Lowell Bennion and a Liberal Mormon Theology: Series Intro

I brought Lowell Bennion’s “Do Justly and Love Mercy: Moral Issues for Mormons” to church with me today, I got it for Christmas and I have wanted to take a closer glance. What I have discovered in reading Bennion is that his way of thinking closely mirrors mine. Well…sort of. He is clearly smarter, more articulate, and more faithful than me. However, his thought seems to reflect an engagement with the great moral and social thinkers of the Western cannon, particularly Aristotle and Kant. I find that Bennion provides a humanistic approach to Christianity and Mormonism that I have not found elsewhere.
I thought to myself this morning “I should start a series of posts on my thoughts about Bennion.” But, I have a number of things that I should be doing instead. However, things changed this afternoon, when I came across the following 2004 comment on Times and Seasons:

However, right up there I would put just about anything ever published by Lowell Bennion. And I feel really bad about that. By all accounts — including from several folks I know well and greatly respect — he was a wonderful person. He clearly had a huge impact on a great many people, but maybe it was exposure to him in person that made the difference. (I never met him.) I’ve also been told about his brilliance, his wonderful dissertation on Max Weber at Strasbourg, etc., etc. He has been characterized to me as one of the leading Mormon intellectuals of all time. But I just can’t see it. Everything I’ve ever read by him seemed, well, pedestrian.

I realize that he devoted much of his time and energy to charitable endeavors, to service and to teaching. And I have no doubt that that is choosing the better part. In hundreds of thousands of cases, the world would be better off if the wood used to produce books had been left in the forest and the time and energy of their authors had been devoted to charity, instead. But, while Brother Bennion may have been a saint, his writing leaves me, at least, entirely cold.

This got me a bit worked up. Brother Peterson may be an expert on ancient scripture and languages, but I get the feeling from the comment that he did not understand the purpose of Bennion’s intellectual project, or the connection between that project and his service and teaching.

Like Hugh Nibley or Leonard Arrington, I never knew Bennion. His son was President of Ricks College when I was a student there, but that was long before I knew of Lowell Bennion, a name I first encountered at the University of Utah, where the Service Learning center is named after him. Having worked in the social service sector in Utah, I am familiar with his reputation in the Salt Lake City-area non=profit community. However, my introduction to his work is much more recent. I think I may have found what I was looking for and I would like to investigate it with you here at FPR.

21 Replies to “Lowell Bennion and a Liberal Mormon Theology: Series Intro”

  1. Dan Peterson reveals a lot in that post, which I had not seen before. The fact that he also takes on Sterling McMurrin, who nearly universally (and deservedly) had the respect of his contemporaries including President McKay gives important context.

    Peterson is so inured to the FAIR/FARMS culture of the ad hominem attack that I don’t know if he is even conscious he is doing it. He is smart enough that he probably is. Peterson, misguidedly, is on a jihad for the Lord and takes every opportunity to downplay the significance and contributions of any serious thinker who lays out a framework for understanding LDS theology that is not TBM. It is as predictable as the sun rise.

    I defy anyone to find an example of Peterson commenting positively on a contribution that was not made by a FAIR/FARMS type. No one can. Peterson is not to be taken seriously because he makes no pretense of objectivity.

  2. Lowell Bennion is not a typical true believing Mormon. I think he leaves many politically conservative Mormons (of which Peterson is one) quite cold. Moreover, Bennion does not have the same sort of pure black-and- white, all-or-nothing thinking that is emphasized, or at least very common, in Mormon culture.

  3. Denigrating Dan Peterson for his comments and “conservatives” in general for their views doesn’t exactly encourage me to read Lowell Bennion.

  4. Harold: Your attack on Dan Peterson is wholly unjustified. It is mean spirited and lacks simple civility. I imagine that Lowell Bennion would cringe at that kind of attack. Just what is this “FAIR/FARMS culture of ad hominem attacks”? The notion that there is such a culture is just an ad hominem on your part. That is way ironic.

    I worked with Lowell Bennion when I worked on the Youth Council projects in Salt Lake County. I liked and respected him a great deal. I had several long talks with him regarding the church and his take (or takes) on the gospel. My view is like Peterson’s — he was a theological lightweight. Indeed, I don’t believe he had a theology so much as a general approach to simply reducing the gospel to the common social gospel of the 1960s. There is of course value in teaching caring for the poor — but it hardly exhausts the subject.

    I also knew Sterling McMurrin. He was a very good friend of mine and I co-taught a philosophy of history course that he gave as a seminar while I was in Law School at the UofU. I also agree with Peterson’s take on Sterling. He wanted to “naturalize” Mormon thought. His surveys of various philosophical and theological ideas are valuable — but only as an introduction in my view. Moreover, he had his own axe to grind in attempting to make Mormonism into the kind of naturalism that suited him.

  5. My intent was not to attack Peterson or FARMS. I was just struck by the comment because my impression is quite different.

    I think that DavidH is correct in that what Bennion is doing is outside the mainstream of more conservative veins of LDS theology. I actually think that I may have done a disservice by referring to it as “theology” in the post title. Bennion seems more to be developing a type of Christian Ethics.

    As the official “light weight” of FPR, I am not sure how to take Blakes comment.

    As for McMurrin, I am not really familiar with the details of his work. Anyways, he is not the focus of the post.

