The Danger of the [Bracket]

The Danger of the [Bracket] June 23, 2008

The [bracket] has been the focus of some rather heated debates in the study of religion in recent years, and poses a particular challenge for Latter-day Saints. This debate was typified in a Harvard Divinity Bulletin exchange between Stephen Prothero of Boston University and Robert Orsi (et al.) who was then at Harvard, but has now moved to Northwestern. Prothero criticized Orsi for his methodological choice to “bracket” the truth claims of the religions he studied. He explains, “I have come to believe that the endless bracketing that I have always taken as my charge is viable only as long as our work exists in the splendid isolation of the Ivory Tower. In the rough and tumble of the real world, it is not possible, and likely not desirable.” He described the process of Religious Studies scholars who did not say what they really thought was a “good or a bad thing” as a “cat-and-mouse game.”

Orsi argues that these “judgements” are at best predictable and uninteresting, and essentially add nothing to the analytic responsibility of Religious Studies to understand the objects of study. At worst, however, these judgments actually impede a sympathetic assessment by allowing one to stand in judgment, rather than be challenged by the religious. Prothero’s position is a return to the fantasy of the objective scholar who is able to exercise the judgment of the colonialist on whether the “primitive” people, those “crazy for God,” are “good or bad.” In contrast, Orsi suggests that suspending those predictable judgments means “seeing one’s own world from the place of the other, to be able to imagine different ways of living and to try to understand them in their own terms; and it means—whether a scholar works as a historian or an anthropologist—that one’s own world is likely not going to look the same, to be able to claim the same taken-for-granted authority, to hold the same givenness, as it did before one set out into the archive or field.”

This debate coincided with the publication of Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, and I recall that Bushman invoked this debate to explain his own methodological approach to Joseph Smith. Bushman’s critics had suggested that as a believer, this bias had seeped into his writing, which explained why he chose to suspend judgment on teh veracity of the religious claims of Joseph Smith. Bushman countered that he was only attempting to understand how Joseph (and his contemporaries) perceived himself, how he would have explained his actions in his own context. He stated that he clearly sided with Orsi on the suspension of “judgment” in the study of the religious.

As Latter-day Saints, we of course are sympathetic to Bushman’s approach which leaves the door open, as it were, to the truthfulness of Joseph Smith’s claims, and attempts to understand him on his own terms, rather than the reductive theories offered by his critics.

The flip side of this bracket, however, is that we must actually be willing to consider alternative explanations. In reality, this is a highly secular approach to religion, despite its systematic sympathy. In the recent posts on the possibility of the study of religion at BYU, the bracket has been cited as the principle reason that it would fail, and never be accepted.

So how do we explain this position? Where should LDS situate themselves methodologically; with Prothero or with Orsi? What Prothero allows is for scholars to excerise the judgment in either testimony or ridicule. He opens the gate for that “bit of judgment” that he sees as the scholar’s right to deem something “good,” which might include the truthfulness of Mormonism. The result of this, however, is that we must also allow for scholars to exercise condescension without restraint. If we side with Orsi, we must methodologically restrict ourselves. We must treat Mormonism the same way that we would treat wahabbi Islam, or snake-handlers, or contemporary Catholics; and not just in our writing, but at the existential level. Orsi demands that the religious other exercise upon our minds, to change and shape our assumptions, not at the level of conversion, but at the level of what it means to be human.

We cannot have it both ways. We cannot invoke Orsi to justify our sympathetic accounts of Mormonism, and Prothero to allow us to dismiss other religions. Nor can we invoke Prothero to allow us to testify, but Orsi to be poltically respectful of other religions. These are not merely questions of scholarly method, but of our very orientation towards the world, ourselves, and truth.

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