Yeats on the Problems of Mormon Studies

Romantics make poor intellectuals.

They’re driven by inexplicable muses or drug-induced visions; they hate the rigors of memorization, repetition and duplication of existing systems; they despise the confines of rationalization and deductive reasoning. As Blake put it, “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.” That’s a fabulous attitude if you want to get tenure.

Reality is more brutal than this ideal, of course. Poets and artists have to start somewhere; expression doesn’t exist without an established medium. You learn to read and write through rote and repetition and rigor. But the Romantics understood a principle that I think we sometimes forget in our studying and blogging: that if left unchecked, the system can kill the soul, and our desires to address complicated questions can leave our spiritual roots out to dry and wither.

WB Yeats’ The Fascination of What’s Difficult gets at this notion, at least indirectly:

The fascination of what’s difficult
Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent
Spontaneous joy and natural content
Out of my heart. There’s something ails our colt
That must, as if it had not holy blood
Nor on Olympus leaped from cloud to cloud,
Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt
As though it dragged road-metal. My curse on plays
That have to be set up in fifty ways,
On the day’s war with every knave and dolt,
Theatre business, management of men.
I swear before the dawn comes round again
I’ll find the stable and pull out the bolt.

“Our colt” above refers to Pegasus, the winged horse that embodies pure light, beauty and truth. Yeats, in brief, is tired of the way the details and mundane complexity of existence enchain the raw power of his art. The poem seems to hit on a common trope of Romanticism, that of the struggle between the Artist and a world who seeks to control his Art.

Yeats was far more of a mystic than I can pretend to be. My worry is a little different than his, one I admittedly wrest with difficulty from Yeats’ text: Mormon Studies, if left unchecked, may kill our Mormonism. Our endless discussions, exegeses and theories threaten to sap us dry, and rob our worship of natural contentedness. Some of us find God in the complexities of the system, the magic of the ritual and the hierarchy; I say, the Devil is in these details. I am beginning to believe that the more layers of rites, theories and speculation we have between us and the Creator, the more diluted our salvation.

When I think of the grandness of Mormonism, my thoughts lead to the possibilities of extending salvation to all the children of Adam and Eve, linking us all in a great eternal chain of family. The greatness of this notion is at odds with the parochial, petty squabbles we often have over minor points of doctrine or historical complexities. We are dealing with a faith that pretends to offer its adherents direct revelation from Heaven; why are we arguing over white shirts on Sunday? Sometimes I wonder why are we wasting time blogging on such matters, when we could be actually engaged in helping each other — in real life. These angels-on-a-pin debates seem far removed from the Savior. Ironic that I write this, given how many of these whimsical debates I’ve engaged in myself — chalk this post up to sleep deprivation if you will.

One of my favorite quotes of Joseph Smith’s is perhaps one we follow the least in our modern worship and study:

The most prominent difference in sentiment between the Latter-day Saints and sectarians [is] that the latter [are] all circumscribed by some peculiar creed, which deprive[s] its members of believing anything not contained therein, whereas the Latter-day Saints have no creed, but are ready to believe all true principles that exist, as they are made manifest from time to time.

As I read long debates over minor points of doctrine, as the Mormonism I love becomes more and more rigid and codified and full of half-baked creeds, my impulse becomes more and more like Keats: I swear before the dawn comes round again/ I’ll find the stable and pull out the bolt.


  1. Thomas Parkin says:


    Another Yeats poem relates “the ravens of unresting thought” to both narcisism and spiritual death.

    I was in the temple this evening having similar thoughts. The Holy Spirit was so powerful – only one other time in my life has it been definitely stronger. But there was little doctrine in it, and certainly no nitpickery. Simply comfort, assurance, all immediate and real, telling me what I need to know and do, making me feel whole and complete and clean, alive, like all my connections were scrubbed and activated. A marked contrast to what I experience debating someone over minor points of doctrine.


  2. Steve,

    I think the Joseph Smith quote works against your point rather than for it. We are able to discuss and debate theology and the mysteries of godliness in Mormonism precisely because we have no restrictive formal creeds precluding us from doing so. Don’t forget that other great quote from Joseph:

    The things of God are of great import; and time, and experience, and careful, and ponderous, and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, oh man, if thou wilt lead a man unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanses of eternity; thou must commune with God!

    I think there is much more spiritual danger in not digging deeply than in doing the opposite. I have faith that I will not be disappointed as I do dig into Mormon theology and I have not yet been disappointed as I have tried. I have been surprised, but never disappointed.

