Critics in Wonderland: Through the Liberal Looking Glass
by Juliann Reynolds
|At a visit to the Salt Lake public library I was told that the fear of the faithful at being caught reading a “New York” book before knowing what to think about it caused some people to bring their own dust jackets so that apparently they would be carrying out Tarzan of the Apes or Alice in Wonderland.1|
Since it is the nature of intellect to evaluate and criticize, it is inevitable that some tension exist between the intellectual and his fellow men. By his activities as teacher or writer he helps to conserve the values of society-or, in the present instance, of the Church. But by training and instinct he is constantly thinking, evaluating, criticizing, trying to separate the wheat from the chaff. This can lead to conflict with those who have a vested interest in old forms, who dislike hearing cherished customs described as obsolete or unessential, or who misconstrue faith to mean unthinking acceptance. The intellectual is not at ease in Zion.2
With the arrival of high-profile dissidents within Mormonism, “liberal” began to increasingly take on the meaning of outspoken opposition as well. As described in the first issue of Dialogue, a “religious liberal” was “one who examines his religious life and his Church frankly and openly, recognizes the weaknesses and incongruities where they exist, and comments freely on his observations.”3 There are three problems with allowing iconoclasts, often with little or no training in the specifics in which they claim expertise, to hijack the terms liberal and intellectual to describe their activities. First, it implies that any who disagree with their methods and conclusions about Mormonism are less than intellectual. Second, although Mormons are known for their conservative social, moral and political stance, much of LDS theology is anything but conservative when compared to mainstream Christianity. Third, it is the LDS scholars, called conservative by our dissident “liberal intellectuals,” who are contributing to the international dialogue of liberal scholarship at an accelerated pace.
Down the Rabbit Hole: A Liberal Perspective
What might credentialed scholars of religion consider as “liberal” when they approach the study of ancient texts and the communities that use them? Interestingly, it is a more focused definition than our critics would have us believe. A liberal view toward scripture does not insist that scripture is “in its totality the revelation of God,” rather, “it is instead the human record of that revelation, carrying with it, as such a record, all the ills to which human accounts are heir.” For a liberal academic, scripture is “a collection of materials written by fallible men who reflected the culture out of which they came and for which they were writing.”
It is crucial to understand that for those who study the history, practices and writings of religion, unbelief or skepticism is not a precondition for a liberal reading of sacred texts. “There is no intention, therefore, in such a view to deny either the inspiration or authority of Scripture.” Achtemeier designates as liberal what every so-called conservative Mormon would take for granted: “the final authority is God himself, who speaks to us through many channels.”4 These theologically liberal positions are ones with which the average Mormon would be comfortable.
Those outside the Mormon community have taken note of the unusual relationship of liberal vis-à-vis conservative within the Mormon community. Massimo Introvigne, the Director of the Center for Studies on New Religions, analyzed the labels and notes the peculiar usage employed by Mormons:
Unlike many Protestant modernists-Latter-day Saint liberals are persuaded that, thanks to Enlightenment rationalism, an objective concept of “science” and “truth” may allow them to reach factual, empirical, “scientific” conclusions on the Book of Mormon and its origins…
On the other hand, the late modernist and postmodernist position that knowledge is by no means objective and that “true,” universally valid historical conclusions could never be reached, is held by Latter-day Saint conservatives.5
Although “post-modern” has become a popular term, its definition is widely debated in scholarly circles. It is not the purpose of this essay to assign its application, but merely to point out how the LDS worldview is likely to be perceived by those outside of our community. Introvigne concludes:
At this stage, an outside observer expecting conservative Latter-day Saints to adopt a fundamentalist view of truth, and liberal Latter-day Saints to adopt a postmodernist one, may easily claim that something should be wrong. The attitudes are in fact almost reversed. Historical truth is regarded as a mere social product by Latter-day Saint conservatives, while a rather naïve sociology of knowledge claiming that historical-critical methodologies may indeed achieve “truth” lies behind the liberals’ attitude. The “love affair with Enlightenment science” of American fundamentalists described by Marsden does not find a counterpart among Latter-day Saint conservatives; conversely, Enlightenment’s claim for certainty and objectivity is still defended in the liberal camp.6
When we add Marsden’s observation that “Fundamentalists have the confidence of Enlightenment philosophies that an objective look at ‘the facts’ will lead to the truth” we are looking at a topsy-turvy Alice in Wonderland world in which those dissidents commonly referred to as Mormon liberals are in reality operating more like Christian fundamentalists. Part of what such iconoclasts confuse with liberalism in the realm of scholarship is an often self-congratulatory appeal to a culturally popular notion of open-mindedness and a naïve view of the requirements of biblical research. One such introduction makes the amazing claim that its authors are not really trying to influence anyone.
