April 11, 2011

Patrick Mason at SMPT: "Critics or Caretakers? The Paradoxes of Scholarship and Sainthood"

The following are my rough transcript notes from last Friday's evening session of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology conference, featuring Patrick Mason. Mason earned his BA in history at BYU and MA degrees in history and peace studies at Notre Dame, where he also earned his PhD in history. He is currently a Research Associate Professor at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. His new book is The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South (Oxford University Press, 2011) An mp3 of an earlier speaking engagement featuring Mason on his new book is available here. This fall he becomes the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

His SMPT paper was called "Critics or Caretakers? The Paradoxes of Scholarship and Sainthood." Again, these are transcript notes rather than a word-for-word account. I took the liberty of filling in personal pronouns I initially skipped, etc., so consider with care.   

I'm neither a philosopher nor a theologian, but I am Mormon and I enjoy good society so it is good to be here [laughter]. I received my formal training as a historian in American religious history and I also work in peace studies. I'm excited to go to Claremont to get closer to some of the more theologically-inclined questions.

In this paper I'll be revisiting two seminal works that are polar opposites on how people approach the study of religion. They are used here simply to frame the debate, not to represent the variety of approaches available. They are both prescriptive, strongly worded, and good at making clear what is at stake. One by Russell T. McCutcheon, Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion. The other is then-Elder Boyd K. Packer's talk, "The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect." Neither of these is explicitly philosophical or theological but they have much to say to people looking at Mormonism and religion.

Russell T. McCutcheon takes to task fellow members of the academy regarding religious studies. He believes they suffer from a default of critical intelligence. Based on their insistence that religion is comprised of non-falsifiable meaning derived from mystical, intuitive experience they thus suspended critical faculties. There is something central to religion, on this view, that is untouchable. But McCutcheon insists religion is another ordinary aspect of human existence. Like all other aspects of human behavior, the things we classify as religion can be conceptualized and explained as thoroughly human activities like anything else. He sees two problems with treating religion as if it has some inaccessible core.

First: looking for the deep core or kernel may lead to personal enlightenment, but the scholar becomes little different from the aesthetic person who leaves society to receive higher enlightenment. Then the scholar becomes complicit with the power relations that structure society generally by ignoring the structural dimension of religion, uncritically reproducing the idealist rhetoric of the status quo.

Second problem: their method undermines nature of scholars task. By allowing the religious faithful to set the boundaries (seeing it "from their view," in other words) the scholar uncritically reproduces the subject's claims of authority. Scholar becomes a caretaker, a translator, a color commentator, a reporter repeating an insider's unsubstantiated claims.

McCutcheon isn't necessarily alone in this criticism, other prominent religious studies scholars have similar critiques. They dislike the cheerleader, retailer, etc. because they should not qualify as scholarship. Instead, scholars ought to treat religion as a subject for theorizing not for appreciation. Religion is no more than a powerful means by which societies control people. The CRITIC is thus the only possible or proper role for the scholar of religion. They must look at religions as human constructs, they serve the powerful public function of reminding people that all things are human constructs. Of course, it may not win accolades from everyone; one doesn't win a popularity contest by pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, but such it is, he has no clothes.

Elder Boyd K. Packer delivered an address to CES instructors and others 20 years earlier than McCutcheon's book. It has been much-read and much-debated, and I hesitate to tread ground that has been stampeded across so much. It is semi-authoritative address, and addresses scholars as serving God with our minds. Packer spoke as a religious leader, not scholar, but he serves as a useful foil to McCutcheon. He makes his explicit argument from the start: There is a tendency of members of the Church who are scholars to start judging the church, doctrine, organization and leadership by the principles of their own profession. Some of this isn't harmful, he argued, but it ought to be the other way around. Members of the Church should judge the professions of man against word of the Lord. The reversal of priorities by scholars is tragic because it is personal--if we are not careful or wise we will leave out the Spirit from our work, then we leave the Spirit out of our lives. We must be CARETAKERS. Further, religion is anything but human constructed. The scholar's (or teacher's) job is to help students see the hand of Lord in every moment of the Church from the beginning until today.

In the remainder of the talk he offers cautions:

1) There is no such thing as "objective history of Church" without considering the spiritual power attending to the work.

2) There is a temptation on the part of scholars to tell everything, whether it is faith-promoting or not.

3) In an effort to be objective, they may unwittingly be giving equal time to the adversary.

