Churches and the Erosive Intellect

December 9, 2003 | 4 comments

First Things also has an entry on the declining fortunes of the American Rabbinate. (scroll down about 7/8ths or keep reading for the relevant excerpt).

The entry has some relation, though imperfect, to our own Church and our own intellectual striving.

Here’s the relevant quote:

“A blow from a different direction came with the growth of Jewish studies in colleges and universities around the country. In a matter of decades, a whole new cadre of professionals had begun to compete with congregational rabbis as certified interpreters of Jewish texts and culture. In this competition, the title of professor inevitably outranked that of rabbi. To add to the discomfort, younger Jews joining synagogues did not share their parents’ and grandparents’ awe of the rabbi’s learning. Many of them boasted advanced degrees of their own, and felt no need for anyone to mediate between themselves and ‘the mysteries’ of Western culture.”

We obviously have a different model of authority than the rabbis mentioned. Our bishops can preside in learned innocence, as long as they have been “called of God, by … those who are in authority.” But we do respect learning. Some of us on this blog, myself included, may even want to open the church to more respect for secular learning. The dangers are apparent.

The only way, I think, to take full advantage of learning, without setting the Ivory Tower as an alternate authority to the Temple, is to humbly and frequently acknowledge the priority of revelation.

A bit ago we had a debate on Book of Mormon geography. Nate and I arrayed ourselves on the side of the text itself and the scholarly conclusions from that text. Kaimi took the side of numerous prophets and General Authorities.

Now, I didnt’ feel bad being opposite those spiritual authorites because I don’t see that they’ve ever considered the issue and sought guidance on it. As far as I can tell, the whole bit about the Book of Mormon happening all over America is just an assumption that never got thought through. But I should have been more clear that I was more wed to Christ and the Church than to my conclusions.

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4 Responses to Churches and the Erosive Intellect

  1. clark on December 9, 2003 at 7:31 pm

    I think that the big difference is that while we respect learning, we deeply distrust *tradition*. (Even Mormon traditions that are more than 30 years old are questioned) In traditional Judaism this was reversed. It was this long Rabbinical tradition which was so important. It is completely understandable that people from modern academia used to questioning authority and tradition would find this problematic. (Richard Feynman has some very interesting anecdotes on this)

    Mormon views of authority are fairly different. While we emphasize authority, it tends to be a re-interpretive modern authority. The difference is that the fact of this living authority actually leads to the debate of a de facto inerrancy. I have long argued that Mormon intellectuals over-emphasize this and are unfair in their analysis. But realistically it is a problem that some intellectuals in the church face. It is different from that faced in Judaism but can, at times, lead to similar conclusions.

    The debate on the BoM geography is a good one. It illustrates the issue. As time goes on and the FARMS position becomes the position of most authorities, then what counts as an appeal to authority will change. I think that Judaism (and perhaps Catholicism) emphasize a continuance of tradition more in line with what lawyers might call precedence. (I’m no lawyer so I’m sure Nate and others might correct me here) I think, however, that in matters of GA quoting, the most recent authorities are always, in LDS circles, taken to trump earlier authorities. When earlier authorities continue to be quoted, then there is a presumption that something is going on.

    You can see this in things like the length of garments, changes to the endowment, theology of Adam, and quite a bit else. By and large if you promote what was mainstream in 1900 you will be considered near apostate today.

  2. Taylor on December 10, 2003 at 12:55 pm

    I think that Adam is right that this may increasingly become a problem in Mormonism. The intellectual freedom battles at BYU seem to be one manifestation of it of the conflict between scholars and prophets (or bishops, stake presidents…). Some thinkers such as Douglas Davies believe that this gap will continue to grow in the short-term, but close in the long-term. I like Adam’s suggestion to acknowledge the priority or revelation. I also think that focusing on spirituality in one’s own life is key. Give and receive priesthood blessings. Pray. Do your hometeaching. I find these things to be extremely valuable in helping me to prioritize and balance my intellectual life.

  3. Adam Greenwood on December 10, 2003 at 1:06 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree with Taylor.

    Prayer, priesthood blessings, loving my family, doing my hometeaching, exposes me to a world that the intellect can outline or trace, but never transcend.

  4. clark on December 10, 2003 at 2:08 pm

    Taylor has a good point. Most BYU professors are asked, in addition to their academic duties, to be in church leadership positions. This makes it that much harder to do the kind of scholarship they might be able to do at an other location. (Not all face this of course) Also BYU seems less focused on research in many disciplines and more on undergraduate education. That’s definitely not a bad thing for the students but it will affect what gets published.

    What is interesting is how well professors manage to do in spite of their challenges.


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