I’m grateful for the invitation and excited to participate here at Times & Seasons. The following is a talk I gave in our recent Stake General Priesthood meeting as the newly called Stake Sunday School President. While many of the ideas below were conceived independently, I was heavily influenced by some of Ben Spackman’s writings (especially the quotes) when it came to their final form. Big thanks to him.
I’ve been asked to speak tonight on improving gospel instruction in the home and at church. So much time could be dedicated to analyzing the best teaching methods and the how-to of engaging gospel lessons. However, I will forgo these particulars partially due to time constraints, but mainly because they don’t really get to the heart of the matter. There are plenty of resources provided by the Church that can assist us in improving the mechanics of our teaching. Manuals like Teaching, No Greater Call or Preach My Gospel as well as Leadership and Teaching tutorials are free of charge and available at the Church website. Elder Packer’s Teach Ye Diligently has been a CES staple since the 1970s and is available used and cheap on Amazon. Lesson suggestions can be found scattered all over the Internet, from Mormon blogs to Pinterest.
But I’m not convinced that typical lessons suffer due to lack of skills or quality methods. In fact, I’d argue that most members most of the time are relatively capable in these processes. The problem is that as a Church we’ve become very good at teaching fluff. Elder Holland asked years ago, “Are we really nurturing our youth and our…members in a way that will sustain them when the stresses of life appear? Or are we giving them a kind of theological Twinkie—spiritually empty calories?” These “philosophies of men interlaced with a few scriptures and poems just won’t do.” Feel-good entertainment, warm fuzzies, and trite platitudes should not be confused with edification just as, according to Howard W. Hunter, “strong emotion or free-flowing tears are [not to be] equated with the presence of the Spirit.” In essence, I’m more interested in what and why we teach over how we teach it. Here are few suggestions that I think can help increase the what and why of gospel instruction:
“Read. Read. Read.”
President Hinckley taught, “We live in a world where knowledge is developing at an ever-accelerating rate. Drink deeply from this ever-springing well of wisdom and human experience. If you should stop now, you will only stunt your intellectual and spiritual growth…Read. Read. Read. Read the word of God in sacred books of scriptures. Read from the great literature of the ages.” This accelerating knowledge includes groundbreaking biblical scholarship along with increasing transparency on the part of the Church regarding its historical documents. Academic and independent presses, including Oxford, Harvard, Greg Kofford, and others, are continually publishing important books on Church history, scripture, and theology. The Joseph Smith Papers Project provides both scholars and laypersons with the original documents and manuscripts of the Restoration, edits and all. Some of this new material has even been incorporated into the Church’s new Gospel Topics essays. These essays attempt to address controversial subjects such as polygamy, the Book of Mormon translation, and the priesthood ban.
In a recent presentation, the head of the Church’s Public Affairs Department Michael Otterson explained, “It’s the intent of Church leaders that these essays be more than just a one-read experience on LDS.org, but rather that their content and principles work their way into the larger tapestry of learning, especially for our youth.” I wonder, however, if we are taking advantage of these materials. We are instructed in modern revelation to “study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people” (D&C 90:15); to “seek…out of the best books words of wisdom” (D&C 109:7; 88:118) that we “may seek learning even by study, and also by faith” (D&C 109:14). In order to understand the scriptures and our own doctrines, we need to be familiar with their historical and cultural contexts. Teaching, No Greater Call acknowledges that it is “helpful to study the political, social, or economic history of the times in which a scripture was given” in order to gain “a better understanding of a particular scripture passage.”
We understandably want to follow Nephi’s example and “liken all scriptures unto us” (1 Nephi 19:23) as he did with Isaiah. However, Nephi largely occupied the same pre-exilic culture and background as Isaiah. Many of the same cultural assumptions and biases pervade Nephi’s writings. Yet, our “likening” can frequently be described as the art of making stuff up. The collective, honor/shame society of the ancient world is incredibly different from the life of a 21st-century American. Cultural psychologist Joe Henrich and colleagues have described our historically unique culture as WEIRD: Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. We tend to read these values and assumptions on to the texts, wresting the scriptures until their original meaning is unrecognizable. And while we may think that “having the Spirit” is all we need when it comes to reading the scriptures, it might be important to note that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon by “the gift and power of God” and then later hired a Jewish professor to teach him Hebrew. Granted, no one can be an expert in everything. There just isn’t enough time. But if this is the religion we have supposedly dedicated our lives to, perhaps we should reserve more time to learn about it.
Focus on Doctrine First, then Principles and Applications
In Elder Bednar’s book Increase in Learning, he distinguishes between doctrines, principles, and applications. Doctrines, he explains, are the why: eternal truths that “pertain to the eternal progression and exaltation of Heavenly Father’s sons and daughters.” Principles are the what: “doctrinally based guideline[s] for the righteous exercise of moral agency.” Applications are the how: “the actual behaviors, action steps, practices, or procedures by which gospel doctrines and principles are enacted in our lives.” In his book, Elder Bednar relays his experiences of meeting with thousands of Church members and leaders worldwide. He often asks, “In your living of the gospel of Jesus Christ and in your serving and teaching both at home and in the Church, have you focused primarily on doctrine, on principles, or on applications?” The answer, he points out, is consistently “applications.”
The reasons as to why this is typically the focus of gospel teaching range from the more business oriented (such as “I can control applications”; they are “more tangible”) to preference and comfort (such as “I’m not comfortable teaching doctrine”; applications are easier). In a summary that made me want to clap when I read it, Elder Bednar writes, “I find it both noteworthy and troubling that in the dispensation of the fullness of times…many members are exasperatingly engaged in creating ever longer lists of detailed and disconnected gospel applications.” These “lengthy ‘to do’ lists” receive “disproportionate and excessive attention.” This is why our Sunday School classes at times devolve into stories about two pairs of earrings, condemnations of R-rated movies, or debates over whether Coca-Cola is against the Word of Wisdom rather than, say, the relational nature of salvation and the abiding need to practice empathy and develop deep, meaningful connections with each other. An overemphasis on applications can distort fundamental doctrines and confuse principles and applications as ends in themselves rather than means to an end.
Encourage Question Asking and Cease Shaming Doubt
In response to the hypothetical query regarding questions and doubts about “the Church or its doctrine,” President Uchtdorf answered, “[W]e are a question-asking people because we know that inquiry leads to truth. That is the way the Church got its start — from a young man who had questions. In fact, I’m not sure how one can discover truth without asking questions. In the scriptures you will rarely discover a revelation that didn’t come in response to a question.” Intellectual curiosity is the pursuit of truth, which Joseph Smith identified as one of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism. To ask a question can be an act of vulnerability. In these moments of “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure,” we must be very careful not to shame others—especially youth—with the false notion that they are somehow faithless or spiritually lacking for their questioning or skepticism. “One of the purposes of the Church,” said President Uchtdorf, “is to nurture and cultivate the seed of faith—even in the sometimes sandy soil of doubt and uncertainty.” It is true that Joseph Smith saw his own visionary experience as a prototype for the Church and desired his people to experience the same (especially by means of the temple). However, the doctrines of eternal progression and continuing revelation indicate that knowledge is not static. While we should always encourage personal spiritual experiences, we would do well to remember that “to some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God” and “to others it is given to believe on their words…” (D&C 46:13-14; italics mine).
