So much depends/ upon/ the prayer of/ a young/ farm boy/ alone/ in a grove/ of trees.

By April 12, 2009

“That idea has not yet been resolved within your heart and is tormenting it.” [1]

One of my inaugural posts for JI was a spiritual autobiographical account of entering the world of the academic study of religion. And I feel as though a continuation of that autobiography is important and necessary, if only for my own sake.

I am grateful to have a voice on this blog because I realize my voice may be a bit unconventional. I am not a historian. I am simply a Mormon with broad-ranging scholarly interests. Yet my voice can be heard here because the history of Mormonism, and of any religion, has always been the history of belief and of believers’ lives in a world sometimes inhospitable to their beliefs.

My first two semesters of divinity school have been ones of great darkness and sadness, as well as ones of great light and growth. Upon arriving, I quickly learned that my theological rearing had been dismal, and that I lacked an adequate vocabulary to have discussions across the Mormon/non-Mormon divide (a divide that was more real than I had imagined!). What surprised me the most was that what I had perceived to be minor theological differences between Mormonism and other denominations actually proved to be chasmal and irreconcilable.

Quickly I became theologically homeless. I questioned it all. And somewhere in my first semester, God seemingly departed without so much as a swish of a heavenly robe. Or, I should say, my faith in God dwindled until any audible swish could be dismissed as nothing more than a piece of paper rattling to the floor. I have been told that this is what is meant by the phrase “the dark night of the soul.” Desperate and faithless prayers I flung at the sky fluttered back down from my cold ceiling. Often when I was in an attitude of prayer, words would fail to form at all.

I realize that my experience is not unique. My response to heavy theological study—an urge to quail, to crumble, to jump one theological ship for another—reputedly happens to many Mormons and other people of faith who undergo these pressures. And everyone experiences the disappearance, or at least the unavoidable mystery, of God sometimes. I can better imagine what must have been the horror of Joseph Smith—a man who considered his theophany “a fact” [2]—at apparently being deserted at points in his prophetic career. God’s hand must have seemed to be so clearly before him at times, guiding, directing, orchestrating. Perhaps his deeper acquaintance with divinity thrust him into even greater darkness after such bright visionary shards pierced his eyes and mind.

For me, Joseph Smith’s journey is the archetypal journey of a person of faith. The earliest stage of his faith-journey (study, reflect, pray, repeat) has served as a model for Mormons in discovering the truth of the existence of God and the truth of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a faith-journey that happens all over the world, every day, and not just in academic departments of religion in Ivy League schools.

We are not all Joseph Smith, and neither are we meant to be. We are not all founders of religions or bearers of prophetic burdens (although I might argue that we are the latter). But the truth is that the perils of the academic study of religion are not any different than the perils of faith, a fact that Mormons often fail to recognize in the practice of theological education. I now appreciate the zeal with which so many people cling to truths and doctrines for the sake of safety from an experience of homelessness or of being at sea. Likewise, I now understand why certain theological principles are true and must be taught correctly despite accompanying fuzziness.

I have asked myself repeatedly why this experience has been so difficult. What would have made it easier? How could my early religious education have been improved to avert some rather harrowing moments? My wise roommate, a woman with a fine, courageous, inquiring mind, seems to consider theological issues with a critical yet faithful eye. She discusses the radical nature of evil and the seriousness of sin, and perceives that many of our fellow div school students are spiritually undernourished (several concepts I often overlook in my eagerness to be religiously egalitarian). I envy her because so often, in considering theological questions, I defer to positions of authority rather than reasoning out what I think, rather than putting my theology in conversation with other theologies and seeing how it holds up. Or, I patch together an ideology that suits me but that is unlike any real theology. The real questions of theology are sometimes too troubling to confront.

In some ways, the three questions above undermine the very real purpose of this experience, which has been personally tailored (heavenward glance) to reveal gross errors in my theological thinking and practice. The experience could not have been easier because without difficulty I would have never learned to believe in Christ and to believe Christ, which has always given me much intellectual and spiritual unrest. If my experience thus far were one of sailing rather than travailing, I might have completely missed the inescapable fact that the only way to seek knowledge is by study and by faith. And faith, for me, involves a great deal of prayer, belief, and intellectual leaping, and it must be backed by reason or else it lacks any valuable substance.

At the same time, the questions above are illuminating and contain some interesting possibilities in Mormon theological pedagogy. I know that it is not always practical, nor desirable, to apply academic methodologies in a Sunday School setting. But I do think our pedagogical imperative must be a rigorous theological education that is presented as such. And such a theological education can take place in seminary and Institute classes, and in religious education classes at church-run universities. Students must be taught that acquiring faith is a lifelong process that is no less perilous than Joseph Smith’s encounters with religious and ideological opposition or with God himself and that myriad questions are not only inevitable but essential to building a strong theological foundation.

