February 20, 2009

Kathleen Flake: "To disabuse the public mind"

Kathleen Flake's keynote speech was excellent. To get the real effect of it I'll need to transcribe the whole thing, really. Her paper, "To Disabuse the Public Mind," focused on academics and the church. She discussed how both have tools unique to them, as well as their own boundaries, purposes, and methods.

Here's a brief synopsis:

She began by saying there exists between faith and scholarship (or the academy and the church) a "productive tension."  She's lived so long with these two seemingly opposing challenges that they have come to be like old friends. The "spats" these two friends have had over the years have taught her some things she wanted to share with the students through four particular illustrations.

The first was when she  began her doctoral studies at the university of Chicago she found herself in the office of Martin Marty discussing her research. Out of the blue (it seemed to her) he asked her if she was a believer (in Mormonism). She was intimidated by the question since he was so established. She answered without thinking "yes, I believe but I do not trust." Marty responded she would have made a good Lutheran. (Laughter). She knew enough about Luther to appreciate the compliment he intended. Sometimes, she said, Latter-day Saints can feel unique in their struggle between scholarship and faith but this is not something Mormons alone struggle with. Her experience with the faithful of all sorts taught her we are not a peculiar people in that regard. It was a Catholic priest who warned her against studying at the University of Chicago, telling her she would likely lose her faith there. She hopes the students will find good friends that will help them see there is nothing very remarkable about the tension between faith and the academy.

The second experience was a few years later in another office. This time she was meeting with a Benedictine Nun who was chair of religious studies at Catholic University. She was not hiding the fact that she didn't have time for Kathleen and glared at her as if she was a fly in her soup. Flake was not used to being looked at that way. But she could understand why the nun looked that way. She asked Flake what she wanted and Flake knew she didn't quite know an answer that would please the nun. She had to make it perfect. She said "I am interested in how persons communicate with the divine. I am more interested in how they articulate that experience to others but I am most interested in how they communicate it in a manner that others can replicate." The nuns affect changed dramatically. Soon Flake was studying 2,000 years of Christian liturgy and only later did Flake realize she had defined the purpose of liturgy in her response. The important point of this exchange is that Flake feels her answer found a way to bridge a divide between her and another through scholarship that increased faith. In not fleeing from the tension, but by facing it honestly, she discovered a question that mattered to them both.

The third exchange took place in her own office later at Vanderbilt. A student declared he had finally found his dissertation subject: Alexander Campbell. Specifically he wanted to show that his followers today have a mistaken understanding of him, especially his baptist leanings. The student was baptist. That wasn't the problem, being baptist could help him see Campbell in a new way. Still, she knew she was about to let the air out of his tires, she asked "Why would you want to do that?" He said "because they're wrong." She tried another question:  "Who would want to read the book?" He didn't know other than perhaps those who had it wrong, and maybe they wouldn't even read it. Flake said this is a question all scholars could ask themselves. "Whom do you want to read your books?" It isn't that students should expect to cater to popular issues or interests necessarily. "Neither do we need to play the intellectual equivalent of air guitar." We are to make knowledge, and ideally ak nowledge that leads readers to a deeper understanding of the world and themselves. In other words, not yielding to parochial, much less denominational tensions.

The fourth experience. A few years ago she received a phone call from a historian who is also a Latter-day Saint. After reading her book on the Smoot hearings he wanted to know if she was LDS and if so, a member in good standing. For the first question she said yes, and the second question referred the caller to her bishop. She wondered why it mattered to him, and always wonders why it matters to people as if they can't judge from the conclusions themselves whether they agree with her conclusions. It seems cheap and lazy to ask that question. She began wondering why it mattered to him. What had confused him that he couldn't tell? Was it something she said or that she didn't say? It still crosses her mind once in a while during an interview, or when Richard Bushman asked her whether she uses "us" or "them" when talking about the Saints. Perhaps he was inspired more by the book's questions. Difficult issues about post-manifesto plural marriage, whether Joseph F. Smith lied under oath, or how the Church reacted when he told the comittee he received revelation just like any other Church members. And whats this about 2 apostles being sacked? Back in the day the facts had been suppressed. They had deeply wounded the progressive era church, its self conception, and provided ammunition for critics. But she wasn't interested in the outcomes to those questions. She wanted to know that enabled a return in the church's image. Treasonous to patriotic, communist to capitalist, licentious to suburban puritan. Everyone still thought they were still attending Joseph Smith's church. So how can these changes occur over time while still holding to the original vision. She saw an interesting and excellent answer in the Smoot hearings. It had something to teach us about disestablished religion, adaptive uses of texts, shifting gender norms, the flexibility of hierarchical power structure, and the human condition in general.

