Patrick Mason: An Interview with the Latter-day Saint Scholar

“The real challenge for most Mormons is not history but theology. And in Mormonism, history and theology are conflated.”

Patrick Mason is the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University and has an essay in “To Be Learned is Good: Essays on Faith and Scholarship in Honor of Richard Lyman Bushman.”

What is Patrick Mason’s role in the Mormon Studies Program at Claremont Graduate University?

First off, thank you for reaching out to me and giving me a chance to talk a little bit about the work that I do.

I’m truly honored to hold the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies, which was the first fully endowed professorship in Mormon Studies in the entire world.  (The Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University preceded the Hunter Chair, but was not fully endowed until recently.)  President Hunter left a tremendous legacy, so it’s a true privilege to be associated with his name.

I think one of the great misunderstandings in Mormon culture is that faith and doubt are put on two ends of a spectrum, with a presumption that they cannot overlap or coexist. 

And I got the position after Richard Bushman, one of my mentors and heroes, stepped away in 2011.  Let’s just say those are awfully big shoes to fill, and I’m just constantly trying not to trip and fall.

The Mormon Studies program at CGU is terrific.  The main thing we do is train graduate students.  Claremont Graduate University is an all-graduate institution, so I work exclusively with students pursuing MA and PhD degrees.  It’s very exciting and stimulating.  They don’t get degrees in Mormon Studies per se, but rather in Religion or related fields.  So they have to study Mormonism in the context of other religions and through the lens of various academic disciplines and theories.

Endowed professorships are generally meant to recognize and incentivize a professor’s research, and certainly the Hunter Chair has been a stimulus to my own writing.

But I was recently at a meeting with the other Mormon Studies chairs (Phil Barlow at Utah State and Kathleen Flake at the University of Virginia), and we all agreed that there is also an expectation from donors and the community that these Mormon Studies chairs also should have a strong programmatic element as well.

I organize multiple guest lectures every year, and we hold a Mormon Studies conference each spring.  I work alongside our wonderful Mormon Studies Council, which is a group of volunteers from the community who support our work and help fund our students.

So there’s a lot more to it than just sitting in my tweed jacket and thinking deep thoughts.  I also happen to have taken on a lot of university administration – I’ve been the chair of our Religion Department most of the time since 2012, and in late 2016 I became Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities.

We’ve had a number of outstanding students come through the program doing really innovative, interesting work.

Two recent dissertations are by Taunalyn Rutherford, who researched the beginnings of the LDS Church in India, and Caroline Kline, whose soon-to-be-defended dissertation does a comparative analysis of the lives and experiences of LDS women of color in Botswana, Mexico, and the United States.

That’s just a small sample of some of the terrific and often award-winning work our students do.

How does Patrick Q. Mason define Mormon Studies?

Mormon Studies is the academic study of Mormonism – the religion and its people, history, theology, and culture.  It is an interdisciplinary field of study, drawing from and contributing to a number of different academic fields, including religious studies, history, sociology, theology, anthropology, political science, literature, and virtually any other that you can think of (primarily in the humanities and social sciences).

Mormon Studies is academic and educational, not devotional, and is neutral regarding specific faith claims.  It does not seek to produce nor dissuade potential converts to the LDS Church or any other branch of Mormonism.  It is open to people of all faiths or no faith.  It is a scholarly enterprise, not a churchly one.

Many people in the church find Mormon Studies to be useful or interesting, while others find it to be irrelevant or sometimes troubling.

When has Patrick Mason seen Latter-day Saints sell short theological contributions in a “quest for respectability”?

I think we shy away especially from discussions of deification, the doctrine that we can become gods, because we know what evangelicals (and to a lesser degree Catholics) think about that and we want so badly to be accepted by them as “Christians.”

Of course, I have no idea what exaltation actually looks like, but I believe we do violence to our theology if we backpedal from the very notion of it.

In general, I would like us to figure out what we really believe and then be unapologetic about it, even in our first encounter with interlocutors (if and when the question comes up).