All Mormon believers are required to be historians of their own religion, even if they are only amateur ones. Similarly, all Mormon believers are required to be theologians. According to Karl Barth,

Every Christian—in however primitive and rudimentary a way—can and must be a theologian, and that no matter how primitive and rudimentary he can and must be a good theologian, having a true vision of the One in whom he believes, having true thoughts concerning Him and finding the right words to express those thoughts. [3]

One of the mantras of my systematic theology class last semester was, “Theology is talk about God, not talk about talk about God.” In seminary and Institute classrooms, we must of course talk about God in context of Mormonism but we must also place that talk in context of other Christian and non-Christian religions. This dialogic relationship is not a novel idea; Mormon theological discourse is moving in this direction.

However, I urgently encourage 1) that we acknowledge, learn, and understand the myriad and interlacing forms of God-talk that much of the world’s populace use or are familiar with; 2) that we know theological history, the history of God; 3) and finally that we ultimately make God the true content of our discourse. Why is it important that God have a body according to Mormon theology? What do we make of human deification? How do we explain such concepts to Christians who consider such theological concepts to be heretical? God, and particularly his salvific relationship to his children through Jesus Christ, should be the subject of all our theological discussions (in typical Barthian fashion. Jesus Christ is always the subject of the theological discourse at hand, be it ecclesiology or eschatology, etc.).

Finally, the reported metaphor of Joseph Smith being a “rough stone rolling” down a mountain can offer a helpful way to consider Mormon theological education and faith-formation. Rather than suggesting students approach the bulwark of theological knowledge that is Mormonism and accept what they learn wholesale, teachers should perhaps follow an approach that acknowledges the piecemeal nature of building faith that is a continual process of construction and deconstruction, of perpetual shaping through collisions. Life-long students of Mormonism are a bunch of rough stones rolling together down the mountain of faith in an avalanche that will one day fill the whole earth. Each stone is in a different stage of being smoothed and polished into shafts “in the quiver of the Almighty”[4], and this must be acknowledged in our theological education as well. Mormon theological education needs to be undertaken with a more individualistic approach that attends to the spiritual and intellectual needs of each student.

I have no doubt that students young and old would rise to the challenge of thinking critically about their own theology and would relish an expanded exploration of theology in general. It would increase interest in students who are bored or on the verge of losing their faith and perhaps teach them that theological education involves a lifetime of rolling and polishing accompanied by absurdity, darkness, clarity, and brilliant flashes of illumination.

[1] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. David McDuff (New York: Penguin, 2003), 95.

[2] Joseph Smith—History 1:24.

[3] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.1, 765.

[4] Joseph Smith, qtd. in Flanders, Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi, 8.<–>

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Thank you for this Elizabeth.

    I also have to apologize to Rick and John, I accidentally deleted your comments on this post. Please come back and repost them!

    Comment by Jared T — April 12, 2009 @ 11:01 am

  2. Eloquent insights, Elizabeth – and beautifully written.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — April 12, 2009 @ 11:06 am

  3. Elizabeth–

    I read your post with interest. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences as a div student. We each have varying interest and roads that open up before us. I’m sure the Lord will use your chosen path (maybe preordained) to give light to others, and in the process grow in light yourself.

    My path has been one where the Lord has given me experiences and I’ve been striving to understand them for over forty years. My main source of understanding (from this side of the veil) has been, and is from the Book of Mormon. I agree with Hugh Nibley, the Book of Mormon has all the answers we need to obtain salvation.

    In a nutshell, my forty year plus div student experience has taught me that our task as LDS is to fulfill our baptism covenant and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, the First Comforter. I wonder how many really understand this simple idea, and how many have actually received a remission of sins.

    Next we need to turn are attention towards obtaining the Second Comforter. By so doing we will enter into the Lord’s presence and be redeemed from the Fall.

    This is the message of the Book of Mormon. Each writer prophet either did both or were well on their way to doing both. They are examples to LDS of what we should be doing. They beckon to us, to come follow them as they follow the Savior.

    Comment by Jared — April 12, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

  4. Elizabeth–

    Best of wishes to you as you pursue your studies.

    Comment by Jared — April 12, 2009 @ 3:04 pm

  5. Jared T. and Rick, thank you.

    Jared, I appreciate your thoughts. The Book of Mormon is a remarkable book with great spiritual resonance and power.

    Comment by Elizabeth — April 12, 2009 @ 3:41 pm

  6. I still remember the flash of unreality when, having been converted by a potent experience of regeneration just a year prior, I realized that I could never believe the Mormon story (for me it was freshman year of college). I had even read up on other religions at length previously, so it wasn’t that I hadn’t thought about religion or theology, it was that suddenly Mormonism just seemed so incredible that I could not seriously believe in it. It took a couple years of leaving space for God (that first clause is a vast oversimplification of a highly complex situation and process), and eventually I felt that God wanted me to be a Mormon, and I’ve been a believing one ever since. I am very sympathetic to people whose paths are circuitous and painful. There is language in William James about that agonizing flash of loss, so much worse than any simple bereavement, that accompanies an awareness of atheism.

    God bless on your paths.

    Comment by smb — April 12, 2009 @ 5:48 pm

  7. I really appreciate this post. I think many times people within the Mormon church feel that it’s an “all or nothing” mentality and if Joseph was a prophet we have to accept everything at face value no questions asked.

    I had a similar experience where my faith was stripped down to practically nothing and I had to put it back together piece by piece, line upon line.

