What Is a "Mormon Intellectual"?
"Is everything all right, son?" Mom was calling long distance, and clearly she was concerned about something. But what? Had she heard that her grandson John had broken his wrist slam-dunking a basketball with the help of a mini-trampoline? Or that the car we had "borrowed" from my parents had blown a head-gasket? Had my wife described to her my suffering from lower back pain and allergies to yard work?
My mother's concerns, I soon discovered, were of a different nature. Rumors had reached her of some vague but calamitous circumstances affecting "mormon intellectuals," and she had naturally wondered whether the category included me. Certain innocent truth-seekers, she had heard, were suffering under some very oppressive yoke of persecution, including the trammeling of something that apparently should forever remain untrammeled, something called "intellectual freedom."
Was my mother's son among the victimized class known as "Mormon Intellectuals?" It was plain enough I was Mormon; and it seemed highly probable that I fit the other category as well: Harvard Ph.D., author of scholarly books and articles in political philosophy, university professor—are these not, Mrs. Hancock reasonably supposed, among the distinguishing characteristics of the "intellectual"?
It did not take long to reassure my mother and to turn the conversation to more weighty grievances such as a the medical bills of a foolhardy teenage athlete, but our talk left me perplexed over the genesis and significance of this category the media seem to deploy with such assurance. For example, under the headline "Disciplinary Actions Outrage Intellectuals," Peggy Fletcher Stack declared confidently in the Salt Lake Tribune last September that "the LDS intellectual community is almost unanimously outraged at the censure of some of its own…" If this bold affirmation was based upon some scientific survey of opinion among Mormons who are scholars, I wondered why no one I knew had ever been included among those questioned. So who are these people? Just what is a "mormon intellectual"? Why am I not one? Who decides who is one? Where does one sign up to join the "Mormon Intellectual Community"? Should anyone want to?
In my puzzlement I might be accused of ignoring something obvious. When the media refer to "Mormon intellectuals," they are clearly not talking generally about members of the LDS church who are well educated, or who have advanced degrees, or who love learning. They are talking, rather, about Mormon dissidents, about people who have some complaint against the Church and who want to change what it teaches or how it is organized. So my puzzle really comes down to this: how are newspaper writers and talk-show hosts able to get away with this sleight of hand? How is it that "Mormon intellectual" has become an appealing synonym for "mormon dissident"?
It should be noted at the outset that there is no empirical evidence for the claim implicit in this verbal sleight of hand that the more educated an LDS person is, the more likely he or she will be dissatisfied with the Church's teachings or disloyal to its authorities. In fact, although survey research indicates a link between education and decline in religious commitment among many religious groups, the findings for educated Mormons suggest the opposite: highly-educated Latter-Day Saints are not less but more likely than those with less education to be active and faithful Church members. The term "Mormon intellectuals" cannot then refer simply to more educated Mormons. When the Tribune prints the term "intellectual," it is not referring so much to educational level as to a set of opinions or a general world-view that "intellectuals" are presumed to share. But just what approach to the world qualifies one to be considered an among this group? In order to identify the species "Mormon intellectual" we must then first locate the genus "intellectual."
The tendency of the "intellectual" to social dissidence is of course not at all peculiar to Mormon society. Thirty years ago the literary critic Lionel Trilling observed the tendency of contemporary intellectuals to participate in an "adversary culture," to define themselves almost reflexively in opposition to the tastes and beliefs of ordinary people in their society. And Irving Kristol observed in a 1979 essay that "the more 'cultivated' a person is in our society, the more disaffected and malcontent he is likely to be." It is important to notice, Kristol argued, that this deep-rooted antagonism between intellectuals as a class and their fellow citizens is truly unprecedented: "Has there ever been…a civilization whose culture was at odds with the values and ideals of that civilization itself?"
Why do intellectuals tend to adopt values at odds with those of their neighbors and fellow citizens? A brief survey of some major themes in the history of ideas will be helpful in coming to terms with the contemporary phenomenon of the adversarial culture.