4) The assumption that so long as something is already in print scholars can use it is not good.

Each of these admonitions has received treatment elsewhere, but here I make some observations about the idea of objectivity. Notice that Packer doesn't dismiss it as a misguided value. To the contrary, his reasoning is based on the idea that there is "big T" truth, that it exists, and that it is accessible. Now, he may have been accused of many things but he's never been accused of being a postmodernist. He admonishes people to pursue objective treatments, but to not separate them from spiritual realities. If we ignore spiritual our work, our work is not objective. If we keep it secular we make a non-accurate history. God did appear to Joseph Smith, gold plates existed, Jesus is God's son, and so forth. To suggest otherwise is not accurate and thus not objective.

Elder Packer knows, however, that others won't treat your view as reality, so he allows language like "they believe" and "they claim," but he still asserts those things ought to be included. On the other side, he argues the pursuit of objectivity is not found in pointing out all of the problems, or "giving equal time to the adversary." We are not neutral, he states, there is a war going on and we are engaged, we defend the good.

One reading of this is that is that Packer wants to have his cake and eat it too. But I think a more fair reading suggests more nuance. His language has shifted here from objectivity to neutrality. He favors the former, but not latter.

Thomas Haskell wrote a relevant chapter on this topic called "Objectivity is not Neutrality: Rhetoric versus Practice in Peter Novick's 'That Noble Dream,'" a response to Novick's own bookon objectivity called That Noble Dream (See History and Theory, Vol. 29, No. 2 [May, 1990], pp. 129-157 or here). According to Haskell, Novick offers a confused idea of objectivity, he sees him as conflating it with neutrality. Don't confuse objectivity with neutrality, Haskell says. Haskell sees aesthetic self-discipline wherein one assimilates bad news, eschews nausea, enters sympathetically into the thinking of rivals, etc. History then is the product of extending and elaborating detachment, fairness, honesty. This doesn't require scholar to pretend  all is equally valid or needs equal time. Admittedly this would be a difficult path, but Haskell sees it as possible for a scholar to get rid of the neutrality idea and still go for goal of objectivity.

As for Packer, he ends his own remarks by calling scholars to drop neutrality. Come help us, he says. I'm suggesting that Packer's call can actually fit within the bounds of good scholarship, and may typify it in the eyes of some in the academy. Granted, it is hard to reconcile McCutcheon and Packer, so it seems the religious scholar is forced to choose sides. Will I be a critic or caretaker? Must one choose between default positions of critical intelligence on the one hand and destruction of faith on the other. Is there is a way to reconcile them? Either there is something at the core of religion experience that we could try to study, but which we very well won't get to the bottom of, or it is entirely human and should be studied as such.

I mention here Robert Orsi's approach. He wrote a work called Thank You, Saint Jude: Women’s Devotion to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes (Yale University Press, 1998). The book talks about religious women who pray to St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless lost causes, etc. His is a sympathetic account that privileges women's voices while looking to St. Jude. The chapters take the women seriously and include their devotional and personal views. Then Orsi shifts gears in the final chapter, stepping back from close descriptions of the subjects' beliefs. He tries to explain their devotion, which requires moving away from caretaker mode. He makes use of scientifically established categories, requires criteria of explanation solely from this world, measurable and theorized, and not just things translated or appreciated. Prayer is a situated activity in social power, he notes. It derives meanings in relation to these in-the-world configurations. It is in and through prayer that self comes into contact with the constraints of social world. Prayer was a regressive moment of deeply passive alienated view of reality, then. Reportedly, Orsi sent copies to the women, who responded enthusiastically about the first six chapters. Not so much the last chapter. "And Bob ignored the fact that there actually is a St. Jude" they concluded.

Of course, in our research most days we can ignore this debate without much deep reflection besides thinking this sort of work must be what purgatory looks like. [laughter] But when we turn to our research we can choose subjects that don't grapple directly with the question. When we do go into the debate we need not choose one side or another. But if we are self-reflective and appropriately critical we will come to the very edge and stare the rawness of religious experience straight in the face, where we must make a choice. Surely we want a third way--something like constructive critics, or critical caretakers. We can see people in Mormon Studies who worked this way. Juanita Brooks's work on the Mountain Meadows Massacre, for instance. She was branded an apostate by many even though she received no formal church discipline. She said her work was to do the Church a service. Another might be Lester Bush, who pioneered work on the priesthood ban, helping to foment the pot before the 1978 revelation. Or Richard Bushman, whose Joseph Smith biography took on earlier taboos and reframed them into redeeming vignnetes. It was sensitive, even perilous work. We could also cite examples of when thingds went badly, but the possibility exists for the critical caretaker who plays the positive role in church of the friendly gadfly. Such can delve to depths of the tradition to deeply examine common beliefs and practices and recover forgotten alternatives.

