Balancing Intellect and Faith

Balancing Intellect and Faith June 6, 2013

I spoke last week to a group of LDS students at Oxford University about the challenges and opportunities of reconciling faith with intellect. I have written about this before, especially as it relates to the question of scholarship. While there is much to say on the topic, I would like to summarize a few points briefly.

Intellectual effort must be motivated by charity. Ideas cannot motivate us to love but they can be the fruit of love. They can come to those who do not have charity, of course, and true ideas are not the unique purview of the religious or the charitable, by any means. But since the great law of heaven is love, intellectual work must be contextualize by a love of God and of our fellow men and women. Otherwise intellectualism becomes an end in and of itself and runs the risk of serving only to glorify the individual talent rather than a means to glorify God and bless others. The aim of the gospel is not to make us agree on ideas. Its objective is the purification of the heart and the perfection of character. It is also a method for developing patience and forbearance, to learn love. We are required to learn to experience unity with others, and this is not an accomplishment of the mind but an accomplishment of the will. The intellect assists us to exercise judgment and understanding, using discernment to assess people, cultures, and languages so that our efforts at loving are not misguided by mere intention. And the sciences are useful in so far as they assist us in making the world a place where humanity can flourish, where people can be improved and uplifted by advances in technology. A life consecrated to service of God and humankind makes of advances in knowledge and increased capacities of the mind more effective tools in the service of God.

Intellectual work, of course, has its own inherent spiritual value. It increases self and human awareness, and if Elder Dallin H. Oaks is correct when he says that spirituality is the growing awareness of mastery over the self, then intellectual work is useful to that end, since to be a master of oneself, one must know oneself. Intellectual work provides a kind of deepening of the pleasures of self-understanding. It is a glimpse into what transcendence feels like–that experience of freedom from circumstance, that discovery of the freedom from contingency whereby we become capable of understanding beyond what our circumstances, our biology, and our inheritance would dictate. This presents the chance for us to be more fulfilled by our human life. Intellectual work, in that it cultivates critical thinking, awareness of historical process, also puts us in a stronger position to identify the ways in which culture and time have influenced our self-understanding. It helps the religious life to become more acutely aware of its opportunities and of its risks.

What are some of those risks? It seems to be that chief among them is what the scriptures describe as the risk of worshiping a god after our own image, which I understand to mean an inability, despite our religious yearnings, to transcend our circumstances enough to be able to imagine a God who is more than who we want him to be, more than who we imagine him to be, more than we believe him to be. Otherwise, it seems, Freud was right and religion becomes nothing more than a projection of our own inner life and desires.

The intellectual life is a profound experience of freedom and power. But we cannot expect to devote ourselves to such work in a way that is completely divorced from the concerns of the world with impunity. When we engage the mind wholly and independently of the moral and ethical restraints that come from living in social units of families and communities and polities where people suffer and where we hurt and are hurt by others, when we think but do not worry ourselves about how to feed ourselves, about daily relationships, about society, when we do not learn of the considerable challenge posed by having to build a kingdom, then the intellect risks becoming frightfully oblivious and utterly useless, except for self-aggrandizement.

For those of us who are in school or who make a living as intellectuals, we have an unusual and extremely rare opportunity to devote the majority of our time to thought. This is a privilege few in the history of the world have been able to enjoy. This work runs a high risk of creating the impression that it is more important to think correctly than it  is to act well in the world, that it is more important to be right than to be good. To help protect against this risk, we must learn to welcome the disruptions of a calling, the commitments to family and friends, the awkward duties of service to those who are not only needy but disturbingly different from us, the many obligations of civic duty to be informed, to be involved, to be answerable to society’s problems, to see all people as our brothers and sisters. Were we to distant ourselves from religious devotion and service under such circumstances, it will be that much easier to go about life imagining that the world and the universe only consist of what we know.

James says: But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass. For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.

He makes it clear that our chief focus must be on the difficult work of translating theory into practice, to make our bodies and our actions and our words serviceable in the context of mundane life. Whether it is the word of man or the Word of God, if it is true, it will prove its worth only in experimentation. The humiliations of such efforts are valuable lessons about our limitations, the weakness and ephemerality of ideas, and the ease of self-deception.

When we intellectuals perceive intellectual shallowness, falsehoods, and willful ignorance, we are prone to condemn. These are realities and they are our challenge to make right, but they cannot be overcome by privileging ideas over character or hoarding ideas to ourselves because we assume they are really only the possession of the elite. Truth belongs to all of humanity and taking it to all people requires hard work, humility, and the painstaking task of learning the ways of understanding used by those around us. We must meet ignorance with charity, compassion, forbearance, and service, not with judgment or condemnation.

And finally, some thoughts about respecting priesthood authority. An apostle is a special witness of Christ’s divine mission and His living reality. When we listen to leaders of the church speak, we ought to listen for an understanding of His will in our lives.

It is inevitable that in listening to leaders of the church speak, we will hear a personality, a tone, rhetoric, and style that are conditioned by the person speaking, conditioned by culture and context. And this might occasionally cause us some chafing. It is important to remember that, as President Uchtdorf recently taught, the genius of God is found in the diversity of his children and the ways in which that diversity can be put to good use. Different individuals who use different language and perspectives are an inevitability and are necessary to the process by which truth is winnowed and fine tuned. Elder Anderson said recently, “There is an important principle that governs the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk. True principles are taught frequently and by many. Our doctrine is not hard to find.”

I suppose it is also true that given the age of most General Authorities, for the majority of the church who will always be much younger, the tone or vocabulary or style might also feel at odds with the younger members’ culture. But our task is to hear the voice of God. God’s voice is always a translation into a particular language and culture, so if all we do is identify the evidence of that language and culture, we have only engaged in redundant and obvious thinking. If, on the other hand, we have the humility to listen for instruction from above and have the patience and charity to hear it, we will be instructed.

The real challenge is not to hear the man in the voice, but to hear transcendent truth expressed through a human medium. We intellectuals in the humanities have been trained backwards, taught to spend our energies on the former and never on the latter. Sometimes it feels like criticism in the humanities is a kind of game where we hope to be able to yell: “Gotcha!” once we see the human frailties of gender, class, and race hiding behind the appearance and rhetoric of universality. It is not clear to me why this is considered hard intellectual work. When it is done poorly, which is most often, it is conspiratorial and it wants to see people as predictable by virtue of their gender, race, nationality, class, profession, etc. Art and religion have always aspired to transcend these particulars, and yes, they have deserved criticism for declaring victory over culture and time prematurely. But it hardly seems helpful to give up the quest of transcendence altogether. I am much more interested in learning how God works through frail, weak, particularized human agents, through the limitations of their time, place, language, and understanding. That is the miracle of revelation, just as it is the miracle of all forms of inspiration in the arts. It is challenging and fulfilling work to see and even love the human and weak vessels through whom inspiration comes.


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