A Reponse to Hamblin on Mormon Studies

A few days ago William Hamblin posted his views on the issue of Mormon studies here. I believe his views are flawed in several respects. Any disagreement, however, is always cast against a backdrop of larger agreements. As such, I do not want to construe my criticisms such that it seems we do not largely agree on a few important issues.

I believe we agree on the following major points:

1. Apologetics and Mormon studies can coexist. I would even go so far as to say that there are significant areas of overlap between the two enterprises.

2. Regardless of which endeavor we are involved in, we should be aware of our biases. I would also add that we should be aware of the audiences we are addressing when engaging in each endeavor as well as the settings we present our work.

While these agreements are significant, I disagree with (or require further clarification on) the following points:

1. Hamblin claims: Many have extolled Mormon studies as the wave of the future, that will bring a new golden age which will somehow at last spread enlightenment about Mormonism both within the Church and throughout the nation. … [D]espite numerous claims to the contrary, apologetics is not what’s wrong with Mormon studies.

I’m not sure who makes these claims (or even an attenuated version of them). Who does he have in mind here? (I hope he is not attributing them to my previous post.)

2. Hamblin claims: Fundamentally, religious studies examines religion as a human phenomena, with the (often unspoken) assumption that religious belief and practice is entirely explainable without positing the existence of God or his intervention in human history and life. … And this, I believe, is the fundamental flaw in religious studies.  It examines everything about religion but its essence–the encounter between God and mankind. … This problem means that secular religious studies will always fail to grasp the essence of religion.  For if God really does exist, and really does intervene in history, and really is the ultimate cause of religion, then removing God from the discussion means that everything religious studies has to say about religion is at best warped and twisted, and at worst, fundamentally misguided and wrong.

There is a portion of the field of religious studies that Hamblin might have in mind. It is represented by figures such as Russell McCutcheon. While McCutcheon does indeed claim that religion is entirely explainable as a human endeavor, I fail to see why he, or views like his, should be taken as representative of the entire field of religious studies. In my experience, these views actually seems to be a minority. Coincidentally, even in McCuthceon’s department (where he was department chair until recently) there are religious faculty who study their own tradition.

Alternative approaches (often advocating a kind of “sympathetic” understanding of religion) come from Bob Orsi, Jeff Kripal, and all the others McCutcheon attacks in his Critics Not Caretakers.

I fear, though, that Hamblin misunderstands what many involved in religious studies see themselves doing. In his view, scholars of religious studies should “examine… the encounter between God and mankind.” But how is this done? Is this what Hamblin studies when he writes about Islam (or Religion in the ancient world)? What happens when a Muslim sees something as an act of God that is at odds with an LDS notion of an “encounter between God and mankind”? Does Hamblin remain faithful to an emic account of the event (see #4) and attribute it to God?

Religious studies, in my opinion, is not about the study of such an encounter. It is a study about human beings and their attitudes toward such an encounter (ignoring the fact that defining the essence of religion as an encounter between God and mankind privileges certain religious traditions above others). Religious studies shouldn’t be faulted for not doing something it doesn’t claim to do.

3. Hamblin claims: However, the so-called “bracketing” of questions about God and the truth-claims of a religion does not in fact create a neutral environment which facilitates the objective study of religion. Rather it inherently biases the study of religion in favor of secular presuppositions. 

Similar to point #1, I’m not sure who actually claims the study of religion to be neutral. However, my view is that bracketing, if done properly, can in fact leave room for God/the divine/the transcendent. I should also point out that we’ve discussed this issue of bracketing here and here.

I’m curious as to how Hamblin sees his academic work. When he writes on Islam does he bracket the truth claims of Mormonism? Only write on things that do not conflict with Mormonism? Judge the claims of Islam as being true/false? Etc.

It seems to me that some kind of bracketing is appropriate for different contexts, and it’s important to recognize those contexts.

4. Hamblin claims: Another serious problem with religious studies is that it tends to privilege etic (outsider) vs. emic (insider) discourse. … The goal of a religious studies scholar should be to describe a religion in a way that believers who read his book will truthfully respond, “That’s exactly right.  That’s what I believe.”

