Excerpts of Prestigious Berkeley school delves into Mormon studies by Peggy Fletcher Stack, The Salt Lake Tribune
For the first time, students at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., can enroll in a Mormon studies course and get credit for it.
A course in LDS origins, theology, culture and sacred texts attracted Lutherans, Presbyterians, United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ members, along with adherents from three Catholic traditions (Jesuit, Franciscan and Dominican). The Mormon classes also drew LDS students from the University of California at Berkeley.
GTU's incipient LDS program puts the Berkeley campus on par with Claremont Graduate University in Southern California and Utah State University, which have offered courses on the Utah-based faith for several years. Next year, LDS historian Richard Bushman, who just finished his stint as Claremont's head of Mormon studies, will teach a class on Mormonism at Columbia University.
In a letter to a local Latter-day Saint, Arthur Holder, GTU's dean and vice president for academic affairs, called the yearlong course "a significant step toward what we hope will eventually be an expanded program." GTU administrators and Bay Area Mormons hope one day to establish a chairman of Mormon studies to direct the program.
Robert Rees, a Latter-day Saint and a scholar of Mormon studies who taught this year's classes, considered the experiment a resounding success.
Week after week, students gathered around a big table at the LDS Institute of Religion across the street from GTU's campus known as "Holy Hill," and posed tough questions about Mormon scripture, sermons and practices.
Students were also required to attend one weekly three-hour block of meetings at a ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and listen to two General Conference sessions. Several wondered why there were not more women and minorities on the stand during the conferences, why the women's sermons seemed less substantive than the men's and if negative votes were missed when the congregants "voted" on (sustained, in Mormon parlance) church leaders.
Tompkins-Bischel, for one, discovered that she did not have to believe in the authenticity or historicity of LDS scriptures in order to appreciate them.
Rees saw his GTU teaching experience as a fulfillment of the late LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley's call for greater understanding and cooperation with other faiths.
"It was one of the most hopeful experiences of my academic and spiritual life," Rees said. "I can imagine Joseph Smith looking down from heaven with approval and even joy."
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