Sunday, March 23, 2008

Response to Richard Bushman Part I: Foolishness

I have great respect for Richard Bushman. His first book "Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism" was an inspiration. Later articles and his book length biography of Joseph Smith cemented him as a personal intellectual hero. The Pew Forum interview was pure genious. Because of this, it came as a shock that I disagreed with much of his latest talk given at Weber State University about intellectual prospects for Mormonism.

Perhaps it has to do with my own conclusions I have made after the failed attempt by Gov. Romney to secure the Republican nomination for U.S. President. There was viciousness from media, religionists, secularists and the general public that made me rethink Mormonism's place in the world. The most potent observation is that perhaps Mormonism doesn't have a place in the world; at least beyond its own peculiarities. That is where what Richard Bushman's views in this talk and my own part company.

“how can an educated person like yourself believe all those things?” [audience laughter] So it had been a trap that this clever man had sneakily snared me with. Well, my answer was this: all the revealed religions are based on miracles. Christianity has its resurrection, Judaism has the parting of the Red Sea and the visit of God on Mount Sinai, and Islam has Mohammed being carried by Gabriel in the night to Jerusalem for a vision. And those revelations, those miracles, are always the most controversial but the most powerful part of the religion because they represent the moment when God intervenes into the world. And it gives immense momentum to people that think that they are in touch with the divine. But at the same time they are always contested simply because they are so miraculous and fabulous. And that’s simply the state with Mormonism.

I partly agree with this answer and his continuation of this theme. Where I disagree is the idea that familiarity comes from age. This is not completely true because there are any number of new religions that exist that don't get half the scorn toward followers. What really bothers people is numbers mixed with differences. That might even be where the hatred and fear of Mormonism (the question of legitimacy) comes from. The history of religion isn't about missionary work, but about the spread of religion by violence. No major religion has grown without fear and violence as a tool. Any talk of Mormonism becoming a real religious movement gives over to that unspoken knowledge.

Christianity never had the respect and numbers until Constantine made it a National Faith backed by the military. He fought under the banner of the cross and forced others to choose the faith or death. Islam was not much different although Christians pretend otherwise. Like Constantine before him, Muhummad's faith grew in numbers and territory by military conquest. Those who followed them both continued missionary work with the sword and political power. Protestants continued this way of growth as governments picked up official religious positions and wars were fought about the true faith of the fathers.

That is one of the reasons I don't believe Mormonism will ever be a World Religion, although it is an International Church. Despite the fears of anti-Mormons, the religion doesn't have a violent tendancy involved in its growth. Any violence in Mormon thought and history is related to self preservation. There was a fear, real and imagined, that it was the Mormons that would be wiped out. Besides, the scriptures indicate that Mormonism will be wide spread, but ultimately hardly worth mentioning. As Nephi says in 1 Nephi 14:

11 And it came to pass that I looked and beheld the whore of all the earth, and she sat upon many waters; and she had dominion over all the earth, among all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people.

12 And it came to pass that I beheld the church of the Lamb of God, and its numbers were few, because of the wickedness and abominations of the whore who sat upon many waters; nevertheless, I beheld that the church of the Lamb, who were the saints of God, were also upon all the face of the earth; and their dominions upon the face of the earth were small, because of the wickedness of the great whore whom I saw.

Nephi continues to say that violence against the Saints and others keep the numbers small. Knowledge and education can change people's minds. War changes the views and direction of civilization.

Bushman next argues that getting to know Mormons will change people's minds about the religion. He states:

What is really important is for people who are so skeptical to meet sane, wise, effective, balanced individuals who can do all the things that are required in the world and do them well and still have in their heads somewhere a belief that an angel appeared to Joseph Smith; that there were gold plates. That assurance that those apparently extreme beliefs can have a place in a very ordinary, good person is what is going to have more effect in taking the edge off of the fabulous side of Mormonism than anything else.

Yet, his own observations before this goes completely against the conclusion:

And he said the peculiar thing about the Mormons is the extreme normalcy of the people and the extreme oddity of their beliefs. This split is so evident to him, and I’ve had scholarly friends who have made the same comment, “a wonderful community, but an empty religion” is the phrase that one of them used. Well, we have thought that because we are accepted and admired as a people, now speaking for my people, the Mormons, that our religious claims were equally respectable. And these last few years have shown that we were wrong.

