Carl C. is a PhD student in systematic theology at the Catholic University of America, where he gets into arguments with Catholics a lot. This is more fun than his MA at Yale, where nobody wanted to argue very much because they were mostly liberal protestants and generally didn’t care enough about differences of doctrine. Okay, that’s not entirely true, but Carl does enjoy a good disagreement now and again. He hopes to have several of those while guest blogging at BCC.
One of the most frustrating things for me about the church culture in Sunday school is the phrase that I’ve heard cropping up more and more recently, and in multiple wards: “that’s not necessary for our salvation.” It’s frequently used when we dive into the more obscure topics. Sometimes I’ll hear it used when we dive into the non-obscure topics, but in a complicated way.
I’m not sure what the members of the church who say this are trying to get at. It seems there are several possible meanings behind it. Perhaps they just feel we’re getting off-topic, or delving too much into “the mysteries.” Perhaps they disagree with the point being made, so it’s a way of turning the conversation back to subjects we all agree on. Perhaps it’s becoming a knee-jerk reaction to all of the above as more people begin to say it and it catches on in church culture.
I’m sympathetic to the difficulty of trying to create a lesson that will cater to everybody in the class. And when you open the floor up for comments, heaven only knows where the discussion is going to go. Sticking to what is “necessary” may also help Mormons become theological minimalists, which I personally applaud. (I don’t long for the days of the rampant theological speculations of Brigham Young in general conference, and think that a good dose of what we don’t know and what hasn’t been revealed is generally more valuable and humbling than focusing on what we do know.) And since there are those subjects that we simply do not know a lot about, speculation is not going to be terribly useful until we have more concrete revelation on those subjects. But the idea that we are only to study or talk about what is “necessary” for salvation troubles me on several levels.
First, what knowledge, exactly, is “necessary for our salvation?” Do we need to know that Jesus is the son of God (D&C 46:13, 1 Corinthians 12:3)? That the church of Jesus Christ is the only true church (D&C 1:30)? About the revolutions of Kolob (Abraham 3:3-5)? How to shake an angel’s hand (D&C 129)? What does it mean when Joseph Smith said that a man is saved no faster than he gains knowledge?
Second, if it is true that “no man can be saved in ignorance” (D&C 131:6), does that mean that we will be handed a scantron sheet and a test at the pearly gates, and we must get a 70% or higher to be admitted? Nobody thinks the answer to that question is “yes,” so we mostly focus on the basics of the gospel only, and rightly so. It seems true that some pieces of knowledge are not necessary for our salvation. If a perfect understanding of gospel topics were a requirement, many noble and great saints from yesteryear would not be found first in line with those who lived after 1918, when President Joseph F. Smith received his revelation on the redemption of the dead. I’m convinced that there are many non-members with no good understanding of the gospel who are further along in the line for salvation than many a seminary graduate.
Third, while Sunday schools are primarily for more devotional purposes (probably the easiest way to cater to a varied audience), let’s not forget that intelligence itself is the glory of God. The classrooms at BYU are dedicated to learning. Ought not our Sunday school classes at least not shy away from knowledge of any relevance, even if that doesn’t have to be the principal focus?
Fourth, whatever intelligence you obtain will rise with you in the next life (D&C 130:18), so we should be gaining all possible intelligence. In other words, we ought not to summarily dismiss things that aren’t the basics (whatever those are, anyway).
I don’t know if the people who say “that’s not necessary for our salvation” would disagree with anything has been said here. But the phrase indicates that we should only study what is necessary, which is clearly not true. There are better ways of dealing with complicated issues that distract from the main purpose of Sunday school—ways that don’t involve implying that learning is not what God wants us to be doing. So the next time someone says “that’s not pertinent for our salvation” I would hope that we could all find some way to address what they really mean, while not implying that God wants us to be ignorant about some things.
After all, we claim to follow the one who called himself the Truth. The least we can do is try to figure out what truth means in our church classes.