In an institution with so much authority invested in the hierarchy it's still very hard to see place for scholars. But change is more art than science, and scholars need to be humble and circumspect about the boundaries of their own authorities, and they benefit from paying attention to their forerunners. The critical moments of general receptivity and openness to change come unpredictably, but when they do people will look at options from credible sources. Only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change. Then the actions taken depend largely upon the ideas that are already lying around. Thus one role would be to develop alternatives to existing policies and then keep them alive until possibilities become inevitable.

This seems to be a subcategory of the caretaker that won't satisfy McCutcheon. We can see this in Richard Bushman's reflections on his own experience, which he wrote in a letter to Elder Holland, and which were published in his book, On the Road with Joseph Smith. Referring to a review of his biography by Laurie Maffly-Kipp he said "the review tells me we can't expect a positive reaction from scholars." He saw an epistemoliogical gap between himself and the others. A gulf separating from most educated people. "I had hoped for better but these are facts of life. I hoped the book could bridge gap but it will only go part way. I will be seen as a partisan observer."

Must we choose between being a critic or a caretaker? Alternatives? Does the calculation change when you are a scholar? I don't see a bridge. There are shades of difference, but a no-mans land in between. So I am siding with the caretakers and defaulting to a critical intelligence which sees something authentic and transcendent in religious experience-- and that not just for Mormons, but for Hasidic Jews, Muslims on pilgrimage to Mecca, and to women praying in devotion to St. Jude. I have felt the immanence and transcendence of God that I know, but it is a mystery immune from, and ridiculous to, empirical inquiry.

I might take this position on the grounds of Mormonism's view of the premortal soul. God provides depth and dimension to each of us, each individual human then has dignity and worth. At the same time I appreciate McCutcheon showing the naked emporer. But his reductionism shows all to be naked, weak, fragile and reducible to the deconstruction of our own dignity. So I will be caretaker of the religious experience and the sacredness of all people. Of course, these are indefensible unless we begin with common premises. This is why God will always be a problem for modern secular academy and this is appropriate.

I refer to George Marsden's The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. It is about who we are as scholars and saints. Just as objectivity is not neutrality, so is care-taking not getting rid of objectivity.
I recently talked to doctor in my ward about Mormon Studies, he asked me about the Claremont program and whether I would be working with many non-Mormons. He replied excitedly, "think of the missionary opportunities!" [laughter] As a person of low integrity, I weakly nodded. [laughter] I'll be happy if we break even!

[At this point, Mason began quoting from the blog post he wrote a few weeks ago at the Juvenile Instructor blog. I copied and pasted from there below.]

Which brings me to the question of the Hunter Chair’s relationship to the institutional church. Officially, there is no relationship. The Howard W. Hunter Foundation has no formal connection to the Church; it is made up of Latter-day Saints from around southern California acting as individuals, and is organizationally and financially independent from the Church. It was clear from the beginning that in order for the university to sponsor the endowed chair, the person filling the position would have complete academic freedom and not be beholden to the Church or even the foundation. However, the members of the foundation are faithful Saints who care about the Church as well as advancing Mormon studies at Claremont. Their investment in this endeavor is a significant trust that I do not take lightly. Without wanting to sound na├»ve, I am confident—or at least hopeful—that there will not be any significant difficulty in navigating my overlapping identities as a faithful Latter-day Saint and as a serious, credible, even critical scholar. Although not without some trepidation, I welcome the visibility that will come with the Hunter Chair: I am one who believes that scholars should generally be more (not less) engaged as public intellectuals, though always taking care to speak cautiously and responsibly. Nevertheless, the role of the scholar—no matter his/her personal temperament or relationship to the Church—is not to tell the Church what it should or should not do, but rather to provide thoughtful, informed, and considered analysis. Thankfully, I believe we are in an era in which significant portions of the Church hierarchy, and certainly the Church History Department, understand the valuable role that highly trained and independent scholars can have in helping us all better understand the Mormon experience (historical and contemporary) in all its richness and complexity.

