Sunday, October 01, 2006


I firmly believe that Latter-day Saints not only have nothing to fear from the academic world, but have a divine obligation to learn from and take seriously "secular scholarship." I believe the Lord when he instructs his people to learn from the best books. However, there seems to be a profound mistrust of scholarship by many members of the church. Two recent episodes:

1. Recently in my elders quorum, a newly married convert of the church asked what resources for studying the scriptures members of the quorum had found useful, including other translations. My EQ president hastily insisted that members only read those publications which have been produced by the church because of the risk of learning "false doctrine" from other books. He seemed utterly alergic to the idea that members of the church might be interested to know something more than what the manuals supply.

2. In a recent post by eccentric blogger Mark Bulter, he matter-of-factly stated: " The ivory tower is a better approximation to the great and abominable church than any other organization ever was." Here, the dismissal of research that might cause him to modify his reading of scripture was justified as a righteous, pious act. Meanwhile, those who belong to the "ivory tower", his slur towards academics in the "humanities and social 'sciences'", you know, the ones in the "cult of the natural man", are depicted as being in league with Satan himself. I am sure that he would like to see BYU get rid of all of its professors in these fields. Basically, the only things he things we need to learn can be taught in a training camp somewhere in the mountains, which will prevent us from being infected by these so-called scholars.

Basically, I want to know where this impulse comes from in the church. Does this have to do with our isolated and isolatinist history in the 19th c.? Does this have to do with a demonstrable number of people going innactive who have actually learned something outside of Mormonism? Personally, I remain optimistic about Mormons and Mormonism in relationship to "secular scholarship", but why do so many of my brothers and sisters disagree?


Mark Butler said...


I am not anti-intellectual. The irony of much of academia however is, having convinced themselves that all truths are relative, they have decided that gives them license to declare that they know better than anyone else.

The humanities and much of the social sciences have devolved so seriously in the past century or so that much of what is advocated as "truth" is little more than philosophies of the natural man.

In secular terms, the work of any decent conservative scholar on the subject of contemporary academia from Roger Kimball to Roger Scruton would readily demonstrate the case for the utter intellectual impoverishment of much of the modern academy. And for historical reasons the disease is most manifest in the humanities and spreads outward from there.

And why the humanities? Because the humanities are where hardly the only truth to be found is an elaboration of the divinely established and ordained order of things. The whole field has been living on borrowed light for three or four centuries now. In the twentieth century, the light has become so dim, that the fruit is withering on the vine.

ECS said...

Yeay! I'm glad you've got your own blog, TT. I've enjoyed reading your comments.

TrailerTrash said...

Everything after "I am not an anti-intellectual" is evidence that you are an anti-intellectual. These sort of blanket assertions about academia not only show a complete misunderstanding of contemporary thought, but also portray the paranoia, condemnatory dismissal, and arrogance of a classic anti-intellectual.

TrailerTrash said...

Thanks ecs! I am looking forward to having my own forum.

Mogget said...

Hello, TT! Good to see you around...

Sometimes I see fear of the unknown, sometimes fear of a loss of control, sometimes the arrogance of some academics is off-putting.

I guess what I'd like to see is more folks who can model -- not talk -- the serious faith and serious study approach. It's very, very rare. The best I've seen are still Catholics and Prots.

TrailerTrash said...

Good to see you around too! I completely agree with all of your points. There is a certain anxiety about the unknown, and the lack of models is a problem as well.

However, i wonder if the lack of models isn't our own responsibility to some extent. Does the LDS cultural fear of scholars somehow drive a wedge between the LDS academics and their own community? Do we force people to take a clear-cut side, and by doing so, force the LDS scholars out? I worry that it isn't the secular scholarship that causes people to leave, but the environment of persistent distrust within the church that pushes people away.

I'd love to draw from your experiences with Catholic and Protestant scholars. What is it about those traditions and cultures that allows them such flexibility (recognizing of course, that these traditions have anti-intellectual factions as well)?

Mogget said...

Well, I know less about the Prot experience than the Catholic, but here's my take:

The Catholic shift to critical reading/thinking about scripture was delayed until the middle of the last century.

Before the shift, the animosity was so high that folks spied on each other and reported. My Greek prof, a Jesuit, remembers that certain books were kept locked up so that they couldn't idly read them. There were also some really, really messy excommunications.

