Why “history” matters in the Scriptures

I’ve seen notice of a podcast with an LDS scholar, which will apparently discuss the issue of genre within the Bible, and which apparently makes the claim that:

Despite comfort with parables, some Christians become unsettled thinking about elements of the Bible as being non-historical. [The guest] points out that this hesitancy is inherited from Enlightenment thinking, which regarded revelation as truth and truth as scientific or historical fact.

I’ve seen this claim and ones like it multiple times; I briefly touch upon some of these claims here. Related claims tend to revolve around the idea that ancient peoples did not adhere to modern standards of historiography, that the “truth” or spiritual value of scriptural events does not depend upon them being “historical”, and that this is simply a matter of modern biblical scholars learning about different genres and their literary markers.

As a summary of the issues, however, this is incomplete and distinctly less than accurate. Indeed it seems to omit precisely what is of most importance to people and what is of most consequence to our understanding of the scriptures and God

It’s true that many people in the past didn’t adhere to modern standards of historiography. But that’s also irrelevant: when most moderns talk about “historicity”, they’re not talking about historical conventions, or even about accuracy in the details, they’re talking about whether particular events actually happened or not.

Now, on some topics, the reality of particular events may not have much consequence, and we may indeed be able to be inspired equally whether that thing happened, or whether it is simply like a parable. However, there are some subjects where the question as to whether something happened or not matters. If, for example, there were no historical person called Moroni, then who appeared to Joseph Smith? If the Nephites or Lamanites did not exist, how can their descendants be spiritually and physically restored? If Christ did not appear post-resurrection at Bountiful, than how can the Book of Mormon be an additional witness of his resurrection? And if Christ did not rise from the dead, then how can we be resurrected and what hope is their in the Christian gospel?

That last concern, of course, was famously discussed by Paul (1 Corinthians 15:14-19), who lived some time considerably before the Enlightenment. The eternal significance of some events depends a great deal on whether they happened or not, and people have indeed considered this issue long before the Enlightenment rolled around. Claiming people’s concerns are simply an artefact of the thinking of that era is a way of dismissing, rather than addressing, the issues involved, issues which can have significant consequences on our understanding of the gospel, or whether there is a gospel at all.

It is also less than accurate to depict academic biblical studies as simply following generic markers. There are varying views within the academy on a range of such issues. However, key individuals within biblical studies have sought to depict events like the resurrection as non-historical, and these arguments have not rested solely on the issue of genre. Indeed, in some cases, their ideas of biblical genre have been considerably influenced by their other ideas and beliefs. Rudolf Bultmann’s rejection of a literal resurrection and his project of “de-mythologising” the New Testament, for example, rested in significant part on his conviction that modern peoples (presumably including himself) could not believe in such events (or as he put it: “We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament”).* It is as inaccurate to characterise this approach as emerging simply from genre of the New Testament writers, as it is to depict such issues as having no real spiritual consequence.

 


* Some of Bultmann’s successors (at least amongst some internet commentariat I’ve come across) seem to believe that ancient peoples could not possibly believe such things either. However, as far as I’m aware, biblical studies generally still accepts that many past peoples believed in supernatural events, and of course later ancient readers, including Jesus himself, certainly did.

 

The things that are written

I originally wrote much of the below as an article for another site but, as it seems they have decided not to pick it up, I am hereby publishing it anyway. With the passing of Elder Packer, this seems somewhat appropriate considering his love of the written word of God.

At the time I wrote it, there had been a lot of arguments among LDS circles online as to the ‘historicity’ of scripture, meaning the extent to which the events recorded in scripture actually happened. At the time, these had attracted some heated arguments, which is understandable because they end up carrying a lot of implications. Whether certain events happened is of vital importance to our faith. For example, whether the resurrection of Christ happened is not just a historical question of interest only to those who wonder at the disposition of the Saviour’s body, but is an event that has consequences for the future destiny of our bodies and souls. As Paul states, ‘if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain’ (1 Corinthians 15:14). If Christ’s resurrection didn’t happen, then neither does ours.

But as important as these issues are, I noticed that there seemed to have been some other basic issues involved that escaped (and continue to escape) notice. The really big issue is what we mean by the very terms scripture and inspiration. What we mean when we say that certain books are ‘the word of God’ (8th Article of Faith) shapes our whole approach to scripture and how we read it. And this is not an academic question, but one with potentially eternal consequences. Yet some of those debating historicity appear to have used these terms without realising that others held very different, and incompatible, definitions for them. Thus one individual, who argued that the question of historicity could be separated from the spiritual worth of the scriptures, stated:

The historicity of scripture is not a matter of faith. It is an issue of critical analysis and academic inquiry. On the other hand, the inspiration of scripture, meaning its ability to assist readers access divinity, can never be a matter of critical analysis and academic inquiry. Instead, much like beauty, inspiration is found in the eye of the beholder.¹

What should be noticed here is how inspiration has been redefined as a reader-centred activity. The inspiration of a given book is to be weighed by the extent to which the reader is able to find something helpful in it (and ‘access divinity’ is a particularly woolly expression of this). But this is not a universal view. Crime and Punishment and Lord of the Rings have had a powerful effect on my life, and led me to be a better person, but I would not define them as scripture. Nor is it likely that the other participants in these discussions shared this definition of inspiration. The implications of this view follow rapidly: inspiration ‘is found in the eye of the beholder’. The suggestion is that it is what the reader does, and not an objective quality in the book itself, that makes a book scripture.

