As the final semester of 2011 comes to a close, I reflect on my academic pursuits over the past year. Few of my professors are aware of my Mormonism, although many of my fellow graduate students are aware of it. My peers are very kind to me, and I have not felt any threat or bias from them on account of my being Mormon. As far as I can tell, they engage with my arguments, questions, and critiques on their own merits, not on my person or religious affiliation. Moreover, I think that because of our acquaintance a number of them have come to greater appreciate (at least to some small extent) the potentials of Mormonism and Mormon perspectives in academic scholarship. And the opposite is definitely true as well. I have strong feelings of “holy envy” — to use the late Krister Stendahl’s language — for many aspects of the religious traditions of my friends in the department. And as for those professors who know of my Mormonism, they have been gracious and helpful beyond all expectation. Indeed, one of the professors who knows of my membership in the LDS Christian Church is my closest faculty mentor, and he has went above and beyond all personal and professional requirements to help me progress intellectually and academically.
Given the foregoing limited context, as well as my past experiences in pursuing advanced studies in the humanities, there are many reflections concerning Mormonism and the academic world that I could proffer. For the present I offer only one.
I believe Mormon academics need to start (re)claiming Mormonism. In order to explain what I mean by this, I offer one example of my holy envy referred to above. To overgeneralize, I see modern scholarship on Judaism by Jewish intellectuals (both religious and non-religious) as (one) excellent example for Mormons to follow in treating Mormonism in the academic context. This is not because both groups are minorities in the academy (where, unfortunately, there is not infrequently some hostility to religion) or because both groups are approximately the same size on a global scale. Rather, it is these scholars’ forthright owning of Judaism in all its peculiarity and awesomeness that I admire.
The kinds of scholars I am thinking of are affiliated with high quality academic institutions, both secular and Jewish, all over the world. The scholarship that they frequently produce is rigorous and critical. They engage their peers from outside their religious traditions honestly and openly. They publish articles in the top journals in their fields and they publish books at the top academic presses. And not infrequently their scholarship explicitly admits (in one way or another) of its Jewish perspective or background. Whether the issue pertains to the Holocaust, Spinoza’s philosophy, purity laws in the book of Jubilees, hidden vs. open miracles in Ramban, Sabbetai Zevi, Rabbinic scriptural interpretation, or whom/whatever, they cherish their cultural, ethnic, or religious identity as Jews. They fully recognize the problems in Jewish history and religion. But they claim their heritage. They are not simply airing out their dirty laundry to make themselves feel better (my impression of not a few blogs, websites, presses, and other institutions dealing with Mormon issues). The type of scholarship I am thinking of is, from my perspective, frankly intimidating in terms of its erudition and sophistication, drawing upon the most recent developments in relevant academic fields. These scholars search not only the low points of their tradition, but they explore the heights and depths and width of their heritage — and not merely for insular purposes. They are able to place their research in the broader context of the humanities, providing a uniquely Jewish contribution for understanding humanity and the world more broadly.
I recognize the implicit and explicit generalizations I have asserted above (both in relation to Judaism and Mormonism). But I echo Richard Bushman’s critique in his podcast series at Mormon Matters: it’s time to start claiming Mormonism in a positive, yet critical stance, searching out our tradition in all its oddness and greatness — and their is greatness in it — not merely for ourselves, but also to contribute the Mormon experience to the human experience, for this voice needs to be heard as well.
In conclusion: Mormonism is awesome.