When the shift came, it came at the behest of a pope who had himself been the "victim" of some of this anti-intellectual animosity. Basically, he (meaning whoever wrote for him) defined the place of historical-critical studies. The church retained control over "faith and morals," while study of scripture began to shift toward critical approaches.

Catholic scholarship was also prepared for this shift in some degree by the enormous amount of work done in the languages. Since they had previously been forbidden to deal in the controversy over "meaning," they had done tremendous work with the study of languages.

I'm under the impression that the Prot approach was less centrally organized, but would love to hear from someone who knows more.

Mark Butler said...


My position is coherent with everything ever written in the scriptures about the wisdom of the wise as to the manner of this world.

Please refer to Jacob 4:14-17, D&C 76:5-10, Isaiah 28:7-13, 1 Cor 2:5-16, and virtually everything modern day prophets have said on the superiority of revelation to worldly scholarship, and the gospel to the philosophies of men, from Joseph Smith down to the present day.

The scriptures are unusually explicit about this very point. Not that secular scholarship is worthless, but that the teachers thereof have a form of godliness, but deny the power thereof, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men, and so on.

Mark Butler said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
TrailerTrash said...

I think that we read these scriptures differently. Since the idea of "secular scholarship" simply doesn't exist before the modern era, I am not convinced that it is the referrent in any of these texts.

Jacob 4:14-17: The "jews" looked beyond the mark. This seems to me to condemn the overinterpretation of texts, especially readings which are too conservative or too esoteric. Even more specifically, it is a condemnation of those who don't accept Christ. I don't think this has anything to do with why I should or should not read what other people have said about the scriptures.

D&C 76:5-10 speaks of this specific revelation about the afterlife. It is not a generic condemnation of learning or knowledge, but speaks about a very specific issue. Again, I don't see how you get from this to a position of anti-intellectualism.

Isaiah 28:7-13 is about not getting drunk. It condemns the priests and prophets of Israel, and again has nothing to do with why I shouldn't read "scholarly" books.

1 Cor 2:5-16 is a record of Paul's contest with a rival group who also claims spiritual knowledge. The dispute is over whose teachings are spiritual, his or his opponents, not whether or not one should learn from the "outside" world.

I would instead take President Hinckley seriously when he tells us to "get all the education you can". I would also take Joseph Smith as an example of someone who read voraciously and tried to understand as much as he could. I am sure that he knew to follow the Lord's instruction in D&C 88:118/109:7. Furthermore, 2 Ne 9:29 says that "to be learned is good."

Mark, don't be deceived that turning your back on scholarship is a pious act. I assure you that it is not.

TrailerTrash said...

That is very useful! So, can you explain why there has been retrenchment in catholic circles since Vatican II? Has there been some sort of scandal, or is it just the preferences of the last two popes that have shifted directions again?

Matt Thurston said...

Nice post TT.

I've long been intrigued by the paradox between the stereotype of the well-educated Mormon on the one hand, and the anti-intellectual Mormon on the other. (Often the same person.) I think the reasons you offer in your last paragraph contribute to the problem.

However, the over-riding reason this phenomenon exists is the oft-repeated claim that we are the "one true church," and all that that claim implies (i.e. laziness with regards to perceived lesser truths, arrogance, etc.). Yes, we pay lip service to the idea that we accept truth wherever it is found, but pronouncements from the FP/Q12 for us to be suspicious of "learning" from the world outnumber the former idea 10 to 1.

The "sister" phenomenon to this anti-intellectual strain that runs throughout Mormonism is an anti-Arts bias.

TrailerTrash said...

Hello Matt,
Nice to see you around here! I've enjoyed reading your posts at Sunstone.

You might be right that there is significant skepticism from leaders about the academic world. To be fair, this is somewhat justified in that there are some academics who are hostile to religion and to Mormons. Maybe I've just been lucky, but I have never encountered this first hand. Nevertheless, these hostile people are no reason to be skeptical about all of academia anymore than a wacky Mormon is reason to be skeptical about all of Mormonism!

I have a feeling that there is a deep seating reason for LDS skepticism. Perhaps it can be explained historically, in that when most of the current generation of leadership were in school, in the 30's-60's, atheism and hostility to religion were much more common in academia than they are today. I wonder if GA quotes that display this fear about university life are taken out of context inasmuch university life has changed and is much more open to religion today.

matt thurston said...

