Faith and Scholarship

I am a scholar but I am also a believer in religion, my LDS religion in particular. For some, that might seem like a contradiction or a serious compromise of my intellectual integrity or, for that matter, of my religious faith. I see no contradiction whatsoever. I like a guideline a leader in the LDS church, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland provides for parenting that has relevance to scholarship:

“In this Church there is an enormous amount of room—and scriptural commandment—for studying and learning, for comparing and considering, for discussion and awaiting further revelation. We all learn “line upon line, precept upon precept,” with the goal being authentic religious faith informing genuine Christlike living. In this there is no place for coercion or manipulation, no place for intimidation or hypocrisy.”

He goes on to say, however, that children should know something of the parents’ convictions about the most fundamental doctrines of the atonement and the restoration. I believe that nurturing a witness of those fundamentals of Christian belief and living a covenanted life on the basis of that witness is the foundation for faithful scholarship. I also believe, however, that those beliefs and commitments may very well have no direct, or at least discernibly direct influence on the intellectual content, methodologies, or choice of specialization we opt for. This might surprise some of my fellow believers. I believe we are individually entitled to personal inspiration about all kinds of questions, starting with what we study in college, what career path we choose, and we may very well receive either serendipitous impulses or spiritual promptings to find certain books, make certain contacts, and develop certain ideas, but this does not mean that every thought we have or every article we publish should have to be subject to a litmus test to determine its harmony with revealed truth. The reason I say this is because such tests has led historically in Christianity to misjudgment and the premature dismissal of ideas that were not as threatening or as wrong as was believed.

I like to believe that a loving God cares, among other things, about the quality of the life of our minds. I say this because I have often experienced a kind of cosmic serendipity about ideas I find in books or thoughts I develop into coherent sentences, and somehow I feel that this is at least one way to experience God’s glory or to feel his pleasure. I don’t believe my life is a set of random events but rather a series of meaningful and even purposeful encounters with others in circumstances and settings calculated for my development. And that includes the books I read and the conversations I have. But I would be a fool to imagine that others going in other directions are necessarily following the wrong spirit. One of the paradoxes of a theology of personal revelation is that you and I might receive divine inspiration to do precisely opposite things, whether it is how we vote, how we enact policy in a position of responsibility or leadership, or what we argue about in our professions. I believe we can be unified with God by our covenants even if we are not unified by all of our ideas and intellectual convictions. In fact, to the degree that we try to narrow the spectrum of those ideas in the interest of forging unity, we are failing in one of our most fundamental Christian duties. Acceptance of honest intellectual differences is a test of our faith and charity, and as President Obama recently said it is also a mark of our liberty. Which means we must learn to see that the truth is much larger than we tend to believe. We don’t have to take ourselves too seriously and we should be very cautious about assuming divine sanction for our ideas. Maybe that seems counter to what it means to be a believer, but a Christian scholar should not be above self-doubt and self-criticism, or be impervious to criticism from others or uninterested in genuine dialogue.

I like what another LDS leader said, Elder Neal A. Maxwell: “We can meekly let our ideas have a life of their own without oversponsoring them. Rather, let the Spirit impel our worthy ideas.”

I have found that my covenants and my core beliefs anchor me and thus, paradoxically free me to explore ideas without fear, trusting that I can test a wide range of ideas. Over time I have felt God’s help in separating the wheat from the chaff. I am always amazed at the amount of good a holy man can wring from the most paltry ideas and, by the same token, how shallow and unworthy of admiration the deepest truths can sound in the hands of a less than honest thinker. I like the statement by Elder Hugh B. Brown:  “We must preserve freedom of the mind in the church and resist all efforts to suppress it. The church is not so much concerned with whether the thoughts of its members are orthodox or heterodox as it is that they shall have thoughts.” I think that what this means is that our Christianity is determined by our commitments to the commandments, our beliefs about the Savior, and the cultivation of our character.  Our Christianity is not defined by the content of our ideas. After all, even those with the right content who say, “Lord, Lord” are not guaranteed entrance to heaven.

Research is, as the word implies, a searching again, a rereading, an investigation, a testing of ideas. It implies rethinking. And according to Mormon, it should be motivated by charity, which moves us to “lay hold of every good thing.” Charity requires an intellectual spirit of openness and respect for the fact that, as Milton once said, “opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.” For Milton, the earnest Christian’s duty was to “hear… all manner of reason” and a commitment to read books “promiscuously.” Milton understood what Brigham Young and Joseph Smith both taught, that Truth had been scattered throughout the world and that its broken body must be searched for aggressively and with love and reassembled in a gathering of insights from all books. Mormon suggests that human judgment is flawed by two fundamental errors: judging that which is evil “to be of God and that which is good and of God to be of the devil” (Moroni 7: 15). Dismissing error erroneously is as morally dangerous as failing to dismiss error correctly. The countless truths that have been buried by such mistaken judgments historically have been ruinous and arguably the very reason why reformation and even restoration of ideas are necessary. As Milton notes, “revolutions of ages do not oft recover the loss of a rejected truth for the want of which whole nations fare the worse.” The only way he could imagine that we could fight against these consequences was to adopt a spirit of anticipation: “The light which we have gained was given us, not to be ever staring on, but by it to discover onward things more remote from our knowledge.”

Even saints are still men and women, capable of misunderstanding things, even the things of God. In fact, on some level it is inevitable. To be a Christian involves a perpetual willingness to be corrected, to repent. It requires humility. We run the risk of “wresting the scriptures,” bending doctrine to our professional biases. I prefer to let faith and scholarly views stand somewhat independent of each other in a perpetual dialogue.  When they do come together, I will know it wasn’t because I was overeager to oversponsor my revelations but because truth emerged gradually. We need patience with this process and charity to maintain openness to contradiction. It also helps to remember that it is still more important to be good than it is to be right. Sometimes it feels we scholars spend all of our energy worrying about how we and others think, as if thinking were the sum total of who we are.

I believe in continuing revelation and I place my hope in the final gathering of all that is good in the world, in the earth, in the heavens, in the distant past. This means every book I read, everything I try to write—all of it makes me a part of a work far greater than I can possibly understand. The work of thinking is collective and is far more important, vast, and complex than our puny contributions might seem to us at the moment we first conceive of a great idea or manage to get such an idea into print.

 

  • Jessica Adams

    “Milton understood what Brigham Young and Joseph Smith both taught, that Truth had been scattered throughout the world and that its broken body must be searched for aggressively and with love and reassembled in a gathering of insights from all books”–that is a wonderful way to think about intellectual and creative work.

    • georgehandley

      Thanks, Jessica. One of the blessings of having to teach GE courses on Western Civ was that I read some Milton I somehow missed in my education. I have enjoyed your blog, by the way.


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