What I Wish I Had Said, Part 26 or so

(I know, I know. I should shut up already, or else get my own blog called “WIWIHS.”)

So, the other day, I was talking with some friends about Mormon intellectuals. Among the things we discussed was how folks whose spiritual gifts are on the brainy side can appropriately consecrate those gifts in the service of the Church and of their congregations, especially since Mormons sometimes seem uncomfortable or suspicious of too much thinkiness.

It’s hard to have a conversation like that without either laughing or crying at the hubris of it–indeed, if there’s anything that could possibly make me feel dumber or sound more idiotic than talking about being “intellectual”, with or without the indefinite article or the scare quotes, I would like to know what it is so that I’ll never accidentally do it. But I do think these are live questions for many people, and worth asking. Alas, most of our answers ended up sounding like “learn to keep your piehole shut and/or full of pie (preferably pie that you baked) in most church meetings.” This wasn’t entirely satisfying to me (!), and I’ve been thinking about it for the last few days.

Surely there are parts of church life where knowing lots of things, or knowing how to think about things, or knowing what people have thought about things in the past can make a real contribution to our communal understanding and experience. (I think about this every week when I am wishing that I could attend Ardis’ or Jim F.’s Sunday School class). Having a lot of background knowledge at one’s disposal can be really helpful in crafting good talks and lessons. (It can also be a significant impediment, like when I came home from my first year of being a philosophy/poli. sci. major and tried to get the Valiant B’s to discuss different forms of government in the Book of Mormon by way of comparison with Machiavelli and Locke. But I digress–because that’s what intellectuals do). Lots of ward councils can benefit from the offerings of those who are good at analysis and strategy. And just think of how effective a Primary President who has carefully studied The Prince might be! There’s no question that musical training, and management skill, and the capacity for critical thinking and careful reading that one tends to pick up in long years of schooling can help make a ward or branch run smoothly and provide genuine service and contribute to our communal worship in ways that are meaningful and important.

But this is the suspicion that was nagging at me during our conversation, and has not left me: intellectual gifts, like most of what we bring to the altar, are not nearly as valuable as we think they are. The difficulty of figuring out what the Lord wants from us is illustrated already in Genesis by Cain’s rejected sacrifice, and articulated again in Samuel’s insistence that “to obey is better than sacrifice,” and the psalmist’s recognition that “thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” The Nephites are instructed “And ye shall offer up unto me no more the shedding of blood; yea, your sacrifices and your burnt offerings shall be done away, for I will accept none of your sacrifices and your burnt offerings. And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit.” And just before the Saints at Kirtland are asked to give a tithe of money to build the temple, a new kind of sacrifice, they’re reminded that “all among them who know their hearts are honest, and are broken, and their spirits contrite, and are willing to observe their covenants by sacrifice—yea, every sacrifice which I, the Lord, shall command—they are accepted of me.”

We generally read these verses as straightforward exhortations to exact obedience, which they surely are. But I wonder if there is something else at work in them, as well–after all, it can be difficult to reconcile the demand for unquestioning and precise obedience to occasionally arbitrary-seeming commandments with a God who values human freedom and agency. Perhaps we need to be told exactly what to sacrifice because we aren’t very good at recognizing what is valuable. Maybe Paul’s description of gifts within the body of Christ isn’t just about other people’s gifts that we wrongly think are less worthy than our own, but about our estimation of what it is we ourselves have to offer.

Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary:
And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness.
For our comely parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to that part which lacked:

Ancient Israelites thought they were going to the temple to offer sacrifices; we think we are going to church to contribute our talents to build Zion. We dress to show our “comely parts” to best advantage. God knows better–he is delighted not by what we bring to the temple, but by our presence. He wants us to come to Him and to each other because, perhaps, having risked a little bit to give the gifts we think He wants, we may let our guard down for a moment and let Him give us what we need. Maybe in the middle of giving the lesson or the talk we used our big brain and our fancy degrees to prepare, we’ll stumble, be surprised by deep emotion or the quickening of the spirit. If we’re lucky, we will lose the train of our busy thoughts, and realize for just a moment what it is we are really doing; we may see in our sisters’ and brothers’ puzzled eyes the tender attention and care–the loving regard for every gift as belonging equally to all of the members of Christ’s body–that is Zion.

Intellectual gifts, like all the others, are useful for bringing us to the place where we can offer all that we really have to give–our brokenness, our need, our yearning to know and be known.

Comments

  1. Latter-day Guy says:

    Beautiful.

  2. Lovely.

  3. Joanna Brooks says:

    lovely, kristine.

  4. Amen.

  5. I repeat what others are saying, beautiful, lovely.

    This line especially, for whatever reason, struck me: “Perhaps we need to be told exactly what to sacrifice because we aren’t very good at recognizing what is valuable. “

  6. Mark Brown says:

    and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness.

