Scholars & Saints

The Last Mormon Liberal (feat. Kristine Haglund)

December 10, 2022 Stephen Betts Episode 28
The Last Mormon Liberal (feat. Kristine Haglund)
Scholars & Saints
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Scholars & Saints
The Last Mormon Liberal (feat. Kristine Haglund)
Dec 10, 2022 Episode 28
Stephen Betts

Kristine Haglund joins me to discuss her recent book, Eugene England: A Mormon Liberal, the inaugural volume in the University of Illinois Press's new Introductions to Mormon Thought Series. We talk about England's influences, methods, epistemology,  and theology from an intellectual historical rather than a biographical point of view.

Show Notes Transcript

Kristine Haglund joins me to discuss her recent book, Eugene England: A Mormon Liberal, the inaugural volume in the University of Illinois Press's new Introductions to Mormon Thought Series. We talk about England's influences, methods, epistemology,  and theology from an intellectual historical rather than a biographical point of view.

The Last Mormon Liberal

Partly as the church has changed, partly as the world around us has fragmented in evermore specialized and siloed categories, I think it's really hard and probably impossible for anyone to believe as fully as England did that all of their loves can be…circumscribed by Mormonism. I think anyone who identifies as liberal or progressive politically now comes to see that as at least something that has to be carefully and thoughtfully reconciled with their Mormonism. And I don't think England thought that reconciliation was necessary. And that's the difference. That's what I mean is gone. When I say he was the last Mormon liberal.

—    Kristine Haglund



Stephen Betts: I'm joined today by Kristine Haglund, a writer, editor, independent scholar, and the former editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. We're discussing her recent book, Eugene England: A Mormon Liberal, published as the inaugural volume in the University of Illinois Press's Introductions to Mormon Thought series. Thanks for joining me today, Kristine. 

Kristine Haglund: Thanks for having me. 

Stephen Betts: So Kristine, can you talk about your background a little bit and, and sort of what brought you to write this book about Eugene England?

Kristine Haglund: Sure. The last question is easy. What brought me to write it is that Matt Bowman and Joseph Spencer, who are the series editors asked me to. I did not propose the book independently. They thought, and I mostly agreed with them that I was well situated to write the book partly because I'd had experience with England's Journal, which I was the editor of for a while, and also that I have a background that, that situates me to understand this vein of Mormonism pretty well. I grew up with a mother who was an English teacher and father who's a physics professor. And so, their approach to Mormonism was very “thinky” and very open to the world. I remember that when I first encountered evolution at school, my father gave me Eyring's quotation about how the scriptures tell us who made the world and why. But they're not meant to tell us how or when. And I think that was England's approach too—this sense that Mormonism could be reconciled with secular knowledge and with modernity in ways that would be conducive to spiritual growth as well as intellectual interest. And so, I had that kind of similar orientation to Mormonism as he did. 

Stephen Betts: You know, I just had a conversation with Terryl Givens, who also wrote a book about Eugene England that came out around the same time as yours. But you have very different approaches. Of course, this series is about Mormon thought, and Terryl Givens's book takes a little bit different approach. So, I wonder if you would say more about how you come to this and sort of what the aims of the book are. 

Kristine Haglund: Sure. I think in many ways, Terryl's is the much harder project. So I feel like I had an easier task. Much of it is sort of prescribed by the format of the series. So for each of the thinkers that they consider, there's going to be a brief biographical sketch and then they all end with a bibliographic essay. And then there are supposed to be three chapters, three or four in the middle, you know, depending on length. So, much of my procedure was dictated by that format, which made it simpler. And, so we've talked about getting t-shirts for everyone who writes in the series that say, "it's not a biography!" because it's very hard for people to think about a book focused on a single person that is not intended as a comprehensive biography. But that is, in fact, what we're doing. It’s not, you know, the biography of course always influences thought, so we have to look at it and that's why they start with a biographical sketch. But we really are trying to sort of situate Mormon thinkers' work in the context of a larger American or world intellectual history. 

Stephen Betts: That's one of the things I really appreciated about the book was, you know, not just passing references, but rather sustained references to, you know, Protestant theologians like Niebuhr and Paul Tillich and not just that, but also philosophical background in German Romanticism and various things like this. I think that really helps to situate him, not just as a Mormon thinker, but as a thinker, as a theologian, and sort of highlights what's unique about what he's doing.

