On Criticism

I think that it is important to discuss a technical term in LDS culture as it overlaps with a term in academic discourse: criticism. This term and its related forms (critical, critic, etc) is extremely important concept in both worlds, with an almost exactly opposite valuation.

For Latter-day Saints, to be “critical” is very negative. It implies a negative view of ones leaders, the Church, and by implication for many, God and Christ themselves. We covenant not to practice this kind of criticism, and we are commanded not to be “critical” of our fellow saints and neighbors. In this view, criticism is understood as disapproval, and to engage in this criticism reflects badly on its practitioner.

In contrast, in academic circles, one is required to be “critical.” The term is used approvingly to describe such things as “critical theory,” “higher criticism,” “critical inquiry,” etc. Critical inquiry is the highest value and one spends their career devoted to cultivating this virtue. To be good at this line of work, being critical is an obligation. This kind of “criticism” simply means analysis and judgment concerning one’s subject. It may include, but does not require, a negative evaluation of the subject. It more accurately means that an evaluation that meets the criteria developed by the members of the guild has simply taken place. Because such criticism does not pretend to be “impartial” anymore, criticism of the assumptions of “critical inquiry” itself has taken hold in the evaluative humanities like history, literature, and religious studies.

While it may be easy to say that these two types of “criticism” are simply different concepts altogether, such a view is not entirely accurate. In order for critical inquiry to take place, one must be open to evaluating one’s assumptions, which might include certain belief’s and ideological positions. Self-reflexivity, or the ability to recognize and evaluate one’s own presuppositions, requires that one examine oneself. Likely growing out of the West’s confessional tradition as a means of producing “truth,” one must be able to evaluate oneself as well as one’s subject. Indeed, the latter is not truly possible without the former.

What is a person who is both a Latter-day Saint and also an professional scholar? How are they supposed to inhabit both worlds? How can they fulfill both imperatives to avoid criticism and also cultivate it? Inasmuch as criticism, and even critical inquiry, are seen as counterproductive to developing one’s faith, must one suspend the skills they develop as evaluators of language, texts, and history when it comes to matters of the church? Is there a balance required? Or, as Socrates might say, is the unexamined faith worth living?

14 Replies to “On Criticism”

  1. That’s a tough one. In my article on the Documentary Hypothesis, where I talked about how the old term “higher criticism” had a highly charged negative connotation to ordinary folk, I recounted the following story in a note:

    When the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) published a three-volume “critical text” of the Book of Mormon (Book of Mormon Critical Text: A Tool for Scholarly Reference [FARMS, 1986]), meaning a text that reports variant readings in different manuscripts and editions, the wire services duly reported that FARMS had published a “text critical of” the Book of Mormon. While scholars are accustomed to using the word “criticism” as referring to the exercise of careful judgment and judicious evaluation in analyzing works of art or literature, to the lay person the word has an inherently negative and, therefore, antagonistic tone.

    [Kevin again]:

    Perhaps it would be helpful to remind our people from time to time that the word criticism is the act of a critic, from Greek kritikos, one who is able to make judgments, from the verb krinein, to separate or divide. Therefore, our Lord himself is the greatest critic, for he will judge us, separating the wheat from the tares and the sheep from the goats, some to his left hand and others to his right.

  2. It is also extremely important to make a distinction between being critical of a person and being critical of a concept or an argument or an idea. Typically, scholarly criticism is not criticism of a person but rather ideas. It is true that people advocate certain ideas, or that we can trace the genesis of arguments to certain individuals in history, but we should not collapse the distinction between criticizing people and criticizing arguments or assertions.

  3. It’s not like you can eradicate the common usage of the words “critic” or “critical,” so the best approach is to use alternative terms like scholarly, historical, or detailed, any of which can replace the term “critical” in the phrase “critical study” and convey a better sense of the activity the speaker has in mind.

    I find similar confusion with the terms liberal and conservative as applied to religion. I’m sure a good chunk of the Mormon demographic thinks “liberal Mormon” is just a shorthand term for a Mormon who votes for the Democratic candidate or who thinks the minimum wage should be increased. It’s harder, I think, to explain that liberal/conservative has a different meaning when applied to religion than to politics, given how entwined the two have become for most people.

  4. Kevin, aquinas, and Dave,
    Great comments! One of the questions that this raises for me, however, is whether the academic type of criticism, even of ideas alone, is not somehow in conflict with LDS cultural assumptions about the negativity of criticism. Are these two types so neatly separate as we might assume, so that one can always safely do the academic type without somehow crossing the lines of LDS cultural regulations on criticism? That is, I wonder if this is not simply a semantic distinction that can be cleared up when one understands the terminology, but a true cleavage in values.

    Kevin, your comment seems to suggest that such an activity might be reserved for Christ alone, which might reinforce the taboo of “criticism” for believers.

  5. TT,

    I think you need to separate this into two separate issues.

    The first, and easiest issue to deal with, is the one that Dave brings up. This is really just an issue of semantics. People will naturally conflate being critical in the normal sense with the academic sense of being critical (as in higher criticism, source criticism, redactional criticism, Critique of Pure Reason etc.). Once people learn that the academic sense of critical is different than the common definition of critical most people will see critical as a good thing. If they are too dense to separate the definitions then perhaps using synonyms like Dave suggests is in order.

    The second issue is: Can you adopt both a critical and faithful stance to religious subjects such as the Book of Mormon, the Historical Jesus, Joseph Smith, etc.?” (I assume that most people would agree that approaching philosophy or non-religious literary works critically is unproblematic). In my opinion the answer is that you cannot do both simultaneously if you are honest. Because of this people generally deploy one of two strategies to deal with the problem.