    I heard a wonderful sermon today in church about this, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Then I read this, which helps me understand it even better. Thank you for this Sabbath gift.

  7. Wow, Kristine… beautiful and poignant.

  8. Chris H. says:

    The phrase that stuck out to me is this one:

    “…intellectual gifts, like most of what we bring to the altar, are not nearly as valuable as we think they are. The difficulty of figuring out what the Lord wants from us…”

    He still wants us to have a broken heart and a contrite spirit.

    I only pretend to be an intellectual…I also only pretend to be a disciple. I am trying to figure out how to use my learning as an actual disciple. I hope that I can also be a better father, husband, and hometeacher. Being an intellectual in isolation does no good to anyone. Nor will it make me happy.

  9. Thanks Kristine. This was marvelous. I’m lucky to serve in a calling that demands that I use my intellectual gifts as deeply as I can take them. Just a couple of weeks ago one of my nursery kids asked me why bugs have eyes. I knew! I knew! It was a wonderful moment.

  10. Kristine says:

    That’s cool. I’m still waiting for the Relief Society lesson that requires knowledge about orientalist imagery in German Romantic poetry…

  11. And here I was thinking the OP would tell me what I’m suppose to do with my un-trained sociological/psychological analyzing skills that seems to kill the spirit whenever I make a comment…

  12. Steve, #9, almost fell off my chair laughing so hard upon reading this. Thank you.

  13. Thomas Parkin says:

    I love this blog. I’m proud to have even tangential association with you folks.

  14. “Perhaps we need to be told exactly what to sacrifice because we aren’t very good at recognizing what is valuable.”

    “He wants us to come to Him and to each other because, perhaps, having risked a little bit to give the gifts we think He wants, we may let our guard down for a moment and let Him give us what we need.”

    Lots of food for thought here, Kristine. Thank you.

  15. Steve Evans says:

    Kristine, you’re the best.

  16. I loved this, thank you. Particularly this: “He wants us to come to Him and to each other because, perhaps, having risked a little bit to give the gifts we think He wants, we may let our guard down for a moment and let Him give us what we need.” And yes, I just noticed that I wasn’t the only one, but that’s OK, right?

    Bottom line: I like facts. I appreciate educated, articulate, mind-bending discussion. But sometimes that can leave me feeling empty. In truth, I care much more about what’s in someone’s heart than about all the stuff in their head. If I’m lucky, most people will take me in the same way.

  17. Wonderful, Kristine.

    Invariably, after I have spent time pondering and preparing for a talk – creating an outline that I believe will produce an oratory masterpiece, I find that the moments of most worth to me and those who are listening come from those flashing insights that have nothing to do with intellect or my outline and everything to do with something that is not me and doesn’t come from me.

    I believe deeply that we must exercise our intellect to whatever extent we can in the preparation for such moments (that there really is a wonder and enlightenment that can occur when intellect is applied to anything), but I also believe we must be willing to throw it all away whenever we are graced by something far beyond our intellect (that we need to accept that our best is only that). I believe our best really is acceptable to Him, but I also believe our best alone isn’t sufficient for anyone else – including ourselves.

    It’s a balance I still struggle to achieve, and I don’t know if I’ve said it very well, but it’s a paradox I love.

    Oh, and what Thomas Parkin said.

  18. Kristine, you’re wonderful. Our “puzzled eyes” are are full of “tender attention and care,” to be sure, but mostly in awe of your ability to take a worn, beaten topic, turn it over, and show its undiscovered parts. Some things may just be worth coveting.

  19. Kristine, wonderful!

    SteveP: Why *do* bugs have eyes? What was your answer?

  20. Kristine,
    Thank you. I’m not an intellectual, but have had a hard time linking my detailed thoughts with what my heart tries to say. You’ve given me something to work on.
    Both are valuable, we just have to figure out the art of bringing both together. Not easy.

    CIM

  21. Kristine says:

    CIM–I’m not an intellectual either, really. I just play one on podcasts sometimes ;) Everybody has to deal with the head/heart problem one way or another.

  22. I tell my advanced-placement, International-Baccalaureate, nearly straight-A High School grandchildren, “Being smart is like being tall. If you’re tall, you can reach the top shelf without stretching.”

  23. Kristine says:

    Yeah, but if you’re short, riding in airplanes is a lot easier :)

  24. Peter LLC says:

    Having a lot of background knowledge at one’s disposal can be really helpful in crafting good talks and lessons.

    Not to mention responding to blog posts :)

  25. Here’s something I thought about overnight, and that I think is one of Kristine’s main points. If you dig deep enough, beneath all the intellectual’s pretty words and strenuous efforts is really just a desire to connect with people and be loved.

