I’ve often assumed there’s inherent tension between lived Mormonism and the marginal, intellectual offshoots that exist presumably either to bolster or critique the living tradition. Having recently returned from the Mormon Theology Seminar, I’m inclined to rethink this picture. It’s not that I became convinced one can successfully straddle the two worlds of faith and reason, or that the enigmatic Book of Mormon innately invites scholarly analysis—though I’ve heard these arguments before and maybe they are true. More simply, I observed that this unique intellectual project thrived off of ordinary Latter-day Saint commitments.
The roster was filled with formidable academics (I was the exception), and our method of analysis—reading, writing, rereading, revising, discussing, rereading, and rewriting—wasn’t anything unusual. But applied to the Book of Mormon, each step was accompanied by the awkward intensity of our care for the text, so that participants brought enthusiasm and sincerity irreducible to their professional skill. It was clear that however we had decided to do so, we had each staked our lives somewhere in relation to the Book of Mormon. This meant every reading was a minor self-revelation, every revision a moment of repentance. It also made the process incredibly fun.
It stands to be said that care for the Book of Mormon proved distinct from belief about it; we weren’t always in agreement about the passage we were reading—a selection of Mosiah 4—nor about particulars regarding the Book of Mormon in general—its internal arguments, the nature of its origins, the analytical style best-suited to it, etc. Our discussions were speculative and open-ended; by the end we had a handful of nascent theories but also of uprooted, perplexing dilemmas.
Yet our mutual care was crucial to the success of our little intellectual community. Without it, our interdisciplinary group would have struggled to communicate. Our familiarity with Latter-day Saint life—its emergent possibilities for thinking about scriptural authority, historicity, and hermeneutics—served as an intermediary language to translate disagreements and misunderstandings, when they arose. The particular textures, and dimensions of our habitual disciplinary and sub-disciplinary silos, as well as our sloppy attachments to them, were gradually exposed to each other. I felt myself both challenged and gathered up as we attempted to align our understandings of the text with what its details supported.
At some point, it occurred to me that the project of the Mormon Theology Seminar is not utterly different from the one Mormon parents teach to their children, and missionaries their investigators. The common method is to experiment with the Book of Mormon, to take it up as an object of significance which demands a life of listening, searching, repenting, always with a “sincere heart” (Moroni 10: 4). Before arriving at any conclusions, you are asked simply to care about the book. Through your care, your world is rendered anew, as not-yet-understood, and you are to attend to it with “real intent”, which any Sunday school teacher will tell you means you are willing to act on the answer you receive.
That the MTS attends directly to text while many Latter-day Saints direct their searching within the vicissitudes of life itself—attending to family and church obligations and pursuits of self-improvement—perhaps makes it a more distinctly intellectual project. I’m not overly knowledgeable or concerned about the boundaries, but want to point out the attitude of earnestness that grounds and defines both approaches. Whether you’re the type to read the Mormon Theology Seminar proceedings or the type to declare with flagrant certainty “the Book of Mormon is true” and call it good, the effect of caring for the book is a life lived either in the light or in the shadow of its exhortation to be sincere and willing to change.
Hear Diana Brown’s presentation here.
In this guest post, Diana Brown talks about her experience at the 2018 Mormon Theology Seminar at the Cittadella Ospitalità in Assisi, Italy. Brown is an interreligious coordinator at Georgetown University’s Campus Ministry. She earned an MA and BA in Sociology from BYU. She bakes, too. See more Seminar reflections here.