I once had a student who started a discussion on Plato like a potential star. He had read the text carefully prior to the class and had good, defensible views on the meaning of the dialogue, but by the end of term he was a disappointment to me and to the rest of the group.
He learned nothing new. What he thought on the first day was what he thought on the last day and not because he had worked out challenges to his ideas with care. His thinking was impervious to change and so by the end of the discussion his ideas were less mature than most of the other students.
They had grown and he had not.
I am reminded of this student when I read press coverage of Mr. Romney’s Mormon beliefs.
The stories range from the bigoted to the banal, but are rarely illuminating. Why? They do not ask new questions and it is rare to see intellectual growth coming from the repetition of common knowledge:
Mormons used to practice polygamy, but do not now.
Mormons live in Utah.
Mormons are criticized by “mainstream Christians.”
Any group with millions of members probably can teach something and my experience is that Mormonism is no exception. Instead of hiding from a serious discussion of Mormonism by repeating facts or avoiding interaction with thoughtful Mormons by focusing on folk-Mormonism, this campaign is a good excuse for learning.
Anything is a good excuse for learning. Mitt Romney’s religion should not be a test for his fitness for office, but Mitt Romney’s Mormonism is worth considering.
Mormons have a great literature. Mark Twain’s dismissive views of the Book of Mormon should not be final anymore than his sniffing at San Francisco summers should keep tourists from visiting that fabulous city.
Reading the Book of Mormon with care and following standard hermeneutical rules reveals a series of complex books with varied literary merit, but with an outstanding story to tell. If Joseph Smith wrote it, then he was a first rate literary figure, a Tolkien of the United States.
This would be a good chance for secular sources to discover why millions of thoughtful Americans are transformed by the Book of Mormon: the number one best selling, most translated book to come from this nation.
I would also love more stories on how the Saints created Utah, one of the best places to live in the world. The Mormon majority has sustained republican rule while maintaining a firm commitment to religious values. What can the rest of us learn from the mistakes and virtues of the experiment?
Finally, there is the complex story of Joseph Smith himself. Any fair biography shows a man with deep flaws and genius. He was inspired, but also tormented and finally killed for his beliefs by a mob. He was a “rough stone” and has too often been dismissed by non-members based on his shortcomings.
Reading the Book of Mormon, studying Mormon history, and learning about Joseph Smith has not made me a Latter Day Saint, but it did stretch me mentally, grow me spiritually, and finally confirm me in my own beliefs.
That is more than can be said from endless bigoted blathering about “magic underwear,” repetition of facts, or hasty dismissal of the claims of Mormonism. The unexamined faith cannot be rejected!