This view is not new. Liberal Protestant theologian Wilfred Cantwell Smith made a similar argument in his book What is Scripture?. Claiming that ‘scripture is a human activity’ (although being careful to clarify that this isn’t a statement about authorship), Smith argues that it is the relationship between a text and a community that makes a text scripture (p.1, 17-21). Thus ‘scriptures are not texts’, because their scriptural status is not dependent upon anything innate to a work, but is rather conferred upon it by the reader treating the text in a certain way. This idea has been very influential in academia, particularly for those who wish to divorce the possible value of a text from the question of its origin.

Yet despite its influence, Smith’s approach and his focus on the reader suffers from a number of drawbacks. He appears to hold that merely because a work is referred to as scripture in an academic sense it must also be scripture in a theological sense, conflating the sociological with the supernatural. He also devalues the content of the text in favour of a vague sense of the ‘holy’ (p.230-235). Overt meanings are ‘superseded’ in favour of something ‘transcendent’ (shades here of ‘accessing divinity’) that Smith believes cannot even be articulated, the feeling of which takes priority over all other forms of engagement with scripture, including actually reading it. Thus, compared to the feelings of the reader or even non-reader, the content is ultimately left rather superfluous, a very unsatisfactory position. And the very idea that it is what the reader does that makes scripture scripture seems ill-fitting with statements from Latter-day scripture that appear to teach the opposite, such as Doctrine and Covenants 68:4 where it is inspiration from the Holy Ghost that makes something scripture, an innate quality that makes something scripture from the start.

LDS proponents of these ideas appear to have appealed to idea of the fallibility of human beings, and the admission in the Book of Mormon that it may contain ‘the mistakes of men’ (Book of Mormon Title page). It is certainly true that the Book of Mormon does not teach that scripture must be completely without any kind of error. But its depiction of the process of receiving and recording scripture goes far beyond this. A closer look is warranted.

The receiving and recording of Scripture in the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon is particularly vocal about the process of its own creation, far more so than the Bible. We do not know the identity of the author(s) of Joshua to 2 Kings for instance (the putative “Deuteronomistic historian”, first theorized by Martin Noth as the author of the whole unit, remains nameless and conjectural), but we are left in little doubt throughout the Book of Mormon as to who is narrating at nearly every point. Likewise the Book of Mormon also describes the creation of the very medium upon which it is recorded, the chain of transmission for its major sources and the selection of material to be written in it (e.g. 1 Nephi 6, 1 Nephi 19:1-6, Words of Mormon 1:3-7, 3 Nephi 5:8-18 and many more). The Book of Mormon’s self-consciousness about its own composition thus offers valuable insights into the process of scriptural composition.

These details have been neglected in this discussion. While – understandably – some LDS scholars have been keen to apply the possible insights of biblical studies and related fields to the Book of Mormon, insufficient attention has been given to the way in which the Book of Mormon’s claims undermine many of the key assumptions that lie behind these ideas. Now someone could conceivably reject the Book of Mormon’s own account of itself (as those who reject the historicity of the Book of Mormon must), and yet seek to try and retain some measure of ‘spiritual value’ in the work. But in that case they could not claim to accept the Book of Mormon as inspired or as scripture in the same sense that the Book of Mormon itself uses those terms.

For the Book of Mormon makes very strong claims in these regards. As much as the making of the Book of Mormon, with its named individuals painstakingly placing words on actual metal plates and passing them down hand by hand, is very human, it is also very divine. As just a cursory look reveals, the making of the records is stated to be under divine command (1 Nephi 19:2-3, 3 Nephi 5:14), as is the selection of the contents (W. of M. 1:6-7, 3 Nephi 26:11-12). The preservation of the records is an act of divine power in fulfilment of promises by God (Enos 1:15-16, Mosiah 1:5, Alma 37:4). The authors claim prophetic foresight of their future audience (Mormon 8:34-35), and to have been given and be writing the very ‘words of Christ’, in some cases receiving instruction ‘face to face’ (2 Nephi 33:10, Ether 12:39). Thus the opening words of the Book of Mormon claim that it was ‘written by way of commandment, and also by the spirit of prophecy and revelation’ (Title Page).

Perhaps the most illustrative episode of how the human and divine interact in the composition of the Book of Mormon takes place in 3 Nephi 23, where the risen Christ inspects the records kept by Nephi. The Saviour spots that a prophecy of Samuel the Lamanite had been omitted and commands its inclusion (v.9-13). What is of interest here is that a human error has occurred – ‘it had not been written’ (v.12) – but the Saviour affirms that he had commanded Samuel to utter his prophecy (v.9), the disciples that it came true (v.10), and under the direction of risen Deity the mistake is corrected (v.13). Thus the very words of Samuel the Lamanite were inspired in that they were directly commanded by God, and – despite the involvement of fallible humans – the record-keeping process is likewise under divine supervision.

