Religious Studies and the Church, Part I: Intellectual Authority as a Shortcut to Ecclesiastical Authority

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is somewhat unique in that we don’t have a paid or professionally trained clergy. Nonetheless, there are Latter-day Saints who still pursue high education degrees in fields normally pursued by clergy trainees such as divinity, biblical studies, ancient languages, or religious studies (hereafter, for the purposes of this post, all of these are “religious studies,” although I know this is formally its own field). This is a multi-part series on different facets of this phenomenon. 

Because they receive academic training in religion-themed areas, there is an opportunity for those with graduate training in religious studies to have a chip on their shoulder over the fact that they are not on President Nelson’s speed dial. The idea here is that since they have intellectual authority over a particular area of scripture or religious studies, that they should be heavily consulted in the steering of the Old Ship Zion. The devil is in the details, but generally this is wrongheaded in a number of different ways. 

1. When you look at Church policy or rhetoric, very little of it deals with or hinges on the kind of technical knowledge that people pick up in religious studies graduate school. Inasmuch as it occasionally does, it is right and proper that General Authorities should consult experts. For example, if somebody is giving a talk on a passage of scripture that relies on a particular phrase, it would make sense to consult an Ancient Greek expert. Similarly, if they are disseminating a faith promoting rumor that doesn’t have good documentation it’s right for somebody to point that out. I don’t think this is terribly controversial. Occasionally a doctrinal belief might in part be based on a historical belief that is arguable (e.g. the priesthood ban starting with Joseph Smith or Brigham Young), but this is rare in practice.

2. If your technical training has placed you outside the overton window of orthodoxy, you’ve moved from being an insider working within the framework to being an outsider assailing the framework from without. I don’t begrudge somebody their sincere belief, but if you’ve really taken to the thread of historical Jesus studies that mitigates against His divinity, or your in-depth study of Isaiah passages has led you to the conclusion that the Book of Mormon is a 19th century fabrication, then you fundamentally don’t have any more business being on President Nelson’s speed dial than a Catholic priest has being on a Hasidic Rebbe’s speed dial, they’re completely different frameworks and it’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise. 

3. The days when General Authorities would wholesale challenge entire scientific fields are over. (As a personal sidebar, my great-great grandfather was a Chicago zoology PhD who left the Church over evolution, I just don’t see that kind of pressure happening in the year 2022.) However, some of the more theoretical subfields of “religious studies” rely less on technical knowledge and more on more abstract, big picture thinking, and that’s quite different. Taking this approach is fine if those fields stay in their lane, but some of them try to borrow from the prestige of the more rigorous sciences, when that’s a category error. A gender studies graduate student disagreeing with President Oaks is not the same as a geologist disagreeing with Joseph Fielding Smith on the age of the earth. As somebody who occasionally publishes in the social science of sexuality I’m often bemused at people who claim that science has demonstrated the Church’s position as wrong, because I’m still not quite clear exactly what fact the Church supports that has been demonstrated to be wrong; rather I think this is the queer theory type methodology trying to borrow the prestige of the scientific method, when that perspective is not actually based on the scientific method. 

4. According to our theological premises, the brethren have the same office as the prophets in the Bible. They can spend the energy trying to figure out what Peter really meant, or they could just, you know, be Peter. I realize that socioculturally we place scripture above other General Authority utterances, but legally/technically speaking this is arguable. Some might think that the brethren should consult bible studies people about big picture issues because they can inform the brethren about What the Bible Really Says, but this implies a kind of soft “sola scriptura” Protestantism which doesn’t apply to our framework. While I haven’t gone to religious studies graduate school, I’ve read enough in this field (and watched enough open courses–BTW, Yale’s Open Course New Testament and Old Testament Courses are both highly recommended), that I realize there is no big picture What the Bible Really Says waiting to be extracted by patient students of the esoteric arts of biblical languages. At the most biblical scholars can speak to what a particular part of the Bible is saying (whether or not by the person supposedly authoring it, FWIW by problematizing the Bible scholars undercut their own theological authority based on its knowledge); they can’t construct their own bible-based, consistent, overarching framework for a church.

5. I don’t have numbers, but it does seem that denominations that tend to turn their pulpits over to Harvard divinity alums tend to do worse than circuit rider types with nothing more than a Bible and a gift for preaching. Had you told a sophisticated, polyglot, blue blood Harvard trained Episcopalian minister in the early 19th-century that an impoverished semi-educated farmboy would restore a religious tradition that would overtake his in about two centuries, they would have laughed at you. In terms of “by your fruits ye shall know them” I don’t actually see a Church of Bart Ehrmans and Karl Barths (yes, I know they’re very different) being more vibrant than what we have now.  

Again, none of this is saying that there is not some good to come out of studying these fields, just that when used as a short of academic shortcut to ecclesiastical authority it comes up short.


