I consider myself an intellectual. In making this statement, I'm not claiming to be particularly smart, or to have any legitimate scholarly credentials beyond a Bachelor's degree in English, or to be in anything approaching the same league as scores of deservedly more famous intellectuals whom I idol- um I mean wor- um I mean admire. I actually do think I'm rather smart, and I think almost anybody who knows me would vouch for that fact, and I think most of my writing speaks for itself, and for whatever it's worth I probably know more about the history of black people in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints than almost anyone else in the world, but that's not what I'm primarily referring to when I say that I consider myself an intellectual.
What I'm referring to is the way I look at the world, and especially at faith, which is probably the most core component of my worldview. Every faith will have its mysteries and its inconsistencies, but I strongly believe that any faith worth embracing will, to a reasonable extent, satisfy the mind as well as the heart. I believe in analyzing and researching and asking questions and not being satisfied with stupid answers. An "I don't know" is always better than a stupid answer. Without downplaying the spiritual or "inspired" nature of religion, I enjoy looking at it through secular paradigms to see what insights they bring. For example, much of the success of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and many of the changes in it over the decades, make sense in light of Armand Mauss's theory that a religion needs to find an "optimal tension" with the surrounding society to stand out as different enough without alienating everyone.
There are those who think this kind of worldview is borderline sacrilegious, that secular paradigms are prideful or something, that religion occurs in a vaccum and every word or action or change is inspired for no other reason than that's the way God wants it, full stop. I used to be rather fundamentalist in my thinking too. When I had my first faith crisis and started finding information to deal with it, I tried to put my faith back together exactly like it was before, and doubled down and became even more fundamentalist. Everything in the Church is perfect; there are no problems here except the ones fabricated by evil and dishonest anti-Mormons. But this way of thinking turned out to be untenable because it was, frankly, wrong. The world isn't simple and it isn't black and white and religious matters, no matter how much we may want to deny the human element that the divine will always be filtered through and hampered by, are no exception. Just writing that makes me feel pretentious, but it's true so whatever.
Here's what it comes down to. God gave me a brain. Because he expects me to not trust solely in my own brain, it does not therefore follow that he expects me to turn it off. Because he left unanswered questions, it does not therefore follow that I'm not supposed to look for the answers. There's a thing called nuance. Anyway, Nathan B. Oman recently published this Interpeter article that I think every Latter-day Saint should read.
Abstract: This is a challenging moment for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints. Both its efforts at retention and missionary work are less effective than they have been in the past. At this moment, what is the most important task facing Latter-day Saint intellectuals? In contrast to those who argue that faithful thinkers and writers should focus either on defending the faith or providing criticisms of the Church’s failings, this essay argues that the Latter-day Saint clerisy should focus on celebrating the Restoration and finding new language in which to express what makes the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ a compelling and attractive force in people’s lives. The language which we have used in the past no longer seems to be as compelling as once it was. This is unsurprising. The history of the Church shows a cyclical pattern focused on missionary work, with seasons of harvest giving way to fallow times and seasons of planting. However, over time the Church tends to transform itself in the image of its most successful messages for proclaiming the Gospel. Latter-day Saint intellectuals have an important, albeit subordinate, role in finding such messages. Pursuing the project of celebrating the Restoration need not involve either usurping the prerogatives of Church leaders nor compromising one’s intellectual integrity. In this moment in the history of the Church, it is the most important project to which Latter-day Saint thinkers can turn their attention.
Sounds great, right? So this is one of those aforementioned other intellectuals who's way out of my league, since I don't typically use so many fancy words, but I feel I still have something to offer along the lines he's suggesting if I can just figure out what it is. I note also his very clear humility throughout. Some people assume that we self-proclaimed intellectuals don't know our place and think we're better than everone else. Okay, so I'm a bad example because I'm not all that humble and I do think I'm better than some people who are idiots. Sue me. But even so, my analytical and inquisitive approach is precisely because I know that I don't know everything and I'm not satisfied with my ignorance. Anyway, this was apparently one of those people:
*puts on mansplainer glasses* Well, ackchewelly, rocket science is part of the gospel. Literally. *takes off mansplainer glasses but keeps them nearby for my next post about abortion* I mean, I get where he's coming from, really, but the article is a call to action to address real issues and he basically responded with "Everything is fine and we don't need to do anything." I don't believe that's what faith is about or what God would want. I replied - or rather I meant to post this as a direct reply to his comment, but I appear to have made it a separate comment instead, but I never said I was infallible, okay - so anyway, I commented:
And a few minutes later I received this email:
And of course that made me feel like
I do wish to add, though, that while Oman's observations about secularism and the decline in church growth and decreased success of the missionary program are all accurate, they are of course not universal. Some countries are enjoying exponential growth that's simply failing to make a dent in the prevailing trend because it's such a small percentage in the total. For example, Nigeria. The Church is doing very well in Nigeria. It's just still very tiny and unknown to most Nigerians. And really the main reason I wanted to bring this up is so I could change the subject to my friend Chichikana El'Shadai Shungu, a Congolese missionary serving in the Nigeria Enugu Mission, who returns home in a couple weeks and recently shared with me pictures from his latest baptisms. This is from a group (a step below a branch) in Oju, Benue State. Pictures re-shared with permission.
Elder Shungu says, "I am very happy for this privilege that has been given to me to help my brothers and sisters to know the restored gospel of Jesus Christ."
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender male and a Latter-day Saint, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic, so you can't. Unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.