From the Archive

In (sort of) response to Kaimi’s post at T&S.

What I Wish I Had Said, Part 26 or so

July 3, 2011 By Kristine

(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. Thanks, Kristine.

  2. janiecej says:

    Beautiful, my sweet Kristine.

  3. J Stuart says:

    Loved this post. Thanks, Kristine.

  4. This- “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.”

    This is so excellent Kristine. Thanks for (re)sharing.

  5. J. Stapley says:

    Both lovely and touching, Kristine.

  6. wonderful. I wish there was more recognition and utilization of the variety of gifts that we all can offer and less of the compulsory “spiritual measurement” ones such as HT/VT. I’m not a good HT, I’ll admit, but I suspect my offerings in other areas would make the poster child HT/VT types pale in comparison. But alas, I’m resigned to the fact that I’ll commonly be in the remedial HT groupings.

  7. Thanks. This our next FHE lesson.

  8. This is so good that I remember it from its first posting, and am very glad to read it again. Thank you.

  9. Mark from MI says:

    After many years of study, I have concluded that the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin is seventy times and seven. I have yet to find a situation where this knowledge has been of any advantage to me. So I continue to attend Gospel Doctrine class each week. If I’m bored, it’s not because I’m smarter than the teacher, it’s because I’m not thinking about the lesson topic.

  10. Thank you Kristine. Next time I will listen to our Father, instead of trying to talk over him. Open my heart in lieu of my mind. Get down on my knees and give our Father what he needs from me.

  11. We are to study all, but use the Holy Ghost, to decide if the process is right and the end is truth and light i.e. intelligence.

  12. Thank you. As one who has always been told that I think too much, this reminded me of all I need to learn.

  13. I like it. Thank you. I forget sometimes that what I think I need to do does not matter too much, and he can do it by grace.

  14. Ignacio M. Garcia says:

    This morning as I sat in a small spanish-language branch in tyler, Texas, the counselor conducting said that he had a talk prepared but that the branch president had felt inspired to call me to speak and expound on some topic of my choice. I have been going to that branch for the last couple of years everytime I visit my daughters in that East Texas community. I have never had a chance to really participate beyond sundays because I’m always traveling for research. I can’t say how it went but i do admit I liked the less formality and the sense of “anything can happen in a sacrament meeting”. Too often we get too organized and too predictable and in doing so, we might avoid unpleasant surprises but we often don’t get anything really exciting. Possibilities are gone and we are left with the regular repertoire. Interestingly, I had been thinking of how much I needed to stop intellectualizing (at that moment) and simply go and enjoy the spirit. So much of the kingdom is what the Lord wants for us and less about what we bring or how much we know. Needless to say, I’m happy.

  15. This is nauseating. Get over yourself.

  16. “like most of what we bring to the altar, are not nearly as valuable as we think they are.”

    So very, very true.

  17. JohnnyS says:

    Kristine,

    I like your post and your perspective a great deal. While I love your profound observation about God wanting us to bring ourselves to Him and surrender ourselves to him, it might also be worth considering the fact that the church itself has a long history of anti-intellectualism and that the church’s definition of both the term “intelligence” and the term “talent/gift” is different from how many others would define it. That’s fair enough, but I think there’s a long tradition both in this church and others where the intellect and the capacity to reason are seen as opposed to faith and hence a danger or threat to it, not a spiritual gift. Those members therefore, who might want to have a philosophical discussion about things or express an intellectual perspective are then also seen as a threat to the status quo rather than being seen as having something valuable to add to the discussion (see, for example, President Packer’s assertion that we really shouldn’t try to find out the truth of all things because, according to President Packer, some things that are true aren’t very useful). Until the church changes its perspective a bit, I’m not sure how welcome any sort of intellectual discourse would be in the church generally, though obviously it’s welcome and even encouraged on blogs like this and various journals, etc. I agree with you that in the long run, intellectual gifts can bring us to a place of spiritual fulfillment or growth, but I’m not sure the church at large thinks or teaches this. Just my two cents. Thanks for great thoughts.

  18. Jack Hughes says:

    Great post.
    I remember hearing somewhere that “all truth is circumscribed into one great whole”. That’s right, all truth, not just the sanitized, correlated version of it.

    The Church at large tends to push an anti-intellectual agenda that gives praise to “small and simple things” while avoiding potential disagreement and conflicting points of view. In Sunday school I see a lot of nodding heads but rarely hear any new ideas.

  19. I think that there can be, and often is, a sense among people that their professional skills and church callings often have little overlap. In my life, I have often found that my church callings have prepared me for professional opportunities in ways I could not have foreseen at the time. I am grateful for callings that have ignored already developed strengths, and offered me the chance to learn invaluable skills.

