Theory and Doctrine, and our Horrible and Beautiful Lives

I’ve had a very expensive education.  The older I get, the more I’m finding that the only thing it is really good for is to sound witty and erudite at cocktail parties.  The irony is that I don’t drink and hate cocktail parties.  Instead of learning my lesson, a make it on your own bootstraps and grit kind of lesson, I’m going back to school.  Again.  For another very expensive degree.  One could draw the conclusion that education does not make you smarter.

It’s interesting to do graduate school for a second time.  I’m not as intimidated as I was the first time.  For some reason, the first time around, it took me a few months to figure out that everyone else wasn’t smarter than me, they just took the time to learn, use, and abuse the particular vocabulary of whatever subject was being discussed.  I’m also not as awed by the experience.  I’ve become a consumer of education in my old and wise age.  This time, if a particular student is using too much time arguing with the teacher over semantics or details, I start to boil inside.  I almost raised my hand last week to inform a certain young man that his ego had cost everyone in the class $18.43 in tuition.  Another difference is that perhaps I won’t have as many friends as I did in law school.

I’m studying International Relations Theory at the moment.  I love IR theory.  I think it can explain nearly everything in the world, except international relations.  I’m very distracted doing my reading, because I think of all the scenarios that IR theory relates to: the influence of pop culture, the isolation of 19th century Mormons, my interaction of my homeowners association.   I’m an IR diletante.  I’m having a hard time concentrating though, because for some reason I’ve become deeply skeptical about a theory’s ability to explain what it is trying to explain.  The only real users of IR theory are the politicians who attempt to explain away their questionable decisions in some kind of ex post facto confession of purpose.  I’m becoming a hard-hearted pragmatist.  The older I get, the more I’m impressed by the random complexity of everything.  A thoery is too neat.  A theory is for those who sit in libraries and read statistics about conflicts happening half-way across the globe.  Real life is messy and horrible and beautiful, and certainly too nuanced for sterile academic debate. 

Is doctrine the same way?  Is our spiritual progress too messy and horrible and beautiful to be encompassed by poetic words written by prophets who have been dead for centuries?  To a certain extent, our doctrine itself recognizes that weakness.  We are not a text bound people–we certainly digest the text, but our lives are governed by a combination of text, inspiration, reason, and obedience to a living prophet–a combination of, at times, contradictory information.  Yet somehow we make our way through, working out our salvation, ultimately saved from our stumbling by the grace of One whose vision is not clouded by mortality.

All of my lovely and swirly thoughts about theory and doctrine intersected this week when I taught the story of Nephi obtaining the Brass Plates from Laban–an incredibly challenging story right at the front of the Book of Mormon.  It acts almost as a signpost saying "life is complicated, and this book may be hard…"  My incredibly bright seminary students overcame their initial reticence and someone finally asked the big question:  So we’re supposed to go out and chop off the heads of drunk men?  Then someone else posed the question in a less funny teenage boy kind of way:  What stops people from doing horrible things in the name of God?  And suddenly we had the very serious conversation of contradiction in the scriptures.  Thou shalt not kill, except when thou shalt kill.  Thou shalt not steal, except when thou shalt steal.  Thou shalt be honest, except when thou shalt obtain thy goal by stratagem.  Thou shalt obey and honor and sustain the law, except when thou shalt be held to a higher morality…zions camp, utah war, etc.  Now, of course, you can come back and explain away all of these contradictions by exceptions and definitions in a very lawyerly and effective way.  And that’s my point.  We are not living a black and white gospel with a black and white ethical and moral code.  We are required, in hard cases, to use our reason, and inspiration, and obedience to the prophet and guidance from the scriptures.  Our prescription for living is broader than any one source, and all are provided by God, and somehow we struggle and worry and try and fail and keep trying and in the process develop God-like attributes of discernment and love and ethics.  Life is messy and horrible and beautiful, a fact faced square on at the very beginning of the Book of Mormon–a message to me and my students and every reader that we’ll have to think and tackle this text and open ourselves up to inspiration.  There’s no other way to read it. 


  1. Wow, Karen. This is an excellent post. For some reason I’m reminded of physics, where on the grand scale the universe is governed by relatively straitforward laws. On the microcosmic, however, reality is counterintuitve and governed by probabilities and chaos.

    Good luck. I’ll be going back someday myself.

  2. Good stuff Karen. I agree — “Life is messy and horrible and beautiful.”

  3. Karen, I may or may not have a substantive comment at some point … but I loved reading this post. Especially when it got to the seminary discussion of the “thou shalt … except when” statements. Thanks for sharing some of your learning and teaching experiences with us.

  4. Incredibly insightful post which also explains why sometimes bad things happen to good people and some people are healed while others die following a priesthood blessing.

  5. Steve Evans says:

    Karen, one of the reasons wonderful posts like this don’t get a lot of comments is because the ideas are so interesting and well-developed, I feel like there’s nothing to add. But THANK YOU for great insights.

  6. Yes, I decided long ago that basing my self esteem on number of comments to my threads is not a good idea. My only comment generators are the “mormon singles” posts, and I’m out of ideas there.

    I find blogging a very good way to organize my thoughts about something that is bothering me, and then posting it just purges it out of my soul and I can go on in peace. I think that makes me an exhibitionist!

  7. Karen – Steve is right. This was an excellent post. I always enjoy reading your posts here and on Kulturblog, even thought I rarely comment. Thanks for sharing your insights with us, and definitely keep us apprised of your adventures – good luck with school this semester (and seminary – how is that going?)!

  8. Thank you Karen for this thoughtful and thought-provoking essay.

  9. Yeah, Steve is right. I wasn’t going to comment, because I sat in silence, going, “damn. that is really good writing.”

    So sometimes if people don’t say much, maybe they’re stunned into silence.

  10. Thanks all for your kind words. I love it when other people “get” what I’m trying to say. (and thanks annegb for literally giving a damn…tee hee hee.)

    Elisabeth, I love and am completely whupped by seminary at the same time. More cathartic blogging thoughts to follow I’m sure. It’s really amazing occupying a percentage of every day helping kids have a good gospel experience. And daunting. My sleep deprived brain is no longer functioning, so off to catch some zzzs in preparation for another early early day.