“Providing intellectual and devotional frameworks” (Nibley Fellow Reflections)

04.11.2017 | Guest

stuart-josephThe Maxwell Institute has an exciting announcement to make concerning the Nibley Fellowship program this week, so watch this space. In the meantime, enjoy this guest post from Joey Stuart. He’s a Nibley Fellowship recipient currently studying at the University of Utah. Here he reflects on how personal vulnerability can help scholars build faith with the help of secular knowledge.
When I taught early morning seminary in Richmond, Virginia, I enjoyed using the LDS Church’s Gospel Topics essays to teach aspects of church history and doctrine that many of my students had never encountered. While I used the Gospel Topics essays as my primary text, I also answered questions using my professional training as a historian. My students loved engaging new material and asked excellent questions about race-based priesthood and temple restrictions, plural marriage, women and the priesthood, and many other topics. As a scholar and Latter-day Saint, I savored the experience of sharing my academic expertise in a setting that helped students build faith in Jesus Christ. Teaching seminary was one of the most spiritually and intellectually enriching experiences of my life. It was interesting to me that none of my students ever developed what are sometimes called “faith crises” as a result of my teaching. However, I met with several sets of parents that had questions about history, doctrine, and culture. In one memorable meeting, a mother asked me about the restriction against people of African descent regarding their ordination to the priesthood or participation in temple rituals. I explained the history of the restriction as recovered by scholars in and out of the Church and did not skip any of the painful details. I tried my best to tell her only the facts that I had learned from my years of study about American race and religion so she would not feel that I was trying to excuse past acts. However, I admit part of my teaching “facts” was selfish because it allowed me to separate myself from unsavory events that caused me spiritual pain. I did not have to be vulnerable to share facts; I only had to be informed. She was quiet for a moment, and then suddenly burst out something like this: “People have told me that history before. I am less concerned with knowing how it happened; I want to know what I am supposed to do with the information now. How do you trust the promptings of the Spirit when others felt promptings that in hindsight were so wrong?” This jarring and pointed question taught me a valuable lesson when I spoke with fellow Saints using only secular knowledge. My academic knowledge only mattered in this conversation as much as I was also willing to share my own spiritual experiences, providing both intellectual and devotional frameworks in which others can reconcile faith and knowledge. My expertise only mattered so far as I was willing to speak to my relationship with God and the Church—to be as vulnerable as the person asking me questions. I had to learn to speak about experiences where I had felt the Holy Ghost. I learned that I needed to provide an example of how someone comes to grips with difficult truths and decides to remain planted in the gospel. Remaining aloof and hiding behind rationality does not translate to the difficult task faithful LDS scholars face when they are helping individuals build or regain faith in Christ. I have reflected on this experience many times this year as a Nibley Fellow. I have long admired Dr. Hugh Nibley’s commitment to his faith and to his scholarship—in this he provided all LDS academics an example worthy of emulation. He did not shy away from his identity as a Latter-day Saint nor did he hide his knowledge under a bushel. He helped students and Saints learn from “the best books” and to increase their devotion to the gospel with knowledge obtained through the Spirit and by careful research. Nibley understood that many Saints have benefited from the academic study of religion and history and that rising generations of Mormons will benefit from scholar-disciples’ rigorous study and abiding faith. I am grateful for the generous funding of the Nibley Fellowship Program, which has allowed me to read widely, research in several archives, and prepare articles for submission to academic journals. The Maxwell Institute’s donors have blessed my life by entrusting me with their hard-earned funds—I look forward to the day that I can return the favor and donate to the Nibley Fellowship program.