Furthermore, we should not mistake intellectual apathy for strong faith. And we certainly should not assume that the attainment of some sure knowledge is the attainment of all. It was Laman and Lemuel who declared, “And we know that the people who were in the land of Jerusalem were a righteous people; for they kept the statutes and judgments of the Lord, and all his commandments, according to the law of Moses…” (1 Nephi 17:22; italics mine). This was not based simply on a desire to be disobedient or a refusal to “follow the prophet.” They were following the prophets of Israelite history. They were adhering to traditions and promises laced throughout the scriptures, from the Psalms to Isaiah. They were remembering the Lord’s preservation of Israel from the Assyrians and the fairly recent reforms of King Josiah. Their absolute surety in prior revelations, authority, and tradition led them to see their prophetic father as possibly deranged, if not blasphemous, and caused them to miss out on further light and knowledge. When it comes to this subject, the words of Hugh B. Brown are pertinent:
Our revealed truth should leave us stricken with the knowledge of how little we really know. It should never lead to an emotional arrogance based upon a false assumption that we somehow have all the answers–that we in fact have a corner on truth, for we do not…[C]ontinue your search for truth. And maintain humility sufficient to be able to revise your hypotheses as new truth comes to you by means of the spirit or the mind. Salvation, like education, is an ongoing process.
This outlook is likely why President Brown was known to quote the following from historian Will Durant: “No one deserves to believe unless he has served an apprenticeship of doubt.”
In conclusion, it is worth reflecting on these points. Do we study deeply and broadly or do we use the scriptures merely as “quote books” (to use Neal A. Maxwell’s term)? Do we attempt to understand the scriptures on their own terms and within their own contexts without seeking to Mormonize them? How often do we skip the doctrine of our lessons and go straight for application? Do we confuse application and principles with doctrine? Do we shy away from hard questions or label every challenging bit of information as anti-Mormon? Most important of all, do we love those we teach?
As we go about our lives in the Church, I hope that we may learn to study, teach, and love more deeply.
- Jeffrey R. Holland, “A Teacher Come from God,” General Conference, April 1998: https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1998/04/a-teacher-come-from-god?lang=eng
- Howard W. Hunter, “Eternal Investments,” CES Address, 10 Feb. 1989: https://www.lds.org/manual/teaching-seminary-preservice-readings-religion-370-471-and-475/eternal-investments?lang=eng
- Gordon B. Hinckley, The Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1997), 171.
- Michael Otterson, “On the Record,” FairMormon Conference, 7 Aug. 2015: http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/full-transcript-michael-otterson-address-at-fair-mormon-conference
- Teaching, No Greater Call, 55.
- Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine, Ara Norenzayan, “The Weirdest People in the World?” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33 (2010): 61-135.
- See Louis C. Zucker, “Joseph Smith as a Student of Hebrew,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3:2 (Summer 1968): 41-55.
- David A. Bednar, Increase in Learning: Spiritual Patterns for Obtaining Your Own Answers (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), Ch. 4 specifically.
- Ibid., 151.
- Ibid., 167.
- Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Reflection in the Water,” CES Fireside, 1 Nov. 2009: http://www.ldschurchnewsarchive.com/articles/58360/President-Dieter-F-Uchtdorf-The-Reflection-in-the-Water.html
- Don Bradley, ““The Grand Fundamental Principles of Mormonism”: Joseph Smith’s Unfinished Reformation,” Sunstone (April 2006): 35-36.
- Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (New York: Gotham Books, 2012), 34.
- Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come, Join With Us,” General Conference, Oct. 2013: https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2013/10/come-join-with-us?lang=eng
- See Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Random House, 2005), 202-205; Margaret Barker, Kevin Christensen, “Seeking the Face of the Lord: Joseph Smith and the First Temple Tradition,” in Joseph Smith, Jr.: Reappraisals after Two Centuries, Reid L. Neilson, Terryl L. Givens (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
- For the tension between these concepts, see Terryl L. Givens, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), Ch. 2.
- See David Rolph Seely, Fred E. Woods, “How Could Jerusalem, “That Great City,” Be Destroyed?” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, ed. John W. Welch, David Rolph Seely, Jo Ann H. Seely (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2004); Neal Rappleye, “The Deuteronomist Reforms and Lehi’s Family Dynamics: A Social Context for the Rebellions of Laman and Lemuel,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 16 (2015): 87-99.
- Hugh B. Brown, “An Eternal Quest – Freedom of the Mind,” BYU Devotional, 13 May 1969: http://aims.byu.edu/sites/default/files/foundationdocuments/An_Eternal_Quest–Freedom_of_the_Mind–Hugh_B_Brown.pdf
- Richard D. Poll, “Apostle Extraordinary – Hugh B. Brown (1883 – 1975),” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 10:1 (Spring 1976), 70.
- Neal A. Maxwell, “Called and Prepared from the Foundation of the World,” General Conference, April 1986: https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1986/04/called-and-prepared-from-the-foundation-of-the-world?lang=eng
Excellent. Really excellent.
At the end of a quarter, my wife’s seminary students filled out a questionaire on how they felt about what they were getting out of the class. One very diligent freshman wrote “More facts and less discussion.” Looking over the responses in the evening, she remarked “Good luck with that, Jonah.” What that boy wanted is the opposite of the focus of church education. There’s Elder Oaks’ “Good, Better, Best”: “good to hold a meeting, better to teach a principle, but best to actually improve lives as a result of the meeting.”
Henry Eyring used a pyramid metaphor: the tip should be the contents of the scriptures, the middle should be doctrines and principles, and the broad base should be application. It was said that incorrect gospel teaching does the opposite; it fills the time with lots of stories, and includes little consideration of how to live gospel teachings.
Those are teachings about how to teach that have to be taken into account.
Great thoughts, Walker. I am impressed by your ability to find GA quotes that make the points that need to be made. I wonder if the authorities quoted above give any input or feedback to the curriculum writers or reviewers?
First, great post. Loved it.