The Limits of Philosophy
In the most general sense the tension between the pursuit of knowledge and the norms of society must be traced back at least to Socrates' troubles with the City of Athens. There is no question that the problem is a real one, rooted in the nature of man and the requirements of political and moral order. When Socrates (469-399 BC) strolled about Athens striking up conversations on questions such as "what is Justice?" and "what is the Good?," he was very much aware of the subversive potential of his investigations. All human communities rest finally upon shared beliefs, especially beliefs about a cosmic or divine source of moral and legal authority, and to question these beliefs is to shake the very foundations of society. Socrates' consuming interest was to investigate the habitual beliefs of his fellow citizens, and he well understood the threat this posed to the community.
Unlike modern intellectuals, however, he never claimed to be able, using reason alone, to construct a system of truth that could replace traditional beliefs as the foundation of social and moral order. The only knowledge he claimed was a knowledge of his own ignorance. This awareness of the limitations of reason led Socrates to try to shake social foundations carefully, to shake loose just a few intellectual companions with whom to pursue a more adequate understanding of the human condition, especially of its apparently unsurpassable limitations. Socrates was no social reformer, because he was vividly aware that his knowledge of ignorance could never be adequate to support society's laws, customs, and morals. At best he could only hope to make society a little less distrustful of philosophical investigations, a little more likely to tolerate private questioning among unconventional truth-seekers at the margins of the political community.
Having stretched Athen's tolerance as far as he dared for decades, Socrates as an old man seems to have decided to make a reputation that would help to carve out some social space for future philosophers, and so he provoked his fellow citizens to making a martyr of him. Socrates' noble philosophic death made it possible for bold thinkers who succeeded him to appear a little less as troublesome odd-balls and to appeal a little more to the conventional citizen's notion of nobility. If the philosopher could never quite be a solid citizen, he might at least be accepted as a private friend of the more refined and educated gentlemen.
Among the thinkers who benefitted from and built upon Socrates' measured enhancement of the public reputation of philosophy were his eminent student Plato (427-347 BC), and Plato's student Aristotle (384-322 BC), fountainheads of our intellectual tradition. Each contributed to the public reputation of intellectual activity, but neither imagined that critical reason alone could fully replace religion and custom as foundations of legal and moral order. Plato's philosophic Republic is the exception that proves the rule; it is a "city in speech," a kind of thought experiment that has little chance of being realized and less chance of surviving. The whole project depends upon the rule of the famous "philosopher-king," and this would require not only that philosophers' securely possess a kind of wisdom that can be provide a foundation for human communities, but also the non-philosophers' accepting to be ruled by these wise philosophers. But the dialogue of the Republic as a whole casts profound doubt on both these assumptions. The political lesson for philosophers is one of moderation: don't hope to rule, to model society in your own image; you'll be lucky if you're tolerated. Human communities need beliefs and sanctions you cannot supply. The pursuit of the philosophic "Good" must remain largely private, exceptional, marginal.
The Promise of "Enlightenment"
Though Aristotle attempted a more systematic use of reason than Socrates or Plato, his confidence in the power of reason was still modest by modern standards. To explain morality, he acknowledged, the philosopher must begin with traditional moral premises or insights; his intellect cannot construct them. It is only two thousand years later that we see emerging the modern intellectual. The new intellectual comes onto the scene of Western civilization with the claim that philosophy can radically reconstruct the foundations of human community.
This new intellectual ambition is characteristic of the philosophical and social movement known as the "Enlightenment," a movement launched in the seventeenth century by such authors as René Descartes (French, 1596-1650), Francis Bacon (English 1561-1626), and especially John Locke (English, 1632-1704). It reached full flower in the eighteenth century, especially in France, where "philosophes" such as Voltaire and Denis Diderot helped to sow the seeds of the French Revolution by advocating the ideal of a completely rational society. The strategy of the Enlightenment was to subvert the religious and traditional basis of European society in order to replace the rule of custom and religion with the rule of reason.
