Chris Smith’s remarks are entitled, “What Hath Oxford to do with Salt Lake?” As the token non-LDS scholar on the panel, he raised questions about historical approaches to Mormon Studies, scholarly treatment of LDS truth claims, and the fine line he walks with academic and personal colleagues if he expresses views that contradict or critique LDS understandings.
Chris described one way academics have approached religious studies–by bracketing or suspending judgment regarding truth claims and faith claims of the group they’re studying. Then he described what he called four bad arguments for this suspensive historiography approach:
1. Religious beliefs are theological, not empirical; truth claims fall outside of a historian’s job description. Chris argues that Mormon history does have empirical elements that can be explored–and that it’s not really possible to completely excise truth claims out of the study of religions.
2. Historians should report the facts and leave the interpretation to the reader. Chris argued that would make for pretty boring history books. More dynamic dialogue happens when people are confronted with ideas they don’t agree with and have to think about.
3. Tell histories in a way that the involved historical figures would recognize. Chris commented it is difficult to get in the minds of historical participants, even with plenty of documentary evidence.
4. The pragmatic argument–that how a religion functions is more important than whether it’s “true.” Chris points out that questions about truth claims are not the only questions of interest to historians.
Chris also made some arguments for giving up the suspensive historiography approach altogether–audiences are interested in truth claims and excluding them from examination can be considered elitist; being honest regarding religious views helps build bridges if we can be straightforward and respectful in exploring them; bracketing truth claims actually does a disservice to the religion being studied and it’s a sad commentary if a religion really is “too fragile” to withstand criticism; and lastly that questions of true/false are not a trivial matter to members of the religion being studied.
In short, suspensive historiography is not the only methodology available for asking useful questions; let’s not bracket away important parts of the historical conversation!