Second, I must say that I’m surprised that Elder Bednar wrote about focusing on doctrine first and then principles and applications, given the fact that he himself appears to have a track record of emphasizing applications and seemingly insignificant minutiae. While speaking at a BYU devotional in 2005, Elder Bednar praised a returned missionary for being “quick to observe” by choosing to not no longer date his girlfriend, whom “he hoped to marry,” when she did not remove the second pair of earrings from her ears after President Hinckley counseled women to not wear them. (Of course, Elder Bednar said in the same talk that the issue was not earrings. But why then, bring the issue of two earrings in one ear as an example? There are plenty of other better examples that he could have used to illustrate this). I have also heard from many who attended Ricks while he was president who remember him as a nitpicker who was very orthodox in his position on rules of dress at Ricks campus, which had under his administration some of the strictest in the US.
It could be that Elder Bednar’s position has evolved over time. But I doubt that. The LDS leaders most certainly appear to believe that the members’ adherence to small minutiae are no doubt important to maintaining activity levels. It is the leaders, after all, who have repeatedly told members to not watch R-rated movies and obey with exactness in a great number of other areas, The obsession of the rank-and-file with seeming trivialities is not simply a bottom-up product of Mormon culture. The leaders created this environment themselves.
Brad L, I feel as if many misunderstand Elder Bednar, which is not surprising considering I feel that often conservatives aren’t liberal enough on the right issues and liberals are too conservative in the wrong ones.
In essence to the point with Elder Bednar:
Disciples of Christ realize following the Lord consists of internalizing the doctrine of his teachings.
For a true disciple, to do lists aren’t needed, neither are earing quotas or approved Sunday activities. But that doesn’t mean we don’t or can’t know the Lord and avoid certain behaviors or activities anyway. The ever-missing-the-mark modesty debates come to mind.
To an outside observer, and regrettably it seems often inside observers as well, we’re taking about to do lists, modesty guidelines, etc.
It’s only the mistaken viewer (or emulator) of a disciple who tries to break down traits or activities of discipleship into lists. Pursuing the traits and activities without the real discipleship that comes from internalizing doctrine, is a mere shadow of the form of Godliness, while denying the substance thereof.
That doesn’t mean counsel about action is never given, but the proper context and approach to those actions must be internalized for the action to have the full endowment of spiritual power that accompanies discipleship.
One, you contradict yourself here by saying that to-do lists aren’t needed for true disciples of Christ and then in the next sentence suggest that we should be avoiding behaviors, such as wearing two pairs of earring and unapproved activities on Sunday, that are on the already existing to-do lists.
Two, you seem to be not realizing the fact that the LDS leaders have long supplied to-do lists to the members and have long been very emphatic about them repeatedly in General Conference, the handbook, correlation, and general policy. Temple recommend-holders are to always wear LDS approved garments, shopping is not to be done on Sunday, members are not to drink the commonly accepted and mostly harmless beverages of coffee or tea, members are to attend all three meetings each Sunday, exactly ten percent of one’s income is to be paid, bishoprics are to conduct tithing settlement with each member every year, etc. Not to mention the rules in the For Strength of Youth pamphlet and the endless lists of rules for missionaries. Heck, consider the temple ceremony. The LDS leaders tell the temple presidents to tell the workers to interrupt temple attendees and correct them over the most minor of issues, such as which side of your body you are wearing the bow of your sash. If you were raised LDS in the Mormon belt, it is highly likely that you felt guilt for the most seemingly minor things.
I think it would be a step up in my current Gospel Doctrine class to even use the current book of scriptures as a quote book. So many lessons can be summarized as “In today’s lesson we learn about blah. But the Book of Mormon has such a better example of blah, so let’s read that one instead.”
This is also a reason why I don’t have much sympathy for those experiencing a crisis of faith when they learn something which wasn’t part of a standard lesson bullet points. The church keeps asking us to read and learn for ourselves.
Nice post. You’re on your own for #2, though!
“One, you contradict yourself here by saying that to-do lists aren’t needed for true disciples of Christ and then in the next sentence ”
No contradiction, you just misunderstand my approach to discipleship, which I arrived at as though it were revealed to me in the first instance from God, but at the same time only arrived at because I was looking to his servants in the process.
Incidentally, I am comfortable in the company I’m in, because not a conference or apostolic sermon goes by without me having already received much of the same knowledge via the spirit being conveyed by the speaker through my individual approach to discipleship. Not referring to predicting a sermon, but just finding what I already practice and believe to always be the subject of what they preach. This isn’t too point to any degree of righteousness on my part, but to illustrate I feel confident that I am united with them and typically of the same mind.
So when I look at their teachings and their approach to life and find out it does not match up with the way you present it, it’s on a powerful mixture of personal autonomy buoyed by the Spirit.
You miss the mark to criticize Elder Bednar in this instance, and your assessment of my and their seeming contradiction lacks nuance. You might say, you’re being predictably too fundamentalist on the wrong issue.
That there are many things the Savior would not do (and therefore neither would his disciples) does not require a list to be constructed, nor even prevent one from being made (lists He also made.)
In essence, you might as well set your sights higher than blasting at the handbook because that is based on principled discipleship of Christ to begin with.
The map is not the territory. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use maps. Nor did it mean we must use them. If you still point out what you see as contradictions all you like to win the debate and you miss the bigger point that is sailing over your head. – but really I hope it’s not as I wouldn’t comment otherwise.
I’d have no desire to talk of this or of rules, etc. But I see a danger in misunderstanding the bretherens approach to discipleship at so basic a level. And feel that whether you agree or not the record should show you’re wrong in your assessment of them.
Oh by the way, my wife disagrees with earrings entirely (after having many). I’m on the same mindset. But again the lists aren’t the issue.
This is a fabulous post; thank you.
AA, I wasn’t criticizing Elder Bednar, just pointing out the fact that he has emphasized “applications” and rules, seemingly over principles, in the past.
Second, I think you’re failing to realize that the brethren’s approach to discipleship is about following lots of little rules AND abiding by principles. They make lists of rules the issue when convenient and when they deem it advantageous to increase membership adherence to the LDS church. It’s seemingly contradictory, but honestly, that is how a lot of effective administrations operate. If they perceive that some members’ rigidity about keeping rules is negatively affecting the congregation, they tell them, “ah, it’s about principles, you’re missing the mark.” And if they perceive too much laxness on the part of members who think themselves exceptions to the rules, they tell them, “you are not quick to observe.” If you don’t think abiding by the to-do lists is important, I challenge you to tell a member of your bishopric in your next temple recommend interview to say that you don’t think wearing garments all of the time is that important, but that you live a Christlike life anyway. I wouldn’t be surprised if they told you that you were on the slippery slope to apostasy for not abiding by the seemingly trivial rules. As for your wife, she may disagree with the earrings rule, but does she wear more than one pair of earrings, particularly at church, while performing a calling, to a temple recommend interview? If so, then I can only imagine that if she hasn’t been called out by another “concerned” member or the bishopric, that she will soon be. The lists are most certainly the issue if you are not abiding by them. The members will force the lists into relevance, and they have all the quotes in the world from the leadership to back themselves up on that.