There is not going to be a respect for Mormonism, and that is something that must be accepted. No amount of intellectual or theological discussion is going to change the minds of the vast majority of theologins and intellectuals. Those are the two groups he indicates are the most intrenched in their negative views. At this point I believe all his arguments about trying to fit Mormonism into a broader intellectual respectability fail. If you can't get them to take you seriously, as he continually states will not happen, then why argue how to get them to take you seriously? I wonder if Richard Bushman is making a joke with this or if he doesn't realize the paradox? He doesn't seem to indicate a realization of the paradox, but he does say perhaps Mormons should take their religion as a joke.

I am reminded of what Paul said in 1 Corinth. 1:18 when talking about the Jews and Greeks views of the Gospel, "For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God." Mormonism is not going to be respected by large numbers of people. It will be a small and insignificant religion until the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Spreading the Gospel with missionary work is both important and a commandment. However, it is time Mormons should stop trying to get in the good graces of others and start living on their own terms. Of course, as Bushman said, we need to decide what those terms are.

Part II will be criticism of what Bushman said those terms should be. That includes his thoughts Temple sacred secrecy and the Mormon label of Christian. His paradoxes continue when he tries too hard to accomidate while trying to explain how they are not accomidations.


Anonymous said...

A couple of things to point out:

Not all world religions are spread by violence. Buddhism moved to China and East Asia without the violence seen in the other movements you speak of.

Many of the "intellectuals" you refer to which "won't listen" actually will listen if you take the time to listen to them.

Is your position that we should basically forget what others think about us and do our own thing?

Papa D said...

Fwiw, your problems and answers don't match Bushman's actual words. I agree with everything Bushman wrote in the sections you quoted; I agree with most of what you wrote - in isolation. I just don't see your criticism as valid for Bushman's actual statements.

smallaxe, don't discount totally the violence and political alliances within Buddhism's history. I agree its spread was not due to institutional violence to the extent that others were, but it was not absent.

Anonymous said...


Dude, the Mormon religion will indeed be a Major World Religion. So prophesieth Joseph Smith. So are you saying that this church of ours will soon start employing fear and violence to increase those numbers?

Anonymous said...

smallaxe, don't discount totally the violence and political alliances within Buddhism's history. I agree its spread was not due to institutional violence to the extent that others were, but it was not absent.

The claim being made isn't about political alliances and violence in Buddhism's history in China/East Asia, but a specific kind of violence related to growth and conversion. I'd be greatful if you could point to a series of qualifying events which meet the criteria jetboy set out as far as Buddhism in China is concerned. I believe he uses the following descriptions:

"isn't about missionary work, but about the spread of religion by violence", "[not] grown without fear and violence as a tool", "never had the respect and numbers until... backed by the military", "forced others to choose the faith or death", "faith grew in numbers and territory by military conquest", "continued missionary work with the sword and political power", "wars were fought about the true faith of the fathers", or "a violent tendancy involved in its growth".

BHodges said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BHodges said...


Thanks for the blog connection, jettboy. I believe you may be speaking passed Bushman here.

One of Bushman's points was that there are things we can't force as far as perception goes. We can be who we are, though, and go from there.

(And from there we ought to provide more than "your church false my church true" or "your religion has plenty of good!" kind of discussion with non-Mormons.)

Papa D said...

smallaxe, I don't think we disagree much - if at all. All I said was not to discount violence and political alliance in the spread of Buddhism "totally". I simply wanted to make the point that even Buddhism has been enforced by weaponry at various times in various locations. Warrior monks are a long and storied tradition in China and Japan.

Having said that, I agree completely that it did not spread in the same manner (especially internationally) as Christianity and Islam did.

Izgad said...

"There was viciousness from media, religionists, ecularists and the general public that made me rethink Mormonism's place in the world."


Jettboy said...

izgad, corrected. Not that there aren't other problems if doing a full edit. I consider blogging personal musings, not a professional publication. A lot of people "ding" me for that.

If you have any substantial thoughts on my post, I would like to read them.