None of these interesting things would have been available if she was focused only on reassuring members of the church or rebutting the critics. This isn't to say she ignored the traumatic questions. Each is treated within the larger story of negotiation of Mormon identity. None of those questions were the point of the whole story and the person who was asking her about it probably didn't like that. One way to hold the tension between faith and scholarship lightly is to answer your own questions, not someone else's.

Joseph Smith didn't have that luxury in 1838 when he wrote his history "to disabuse the public mind." What he produced was not a history but a testimony of things. Theophanies, angelic visitations, golden plates. TThings not proved by rational argument or material evidence. Nearly 2 centuries later the Saints are still trying to disabuse the public mind. However important that is to the institutional mission Flake thinks that is a burden to our scholarship and one we should not pick up. "We have so internalized the public mind that it is difficult for us to think or at least think creativly about Mormonism."

She quoted W. E. B. Du Bois, "this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." Many of our struggles between faith and scholarship begin here in the internal state of amused contempt and pity. It blinds to other possibilities. It can change, restrain our focus. It can make people preoccupied to answer questions that most of the readers are indifferent to. It buries arguments in details that loses the attention of the reader. We would do better to see our subject from the point of view of the indifferent. Hopefully that would make one ask "why should anyone read my book." How does my project illuminate the human condition?

One last point . Maturity has been defined as one's capacity to manage ambiguity. One would have the ability to appreciate that some ambiguities cannot and are not meant to be resolved. This is no less true of scholarship and faith. Ambiguity is not the same as opacity. Religion yields to reason if it is not grasped too tightly. R. I. Moore said "Those who comment on faith which they do not posess commonly make the mistake of emphasizing its rules at the expense of its appeals to imagination." That can be true of those who grasp faith with fear, or with a double consciousness.

Flake said she has an idea for an antidote to this tendency. Paul Riccour has attempted to recover a hermeneutic that attempts to use reason and revelation, how reason helps us grasp revelation. We have to rationalize it in order to explain it to others. It comes as a noncoercive claim, the revelation. Reason's tendency is to understand that revelation as coercive. A command, a law, dictation of a command of a law. God dictates the law to prophet who repeats to people, people are obliged then to obey. Riccour offers an alternative: Why is it so difficult for us to conceive of a dependency without heteronomy; without a demand to yield to external authority? Is it not because we to often think of a will that submits rather than an imagination that opens up? Do we as Latter-day Saints? We too often think of a will that submits rather than an imagination that opens? What are accounts like the resurrection aimed at if not our imaginations? Riccour's best way of reconsiling faith and reason lies in imagination. Scholarly and religion; not the rules of either one. Appreciate the engagement of imagination, both scholarly imagination and religious imagination; not the rules of either one. She believes Mormonism can offer that opportunity, and invites the comments of the group.

Question and Answer followed. In the image, Flake answers a question as Richard and Claudia Bushman listen.


David G. said...

Thanks, Blair. This is a great write-up. I wish I could have been there.

BHodges said...

Thanks, DG.

Papa D said...

Wonderful summary. I couldn't agree more with her premise.

Sione said...

I think at this unique time of Church History and Intellectualism, what Ron Walker called a time of "open disclosure", it is imperative to attempt to "look through the eyes of others".

For example we as teachers in he Church we should try to view our prepared lesson through our students eyes and their lives. Such as; Is it applicable to them at this time in their lives, is it edifying, and will it be faith promoting.

I could teach a great many things. And some of those things are just not responsible.

In the end, I think as we serve in the Church the focus should be on the "other" and not on the "self".

Big U:!


David said...

Cool picture. I didn't notice you even took that. I can't say I agree with everything she said, but the woman deserves respect, that's for sure. It was great to get to know you, Blair, and Sione, too.

BHodges said...

Thanks, David. I look forward to reading more of your blog.

SmallAxe said...


Not to be confrontational, but what didn't you agree with? Or is it something not included in the write up here?

Christopher said...

Thanks for the careful notes, Blair. Was there anything worth mentioning here in the Q&A?