Amen, Walker, on all counts. Thank you.
One concern though. Since …
… is there not the risk of a growing rift between the English-speaking church and the non-English speaking church (probably around half of the membership worldwide)?
I think that’s a real worry, and has been for years. At least at some level (from talking to people at the Church History Library thing releasing the latest JSP volume), Church hierarchy is aware this is a problem, and that seems to be driving some changes to Church materials, e.g., the essays (which are being translated), the Ensign, and so on.
That’s a very real concern, but it’s worth noting that this was a talk given to my overwhelmingly English-speaking Texas stake as their Stake Sunday School President. But in response, I would say that this means we should advocate translations, not discourage learning.
Of course, Walker, I understand your talk was directed to English-speaking members. My task at T&S is to waive the international flag :)
Indeed, advocate translations, but, at the same time, we also need huge efforts to stimulate the input of non-English Mormon students and scholars who can enrich Mormon insights with contributions from the own national and local perspectives. Otherwise, at least to a certain extent, we may continue forms of religious colonialism. In every country or culture, various aspects of Mormon doctrine could be highlighted by showing relations to what famous local authors, philosophers, etc. have said. At present, the breach between Mormonism and the local intellectual heritage is absolute. How many GA’s have ever quoted non-English writers in their talks?
Absolutely! I didn’t mean to sound dismissive. Had I been given more time, I would have expanded the “Read” section to include more than just gospel topics. I actually planned on quoting John A. Widtsoe, who summed up part of D&C 88 as follows:
“Things both in heaven—Astronomy.
And in the earth—Everything pertaining to the cultivation of the soil.
And under the earth—Mineralogy, geology, etc.
Things which have been—History, in all its branches.
Things which must shortly come to pass—Prophecies.
Things which are at home and abroad—Domestic and foreign politics.
Wars—perplexities—judgment—The signs of the times, by which the observer may know that the day of the Lord is at hand.
*A knowledge of countries and kingdoms—physical and political geography, languages, etc.*
These studies, the Lord considers necessary…God does not require all His servants to become doctors, or professors, or even profound students of these subjects, but He expects them to know enough of these things to be able to magnify their callings as His ambassadors to the world.”
I also considered quoting from a recent interview with John Durham Peters, who suggested researchers to “talk to different kinds of people including the very young and very old, take words and their histories seriously (i.e., read dictionaries), step outside of the empire of the English language regularly, look for vocabulary from other fields…”
The portion about Americans being WEIRD was to, in part, to remind us how different we are and that *it is not the only way to view the world.*
But alas, time restraints.
What a great post!! It would have been hard for me to give this talk, because I worry about offending people, in this case really conservative members. Did you get any push back on this? A great talk. You skillfully outlined a number of important issues.
I got mostly positive feedback. I heard about a couple people grumbling when I said we teach fluff, but that was the extent of it.
As for offending, I worry about that too. I try to be careful with my rhetoric. I want people to feel edified, not offended.
But I’m also getting to the point where I realize that other people tend to say whatever they like, often with little backing or thought as to whether or not it is offensive. So, why not express my view, especially if I think I can back it up?
I agree. I enjoyed your post very much.
Great post. Great talk. Correct principles in our teaching culture. Good Job.
Alas, there are some of these points that would meet with resistance in the Utah County stake I live in. Our leadership has completely emphasized likening the scriptures unto us, which often leads to twisting principles and applications out of a long series of proof texts. Maybe it’s always been that way, but often we Mormons are not so much likening the scriptures unto us as much as we are sterilizing the scriptures to make them look like us. Sensing a general lack of knowledge, we double down on some sort of emotional payoff. Fluff tends to be the result. Good teaching requires hard work. Thankfully, there are those in the Church who do take on this challenge. Forward we march, one step at a time.
What a marvelous change of pace from standard Bloggernacle fare! I find no spirit of digression here.
I am reminded of counsel from Elder Holland: “Please don’t hyperventilate if from time to time issues arise that need to be examined, understood, and resolved. They do and they will. In this Church, what we know will always trump what we do not know.”
Thank you for your honest examination, uncommon understanding, and firm resolve. This forum needs more of such posts.
First, excellent post, excellent talk. I am always in awe of those that can present some uncomfortable truths, and criticisms in such a tactful manner. I, for one, tend to use the “hit them up side the head with a two-by-four” because I don’t have the skill for such diplomacy. On the other hand, the mule is seemingly less likely to stop and think without it’s attention being captured. On the other hand, I think my approach has had very poor success.
Second, in the back and forth between AA and Brad L (#5, 6, 9, 12), I want to endorse and agree with Brad L. For every instance where the GAs mention principles, there are 50 instances of lists of things to do, to obey. This over emphasis is reflected in how lessons are taught, in sacrament meeting talks (even on those rare instances when the assigned topic isn’t “Elder so and so’s talk from the last general conference”), and in class discussions.
Walker, welcome! And thank you for the great post. :)
I think the biggest problem with teaching doctrine over policy/practice is that we don’t know what it is. What is the actual, foundational doctrine in the LDS church? What is, for example, the doctrine “the relational nature of salvation and the abiding need to practice empathy and develop deep, meaningful connections with each other”? Are you just talking about “love one another” or something else? What else are you referring to? And is this kind of foundational teaching what we see/hear in our conferences, lessons, manuals?
When I ask what constitutes LDS doctrine I get all sorts of answers. I also see a tendency in “intellectual” circles to merely present their own version of fluff. It’s no less fluffy, just different.
Thanks for the welcome. I agree that trying to nail down doctrine is difficult and that actually is part of my point: despite all the revelations of the Restoration, we still don’t know jack.
In the specific example, I think it would fall under the doctrine of the Godhead and, by implication, godhood and exaltation. As far as I understand it, to be “without exaltation” is to live “separately and singly” (D&C 132:17). Exaltation within Mormonism is communal as indicated by our temple theology (i.e., eternal marriage and families, redemption of the dead, consecration). This is a huge difference from the self-existent God of classical theism who is by nature pure actuality and the equivalent of Plato’s “the Good.” What makes God God—at least in part—is that he/she is relational. He is the ultimate social creature. Divinity, in essence, seems to arise from loving relationships. To flourish is to be prosocial. I think a foundation like this can give much deeper meaning to the principles and applications we discuss. But what I’m really advocating is a more holistic view of doctrines, principles, and applications. We need to stop compartmentalizing everything.
If one really does their research, there needn’t be doubts about God’s goodness or the righteousness of Joseph Smith.