While I agree that it is important to describe a tradition in such a way that it makes sense to the adherents of the particular tradition, I disagree that scholars of religion should stop there or that they are somehow unable to provide accurate descriptions of religion that religious adherents do not agree with. It’s entirely plausible that someone can notice something that another does not. Religion is multi-vocal in this sense. The religious adherents are not the sole sovereigns of their religion.

5. Hamblin claims: Only when Mormon scholars ape the assumptions and conclusions of non-Mormons can they be considered scholarly. If they fail to submit, they are cast off into the dustbin of “apologetics.”

Hamblin sees himself operating in the field of religious studies. This is in large part, I imagine, because he has published in this field, attends conferences, etc. Does he see himself as someone who has “aped the assumptions and conclusions of non-Mormons”?

Surely it’s not that simple. Mormons can play by the rules of academia without losing their Mormon identity. This isn’t to say that there won’t be tensions, but one can be a faithful Mormon and produce good academic work on Islam or the ANE (in the case of Hamblin). One can be a faithful Mormon and do good academic work on Chinese religion (in the case of G. Hardy). One can be a faithful Mormon and do good academic work on Mormonism (admittedly there are more difficulties here), as in the case of K. Flake.

6. Hamblin claims: People who are not professional religious studies scholars would undoubtedly be shocked to find the magnitude of sheer nincompoopery that passes itself off as serious academic scholarship at the annual national meeting of the American Academy of Religion.  It’s really breathtaking to watch political correctness run amok in the academy.  (My favorite example was a session on “Eco-feminism, food and pets.”  I’m not making this up.) … The reality is, however, that academics practicing religious studies have proven unable to govern their discipline and establish sufficient methodological rigor to weed out the nonsense.

I agree that there are a lot of bad panels at the AAR/SBL. I fail to see why the panel Hamblin lists is necessarily a bad one. Surely such a panel can raise questions about the role of religion in caring for the planet and how this care is performed with regard to food and the treatment of animals. Perhaps Hamblin was there though.

Oddly enough, the biggest embarrassment I’ve seen at the AAR/SBL is the Latter-day Saints and the Bible panels. Many of the speakers do not understand the difference between an academic and devotional setting.

7. Hamblin claims: Be that as it may, the real problem with Mormon studies is that there is no such thing.  There are no programs or degrees in Mormon studies. … A real Mormon studies program would require at least a dozen faculty who specialize in Mormonism, paralleling Brandeis’ Jewish Studies program, which has twenty-four faculty in Bible, Hebrew, and Jewish Studies.

Hamblin has set the bar too high for Mormon studies. If a dozen faculty are required before a specific religious studies program can be taken seriously, then there are few places to study any religious tradition. More importantly, the claims that I’m aware of with regard to Mormon studies are about the coming forth of a field of inquiry, not necessarily about any robust existence. See, for instance, Ben Huff’s series here.


This is already quite long, so I’ll stop. However, I’m happy to elaborate on any of these points in the comments.

  • BHodges

    Excellent observations, thank you.

    “Hamblin has set the bar too high for Mormon studies.”

    I agree. I don’t know how he came up with his yardstick, but it seems to be not representative of the sort of excitement and discussion we’ve seen around the blogs, in a few of the journals, and even in a few new books, in regards to Mormon studies.

  • g.wesley

    Couple of assorted thoughts:

    I get the impression that a fair amount of people who understand themselves to be working in Mormon studies do not necessarily come from a religious studies background. And from the little experience I have with other comparable but more established studies, it’s also the case. People working in Jewish studies, for instance, heck, even the chair of Jewish studies, might not come from a religious studies background at all, even if they are faculty in a religious studies department, where the Jewish studies program may or may not be hosted. Lots of ways to skin a …

    While people in religious studies or just plain higher ed in general may see more of a human explanation for things than the average member of this or that religion, often I think the approach to religious experience in religious studies is to proceed on the assumption that for the subjects of study the experience was real, genuine, etc., whatever the ‘ultimate cause’ or causes. I could be wrong, and this is a generalization, but I think that in contrast to other disciplines, religious studies actually goes out of its way to avoid and check reductionism.

    Ditto on the number of faculty issue.

  • http://loydo38.blogspot.com the narrator

    It’s difficult to take Hamblin seriously when he tries to say anything about Mormon Studies when his last three paragraphs show how utterly ignorant he is of work being done.

