Tag Archives: study

Stumbling over the scriptures

“To explain, nowadays we have mountains of scriptures by our side, both the text and the commentaries thereof. We study religious literature with weary and dewy eyes to such an extent that our heads are full of ready-made facts seen from various angles, say, from the viewpoint of religion, philosophy, literature, etc. And this manifold knowledge of ours, with reference to the scriptures, fails to enable us to effectively choose what suits us best and in which we can take refuge. The more we study the scriptures the less we know of the essence of religion. As a matter of fact the essence of religion can only be reached by genuine practice alone.”

– Bhikku Buddhadasa Indapanno, “Mutual Understanding of Each Other’s Religion”

“The best way to obtain truth and wisdom is not to ask from books, but to go to God in prayer, and obtain divine teaching.”

– Joseph Smith

I thought this was an incredible quote from a series of lectures given by Bhikku Buddhadasa Indapanno called Christianity and Buddhism. In it, Bhikku attempts to create a level playing field of dialogue between Christians and Buddhists, as well as just between two different religions in general. In it, he makes this surprising assertion that perhaps scriptures only muddy the waters, rather than lead us to cool, pristine wells of knowledge and faith. He compares it to climbing a tree from the top to bottom — starting with the scriptures first before practice is, to him, simply the opposite way to explore a faith.

In a way, Bhikku has history on his side. Many religions schism because of, among other reasons, differences in scriptural interpretation. In Christianity, Martin Luther’s pronouncement of sola scriptura has led to some of the worst excesses of fetishistic Bible worship, creating an untouchable status with little actual knowledge of how the text came to be. Of course, us Mormons are not innocent either; many times over prominent Mormons would promote false, misleading, or ignorant interpretations of scripture in order to “prove” correlation between two completely different texts. Prooftexting is not just a Mormon phenomenon; I’ve had people try to drag the scriptures into any kind of discussion — biology, politics, economics, etc.

The funny thing is in the beginning of every religion, those scriptures didn’t exist. The early Saints didn’t have Doctrine and Covenants; they were writing it. The original Twelve Apostles didn’t have the New Testament; they were the New Testament — literally! In fact, in almost every religion, the act of writing scripture down usually didn’t happen for years until after the founder’s death — take the history of the Qur’an or Buddha’s teachings. The founding (and the usual explosion of growth) didn’t require the need for scriptures. It’s only after they’ve been written, and each successive generation groans under the ever growing body of scripture and commentary and interpretation, that people begin to drift away and the religion struggles to maintain the holy fire that once burned in their hearts.

But do you personally agree with this statement? On the one hand, prophets in the LDS Church have repeatedly told us that reading out scriptures is incredibly important. However, on the other hand, we also say that the Bible, and even our current open canon, is still a work in progress, and much more new information could be added to the ever-growing corpus of revelation, possibly even nullifying previous statements. Could we grasp onto the scriptures too tightly to cause a stumbling block for us? Obviously, anything done in excess is unhealthy, and surely the scriptures do provide worth when used for rich, meaningful study. But just how useful can they really be?

My mission president once addressed the complaints of some missionaries that studying Preach My Gospel, the missionary manual, every day for at least 30 minutes was too boring and repetitive. He responded by telling the mission that “If you read Preach My Gospel right, you will spend 90% of your time in the scriptures. If you read the scriptures right, you will spend 90% of your time in prayer. I would gladly take ten minutes of earnest prayer over an hour of reading the scriptures.” This statement floored me. As someone who has traditionally seen learning from books and study, the idea that you could learn more by “talking to yourself” in a closet caused me to reel.

In the course of my life, I have relied on the scriptures for a great many things, learning especially; however, recently I’ve found that earnest prayer, the heartfelt song of a psalm, the act of sitting meditation, or the performance of service has helped build my faith more than any scripture could. Like my mission president, I have found ten minutes of earnest prayer to be much more effective than reading the scriptures for knowledge, and I have learned more about God within one minute of genuine service than ten minutes of prayer or an hour of scripture study. As I’ve grown older, I love the scriptures even more than ever. They are beautiful pieces of literature, and both poetry and rhetoric can reach sublime heights. But maybe Bhikkhu is on to something. Maybe the scriptures sometimes get in the way. Maybe, just maybe, sometimes we’re climbing the tree backwards.

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Too long

I was talking to my wife today about how my friend wants to give me a thorough crash-course on programming so I can help him start a business that we both came up with one night while drunk off of insomnia and soy milk. I said I’d be up for learning programming, but that I was wondering how long would it take me to be able to contribute.

