Richard Bushman interview

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DarkJedi
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Richard Bushman interview

Post by DarkJedi » 04 Jan 2021, 09:45

I happened across this article by chance, but I think there's some really good stuff in there that could be helpful to some here. Bushman is of course best known for Rough Stone Rolling and his honest portrayal of Joseph Smith from a believer's point of view.

https://www.sltrib.com/religion/2020/12 ... -believer/

Some quotes I thought might be relevant to some of us (emphasis added by me):
Did you ever have any religious doubts? When did you get your testimony of the church?
That sounds like if you have a testimony, you can’t have doubts and issues, but that’s a poor way of looking at it. Here’s what happened. I’m at Harvard. I have a lot of good friends in the church. We meet every Sunday. We’re all talk-talk-talk guys. We’re dealing with everything under the sun. My problem is not Joseph Smith or history. My problem is God. Is there enough evidence to believe in God? I was drawn towards agnosticism, where you cannot say one way or another if there’s a God.
(This was similar to my own experience, sans the Harvard friends.)

On the Book of Mormon in the mission field:
When I arrived in Cambridge (Mass.), the mission president, a professor of agriculture from Utah State [University] and so wise, asked, “Do you have a testimony?” I said, “No, I’m not sure I believe in God.” But he didn’t send me home.
He said, “Would you read this book and tell me what you think of it?” He handed me a Book of Mormon and sent me on the train to Halifax, which took 20 hours to get there from Boston. I spent the next three months asking every question I could about the Book of Mormon witnesses — Were they deceived? Were they hypnotized? Were they in on the game? After that three months, the mission president came up and asked us to bear our testimonies and, when he came to me, I just said, “I know the Book of Mormon is right.” I was prepared to commit myself, which I did, and never wavered from that. But I have had continual questions ever since. They’ve never gone away.
What did you mean by, the Book of Mormon was “right”?
I don’t know what I meant by that. It was just the word that came to me rather than “true.” When I read the book, I believed those things were happening. I could picture them happening. They seemed very real to me. So I’ve just always said it was right. I have a little difficulty with the word “true.” I am willing to say it’s true for me and it is something I’m willing to grasp. But it’s not something I can persuade everyone, including Harvard professors, to believe in.
(I also have some difficulty with the word true, but I'm not sure "right" is the correct word for me either. I don't believe the events of the BoM are true or right. I do have testimony of the book, though. Instead of using words like true or right, my testimony is that the Book of Mormon is a good book that testifies of Jesus Christ in the same way as the Bible. Like the Bible, it can and does bring people closer to God.)
How do you define truth?
We have a very confined notion of truth that’s really defined for us by science, which requires evidence or proof to be accepted. In ancient times, truth was connected to goodness — truth was what led you to a good life. And, for me, that’s always been more important. I’ve always valued the truth that led me to the right kind of life, the one which makes me a good father and husband and prompts me to help people be good. With that kind of truth, I’m very much willing to say, I know the gospel is true.
Have you changed your mind over the years about any of the church’s founding events?
In terms of the particulars — the overall story about the First Vision, gold plates, translation and a set of revelations to form a church — my view remains pretty much the way it was. But I do think about some things differently.
The Book of Mormon is a problem right now. It’s so baffling to so many that Joseph was not even looking at the gold plates [to translate them]. And there’s so much in the Book of Mormon that comes out of the 19th century that there’s a question of whether or not the text is an exact transcription of Nephi’s and Mormon’s words, or if it has been reshaped by inspiration to be more suitable for us, a kind of an expansion or elucidation of the Nephite record for our times. I have no idea how that might have worked or whether that’s true. But there are just too many scholars now, faithful church scholars, who find 19th-century material in that text. That remains a little bit of a mystery, just how it came to be.
How do you — as a person who once studied physics and math — explain the kind of mystical experiences claimed by Smith and his followers, the witnesses, and those who attended the dedication of the Kirtland Temple?
The kind of faith that early Mormons used to have or the kind of experiences that various peoples around the Earth have, where visions and powerful things come to them, are sort of shut down by our insistence on what we call “rational.” I want to leave room for the mystical — not that I necessarily accept everything every mystic says — but I want to be very tolerant of that mode of apprehending world. When people report those experiences, I believe they have to be taken seriously as part of the human experience. It’s like saying, “I’m not going to listen to music or to let myself be moved by romantic feelings.” You’re cutting off part of yourself and your life if you say that’s just beyond human capacity.
No "cancel culture" for Brigham Young:
You can have respect but don’t you always have to report their flaws as well, like Brigham Young and his views on race?