  • Ben P

    I agree that Hamblin seems ignorant of both religious and Mormon studies. Concerning the latter, I said as much in a Facebook exchange, and was asked for examples of the broader academy embracing work on Mormonism. (Hamblin argues those outside the faith aren’t interested in the field.) I wrote the following:

    Universities that had classes devoted to Mormonism in the last two years (other than BYU, UofU, USU, UVU, and Claremont, of course): Harvard, UPenn, UNC, Virginia, Arizona, Arizona State, Southern Alabama, George Washington, Georgetown, Berkley, Chicago, Cambridge, Durham, Dortmund, Graduate Theological Union, Hampden-Sydney, Florida Sate, UC-Fullerton, Hannover College, and Columbia. And that’s just those taught by people I know.

    Non-Mormon scholars who have published on Mormonism in the last two years (or have works coming out within the next few months): Sally Gordon, John Turner, Seth Perry, Catherine Brekus, Amy Hoyt, Sara Patterson, Susanna Morrill, Max Mueller, Laurie Maffley-Kipp, James Bennett, Thomas Spencer, John Corrigan, Anne Hyde, and Walter Nugent, to name a few.

    Books focused on Mormonism have been published by university presses at Oxford (probably the premier venue for Mormon studies, publishing close to a dozen in the last few years), Harvard, UNC, Nebraska, Tennessee, Yale, Oklahoma, Indiana, and Missouri. Articles have been in top journals like Journal of American History, Church History, American Historical Review, Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion, Journal of Religion and Society, Religion and American Culture, Gender & History, Early American Literature, Perspectives on Political Science, Nova Religio, Fides et Historia, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Journal of Church and State, and Journal of the Early Republic. Again, this is just in the past *two years*.

    Though I agree that the Book of Mormon deserves more attention, I would say that Gutjahr’s work is important in BoM studies in that it spends quite a bit of time on the text itself–more than I expected–and he has written on it elsewhere. Recent larger books that spend a significant amount of time on the Book of Mormon include works by Daniel Walker Howe, E. Brooks Holifield, and Laurie-Maffley Kipp. There is also a phenomenal article on the Book of Mormon as Amerindian Apocalypse that is coming out soon in Early American Literature.

    As for general signs that Mormon studies is embraced in the academy: AAR’s consultation in Mormon studies that has been, according to one of the association’s board members, the most active subfield in the entire conference; the journal Church History receiving, according to the editor, more quality submissions in Mormonism in the past five years than the previous twenty combined, most of which done by non-Mormons; a number of conferences hosted by academic institutions focused solely on Mormonism; a handful of fellowships doled out to graduate students primarily for work in Mormon studies; announcements of fundraising for Mormon studies chairs at Arizona, Berkley, Wyoming, and Virginia; the AHA giving their best book award a few years ago to a Mormon studies book; and the number of dissertations currently being written by non-Mormon students on Mormon topics at prestigious universities (I can provide a list, if necessary).

    I acknowledge that much of this is history, but that’s my field, so that’s what I am mostly familiar with. There are, however, lots of religious studies stuff there, too.

  • Ben McGuire

    I find this blog post of yours, Smallaxe, a bit odd in light of something you wrote five years ago, when M. Gerald Bradford published his essay or Mormon Studies as a subset of Religious Studies in general – here:


    Your concluding comments?

    “This, I guess, leads me to my larger questions: I suppose the Bradford’s claim is for “both” the way in which Mormonism is to be studied as well as the way in which a Mormon approach Religious Studies. That being the case, can a LDS effectively pursue Religious Studies? Can we effectively study ourselves? Can we “bracket our faith” and suspend judgement such that we do not privilege one particular tradition over another? Are these values antithetical to a “testimony”? How do we navigate the tensions created by attempting this? Are we already doing this, or is this a new venture? If this is a new venture (which I tend to think it is in many regards), are we better off not embarking on it, and leaving the study of Mormonism (and religion, for that matter) to non-Mormons?”

    Ben M.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor/ The Yellow Dart

    Great post! Thanks smallaxe.
    Best wishes,

  • SmallAxe

    Hi Ben M.

    I’m on the run right now, but perhaps you could say a bit more about what you find odd. I don’t think I entirely understand your point.

