Overlooked “Gospel Topics” topic: “Gospel Learning”

While I was looking at the Gospel Topics Essays a while back I noticed a link that says “Seek learning, even by study and also by faith, which led me to a short Gospel Topic called “Gospel Learning.” This Topic seems geared to help contextualize the Gospel Topics Essays for people who are unsettled by them. (See here for the difference between Gospel Topics Essays and Gospel Topics.) As usual, this Topic is unsigned, but at least part of it (the airplane analogy) borrows from Elder Marcus B. Nash’s 2012 General Conference address.


The 2012 Gospel Topic piece on “Education” from lds.org

So what interests me is that it’s the only Topic I found that focuses on education. The “Education” Topic link takes you to another page within lds.org, highlighting the church’s pedagogical efforts rather than offering a doctrine-like statement. Using the Way-Back Machine I found an old “Education” Topic from 2012. It may have simply been lost in the shuffle of the site redesign, but it’s interesting to compare “Education” with the “Gospel Learning” Topic (back in 2012 there was no “Gospel Learning” option).

The “Gospel Learning” Topic introduces ambiguity at the outset when its first subheading generalizes: “Why We Seek Learning,” not just “Gospel” learning. It repeats D&C 88’s admonition to seek learning “by study and also by faith.” In an interesting theological gesture, it suggests that the very impulse to gain knowledge is a gift from God—a sort of “prevenient grace” of intelligence:

We seek learning not only because it is a commandment—we seek it because the desire to ask, to seek, and to find answers to life’s questions was planted in our hearts by our Heavenly Father.

“Gospel Learning” emphasizes continually seeking “eternal truth” specifically, doctrine about the Godhead, the purpose of life, and the way to live in order to “enjoy happiness and peace in this life and a fulness of joy in the next.” Notice D&C 88:78-80, from whence “by study and faith” comes, adds more temporal subjects to the curriculum: “Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad.” The focus in section 88 is less individual than communal: these things would help advance the overall “Kingdom of God.”

The old “Education” Topic quotes directly from those verses, highlighting the “temporal” elements of education along with the spiritual, and includes D&C 88’s communal element in a utilitarian fashion. We seek learning in order to “succeed in our chosen fields. Our education should be an influence for good and our use of it should distinguish us as people of integrity. A good education will prepare us for opportunities as they come and will help us be an asset to our families, the Church, and our communities.”

What seems to be missing in both Topics is the “collapsing of the sacred distance” between heaven and earth that was fundamental to the teachings of Joseph Smith.[1] The “Gospel Learning” Topic divides “Learning By Study” and “Learning By Faith” into their own sections, the former dealing more with formal academic training with a hint of how it might get in the way of spiritual development, the latter with learning the gospel itself.

“Learning By Study” includes the valuable democratizing assertion that “gospel study” does not require “formal academic training,” but it doesn’t emphasize that such formal academic training can be helpful—perhaps even crucial—to people individually,as well as to the mission of the Church. I especially appreciated this section’s emphasis on reading, diligence, critical thought, contextual analysis, and humility.

The “Learning by Faith” section would more accurately be labeled “Learning the Gospel By Faith,” because it restricts the employment of faith to the pursuit of “spiritual truths.” The concept of learning by faith in general—whether learning about gospel-related things or more “temporal” things—is missing. This is perhaps symptomatic of current tensions that some people perceive between “secular” and “spiritual” knowledge.

These tensions are, themselves, problematic considering that Doctrine and Covenants 29:34 seems to challenge the dichotomy altogether:

“Wherefore, verily I say unto you that all things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal; neither any man, nor the children of men; neither Adam, your father, whom I created.”

