Yale Conference on Mormon Perspectives
Between 250 and 300 people took part on 27-29 March 2003 in a conference in New Haven, Connecticut, devoted to the subject of "God, Humanity, and Revelation: Perspectives from Mormon Philosophy and History." The conference, hosted by the Divinity School of Yale University, was organized by Kenneth West, a Latter-day Saint graduate student there. The Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts was one of the conference sponsors.
Speakers at the meetings, which were held mostly in the Marquand Chapel at Sterling Divinity Quad-rangle, included several names familiar to FARMS readers. For example, Richard L. Bushman, Gouver-neur Morris Professor of American History emeritus at Columbia University, who is working on a major biography of the Prophet Joseph Smith that is planned for publication in 2005, delivered an opening keynote address on Thursday evening, reflecting on the sub-ject of "Joseph Smith's Visions." Professor Bushman argued, among other things, that Latter-day Saints have shown little interest in what other Christian traditions call "systematic theology," but, instead, have focused on stories from the past that teach both doc-trine and proper conduct. This was a recurrent theme at the conference, most notably, perhaps, in James E. Faulconer's paper the following morning, which was provocatively entitled "Why a Mormon Won't Drink Coffee but Might Drink Coke: The Atheological Char-acter of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." Kathleen Flake, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ who teaches at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, in Nashville, Tennessee, spoke on the related subject of "Joseph Smith's Narrative Theology."
Other Latter-day Saint speakers, however, did treat issues that came close, at least, to the territory typically covered by systematic theology. Truman G. Madsen, for instance, discussed "The Eternal Nature of Persons"; David L. Paulsen and Blake T. Ostler out-lined and argued for a number of their own personal "articles of faith" regarding "God, Our Father"; and Daniel C. Peterson maintained, in his paper "Mor-monism and the Trinity," that Latter-day Saints, although they reject the "orthodox" theories of the unity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost that were enshrined in the creeds of the fourth century, are indeed trinitarian Christians, properly understood.
Terryl L. Givens, author of the notable recent Oxford University Press book By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion, spoke on "The Book of Mormon and the Future(s) of Mormonism." He observed that the factual historicity of the Book of Mormon is the peculiar "scandal" of Mormonism, just as the literal, physical resurrection of Jesus is the "scandal" of Christianity in general, and argued that the Book of Mormon finds its full power only among those who accept the supernatural account of its origins offered by the Prophet Joseph Smith and endorsed by the Witnesses to the plates.
Other speakers treated such topics as the vital place of the Bible in Mormonism, Book of Mormon teachings on the redemption of fallen humanity, Latter-day Saint Christology, the location of Mor-mon theology on the American religious landscape, and the future of studies of Latter-day Saint doc-trine. One panel discussion concentrated on plural marriage and the Latter-day Saint family.
Most of the respondents to the presentations - including philosophers Stephen Davis and Nicho-las Wolterstorff, historian Ann Taves, and British theologian and social scientist Douglas Davies - were not Latter-day Saints. They represented diverse disciplines such as philosophy, theology, American religious history, and biblical studies and were drawn from a variety of institutions. Exchanges between presenters and respondents were uniformly respect-ful, even friendly, although respect did not neces-sarily guarantee agreement. Conversations contin-ued, among both participants and members of the audience, during lunches and dinners throughout the course of the program.
Participants in the conference seem universally to have viewed it as a success, and not a few, indeed, expect that it may prove to be something of a breakthrough event. Heretofore, Mormonism's radically and richly unique point of view on central doctrinal issues has generally been overlooked by outside scholarship, with Latter-day Saints figuring in most histories of American religion or of Christianity as little more than a mildly interesting footnote to the westward expansion of the United States in the 19th century. It is reasonable to hope, however, that this might change.
BYU philosophy professor James Faulconer has sig-naled his intention to work with Kenneth West in gath-ering up at least some of the presentations and prepar-ing them for publication in book form. -- Reported by Daniel C. Peterson