This past weekend, the stage of religious history and philosophical scholarship was visited in the form of an unprecedented conference at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut entitled “God, Humanity, and Revelation: Perspectives from Mormon Philosophy and History.”
This event, sponsored by three divisions of BYU and jointly with the Yale Divinity School, is thought to be the largest gathering yet of scholars and students devoted to the study of Mormonism. These sponsorships included funding the conference such that there was no charge to attend the 13 sessions. This fact alone can be taken as an indicator of how committed both universities were to making sure that the event was both successful and widely available.
As The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints grows in membership and the fruits of those members become known to the world, the depth and breadth of its interactions with the world will surely increase. This is to be expected. It cannot and should not be stopped. This is part of God’s plan to bring the Gospel light to a darkened world.
The pages of Meridian Magazine are replete with examples of Latter-day Saints interfacing with the rest of God’s children on many different stages, including those of sports, cinema, politics, music, and so on. This is the story of one Latter-day Saint who caught the vision of a civil Mormon-Christian dialogue to be held at a world-class non-LDS university.
The Genesis of a Conference Idea
The idea for a conference involving both LDS and non-LDS scholars and attendees began in the mind of an undergraduate philosophy student, Kenneth West, at BYU in 2001. As Brother West recalls, there had been some interesting developments in the academic field of Christian and Mormon dialogue around that time. In May of 2000, the executive committee of the Society of Christian Philosophers (SCP) passed a resolution prohibiting institutions that did not subscribe to the ecumenical creeds of orthodox Christianity from hosting future SCP meetings. Given that The Church of Jesus Christ does not assent to these creeds, BYU was of necessity excluded from hosting meetings of the SCP.
David Paulsen, BYU Professor of Philosophy and founder and past director of the Mountain-Plains Region of the SCP, had hosted SCP meetings at BYU in the early ‘90’s and was quite upset by the passage of the resolution. As a student and research assistant of Paulsen’s in 2000, West worked closely with him and was aware of the SCP situation as it unfolded. He recalls that Paulsen responded to the resolution by sending out e-mails to past SCP presidents, asking for advice as to what he could do to have the resolution rescinded. Three of those past presidents were Yale faculty members who offered support for Paulsen by sending a letter asking the SCP Executive Committee to rescind the resolution. According to West, these three colleagues (Marilyn Adams, Robert Adams, and Nicholas Wolterstorff) by their actions evidenced a great amount of ecumenism and support for the LDS scholarly community. While the particular resolution was later “technically” rescinded, West believes that an even more “exclusive” one was soon put in its place.
As is sometimes the case, something good came out of a seemingly bad situation. West had already been accepted into Yale’s Master of Divinity program for the fall of 2001. He began to wonder if the aforementioned Yale professors really did support this spirit of cooperation between Mormon and Christian scholars and if they would be willing to back up their words on paper with action.
To test the waters, West e-mailed Marilyn Adams and asked if something along the lines of a conference at Yale on Mormonism might even be conceivable. She responded quickly and favorably with a voice of support for such an event, suggesting that Brother West wait until he actually arrived on campus to start soliciting further support from other faculty members.
In the meantime (while still on BYU campus), Brother West approached Robert Millet, then Professor of Ancient Scripture (now Richard L. Evans Chair for Religious Understanding), with his idea of a conference at a non-LDS institution on Mormonism. Professor David Paulsen also participated in these discussions. All three were very skeptical about the chances of bringing such an idea to fruition.
While monies were available for funding a conference and everyone liked the idea in theory, no one really knew whether such an untested concept could be brought to pass. West’s relatively low status as a student didn’t help the situation much either. As West completed his undergraduate degree in Provo and prepared to begin his graduate studies in New Haven, he had no sense as to if, how, or when his dream of a conference on Mormonism might ever become more than just that.