But before we dive into that, the subtitle of the book is A Mormon Liberal, and in the book you say he's actually “the last Mormon liberal.” And that really strikes me as an interesting claim. And I wonder if you could sort of unpack what "liberal" means in its Latter-day Saint context and what you mean when you say he's the last Mormon liberal.

Kristine Haglund: Yeah. Liberal is an incredibly fraught word, right? It means that most of my book talks, I never get past the title of the book, which is fine. But within Mormonism it has certain meanings that it carries. So, some are like the sort of epistemological approach to Mormonism, whether you're an "Iron Rod" or a "Liahona" Mormon, that's one way that "liberal" and "conservative" sometimes get mapped. Or in practice, right? How orthodox you are in your practice, how pious, I guess is the word that one would use in religious talk. How carefully you keep the rules of Mormon practice is one way that people divide it out. And then of course it has lots of political baggage, right? We generally try to map American categories onto people so that we think that people who are liberal in an American political context are out of the mainstream of Mormonism. At least that's how I think it has come to be perceived over the last, you know, half century or so.

England is not a political liberal in that way. He is more liberal than many of his contemporaries. But he is not progressive in the way that we have come to understand that sort of at the vanguard of social movement and in favor of change and progress at all costs. He's much more careful and incremental in that. And so, what I mean, partly when I say that he's a liberal is that he is a "small L" liberal. He's open and generous in his approach to modernity, to other thinkers. He tends to organize the world in terms of reason and persuasive arguments rather than necessarily authoritative pronouncements. He doesn't think that truth necessarily flows only from authority and revelation.

But he's open to those things too, right? Which makes him a very complicated sort of liberal and a Mormon sort of liberal, right? That he is constantly trying to reconcile good arguments and reason with authoritative pronouncements. And he deeply believes in the authority, particularly of apostles to dictate what Mormon theology and Mormon practice should be. And those twinned commitments are sort of what I mean when I say Mormon liberal. The reason that I say he's the last one is that he believed until he died that he was, you know, exactly as Mormon as his neighbors who were more conservative, both theologically and politically. He thought that his political commitments and his intellectual pursuits and his literary reading and his spiritual life all could be reconciled into a whole that made sense in the context of Mormonism. And I think that has become harder and harder for people. Partly as the church has changed, partly as the world around us has fragmented in evermore specialized and siloed categories, I think it's really hard and probably impossible for anyone to believe as fully as England did that all of their loves can be, you know, circumscribed by Mormonism. I think anyone who identifies as liberal or progressive politically now comes to see that as at least something that has to be carefully and thoughtfully reconciled with their Mormonism. And I don't think England thought that reconciliation was necessary. And that's the difference. That's what I mean is gone. When I say he was the last Mormon liberal. 

Stephen Betts: You talk about how he kind of embodies “an expansive Mormonism that might have been,” and you attribute this, in some ways, to him being part of this generation that is really the last one to grow up in these, you know, what he calls, "safe valleys." The pioneer Intermountain West communitarian lifestyle where the Church is very small, Latter-day Saint leaders frequently have friendships with people throughout the Intermountain West. It's just a very close, tight-knit community. And then you have this kind of outmigration of Latter-day Saints to go to graduate school and work to eastern cities and western cities in the mid-20th century. And this really tracks with some developments in the organizational structure and the hierarchy of the church where it's becoming more bureaucratic, more distant. Something you said really I think is interesting, that he's the last to be able to kind of unite or feel a united sense of “all of his loves.” And, and you talked about this fractiousness, this increasing fractiousness of late modernity and one of his key theological projects when he is thinking about atonement, and we'll get into this a little bit later, but when he is thinking about atonement is alienation is really the big problem. And that seems like such a unique approach that really addresses this problem of the unity of these increasingly fractious desires, uh, that he feels himself being pulled by the church hierarchy, by his political commitments. But he's not a bandwagoner, right? And so, this is all about how close can he stay to what he feels like is the center. 

