Sunday, February 17, 2013

Elder Maxwell on Ancient Scholarship

Elder Maxwell served as an administrator at the University of Utah for many years. He was the Church's Commissioner of Education before becoming a General Authority. He was not some nice old man who did not know anything about higher education. He actually had quite a bit to say about scholarship, how it fit with the gospel and how Latter-day Saints ought to approach the task.

I prize my modest academic training; it has been helpful in many ways. I am both impressed and grateful for the Church's deep commitment to education. The gospel is continuing education at its best. However, the gospel isn't simply another building block to be fitted into the tower of truth; it is the tower of truth itself. (Deposition of a Disciple, 16)
There is no question in Elder Maxwell's mind that all other disciplines need to be fitted into the gospel. The gospel provides the lens through which all else should be viewed:
My expectations for this institution [BYU] continue to include not only teaching “out of the best books,” but also having its faculty and graduate write some of the best books! Likewise, not only are BYU’s students to be helped to appreciate and to enjoy great music, but they and some of the faculty and graduates are to compose some of it! For these and like things to be achieved, the gospel provides an ordering context with perspective and proportion to shape what will come out of the best faculty! ("Out of the Best Faculty")
After all, 
Looking through the lens of gospel perspective, we see more clearly what life is really all about. ("Out of the Best Faculty")
Elder Maxwell also noted how the gospel provides ways of structuring and looking at evidence:
Scholarship is a search for truth. The fact that a truth is given by God and then is confirmed through scholarship makes it no less true. Premises and hypotheses that help in the search for truth are often supplied by the gospel; the process is hastened but is no less exciting. (Deposition of a Disciple, 16)
Without the gospel, Elder Maxwell noted a tendency of scholars to be caught up in meaningless minutia:

President John R. Silber of Boston University has observed:

‎"One can forget the meaninglessness of his own existence by occupying himself with scientific experiments of dubious import. Countless scientists and scholars spend their lives in the search of truths that are irrelevant to them."

Something can be both true and unimportant. Therefore, just as there are, in Jesus' words, "the weightier matters of the law," there are "weightier" truths! We must not only distinguish between fact and fancy, but know which facts are worthy of fealty.

The gospel of Jesus calls our attention to the reality that there is an aristocracy among truths; some truths are simply and everlastingly more significant than others! In this hierarchy of truths are some which illuminate both history and the future and which give to men a realistic view of themselves—a view that makes all the difference in the world.

In this context, one can see how being "learned" (by simply indiscriminately stockpiling a silo of truths) is not necessarily the same thing as being wise, for wisdom is the distillation of data—not merely its collection and storage. (The Smallest Part, 4)
He therefore would want the focus of research on important things, not trivia.

Furthermore he warned against the tendency to become too immersed in our pet disciplines:
The orthodox Latter-day Saint scholar should remember that his citizenship is in the Kingdom and that his professional passport takes him abroad into his specialty. It is not the other way around. That fact is true not only for the professor but also for the plumber in his relationships with his union.

The light and truth of the gospel illuminate the whole of the human terrain, and the Latter-day Saint is to be leaven in all situations. Comparatively, the gospel will always be more help to us in better understanding our specialty and in being more effective therein than will our specialty help us to be better Church members, though the latter occurs often. (Deposition of a Disciple, 15)
The gospel is what should inform our approaches to our discipline rather than the other way around.
LDS scholars can and should speak in the tongue of scholarship, but without coming to prefer it and without losing the mother tongue of faith. (Deposition of a Disciple, 16)
We should not prefer to speak in whatever scholarly jargon our discipline favors, nor should our discipline be more of a priority than the gospel. In a University setting, this requires special care in the selection of faculty:
To seek and to maintain a consecrated, bilingual faculty—who speak both the language of scholarship and also of faith—requires retaining and recruiting those with inarguably good scholarship and also with testimonies born of the Spirit. Such individuals need never look anxiously over either shoulder. ("Out of the Best Faculty")
Both testimony and scholarship are needed. (From Elder Maxwell's and the Brethren's perspective those who have both have their confidence; middle-level managers are another matter.) Elder Maxwell warned that looking for the praise of peers is a temptation and a trap:
For the academician in his search for truth and in his efforts for its preservation or dissemination, the admiration and esteem of his peers is both useful and desirable. But these too can be easily corrupted into an inordinate desire for "the praise of men." Sophistry can come to be preferred to simplicity. The language of scholarship, necessary in its realm, can come to be preferred to the language of faith. Once again, even for the person of faith, the incessant requirements of such associations can come to cloud one's perspective. (Sermons Not Spoken, 11)
Wanting to go the ways of the world clouds our view from what we really should do.