What did it mean for reason to rule? Since the ancient quest for a rational answer to the ultimate ethical question, "what is Good?" had failed to produce a foundation for political reform, the modern project had to redirect the power of reason to the pursuit of very different purposes. The aim of the Enlightenment was precisely to liberate human energies, and in the first case the human mind, from the fruitless and contentious quest for some transcendent Good or God and to direct those energies to the material improvement of the human condition. If we can only suppress our (natural?) interest in some elusive Good, then, the new philosophers thought, we can enjoy the most obvious goods of this life - social peace, physical security and comfort - to an unprecedented degree. We can become the "masters and possessors of nature" (Descartes paraphrasing Bacon) by forsaking the ancient quest for knowledge of the best way of life.
Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince (1513) may be taken as an early manifesto of this new intellectual ambition: rejecting the "imagined republics" of the Platonic tradition, the author proposes to "write something useful to whoever understands it" by going "directly to the effectual truth of the thing," that is, the truth that works, that can be put into practice. Three and a half centuries later Karl Marx will announce his own version of the modern intellectual project: "The philosphers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it."
The modern intellectual's appeal to "reason" is not, therefore, morally or politically neutral, but depends upon a decisive reorientation of the mind towards secular or material ends. Rather than attempting to find a clue to the meaning of human life in the order of the cosmos, nature must be seen as a vast untapped resource to be exploited by rationally organized human power for purely material ends. We can gain the whole world, the Enlightenment promised, if only we can stop worrying about and fighting about the soul.
This is the basis of the original appeal of the modern intellectual: put us in charge, follow our lead, and your life will be more secure and more comfortable. Philosophers thus came to rule, not directly by claiming to represent some higher moral or spiritual wisdom, but indirectly by promising worldly benefits that anyone could understand and appreciate. Knowledge was not to be pursued for its own sake, or for spiritual elevation, but as a means to universally useful Power. But to enjoy these physical benefits, society as a whole would have to put aside old "prejudices" and "superstitions" concerning some higher spiritual or ethical purpose, or at least make them merely "optional" and private concerns.
I have framed this description of the Enlightenment's project in such a way as to make obvious the spiritual risks inherent in it. But it would be foolish to overlook the real power of this modern rationalism, and the many benefits that we owe to its wide success. The fact is, the project to construct a more "rational" and prosperous society worked—especially where, as in the American Founding, it was pursued moderately, that is, in considerable harmony with religious and moral traditions relatively open to liberalization. With the help of Enlightenment ideas, the tyrannical alliance between religious and dynastic authority was broken, the common people rose to the opportunity to govern themselves and to enjoy the fruits of their own labor, and a new technological science produced wonders of human invention.
The problem is, it worked too well. Late in the 20th century, the children of the Enlightenment are, generally, more prosperous and freer than ever from traditional restraints - in a word, more "successful," according to the modern, materialistic meaning of "success." But we are less and less satisfied by it.
Certain modern philosophers, beginning already with Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century and culminating in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche (d. 1900) anticipated this disillusionment. But they were not about to surrender their authority, the authority of the secular intellectual, by raising afresh the question of the good of the human soul, or considering its need for divine guidance. Rather than turning back to traditional or religious views of man and society, philosophers began to argue that the way to recover a sense of meaning must be through a further, more thorough attack on all traditions; the last vestiges of transcendence, the last limits on human freedom must be obliterated. Not merely physical security and comfort but limitless freedom is the deep promise of modern rationalism, this more radical philosophy held, and this promise can be realized by liberating humanity from all limits, even those limits once thought to inhere in reason itself.
Thus, whereas the Enlightenment intellectual promised liberation from traditional and religious authority by appealing to "laws of nature" understood as the foundation of material progress, the new intellectual continues this attack on tradition, but now appeals to no standard beyond "liberation" itself. Human freedom no longer depends on truth but is a matter of pure "creativity."
