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Mormon Inquiry

This is a second piece on Bushman’s Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2008). [See Part 1.] Every faith and denomination has an approach for balancing faith and reason. In Chapter Two of the book, Bushman briefly outlines the LDS approach.

The context, of course, is how a faith or denomination defends its claim to have possession of religious truth or correct doctrine. If reason alone suffices, it’s not a religious approach. Faith or revelation alone might seem like the religious ideal, but faith or revelation always, at the very least, needs reason to make the system of doctrines hang together with a minimum of contradiction and to interpret the written texts. So what is the Mormon approach?

Revelation. Bushman sees revelation as the primary Mormon doctrine.

No single doctrine distinguishes Mormonism more sharply than the belief in direct revelation. It underlies everything from the governing authority of the church to every Mormon’s daily life. … In their church duties … Mormons are perpetually counseled to listen to the Holy Spirit.

The term “revelation” is rather off-putting to some Christians, but it is used in much the same way the term “inspiration” is used in other denominations. For example, in a later paragraph, Bushman uses the phrase “by inspiration sought through prayer” to describe what Mormons generally call “personal revelation.”

Reason. So what role does reason play and how does it influence LDS doctrine and practice?

Mormons do celebrate a kind of rationality, but always in subordination to inspiration. Mormon intellectuals have rarely engaged the philosophical theology of traditional Christian thinkers. … Mormons are more likely to believe that philosophical influence corrupted Christianity rather than providing a sound basis for belief. Until recently, few Mormon thinkers have investigated the philosophical foundations of Mormonism.

I think that will change over the next couple of decades, as dialogue between LDS scholars and their counterparts in other denominations increases. The rise of academic Mormon Studies programs will also give Mormon theological thinking an institutional home that it has heretofore lacked.

Theology and philosophy are not, of course, the only game in town when it comes to reason. Bushman notes that “Mormons are more attracted to the empirical traditions of science.” That can be observed in the never-ending LDS apologetic enterprise as well as the strong presence of scientific disciplines at BYU (contrasted with a small philosophy department and no theology department).

Whatever the details, revelation and reason work as complementary rather than competing modes of thinking for most LDS. Bushman closes with this surprising observation:

Survey data show that Latter-day Saints with PhD’s are more likely to be fully practicing than high school graduates. The combination of evidence and Mormonism’s culture of inspiration holds the allegiance of all kind of people.

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