For Elder Maxwell scholarship was a form both of worship and of consecration:
For a disciple of Jesus Christ, academic scholarship is a form of worship. It is actually another dimension of consecration. Hence one who seeks to be a disciple-scholar will take both scholarship and discipleship seriously; and, likewise, gospel covenants. For the disciple-scholar, the first and second great commandments frame and prioritize life. How else could one worship God with all of one's heart, might, mind, and strength? (Luke 10:27.) ("On Becoming a Disciple-Scholar,"  7.)

Scholarship on the Ancient World
Elder Maxwell was appreciative of scholarship dealing with the ancient world:
I simply could not have attempted to cover the ground without the help of able scholars. Hugh Nibley stands out with his remarkable output of books and articles over the years. His torch, which burns brightly still, has lighted others in turn. (But for a Small Moment, vii)

On scholarship dealing with the ancient world, Elder Maxwell saw a bright future:
There will be a convergence of discoveries (never enough, mind you, to remove the need for faith) to make plain and plausible what the modern prophets have been saying all along.

Latter-day Saint scholars will show the way by being able to read firsthand such ancient texts rather than relying on secondary scholarship, as was the case earlier in this dispensation. We will be able to reach such texts through a Latter-day Saint lens rather than relying solely upon able Protestant and Catholic scholars, of whom it is unfair to expect full sensitivity to the fulness of the gospel's doctrines and ordinances. (Deposition of a Disciple, 48-49)
Elder Maxwell explicitly that he "d[id] not expect incontrovertible proof to come in this way" and "neither will the Church be outdone by hostile or pseudo-scholars." (Deposition of a Disciple, 49). He quoted approving of the lines of C. S. Lewis:
"A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age." (We Talk of Christ, We Rejoice in Christ, 166)

On the other hand, Elder Maxwell recognized that those of us who pour over ancient secular texts might neglect our scriptures:
Proportion keeps us from exclaiming over trivia, whether new or old. Scholars who pour over ancient clay tablets need that sense of proportion lest they exclaim over inscribings that were long merely a cargo list, while ignoring the Sermon on the Mount. Futurists need proportion lest they exult over how technology can bring us ease and luxury, but without remembering what history sternly tells us about some of the consequences of too much ease and luxury. (We Will Prove Them Herewith, 88)
There needs to be a point to studying the texts and Elder Maxwell suggested some reasons for doing so:
The advantages flowing from scholarship in the scriptures include not only the truthful content and the useful insights to be gleaned and that can be brought to bear on problems of today (personal or institutional), but also the reality that the very reading of the scriptures puts us in touch with what God said to others in other days. It thereby creates an atmosphere into which new inspiration can come, if needed.

It is all very much like a composer's being sufficiently inspired by hearing great music to create additional great music. An artist may stumble upon a scene of great beauty that sparks in his mind a painting that has never before been on canvas. Previous revelations in the scriptures are like the "clean sea breeze of the centuries" that can be played by us, putting things in a perspective as they really are—much as a person with a few aches and pains can, by visiting a hospital, put his own physical problems in fresh and grateful perspective.

As always there must be balance. The inordinate reading of the living scriptures that crowded out one's family, one's neighbors, and Christian service would be an error. One could become monastic though scholastic. (Things As They Really Are, 106)
The text of the scriptures is more important than the background:
It is understandable that some scholars would like even more contextual material about the life, times, and culture of the peoples in the Book of Mormon. Yet such attending history (of which there is much more than we have been able to assimilate and appreciate thus far 2) is not the purpose for which the book has been brought forward, as is indicated very early in the book itself: "Wherefore, the things which are pleasing unto the world I do not write, but the things which are pleasing unto God and unto those who are not of the world." (1 Nephi 6:5.) While these added scriptures fail to please the world, they are for those who are in the world but not of the world. (Plain and Precious Things, 4)
But there is a place for studying the background too:
Again, the caution must be given that the most important witness of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon is the witness of the Spirit. Lehi's report of his ancestor Joseph's prophecies and the inspired foresight of Book of Mormon prophets, to the effect that these various books of scripture would "grow together"(2 Nephi 3:12), signified a many-sided development. This growing together would no doubt embrace the efforts of the Latter-day Saint scholars in uncovering and integrating external evidences—after all, "to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God" (2 Nephi 9:29). But much more significant would be the vast amount of internal evidence and witness that would increasingly surrender its treasures to the eager mind and heart, especially as these faculties would become trained in spiritual perceptions and thus would tap into the teaching resources of the Spirit. Such a combination would provide an enlarged foundation upon which all believers could place even greater reliance, with greater utilization of the truths in these books. (But for a Small Moment, 64–‎65)
Elder Maxwell noted that situating the scriptures in their ancient milieu makes the scriptural text more meaningful:
These and numerous other converging references affirm that the law of Moses was intended to point mortals to Jesus Christ. In fact, as scholars are now exploring, the keeping of the law of Moses by groups included in the accounts of the Book of Mormon will yet prove to be another evidence of that book's divine origins and coming forth. Thus many things are growing together. Verses and words we might previously have passed over lightly and uncomprehendingly are now coming to be appreciated as laden with significance. One example is 2 Nephi 11:4, quoted above. This and a statement in Alma underscore the understated Mosaic and pre-exilic roots of the Book of Mormon.

