“Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD” (Isa 1:18 NRSV)
In 2010 I presented a paper at a regional meeting of the American Academy of Religion entitled Mormonism and Same-Sex Marriage: Towards a Mormon Theology of Gender. A significant portion of the paper dealt with historical development and systematic theological rationale for the modern LDS conception of gender and its central place within LDS eschatology. The paper was well-received and prompted a very lively Q&A session. Over the past two years the paper has continued to generate interesting dialogue and, according to feedback I have received, has helped others understand the Church’s opposition to homosexuality and political activism from an LDS theological perspective. This does not, of course, mean that readers have walked away in agreement with the LDS position but rather, they have developed a more sympathetic view of the LDS Church’s doctrine and activism. By gaining a more complete understanding of the relationship between sex, gender, salvation and exaltation within Mormon thinking, they recognize that the Mormon view of homosexuality is a complex issue and one which the Church has not adopted capriciously based on tenuous interpretations of a handful of biblical verses. This experience taught me just how effective Mormon Studies can be as apologetics; remembering that the purpose of apologetics from the 2nd century onward has never been to convince, but to provide a rationale for any given theological or religious position.
There are three primary reasons I believe the academic study of Mormonism serves as an effective apologetic. First, the focus and purpose of Mormon Studies is generally non-devotional and therefore, non-threatening. Mormon Studies seeks to foster a greater understanding of Mormonism from a variety of perspectives. Its very nature is open and inviting. Mormon Studies encourages conversation and intelligent conversation breeds greater appreciation. Latter-day Saints may therefore point to the fruits of Mormon Studies to provide a “defense to anyone who demands from [them] an accounting for the hope that is in [them].”
Second, the academic study of Mormonism provides the requisite context and history so helpful in addressing difficult Mormon issues. We better understand Mountain Meadows, for example, if we are aware of the Mormon Reformation, Utah War, and Haun’s Mill. No event, regardless of how horrific, occurs in a vacuum. Mormon Studies helps to demystify, but not excuse, seemingly incomprehensible acts or bits of troubling history. Will some Latter-day Saints consume Mormon Studies and lose their faith? Certainly. But this is not an issue reserved only for Mormons.
The great Catholic theologian Hans Kung, in reference to the history of the Roman Church, points out that “one can fill several volumes with scurrilous, pathological, [and] criminal incidents from two thousand years of Church history without ever coming face to face with the holy.” However, “in the longrun will not such criminal histories, which merely gather shadows and walk through puddles, become as insipid as the emphatic ‘hymns to the church’” as “those who passionately collect only shadows can offer only a shadow play [and] those who deliberately tread in all the puddles wrongly make the way difficult for themselves.” Kung argues that surveys of the Roman Church that are “written in bright triumphalist colours and stained-glass-window piety” as well as “those which are aggressively polemical and and cynically condescending … [fail as] … half truths.” Kung further states “that for a real picture of the church it is always necessary to distinguish and take into account two perspectives creating a “twofold dialectic.” Kung’s words apply equally to Mormonism. Mormon Studies is an attempt to create a twofold dialectic to avoid both shadows and puddles in explaining — to borrow another phrase from Kung — the essence of Mormonism.1
The third and perhaps most compelling reason why I contend that the academic study of Mormonism serves as an effective apologetic is this: Mormon Studies illustrates Mormonism’s legitimacy as a vital and relevant religious movement. It is telling that non-LDS scholars like Jan Shipps and our own Chris Smith have dedicated significant portions of their respective academic careers to the study of Mormonism. Mormonism could very easily have been lumped together with the study of “New Religious Movements” and considered an aberration or religious anomaly. Yet the vigor with which Mormonism is now studied speaks to the creativity of its doctrine, the power of its culture and the vitality of its people. Mormon Studies could well be the most powerful source of positive social capital for the LDS Church since the emergence of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
I look forward to the continuing “liberation” (as Richard Bushman has termed it) of Mormon Studies and am proud to be part of religious tradition that has become a fertile source of academic inquiry. Such inquiry can only result in greater understanding an appreciation of Mormonism within the wider culture.