A Special Day at FPR (Updated)

Today we mark two important milestones at FPR. First, May 9th, 2008 is the third anniversary of our creation. Second, this composition is the 500th post. In light of this, we thought it proper to do something a bit special to mark the occasion.

Our founder, the illustrious John C., has posed a question and invited the rest of us to respond in 150 words or less. His response leads the roll; we follow in no specific order.

You may note that our number is not quite complete. We find ourselves unable to pry certain members out of various odd corners of the remote past in a timely fashion. This is a hazard of the occupation. We will, however, update this entry as their comments become available.

THE QUESTION: How has your decision to pursue academic research in religion or ancient history affected your faith?



My academic experience has taught me the value of having a flexible faith. For me, this means quickly paring down what is important to me in my faith to the bare minimum and then allowing the remainder of my beliefs to ebb and flow with the tide of evidence, experience, and inspiration. The academy encourages one to question everything in an attempt to see what survives. That is well and good, but there are some things that I have determined are going to survive no matter what answers or non-answers critical examination gives me. These are, primarily, my experiences with my God and they are, I believe, untouchable by rational inquiry. Rationality strikes me as a particularly temporal goal and endeavor and the pursuit thereof is best at enlightening human motivation and natural causes. It is very, very useful for learning how best to navigate, explain, and influence the world around you. It establishes good limits on what can and cannot make for proofs and arguments acceptable outside of your self. What it is best at is, I think, showing the limits of what we can legitimately claim to know. In rationality, all information is tentative, which is a very good thing. It just isn’t the basis of my faith. For all that, without the rational, I wouldn’t have the language, the reason, or the rationale to understand my own faith or others in even the imperfect manner I do today. I am as human as anyone else and we all examine ourselves rationally. The academy has given me the means to examine, articulate, experiment on, stretch, flex, and strengthen my own faith. For that, I am forever in its debt.


As the token lay person of the group, I have learned much and forgotten more in my journey through the Bloggernacle. I have never been one of valiant faith, not in this religion and not in my previous one, but I am a believer and supporter. There are aspects of LDS history that really filled me with doubt. However, through discussions among the extremely intelligent and critical thinking elite (those here at FPR and elsewhere), I have found a place in my soul where I can happily exist. I may not be Celestial material, but I have peace.


After one eats the fruit, there is no going back. This fortunate fall is as much the source of joy as it is pain. At times, the most challenging thing is not living in the lone and dreary wilderness, but living among those still in Eden. Keeping one foot in Eden and one foot in the wilderness can be harrowing, but deeply rewarding. It turns out, Eden can be a nasty place where childlike innocence can sometimes be a cover for schoolyard cruelty. But it is beautiful. Yet the wilderness is not nearly as bad as one thinks. In fact, it has a profound beauty of its own. Indeed, the longer one spends admiring it, the more one sees that Eden and the wilderness are not nearly as far apart as one might expect. There is a great deal of cross-fertilization, and I am developing a green thumb.


I’ll highlight the effect that theological pluralism in scripture has had on my faith. As a child and young adult, I received the uncritical and homogenizing presentation associated with traditional LDS sources, and I think I honestly enjoyed it. But now I find the reality of scripture as apprehended critically – and especially its theological variety – to be far more compelling than anything in my earlier experience. Both satisfaction and peace have come from integrating my rational and cognitive faculties in to my spiritual life rather than relying on rhetoric, regardless of how heart-felt it be. And happily, there is more to come because in the diversity of Biblical thought there is the stuff for a lifetime of thinking, judging, discerning, and testing, in short, for coming to appreciate, without ever comprehending, the mystery that is God.


Of the things that I have gained from my graduate study, my faith has been most impacted by the idea of reflective equilibrium, which says that we need to weigh our beliefs and practices against our core convictions and principles. When we find that our beliefs and/or practices are in opposition to our core convictions, we should adjust our beliefs and practices. In political and moral philosophy my conviction about the universal value of human dignity has led me to reject conservatism and American-style capitalism. My conviction about the gospel of Jesus Christ, has led me to consider which parts of Mormon culture are Christian doctrine and which are merely cultural practices of little moral import. I believe in Jesus Christ. My belief in “love they neighbor” is still strong. I believe in the Book of Mormon. I believe that Joseph Smith was a true prophet. However, I do not much care for white dress shirts (though I am wearing one as I type this). I do not much care about the Boy Scouts (though my boys will be Scouts). I feel no need to defend polygamists (past or present), particularly polygamists who are sexual predators. And most importantly…I despise Mitt Romney. All said, my graduate study (which has been in moral and political theory, not religion, and surely not anything ancient) has reinforced my testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Church. Mormon culture on the other hand is tolerable…barely.


