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The quest for Mormon intellectuals: how to balance facts and faith

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Hugh B. Brown. Courtesy | Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

By Peggy fletcher Stack

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Apr 04 2014 06:57PM
Updated Apr 4, 2014 07:57PM

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."

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.

"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."

At one point during the interviews when Joseph Fielding Smith’s name was mentioned, Newell noticed a tear running down McMurrin’s cheek.

"You’ll have to excuse me," he said. "Joseph Fielding Smith was very dear to me."

Newell pointed out that the two had argued strenuously, and McMurrin continued: ‘’Yes, but he was perfectly honest in everything he said.’’

What he said • "Mormonism is not simply a commitment to a theology or a church practice, but a social-cultural order."

•"It becomes part of a person’s second nature; he belongs to the church, like he belongs to his family, and he does not quit his family because someone in it turns out to be a rascal."

• "An educated man is one who loves knowledge and will accept no substitutes and whose life is made meaningful through the never-ending process of the cultivation of his total intellectual resources."

Source • http://www.greatthoughtstreasury.com/author/sterling-m-mcmurrin-fully-sterling-moss-mcmurrin

Lowell L. Bennion, 1908-1996

Where he worked • Director and teacher at the LDS Institute of Religion near the U. from 1934 to 1962, 10 years as dean of students and professor of sociology at the U., and then he moved to Salt Lake City’s Community Services Council.

What he did • Bennion spoke forcefully against the church’s former ban on blacks in its all-male priesthood, drawing criticism from conservative LDS leaders. After some months of pressuring by then-Brigham Young University President Ernest L. Wilkinson, in 1962, Bennion was forced to leave the LDS institute. He took his teaching skills to the U. itself, then later channeled his religious instincts into serving the needy in Salt Lake City.

"His methods sometimes were unorthodox, but his ends were 100 percent orthodox," then-LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley said at Bennion’s funeral. "Lifting people, encouraging people, helping people and loving people."

What he said • "Faith is adventurous and creative. It not only is the sphere of the possible, but is also the power which often makes the possible come into being. Faith is that remarkable quality of the human spirit which first envisages the possibilities of life, then lives as though these possibilities were realities, and by this action often makes them real. In the realm of knowledge, one conforms to what is; in the realm of faith, one creates life after the image carried in his heart."

• "I used to teach religion; now I practice it."

Source • Eugene England’s "The Legacy of Lowell L. Bennion"

Obert C. Tanner, 1904-1993

Where he worked • Instructor in religious studies at Stanford University from 1939 to 1944, philosophy professor at the U. from 1945 to ’72, founder of O.C. Tanner Co., a major jewelry-making business, philanthropist.

What he did • An active scholar, Tanner taught and wrote about religion, philosophy and ethics. When asked to write a manual for adult LDS Sunday school classes, he drew on his wide reading to craft a course based on Christian ideals, not doctrines, such as faith, humility, courage, integrity, peace, justice, mercy, forgiveness and sacrifice. He built a national reputation as a generous financial supporter and donor on the ideals he drew from his Mormon faith, but was a quiet skeptic.

What he said • "Young people sometimes doubt the truth of the gospel or some part of it, and feeling the worthy desire to be sincere, they cease to be active in the church. The answer to them is to be sincere always. One must never violate one’s integrity, whatever it may cost. But must one believe all or nothing? Must one cut off church participation — the great source of righteousness in one’s life and in the community, because there is some doctrine doubted or disbelieved? Rather, is it not wisdom to begin, not with doubts and faults, but with the simple truths and virtues one can believe, then move on from there to others? Surely no one would claim to know all the gospel. Great truths are always just around the corner for those who seek. Jesus told us to knock, seek and ask, not just once, but continuously. One step at a time applies to progress in the gospel as it does to education or any worthwhile achievement. One is not a hypocrite if he has honest questions and is active in the church at the same time."

Source • Tanner’s "Christ’s Ideals for Living"

Hugh B. Brown, 1883-1975

Where he worked • Lawyer, LDS mission president in England, apostle from 1958 to his death, a member of the church’s governing First Presidency under then-President David O. McKay.

What he did • Brown served in the First Presidency from 1961 to 1970, one of the most turbulent decades in Mormon history.

"Men like Hugh B. Brown are not accidents. They are unqualifiedly, in the truest sense, children of destiny," then-LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball wrote in the introduction to Brown’s memoirs. "[He] lived a large part of two centuries. ... He saw great changes in this world which were part of his own. His philosophy was sound. Brother Hugh B. Brown left a great collection of classic statements, testimonies that will live forever."

What he said • "Preserve, then, the freedom of your mind in education and in religion, and be unafraid to express your thoughts and to insist upon your right to examine every proposition. We are not so much concerned with whether your thoughts are orthodox or heterodox as we are that you shall have thoughts. One may memorize much without learning anything. In this age of speed there seems to be little time for meditation."

• "While I believe all that God has revealed, I am not quite sure I understand what he has revealed, and the fact that God has promised further revelation is to me a challenge to keep an open mind and be prepared to follow wherever my search for truth may lead. ... And while all Mormons should respect, support and heed the teachings of the authorities of the church, no one should accept a statement and base his or her testimony upon it, no matter who makes it."

Sources • BYU Speeches of the Year, 1969; "An Abundant Life: The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown"

Chieko Okazaki, 1926-2011

Where she worked • Taught elementary school, then worked as a principal. She later became the first non-Caucasian to serve on any LDS general board and then the first woman to serve on the general level of all three LDS women’s auxiliaries. From 1990 to 1997, she served as first counselor in the Relief Society Presidency.

What she did • Okazaki became a popular speaker, tackling difficult topics such as sexual abuse, infertility, divorce and women’s issues. She felt confident in speaking her mind, she told an interviewer, in part because she was given the go-ahead to do so in a blessing from Gordon B. Hinckley, who said, "We bless you that you may be free in speaking, that your tongue may be loosed as you speak to the people. We bless you that you may be wise in counsel, that you may be inspired in what you say." Her books were best-sellers among the faithful.

What she said • "I brought Buddhism with me. Buddhism teaches love for everybody. The Buddhist values are not limited just to the people in the Buddhist faith. They include the whole wide world. When you talk to the Dalai Lama, you can feel a love that he has for all humankind. He doesn’t preach, "You must belong to my church." He preaches, "You must become better people because of what I am telling you." Christians, Muslims, Buddhists go to listen to him, and they become better Christians, better Muslims, and better Buddhists because of the values and morals that he teaches. ... He is a messenger or a disciple of God, in a different way. I came to the church having all these values. The church didn’t teach me that."

• "Again, look around the room you are in. Do you see women of different ages, races or different backgrounds in the [LDS] Church? Of different educational, marital and professional experiences? Women with children? Women without children? Women of vigorous health and those who are limited by chronic illness or handicaps? Rejoice in the diversity of our sisterhood! It is the diversity of colors in a spectrum that makes a rainbow. It is the diversity in our circumstances that gives us compassionate hearts. It is the diversity of our spiritual gifts that benefits the church."

Sources • " ‘There Is Always a Struggle’: An Interview with Chieko N. Okazaki," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought; "Rejoice in Every Good Thing," Ensign, November 1991

pstack@sltrib.com

Twitter: @religiongal

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