Amy Hungerford in her book, Postmodern Belief: America Literature and Religion Since 1960, notes that we are caught in America between dual impulses. On the one hand, despite our secular age, we have a “longing for conviction” and the “transcendent purpose conviction brings.” At the same time, however, we are possessed of a “desire for pluralism and tolerance and perhaps even the celebration of endless indeterminacy.” She argues that literature’s decline over the past several decades perhaps has obscured its vital role in teaching us how to achieve both ends. I think it is fair to say that her argument can easily extend to the humanities in general, that we can understand the impulses of artistic production—in the visual arts, film, music—and in the deliberations of philosophy, a similar method for undertaking the serious task of making conviction meaningful in a plural context, one which might, at least temporarily, require us to suspend the specific content of belief.
It is certainly a unique irony of an age of increasing secularization that we have not only seen the rise of religion’s relevance but a persistent ambition in the arts to fulfill this longing for transcendence. This is one reason why I am convinced that scholars in the humanities ought to be at least minimally versed in the theological implications of artistic representations and of their myriad interpretations.
I recently attended the annual meeting for Mormon Scholars in the Humanities (http://www.mormonscholars.net/), an organization that I helped to start back in 2005. It has been a singular privilege to be a part of the group and to listen to the range and quality of work it has sponsored, work that has begun to build a body of thought of the kind I mention. One of the main purposes of the organization was and remains to provide a social network among Mormon scholars in the humanities who might otherwise feel isolated by their beliefs within a profession that is not known for its warmth to religious conviction and practice. We seem to have succeeded in this. Nourished by soda and chips, our evening conversations on the beautiful campus of Southern Virginia University were replete with laughter, teasing, and even, occasionally, intellectually engaging conversation.
We did not intend to use the organization as an opportunity to foster a defensiveness among Mormon intellectuals; indeed, it would seem to contradict the very objective of open inquiry to expend our energies reinforcing such fears and anxieties, no matter how legitimate they might be. I am proud to say that this organization has become a small but vital engine that links the yearning for conviction and transcendence with the perpetual and ongoing task of fostering tolerance by listening and gathering the voices of artists and thinkers from across the world. Yes, it serves the purposes of the budding and important field of Mormon Studies, but it also more importantly brings Mormon thought into sustained dialogue across disciplines and cultures.
The conference theme was “Economies and the Humanities,” and we heard papers that explored such questions as how to determine the morality of work and play and more generally, of capitalist values; the role of gender within the economies of housework, homemaking, and environmental stewardship; the value of a liberal arts education and literature in hard economic times; and the place of technology within the exchange between human subject and the natural world and between texts and their interpretations. We heard charges to live with a greater sense of ownership for the beliefs and meanings that we choose to live by and the worlds we choose to make, to think of theology and maybe even revelation as an art, not a science, and to think of faith as a kind of trust within the context of risk and uncertainty. We heard challenges to live with greater attention to hard economic realities as they affect people of color, women, and the work of scholarship and as they pertain to the broader LDS call to live lives of consecration. Still other questions posed were: What might it mean to sacralize the mundane? In our efforts to consecrate life, do we risk justifying and sustaining unjust relationships of power and cultural values? Where is the dividing line between the sacred and the profane? How can we more meaningfully adapt scriptural principles to artistic representation and to the art of living well? What and how, in short, do we read?
We did not exhaust the possibilities of such questions, of course. But they were all posed within the context of honesty and abiding faith. And the fact that over the last decade there has been such an exponential growth in the numbers of LDS scholars asking these questions–many of these scholars young and stunningly brilliant– is reassuring. MSH is an open group, one wanting and needing to grow, but if the quality of the thinking I heard this past weekend is any indication, it is a group with a bright and important future.