“Stretching, questioning, and growth”

02.27.2015 | Guest

Hugh W. Nibley’s legacy continues to inspire Latter-day Saints who value religious scholarship. As the Chair of the Maxwell Institute’s Nibley Fellowship Program, it has been my pleasure to become familiar with many young, promising scholars who trace their intellectual yearnings in part back to Dr. Nibley. I’ve invited some of them to reflect on their experiences studying religion in the academy. In this post, Alex Douglas discusses his navigation of the worlds of scholarship and faith. See other “Nibley Fellow Reflections” here. —Kristian Heal

Alex Douglas

As is the case with many LDS scholars, my own journey into the academic study of religion began with inspiration from Hugh Nibley. My mother probably owned and read everything Hugh Nibley ever wrote, and I grew up in an environment where he was venerated as a true, faithful scholar who devoted his life to defending Zion. Yet while Nibley was revered, other scholars were viewed with skepticism. In my mind, those “other scholars” were constantly attacking the central tenets of our faith, claiming that the Book of Mormon was not true, that Isaiah was written by more than one person, that Joseph Smith misinterpreted the facsimiles in the Book of Abraham, or that Old Testament prophecies had nothing to do with Christ. I may not have known much about what these other scholars did or said, but I knew that they should not be trusted.

Fast forward a few years, and as a recently returned missionary I found myself sitting in a secular religion class taught by just such a scholar. The class was titled, “The Making of Christianity,” and among other things my professor claimed that Luke’s birth narrative for Christ was impossible, that many of the sayings attributed to Jesus were never spoken by him, that Paul did not write many of the Pauline letters, and so on. The class was challenging in many regards, and as I expected, I often felt that my religious beliefs were under attack. Yet there were also times where I felt completely dazzled at the worlds of knowledge uncovered by secular biblical scholarship. My professor may not have known what I did with regard to the Restoration, but she understood the Bible and Christian history in a way I had never imagined possible.

I distinctly remember the first time my professor presented evidence that I felt directly contradicted LDS doctrine. I had received numerous spiritual confirmations that the Church was true, and yet the evidence was so convincing I couldn’t deny that the Bible actually supported my professor’s point. I went into full crisis mode. Was the Church mistaken on this point? And if the Church was mistaken about this, what else might it be wrong about? I felt the ground rapidly shifting under my feet.

Despite how unsettling this experience was, my curiosity had been whetted, and this first religion class led to many, many more classes. In the years that have passed since, I have come to realize that my crisis of faith need not have been a crisis at all. The root of the problem was not that the Bible contradicted LDS doctrine, but rather that the paradigms I had been using to think about scriptures and scholars needed adjusting. My crisis of faith helped illuminate not only the gap between the way scholars and believers approach the Bible, but the price that comes when this gap continues to separate both groups as they approach this sacred text. Since that first class, I have decided to work toward bridging this gap and helping bring the insights of scholarship to the LDS community.

My current work divides along the same lines as my goals, namely: between the world of scholarship and the world of faith. On the scholarly side, my dissertation focuses on the Law and Gentiles in the Septuagint version of Isaiah. Isaiah shows a remarkably inclusive attitude toward Gentiles and their future place in Israelite religion, and my dissertation focuses on how the translator of the Septuagint understood and modified these themes in the course of the translation process. On the faith side, I am currently writing a book that explores the assumptions that scholars and believers carry as they read the scriptures, as well as how those assumptions influence the way they understand the text.

With a foot in both camps, I hope that my life’s work can help draw these camps closer together. Though this may be a difficult task, I have benefitted immensely from those who have been and who are still engaged in this work, from Hugh Nibley to the scholars currently working at the Maxwell Institute. I am grateful for their examples, and their generous support and guidance has helped me in countless ways. We believe as Latter-day Saints that all truth can be circumscribed into the whole of the Gospel; as I continue my studies, and as I try to help bring the tools and insights of biblical scholarship to the LDS community, I look forward to the continuing process of stretching, questioning, and growth that has always characterized our search for truth.

Alex Douglas is a Ph.D. candidate in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Harvard University. He is originally from Atlanta, GA, and he now lives in Cambridge, MA with his wife and daughter.