This reminded me of a recent essay by Marilynne Robinson, who challenges the very distinction of “secular” as a category Christians have been using to set themselves apart from the world. She comes at the problem with her Christian theology positing God as the creator of all, creator of the world, and thereby the ultimate sanctifier of the world entire. She urges Christians to find the sacred in the secular or at least to recognize the problems these categories present in the way we view the world through them. Upon closer inspection, these categories burst at the seams.[2]

All things considered, “Gospel Learning” I think is a decent piece. It takes its theme from Doctrine and Covenants 88, perhaps the most direct revelation on the value of education in the LDS canon, and emphasizes the importance of seeking education.[3] But I’d still like to see a Gospel Topics piece that explores the idea that, in all our learning, we can learn by study and also by faith. What does it mean to learn mathematics by study and faith? History by study and faith? Philosophy, engineering, economics, political science, by study and by faith?

What sticks out to you in this overlooked Gospel Topic?



[1] Terryl Givens has written a lot about this, for instance in his recent book Wrestling the Angel, but his old PBS interview quickly covers it here.

[2] Marilynne Robinson, “Sacred Inwardness: Why ‘secularism’ has no meaning,” The Christian Century, June 24, 2015.

[3] Plenty more could be dissected. The way it depicts and defines “faith” for instance. The piece also presents the problem of privileging the human intellect, thereby skirting questions presented by intellectual disabilities in the grand scheme of things, our relationship to animals and the rest of God’s creation, etc., but that’s something we could talk about another time.


  1. Actually I’d like to engage the “physics by study and faith” and “history by study and faith” (and others) but they are big thought questions that may germinate into a comment about three years from now. In the meantime, regarding the “‘collapsing of the sacred distance’ between heaven and earth that was fundamental to the teachings of Joseph Smith” — I have speculated that this collapsing was lost with and around Darwin’s Origin of the Species, published in 1859. By some accounts that book was something of a crisis for the all-learning-is-sanctified view. (But that’s a history of thought question/issue with respect to which I’m a naive bystander.)

  2. Great piece Blair. When I was youth these two seemed be combined more than now. I didn’t grow up in the corridor and I grew up in the rapidly changing area now called Silicon Valley – where unknown teenagers named Steve invented stuff in the garage that would change the world. Renown LDS movie producer Keith Merrill was in my ward when he won his Academy Award. Because of those influences the two worlds did intersect. My Bishop made special notice of those things, often announcing secular achievements of our ward youth, when making Sacrament Meeting announcements. It’s something I desperately miss now. It seems we can only be “study by faith” people, the other is just a temporary means to get through this life.

  3. not Ivan says:

    Learning the things “of the world” as it were does take faith. I remember having to call upon faith when I was taking my biology classes and having to parse through evolution (speaking of Darwin). I think when people struggle with where do dinosaurs fit in the story of the creation they are learning by study and by faith. But I always thought that people’s attempts to understand the world around them were their many ways of learning by study and by faith. Faith is required to come out of a philosophy or biology class with your heart and testimony intact, not to mention history or literature, when you read and discuss so many things where humanity is terrible to its own and why is that. I am in a field now that came about by direct calling. I can tell you that starting and owning a business is a huge act of faith, and I have spent a huge amount of time seeking study by learning and by faith to know what the Lord wants me to do with my skills–and even to pray before studying so the spirit can enhance the knowledge I am studying and it can remain accessible in life and death situations. (Health care). But D and C 88 forms our family’s philosophy for life–we considered home schooling our children and felt they had life missions requiring them to interact with people in the public schools, a time when faith is again required.

    I like this topic very much. And applying both has been a lifelong application of gospel principles starting with my parents and now we try to teach this to our children.

    I love the visual imagery of collapsing the sacred distance between heaven and earth. I love learning about stories that sound like direct spiritual intervention in understanding of the world, such as the story of Kekule’s vision to understand the structure of the benzene ring. I see this as God actually helping provide the missing link of inspiration to move knowledge forward. He didn’t give the information to a school teacher, but to someone who had studied chemical structures for a long time.

    Also, as a woman in the Church, I had to work through the identity crisis of staying home with my children (the right thing for our family) and feeling like I was wasting my expensive education when I had pictured graduate studies, etc. My wrestle was what good was the education I had gotten if I wasn’t working, and got told that the education I received was for all the ways I could serve God’s children, whether I was paid for it or not. Another faith requiring time.

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