I agree with you re current leadership biases.

Another problem, historically, is that academia and religion keep stepping on each others toes. You correctly pointed out that academia sometimes sticks its nose into the affairs of the spirit/God, pursuits best left out of the classroom. On the other hand, religion often gets tangled up in the affairs best left to secular academics. If the sharp tools of history, science, and philosophy/psychology are applied to certain "truth claims" of Mormonism, I believe Mormonism will be left wanting. I'm not saying there will be nothing left, but its facade with be riddled with bullet holes. What remains is eminently worthwhile, of course.

But this idea that certain aspects of Religion might not be able to withstand the full force of Academia will always make Religionists suspicious of Academia. Religion has had to relinquish certain truth claims now and then to the superior claims of Academia, but in every case it has done so unwillingly and after much kicking and screaming.

Like you (I think), I'd like to see Religion and Academia face off head-on... in the end, the truth of each field of knowledge will be left standing, and the myth will be consigned to the ash heap of history.

Dave said...

Mark, I don't know how you can liken academics (stereotyped as an ivory tower) to the great and abominable church and be considered anything other than anti-intellectual. Mellow out, dude. LDS leaders and the Church as an institution have been supportive of education (both basic and advanced) from the very beginning. Even Joseph Smith, who we tend to characterize as an uneducated farm boy, did his best to learn some Hebrew and Greek. You're just way off base on this.

TT, in your original post you ask where this anti-intellectual bias comes from. I think the modern secular academy is often (and increasingly) anti-religious, so it is understandable if some religous people react by being anti-secular or anti-intellectual. That's not a necessary or advisable reaction, but it is understandable.

TrailerTrash said...

That's an interesting point! Perhaps it is just defensiveness on the part of religious people to become anti-intellectual. I am not sure about whether it is increasing or not, but I admit that at least it is present in some places. I've never seen it really, but I may just be lucky.
One must wonder, however, if the anti-religious sentiment from the academy is not also a defensive posture from the anti-intellectuals in religion. Then it is a chicken-egg question of who caused the other to be defensive first.
I hope that we can do as you suggest and find a better reaction.

JKC said...

I wonder if the Catholic and Protestant ability to combine faith and learning and take both seriously doesn't come their history. When you've been around for 1700 years there's plenty of time to make mistakes. It allows you to see that the leadership is not always right--this forces you to distinguish (or at least attempt to distinguish) between what is inspired and what is human. I think this distinction makes a big difference in taking both seriously--if you want to understand the church (speaking as a catholic) you have to understand both the human and the divine--the human is understood primarily through study and the divine primarily through faith. As for the Protestants, well, they're really just Popeless catholics that don't pray to the saints. Most of the doctrinal distinctions beyond the role of the scriptures and authority were IMO invented to justify the political separation.

By study and also by faith. Not by study only, not by faith alone. Not by study viewed supsiciously through a lense of superstitious faith, not by faith qualified by cynical skepticist study. By study and also by faith.

Mark Butler said...


This is a basic question of philosophy and metaphysics. Namely what is truth and how may we know it.

There are some fields we may learn truth by experiment. Others by experience. Others by rigorous logical and statistical analysis.

But what is the basis of truth in moral philosophy? What is the basis of truth in the portion of any of the softer fields that deals with morality or social relations. If the basis of "good scholarship" in those fields is nothing more than academic consensus, then we are generally speaking of nothing more than the philosophies of men, aka false religions, generally speaking.

The truth of all those fields can only be known in its fulness by revelation. What academics believe about an extremely broad range of subjects tends to be less based on the truth than on preference. God is the only being in existence whose word is truth.

The academy in actual practice in many fields acts as a substitute for God and a substitute for religion. The things of God and the culture of faith are a matter of ridicule in most academic circles. It is what they have been trying to overthrow at least since Rosseau, whose stated objective was to eliminate the influence of parents in the upbringing of their children, and substitute the state, guided by enlightened academics instead.

That is a secular religion - one that is still dominant in the academy, particularly the colleges of education. And it strictly speaking is a false religion, and a perversion, contrary to the plan of happiness the Lord has established.

When the Lord commands us to get an education, he means for us to learn things to help us build up Zion, not tear it down, and establish an idol in its place. That means we have to extremely careful in certain fields that we do not get captured or ensnared in philosophies that are indeed pleasing to the natural man, but fall far short of divine ideals, the ones much of the academy specializes in disputing.

diahman said...

