Paradigms in Conflict

The first week of the semester, I was signed up for an Old Testament class from a teacher with whom I was not familiar. A syllabus was distributed at the first meeting, and as I read through it, I noticed that, in addition to the LDS institute manual and the scriptures, “good LDS commentaries” would be emphasized as texts. I don’t know why this raised suspicion, but it did, and I raised my hand for clarification:

“Would you consider any non-LDS sources ‘good commentaries?'” I asked.

His answer was an emphatic no accompanied by a caution to stay away from non-LDS sources. He said that those “Christian” and “Jewish” commentary mixed truth and the opinions of the learned and that we would have to sift through error to get at the “right” doctrine. “Why,” he asked, “would we need them when we have Talmage and McConkie?”

Now look, I’m not saying that commentaries written by religious scholars should be given equal weight with teachings of living prophets. After all, they have their own interpretations and opinions of scripture independent of modern revelation. But if we are truly seeking a) to understand the scriptures as their ancient audience understood them, and b) following the Lord’s injunction to seek out of the “best books” (D&C 109:7, 14; 88:118), we do poorly to ignore secular scholarship altogether, especially when it represents the greatest modern intellects of the discipline.

We would be foolish to think that McConkie or Talmage were not dependent on just the kind of commentary my religion teacher cautioned against. Furthermore, to depend exclusively on LDS sources is to remain in the past. McConkie’s writings are quite old, and Talmage, although excellent, is still almost a century old. Some of his claims, taken largely from 19th century religious scholarship have since been called into question; I don’t doubt that Talmage himself, responsible scholar as he was, would amend some of his research himself if he were alive today.

But the deeper problem, I think, is the encouragement by some church educators not to think for ourselves. The assumption is that other scholars have done all the thinking for us, and that we need only to read what they have processed in church publications. In my mind, this is destructive. University students are capable of—indeed expected to discern truth from error for themselves. Am I wrong in thinking that this kind of conflict is essential for intellectual growth? Some educators may be concerned that a fragile testimony could be harmed if it should contact challenges to church doctrine. They may be correct, but I think that faith in any truth becomes stronger by meeting and overcoming challenges.

Joseph Smith encouraged his followers to seek their own revelation and knowledge. His ponderings, imaginings, and speculations led to questions which brought the greatest revelations of the D&C. Surely the Lord wants us to continually ponder, examine, learn, and yes, question our testimonies so that our faith may be strengthened and our understanding may be increased.

For myself, my own testimony has been strengthened by learning about history and scripture, even though much of it has not come from LDS sources. I wouldn’t trade what I have learned for anything, and through gaining as much knowledge as I can, I feel I have become closer to the early Saints, both in this dispensation and earlier ones. I feel I understand better their experience.

Fortunately I transferred out of the class and now have a professor who delights in reading stories from The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha even though he acknowledges their apocryphal status and makes no secret of their resemblance more to Arthurian Romances than to scripture. To me, it’s the openness that counts.

12 Responses

  1. […] new Mormons I meet with a degree of rationality I might not have with others. And then stories like this one remind me why that approach is valid. I wanna talk to this guy. I think he’s someone who […]

  2. “Why,” he asked, “would we need them when we have Talmage and McConkie?”

    Wow! You did the right thing dropping out of that class. Anyone that thinks that McConkie had it all figured out is not using their head, I detest, yes DETEST Mormon Doctrine. McConkie had a habit of repeating rumors and opinion as doctrine.

    But the deeper problem, I think, is the encouragement by church educators not to think for ourselves.

    Unfortunately, this sentiment has spread through out the Church and is not just at BYU. Although when I was studying Zoology at BYU the professors in that department were very open to unorthodox ideas, for the most part.

    Am I wrong in thinking that this kind of conflict is essential for intellectual growth?

    No, you are not wrong, if you thought otherwise you would limiting yourself, just like the professors that tell you not to read anything that isn’t from the Church. I know not all professors at BYU do this, but the ones that do you should stay away from. How will you be able to have an intelligent conversation with others that think differently than you if you don’t know how they think or where they are coming from?

    it’s the openness that counts.

    Amen. I am always more impress with someone that isn’t afraid to state what they believe and then give the opposing view as well, allowing the hearer to make up their own mind. By stating that the Church correlated materials are the only ones that can be trusted, this teacher is doing his class a disservice, implanting it in their minds that outside materials are somehow dangerous.

