It’s not a competition, but…

A few years ago, I attended an event where a scholar of biblical studies pined with envy after the relatively easy problems that historians of Mormonism face with respect to maintaining their faith. This person suggested that by comparison, issues of magic, sex, and other “scandals” of early Mormonism were far less challenging to deal with than those presented by the study of the ancient world. This was about the extent of the discussion, but the idea has stuck with me. Are some disciplines dealing with religion more “challenging” to one’s personal faith than others?

For the scholar of biblical texts, perhaps he saw the challenges that arise as more vexing precisely because they struck at such fundamental issues as the authority of the scriptures, the nature of God, and the historical plausibility of the Book of Mormon. If these foundations are shaken, what is left? For the historian of Mormonism, the problems faced directly challenge the authority of the church, and its status as a divinely directed institution. Neither the scholar of the Bible nor the Mormon historian was so conflicted that they could not remain comfortably within the church. This was merely a discussion about who had a harder time. Perhaps we could further subdivide this and say that NT scholars have it easier or harder that OT scholars. Or 20th c. historians of Mormonism have it easier or harder than 19th c. historians. Etc.

My view is that it really isn’t a competition. Nor can the issues of the most vexing “challenges” that one face be placed on any one discipline, since so much has to do with personality, social location, and other commitments that, in my view, are much more crucial to how “intellectual problems” are managed than a purely cognitive act. Furthermore, specialists in philosophy, English, political science, and even behavioral organization all face different intellectual challenges in reconciling their faith with their professional studies. So, it isn’t really a competition. But, if it were…?

21 Replies to “It’s not a competition, but…”

  1. 19th century Mormon history wins. Not because of anything intrinsic to it, but because everybody thinks he’s as qualified to spout off about it as somebody who, you know, actually studies it. There are very few armchair Assyriologists out there.

  2. I’m with you in thinking that, no matter one’s interest, you can always find puzzling things to challenge faith, understanding, perspective, etc. An architect might question the wisdom in the Church’s building structures/expenditures, a music teacher might struggle with the hymn selection.

    One approach to determining who has it the most rough would be to identify some of the greatest intellectual challenges confronting people and see what fields they might fall under, but even then you are dealing with relative challenges based on temperament, etc. as you noted. A person’s background and beginning assumptions are huge in terms of how a person handles new information, so while one person who goes into molecular biology could be thrown for a huge loop based on stuff they learn about evolution, another person going into that same field might bring entirely different assumptions which make the new info so much easier to incorporate.

    All that being said, the winner of the competition is certainly accounting or business administration.

  3. More seriously, after thought, I think you’re right that factors like personality are more important than discipline in recognizing “the most difficult.” Anything you care about enough to have invested your life in pursuing is going to be the most sensitive when poked. The more you know about a field, the more you understand and accept its tenets, the more ground there is for disparity between what you accept academically and what you accept religiously.

  4. Just by complete coincidence, I reread this today:
    Ecclesiastes 1:18 “In much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases in knowledge increases in sorrow.”

  5. Ecclesiastes 1:18 “In much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases in knowledge increases in sorrow.”

    Good grief, then why do we do it? If we fancy ourselves “reasonable” at all, why do we pursue such a counterintuitive activity that only results in making ourselves more puzzled and more miserable?

  6. You may joke about cosmetology, but I remember a friend who used to cut my hair who found the concentration of vain people in cosmetology school a bit trying. Thanks to her outlook, though, discovering a connection between beauty and vanity didn’t shake her faith.

  7. You made me think of Bible patriarchs. I’m just rereading Old Testament in order (of a sort), and their stories are so interesting.

    Anyway, I still think that it’s not what kind of things it studies, it’s what kind of faith you have. If someone’s faith is based on BofM’s historicity, then their faith is challenged by evidence that makes it less plausible.

    Is there anything wrong with the notion, that our scriptures contain a significant portion inspired fiction—I’m not saying I absolutely think that’s the case, but I wouldn’t be surprised? So if the Exodus was just a small group of refugees? Do numbers make it the people of God? If the stories of Samson, Gideon etc. are inspiring stories?

    They teach good principles, and I’ve taken home the lesson about the principles.

    It would not make the witness of the Spirit any different for me. I’d still know that Joseph Smith was given the priesthood (even if he was afraid that people wouldn’t accept his story and fudged a bit).

    I’d still know that I’ve been given a marvelous gift that has given me decades of happiness despite difficulties in life.