  • BHodges

    Ben, nicely put. I think Hamblin might reply that history stuff doesn’t count under his personal definition of Mormon “religious” studies, although, it seems to me that such a distinction may be more relevant to funding and university bureaucracies than to actual practice of present historians. (I hope he will correct me if I’m wrong.) Ben, how would you situate such historical projects within your understanding of Mormon studies?

  • BHodges

    (Ben P that is)

  • Benjamin Park

    BH: certainly history is only one portion of Mormon studies, but right now it makes up a disproportionate slice of the field. This is because, I think, Mormon history has been so predominant for many decades that it has developed the tools, interest, and practitioners to progress to a larger and more sophisticated scale. I am anxious to see all the other disciplines on Mormon studies do likewise.

    The biggest lesson from the historical sphere is, I think, that when you start brining your material to a higher academic standard and address wider issues, topics, and audiences, it is then accepted by the broader academy. The fact that the most academically sophisticated works in Mormon academic history have become so prevalent in the academy at large shows that the same thing can be done with philosophy, theology, literature, etc.

    Also, I am struck by the idea that there will only be a flourishing “Mormon studies” when there are graduate programs dedicated to the field, and numerous practitioners found in every faculty. To me, that is not the purpose nor future of the (sub)field. I believe the Mormon studies will only be fully successful when integrated into larger disciplines and arenas–put simply, relevant to non-Mormon studies scholars–and as soon as we are only writing for a “Mormon studies audience,” we have overstepped our purpose and have become the parochial beast we are trying to avoid.

  • BHodges

    Now we’re getting someplace. Your comments suggest to me one of the reasons apologetics would seem to lack a good place in Mormon studies. If one of the concerns is to have a place in wider discourses, apologetics may seem too polemical or too concerned with a set of questions which wider discursive communities are not interested in. At the same time, as a Mormon, I might observe that some of that wider work has ripple effects into my faith community. I could view that as a good thing or a bad thing, I could try to deliberately increase such ripples or try to not concern myself with them at all. As Hamblin’s original piece shows, he’s concerned that those doing Mormon studies, or the work that can be considered to exist inside that rubric, will be too drawn in by the wider constraints accepted in order to participate.

    It’s an interesting and important concern, I think, and one which I’ve seen various folks write about it various places. (I remember your old post about Matt Brown’s first vision book, for one example.) The problem I see with Hamblin’s piece, then, is that it raises these interesting issues within a context (his view of “Mormon religious studies”) that doesn’t actually reflect the sorts of things going on with real people in real writings.

    So I think I would agree with you in saying, beware becoming parochial, and also encouraging folks not to forget their roots, although such remembering or forgetting and the proper ways it can be done is still up for debate and exploration. (And some may want a complete “wall of separation,” something I think Hamblin would criticize.)

    Does this make sense?

  • BHodges

    “So I think I would agree with you in saying, beware becoming parochial, *while* also encouraging folks not to forget…”, rather.

  • Ben McGuire

    #7: I think that Hamblin’s discussion of Mormon Studies is situated in the middle of the whole situation at the Maxwell Institute. Bradford wants to change the direction of the MI. Bradford made it quite clear (in the essay that you responded to several years ago) exactly what he means when he speaks of Mormon Studies – he envisions it as a subset of the formal notion of Religious Studies. And it is that academic view of Religious Studies (the secular approach which asks you to put aside judgments and questions of truth) that Hamblin is responding to. If we see articles on Mormonism that don’t do this, they don’t really fit into the parameter of Mormon Studies as Bradford spells it out (even if they are related to a broader more generic sense of Mormon studies).

    In this sense, while you and Bill may agree that apologetics might fall under some umbrella of Mormon studies, Bradford doesn’t. And I suspect (I haven’t asked Bill this question, although we have had some correspondence about his essay) that the primary target of those who see “a new golden age” starts with Bradford. You note that this idea about Religious Studies is represented by Russel McCutcheon. But, I see very little difference in the description of an appropriate methodology provided by Bradford with the notions of McCutcheon. And so I think that Hamblin not only has this “portion of the field in mind”, he has this portion in mind because this is how Bradford portrayed in his essay. Which of course, is why you responded to Bradford’s essay (in much the same direction that Hamblin’s conclusions go) that if this is what we envision for Mormon Studies, then perhaps (as you put it) “If this is a new venture (which I tend to think it is in many regards), are we better off not embarking on it, and leaving the study of Mormonism (and religion, for that matter) to non-Mormons?”

