Sorry to our dear readers who’ve suffered in our recent absence. For me, the start of the fall TV season means big business in VCR repair. I don’t know what my co-bloggers’ excuse is…
The last few decades of Mormonism have been a period of intense assimilation. Latter-day Saints have become an increasing presence in various urban areas and increasing numbers of Mormons hold positions of influence in business, government, and academic life. There seems to be more engagement with the “world” in ways that have been mutually beneficial to Mormonism and non-Mormons alike.
In Mormon intellectual life, this trend toward assimilation has been the cause for increased interaction with other ways of thinking. With broader exposure to other peoples and ideas, there is an increasingly pressing need to interact with those peoples and ideas in productive ways. In my view, this has pulled LDS intellectual energy in two opposite directions.
On one hand, LDS acadmeics have sought for intellectual credibility by doing not only high quality historical work about Mormonism, but increasingly serious philosophical and theological work, as well as professional engagement with religious studies, anthropology and sociology, and even economic analysis and legal theory. In this way, Mormonism may be framed and made intelligible and relevant to an academic audience. As this information, and more importantly, the discourses of academic approaches in general, are more widely consumed by Mormons, it is inevitable that Mormonism as it is practiced and articulated will reflect these discourses.
One the other hand, LDS thinkers have sought increasingly close ties with evangelicals politically and theologically. While this work has been done mostly outside of academia, there have been some notable and influential LDS figures inside of academia who have focused on evangelical-Mormon dialogue, fostering greater understanding, mutual respect, and in many cases the assimilation of evangelical concepts and terms. The adoption of a common vocabulary leads to a discursive assimilation.
Is there an inevitable clash between these two trends? To speak in very broad terms, academics don’t often have much respect for contemporary evangelical political and social values, and evangelicals have often painted academics in oppositional and antagonistic terms as well. As LDSs assimilate more generally into these two cultures, is there an impending rift within Mormonism, or at least within the Mormon intellectual community? Will the broader antagonism between evangelical and academic values come to divide Mormon intellectual culture along similar lines? Has it already? Or, is this simply a false distinction altogether?
5 Replies to “R-e-s-p-e-c-t”
I think you are assuming that the antagonism between evangelical Protestantism and academics as a mode of inquiry is a necessary one. I think Mark Noll would beg to differ. So no doubt would many others. Prevalent perhaps but not necessary.
Evangelicals themselves are dominated by a theology (Calvinism) that was formed in an unusually academic frame of mind, and if anything the trend is back towards that level of theological strictness. Scholastic Calvinism is on the upswing. The fact that academic theology is nearly non-existent in academia proper certainly hasn’t prevented academic approaches to theology from dominating the Western religious landscape for 1600 years.
Welcome back from the great abyss!
I think it is just an issue of keeping both groups separated, and talking to them in their own language. We can discuss evolution with academics, and we can talk about atonement with evangelicals.
You raise a good point, but I think that Noll is more of an exception. No one can really say that academia and evangelicalism are significantly overlapping that one can speak fully to both audiences at the same time. Indeed, Noll has written about the anti-intellectualism of evangelicals in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.
Again, this is not to say that there is not an academic evangelical community, nor that there is no academic version of evangelicalism. Of course there is, just as there is in Mormonism. Rather, the point that I am suggesting is that the intellectual pursuits that Mormons have cultivated in conversation with evangelicals are not those that Mormon academics have pursued, by and large. I am wondering if the same kind of general rift (exceptions notwithstanding) will pull the Mormon intellectual community down different paths.
I think that what you describe has certainly been the status quo, that we have pursued these conversations independently. My worry is that eventually two different kinds of Mormonism may emerge that begin to look very different from one another, where you have a secularly-tinged Mormon progressivism and a fundamentalisty-tinged Mormon evangelicalism. Perhaps we already do, but to what extent will this fracture the Mormon intellectual community?
I think this is a legitimate concern. I find myself resistant to some of what we seem to be importing from Evangelical Christianity. I’m mostly friendlier to what’s going on academically, although that’s not universally the case. Some people seem to be going the other direction–are we drifting apart?
At the same time, though, I think that this tension is OK. There have always been divisions in the Mormon community and most of them have been productive. The church stays on a more moderate course partly because its members are pulling opposite ways.
I think the tensions will be productive.
Thanks James! Somehow I missed your comment from almost a month ago. I certainly hope you’re right!