  8. I would say the exact opposite as your friend. Compared to ancient Christianity and Judaism, Mormonism is incredibly well-documented. That documentation leads to much less wiggle room for maneuvering one’s faith.

  9. I actually found Biblical Studies and Religious Studies in general to be a very satisfying and helpful preparation to deal with issues specific to Mormonism. I attribute my lack of faith crisis to that order of education… first I learned about issues relating to the Bible and religion, and it made perfect sense when I came across the same things in Mormonism. Of course Joseph while revising the Bible would act the same way scribes did as they “improved” the NT manuscripts. When I was learning about Traditionalist and Primitivist Islamic movements, it made sense that Mormonism is Primitivist, with its invention of an idealized past with a rhetoric of restoration.

    Perhaps learning most directly about the tradition the closest to you is the most challenging.

  10. If it were a contest, I would definitely say that biblical studies comes out on top. In fact, I would rank it like this:
    1. NT
    2. OT
    3. 19th Century Mormonism
    4. 20th Century Mormonism
    5. anything else, as long as it imparts rational thinking skills, which, when applied to the gospel, make one doubt its historical claims.
    ….6. Dead Sea Scrolls. Because, hey, if we find something that sounds vaguely Mormon, it’s proof. If we find something that strikes a dissonante chord, it’s just apocryphal.

  11. I imagine others had the same type of experience as I did when I was talking to Stephen Robinson about grad school. He told me not to tackle Biblical studies head on, because I would have to learn a lot of things I would not believe in, and that I should choose a “safe” topic such as the apocrypha.

  12. TT, as a long time student, I have long felt that Hebrew Bible Studies is more difficult to tackle for some of the reasons you mention (e.g. the nature of [OT] scripture and what that means for all scripture and tradition that follows and is in part built upon it, including the NT and Mormonism). The nature and authority of the OT seems to bring up all kinds of issues that take one back to “the beginning” in a way that the NT and Mormon scripture do not. Perhaps that is why we have very few (mind you I am not saying we don’t have any) LDS scholars that deal seriously (in a head on way) with the Hebrew Bible rather than assuming its authority (for the most part) and moving forward in time (whether to Second Temple, NT, or Mormon history). In fact, this is a conversation that I have had with a couple LDS professors of biblical studies and they seem to be in agreement.

  13. Enoch said,

    I actually found Biblical Studies and Religious Studies in general to be a very satisfying and helpful preparation to deal with issues specific to Mormonism. I attribute my lack of faith crisis to that order of education

    That’s how I proceeded. I felt that learning about things more “tangential” to Mormonism would be easier. My idea was that I would be better served by starting at the periphery of Mormonism (OT Studies, the older, the better) and then work inwards until I got to the core of Mormonism (1830’s and 1840’s Mormon history and doctrine). I think this is a good idea and a great approach for Mormons.

    While I did have a faith crisis and did leave, it was still helpful in one big way, I am still a theist and religious. My impression is that people who dive head first into the wackiness of Mormonism in the 1830’s and 1840’s have a much greater likelihood of both leaving the church and becoming atheist/agnostic.

  14. David Clark, one point you allude to that is very helpful, I think, is asking what the *goal* of the collision (or lack thereof) between academic scripture study and faith. What kind of faith are we seeking to preserve? Are we asking which field of study will dismantle a traditional view of Mormon origins the fastest? Pick your poison!

    But if we are asking the approach that allows the most healthy spirituality to remain, that fosters a framework that allows people to find meaning in Mormonism if they wish, I think it is more helpful to start with a broader perspective.

    But we are in agreement that learning about religion and the Bible generally provides a framework for understanding the problems particular (though they are not, and that is the point) to Mormonism. I think if you dig into Mormon origins without context that will shake people the hardest. But it is also important to stress that ANY academic study of religion, if allowed to fully penetrate your world view, will shake the LDS narrative to the foundations.

  15. I’d have to go with modern Mormonism as the trickiest, most dangerous, etc. AoF 8 gives (or should give) us a relatively wide berth when reading OT and even NT, but, staying with the same example, Mormonism undercuts the A’s of F themselves! I have come to feel that (as opposed to when I started grad school) while we (should) expect the OT and NT to be weird, we make earlier Mormonism out to be much more like our current selves that we would ever expect, even when pressed. I think that being disabused of this is generally much more startling to the uninitiated than is the documentary hypothesis or much of what is challenging about OT/NT revelations. At least that was my experience but, as someone already said above, hearing the biblical problems first did grease the wheels a bit.

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