Zelophehad’s Daughters

Perceptions of Divinity School

Posted by Lynnette

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.

10 Responses to “Perceptions of Divinity School”

  1. 1.

    As someone who did a master’s degree at a Div School, I whole-heartedly agree with every point you make. Ironically, I felt more marginalized for being a historian than a Mormon… :)

  2. 2.

    This is great. My guess is that divinity schools and seminaries are a pretty diverse set of institutions, and that at different ones, like evangelical ones, some of the presuppositions that people have might actually be accurate. But then, Mormons probably dont even get admitted to those places in the first place. I think that a lot of the misperceptions people have just come from plain ignorance, in the same way that I am pretty ignorant about how engineering works. What i know is from people who do those programs. The more LDS that go to div school will also help to shape how people in the future think of it.

  3. 3.

    Lynnette, it is so interesting to hear about your adventures in divinity school.

  4. 4.

    Really interesting, thanks for posting this.

  5. 5.

    Thanks for this. I had a (mostly) very similar experience in my American Studies master’s degree, where I focused on gender and religion.

    Two experiences stand out that seem to contradict, however. 1) Having Peter Berger ask me, incredulously, if I “actually believed any of those things?!” (re: Mormonism)

    2) Having Stephen Prothero encourage me not to write a dissertation exclusively on Mormonism, but to do a comparative study…and mostly focus on Evangelicalism…(because it was a “hot topic”).

    Of those two, I see Prothero’s advice as good advice, particularly to back up your point that any discrimination in theological academia against Mormonism is because of its newness (and CESish insistence that devotional literature or FARMS apologetics = scholarship). However, Berger definitely had his prejudices, and wasn’t afraid to call out Mormonism (and, by association, myself) as being a bit “out there.”

    So, I think my final point is that perhaps divinity school/seminary is more accepting (like most of my religion courses felt). However, in certain other related fields (say…the sociology of religion), Mormonism is still a bit “wacko” and not a recommended field of study…unless you want to write about how crazy it is.

  6. 6.

    Nice post, Lynnette! I particularly like this point:

    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.

    Well put!

  7. 7.

    Great post, Lynnette (and I’m with Ziff–loved that quote)!

    Can I add a Perceptions of a Divinity School Student? Just as a law student does not know every law or trial and a medical student does not know every disease or medical procedure, neither does a divinity school student know everything about the Bible or every world religion.

  8. 8.

    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.

    I haven’t studied religion formally, but I do like to learn about religious beliefs, and particularly the experiences that make people convert to a religion (whether raised in it or not). And I’ve found the same thing: we all have our unbelievable stuff. All religions at some point (as much as they like to say they have all the answers, or the best answers) end up having to just take it on faith. There is a bit of the inexplicable in all belief systems.

  9. 9.

    My study of medieval religion has taught me that Mormons could learn much about the vulnerabilites and potential of religious communities from studying the histories of other religious traditions.

  10. 10.

    Fascinating! I also loved this phrase:

    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.

    Drives me up the wall and down the other side!

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