    However I do agree that there is much less value in endlessly debating trivial policy issues like white shirts than in “stretching our minds as high as the utmost heavens, and searching into and contemplate the darkest abyss” of the mysteries of godliness together.

  3. Geoff, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t ask questions, and sound out the things of God. I’m suggesting that the “things of God” are not the high-falutin’ mysteries of reincarnative births or Adam-God Theory or anything of the kind.

    Rather, the “things of God” are similar to what James had in mind when he defined pure religion: “To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep [ourselves] unspotted from the world.” These are the real mysteries of Godliness.

  4. “These are the real mysteries of Godliness”

    A quibble: these things, the good works advocated by James, are not mysteries in and of themselves, as they are quite easily discerned intellectually. But, they are not easily done. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

    However, in doing these things, that is how we do discern and come to understand the mysteries of godliness. For:

    If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine.

    Getting to know God and Christ is in the doing, not in the theorizing, philosophizing and phariseeizing away the rigour of actually having a godly walk. Studying the gospel is good, but living it is better.

  5. Ol’ Steve:

    This post ended in a different place than I thought it would. When you mentioned the soul-crushing strictures that crush the romantic and sap his soul, I thought you’d end up slagging off correlation, or the three-hour block, or Sunday School, or Mormon culture, or… After all, it is not Mormon intellectuals who sacralized the white shirt!

    I’m kind of with Geoff. The search for truth, even (especially!) when it appears esoteric, is very romantic.

    Whilst the Holy Ghost (as experienced by Thomas Parkin in the temple) is not to be felt when discussing whether young men should fart or not, I’ve never thought that really mattered.

  6. And besides, real Mo’ Studies intellectuals don’t have these conversations. It’s we bloggers who are the shallow ones.

    Should we abandon blogging to feed the poor?

  7. When I think of the grandness of Mormonism, my thoughts lead to the possibilities of extending salvation to all the children of Adam and Eve, linking us all in a great eternal chain of family.

    Sounds like a new father!

    Steve, that statement encapsulates Mormonism for me.

  8. Mark Butler says:

    The number one way to detect a proper advance in understanding the gospel is that it increases one’s faith, hope, and charity. And more particularly a society that implements that understanding very seriously thrives relative to those that implement other visions. Theology is the social science of eternity. By their fruits shall ye know them, right?

    That is why I practically do not care about many of the historical errata disputes in Mormon Studies or apologetics. I want to know the gospel, and any question without practical implications is nigh unto irrelevant. The gospel is about practice. A theology that leads to bad practice is bad theology.

  9. I think that there is a place for Mormon Studies, but it isn’t meant to be in the center. It is more like a hobby. Those who do it enjoy themselves and enjoy one anothers company, but they should have no illusions that this is a topic of interest to anyone outside that circle and certainly they shouldn’t consider it religiously important (and possibly it shouldn’t be considered important in any other sense, too). It is esoteric, like any other academic or intellectual pursuit. Application is something else entirely.

  10. Steve (#3), very well said. I’m on board with you there.

    But I am also sympathetic to Geoff and Ronan (although I am not sure that you and those two are really at odds on this one, although that is the posture Geoff and Ronan seem to have taken). We should stretch our minds with the truths of eternity, gathering truth from all sources per BY’s injunction. This can, at times, be painful, but it also “tastes good,” to quote Joseph again. That is the beauty of “Mormonism.”

  11. Ronan: “Should we abandon blogging to feed the poor?”

    YES. YES WE SHOULD. ABSOLUTELY. Is there any question on the matter at all in any way?

  12. Yeah, what Steve said.

  13. Extreme Dorito: I only refer to them as mysteries, because it’s a mystery why we don’t do a better job with them. I’m reminded of one of my favorite anecdotes from History of the Church:

    History of the Church, vol 6 pp. 18-19 (Elder George A. Smith speaking)

    As many are desirous of hearing mysteries, I will rehearse a short sermon of mysteries for their edification. Elder Kimball has had a long standing in the Church. He has preached much, done much good, brought many souls into the kingdom, had great influence, and is considered the most successful minister among us.

    Elder Amasa Lyman and myself went into Pike county, Illinois, to preach where the Elders had preached all the mysteries about beasts, heads and horns. They wanted us to preach mysteries. We told them we were not qualified to preach mysteries; but if they would send for Elder Kimball he would preach them. So they sent about forty miles for Elder Kimball, and brought him down, they were so anxious to hear mysteries.

