The Intellectual Pleasures of Mormonism

Neal Kramer, a friend of BCC, returns again to post. See his earlier post here.

I believe it is fair to say that many intellectuals have found Mormonism rather stultifying.

Certainly, the middle decades of the twentieth century were characterized by the retreat of intellectuals from strong support for the underlying foundations of Mormonism, namely, the Book of Mormon and the history and teachings of Joseph Smith. In some ways and in some places, I think this retreat continues. It takes and has taken many forms: Book of Mormon archaeology and historicity; alternative explanations of Joseph Smith’s account of his life and visions; replacement of faith with politics; the confusion of culture with doctrine; the demand that intellectual (perhaps scholarly or aesthetic authority) be given a more prominent place in the kingdom; and concern about civil and human rights issues. In each case, intellectuals seem to have chosen either adversarial or apologetic positions vis a vis the institutional church. I strongly support the institutional church, its leaders, and its mission; however, I wish to explore briefly why I think Mormonism can provide intellectuals intense pleasure and satisfaction by challenging our minds and expanding our understanding.

It is tempting, to paraphrase Alexander Campbell, to believe that Mormonism is simply a convenient compendium of simplistic answers to a few questions about Christianity peculiar to the environment in which Joseph Smith lived. Others might say it is inadequate in its scope and message to comprehend the immensity of the cosmos, the immense power of technology, and the promise of power over the universe offered by science. I find such thinking both simplistic and insufficient. Here are five doctrines which belie the claim.

1. Matter is eternal. It can neither be created nor made. It extends infinitely in all directions. It cannot be comprehended by language, mathematics, or any other human capacity. It lies beyond our power to control it. The evidence of our lack of control is life and death.

2. Celestial marriage, or the fullness of the priesthood, is the fullness of joy. When Eve fell, Adam joined her. Bound together less by their transgression than by their hope for redemption, they courageously left the Garden of Eden. As the truest expression of their hope, they had children. The love at the heart of their experience generated both evil and good, with the good being made known by the evil and therefore cherished more even as their redemption was postponed. We are their offspring, heirs to the evil and the good, to the fullness of joy.

3. A chief characteristic of the true God is parenthood. In him and through him we live and breathe. His work and his glory is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of mankind. His connection with us is intimate and personal, of the sort that suggests that his happiness is interwoven with our experience here and his hope for the same kind of joy he also promises to us through the great plan of happiness or redemption. He allows the sacrifice of his only begotten son in order to offer us this promise.

4. The true church of God must be organized according to revealed patterns associated with priesthood offices and powers. The Church exists not to perpetuate itself or achieve worldly power and influence. Its primary purposes are built around redemption of the living and the dead and the remarkable symbolic representations in the holy temples of pre-earth life, mortality, the incarnation and atonement of Jesus Christ, and life after death in God’s Celestial Kingdom. The church perfects the Saints, redeems the dead, and proclaims the Gospel.

5. God is a personal being, not an idea or an essence. His perfection and his being are inseparable from one another. He has character, makes choices, respects agency, and experiences passion. God is neither isolated nor alone. He has no desire to be alone. He is a being, part of whose perfection exists in relation to others, serving and loving them.

The intellectual pleasure of studying these doctrines is only enhanced by the community of intellectuals who find the same pleasure. As one studies with Parley and Orson Pratt, Joseph F. and Joseph Fielding Smith, B. H. Roberts and Orson F. Whitney, Dallin H. Oaks and Neal A. Maxwell, one is presented with the delightful challenge of encountering gifted minds exploring the multifaceted character of Mormonism. They find what I miss, suggest directions for further study, irritate me with their conclusions and their stubborn unwillingness to see things my way. Sometimes I fume with delight as I wrestle with ideas I do not yet understand, and yet I read on. What will I learn next? What can I learn from their disagreements with me?

And so I say Mormonism pleases my mind. It is inexhaustible. It is inspiring. It is beyond me. And I love it.


  1. To your last line, Amen.

  2. sister blah 2 says:

    Amen smb’s amen of your last line. But I must add the bloggernacle personalities to your list of the community of intellectuals with whom we find pleasure in studying!

  3. it would be nice if there would or the impression that the church supported all the intellectual riches the gospel has to offer. But it seems all i can find is people who get into trouble for going to sunstone conferences and presenting their opinion.

  4. It might be fun, at some point, to have the intellectual pleasure of discussing why your list misses the points about Mormonism that are nearest and dearest to my heart and mind. A comment that only reinforces your underlying argument, I guess.

  5. Steve Evans says:

    What’s your list, RT?

  6. Dwarik, I think a lot of this sense of a problem is overstated or based on life in Utah and BYU, particularly in the 1990s. I’ve been in love with the intellectual freedom and magnitude of Mormonism for almost two decades out in the open and have never been approached by an authority figure by way of criticism or reproach.

