WILLIAM MULDER, then a professor of English at the University of Utah, wrote this essay while was on leave at the American Studies Research Centre in Hyderabad India, in the late 19ó0s. He has published widely on Mormon topics, including, with A. Russell Mortensen, Among the Mormons: Historic Accounts by Contemporary Observers (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1958). This essay, here slightly adapted for inclusive language, was first published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3 (Autumn 1970): 121-23. Copyright 1970 by Dialogue. Used by permission.
A continuing problem of Mormon intellectuals is to remain both Mormon and intellectual. Theirs is the problem of religious intellectuals generally—to dare to follow where the mind leads, to prevent the indecision that comes when intellectually they are persuaded in one direction but drawn emotionally in another. If one is robust, they may, like William James, will to believe and find pragmatic reasons for the utility of faith even when the premises are uncomfortable.
Mormon intellectuals, like intellectuals everywhere, want to know the truth and share the faith that the mind can lead the way to it. But the mind is only a tiny light in the great surrounding dark of the universe. Sometimes the seekers have to grope their way by other sensibilities, and senses other than sight, in order to move to an elevation where the little light they do have throws a farther illumination. Because they believe that faith is as much a dimension of total experience as is reason, Mormon intellectuals may tolerate premises, doctrines, attitudes, and practices in their church which, when rationally examined, seem archaic, untenable, even at times repugnant, on the chance that these contain values they cannot now but some day will appreciate or on the chance that they themselves may be instrumental in changing them. When faith itself becomes unreasonable, however, putting too great a strain on their credulity, they have to make the hard choice of silence or separation.
Mormon intellectuals as scientists have a higher threshold of tolerance than Mormon intellectuals as humanists because, more familiar with natural fact than with social value, they are more willing to assign matters of value to the area of faith, an area where religious authorities can resolve doubts and make decisions. Their religion is not in conflict with science because they don’t really meet. On the other hand, Mormon intellectuals as humanists find themselves deeply entangled in relative kinds of truth which are not as readily verifiable as in chemistry or mathematics. In the humanities and social sciences, truth is not so much discovered as created. Social, moral, and religious "truths" leave more room for argument and require greater latitude of interpretation and application in any effort to institutionalize them.
Abstract Mormonism, to loyal intellectuals, provides such latitude. Unfortunately, the concrete Church, or its officialdom, does not. Official, spiritual truths are revealed truths, absolutes, and there can be no conflict between revealed truth and the discoveries about the natural universe, including human nature. In any apparent conflict, human-made truth must yield. Such a priori commitments make apologists of Mormon intellectuals, not seekers. The early Church was full of vigorous thinkers whose main task in proving a doctrine true was to prove it scriptural. They were "intellectual" scholars and theologians, working, like the Puritans before them, with the Bible as the primary text and skilled in accommodating advancing knowledge to biblical explanations, or vice versa. Mormonism, in the words of a twentieth-century apologist, a university man, prided itself on having a "rational theology."
Just as Thomas Aquinas made reason and faith compatible within the framework of Catholic Christianity, gifted Mormon minds today are attempting to cast the theological and philosophical foundations of Mormonism into sophisticated terms and to redefine Mormonism in an appealing manner in the light of history and the humanities, the arts and the social sciences. These efforts go a long way toward making Mormon intellectuals feel at ease in their beliefs, if not in their Church membership. A genetic history of the rise of Mormonism can be exciting and immensely satisfying to themselves, but unsettling to the authorities. There cannot, in fact, be official dialogue about origins and ends, only about means,
From the point of view of the Church, intellectuals are themselves a problem. The Church is fearful that their findings will loosen their loyalties and influence others to find a basis for their faith which is not simple and old-fashioned enough to be called religious. Work for the dead, the Negro question,1 and the narrower proscriptions of the Word of Wisdom are matters where the Church would prefer not to have sophisticated answers because these might mean radical change. History is hard on Mormonism because Mormonism itself stakes so much on history; and if the evidence fails—if there really were no gold plates, if Joseph Smith really was more scoundrel than prophet—Mormonism faces a serious dilemma. Mormonism without a Book of Mormon as miracle is like Christianity without the virgin birth. But intellectuals may, in fact, provide the mystery every religion requires and, with proper encouragement, give Mormonism its Sufis and Vedantists. When Mormonism can embrace both superstition and sophistication in the same fold, the intellectual will have found a productive place and may revitalize the professed doctrine of the glory of God as intelligence.
Meanwhile Mormon intellectuals face a great test of humility to remain in an organization led by those who are not always in sympathy with them. If they are not to lose the name of action, they must, like Hamlet, resolve their dilemma. If to remain within the Church means paralysis of will and denial of the deepest urgings of their thought, they must make a break for the open sea. In so doing, they leave one haven, as every institution is a haven, but there waits, perhaps, the larger harbor of a more inclusive humanity.
1Eight years after this essay was published, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve changed the policy that banned blacks from priesthood ordination and announced that ordination was available to "all worthy males."