“A social scientist swimming with the humanists”—Christy Spackman on the 2018 Mormon Theology Seminar
I recently attended a conference panel exploring interdisciplinary work. One of the participants talked about the difficulty of being invited as a humanist into the project of social science colleagues. As she highlighted the assumptions about similarities in method and approach her colleagues imposed on her, and mourned the lack of understanding of the gulf between their worlds, I wondered what lacunae I had about the differences between my research approach and that of a humanist.
I probably would have forgotten this conversation, left it to collect dust bunnies in the dark corners of my memory, except that it was followed a few days later by the first week of the 2018 Mormon Theology Seminar. I had applied because of all the scriptural passages in the Book of Mormon I have read in my personal, devotional study, I find Mosiah 4 especially sticky: it obdurately appears every time you walk down the street and someone asks you for money, it pops back into view when a friend posts about an acquaintance’s surgery on social media, and for me, it sticks because of the funny little line in 4:14 that “ye will not suffer your children that they go hungry or naked.” As a food studies scholar and feeder of people, I professionally and personally am curious as to what context might motivate a political and spiritual leader like Benjamin to address such a charge at his people. I anticipated, rightly so, that a week of intensive examination of chapter 4 would offer insights into that question. What I failed to anticipate, however, was the way interdisciplinarity would simultaneously complicate and facilitate the effort at “doing” theology.
Rather than focus on the complications–let’s just say this social scientist found it an exhilarating challenge to jump in and swim with the humanists, one that at times felt like drowning – I want to focus on the facilitations.
Facilitation 1. New Definitions
What is theology? This question haunted me throughout my two weeks. My computer’s dictionary suggests theology is the study of the nature of God and religious belief, and gives it a sub-definition of religious beliefs and theory when systematically developed.
To me, the word theology feels a lot like the word politics
: familiar at first, but increasingly strange as one begins trying to actually define and do. Before the seminar, I would not have considered theology a word that requires constant poking at, that engages one in an ongoing, iterative practice of defining, and in the process, practicing. Adam, Joe, and Rosalynde have certainly thought about this question, suggesting that the mode of doing theology they are developing is one that “ventures hypotheses based on close readings of Mormon scripture and then tests the relative strengths of those readings not only in terms of their historical and canonical viability, but especially, in terms of their ability to investigate, display, and participate in the reality of Christ’s power to redeem the world.”
In other words, this is a theology closely tied to seeing how the text can have effect on lives lived.
Facilitation 2. New Tools
Doing is often best done with the help of tools. The seminar acts like a workshop, with each participant showing how they do, with their tools, and then in turn learning and trying on others’ tools, either through adapting and riffing on the findings those tools offered or simply just giving them a try. This process made explicit for me something I first started wondering about when reading Bruno Latour’s work in 2015 as I finished polishing my dissertation: can one place theory in conversation with Mormon belief and scripture in productive ways? Apparently, yes! Varied theoretical approaches (examples include phenomenology, settler colonialism, new materialism, actor-network theory) offered different insights into the text, while asking all to willingly toggle between expertise and ignorance. This is an interesting process, pulling one into practicing the sort of intellectual humility I think is necessary for the aims of the seminar to actually be met.
Facilitation 3. New Networks
Finally, doing is best done together. I will be intrigued to see how the informal network of two weeks together persists, how efforts to “read with charity” might become larger efforts to work at distance as well as close together.
Hear Christy Spackman’s presentation here.
In this guest post, Christy Spackman talks about her experience at the 2018 Mormon Theology Seminar at the Cittadella Ospitalità in Assisi, Italy. She was the Hixon-Riggs Early Career Fellow in Science, Technology, and Society at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont and will be starting an assistant professorship in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University this fall. She currently is the co-director of the SSRC Bodies of Water working group. See more Seminar reflections here.