22 comments for “Religious Studies and the Church, Part I: Intellectual Authority as a Shortcut to Ecclesiastical Authority

  1. Regarding your second-to-last sentence, please define “more vibrant” for the purposes of this post. I mean, what “fruits” are you counting, and which are you not? Increase in membership? (How defined?) Visible signs of gift of the spirit? Levels of tithing and other income sources? Cultural and political influence? Media presence? Sociological data which tracks one or more Biblical variables? (And if so, which one(s), and how are they chosen? Family size? Incidence of divorce? Sabbath observance? Prison ministering?) I realize your concluding point begins with your hand-waving confession that you “don’t have any numbers,” but you clearly have opinions about what matters here (otherwise you wouldn’t have blithely claimed that one approach to the Christian tradition is “worse” than another), and what doesn’t; I’d be very interested in seeing you spell them out, please.

  2. Thanks, Stephen C, for an article that makes me think. I think religion is “real” when it is real, in real life, in contrast to theoretical or theological. So yes, the mantle is more important than the intellect — but I hope both will learn from each other. Lived religion is more real than pondered or studied religion. Charity is more valuable than dogmatics.

  3. Here I’m just referring to growth in active membership, I don’t see any reason to get any more fine grained than that, since I’m assuming that’s correlated with tithes and other metrics of growth.

    Of course, as a matter of theological belief one can believe that God prefers the kind of church that puts an emphasis on Harvard-trained ministers, and that that is the fruit of that approach. I wouldn’t have the desire to challenge somebody on that if that’s their personal belief, and I don’t want to imply that there are no fruits in those churches. Rather, I was specifically addressing viewing academic religious studies (as distinct from more applied seminary training perhaps) as some kind of technocratic training for clergy and religious leaders, since I don’t really see the ROI, unless the “return” isn’t souls saved or whatever, but closer adherence to some ideal. This is true whether we’re talking about us or, say, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Seventh-day Adventists. Intellectualizing a church doesn’t appear to help growth. Of course, maybe God wants an intellectual Church so it’s a good in itself, but that’s a different question.

  4. Stephen C.,

    “Intellectualizing a church doesn’t appear to help growth.”
    Why is growth a metric? Though the gospel will roll along like a stone cut without hands, nobody ever said it would represent a large portion of the population. Quite the opposite.

    Beyond that, I’m not certain whom you are addressing with this piece. Are there intellectuals out there upset that the Brethren aren’t begging their opinion? I would tend to agree with you that such expectations are ridiculous, but so would most of the intellectuals I know. It feels like you identifying a trend here that doesn’t exist in order to comment on adherents to it who also don’t exist.

  5. If I’m not mistaken, in the US, adherents to religions that I think of as less “intellectual” are shrinking in numbers (i.e. JW, evangelicals). We are flat but I don’t think of us as anti-intellectual just because we don’t have a trained clergy. The Catholic church is also flat and they have a more intellectually rigorous training for their clergy. Honestly you come across as anti-intellectual for some reason. Why? It doesn’t seem very on brand for a Latter-day Saint to be against education.

  6. It appears to me that the more one seems to focus on the secular understanding or “science” on a matter or subject the more they wander from the truth. I find it interesting that the intellect we gain from secular learning doesn’t actually promote faith in general but takes away from it. For this reason alone, our church leadership over the many decades hasn’t relied on their specific intellect in secular understanding in preaching and expounding doctrine. If our church leadership required secular qualifications to teach and expound we would be worst off today. Interesting…

    Man’s ways are not God’s ways and that includes our current understanding of the sciences and their applications. We must remember that most of academia is built upon an ever growing secular and atheistic approach.

  7. @ John C: I put that there’s an “opportunity” for intellectuals to take umbrage at not being heavily consulted precisely because I didn’t want to get into some dithering about how many fit in that category. If you don’t think the intellectual waiting for the call from the COB is a thing, then this post isn’t relevant.

    @ E: This post isn’t a broadside against intellectualism, or even intellectualism in the Church; it’s more precisely dealing with the idea that academic religious studies training (again, as distinct from in-house qualifications such as being able to say mass in Latin or understand canon law) qualifies one to lead, as opposed to comment on or academically analyze, a church.

    @ Rob: It depends on what one means by “truth.” The scientific method is indeed invaluable for finding truth in very bounded, specific domains (and that is in itself very valuable), but yes, it doesn’t really get us much closer to capital T Truth.

  8. Getting a degree in anything isn’t really a shortcut to anything, and getting a degree in religion has never in my experience been understood as a pathway to ecclesiastical authority in our church. Quite the opposite. But you also said “Again, none of this is saying that there is not some good to come out of studying these fields,” and I’m wondering what good you refer to here.

  9. If you think Stephen’s attacking a straw man, you haven’t been paying attention. It’s not too hard to find a post or comments along the lines of “How can President Nelson say X, when what Paul really meant was Y?” about every six months.

    I like what Adam Miller once said, better than I can remember, somewhere on this site that I can’t find right now: intellectual insight is a gift that the intellectual offers to the church to do with as it pleases. Religious studies can do a lot of valuable things, but it gets misused – a lot – to justify ignoring general authorities. Sometimes it gets used to argue for ignoring Jesus.

  10. BHodges, you are right. There are better ways to ecclesiastical authority than with a degree in religion. In our Church, it helps to be born into the right family. It helps to get a degree in business, law, or medicine. Blue collar workers don’t have a chance. And, of course, you have to be male, married to a woman, and not LBGTQ. It also helps to be white. Your wife can’t be a feminist or agitator.

