Using our Mormon Brains

This post has two main parts — both involve being Mormon and engaging one’s brain. I think they’re still two distinct issues, but I’ll bring them up together, nonetheless, not least because my guest-blogging days are quickly drawing to a close. (Thank goodness — I feel as if I’ve been sucked into some fascinating and time-swallowing vortex that could be impossible to get out of if I didn’t soon…. How I admire [I think… :-)]all of you permanent bloggers.)

Here are the parts:

1) Whether being a Mormon scholar also means one should be a scholar of Mormonism; and
2) What the responsibilities are of being a Mormon scholar or “Mormon intellectual,” however ill defined those terms might be.

Let’s start with Part 1. I was initially hesitant to guest blog, partly because it’s such a despicable sounding verb, but mostly because I wondered if I would disappoint, somehow, because I am not a scholar of Mormonism. Mormonism — whether doctrine, history, or the contemporary church — is its own content area. I read my scriptures, the Ensign and the Friend and prepare for lessons or Sharing Time I teach in Primary, but I rarely manage much more. I am, as a result, ill-read on most things that are probably standard fare for most “Mormon intellectuals,” which is what many in the T&S crowd seem to be, even if you’re not all scholars by profession. I don’t read Mormon history except when I teach or learn it in Sunday School; I don’t read Sunstone or Dialogue (although I’d be happy to if someone handed me a copy); I have no (current) interest in speaking at a symposium or conference on Mormon issues, as I’ve been asked to in the past. I’m a scholar who just happens to be Mormon, but because I’m a scholar, I have the sense — I’m not sure of its source–that I’m also supposed to know more — or supposed to want to know more — about Mormonism than the average member.

Perhaps my thoughts in this area come from other LDS scholars I’ve met in a wide variety of disciplines — history, law, political science, philosophy, economics, literature, theology — who have been impressively erudite about Mormonism, in particular LDS history. I’ve wondered how they find the time. I wonder if I’m remiss in not finding the same time–if I should, as a scholar, be engaged in a more scholarly manner in my own religion.

Which leads me to my second point or question, namely, what responsibilities Mormon scholars or intellectuals (I’ll let people self-identify in either category) have toward the church. We are taught to seek wisdom, knowledge, and formal education. We are also taught to rely on the spirit as we pursue knowledge. (“To be learned is good if…”) But the many wise scriptural teachings that we seek a balance between the spiritual and the intellectual often seemed tilted toward skepticism, if not outright disdain, of intellectualism in more modern church teachings. I can’t find it now, but I recall a talk by Elder Packer, for example, in which he decried three evil influences, among them intellectualism. I’d like to think he meant sole reliance on one’s intellect, but it felt like a broader condemnation of intellectual engagement.

I also recall warnings, in years past, from church leaders against forming discussion groups outside of formal church structures, since such groups could easily devolve into purely intellectual pursuits, and thus apostasy. Others here must remember these warnings. Have we gotten around them with the bloggernacle, since we can’t be found together in anyone’s living room? Is the Lord pleased with T&S? I’d like to think so, at least when it’s at its best — invigorating and faith-affirming. Perhaps He’s not so pleased when it hits its exhausting and confusing low points (although I’m certain that these points are not the same for any participant). And what do the leaders of the church think about the bloggernacle? I’m not so certain. Have there ever been GA statements about or against on-line LDS communities? I’d be curious.

What does the Lord expect of our Mormon brains?

19 comments for “Using our Mormon Brains

  1. I know one particular email list that had a member of the 70 on it for a while, taking the temperature as it were. He did not contribute, just read.

  2. Though his description is no longer available on line (I think), Brian Duffin received tacit approval for blogging when he donated his domain name ( to the church.

    I do think that Mormon scholars should engage their faith. The reality is that if they don’t, who will?

  3. I suppose that the responsibilities of LDS scholars to be scholars of Mormonism depends on lots of different factors. If one is an econ scholar, it probably doesn’t matter that much (though there are interesting things to be done with Mormonism and econ, I just don’t think that it is that necessary). I am a religious studies scholar, so I feel a pretty big desire to be informed about Mormon stuff. However, I do not plan to publish, present, etc. on Mormonism per se until much later in my career.

