Afternoon CGU sessions on Challenges Facing Mormon Studies

I have a whole new level of respect for live bloggers–ones who are able to listen, type, and accurately capture the gist of events they cover. I am acutely aware of my poor first attempt to do what many others do so well.  I’m going to greatly condense my summaries of the afternoon sessions. I will chalk up my inaccuracies to being new at this and/or post-lunch stupor–whichever you find more forgivable.

[Note: I have yet to summarize the remarks of Greg Kofford, who was the third speaker in this session–hope to upload that later]

Adam S. Miller “A Manifesto for Mormon Theology”

Adam Miller used a Buddhist text to illustrate the need for charity to inform and undergird Mormon theological explorations. A petitioner approaches the Buddha with questions that the Buddha waves off as inconsequential. He threatens the Buddha and says he’ll quit the training life if he doesn’t get answers; the Buddha responds that answering these questions creates no opportunity for charity or relieving suffering and diverts attention from real critical approaches. The petitioner can die without ever getting his questions answered or even know what questions are significant.

Miller advocates a theology based on charity, one that goes beyond smug critique to address human suffering. He says theology is an inherently collaborative endeavor, but not necessarily an institutional one.  Theology is not historical, not doctrinal, not devotional. It’s intertwined with these other areas, but theology has only charity as its object. Whatever else its merits, theology is nothing without charity.

With no professional clergy in the LDS church structure, this demands a persistent, individual engagement with scripture from members.  Miller describes reading as a core religious practice for Mormons–reading that produces a range of meanings from the texts, a creative approach, and experimentation with latent patterns therein. Charity is the force that makes theology a collaborative endeavor.

Theology must lay aside the pettiness of criticism and be careful, considerate, and compassionate.  Mormon theology needs to exercise the license charity grants it to hypothesize, heal, and to answer questions such as what is suffering, what leads to cessation of suffering? Otherwise, even if all our other questions find answers, we will in the meantime have died without recognizing what’s important.

Jacob Rennaker “Through a Glass Darkly? Biblical Studies, Mormon Studies, Parallels and Problems”

Mormons have a text centered in the ancient world. As such, what can Biblical Studies do for Mormon Studies–and vice versa? Rennaker argues that Biblical Studies can illuminate texts, display parallels in the ancient world, and validate (or invalidate) LDS beliefs regarding the historicity of scripture. It can add a range of information to Mormon Studies, illuminate other possibilities, and give Mormon scholars the chance to apply insights.

Rennaker also warns against not letting some of the assumptions in Biblical Studies limit the scope of Mormon Studies. Biblical Studies scholars can be entrenched in certain approaches and ways of thinking since they’re trained in the same academic communities/environments. Mormons are sensitized to different issues in Biblical Studies and can open new avenues for research & exploration.

Rennaker discussed Hugh Nibley as one who helped “refresh” Mormon thinking on Biblical topics, but there were also some problems with his approach (i.e. collapsing diverse cultures into one “ancient world” and treating “the ancients” as a single entity). While comparing ancient and modern texts for parallels can yield interesting, useful results, beware of engaging only to find parallels that legitimize Mormonism if that comes at the expense of looking at important areas of difference as well.

If Mormon Studies wants Biblical scholars to take their work seriously, then they will need to give Biblical Studies the same respect in order to foster greater understanding all around. Rennaker said Mormon scriptures are extraordinary and encouraged the audience to examine similarities and differences. Only when that happens, can scholars move beyond seeing through a glass darkly and instead see the potential for Mormon Studies and Biblical Studies face to face.