If we don’t believe something, then we shouldn’t teach it and ideally should disavow it if it has been taught before.  If we’re unsure about something, then we should say so and then allow for a diversity of viewpoints.

I prefer a straightforward approach rather than tap dancing around unpopular or difficult issues, and believe that we gain more respect by being honest and confident than shifty and defensive.

Is Patrick Mason surprised that there isn’t more talk about Latter-day Saints and their relationship with the cosmos?

Not at all.  Mormons are tiny.  Why should anyone else care about what Mormons think?

Unless and until we can come up with a reason for our theology and cosmology and anthropology to be compelling to people who don’t share our faith claims – and unless and until we can translate those things into language that people can recognize – then we shouldn’t be surprised if they ignore our distinctive ideas.

My friend and colleague Kathleen Flake always emphasizes that if we want to be taken seriously by more people we need to show how Mormonism answers their questions rather than assuming that they’re at all interested in our questions.  That means that Mormons have to be out there engaged in the world to learn what other people’s questions really are.

We have to be curious and sincere in our explorations of knowledge beyond the limits of what Mormon culture has traditionally provided and nurtured for the past two centuries.

What does Patrick Mason mean when he says that the human soul is the beginning and end of Latter-day Saint theology?

I think this is true particularly with Joseph Smith’s mature theology that he taught in Nauvoo, although it has roots earlier, especially in the Book of Abraham and other revelations that speak of the eternality of human intelligence.

Mormon theology proceeds from the premise that human beings (in our essence) are not created but rather are co-eternal with God, with existence and agency that predates our relationship with him.

And the entire purpose, or end, of the creation of the universe, in Mormon theology, is to provide a place where those eternal intelligences can become exalted.

So Mormonism begins and ends not with God but rather with the premise of human progress and perfectability.

That is a radical statement that is heretical in the eyes of our Abrahamic sisters and brothers.  But it’s our theology, not just in the King Follett Discourse (which of course is not canonized) but very much in our temple ceremonies.

This is one of Mormonism’s theological distinctives that we need to embrace wholeheartedly, because I believe it puts us in a very strong position vis-à-vis the modern world, which is also human-centered.

What does Patrick Mason think are the pros and cons of developing a Latter-day Saint theology?

This is a great question, and I absolutely see and sympathize with both sides of the debate.

Sterile reason can sap religious devotion – though on the other hand, devotion without reason often leads to fanaticism.

Traditionally we have not had a professional theological class within Mormonism, with the assumption (and often stated claim) that theology is unnecessary in a church with living prophets and apostles who receive ongoing revelation from God.  In my mind that is a false notion of what theology is and does.

Now, I’m a historian, not a theologian, so I hesitate to speak for the guild.  (My favorite statement along these lines is Adam Miller, “A Manifesto for Mormon Theology,” in his book, “Rube Goldberg Machines.”)

The simple definition of theology that I like and use is that theology is reasoned reflection upon doctrine.

Church leaders, not theologians, have the prerogative to determine and define doctrine for the church.  But then it is the responsibility for every member of the church to reflect on that doctrine, and to use their rational faculties to do so.  In that sense theology is unavoidable, and we are all theologians – and therefore it is impossible for reason and revelation not to coexist.

When God says that he speaks to our minds and hearts, he anticipates and expects reasoned and reasonable engagement with revelation.

I am convinced that the LDS Church will produce a class of professional theologians in this century, similar to what we see in other traditions. They will have to create their own categories and not just try to fit the new wine (or grape juice) of Mormonism into the old wineskins of classical Christian theological systems and categories.

But it can and will be done. The question is how the church, especially the church leadership, will receive it. Will they be threatened?

Probably some of them will be. We may see similar growing pangs among the increasingly professional (and professionally trained) Mormon theological community that we saw in the Mormon historical community from the 1960s-1990s.

