Patrick Mason: Planted is faithful yet critically self-reflective

12.28.2015 | Guest

This guest post is by Patrick Q. Mason, the Howard W. Hunter Chair in Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University. His book Planted is the newest addition to the Maxwell Institute’s Living Faith series. You can read an adapted excerpt at LDS Living
Planted-finalPlanted is not the type of book I expected myself to write. I’ve always been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and have thus been interested in the spiritual welfare of my fellow church members. And I’ve always admired the thoughtful pastoral books by intellectuals such as C. S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eugene England, Adam Miller, and Terryl and Fiona Givens. But until about a year and a half ago I didn’t anticipate trying, however feebly, to join that august lineup. I went to graduate school to study American religious history, not Mormon history. Mormons turned out to be a big part of my dissertation, but I didn’t plan it that way. My first book The Mormon Menace is about late nineteenth-century anti-Mormon violence in the American south. I framed my analysis using Mormons as the object of study rather than as subjects in their own right. As I became more involved in recent years in the academic subfield of Mormon studies, due in large part to my professional position at Claremont Graduate University, I structured my teaching, research, and public interactions in such a way that, at least in my own mind, faced the broader non-Mormon world more so than my own church. I did this all with little to no cognitive dissonance—I suspect no more so than anyone else whose professional and personal lives share some points of commonality but are in fact rather distinct. Then a couple of years ago I was asked to give a “Why I Believe” fireside at the Los Angeles Temple Visitors Center. Shortly thereafter I joined Richard and Claudia Bushman in visits to Phoenix and Portland to talk about matters of faith and doubt in the contemporary church. I gave a series of similar firesides in southern California and Utah. During Q&A after the formal presentations, invariably someone would ask me, “Where can I buy the book?” I typically pointed them to other titles I admire and find helpful (such as Adam Miller’s Letters to a Young Mormon and Terryl & Fiona Givens’ Crucible of Doubt). But after several of these conversations I decided that perhaps I would have something to say that people might find helpful, and that a book would indeed be the best way to say it. Although informed deeply by my academic training, I don’t consider Planted to be an academic book. It won’t go on my professional vita or be part of my file for promotion at my university. This is me speaking as a Mormon to other Mormons, though I expect that a few other folks may profitably listen in to the conversation as well. It’s intended as an act of friendship, fellowship, and discipleship, not original peer-reviewed scholarship. I love the conversations I have in my professional community, but this is for the most part a conversation with my church community. Just as artists, bankers, and computer scientists have lives outside their chosen day jobs, so do scholars. Writing Planted was my main hobby for about a year. I probably need to get out more. . . Who is Planted for? On first glance, people naturally assume that it’s written to “doubters”—those in “faith crisis”—to assuage their doubts, answer their questions, and keep them in the church. But in fact I wasn’t particularly interested in writing a manual of answers I’ve crafted to other people’s gospel questions. I was far more interested in modeling a faithful yet critically self-reflective discussion for people at various points along the faith spectrum, from skeptics to true-blue believers, from those struggling to keep one toe in the church to the concerned bishops, Relief Society presidents, mothers, and grandfathers. Writing one book to multiple audiences was a challenging task, and insofar as I pulled it off I can thank the many people who gave me feedback along the way, most of all my Maxwell Institute editor Blair Hodges. I believe deeply in Paul’s metaphor of the body of Christ, with each part equally necessary to the functioning of the whole. I believe that the diversity of gifts in our human and church families is a blessing to draw strength from rather than a curse to be weeded out. I wanted to write a book that could speak to (and with) the whole body of Christ, not just one segment of it. I see the Restoration fundamentally as a project of bringing healing to a broken and fractured world (thanks to fellow scholar Phil Barlow for this insight). I wanted to offer whatever words I could to capture and promote that spirit of reconciliation, and indeed atonement, that I believe is at the heart of the gospel. Importantly, I intend Planted to be part of a grown-up conversation among grown-ups in what I hope is a grown-up religion. Perhaps more than anything I fear the juvenilization of Mormonism in which our religious knowledge and understanding often seems to be trapped somewhere between early morning seminary and EFY (however wonderful those things are—when you’re a teenager). I don’t believe that I learned everything I need to know in Primary or even in priests’ quorum. We build on childhood foundations in our secular knowledge but then move on to more mature and nuanced thought processes and models as we encounter a more complex world in our adult years. By the same logic, our religion should grow up with us. How we read scriptures when we are seven should change by the time we are seventeen, then again by the time we are forty-seven or seventy-seven. The same is true of how we think about prophets, or church history, or any number of other gospel topics. The principles of simple addition are no less true once we learn calculus—but you can’t build bridges or fly to the moon with grade school arithmetic. Adults can and should be sensitive about the proper time and place to have certain conversations. But just because a particular conversation perhaps shouldn’t occur in missionary discussions or even Gospel Doctrine class doesn’t mean it shouldn’t occur at all. Planted is my small attempt to foster more conversation within Mormonism. You might disagree with some of the points I make. Terrific! Let’s talk about it, with all the faith, generosity, learning, humility, and charity we can muster.