As a fun exercise in research and study, check out my recent post at Millennial Star about Zina Diantha Huntington [Jacobs Smith Young]. I’ll bet you learn something you never knew before. I’ll bet also that you’ll be slightly irritated by the fact that I didn’t bother retooling some of the footnotes you want to check to make sure I’m not lying, But if you comment in my general direction, I’d be happy to re-find footnotes that I have documented in the past for those who are too lazy or inept to find the original information for themselves.
Jesus is the Christ, Joseph was His true prophet, and if you haven’t a burning testimony of these facts, then you haven’t researched enough. Warning/spoiler, the full story that conveys this understanding is fully an adult tale, not to be shared when tender children are present.
How dare Meg say “lazy” and “inept” about people…?
Better would have been to say “I’d be happy to re-find footnotes that I have documented in the past for those who have time to comment but not to google it up themselves or those whose google-fu, library, or knowledge thereof is inadequate to the task of finding the original information for themselves.”
Walker & Alison,
Not only do we have difficulty articulating our doctrines, we often deceive ourselves into believing that our doctrines never change. Nothing could be further from the truth.
As to the doctrine of the Godhead, Joseph Smith initially embraced the Trinitarian belief then prevalent among most Protestant churches. Later, he seemed to come around to the notion that the Father and Son are two separate beings (see Lectures on Faith and compare his different accounts of the First Vision). Subsequently, he offered new ideas on the nature of the Holy Ghost and his role in the Godhead.
Can anyone really doubt that if he had lived longer, Joseph’s conception of the trinity would have evolved further, but in what direction, who knows?
This is NOT a criticism of Joseph’s beliefs, teachings or methods (though some of them were, and remain, questionable). Rather, it’s a plea that we candidly acknowledge that our doctrines change—some are new, others have been modified, while several have been repudiated altogether—and that our understanding of them is immensely imperfect. When Jehovah said that “my thoughts are not your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8), I think he sort of meant it.
FarSide (30), not all would agree that Joseph Smith initially embraced the classical trinitarian formula of Protestant churches (three divine persons, one metaphysical substance) and that his views “changed” over time. Better to say his understanding expanded over time? See Bruening, Ari D., and David L. Paulsen. “The Development of the Mormon Understanding of God: Early Mormon Modalism and Other Myths.” The FARMS Review 13, no. 2 (2013): 109-169. (online).
But the topic is probably a good illustration of what Walker would like to see more of.
I’m trying to put this in your stated context of teaching the why before the what and how. What is the why of “doctrine of the Godhead” or “God is communal”?
I can see how the idea that God is the “ultimate social creature” could give deeper meaning to other principles we discuss and I like implications of that kind of thinking in many ways, but is that doctrine? So, back to my original “What the heck are we defining as doctrine?” position, I’m unsure how to teach “doctrine” that is only vaguely implied. Or, actually, if that’s better than the practical application.
This is interesting and echoes a bit of my basic thoughts on eternal life. I see it not so much as arising from loving relationships as goodness. Or perhaps a carefully crafted definition of love.
Anyway, interesting stuff.
FarSide, I suppose that I think real foundational doctrine doesn’t change. But maybe it’s easy to say that when you think very little of what we know/teach/preach is actually foundational doctrine.
These are my top two. :)
Doctrine is defined as the why, so there wouldn’t really be a why of the Godhead. Eventually you start getting into metaphysical claims and just-so statements. Nonetheless, you asked specifically about my comment on developing empathy and meaningful relationships. I would list “love one another” (or developing empathy) as a principle on which we could expound through discussion of applications. But I would connect “love one another” to the doctrine of the Godhead as explained above. So it wouldn’t be the why of the Godhead, but the Godhead/godhood would be why we love one another.
I don’t see those as being all that different. I think most of what we would define as “goodness” takes place in relation to others. I think it would be very hard to be truly “good” or “loving” with no one to actually love.
That God is relational or that the Godhead is three distinct beings united in purpose (which, when actually described, seems to be deep, interpersonal relationship)? I’m pretty sure that, as of now, this is a standard doctrine of the Church.
Intellectual humility is a must. Recognizing that we don’t know much about the nature of gods or the mechanics of the Atonement is important. But that doesn’t mean that there are no basic doctrinal claims of the Church, even if the details may be sketchy. Things like the Godhead, pre-mortal life, our positive view of the Fall and mortality, the Atonement, the necessity of relationships (sealings) for exaltation, etc. should be more fully explored. I think when these things are connected to the principles and applications we discuss in our typical lessons then we come away with a far more rich and edifying experience.
I disagree. Focusing solely on application without any real meaning behind it (other than “obedience”) creates a series of check-lists that produces absolutism and a whole lot of shame.
Wilfried: The Book of Mormon is replete with Trinitarian references (Mosiah 16:15; Alma 11:38-39), and several others appeared in the first edition of the Book of Mormon, but were subsequently revised or deleted. And Joseph, in his Lectures on Faith, states that the Godhead consists just of the Father and the Son. I realize that it is fashionable among many prominent politicians and certain ecclesiastical PR departments to say that their views have “evolved” or “expanded,” but such euphemisms, more often than not, confuse instead of clarify.
And even if you can convince yourself that the church’s teachings on the Godhead have been consistent and have never varied, the incontrovertible truth is that several of the church’s so-called immutable doctrines have undergone significant transformations, and not always for the better (e.g., from monogamy to polygamy). Many of these changes are chronicled in Professor Harrell’s excellent book, “This is My Doctrine,” which I highly recommend.
Hugh B. Brown is quoted in the OP as stating that our church does not have a monopoly on the truth. And he is right. I wish that when President Hinckley (who I greatly admired) invited nonmembers to “bring with you all that you have that is good and true . . . and come and let us see if we may add to it,” he had added: ” . . . and please help us augment our understanding of the truth and share with us what you have learned that we may have missed.” A recognition that God doesn’t reveal his gospel truths exclusively to the leaders of the Mormon Church would not only enhance our understanding of the truth, it would further our missionary efforts.
Alison: You are now left with defining the term “foundational doctrine” which is just as difficult as the broader concept. Also, what has been taught from the pulpit on the subjects of agency and atonement—your two leading foundational doctrine candidates—over the past 180 years has changed significantly. Indeed, the doctrinal components and meaning of the atonement remain pretty much a mystery. At least to me. If you can answer all of my questions about, and fully explain the mechanics and intricacies of the atonement, I would be eternally (literally) grateful.
Walter, I see I misunderstood your “doctrines are the why.” That makes more sense, thanks.
I wasn’t suggesting “solely” teaching application, merely that I don’t know if it’s better to focus on “why.” With the godhood, for example. If we focus on the godhood (the doctrine), what do we talk about after the basic elements are understood? Once we talk about loving because God loves (if I read you correctly) haven’t we flipped to the what or how almost immediately?