This new guiding star of the intellectual is inherently elusive, ever-receding; it is the essence of creativity to resist definition. This is to say that the contemporary intellectual is much clearer on what he is attacking than on any concrete or constructive alternative. He defines himself only negatively, as the enemy of all limits and restraints represented in existing beliefs and institutions. And yet the new intellectual confidently inherits the Enlightened reformer's belief that his attack on tradition somehow serves the cause of humanity. In the name of "liberation," he relentlessly criticizes and seeks to subvert any stable source of authority and meaning, and acknowledges no responsibility for the consequences. Indeed, any unhappy consequences are seen as evidence of the need for further liberation from any traditional or religious bonds; the cure for the ills of liberation is always more liberation.
For example, if the deterioration of the moral and legal ties that bound the traditional family produces egoistic unwed fathers, overburdened unwed mothers, and neglected children, then the cure must be in liberating women and children from any remaining vestiges of "patriarchy." Freedom as liberation from traditional institutions and beliefs thus seems to require no justification beyond itself; the attack on authority has acquired such momentum that it hardly occurs to "critical" thinkers to consider the consequences of this attack, or to accept responsibility for providing a constructive alternative to accepted moral standards and beliefs.
This momentum of an anti-ethic of "liberation" that can name only its enemies and never its positive purposes underlies the phenomenon that sociologists have called "the adversary culture of the intellectuals." Contemporary intellectuals establish their credentials mainly by making enemies among the general public. This explains why it is that to outrage common sense or received standards of decency is often taken as compelling evidence of the illustrious virtue of "creativity," or "critical thinking," as if giving offense required much intellectual refinement. This posturing is particularly evident in the fine arts, where a disposition to shock or perplex supplies an easy substitute for such rarer qualities as an eye for beauty or technical mastery of a medium. The term "liberation" has no doubt receded with the enthusiasm of the 60s, but, like many aspects of the radicalism of that decade, it has not disappeared but only tends to be invisible because it has become routine; its meaning has been transferred to less confrontational terms such as "freedom" or "autonomy." But the mindset of "liberation" is at work wherever writers, teachers, or artists feed off the distrust or antagonism they strive to provoke among the general public.
Enter the "Mormon Intellectual"
By now the contours of the contemporary "intellectual" should be recognizable in the more local phenomenon of the "Mormon intellectual." Membership in the "Mormon intellectual community," as this term is used in the media, generally has much less to do with scholarly credentials or accomplishments (although some dissidents can claim these) than with association with a cluster of writers or activists whose reputation is based upon an adversarial stance towards a culture defined by certain shared beliefs and towards ecclesiastic authorities who take responsibility for nurturing and reinforcing those beliefs. Thus, the tendency of those who style themselves "Mormon intellectuals" to equate critical thinking with the debunking of shared beliefs and established authorities is in fact very often a rather thoughtless aping of the liberationist activism of the would-be avant-garde of the general culture. How often have we heard a local publicist or stump-speaker described breathlessly as "controversial," as if this were weighty prima facie evidence of intellectual distinction? But the dreary fact is that very little mental candle-power is deployed in heeding the injunction to "question authority," when this means little more than assuming in advance that less authority is always better than more. The problem with this "adversarial" path to the status of the "intellectual" is that it is far too easy: the faction of the "Mormon intellectuals" risks becoming a rather narrow mutual-admiration society which offers admission to any who are willing to join in the fun of facile subversion. But the authority that most needs to be questioned is that of the liberationist intellectuals themselves.