In all of this, there is no suggestion that the inspiration of scripture is to be found in what the reader does to it. Quite the opposite, in fact, as the Book of Mormon is keen to assert that many readers will get it wrong. ‘For the things which some men esteem to be of great worth, both to the body and the soul, others set at naught and trample under their feet’ says Nephi (1 Nephi 19:7), who elsewhere goes on to state that ‘there are many that harden their hearts against the holy spirit, that it hath no place in them; wherefore they cast many things which are written and esteem them as things of naught’ (2 Nephi 33:2). The worth of scripture is not assessed by the reader, but rather the standing of the reader by their receptiveness to scripture (2 Nephi 28:29-30). Both Nephi and Moroni state that they will stand as witnesses at the final judgement that the Book of Mormon itself is true, regardless of the reader, ‘for Christ will show unto you, with power and great glory, that they are his words at the last day’ (2 Nephi 33:11) and ‘ye shall know I lie not, for ye shall see me at the bar of God; and the Lord God will say unto you: Did I not declare my words unto you’ (Moroni 10:27). Inspiration is certainly not in the eye of the beholder, for many beholders will get it wrong, and the Book of Mormon remains scripture whatever its readers make of it.

Nor, for that matter, are inspiration and revelation as shown within the Book of Mormon about something wholly other, ‘transcendent’ or completely beyond nature. Nephi is guided to food (1 Nephi 16:23-30), is directed to ore and given instructions on how to build a ship (1 Nephi 17:8-10) and his family led to an actual place. Alma the Elder is informed of his pursuers (Mosiah 23:24) while his son receives revelation on the location of an army (Alma 43:24). Above all, the risen Christ in 3 Nephi is not some spectre, but has an actual body, and a full crowd ‘did feel the prints of the nails in his hands and in his feet’ (3 Nephi 11:15). And these revelations and divine encounters are paradigmatic, ‘for he that diligently seeketh shall find; and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them, by the power of the Holy Ghost, as well in these times as in times of old, and as well in times of old as times to come’ (1 Nephi 10:19). Thus revelation in the Book of Mormon has content, beyond the vaguely ‘transcendent’, sometimes involving things in the material world, and while such accounts can have symbolic meanings too (as the Book of Mormon itself applies to the Liahona in Alma 37:43-46) the reality of these revelations is intended to serve both as a demonstration and a model for what should be happening in the lives of its readers.

While the Book of Mormon is more explicit about its own creation than it is about the Bible (and has the advantage of its translation being ‘by the power and gift of God’, Title Page), it does not hesitate to make similar claims about the Bible. Isaiah saw the redeemer (2 Nephi 11:2) and according to the risen Saviour all his words will be fulfilled (3 Nephi 23:3); Malachi was given his words by the Father (3 Nephi 24:1). Like the Book of Mormon itself, Isaiah is seen as writing towards future audiences, for it is particularly in ‘the last days’ that people shall understand his prophecies (2 Nephi 25:7-8, a claim that conflicts with the assumptions about the “intended” or “contemporary” audience). The Book of Mormon aims not to challenge the Bible, but to ‘establish the truth’ of it (1 Nephi 13:39-40); it ‘is written for the intent that ye may believe that’ (Mormon 7:9). The difficulty with the Bible as described in the Book of Mormon is that ‘plain and precious things’ have been removed (1 Nephi 13:28), not that the remainder has been corrupted (attempts to suggest Jacob 4:14 to imply more thoroughgoing changes fail to note that the verse is referring to God’s actions relative to scripture, not man’s). According to the Book of Mormon the Bible is incomplete, but is true and inspired by God in the same sense that it talks about itself. Any approach to the scriptures which preserves the former but marginalises the latter runs into severe difficulties with the Book of Mormon’s own claims, including that the two shall ‘grow together’ (2 Nephi 3:12).

Finally, too much can be made of those passages in the Book of Mormon that make allowance for human weakness. Most couple the admission with warnings to ‘condemn not the things of God’ (Title Page, see also Mormon 8:12, Mormon 8:17 and Mormon 9:31), suggesting that the sight of human involvement should not cloud the view of the divine hand in both the book’s composition and compilation. Certain passages make allowance for error but without requiring it, as Mormon 8:17 does with ‘but behold, we know of no fault’, though other passages do concede ‘imperfections’ (Mormon 8:12). However, when we examine examples where allowance is made for specific sorts of flaws, these flaws have a more limited scope than it seems some have assumed.

Thus although Nephi admits the possibility of error in his selection of the sacred in 1 Nephi 19:6, his warning in verse 7 that men fail to recognise and ‘trample’ the sacred turns this passage more into a warning that readers may fail to acknowledge and obey the voice of God. 3 Nephi 8:2’s dating of the death of Christ appears to acknowledge the possibility of error with its caveat that ‘if there was no mistake made by this man [meaning Nephi son of Nephi] in the reckoning of our time’, but this is a minor matter of chronology, the exact dating of the death and resurrection being minor matters of no consequence compared to its actually occurring. Similarly, Moroni laments that the ‘Gentiles’ will mock ‘the placing of our words’ (Ether 12:23-25) and states that some ‘imperfections’ are due to their choice of language for: ‘if we could have written in Hebrew, behold ye would have no imperfection in our record’ (Mormon 9:32-33). He is thus speaking of syntax and grammar, again comparatively minor matters. There is no suggestion in this that there are any doctrinal errors or mistakes in the Book of Mormon’s teaching. Just because the Book of Mormon does not support inerrancy (the idea that scripture must be without any error, no matter how minor in its grammar or mathematics) does not mean that it automatically provides justification for some theory of errancy where its divine message is inseparably corrupted with the ideas of men. It certainly doesn’t support the idea that the message is so blended that the divine elements can only be sifted out by professional scholars relying on human learning.

