Personal Reflections on Scripture, Authority, and Negotiating Faith

In response to my recent post on the temple, “How Long Adam and Eve were in the Garden,” someone asked why I don’t just jettison the Adam and Eve story entirely. The short and dramatic answer is…

I think scripture matters. For complex historical reasons, Latter-day Saints have never developed good language for talking about how or why it matters… but it does. Scripture is both instructive and authoritative, though we could spend lots of time exploring, defining, and debating those attributes.

Certain people have agitated for a Mormonism that rejects virtually all traditional beliefs (like a historical Book of Mormon) but retains social and communal aspects, in effect becoming a Mormon Unitarianism or Mormon Reform Judaism, and terming this a “middle ground” or “middle way.” That’s hardly a “middle” ground, but an entire hollowing out… which in turn undermines those other, desired aspects.

That said, I believe there is a “middle ground” between absolutist fundamentalism on the one side and rationalist/modernist rejection of the authority of scripture and prophets on the other; academic study of history, scripture, and theology is certainly not without spiritual and intellectual dangers, but I do not believe it is inherently destructive to traditional faith. It’s been wonderfully productive and edifying for me. I am walking that middle path and perhaps trailblazing it for others.

It’s ironic that some of the people who have best helped me identify and navigate that middle way are not Latter-day Saints at all— again, with rare exceptions, talking about this stuff in any depth is just not really part of our young tradition— but rather Jews like *Chaim Potok, Jeffrey Tigay, James Kugel, Amy-Jill Levine, and Nahum Sarna; Catholics like Raymond Brown; Protestants like John Walton, Peter Enns, and Kenton Sparks. The latter’s introduction to his God’s Word in Human Words effectively spells out a middle way, an informed place of faith in counterbalanced tension between tradition and scholarship. Or, as Mark Noll puts it, Between Faith and Criticism, understanding “criticism” as a synonym for academic scriptural scholarship, not “saying mean things.”

I could name other personally influential scholars, of course, including some Latter-day Saints— I put up pictures of Widtsoe, Roberts, and Talmage on my mission apartment walls— but the point is that my faith has been strengthened through intellectual engagement with faithful scholarship (don’t read that narrowly as “LDS scholarship”) and close careful attention to scripture, history, and liturgy. Note that my “how long in the garden” post drew heavily on what the temple itself presents, not extracurricular sources or pure rationalism; I get to this place through the inside, so to speak, not by going around it or outside it.

Below, John Walton talks about how he left young-earth creationism, and says something I would echo about my own work within an LDS context.

I believe that the things that I say, though they are non-traditional, outside the box, they are still respecting the concept of the truth and authority of scripture [and prophets, Ben would add].

 

The middle path may be narrow and certainly unpaved and lightly traveled! It is my experience that those on both sides of it mischaracterize it; some find me to be some kind of dangerously radical liberal because I don’t simply echo McConkie and Joseph Fielding Smith. Others find me to be intractably conservative and apologetic, because I insist on paying attention to scripture and giving weight to tradition. Lonely though it may be— James Kugel joked at BYU that he felt his religious community consisted solely of him— I feel no concession of integrity for where I am. I’m a believer. Here I stand, I can do no other.

*I’ve read and reread Potok’s connected novels The Chosen (1967) and The Promise (1969), which wrestle with issues of tradition, faith, scholarship, education, community, identity, and politics. Set in the 1940s Brooklyn, the story is about two Jewish boys: one Hasidic (or “ultra-orthodox”), Danny Saunders, the son of a Rabbi, and the other Orthodox, Reuven Malter, son of a professor of Judaic and Talmudic studies. One day I’ll write up some thoughts on how these have influenced me. Highly recommended. I prefer The Promise, but you need to read The Chosen first.

Also, check out Enns, Brettler (Jewish), and Harrington (Catholic), The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously and the Maxwell Institute’s Studies in the Bible and Antiquity Vol. 8 featuring Enns, Kugel, and Catholic scholar Candida Moss, who all spoke at a closed BYU conference. (This issue is supposed to be available online and open access, but doesn’t show up where it should, so link here by permission.)

As always, you can help me pay my tuition here, or you can support my work through making your regular Amazon purchases through the Amazon links I post. *I am an Amazon Affiliate, and receive a small percentage of purchases made through these links. You can also get updates by email whenever a post goes up (subscription box below). You can also follow Benjamin the Scribe on Facebook.

8 thoughts on “Personal Reflections on Scripture, Authority, and Negotiating Faith

  1. I found My Name is Ascher Lev to be even more engaging on balancing faith, tradition and an inner struggle for purpose and meaning.

    Also – the writings of Elie Wiesel share this same struggle. My favorite book is “Elie Wiesel: A Messanger to Humanity” details his journey with faith.

    Like

  2. I echo Heather when I say that the middle ground you’ve presented has been extremely helpful for my journey—mainly in elevating the altitude of faith (offering new vistas in the process) and helping me think critically about scriptures, prophets, and authority. And I’ve had the chance to share your work with some friends who have gone through faith crises and it’s helped. Thanks for pacing the middle way. I hope it becomes more well traveled.

    Like

  3. Are there that many JFS/McConkie type “fundamentalists” left? I mean, LDS who totally reject evolution, believe everything in the OT must be taken “literally” (in quotes because of your prior posts about how this word is misused), etc.? Anecdotally, my experience in the church is that there are very few of these folks left. I’m more of a “middle-pather” myself, but I love that I get along well with those in the church to my left and right. We talk about these issues cordially and are great friends. Maybe this is a “mission field” (i.e., not Utah) experience, but I’ve found the church to be accepting of and accommodating to a pretty wide array of beliefs on these points of doctrine/culture, which, after all, are pretty peripheral to the basic message of the gospel.

    Like

    1. There are two things to keep in mind here: distinct identifiable propositions or beliefs (e.g. about evolution or whatnot) and the hidden assumptions that generate those beliefs. While McConkie-style propositions certainly seem to be less common, in my experience and research, the assumptions that generate them are fully operative and widely held in the Church. I suspect that either they are held more by people involved with Curriculum, Correlation, and perhaps S&I because those are the people who continue to produce and defend manuals that embody these problems. At this point, there’s a lot of tradition and intellectual inertia behind it, and people who may instinctively disagree don’t quite know how to change it, or deflect that inertia in different directions; they don’t know how to talk about these things, because we don’t have a tradition or models of doing so.
      It’s not enough to let go; we need a new model to embrace that can replace the 1950s model.

      On the manuals and such, see
      https://benspackman.com/2018/09/30/the-future-faith-of-our-seminary-students/
      and
      https://benspackman.com/2020/01/22/inerrancy-among-si-about-church-materials/

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s