Mormon Scholars Testify is a new website sponsored by the folks at the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR). It solicits and posts the “views and feelings about the Gospel” from LDS scholars, including graduate students. The goal of the website is to “dispel the myth” that “people of education and learning can’t be religious.” Each page is devoted to the relatively brief testimony of a LDS scholar, and features their credentials at the bottom of the page. One of the strengths is that it brings together a nice cross-section of scholars representing diverse ideological positions within Mormonism, from Armand Mauss to Jeff Lindsay.
The goals of this website are certainly laudable, and it is a pleasure to read the testimonies of so many LDS academics in one place. I found many that were very interesting to read, and was of course extremely impressed by some of the academic careers of those featured there. While I am familiar with a certain subset of LDS scholars, I was introduced to many more. Yet, I was not entirely happy with my experience navigating around the site.
While admittedly this website is still in early stages, my initial take is that many of the testimonies featured do little to seriously treat the intellectual issues at stake. The premise of the site seems to rest on the assumption that if you can simply show that “smart people” happen to believe in the teachings of the Church, that the serious intellectual issues that people face don’t need to be dealt with directly. The solution offered to the intellectual issues is the “testimony” of the scholar, not the intellectual and philosophical work to address those issues. In my view, the “testimonies” could be strengthened by reference to further reading or discussion of some other scholars who have helped to shape the testimony that is being born (though C.S. Lewis is mentioned in eight of the testimonies!).
Many of the testimonies are fairly typical of what one might hear in any given Fast and Testimony Meeting. When the testimonies offered do deal directly with the difficult issues, often the discussion is buried way down in the testimony, preceded by biographical background and other narratives. In most cases where an intellectual issue is addressed, there is a short narrative about how the scholar learned the lesson that faith cannot be captured by intellect, or something similar. Yet, I found that I was more interested in these issues than I was in the stories of childhood conversion or even how a friend challenged their faith, and often had to wade through biographical details before getting to the heart of the matter. Once I found that they had something to say about the challenges one might face that was interesting, then I was perhaps more inclined to go back to read the details of their past. In a way, the “testimony” is not necessarily the best genre to address the concerns of those who might be seeking for answers.
Another weakness of the site is that there are no distinctions made among different kinds of “scholars.” The index by specialty helps, but it also complicates the fact that someone like Nate Oman has something to say much more broadly than to those studying law. It also miscategorizes others, like Joanna Brooks and Kristian Heal in these catch-all buckets. Surely, the scholars working in the sciences and humanities, including evolutionary biology, astrophysics, English, history, philosophy, and of course religious studies, face different kinds of issues in reconciling their faith with their intellectual lives than those in Land Policy and Development, mathematics, geology, tabernacle organist(!), electrical engineering and business administration, as impressive of careers as these individual scholars have had in these fields. While the collection of the testimonies from this latter group certainly is a worthy enterprise, it is not clear that they offer much to those who are facing the existential questions posed by studies in fields which more directly challenge core beliefs, and when they do, it is not their credentials per se that have prepared them to address these issues. Nor is it clear that those who are credentialed in more “relevant” fields have necessarily articulated a coherent solution to the problems. Perhaps a user-generated ranking system might help to prioritize those testimonies that are considered most helpful for readers.
A final weakness was that some testimonies were polemical, such as one that contended that “the real ‘Mormon intellectual community’ consists of people who love their religion,” and that those who “find fault” must not be Mormon intellectuals. Others were controversial in other ways, such as the discussion of the “treatment” of “men with gender issues.” I found these kinds of testimonies to be counterproductive.
There are, however, testimonies from several important intellectuals in the humanities who are familiar with many of the difficult intellectual issues. Some of those that particularly interested me were Richard Bushman, Kristian Heal, Philip LaFleur, Armand Mauss, Adam Miller, Nathan Oman, and Joanna Brooks. I think that this site offers something valuable, at least in theory, and I hope that as it develops, and as the scholars who contribute to it develop a more clear voice, that it will more effectively accomplish its goals.