But one of his major projects as a thinker is to write essays. He's trained in American literature. As an essayist he has a very, again, a sort of unique approach to what the personal essay looks like, what criticism looks like as a literary critic. And he privileges this kind of applied moral knowledge, or ethics over what he often will talk about as abstract theory. And really emphasizing that over just the interior experience of belief. So why is that so important to him as a thinker and how do we see that playing out in his work? 

Kristine Haglund: For him, action and connection in a community is not only or not even the result of what you know being applied. It is in fact, for him, the way to acquire knowledge, right? Action is an epistemological method for arriving at truth. So, he is very experimental in that way. Much like my physics professor dad, "well, you know, set up the experiment, try it out and see, see what you discern." And he, I think, quite forcefully applies that method to almost everything that he thinks about. I mean, if you read enough of his essays, at some point you start to think, “Look, the answer to every philosophical problem cannot be home teaching.” But for him it kind of is, right? I mean, that is where he lands almost all the time. And in his approach to literature, he's much the same, right? He privileges this unity or integrity between belief and action; it's something that he's always trying to get at, and he believes that Mormons are especially good at it in ways that don't necessarily show up in the forms of canonical literature. So he looks at journals, he looks at testimony and sermons which he, I think, sort of regards as precursors of the personal essay form or proto-essays maybe and there's a way that he thinks Mormon writers, partly because of their training in talks, sermons and, and testimony that there's a way that Mormons are self-aware and analytical about their thinking and their belief without being self-conscious in the ways that make people do literature performatively. So, there's this sense in which I think he thinks that not being conscious of a non-Mormon audience makes Mormon literature truer to itself. And that's partly why the personal essay is valuable, is because it integrates this religious consciousness and practice into a form that can be understood by other people. But I think he also thinks that literature that is truest to Mormonism will also be the best explanation of Mormonism; that literature intended for an internal audience actually has the best possibility. So, for the, the self first and then the community in which one finds oneself that is most understood, will be most representative of the tradition.

Stephen Betts: Something that's really interesting about this from a, from a religious studies perspective is, Saba Mahmood had a really famous book, Politics of Piety a number of years ago where she talked about how Muslim women in Egypt, the ways that they lived their lives religiously and how they thought of themselves as women wasn't really formed by what they were told to do, by their religion, by religious leaders. It was by the stuff they actually did, right? 

Kristine Haglund: Mm-hmm. 

Stephen Betts: Like it's by the activities of reading and the activities of gathering together and doing various things. And that really reminds me of what you're saying about England, is that his sense of the “Mormonness” of Mormon literature really is that lived sense of yeah, going out and, you know, you talked about home teaching, which is basically this practice within the church of people going and helping out their co-religionists, right? They're assigned to go do that. Or giving these lay sermons, these homilies where they're often talking about personal experience and giving testimony in public and teaching in the church and serving in the church. All these things form a particular kind of way of life— what scholars would call “subjectivity”— that isn't dictated by a sort of catechism or a theology. It comes about as the result of living in that way. And I think that his analysis is so apt to it to identify that as the thing that makes Mormon literature unique. 

Kristine Haglund: I think Mahmood is a good explicator there. You know, one of the things that has always been said about Mormons is that they're brainwashed by their leaders that they, you know, have this constant discourse coming down to them. And what Mahmood points out so beautifully is that in fact, even within that discourse, there's a great deal of agency in terms of what people choose to do and what they read and how they think about themselves. And so that, you know, accusations of false consciousness just completely miss the mark, right? Because there is choice at every moment of, of that kind of consciousness forming and, and subjectivity. 

Stephen Betts: Yeah, I think that's exactly right. And, and this is a sort of tangential point, but I was just reading an article by Kathleen Flake the other day, where she's arguing something similar about women's identity and women's priestly roles within the church under conditions of polygamy, right? But in any case, yeah, he points this out and he's also really interested in recovering what now is referred to, and I can't remember who coined this term, but the "Lost Generation" of Mormon novelists people in the thirties and forties, 1930s and forties, who are part of this out migration, who go out and get education and, and become more metropolitan, more cosmopolitan, and write beautiful literature that is received by, by outsiders and, and they don't come back.

Kristine Haglund: Right. 

Stephen Betts: Right. So talk a little bit more about this "Lost Generation," what he's trying to do with that. 