My heart goes out to Brigham Young right now. He’s becoming the fall guy [for the church’s former racist priesthood-temple ban.] We really need someone to go through his biography and treat the latter half of his life empathetically. But on race, he really was off base. There seemed to be not just a sad acknowledgment of the limitations of African Americans in the church, but sort of a vindictive quality to him. And he spoke with some force. We just have to say he was wrong. But it’s not our job to condemn him or to say, therefore, we’re canceling him, that he’s worthless. We have to keep it all in perspective.
How have you seen the church evolve over the decades on race, feminism or LGBTQ issues?
I subsume this category into what I call cosmopolitanism, which is one of the most powerful influences in the church right now. By cosmopolitanism, I mean that we’re suddenly able to see ourselves as others see us and we can picture ourselves as one religion among a number of religions and a number of viewpoints. We can see how Mormonism looks from a global view. And as soon as we do that, then the way we treat women becomes problematic in terms of the way the educated world in general is looking upon women and race and LGBTQ issues and so on. We have to find ways of couching our message so that it makes sense to the world at large. At the same time, we need to hold onto our roots in a parochial way. I mean that in a positive sense. We all, even the most cosmopolitan people, need a home base in Mormonism.
Do you see the church changing as it moves into new countries?
Of course it’s going to change. The question is: What is doctrine and what is practice? What are the essentials we have to hold onto at all costs? We speak as if essential doctrines are clearly defined and that they will never change, but we can never say what they truly are. We say we believe God and faith are the basis of a good life, but it is always going to be remolded and reshaped. We just have to live with that. In the end, it can be very therapeutic and strengthening if you have to think through what you really believe, what you could stand up for, what you would speak about at the United Nations or to a group of the Harvard faculty.
How do you understand the reverence for Latter-day Saint prophets?
If it leads to the idea that prophets never make a mistake, even basic ones, that’s going to get us in trouble. Brigham did make a mistake on race, and saying he didn’t just gets us in more trouble. It’s better to say they do make mistakes like anyone else. But it’s of great importance for us to believe that God is leading us. And that begins with believing God is leading the church, that God is with the church.
Where do you see the church going forward?
Well, I have these two big words: cosmopolitanism, which I’ve discussed already, and power. We’ve become a very powerful organization, not just because of our wealth — which is a critical part of power — but because of the very loyal members who are in positions of power, especially in the United States, but more and more in other countries, too....
Our challenge right now is to know what to do with this power. We have a duty to save the world, but how do we go about that? We’ve done it through missionary work in the past and we will continue to do that, but do we have some larger calling? The ultimate good end of cosmopolitanism is to recognize that the work of God is going to be handled by the 99.9% of the population that’s not Mormon. It can’t just be this tiny speck of a church.
In the absence of knowledge or faith there is always hope.

Once there was a gentile...who came before Hillel. He said "Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot." Hillel converted him, saying: That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it."

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Roy
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Re: Richard Bushman interview

Post by Roy » 04 Jan 2021, 11:01

Wow! That's impressive. Brother Bushman gave a master interview here.

He seems to stay absolutely faithful to what he believes in his heart but never presents it in a negative way (As if to say "I don't believe this reported event happened.")

It sounds to me like he is still "drawn towards agnosticism" which would naturally imply doubt on any of the reported miraculous events that, if true, would seem to prove the existence of God and also go a long ways towards also proving God's support of our church. I understand him to be saying that visions etc. are to be appreciated as a part of the "human experience." (maybe I am leaning too much on his word choice of "human experience." I interpret that to mean that visions are part of life and are not evidence necessarily or divine interactions.)

It feels like he lives his religion with an anthropologist perspective, He studies it and talks about it with a healthy amount of respect, appreciation, and admiration. He is not there to prove or disprove historical events. What sort of anthropologist would study a community only to later write about how backwards, superstitious, and primitive they were?

I think in a different interview he was asked more directly if he believed XYZ church foundational historical claim actually happened and he responded that that sort of question wasn't the sort that interested him. Looking again to an anthropological perspective, what kind of anthropologist would be seeking to prove or disprove the foundational myth stories of the culture he studies? I understand that the anthropological field demands that you refrain from making those sorts of judgments. It does make me curious how his temple recommend interviews might go. He probably just answers "yes" and "no" like the rest of us.
By cosmopolitanism, I mean that we’re suddenly able to see ourselves as others see us and we can picture ourselves as one religion among a number of religions and a number of viewpoints. We can see how Mormonism looks from a global view. [snip]
The ultimate good end of cosmopolitanism is to recognize that the work of God is going to be handled by the 99.9% of the population that’s not Mormon. It can’t just be this tiny speck of a church.
Back again to the anthropological worldview, a community can be good and right without having access to ultimate truths that make it better or more "good and right" than other communities. How then do we work with other communities to help achieve the "work of God" (and what does the term "work of God" mean to someone that may be drawn to agnosticism)? This is the sort of question that I believe Bro. Bushman would find interesting.
"It is not so much the pain and suffering of life which crushes the individual as it is its meaninglessness and hopelessness." C. A. Elwood

