...except for me and my monkey! "Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see." -Rene Magritte

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Mormonism, magic, and Mircea Eliade (Or: Good things happen on the Pioneer Express.)

Last night as I was coming back up to campus from work downtown, I ran into Will from my Seminar in Early American Religion. You know Will: black hair, skateboard, smoker's voice, likes to talk about how Santa Claus is the popular religious/pop culture appropriation of Jesus? What I might have forgotten to mention earlier is that brother's, like, brilliant. His insights into the readings are always enlightening, he's an engaging speaker even despite his NorCal verbal tics (and I also say "like" and "you know" and "kinda" a lot, so I'm not one to talk), and he's super well-versed in the theory. Mircea Eliade came up in the reading the other day, and he was all, "Oh, Eliade? Wasn't he the central editor of the Encyclopedia of Religion?" like, who knows that stuff? But he's the kind of guy who uses "Durkheimian" as an adjective, which is to say, exactly the kind of guy I like.

(As a side note, one of the reasons I love the seminar so much is that we're all like that, to varying degrees. I'm the least familiar with the theory because I haven't taken Methods in the Study of Religion yet, but with the other four students--and Aimee in particular, who is equally as brilliant as Will--it's like, you say "liminality" and they all shout "Victor Turner!" "Purity and danger?" "Mary Douglas!" I'm learning a ton, needless to say, and realizing more and more that I've never met a Religious Studies major I didn't like.)

So Will and I were talking on the shuttle on the way back up to campus about our respective religious beliefs, the classes we've taken in the department, our plans for after graduation (Will: "I think anyone who seriously engages in the Religious Studies discipline can't help but want to dedicate their whole life to it.") and how people always think that Religious Studies majors want to pursue religious vocations (my favorite response when I tell people I'm a Religious Studies/Hispanic Studies double major: "Oh...oh. So...you're going to be a nun in Mexico?" Me: "Yes. Yes, I am.") In the course of discussion, he brings up the book we're currently reading for our seminar: Early Mormonism and the Magic World View by D. Michael Quinn. You might recall that this was one of the books I was drunkenly expounding upon to a sober and bemused Ryan on Saturday evening. It's seriously 646 pages long, but the last 320 pages are endnotes, no joke.

Will mentioned how surprised he was, when reading the book, to learn that Quinn is a believing Mormon, even after being excommunicated from the LDS church for his scholarship, which has focused on the role of magic, the occult, and supernatural beliefs in early Mormonism; the hierarchy of the LDS church and how far it's strayed from its original parameters; homosexuality and same-sex practices among the early church fathers (Quinn himself is gay, which probably didn't help things); and the gender dynamics within Mormon theology, such as the Mother in Heaven. Will was surprised that Quinn could produce such a nontraditional, objective account and analysis of the beliefs of and influences on Joseph Smith and the early Mormon community, while still believing, by Quinn's own admission in the Introduction, in the divine quality and truth of Smith's revelations. I think Will described it as something like, "Objective, objective, objective....FAITH! Whoa!"

We discussed this in class on Tuesday, and the professor Susanna talked a little about how she feels bad for Quinn, because as a religious scholar of religion writing for a scholarly audience, he has it about a hundred times harder than a secular or athiest scholar. It's pretty easy to write about how Joseph Smith was a liar and a counterfeiter and believed in all this kooky magic and seeing stones and made up all the revelations, and there's an audience for that sort of work. That was actually much closer to the approach taken in the last book we read, Brooke's The Refiner's Fire: The Making of the Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844, and what's more, few scholars are going to object to that sort of approach, even if it's totally decried by the Mormon Historical Association and FARMS, this institute out of BYU that tries to prove the archaelogical existance of the Golden Tablets. It's also pretty easy to take the totally opposite approach and deny that Joseph Smith ever engaged in magic and that the Golden Tablets were historical artifacts that have just been lost and that Smith really did translate the Tablets with the help of the angel Moroni, and even if, say, the American Historical Association totally discounts those scholars' work, it is internally stable, you know? Someone like Quinn, though, gets it from both sides: the secular scholars complain that he's not objective, the Mormon scholars claim that he's not faithful enough and go so far as to kick him out of their club.

I feel bad for him, too. It's an issue I've been thinking about for awhile now, ever since I went to this discussion over the summer hosted by the Religious Studies department at the University of Oregon about the place of faith in the Academy. As a Christian, how does my faith inform what I choose to study and how I approach it? Are there inherent contradictions in my being a practicing Christian and my acceptance of the historical/critical theories about the composition of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, for instance? Can I profess a faith in the risen Jesus Christ and the divine inspiration of Scripture while acknowledging the true fact that the Gospels, as they exist in any Bible you'd care to open, never existed in that exact form, as the texts from which the translations were made were pieced together from thousands of fragments?

The answers to the last two questions are no and yes, respectively, but the first question is one that I continue to grapple with and probably will be grappling with throughout my academic career--not to mention throughout my spiritual life. All I can say for sure, now, is that I have a tremendous amount of respect for scholars and people like Quinn who are able to reconcile the two. At this point in the conversation, I brought in Prof. Kugler, my Religious Studies advisor and a man before whom I stand in awe. Kugler is both a prominent Dead Sea Scrolls and Hebrew Bible scholar and an ordained (though no longer active) Lutheran minister. In my spiritual and intellectual journey, I'm glad to have role models like Kugler and Quinn to guide me, and I'm glad to have classes like Seminar in Early American Religion to make me care enough to engage the questions.