There were some hard times, punctuated by some excommunications, followed by a kind of détente and now a wary and sometimes happy and mutually beneficial co-existence. I would prefer for Mormon theologians not to go through what previous generations of Mormon historians had to, but I fear it might be inevitable.

Patrick Mason and Spencer Fluhman discuss the “big question” of prophetic reliability on a video produced by Faith Matters Foundation.

What is one aspect of Mormon theology that Patrick Mason wishes everyone accurately understood?

As previously mentioned, our doctrine of the eternality of the human soul is radical, revolutionary, and marvelously profound in its possibilities.  Everything else in Mormonism stems from that doctrine.  As I recently wrote in my essay, “A Modern Religion,” in the book “To Be Learned Is Good,” published by the Maxwell Institute:

“Virtually the entire theological history of Christianity could be written starting with John 1:1 — ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’

“In similar fashion, the core of Mormon theology is encapsulated in Abraham 3:19—“they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after, for they are…eternal.”

This is not to downplay or deny our Christology.  Indeed, I welcome the Christ-centered focus of recent decades, and actually wish that we were more Christ-centered in some of our ethics (of war and peace in particular).  But our Christology is always in relationship with our anthropology.  The purpose of Christ’s redeeming work was to create the necessary conditions for human exaltation.

What should be the attitude of a religious believer towards history?

I hesitate to tell anyone what their attitude toward anything “should” be.  But I can confidently claim that we should never be afraid of our history.

We can’t change it, so why hide from it?

If we truly believe in Christ’s infinite work of redemption, then we should believe that he can redeem our history.  That doesn’t mean he hops in a time machine and changes it, any more than he changes our own personal past sins.

But our past can and must be consecrated, like all things, to the service of the love of God and our fellow humans. Sometimes that will mean admitting mistakes and even serious sins.

Sometimes it will mean recognizing that people in the past operated with different tools and resources (which sometimes may excel some of our own – we should be skeptical of any narrative of progress that presupposes that we always know better than our ancestors did).

The real challenge for most Mormons is not history but theology.  And in Mormonism, history and theology are conflated.

So the problem with Joseph Smith’s polygamy isn’t really Joseph Smith’s polygamy–again, we can do no more to change the reality of it than we can Thomas Jefferson’s slaveholding and philandering.

The problem is with the theological assumption that a prophet of God, in order to be a prophet of God, must always behave in moral ways – or at least not do anything profoundly immoral.  That’s a nice fiction to have, but it’s a deeply unbiblical theology.  In the Bible God chose his prophets and his people in spite of their moral faculties, not because of them.  That’s not to invite or celebrate moral license by prophets, but it also means that we don’t have to be so troubled by it.

We can consider the possibility that Joseph Smith was wrong about polygamy – in whole or in part – without relinquishing our faith and confidence in what God revealed through him.

We are too quick to engage in slippery-slope thinking – “If a prophet was wrong about X, then how can I trust him about Y or Z?”  That kind of reasoning won’t get you through the first week of Philosophy 101.  Our individual and institutional theologies need to be more mature, sophisticated, and resilient than that.

Has anything troubled me?  Lots of things.  I believe that our history of racial exclusion is one of the great blights on Zion, and personally maintain that the church was in sin – on that issue, not generally – for 126 years.

Polygamy remains the big one.  I’ve never felt I had it figured out, but there have been times in my life at which I came to an uneasy truce with it.  Recently reading Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book, A House Full of Females, and Carol Lynn Pearson’s book, The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy, ripped off the scab and has left the issue raw with me again.

It’s not enough to provoke a “faith crisis,” because I’m perfectly comfortable being comfortable with certain aspects of Mormon theology and uncomfortable with others.  It’s never been an all-or-nothing proposition for me, certainly not on this side of the veil where we inevitably and always see through a glass darkly.

Mormonism has led me to Christ, to goodness, to rich community, and to glorious visions of humanity’s possibilities, and I’m not about to abandon those truths, even while recognizing that there has been and continues to be harm done to individuals in the name of even those good things.