BHodges said...

David, I'd also be interested in your thoughts on it and I think Kathleen would be as well.

She didn't care to have a transcript of her paper posted (which really saves me the time of making one) but was more interested in hearing the impressions of those who were there "in the moment" to hear it. From what I picked up I think they wanted to Q and A sessions to be kept somewhat on the DL.

I'll go through my notes in the next few days and see if there was anything of special note in there you might find interesting.

cinepro said...

Great write up. Not the same as being there, I'm sure, but almost the next best thing.

David Larsen said...

I should qualify my previous comments. There was a lot that I liked about her speech and could agree with. She is a very likable person and I respect her greatly. But I think some of her thoughts/attitude were representative of what elements I didn't like in the whole conference. She says, "I believe, but I do not trust."
Now, I do not want to demonize her, and I certainly do not think she is a bad person for making such a comment. I am also not advocating that everyone needs to agree 100% with what the Brethren do and say. We certainly have to allow for some human frailty here. I do think that we all need to be wary that we do not let the Church become too "institutionalized" for us, moving away from its spiritual/mantic roots.
However, the theme of her speech, and an overarching theme throughout the conference was this idea of the tension between academic learning and faith/church. As each presenter struggled with this dichotomy, I saw, more often than not, the academy winning out over the church.
Again, I don't want to be overly critical here because each of us who faces this tension must work it out for ourselves in our own minds. She mentioned an LDS scholar who wrote to her and essentially questioned her good standing in the Church. I would definitely not try to make such a judgment, as that is between her and God. I guess you could say that I was just disappointed, in general, by the amount of criticism of the Church and its policies that was not accompanied by helpful or hopeful suggestions.
In the end, if we believe the Church and its leaders to be what they claim to be, I think it is safer to come down more on the side of the Church than not. While it is important to question, I think the future of scholarship that can be beneficial for the Church is at risk of being too much in conformity to "the philosophies of men" than to revelation from God.

BHodges said...

I believe but I do not trust."

I can see how that is an unsettling quote. To an extent, I am not fully sure I know exactly what she means by it. The way I interpret it for my own experience includes the concept of "having one's own testimony." I hear an awful lot from people who leave the Church that there was a lot of "cover up" and "whitewashing," (and according to some definitions those things can be argued). On the other hand I remember sitting next to some of these same people in seminary and watching them fall asleep (I feel asleep a few times myself). Letting others dictate what we learn about the Church, ourselves, and God is a dangerous way to be. If we do not reflect on the implications of the things we learn, to borrow a thought from Kevin Christensen, we are slaves of teachers. If we do not know that we have choices in learning (how and what), we’ll be the unwitting victims of someone else’s choices. If we do not know the best ways to make choices, we’re not likely to make the best choices, and so on. This goes along with my blog post a while ago on taking personal responsibility in education.

See here: http://tinyurl.com/bzhof7

However, the theme of her speech, and an overarching theme throughout the conference was this idea of the tension between academic learning and faith/church.

As each presenter struggled with this dichotomy, I saw, more often than not, the academy winning out over the church.

With Kathleen's comments I saw her attempting to show how the tension for her has been fruitful. Rather than encouraging people to jettison faith. I also didn't sense (but I'll have to revisit it) a feeling that everyone ought to feel the same way she does about faith and scholarship. Like you said, "I don't want to be overly critical here because each of us who faces this tension must work it out for ourselves in our own minds."

Some of the other presentations, I agree, appeared to hold "the academy" over and above the "church," but the very forum, I think, was calculated to provide the students with a place to air some of these things.

I guess you could say that I was just disappointed, in general, by the amount of criticism of the Church and its policies that was not accompanied by helpful or hopeful suggestions.

I shared in that disappointment. I tried to lead Kathleen into a more practical "on the ground" discussion but she avoided it entirely, which for me sort of sent my expectations in a different direction. I also would have liked to hear more about how the ideas presented could have meaning for more members of the Church. At the same time, that's a dangerous thing to do. "Ark-steadying" is looked down upon in the church, and I think most of the papers avoided any sense of steadying the ark. So that could be seen in some ways as positive; that they are not proselyting to the Church to change according to their own whims. At the same time it made many of the papers seem a bit disconnected from Mormonism in general. I could relate with many of the yearnings and difficulties and joys they spoke about, but only one or two people (if I recall correctly) made a direct attempt to talk about how these things could be shared with "regular old Mormons." In general practical and direct application was avoided. I got the sense that wasn't what the conference was all about.