Those with less partisan objectives will discover an array of new directions for Book of Mormon research. We are not so much interested in convincing readers to think as any of us do, but simply in encouraging them to think for themselves.7
“I think for myself” seems to be the mantra of many self-described Mormon liberal intellectual ideologues that reject Church teachings or the Church itself. The obvious conclusion is that rejection is the only course for thinking people; thus, if you don’t follow this route, you are not thinking. Theirs is a one-way road paved in black and white.
This fundamentalistic need for conviction often embraces what Introvigne terms the “conversion narrative”8 juxtaposed with the obligatory appeal to “facts.” It is a decidedly non-liberal position in scholarship, but an apparent coming of age event for many critics of Mormonism.
For some, Nibley has supplied the apologetic club that true believers can bludgeon critics with. For others, Nibley’s luster has been tarnished by his misuse of sources and tortuous interpretations. Early in my spiritual odyssey Nibley’s BoAbr [sic] analyses led me toward the former group. Later while still a believer in the divine origin of the BoAbr-being concerned with those pesky little things called “facts”-my examination of Nibley’s sources catapulted me into the latter camp.9
The “us vs. them” dualism inherent in this world of warring truth and facts pervades such testimonials.
It strikes me that Mormon intellectuals constitute a genuine subculture within the larger host culture of Mormonism. We have our own heroes, mentors, and martyrs. We have our own publications… Many of us have come to assume a minimum number of common beliefs-for instance, that a search for the truth does not simultaneously preclude a search for the facts and that loving the church and living within it do not eliminate either freedom or the pain and joy which result from exercising that freedom.10
This unselfconscious description is hauntingly reminiscent of yet another scholar’s assessment of fundamentalism: “Since it is no longer in union with the wisdom of the ages, it has no standard by which to judge its own religious pretense.” For the fringe group of Mormon and ex-Mormon iconoclasts, just as with fundamentalists, “status by negation must be maintained or the raison d’etre of fundamentalism is lost.”11
The Mock Turtle’s Story: Fundamentalism Under a Liberal Shell
By now, it should come as no surprise that we find the majority of strident dissenters operating from a decidedly conservative if not fundamentalist worldview while demanding to be seen as “liberal” simply because they oppose an established organization and use terminology and methodological research tools of liberals. As Marsden points out, even technology is amenable to fundamentalism.
Unlike theoretical science or social science, where questions of the supernatural raise basic issues about the presuppositions of the enterprise, technological thinking does not wrestle with such theoretical principles. Truth is a matter of true and precise propositions that, when properly classified and organized, will work.12
Thus, the skilled iconoclast can begin a scholarly looking critique with the premise that the Church is “wrong,” and end in triumph by claiming “scientific” proof by simply inserting self-serving theory that technology itself does not supply.
In addition, for the critic to convincingly dispute LDS doctrine or practice it is imperative that scripture be treated as inerrant and that Mormons accept targeted statements from religious leaders as infallible. Contradictions and inconsistencies can then be used as “proof” that Mormons do not seek “truth.” Their predictable conclusion that Mormonism is wrong or false or misled rests upon the fundamental and conservative position that “God is truth, God is the source of Scripture, and therefore Scripture must also be truth. If God, the author of Scripture, cannot lie, then neither can Scripture.”13 When the so-called LDS conservatives assert their more liberal approach to scripture and prophetic utterances, “it is not surprising that [so-called] liberals accuse “Mormon apologists” almost of cheating.”14 This is revealed by surprisingly inapt asides such as these in otherwise admirable endeavors:
Traditional Mormon history has had (and continues to have) both honest apologists and dishonest apologists… Personally, I have always tried to write both as a New Mormon Historian and an honest apologist for the Mormon faith and experience.15
Who Stole the Tarts? Reclaiming the Liberal Position
Why is this understanding of the Latter-day Saint position in relation to the greater religious scene important? It is important because too many LDS perceive liberal scholarship to be a threat to the fundamental tenets of Christianity. Certainly, there are radical-even disrespectful and blasphemous-ideas being bandied about. But because the media highlights the sensational, such as the Jesus Seminar, and a small group of disaffected iconoclasts appropriate the title of “liberal,” we have developed an unnecessarily defensive attitude towards the methodological approaches that are best suited for the academic study of our religion.