Kristine Haglund: Yeah. I think it's related to that seamlessness of consciousness that I was talking about, about believing that that one can be so utterly Mormon that the quality of Mormonness becomes inherent. And I think about this a lot when I read accounts of debates over suffrage in Utah, and you know, in the 1890s, people passionately disagreed with each other and thought that they were completely wrong. But no one ever said, "If you think that you can't be Mormon." And I think Gene is in part trying to recover that sense with these people that go out into the world and don't come back. There are lots of people who would say, "Well, they're not Mormon anymore," and Gene is trying to say, "Yes, they are!" This consciousness, this way of being in the world is so Mormon that it's a quality that inheres in those people and cannot be extracted regardless of where they live or what they come to believe. 

Stephen Betts: Virginia Sorenson. Vardis Fisher. What are the other names of these folks and what are the books they're writing?

Kristine Haglund: Maureen Whipple is England's favorite, right? She writes The Giant Joshua. Virginia Sorenson: The Evening and the Morning, A Little Lower than the Angels, things like that. You know, often have to do with Mormon life. And they are recounting Mormon life without being didactic or trying to impart Mormon theology in the ways that earlier what's called "Home Literature," the work of Nephi Anderson and others, tries to do where it's explicitly meant to be consumed by a Latter-day Saint audience and meant to inculcate principles from Latter-day Saint theology or, or teaching. I think he's trying to say that that non-didactic literature can also be Mormon, and deeply Mormon in ways that illuminate Mormon doctrine without directly trying to explicate it. And again, that goes back to personal essays too, right? I mean this idea that an individual consciousness somehow represented on the page, the story of an individual's experience, is the essence of Mormonism for him.

Stephen Betts: I mean, it strikes me that the thing that he's identifying as the "Mormonness" this is something that somehow it's communicated cross generationally, and, in a certain way, it seems like he's identifying kind of crisis where that's being lost in some way. The ability to articulate that Mormonness is being lost. 

We, we mentioned this a little bit earlier, but as a literary critic, he thinks about his role as literary critic as a kind of consecration of labor. This is of course this very central idea in Joseph Smith's theology that part of the communitarian society he's trying to build, it depends on people giving freely of what they have to each other and, and creating, uh, community of trust and a community of giving. And he feels like that's part of what he's doing. And, as I was reading what you were saying about it, I kind of thought of this to myself as "consecrated criticism." I'm wondering if you could say a little bit more about that. 

Kristine Haglund: Yeah. You know, he reads everything the way that we read in Sunday School. Sort of looking for moral lessons and ethical applications of thought. I was reading an essay of his, where he talks about Northrop Frye's The Great Code, and England says something like, "You know, although he doesn't say it, Frye is talking about atonement here." I'm like, “No, he's not!” Like, of course he doesn't say it because he is not doing theology. He thinks of criticism as a separate project from religion, right? He looks at the Bible, but he is not doing so in a religious way. And I think to England, that didn't even make sense, right? That I don't think it would've crossed his mind that someone could talk about the Bible and not be doing religion in one way or another.

He reads Shakespeare the same way, right? I mean, he's reading it for what Shakespeare might tell us about not only sort of simplistic here's the white hat guy, here's the black hat guy. But sometimes about what the moral complexities of life are and how some dilemmas are unresolved. And in that way, our Sunday school would be a lot better if we if we read the way that that Gene did. But I also think it's a similar approach. And I guess that's part of what I mean about that seamless consciousness too. Like partly because I think he spent his entire career at Brigham Young University, or almost all of it after he left St. Olaf's, which was also religious, right? I mean, even at St Olaf's he was busy trying to talk about moral education as part of the job of the university. And so he has this approach where you know, it's not just that he's working for a Church university, it's that he sees his job as making Mormonism something that is intellectually vital to the young Mormons that he's teaching, and also showing Mormonism to a wider world.

So, I don't think he ever says this anywhere explicitly, but I think he very much thinks of his writing as sort of missionary labor, both within and without the church. He thinks of it as just the same thing as his father praying over his wheat fields. That, you know, “My mind belongs to Mormonism in every way.”

