Title: To Be Learned is Good: Essays on Faith and Scholarship in Honor of Richard Lyman Bushman
Editors: J. Spencer Fluhman, Kathleen Flake, Jed Woodworth
Publisher: Neal A. Maxwell Center for Religious Scholarship, Brigham Young University
Genre: Religious Non-Fiction
Year Published: 2018
Number of Pages:349
Reviewed by Kevin Folkman for the Association for Mormon Letters
For some in the LDS church, trying to negotiate a path that accommodates both faith and reason is perceived like trying to navigate the dangerous straits between Scylla and Charybdis of Greek mythology. Where that analogy breaks down is that Scylla and Charybdis both represented danger, and that safety lay in plotting a course between the two. Faith is certainly an essential part of our religious devotion, not a danger. Reason, despite its importance, has a more troubled relationship to our religious lives. Reliance on pure reason does not allow for putting faith in things that by their very nature are not knowable in an empirical sense. For many, though, reason plays an important part in their religious activity. This is nowhere more evident than with faithful church members in the hard sciences or in academic environments, where faith is frequently viewed as incompatible with the pursuit of truth. While neither faith nor reason ought to be seen as dangers, there can be a subtext of mutual distrust between these camps. Mormon academics and scientific researchers thus may feel like they are straddling the rocky shoals of a dangerous strait, misunderstood by both sides, caught between competing claims of ultimate truth. How then are we to navigate these tricky waters?
This volume from the Maxwell Institute at BYU takes its cues from the academic and spiritual journey of Richard L. Bushman. Following the publication of his landmark biography of Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling, Bushman spent a year on the road at scholarly conferences and church firesides, talking about Mormonism’s founding prophet. The tensions between being a highly regarded historian as well as a believing Latter-day Saint are obvious throughout Rough Stone Rolling, and in his follow up book, On the Road with Joseph Smith: An Author’s Diary. In that second book, Bushman worried about reviews, and about how his non-religious colleagues would react to a book where he took Smith’s claims of revelation seriously. Similarly, reactions from church members to RSR ranged from adulation over the comprehensive and balanced portrayal of Smith, to rejection for portraying him as a human being with imperfections and weaknesses that made many uncomfortable. Interestingly, Bushman, in addition his academic career, has also served as a bishop (twice!) and as a stake president.
Bushman is someone who has embraced these tensions honestly. In Rough Stone Rolling, he tried to portray Joseph Smith authentically, as the prophet viewed himself, and as he was viewed by his followers. At the same time, Bushman acknowledged that in academic terms we may never ascertain the truth of Smith’s claimed revelations. Over the years, Bushman has mentored, collaborated with, and taught a wide range of scholars. He is highly regarded by those friends and colleagues, many of whom came together in a colloquium in 2016 to share both their insights into history, and their interactions with Bushman. The essays presented there are the text of this book, aptly titled To Be Learned is Good: Essays on Faith and Scholarship in Honor of Richard Lyman Bushman.
Even the title recognizes the tension between faith and reason. As members of the church, we often hear this familiar phrase from the Book of Mormon with the addition of one word, “To be learned is good if…” (2 Nephi 9:29). That “if” in the scripture seems to have taken on a life of its own, and is interpreted by some as meaning that learning should be taken with a huge dose of skepticism and considerable caution. This collection of essays pointedly drops the skepticism, and celebrates the principle that we are “saved no faster than [we] gain knowledge.” The paradox of believing in something that pure reason says is unknowable, then, is not viewed in these essays as problematic. Instead, these tensions can lead us to greater understanding.
As an example, Terryl Givens writes about objectivity and prejudice, seemingly polar opposites. And yet every academic should recognize that while we aspire to objectivity, we are not “a blank slate…[but] are situated in history and in culture…our history and our culture are always ineradicably situated in us.” [p23] Similarly, David Holland notes that in writing about our LDS prophets, we have to recognize that we are studying exceptional and particular individuals who should nevertheless be understood in the general context of their time and culture.
Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye discusses the teacher-student relationship, gender related imbalances, and the problem of contradictory evidence in her essay. Teaching implies a hierarchical dynamic between the teacher and the learner, she explains, and describes one teaching experience early in her career. Teaching a class that she felt unqualified to teach, her students were writing down everything she said as fact. The thought alarmed her. She said she wanted to scream, “This is garbage!” It caused her to recast the student-teacher relationship into something more akin to a pastoral responsibility on her part, something that she credits to her Mormon background. When dealing with contradictions and paradoxes, she has learned to treat them as something special, unique teaching opportunities. “Contradictions,” she writes, “as we encounter them in history, in theology, in word and in deed, signify that something is real.” [p77]
One section of several essays looks at the currents of philosophy as they relate to these tensions. I will admit to nearly drowning here, as philosophy is not a friendly harbor for me. I struggled, but did grasp an element from Adam Miller’s essay “Christo-Fiction, Mormon Philosophy, and the Virtual Body of Christ.” As Miller points out, he is not particularly interested in what Mormonism is, or was, but what it can do. Miller describes his thesis that “…the only way to substantially define Mormonism is to grasp the shape of its power to act or be acted upon.” [p101]. In so doing, we should be more concerned with what he describes as Mormonism’s “state space.” This “state space” takes into account what space the church might currently occupy at a particular point in time, the vector or line that the church may be taking from a historical or current perspective, and the “virtual…that defines a thing’s manifold of possible states and vectors.” [p103] Normally this can only be observed in “thin narrow slices” compared to the complexity of the whole. As I envisioned this concept, it occurred to me that how I experience Mormonism and the Church at a particular point in time is not definitive. Many possible trajectories were manifest during Joseph Smith’s tenure as church president and prophet; Brigham Young exerted and presided over other tensions, both internal and external, many of which would have been quite foreign to his predecessor. David O. McKay oversaw a world-wide expansion of the church, and Gordon B. Hinckley projected an information-age element into the church’s reality. What form and course the church may take in the future are manifestations of this “state space.” My children have experienced a much different church than I did growing up in Utah, and my grandchildren will never have known a church without a defining digital presence.
There are many interesting and thought provoking essays in this collection, too many to detail fully here. It is sufficient to know that Armand Mauss, from the perspective of sociology, relates how collective actions often deemphasize the role of individual actors; Matt Bowman compares Catholicism’s Vatican II council with the Mormon Church’s correlation programs. Claudia Bushman, Richard’s wife and an accomplished scholar in her own right, relates that she got bored with just being a housewife and mother, and realized that by going back to school, she invited herself back into Richard’s life of study, writing, and pursuit of knowledge, a move that she says he embraced for her without reservation.
Richard Bushman, in his concluding essay, gives us one key to navigating the troubled waters we may encounter when we try to balance faith and scholarship. “Words are our entry into another culture. They are the way we make ourselves intelligible in a strange land. They not only allow us to connect, to make ourselves understood. They show respect. We are making an effort to communicate in a way that can be understood.” [p301]
Faith and Reason, then, are points on a map, defined, connected, and understood by the words and language that we use. When we use words to communicate with others, including those whose worldview may be skeptical of reason, we can be respectful in our choice of language. We can avoid being dismissive or condescending. We can address contradictions, paradoxes, and competing priorities honestly. If we can master the use of language in service to our faith, then reason can become just as important to us as faith. We can bridge that divide in a manner that Richard Bushman has exemplified throughout his life. To be learned is good, indeed.