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.)
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