Why does the Maxwell Institute publish perspectives of scholars from other faiths?

03.27.2015 | Blair Hodges

As the field of Mormon studies grows, more and more non-Latter-day Saints are contributing to the scholarly conversation. Scholars often differ on fundamental matters ranging from the nature of faith claims to the nature of academic work. It can be difficult for religious believers to read perspectives from those who don’t share all of their faith commitments. But identifying truth, which is the aim of religious as well as academic explorations, requires open hearts and open minds. Fortunately, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship has a history of academic engagement to build upon in its exploration of the intersections of faith and scholarship.

Soon after Brian M. Hauglid assumed the editorship of the Maxwell Institute’s Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, he signaled his desire to widen its scope by including a larger variety of scholars from within and outside the Latter-day Saint tradition. Christian scholar Paul Owen contributed an interesting article to the latest issue that takes a non-traditional outsider’s look at the Book of Mormon. (If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, digital subscriptions only cost ten dollars.) In the next post we’ll take a closer look at that article and some recent criticisms of it, but first it’s worthwhile to reflect on the broader issue of working with scholars of other faiths in an academic environment. Rather than a departure from the Journal‘s past work, this signals an enhancement of it. So we ask:

Why publish the perspective of a scholar from another faith tradition?

It helps to begin by remembering that what’s happening today is not entirely new. For instance, almost 40 years ago Truman G. Madsen organized a landmark academic conference at Brigham Young University where scholars from different religious and academic backgrounds addressed Judeo-Christian parallels with Mormonism. In the book that grew out of that conference, Madsen explained that “the contributors neither assumed nor intended endorsement of [BYU’s] religious rootage nor of each other’s views.” In other words, scholars were invited to participate even if they didn’t share all beliefs—devotional or otherwise—with the conference’s Latter-day Saint sponsors. But differences in perspective, Madsen continued, “in no way diminished the good will of the group.” One participant, Lutheran bishop of Stockholm Krister Stendahl, was so impressed with his experience that he went on to contribute an essay to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism on baptism for the dead. (Stendahl is also known for coining the phrase “holy envy,” an attitude he said faithful believers would benefit from cultivating toward other religious traditions.) Dr. James Charlesworth, a world renowned scholar of the New Testament and Dead Sea Scrolls, contributed a piece to that volume in which he situated some of the messianic claims of the Book of Mormon alongside instances of biblical “pseudepigrapha.” ((See the Preface in Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels, ed. Truman G. Madsen (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1978), ix–x.))

Scholars from other (or sometimes from no) faith traditions have occasionally been called upon to provide insight which Latter-day Saints can benefit from regardless of whether they agree with the different view. In 2007, LDS scholar David Bokovoy and non-LDS scholar Michael Heiser published an exchange in the Institute’s FARMS Review about Psalm 82, the famous “ye are gods” passage of Hebrew scripture. As an outsider, Heiser was given the last word in that volume, even though his interpretation of the passage ran contrary to typical LDS readings. Martin E. Marty and Massimo Introvigne are two more such scholars who have contributed in the past to Institute publications. The Mormon Studies Review‘s recent roundtable on teaching Mormon studies in the academy featured a number of non-LDS professors offering very helpful suggestions and perspectives (thankfully including more women’s voices in an Institute publication than ever). And by the end of the year the Institute will publish its first full-length book focusing on the Book of Mormon written by someone of a different faith background: comparative religion philosopher Jad Hatem.

Given that interacting with such a variety of scholars is not new, we return to the question as to whether it’s useful. Why publish some of the views of people who aren’t Latter-day Saints in LDS-related venues? There are many reasons for this; here are just a few from my personal perspective.

Doing so allows us to participate in the ongoing wider scholarly conversation as good-faith partners in dialogue. By taking others seriously we increase the willingness of others to take us seriously. By hosting such discussions we can help ensure that the tone follows the highest standards of civility and fairness. We learn to hold ourselves as well as others accountable to the acceptable canons of scholarship and basic human respect. We hone our own perspectives and encourage others to follow suit. By paying close attention to the reasoned articulations of scholars of other faiths, believing scholars become more familiar with how we are perceived by outsiders. We can learn to grapple with the best and brightest scholars and the most challenging claims. In this way we might help make truth manifest by “proving contraries,” just as the prophet Joseph Smith encouraged. Editors at the Institute don’t always agree with the conclusions of articles they publish. The idea is to facilitate discussion from a variety of perspectives, including at times disagreement.

At the end of the day, we recognize that spiritual claims require spiritual answers. We confess our insufficiency to force the hand of the Spirit of truth. Therefore, we try to engage academically in humility and not with a spirit of arrogance, aggressiveness, dismissiveness, or divisiveness. Labeling others as “anti-Mormons,” for instance, runs counter to the spirit of academic engagement, as well as our understanding of what it means to exhibit Christian values in our interactions with others in general. ((In this regard, see Elder Robert D. Hales, “Christian Courage: The Price of Discipleship,” October 2008 General Conference.))

Modeling disciple-scholarship at Brigham Young University

In a world where religious division leads to so much pain, destruction, and violence, Brigham Young University’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship is peculiarly situated to model the sort of honest, open, and respectful engagement that academic scholarship on religion makes possible and which scholars should seek to uphold. This may lead to occasional discomfort for some readers, but every writer knows it’s not possible to please everyone. The best we can do is ask people to consider carefully the arguments themselves, maintain a civil mode of discussion, and contribute to the conversation themselves in a united effort to seek truth. Such considerations apply not only to the work we publish dealing with Latter-day Saint scriptures and topics, but also to our important work on other religious texts and traditions.

This model is a unique contribution the Institute makes to the wider academy, and we gratefully do it here at BYU. There are nuances between the opinions of each Institute member, but collectively we try to work in accordance with our namesake Elder Neal A. Maxwell’s injunction to exhibit the characteristics of Christian discipleship in our scholarship:

The member who is an automobile mechanic does not likely have all the skills of a scholar, and not likely you the mechanic’s [skills]. But both of you are under the same spiritual obligations to keep the same commandments and the same covenants. Furthermore, the mechanic is under the same obligation to develop the attributes of patience and meekness as are you.”

We may not always succeed in exhibiting meekness and patience in our work, but it’s a standard we strive to uphold. We’ll have more to say about working with scholars from different backgrounds in future blog posts. The Maxwell Institute Podcast frequently raises similar questions with regard to other religious traditions. Coming up next, however, we continue the new “Scholar to Scholar” blog series wherein two scholars dialogue with each other from different perspectives in order to provide clarity and insight to interested observers as well as to model civil and scholarly engagement. Paul Owen joins us to discuss his recent contribution to the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies in our next blog post.

Stick around.