Sunday Sermon: Praise the Source of Faith and Learning

Over the last ten years, I have worked for both a Catholic and a Methodist university and, in the process, have spent a lot of time attending different religious services. Lots of good things have come into my life this way. One of them has been the opportunity to hear the hymns I have known all my life sung with different words.

At first this was disorienting, but now it feels normal. There are a lot more hymns in the Christian world than there are hymn tunes, and since most hymns fit into fairly simple metrical patterns, a lot of hymn texts can be used with a lot of standard melodies. The beautiful song that Mormons know as “Be Still My Soul” is actually a melody from Jean Sibelius’s “Finlandia” and is known in much of the Christian world as “This is My Song.” And the wildly speculative LDS hymn “If You Could Hie to Kolob” is, for many Catholics, the theologically tame, “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.”

So, when I went to the baccalaureate celebration at our campus United Methodist Chapel earlier this month, I was not at all surprised to hear the music that I had always known as “In Humility Our Savior” accompanying the words to “Praise the Source of Faith and Learning,” our opening hymn. I nodded approvingly through the first two stanzas.

Praise the source of faith and learning that has sparked and stoked the mind
with a passion for discerning how the world has been designed.
Let the sense of wonder flowing from the wonders we survey
keep our faith forever growing and renew our need to pray.

Source of wisdom, we acknowledge that our science and our art
and the breadth of human knowledge only partial truth impart.
Far beyond our calculation lies a depth we cannot sound
where the purpose for creation and the pulse of life are found.

The familiar music probably helped me focus on the words, which struck me as an ideal text for a religious service celebrating academic achievements. The words acknowledge the equal importance of two ways of finding truth: faith, or the knowledge that comes from interacting with a religious tradition and learning to trust the knowledge that comes through belief, supplication, and personal experience with the divine; and learning, the hard-won knowledge that we can only get through hours of study, research, and sustained interaction with other minds that are also seeking the truth.

The hymn does not subordinate either one of these ways of knowing to the other. It does not divide the realm of knowledge into “God” and “the World,” with the suggestion that we need to stop focusing on the latter and give ourselves over to the former. God is the source of both Faith and Learning, Religion and Science, the Church and the World. We know this perfectly well, but sometimes we forget. It was good to have a reminder.

And then came the third verse, which I haven’t stopped thinking about all month:

May our faith redeem the blunder of believing that our thought
has displaced the grounds for wonder which the ancient prophets taught.
May our learning curb the error which unthinking faith can breed
lest we justify some terror with an antiquated creed.

Wow. Consider the argument here: faith and knowledge aren’t just different ways of knowing different things—what Stephen J. Gould called “Non-Overlapping Magisteria.” Nor are they always different roads to the same place. They form a divine structure of checks and balances to prevent us from seeing the world in the wrong way.

Without a grounding in faith, it says, we can fall victim to intellectual pride. We will imagine that the only things that exist are the things that we can understand and explain. We will lose the wonder that comes with knowing that the universe is more powerful and more beautiful than our rational thought and wildest imagination can comprehend.

And if we fail to temper faith with intellect we risk even more. We risk becoming absurd by fastening onto the ancient words of our scriptures and supposing that they must override the plain evidence of our senses and the accumulated knowledge of our collective intellect. But absurdity is not the real danger here. We also risk becoming cruel and hateful when we hold tightly to religious traditions that cause us to ignore both science and justice in an attempt to reproduce what we imagine to have been the social contexts in which ancient scriptures were revealed.

The hymn ended with an exhortation to praise the things of this world and the things of God–and the kingdom of justice and compassion that we have been commanded to build as a bridge between the two:

Praise for minds to probe the heavens, praise for strength to breathe the air.
Praise for all that beauty leavens, praise for silence, music, prayer.
Praise for justice and compassion and for strangers, neighbors, friends.
Praise for hearts and lips to fashion praise for love that never ends.

Though it is not the hymn that I am used to singing to the same melody, “Praise the Source of Faith and Learning” resonates with me as a Latter-day Saint. We believe that we live in a world of modern revelation–one that has mechanisms to make sure that we don’t justify ancient terrors with antiquated creeds. This includes modern prophets, but it also includes modern science and modern scholarship—which come from exactly the same source. We believe that all things are spiritual to God. We affirm that human intellect is not the opposite of divine revelation, but one of the ways that God speaks to us.

