Learning is a step-by-step process catalyzed by reading, listening to podcasts and seeking knowledge from a variety of other sources. Religious learning specifically is a lifetime endeavor, requiring a focus on both doctrinal, historical and spiritual understanding. Kathleen Flake, Professor of Mormon Studies at the University of Virginia, instructed BYU-Idaho students during a virtual forum on Oct. 21 about the role of religion and the different ways religious text can communicate information.
Dr. Flake’s experience with Mormon Studies and teaching led her to speak about religious learning. The theme of the forum, “To Study ‘Out of the Best Books…Words of Wisdom,’” was based on the following scripture in Doctrine and Covenants.
“And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118).
Within her forum address, Dr. Flake wanted to suggest ways we can learn as people of faith from religious studies. In an interview with BYU-Idaho Radio, Dr. Flake shared that understanding in education even religious education begins with a thorough, well-constructed question.
“I think having a good question puts you as close to getting an answer as anything else…A bad question won’t get you an answer, right, so a lot of students spend so much time working on their answers but don’t work on their questions, and I think that’s especially true in religion,” Dr. Flake said.
Beginning with good questions in a quest to find the truth is a fundamental part of faith seeking, but why do people feel the need to seek religion at all? What motivates a religious search? What does religion do for the individual or even for quality of life? With these questions in mind, Dr. Flake expounded on what religion is and has to offer humankind.
“I think that [religion] orders people in communities in ways that facilitate the work of family life, interpersonal relationships,” Flake said. “It has a great deal to offer in terms of self-understanding… It gives us a moral order around which to live a life. I think religion also helps us by allowing us to ask questions that science doesn’t ask because it doesn’t have the tools to answer them.”
Though religion is powerful, it has no influence without actions of faith such as reading scriptures, praying, and attending worship services. Knowledge on religious topics will stagnate unless careful attention is given to them. Dr. Flake explained why faith-building action is so important to developing spiritual maturity.
“If you don’t take advantage of the best books, if you don’t mature with your knowledge, then you’ll always be stuck with that childish understanding and the question becomes ‘Does that childish understanding lead to mature faith?’ I think it leaves you vulnerable to many of the questions you see bouncing around on the internet,” she said.
Dr. Flake emphasized the importance of seeking knowledge through reading, especially in religious contexts, but she also recognized the absence of text on certain subjects, namely the temple ceremonies. In her virtual forum, Flake focused heavily on the nature of temple ordinances as an oral tradition in our primarily literate religion.
She reasoned that this is not a means to create mystery or avoid blasphemy but a way to communicate divinity and dedication to God. She said silence is wise for the purpose it serves. Through the words of anthropologist Jack Goody, Dr. Flake made the following point about why silence on a religious subject is valuable.
“By scrupulously maintaining the ritual as an oral tradition, not making its texts available or otherwise discussing it publicly for others to record its contents, the church enables the temple to function as a series of interlocking face-to-face conversations in which the very conditions of transmission operate to favor consistency between past and present.”
Some may be tempted to think of this silence as secrecy or a means of social control, however the truth is quite the opposite. The purpose of the temple is to bring community together. This is why all who enter change into white gowns or suits and slippers as a unification in appearance and rank.
Through dress, ceremony and the need for a recommend, the temple operations are made to be obviously different from outside experiences, therefore heightening need for acute awareness to surroundings and the meaning of actions performed during sacred ceremonies.
According to Dr. Flake, being overly concerned with lack of written resource is the wrong approach. With the words of scholar Paul Ricoeur, Dr. Flake explained why definitive writings would rob us of a more personal temple experience.
“Silence about and in the temple preserves for each of us the right and power of interpretation and even the opportunity to experience and to know for ourselves ‘the original enigma of the temple’s symbols of good and evil, life and death, time and eternity,’” she said.
Because symbols have multi-faceted meanings, what they represent is variable. Dr. Flake described the variable nature of interpretations as a positive thing, allowing each person to receive revelation based on their current understanding and preparation to know.
Although she strongly emphasized seeking out of the best books “words of wisdom,” Dr. Flake also acknowledged a second lesson this seeking can teach us. In conclusion to her interview with BYU-Idaho Radio, she reasoned that learning in general is not always about obtaining useful information but about discovering how to seek and find answers.
“I would say that one of the things we are to learn is the process of learning, probably more than the data we learn. What will be advantageous to us is that we will be learners. We will be problem solvers. We will know how to grow.”
She hopes students listen to the forum with an open mind about what to receive and leave with a delight that sparks their curiosity and a deepened delight in learning. The full forum address will be released by the university.