  7. My slice of the challenge (and claim to the title) is very narrow, but it satisfies me.

    And I’m glad to finally be able to get in and read this post — the word “pleasures” is on the church website filter’s kill list. There’s a post in there somewhere.

  8. TrevorM says:

    Amen brother!

    Add to that a contemplation on divine justice and the spirit world, Agency and the problem of evil, and God’s coeteternality with law.

  9. TrevorM says:


  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Mormonism is a real intellectual’s playground.

  11. Aaron Brown says:

    I don’t see how “the confusion of culture with doctrine”, whatever else it might be, is an example of “the retreat of intellectuals from strong support for the underlying foundations of Mormonism.” I don’t even think I see how this confusion is characteristic at all of “intellectuals” as opposed to, well, the unintellectual.

    (He says, trying to import a discussion from another thread into this one …). :)


  12. What fascinates me so much is the breadth of thought exhibited by the great thinkers of Mormonism, as you mentioned at the end. I’ve continually found myself inspired by those brethren, as well as Henry Eyring, Bruce R. McConkie, and a dozen others. A la #10, I’m at recess all the time!

  13. As wonderful as the intellectual pleasures of Mormonism are to feast upon, the spiritual encounters are a marvel and are unrivaled by any other experience one can have in mortality. There is no experience in life that can begin to surpass a manifestation of the Spirit. Those who have felt the love of the Lord to the extend that they’ve cried out, “enough Lord”, or have received a remission of their sin and felt Fire and the Holy Ghost surround them, or have been in the present of ministering angels (seen or unseen) and received divine help in answers to pray, will all testify that man is nothing without God and we live in a dark, dreary, and forsaken place so that we can acquire experience. I like the way Brigham Young put it, “the kingdom of God or Nothing”.

  14. Some of the most sacred spiritual experiences I’ve ever had involved intense contemplation and intellectual reaching. Joseph Smith spoke of “pure intelligence flowing,” and of “sudden strokes of ideas.” I find it enriching beyond description, and the intellectual pleasure cannot be separated from the spiritual encounter.

  15. #14 Brad

    I agree with you that intellectual spiritual experiences are sacred. I didn’t intend to suggest otherwise.

  16. No worries, Jared. I didn’t mean to suggest you did. :)

  17. Randall says:

    For me, intellectual pleasure is in the sharing of ideas with others, and in nudging them a step in the direction of my perspective. Opening a new spiritual window or horizon.

    Our wards are full of people who have pondered for years on the same scriptures and discourses we have. However, we have each taken a different piece of the Mormon narrative to heart, and come to different conclusions as to its import in our lives. For example, I loved the strands that developed from DK’s “What is Doctrine?” posting today.

    Developing our own thoughts and keeping them to ourselves is isolating and frustrating. We don’t have a church of intellectual silos. Rather, each of us is given the chance to testify, teach, edify, and expound. Our callings and talks encourage us to rub off on each other. Taking this role seriously, and remaining open to others with a similar pleasure is a core aspect of life as a Saint.

  18. Am I alone in thinking that we are on the cusp of a new “Camelot” in the church? The difference this time is that rather than relying on institutional sanction, it is being brought about by a new group of “rank and file” intellectuals such as Nathan Oman, Blake Ostler, Kevin Barney, and Terryl Givens, as well as the numerous bloggers who are able to find the delicate balance between faith and reason.

    And how cool is it to have a genuine intellectual (Henry B. Eyring)in the First Presidency?

  19. Amen to the post. The last line is perfect.

    Kevin (#10) – Exactly. It has always amazed me that people think Mormonism is dull and simple. It’s spiritually and intellectually breathtaking to me.

  20. Great post, and great comments. Your testimonies humble me and make me want to study the gospel more. Thanks.

  21. Neal Kramer says:

    To all who have responded, thanks for your interest.

    Let me briefly say a couple of things in response to questions.

    The list of doctrines is short, not exhaustive, out of my sense of the etiquette of posting. If yours did not make the list, I apologize and hope what I wrote helped you think about what makes you study the gospel.

    The list of intellectuals is even shorter. There is a vast and rich history of faithful intellectual encounters with Mormonism.

    I have known a number of intellectuals who left the Church in the 40’s and 50’s. It seemed to me they never got it. Thank goodness that so many of us can share our excitement now.

    As I look at my bookshelf now, I can see I should have included Spencer W. Kimball, a brilliant writer and careful thinker who has added much to my life and Hugh B. Brown who brought my mind to life with spectacular sermons, independent thinking, and a twinkle in his eye when he thought we were taking ourselves too seriously.

    Culture masquerading as doctrine seems to me to be the biggest challenge the international church faces. While I won’t name names, powerful minds in the church have been writing books to try to make a certain brand of western American Mormon culture the only acceptable culture in the church. There is constant pressure on all of us to give away some of our rich intellectual heritage in the name of a very sophisticated call to conform. I hope we’ll keep thinking and sharing.

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