    One solution to the problem is to just choose one and stick with it. Either be a secular agnostic/atheist and stick with the critical approach or be a fundamentalist and stick with a faithful approach. The strength of these approaches is that you can continue being a literalist with minimal appeal to allegory or metaphor.

    However, this approach is not appealing for believers who want a middle way. This involves putting on and taking off the hats of critical inquiry and faithful belief repeatedly which can become dizzy. In fact I think it is too dizzy for most people and they end up adopting a mediating philosophy which allows them to emphasize one over the other. If they want to emphasize the faithful belief part they might adopt a brand of post-modern relativism where the narrative they are weaving is just one of many possible narratives. This seems to be popular with the FARMS folks these days. If they want to emphasize the critical inquiry part then they adopt a fideistic approach to belief, which allows them to believe no matter what critical inquiry might discover, or they approach belief mystically and use lots of allegory and metaphor to narrow the gap between the critical and faithful approaches.

  6. Scholarly criticism has to do with evaluating works of art, scholarship, or literature, which do not usually have feelings to be injured when flaws are exposed. It is in some respect an act of appreciation, that a work is considered worth attention. It tends to be intellectual and impartial, although it is practically impossible to remove all traces of partisanship.

    While Jesus is often quoted “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matt 7:1) it is less often noted that this injunction is followed immediately by the reason, which is that we will be judged by the standards we apply to others. It is a warning, not an utter prohibition, because following it is an affirmation that after we have first corrected our own faults, we may then see clearly to correct others.

    There is also a factor of bias: We are all biased in our own favor, because we are privy to our own thoughts, feelings, and motives. We do not see how others see us. With others, we can only see what they say and do from the outside: we are not privy to their thought, feelings, and actives. A second rule of personal criticism is to always take our own possible bias into account.

    There are other rules, such as thoroughness or at least due diligence, considering and evaluating the reliability of sources, and considering both favoring and opposing evidence, that are present in academic criticism, but which are usually neglected in common criticism.

    A careful investigation into the roots of one’s own faith need not be faith-destroying at all; it can actually enhance it.

  7. TT, a good post. I think this is indeed an issue that goes far past the semantic equation between the two concepts. One might say that, as a legacy of the Enlightenment, scholarly discourse is fundamentally and perhaps inexorably, opposed to the idea of authority as a source of truth. Of course, this commitment is imperfectly realized in any given academic discourse, and fame, position, and seniority clearly do allow some individuals’ arguments to be taken more seriously than others. Yet the piece of work by an as-yet unknown young scholar that persuasively disassembles a long-standing tradition is certainly a recurring academic theme, even to the point of becoming an occasional popular type.

    By contrast, Mormon religious faith is fundamentally about authority. The idea that no individual has privileged access to truth because of social position, a commonplace in academic discourse, is far less acceptable among most active Latter-day Saints.

    So I think there is some genuine conflict here, a point that fits with the (both casually empirical and occasionally quantitatively demonstrated) observation that Mormons with Ph.D. educations in fields devoted to basic research are, on average and as a group, more troubled in their relation to the church than Mormons with (e.g.) a terminal Bachelor’s degree.

  8. Confutus,

    “Scholarly criticism has to do with evaluating works of art, scholarship, or literature, which do not usually have feelings to be injured when flaws are exposed.”

    Umm…have you every written any scholarly works or created art. They are very personal and emotional enterprises.

  9. The artist, or scholar, or author may care very much about criticism of his or her work (that is, if the creator isn’t safely dead), but I can’t imagine that the works themselves, such as the Mona Lisa, the collection of Washington’s papers, or the play “MacBeth”, have feelings to be injured.

  10. Perhaps the Mormon substitute for all the permutations of ‘crit’ is ‘discern.’ Mormon folks are right comfortable with discerning even when they are clearly engaging in criticism (‘cernere’ and ‘krinein’ are readily recognizable as cognate–just one metathesis away).

    A discerning member just sounds so much more faithy than a critical member.

  11. Confutus,

    Sorry. I think that I meant: And your point is? I do not think that we can seperate the creation from the creator. When we critique the Mona Lisa, we are actually critiquing Da Vinci. Now he happens to be dead, but much of the critique we see on the bloggernacle is of the living, or at least of ideas and figures that are closely connected to the living.

    My wife thinkgs that I should be able to read minds.

  12. For what it is worth, this morning there was a broadcast on the BYU channel dealing with the Mormon/Missouri war. There were three speakers from the department of Church History & Doctrine who were suggesting what I have never really heard openly discussed by Church Historians in a public setting. They were freely discussing the implications of an “extermination oder” from a 19th century perspective, ie to drive from ones borders, in context with Sidney Rigdons inflamatory discourse calling for war and the spilling of every last drop of their “enemies” blood, for the injustices against the saints. One speaker went so far as to say that we need to revise our thinking in terms of Governor Boggs, where current Church sentiment has painted him as a blood thirsty Mormon hater. He felt that such a position was disingenous to the circumstances and the Mormon provocation.

    I think this is relevant because it addresses the question of academic criticism discussed here. Many of you have a sense of my feelings with regard to the Church, but one area where I think we can all agree is that we as individuals and society are limited and imperfect in our thinking and our ways. In a paper I have already referred to elsewhere, Hugh Nibley observes a fatal in Mormon thinking, that we as members who believe we belong to the true Church often fall into the pit of thinking therefore we individually have all truth. The example in the first paragraph demonstrates that regardless of whether the Church is true or not, our understanding of the Gospel, again individually and socially, can still be flawed and therefore subject to critical analysis and at times even revision. Isn’t that the Church is about, critically analyzing our lives, our ideas, and our actions, then revising them according to an improved understanding.

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