    As far as who claims that Religious Studies ought to be neutral, we can find a decent list, right? Preus, Segal, McCutcheon, and others. What is interesting to me is that Bradford’s description of what he wants is closer to this group than to say, Orsi. His essay tells us that

    “Thus in order to properly describe and explain a tradition, students need to gain insight into and an appreciation for the way of life of its adherents. To do this, they need to cultivate a particular approach, one that requires them to bracket or suspend, as much as possible, their own beliefs and values (particularly ones that might either endorse or come into conflict with what it is they are trying to understand).”

    So when Hamblin takes aim at this “bracketing” he seems to me to really be targeting Bradford (and not, say, McCutcheon directly). Because it is Bradford that has adopted this academic language. And this seems to be the direction that Bradford wants to take the MI’s Journal of Mormon Studies (that Hamblin suggests is being applauded). So on the one hand you “Laud the Maxwell Institute’s Direction” and then at the same time in several places you seem to be providing a very negative critque of the very direction that Bradford wants to go with the MI.

    I think that the academic study of religion is quite valuable. And the academic study of Mormonism will be quite valuable. It can certainly inform us on many aspects of our belief. But it will not be terribly faith promoting (at least for a certain kind of faith). Suggesting that it is the most appropriate way to proceed (at the expense of say, apologetic literature) is perhaps analogous that larger debate about religious studies (as in Orsi versus McCutcheon). And I think we want to be wary (as Hamblin seems to be) of holding up any particular model as the image we want to make Mormon Studies into. And I think perhaps we read too much into Hamblin’s essay if we try to take it completely out of the context of the events at the NAMI.

  • BHodges

    Mormon studies is not beholden to Bradford’s paper, never has been. Disagreements with it, further analysis of it, is interesting, I think.

    “And I think perhaps we read too much into Hamblin’s essay if we try to take it completely out of the context of the events at the NAMI.”

    Unfortunately, Hamblin himself didn’t seem to anticipate/include such a distinction in his blog post. And he didn’t draw this distinction in our exchange at the MDD board, either.

  • SmallAxe

    Ben M.

    Thank you for the thoughtful response.

    Let me try to address a few points (I’m a bit pressed for time, so I apologize for the brevity).

    I see very little difference in the description of an appropriate methodology provided by Bradford with the notions of McCutcheon.

    Let me try to explain why Bradford’s position is significantly different from McCutcheon’s. McCutcheon is not a bracketer. He does not advocate keeping the door open for God or leaving room for anything unexplainable. The role of the scholar of religion, in his view, is to describe religion as a thoroughly human endeavor.

    Many of those that advocate some kind of bracket are at least trying to leave room for God/the transcendent. Orsi falls into this camp, and so does Bradford. If Hamblin sees Bradford in line with McCutcheon he has not closely read the literature.

    Much of this, I should note, is a problem with Hamblin not naming names, so to speak.

    This is not to say that bracketing is unproblematic. I linked over to other discussions we’ve had on this topic in the OP. I think I’m less skeptical than I was five years ago, although rather than the language of bracketing I would use language of context sensitivity. Different contexts have different rules of discourse. While these rules can and should be challenged, one should demonstrate the ability to play by these rules before challenging them.

    I can say more if you’d like me to elaborate.

  • SmallAxe

    Regarding history and religious studies in the comments above, given that Hamblin sees himself in the field of religious studies, I think we need to allow for a significant overlap between the two.

  • Dave

    I agree with the idea that religious studies and religion should absolutely overlap, not least in source material but also in presentations. If an examination of religion is completely separated from belief and contemporary practice and philosophy, why study it at all?

    I also agree with the idea that a group of 10-12 scholars would be best for a legitimate longstanding program in Mormon studies- any fewer and a diversity of opinion and specialized expertise for collaboration are difficult. As is, scholars in different places, with very different motives, end up reading the same skim-level materials on the same topics and writing about them based largely on their preconceptions before they studied it in the first place. Corporate boards and tenure committees require several people in one place, with attached existences, for a good reason. I am not sure funding would be available anytime soon for a decent Mormon studies department, even at USU or Claremont, but if Mormons in the US manage to retain a high birthrate and engagement for a couple more generations (somewhat doubtful), there may be place for such a program for tomorrows thinkers. For now Mormon studies materials should be taken with a large helping of salt, and closely connected to the interest-base that is comprised primarily of adherents themselves.