    When he came, he had a large congregation assembled. He arose and remarked that he understood they had sent for him to come and preach the mysteries to them. “I am well qualified, and fully competent to do it, and am happy to have the privilege. I want the attention of all.” When every mind was stretched and eager to learn these great mysteries he said, “The first mystery I shall present before you is this, “Look at Elder Amasa Lyman; he needs a pair of pantaloons and a new hat. But it appears you do not see it; consequently I want to open your eyes and reveal to you a great mystery; for an Elder in the Church has need of a hat and a pair of breeches as well as yourselves, and especially when the Saints know he is so much in need of them!” He preached a few more mysteries of the same nature, and the result of this sermon was that Elder Lyman got a pair of pants and a new hat, and Elder Kimball and myself each a barrel of flour for our families.

  14. Steve: Is there any question on the matter at all in any way?

    Yes I think there is. The purpose of life is not only to get ourselves and everyone else physically fed. If we can only provide temporal food we aren’t helping much in the long run. We all must be fed spiritually as well. God’s work and glory is not to get every human on earth physically fed — it is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.

    So finding a balance between physically feeding the hungry (including our own families) and spiritually feeding the spiritually hungry (including our own families) is preferable to doing just one or the other. I consider blogging on the important things of the universe to be part of the latter effort.

  15. Wow Geoff, you sure have a lofty view of blogging! I guess New Cool Thang is cold comfort to those starving in Darfur, though. Maybe we should airlift in some PCs.

  16. btw, Geoff, I say this stuff knowing that my own words condemn me – I do very little to aid the world outside of my little circle. But I do believe that blogging will not save us; it is a rich white man’s delusional substitute for actual good works.

  17. Geoff,
    I disagree. President Hinckley has said that indeed it is the very essence of pure religion to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and take care of the poor. You know, everything in the King Benjamin chapters of Mosiah. We live the atonement by showing our faith and love in Jesus Christ by serving those around us.
    When asked what is the greatest commandment, and on another occasion, who shall inherit eternal life Jesus replied, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy aheart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself.”
    He then proceeds to give the parable of the good Samaritan

    Elder Russel M Nelson of the quorum of the twelve apostles says– “To help another human being reach one’s celestial potential is part of the divine mission of woman–although he says woman in this instance–it surely includes all people.
    My own spiritual understanding of Our Heavenly Fathers love and concern for each of his children has been greatly enhanced when I act on promptings, even the ones that don’t make much sense to me, to serve others. The spirit witnesses to me that he truly watches out for each of us–and although I am not the one being directly served at the moment, he will watch out for me too.
    As we listen and act on promptings to serve, we are more humble and teachable by the spirit. Perhaps this is why we learn true charity, or the pure love of Christ, through small acts of kindness and benevolence–not so much through our actions, but in the state of our hearts during the action.
    Truly the Lord does not want us to suffer, or more imprtantly, to allow others to suffer when we can alleve their suffering.
    My sisters and I started a service blog. I have bben blessed with a very service oriented family gorwing up–so we decided to blog about it. It alleviates the guilt I feel for wasting time indulging in the time consuming hobby of blogging to at least do it about service–and invite others to join us in our efforts.

  18. Despite Joseph’s statement, Mormonism is not a creedless religion — just another example of saying one thing while doing another. Just because we don’t have a written creed doesn’t mean some beliefs aren’t required (i.e., publicly reject them and you are institutionally marginalized). The reasons for this “unspoken creed” approach are for another post, but I’ll at least link to my own earlier attempt at actually formulating a Mormon Creed in written form.

  19. Steve,

    For the people in Darfur and hungry people everywhere I try to consistently give what I believe and hope are generous fast offerings through the church.

    If God’s only goal for this planet was to feed physically hungry people he is really inept. I don’t believe God is inept.

    As for my high opinion of blogging — blogging is just a medium. Not all blogging discussions are of equal value.

  20. Steve and Ronan,

    Maybe we could use blogs to coordinate our efforts to feed the poor? :)

  21. Taryn, Amira does just that already, I believe.

  22. Mami,

    Sorry I missed your comment. I think my #19 addresses it though.

  23. Geoff,

    What if God’s primary purpose for this planet is for us to feed and shelter each other?