  6. I’ve required my BYU students (at least in the 2 Book of Mormon classes I taught) to read 3 Bennion essays-

    Best of Lowell L. Bennion: Selected Writings 1928-1988 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988)- “The Weightier Matters,” 3-5; “The Place of a Liberal in Religion,” 19-27; “What It Means to Be a Latter-day Saint,” 257-262.

    I tried to expose them to various kinds of faithful LDS thinking and writing, and I thought these three essays have good things to say. That said, I agree that Bennion was no theologian, but that’s not an accusation:)

    Nor do I think Dan Peterson’s comments above constitute ad hominem. Harold, on the other hand, does commit ad hominem, using negative statements about someone to dismiss their arguments. Peterson speaks very highly of all kinds of LDS and non-LDS not connected with FAIR or FARMS…

    “Peterson is not to be taken seriously because he makes no pretense of objectivity.” Ah, but you DO make a pretense of objectivity Harold? Excuse me, but LOL.

  7. It’s true that Bennion’s work wouldn’t pass muster on the terms of, say, academic theology journals. (That’s probably why he didn’t try to publish it in those places.) Neither would much of anything by much of the BYU religion faculty, and we think that’s ok–we don’t call them “lightweights”; we simply recognize that they’re engaged in a different project than academic theologians. By the standards of many (most?) academic theologians, FARMS and other apologetics are the province of religious zealots who don’t merit attention, much less respect. It seems clear to me that we’ll want to adopt some different criteria for judging.

    In any case, I don’t think “lightweight” is a very useful descriptor; it’s a needlessly scornful way of dismissing work one doesn’t find interesting.

  8. Blake, you are no more credible than Peterson. First, go peruse the FARMS/FAIR website. It is absolutely chalk full of ad hominem attacks. This cannot even be seriously debated and is one of the reasons that group frequently does more harm than good to the faithful.

    Second, your claims that you were a friend to McMurrin and that he was grinding an axe and trying to remake Mormonism are mutually exclusive. McMurrin went out of his way not to remake the church and not to proselyte. He hardly attended in the later part of his life.

    A pair of lightweights offering these critiques speaks for itself, simply put.

  9. Ben, characterizing someone as a lightweight is an ad hominem attack. If you don’t know what that is, look it up. Characterize the argument however you like, that is something else entirely.

    Next, Peterson and FARMS/FAIR have earned their reputation for being the misguided attack dogs for the Lord that they are. In a conversation where we are comparing the relative gravitas of LDS thinkers, pointing out the fact that the head of that group has forfeited his right to a credible opinion on the matter may be ad hominem, I admit, but it is also germane. Or perhaps we should give the Ayatollah a call and get his thought on social justice.

  10. Looky here Chris, you are the one who got me riled up. I wouldn’t have known about it but for you. 🙂 🙂 🙂

  11. Harold, ad hominem is a fallacy. It’s not just offering a less-favorable opinion of something, and calling someone a “lightweight” is hardly some kind of harsh dismissive pejorative term. It’s only ad hominem if one fails to deal with the arguments.

    Go rant somewhere else.

  12. Ben I’m going to cool it as requested. So just as a thought exercise, I think you are a lightweight. Do you find that dismissive or pejorative? I’m really not trying to rant, but Bennion and McMurrin are names than will be remembered. Peterson, not so much. Maybe I should have just said so.

  13. Harold,

    The names of Bennion and McMurrin are largely lost to my generation (I am 33). I know of McMurrin because he was the editor of the Tanner lectures series. I have come to Bennion more recently. As the University of Utah has abandoned any serious role in Mormon Studies, there are few people around to pass on McMurrin and Bennion. I do not think that Peterson is trying to play such a role. I would assume somebody like Nibley might fit the bill, but I am not looking for that conversation.

  14. Chris,

    I’m game to read more about Liberal Mormon Theology. I can’t say I’ll agree with all of it (I am one of those evil conservatives), but I do like to learn more. How about we ignore hyperpartisan commenters (aka trolls) and just chug ahead with the series.

  15. “How about we ignore hyperpartisan commenters (aka trolls) and just chug ahead with the series.”

    Tom, I will be chugging ahead. Because of my schedule, installments will be coming out on Sundays.

    BTW, as the series develops, I will be dealing with Bennion’s use of the term liberal. Thanks.

  16. Ages ago I took a couple of Institute classes from Lowell Bennion. I believed he was a true Saint. Recently I renewed by acquaintance with him by reading Mary L. Bradford’s biography of him. I am still impressed by Bennion and his life. In fact, I still believe he was a saint. I have read some of his work–but again, this was ages ago. I hope you do explore his work, Chris. I will be here following along in the non-theologian sector of your audience.

  17. I’ve never read much of Bennion, other than an occasional excerpt in Sunstone. I’m curious if more knowledgable readers can provide a short list of the “must read” works by Lowell Bennion.

  18. Chris said: “Brother Peterson may be an expert on ancient scripture and languages, but I get the feeling from the comment that he did not understand the purpose of Bennion’s intellectual project…”

    My initial reaction to this statement was that perhaps you had momentarily forgotten that Peterson also has a degree in philosophy and has published on philosophical issues pertinent to Mormonism. But, you probably didn’t forget that.

  19. Peterson stopped by SMPT in March and I understand the he is President-elect of the organization. My point, James, is that Bennion and I are involved in a project that I think is lost of those of a different perspective. Peterson is far smarter than I. Might point is not that he stupid, but that he does not appreciate the humanistic project of Bennion.

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