The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is somewhat unique in that we don’t have a paid or professionally trained clergy. Nonetheless, there are Latter-day Saints who still pursue high education degrees in fields normally pursued by clergy trainees such as divinity, biblical studies, ancient languages, or religious studies (hereafter, for the purposes of this post, all of these are “religious studies,” although I know this is formally its own field). This is a multi-part series on different facets of this phenomenon.
Because they receive academic training in religion-themed areas, there is an opportunity for those with graduate training in religious studies to have a chip on their shoulder over the fact that they are not on President Nelson’s speed dial. The idea here is that since they have intellectual authority over a particular area of scripture or religious studies, that they should be heavily consulted in the steering of the Old Ship Zion. The devil is in the details, but generally this is wrongheaded in a number of different ways.
1. When you look at Church policy or rhetoric, very little of it deals with or hinges on the kind of technical knowledge that people pick up in religious studies graduate school. Inasmuch as it occasionally does, it is right and proper that General Authorities should consult experts. For example, if somebody is giving a talk on a passage of scripture that relies on a particular phrase, it would make sense to consult an Ancient Greek expert. Similarly, if they are disseminating a faith promoting rumor that doesn’t have good documentation it’s right for somebody to point that out. I don’t think this is terribly controversial. Occasionally a doctrinal belief might in part be based on a historical belief that is arguable (e.g. the priesthood ban starting with Joseph Smith or Brigham Young), but this is rare in practice.
2. If your technical training has placed you outside the overton window of orthodoxy, you’ve moved from being an insider working within the framework to being an outsider assailing the framework from without. I don’t begrudge somebody their sincere belief, but if you’ve really taken to the thread of historical Jesus studies that mitigates against His divinity, or your in-depth study of Isaiah passages has led you to the conclusion that the Book of Mormon is a 19th century fabrication, then you fundamentally don’t have any more business being on President Nelson’s speed dial than a Catholic priest has being on a Hasidic Rebbe’s speed dial, they’re completely different frameworks and it’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise.
3. The days when General Authorities would wholesale challenge entire scientific fields are over. (As a personal sidebar, my great-great grandfather was a Chicago zoology PhD who left the Church over evolution, I just don’t see that kind of pressure happening in the year 2022.) However, some of the more theoretical subfields of “religious studies” rely less on technical knowledge and more on more abstract, big picture thinking, and that’s quite different. Taking this approach is fine if those fields stay in their lane, but some of them try to borrow from the prestige of the more rigorous sciences, when that’s a category error. A gender studies graduate student disagreeing with President Oaks is not the same as a geologist disagreeing with Joseph Fielding Smith on the age of the earth. As somebody who occasionally publishes in the social science of sexuality I’m often bemused at people who claim that science has demonstrated the Church’s position as wrong, because I’m still not quite clear exactly what fact the Church supports that has been demonstrated to be wrong; rather I think this is the queer theory type methodology trying to borrow the prestige of the scientific method, when that perspective is not actually based on the scientific method.
4. According to our theological premises, the brethren have the same office as the prophets in the Bible. They can spend the energy trying to figure out what Peter really meant, or they could just, you know, be Peter. I realize that socioculturally we place scripture above other General Authority utterances, but legally/technically speaking this is arguable. Some might think that the brethren should consult bible studies people about big picture issues because they can inform the brethren about What the Bible Really Says, but this implies a kind of soft “sola scriptura” Protestantism which doesn’t apply to our framework. While I haven’t gone to religious studies graduate school, I’ve read enough in this field (and watched enough open courses–BTW, Yale’s Open Course New Testament and Old Testament Courses are both highly recommended), that I realize there is no big picture What the Bible Really Says waiting to be extracted by patient students of the esoteric arts of biblical languages. At the most biblical scholars can speak to what a particular part of the Bible is saying (whether or not by the person supposedly authoring it, FWIW by problematizing the Bible scholars undercut their own theological authority based on its knowledge); they can’t construct their own bible-based, consistent, overarching framework for a church.
5. I don’t have numbers, but it does seem that denominations that tend to turn their pulpits over to Harvard divinity alums tend to do worse than circuit rider types with nothing more than a Bible and a gift for preaching. Had you told a sophisticated, polyglot, blue blood Harvard trained Episcopalian minister in the early 19th-century that an impoverished semi-educated farmboy would restore a religious tradition that would overtake his in about two centuries, they would have laughed at you. In terms of “by your fruits ye shall know them” I don’t actually see a Church of Bart Ehrmans and Karl Barths (yes, I know they’re very different) being more vibrant than what we have now.
Again, none of this is saying that there is not some good to come out of studying these fields, just that when used as a short of academic shortcut to ecclesiastical authority it comes up short.