The common self-presentation of our "Mormon intellectuals" as sincere and humble truth-seekers with no other interest than to improve understanding should not blind us to the almost palpable fact that what many "Mormon intellectuals" are up to, no less than their more openly secular role models, is an assertion of authority. Unlike Plato, these would-be philosophers cherish the hope of being rulers (or as we prefer today, "leaders") in their communities, not so much politically as culturally. Their implicit but persistent demand is that the public look up to and defer to them as the cutting edge in the progress of freedom. Of course the ideal is that every individual should be his or her own ruler. But the task of liberation from the old authority is never complete, and so, while we wait (indefinitely) to discover the meaning of a freedom detached from traditional limits and revealed authority, we can do no better than to embrace the leadership of our noble liberators. If only the benighted "average" Mormon and the well-meaning but narrow-minded Church authorities would acknowledge the clear intellectual superiority of the experts and free-thinkers, then the path to future progress would be open.
What of course remains unquestioned by the "Mormon intellectuals" is of course the meaning of this "progress" itself. Having inherited from the Enlightenment a disposition to attack all authority not based upon pure reason, they have forgotten the obligation to demonstrate that reason provides an adequate foundation for the life of the individual or of the community. The scholars consistently referred to in the press as "independent" confidently question every authority but the most dominant and pervasive in our society - the authority of secular rationalism itself. This is not to say that such writers are always deliberately attempting to promote a secular ideology; on the contrary, it is precisely because the deep assumptions of modern rationalism are largely unseen and unexamined that they can exercise such steady and pervasive influence over the minds of "intellectuals."
This is to say that, in questioning the authority of the Church, the "mormon intellectuals" do not really escape authority but risk falling blindly into the arms of a different authority. Thus the pose of untrammeled freedom often reveals itself in practice as slavish worship of secular authorities, often portrayed as if they represented a monolithic united front of intellectual respectability. I recall a letter last year published in BYU's Daily Universe in which a student warned the university, on the authority of four (as she thought) highly reputed scholars who had recently interviewed her, of the ignominy (and damaged placement prospects) that threaten to befall our poor university if we fail to conform to these scholars' definition of true (secular) academic freedom. This student's courageous pose in defense of freedom was a thin mask over her self-contemning conformism.
Cases of Intellectual Conformism
Examples of a similar conformism behind the mask of adversarial "critical thinking" can be drawn from four articles in Sunstone, which seems to have become the favorite organ of "Mormon intellectuals" or "independent scholars."
In "Historical Criticism: A Necessary Element in the Search for Religious Truth," (September 1992) David P. Wright wants to persuade Latter-Day Saints to be more open to ways of reading scipture employed by leading non-mormon biblical scholars. He contrasts a "traditionalist" with a "historical critical" mode of scripture study. Of course he means to praise the "historical critical mode." He characterizes this approach as "a mode of open-ended inquiry" in which "no conclusion is immune from revision." What sincere and courageous truth seeker could choose any other approach than one which welcomes the "continual review of one's own conclusions and the review of others' differing conclusions which the framework encourages and tolerates." Thus Dr. Wright's approach appears identical with openness to truth itself.
But on closer inspection the author's openness reveals a distinct orientation; Dr. Wright's mind opens, one might say, in a particular direction. He speaks briefly of a "conversion experience" in which he was led, under the influence of the university intellectuals who guided his education, to abandon the traditionalist approach in favor of the critical. And what he learned from these authorities was to treat "all media of human discourse—secular and holy—in the same way." Given this premise is it clearly "fallacious" to "exempt [Scripture] from critical analysis." In other words, the authorities to whom Wright converted require that the reader of scripture set aside at the outside its claim to divine revelation. Some "openness."
In the same issue of Sunstone Scott Abbott ("One Lord, One Faith, Two Universities: Tensions between 'Religion' and 'Thought' at BYU") takes aim at what he regards as "anti-intellectualism" among Mormons and particularly at BYU. He believes that, since the truth pursued by the intellect and the truth revealed by prophets can only be one and the same truth, we ought not be suspicious of the theories or approaches of "intellectuals," either within or outside the Church.
