The Role of Ritual in Understanding: Thoughts on Mormon Studies
In the 2007 issue of FARMS Review, M. Gerald Bradford (Ph.D., University of California, Santa Barbara), Associate Executive Director of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University, outlined the academic landscape of research done in Mormon Studies in the context of Religious Studies. Noting that Mormon Studies is “not just for Mormons anymore,” Bradford makes a wonderful contribution by outlining a map of where Mormon Studies has been and where it still needs to go. I was especially interested in the relatively unexplored areas of Mormonism. Bradford explains:
The experiential, ritual, ethical and legal, and material dimensions of Mormonism all have one thing in common: relatively little attention has been paid to them. These elements need to be integrated with other dimensions of the faith and compared with like characteristics in other religions before the tradition’s structural makeup is fully portrayed. What it means to be a Latter-day Saint is reflected in the experiential and ritual dimensions of the faith every bit as much as in what adherents believe or in the sacred writings they hold dear. In terms of religious experiences, despite the fact that the tradition is noted for having collected massive amounts of firsthand personal accounts in the form of correspondence, diaries, journals, and so on, there is a dearth of academic studies dealing with this dimension.
Likewise, the study of the ritual or ceremonial dimension of Mormonism, in everyday life and worship, is of vital importance in gaining a better appreciation of the tradition as a whole. This aspect also needs to be studied in comparison with patterned celebrations and formalities manifested in other traditions.
Such studies would be very important for those seeking an interdisciplinary approach in relations with Mormons. As I’ve reflected on the tension with traditional apologetic approaches and more dialogue-centered approaches between Evangelicals and Mormons, I’ve been struck with the text-centered nature of traditional apologetic methodologies. Traditional apologetic methods are heavily concerned with belief and derive belief from textual material. However, what often is lacking is any proportionality that such beliefs have within daily worship, ceremony and ritual aspects of the LDS faith.
An example of this phenomenon in the LDS field is in the recent questions concerning whether Mormons believe that Jesus and Satan are “spiritual brothers.” It is very easy to locate some text on the subject, but in most of this discussion there is no evaluation and examination of the role such an idea plays currently in LDS devotional services compared to doctrines such as repentance and faith, or even the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith.
I recall Francis Beckwith’s interview with Greg Koukl earlier this year. Koukl pressed Beckwith to justify his belief in purgatory and indulgences. To this Beckwith responded with, “All this stuff you’re bringing up has virtually nothing to do with why I became a Catholic, but I will answer it if you want me to…there is only four pages in the Catechism on indulgences.” I don’t think that mattered very much to Koukl, but I do think Beckwith was pointing out that this doctrine wasn’t the reason of his conversion and in his view it did not play an overwhelming role even within the Catechism. This is yet another example where proportionality and experiential dimensions matter to one’s private worship and should matter in our dialogue with others.
Paul Owen in a recent online exchange about whether Mormons believe that Jesus is fully God noted that:
I think what frustrates a lot of people regarding these issues is that too many critics of the Mormon Church get hung up on the language Mormons use to speak of the Trinity, and analyze that entirely in isolation from the actual devotional patterns of Mormon worship. Any open-minded observation of Mormon worship practices, as seen in their hymns, their scriptures (especially the Book of Mormon), and their speech patterns in prayer and praise, make it clear that they ascribe to Jesus Christ the very sort of reverence which the Bible calls for with respect to adoration of the one true God. What sympathetic critics like McDermott and Blomberg are trying to do is, through dialogue, to encourage LDS thinkers and intellectual trend setters to bring their theological language more into conformity to their actual devotional practices.
From these comments it is clear to me that Owen is attempting to look not simply at text but also ritual and also attempting to communicate the importance of examining devotional practices. The ritual and liturgical aspects of another faith tradition are clearly more difficult to understand, in my view, than textual material; if for no other reason that it requires more observation and experience than does textual analysis. Compound this with the fact that, as Bradford points out, little attention has been paid to Mormon ritual and liturgical studies, and we can see all the more need for inquiry and awareness of this area.