In conclusion, the Book of Mormon does not cooperate with Cantwell Smith’s conception of scripture. It makes its demands on the reader (whom, on occasion, it addresses directly) on the basis of the innate qualities it claims for itself, as a work that was written, compiled, transmitted and translated by divine means, regardless of the readers’ reactions. Revelation and inspiration are considered to be objective phenomena that contain content. While the Book of Mormon makes allowance for minor human error it also fiercely maintains the truth and divinity of its message, and its consequent authority over its readers, so much so that it will be an issue at the final judgement.

It is instructive in one passage where Moroni is anxious about his ‘weakness in writing’ how the Lord chooses to respond to his concerns. Amid the Lord’s reassurances, the Lord states that his ‘grace is sufficient for the meek’, meaning not Moroni, for the meek ‘shall take no advantage of your weakness’ (Ether 12:26, my emphasis). Rather, as he goes on to state, for those who recognise their weaknesses and humble themselves and have faith before God, the Lord’s grace will ‘make weak things becomes strong unto them’ (v.27). This has often been read as referring to our personal weaknesses (and surely the principle applies), but the ‘weak’ thing Moroni is asking for reassurance over are not personal faults, but the very book he is writing. It is as we the readers recognise our own weaknesses and humble ourselves that the Book of Mormon becomes strong to us. For as the Book of Mormon teaches elsewhere, ‘out of the books which shall be written shall the world be judged’ (3 Nephi 27:25-26). At the end of all days, we are not going to be measuring scripture, but will be measured by it. If we take scripture seriously, as the word of God, we must begin to let scripture judge us.

 


¹ I’ve chosen to omit names, my usual practice for this blog at moments like this, primarily because I’m trying to make this about the ideas rather than something more personal.

…from them shall be taken away even that which they have

I find it rather dispiriting when I see an LDS biblical scholar approvingly cite Marcus Borg to the effect that the Bible “is a human product, not a divine product”, that it is not “‘God’s revealed truth'” and that with such an approach “at least the problem of thinking of them as expressing the will of God disappears” – and then claims this is “how to save the Bible”. Such an approach saves nothing, of course: it renders the Bible as solely a old text of interest only to scholars. It is completely incompatible with any idea that the Bible “is the word of God“, as well as pretty much everything the Book of Mormon has to say about the Bible too, and so certainly doesn’t “save” either as scripture.

Yet perhaps this is to be expected – many such scholars are the product of liberal Protestant schools and have in many cases simply adopted liberal Protestant beliefs about scripture. And it is sad to say that in many of those schools and in large swathes of Christianity, the Bible which they once had has been lost. A number of these academics may continue to study it as a book, but without belief that it contains the words of God, it is no longer scripture to them, expressing “the will of the Lord“. And yet I think that this too is predicted by the very scriptures they’d consider merely human:

Wo be unto him that shall say: We have received the word of God, and we need no more of the word of God, for we have enough!

For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.
(2 Nephi 28:29-30)

And therefore, he that will harden his heart, the same receiveth the lesser portion of the word; and he that will not harden his heart, to him is given the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he know them in full.

And they that will harden their hearts, to them is given the lesser portion of the word until they know nothing concerning his mysteries; and then they are taken captive by the devil, and led by his will down to destruction. Now this is what is meant by the chains of hell. (Alma 12:10-11)

We sometimes assume that once we know something we know it, but both scripture and experience suggest otherwise: we must always be willing to receive more from God, to accept more of His will and to hear more of His words, or we too will lose what we already have.

The whole counsel of God

While I’ve posted little here due to being snowed under with completing a thesis, I felt the need to post something in response to the news that the BYU Religious department is changing their curriculum (and consequently that of CES institutes worldwide). Previously, whereas core courses would focus on each on the standard works of Scripture, now these are to be de-emphasised in favour of four new courses arranged on a thematic basis: ‘Jesus Christ and the Everlasting Gospel’, ‘Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon’, ‘Foundations of the Restoration’ and ‘The Eternal Family’. Bill Hamblin has more details, including a link to a letter outlining the plans, as well as some trenchant criticisms.

Some comments have defended the plans, pointing out that a) the original courses will remain available as optional courses and b) the content of the new courses has yet to be fully decided. These arguments are true to a degree. They are also irrelevant. Setting aside the fact that many institutes abroad don’t have the resources to indulge in optional courses, the real problem I see is with the thematic approach itself. I believe this approach is fundamentally flawed. BYU, of course, have the right to arrange their courses as they wish, but I cannot see this as anything other than a mistake. And – since they’re not the only ones to adopt this approach – I feel the need to spend some time showing why I think such an approach is utterly inadequate.

