May 22, 2008

Spiritual Jeopardy: Who Wants To Play?

I may as well admit it. Certain things about Boyd K. Packer rub me the wrong way. I'm not saying he's a bad man, is wrong, or shouldn't be a GA, I'm just saying that I personally have a problem with embracing some of the stuff he says. Last night I was reading in Dialogue again, about "Faithful Scholarship" and Postmodernism by Duffy. It's a long and interesting essay and I'll try not to take the following excerpt out of context since it was applied to a long and complicated debate about Mormon historians and it would take me forever to tell the whole story. Aside from that, I'm still very new to such debates, so feel free to put me in my place.

"In opposing the new Mormon history's ostensibly neutral approach, Midgley and Bohn extended a critique that had already been made by CES personnel and Apostle Boyd K. Packer, who found the new Mormon history too secular and inadequately faith-promoting. In his controversial 1981 address, "The Mantle Is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect," Packer rejected the quest to be "objective, impartial, and scholarly" in writing Church history on the grounds that Latter-day Saints were at war. The "posture of detachment" or "sympathetic neutrality" to which some LDS scholars aspired (Packer was almost certainly thinking of Arrington, specifically) risked "giving equal time to the adversary." At its core, the antipositivist complaint was identical to Packer's. Mormon historians needed to stand on the side of the gospel, not on some fictitious objective middle ground."

I was curious about that talk by Packer and so I read it in its entirety here: I actually think that he makes some very valid points and that his concerns are legitimate. I will give President Packer this: if you're going to write a history about your purported faith, it's certainly difficult to remain objective, impartial, scholarly, and still uphold that faith -- although I think Bushman came pretty darn close in Rough Stone Rolling. Given that Packer's address dates back to 1981, I'd be curious to know what he really thinks of Rough Stone Rolling and whether that criticism could apply to a work such as Bushman's. Have times changed or would Rough Stone Rolling still be considered too "objective, impartial and scholarly?" I now quote directly from Packer's talk:

"That historian or scholar who delights in pointing out the weaknesses and frailties of present or past leaders destroys faith. A destroyer of faith—particularly one within the Church, and more particularly one who is employed specifically to build faith—places himself in great spiritual jeopardy. He is serving the wrong master, and unless he repents, he will not be among the faithful in the eternities. One who chooses to follow the tenets of his profession, regardless of how they may injure the Church or destroy the faith of those not ready for “advanced history,” is himself in spiritual jeopardy. If that one is a member of the Church, he has broken his covenants and will be accountable. After all of the tomorrows of mortality have been finished, he will not stand where he might have stood."

I wish to use Rough Stone Rolling again because I think it's an excellent example. I'm certainly not implying that Bushman "delights in pointing out the weaknesses and frailties" of Joseph Smith, but RSR certainly did point out his weaknesses and frailties. Depending on the circumstances and mindset of the reader, RSR can either destroy or build faith. Though it left me struggling to accept certain things about Joseph, my personal experience after reading it was more of the latter. So, my question to all of you is do you think that Bushman is "in spiritual jeopardy" as President Packer put it? He continues:

"In the Church we are not neutral. We are one-sided. There is a war going on, and we are engaged in it. It is the war between good and evil, and we are belligerents defending the good. We are therefore obliged to give preference to and protect all that is represented in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we have made covenants to do it. Some of our scholars establish for themselves a posture of neutrality. They call it “sympathetic detachment.” Historians are particularly wont to do that. If they make a complimentary statement about the Church, they
seem to have to counter it with something that is uncomplimentary."

Loyalty is a virtue that I appreciate and so I can appreciate President Packer's call for loyalty here. But what is this "war" that is going on and who is the enemy? Is it Satan? Is it historians? Intellectuals? Or even the common member who has anything negative to say about the Church or its history? I'm not a historian, but if I were, I know I would find myself in a huge dilemma. When Bushman said that he has to fight a war on two fronts, he was right and I don't envy the guy.