Stephen Betts: A couple of really interesting things there, one of which is this idea of a kind of Mormon hermeneutic. And I think the thing that he highlights is that there is a Mormon hermeneutic, and people might not be proud of it because it seems so quotidian, it seems so unsophisticated in some ways. And he says, "no, this is just what it is." There's this scriptural warrant in the Book of Mormon for a certain kind of interpretation that says, “liken this to yourself, you know, make this relevant to you.” And he really, he really exemplifies that. 

But the other thing that you highlight is his focus on unresolved contradiction and paradox. And of course, quite apropos this theme he founds the journal that you edited for a number of years, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought precisely with the idea of bringing into conversation contraries, voices within the Church that didn't agree with each other. Even voices outside of the Church. And he has a particular conception, it seems of what dialogue means, and it's very much about unresolved tension. And you quote from, "Why the Church is as True As The Gospel," and this is referring to a passage in the Book of Mormon, in the book of Second Nephi, where it's talking about how there is “opposition in all things.” That's the, that's the quote. And he writes, "This is perhaps the most provocative and profound statement of abstract theology in the scriptures because it describes what apparently is most ultimate in the universe. In context, it clearly suggests that not only is contradiction and opposition a natural part of human experience, something God uses for redemptive purposes, but that opposition is at the very heart of things. It is intrinsic to the two most fundamental realities, intelligence and matter." And of course, he's referring to Joseph Smith's comments on those things.[1] "According to Lehi opposition provides the universe with energy and meaning, even makes possible the existence of God and everything else."

This is astonishing theology. Can you expand on what is he saying here? And I mean this seems to like really centrally inflect his project and his idea that Mormonism is fundamentally tragic. 

Kristine Haglund: Yeah. I mean, we read that passage all the time and yet, I think we always think that the paradox should be resolved in favor of good, right? Eventually we'll be able to choose only good, and evil will be vanquished and that's not a misreading. I think that is also, you know, a possible reading of the Book of Mormon and particularly of Latter-day Saint eschatology, right? That at some point evil will be vanquished. But England, I think, is saying that it can't ever be entirely, right. That if you cannot be bad, then you cannot meaningfully be good. And that is true not only of human beings, but of God, right? That God has to live in this universe where evil exists, and he can't vanquish it entirely. That these opposing forces are absolutely necessary and that the reason why human beings think this way, you know, that the fundamental unit of human thought is to categorize something as this and not that, right? That’s what babies have to first make that separation. You know, “I am this thing, I am not that thing: the mother,” right? That the reason human thought works that way is because that is the condition of the universe.

And England is distinct in insisting that the paradox not only cannot be resolved, but should not be resolved, right? That persisting in the paradox is the only way to continue having energetic and meaningful existence. Which as you note, he also says, is ineluctably tragic, right? That the results of that are always going to end on the cross, right? That is, that is the place where the paradox is not resolved but eternally suspended. And that is tragedy. 

Stephen Betts: Also, you know, his idea about this fundamental opposition being at the heart of the nature of the universe, the nature of God also leads him into doing theology on the nature of God as a kind of finitistic or finite God. Again, he's responding not just to official theology, but also to, uh, some developments in, in the latter half of the twentieth century that famously O. Kendall White called Mormonism's “neo-orthodox” shift.[2] I wonder if you could say more about A.) his idea about the finite God and then how that is part of his critique of what you call following O. Kendall White, this neo orthodox shift in sort of lay Mormon theology.

Kristine Haglund: Yeah, so I think it's fair to say that he reads neo-orthodoxy as in part the natural sequence of choosing the Lectures on Faith over the “King Follet Sermon,” right? So, both of those strains have coexisted in Mormonism for a long time. And it's not that neo-orthodoxy is really new thinking, but it does just because of institutional realities that it's the religion department at BYU. So, it's the only sort of formal academic teaching of Mormon doctrine that's going on a large scale and is teaching a generation, several generations of Latter-day Saint students. And that thinking tends to resolve the paradox of omnipotence and omni-benevolence in favor of omnipotence, right? It says that God is ontologically distant from humans more than, you know, more than England wanted them to be. Partly because that ontological distance has to be collapsed so that there can be meaningful dialogue between humans and God. And also because he sees God's activity and consciousness as largely similar to humans, right? I mean, he is intent in reading Joseph Smith and some of Brigham Young's teaching about the nature of God, he is convinced that God is about progress and learning, and that those things do not cease that that is built into the universe, that we are constantly progressing and always living with this unresolved paradox.

