Philip Barlow—“Bridging the life of the mind and spirit” (Visiting Scholar Spotlight)

01.20.2017 | Blair Hodges

Philip L. Barlow

Philip L. Barlow

While Philip Barlow acknowledges strains of anti-intellectualism throughout the history of the Latter-day Saint movement, he also makes this arresting conclusion: “A true ‘Mormon anti-intellectual’ is a contradiction in terms.” ((Philip Barlow, “Mind and Spirit in Mormon Thought,” in Terryl L. Givens and Philip L. Barlow, The Oxford Handbook of Mormonism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 233.)) Barlow’s essay in The Oxford Handbook of Mormonism notes how Joseph Smith’s revelations identify God’s glory as intelligence, how they call upon humanity to improve not only morally, but also intellectually (Doctrine & Covenants 93:36). Without overlooking some of the tensions this causes some Mormons—especially those more inclined to intellectual pursuits—Barlow identifies a number of exemplary Mormons engaging in wrestles between mind, heart, and spirit:
Like other believers, LDS scholars and thinkers talk of a spiritual dimension, but their lot is made more complex through engagement with, and responsibility to, the hard thought and evidence of science, social science, the arts, and the humanities. The ways that Mormon thinkers bridge the life of the mind and spirit range widely.” ((Barlow, Ibid., 240.))
Of course, Barlow himself is one such exemplary figure in Mormonism, which is one reason why Spencer Fluhman, director of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute, named him as a 2017 Maxwell Fellow. “Phil Barlow is among the most accomplished and respected scholars of Mormonism working today,” Fluhman says. “His rigorous mind and sensitive heart makes for quite a combination—he’s a valued colleague and a legendary mentor. We’re honored to have him here.” In addition to his fellowship here, Barlow is the current Leonard Arrington Chair of Mormon History & Culture at Utah State University. Born and raised in Bountiful, Utah, he earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Weber State College, then a Masters in Theological Studies and Doctorate of Theology from the Harvard Divinity School. He was a Mellon Post-doctoral Fellow at the University of Rochester before spending seventeen years in the Department of Theological Studies at Hanover College in Indiana. Barlow understands that the academic study of religion can introduce students to questions and difficulties they might not have otherwise encountered. But for him, the life of the mind and the spirit could not so easily be separated from one another, and such an attempted division brings its own dangers:
I think it is a mistake to attempt to elevate religion by disparaging reason. I believe my mind to be more a friend than a foe to my spirit, and that God gave me my intellect in the same sense that He gave me my soul. I believe that ‘spirit’ and ‘faith’ and ‘revelation’ and ‘reason’ can be related, compatible terms. Joseph Smith implied as much when he said that his revelatory experiences often consisted of receiving ‘sudden strokes of ideas’ from the Spirit and that the ‘Holy Ghost has no other effect than pure intelligence.’  Although it is of course possible to err by intellectual arrogance or to misunderstand rationality as the only important kind of intelligence, I do not believe that it is possible to think too well. Even if one feels they have received inspiration, a mature faith ought to be a thoughtful faith.” ((See Barlow, “The Uniquely True Church,” in Philip Barlow, ed., A Thoughtful Faith: Essays on Belief by Mormon Scholars (Centerville, Utah: Canon, 1986), 235-258.))
Barlow plans to spend his time at the Institute on current projects about contemporary LDS religion and culture (Mormonism, with Jan Shipps), and also the notion of a “war in heaven” in the history of ideas, lore, and literature. In addition to this research, Barlow will co-direct the Institute’s Summer Seminar on Mormon Culture this year with Terryl Givens, his co-editor on Oxford’s Handbook. ((See his bio here for more details.)) The Institute is lucky to have him. Follow our blog for occasional guest posts and interviews with Philip L. Barlow throughout the year.