  4. Discussion groups can become a place to criticize the church. I think it is a very real danger. But there are many good discussion groups-scripture study groups, book clubs, etc. I grew up in a family where intellectual mormon discussions were common (although I myself am not as intellectual).
    I was taught that the dangers were 1) Feeling free to criticize the church, 2) Arrogance and feeling superior to other members, church members, and even God, 3)Forming opinions that become so important that if the prophet (or even Christ himself) reveals new gospel principles that leaving the church becomes necessary because changing ones mind is impossible.
    I think anyone involved in a group, like this one for instance, should continually evaluate if the group is helpful or harmful to one’s testimony and relationship to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.

  5. I actually think that group blogs, or the B’nacle taken as a whole, probably do run afoul of the “no private study groups” rule (directive? request?). But on a practical level, the B’nacle is one of the best things the Church has going for it online when compared with the hundreds of “anti” sites offering their view of Mormonism to anyone looking for online information. GAs being (for the most part) practical men, it is unlikely they would view B’nacle online activities as a threat or a problem. In the battle to be on Google’s first page for LDS search terms, the B’nacle is holding its own better than the official sites, no small accomplishment.

  6. “Is the Lord pleased with T&S? I’d like to think so, at least when it’s at its best – invigorating and faith-affirming.”

    I suspect that for some LDS readers, the “good” that may come from the Bloggernacle, long term, may be the open, frank and even potentially disturbing (while not obviously faith-affirming) discussions that signal to them they are not alone in their thoughts, feelings and frustrations. Sometimes it just helps to know that you are not alone in the world, thinking your “heretical” thoughts, and wondering if you’re the only member whose ever thought them. Sometimes it takes going through a vocally exasperated stage, before one is ready to be invigorated and/or affirmed in one’s faith. Of course, different people react to the same discussion very differently, and I am often amazed at how varied responses can be. What one person finds inappropriate, troubling or apostate, another may find quite uplifting, insightful and faith-promoting. All in all, I think the variety in the Bloggernacle is itself a source of its strength and usefulness.

    “And what do the leaders of the church think about the bloggernacle? I’m not so certain. Have there ever been GA statements about or against on-line LDS communities? I’d be curious.”

    I’ve actually tried to ask most of them, but whenever I call, the line is always busy. I can only assume they have their internet connected, wasting away the day reading T&S or BCC.

    Aaron B

  7. I am not aware of a specific prohibition about “study groups” etc. However, having served in bishoprics, I can understand why some leaders would be cautious about these groups, and discourage them.

    Some of them have turned into elitist groups, even restricting the membership to those who had the “right’ intellectual credentials. Additionally, there is often a tendency to criticize local leadership, particularly if the local leaders do not have the “right” intellectual credentials. And sometimes, there is a drift towards being critical of general church leadership and doctrine.

    Even on Times and Seasons, those who direct this blog have to continually keep reminding people that this is not a venue for attacking the church or its leadership.
    I have no way of knowing how many church leaders read T&S, but for the most part, I don’t think they would be overly concerned.

  8. Kirsten, wouldn’t this be a good topic for some future Kalamazoo roundtable? I think a session sponsored by the ad-hoc committee of Mormon medievalists would be a hoot. I’d even bring refreshments.

    On your first point, your experience has been my experience–I feel like I had maybe one and a half minor contributions to make to Mormon Studies, and they have now been made. Given a choice between reading a new biography of Joseph Smith and an obscure bit of prose in MHG, the dead language wins.

    As for what scholars who are Mormons owe the church–for me, it has to do with the project of confining feelings of shame only to things that are in fact shameful. Being a scholar is a good thing, and I see no reason to hide the fact at church. In the same way, being LDS is a good thing; not only is it impossible to hide that fact in my professional life, there should be no reason to hide it.

  9. “Sometimes it just helps to know that you are not alone in the world, thinking your “heretical” thoughts, and wondering if you’re the only member whose ever thought them. Sometimes it takes going through a vocally exasperated stage, before one is ready to be invigorated and/or affirmed in one’s faith.”

