Compartmentalizing the Bracket and the Problem of Creep

Compartmentalizing the Bracket and the Problem of Creep August 25, 2008

A little while ago TT wrote about a debate in the field of Religious Studies concerning the role of personal judgment in scholarship. “Bracketing” one’s judgment, meant withholding a pronouncement of “superstitious”, “backward”, or even “good or bad” on the people or objects one studies. The scholar’s role in this regard is to provide an accurate and sympathetic account of religious attitudes and actions. S/he attempts to see the world from the place of an other, and understand them in their own terms. This is sometimes described as a methodological “agnosticism”, that at least leaves the door open for the real possibility of religious experience by not ruling it out from the get-go. Thus for LDS scholars, there is a strong benefit to this position in that it provides an opportunity to study and produce scholarship about religious claims without having to “come out of the closet” so to speak in regards to their personal beliefs which may not be widely shared (or accepted). Some form of bracketing in this general sense is the dominant position in the field.

The question I would like to pose here is whether it’s possible to compartmentalize this bracket. I imagine scholars of faith would not want to remain “agnostic” in their religious life. In this light is it possible to bracket one’s judgment in profession, but remove the bracket when in the environment of faith? 

I imagine some form of the strategy of compartmentalization is the strategy of choice by many LDS doing work in religion. Indeed, to some degree I do this myself. One problem with this strategy that I’ve noticed in my own case however, can be described as “the problem of creep”. Creep happens when the wall dividing “bracket-on” from “bracket-off” begins to give way. Creep can mean that “bracket-off” at times slips into one’s academic work (I imagine this is one way to conceptualize some of the critiques of Bushman’s RSR). It can also mean that “bracket-on” slips into one’s faith-life (one wears the bracket to church so to speak).

Regarding the latter, the bracket becomes harder, and in some regards less desirable to take off. So Sunday School, for instance, becomes more of an academic exercise in understanding the internal logic of the BoM, rather than the opportunity to affirm its “truthfulness” in the larger Plan of Salvation. Some of the language so familiar in church discourse also becomes less appropriate–“I know x is true” seems like such strong language. There are of course both negative and positive outcomes of this which I will not explore here. Instead I’d rather raise the question of how to handle the problem of creep.

I would also like to consider alternative conceptualizations of this situation. I’m convinced that “compartmentalization” is not the best scheme to employ, yet I’m at a loss for alternatives.

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