This is not to say that thematic approaches to the scriptures are always wrong at all times. There is a time and a season to all things. But I believe that when we adopt this as our primary way of reading and studying the scriptures then there are certain inevitable drawbacks that compromise our ability to understand and draw strength from the word of God. These drawbacks I see are as follows:

1) We pull passages out of context, and miss their full meaning

This is perhaps the most obvious problem with an approach that is likely to alight upon a verse here and a verse there. Bill Hamblin rightly comments on how the historical context can be lost. This is not the only context of importance either – there’s also the literary context, which in this case can often simply be a fancy way of talking about the verses immediately before and after a phrase. What might seem to say one thing may, when one looks at the passage around it, might mean something very different. And this isn’t a minor issue, as anyone trying to take 1 Nephi 4:12 as a guide for life might realise.

The Scriptures, aside maybe from the likes of Proverbs, were not written as a set of disconnected verses. Rather, as inspired by the Holy Ghost, the ancient prophets and apostles wrote letters, spoke sermons and described visions. Our verses and chapters, as useful as they can be, are mere modern conveniences that – if we let them – can actually hamper our understanding of scripture if we cut up the same sermon into tiny discrete and unrelated passages. If we wish to follow the arguments of Paul, the testimony of John or the sermons of Alma then we need to have an eye on the whole. It’s only when we take a passage like Alma 32-34 in full that we can really understand the point of what Alma and Amulek were saying. This is particularly true of the Book of Mormon, I might add, which alone of our standard works wasn’t even written as a set of books, but rather one glorious whole. And when we divide and subdivide it, and take a bite here ignoring all that is around that, we miss the big overarching themes that it is trying to teach us.

And yet, as serious as this loss of context can be, I feel the next two problems have the potential to be far more grave.

2) We place a ‘lens’ over our reading of the scriptures, and limit what they can teach us.

We all have ‘lenses’, by which I mean our upbringing, background, disposition and ideas affect what we read and understand. It’s a problem that as mortal, fallible humans we can never be entirely free of, although we can recognise and thus hopefully try to correct for this disposition. Scriptures have often been misunderstood because of these very lenses: that many of the early converts to the Church were of Protestant backgrounds, for example, led at least some to misunderstand what Nephi was talking about in 1 Nephi 13-14 in regards to the ‘great and abominable church’.

But when we direct our attention at particular scriptures with a certain theme in mind, we have chosen to place lenses upon ourselves. We look at certain passages with a preconceived idea as to what they are already about, and so we end up reading a portion of scripture solely with the idea of confirming what we already know or think we know. At worst, it can involve us in projecting our understanding of what a passage is meant to teach upon the Scriptures themselves, and so miss what it is really saying and effectively ignore the word of God in favour of own understanding (and I’ve seen this, regularly, in Sunday School). Even at best, by approaching them with a fixed idea as to what we are trying to learn about, we limit our interaction with the Scriptures by depriving them of the opportunity to surprise us, to teach us something new or to correct us, to speak to us of something unexpected. I believe the Scriptures – the same passage even – can be an inexhaustible reservoir of divine wisdom, yet by approaching them with only a particular theme in mind we can lose the opportunity to hear God teach us about something different that he needs us to learn. We limit what we can learn by deciding in advance what we are going to learn about. We cut ourselves off from all that those scriptures can teach us.

3) We restrict our reading to those passages that appear to ‘fit’ the theme, neglecting the rest of Scripture

A thematic approach can cause us to deprive ourselves from learning all a particular passage can teach us. It also – since it invariably involves reading only those passages that are considered to ‘fit’ a particular theme – can and usually does involve neglecting the rest of the Scriptures. Certain favourite verses are read again and again. Other passages, no less lacking in divine inspiration and in all that they have to teach us, are not read at all. We thus miss many parts of scripture, many of which are not only valuable and precious, but are essential.

Consider the Sunday School reading schedule, which in many respects is caught between thematic and other approaches depending on the year (with the D&C year at one end of the extreme, and the Book of Mormon at the other). During the Old Testament year, the reading schedule for Isaiah involves reading Isaiah 1-6, a selection of verses from 22-30 and 32, 40-56 and 63-65. Chapters 7-21, 31-39, 57-62 and chapter 66 are missed completely. Even if we were to count 22-30 as being read (which they aren’t, when one considers the reading covers only one verse, say, in chapters 22-23), that leaves 31 chapters of Isaiah that are never covered. Were one to leave one’s scripture reading up to that schedule (and sadly some do, and some don’t even do that), they would never read those chapters. And yet Isaiah is not only the one book especially recommended by the Saviour, but he gives us a commandment to read it (3 Nephi 31:1). When a set of themes are adopted as our primary approach to scripture, such precious portions are left out. We content ourselves with reading a few preselected passages and miss the rest. And that rest can well be life-changing and life-giving. They might even help us understand – quelle surprise – those bits we do read.

