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Obert C. Tanner Courtesy | Tanner Humanities Center
The quest for Mormon intellectuals: how to balance facts and faith
LDS » Mormon intellectuals from the past grappled with the balancing act.
First Published Apr 04 2014 06:57 pm • Last Updated Apr 04 2014 07:57 pm

In every faith, tension rises between reason and revelation — with believers tipping one way or another.

For Mormons, that dichotomy was eloquently spelled out by the late LDS historian Richard D. Poll in his landmark 1967 essay, "What the Church Means to People Like Me."

At a glance

Tanner Humanities Center Symposium

The free symposium — titled “Faith and Reason, Conscience and Conflict: The Paths of Lowell Bennion, Sterling McMurrin and Obert Tanner” — takes place April 11 and 12. Kathleen Flake, chair of Mormon studies at the University of Virginia will speak April 11 at 7 p.m. in Salt Lake City’s Main Library, 210 E. 400 South. Her lecture is titled “The LDS Intellectual Tradition: A Study on Three Lives.” On April 12, panel discussions begin at 9 a.m. at the University of Utah’s Tanner Humanities Center, 215 S. Central Campus Drive, Room 143.

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Poll used Book of Mormon symbols — "iron rod" and "liahona" — to describe two distinct types of committed members.

The Utah-based faith’s unique scripture uses the iron rod to represent the "word of God," Poll wrote. "To the person with his hand on the rod, each step of the journey to the tree of life [God’s love] was plainly defined. ... The way was not easy, but it was clear."

So-called Iron Rod Mormons do not look for questions, but answers, he wrote, and are confident that the LDS gospel provides them.

The liahona, on the other hand, was a compass that "pointed to the destination but did not fully mark the path," Poll wrote. "Indeed, the clarity of its directions varied with the circumstances."

Liahona Saints, then, are drawn to "questions and skeptical of answers," he wrote. They find answers to enough important questions within the faith that they can "function purposefully without answers to the rest."

Many highly educated Latter-day Saints, like Poll himself, felt most comfortable among the Liahonas, including intellectual giants and leaders from the past such as Sterling McMurrin, longtime philosophy professor at the University of Utah; Lowell Bennion, founding director of the U.’s LDS Institute of Religion and creator of Salt Lake City’s Community Services Council; Obert C. Tanner, writer and founder of a major jewelry company; Hugh B. Brown, member of the LDS Quorum of Twelve Apostles; and Chieko Okazaki, a counselor in the LDS General Relief Society.

But the categories seemed too restrictive to capture the range of belief and experience among the faithful. Thoughtful believers and moderate critics often found themselves stretched somewhere between — or crisscrossing over — the continuum of Poll’s poles.

Some gave up belief altogether but still felt a part of the family of Mormonism. Some didn’t question the teachings but moved outside the community. Some challenged the doctrines from within, working to bring change.


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"There is a broader range among Latter-day Saints than most outsiders or even insiders would acknowledge," says Kathleen Flake, chair of Mormon studies at the University of Virginia. "There is more freedom of thought in Mormonism than most people know."

Flake will deliver the Sterling McMurrin Lecture on Religion and Culture next week at Salt Lake City’s Main Library as part of a two-day Tanner Humanities Center symposium titled "Faith and Reason, Conscience and Conflict: The Paths of Lowell Bennion, Sterling McMurrin and Obert Tanner."

Symposium speakers will not only address the contemporary issues these three men faced, but will also explore "enduring legacies on the issues facing modern Mormonism," according to a news release, including "the inclusion of women more fully in church leadership circles, the need to face painful facets of church history more honestly, the challenge of retaining the engagement or affiliation of socially and culturally liberal members and young adults, and the quest to understand the effects of new technologies on LDS practices and beliefs."

For her part, Flake, a Mormon, sees both approaches — iron rod and liahona — in herself.

"Sometimes I rely on reason," she says. "Sometimes I rely on the Holy Ghost."

Here are snapshots of some of these earlier figures, their lives and thoughts.

Sterling McMurrin, 1914-1996

Where he worked • Academic vice president and dean of the graduate school at the U., a visiting scholar at Columbia University and the Union Theological Seminary, and a Ford Fellow in philosophy at Princeton. In addition to being U.S. commissioner of education, he served as U.S. envoy to Iran.

What he did • In 1952, McMurrin told LDS apostles — and later church presidents — Joseph Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee that he did not believe in Adam and Eve, a fall from grace, that Jesus was divine, that Mormon founder Joseph Smith saw God or that the Book of Mormon was authentic history. He considered himself a heretic, but not an apostate, he says in L. Jackson Newell’s "Matters of Conscience: Conversations with Sterling M. McMurrin."

"I am critical of the church, but I’m for it, not against it."

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