The following comment was originally authored to appear in the comments section of Brigham Young University Professor Daniel C. Peterson's blog post entitled Recovering, at long last, from the plague of Mormon exceptionalism. It was initially held in the "Review Cue," and subsequently rejected for publication. There is part of me that understands perfectly well why it was rejected. It is confrontational, at least to a certain degree. Furthermore, in a private communication to Professor Peterson (while the post was still being held for review), I informed him that, should he opt to reject it, I would understand, and would not be offended at all. Nor am I offended. Not only that, but I'm vaguely aware of the fact that (in the immortal words of Ronnie Van Zant) there are things goin' on that you don't know, and therefore there are some boats that it is just better not to rock at this point in time.
In any event, Dan Peterson and I have been acquainted for many years now. I consider him a friend. I hope he reciprocates the sentiment. But after contemplating the question for the past few days, I have decided that I will post my rejected comment here, in a place that is the functional equivalent of a black hole. It was made in direct reply to an earlier comment by Harvard Divinity School Professor David F. Holland.
David Holland wrote:
“I believe that … a discourse that publicly presses people to make a statement that satisfies our own emotional needs may be precisely what is wrong with much of our conversation.”
This statement—whether he intended this or not, and I assume he did not—comes across as disturbingly condescending. Indeed, it strikes me as an evasive reflex; almost as it were a talking point drawn from a box labeled: “Things to say to suggest my interlocutors are small-minded, superficial, and inclined to anti-intellectual emotionalism.”
In any case, it could be a valid point, but one that is utterly irrelevant to the actual topic of discussion as established by Dan’s original post. (More on that below.)
His assertion that there is something "wrong with much of our conversation" seems little more than a cursory condemnation writ large; painted with the broad strokes of an annoyed intellectual elitist, and lacking precious little authentic sensitivity to the concerns being voiced by the questioner. It brings to mind Cotton Mather's supremely self-assured exclamation: "Ah, destructive ignorance, what shall be done to chase thee out of the world!"
It is always easy to find fault where and when we are looking for it, but in this case, it appears to me that the fault is not in our conversation, but in Holland's failure to apprehend the issue as it really is, rather than as he would wrest it to be.
“I suppose what you're asking about is historicity.”
Holland's supposition appears deliberately calculated to "shrink the space"; the scope; the fundamental parameters of the controversy. In my estimation, it is effectively a caricature of the actual argument, and, as such, it exudes a certain patronizing disrespect towards those who have here (and elsewhere) voiced serious and well-articulated objections to the “new direction” of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.
The question is absolutely not whether, generally speaking, LDS scholars writing about Mormonism should be subjected to some sort of "testimony litmus test," or otherwise feel themselves bound to append to everything they write or say an unqualified declaration of allegiances.
The question is, very specifically: As faithful members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, what fundamental principles and premises should we reasonably expect to hold sway in relation to the mission and publications of Brigham Young University's Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship?
"… I confess to some fear that in responding to your post I am abetting a cultural tendency to shrink the amount of space we afford people to work out their faith and salvation—something we may do at our peril as a people …"
I have been careful for many years to closely observe those who suffer from this rather common visceral aversion to abetting the cultural tendencies of the Saints. I confess they have the tendency of arousing my suspicions regarding their true allegiances. This is not to suggest, by any means, that there is not good reason, in many instances, to find fault with and even work to root out certain “cultural tendencies” that have been proven conclusively deleterious to the progress of the Kingdom. But when one waxes bold in lamenting the alleged tendency of the Saints “to shrink the amount of space we afford people to work out their faith and salvation,” my internal universal translator always renders the phrase: “We must enlarge the borders of our definition of deviance, and make greater allowances for those whose behavior (no doubt arising from "sincere convictions") inexorably rushes in to fill all the space for deviation our expanded tolerance will allow."
As for whether or not our cultural tendencies pose genuine perils to us as a people, I am reminded of H. L. Mencken's prescient observation concerning politics in general (and, make no mistake, the issue at hand is one of a peculiarly political nature):
"The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."
In the case of the previous regime at the Maxwell Institute, one of the "hobgoblins" employed by their political rivals was the baseless imputation of vicious polemical apologetics.
At any rate, Holland concludes, seemingly without affectation:
"I do stand ready to give everyone who asks a reason for the hope that is in me: I believe there were plates. I believe Nephi was a real person. I believe Alma was a real person. I believe Moroni was a real person. I have committed my life to and rested my heavenly hope on this faith. This has served me well; the Book has enlarged my soul, enlightened my understanding, and it is delicious to me."
I consider this an eloquent statement of faith.
I can only hope all the words really mean what I think they mean.