I really feel very torn because I want to be loyal and faith-promoting, and yet at the same time my conscience compels me to acknowledge that Joseph Smith and the other prophets were not superheroes and that Mormonism has some skeletons in its closet in regards to things like Mountain Meadows, polygamy, and the treatment of blacks, etc. Does wanting to know more and discussing the non-so-faith-promoting aspects of my religion make me a traitor?

There is no doubt that searching for truth carries a certain degree of risk. As Packer said in that talk, some members lose their faith because of these so-called neutral historians. It's sad that that happens, but I tend to think that having faithful members of the Church, such as Bushman, approach Mormon history in an objective sort of way is actually in a way, faith-promoting in itself. Why do you have to be a bitter apostate in order to be objective?

I have to admit, knowing that President Packer is next in line gives me all the more motivation to remember President Monson in my prayers. (Shame on me.) But I guess that's my own problem and nobody else's.


Sanford said...

I'll give Elder Packer this, he is not afraid to say certain things in certain ways that others won't. At least you know where he stands. But he doesn't seem to be adding a "thus sayeth the Lord" in front of these statements and I think I can consider this his opinion -- one which I don't really share. I just read an interview of Elder Packer by Helen Whitney for the Mormons documentary. Elder Packer had some interesting things to say about his views on historians. Also she interviewed Gregory Prince who talked about the fallout from Packer style management of Church history. She also interviewed Michael Quinn who had some revealing things to say about his experiences with Elder Packer. He even cut Elder Packer a little slack.

I don't feel like Elder Packer's views here hold sway on me, but they sure do on the Church institution. Therein lies the rub.

mormon heretic said...

Dissident, excellent analysis, and I think you've nailed the crux of the problem. I agree with you.

None of us want to be serving the wrong master. But I just don't want to stick my head in the sand, and ignore or promote mythology regarding past prophets.

They were real people, and to pretend they didn't sin is dishonest. Is it really honest to lie, or conceal the truth? I think not.

Of course, telling the truth 100% of the time isn't always a wise thing to do either. For example, when a wife asks "do I look fat?", the husband should always say "no" whether it is true or not, as a means of self-preservation. :)

So, I can see both sides of the story, but tend to pray for Pres Monson's health, as you do.

The Faithful Dissident said...

Sanford, are those Helen Whitney interviews available online? It would be interesting to read them.

What did you all think of PBS's "The Mormons" documentary? It's been a while since I watched it, but even though I would call myself a pretty objective and open-minded person, it sort of left me with a negative feeling. I think my younger brother summed it up quite well when after seeing it he said "If you haven't been in it all your life, you can watch that and say that anyone who believes that is out of their minds." (Perhaps Tal Bachman's comment about how he would have blown himself up for his mission president didn't help -- give me a break, Tal.) I sort of felt that it left me with that sort of impression, let alone a non-member or investigator. I felt that although it didn't necessarily contain anything untrue, it couldn't quite capture the unique Mormon Spirit.

Heretic, you're probably right about the fat wife thing, but if it were me I'd want my husband to tell me tactfully I'm packing on the pounds so that I could do something about it. But hopefully I'd be able to recognize it myself. :)

Sanford said...

Faithful D, here is where you can find them:

Greg Prince

Elder Packer

Michael Quinn

I haven't actually seen the documentary yet, I've just been reading transcripts of interviews with various participants. The pbs/mormons website allows you to view it online. Alas, so many things to see and read, so little time.

The Faithful Dissident said...

Thanks for sharing, Sanford. I've only read the Packer transcript so far, but I enjoyed it. Funny, I find that reading it is more enjoyable than watching it because it's easier to ponder what he's saying. Though I may not agree with him 100% on everything, I do think that he's given these things a lot of thought and I can accept that he may have a lot more insight that me. I try to remind myself that what a gerinocracy lacks in open-mindedness and enlightenment could very well be made up for in wisdom. Perhaps.