  24. Alma 34:27-28 seems relevant

    27 Yea, and when you do not cry unto the Lord, let your hearts be full, drawn out in prayer unto him continually for your welfare, and also for the welfare of those who are around you.
    28 And now behold, my beloved brethren, I say unto you, do not suppose that this is all; for after ye have done all these things, if ye turn away the needy, and the naked, and visit not the sick and afflicted, and impart of your substance, if ye have, to those who stand in need—I say unto you, if ye do not any of these things, behold, your prayer is vain, and availeth you nothing, and ye are as hypocrites who do deny the faith.

    Also Matthew 23:23. We all need to improve in all of these areas, of course.

  25. Steve Evans says:

    HP/JDC, that’s right. I’m not saying that our blogs aren’t fun, or even informative — they are indeed, or else why would anyone do them (fame? glory?). But they don’t matter a fig, not in any real sense.

  26. Steve Evans says:

    Dave (#18) — just so. Which I why I labelled that quote of Joseph’s as one of the least followed in reality (even by him, I suppose).

  27. well, I’m in it for the fame, myself.

  28. Steve Evans says:

    …and me, for the filthy lucre. Imagine my surprise when I found there’s not a plug nickel anywhere in this racket.

  29. I agree that we should blog and serve, that is, let our connection with the blog community be a catalyst for service worldwide. I think it would bring a great spirit of community if we did service projects together.

    On Hatrack, we collect up a Christmas present every year from hatrack to some worthy charity. Several times we’ve donated fair sized sums to buy books for needy children, and this last year we bought pregnant farm animals for families in the third world.

    What can we do here on BCC? I would love to make service an integral part of blogging (and commenting on blogs)! I think it would bring more substance to our discussions, and more charity, hope, love, forgiveness, patience, and virtue in general. What projects would be appropriate and worthy?

  30. What can we do here at BCC? Tatiana, the floor is yours. I’m open to ideas — I just fear that when push comes to shove, we’d all much rather talk about noble deeds than actually perform any.

  31. Let them eat blog posts.

  32. I just wanted to pipe up and say that Mormon Studies are the only thing that keeps me interested in Mormonism. The correlation, simplistic manuals, and lack of intellectual freedom that has been my experince in church makes it very hard to find the grandness and mysticism of which Steve writes.

  33. Bev, that’s an interesting point. I don’t mean my post to be a wholesale condemnation of thinking about interesting or difficult ideas. I’m just saying that it can’t be a total replacement for practicing the word.

  34. Trying to think of ideas for service projects. We could do like hatrack and give a gift every so often in the name of BCC to something worthy. One of my favorite church related projects is the clean water initiative. We could collect up a gift in the name of BCC, via paypal, and give it as a lump sum. It’s a cool thing to do.

    Another possibility is that we could send care packages to Afghanistan, to Russell Arben Fox’s cousin who is there. He is asking for all sorts of things that the people need, like paper and pencils, and sharpeners and things. I’m planning to send him a package soon. It’s very personal this way, and very bloggernacley. =)

    Once, I came across by happenstance a teacher who was looking for books for her second graders who were from families who couldn’t afford books, and when I put out the word among friends, my ward 10 and 11 year old girls, my nieces, and the people at my office, we collected hundreds of books. Then the paper ran an article about it, and people began to contact me with more and more books, and we ended up with over a thousand before it was done. It was really awesome! The teacher had told those children that if they worked hard and asked in faith, that God would provide them with books. She told me that later on. He certainly did provide! We could do something like that, though the shipping costs for books limit what people can do here.

    I really like doing stuff in the third world, because a dollar there goes a long long way. We can be so much more helpful, there, I think. That’s why the pregnant animals thing was nice.

    It’s been bothering me a lot that there are LDS church members in Guatemala who can’t afford to feed their children good nutrition. They need more protein and vitamins, I think. Those are our brothers and sisters! How can we let their children grow up unfed? I really want to do something about that. Someone at one point gave me the email of someone who is doing some project there, but they never answered. Guatemala is very dear to my heart. It would be awesome if we could do some projects there. We need a contact, though.


    There is the link for Russell Arben Fox’s cousin in Afghanistan, and the things they need. I am sending a package to him this weekend. We could make this our service project for the 4th quarter of this year or something, if you guys want to. In the next 3 months, we could see how many people from BCC send packages. Maybe we can have an interblog competition and give those T&S folks a run for their money. =)

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