Limiting ourselves to only a portion of available truth can mislead us. One can see in this in how we see God. In the 17th century, men were so caught up in his wrath and his justice that they forgot his love and mercy, and so often failed to show the same to others. In the present age we often talk about his love and compassion, and are prone to neglect his justice and righteousness, and hatred of sin, and so fail to teach and live those standards that are necessary to prepare us to enter his presence. When we only read certain scriptures, and not others, we leave ourselves open to being misguided or deceived.

Even if we escape this, however, what certainly does happen is that by confining ourselves to only a portion of scripture we deprive ourselves of experiencing the full blessings it has to offer us. We cut ourselves off from all that it has to teach us. We pick the lessons we learn from those passages we do read, and of course we cannot learn anything from that which we don’t read. And God has given us such a range of scripture for a reason. God did not give us an inspired Gospel principles manual, though He very well could have done. He chose instead to give us the scriptures he did, with the promise that more was to come as we accept, use, believe and obey that which we already have. We cannot become ready to receive more if we reject – even from simple neglect – that which we already have.

Reading and studying the scriptures is not a simple matter of trying to learn particular ‘facts’ about God and the Gospel. It is a spiritual discipline, to which we must apply our whole souls, and which in return our whole souls can be strengthened. We cannot simply condense and communicate those ‘facts’ to people, or give them the ‘cliff notes’, and expect it to benefit anyone because that is not where the blessings come from. The blessings come as we apply our minds, and our faith to the word of God, and in return a channel of spiritual communication is opened which can guide us and empower us. An approach to scripture that leads us to limit what we can learn, and leads us to avoid whole portions of the word that God has given us, deprives us of the full stream of revelation that is contained within it. Let us not narrow our reading of His word, but seek instead to learn from the whole counsel of God, to learn from all that He has given us and so be open to all the blessings He has to give us.

What are the humanities for?

It’s been a long while since I’ve posted here, so I’m going to try and rectify that!

humanOne matter that has been on my mind has been the state of academia, and the humanities in particular. I doubt it is any surprise to those that know me that I am often highly sceptical of the academy in the general and the value of much of what is produced. Between a ‘publish and perish’ culture that encourages publication even of dross, the pursuit of esoteric subjects with little wider import and readerships that often factor in the single figures, much of what academia – especially the humanities – accomplishes appears irrelevant to anyone outside the ivory tower. That those inside the ivory tower sometimes have trouble grasping this point is part of the trouble. It’s one thing to believe that you are engaged in a disinterested search for knowledge, but when what is produced are conjectures about esoteric subjects few people care about, when you fail to communicate these things to virtually anyone else (and those who do read do so to disagree), and where the existence of absolute truth is commonly denied, it’s really hard to see that being the case. And since the humanities are under increasing pressure to justify their existence – both as courses for students to study, and departments to occupy university and government funding – I don’t think I’m the only one to wonder what good the humanities do.

So I was thinking about these things, and I guess about the wider purpose of the so-called humanities. There are many issues, such as over-specialisation, and the growth of arcane terminology intended to cloud rather than clarify meaning, but one issue is that so much of the humanities appears pointless, except for activities to do in humanities departments. One thing that seems clear to me is that the sciences (especially the harder sciences) retain some outside respect and relevance because much of their research and teaching has an effect on the wider world. Much of it has ultimately practical consequences that go far beyond the ivory tower.

However, it’s not like the humanities can easily offer that sort of thing. Studies of history, or theology, or literature  or so on do not at first sight appear to offer practical implications. And it is not enough to have some – in order to be consequential, there must always be something that can answer the ‘so what’ question. Okay, you have presented your theory, or your research or your conclusions – so what? Where there is consideration of it, it’s often at the service of the narrow identity politics so popular in academia, but so alien to life as actually lived. And to much of the rest of the humanities, the only answer to that question is polite applause and a few questions at a conference, and then everyone goes home to never think or remember about that topic again, let alone real consequences in the outside world – for the rest of humanity.

Yet I believe there is scope to answer that question. Part of the problem has been the conception of the humanities as a gaining of knowledge (even as the very concept of objective knowledge has been undermined). But the mere collection of abstract knowledge, sometimes of such narrow topics can never successfully answer the ‘so what’ question. But what if there was a different understanding of what study of these topics could offer us – a study of the collected record of humanity’s thoughts, writings and actions? What if rather than just seeking knowledge about how humans live and have lived, we see it as an opportunity to gain wisdom – to learn how human beings can live well. What if we seek to learn and teach not just to add to our knowledge, but to guide our actions, to learn from the follies and mistakes of mankind, to learn what works, to be inspired by its truest thoughts, and to be better than we otherwise are?

I don’t know if the academic humanities as presently constituted can make that step, consumed as it is by its own interests, content as it is in its own introversion and uncertain as it is to the nature of truth. But on a personal level I can certainly try to address that question in what I do, particularly when looking at things like the scriptures, lumped as they presently are in the humanities. For if they are inspired, if they are of God (and they are), the most important questions about them are not of history, but of their present implications for my behaviour and my actions. When I look at them, ‘so what’ should be the foremost question in my mind.

Who is my neighbour?

