The Study of Mormonism: A Growing Interest in Academia

In light of the recent FARMS post, I wanted to briefly discuss an article I came across by M. Gerald Bradford, published in a recent FARMS Review. I should first state how impressed I was to see an LDS scholar trained in a Religious Studies program, addressing the role of Mormon Studies within the context of Religious Studies. Bradford even lays out a brief outline of “Religious Studies”, influenced by Ninian Smart (former Professor at UCSB, and leading figure in the development of the field of Religious Studies). While tentatively accepting his characterization of Religious Studies, I would like to raise a couple of issues as it relates to both Mormon Studies and the Latter-day Saint engaged in this kind of Religious Studies.

(1) It necessarily requires the study of more than just one tradition; in other words, it is inherently a comparative, even cross-cultural, endeavor.

(2) It advocates studying religious traditions in comparison with known ideological and philosophical challenges to religion that often function much the same way in society.

(3) Because of the multidimensional makeup of systems of faith, it requires that such phenomena be studied from the perspective of several disciplines.

(4) It proceeds on the basis of maintaining a distinction between descriptive and structural studies on the one hand and attempts at grappling with religious value judgments and truth claims on the other.

(5) And, of particular importance, it requires that students learn how to approach their subjects from the vantage point of those they are studying.

Much could be said as far as point #1 is concerned, and Bradford articulates it pretty well: Mormon Studies has a long way to go in this regard (and I would add, that so do Mormons studying religion, for that matter). I would like to however, spend more time looking at point #4. In elaborating on it Bradford explains:

This prioritizing can be discerned in the amount of work that is informed by what can be called a phenomenological sensitivity, attempts at describing and explaining religions in ways that accurately portray the practices, values, beliefs, and attitudes of various adherents without either endorsing or rejecting them. Put another way, religious traditions need to be studied in ways that do not privilege one particular tradition over another and in ways that result in descriptions and explanations that are not only well informed but also evenhanded. Such approaches typically do not aim at threatening individual faiths, nor do they acquiesce to reductionistic views about religion bent on explaining such phenomena away as irrational or as acts of projection. The superiority or inferiority of a particular tradition is a matter of personal judgment and evaluation, of bias or belief, and such personal views are neither helpful nor relevant in describing and explaining what the faith is, what its many manifestations are like, or what it is like to be a follower. Religious traditions are what they are and wield the power and influence they do in the world regardless of what others think of their worth, truth, or rationality. If for no other reason than this, they are inherently worthwhile subjects of study.

I’m wondering here, who Bradford’s audience is. Is he in effect making a claim about the way in which Mormonism should be studied? Or/and is he making a claim about how Mormons should pursue Religious Studies? In other words, it seems to me that we (LDSs) are quick to require those who study us, to take us on our own terms, or to take our faith seriously; but we are much more reluctant to do the same for others (not to mention the difficultly of us studying ourselves).

This, I guess, leads me to my larger questions: I suppose the Bradford’s claim is for “both” the way in which Mormonism is to be studied as well as the way in which a Mormon approach Religious Studies. That being the case, can a LDS effectively pursue Religious Studies? Can we effectively study ourselves? Can we “bracket our faith” and suspend judgement such that we do not privilege one particular tradition over another? Are these values antithetical to a “testimony”? How do we navigate the tensions created by attempting this? Are we already doing this, or is this a new venture? If this is a new venture (which I tend to think it is in many regards), are we better off not embarking on it, and leaving the study of Mormonism (and religion, for that matter) to non-Mormons?

One Reply to “The Study of Mormonism: A Growing Interest in Academia”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *