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.

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