    I too feel like I am a rough stone rolling and that part of faith is following the promptings of the spirit and studying and learning and relying on God with the realization that I don’t know really anything and I totally depend on Him.

    SMB makes the comment that they feel God wants them to be Mormon and I feel the same way about me although I may not understand everything or necissarily believe all Mormon doctrine I can’t deny the Holy Ghost has told me the Book of Mormon is inspired and the spiritual witnesses I’ve had in the temple and other service meetings in the LDS church.

    There is a good blog by John Dehlin that helped me get over the “all or nothing mentality” that I once had and help me stay active in the LDS church. I wrote about this over a year ago in an article called “Why to People Leave the LDS Church?”

    Comment by ama — April 12, 2009 @ 6:51 pm

  8. I spent years after joining the Church in 1975 wondering, if the Book of Mormon contains the fulness of the gospel, why it didn’t contain the endowment. Only after years of study, did I realize that it does contain it.

    Elizabeth, your blog shows an endowment, also. It is a personal journey that we share with one another (and with Adam and Eve), taking us from our childish innocence, to the depth, richness and horrors the telestial world has to offer. With faith in the journey, we can be led back to the presence of God. Regardless of who writes the story, each of us must have our own theophany, and this is the path, which leads us to it.

    Sadly, many members do not understand that the search does not end at baptism, nor at our own personal First Vision. Those are just the opening salvos in a war we have within ourselves, as we wander seeking the heavenly city that Abraham also sought and failed to find in this life.

    Just as with the Vision of the Tree of Life, some wander off from the iron rod, losing themselves in the mists. Others eat of the fruit, but then are ashamed or question the nutritional value of the fruit, and walk away, seeking the answers in the great and spacious building.

    When I began studying Hugh Nibley’s writings in the late 1970s, early 1980s, my Dad warned me about seeking too deeply. I see where such dangers could have led me down many paths. But I also see that in searching and seeking truth, wherever it was to be found, it enriched my testimony and made it firmer than had I hid my head in the sand. I do agree we need to have a continued dialogue with other Christians. We struggle with not explaining things well enough, simply because we don’t use their language. Perhaps discourses, such as Elder Holland’s masterpiece on Jesus’ lonely road, will help bridge that gap.

    Comment by Rameumptom — April 12, 2009 @ 7:44 pm

  9. smb, I know what you mean about the unbelievability of the Mormon story. It is truly incredible and invites belief and disbelief in the ways that any good religion does. It thrusts the believer into a series of interstices between historical reality and myth, human experience and divinity, and doubt and certainty. It is a rich and terrifying place to be at times.

    ama, thank you for sharing your experiences. I will certainly check out the link.

    Rameumptom, thank you. You speak my language.

    Comment by Elizabeth — April 13, 2009 @ 8:13 am

  10. Thanks for sharing this, Liz.

    Comment by Christopher — April 13, 2009 @ 9:14 am

  11. I enjoyed reading your blog and the comments on it. My grandfather was a seminary teacher in the church education system and studied a lot. He tried to impart his knowlage to his children and grandchildren. But what I learned from him and my parents is that membership in God’s church is an individual thing with assistance from those around you physicaly and from insiration from God through the Holy Ghost.

    Understanding other religions and their vocabulary helps greatly in being able to share and explain about the church and its history. But it is an individual journey and each person has to choose to take it or not. I have taught my wife and children as best I can. But just as you did they have to study, pray, fast ect. for them selves to get the confirmation of the Spirit. To get that spirital growth and understanding or revelation unto themselves.

    Comment by Drew — April 13, 2009 @ 6:55 pm

  12. Elizabeth:

    This is a great post. Thanks.

    You give three recommendations in your post –

    1) that we acknowledge, learn, and understand the myriad and interlacing forms of God-talk that much of the world’s populace use or are familiar with;

    2) that we know theological history, the history of God;

    3) and finally that we ultimately make God the true content of our discourse

    I sometimes make some naive, juvenile attempts at being an amature theologian. Do you have some specific suggestions in how a common church member can make progress in these areas? Are there some simple, introductory books you might recommend?

    Comment by Eric Nielson — April 14, 2009 @ 7:54 am

  13. #12: Some people really like N.T. Wright. I think an urbane apologist for another faith could be a very nice introduction to the broader world of scholarship, and Wright is probably best in class.

    Comment by smb — April 14, 2009 @ 8:36 am

  14. Eric, I am sure your attempts are neither naive nor juvenile. This book is a run-down of seven major Christian theologians, beginning with Paul and ending with Karl Barth, the 20th-century Protestant theologian I mentioned. Familiarity with these thinkers will give you a great foundation for further exploration. Augustine’s Confessions does not perhaps represent systematic theological thinking (it is spiritual autobiography), but is a foundational text in Western Christianity. Also, dive into interfaith dialogue, which will help you become more theologically conversant in your own and others’ traditions.

    Comment by Elizabeth — April 14, 2009 @ 10:56 am

  15. Liz! I just made the WCW connection–brilliant! …but what has it all got to do with white chickens?

    Comment by stan — January 30, 2010 @ 12:05 am


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