The more I learn, the more I know how little I know. Studying religion academically is one of the few disciplines that someone can devote their entire life to and still be considered as having only a passing knowledge by the group they work on (one would probably think twice before correcting his or her dentist, for instance). I find this judgment true in a certain sense. Not because of a privileged perspective of the insider, but because in all reality we know rather little about the religiousness of humanity at large. I don’t think any academic training is necessary to have this insight, but one of the ways in which academic involvement has impacted my faith is by allowing me to contextual Mormonism within a larger stream of religiosity. I’ve become much slower in my judgments of other’s religious experiences, and have found myself trying harder to piece together the religious traditions of the other. The academy can certainly be a place “unfriendly to faith”, but I’ve personally found it accommodating to the search for understanding; and this understanding has renewed my faith that God can be found in all humanity.


Struggle. It’s a word I naively never thought would come to define my graduate school experience. I remember in the first years being in a testimony meeting in which a prominent scientist stood up and proudly proclaimed that while so many asked him about the conflicts between religion and science, his study had only confirmed his faith. “Huh,” I thought. “If he wants real conflict, he should come and try it in the study of Religion.” In many ways, I got what I wanted out of grad school: a knowledge that extended beyond what I had learned in Sunday School and the CES. But I never anticipated that this thing would also isolate me profoundly from the mainstream body of my tradition and bring me to fundamental disagreement with SS and CES. And I really never thought that it would lead some of my own faith to antagonize me. What my graduate school experience has forced me to do is to find peace in the struggle and to seek out like minds and take comfort with them. It has forced me to find out how to be comfortable in the pursuit of answers I know I’ll probably never find, and how to help others do the same. In that unsettling sense, my graduate study has helped me to recognize my faith for what it is—a belief, a hope. And coming to that realization has strengthened me.

Nitsav (under serious time constraints):

After some reflection, I’ve concluded that my graduate studies have had a net positive for my faith.

My studies have challenged some of the things I deeply believe, and bolstered others. I reaffirm something Stephen Robinson said, that “the problem with scholarly religion, religion that has been carefully trimmed so that it conflicts with no empirical data, is that it inevitably makes scholarship the religion… such a faith would not be faith at all.” In that sense, my studies have not affected my faith at all, since its foundation was never academic. No one “comes to Jesus” by exegesis.

More than anything, my studies have caused me to weigh, refine and decide what propositions, beliefs and experiences constitute that core. I am and will remain a committed, orthodox-but-non-traditional Mormon.

And now we invite you to join our modest celebration by answering this same question according to your particular situation: How has your study of [ ? ] affected your faith?

50 Replies to “A Special Day at FPR (Updated)”

  1. Thanks Steve! I too extend my congrats to those who have gone before me here for their wonderful contributions.

  2. Eh, I was just thinking of sliding on over to NCT to say “hi” to all the Wild Thangs. But here they are! Hiya, Wild Thangs!

  3. Good post. I enjoyed reading this.

    But Chris H., if you don’t like “American-style capitalism,” what do you like? I think we have it pretty good here. Do you think centralized planning a la USSR yields better results? If you care about human dignity you should support an economic system that makes life good for humans. I think the USA comes out top in that regard.

  4. CC,

    Only a good American would think that the only alternative to American-style is USSR-style central planning, something we western socialists have long rejected (we-being we socialists since I do not think that most at FPR agree with me on this). My economic system of choice is European-style social democracy.

    We do have it good here. The problem is that the “we” in this instance leaves out many Americans and much, if not most, of the world’s population. Respect for human dignity restricts one from making moral evaluations that only benefit a small part of the world’s population, particularly when that system also harms much of that same population. I love Kant.

    Thanks for noticing.

  5. Stephen Robinson said, that “the problem with scholarly religion, religion that has been carefully trimmed so that it conflicts with no empirical data, is that it inevitably makes scholarship the religion… such a faith would not be faith at all.”

    I know Nistav isn’t near a computer to respond, but to ask the broader audience (bloggers and readers), do you agree with Robinson?

