Thoughts on Mormonism and Intellectual Sophistication

Thoughts on Mormonism and Intellectual Sophistication May 3, 2018

 

The Tel Aviv skyline during the day.
Tel Aviv is a very different city than Jerusalem. (Wikimedia Commons public domain)

 

Some years ago, I was irritated by a gratuitous insult to my faith in Thomas Cahill’s otherwise interesting book How the Irish Saved Civilization.  While discussing the ancient Iranian-born religion of Manichaeism, now long gone but once (for a few centuries) a serious rival to Christianity, Cahill suddenly, out of the blue, compared it to Mormonism and to the doctrine of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  All are, he said, shallow and superficial faiths, “full of assertions . . . but yield[ing] no intellectual system to nourish a great intellect.”

 

I thought this remarkably unfair.  While Jehovah’s Witnesses have been noted over many decades for their disdain for higher education, Mormonism has, to put it mildly, not been so known.  Indeed, as far back, at least, as Kenneth R. Hardy’s “Social Origins of American Scientists and Scholars,” Science 185 (9 August 1974): 497-506, it’s been recognized that Latter-day Saints are disproportionately represented in scholarship and the sciences.  (See also this article, by sociologists Stan Albrecht and Tim Heaton.)  There exists, so far as I’m aware, no Jehovah’s Witness analogue to, say, the Association for Mormon Letters, the Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists, the Mormon History Association, the Academy for Temple StudiesMormon Scholars in the Humanities, the Mormon Social Science Association, the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology, The Interpreter Foundation, nor even, for that matter, to Brigham Young University (in its three campuses at Provo, Rexburg, and Laie) or Southern Virginia University.  The Interpreter Foundation has sponsored two conferences thus far — and hopes to sponsor others — dedicated to Mormonism and science.  I’m aware of no corresponding conference sponsored by any association of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

 

Inspired by Elder M. Russell Ballard’s 2007 call to use the Internet more effectively to spread the Gospel, I had already been intending to someday seriously think about perhaps getting around to eventually maybe launching something like Mormon Scholars Testify.  It was, though, Thomas Cahill’s unexpected slur that finally impelled me to act.

 

I would, of course, agree with Mr. Cahill that Mormonism hasn’t yet produced its equivalent of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.  However, mainstream Christianity took twelve centuries to produce St. Thomas — he died in March 1274; it’s not coincidental, by the way, that one of my sons, born on that same date, bears his name — and Mormonism, not yet two centuries old, doesn’t seem to me to be doing dramatically worse on the intellectual front than the early Christians were at roughly AD 218.

 

I’m fond of several aphorisms from the eighteenth-century German physicist and satirist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg.  Two of them remind me of the reactions of certain critics to the Book of Mormon:  “A book is a mirror: if an ape looks into it an apostle is hardly likely to look out.”  (Ein Buch ist Spiegel, aus dem kein Apostel herausgucken kann, wenn ein Affe hineinguckt.)  “When a book and a head collide and a hollow sound is heard, must it always have come from the book?”  (Wenn ein Buch und ein Kopf zusammenstoßen und es klingt hohl, ist das allemal im Buch?)  But it seems to me that precisely the same things can validly be said about the reaction of certain critics to Mormonism as a whole.

 

Moreover, for various reasons, I’m not convinced that Mormonism should generate its own Summa Theologica.  And St. Thomas himself might agree with me on that.  The famous story is told of some sort of revelation given to him on 6 December 1273, roughly four months prior to his death, in the Dominican monastery at Naples.  Although his works are voluminous, St. Thomas never wrote another line thereafter.  He dictated nothing more to his socius, Reginald of Piperno.  When Reginald begged him to continue with his work, Thomas replied  “Reginald, I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me [mihi videtur ut palea].”

 

Failure to produce a Summa is not, in my judgment, tantamount to shallow superficiality.  There is, I’m convinced, great depth in Mormonism — whether or not we’ve done much thus far to explore that depth.

 

But the Church and the Gospel aren’t intended solely or even primarily for Thomist philosophers or Hegelians.  Our services and Sunday school classes aren’t academic seminars in historiography or systematic theology.  Like every other broad demographic group, the Saints are mostly people who don’t spend hours each day worrying about ontology, epistemology, counterfactual conditionals, or Angst in the works of Sartre.  And the saving message of the Gospel is for them, every bit as much as it is for intellectuals and artistes.

 

I’m convinced that people will find depth in Mormonism commensurate to their own, if they put the requisite thought and effort into studying and reflecting on it.  But, just as the exclamation “Fire!” doesn’t have to be philosophically deep in order to bear life-saving meaning, so too the theological depths of the Gospel don’t have to be fully charted before it can lead us to life-saving repentance.  It would be a fool, and very likely soon a dead one, who refused to budge while the flames drew nearer simply because the person who had warned him to flee had shown insufficient intellectual or literary sophistication while doing it.

 

A well-known story is told about the prominent Swiss thinker Karl Barth (d. 1968; author of, among other important things, the massive and famous thirteen-volume Church Dogmatics), who is generally considered the greatest Protestant theologian of the twentieth century:  After a lecture at the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel — or, perhaps, at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, or perhaps in both places (see here) — a student supposedly rose during the question-and-answer period to ask Barth whether his entire life’s work could be summarized in a single sentence.  Yes indeed, Barth is said to have responded.  “In the words of a song I learned at my mother’s knee: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.'”

 

Simple, yes.  But, if true, profound.  Profoundly important.  And very richly meaningful.

 

Posted from Tel Aviv, Israel

 

 

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