Today’s departmental research seminar on loosely on the future of political theology, and more specifically on reapplying Augustinian thinking to what the visitor saw as the present world situation. I always find such seminars an unsual experience, because the presuppositions everyone else there is working on are ultimately feel so alien. Indeed as I have come to realise since my first year as an undergrad, the things I know through the restored Gospel come with some very different presuppositions than modern western culture or general Christendom, and lead to a very different place. I sometimes feel it very difficult to interact with arguments built on very different foundations.

However, there were some specific claims made in today’s seminar that caused some quick reflection. I certainly question the optimistic depiction of the present world situation, as I do Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis. While it’s true that the material situation of much of the world has improved over the last century, I believe there’s a big “if” around “if present trends continue”. I also severely doubt claims that human beings have become less violent over the last five centuries – I wonder how such claims are assessed, and the history of the twentieth century should be a sober reminder of what human beings are capable of.

However, I think there are even bigger question about the claim that there has been some kind of “moral revolution”; that modern people (presumably meaning the West, but there was no discussion about location) being more concerned with universal moral problems worldwide, such as poverty, disaster relief and so on. This appeared to be little disputed by some of the academic staff present, with the idea that concern for (generally perceived in terms of donating to charities) people far away may have an affect on nearby relations too.

I doubt all this. For one thing, I look around me, in the many different places I’ve been, and while I’ve met some genuinely good people (and I don’t include myself in that number!), I see little evidence that people generally are more moral now than before. Yet aside from this, it’s particularly this claim to universal moral concern I find dubious. Are people more moral because they’re concerned about people they do not know or cannot see? Possibly, though I feel it is impossible to really love someone without coming to know them, and more importantly I see little evidence this is reflected in better treatment of the people we do see, in the way we treat our families, our neighbours, those people who need service and are right before our eyes. Does giving money to a charity to people whose identities – because we do not know them – are little more than a fictional construction in our head compensate for lack of service, apathy or even hatred of those people we interact with every day? To draw upon John, if we do not love not our brother who we can see, how can we love our brother whom we have not seen?

Charity, meaning the pure love of Christ, is not a strength of mine, and its one I’m working on. I also don’t think that concern for the general welfare of humanity is a bad thing. Yet it strikes me as a very effective deflection if such a generalised concern for people as an abstract distracts us from actually developing charity for the very real individuals in front of us.

Studying other people’s religions

So, last post I thought for a bit about the injunction to learn by study and by faith, particularly with its relevance to my own current studies on the Book of Mormon, but my thoughts on the matter seem to have some deeper conclusions. If there’s a need to ground particular presuppositions on the gospel, and this leads to a different approach and possibly modified methods to conventional religious studies, does this continue to apply when studying other people’s religions? I believe so. I do not believe it is coherent to turn away from from particular approaches because its grounding presuppositions are wrong, and yet fall back on those approaches merely because we’re studying someone else’s religion.

In particular, I believe an approach grounded on gospel-based presuppositions actually offers greater reasons for the study of other religions, and some guidance for how we should approach this matter. I haven’t seen too many LDS-centred approaches to this matter, the few I’ve seen mostly just quoting Krister Stendahl. While I believe his advice is mostly good, I do believe we can go further. So without further ado:

Why study other religions?

I certainly believe this is worth doing (or I wouldn’t have done the batchelors & masters I did), but why? I think the following reasons are valid:

  1. Curiosity – Best to get this out the way first. Simplest reason for wanting to know a thing is because you want to know it. This, like many of the things I’m going to mention, isn’t LDS-specific of course, but the Doctrine & Covenants in particular emphasises the importance and value of knowledge. Knowledge enlarges the soul (D&C 121:42), no man can be saved in ignorance (131:6) and whoever gains knowledge will have “advantage in the world to come” (D&C 130:19), and while there’s certainly a prioritisation in terms of different kinds of knowledge, with particular importance in gaining wisdom (2 Nephi 9:28), and with certain types of knowledge accessible only through revelation (Jacob 4:8). Yet at the same time while some knowledge may be better or best, others are at least good and if we are not neglecting the weightier things are worth learning, especially as revelation emphasises the importance of learning about “history, and of countries, and of kingdoms, of laws of God and man” (D&C 93:53). When we add in the simple fact that religion is one of the most powerful motivations known to man, simple curiosity about the subject cannot be considered ignoble.
  2. To gather truth – God sends his “word unto the children of men, yea, even upon all the nations of the earth” (2 Nephi 29:7) and grants “unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have” (Alma 29:8). A First Presidency statement in 1978 goes on to state: “The great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals.” Thus while the Church has authority and truth that other religions do not, and which people need, it does not possess a monopoly of truth. People in other religions have access to a portion of truth to, sometimes a great portion. If we are interested in truth, especially truth about God, studying other religions can help us gain more of it. Now I do not believe this is by means of assembling a pot-pourri of collected ideas from everywhere and nowhere, governed only by personal preference. Here what has been revealed to the Church, particularly in the Standard works (hence the name!) can help act as a standard to help test truth. But what studying other religions certainly can do is prompt us to study more and seek the guidance of the spirit, and thus find authentication, and even elaboration of the truth when we find it. It can also prompt us to reflect better on truth we already know, and strive to live it better – this perhaps akin to Stendahl’s concept of holy envy. I personally found from my time living in Jerusalem that even the physical way the different groups out there treated the scriptures with reverence made a deep impression on my mind.
  3. To serve in the kingdom and prepare for missionary work – There’s an important caveat about this that I’ll get in to below, but part of the reason for articulated for gaining knowledge “of countries and of kingdoms” is “That ye may be prepared in all things when I shall send you again to magnify the calling whereunto I have called you, and the mission with which I have commissioned you”, which includes being sent out to “testify and warn the people” (D&C 88:78-81). Particularly in Missionary work, knowing where people are coming from and what they know is important. As a missionary (and I know I’m not alone in this) I taught people from a tremendous variety of backgrounds, and learned first had that when teaching Chinese Buddhists, for example, I had to spend quite a bit more time on the whole God business that I did when teaching Kurdish Muslims or Scottish Christians. Likewise, I found that Muslims tended to get the whole dispensation concept far quicker than Christians because that’s how they saw history (and amongst well-informed Christians the word dispensation could get very misleading because it is used very differently).

