I have a great love for critical scholarship, but like any real love, mine took time to mature. I didn’t always feel this way. As an undergraduate student attending Brigham Young University, I majored in History and minored in Near Eastern Studies. I had one graduate program in mind: Brandeis. I wanted to study at a non-sectarian Jewish institution that specialized in historical analysis of the Bible and the ancient Near East.
Studying at Brandeis for my MA and PhD was a life-changing experience. But before my wife and I loaded up our moving van with our two young daughters for the trek east, I received some important counsel from two of my professors. One of my teachers pulled me aside and said, “David, you may wish to rethink going to Brandeis.”
“Well, it’s a little late in the game for that,” I thought.
Then the professor explained,
“At Brandeis, you’ll be studying with an excommunicated Latter-day Saint, the only non-Jew Brandeis has ever had as a full-time faculty member in their Near Eastern and Judaic Studies program. He would never be unkind to you, but the fact that he teaches there is indication of how critical their program in Hebrew Bible must be, and as a believing Latter-day Saint, you simply won’t feel comfortable with the academic material you’ll be forced to study.”
Even though I already knew all of this, I was still surprised to hear him make this assertion. My response was direct,
“Thank you for your concern,” I said. “I just really want to understand the way biblical scholars interpret the Bible in its historical setting. But don’t worry, I’ll never buy into a model like the Documentary Hypothesis (I knew that this was a big concern for the professor).”
Despite the fact that I had majored in History, minored in Near Eastern studies, and had taken every biblical Hebrew course I could, at that point, my knowledge of academic theories concerning the historical development of the Bible was extremely limited. The topic had never been addressed in any of my courses. I had read a couple of articles on my own, and knew what the Documentary Hypothesis was (it’s an academic theory for how the first five books of the Bible developed), but I didn’t believe. Still, I was curious and wanted to pursue a historical analysis of the text and enhance my understanding of biblical Hebrew, so Brandeis felt like the perfect fit.
And it was.
Later, however, another well-meaning professor came to me and said,
“I think it’s wonderful that you’re going to Brandeis. But don’t focus on Bible. Because we’ve yet to have a Latter-day Saint pass through an academic program on the Bible and retain his or her testimony. Instead, choose an ancillary Near Eastern topic such as Assyriology, Comparative Semitics, Canaanite Languages, or even Egyptology. But whatever you do, don’t do Bible.
I’ve come to realize that my alma mater is not unique in encouraging this approach. It’s been the one that conservative divinity school programs have adopted for many years. Traditionally minded scholars will often head off to graduate programs and study Egyptology, Comparative Semitics, Second-Temple Literature, or even the History of Interpretation in order to avoid dealing directly with scripture. They’ll then return to their respective faith communities as experts in “Bible.” Those like myself who do choose to study Bible often (but not always) lose their faith.
But I dismissed this advice as well. I loved these other topics, but mainly, I wanted to study the Bible.
I honestly had no intention of adopting critical approaches to the development of scriptural sources. I knew enough to know that they were incompatible with the traditional models I embraced. But my quick dismissal expressed through the words, “I’ll never buy into a model like the Documentary Hypothesis” didn’t last long. In fact, despite my deep religious convictions, it only took a couple of weeks at looking seriously at biblical legal collections for the first time in my life before I realized that if I was going to make sense of this material, I had to allow for separate contradictory scribal traditions. And once I made that allowance, everything, everything began to change. I found that the best way I could make sense of the material in the Pentateuch was allowing for separate documentary sources (in other words the Documentary Hypothesis).
I’ll admit that this was, perhaps, a bit difficult, but not as much as it might seem. I had already come to terms with the fact that in my quest for knowledge I would have to change paradigms in order to make sense of my religious convictions. And the challenge of factoring in my new observations into my religious views was countered by the excitement I experienced that for the first time in my life, the Bible was actually making sense. By adopting a critical model, books that I had always struggled to comprehend, books like Isaiah, for instance, were becoming clear, and this, I admit was very exciting.
At this point in my life, I have come to believe that a critical approach to scripture is, in fact, an essential part of a spiritual journey. This perhaps explains my concern with apologetics, meaning an active attempt to defend a specific religious paradigm or belief system. As religious believers, I do not think we should strive to force scripture (or our understanding of LDS doctrine or history for that matter) to match our expectations, whatever they may be. I don’t believe that coercing our history and our scriptural texts to fit our traditional beliefs constitutes an act of faith.
In fact, from my perspective, doing so is just the opposite.
Apologetics assumes that we have the answers. Instead of allowing critical thinking to shape our relationship and understanding with divinity, apologetic defense may simply disguise a fear that God and the universe are much more complex than we would like to believe. It doesn’t take too much understanding of history to recognize that religious paradigms exist in a perpetual state of flux. Apologetics, therefore, may be evidence that we don’t really trust God’s ability to grant further light and knowledge. From this angle, failing to allow critical thinking to enhance our understanding of scripture creates a barrier to true faith.
I’m not entirely opposed to apologetics, but I think we need to recognize that this effort, though no doubt often well-intended, can prove stifling to our spiritual journey and pursuit of truth.
We must not be afraid for scripture. Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, often used the term “translation” to describe a process whereby someone or something (including a religious text) was raised to a higher spiritual plane. Like Joseph Smith, we as religious readers can translate both scripture and critical scholarship into our own relationship with divinity.
In his book Letters to a Young Mormon, published by BYU’s Maxwell Institute (a sign in my mind that things are changing at my alma mater), LDS philosopher Adam Miller offers wise counsel on this very topic. He encourages his reader not to avoid critical scholarship, but instead to follow the lead of Joseph Smith and use such studies to produce a personal “translation” of sacred texts:
“Your ability to translate with power will depend on your faith and it will be amplified by your familiarity with the world’s best books… The more familiar you are with Israelite histories, Near Eastern archaeologies, and secular biblical scholarship, the richer your translations will be rendered. Don’t be afraid for scripture and don’t be afraid of these other books. Claim it all as your own. Doubtless, the world’s best books have their flaws, but this just means that they too must be translated. You’ll need to translate them so that they can contribute to your own translations.”
For Miller, translation should be an ongoing process in the heart and mind of the believer. Speaking personally, I strongly resonate with this approach. I believe that critical thinking is an essential component of developing spiritually. We cannot, as Adam Miller so thoughtfully states, be afraid for scripture. I maintain that identifying the various ways in which ancient authors interpreted and expressed their experiences with divinity can greatly enhance our own knowledge of the divine, even when (and we might say especially when) those ideas contradict our own.