Role models in surviving scripture-related graduate studies

I have again been thinking about how scholarship and Mormonism meshes together. (Yes, again. I’m the blogging equivalent of Chopsticks.) In particular, I’ve been thinking about the intersection between “secular” potentially-faith-caustic Biblical scholarship and core Mormon beliefs. How does one walk away safely from that kind of train wreck, when irresistable force strikes an immovable object?

Though I don’t have a fully-developed strategy at this point, I think “surviving” requires some compartmentalization, learning to live with ambiguity, and realizing that for many questions, if not most, we do not have sufficient data to make final answers.

Of course, I am not the first to wrestle with these things, and the thought that I am not alone in walking the path is comforting. I stand upon the shoulders of others in more ways than one. These people are role models of sorts, because they have neither flinched from scholarship by taking the Ostrich Approach, nor have they completely given up their faith in capitulation to scholarly interpretations.

Stephen Robinson expresses this last sentiment well in a polemical article. “…the Church of the Scholars is no less authoritarian than the traditional faith. It merely seeks to subject its believers to a more rational authority-­to replace the “tyranny” of the Brethren with the tyranny of the intellectuals. But such a faith would not be faith at all. The problem with scholarly religion, religion that has been carefully trimmed so that it conflicts with no empirical data, is that it inevitably makes scholarship the religion.”

To whom do I look as scholarly LDS role models? Here’s a shortlist. (This whole post was prompted by discussion of #2, Carlfred Broderick, at T&S.)

1) Brigham H. Roberts, the Defender of the Faith. If you haven’t read his biography, I recommend it. Roberts studied, debated, argued, wrote extensively (perhaps you’ve heard of the six-volume Comprehensive History of the Church?) and played devil’s advocate at times. Roberts embodied the method of scholarship, even if not formally a scholar himself. Morever, he once went in disguise (picture at left) to reclaim the bodies of two missionaries killed by mobs. The disguise was necessary because they threatened to kill anyone who came for the bodies. In doing so, Roberts achieves a physical representation of his mental acuity- rough, tough, and not afraid of anything.

My favorite line from Roberts comes from an Ensign article about him. “I am taking the position that our faith is not only unshaken but unshakeable in the Book of Mormon, and therefore we can look without fear upon all that can be said against it.” Though some have argued that he lost his faith towards the end of his life, I’m not convinced.

2) Like Roberts, not a Biblical scholar, Carlfred Broderick was formally-trained at Harvard and Columbia, where he received his PhD. I stumbled over his The Core of My Faith, and realized that I wanted to emulate him in several ways. He faithfully documents his experiences with (perceived) black-listing by Church leaders, difficult questions of Church history and doctrine, and comes out with testimony intact. I’ve sent his story out with each of my brothers when they leave on missions, particularly for his example of how to deal with perceived or real interpersonal unfairness in the Church.

3) Though it may embarrass him, I can’t leave Kevin Barney off my short list. Kevin also is not a formally trained Biblical scholar, but a lawyer. It was my felicitous discovery of his Dialogue article on the Documentary Hypothesis (or Source Criticism, Higher Criticism, or the Graff-Wellhausen hypothesis, all terms for the same thing) that convinced me I could go to graduate school and not go off the deep end, so to speak.

The content of the article was important to me, but the clear methodology also made an impact on my thought processes. When confronted with a difficult issue, one gathers data and weighs the “for and against” of different approaches and interpretations before making tentative conclusions. One should also ask, what is at stake in each conclusion in terms of core LDS beliefs? Acceptance of the basic idea of Old Testament source criticism, I decided, does little to undermine any core LDS beliefs.

Kevin also has a distinct advantage over the other two on this list, in that he’s not dead :) Though we have some disagreements, as is inevitable, I’ve appreciated interacting with him on the FAIR email list, the blogs, and in person.

The examples these people (and those unmentioned) have provided for me have gone a long way in helping me wrestle with that treasure trove of troubling issues, the Old Testament.

6 thoughts on “Role models in surviving scripture-related graduate studies

  1. I’m currently reading to my sons Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen, a story of fathers and sons. One of the sons faces this sort of collision. That son’s father worries about losing him to intellectual pursuits. The main issue for the father is that what the world needs is righteous men, and what righteous men need is compassion, or, as Christians would put it, charity. He works to develop compassion in his son with the hope that that will see the son through the challenges of intellectual inquiry.

    I think there is a valid concept there that righteousness toward God and man will put knowledge, including challenging knowledge, in a helpful perspective that scholarship is important but not the totality of all things.

  2. Ben, thank you for thinking of me. I am deeply humbled by your comments, especially coming from someone for whose scholarship I have such great respect.

    I think we all pretty much stand on the shoulders of Roberts. I believe it was in the inaugural issue of Dialogue that Leonard Arrington published the results of a survey of Mormon academics as to who was the greatest intellectual in LDS history, and Roberts was the hands down winner.

    I think it is important to be both fearless and not overly defensive. I love the turn-of-the-century ethic that truth is Mormonism, and we don’t have to believe anything that is not true. That is really the legacy of B.H. Roberts not only to LDS scholars, but to a considerable extent the entire bloggernacle.

  3. I don’t know about the first two gentlemen, but I also read Kevin’s article just before I started grad school in NT and found encouragement in it as well.

  4. I share your respect for Kevin. He is a model of honest, thorough and faith-filled approach to difficult issues that don’t seem so difficult after he has dealt with them. In the end, it isn’t really the evidence but the state of one’s heart that is tested. I worry when we feed only mild and pablum to members and when they run into meaty issues they choke to death because of their constant diet. The problem is that the meat is confused with lack of faith hor heresy sometimes. I am looking forward to great things from Ben. Bring on the main course and let it be meat!

  5. Yeah, Kevin’s my hero, too. I met his cousin in church in New York. :)

    But you guys have all inspired and validated me. I do not feel as alone as I used to.

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