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.

February 18, 2009

Off to Harvard

This week I'll be attending a conference for LDS graduate students at Harvard Divinity School.

"Faith and Knowledge: Latter-day Saints in Religious Studies" is primarily for LDS grad students attending divinity schools, Religious Studies programs or who are pursuing other disciplines relevant to Mormon thought, doctrine and scholarship. I'm not a graduate student yet and my major is Mass Communications, but I will be attending the conference and plan to blog about the experience.

According to the conference website:

This conference will be a forum for discussion of issues relating to Mormon doctrine, culture and scholarship that arise while pursuing graduate studies in religion. It will be an open forum where students of divergent points of view will be free to express their concerns, questions, and thoughts and report their progress in reaching productive outcomes. We anticipate raising questions of how religious studies may enrich, while challenging, our faith as Latter-day Saints, and what can we bring to the issues under debate in religious scholarship.
Throughout the conference I'll be blogging my notes as well as personal thoughts and experiences here at LifeOnGoldPlates, so stay tuned.