my stab at proper balance between the intellectual and the spiritual, for now anyway

Here’s the other post in the series so far and where you’ll also find a link to the series announcement.

“What is your philosophy of Religious Education and what should be the proper balance between the intellectual and the spiritual in BYU Religion classes?”

This is a very important question that I wish could be discussed more, and more openly, throughout the church at all levels. Because it does not just concern students in religious education classes at church schools. It concerns everyone. To me it seems that Church History and Doctrine is to be commended for asking the question.

In brief, I think the same give-and-take between the intellectual and the spiritual needs to happen in the fields of religious, biblical, and related studies as happens in fields like biology. With the exception of some members who are free to do differently, Mormonism as an institution and at BYU has made accommodations for evolution. To read Mormonism’s history with evolution as a lack of valiance in standing for the spiritual truth revealed to God’s prophets in scripture ancient and modern would be dangerous and counterproductive to the growth of the church and its schools. And yet this is the way Mormonism’s history with biblical criticism for example is still being written. No, biblical criticism is not a science on par with evolutionary biology. But it hardly amounts to mere interpretation.

Put more simply, balance does not mean: accommodate the intellectual only where it does not conflict with the spiritual. Balance means balance. And this goes for all areas of human knowledge.

Tacit in the dichotomy between the intellectual and the spiritual is the assumption that the intellectual is human and the spiritual is not. But the spiritual is human too. It could not be otherwise. There is no such thing as divine revelation that comes to us straight from God without being mediated through human thought, language, culture, society, etc.

When members of the church operate as if there is such a thing, then Mormonism ends up with ‘folk doctrine’ that it cannot get behind it, because it cannot treat its spiritual leaders as human, even though everybody knows they are. Unmediated divine revelation is comforting in a sense, and I admit that from that perspective the alternatives can seem threatening. But it does not make for long-term stability of the group or the individual.

Finally, for those worried about forced or total secularization. That is not what I am saying. To admit that divine revelation does not exist unmediated does not mean that it does not exist. It just means that it is mediated through human thought, language, culture, society, etc. The spiritual cannot be separated from its humanness. The sooner in life a religious person comes to terms with this, the better, in my opinion.

And in conclusion, it would not do to replace one orthodoxy with another. What is needed is space in which church members, whether in religious education or elsewhere, are allowed to attempt balancing the intellectual and the spiritual as best they can in their present circumstances. If for some that is with the scales tipped most of the way down on either side, so be it. The important thing is allowing various and different kinds of attempts at balance.

  • Ben

    “Tacit in the dichotomy between the intellectual and the spiritual is the assumption that the intellectual is human and the spiritual is not. But the spiritual is human too. It could not be otherwise. There is no such thing as divine revelation that comes to us straight from God without being mediated through human thought, language, culture, society, etc.”

    This is an excellent and important point.

  • Joe Spencer

    It is an excellent and important point, but it’s not clear how useful it is. Like the claim that Joseph Smith’s own language and culture gave some shape—however minimal or maximal—to the Book of Mormon in English, it’s got to be right but it isn’t clear what’s to be done with it. See, the trick is that for us to be able to separate out what is human and what is divine, we’d have to know the divine independent of the human, and that’d mean that we have some kind of divine revelation that comes to us straight from God without being mediated through human thought, etc.

    So, it’s got to be right, but it’s unmistakably important, but it’s unclear what’s to be done with it. Is it just a call for a kind of “healthy skepticism” toward things that have some source in the divine? But if so, what exactly is that worth, I wonder.

    I genuinely wonder. These are only out-loud thoughts….

  • RT

    I think its worth a lot, Joe. Recognizing the cultural contingency of revelatory discourse helps put the onus for our spiritual development more back where it belongs—on ourselves.

    “The important thing is allowing various and different kinds of attempts at balance.”
    gwesley, that is a beautiful vision. If only it would come to pass in my lifetime…

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor/ Chris H.

    I do not think the human and the divine are independent from each other. It is not possible for humans to have a divine understanding of the divine. We will only every have a human understanding…on which is limited by language, historical contingency, and frailty. Texts, prophets, and philosophers will only ever give us human perspectives. Even our personally relationship with the divine is limited by our human limitations…but that will not change.

  • g.wesley

    Thanks, Ben.

    Joe, RT, Chris, those are all great thoughts and comments.

    I admit that I have tried to separate out the one from the other before, mainly by trying to i.d. the human and see what’s left. Over time I tended to see not much left. At some point I didn’t take that to mean that the divine must not be there, although I understand how others could reach that conclusion. I took it to mean that the two were so tightly interwoven or completely soluble (to switch metaphors) that there was no separating them.

    Some folks are fortunate enough to be “both-and” kinds of people sooner than later, thus avoiding more of the often painful transition from “either/or.” I started out as an “either/or” and still think that way not infrequently.

    The issue of utility is a big one I think. Such as when someone says that if ‘the church’ as a whole knew about thus and so, or if church leadership were to admit this or that change, mistake, error, etc., then membership would disappear. I generally think not. But plenty of others would disagree.

    I actually find the well know line about some things that are true not being very useful to be rather Nietzschean (but the Nietzsche experts would have to verify that or not as the case may be). My problem is that I can’t be a cow, no matter how hard I try.

  • Joe Spencer

    Amen. And I should clarify that I meant “useful” in a sense quite different from the “true but not useful” line to which you refer. I meant “useful” in the sense that it’s a truth that’s impossible to use, not inadvisable to use. It’s a truth we can identify because it’s a condition for the possibility of God speaking to us. But it’s a truth that can’t help us to disentangle the human the divine, and for exactly the same reason.

  • http://www.defeatthebs.com Dr. Gerry Steiner

    Melchizedek recently revealed to me twice that the claims of hi contributions to Smith and LDS in general are without merit. He suggests that the best revelation from Jehovah is contained in the Holy Bible and cannot be corrupted by the attempts of LDS>

  • Norman Fobert

    Setting aside Dr. Gerry Steiners cogent and author-worthy style of writing here, I believe the “proper balance” is individual, based on the knowledge, experience and personal revelation one has received at any point in their life. Clearly revealed knowledge is necessary, since human knowledge is so subject to various influences. The fact that revealed knowledge is also subject to personal, cultural and other influences, demonstrates why the divine is the being who gets to choose not only who he does choose, but even the hints to the reason he uses this method at all. Remember, “It’s not how you spell, it’s how you live.” (Out of the mouth of a babe.)


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