The truth of all those fields can only be known in its fulness by revelation. What academics believe about an extremely broad range of subjects tends to be less based on the truth than on preference. God is the only being in existence whose word is truth.

This claim, I believe, is less cut and dry than you make it seem. And perhaps calls for some clarity. What exactly do you mean by ‘revelation’ in comparison to the way the rest of the ‘truths’ are found in the fields you speak of? And how do we recognize revelation in the midst of all the other “philosophies of men”?

Mark Butler said...

Revelation means a direct manifestation or endorsement of the truth of a principle from a divine source. Anything approaching logical or empirical certainty (e.g. most of mathematics, laws of physics, the descriptive sciences, documented history, etc.) is unquestionably true, because the Lord defines truth as a "knowledge of things as they are, as they were, and as they are to come" (D&C 93:24).

No other definition of truth is approved of the Lord. In fact any incompatible definition of truth is of "the spirit of that wicked one who was a liar from the beginning" (D&C 93:25).

The academy is supposed to be about the pursuit of truth. And yet it seems that the large majority of contemporary humanities majors either do not believe that there is such a thing as truth, or they believe truth is subjective. Any such belief converts a purportedly objective academic enterprise into a political one, where the game is who can be most persuasive in promoting their own agenda or the agenda of the movements they identify with. That is not scholarship, that is issue advocacy.

Now as the Lord hath all power in heaven and in earth, and because the scriptures are a manifestation of laws and principles established in heaven from the very beginning, we can be quite sure that in general the Lord will overthrow all efforts that are contrary to the gospel, in the process of time.

In other words, any agenda that conflicts with the gospel is not true and faithful, but rather a delusion. God's laws, on the other hand, are true and faithful, because he has power unto the fulfilling of all his words.

Anyone with more than a passing familiarity with the philosophies promoted in the colleges of humanities, education, and social sciences should be well aware that most are generally not remotely compatible with the gospel, nor do they have a sound scientific basis.

If they had a sound scientific basis, they would no longer be philosophies (aka psuedo-religions), but rather sciences. And indeed the sciences themselves are philosophical on the bleeding edge, claiming scientific authority for theories with only a relative patina of hard evidence.

And when scholars pursue avenues according to their own worldly political and philosophical preferences, instead of seeking (by whatever means) divine inspiration in the matter, they fall into the state of ever learning, but never coming to the (divine) truth of the matter.

diahman said...


I agree that there is a lot to be leary of in academics. Point well taken, but I would like to focus specifically on the questions raised in my previous post, which you've only semi-addressed.

The answer to second question, how do we recognize revelation, is a little unclear to me, so rather than trying to extrapolate an answer from your resonse (which would only distort what you're really trying to say), perhaps you could clarify.

In regards to the first question however, you've defined revelation as "a direct manifestation or endorsement of the truth of a principle from a divine source." You also imply a sense of objectivity in truth. I think I can agree with your definition and your claim about truth. But when it comes to revelation, how is a "direct manifestation" or "endorsement" anything but subjective? In other words, you seem to posit revelation as a tool for detcting objective truth. But I fail to see how such a tool is objective in itself.

Mark Butler said...


Subjective truth is an oxymoron of the worst possible kind. A principle is either a true and faithful representation of what is actually the case or it isn't (cf. D&C 93:25). In order for "subjective truth" to make any sense the whole world would have to change with a mere change of opinion - that is solipsism.

Now just because revelation is given according to our understanding does not mean that no truth is conveyed. It simply means the truth (even a complex truth) is explained in a manner such that we can understand it at all. Two scriptures:

"For my soul delighteth in plainness; for after this manner doth the Lord God work among the children of men. For the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding" (2 Ne 21:3).

"Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding." (D&C 1:24)

Now as to recognizing what is inspired, that is what the Holy Ghost is for. And as a general rule, those who cannot recognize the inspiration regarding a certain true principle, have more elementary principles that they need either to learn or follow first. No one who rejects a lesser principle can expect any revelation as to a greater (Isa 28:9-10, 2 Pet 1:2-9).

That is one of the reasons why academia tends to be condemned to least common denominator-ism - the greatest spiritual or social truths are only recognized as such by a minority.

