Thursday, March 05, 2009

My half-year assessment of CGU Mormon Studies

I was asked to give a short report tomorrow to the CGU LDS Council and several donors on my experience and views of this last year while doing Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University. Here is a little draft I put together:


After having studied and heavily participated in Mormon and Religious Studies at Utah Valley University (with Brian Birch , Boyd Petersen, Dennis Potter, and others), I was really looking forward to taking the discussions to a higher graduate level here at CGU.

Because of CGU's excellent philosophy of religion program, I had long ago decided that CGU was where I wanted to begin my graduate studies. Talk of a Mormon Studies program at this school increased this desire, and I watched the development closely with almost weekly updates about the progress and eventual selection of Richard Bushman as the new Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies. I had been a fan of both Claudia and Richard after discovering their writings during my mission nearly a decade ago and looked forward to studying with them here. In my view, there was nobody better to begin and head the academic study of Mormonism at this university.

After a semester and half at CGU, I would say that my experience of Mormon Studies here has been a combination of gratification, excitement, disappointment, and worry.

First.... what I'll call the good news. The Mormon Studies program and the Claremont Mormon Studies Student Association have brought together several students and professors that are very intuitive into the various issues of Mormonism and understand well the academic study of religion. Because of them, in our classes, discussions, and informal lunches, I have peers who I can expect to both teach and challenge me. As a wannabe Mormon scholar, I am very gratified to have a community with the peers and resources to expand my studies. Non-LDS faculty here at CGU have also been very informative and willing to engage Mormon Studies from their different disciplines.

Furthermore, the Mormon Studies courses, lectures, meetings, and discussions here have almost all been a gem and delight for me. Our monthly lectures, and especially the afternoon semi-informal discussions with the invited speakers and other grad students have been a highlight of my experience here so far. I have found them edifying both intellectually and spiritually.

So now what I call the bad news. While I came here with a lot of excitement and hope to move from an undergraduate to a graduate level study of Mormonism, I have left too many classes and discussions very disappointed. In fact, I remember leaving some of my first Mormon studies classes a bit bewildered at the experience. Rather than something that I thought I would find in a graduate course, I felt like I was often sitting in something I would expect from an institute or Sunday school class. In many instances it has felt like academic rigor had been replaced with (or almost completely smothered by) testimony bearing or absolutist faith claims. This, I believe, has been mainly due to LDS students who do not understand the academic study of religion (or do not have a desire to study Mormonism in a scholarly way), and instead see these courses here as a sort-of elevated institute class taught by a prestigious name. I feel there has also been a failure at times by instructors to reign in the course to ensure that it is an academic discussion and not a devotional one. Having spent and gone thousands of dollars in debt to have in depth and rigorous discussions at this graduate university, it was frustrating to feel like those discussions were sometimes impossible because of certain students who had to be coddled and protected.

This is not to say that religious beliefs and claims should not be made in the discussions. (It would be ludicrous to study religion without them). Rather, in order to have a proper discussion, they must be given and discussed as a religious belief, and not the religious belief—and certainly not as the truth or the fact of reality. If someone says that an argument or claim is false because it goes against their personal beliefs, or if someone wants to say that a particular claim is absolute and unquestionable truth, then further discussion is impossible.

This leads to worries that I have about Mormon Studies at CGU. In my view, the success and survival of Mormon Studies here depends on three things: Support (whether implicit or explicit) of the LDS Church and LDS community; financial support of donors; and finally, the meeting of academic standards and rigor. While these are all important, for me the last of these is of the utmost importance. If Mormon Studies here cannot be a truly academic exercise, then it is essentially bankrupt and, in my view, not worth pursuing. While I believe that apologetics and polemics can (and perhaps ought to be pursued) in order for Mormon Studies here to be a viable academic exercise, the truthfulness of Mormon theological, historical, and faith claims cannot be a priori judgments. In other words, we cannot begin Mormon studies with the claim that the LDS Church is the true church or that LDS beliefs are true beliefs. LDS beliefs, claims about what are LDS beliefs, and criticism of LDS beliefs must all be open for criticism and discussion—this includes potential criticisms of actions and pronouncements by LDS leaders.

My worry is that in an effort to please the LDS community and financial donors, the academic integrity of Mormon Studies might be jeopardized. While I believe that donors should have a say in how their money is used, their input should be limited from prohibiting (either directly or indirectly) any particular topic for, or type of, discussion. If any important or desired topic is made taboo or avoided in fear of losing organizational or financial support, then the credibility of calling Mormon Studies at CGU a truly academic program should be seriously questioned.


  1. loyd- it's a shame that it ends up being devotional time, often. i know that's happened pretty frequently @ good old uvu, but we have professor's who are on top of that so much (maybe to avoid the perception that these classes could/should function in a devotional manner)that testimony bearing by any student was quickly shifted into academic discussion (for the most part). i'm taking a mormon lit class right now, and it's actually been pretty satisfying (but not for academic reasons, because, as i've told boyd now, the course, while it may be academic for some, really functions like church for me. it's like i just say everything that i think SHOULD be said at church, and then everyone agrees/disagrees. i can't decide how i feel about it in an academic setting.
    the one thing we've really been discussing in that course (and i wish you were there to have these conversations) is whether or not you can have mormon art that isn't didactic/faith-promoting and still have it be considered MORMON art. i think the same goes w/ mormon studies. i'm of course firmly entrenched in the belief that OF COURSE you can do mormon studies w/o being faith-promoting (though it doesn't HAVE to be), but i th ink people have a difficult time separating their spiritual beliefs from philosophical reasoning (maybe i've just had too many brian classes). i have no problem believing something philosophically that contradicts what i may believe spiritually (or at minimum, working through something philosophically/academically w/o worrying about it shaking my faith)but i think many people struggle with that, for reasons i don't understand.

    anyway, i'm sorry that this program isn't quite what you expected. hopefully you can find ways to get what you want out of it.

  2. don't get me wrong. i'm enjoying it here very much. and i think the mormon studies here is excellent. i've just had a share of frustrating and disappointing experiences as well.

    is your class with boyd?

    and have you read 'the backslider'?

  3. Crazy. I would think there would be a few that would not be able to put aside their bias for an academic approach, but not so many. Hopefully, they can fix that w/ your help.

  4. So what happened when you met with the CGU LDS Council?


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