Optimism and Naiveté for LDS Religion Scholars

Optimism and Naiveté for LDS Religion Scholars June 17, 2009

I just finished Sheldon Greaves, “The Education of a Bible Scholar” in Dialogue 42:2, Greaves’s spiritual autobiography recounting both his loss of place in the LDS church in the mid-nineties and his appreciation for modern critical biblical studies. It was a fascinating, if familiar, account of the disillusionment of a LDS scholar with the kinds of questions that could be asked of sacred texts, with a view of the frustration with the tendencies of many in BYU religion to discourage, avoid, and ignore critical biblical studies.

I have written on this period of Mormon studies as devistating and entire generation of scholars in my post “The Terrible 90’s.” However, I implicitly contrasted that time with our own. I’d like to further explore this comparison.

There is much to compare between Greaves’s experience in the 80’s and 90’s with that of young scholars today. I could certainly see Greaves’s enthusiasm in many of those that I know who are pursuing this line of study. I could also see the frustration with BYU shared by many today. I am also aware of the alienation that these students sometimes feel when their studies and insights are resisted or rejected by their wards, friends, and families.

At the same time, my sense is that many young LDS scholars of religion are choosing to stay, to navigate these sometimes rough waters, and to contribute, perhaps at BYU Religion, but also in new, unconventional ways. My impression may certainly be wrong, and I know lots of people who have left after even just one semester of graduate studies in religion. The disconnect is still immense for many. However, there seems to be a certain degree of optimism, even in the angst of the young religion scholar, that it is possible to reconcile their faith and their studies, and even productively contribute.

So what has changed? Has the official church moved away from the disciplining of the 1990’s that precipitated Greaves’s and others’ departures? Have congregations in these cities (Berkeley, Chicago, Cambridge, New Haven, Raleigh-Durham, etc) become habituated to these young scholars and been more accepting? Have the terms of the debate changed (no longer about BoM historicity or JST) in such a way that where one sides is less charged? Has scholarship itself changed to be more accommodating (for instance, Greaves repeatedly emphasizes the scientific nature and objectivity of modern biblical studies, which I think fewer graduate schools teach today)? Or, are young scholars simply naive, not knowing what dangers lurk in the distance as they move along in their careers, that a repeat of the past is likely inevitable?

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