The academic consensus will tend to follow, if not detract from the prevailing culture, depending on how dead to the spirit the loudest scholars are. For about a century now it seems that the atheists have dominated the academy, thus there is not even a modicum of consensus on cultural or social truths, because those require some sort of sense of the spiritual world to seem anything other than ridiculous.

So much of the academy presses on with imposing secular humanism on the rest of the world, and a small minority fight a rear guard action against them. The sad part is that so many students (especially the nominally religious) do not even realize their place in this centuries long contest, nor the stakes of the outcome.

This is nothing less than an imposition of an alternative anti-religious secular culture on the whole world, and that is why parts of the acadamy bear a comparison with the great and abominable.

diahman said...

Umm… I still don’t see how you’ve answered the question: “how do we recognize revelation?” And furthermore how such a process is objective.

Subjective truth is an oxymoron of the worst possible kind. A principle is either a true and faithful representation of what is actually the case or it isn't (cf. D&C 93:25). In order for "subjective truth" to make any sense the whole world would have to change with a mere change of opinion - that is solipsism.

I don’t see why it’s unreasonable or out of harmony with the gospel to believe in subjective truth. NOTICE that I did NOT make the claim that ALL truths are subjective; such would be a contradiction in terms. But take the following examples: I feel hot today. And, My body temperature is 99degrees F. The latter statement is such that it transcends my personal interpretation and is purely an ‘object’ out there for anyone to have. The former is ‘subject’ to interpretation. Furthermore, I think I would make a distinction between subjectivism (which is the solipsism you refer to), and subjectivity which is a fact of human existence.

Ironically even the scriptures you cite (2Nephi 21:3 and D&C 1:24) relate the way in which God speaks to us according to our “language[s]”. Why would God communicate in such a wide variety of ways unless we could come to understand the gospel through myriad of ways? In other words, we assume that there is one gospel and that all people can in fact understand it; yet the way it is communicated to them is an individual, and, dare I say, a subjective process.

This may be a little anticipatory of your response to the first questions that I raised, which I would appreciate a response to before responding to these latter comments, but even one potential reading of D&C 93 (I would argue a correct reading) is that there is a plurality of truth (notions of a processual fullness gained grace by grace), and to make the claim to ultimately know things as they are, were, and are to come is in the end only done by God himself. This isn’t to say that we can’t know things, but we should always be aware of how much we do not know; humbled but how limited our own understanding is; and well aware that new knowledge gained could transform what we believe. Like the frog at the bottom of the well, we only see but a limited landscape, and I imagine that everyone not only sees it differently but also sees different portions of it.

Mark Butler said...


I think you are equivocating on the meaning of the term subjective.

A proposition is true only to the degree that it is a faithful representation of things as they were, are, or will be [1]. Fidelity is the measure of truth.

Now we may be given to understand by approximation, and that approximation may be said to have subjective aspects (so that we may understand at all), but the truth contained within any statement (however approximate) is not subjective, but objective.

Without objectivity (correspondence to reality) of some sort, no statement can be said to be true at all. And that is why subjective truth is an oxymoron.

A subjective statement may contain objective truth, but there is strictly speaking no such thing as a subjective truth.

[1] D&C 93:24

diahman said...


Are you every planning on answering the questions:

How do we recognize revelation? And, how is such a process is objective?

diahman said...

"ever" that is.

diahman said...

There are two things I would like to focus on from your last post:
1) You assert that truth is by definition objective.
2) You uphold the definition of truth in D&C 93.

Yet you fail to recognize any inherent tension in maintaining both these claims. To be true, you say, is to be “a faithful representation” of reality; the problem however is that you’ve defined what it means to be “true” but not “truth” itself, which is what’s defined in D&C 93. I would imagine that since you want to hold that truth by definition is objective, truth itself is objective reality itself (you explain that truth is “contained” in any statement; and that it can be “measure[d]”). But I would submit that such a definition does not easily cohere with truth as “ knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come.” In other words, the D&C reveals that correct knowledge (which is perhaps repetitive since there may not be such a thing as ‘incorrect knowledge’) is truth. If you wish to prove that we have access to truth you must prove that we have access to correct knowledge. If correct knowledge is gained by the instrument of revelation, you must show that revelation is just such an instrument. I question your ability to do this, because you have yet to answer my questions.