Yea, and the people did observe to keep the commandments of the Lord; and they were strict in observing the ordinances of God, according to the law of Moses; for they were taught to keep the law of Moses until it should be fulfilled (Alma 30:3).

Most of us have sped by such verses without realizing their implications. In the timing of the Lord, the need is now arriving for us to see more clearly the significance and implications of such verses. Filled with faith and scholarship, some—such as Jack Welch and his colleagues at Brigham Young University—are bringing afresh such possibilities to our attention, as have Hugh Nibley and others earlier on. (But for a Small Moment, 52)
Elder Maxwell specifically praised the early work of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies in this regard (the statement was published in 1985, when FARMS had only existed for about six years and had just started publishing books). Elder Maxwell's unstated assumption is that the Book of Mormon is historical and that the events told in it actually took place, otherwise the details of keeping the law of Moses are meaningless. He expressed it this way:
I feel sorry for the few who seek to redefine the Book of Mormon in order to believe in it. But we do not invite these few to rewrite the Church’s curriculum. ("Out of the Best Faculty")
To another group who refused to commit themselves he warned:
Do not dare to read the Book of Mormon seriously, or you may suddenly realize that it is inlaid with incredibly important insights from a millennium of sacred history. ("Why Not Now?")
He himself wrote a whole book on the Book of Mormon with the specific intent "to show the conscientiousness of the dedicated writers and editors who with blood, sweat, and tears bequeathed the Book of Mormon to all mankind." (Plain and Precious Things). He considered that it was real blood, sweat and tears from real authors who once lived.

In 1990, Elder Maxwell began a talk at BYU noting that he was going to focus on the book of Mosiah:
Left unexplored are other possibilities, such as some our LDS scholars are reconnoitering. For instance, the biblical term mosiah was probably a political designation; it also is an honorific title in Hebrew meaning savior or rescuer (FARMS Update, April 1989). Not bad for a bright but unschooled Joseph Smith who, while translating early on, reportedly wondered aloud to Emma if there were walls around Jerusalem (The History of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, vol. 4, 1873–1890 [Independence, Missouri: Herald House, 1967], p. 447).

There is so much more in the Book of Mormon than we have yet discovered. The book's divine architecture and rich furnishings will increasingly unfold to our view, further qualifying it as "a marvelous work and a wonder" (Isaiah 29:14). As I noted from this pulpit in 1986, "The Book of Mormon is like a vast mansion with gardens, towers, courtyards, and wings (Book of Mormon Symposium, 10 October 1986). All the rooms in this mansion need to be explored, whether by valued traditional scholars or by those at the cutting edge. Each plays a role, and one LDS scholar cannot say to the other, "I have no need of thee" (1 Corinthians 12:21).

Professor Hugh Nibley has reconnoitered much of that mansion, showing how our new dispensation links with the old world. There is not only that Nibley nexus, but also one between him and several generations of LDS scholars. ("The Children of Christ")
Elder Maxwell's biographer says the following of his efforts to support FARMS:
Neal told his brethren, "We're going to gather together several people, so that we have that wonderful resource of BYU available to us [for] research that would help with the Church's needs." He was satisfied from past experience that we "can't just wave our arms" in the face of criticism. "We've got to protect our flanks." So he told the BYU scholars about their religious research, "Let's have some peer review, so nobody in your shop publishes a faulty manuscript." He wanted "no more slam dunks" against the Church's history or the Book of Mormon, no more "shoddy, pseudo-scholarship" claims by critics. (Bruce C. Hafen, A Disciple's Life, 509-510)
Elder Maxwell was emphatic on the need to defend the faith as well as possible:
Let us be articulate, for while our defense of the kingdom may not stir all hearers, the absence of thoughtful response may cause fledglings among the faithful to falter. What we assert may not be accepted, but unasserted convictions soon become deserted convictions. The reactions to us will vary: there will be the almost Agrippas, the puzzled Pilates, the timid Van Burens, and the stout Colonel Kanes, and, of course, there will be some scorn and some rage. But deep within the rage and the scorn, if one listens closely, are the sounds of profound pain, hushed hope, and of doubt beginning to doubt itself. ("All Hell Is Moved")
I have already noted Elder Maxwell's repeated use of a quote by Austin Farrar on the need to defend faith with rational argument to create a climate where belief may flourish. Elder Maxwell was also concerned with the rising generations and knew that each rising generation needs its own faith and its own answers so the need to defend the faith never expires.

