“Community makes scripture sacred”—Kim Berkey on the 2015 Mormon Theology Seminar

09.02.2015 | The Maxwell Institute

The 2015 Mormon Theology Seminar recently wrapped up in New York City (see here). We asked seminar participants to reflect on their experiences, offering a glimpse at what the Seminar’s all about. This post features Kim Berkey, who currently studies philosophy of religion at Harvard Divinity School. Posts from other seminar participants will follow.—BHodges

Kim Berkey

What makes scripture unique and sacred, rather than simply a haphazard collection of religiously-themed texts, is the commitment of a community. Scripture could not be scripture without a group of people to gather around its constituent writings and uphold them as divine. And like any text, God’s written word doesn’t speak until someone cracks the spine and begins to read. Although Latter-day Saints are familiar with the devotional habit of daily scripture study, such study typically submits Mormon scripture to an individual gaze alone. If interpretation depends so much on the situation of the reader, it stands to reason that a community of readers can help scripture speak in new and distinct ways. The Mormon Theology Seminar, precisely because it facilitates communal reading, is one of the few places in the academy where I have seen scripture enacted as scripture, and its effects have been striking.

Over the course of our two weeks at Union Theological Seminary in New York, we spent eight or nine hours every day studying Jacob 7 line by line. Because of the collaborative setting we saw a dramatic uptick in the rigor and refinement of our interpretations, and in its complexity and theological sophistication the Book of Mormon revealed itself to be more than equal to the task of bearing such sustained scrutiny. If we had to evaluate the seminar in terms of the production of exegetical, literary, and theological insights into the text of Jacob 7, I think it would be a resounding success on that basis alone.

But most life-changing and productive for me, personally, was watching how this engagement between a community and its scripture can go both ways; just as collaborative reading reveals something new in the text, scripture also enacts something new in a community, as well. I was surprised to find myself repeatedly called to repentance by the example of my fellow seminar participants. To witness firsthand their devotion and fidelity to the texts of Mormonism, the seriousness and care with which they read Jacob 7, and their graciousness and charity in interactions with one another was a powerful example of not only some of the best minds in the academy, but some of the very best souls in Mormonism. To sit elbow-to-elbow with a group of people committed that deeply and seriously to scripture enacted Zion in a very real way, and I have found myself taking the texts and devotional practices of my Mormon faith all the more seriously as a result.

We owe a great deal of thanks to the generosity of the Willes family in committing materially to Book of Mormon scholarship and to the Maxwell Institute’s Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies for continuing to support this project. My participation in this year’s summer seminar has been a highlight in my career, and a highlight I’m lucky to have encountered so I early. I will forever be attempting to make the rest of my scholarship as collaborative, productive, and consecrated as the Mormon Theology Seminar.