  20. “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.”

    This.
    I agree that someone whose heart is full of charity is more spiritually developed than someone with an intellectual understanding of church/gospel issues.

    But I struggle to understand how a church that preaches eternal progression to godhood has such a strong anti-intellectual streak and emphasizes blind obedience, or faith-based obedience to authority even when it seems wrong to you. Surely God is not blindly obeying some higher God but actually understands the whys and wherefores of His commandments? So we do too?

  21. Ignacio M. Garcia says:

    Not all things that seem wrong to us is actually wrong. We need to stop simply accepting our own views. We need to study it in our minds, ask God and then wait–sometimes patiently for a long time–to know God’s will before we engage in criticizing “the church”. Our brothers and sisters are going to make mistakes, become too much like the culture around them,and sometimes will close their ears to other thoughts. To be part of them, we sometimes have to overlook that. Other times it will be our responsibility to tell them with love that they are wrong. We are all part of the Body of Christ and we can’t be members in good standing within that body if we are constantly harping on the wrong. Sure, there is a lot of anti-intellectualism in the church, but there is also a lot of self-righteous intellectualizing that goes on that disdains the spirit and the counsel of the Brethren. Our gospel provides us the agency to choose what we believe and what we follow as long as we don’t undermine the mission of the church. Not all church leaders appreciate that notion but it is part of our LDS heritage and our doctrine.

  22. @Ignacio: I agree we should keep an open mind and consider we might be wrong. But, on the whole, I think Mormons need to do better at being independent, critical thinkers for two reasons:
    1) Ultimately, eternal progression demands that we understand the principles for ourselves.
    2) In the meantime, we have to take responsibility for our own actions, and church leaders are not always consistent with church teachings. Without going into details, there were a lot of practices in my mission that I *know* are inconsistent with statements of the prophet, an apostle who came to correct abuses in the mission, the missionary guide, and the beliefs of most Mormons I have discussed this with. It does not help that my former mission president is now a general authority. For the sake of “obedience”, I remained in the mission and participated in stuff I now deeply regret and which is inconsistent with church principles.
    And that is why I think we need to listen to our own consciences more and rely on our leaders less. And that is why I think the church needs to actively teach its members to do so.

  23. Ignacio M. Garcia says:

    I don’t doubt anything you say. And I fully understand the frustration but I also know that feedling people constantly all that is wrong with us will distract from the truthfulness of the message. As a sunday school teacher I have taught much about the flaws of Joseph, Brigham and ourselves. I sought to teach them about the difficulties of living the gospel with our human frailties but I have balanced those with the uplifting actions of many of our leaders and members. I think the greatest challenge to those committed fully to the gospel is to see the weaknesses of our leaders, some who seem to just go up and up in the hierarchy, and stay just as committed. Because we are at the core of the church, we tend to see the flaws as being bigger than they are. Those on the outside–who are converting–however, just see the message of hope. We don’t have to ruin it for them as we teach them to have a more nuance view of the Kingdom and to generally trust in their leaders. It is the same in any organization; we balance the good and the bad and then make a choice to either stay or leave. We have to work hard to be able to encompass all that is the church.

  24. @Ignacio: Thanks for the kind and honest reply. I have been out of the church for about 17 years, so I admit I don’t feel the same imperative to protect the message of hope for new people coming in from the outside. BCC and similar venues are the only places I go to maintain a limited contact with the parts of me that still are interested in the church. I am glad to hear that, in some official Sunday School classes, there is room for the more nuanced view to be discussed. Many, many people have felt that there are strict limits on what is permissible to be discussed in official settings and that, therefore, there is no real place they can go to discuss hard things.

  25. Kristine says:

    “And that is why I think we need to listen to our own consciences more and rely on our leaders less. And that is why I think the church needs to actively teach its members to do so.”

    Peter–I agree. fwiw, so did Brigham Young :) “I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not”

    That’s a handy quote to have in your pocket for SS discussions that get bogged down in the celebration of obedience.

  26. Ignacio M. Garcia says:

    The need to “expand the kingdom” is sometimes so overwhelming to people that they forget that we build it one heart, one soul, one home, one ward, one stake…at a time. I fully understand your feelings of being disconnected, I think most Saints feel that way one time or another, it is just that sometimes for some it is more overwhelming than for others. Every soul is precious unto God and while we don’t often find our way to Him by the same path, it is good to know that we can move toward Him and eventually our roads will converge. That is the gospel message that resonates with me and gives me hope that this conglomeration of imperfect people that we are will one day come closer to building a more Christ-like community.

  27. Great post.

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