Like my buddies here at FPR, I’ve been thinking about the intersection of LDS life and biblical or religious scholarship. For my part, I want to call your attention to three incidents that I think intersect at a significant point:
–Jan Shipps’ quip to the effect that one wonders if LDS scholars “know how to operate in the professional world.” (Deseret Morning News, 21 Jun 2005)
–a young man who implicitly suggested that the rest of Christianity was “lost and confused” without the Book of Mormon
–a general practice of demonizing non-LDS Biblical or religious scholarship by using the expression “scholars say…” followed by some scary tidbit that is accurate but by no means reflects either consensus or the range of current opinion
I am going to ask that you trust me that the last two things occurred. My argument does not depend on the details, so your discrete lack of curiosity will help preserve both privacy and dignity.
What these three scenarios have in common is that the subject of each is in some fashion unable to deal productively with what might be called the religious other. Why is this so?
Although I am quite sure that I do not have The Answer, I want to offer up a couple of thoughts. First, I’ve been looking at how various schools teach religion and the Bible as part of my own professional development. Let’s take a look at Georgetown. They require four semesters from their undergraduates, two of philosophy and two of theology:
Georgetown University, with its commitment to the Jesuit tradition, believes that modern men and women should reflect upon their relationship to the world, their fellow humans, and God. All students must take a year of philosophy and a year of theology. The Problem of God (Theo-001) and one intermediate-level theology elective fulfill the theology requirement. Introduction to the Biblical Literature (Theo-011) may be substituted for Problem of God or may be used as an intermediate-level elective.
Notice that requirement to “reflect upon their relationship” to God, the world, and the rest of mankind? Now here’s the course description for the two courses with a religious focus:
Theo-001: An examination of the religious dimension of human experience and consciousness in relation to a number of problems and challenges: the problem of knowledge; the relation of faith and reason; various historical, social and existential determinants of belief; the challenge of atheism and humanism; the impact of secularization on religion.
Theo-011: An introductory study of 1) the books of the Bible, 2) the history of Ancient Israel and first-century Christianity, and 3) the process of formation and transmission of the faith traditions coming to literary expression in the biblical literature.
Topics like “faith and reason,” or “determinants of belief” or the “impact of secularization on religion” are the sorts of things that help students come to grips with the fact that there are a variety of ways of approaching religion and religious literature. I have no idea how successful the execution might be, but the potential is there to produce an enviable maturation process in young Catholics and others who attend Georgetown.
Now let’s take a look at the other end of the spectrum. Here’s a news article from Baylor University’s student newspaper announcing a change in their undergraduate requirements. Baylor is associated with the Baptists. The date of the article is 2002:
In general, next year’s incoming freshmen will still have to take six hours of religion courses, but they will be in two newly created courses: Religion 1310, The Christian Scriptures, and Religion 1350, The Christian Heritage…
The Christian Scriptures course will lump both the New and Old Testaments into one course. Dr. Joel Burnett, assistant professor of religion, said there were both advantages and disadvantages to this change….
The second course, The Christian Heritage, will look at some of the history that brought the religion to where it is today. ‘We’ve realized over the years that students from Christian traditions don’t have any idea where their beliefs came from,’Dr. Rosalie Beck, associate professor of religion, said. ‘In [this course] they’ll have a chance to see how their denominations came into existence and how the different doctrines developed.’
Dr. Naymond Keathley, the director for undergraduate studies for the religion department said the new combination would give students a more in-depth understanding of Christianity. ‘Christianity as we know it is certainly more than just the Bible,’ Keathley said. ‘We think for a student to be well rounded, they need to be exposed to these other areas.’
Notice how Baylor is likewise concerned that their students know their place within the larger world of Christianity. Like the Jesuits of Georgetown, Baylor’s rationale is also couched in language that suggests that an understanding of “the other” is a part of religious maturity. Once again, I’m not sure how the execution works out but there is potential for both self-understanding and a more sympathetic approach to “the other.”
Now if I were to pull out a third set of undergraduate religion requirements from another school, I am sure that you already know where it would come from. Suffice it to say that there’s a difference. And that while there are courses that do teach about other religions and religious experiences, they are found in the secular side of the academy rather than the religious. Is there any institutionalized attempt to show that dealing tolerantly with the wider world of religion is part of the LDS religious lifestyle?
Is this important? Do young LDS students need to be explicitly exposed to the idea that sane people can make other religious choices? And that they must deal productively with others, even when it comes to religion and religious literature?
I think so. As Mormons, we have been raised on the Book of Mormon. Reflect with me for a moment on how the BoM handles dealing with folks who don’t share the religious values and viewpoints of the implied author. I think there are three, and only three, major paradigms. You can kill them, convert them, or hope they don’t bother you. Although the BoM clearly prefers Plan B, none of these three will really work when it comes to life as an LDS scholar.
Another staple of the LDS world view are two concepts that deal specifically with how religious pluralism came about. These are the great apostasy and the great and abominable church. Simply put, neither of these is appropriate in a situation of religious pluralism, let alone a professional venue, except when we are involved in explaining ourselves. Under the latter conditions, I would rather gnaw my own tongue than say or hear said the words “great and abominable church.”
Perhaps I am wrong. Does the BoM have a fourth paradigm that I don’t remember and/or that we’ve simply not emphasized? Are there ways of approaching the great apostasy and the corruption of scripture that do give room for a respectful approach to religious pluralism? What other factors in the wider LDS lifestyle are there which contribute to insensitivity, religious ignorance, and arrogance?
My thought is that we could use a “Religion 100” course. The requirement to prepare to interact positively and productively with others is simply one facet of such a course. Perhaps we can discuss what such a course might consist of on some other occasion. For the moment though, I agree with my fellows. We really need to spend some time thinking about who and what we are.