  6. I think I would tend to agree with Robinson, SmallAxe. My set of core beliefs deliberately include some things that either are not verifiable or that could potentially be “proven” wrong. Knowing myself, on these, should they be “proven” wrong, I would be much more likely to engage in apologetics than to admit initial defeat or alteration. That said, it could still change, but I would fight hard for them, I am sure. Religion requires intellectual risk.

  7. Chris H,

    Fair enough. But I think capitalism is the way to go if you want to improve lives. Innovators who take risks and invent products that improve our lives (i-Pods, etc.) deserve to be rich. And working in a Gap shirt factory is better than being a sustenance farmer. Everyone wins with capitalism. Some win more than others. But it’s fair.

  8. I dispute your notion that working in a shirt factory is necessarily better than being a subsistence farmer. The only way in which I can see that argument being made is in the case of chronic or catastrophic disease and in either case you are not making enough money to make a difference in your health care.

  9. …such a faith would not be faith at all…

    Hm, yes. Of all the responses this is that one that gives me pause.

    It seems to me that it is, indeed, quite possible to exercise faith in the absence of conflicts with empirical data. Robinson sounds like the Red Queen in that statement.

    A description of faith that requires believing something that’s not true/possible/real isn’t describing faith, it’s describing credulousness and/or naivete. The correct test for faith, I think, is two sided. Faith should result in a fruitful life and in fruitful knowledge.

    A fruitful life is what you might expect: moral behavior, care for others, giving and receiving love, self-discipline, etc., etc. Fruitful knowledge really gets to the idea that what we know as part of our spiritual life isn’t cut off or comparmentalized from the rest of what we know. It doesn’t mean that all our questions are settled, but that we’re simply moving ahead in thinking, experiencing, judging, doing, discerning, and the like, in a productive manner.

  10. a prominent scientist stood up and proudly proclaimed that while so many asked him about the conflicts between religion and science, his study had only confirmed his faith.

    This also interests me. Perhaps it is just me, but the gentleman-scientists sounds a bit triumphalist, like perhaps the reason his faith is unthreatened lies within himself and his spiritual strength.

    One of the reasons, I think, that scientists no longer feel as much tension as they once did is that religion has pretty much yielded the field. Nobody pounding the pulpit and insisting that if we don’t accept Genesis as science, Christianity will come to a screeching halt.

    (OK, nobody but fundamentalists.)

    A second point that could be made is that he stands at the end of a good 150 years of thought on the relationship between science and religion/faith. The arguments needed for accomodation are already in place, and he simply grew up with them.

    Anyway, I agree with Jupiter’s Child, that the “front lines” are now inside religion, theology, and exegesis, rather than in history, science, or philosophy. I think that’s because religion has consistently been forced to retreat.

  11. John C. (14)

    The beauty of a free market is that people have the free-will choice to leave their plot of dirt and go work at an Ambercrombie & Fitch factory.

    Under a centrally-planned economy, the leaders tell people what to do.

  12. SmallAxe 11,
    The problem with the Robinson quote (I don’t know if it is a direct quote, so I don’t want to attribute it exactly as is to Robinson) is that I am not entirely sure what he means. What in the world is “scholarly religion”? The religion that “scholars” have? What “scholars”? Or is it religion which is informed by scholarship? Or is it religion that bases itself on “empirical data”? What data? Data about God? Data about historicity? Why is religion that is based on “empirical data” called “scholarly religion”? Do only scholars base themselves on empirical data? What empirical data is Robinson saying that we should ignore? It makes “scholarship the religion”? What does that mean? Does it mean that scholars worship scholarship? What scholars and what scholarship?

    To be honest, I am not sure if I agree with the Robinson quote because I have no idea what he is talking about. It seems that he is relying on some ambiguous boogey-man categories of “scholars,” “scholarship,” “empirical data,” which are then contrasted with “religion” as if these are somehow separable. Without knowing what he means by any of these categories, I can’t say what I think.

  13. CC,

    “Everyone wins with capitalism. Some win more that others. But it’s fair.”

    It is absolutely not fair. That is my point. Very few win. Unless you have faith in Milton Friedman. I only have faith in Christ.

    In light of extreme poverty and grinding inequality, how do I-pods make lives better? Such a claim is immoral. Of all the things that might justify inequality, Ipods?

    I am not saying that they cannot profit from their innovation. They just cannot claim that they do not have obligation to other human beings.

    No one here is arguing for a planned command economy. I already said that in #10.

    We likely will never agree. Thanks for participating.