“It is not the function of religion to answer all the questions about God’s moral government of the universe, but to give one courage, through faith, to go on in the face of questions he never finds the answer to in his present status.” TPC: Harold B. Lee 223

"I struggle now with establishing my faith that God may always be there, but may not always need to intervene" Heber13

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Re: Richard Bushman interview

Post by nibbler » 04 Jan 2021, 12:06

The question is: What is doctrine and what is practice? What are the essentials we have to hold onto at all costs? We speak as if essential doctrines are clearly defined and that they will never change, but we can never say what they truly are.
I think maybe we overcomplicate things, where "doctrines" have to be the whole shebang - where we were before we were born, why are we here, where are we going after we die, the nature of god, the particulars of what a correct church should look like, the particulars of what correct ordinances are and what they should look like, etc.

Jesus simplified things:
You shall love the lord your god with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind
You shall love your neighbor as yourself

I don't know that I'd want "love your neighbor as yourself" to ever change...

But my point is that I think we (as a church) get too hung up on establishing things as doctrines. What's true, who's right, who's wrong, what's an authoritative belief.
Joseph Smith wrote:I love that man better who swears a stream as long as my arm, yet deals justice to his neighbors and mercifully deals his substance to the poor, than the smooth-faced hypocrite. I do not want you to think that I’m very righteous, for I am not. There was one good man, and his name was Jesus
Slightly altering this; does it really matter that we're able to define the offices of the priesthood with all of their associated responsibilities if no one in the church has charity?

Some doctrines at church help people be more charitable and I'd say that there are some doctrines that drive people away from being charitable. This is my dead horse, but unfortunately I'd categorize most of the doctrines I hear taught on Sunday as useless trivia, things that might make me feel I'm right but things that don't make me a better person.

I'd be all for changing the doctrines that move us away from the two great commandments, keeping the ones that help us fulfil the two great commandments, and deemphasizing the ones that are neutral.

Edit: I'll call myself to repentance. I don't mean to throw us under the bus for seeking certainty. Feeling like you've got a definitive answer is a human need and can also serve as an anchoring point when exploration is needed.
Cure sometimes, treat often, comfort always.
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Heber13
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Re: Richard Bushman interview

Post by Heber13 » 04 Jan 2021, 15:46

I think we way overcomplicate things...
I agree with Nibbler.

I think we want revelation to be the list of things to do a d the prophet to be the person to tell us what to do, instead of realizing the gospel is to teach us to figure out what to do without being told to do so.

Ministering visits and the like are programs to help people live the gospel. But ideally, they shouldn't have to be told to minister. They should be moved to do so from inside.

It's just hard to run a global organization that way.
Luke: "Why didn't you tell me? You told me Vader betrayed and murdered my father."
Obi-Wan: "Your father... was seduced by the dark side of the Force. He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader. When that happened, the good man who was your father was destroyed. So what I told you was true... from a certain point of view."
Luke: "A certain point of view?"
Obi-Wan: "Luke, you're going to find that many of the truths we cling to...depend greatly on our point of view."

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nibbler
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Re: Richard Bushman interview

Post by nibbler » 04 Jan 2021, 18:45

I should probably point out that I feel like our changes to "doctrine" over the years has generally moved us more towards the two great commandments than away from them.

That's not to say that we haven't got a long way to go, but I think we're at least pointed in the right direction.
Cure sometimes, treat often, comfort always.
— Hippocrates

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Re: Richard Bushman interview

Post by Curt Sunshine » 04 Jan 2021, 21:57

I love the things you excerpted here. I have some different views in some of the fine points, I assume, but nearly all of what you quoted resonates with me.
I see through my glass, darkly - as I play my saxophone in harmony with the other instruments in God's orchestra. (h/t Elder Joseph Wirthlin)

Even if people view many things differently, the core Gospel principles (LOVE; belief in the unseen but hoped; self-reflective change; symbolic cleansing; striving to recognize the will of the divine; never giving up) are universal.

"For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong." H. L. Mencken

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Re: Richard Bushman interview

Post by DarkJedi » 05 Jan 2021, 06:20

Curt Sunshine wrote:
04 Jan 2021, 21:57
I love the things you excerpted here. I have some different views in some of the fine points, I assume, but nearly all of what you quoted resonates with me.
My views also don't perfectly match Bushman's, but the idea that he has views that are not necessarily orthodox mainstream Mormon and admits that, including some specificity, also resonates with me and is enlightening. Brother Bushman while admitting his questions have been extant over his lifetime has served in church callings such as bishop and stake president in addition to being a fairly well known and respected historian.