The text of this beautiful hymn was written in 1987 by Thomas H. Troeger, an ordained minister of both the Presbyterian and Episcopalian Churches and a professor at the Yale School of Divinity. His words remind us that God made the both the world we study and the minds that we study it with. He guides our understanding of both the Rock of Ages and the ages of rocks. Faith and Learning have the same source. He fathers forth whose beauty is past change. Praise Him.

Comments

  1. I never knew of this hymn. Glad to know it now. Too often I see faith placed in false opposition to learning or activism or fill-in-the-blank. We contain multitudes! Faith is generous – why would it exclude learning?

  2. Olde Skool says:

    I’m crazy about that last verse. I’d replace it in my own singing of the LDS hymn….except that it’s one of the LDS hymns I actually like a lot.

  3. The tune exists for multiple sacred and secular texts. I attended a Methodist church once and it was sung to the Charles Wesley text of “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyfrydol

  4. Thank you, Michael. I love this new-to-me poetry, and you’ve given it a wonderful commentary.

  5. Troy Cline says:

    “May our learning curb the error which unthinking faith can breed
    lest we justify some terror with an antiquated creed.”

    These are timely words for me. I sat through a Sunday School lesson today where several people defended the Israelites’ slaughtering of innocent children in Jericho by saying that it was God’s way of protecting those children from having to grow up in the false traditions of their fathers. “God had decided to bring them home,” they said. Please. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that no matter which God or holy book is used for justification, it is never okay to kill children.

  6. Love this so much. I am asked to play (violin) quite often at Vespers services and get to experience hymns in a brand new way. I have saved some of my favorite “new” verses and sing them clandestinely during my LDS meetings. Since I am my ward’s choir director I think I’m going to arrange for this “new” hymn to be sung by the choir!

  7. Just Jim says:

    As an academic by my father’s socratic method, and by profession, this post sings well the integration of the two spindles of the Liahona, the heart AND the mind. Thank you.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    A tangential note to your (excellent) post: John Hamer in FB recently posted a picture of an old RLDS hymnal in which the hymn texts and music were separated, one on the top half of the page and the other on the bottom, and each half page was cut individually, so as to encourage people to experiment with singing hymn texts to different tunes.

  9. Love this post, Michael. That third verse really grabbed me. Oh, and nice Hopkins reference at the end. Thank you.

  10. Reminded me of Freeman Dyson’s views on religion and science. Thank you for the inspiring post.

  11. Love love this. As an organist I’m always looking for new interesting musical tidbits. Some LDS believe our hymn book contains all worthy Christian music but my opinion is that it barely scratches the surface. I attended a Lutheran service this last weekend and loved flipping through their 600+ hymn book and perusing their NIV translation of the Bible. Inserting the word “slave” instead of “servant” (as the NIV does) might change how we LDS view our Old Testament heritage.

    But more to the point of the post – as an engineer I pride myself at looking at things logically. This post is a good reminder that we can be humble and there is a place for wonder. I never thought about knowledge and faith being a system of checks and balances. One element I might add to the faith and knowledge mix is humility to counteract our penchant for hubris. Any religion can be over-confident faith is in fact knowledge, which seems like a breakdown of the check and balance.

  12. The third verse brought quiet tears , thank you. If only… if only.

  13. I greatly enjoyed this post. Thank you, it presents a very attractive explanation.

    For me personally, “faith and learning” don’t bifurcate. They are homogeneous. I can’t separate the two. My faith is knowledge based. I don’t remember having a spiritual experience.
    “Read from the best books;” “obtain knowledge wherever you find it;” etc. I think Joseph Smith and John A. Widtsoe would probably agree in principle about the unity of the two.

  14. “I heard the voice of Jesus” is one of my favorite hymns. I thought it was a Presbyterian hymn, though, not catholic.

    I love the idea of faith and learning as mutual checks and balances. That’s the idea I see in D&C 88:118.

    I also love the Hopkins quote at the end. Another of my favorites.

  15. I love everything about this. Thanks, Mike.

  16. Michael, this is spectacular. Thank you for making us aware of this hymn and for your thoughts on its message.

  17. Kristine says:

    I appreciate the sentiment, both yours and that of the hymn, Michael, but I think it’s terrible poetry. 8.7.8.7 meter in 3/4 time can do bad things to English, if you’re not Charles Wesley (and even “Love Divine…” has a couple of clunky phrases).

  18. Kristine says:

    Also, “If You Could Hie to Kolob” is really Dives and Lazarus: http://www.bartleby.com/243/109.html (although I do like the tune for I Heard the Voice of Jesus. There are other tunes for that, too–Vox Dilecti is worth checking out).

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