Given these claims for “truth” that any liberal would consider out of reach in the scholarly forum these iconoclasts favor, it is critical that LDS apologists understand the philosophical foundation that props up their critiques.
Christian theology lays out how the world looks from a Christian perspective, with whatever persuasive force that account musters and whatever connections it may happen to make with other perspectives, but it does not systematically ground or defend or explicate that picture in terms of universal criteria of meaningfulness or truth.16
It is simply not possible for anyone to prove “truth” through careful studies of historical documents no matter how appealing the prospect sounds.
Regardless of our social or political leanings, believing LDS are particularly suited to the liberal study of religion because we have a simple promise that is not dependent on extrapolating truth from disputed facts by using current standards of science and logic. ” If ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost” (Moroni 10:4). This is where truth resides for believing LDS. It is an intensely personal journey that cannot be adequately addressed in thoughtful propositions, provocative new histories, stimulating symposiums and intellectually rich journals no matter how valuable and necessary they may be in our search for deeper understanding. As James Allen put it, “The vast majority of Church members care little for the sophisticated arguments that characterize the dialogue on either side.” Instead, we value the Church because we see it “as an inspired program” which gives us “certain definite spiritual and social opportunities and values.”17
Alice’s Evidence: The Growing Irrelevance of the Mormon Dissident
As believing LDS scholars intersect with world religions and the other liberal intellectuals who study them, it is essential that we understand that we qualify as theological liberals because of our nontraditional and less restrictive approach to scripture and inspiration. Within the discipline of religious studies, “liberal intellectual” is not a synonym for an unbeliever, implacable critic or self-appointed magisterium.
LDS scholars have recently participated in ground-breaking conferences dedicated to the discussion of Mormonism at Yale Divinity School and Fuller Theological Seminary. As with the recent publicity over Tom Murphy’s claim of imminent excommunication because of his search for “truth,” the fringe group of iconoclasts will increasingly find themselves having to appeal to the media for exposure as they are marginalized by the expanding interchange between liberal scholars.
1 Samuel Taylor, “Peculiar People, Positive Thinkers and the Prospect of Mormon Literature,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 2:2 (Summer 1967): 27.
2 Davis Bitton, “Anti-Intellectualism in Mormon History,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1: 3 (Autumn 1966): 131-132.
3 Frances Lee Menlove, “The Challenge of Honesty,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1:1 (Spring 1966): 47.
4 Paul J. Achtemeier, The Inspiration of Scripture: Problems and Proposals (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1980), 43, 46.
5 Massimo Introvigne, “The Book of Mormon Wars: A Non-Mormon Perspective,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5:2 (1996): 7-8.
6 Ibid., 9. See also letter written by John Hartung to ChristianityToday.com, July 13, 1998, found at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/8t8/8t8006.html
7 Brent Metcalfe, New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), xi.
8 Massimo Introvigne, “The Book of Mormon Wars,” 8.
9 Brent Lee Metcalfe, “Hugh Winder Nibley’s Book of Abraham Legacy,” http://mormonscripturestudies.com/global/essaywin/authorframe.asp
10 Lavina Fielding Anderson, “The Ambiguous Gift of Obedience,” The Wilderness of Faith: Essays on Contemporary Mormon Thought, edited by John Sillito, Series No. 3 (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1991), 15.
11 Edward. J. Carnell, “Fundamentalism,” in A Handbook of Christian Theology, edited by Marvin Halverson and Arthur A. Cohen (New York: Meridian Books, 1958), 143.
12 George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1991), 119.
13 Paul J. Achtemeier, The Inspiration of Scripture, 50.
14 Introvigne, “The Book of Mormon Wars,” 9.
15 The New Mormon History: Revisionist Essays on the Past, edited by D. Michael Quinn (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), xiii, fn 5.
16 William C. Placher, Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989), 19.
17 James B. Allen, “Thoughts on Anti-Intellectualism: A Response,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Throught 1:3 (Autumn 1966): 139.