(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.