    John C.,
    Thanks for helping out.

  14. Nitsav,

    I’m sorry if I made you feel like you needed to defend that statement. I sort of figured you understood it in light of some context. Having now read Robinson’s entire piece, I’m still not swayed but I’m also not interested in creating discomfort for you by means of it.

  15. I agree with Mogget…I am not expecting Nitsav to “defend” anything. FWIW, I agree 100% with the Nitsav’s understanding of the quote, that faith is not the result of scholarship.

  16. Chris H.

    Capitalism is fair because it improves the lives of everyone. The successful innovators get rich, and consumers get richer because they get new innovative products and services. People in third-world countries get richer because they get opportunities to work in factories.

    I-pods are remarkable technology that improve the quality of the lives of the tens of millions of people who have purchased them, assuming that these I-pod buyers derive utility from listening to music. These millions of people are carrying massive music catalogs around in a container the size of a credit card. That’s a dramatic improvement in the human condition.

    Innovators help other human beings by creating new products and services. The beauty of capitalism is that innovators improve the lives of others by helping themselves.

    I think it is un-Christlike to blunt the innovator’s incentives by taking away some of their rewards and giving them away. Christ would want us to make life better for people.

  17. And yes, capitalism leads to massive inequality in wealth, but why is that a problem? As long as everyone is better off than before, then it’s a great system.

    Christ would counsel us to not compare people to each other.

  18. CC,

    This is going nowhere. I disagree with every single thing that you just said. If I respond this will never end. Thanks for playing. BTW, you sticking with the I-Pod point will surely make it into a lecture someday, I hope that you do not mind.

  19. Chris H.,

    So you thing I-pods are bad? Most people seem to think they’re good.

    You can’t demonstrate why collectivism is a good idea, so you should support capitalism. If you have socially liberal views, that’s fine, then you should consider being a libertarian.

    But social economics is not the way to go.

  20. Congrats on three years! I’m usually too lazy to de-lurk, but I really enjoy this blog. And it was fun to read all of your thoughts on the academic study of religion. As a fellow traveler on that path, I’d say that I sometimes find it exhilarating, and sometimes crazy-making–but overall I think it’s been a net positive in my life. I can very much identify with what Jupiter’s Child said about learning to live with the struggle. Often I’m just glad to know that I’m not the only one wrestling with the questions I do. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, and for a continually thought-provoking site.

  21. California Condor,

    Do not tell me what I can or cannot believe (you are starting to sound rather authoritarian). Your troubling arguments for capitalism are the very reasons that I oppose it. I am not a collectivist, how many time do I have to say that? Check out my previous posts on this a similar issues by clicking on my name under “Contributors.” I do not have time to repeat all of those arguments here. I am okay with you not agreeing with me. This is what I have learned after years of study. I have never said that everyone else should think the same way.

    I-pods are not important, people are.

  22. The beauty of capitalism is that innovators improve the lives of others by helping themselves.

    “Improving the lives of others” is only incidental, and that’s the problem. This isn’t to say that there isn’t some beauty in a system that is able to play off the self interest of varying parties to generate a beneficial state of affairs generally speaking (It’s certainly too idealistic to expect people to do otherwise most of the time). But to treat people as subservient to my own needs is not only un-Christian but also neglects the negative results of such a system–poor working conditions (factory workers are better off than subsistence farmers is certainly debatable), unhealthy lifestyles (in at least the physical sense), parochialism (our inability to transcend our own national interests), etc. If I wanted to “improve your life” it should probably be done on the basis of a personal knowledge of who you are and what kind of person you want to become; not on the basis of my own interests. Although at the same time it is important for me not to neglect my own interests–these are very important to me. However I shouldn’t pretend that the sole pursuit of my own interests is somehow beneficial to you, without some knowledge of who you are.

  23. Chris H. & SmallAxe,

    This article helps show how capitalism can help feed the world.

    If you care about people, then capitalism is the way to go.

  24. CC,
    If you hate people, or are Hitler, or have a hangnail, or have to give a 5-minute spontaneous speech in Drama, or would like to meet your soul mate, or are in need of a Chinese Fortune Cookie slogan, or are just being silly, Capitalism is the way to go. Please stop now; none of this is relevant to the thread and none of your platitudes are proving your point.

  25. Hey yeah, John C.’s right. Ah well, here is one more reader and once-in-while commenter who really enjoys this blog offering my congratulations for a wonderful job done.

    Keep it up!

