Scattered thoughts on CES, nuance, gray areas, and teaching Institute

Scattered thoughts on CES, nuance, gray areas, and teaching Institute March 10, 2008

This post is a response of sorts to posts and comments here, here, and here.

Since much of this is anecdotal and based on my own experiences, I need to explain what those experiences are. I grew up outside Utah, attended early-morning seminary, and then Institute, but only during my freshman year (not at BYU.) I’m currently a Bible-oriented graduate student and a volunteer Institute teacher with several years of varied teaching experience. The students I’ve had are probably atypical in that they have always been college students or graduate students (mostly the latter) and returned missionaries (very often).

  1. We can either decide that the goals of CES need to be changed or we can constructively critique the means by which those goals are accomplished on an institutional or individual (teacher) level.
  2. CES’ goals are largely focused on facilitating spiritual experiences and making sure basic doctrine is understood. “Keeping the doctrine pure.” Studies done internally by the Church have shown that the largest factor in people remaining active committed members through out their lives is having spiritual experiences. Thus, if you want to help people stay active and lead Christ-like lives, facilitate those experiences. I have no criticism of this, per se.
  3. Teachers
    1. Two kinds of people teaching Institute and Seminary- CES professionals (the minority) and volunteer/called teachers, like me.
    2. Volunteer teachers receive no training or pedagogy, or anything more than a schedule of dates to teach on and perhaps a class assignment. Volunteer teachers will vary greatly in their depth and breadth of knowledge of history, doctrine, and scripture, as well as in their approach to dealing with grey areas. (Follow manual slavishly? Chuck manual completely? No grey exists? Everything is grey? Shoot from the hip and insert their own thoughts as “Church Doctrine”?) It’s inevitably a mixed bag of people and inaccurate therefore to stereotype Institute/Seminary teachers. After all, I teach, Julie Smith teaches, some of these folks teach, and I know other LDS grad students who teach.
    3. In my own teaching, I’ve tried hard to follow BYU’s Religious Education dept. instructions to teachers.

      Teaching in Religious Education is to be substantive and inspirational. Students should become familiar with the text studied in each course taken and learn the implications of the text for daily living. They should feel free to raise honest questions, with confidence that they will be treated with respect and dignity and that their questions will be discussed intelligently in the context of faith. Where answers have not been clearly revealed, forthright acknowledgment of that fact should attend, and teachers should not present their own interpretations of such matters as the positions of the Church. Students should see exemplified in their instructors an open, appropriately tentative, tolerant approach to “gray” areas of the gospel. At the same time they should see in their instructors certitude and unwavering commitment to those things that have been clearly revealed and do represent the position of the Church. Teachers should be models of the fact that one can be well trained in a discipline, intellectually vigorous, honest, critical, and articulate, and at the same time be knowledgeable and fully committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ, His Church and Kingdom, and His appointed servants.

      If students seem terribly rigid, or aren’t aware of the grayness of a particular topic, I introduce it to them, often with this statement from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism under “Doctrine, Meaning, Source, and History.”

      There are many subjects about which the scriptures are not clear and about which the Church has made no official pronouncements. In such matters, one can find differences of opinion among Church members and leaders. Until the truth of these matters is made known by revelation, there is room for different levels of understanding and interpretation of unsettled issues.

    4. For example, I primarily teach Bible and Book of Mormon classes, but when relevant, I bring up potentially touchy issues. With regards to the Book of Mormon, we talk seerstone, geography, polygamy, textual changes and translation/expansion issues, skin color (or not) and cursing. With the Bible, we talk authorship/editorial issues (including Documentary hypothesis, etc.), grace/works, evolution, textual issues, flood, creation, temple, history/myth/genre, gender issues, worldview differences, and cultural context. I encourage or require a second Bible translation to be used along with the KJV.
    5. With a given issue, my SOP is to bring up a couple points of view, perhaps argue briefly for one POV while pointing out it’s my opinion, and hand out a one-page bibliography for interested/struggling people who want more information. I don’t play devil’s advocate, but I do sometimes bring up outside perspectives/criticisms (most often Evangelical) and point out why they see things that way and why I don’t find it problematic. Sometimes when I raise a perspective, I’ll say something like “I disagree with this and here’s why, but you need to know that some people approach it that way.”
    6. I don’t think this approach would work well for Seminary, because a) there’s not the basis of knowledge or basic familiarity to work with and b) rare indeed, in my experience, is the Seminary student who actually cares. Most of them are simply trying to stay awake.
    7. The Church explicitly discourages CES teachers from proof-texting and from teaching from old out-of-print books. (The implication with the latter is that the Church has been more than happy to let some things go out-of-print and not reprint them.) I also have the impression from things I’ve seen that the Church wants teachers to avoid spurious teaching materials, doctrinal topics upon which there are no official Church statements or clear-cut answers (lest the teacher dogmatically present their own), to stick with Gospel basics, and to stick with Church materials. This has been emphasized recently, and I’m of two minds.
      1. One can see it as a reaction against professional CES who spend time playing games, telling 3 Nephite stories or spreading other space doctrine or mythology. (We’ve all heard horror stories of such things.) This, I can heartily approve of. If this is the reason, my teaching is perfectly in harmony with what CES wants.
      2. One can see it as an attempt to keep outside scholarship, grey areas, difficult questions or other such things out of the classroom, presumably because such things are inconsistent with promoting spiritual experiences or because teachers in the past have put forth opinion or rumor as Doctrine or Truth. If this is the motivation, I’m disheartened. I simply disagree that such things are incompatible with building faith and promoting spiritual experiences.  If this is the reason, I’m not in tune with what CES wants me to be doing. However, I’ve had good feedback from students and from the member of the Stake Presidency, so I’ll continue doing what I’m doing until I hear good authoritative reason otherwise.
  4. Students/Learners
    1. Some students want only a spiritual experience and don’t find any value in classroom time spent in pursuit of other goals. Other students, whether more intellectually curious, troubled by historical/doctrinal tidbits or what have you, find that kind of course completely inadequate. Ideally, we could match students to the kind of teachers they want or need. In reality, one can rarely choose their Seminary or Institute teacher, unless within a very large program or LDS population. While everyone needs spiritual nourishment and I try (struggle, sometimes) to provide that, it’s not the primary reason my students come to my class.
    2. Some LDS do not want to be challenged in any way. Whether because such things bore them, frighten them, “needlessly” complicate their lives, they just don’t want to know any of it. If such a student ends up in a class that touches on these things, they a) won’t like it and b) may complain to someone higher up. This is not limited to youth or young adults.
    3. My parents are well-read and have served in leadership and teaching positions in the Church (all outside of Utah, I might add.) They got together with several other similar couples to watch the PBS special on Mormons. (Among this group was the current and past Stake Presidency, bishops, Relief Society Presidents, and volunteer Institute and Seminary teachers- all active, educated, thoughtful people.) What surprised my Mom most was not anything on the program, but the responses of a few of the people they watched it with, who had not known any of those issues, didn’t want to know, and thought everyone should just leave it alone. I find that kind of attitude counter-productive and somewhat disturbing, but I also wonder if there is any good to be gained by imposing on people with this attitude.

I think the Church is in a difficult position. The people in the pews and in the classrooms have very different backgrounds, needs, and expectations. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, except to have good leaders and teachers who understand the needs of their students and have the mental flexibility, authority, and materials to adapt accordingly to their students need. I do, or at least, I think I do. But I have no way to make sure everyone else does. Only CES can do that.


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