09 February 2007

Learning and the Spirit: A Nibleyesque Musing

“Zeal without Knowledge” is without a doubt one of my favorite essays ever. The replacement of true knowledge with blind trust in the Spirit is one of my main concerns for the modern Church. Too many times I have heard people deride the importance of preparing for teaching in the Church because they want to let the Spirit guide the lesson. I think this is not only foolish and lazy, but strictly against the way God and the Spirit work. Undoubtedly, listening to the whisperings of the Holy Ghost is an important part of our belief. We know that man cannot know everything, and that God has many designs for us which we may not anticipate. Thus we must rely on the guidance of the Spirit to lead us in the right paths. However, this does not mean we should rely on the Spirit for things we could and should do ourselves. Just as the Lord says “it is not meet that I should command in all things” (D&C 58:26), it is not meet that we should wait for him to teach us all things. In gathering and synthesizing knowledge, the Lord commands us to actively seek learning, not just to let it passively wash over us.

And though we are to “seek learning . . . also by faith” (D&C 109:7), I believe it will do us little good unless we have the learning sought by study to go along with it. In the process of learning, the Spirit is more of a director than a worker—we must put ourselves fully into the work of gathering and making knowledge, and only then can the Spirit direct us to the insights he would give us. As someone once said, the Lord won't move a parked car. The Lord waits for us to knock, but the process of knocking is not, as Oliver Cowdery found out in D&C 9, merely asking for wisdom and waiting for God to tell us what to do. It is throwing ourselves into the work, constantly listening for the promptings of the Spirit, but at the same time being “anxiously engaged in a good cause, [doing] many things of [our] own free will” (D&C 58:27).

Back to the idea of preparing for Church talks, would not the Spirit be better able to enlighten our minds to new truths if we sat down and put an intensive amount of effort into studying out a doctrine we think we already understand? I think that much of inspiration is lost because we assume we have already sufficiently “treasured up in [our] minds continually the words of life” (D&C 84:85), when in fact it is a process we can never finish. There is an infinite amount of knowledge to be learned out there, and we should not be complacent with the small portion we have obtained. Nibley’s own scholarship is testament to this principle: though he was extremely widely read, he never felt as though he knew sufficient to simply coast along by the Spirit. He continued to seek out more books to read, new ideas and new ways to say them. And throughout all of his study, he maintains the inspiration of the Spirit in his ideas. Just because he was synthesizing his own ideas did not mean he had shut out the ideas of the Spirit, as seems to be the common misconception.

Nibley has some interesting perspectives on man’s relationship to nature in “Subduing the Earth.” I’ve often wondered exactly what was meant by the command to “subdue the earth and have dominion over it.” I like Nibley’s picture of man as a gracious lord or host over the earth, responsible for ensuring the comfort and improvement of everything in it. I’m still not certain how I feel about his idea that respect for life means we shouldn’t eat meat. Since we believe all things were created spiritually before they were created physically, it seems an arbitrary distinction to draw the line between using plants but not animals. If animals can be said to be equally valuable with man, why not plants with animals? And then again, why use rocks and minerals, which also have a spiritual creation of a sort? I’m not sure that valuing and respecting life means ignoring its usefulness. It’s an issue I have still to work out in my own thoughts, and Nibley has certainly caused me to think about it more.

No comments: