. Smith

    Hmm, it never occurred to me to read it as an argument from authority but rather as a way of saying “advanced education is not incompatible with faith.” Further, I haven’t seen it primarily as a missionary tool but rather as a reassurance tool (if you will) for LDS grad students and others similarly situated who are wondering if and how their faith can survive advanced studies. Of course, I have no idea what its founders and/or contributors intended; that’s just how I have read it.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    I did a review of the site this summer: http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/2010/06/review-mormon-scholars-testify/

    You take into account some of the explanations and preemptions about the site that I didn’t have access to when I originally wrote the review, but considered in the comments.

    My criticisms came mostly, however, not by way of the site itself, but my disappointment at some of the testimonies. There are actually some really great ones, that I linked to originally and in the comments, but many fall short of the vision of this site, to convince people that Mormonism has any depth. (Looking at the ExMormon Scholars Testify site makes me just as disappointed in many shallow critiques I encountered there too).

  • http://www.lifeongoldplates.com/ BHodges

    Geez, I totally forgot about that, and I even commented!

  • http://www.mormoninquiry.com Dave

    I think it is a great site. It seems like a nice way to get a lot of LDS scholars (most of whom are not active online) to post something that’s publicly available and is linkable. I’m surprised you didn’t mention that nine of the roughly 210 posts there are authored by Bloggernacle perms.

  • http://www.feastuponthewordblog.org BrianJ

    “Would you recommend any of the testimonies from MST to friends or family?”

    Probably not. I’m not sure what place it has in my own “missionary work.” My friends and colleagues already have me as an example of a Mormon who is also a scholar, so I don’t think a bunch of others—strangers at that—would do a better job of putting forward the idea that “not all Mormons are delusional simpletons.”

    The other side, of course, is to use the site as a defense against fellow Mormons who criticize me for exposing myself to godless, faith-killing scholarly pursuits. But again, I don’t see how that’s a convincing counterargument (and I typically don’t find it worthwhile to argue against such accusations anyway).

    The one remaining way I could see myself recommending the site is to a young Mormon student who shows interest in scholarship but has doubts about its compatibility with his/her religion (as JMS mentions in #1). He/she would already have me as one example, but in this situation I could see the value of backing it up with 200+ more.

    So that’s my summary: I don’t see how “Mormon Scholars Testify” is of much value to Mormon scholars themselves.

    “Would you contribute to the site?”

    I don’t see why not.

  • oudenos

    I and my wife both like MST and for the most part it has been good for me and her. Also, I have recommended it to friends in my ward, a step which I have not taken with regard to any blog on the bloggernacle. So that is saying something, right?

    For me the site came into existence at an opportune juncture when I was complaining to myself that I was having a difficult time feeling much spiritual connection to much of what I was hearing in church settings. And then upon finding the site, I suddenly felt that connection for which I was longing. So though I don’t like everything on the site, I really do value it.

  • Thom

    I enjoy this because it gets away from so many of the testimonies we hear in church — no offense — which often sound rote and without much behind them. So many of these scholarly testimonies tell us why these individuals have testimonies and give us a peek at the richness of them. That said, someone else’s testimony can and should go only so far. What really matters at the end of the day is if we have a testimony.

  • frank

    I guess my issue with MST is that there are very few real conversion,burning bush, road to damascus kinds of transformations that occurred before, during or after “getting ” that all so important testimony.

    seems like the men and women grew up with mormonism, figured a way to make it compatible with their life’s journey and scholarship and just beleive/say “it’s true”.
    for me conversion and testimony has to have a real God-driven (call it grace) part to it. that’s what happened to me-so i really know what i know. i have no need to rationalize that i believe x,y or z .

    these remind me of neal maxwell who said he had a ‘feeling’ about the bood of mormon at seven years old-that’s it ! nothing since! most mormons would say he had a great testimony /special witness- i say not so fast!

    lds or not, i always ask people if they are Christians to tell me their ‘story”- true testimony is apparent within 5 minutes of them them talking.

    finally about 50% of those MST’ers have a financial interest /job related to the church-they better have a testimony or they will be homeless.

  • http://www.lifeongoldplates.com/ BHodges

    frank, I can’t make much sense of your uncharitable comments. srry.

  • http://www.feastuponthewordblog.org BrianJ

    I dunno, BHodges. I find that I can typically cram all my intimate, overwhelming experiences with and feelings towards my Savior into less than 3 minutes—which is well under frank’s 5 minute cutoff.

  • smb

    Echoes of James Davenport here?

  • http://www.lifeongoldplates.com BHodges

    “He often said that he could distinguish people who were saved versus people who were damned just by looking at them.”

  • http://www.lifeongoldplates.com BHodges

    also, haha @ 10


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