  • http://Juvenileinstructor.org Ben P

    A quick correction to my #4: I have been corrected that Amy Hoyt is a Mormon and thus does not belong on my list of non-Mormons doing Mormon studies. My apologies to readers, and most sincere apologies to Amy!

  • http://www.conservativemormonmom.blogspot.com E B

    I saw Hamblin’s article, and I greatly appreciate your clarifications while I was unable to articulate them myself, not being as knowledgable in either religious studies or apologetics as you are. Thanks!

  • Holly Folk

    As a member of the AAR, I concur that some of the papers are silly — avoid those sessions. I disagree about the quality of the Mormon studies group, which has put together some excellent panels. But my participation with the latter makes me think Hamblin is someone who hopes to put in place a “faith-based” epistemology: something I have heard both LDS and Evangelical Christian scholars call for. To the extent that’s true, it is not surprising Hamblin’s got it in for the discipline; as you write so well, religious studies is an imperfect discipline, but it tries as much as possible to be epistemologically modest and culturally sensitive – not out of political correctness, but because these are essential hermeneutic approaches. Religious studies also makes the distinction between theology (Mormon Studies?) and the “social scientific” or historical approach to religion. Ethicists notwithstanding (maybe), we leave the former project to theologians and clergy. This point is lost, both on Hamblin (who would have us be more confessional) and the general public who worry teachers in public universities — like me are indoctrinating young adults with subversive ideas about God, so as to deliberately undermine their faith.

    It has become fashionable to bash on religious studies. In the media, it has come to represent everything wrong with higher education. Standing in for the liberal arts as a whole, religion has come under fire for being elitist, politically correct, irrelevant to real-life issues, and incapable of training students for a job. All these accusations are wrong, and point to how misunderstandings about what we do are being used to fuel the culture wars.

    After finishing the requirements for a degree in English, I added a religion major in college, and am glad I did. The interdisciplinary content was more interesting, the classes smaller, faculty more accessible. From “evidence-based” research, we know these features are ones strongly associated with college students’ success, to which both “learning outcomes” and “satisfaction” are linked. Research tools like the CLA have shown students at risk of being “academically adrift” fair better when they do not feel anonymous at school. But these fine points are lost on many pundits. Hamblin joins a chorus of voices, albeit from the other side. For him we are not “religious enough.”

    Finally, let me point out that while Hamblin is calling for a teleological approach to the study of religion, the field has long debated how and whether to integrate “substantive” and “functional” approaches, and such questions are currently enjoying a resurgence in the work of scholars like Robert Orsi and Donald Miller. We haven’t “kicked God out” of our inquiries, but the comparative nature of our research leads most of us to put (at least some) critical distance between our own values and the data we find when studying another culture or faith tradition.

    Thanks for writing what you did, and for letting me have my say, as well!

    Holly Folk
    Western Washington University
    Bellingham, WA

  • SmallAxe

    I also agree with the idea that a group of 10-12 scholars would be best for a legitimate longstanding program in Mormon studies….

    Maybe, but if this is the measuring bar of success there aren’t many tradition specific programs of religious studies available. How many Islamic studies or Buddhist studies programs meet this criteria? If 10-12 scholars in one institution are required before saying a tradition specific program exists, then I’d imagine we’d have to say that only Bible-related programs exist in North America and Europe.

  • SmallAxe

    Hi Holly,

    Thanks for your thoughts; please stop by as often as time permits. Regarding the AAR, I agree with you concerning the Mormon studies consultation. It’s well-run. My criticism was actually of the Latter-day Saints and the Bible group, which is with the SBL.

  • g.wesley

    a department i know of has a dozen or so faculty spread across nine programs: two faculty in the biblical studies program, one in islam, one in afam, one in africa proper, three in jewish studies, one in buddhism … and that includes some faculty overlap. i’m sure they would say ideally at least some more would be better, but i don’t think the small number of faculty means programs do not exist.

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