“What?” he asked.

“How will I know when I can program? Do I have to study for like, six months or something?”

He looked at me quizzically. “You’ll know you can do it when you can do it.”

“But how long will that take?”

By now, he’s laughing amusedly. “As long as it takes.”

My wife at this point is just shaking her head. “What kind of question is that? ‘How will I know when I can do it?’ What’s wrong with you?”

“It’s not my fault,” I protest. “I’ve been in academia too long. Your performance and skill is based less on what you can actually do, but on what requirements you’ve filled, which classes you’ve taken, which tests you’ve passed, which certifications you’ve earned.”

To be honest, I’ve been in academia for so long that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be graded simply on what you know rather than on a curve in comparison with everyone else. What I can do is not relative to what my classmates can and can’t do. I compete only with myself.

This is weirding me out to the max. I tell my wife that.

“You can be so pathetic sometimes,” she says, rolling her eyes.

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Sociological vs. Anthropological

I seriously want this guy's beard

I seriously want this guy's beard.

One thing I’ve discovered during my sociology classes: I am intrinsically Marxist.

This isn’t Bellevue College’s fault. It’s really just my own fault, I suppose. My teacher is schooled in and promoted the symbolic/interaction perspective (viewing microcosms and small, close relationships), and also promoted the feminist perspective. Some students resonated with the structural perspective (viewing society as parts of a machine). But me? I’m Marxist, to the core. Almost every society can be defined by conflict.

Whenever I view the Church in a sociological lens, therefore, I cannot help but view the Church rife with conflict – Utah culture vs. Non-Utah culture, the US church vs. the global church, women vs. the priesthood. And it’s all there; we just choose to ignore it or simply remain unconscious to it because the implications can disturb us.

And it disturbs me, I’ll admit. I’m to the point where I can view this without any implication to the Church’s truthfulness, which is a potential sign of (yay!)  maturity. But it still doesn’t solve the problem that comes with Marxism (and the core of my personality) – sociological research does nothing if it doesn’t try to fix the problems it discovers. But what can one person do in a Church with such a hierarchical, patriarchal structure? Out wait everything? Watch for slow, gradual change? The Church does evolve over time (and when looking back, the changes are drastic – Brigham Young would be horrified for sure). But it can still embitter me to certain elements and I just don’t like feeling bitter. It’s not a great feeling. It’s not very healthy.

I’ve been shifting my focus on the church towards a more anthropological approach. The Church is made up of people – imperfect people who try their best (or don’t try their best) to do what’s right and to protect what they have while trying to improve upon it. Suddenly, the Church culture isn’t something I have to incessantly fix. I can collect stories and folklore, examine some of our myths and I don’t have to pass judgment. I don’t have to fix anything. I just record. I love it.

When you've got stuff like this happening in your folktales, you're never bored.

When you've got stuff like this happening in your folktales, you're never bored.

I’ve been reading a lot of folklore lately – I spend some of my birthday money, and three out of the four books (The Bhagavad  Gita; Folklore of the Holy Land: Moslem, Christian and Jewish; and Irish Lore and Legends) are collections of folklore. I reluctantly left behind another tome of Jewish tales as well as books on Indian and Chinese folklore, simply because I didn’t want to spend all of my birthday money in one place.

I love folklore. For one, it’s been supporting the change in my attention span; the studies are probably right – the Internet is shortening my attention span. I don’t have patience for huge books on one subject and I prefer things to be short and dense. Folktales are like tweets – they’re usually pretty short, and the good ones have a lot of things to think about. Whenever I read regular books now (non-fiction) by the halfway mark I stop because I’ve learned all that the author usually has to say and the rest is just fluff. And because they’re short, I can devour pages upon pages of them. It’s seriously very addicting.

And my goodness, Church history. It’s awesome. Really. It’s like a religious soap opera and I love every part of it. And our folklores are just as good as any. We just need to start recording them and stop treating them like doctrine but as just that – tales with ambiguous sources. Ask any Jew if he or she really believes that you can use the Word of God to breathe life into a golem and they’ll laugh (unless they are seriously orthodox). But the stories of golems are not worthless – they’re a deep insight into the Jewish psyche and their desperate need for a physical protector in times of horrible distress and calamity for their culture. And sometimes folktales poking fun at religious authorities are necessary – not to disrespect them, but to remind ourselves that even the prophet is not akin to God, and as humans, we’re all subject to foibles and mistakes. We can develop a healthy, positive outlook towards the more negative aspects about who we are, and that, I can assure you from past experience, can bring about a very sweet peace of mind.

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