Sa’id and Packer

Boyd K. Packer’s “The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect” (1981) is a talk I’ve often heard spoken of in hushed, insinuating tones–such that when I finally got around to reading it, I was braced for some sort of screed strangling of academic inquiry and silencing “unorthodox” research into Church history. On the contrary,  I found the talk to be positively Sa’idian.

The late Edward Sa’id, a Palestinian-Arab English professor at Columbia, was the famed author of Orientalism, the 1978 book that critiques the entire field of Orientalist studies among Western scholars.  Sa’id’s main thesis is that the West defines the East for the East, as opposed to allowing the East to speak for itself–anyone east of Europe who tries to speak for themselves is denied intelligibility and validation, and thus are denied a voice.

Hence the West (says Sa’id) has been able to define the whole massive Orient as decadent, degenerate, irrational, feminine, weak-willed, sub-human, and in need of the civilizing influence and steady-hand of the “enlightened,” masculine West.  In this manner has both Europe and America been able to justify its imperialism and subjugation of the Middle-East and beyond.  (For a silly popular example, think Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, wherein the East is relentlessly portrayed as exotic, bizarre, macabre, mystical, dark, degenerate, impotent to save itself, with a weak, girlish, easily-controlled child-ruler, and in need of a strong Anglo-Saxon hero to liberate the poor wretches from themselves–with a little back-up from the British army as well).

I was put in mind of Sa’id with Packer’s opening anecdote, wherein “a seminary teacher went to a large university in the East [coast] to complete a doctorate…Our teacher attracted attention…that is, until he came to his dissertation.  He chose to study a ward Bishop…In the dissertation he described the calling and ordination of a bishop, described the power of discernment, the right of a bishop to receive revelation…His doctrinal committee did not understand this.  They felt it had no place in a scholarly paper and insisted he take it out.”

Elder Packer recounts how he tried to help this Phd candidate satisfy his committee with such language as “the Latter-day Saints believe the bishop has spiritual power,” or “they claim that there is inspiration from God attending the Bishop in his calling” (emphasis added), words that accurately reflect LDS beliefs while making no requirement on the reader to accept those beliefs.  One can imagine an Islam scholar describing how Muslims believe and claim that the Kaaba in Mecca has spiritual power; no matter if this scholar personally is a Christian or an atheist, he would be a poor scholar indeed if he didn’t accurately declare what Muslims themselves believe.

Which is why I find the next part of Packer’s anecdote incredible: “But the dissertation committee denied him even this.  It was obvious that they would be quite embarrassed to have this ingredient included in a scholarly dissertation.”

But why?  Why deny the Mormons the ability to articulate what we ourselves believe?  As Sai’d demonstrated in Orientalism, it is easier to control an unpopular minority by silencing discourse and denying their thought legitimacy or validation.  Allowing Mormons to speak for ourselves legitimizes us, which makes some uncomfortable; so, the uncomfortable cut out our voice in the name of “objectivity,” as though there is really any such thing as pure objectivity.

I’m thinking of most recently when the New York Times held a panel of commentators on Mormonism, and not one Mormon was invited to speak for ourselves–and this so shortly after these same commentators  (rightly) condemned Fox News for holding a panel of religious leaders to discuss contraception without inviting a single woman.  If infantilizing women is disgraceful, then what of infantilizing Mormons?  We would consider it inexcusably racist to say that black history should only be told by white people, since black people are too enmeshed in their own culture to study themselves objectively and sans bias–of course black people are enmeshed in their own culture, that’s why their perspective is the most pertinent of all!

When Packer encourages LDS scholars “to be biased in favor of the Lord,” I do not believe that was a call for self-censorship and stifling of scholarly rigor–certainly Sa’id was “biased” in favor of the Arabs, and good thing he was, someone had to.