  3. Jay-

    Thanks for your encouragement. I wouldn’t go as far as to detest Mormon Doctrine. In fact, I like a lot of it. But there are some things I disagree with which I interpret as Elder McConkie’s opinion. Also, I’ve amended my statement to say “some church educators.”

  4. Maybe I’m being little too harsh:) But I do know that a great number of members and anti-Mormons, for that matter, that take McConkie’s whole book as doctrine. You seem to have a mature way of looking at it and that’s a really good thing. Most LDS members your age don’t have that.

    I think the change you made is probably more accurate and fair.

  5. This is much more common among professional CES than at BYU, in my experience. And the next wave of BYU folks will definitely NOT be like this. ON rare occasions, in fact, I worry that the pendulum will swing too far the other way.

    I think one of the factors contributing to this is that CES folks themselves are largely incapable and unfamiliar with non-LDS commentaries. A PhD in Education simply doesn’t help one teach the Gospel. How many of them have actually picked up a non-LDS commentary? Often times there is good stuff in there!

    Secondly, it’s not as if reading LDS commentaries (whether authored by McConkie, Talmage, or average Joe lds) is some kind of false-doctrine apotropaic.

    Talmage explicitly depended on then-current scholarly resources. There’s an old Sunstone article about it…

  6. Nitsav,
    You can find good stuff in McConkie’s book for sure. I don’t like it because one of my pet peeves is when GAs or religion professors express their opinion in an authoritative way. Many members either choose not to or can’t differentiate the two. It causes a lot of confusion. If they state their opinion that is fine, but they should implicitly say that is what they are doing, especially during general conference. There are too many members that just latch onto their every word with no discernment.

  7. President Hinckley came to speak in my stake once, where he had presided as Stake President many years before. He advised us all to plant a peach tree, because the soil was good for peaches here. I assume this was not a prophetic pronouncement.

    But despite obvious examples like the one above, I suppose we have to rely on the Spirit for personal confirmation to discern between opinion and doctrine.

  8. You’re right that is an obvious example. Something less obvious to the general membership would be the statements about evolution that some GA’s continue to make in General Conference. If the Church truly takes no stand, no statements should be made on the subject. True, it is not usually the main point of their talk, but that doesn’t stop some members as seeing it as confirmation of their own anti-evolution ideas.

    As far as the Spirit settling the question. I had one person tell me they “knew” evolution was false because they prayed about it and were told so by the Spirit. Considering this person has spend little if any time studying evolution, I doubt God is going to inform her of something He hasn’t even told the Church.

    Unfortunately, I’ve found that most people follow what they want to. There may be a few Spiritual answers, but most people are influenced by their own bias and confuse the Spirit with their own desire (I include myself in this). The concept of the Spirit is good. I really like it, but it is extremely difficult to differentiate between the Spirit and self induced feelings for most people.

  9. Unfortunately, I’ve found that most people follow what they want to. There may be a few Spiritual answers, but most people are influenced by their own bias and confuse the Spirit with their own desire (I include myself in this). The concept of the Spirit is good. I really like it, but it is extremely difficult to differentiate between the Spirit and self induced feelings for most people.

    Agreed, but that’s not the Spirit’s fault. Even though it’s tough, I would think that this Spiritual discernment is one of the most challenging aspects of mortal existence, and I think these individual struggles are signs of progress and growth rather than stagnation. Through them we learn more about ourselves, the spirit, and the role of free agency in our lives.

  10. Once again I am grateful that, as an undergrad at BYU some 30+ years ago, I took the bulk of my Bible (1 OT, 3 NT) classes from S. Kent Brown. Our weekly assignment was typically a short paper, and our grade in part depended upon the number of sources we cited — the majority of which were non-LDS. I also had a seminar on Enoch from Hugh Nibley, who I don’t think ever cited an LDS commentary (other than remarks by Joseph and Brigham).

    In my opinion, any LDS OT/NT teacher who restricts him/herself to McConkie and Talmage is doing his students a tremendous disservice, both spiritually and intellectually. ..bruce..

  11. I really liked this post. Very thoughtful. And shame on that professor. How very presumptious of him to assume that we have the corner on the market in terms of critically and faithfully assessing the New Testament. People have certainly been pondering it long before 1830. The teacher’s response is rather disturbing, especially if the Religion Department wants to be considered a truly scholarly part of BYU and not merely a Sunday School appendage.

    p.s. It was fun to find your new blog!

  12. I remember hearing an RLDS scholar remark that there was no particular reason why we should think that General Authorities know anything about Biblical scholarship – unless, he dryly remarked, we take the term “General Authority” to mean that “they are authorities on any subject that may arise.”

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