I actually thought of you when posting the thread, Curt. It is from you I learned how to process the Joseph Smith story much in the same way it appears Bushman does. I believe Joseph Smith not because I believe the First Vision occurred exactly the way it is written in canon, but because Joseph Smith believed he had a vision. I wasn't there and I don't know what happened but I am open to the idea that something happened (I do believe something happened) and that idea that one or all of the accounts are somewhere near what Joseph thinks and believes happened. We try so hard to discount the mystical in our day but that doesn't mean it can or should be discounted.
In the absence of knowledge or faith there is always hope.

Once there was a gentile...who came before Hillel. He said "Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot." Hillel converted him, saying: That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it."

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DarkJedi
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Re: Richard Bushman interview

Post by DarkJedi » 05 Jan 2021, 06:22

nibbler wrote:
04 Jan 2021, 18:45
I should probably point out that I feel like our changes to "doctrine" over the years has generally moved us more towards the two great commandments than away from them.

That's not to say that we haven't got a long way to go, but I think we're at least pointed in the right direction.
I am in complete agreement with this and I think Bushman would agree with the premise as well. I likewise think the changes are bringing us closer to what the church was meant to be like and was like in the beginning.
In the absence of knowledge or faith there is always hope.

Once there was a gentile...who came before Hillel. He said "Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot." Hillel converted him, saying: That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it."

My Introduction

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DarkJedi
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Re: Richard Bushman interview

Post by DarkJedi » 05 Jan 2021, 07:56

Bushman:
How have you seen the church evolve over the decades on race, feminism or LGBTQ issues?
I subsume this category into what I call cosmopolitanism, which is one of the most powerful influences in the church right now. By cosmopolitanism, I mean that we’re suddenly able to see ourselves as others see us and we can picture ourselves as one religion among a number of religions and a number of viewpoints. We can see how Mormonism looks from a global view. And as soon as we do that, then the way we treat women becomes problematic in terms of the way the educated world in general is looking upon women and race and LGBTQ issues and so on. We have to find ways of couching our message so that it makes sense to the world at large. At the same time, we need to hold onto our roots in a parochial way. I mean that in a positive sense. We all, even the most cosmopolitan people, need a home base in Mormonism.
Where do you see the church going forward?
Our challenge right now is to know what to do with this power. We have a duty to save the world, but how do we go about that? We’ve done it through missionary work in the past and we will continue to do that, but do we have some larger calling? The ultimate good end of cosmopolitanism is to recognize that the work of God is going to be handled by the 99.9% of the population that’s not Mormon. It can’t just be this tiny speck of a church.
I do want to comment a bit more on this specific point (cosmopolitanism). Maybe it's colloquial, but I can't see a lot of this type of cosmopolitanism in my own ward/area (I will except the college branch). Yes it does exist, especially among the younger members of my ward (who are fewer and farther between these days) but there are many in the "old guard" who absolutely don't see outside their ingrained us vs. them "one true church" mentality. What's interesting about this statement from Bushman, and I understand he is making an observation, is that these people (old guard) I am thinking of are in Bushman's general age group. I hope that cosmopolitanism is the force that Bushman says it is and in the big picture I can see what he sees - but on the small screen it doesn't appear to be this way where I live. Another interesting aspect to that for me is that I live in the liberal northeast US where we're kind of proud about being different than "Utah Mormons." I think in this respect Utah Mormons may have us beat despite our demographics. Interestingly I heard a member of my ward recently lament how liberal about some things (he used women in the priesthood and gay marriage as examples) Utahns have become.

What I'm really trying to say here is that I'm not sure the general membership does take this cosmopolitan view of the church - that they aren't really at the place where they see us as a church among many or that it's not just us who are doing the work of God (which Bushman later alludes to).
In the absence of knowledge or faith there is always hope.

Once there was a gentile...who came before Hillel. He said "Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot." Hillel converted him, saying: That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it."

My Introduction

AmyJ
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Re: Richard Bushman interview

Post by AmyJ » 05 Jan 2021, 08:15

Regarding the "Us vs Them" or more "Cosmopolitan" views championed by people, I think it depends...

Here are some of what I would consider are the key factors:
a) What are the teachers teaching/Is there space for a more nuanced, cosmopolitan viewpoint? I know when I teach, this is pre-quisite for me - it is my way of making space for myself in the conversation.

b) What is the curriculum supplying? Lessons that are on subjects that are more us vs them get that air time.

c) Awareness. I have found that those who are more aware of outside perspectives allow space for them.


NOTE: I think that we tend to stereotype it as "us vs them" only or "one of many" viewpoints only - but I am not sure that is accurate. I think that the majority of the saints embrace the paradox of both viewpoints - it is a case of "Everyone is out to get us AND we are only one of many minority religions out there". And unless you are in leadership or a faith transition or know someone in a faith transition (or all of the above), there isn't a huge need to try to bridge both world views.

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