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 Seminar co-director Joseph Spencer, who recently completed his PhD in philosophy at the University of New Mexico. Posts from other seminar participants will follow.—BHodges
The Book of Mormon prophet Jacob lived through difficult times. Jacob was born on the road as his family traveled through an unforgiving desert wasteland. He was raised in a contentious family divided over the meaning of their circumstances, wounded by the experience of seeing his aged parents veer close to death while he was still young, elevated to a level of heavy priestly responsibility once he came of age, left behind by the death of his brother and closest associate, and eventually marginalized because of his prophetic interventions in affairs of state. After so many difficulties in both his immediate family and his larger people, it’s no surprise that he seems to have retreated into a kind of private study of the scriptures. When Jacob offers his reflections on scripture in the book that bears his own name, he does so only when he writes for a future audience. He seems to have become convinced that no one in his generation was genuinely interested in reading scripture with him.
Or so it was until after his encounter with Sherem, a defender of non-messianic Mosaic religion. In the aftermath of that puzzling affair, Jacob reports that his people began again to “search the scriptures” (Jacob 7:23), seeking to understand their place in the larger scheme of God’s work in history (see Jacob 7:24).
Jacob’s times aren’t our own, it seems. In addition to my personal and family devotions, I have the opportunity to read scripture with others. No spectacular eradication of true religion’s enemies has to happen in the eyes of the public to encourage focused reading of scripture. Instead, I find ready readers everywhere I go, people interested in understanding better what scripture asks of those who would live a life of holiness before God. Because I’m an academic, I find it especially encouraging that there are so many academics willing to use their training to read scripture carefully, and to do so in a setting of interpretive communion. The Mormon Theology Seminar provides opportunities for scholars with various backgrounds and interests to work together on scriptural texts. And the result is both intellectually productive and spiritually profound.
Consecration yields an abundance.
This year’s summer seminar, sponsored by the Mormon Theology Seminar and graciously funded by the Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies, took as its focus Jacob 7. The seminar met in New York City, hospitably hosted by Union Theological Seminary. I was deeply privileged to be a part of the project. We spent nine or ten hours a day for two weeks working intensely on the text of Jacob 7, asking thousands of questions and answering as many of them as we possibly could. We were astounded by the richness of the chapter. Everyone participating would agree that we could easily have spent two or three months working on the text and still had more to investigate.
The key to the abundance of our interpretive experience lay, I believe, in the collaborative nature of the enterprise. Each individual’s perspective forced every other individual’s perspective to widen, but in a way that multiplied many times over. Had the eight participants worked individually on the text for two weeks, the results could never have been so rich. What Jacob seems to have yearned for—and only to have been able to experience in extreme circumstances—we had the luxury to undertake. We read the scriptures in community. The best of our findings will be made public, of course, but what we can’t directly share with others may have been the richest aspect of the experience: what it’s like to read scripture together in a deeply fulfilling way. We can’t share with others the sense of spiritual community and intellectual richness of the experience in any direct way, but we can urge them to read scripture together to see if they can’t experience something similar. I earnestly urge others to do so.
I owe deep gratitude to the Willes Center and to its director, Brian Hauglid, for promoting this project. Richard Bushman, with whom we as a seminar visited during our two weeks in New York, described the work of the seminar as “making the Book of Mormon great.” I sincerely hope we’ve done something to reveal the greatness of the Book of Mormon. If anything of what I felt while working on the text with such companions is a sign of the fruit this sort of work can produce, something great is going on indeed.