It was the first ever session for the first Faith and Knowledge conference at Yale University. The meetings were organized for young LDS scholars pursuing graduate work in Religious studies. Richard Bushman, the famous historian, held a question and answer session at the meeting. The one thing I remember is Dr. Bushman’s response to the question, “how can I be successful as an LDS scholar who wants to push the boundaries a bit?”
Dr. Bushman’s response was both simple and direct. “Just be pure hearted,” he said. “That’s the key to success.”
I’m going to confess that at the time, his response seemed from my perspective far too simplistic. After all, I had known some scholars who from my perspective had very pure motives even though their connections with Mormonism officially ended (for one reason or another). I hold Dr. Bushman in high esteem, but at the time, I felt a bit bothered by his assertion.
It’s been a few years now, and at this point, I believe I finally understand what Dr. Bushman meant, and why his counsel was so very wise. It’s not a solution to all challenges (and I know some pure hearted scholars have been severely mistreated by our community). But today, today I know that he was right.
All of us, myself included, who engage in academic discussion love the pursuit of knowledge and want to be successful. We all want to feel respected by our community, and have our contributions and thoughts taken seriously. This is a natural desire, and it in part motivates us to strive for success.
And yet, there is a problem. In fact, I now believe that it is a serious problem. When that desire to gain an audience and be respected for our contributions enters into the realm of religious devotion it quickly festers into something extremely pernicious. When the natural desire to gain an audience and be respected meets the world of religious devotion we begin to lose our way. I’ve felt it in my own life, and have seen the beast change even the best of us into something that we should not be.
I’ve seen this happen with famous LDS apologists who for years enjoyed the fact that they were highly respected by their community, and then, when they perceive that they are losing some of that respect react with anger and aggression. They’ll use any tactic to attack those whom they believe are threatening their audience, and in the process destroy relationships and damage their own careers.
But it’s the same exact issue for critics who adopt the opposite perspective from the apologists, but who enjoy having an audience in the devotional world. Like the apologists, they certainly claim pure motives, but in this case, when the desire to promote progressive change is primarily driven by the thrill of an audience, they take the same road as the apologists. That desire corrupts and destroys.
So it really doesn’t matter which side of the coin the person chooses, apologist or critic, when the desire for an audience becomes the primary motivation for participation in religious dialogue, the result is always tragic to behold.
Now, all of us who engage in this world are tainted, myself included. It’s even true for those whose contributions are found merely on a message board, a comment section, or a blog. But I believe that over the years, I’ve come to realize what Dr. Bushman meant when he said, “Just be pure hearted; that’s the key to success.” And I believe he’s right.
Therefore, given my own weaknesses, it’s the message I remind myself of on a daily basis. Because we can see the consequences of ignoring this counsel all around us on both the apologetic and critical side of the religious spectrum.
So engage in academic religious dialogue. Try to promote change within your community. Defend your faith if you feel so inclined. But whichever side you choose,critic or apologist, just be pure hearted. Because Dr. Bushman was right.
That really is the key to success.