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Defending the Faith: Each voice is unique and needed

Published: Thursday, Aug. 15 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

The Christus statue inside the north visitors center on Temple Square.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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As I write, I’m missing the services for a friend, Allen Lambert, who passed away from cancer a few days ago near his home in Ithaca, N.Y. His death came as a deep shock to me, and I would love to have attended his Utah funeral.

We first met after a lecture that I’d just delivered at Cornell University. Allen was a true original, the first self-described “Marxian” Mormon I’d ever encountered. We didn’t agree on politics, let alone on the merits of the writings of Karl Marx, but he was a fiercely loyal Latter-day Saint, highly intelligent and unafraid of controversy. He was also a very kindly man. It was, for me, impossible not to like him.

I last saw him following a lecture at BYU in early March by the redoubtable Royal Skousen. Allen had come out to Utah to check on the care of his 106-year-old mother. He looked fine; it never occurred to me that we were meeting for the last time. (And there was such longevity in his family!) He enthusiastically offered his editorial help for “Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture” and I very much regret that, as things rapidly developed, this proved impossible.

When I first learned of his passing, I mourned that his strong and inimitable voice was now stilled, at least for mortal ears. He held informed opinions on numerous topics of great interest to me, including the nature and philosophy of science. He was a tenacious critic of naturalistic presuppositions and of reductionism in both science and scholarship. I enjoyed reading his online exchanges regarding such matters, and I’ve saved many of them.

But I’ve taken some slight comfort, since Allen’s death, in the fact that his voice and his testimony are still preserved at “Mormon Scholars Testify,” an online project that I founded a few years ago. A few others among those who’ve contributed to the “Mormon Scholars Testify” site have since passed away, but their professions of faith still ring out, and I’m grateful for that.

There are, at this point, some 343 entries on “Mormon Scholars Testify,” from contributors in the physical sciences, the social sciences, the humanities, law — the whole range of academic work. Some are quite short, some fairly lengthy, with the typical entry probably two or three pages long. If the contents of the site were published in book form, I suppose it would require several volumes.

In some cases, sharing one’s deepest convictions publicly on such a site requires courage. Especially at an early stage in a young scholar’s career, open deviation from academic orthodoxy (which tends powerfully, among other things, toward secularism) can put a career at risk. In an academic job market where scores of qualified candidates may vie for a single faculty position, open allegiance to Mormonism — an unfashionable religious preference in many college and university circles — may not be helpful, and could even be the deciding negative factor. Moreover, public affirmation of a controversial religious position could be risky in a tenure vote, as well.

I don’t blame anybody who judges that it would be imprudent to appear on “Mormon Scholars Testify.” And I don’t fault those who might decide against sharing so personal a thing as a testimony on a public message board.

But I’m grateful to those who’ve chosen to come forward and testify, and to those who will yet do so. I’m hoping that others, in other fields and from other backgrounds, will launch similar sites. I’m convinced that each one of us has the unique capacity, because of our particular backgrounds, personalities, and manners of expression, to touch the heart of at least somebody who might otherwise not be reached with the restored gospel. (Those who read on “Mormon Scholars Testify,” as contrasted with people reached randomly through tracting, are, obviously, already interested. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be there.) Thus, the more distinct voices there are on “Mormon Scholars Testify,” as far as I’m concerned, the better.

My friend Allen Lambert has moved on to what I firmly believe to be the glorious next phase of an eternal existence. I don’t mourn for him, but for those he’s left behind. However, I’m delighted that his testimony still speaks at “Mormon Scholars Testify,” for his family, his friends and perfect strangers wherever the Internet reaches. I hope that many other such expressions of faith will join his.

Daniel C. Peterson, a BYU professor of Islamic studies and Arabic, founded MormonScholarsTestify.org. Submissions for the site are welcomed, and can be sent to him at daniel_peterson@byu.edu. His views aren't necessarily those of BYU.

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