I think the future of scholarship that can be beneficial for the Church is at risk of being too much in conformity to "the philosophies of men" than to revelation from God.

I see what you mean. It's a sticky situation in some ways. I think Kathleen wanted to show how the sticky can be sweet. (Whether she got that message across to everyone is a different discussion.)

I appreciate the thoughts, though. You helped me uncover some of my own impressions so that I could get a better look at them. Thanks.

BHodges said...

One more attempt at clarity (damn language) : I struggled with a question Sione asked about the old Tongan woman sitting in the dirt and how these particular approaches could apply to her. One answer is that different approaches will be needed for different people. Sitting there at Harvard I wondered about the old man in my Centerville Ward who was upset that the PBS Mormons documentary talked about Joseph Smith translating using a stone in a hat. I thought about the lady I met on my mission who asked if God was originally from Michigan. I thought about friends I know who have suffered awful abuse at the hands of supposedly worthy priesthood holders, and mothers who passive-aggressively try to control the lives of their kids.

While the papers didn't directly respond to these Mormons and their issues, they did respond to the issues of people at the conference (sometimes of the presenters themselves.) Also, the papers that talked about how we co-create revelation when God uses our knowledge and language and questions to reveal his will to us sort of addressed these issues indirectly, as well.

David Larsen said...

Yeah, don't get me wrong, I don't feel Kathleen was trying to suggest that others think the way she thinks at all. Also, I realize that this type of conference is designed for people to express their feelings openly, and that is a good thing. I guess what troubles me is that at a conference that is supposed to be representative of some of the brightest young grad students we have, there was so much criticism. Also, I agree with you that there really shouldn't be any "ark-steadying"-- I guess I was trying to say that I was hoping for more positive among the negative.
Maybe I'm just too much of an apologist at heart (I know there were some there that don't approve much of that). Maybe that's why Mark Wright's was my favorite speech of the conference! :)
Despite what one presenter said, I do believe it possible to be a student of Scripture (as I am) and remain an Orthodox Mormon -- it all depends on your attitude and who you choose to trust.

BHodges said...

I know what you mean. I think it would be interesting to talk to presenters there about their feelings on what constitutes "apologetics." I think the word can be misused or misunderstood. I was telling my wife the other day that when I hear some people talk about apologetics they use it in a pejorative sense. It has come to mean something like "making excuses or trying to defend the church and doing a poor job of it." In my view, at its most basic level "apologetics" is the defense of a position, and it need not be a so-called "religious" position, either. Someone talking about why they support the current economic bailout could be considered an "apologist" in this view. Someone expressing their thoughts on how feminism can apply to the gospel could be considered apologetics for feminism, etc. When we argue for a position we can, in my view, be called an apologist. Granted, there are some poor apologetic arguments out there, but not all apologetic arguments are created equal nor should they be considered equal or stereotyped off the bat.

I'd like to compare this view of apologetics with how Kathleen, Richard Bushman, or another of the presenters might explain it.

This reminds me of the moment during a Q and A when someone brought up the 19th century aspects of the Book of Mormon and Mark Wright responded that the case isn't so cut and dry. Infant baptism, he used as an example, was practiced in some way in Mesoamerica. So "apologists" of a 19th-century fiction theory of BoM authorship would need to account for something like that (they usually don't, and treat such variables as the desperate attempts of "apologists." See Dan Vogel, B. Metcalfe et al. )

David Larsen said...

I agree. Well said. We talked about this on the way back from getting your bag. :) That's why I was disappointed with those in the biblical session, for example, who were so ready to find discrepancies between theories of biblical criticism and LDS Scripture. For some, its like if historical criticism declares that there was no Exodus as mentioned in the Bible, and likely no Moses, and then this episode is mentioned in the Book of Mormon, then the Book of Mormon must not be historically accurate. Why do we have to accept the theory over the revelation? Why should we distrust and dismiss what God has given us when, as you noted Mark Wright said, "the case isn't so cut and dry"?

BHodges said...

One way to deal with difficulty is to look at the purpose behind the history. When the "5 books of Moses" are mentioned I have no problem seeing this as the cultural belief of those discussing those books. Whether or not it means that Moses himself must have written them is up for grabs. So there are many ways to deal with "discrepancies," etc.