Certainly Abbott is right to emphasize the openness of the restored gospel to all sources of truth and to warn against a tendency to drive a wedge between thought and faith, as if we could be saved in ignorance. But in responding to what he regards as a crude anti-intellectualism, Professor Abbott risks falling into the lap of a crude intellectualism. He dismisses all critiques of worldviews dominant among intellectuals as evidently springing from an irrational distrust of inquiry, and seems to imagine that the ultimate synthesis of revealed and natural truths into "one great whole" implies that there must be no present conflict between what is revealed and the dominant assumptions of "intellectuals."
It would be comforting to believe that there is never any tension between the guidance we receive through revelation and the assumptions that shape the interests and conclusions of contemporary scholars and writers who do not share our faith. Life would be simpler for those of us with intellectual pretensions and academic careers if we never had to choose between religious and intellectual authority. But in fact Professor Abbott's examples and tone should remind us of the risk of choosing by not choosing: he is clearly very worried that many intellectuals and novelists might find us narrow or sectarian. He invokes the authority of a number of non-Mormon writers to inform us of the reputation for "bigotry, exclusion, narrowness, and sectarianism" that we have to live down. Now Abbott is certainly right that our characters have yet to be perfected, and that we Mormons could benefit (who couldn't?) from a greater cultivation of our minds in aspiring to comprehend the meaning of Gospel truths. But what he does not explain is just what we would have to do to be found acceptable by such authorities as John Gardner, Tony Kushner, Edward Abbey and John Le Carré. To measure ourselves by their standards, or by the standards of any group of "intellectuals," would be to throw off one form of conformism for another, finally much narrower and more stultifying form. What is wrong with going against the grain of secular intellectuals? Imagine Joseph Smith saying that "if there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy (as long as no intellectuals find it narrow or sectarian) we seek after these things."
The conformism behind the "Mormon intellectual's" claim to independence is even clearer in a more recent Sunstone article by Levi Peterson, chairman of the English Department at Weber State University ("The Art of Dissent Among Mormons," February 1994). Peterson is clear that his principled loyalty belongs to "liberalism," whereas he experiences Mormonism as an inbred emotional attachment. ("For all my compulsive backsliding, I remain profoundly and uneradicably a Mormon.") Never questioning the grounds of his liberalism, and holding that "as a spiritual act, thinking is far more important than believing," he takes it as given that "ultimately those who think about the problems and perplexities of their religion will gravitate to a liberal position." Peterson wishes to promote "change of a progressive sort" within the Church, "change in the direction of the civilized values evolving in the world at large." He betrays no awareness of profound philosophical critiques of liberal progressivism that have altered the contemporary intellectual landscape, and never doubts that whatever is evolving in "the world at large" can be identified with "civilized values." And he openly promotes the strengthening of a "loyal opposition" within the Church, "a smaller and less formal community of friends," that is, of "fellow nonconformists" distinct from but within the "official church community." Peterson goes so far as to recommend strategies, not excluding duplicity ("there are worse things than a little hypocrisy"), for surviving within the official Church. In particular he advises scholars on the Church payroll to lay low if necessary, in order to "fight another day." And the rationale for patience and caution has nothing to do with any doubts about the rightness of his liberal cause, but is, as with Ritchie, merely a matter of strategy: "The battle for the liberalization of Mormonism is perpetual. It'll not be over soon. You need to hunker down for the long haul."
Given this defense of "deviousness," it is fair to wonder about the fundamental nature of Peterson's attachment to Mormonism, and, by extension, of that others in his informal community or fifth column. Clearly his principled loyalties have nothing to do with the claims of the Restored Gospel, and his protestations of emotional attachment ring a little hollow alongside his boastful, almost flamboyant non-conformism. So why go to the trouble of sleeping through Sacrament meetings?
One has to wonder about unstated and perhaps unexamined motives. To be sure, unlike other members of his "less formal community" within the official Church, Peterson is not directly supported by tithing funds. But in a more general sense, as novelist, Professor, and symposium regular, he is rewarded materially and with the praise of his circle for being a "nonconformist" Mormon. No doubt to make a name and a career as just another ex-Mormon would be a trickier business. To be a "Mormon novelist" or a "Mormon nonconformist," one still has to be some kind of Mormon.