In praise of what was then FARMS, Elder Maxwell said on his last visit to BYU:
‎In a way LDS scholars at BYU and elsewhere are a little bit like the builders of the temple in Nauvoo, who worked with a trowel in one hand and a musket in the other. Today scholars building the temple of learning must also pause on occasion to defend the Kingdom. I personally think this is one of the reasons the Lord established and maintains this University. The dual role of builder and defender is unique and ongoing. I am grateful we have scholars today who can handle, as it were, both trowels and muskets.

‎Our scholars' work must be respectable, and it must be effective over the long haul. In the revelations it is clear that the Lord is concerned about the 'rising generations.' So whatever is done today in the Church is done in goodly measure for those who will follow. The rising generation needs to be, in the words of Peter and Paul, 'grounded,' 'rooted,' 'established,' and 'settled.' BYU and its scholars have a role to play in this effort. Of course testimonies are a gift of the Spirit, but the youth of the Church are blessed by what happens here.

‎I've thought several times in recent years: Who would have ventured to say 30 years ago that BYU would become a focal point for work on the Dead Sea Scrolls? And who would have guessed 30 years ago that we would have a key role with regard to certain Islamic translations? Who would have foreseen the extensive work we do on ancient texts?

‎I do not think anybody would have guessed that all that is happening would happen so quickly and so demonstrably. The Lord's hand is in it. I do not presume to know in all its dimensions or implications, but it is not accidental. (“Blending Research and Revelation,” remarks at the BYU President’s Leadership Council meeting, 19 March 2004)
The need for both muskets and trowels will never go away. Both are necessary and neither can say that the they have no need of the other. After all, gospel scholars are expected to be proficient in both. Elder Maxwell noted the tendency for church institutions not grounded, rooted, and settled in the gospel could drift into apostasy. He also noted how that had to be prevented:
Thirteen years ago I also noted how many once church-related institutions have long since become indistinguishable from other universities and colleges, keeping the ceremonial robes without the theology, the pomp without the purpose. My conviction was, and is, that such a change will not happen here, since both BYU’s trustees and faculty are at home with John Henry Cardinal Newman’s observation that the sponsoring church “steadies” the university in the performance of its tasks pertaining to true education (The Idea of a University [Garden City, New York: Image Book, 1959], Preface).

James Burtchaell’s recent writings about “The Decline and Fall of the Christian College” lament how

Ambitious but improvident leaders had suppressed their schools’ Christian immune systems and since the virus of secularization would not seek out these now-defenseless institutions until the professional personnel could be replaced by scholars predominantly of no faith or a hostile faith or an intimidated faith, the reformers had no way of understanding how much farther their actions would carry beyond what they intended. [James Tunstead Burtchaell, “The Decline and Fall of the Christian College,” First Things, April 1991, no. 12, p. 29]

Avoiding the outcome described by Burtchaell is not something that can be achieved only by a few trustees, administrators, and faculty. Only a deep and widely shared commitment by the faculty will insure that such a decline will not happen here. ("Out of the Best Faculty")
While the board of trustees does its part to keep faith in the university, it is the faculty that must draw the line in the sand and refuse to slide into the ways of the world. That commitment must be deeply and widely shared or the faculty will go south. Faculty who share that consecrated commitment find their influence multiplied:
Hence the university will continue to do all the things a good university would do anyway, but there are extra chores to be done . . . that would contribute directly to the mission of the Church, thus giving added value to the entire Church. ("Out of the Best Faculty")

Through it all, those associated with Brigham Young University need to excel at what they do:
Only an excellent university can really help the Church much. Mediocrity won’t do either academically or spiritually. A unique Church deserves a unique university! ("Out of the Best Faculty")
Elder Maxwell, who had such a vision and hopes for the scholars at BYU, and worked so hard to get the organization in place, deserves to have scholars actually take up his vision and work for it.