On January 9, 2015, Patrick Mason (Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University) appeared on Reddit to discuss a wide variety of topics related to Mormon studies.
Click here to read the remarks:
I agree with you that academic study is not necessarily destructive of faith. Although of course we must recognize that for many people it has been — not just for Mormons, but for believers of all kinds. This is one of the pressing issues facing religion in the modern age — how to remain relevant and provide meaningful answers in the face of a scientific and technological modernity that seems to be able to take care of all our needs and answer all our questions, all without the necessity of God (let alone any particular religious manifestation like Mormonism).
My academic studies have almost entirely been in history, religion, and peace studies. I must say that I find Mormonism to be a congenial framework that is able to incorporate what I have learned in the secular academy. I do not say this blithely — there is work to be done in terms of intellectual and existential reconciliation between these various ways of knowing. But Mormonism, at least as I understand and experience it, is a capacious, generous religion. It is predicated upon the notion of a universe full of intelligence(s). The basic premise is one of diversity and progression toward greater light and truth. So I’m with Brigham Young and all the others that say that Mormonism embraces all truth, regardless of where we find it. If it comes from people named Darwin, Marx, or Friedan, that’s just fine — they’re children of God too.
To be sure, along the way I’ve had to make some adjustments. My faith is not the same it was 20 years ago. Then again, I don’t think anybody’s faith should be the same as it was 20 years ago. Our faith should grow and mature and breathe and incorporate all our life experiences right along with us.
One problem we sometimes face in contemporary Mormonism (and this is true of other religions too) is that we sometimes juvenilize our religion. By that I mean that we develop a certain kind of spirituality and religious discourse that generally works for teenagers, and then we flash-freeze that as if it is the ideal form of religion. We don’t do that with other realms of human knowledge — we fully expect that our high school students will go on to college and learn more about the world, complicating the binaries and more simplistic or basic things they had learned earlier as part of age-appropriate education. 10th grade biology doesn’t fully explain the natural world. So why do we expect that 10th grade Seminary should fully explain the spiritual world? Both as individuals and as a church we have to develop the capacity to let our faith mature with us, meaning that it takes into greater account the complexities of life and the cosmos. Life generally gets messier as we age. Our religion should be able to handle that.
Sometimes I see people whose graduate school-level secular knowledge comes into conflict with their high school-level spiritual knowledge. When that happens, religion stands no chance. The kind of discourse we foster during the 3 hour block, which is suited for a general membership and appropriately tailored to “the least of these,” does not represent the sum total or depth capacities of Mormonism.
I’m a believer in a both-and approach. Meaning this: In our wards, much like our families, we do not choose our community (except to the extent that we choose where we live, which often correlates with socioeconomic opportunity and privilege). The geographically based ward, especially in areas where wards are larger and encompass a diversity of neighborhoods and thus people, is one of the geniuses of Mormonism. It is a brilliant sociological vehicle for discipleship. I’m very much a Eugene England “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel” guy here. We are forced to associate with people we wouldn’t normally choose to, and that is (if we allow it to be) redemptive.
But it can also be frustrating. So that’s why I think it’s also important for us to find communities of voluntary affinity — in other words, some group that you join to find community with people who are more or less like you in some way. Some people find this at work, others in their neighborhood, others in a bowling league, others online. Whatever it is, it’s important to find people that you can talk to about the things that really matter to you, in a voice that’s authentic. That can’t always be done at church on Sunday, because that’s not necessarily the point of church on Sunday.
So my view is that internet community can be a great supplement to flesh-and-blood community, though if had to choose between the two I would always opt for the latter. Fortunately we generally don’t have to make an either-or choice!