    Beautifully expressed, Aaron. When I was at my “vocally exasperated stage,” I found it utterly invigorating and almost breathtakingly comforting to talk to others (in person and in cyberspace) who “got” my exasperation. But as I came to be more at peace with my questions and with the glacial pace at which answers sometimes come, I found that discussions that had once invigorated me now exhausted me, and I needed to find discussion venues that more regularly affirmed the faith I was determined to maintain.

    In case it wasn’t clear from my original post, I think that the bloggernacle, and T&S in particular, is one of the best things the church has going for it, because it has the potential to fill the needs of members at such different stages of their spiritual journeys.

    Long live T&S.

  10. (original posting)

    RE: “what responsibilities [do] Mormon scholars or intellectuals … have toward the church” ?

    Maybe responsibilities toward the church can be found in magnifying formal callings and in being anxiously engaged in doing as prompted by the Spirit or opportunities are found.

    Life’s wars brought me to understand that anyone’s responsibility toward God is to use whatever ability with which you’re blessed to help his children heal, grow, and find the most-joyous-to-the-soul love he offers through the atonement and the path that he explained will bring us home to him.

  11. I’ve been on the fence, leaning towards apostasy for the past year or so. I have so many questions that until recently, seemed to have no answers. Certainly the people I approached – church leaders, friends, family, etc. – were unable to give me any satisfactory answers or direction… Finding the bloggernaccle has saved my faith, and continues to do so, a little more each day. A community of thinking people, who are aware of difficult issues, and who still maintain their faith. It helps.

    The most helpful things on the bloggernaccle are the posts that confront the hard issues. Even when it gets contentious occasionally, it helps me to sort things out, and I always come away with alternate explanations for disturbing issues and with viewpoints that I hadn’t considered. The church as a whole won’t akcnowledge or confront any of these issues – they just pretend they do not exist, which is not helpful. If only I could find people to talk about these issues with IRL.

  12. I don’t think Elder Packer has ever spoken against intellectuals who are true and faithful to their priesthood and the Church. He has spoken against those intellectual who are critics and dissidents. In his Talk to the All-Church Coordinating Council he mentions intellectuals as a threat to the Church, but he seems to be primarily referring to those intellectuals who support the organized gay-lesbian movement and the organized feminist movement within the Church. These “movements” and the intellectuals who support them lead the faithful away from the Church into apostasy. That’s not good.

  13. 10.

    Kirsten, thank you for those words. I was writing my #11 when you posted your #10, so I didn’t see it before I posted. I hope my comments don’t sound like a harsh or unsympathetic follow-on. I admire your honesty and hope you grow in the peace of God’s love. My own struggles and wrong choices resulted in a broken heart and contrite spirit — so that I was ready for the atonement’s healing. I’m grateful for the many hours that imperfect church leaders gave in listening, counsel, correction, and blessings.

    Their patience with my fault’s and their helpfulness, I suppose, echoes what you said you found here in T&S. Being aware of their faults made their gift of such as they had even more precious. They guided me to feel God’s love and to heal through the atonement. Since then, I don’t worry much about not-understood technicalities or leaders’ imperfections because the direct connection to God’s love they helped me to find suffices. In short, after this gospel saved my life and healed my soul, doubtful what-ifs and yes-buts lost their appeal. I hope T&S can help others work through their struggles and find this peace.

  14. Kirsten, I think it is an impossibly high expectation to be informed of all that goes on in Mormon Studies (which is emerging as a distinct subfield in religious studies) just because you belong to the LDS faith. Perhaps the fact that you are an academic yourself causes you to feel a need to have a scholarly understanding of your own religion? I don’t think this is necessary. You obviously are thoughtful and articulate about your own experience as a member of the Church, and I think that is what matters. Certainly there are those, many on this list for example, who have a personal interest in Mormon history, theology, feminism, etc., but mastery of all these areas should in no way be considered a requirement for faithful membership, even for a member as accomplished academically as you are. Just because you aren’t using your intellectual prowess to parse Mormonism, doesn’t mean something’s wrong. In your work as a Germanist you *are* using your brain as a Latter-day Saint.

