10 questions with Philip Barlow

We’re happy to have an other of our co-posts with Kurt Manwaring. This is 10 questions with Philip Barlow . Barlow is the Associate Director of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU. He’s written or edited a large number of books including Mormons and the Bible, The Oxford Handbook of Mormonism, and A Thoughtful Faith. He was also the Leonard J. Arrington Chair at Utah State University and a constant fixture at many symposia on Mormon topics. That position will now being held by Patrick Mason.


Barlow’s concerns have often been on religion in general particularly as it relates to society. Speaking of why he wanted to pursue a career in religious history he said,

…I realized that beneath all my natural wonderings, behind my study of history, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, literature, and even science, lay unformed questions of meaning, of ultimacy, of what it means to be a human being.

How have societies imagined and lived out their maps of ultimate reality and morals?

Under what influences had these maps and behaviors formed and adapted?

Such concerns can be framed by the construct of “religion.”

Speaking of his own personal trials of faith he notes some interesting principles that all of us should consider.

Coming from a culture that valued faith, love, service, and practical, pre-professional education rather than intellectual rigor in the humanities meant that in going to study religion formally, I collided — before the age of the Internet — with versions of all the issues that concern people these days and a good many more. What was different for me was that I found myself surrounded for years by a sampling of the most critically informed religious thinking in the world rather than by a sea of opinions and complaints by anyone and everyone on the Internet. It was serious business and I did have cause to consider carefully whether I was in or out as a committed member of the church.

Eventually, through prayer, thought, study, conversation, experience, and superb role models, my faith evolved and grew less shallow and more sturdy, more organic, and more supple.

Our abbreviated format here does not lend itself to probing, which I have written about elsewhere, but what follows is a sketch of a half-dozen principles I embraced. I try to remember that:

  • We cannot be too informed or think too well, but it is possible to think too much, like a musician or an athlete during a performance. “Reason” is essential, but has its limits and is not the sole means we have of taking in reality.
  • Our God is a God of truth. We have nothing to fear in the pursuit of truth, though we must be wary of assuming we have an unbreakable grasp on truth and of assuming we know the proper implications of such truth as we have. This requires humility, study, talk, and prayer.
  • The Church on earth, from its leaders to the humblest disciple, consists of humans who are imperfectly trying to respond to the divine. The marvel is not that we discover their historical or contemporary flaws. The proper marvel is the meaningful, potent majesty of the goodness and light that eclipses human foibles.
  • Despite all the critical thought we can muster, our character and attitude affect what we pay attention to and filters what we can know.
  • The culminating (13th) Article of Faith compresses generous, crucial, and inspired wisdom articulated by the Prophet Joseph in his later years. We are invited to reject the arrogant piousness of the Zoromites’ Rameumptom stand (Alma 31) and to embrace anything that is virtuous, lovely, praiseworthy or of good report, whatever its source.
  • Learning and spiritual growth require faithful inquiry. Do not fear questions, but do seek out a wise, informed, and faithful mentor as well as good conversation partners while you inquire. Remain active in prayer, service, and the Church while magnifying our callings and experiencing directly the goodness and fulfillment this brings while we question. This will improve the quality of the questions.

The latter is particularly poignant given how many struggle trying to balance questions and inquiry with faith and belief.

My favorite story relates to his time serving with Mitt Romney in a Boston bishopric.

As opposed to the endless caricatures that come from living a public life in partisan politics, Mitt himself was a discerning, imaginative, and generous leader in our ward and stake; Ann was thoughtful and engaging and together they were resilient and responsive when confronted with tragedy.

For two years we spent Saturday mornings in their Belmont home where he directed bishopric meetings full of compassion, good will, discussion, and frequent laughter.

Mitt at least knew that I inclined to uttering comic one-liners in complex circumstances. And he knew that I was on a shoe-string budget as a doctoral student and a teacher at the LDS Institute of Religion.

I’ve had more than one coach at secular colleges where I was teaching ask if I’d be interested to come to the locker room to offer prayers with and for the football team before a big game­ — confusing their perceptions of my pastoral role and my reality as a teacher-scholar.

Similarly, it is possible that Mitt, like many others, didn’t have a feel back then for what a scholar of religion actually does.

We did, however, occasionally discuss consequential matters such as what could be done to put the poor on a more secure, prosperous footing.

A common topic today among many religious believers is the issue of secularization, especially as our society the last 20 years appears to be going on a path somewhat similar to post war Europe. This causes concern for some, worrying how this shifts society and if religion is doomed in a fashion akin to what happened in Europe.

Where religion and belief in God was formerly taken for granted as the norm in the West, today’s children come of age increasingly in a society where religion is one option among others, where once respected institutions — Congress, the American Presidency, banks, the police, and religion — are regarded more skeptically.

This coolness toward established institutions, understandable in certain respects, is contagious once a critical mass is achieved.

In my career as a teacher and scholar of religion at secular colleges and universities I have always tried to help interested people think more critically about religion’s nature, to better understand religion’s genesis and adaptations and how its purposes can change form or be disguised but never extinguished without damaging human and social consequences. I have worked to exemplify historical study of the church that is honest, fair, and probing, and to publicly critique works I found less so.

Check out the full interview over at 10 Questions. It’s long and touches on several topics we’ve not quoted above.

3 comments for “10 questions with Philip Barlow

  1. Sch
    April 7, 2019 at 9:21 am

    I’d like to comment on the Mitt thing. I didn’t know him as well as brother Barlow but I did serve on the stake HC when he was SP. I found him to be insightful, inclusive, generous and kind. I was astonished when he ran for public office and found him to be stiff and robotic. That isn’t him. More on topic I’m interested in anything brother Barlow has to say

  2. April 7, 2019 at 3:03 pm

    Sorry to continue the threadjack, but I am convinced that if Mitt Romney had only found a way to communicate his internal reality so that it became the external perception, he’d (still) be president right now. I had only a few brief personal contacts with him, but everything I ever saw, heard, and read about him was that he was and is exactly as described above.

  3. Clark Goble
    April 8, 2019 at 11:46 am

    Romney when it came to basic political skills never seemed terribly comfortable. He tried to hard to tell people what he thought they wanted to hear. Which made him feel completely inauthentic. That he still came so close to winning given those huge negatives is interesting – although perhaps more a sign of the backlash to Obama than anything about Romney.

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