As a final example of the intellectual's lack of self-criticism, I offer Bonner Ritchie's "Let Contentions Cease: the Limits of Dissent in the Church" (Sunstone August 1992). This essay provides another useful case study in what certain "intellectuals" mean by "independence" or "openness." The author, a BYU professor of organizational behavior and chair of Sunstone's Board of Trustees, believes that "the Mormon intellectual community is at a turning point within the institutional Church." He gives good advise to fellow intellectuals to avoid "contentious motives of destruction, viciousness, or embarrassment," and adds this dose of needed realism: "If you want to behave like an independent deviant and still have the rewards of a conforming conservative, you're in organizational trouble." More generally, Professor Ritchie issues a welcome call for patience and tolerance among all Church members, and for openness in the mutual search for truth.
Few are likely to oppose a general call for patience, tolerance, and openness, and Ritchie is much less clear than Peterson regarding particular issues or intellectual commitments. He appears to leave it to each of us to develop his or her own "theory of dissent, theory of freedom, theory of leadership, theory of organization, theory of relationships and community." But an implicit theory undergirds Ritchie's argument, and it turns his "openness" in a certain, alas familiar, direction. "The dominant motive in my professional world," he avers, "is to help people protect themselves from organizational abuse." Of course the organization he has most immediately in mind is the Church. The organized Church, as other organizations, is admittedly necessary, but all Ritchie's efforts are concentrated on making organizations safe for "individuals"—or rather, since this is impossible, equipping individuals with the inner independence and the interpersonal strategies that will enable them to preserve their own safety. So the picture is fairly clear: organizations (the Church) necessary but dangerous, individuals good but at risk.
Enter the "intellectual," the individual par excellence. Committed to "independent thinking," the intellectual is naturally in "tension" with the organization or "institution." Leaders of organizations "tend to take stands that move the organization towards a conservative position," but "dynamic organizations are those that also move in the direction of change." Ritchie recognizes that every organization must to some degree "do both at the same time"—conserve and change—but clearly, like Peterson, he makes the "progressive" assumption that "change" is the more exciting and important emphasis in the contemporary Church. Thus his rule of thumb: "If it ain't broke, break it."
In advising against "contention," therefore, Ritchie does not pause to consider whether the "dynamic" intellectuals may actually have anything of substance to learn from "conservative" Church authorities. His posture of moderation is based instead upon a certain strategic realism: viewing the Church in the light of organizational theory, that is, viewing it as just another organization, he reminds his fellow intellectuals of the necessity of institutional inertia. Don't expect to change things too fast, and don't be surprised if authorities sometimes distrust the changes you promote.
What is conspicuous by its absence in Ritchie's argument is any recognition that intellectuals might occasionally be wrong in their enthusiasm for "change" (and "organizational" authorities right in what they are trying to conserve), not only in their strategies (timing, tone, etc.), but in substance. Of course, on the surface, Ritchie's tone is all tentativeness and humility. For those having difficulty with a Church leader, he recommends a conciliatory tone: "Not that you have to agree with me, not that you are wrong, but rather you and I are different and you have made it very hard for me, given my values and your values." But Ritchie's advise, full of enthusiasm for "diversity" (as if all difference were good or innocent), flirts (at least) with relativism, implying that one never has to make a clear choice between or among opposing "values," and that it is always wrong to "pronounce judgments on perspectives."
In any case, Ritchie's conciliatory tone appears somewhat superficial on close inspection, as it is merely part of an arsenal of "strategies for dealing with conflict." There is, again, no hint of a suggestion that the Church leader might be right; for the advise to adopt "a strategic rather than a defensive position" is recommended as appropriate for dealing with "even the most reactionary zealots." Just as Peterson offered strategic advise to a "loyal opposition," but somewhat more cautiously, Ritchie's counsel to fellow "intellectuals," his "supportive group of like-minded friends" in dealing with "those Saints who see things differently" finally amounts to this: you can afford to be patient and cautious, because of course you are always right.