  26. John C.

    Actually, if you re-read the original post, Chris H. said “…my conviction about the universal value of human dignity has led me to reject conservatism and American-style capitalism.”

    American-style capitalism is helpful to the humans that Chris H. wants to help. Socialists often have good intentions, but they may not understand economics well enough to realize that their ideas are harmful.

    Take a look at the article I linked to. It mentions how large capitalistic corporations have the ability to increase food production much better than small independent farmers. In this day of high food prices, that’s something the world needs.

  27. CC,
    Your continued assertion that only idiots or ignoramuses can disagree with you indicates, once again, that you are not a fair partner is discussions. Good bye.

  28. At this point, I sense little potential productivity in the continued discussion of some aspects of capitalism. So now would probably be a good time to just let it drop.

  29. Moggett (and I assume this applies to the others as well),

    Given the impact of your studies on your outlook, how has it impacted your experience at church on Sunday? I sometimes feel like I am in a different world and I am in no way a religion scholar.

  30. Hm. Well, it varies. For example, I think in some things my understanding is getting rather nuanced, and that I see more gray areas. This influences my reaction to events such as talks and lessons. But I also need to “fit in” and be supportive of the leadership and of my fellow saints, so when it’s not my calling to teach I get overtly involved only when I can do so productively and positively.

    On the other hand, nuanced understandings teach you how little you really know. And that also means that remaining silent and thoughtful about things is good until the moment is right for everyone.

    With regard to my personal experience, I have a far more deeply grounded understanding of ideas like redemption, sin, and salvation, so I find myself more thoroughly engaged in the Sacrament, for example, than I was before I began school. In fact, it’s one of the things that makes me happiest about grad school.

  31. As I have pursued studies (in Music Composition, and religion is the MOST amateurish of senses possible) I have come to accept what I term a plurality of possibilities. There are many ways to explain a subject and any number of them could be correct and that is okay. I still respect and understand many of my old views of faith and doctrine, which were absolutist and unyielding, and accept and appreciate them in others for what they represent: firm devotion. The more I have studied the more human and fallible religion has become. Even apostles make mistakes; there are many ways to view and understand a relationship with God that do not fit typical LDS expectations; Just because many good people believe it doesn’t make it true; The church has made mistakes in the past and that’s alright; Bruce R. McConkie may have said it, but I don’t have to agree etc. All of this has deepened my appreciation for the atonement of Christ, with is a powerful absolute to my mind, one which I understand less each week, but appreciate more.

  32. John C.,

    Why the ad hominem attack on me? (Instead of demonstrating why socialism is better than capitalism, you label me as “not a fair partner.”)

    I love open-minded intellectual pursuits. So I think it’s cool that you guys are “liberal” about religion. The problem is, that some of you (maybe Chris H. at least) seem to think that divorcing yourself from a conservative interpretation of LDS doctrince means that you must divorce yourself from conservative economics. It doesn’t have to be this way. You can be liberally-minded about the Old Testament and still support an economic system that makes sense.

  33. California Condor,

    If you are serious about continuing this discussion why don’t you respond to my point in #32? I don’t see how anything you’ve said (or refered to) engage it.

  34. CC,
    I wouldn’t characterize myself as “liberal” about religion, without knowing what you mean by that. I tend to resist all categories, though.

  35. CC, I think the big problem here is you are unwilling to understand the paradigm that Chris and others value. You seem to understand econ enough to know that people frequently get value out of things that are economically inefficient. What Chris and TT value is their own business and actually has little to do with how much or how little they support a capitalistic society, not everybody thinks in terms of maximizing total welfare. I think it is painful how you continue to belabor the point. I appreciate your head for econ, but people are allowed to derive utility from things that you may (rightly so, at times) consider inefficient. It has nothing to do with being liberal or conservative, at least not immediately. I view it as having to do with what is most important, some people don’t care if the pie gets bigger, they want it to be more evenly divided, despite whatever contradictions economics sees in such a stance.

  36. So I’m late to the party (been moving cross-country)… I’m studying science, not ancient religion, but I want you to know that your posts on this blog have strengthened my testimony of the restored Gospel. I know that there are some who will cringe to read that—some who disagree with much of what you write—but my experience is that your work has drawn me closer to Christ and to the LDS Church. I look forward to the next 3 years.

  37. Wow Brian! We are deeply honored by your comment. I can speak at least for myself that your words humble me. Thanks so much for reading and participating here.

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