Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Problems of the Mormon Intellectual

From an address, "On Being Secular," to the Humanists of Utah, March 2002. Dr. Bill Mulder is a former professor at the University of Utah, and a chapter member.

A continuing problem of the Mormon intellectual is to remain both Mormon and intellectual. His is the problem of religious intellectuals generally: to dare to follow where the mind leads, to prevent the indecision that comes when intellectually they are persuaded in one direction but drawn emotionally in another. If one is robust he may, like William James, will to believe and find pragmatic reasons for the utility of faith, even when the premises are uncomfortable.

The Mormon intellectual, like intellectuals everywhere, wants to know the truth and shares their faith that the mind can lead the way to it. But the mind is only a tiny light in the great surrounding dark of the universe. Sometimes the seeker has to grope his way by other sensibilities, and senses other than sight, to move to an elevation where the little light he does have throws a farther illumination. Because he believes that faith is a s much a dimension of total experience as is reason, the Mormon intellectual may tolerate premises, doctrines, attitudes, and practices in his church which, rationally examined, seem archaic, untenable, even at times repugnant, on the chance these contain values he cannot now appreciate but some day will, or on the chance that he himself may be instrumental in changing them. When faith itself becomes unreasonable, however, putting too great a strain on his credulity, he has to make the hard choice of silence or separation.

The Mormon intellectual as scientist has a higher threshold than as humanist because, more familiar with natural fact than with social value, as scientist he is more willing to assign matters of value to the area of faith, where religious authorities can resolve doubts and make decisions. His religion is not in conflict with science because they don't really meet. The Mormon intellectual as humanist, on the other hand, finds himself deeply entangled in kinds of truth not as readily verifiable as in chemistry or mathematics, but relative. In the humanities and social sciences, truth is not so much discovered as created. Social and moral and religious "truths" leave more room for argument and require, in any effort to institutionalize them, greater latitude of interpretation and application.

Abstract Mormonism, to the loyal intellectual, provides such latitude. Unfortunately, the concrete Church, or its officialdom, does not. Officially, spiritual truths are revealed truths, absolutes, and there can be no conflict between revealed truth and the discoveries about the natural universe, including human nature. In any apparent conflict, man-made truth must yield. Such an a priori commitment makes an apologist of the Mormon intellectual, not a seeker. The early church was full of vigorous thinkers whose main task in proving a doctrine true was to prove it scriptural. They were "intellectuals," scholars and theologians, working, like the Puritans before them, with the Bible as the primary text and skilled in accommodating advancing knowledge to Biblical explanations. Mormonism, in the words of a twentieth-century apologist, a university man, prided itself on having a "rational theology."

From the point of view of the Church, the intellectual is himself a problem. The Church is fearful that his findings will loosen his loyalties and may influence others to find a basis for their faith which is not simple and old-fashioned enough to be called religious. Work for the dead, the Negro question, the narrow proscriptions of the Word of Wisdom are matters where the Church would prefer not to have sophisticated answers because these might mean radical change. History is hard on Mormonism because Mormonism stakes so much on history, and if the evidence fails-if there really were no gold plates, if Joseph Smith really was more scoundrel than prophet-Mormonism faces a serious dilemma. Mormonism without a Book of Mormon as miracle is like Christianity without the Virgin Birth. But the intellectual may, in fact, provide the mystery religion requires and, with proper encouragement, give Mormonism its Sufis and Vedantists. When Mormonism can embrace both superstition and sophistication in the same fold, the intellectual will have found a productive place and revitalize the professed doctrine of the glory of God as intelligence.

Meanwhile, the Mormon intellectual faces a great test of humility to remain in an organization led by anti-intellectuals. If he is not to lose the name of action, he must, like Hamlet, resolve his dilemma. If to remain within the Church means paralysis of will and denial of the deepest urgings of his thought, he must make a break for the open sea. He leaves one haven, as every institution is a haven. There waits, perhaps, the larger harbor of a more inclusive humanity.

--Bill Mulder

This link can be found HERE.

1 comment:

Christopher Maloy said...

I thought the article was very well written. I can agree with much of what was said. As a secular humanist it is hard to maintain a foot in both worlds.