I sometimes get evasive when people ask what I study, especially if I’m not feeling particularly talkative–an admission that I study theology can lead to all kinds of complicated conversations. But for the most part, my fellow Latter-day Saints have been enthusiastic and supportive, and I’ve very much appreciated that. However, there are some ideas about divinity school which I’ve repeatedly encountered that I’ve found somewhat baffling, as they really haven’t matched my experience.
(Caveat: this is shaped to some extent by my specific field of systematic theology, and I’d be interested in hearing from those who work in other areas of religion.)
1) The people there are all atheists
Supposedly divinity schools are teeming with atheists, whose purpose in spending years of their life studying religions is–I’m not sure what exactly. I have no doubt there are atheists around, but I can’t say I’ve met many of them. My fellow students, for the most part, are studying theology because their religious beliefs matter so much to them–that’s what drives their passion.
2) People are only interested in worldly philosophies, and not spiritual experience
Those poor misguided theologians, I hear–the ones who are ever learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth, because they are obsessed with worldly philosophy instead of asking God for answers. But religious experience is something we talk about a lot. We try to make sense of it, to engage it, to think about its implications. We read the mystics. It’s true that systematic theology can get pretty dry. But I don’t think anyone is making a case that it should be a substitute for spiritual experience. You aren’t going to ask hard questions about faith if you don’t take it pretty seriously.
3) Divinity schools are oppressive to Mormons
I’ve done graduate programs at two very different schools, and in both of them, my professors have ranged from being indifferent to enthusiastic about my being Mormon, with far more in the latter camp than the former. They’ve encouraged me to write papers about Mormonism, to explore my own tradition. I taught a class on Mormonism a few years ago, with full support from my school. The Mormons-as-persecuted narrative just hasn’t held up for me. But I still hear rumblings about how Mormons aren’t being taken seriously by the evil liberal academic world. I would say that to the extent to which that’s true, it’s not because of anti-Mormon prejudice, but to the simple fact that Mormon studies is barely coming into being as a serious academic field. If the complaint is that CES-style professors aren’t being taken seriously by religious academics–well, the reality is that CES people aren’t religious academics. And you can’t function in the academic world if you can’t distinguish between devotional and academic language–in other words, you can’t bear your testimony and then claim prejudice when it isn’t treated as scholarship.
4) Divinity schools impose their orthodoxies and require you to state things you don’t believe
This is somewhat connected to (3), the idea is that people don’t want to hear your Mormonism (even though it’s clearly true), and force you to support their beliefs in order to get passing grades. I do not deny that this happens in academia at times–there are professors who espouse orthodoxies of all stripes and require their students to parrot them back. But that’s hardly a problem unique to divinity school, nor is it the behavior of a responsible professor. I’ve never been in a class in which I was required to support, for example, the idea of papal infallibility–in fact the Catholics encouraged me to critique their tradition and their ideas. Honestly, the only religion classes I’ve been in where I’ve felt pressured to not say what I thought and instead parrot what the professor wanted to hear were the ones I took at BYU.
5) Studying theology makes you realize how dumb all other faiths are
This is an especially fun one: the expectation that an LDS divinity student will say wow, after looking at all this nonsense from apostate Christianity, I sure am glad to have the plain and simple truths of the restored gospel! But my experience is that seriously looking at other faiths really muddies the waters. It’s hard to see that any particular religious tradition clearly makes more sense than all the others; it seems to me that we’re all stumbling around in the dark and negotiating contradictions. Studying theology hasn’t made me think less of Mormonism, but it has given me a broader context in which to situate the Church, often in a way that’s helpful: it’s nice to know that some of our challenges aren’t unique to us. It’s made me more of a pluralist, but it’s also made me more appreciative of particular aspects of Mormonism. In a nutshell, I think it’s made me less certain about the answers, but more convinced that the questions are worth asking.