“Intensely collaborative, charitable, and collegial”—Andrew Smith on the 2017 Mormon Theology Seminar
The Mormon Theological Seminar has been a wonderful experience. The two weeks we spent together was an amazing time with deep insights and many positive aspects. While there are many things about the experience I could speak to here, I’ll highlight one aspect of note.
Academics can be an isolating occupation. Peddling in ideas and thoughts can become a very individualized exercise. In part, this is because of the necessary prerequisites of personal study and writing. The academy at large attempts to combat such atomization of its members by coming together in conferences and symposia, as well as through mechanisms of feedback (like peer review). These things ensure a level of collegial interaction to produce the best scholarship possible. However, in many cases, these remain (in my opinion) overly individualized—the writing and research is still largely individual, papers given at conferences are largely individualized productions, etc. (This is, of course, a very general statement and doesn’t come close to describing the reality of many academics or departments.)
Much of this can be overcome by means of unofficial channels of collegial integration like collaboration with colleagues in one’s department, interacting with friends and contacts individually, and so forth. However, formal channels for distinct and intense collaborative readings and discussions of a specific text are few and far between.
The Mormon Theological Seminar has been such an experience; a formal endeavor defined by both its intense collaborative nature as well as its charitable and collegial tone. Having always been somewhat of an introvert, group work in an academic setting (as a student in higher education) has never appealed to me. In some ways, I would say academics as a discipline somewhat appeals to me because it involves such self-reliance and individuality. However, the Seminar has shifted some of my feelings on these issues, giving me an experience of extremely positive and productive collaborative work.
One of its greatest strengths, as co-director Adam Miller is fond of pointing out, is its distinctly interdisciplinary nature—drawing together participants with a variety of viewpoints, expertise, training, and experience. Combined with an element of charity and openness to new ideas, as well as critical and close evaluation of the text from which such thoughts are derived or driven, the Seminar has provided an atmosphere for collaborative learning that I didn’t completely recognize I was missing in my academic life until I was in its midst.
This year’s deep engagement with the narrative of Abinadi before the priests of Noah—especially his theological wrangling in Mosiah 15—has provided me with a variety of new perspectives, most especially derived from the interweaving of viewpoints and interpretive methods of my various colleagues in the Seminar. While such interaction and the schedule of study were certainly physically and mentally exhausting, the intensity pushed me (and us all) to a higher level of theological creativity in the ways I understand the text and the work it could be put to.
I express my gratitude to all involved who have made such an exercise possible, including the Maxwell Institute, the donors that make these types of activities possible, as well as to the directors (Joe and Adam) and my fellow participants. It has truly lifted my sights as to how I can conceive of and value collaborative exercises with regard to understanding the Book of Mormon specifically and more broadly, academic exercises generally.
The 2017 Mormon Theology Seminar recently wrapped up at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. In this guest post, Andrew Smith talks about his experience. Smith is an adjunct professor of Ancient Scripture and Middle Eastern Studies at Brigham Young University. See more reflections here.