David Larsen said...

I agree with you on that. But whether the full content of the "Five Books of Moses" was all written by Moses is a much different question than "was Moses a real person"? I think we can doubt the first without having to dismiss the second. Did that make sense? Maybe Moses contributed very little to what we know as the Pentateuch today, but that doesn't automatically mean that he was not a historical figure!

BHodges said...


SmallAxe said...

I believe but I do not trust.

Sorry I'm late to the game. I almost forgot about this thread.

My sense from reading the discussion here is that Kathleen was positing a distinction between the gospel and the church. The gospel, of course, being the ideal; and the church the attempted embodiment of those ideals. I think to a certain extent we can all accept that a gap exists between the two, but we perhaps disagree at the severity of the gap.

Kathleen IMO attributes a larger gap than perhaps David does. This probably allows her to both feel comfortable being critical of the Church, and also comfortable when it falls short of such lofty expectations. I get the sense that she is very forgiving in the latter sense. An interesting issue is whether or not such a gap facilitates "scholarly" production or not.

I have other thoughts if others are still monitoring this thread and are interested.

BHodges said...

smallaxe, fire away.

SmallAxe said...

Let me raise a couple of points in response to this conversation and its (potential) relation to the larger discussion at the conference some people here have attended.

1) I would take some of the presentations at the conference with a grain of salt. In other words, I think the conference also served a therapeutic function in terms of creating a space where students could speak openly. For some this meant getting a certain amount of "angst" out in the open. It's probable that some of the participants do not have other outlets (a steam-valve, so to speak) within the larger culture of Mormonism to voice their concerns. Think of how the Bloggernacle serves this purpose for many. I'm not sure how many students that were there participate in it, but personally speaking my early posts were much more "impassioned" and served a general therapeutic purpose. This may have been the first steam-valve for some of them. That, and the fact that young grad students can sometimes have that know-it-all attitude.

BHodges said...

Yeah, as I was saying above, the context in which the papers were delivered should be taken into account. I believe the forum was intended to give these students a place to talk about these things, etc.

David Larsen said...

I certainly wouldn't want to deny anyone the opportunity to express their heartfelt feelings, and I agree that this forum was set up to be an ideal situation in which to do so.
Perhaps the question I'm asking myself is: Should I be concerned or worried that so many have negative feelings towards the institution of the Church?
I realize that this conference hardly represents an average sampling of LDS Church members, nor even the average LDS grad student in Religious Studies. Many of the LDS students that I generally see at Society of Biblical Literature meetings were not there.
Nevertheless, what can we foresee for the future of LDS scholarship, in relation to the Church, if many upcoming scholars are dissatisfied with how the Church is handling so many issues?
Again, I'm not trying to put anyone down or restrain them from expressing their opinions--I'm just thinking theoretically here.

SmallAxe said...

2) Elaborating on my point about the nature of the gap between the Church and the gospel, from a pragmatic angle it seems that Kathleen has created a very safe spot for herself with Mormonism by affirming two things: (a) There are significant differences between the Church and the gospel; and (b) I am not going to tell the Church how to do things.

The first assertion allows her to create some "critical space" in the sense that she can criticize the Church, and at the same time not undermine her belief in the gospel. The second assertion allows those who might not accept such a large gap between the Church and the gospel to not take issue with her since she's in effect not attempting to "steady the ark". There would be a large problem if she were to affirm (a), and then call for certain changes in the Church (which happens to be what some do, and some pay the price in terms of their membership).

Assuming a smaller gap, on the other hand, could entail not needing to tell the Church how things could be done because by definition they're getting it right, or would at least require a more nuanced approach in terms of how one can correct authority. The weakness of either of these approaches, perhaps from one perspective, is that asserting a narrow gap entails too much trust in an institution which does not fit well with the level of inquiry necessary in the academy.

SmallAxe said...

I realize that this conference hardly represents an average sampling of LDS Church members, nor even the average LDS grad student in Religious Studies. Many of the LDS students that I generally see at Society of Biblical Literature meetings were not there.
Nevertheless, what can we foresee for the future of LDS scholarship, in relation to the Church, if many upcoming scholars are dissatisfied with how the Church is handling so many issues?

Do you think that they were any more critical than Bushman or Flake?

Perhaps there's a larger divide between Biblical studies and religious studies, at least within LDSs, than you had at first thought.

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