Latter-day Saint Theology Seminar: “the joy and rigor of wrestling before the Lord”

09.29.2022 | The Maxwell Institute

This post was written by Sharon Harris, a participant in the 2022 Latter-day Saint Theology Seminar.

The format of the theology seminar produces the effects of a compactor and muse simultaneously. I lived in New York City for eight years and was thrilled to return to my old home. Even so, I told almost none of my friends in New York that I was there because I knew I’d need to write six essays in less than two weeks. We wrote one each day of the first week and another conference paper at the end of the seminar. That’s the compactor effect: the seminar requires the participants to think intensely and productively at a pace that’s rarely matched in academia. The muse effect comes from the community that is built across the two weeks. It’s already a self-selecting group, as you need to find eight people willing to write six essays on approximately twenty verses of scripture and think or talk about them for at least eight or nine hours each day. But then, when we all arrive away from normal life routines and with the privilege of concentrating wholly on the shared text, it turns into a kind of groupthink where it’s not always clear which ideas come from whom. Rather, the ideas emerge from a common two-week conversation. They proliferate and scatter like fast-growing seeds. They’re so fecund that by the end of the seminar, we can’t harvest them all.

I felt this keenly because I had already spent nearly a year combing through the book of Enos when I wrote the book on Enos, Jarom, and Omni for the Maxwell Institute’s Brief Theological Introductions series in 2020. In spite of spending that much time with the text, I anticipated that the book of Enos would become new all over again through the process of the seminar. It did. Like the Corn Flakes slogan, I tasted it again for the first time. Through our discussions, I took my study of Enos in entirely new directions. I found approaches to the text that undermined my previous readings and also answered questions I hadn’t been able to resolve in the earlier book I’d written. The book and figure of Enos are revitalized, and I’m still pursuing the implications of the fresh ideas generated during those two weeks in New York.

For example, Enos is the only book that intervenes in the 145 years between Jacob and Jarom. I’ve always wondered how to account for this enormous stretch of time that is, purportedly, just one generation. During the seminar we discussed how, in Hebrew, the name Enos means “mortal,” “man,” or, more casually, “a guy.” What if the character of Enos didn’t only designate one historical person but instead represented many people, like a kind of Everyman? Enos’s experience is that of individual conversion turned to covenant-making on behalf of others. It’s every Christian disciple’s experience. It’s no surprise, then, that Enos is a text that we act out and take on as a model of a spiritual journey. Several friends and students have told me of invitations in youth and religious classes to “pray like Enos” and have their own wrestle before the Lord. One friend who worked in the Church History Library told me of a Ghanaian member who said that prior to the 1978 revelation, followers in Ghana would go to the beach to have long prayer meetings they called “wrestlings” after Enos’s account. In modern and Book of Mormon times, Enos’s strugglings have been a template for petitioning covenant salvation for those we haven’t yet included.

As both compactor and muse, the seminar was its own kind of devoted, creative wrestling. The act and opportunity to participate increased my knowledge about the Enos text, to be sure, but it also offered a window into the joy and rigor of wrestling before the Lord.