West Heads East
While West traveled eastward across more than half of the United States to continue his schooling at Yale (working towards becoming a chaplain), another individual in academia was also getting settled in New Haven to begin her new position as Dean of Yale Divinity School. Rebecca Chopp, previously a professor of theology at Emory University in Atlanta, traveled northward to start the next phase of her career. Even though she would only hold the Deanship for one year before going on to become President of Colgate University, neither of them had any idea as to how their interactions would result in a history-making conference.
Soon after West arrived on Yale campus, he met with Dean Chopp and shared with her his vision of a conference on Mormonism. She immediately became very excited about the idea and quickly organized a lectures committee to begin exploring the feasibility of West’s idea. West believes that Chopp is “really the reason this Conference is actually happening.” He says, “She expressed a real desire to have Yale Divinity be a place where a very diverse cross-section of different faith groups could come and discuss their faith commitments. She led the way in terms of ecumenism.”
Once Kenneth West got the green light from Dean Chopp, West flew back to Provo and re-started his discussions with Professor Millet about funding the conference. It quickly became evident that Millet alone, through the Richard L. Evans Chair for Religious Understanding, could not provide all of the necessary funding for the conference.
After considering what other organizations at BYU might be interested in contributing financially to the conference, West approached the Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts (ISPART) and the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History. Both groups caught the vision of West’s ideas and agreed to help fund the effort. Additional funding came later from the Smith-Pettit Foundation and Signature Books, both of Salt Lake City. West is still amazed that the latter two groups are partnering with the former two to fund the conference, given their vastly different ideological approaches to Mormon studies. He sees this fact alone as a “huge success” and as part of his overall dream of bringing together disparate groups of Christians and Mormons in a single conference.
Gathering World-Class Scholars
Now that he had the conference location and funding arranged, West next had to tackle the extremely important challenge of inviting world-class Christian and Mormon scholars to prepare and present new papers at the conference.
They would not, however, simply be reading their papers and then sitting down again to relax. No, West imagined a format wherein an LDS scholar would present his/her paper, followed by a prepared response from a non-LDS scholar, followed by a question-and-answer period involving everyone. He very much wanted a dynamic and thought-provoking give-and-take scenario involving everybody at the conference. But who would want to participate in such an event?
West believed that if he could get a commitment from Richard Bushman, a highly respected Emeritus Professor at Columbia University, the others on his dream list would also be very interested in presenting at the conference. Bushman had lectured previously at Yale and Harvard on Mormon history and was well regarded in academia. West invited Bushman to participate in the conference and he agreed to do so. As he contacted the other scholars on his wish list by phone or e-mail, they readily expressed their desire to be part of this historic gathering.
Gathering a Balance of Respected Mormon Critics
But West still wasn’t finished with “stirring the pot” of potential participants. He also wanted to have some non-LDS scholars participating who had “clear, subversive agendas” relative to the spread of Mormonism and, at the same time, were professional and respectful to their colleagues. He wanted the LDS scholars and attendees to be challenged in their assumptions and thinking about Mormon history and philosophy, believing that such an exchange would help them to clarify and strengthen such. He found what he wanted in the persons of Carl Mosser (University of St. Andrews in Scotland, Ph.D. Candidate) and Paul Owen (Montreat College in North Carolina). Given that Mosser and Owen were two of the three editors for the anti-Mormon volume, The New Mormon Challenge, it was not surprising when some (unidentified) LDS scholars voiced opposition to their inclusion. West, however, was able to resolve the LDS concerns and keep the group together, despite their disparities percolating under the surface.
Holding it Together
Now that West had all the different pieces in place for a “serious academic conference where Latter-day Saints could be challenged academically” (“not a fireside”), the question remained: Would he be able to hold it all together until March 27th and have it flow smoothly throughout approximately 16 hours of sessions? While not concerned about contention between the LDS and non-LDS scholars, would he be able to maintain the civility and ecumenism during the less structured Q&A periods involving laypersons? Could he actually achieve his goals of bilateral education and understanding between Christians and Latter-day Saints? He would soon receive the answers to his questions.
Watch in coming days for a report on the March 27-29, 2003 Conference here in Meridian Magazine.