The "intellectuals" or "liberals" (as Ritchie describes himself) are always right because they represent the claims of the "individual" against the "organization," the claims of progress or "change" against conservative inertia. He has "no illusions about making the LDS church safe for liberals," and so he sees the necessity of strategic accommodations; but this in no way brings him to question his "commitment to principles"—that is, to "liberalism" and "change." Apparently identifying this vaguely progressive "liberalism" with critical thinking itself, the author never considers that in his suspicion of the authority of the Church as an "organization" he embraces the authority of the modern, adversarial intellectual as a class.
The True "Adversary Culture"
The authority exerted over Professor Ritchie's thinking by the prestige of the modern intellectual is clear when he takes the side of a younger generation of scholars at BYU whom he supposes to represent a unified "front edge that is ahead of existing faculty, the administration, and the system" and to feel betrayed by what he calls "new policies on orthodoxy." Such scholars "come with aspirations, dreams, and styles rooted in their training at Harvard, Stanford, Michigan, and Berkeley, and they want to behave like people at those schools." Leaving aside the question of who gets included in this "front edge" (again I was not contacted for this survey), it never seems to occur to Professor Ritchie to ask where this edge is leading (except away from "orthodoxy"), or to consider whether one might make an intelligent choice to "betray" the commitments of Harvard, Stanford, etc. in order to remain faithful to aspirations, dreams, and styles rooted in "orthodoxy."
I do not at all mean to argue that there is nothing to be learned from Harvard, Berkeley, and scholars at similarly distinguished universities. On the contrary, I believe we have much to learn, and that we should have the confidence and the courage to gather insights and information from wherever they may be found. It is only when the prestige of university scholarship is allied with the predominantly adversarial culture of intellectuals, that is, with a broad tendency to question every "orthodoxy" except its own belief in "liberation" or open-ended freedom from moral and religious restraints, that the ethic of higher education becomes incompatible with authentic religious commitments.
Fortunately, higher education does not represent a liberationist monolith. The influence of the adversary culture is pervasive, but not total. Socrates' awareness of the limits of reason in providing foundations for moral community has not completely succumbed to the dreams of modern rationalism. It would be a great mistake to throw the baby (respect for learning) out with the bathwater (dogmatic secularism). It would be a great pity if the eagerness of would-be "mormon intellectuals" to enhance their status among a circle of dissidents and the media who feed off them by embracing the adversarial ethic of liberation contributed to an indiscriminate distrust of learning among Latter-Day Saints.
That is to say that my critique of self-styled "intellectuals" should not be read as an attack on the intellect. I have affirmed elsewhere that "LDS teaching encourages a distinct openness to the intrinsic as well as instrumental goodness of the life of the mind, an openness founded on the continuity between the human and the divine realms." I thus agree with Scott Abbott that there can be no final conflict between spiritual and intellectual light. But clearly we have not reached the point where faith and reason converge. Using the intellect alone, we cannot discover or construct all the truth we need to live a good life, much less to achieve exaltation. Our condition as human beings is such that we cannot help but rely upon some authority; the only question is: what authority will we embrace as our guide concerning the most fundamental questions of life? Will we succumb to the pressure or the prestige of "the values evolving in the world at large?" Will we be seduced by the vain praise of "intellectuals" who establish their credentials by debunking moral and religious norms and restraints? Will we accept claims of "openness" or "critical thinking" which peremptorily dismiss the possibility of any authoritative revelation not flattering to the assumptions and pretensions of the intellectual class?
Or will we follow Christ, his Church, and his prophets? In a world increasingly dominated by the authority of the "intellectual," by the groundless dream of a progressive liberation from all restraints on "the individual," and by the moral decay such notions have helped to promote, the turn to revealed guidance is the choice of true independence, of true non-conformism. The Church will not be perfect until we all are, but it remains the "adversary culture" of choice for truly thoughtful "intellectuals."