I attended the first conference of the Association for Mormon Scholars in the Humanities (program). I found this very stimulating and well worth supporting and repeating in the future. My responses follow below:
Session: Science, Humanities, and Mormonism
- Dale Pratt (associate professor of Spanish, BYU),
A speculative exploration of being in light of the "post human" possibilities of virtual reality, cybernetic implants, etc. and in light of Mormon thinking. How essential is technology to human being, and where will it fit within the LDS social and theological framework. He asks whether the divine destiny of human being will entail a renunciation or perfection of technology? Pratt draws much upon How We Became Post Human by Katherine Hayles. His comments reminded me of a book that has given me much thought recently, Ray Kurzweil's farsighted The Singularity is Near as well as a most interesting podcast by Jamais Cascio about the likelihood that very soon our whole lives will be recorded and available as personal memory assistants.
- Bart H. Welling (assistant professor of English, University of North Florida),
“Mormonism and the Question of the Animal”
Welling finds a foundational tension between Mormon history and institutional practices (which treat animals as predators, adversaries, and food commodities) and Mormon theology (through which Mormons understand animals as having spirits and as being an integral part of the millennial future). Welling traced differing attitudes toward animals and the animal within the Book of Mormon. On the one hand, Nephi describes his successful hunting of meat as a blessing, while on the other, the wicked Lamanites were associated with being carnivores while the peaceful Nephites were agricultural. There is also the metaphorical use of the animal, associating it with the nonhuman or fallen human nature. To become an animal is to lose one's identity.
Discussion following these two presentations included the issue of the "post-animal," with Dale Pratt referring to the "enhanced" animals depicted in Revelation, with Bart Welling suggesting we are stuck in static conceptions of human or animal morphology and we might be in for some surprises. Richard Bushman asked if the two presenters represented opposite ends of the spectrum (machine vs. animal), and there seemed to be more continuity than contrast in their speculations. I must say there were some very interesting comments aftewards reflecting a lot of thoughtful attendees (about 100 in the room at the Kennedy Center at BYU).
Session: Life Lessons from Mormon Scholars
- John R. Rosenberg (dean of Humanities College, BYU)
“A Reading Lesson”
A fascinating exploration of the human aspects of reading, from its nature as something both violent and redemptive, to its differences historically in being done aloud (and publicly) or silently (and privately), to its fortuitous equation (in the Renaissance) with a strong humanistic education and civic responsibility--endangered roles for reading in an era not producing "strong readers" or those who will profitably ponder (D&C 138 as an example). He suggests we need to be better at telling our own studies. He closed with an anecdote about Borges who said that the obligation of a writer is to be "kind and giving", and the obligation of a reader to be "kind and forgiving." Reading aloud does have its benefits. As Dean Rosenberg spoke I enjoyed the rhythm of the word he spoke, "metapedagogical." Trochaic tetrameter, very nice.
- Jenny H. Pulsipher (assistant professor of History, BYU)
“The Life of the Mind vs. The Life of the Soul: One Woman's Perspective”
A pleasantly personal account of her journey to becoming a scholar while still being a mother.
- Bruce W. Jorgensen (professor of English, BYU)
“When We Read About Sex—If We Can Read”
Jorgensen questioned, is BYU doing everything it should to help students think clearly about sex? and asked us to consider the concept of erotic wisdom and how this comes about. His answer is to educate ourselves and others about sexuality by way of good literature. He refers to Martha Nussbaum and Gary Saul Morson and the ethics of reading they discuss in their work--the moral phenomenology of how our sympathies, interests and moral faculties are formed by our interaction with literary texts (see Morson's Narrative and Freedom: the Shadows of Time [full text at Google Books] and Morson and Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics [full text at Google Books]). "A story cannot be coherently told or received with moral judgments." Quoting Reynolds Price, he said "the novel is the most Christian of art forms" because it requires moral investments, forgiveness, etc. (I paraphrase).
- Ted Lyon (professor of Spanish, BYU)
“Traveler’s Guide to Contract (and Spiritual) Renewal at BYU”
Lyon related his own experience in coming to BYU anad the difficulty of maintaining faith at the church university. He expressed concern over many of the scholars who "didn't make it" at BYU--who did not succeed at reconciling their faith and scholarship and had left (particularly those leaving from the humanities). His was largely a personal account of dealing with the difficulty of being a liberal at a very conservative institution. He has thrived and gave suggestions for navigating these sometimes stormy waters, doing so with good humor.