And so, he sees the neo-orthodox resolution of that paradox as really dangerous and as going in the wrong direction and, you know, "The Weeping God of Mormonism" is his last essay that he was working on. It wasn't published until after his death. And it is urgent and polemical in its tone in a way that none of the rest of his essays are. And I would love to know whether he would have you know, softened its edges had he lived longer, but I think maybe not, I mean, I think he comes to see this as a central tension within Mormonism that will dictate what Mormonism is and can become in the 21st century.

Stephen Betts: So, one of the things that Terryl Givens said to me was that he found a lot of Eugene's prognoses of what's going on in Mormon thought to be really prescient of things that wouldn't happen for another forty years in some cases. 

Kristine Haglund: Yeah. 

Stephen Betts: And one of the things you point out is that this neo-orthodox trend that was really prevalent in the nineties, especially the early nineties, that that may be shifting. We have thinkers today, like, again, Terryl Givens himself. We also have Adam Miller, Joseph Spencer, Deidre Green, others who are thinking about some of these same issues. What's your sense of the current state of Mormon thought with respect to some of these same questions that Gene is interested in?

Kristine Haglund: So partly I see this as the thing that he wasn't prescient about, right? He was very smart about what would happen at BYU and in Utah. But I don't think he had a good sense of how the Church outside of Utah and outside of the United States would fundamentally change the nature of how these theological debates happen. And the way I read developments is not that you know, a less neo-orthodox view, for want of better terminology is winning that debate. It's just that the debate has been made irrelevant largely. There are, you know, more Mormon youth who don't go to BYU than who do. There are more Mormons living elsewhere. And in particular, the responsibilities of church leadership have become much more bureaucratic. And that is something that England missed in his trying to deal with them. He did not see that they no longer acted or I think viewed themselves as arbiters of theological disputes. That's not their job anymore.

 They are in fact doing what England did that is reading the scriptures in search of widely applicable moral applications. They're not doing long disquisitions on the nature of God anymore. They just don't do that. That's not what they write. It's not what they do. And I think, in a way, that England would've found deeply encouraging and heartening, that has made space for all kinds. You know, for Deidra Green, Adam Miller for the Givenses. And all kinds of Mormon thinking that may not be dominant in the way that neo-orthodoxy could be in the nineties. You know, may not come to be the mainstream of, of Mormon thought, but is allowed to flourish in the corners of it. And, in a way that seems like the best news of all to me, that instead of trying to, um, resolve the paradoxes in, in Mormon thinking that we just say, “No, we leave those, we let all the different strains of Mormon thought that conflict with each other and are messy and we live with that. And we learn to love each other and think together despite those differences.”

Stephen Betts: So, Kristine, thanks so much for being on the show today. Before we go, I'm just curious, what's next for you? What kinds of projects do you have on the back burner? Are you taking a break after this, this book? 

Kristine Haglund: Well, I am a much better thinker about other people's writing than actually a writer myself. And so, I am working on a couple of editing projects. I'm working with Jim Faulconer on a book about faith, hope and charity that is gonna be wonderful. I'm really excited about it. And also, my big project at the moment is Jill Derr's biography of Eliza R. Snow, which is gonna be fantastic. It'll be the, the Rough Stone Rolling for Eliza that, you know, I think it really will be the authoritative and, and definitive biography of her for many decades. 

Stephen Betts: Those sound great. We're really looking forward to those. And, again, thank you for this book. This is, I think, a very helpful introduction. This series is going to be really an excellent resource for kind of just getting a, getting a sense of what the kind of legacy of Mormon thought looks like.

 So, thanks for being here today, Kristine. 

Kristine Haglund: Thank you for having me.

*Transcript edited for clarity. 

[1] See e.g. Doctrine & Covenants 93:29; 131:7.
[2] For a non-Mormon interpretation of White’s thesis, see Richard J. Mouw, “Evangelical Mormonism?” Christianity Today, November 11, 1991.