James E. Faulconer, a professor of philosophy at BYU and a senior research fellow at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute recently released the book Thinking Otherwise: Theological Explorations of Joseph Smith’s Revelations. I think the best way to sum up this book is to admit that it straight up slapped me in the face and said “Hey, you can do better. It’s time to grow.”
I was just happily reading along, my mind already working hard to wrap my brain around the incredible things Faulconer wrote about the nature of God when I got to this part in the chapter titled The Privilege of Scripture Study:
We come to the things we read already having an idea of what they have to say. … It is as if we see through the words on the page to what we already have learned them to mean, but we don’t really read the words themselves. We read our own thoughts and minds rather than the scriptures. The result is that we don’t hear the invitation to come to Christ as it applies to each of us here and now in the particular way that this scripture we are reading makes that invitation (as opposed to the way that other scriptures do), so we also don’t demonstrate that we are hearing in our interpretations. We cannot help but simply repeat ourselves over and over.p. 89
Guilty as charged.
So often the insights I see in the scriptures are memories of things others have taught me and my eyes are merely scanning the page jumping from one remembered insight to another without considering what I may be missing. Sometimes I do this because it feels like other people are so smart and I have nothing worthy to contribute. Other times I do this because mentally overwhelmed and scanning my eyes over the page is all I can do that day.
Of course, the insights of others are valuable. Prophets, apostles, teachers, and others can help give us a framework for our gospel study. But only we can determine what each doctrine and principle means in our lives. The doctrines and principles of the gospel are activated in our lives when they are lived in our relationship with Christ. Since each of us will have an individual relationship with Christ, ultimately the greatest truths revealed to us through our scripture study will be through our own careful study.
The insights of others don’t necessarily broaden our understanding unless they introduce new questions, new ways of righteous living, and new connections in our relationship with Christ. Insightful as they may be, they only have purpose when we expand upon them and live in them.
When I merely jump from insight to insight, I am reading with the assumption that I already know what the scriptures have to tell me and I have already learned every possible thing from them. I become a robot reading more out of obedience hoping that something will jump into my mind with little effort on my part. Faulconer warns of this when he says:
If we want to know the things of God, we must beware of a fanciful, flowery, or heated subjective imagination. That kind of imagination steers scripture to mean whatever pops into our heads when we read it. If passages of scripture mean whatever we imagine them to mean, we risk turning them into mirrors in which we see only ourselves and our ideas and our emotions. In that case they will not teach us, because they will not challenge us and take us beyond where we already are.p. 122
Again, guilty as charged. I have a tendency to look for things that conform what I already know to be true rather than looking for things that challenge my understanding and foster growth. Even worse, after doing that kind of uninspired reading, I then have the audacity to get frustrated that my study session didn’t strengthen me the way I wanted it to. In short, I am only doing half the work of scripture study while wondering why I am not getting the full reward.
For years I’ve thought a lot about the difference between feeling the promptings of the spirit and heeding the call to come unto Christ. So often we talk about church meetings as if being a spirit-filled meeting was the goal of the meeting. In reality, the goal of the meeting, the ultimate goal of the Holy Ghost, is not just to feel something, but to persuade us to act.
If I am to become more thoughtful in my scripture study, I need to do more than just scan the pages looking for pieces of inspiration. I need to study and examine my scriptures in a way that moves me to act in ways that help me to become more Christlike. To help my life become another living testimony of Jesus Christ, just as is implied by the subtitle of the Book of Mormon.
Though there were many, many insights and principles Faulconer shares in this book, ultimately the most important thing I took from it was a renewed desire to carefully study my scriptures. Even in the few days since I’ve accepted that invitation, I have already been introduced to new questions, new topics of study, and new insights that are personal and applicable to my life.