FarSide, of course I can answer any and all questions you have. ;) To be clear, I wasn’t actually disagreeing with you, I was noting that by my definition foundational doctrine is the core of the gospel and unchangeable—with the caveat that I think almost nothing qualifies.
As for the atonement and agency, my “foundational doctrine” is that they exist, not some specific description or detail that has been given about them. So, as far as I can tell, they still exist and that hasn’t changed. :) When you say we believe doctrine doesn’t change, I’d merely modify that to say that we often believe that what is policy, practice, etc., is doctrine and, so, when it changes, we get thrown for a loop. :)
Well, Alison, I can’t really quibble with your definition of “foundational doctrine”—it’s hard to deny the existence of agency and the atonement even though their full import and meaning elude us.
And, yes, we often do engage in revisionist history, re-labeling something a “policy” that we once taught as “doctrine.” But this is both embarrassing and Orwellian, and entirely avoidable if we, as a threshold matter, acknowledge that our understanding of every doctrine will always be incomplete and will be skewed by our cultural biases.
One of the first things they teach you in law school is “never say never.” Never say that blacks will not receive the priesthood in this lifetime; never say that you must have more than one wife to reach the highest degree of glory in the celestial kingdom; etc. But I suppose that when you believe that you are the only true church, that your church is perfect, and that your leaders are wholly incapable of leading you astray, then it’s really hard to resist the temptation of making such bold, unequivocal pronouncements. (I, of course, don’t mean “you” personally; rather, I’m using the pronoun in its indefinite or generic sense.)
By the way, I always like reading your comments. It’s nice to know that there is at least one other member of the church out there who shares at least a few of my eccentric opinions. :-)
“never say that you must have more than one wife to reach the highest degree of glory in the celestial kingdom”
Didn’t the angel essentially say that to Joseph? Typically, we don’t think of those who were destroyed by an angel as heir to the celestial Kingdom….
So I have no issue with that localized commandment. Clearly we are not having our salvation at risk for not building an Ark, but some people like pointing out that if an Ark was needed for Noah, if plural marriage was needed for the early church, if blacks didn’t have the Priesthood back then, if gentiles didn’t before that, then doctrines must have changed and we can point at the motes in the eyes of others while acknowledging our own sophisticated ways to undermine faith. Hey Moses couldn’t even let those tablets (doctrines?) last a day before shattering them. Guess they weren’t doctrine or weren’t true.
So much rationalization about why the in the past many were wrong, all seemingly to justify ignoring those in authority on one issue or another. Essentially, the goal is to undermine authority, whether you admit it, or even realize it.
No one sincerely says they respect Brigham more now that they think he’s just making up racist stuff, or that they study the teachings of Joseph even more intently now that they think he’s a horndog. The idea is plainly to point out “faults” on issues that cause contention and pain, and once those in higher authority stand back for not wanting to cause pain by picking at an old scab when things have changed anyway, the action is seized on as a change in doctrine – which just must obviously portend a future change, justifying further disunity, so say the contenders.
God had a very specific reason for telling Joseph Smith to restore the knowledge that strict monogamy wasn’t required. That doesn’t mean every man must have multiple wives to be saved.
When you actually understand the issue of race in Mormon history at a level that can’t be adequately expressed in a tweet, then you can, in fact, find great respect or at least understanding for the tactical decisions of the past. This is in fact required to ensure current decisions are based on true principles and not just modeled on some action in the past for which you don’t know the causes. For a delightful expansion of the issue of race, consider the writings of Paul Reeve (his recent FairMormon talk is excellent, see ,a href=”http://www.millennialstar.org/fair-mormon-day-2-the-rest-of-the-story/#reeve”>my review.
As for Joseph being a “horndog,” such a crude assumption indicates that one seriously hasn’t studied enough about what was really going on. There is evidence to indicate that Joseph rarely, if ever, consummated the “marriages” arising from his covenants with women other than Emma. In fact, it appears that only two men involved in celestial marriage (as contrasted with the illicit intercourse of spiritual wifery) unquestionably engendered children with their plural wives prior to Joseph’s death.
Nice post, Walker.
I’ve only quickly skimmed the comments but, like Alison, I have reservations about getting too excited about Elder Bednar’s emphasis on doctrine. I’d say, rather, that we should focus on the scriptures themselves — or whatever other text is being used as the material for the class. If discussion is rooted in a particular text, there is always something fixed that we can come back to that disciplines the conversation, even though the meaning of the text is never fixed.
(I guess Elder Bednar might be understood as having the “doctrines in the scriptures or lesson materials,” but I dislike the word “doctrine” largely because of the connotations in the wake of McConkie’s book, as a kind of creed-like systematic reduction of the Gospel that I think belies the necessary resistance that careful study of scripture or other texts represents. We discussed these issues ad naseum in the early days of the Mormon Theology Seminar, and that’s why “foundational texts” is a key part of the mission statement.)
I liked this so much I sent it to my bishop to read. I have always thought that we needed to read more so we could know and understand what we really believe. I applaud the Church for its essays on “sensitive” subjects and hope that teachers in all of our auxiliaries will make use of them in their lessons. I recall, however, an incident a few months ago regarding a youth Sunday School teacher in Hawaii. His students had questions on race (he was a white man married to a black woman) and he used the Church’s essay on race and the priesthood to answer their questions. His bishop called him in and told him he had no business using that online information (even though it was from the Church’s own web site) and released him from his calling. Someone needs to give that bishop this article.
That’s a really good point, Robert. I think “foundational texts” is an excellent way to go about things. But I think asking “why” is really important. Doctrines are vague and often confused with principles or applications, true. But asking “why” or “what is the doctrine behind this” can produce much deeper and reflective discussions. The discussion may never actually answer the question, but I think the lesson will be better for it.
This is a very good post, much needed in my opinion, and a healthy discussion. But it is far over the head and even beyond the capability of many members of the church to grasp these fine points and put the historical, cultural and doctrinal nuances into context to gain understanding and a well-founded and intellectually well-developed testimony. I live in a working class community, and in my current ward there are few professional people, and no university culture within many miles. What of the members who didn’t graduate from college, who are dependent on their faith and hope in Jesus Christ to work a few needed miracles in their lives while they live, and can’t effectively wade into these kinds of discussions? How can we not give most of these good-hearted and trusting members the spiritual bread and milk (lists, applications, principles, rigid rituals, etc.) to keep them moving? To give them all this meat would leave them feeling even more hopeless and unworthy than they already suspect that they are.
Walker, yes, I definitely agree with Elder Bednar and you about the importance of asking “why” questions.
