Last weekend, at a lecture delivered by David F. Holland (video should be forthcoming!), BYU celebrated the tenth anniversary of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Studies. The creation of the MI was the result of bringing together a number of activities at BYU, including the Foundation of Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, the Dead Sea Scrolls Project, and the Middle Eastern Text Initiative, among other projects. If you are interested in some background to how these type of ancient studies projects took root at BYU, I recommend Eric F. Mason’s “The Saints and the Scrolls: LDS Engagement with mainstream Dead Sea Scrolls Scholarship and Its Implication” (in this volume). In many ways, what the MI is now is an extension of that Dead Sea Scrolls project: an academic initiative aimed to build bridges with the broader scholarly world. Even as projects under the MI umbrella have developed, evolved, and transformed, that broad mission has remained the same.
Spencer Fluhman, a history professor and mentor for a majority of young LDS academics, became the institute’s newest director this year. It would have been impossible to name a better person. Fluhman taught the first class I attended when I went to BYU and opened my eyes to the academic study of religion, so I’m biased. But he also wrote a phenomenal book and is well-integrated into the scholarly community. He is also committed to the split focus of the MI, in which they aim to reach both academics as well as the faithful. Just take a look at his state-of-the-institute address he delivered last Saturday:
Can you feel that the time is ripe for more vigorous engagement? We can. In graduate school, I had an advisor who was Jewish, and he taught me a really important truth about our religious community. Noticing the work of several young LDS historians, he quipped to me one afternoon, “You all have been parrying the sword thrusts so long that you’re only now starting to take serious stock of yourselves.” As my colleague (and Maxwell Institute author) Patrick Mason has said, “in 2016 it’s not about survival any more.” The pressing question for Latter-day Saint scholars now seems to be, “Can we contribute?” To contribute, we must be in the conversations. We must engage those outside our own religious community. We’ve seen Latter-day Saints in business and politics do just that. The Maxwell Institute proposes to support LDS scholars in fields related to religion so they can contribute enduring work in the broader world of research and ideas.
I didn’t think it was possible for a text to capture the enthusiasm with which Fluhman lectures, but that comes close to doing his charisma justice.
But what also makes Fluhman perfect for the position is his commitment to doing work that furthers the LDS tradition. Again from his address:
One of the key insights of what we might call the “postmodern” academy is that knowledge doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Human learning and reason do not exist outside of time and space, somehow immune from culturally rooted values or perspectives. In light of that insight, I unreservedly claim that statement from Elder Maxwell as the context for all the work of the Institute that bears his name, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute. Accordingly, we can never be “neutral.” We pursue scholarship in light of that “redeeming presence,” that “preeminent and imperial” “grand fact” of divine love. It fuels our rigor, it prompts our generosity, and it fires our collective imagination.
This is the blend of faithful and rigor that is required at BYU’s institution. The MI’s advisory board, also revealed last weekend, demonstrates the bridge between academic and ecclesiastic worlds.
There will always be limits for what a BYU institution could do. Fluhman knows that. But there is still a critical function that a center like the MI can play in the modern Mormon tradition. Besides the well-regarded Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, which provides dual-language publications of important documents translated and edited by leading scholars in the field, they have similar initiatives focused on Christian texts, the Book of Mormon, and Mormon studies. They have a number of journals and book series on Mormon-related topics. (Disclaimer: I’m an associate editor with their Mormon Studies Review.) I’ve been especially thrilled with their Living Faith book series, which I believe to be the model of how LDS scholars can speak to a non-scholarly audience. (I’m only a few pages into the brand-new book by Ashley Mae Hoiland, One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly, and it’s fantastic.) Currently, the publishing arm of the institute is both prolific and rigorous–a very rare combination.
Kudos to the Maxwell Institute for their good work. The future appears bright.