Mosiah 2

Several passages stood out to me today.

Firstly, in verse 9:

And these are the words which he spake and caused to be written, saying: My brethren, all ye that have assembled yourselves together, you that can hear my words which I shall speak unto you this day; for I have not commanded you to come up hither to trifle with the words which I shall speak, but that you should hearken unto me, and open your ears that ye may hear, and your hearts that ye may understand, and your minds that the mysteries of God may be unfolded to your view.

I was struck by the force of this earnest appeal. The Gospel and the Scriptures are not something that we can simply sit back and engage with cognitively, and hope to understand. Nor is it something we can simply live without giving too much thought to it. To understand and to follow the gospel requires us to use all our faculties: spiritual, mental, emotional and physical. We can perhaps paddle in the scriptures, seeking only that which we already know or live, without rising to the challenge and deploying everything we are and possess to comprehending them and making them a part of ourselves. King Benjamin’s appeal neatly addresses that.

Secondly, in verse 21:

I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.

This is a very clear statement that we can’t earn anything from God; we cannot put ourselves in credit with him. Which is a basic but most powerful truth that we may sometimes lose sight of. But what stood to me today was twofold. On one hand, the statements that he is “preserving you from day to day” and “supporting you from one moment to another” gain in significance when we think of these things in the light of what Section 88 of the Doctrine and Covenants has to teach us about how the power and influence of God is continually extending life and light and law to all things. Were that influence to stop or be paused for any reason, our very elements would devolve into chaos.

On the other hand, I have a renewed personal appreciation of this verse. As alluded to on some other posts, I’ve been experiencing some health challenges lately, which came as a surprise after not needing see a doctor in 14 years. Earlier this year I had a case of flu which became quite serious, and for the first time in my life, really found it difficult to breathe, something I had hitherto taken for granted. But I remembered this verse, about the Lord “lending you breath”, and felt a renewed appreciation for the times in my life I could breathe. Of course, who knows what else I take for granted, but which others struggle with, and which is ultimately a gift or loan from God. For as this chapter also states in verse 25:

Ye cannot say that ye are even as much as the dust of the earth; yet ye were created of the dust of the earth; but behold, it belongeth to him that created you.

Everything we have is his.

The Scriptures – Harold B. Lee

I say that we need to teach our people to find their answers in the scriptures. If only each of us would be wise enough to say that we aren’t able to answer any question unless we can find a doctrinal answer in the scriptures! And if we hear someone teaching something that is contrary to what is in the scriptures, each of us may know whether the things spoken are false—it is as simple as that. But the unfortunate thing is that so many of us are not reading the scriptures. We do not know what is in them, and therefore we speculate about the things that we ought to have found in the scriptures themselves. I think that therein is one of our biggest dangers of today.

The Teachings of Harold B. Lee, ed. Clyde J. Williams (1996), 153.

If anyone, regardless of his position in the Church were to advance a doctrine that is not substantiated by the standard Church works, meaning the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price, you may know that his statement is merely his private opinion. The only one authorized to bring forth any new doctrine is the President of the Church, who, when he does, will declare it as revelation from God, and it will be so accepted by the Council of the Twelve and sustained by the body of the Church. And if any man speak a doctrine which contradicts what is in the standard Church works, you may know by that same token that it is false and you are not bound to accept it as truth

Harold B. Lee, The First Area General Conference for Germany, Austria, Holland, Italy, Switzerland, France, Belgium, and Spain of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, held in Munich Germany, August 24-26, 1973, with Reports and Discourses, 69.

New ‘Study Resources’ page

I’ve added an extra page of ‘study resources‘, where I’ve begun to write a list of various resources I’ve found helpful or indispensable. There’s not much in the way of secondary literature on it yet (I think I’d want to write up reviews first), but so far it lists a few sources for primary texts and so on. Plus the single most useful scripture-related computer program I’ve found so far!

The learning of men and the knowledge from God

2 Nephi 25-30 is a fascinating passage of scripture (there’s a reason it’s going to be my final case study for my thesis), and one of the most fascinating things in it is the tension it develops though the whole passage between two different sorts of knowledge. On one hand is the learning of men, and on the other knowledge from God. Thus the meaning of Isaiah is “plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy” (2 Nephi 25:4), and the restoration of Israel will happen in part because of God revealing his words to them (2 Nephi 25:18). When it comes to the sealed book the learned man cannot read them, while by the power of God the unlearned man will, for:

…The learned shall not read them, for they have rejected them, and I am able to do mine own work; wherefore thou shalt read the words which I shall give unto thee.
(2 Nephi 27:20)

The Book of Mormon then warns against those who will contend against each other, which

…shall teach with their learning, and deny the Holy Ghost, which giveth utterance.
(2 Nephi 28:4)

and warns those who are

…the wise, and the learned, and the rich, that are puffed up in the pride of their hearts, and all those who preach false doctrines…
(2 Nephi 28:15)

and that

Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man, or maketh flesh his arm, or shall hearken unto the precepts of men, save their precepts shall be given by the power of the Holy Ghost.
(2 Nephi 28:31)

Yet for those who humble themselves, and seek knowledge from God, knowledge becomes of saving importance, and it is such knowledge that leads to the paradisiacal conditions of the Millennium:

They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Wherefore, the things of all nations shall be made known; yea, all things shall be made known unto the children of men.
There is nothing which is secret save it shall be revealed; there is no work of darkness save it shall be made manifest in the light; and there is nothing which is sealed upon earth save it shall be loosed.
Wherefore, all things which have been revealed unto the children of men shall at that day be revealed; and Satan shall have power over the hearts of the children of men no more, for a long time. And now, my beloved brethren, I make an end of my sayings.
(2 Nephi 30:15–18)

Knowledge, then, saves us… if we have sought it from the right source. Now I do not believe the Book of Mormon condemns other learning (see 2 Nephi 9:28-29), but it warns against pride and against uninspired approaches, and particularly attempts to discern sacred things without using sacred means.

I believe this has many implications for how we approach a lot of things, and at this time am particularly thinking about how this should affect how we approach the scriptures. I’ve certainly expressed my concern before at approaches to the scriptures that I feel are overly academic, which apply study but do not apply faith as we are commanded to do. But with all such things we should of course worry most about what we are doing, and so in this case how we personally are seeking to understand God’s words. There’s a lot of well-meant advice out there on how to read the scriptures, but as I’ve suggested before, I believe studying the scriptures is not just an intellectual exercise, but a spiritual discipline to which we must apply our whole souls. And this may mean the most important question when it comes to reading the scriptures is not how much we engage the mind (though I’m never opposed to that!), but how much we seek the spirit. Rather than just seeing the words, how often do we seek and find revelation to help us understand the words? For the promise is there, as Nephi said:

Do ye not remember the things which the Lord hath said?—If ye will not harden your hearts, and ask me in faith, believing that ye shall receive, with diligence in keeping my commandments, surely these things shall be made known unto you.
(1 Nephi 15:11)

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.

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.


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.