I really, really like Bob’s question (#44) because I think it gets at a really important danger about intellectual snobbery and elitism. Here’s one response to Bob’s question, that I’ll link to my previous comment:
I think Walker’s “read, read, read” advice runs a real risk of being used as a form of elitism in the sense that it can lead to discussions about ideas that aren’t shared in common by the members of the ward. This lack of commonality can quickly create divisions within the class. However, if the “read, read, read” advice is guided primarily by a shared foundational text (e.g., the scriptures), then it forces the intellectual to translate all of her reading and thinking into terms that can shared in common with the rest of the class.
(Also, thinking about “why” questions is, I think, a great way to enact this translation. “Why” questions are, ultimately, what facilitates translation between ancient scriptural texts/contexts and our modern lives.In this sense, then, applications are simply poor translations — the problem with applications, in the sense that I think Elder Bednar is getting at, is that applications end up emphasizing the lists themselves rather than the process of coming up with the list. But in the process of reading foundational texts together, and thinking about the why questions and what the implications are for our lives — including thinking about possible lists of implications and applications — we can study, think, and worship together in a way that invites meaningful participation from everyone, regardless of what they may or may not have read prior to the class event. This way, thinking and discussion can build on commonalities — viz., the foundational text — without fueling divisions. Hopefully….)
Amen, amen, and amen. Thank you for this! You put into words so many things that I have been thinking about in the last few years.
Thanks Bob for those really good points that need serious consideration if we are going to make the desperately needed intellectual progress and reforms proposed in this article work in the real world of our wards and Gospel Doctrine lessons. We are losing too many of our brightest and best who can no longer stand plodding along with platitudes and being treated as anti-Mormon threats by the closed minded conservatives when they attempt to raise the standard of discussion and engage the rest with the realities and challenges we are going to have to get our heads around in the 21st century age of information and the internet. We can’t leave things as they are. Change must happen. But we also need to be sensitive to the basic needs of new members and the less intellectually curious who mainly need comfort and reassurance as you describe, and avoid creating a schism between members unecessarily.
Speaking as a high school teacher of Arts, Religious Education and Philosophy who has been a Gospel Doctrine teacher I suggest there can be a win win scenario – those who have the time and inclination to do the wider reading can simply bring what they have learned into the lessons and discussions – summarise for everyone the context and the key points that are helpful and relevant from what they have studied either informally during discussions or formally as part of the lesson supporting the teacher. I try to do this as often as seems relevant and helpful. We ingrain a considerable amount of knowledge and curiosity about things relevant to the scriptures we study in the core curriculum of the Church, so I think the average member can handle it. They can then investigate the sources used further for themselves if they want to.
My career is all about introducing young people to big and complex ideas and their social and historical context for the first time. They can understand and assimilate the main points from the extracts and summaries we give them without having to read entire academic tomes for themselves, and make quite a lot of progress in their understanding. I am therefore confident that same approach can work just as well with adults at Church who need introducing to and engaging with more sophisticated bread and meat. I expect most people can be persuaded to be willing students of those kinds of deeper insights and perspectives if they are explained in ways they can understand. We can bridge the gulf between the generally not very well informed and the members who are well versed in the torrent of new develpments and information pouring out of Church and wider-world sources if more space is given to them to share what they know without being judged.
Walker Wright’s article is an example of why I am disenchanted with blogs—even blogs on faithful web sites like Times and Seasons—because they become magnets for liberal theory-making and other patent nonsense.
It is shocking to me that Walker Wright actually read this ‘talk’ at a Stake Meeting. I hope those who wasted their time at the meeting had enough discernment to pass off the falsehoods that were floated out to them.
First, Wright is “not convinced that typical lessons suffer due to lack of skills or quality methods.” To the contrary, teaching skill and method are crucial, because they encompass everything a teacher says and does. And bad teaching method can block the Spirit’s presence in the room.
I was dumbstruck by Walker’s wordplay in this incredible statement:
“However, Nephi largely occupied the same pre-exilic culture and background as Isaiah. Many of the same cultural assumptions and biases pervade Nephi’s writings.” So even Nephi was wrong, short-sighted, ignorant. Oh
Then Walker proceeds to explain why we really can’t “liken the scriptures” to ourselves: because we don’t know enough about ancient cultures. And here’s a real stinger: we shouldn’t liken the scriptures unto ourselves because we will only end up “making stuff up.” He says “We tend to read these values … on to the texts.” The whole purpose of the scriptures is to impart values!
He then mocks the practice of using story telling in teaching. Stunning nonsense.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell said: “Let us as Church members turn to the scriptures rather than to commentaries about them.” (BYU Women’s Conference, February 18, 1983.) And Joseph Smith said, “The best way to obtain truth and wisdom is not to ask it from books, but to go to God in prayer, and obtain divine teaching.” Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 191. Brother Joseph must have had foreknowledge of some LDS blogs.
Yes, we must avoid ignorance, we need to learn more about the background settings and the histories of the ancients who penned our sacred writ. Yes, even “Teaching: No Greater Call” says that. And we should read read read. But in life, gospel almanac will not help anyone considering pornography or adultery or apostasy. The foundation that has any strength is built by spiritual knowledge. Wright quoted some great sources; it’s his interpolations that trouble me, and his bizarre philosophies were false and inappropriate. Someone on the stand should have turned off his microphone.
It’s my experience that the world provides ample opportunities for folks to disagree with whatever you happen to believe, and so there is no reason to manufacture additional disagreement where none exists. Case in point:
Nothing in Walker’s statement suggests that Isaiah was wrong, or that Isaiah was short-sighted, or that Isaiah was ignorant.
Walker was simply stating that, because Nephi and Isaiah came from basically the same culture, it was easy for Nephi to understand Isaiah.
I understand that “bias” is often used in a negative way, and that might have thrown you off down a false trail, but the reality is that all human cultures have their own assumptions and biases. Some of these are good. Some of these are bad. Some of these are neither. Who cares? Evaluating whether or not Isaiah’s and Nephi’s cultural assumptions were good/bad is so far way from Walker’s point that you could not see it with the Hubble telescope.
It pretty much goes down hill from there, and I’m not going to continue my point-by-point.
It’s my hope that you’ll be willing to consider that maybe, just maybe you’ve substantially misread Walker’s points. If you do so, I think you’ll find that his points are not nearly as objectionable as you fear that they are. I’d absolutely love it if you could go back to the section on Isaiah, reread it without an assumption that Walker is attacking Isaiah (which he flatly is not doing) and then see if the rest of the post makes a bit more sense and seems a bit less threatening to you.
As a liberal, I am offended that anything would associate Walker (clearly a right-wing hack) with liberalism.