I’ll no more give up Mormonism because of polygamy than I would give up Christ because of the crusades.

How does Patrick Mason believe that doubt is misunderstood?

My book “Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt,” represents my most extended thinking about faith and doubt in the contemporary LDS Church.  I also discuss this very question in this blog post.

But the short answer is that yes, there is a great deal of difference between someone who seeks after doubt in a way that fuels skepticism and even cynicism versus someone for whom doubt is a real but not necessarily valorized part of their lived experience of faith.

I think one of the great misunderstandings in Mormon culture is that faith and doubt are put on two ends of a spectrum, with a presumption that they cannot overlap or coexist.  To the contrary, it’s abundantly evident that most faithful people have some doubts and most doubting people have some faith.

I suppose there are some examples of believers who have never doubted or questioned, and disbelievers who have never entertained anything like faith or reverential awe and wonder, but I would see those as extreme cases not archetypes.

We do our religious lives a disservice when we reduce everything to propositional knowledge, as if the sum and substance of our cosmological existence comes down to whether we can give the “right” answer to particular questions.

Thus, faith is as much (or more) about being faithful in a relationship as it is knowing everything about the person with whom you are in a relationship.

Uncertainty, lack of understanding, confusion, dissatisfaction – these are all normal elements of human existence, and our religious experience should be able to encounter and even embrace our full humanity rather than squelch or repress certain parts of it.

Patrick Mason is working on a biography of Ezra Taft Benson. What would be most want to ask the Latter-day Saint prophet?

If I’m going to be completely honest with myself, I have to admit that I was working on a biography of Ezra Taft Benson.  For a variety of reasons, which mostly included my own workload but also lack of access to his private papers in the Church Archives, the project has been put on the backburner.

Other scholars, especially Matt Harris, have lapped me on their Benson research at this point.

But he’s such a fascinating and important figure, and I spent so many hours researching him, that I’ll probably return to that project at some point.  It may not be a full biography, because I’m not sure I could do that without access to his personal diaries and correspondence, but there are still so many public sources available that I already in my head the kind of book I would write about him.

If I had a chance to sit down with him, I would want to know whether he thought his single-minded devotion to the cause of anti-communism, and specifically his association with (but never formal membership in) the John Birch Society, made it more difficult for him to fulfill his apostolic calling to minister to the entire church membership, not to mention the broader citizenry.

I can guess what his answer would be, but I would at least want to ask him that directly.

Further reading

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

One reply on “Patrick Mason: An Interview with the Latter-day Saint Scholar”

After seeing Mason’s unorthodox and unaccepted notions about plural marriage being wrong (until the manifesto):

“The problem is with the theological assumption that a prophet of God, in order to be a prophet of God, must always behave in moral ways – or at least not do anything profoundly immoral. That’s a nice fiction to have, but it’s a deeply unbiblical theology. In the Bible God chose his prophets and his people in spite of their moral faculties, not because of them. That’s not to invite or celebrate moral license by prophets, but it also means that we don’t have to be so troubled by it.
“We can consider the possibility that Joseph Smith was wrong about polygamy – in whole or in part – without relinquishing our faith and confidence in what God revealed through him.”

I thought of this quotation from President G.Q. Cannon’s diary directly on point:

“April 21, 1885:
Many perhaps will see in this an additional reason for compromising, or for giving up the principle of plural marriage. Lord, deliver us from such people who have no more faith than this. They had better leave us, and, if they desire a people who are willing to affiliate with the world and are not willing to receive or adopt any revelation which will come in conflict with popular views, they can find such in the apostate organization which has the unworthy son of the Prophet Joseph Smith as its leader.”

As for the prophets being immoral, especially modern prophets, that is utter nonsense. Of course they are not perfect, but they have never committed adultery or others of the major moral sins. They lose their tempers sometimes and might cuss once in a while, but they are good clean pure men, the best 15 on earth.

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