Symptoms of Parallel-o-Mania

Symptoms of Parallel-o-Mania May 24, 2010

I recently came across this presentation by Daniel Peterson given at the annual FAIR Conference in 2009. Admittedly I haven’t read much of Peterson’s work, but from conversations I’ve had with others I get the sense that he’s rather well respected in the field of Islamic Studies. I know he’s also very involved in Mormon Studies. I gather that he’s one of the best comparativists that LDSs have since he’s deeply knowledgeable of Islam and Mormonism.

That said, his presentation raised several red flags for me. I’ve discussed some problems with parallel-o-mania previously. At a more general level, parallel-o-mania is a kind of irresponsible comparison of religious traditions. I’m not qualified to conclude that Peterson has in fact been irresponsible in this presentation; but I did want to point out the kinds of things that tend to signal bad comparison.

When ever I come across these kinds of things I raise an eyebrow and ask a specialist about the accuracy of the claim. Perhaps some of FPRs resident specialists will chime in. None of the items that follow mean that a comparison is necessarily bad or irresponsible. However, good comparativists recognize the difficulty of effectively doing any one of these things and therefore tend to avoid some of them, or at least tread lightly when doing them.

  1. Claims that the notion of ‘x’ is universal. While I believe that human beings have shared characteristics and experience the world in similar ways, I’m skeptical of any claim to universality made at more than a general level. Peterson, for instance, claims that the motif of ascension to God is universal. This is more than a general claim about human beings experiencing spatial dimensions in a certain way (never mind the presumption about a universal notion of God). Peterson goes on to explain that it “presupposes a structure of the cosmos” where Heaven is up and Hell is down. Even cast in less culturally specific terminology, I’m not sure that the notion of UP as GOOD and DOWN as BAD is necessarily universal.
  2. Culture-hoping. Understanding one culture is difficult enough. In studying America, for instance, one should be aware of the fact that American culture is diverse and extends far beyond any one region or any one person’s limited exposure. Peterson seamlessly moves between Biblical culture, Islamic culture, American culture, Babylonian culture, Egyptian culture, Greek culture, Indian culture, European culture, and others.
  3. Time traveling. Similar to culture-hoping, understanding one time period is difficult enough. In discussing the cultures above Peterson moves between the periods of the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, contemporary Mormonism, 6th century Christianity, the Roman Empire, and other periods.
  4. Discipline jumping. Learning to interpret texts is different from learning to interpret paintings, buildings, or people’s actions. In order to substantiate his argument Peterson employs textual interpretation, architectural interpretation, archeological interpretation, and the interpretation of art.
  5. The conclusion has a very pragmatic value for the author. This bothers me much less when authors/presenters are upfront about their motivations. LDS scholars who always come up with answers to issues that naturally fit an LDS world view are likely allowing this world view to determine their interpretation of the material.

Many of these comments are rooted in the realization that studying any one time period of any one culture with any one discipline is a task that can take a lifetime. LDSs such as Peterson could be very good comparativists because of their sustained engagement with multiple traditions. The best comparativists are those who recognize their limitations, and yet creatively engage multiple traditions (often for reasons they are self aware of). For most comparitivists this means comparing two different time periods in one culture, or comparing a narrow selection of things from two cultures.

IMO Peterson would have been better off sticking to Islam and Mormonism rather than trying to run the gamut. Granted, it’s possible that Peterson is just brilliant and is responsibly using every source. My hunch, however, is that he’s incredibly smart but not a genius. I imagine that there are other pieces that he has written that raise fewer red flags (and this, of course, was a presentation and not a published article); but my hope is that LDS comparativists tread lightly through the comparative enterprise and convey fewer symptoms of parallel-o-mania.

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