The Great Existential Struggle of the Bi-monthly Gospel Doctrine Teacher

The Great Existential Struggle of the Bi-monthly Gospel Doctrine Teacher June 27, 2013

I teach Gospel Doctrine in my ward. Lesson 19 was up last week, covering the plan of salvation from pre-mortal beginnings through eternal life. It was not an easy lesson to prepare, probably the hardest I’ve tackled this year. Part of the problem was the sheer scope of the subject matter: from eternity to eternity in thirty minutes or less, with the problem of evil thrown in. I find this kind of grand overview lesson daunting to prepare and boring to execute, since there’s little time for discussion beyond the basics.

Another difficulty was the content itself, in particular the emphasis on the persistence of the spirit before birth and after death. On conceptual and emotional levels, I love this set of LDS teachings, among our most distinctive and audacious. They are at the heart of Joseph’s work of restoration: he drew back the curtains of consciousness that flank birth and death, and revealed lives and beings, astonishingly, in the very image of our own. Death stalked the lived experience of the early saints, and Joseph’s sustained counter-assault on the black infinity of death moves move. The day I understood that “translation”, the heart of Joseph’s prophetic calling, is the work of rescuing souls and voices from inevitable death and oblivion, I felt like the meaning of Mormonism bloomed before me. (It must have been Samuel Brown who taught me that.)

On an existential level, though, these teachings sit at the weakest part of my faith. I don’t have an intuitive certainty that I existed  before birth or that I will continue after death. I don’t sense a realm of benevolent spirits just beyond the veil.  As an act of hope I affirm Christ’s victory over death and Joseph’s work of welding linked eternal lives, but at the most basic level of experience they are not given to me as realities.  As I prepared my lesson, I worried because I would not be able to fortify my teaching on the plan of salvation with personal testimony.

A third problem with Lesson 19 was the structure of the material as presented in the teacher’s manual. The manual is structured topically, in order to touch on all major gospel teachings over the course of the year, rather than historically, pegged to church history, or textually, pegged to the Doctrine and Covenants itself. Nevertheless, most lessons still contain a single textual center of gravity: all or most of a section, at least a good meaty chunk of verses, with supplementary verses thrown in. My preferred teaching method is to focus entirely on that textual center, historically contextualizing the section and then diving into close reading.

This particular lesson, though, had no textual center.  It was light on scripture, and the verses that did appear were scattered by ones and twos among all five volumes of the LDS canon.  It was impractical to launch into historical context and close reading for each verse we read, and so I had to fall back on here-a-verse-there-a-verse proof-texting in the dreary style to which we’re all too accustomed.  When I teach in this way, I find it difficult to strike the right balance between asking tired familiar questions and straying off into arcane theological matters that interest me more than the rest of the class.

In short, I struggled mightily with lesson 19. I may have cursed heaven and the curriculum writers once or twice. In the midst of my great teacherly travail, however, and in true Mormon fashion, the struggle was redeemed by an insight. The insight was this: the plan of salvation, as it is currently understood and taught, is socially constructed knowledge in the plainest sense. Suggestions and partial teachings gleaned from passages scattered through scripture, heavily supplemented by unifying secondary interpretation, are built up into a seamless, comprehensive, coherent, inevitable “biography of the soul” from no-beginning to no-end. The flow-chart-style schematic we teach to Primary children is absent from scripture, which is why even the most gifted curriculum writer will not be able to produce a textually grounded, conceptually elegant lesson on the plan of salvation.

In my mind, this insight does not diminish the legitimacy or the beauty of LDS teachings on the plan. On the contrary, it charges it with more significance. I stop short of suggesting that the fragmentary scriptural foundations are providential design, as if God deliberately withheld the decisive revelation on the plan of salvation for a wise purpose. But I do find the effects of this situation providential indeed.  Because our understanding of the plan of salvation is, at least in part, a post-hoc social construct, it has to be carefully taught.  Nobody will sit down with a brand-new LDS triple combination and emerge with a complete understanding of the soul’s nature and destiny as we currently teach it. Instead, we move into that understanding through processes of teaching and learning — that is, processes of relationality and community.

In the language of the Doctrine and Covenants, “seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom.” The importance of teaching and learning is something of a leitmotif in the D&C, and the message is this: spiritual learning does not happen only in the context of solitary textual encounters with revelation. It happens also, or perhaps primarily, in the social contexts of teaching and learning — that is, of transmitting the socially constructed knowledge that binds together a faith community.

This is bad news and good news. The bad news, I suppose, is that socially constructed knowledge is susceptible to the blindnesses and biases of the community of which it is a product. Latter-day Saints have not yet achieved Zion, so we know that these blindnesses and biases persist and no doubt infect our teachings from time to time. The very nature of the problem means that it will be a difficult and contentious process to recognize and repair these shortcomings, and that there is always a risk of merely importing a different set of blindnesses and biases borrowed from another community. This is sobering, and it ought to temper any triumphalism in the restored gospel. But nearly two hundred years of history suggest that Mormonism is well equipped, perhaps uniquely well equipped, for this process of recognition and repair, guided, we trust, by inspiration.

The good news, though, is that socially constructed teachings are socially involved, socially responsible, socially obligated teachings. Our understanding of the nature and destiny of the soul is bound up in our relationships to one another, and the soundness of the teaching is pegged to the soundness of our community. Socially constructed knowledge can never claim indifference to human suffering and human obligation in the way that other kinds of knowledge do. This kind of spiritual knowledge can only be shared through persuasion, gentleness, long-suffering, and love — not by scientific or magisterial fiat. On this view, the teaching and learning we perform together, including in Gospel Doctrine, is one factory of the love and truth that we are charged as Christians to witness to the world. I love this idea, but it will probably not make it any easier for me to prepare lesson 21 this week.

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