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.