I think this is the first time I’ve ever officially been called “liberal” (see Chris above). You may be interested to know that the fairly conservative FairMormon blog liked this enough to cross-post it: http://blog.fairmormon.org/2015/09/07/data-doctrines-doubts-improving-gospel-instruction/
With the approval and compliments of the Stake Presidency.
Maybe that’s why I’ve gotten numerous requests for copies of the talk: in order to uncover its falsehoods.
Of course it can, which is why I gave resources (largely Church-produced) to improve teaching methods. But I still don’t think that is ultimately the problem and you haven’t really demonstrated otherwise.
What? Pointing out that Nephi and Isaiah occupied a culture that is very foreign and alien to us can hardly be equated with your statement above. My point is that Nephi understands Isaiah because they are from the same culture. Isaiah is a bit harder for us.
Right: impart values to *us*, not read on to them secular Western values because it is what we know.
Elder Maxwell also praised the work of Hugh Nibley. There is a reason the Maxwell Institute is named after him.
No one is denying the importance of the Spirit or revelation. But you conveniently skipped over my point about Joseph Smith receiving divine translations and revelations and *then* hiring a Jewish schoolmaster to teach him and the School of the Prophets Hebrew. We should judge him not only by what he said, but also by what he did.
Well, they didn’t. Sorry to disappoint you.
Joseph also spent time later in life, you know, reading. He took a copy of Josephus to Carthage Jail for Pete’s sake.
I think you’re misreading this post pretty dramatically.
Walker, I think that Glen’s opinion that you are liberal comes from the willfully ignorant camp of conservatives. They equate ignorance with faith, and anything that’s trying to relieve them of their ignorance must be attacking their faith, and therefore must be an attack from the ‘other side’ and therefore must be liberal (the source of all evil).
Don’t let him get you down. I loved this post and am looking forward to future ones.
“Walker Wright’s article is an example of why I am disenchanted with blogs—even blogs on faithful web sites like Times and Seasons—because they become magnets for liberal theory-making and other patent nonsense.”
Glen, if you are disenchanted with Mormon blogs, why waste your time—and ours—by posting your comments?
Amenpto Peter’s comment #47.
The Russian Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky had some interesting observations on how a deeper and fuller understanding of scripture is dependent upon viewing it in historical context. God was communicating with man in language man could relate to and understand. To ignore the historical context in favor of the universal is to distort the message and miss the point. Florovsky points out that a common way of reading the Bible is to see it as a repository of eternal and sacred symbols that must be unraveled in order to get at its message. “The Bible then becomes a self-sufficient and self-contained book—a book, so to speak, written for no one, a book with seven seals.,.. One need not reject such an approach: there is a certain truth in such an interpretation. But the totality of the Spirit of the Bible contradicts such an interpretation; it contradicts the direct meaning of Scripture. And the basic error of such an understanding consists in the abstraction from man. Certainly the Word of God is eternal truth and God speaks in Revelation for all times. But if one admits the possibility of various meanings of Scripture and one recognizes in Scripture a kind of inner meaning which is abstracted and independent from time and history, one is in danger of destroying the realism of Revelation. It is as though God had so spoken that those to whom he first and directly spoke had not understood him—or, at least, had not understood as God had intended. Such an understanding reduces history to mythology. And finally Revelation is not only a system of divine words but also a system of divine acts; and precisely for this reason—it is, above all, history, sacred history or the history of salvation [Heilsgeschickte], the history of the covenant of God with man. Only in such an historical perspective does the fulness of Scripture disclose itself to us. The texture of Scripture is an historical texture. The words of God are always, and above all, time-related—they have always, and above all, a direct meaning. God sees before him, as it were, the one to whom he speaks, and he speaks because of this in such a way that he can be heard and understood. For he always speaks for the sake of man, for man. There is a symbolism in Scripture—but it is rather a prophetic than an allegorical symbolism. There are images and allegories in Scripture, but in its totality Scripture is not image and allegory but history.”
As I see it, this idea relates just as much to molding the past in our own image, or seeing the scriptures of the past mainly as background illustrations to contemporary Mormon living. The scriptures were not written from a North American LDS perspective of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Neither Isaiah nor Nephi viewed life from the same lens as members of, say, a typical Orem ward today. Their societies did not mirror ours in their particulars, and much of what we do and say would strike them as unhinged and bizarre. I get the importance of applying the scriptures to our lives, as scriptures are meant to be lived, but this is where things get tricky. I did not grow up in the USA, the church was present only in miniscule numbers. I am part of a different culture, with different expressions, experiences, concerns, fears, superstitions, and joys. If there is a difference based on geography, then all the more so with cultures many centuries removed from our own. This is what Walker was saying. We need to understand the values the scriptures care about, and when we do so the spirit can teach us with greater clarity how to apply the lessons in our own lives.
And thereby we revisit Jacob 4:14. The more things change, the more they stay the same…
“The business of the Elders of this Church . . . [is] to gather up all the truths in the world pertaining to life and salvation, to the Gospel we preach, to mechanisms of every kind, to the sciences, and to philosophy, wherever they may be found, in every nation, kindred, tongue, and people and bring it to Zion.” — Brigham Young
“If an Elder should give us a lecture upon astronomy, chemistry, or geology, our religion embraces it all. It matters not what the subject be, if it tends to improve the mind, exalt the feelings, and enlarge the capacity.” — Brigham Young
I found this very interesting, but I’m curious if anyone has an opinion on a different perspective:
I think it must be true that the essential doctrines and principles of the gospel can be understood by someone of an intelligence that would render them barely accountable – for example, a child of 8. Is all of this teaching really just entertainment? How much do we really need to know about faith and repentance? Is seeking for ever more sophisticated understandings of doctrines, ancient scriptures and principles becoming a distraction from the fundamental, simple, clear doctrines of the gospel that can be, and were designed to be, understood by a child?
I feel like the never-ending hours of “instruction” in the 3 hr meeting block and other venues frankly exist not to allow for in-depth study, but rather to give ward members something to do, an opportunity to strengthen community, etc. I would suggest we are in fact fundamentally missing the point by suggesting that the quality of instruction in something like Sunday School should be high. Someone trained and erudite like Ben S can give a meaningful lesson every week for a thousand years, but I can’t – and why should we expect such of our wards? Torah is seriously tough!
I would suggest that this view indicates that perhaps we simply endure too many hours of groop instruction and we might want to find something better to do with our time together.
Big Cow, I see where you are coming from, but I think we have to remember that Gospel Doctrine is not taught to 8 year olds. For me, a major part of the beauty and power of the gospel is that it is both infinitely simple, such that a child can understand, and infinitely complicated, such that it can occupy minds of even the brilliant (like many past members of the Church) for their entire lives, and presumably into the eternities. There are those in our congregations whose needs include more substantial teaching. Is it fair to privilege simplicity over complexity in that case?