  26. Kristine says:

    Nathan–shhhh!! I don’t want to be _that_ clear!

  27. Well said.

  28. “I’m still waiting for the Relief Society lesson that requires knowledge about orientalist imagery in German Romantic poetry…”

    Ha! I know something like this feeling. All Beautifully Said.

  29. Long live Kristine!

  30. Re: #16 “In truth, I care much more about what’s in someone’s heart than about all the stuff in their head.” I realize, Dalene, that you did not care to draw some hardened dichotomy, but herein lies perhaps the biggest obstacle in fostering appreciation for the work and temperament of intellectuals: namely, the thought that there is a neat distinction between the heart and head. It is often the case that intellectuals are truly bearing their heart and soul through their minds.

  31. Kristine,

    Is it too ironic to say how beautifully thought out and reasoned your post was?

  32. Ron Madson says:

    Word! I needed to hear this. thanks

  33. Indiana says:

    “It is often the case that intellectuals are truly bearing their heart and soul through their minds.” I agree with this. I’ve been guilty of using flashy and intellectual anecdotes to illustrate points in a talk, but that’s because a) I can unpack those for the ward better than perhaps some other examples, and b) sometimes I need those things to convey my own sense of awe and wonder at the depth and beauty of a given gospel topic.

  34. It’s hard to have a conversation like that without either laughing or crying at the hubris of it The first time I ran across this sort of thing a bunch of second rate academics who had “paid their dues” (mostly in what would otherwise be called a coffee klatch scene) where (a) complaining that Dallin Oaks was not taking their spiritual advice, which he should since they were such academic stars, and (b) complaining about Jack Welch getting some face time since he had not “paid his dues” but only done academic work …

    But I liked this post, very much.

  35. I’m just here to find out about the bugs.

    I’m not what would be considered an intellectual, but from what I’ve observed it’s similar to any other gift…it either becomes a chance to proudly strut, or a unique way of noticing the beauty of God’s plan and the excitement of that beauty sometimes bubbles over in the vocabulary they know best.

    It is humbling to realize our best talents and skills aren’t really what’s wanted. I learned that fairly early-but then it’s easier when your talent invovles hitting a ball.

  36. William says:

    Neil A Maxwell was a recognized church intellectual and praised for this quality but I wonder how many intellectuals positions are available in the church. I am an engineer and I have to bite my tongue to prevent myself from lecturing about the principles of Newton (mechanical) physics when I hear Fathers discuss pinewood derby winning strategies. Why?, because ward members really do not care the least about it.

    I wonder if we think of ourselves as intellectuals (big if for me) then we should not try to push the Gospel Doctrine course into deeper thinking than what is comfortable for the group. I got that feeling as I discussed the symbolic meaning of water in the scripture as both a symbol of “death” as in what is indicated by baptism symbolism and the miracle of changing water to wine and “life giving” as is indicated by “living water” described by the savior.

    I felt my comment was received suspiciously. I wonder if writing a book might be a better venue.

  37. Kristine says:

    “It is often the case that intellectuals are truly bearing their heart and soul through their minds.”

    Just so. I’m nerdy all the way through–head, heart, all of it.

  38. Mommie Dearest says:

    If you think it’s difficult to be an intellectual in the church, try being an artist or a poet.

  39. A hearty amen to a great post, Kristine.

    I will say that I’d already realized some of what you said. Like William, I too am an engineer, and I’ve — I mean — my son have never won a pinewood derby yet! My fine reasoning doesn’t seem to perform as well as some of these guys’ gut feel. Drives me nuts. (It’s okay — I still got a 6-year old, so I got one more chance!)

    I suspect I’ve contributed to the ward more with my 12-passenger people mover than I have with my talents. And God seems to agree. It never breaks down on youth trips.

  40. May Christ for ever and ever more be my stumbling block, my rock of offense.

  41. StillConfused says:

    So if being an intellectual isn’t total awesomeness, does that mean that I have to stop admiring you guys?

  42. I have come to learn that often silence is required of those of us who have a lot to say. I think that living is often so much more powerful and then when we do choose to speak it carries more weight. I am often affected by the person who waits for the right moment to speak. Listening for that moment can be a sacrifice indeed. Thanks for the post because I’m reminded that others must hold their tongue as well.

  43. Good stuff, Kristine.

  44. You made me think, and were an influence in my decision to post this essay here:

    http://www.wheatandtares.org/2011/07/07/trusting-god-in-spite-of-confusion/

  45. Robert C. says:

    (Kristine, thanks for this–and, FYI, I’m going to steal, but hopefully expand, many of your thoughts here for my revised Mormon Theology Seminar paper on D&C 42….)

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