Principles in studying other religions

So having justified to myself at least why it’s worth studying other religions, what principles could be of possible use in doing this? I’m not going to attempt to provide an exhaustive list here, or provide the fully reworked methodologies I suggested would be necessary last post, mainly because I haven’t got that far yet. But there’s a few points that occur to mind.

  • Bearing true witness – I word it like that (rather than just “tell the truth” or “be accurate”) because it struck me recently how in the Ten Commandments the commandment is not thou shalt not lie, but “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour” (Exodus 20:16). That’s not to say that lying is acceptable (after all, unrepentant liars find themselves in an unpleasant location), but that it particularly condemns lies about other people. This is of particular concern where talking about other peoples religions, and Latter-day Saints, who have been particularly subject to both accidental and deliberate misrepresentation should probably be sensitive about doing the same to other people. When talking about other religions, we should strive to accurately reflect their beliefs and practices. As part of this, Stendahl’s first rule of religious understanding (“When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies”) can be helpful, and I’m certainly sympathetic to the suggestion discussed (but not universally embraced) within secular religious studies that a description of a religion should be recognisable to its adherents. Above all, we must avoid misrepresentation. This can go the other way too – the BYU Religions of the World manual contains a number of flaws (I had the opportunity to double-check a number of things, particularly the references on Zoroastrianism), which I suspect emerge from a well-intentioned desire to find similarities but which ended up finding them when they weren’t really there. When speaking or writing about another religion, we have to let them disagree with us.
  • The aim is not to disprove any religion – This is the caveat I mentioned earlier in regards to missionary work. Personally it’s a very poor approach that I don’t feel works anyway, and which I believe causes us to look at another’s beliefs with entirely the wrong feelings. We can disagree without being disagreeable – and we can especially avoid being a jerk rather than a responsible student (the aim here is to learn, after all). Moreover, Latter-day Saints are “contend against no church, save it be the church of the devil” (D&C 18:20) and if we needed any further ideas on where that sort of thing leads, we learn from the Saviour that “contention is not of me, but is of the devil” (3 Nephi 11:29).
  • Spiritual experiences are real and universal – Here I feel is a particular point that LDS doctrine can specifically bring to bear on this subject, and that has a number of implications on the presuppositions we bring and on methodology. Religious experiences have not gone unstudied within religious studies, with a particular approach of phenomenology being quite interested in them. But other parts of religious studies have been quite sceptical about these things (wanting to reduce such things to psychology or economics), while phenomenology generally seems to have issues with really probing what such experiences actually are, or accounting for different sorts. There’s limitations whenever looking at an experience felt individually, of course, but LDS doctrine teaches us (hopefully from experience!) that spiritual experiences are real things, doing with an objective God and not just some subjective internal experience. Moreover, while full access to such experiences and a proper understanding of them might be limited to the restored gospel, we also know that “the Spirit of Christ is given to every man” (Moroni 7:16), that people can feel the Holy Ghost outside of the Church and, per the First Presidency statement quoted earlier, a number of religious leaders “received a portion of God’s light”. While there are false or ungodly spiritual experiences around (D&C 46:7), there are a number outside of the Church that are both genuine and godly. Lest it be forgotten, Joseph Smith received the first vision prior to the restoration of the Church. Such accounts should not be accepted uncritically, of course, but what LDS doctrine offers is a way of comprehending that many (including a number of crucial historical figures) did experience something genuine that changed their lives, and possibly the course of human history, and latter-day revelation offers us the opportunity to test the accounts of these. This offers enormous potential in understanding other religions. In particular, this offers us the prospect of being able to understand the true motivations of particular historical individuals, without reducing them to frauds, or sincere but somehow not quite there individuals, or just trying to ignore the subject of what made them change things in the first place. Having so much, from the standard works and our own experiences, allows us to truly try and understand these individuals where the only alternative is to remain in complete ignorance. And if we can only get so far, we can hope for and expect further revelation that can shed further light.

As I said, not an attempt at a comprehensive set a suggestion but rather a few random thoughts. But if the Gospel is true, then surely using what we know to be true from it to both guide  and inform our study of other religions can only offer the prospect of greater understanding and knowledge.

By Study and also by Faith

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.

Anyway:

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.