    Since the the current leaders select their successors, things aren’t likely to change in the future. Apostle Rasband is our future. The Church could benefit from a more diverse Q15. Leaders with backgrounds in religion, history, science, etc. And most of all (dramatic pause): more independent women in leadership positions.

  11. @ BHodges: Oh, I’m under no illusions that people get religious studies degrees in hopes of becoming a GA.

    The specific good depends on the specific subject and skills picked up during the training. A 19th century Church history expert helps us understand and contextualize early Church history, the Ancient Greek expert might help us understand the nuances of a particular phrase that the KJV didn’t quite get, etc.

  12. OK, this is gonna sound like auto horn-tooting, but here we go. As a biblical scholar who has, among LDS biblical scholars, perhaps published the most articles in the field’s premier journals in recent years, your post sounds completely outlandish to me. I don’t know whom you have in mind, but among the LDS biblical scholars who are publishing in legitimate academic venues, nobody I know fits your bill. Maybe you could give us a name and an example. Or do you mean the kind of LDS scholar who publishes in LDS oriented venues? Maybe you are right about them. I could see that. My guess is that GAs pay more attention to BYU Studies or the Sperry Symposium than they do the Journal of Biblical Literature. But for those of us doing work in the big field of biblical studies, I can’t think of one who is pining for people in Salt Lake to read or care about their stuff. That sounds like the projections of the Mormon blog community.

  13. @ anon: Again, I said the opportunity is there; I wasn’t making some kind of a statement about biblical studies people or what portion of religious studies people fit into this category. If you sincerely don’t think that this is a thing at all then the post doesn’t apply.

    Generally, I don’t name names, since that brings a certain personal tension that I’d like to avoid, but to paraphrase a comment above; if you haven’t seen, “the brethren or the Church say this, but with my training in X it’s clearly Y” promoted on social media, blogposts, or various publications, in which people clearly cared enough to put the energy into publishing it that they care about it being received, then you haven’t been paying attention to certain spaces (which, frankly is probably to your credit).

    As fas as the Sperry Symposium folks go, I don’t know if they’re as concerned about getting the COB call (maybe they are), but in that context I think the concern is more about self-promotion to the community with firesides and such (again, a concern, I’m not making a statement about people in the School of Religion), and the more sociocultural, celebrity-scholar angle will be the subject of the next religious studies post.

  14. Stephen,
    When science is correctly applied it does give us a clear picture of something. We wouldn’t progress technology wise without that application. But when it comes to history, geology, theology, sociology, psychology, etc, we end up getting kind of screwed. For example, if we truly believe the scriptures and prophets, then we are at almost complete odds with academia. According to secular academia, nothing peculiar to our religious beliefs is true especially the Book of Mormon of which our entire religion is founded upon. It’s good that none of our prophets are leading archeologists or we would have a crack in our faith.

  15. I just want more posts about your zoologist great great grandfather. I bet he has a fascinating story.

  16. Correction, he was my great-grandfather. He kept a detailed journal documenting the struggle between faith and the intellect he suffered through, and then my grandma threw it out…

  17. Too bad. That would be way better than another post criticizing narrowly defined types of progressive Mormons.

  18. The only folks who seem to want to gain ecclesiastical authority outside the official channel of callings and keys are the CES celebrity/professional EFY circuit speaker/Deseret Book bestselling author folks. They gain spiritual esteem in the community very like that of a general authority. Their books appear alongside those of current Q15 members on the shelves of Desert Book, are used as the basis for Sunday school lessons and Sacrament meeting talks, and so on. But they achieve all this without going through the official channels of callings and keys that the Q15 and other general authorities have. Like the mysterious unnamed enemy your post warns against, the things they teach often stray far outside–or even contrary to–official doctrine. Take for example a few that strayed so far that officials had to issue formal apologies–Brad Wilcox and Randy Bott. I don’t mean to antagonize by singling out individuals, but these are two examples very much in the public record of the past few years.

    Yet it doesn’t seem like that’s the genre of person your piece has in mind? Or is it?

  19. “Generally, I don’t name names, since that brings a certain personal tension that I’d like to avoid, but to paraphrase a comment above; if you haven’t seen, “the brethren or the Church say this, but with my training in X it’s clearly Y” promoted on social media, blogposts, or various publications, in which people clearly cared enough to put the energy into publishing it that they care about it being received, then you haven’t been paying attention to certain spaces (which, frankly is probably to your credit).”

    I suppose everyone’s experience, and who they follow, matter, particularly if you won’t just tell us who are you criticizing. But for me, this feels like a personal attack on many of the mental health professionals whose clientele are traumatized members of the Church. To wit, when an apostle gives a speech at BYU and these therapists feel professional responsibility to immediately publish suicide prevention resources in response, it seems you and I would be at odds as to the root problem.

  20. @Brian G: More interesting than yet another bloggernacle post criticizing particular types of conservative Mormons.

  21. Totally agreed Stephen C. Real people in all the messy complexity are the best. More of them please.

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