[Resuming my notes]

I am an optimist and a care-taking one at that. Thank you. [applause]


Louis Midgley: Peter Novick knows about the LDS debates somewhat and he actually took the caretaker's side. He was invited by Sunstone to talk on "Objectivity." "Why the old mormon history is more objective than the New." He invoked Kuhn's notion of paradigms. LDS can have their own paradigm. They can tell their own story to their audience.

Mason: I didn't know about Novick's view on that. A similar argument is taken up by Marsden in Outrageous Idea, idea of paradigm shifts, postmodernism, etc.

Q: Surprised to see the debate cast as between objectivity or appreciation. It seems it is behind the times compared to what sociologists are already doing. One thing they try to do is to coexist with those who do science in terms of physicists and those who adopt the view of a classic anthropoligist trying to understand how people see the world. Doesn't explain in physicists sense, but what do they see, etc.

Mason: Throughout the humanities and social scientists we have become more sophisticated between these two poles. In some ways these are internecine quarrels in the scientific and the theological study, the AAR, etc. But McCutcheon is critical of even the self-reflective and critical anthropologically-informed studies because they are still allowing for the irreducibility of religion, thus perpetuating power structures, etc. I'm not sure it is resolvable because the premises are so different.

[Questioner made a comment about phenomenological approaches to religion]

Mason: Different purposes for different kinds of studies is part of debate in social sciences. Are we trying to understand them as they understand themselves or trying to explain them as physicists might. There are other exemplars, I mentioned Lester Bush, Juanita Brooks, people willing to look critically at the tradition, which is what the New Mormon History was supposed to be about and Richard Bushman comes in as something like a post-new mormon history, a bit more self reflective about this and states up front his convictions, etc. We follow some of these trends in Mormon studies. I admire Bushman but there are limitations to his approach I think. He wanted to look at Joseph Smith and then report on what people believed and thought about him then. That's the approach. Contextualize and analyze, and it's good, but you can only go so far that way. Brodie comes from different direction, and McCutcheon from a different, and there are differences based on underlying commitments.

Q: What would Church authorities see as the value of scholars? What would be the value of independent scholars to them?

Mason: They have made statements publicly about this, actually, that they value scholarship, and I look at their deeds rather than words right now. I don't expect to hear it much in General Conference, but look at the professionalization of the Joseph Smith Papers Project and the recent MMM book. Insiders have had similar conversations. In my conversations with Jensen and others they recognize it, "we have to be honest there is nothing to hide from, what happened has happened," etc. There are some moments that aren't going to make it into our TV commercials of course, but other people know much of these things and dig them up and so we have to reckon with it. It doesn't help to run away, it helps to take it on. MMM book is exemplary that way.

Some scholars still find it too difficult to imagine a middle ground. They refer to such efforts as crypto-theology. They advocate methodological atheism, this is what you must do to study religion. Everything is reducible to humans, etc. The phenomenologist is looking at lived religion and experience, taking them seriously, but the phenomenologist has another problem, you have to also look at L. Ron Hubbard with that same approach, and Heaven's Gate, there is something to consider, [these groups that might look a little far out]. I think we can still be critical, there are frauds and charlatans and we can point them out, but it can be hard to tease that out. It creates an ethical problem. McCutcheon says look at the available Intro to Religion survey textbooks. In them we all get along, and there is a kind of suspension of critical faculties there and he is not completely wrong there.

Q: I was speaking to a scholar who advocated for the critical approach to all religion and I asked him: What evidence would you take to pusuade you that God loves you that you'll live eternally if you follow simple rules? What evidence? He leaned back very uncomfortable, and I love the man, and he said "I'M A CRITIC! DONT ASK!" [laughter] This was a wonderful moment of reality for him and me. What he desired in his life now is to be "open and never faithful." The opposite really. This goes back to William James. Why hasn't James's "sentiment of rationality" been used more now? We all come from a sentimental position and then find our rationality and philosophies to conform to that aesthetic. More profoundly, one thing I take issue with, you said "CERTAINLY not empiricism" in terms of a good approach to religion. James would say NOT so fast. Let these physicists in the room, bring it in. Isn't as unbridgeable as you think. By that claim you're being arrogant. Always be open to the evidence. Let's look into it, see what happerns. I think that is something we need to retrieve. Habermas is trying to come up with a language to take us across these borders, I think it won't work because it will offend everyone, but Bushman needs someone else to write a book now, this is where youre missing it. Then he's got them. Come in to talk, it's the Riccourean idea of going back and forth. Take other person seriously as an atheist. As a theist, etc.

