What with the shakedown at the Maxwell Institute last year, and its apparent move in the direction of a secular religious studies approach I’ve been thinking somewhat about this phrase and its relevance to my own studies. I’m doing a PhD on the Book of Mormon, a book I hold as scripture. While my particular approach for my thesis does not rely on any particular view of the Book of Mormon – so my arguments should hold regardless of what one thinks about origin – yet doing this means I do have to think about what it means for me personally, and where I’m going in the future, and broader ideas about how to study scripture and religion.
And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith. (D&C 88:118)
There are several things that strike me about this instruction:
- “As all have not faith” – Part of the reason for this teaching, reading the “best books” (which surely includes the scriptures) and learning is because we need more faith. Knowledge is not antithetical to faith, but can support it. And promoting faith should be a goal of our studies.
- “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” – Faith is not just a goal, it is a means by which we seek learning, coupled with study.
It seems clear what to seek learning “by study” means, but what does it mean to seek learning “by faith”? What I don’t believe it is, is simply an effort to seek learning by study by those who incidentally happen to have faith. In other words, secular religious studies would not fulfil this instruction simply because it happens to be done by people who happen to be church members, whatever their faith or standing. That’s really no different from such an approach by anyone else. To seek learning by study and also by faith must differ from study alone, and that difference must be greater that whoever happens to be doing it. Faith cannot be a mere incidental factor here.
No, just as zeal without knowledge only illuminates part of the picture (Romans 10:2), so too is study without faith, particularly when studying something like the scriptures. The two must be coupled together. How then to seek learning by faith? I’m still trying to work out what that entails. Obedience (D&C 130:20)? Inspiration (2 Ne. 25:4)? These may be supremely helpful on a personal basis, but are a little different when if one is speaking or writing to others.
I do believe though, that one aspect may rest on the presuppositions we bring to our studies. Virtually every discipline and methodology rests on particular presuppositions, many of them unstated. In my personal experience weaving my way through religious studies, it is even possible for many scholars to be unaware or unthinking about the assumptions that lie behind their methods. Many of these assumptions are in my mind highly questionable and need to be tested – and some of those rest on assumptions that are antithetical to faith. Others are tied to modern western culture, and are just very different from those of the restored gospel, something I became very aware of even back in my first year. To embrace those methods, and thus those assumptions (even if unconsciously), is hardly coupling faith with study. Rather, to seek learning by study and by faith requires us to test presuppositions (by study) and ground them in the restored gospel (by faith). Such an approach, however, means that methods cannot simply be imported from wider academia – not without proper examination of their presuppositions and necessary modification. This leads inevitably to something quite different from secular religious studies. That’s not to say that things cannot be learned from the field – but they cannot be accepted uncritically.