    As a scholar of religious studies, I am professionally engaged in the subfield of “Mormon Studies” and must be informed, just like any competent scholar of contemporary US religion, of the general currents in this subfield. However, as an LDS scholar of religion, something closer to mastery of this field is expected. There are many circles where I am deferred to as THE expert in Mormon Studies (as absurd as this sounds in this forum). I am often asked by non-Mormon scholars of religion for book suggestions, for help developing courses that will cover Mormonism, for critical engagement with and cultural evaluation of Mormons and Mormonism and so forth. Thus, even beyond my personal interest, it it incumbent on me to be on my toes. Of course, being an LDS scholar of religion carries its own share of burdens including the requirement to keep one’s nose very clean. I must always scrupulously avoid looking like an eager apologist for the faith on one hand or like a too-critical disaffected member with an axe to grind on the other.

    Times and Seasons provides a valuable forum as a model of community-building, as a place to discuss issues inappropriate for Sunday meetings, and even as a missionary tool. It also, importantly, is a place for Mormon intellectuals to gather and exchange ideas about topics in Mormon Studies. This function, however, is only one of many purposes of the bloggernacle, and it certainly doesn’t require erudition on all things Mormon. The fact that you are a faithful Latter-day Saint, a devoted wife and mother, a thoughtful member of a local ward, and a successful scholar in the modern academy makes you infinitely interesting in my mind and the perfect candidate for participation here.

  15. As for your comment about forming groups outside of church meetings, I can think of a dozen people off the top of my head who are only active in the Church today because of regular book and discussion groups. The bloggernacle, after all, is still in its infancy. Creating safe fora like book groups to explore questions, express confusion or doubt and to educate oneself was one of the most effective methods pre-bloggernacle of sustaining people through existential crises of faith. In fact, there is something about those sacred circles that cannot be matched by the media-negotiated interaction of the bloggernacle.

    While I love the fact that I can read and write here whenever I have time (lately this is at odd times in the middle of the night), I don’t like not being able to see you laugh, furrow your brow in disagreement, shoot diet coke out your nose (as a few of you seem to do regularly), cry ( I assume I’m not the only one for whom the bloggernacle causes occasional tears) or squirm with discomfort . . . . chuckle, grimace, shout, or smile. The intimacy of the discussion groups I have been involved with over the years will never be supplied by the bloggernacle.

    And that’s a good thing.

  16. For what it is worth, there is a very long tradition of independent study groups in Mormonism. For example, there is a group in SLC called the Hickley-Cannon Study Group (or something like that), which President Hinkley has participated in from time to time, and which has sponsored informal presentations by folks like Richard Bushman and Hugh Nibley.

    It is really wonderful to hear that people find T&S valuable for precisely the sorts of reasons that originally caused us to set it up, although our subsidiary goal of complete world domination has not yet reached full flower.

  17. I admire those of you who have taken the time to become “intellectuals/scholars.” As a freshman in the Honors Program, I had a vague notion that I wanted to be one of you. Then life got in the way. Health problems in the marriage, with all the refocusing of energy that takes; a life in the law in the military, where commander-clients don’t care about the jurisprudence–all they want to know is whether they can do what they want to without going to jail, and they want to know yesterday.

    My biggest hurdle, though, is not one of those externals. I find I don’t have the attention span to delve into the niceties of a lot of the issues that are discussed here. I am glad Nate can do it–I think some of his ideas of the development of an LDS Theory of Law are terrific. But I confess that, despite his obvious passion, my eyes glaze over as he gets into the weeds. I start to read one of his posts, and then, out of the corner of my eye there is something shiny and I follow it like a puppy.

    On the parallel discussion of study groups, my wife and I were in one for a while. We made it a point to read and study only the most orthodox. Most of that time we went through “A Marvelous Work and a Wonder.” It was pretty good for an organized study of the basics, and there was no restriction on using outside materials that addressed the topics in it. But then the group got “exclusive,” and quickly fell apart.

  18. #10,

    “because it has the potential to fill the needs of members at such different stages of their spiritual journeys.”

    This is true. Not everybody is completely orthodox. I am sure that openly discussing hard or difficult issues is better than sweeping them under the table. How often have you heard an inactive member say: The bishop told me that I think to much? The bishop should have researched and engaged that person. Not responded in a condescending manner. I found on my mission its better to openly discuss difficult issues than to run from them. T&S can help fulfill that role.

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