Mason: Actually I couldn't agree more, like I said that people who take emperors clothes off like McCutcheon aren't useless, we can learn a lot from that. And learn, not in a patronizing way, it goes to that idea of inherent human dignity, one of the revelations when you have God as the ultimate fact is that McCutcheon and Lincoln and Mason and Paul, we're all of the exact same worth and dignity.

Q: Look at general members of the church in regards to the question. Being a critical caretaker. Most people I talked to who were critical of Richard Bushman's book were members who questioned Bushman's own faith, and how could Deseret Book sell it, and so forth. We are in a church where criticism of any sort is not associated with loyalty and being zealous for good, it is seen as the opposite. Do you get a sense that the CGU program has a role for the wider membership of the church in terms of preparing people for a more ciritical study of our history, or sense that that leaders can back it up at all so members of the church will not be obstacles for critical caretaker?

Mason: I dont expect Pres. Monson to cite our program at all and I think that may not be appropriate anyway. There's the church and the scholarship, even Packer recognized that division of labor. In terms of general membership I think this is where scholars can, when being humble, circumspect, faithful, and charitable, play a tremendous role. They are helping us to see things new. Sometimes they help us see what the rest of world already sees and it doesn't do us well to be blind to that. Also, it helps members to be in greater solidarity with forebearers to understand the whole package. We can do this. Here's an anecdotal and maybe silly example. I have dinner almost each Sunday in South Bend with longtime members of my ward, generally conservative, but faithful as could be. They dont read any of this academic stuff so I am the weird scholar, they took pity on me because I was single, and had me for these dinners and we've talked about history etc. Well the seerstone came up. My take is like Bushman's take, the thing he wrote is beautiful, a good way to redeem what was problematic, and still is for some. I spoke with them about it and--lo and behold-- a month later our Primary did a Book of Mormon activity. They had many different stations set up where they could dig for the plates and so forth. But Jim, this very conservative, orthodox to core, member of the Bishopric, when it came to his station, he talked about translating. He talked about the face in the hat to the primary kids. Nobody sweat about it, I'm not sure they'll go to heaven now just because of that but when they go on a mission and they get a pamphlet about it they can say they already knew that. It's one role scholars can play, a pastoral role, but it is a way scholarship gets translated into service for the kindgon, i hope that is what Pres. Packer means, and it is just what Elder Jensen means.

Q: A non-Mormon did an analysis of the Tanners for Dialogue a while ago, he concluded that they actually strengthened the church by calling attention to things by publishing various old works so as not to damage faith later.

Mason: My first real education of Mormon history was reading anti stuff on the mission, it raised good Qs and here I am today. Raising Q's.

Ben Huff: How strong are the headwinds for your approach? You gave a good defense but it seems many people around are already doing what you're describing. Maybe the hardcore McCutcheon types are getting less energetic and less angry in opposition to this? Mellowing a bit? And there is more of this other stuff a little more friendly to insider perspective. So when people like Maffly-Kipp responded to Rough Stone Rolling with a "really Richard?" response, do they feel like they have to say that then assign his book to their classes anyway? Or are they saying as long as institution supports you the winds can blow and you're fine. Can you comment on the headwinds?

Mason: Maybe the hardcore argument is getting tired but I hope it isn't the case that the majority position (which is like the phenomenological perspective) won by default so that insiders only can do the study. That could be one reason, McCutcheon and others cede AAR to phenomenologicalists because they have their own organization. So I hope if the winds aren't so strong it isnt because there is only one voice in the room. I think we'll still have people who can't go all the way and say there is a gap, but they'll say it's still brilliant research, and we agree to disagree. We can do the best we can do and then they write their books too, then we have two great books. We have that going on right now about Brigham Young. Ron Walker and John Turner are both working on Brigham Young so we'll have two great treatments. Brigham isn't quite Joseph Smith, it's a different ballgame, but I hope we get more like this.

Ben: What you describe sounds really civilized really, and people like McCutcheon will ask interesting questions. It sounds like you are optimistic about being respected in this approach.

Mason: I know some people won't like it, not even generous people like Maffly Kipp, and others with whom we can't really bridge the gap, I'm not sure, but I hope they write their responsible book too and then we can hash it all out.