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.
For those new to this, a personal gospel “shelf” is the idea that there are certain questions or doubts about the gospel which, for whatever reason, you don’t yet have a satisfactory answer for or that you are musing on. You write those questions in metaphorical “books” and put them on a shelf to be visited later. At best, it’s a humble way to have patience and admit that we don’t know some things; at worst it turns into escapism that halts intellectual and spiritual growth.
I’ve always had the “shelf” concept. I think any world-view (whether secular or religious) must have one otherwise it’s just hubris. But the shelf concept can be dangerous too and used as an intellectual crutch or a way to avoid approaching doubts — thinking that the goal is to amass “books” on this shelf. It’s a tool, and can be used appropriately or inappropriately. People often use the phrase “my shelf broke” to mean they couldn’t stand the weight of the books/questions they had amassed on this shelf. I think it’s understandable that someone feels that way. My hope here is to point out a more intellectually robust way to approach and extend this metaphor that allows for questions or doubts but also uses the “words of wisdom” we can learn from “the best books” this world has to offer.
Over the past several years something interesting has happened with my shelf. I’ve taken some books down off that shelf and put other new ones up as we all do. But what has been interesting is that new and entirely different shelves appeared. Anyone honest in an exploration of any discipline will find unanswered (or even unanswerable) ideas or questions in that field. But what I’ve found as I’ve approached faith from various angles culturally, figuratively, epistemologically, historically, ethically, semiologically, scientifically, etc. new shelves have appeared. What this has done is allowed me to better understand and catalogue the questions I have. Rather than try to stack all of this onto one shelf I label “gospel questions” I now have an expanded view that lets me realize that my question often isn’t unique to faith or Mormonism, it’s an epistemological question. My questions about symbolism aren’t uniquely a gospel question but fall into the category of semiotics and sign systems. My questions about Mormonism’s origins are framed more accurately under historical or cultural shelves using the tools of that discipline rather than under a catch-all shelf labeled “gospel stuff”. My questions about covenants and commandments are explored better in the context of ethics and humanities. My questions about the nature of God and the soul are fleshed out better when I explore philosophy and theology. All this is done not to reduce the gospel to human intellectualism, but to expand the toolset or the shelving available to approach questions or doubts.
This gives us a better toolbox to address our questions. Theology is not good at answering, nor can it answer, scientific questions. And science is not good at answering, nor can it answer, theological questions. The two can inform one another, but I’m glad they are not put on the same shelf in the library — and I don’t put my scientific or religious questions together on the same mental “shelf” either.
The overall effect isn’t that I have less questions (questions are a good thing). In fact the extra room allows for more questions on this expanding horizon. But it takes the artificial mental strain that occurs when we think myopically and gives the mind and soul room to breathe; to take everything in and properly contextualize the various aspects to faith and religion. It creates an intellectual/spiritual library with plenty of room to grow and finds a greater synthesis rather than one that collapses under the weight of books/questions all piled onto a single shelf.
New Testament scholar N.T. Wright makes this keen observation:
So it is with worldviews: when you are questioned about some or all of your worldview, and you have (as it were) to take it off and look at it in order to see what’s going on, you may not be able to examine it very closely because it is itself the thing through which you normally examine everything else. The resulting sense of disorientation can be distressing. It can lead to radical change. It shakes the very foundation of persons and societies. Sometimes, it seems, it can turn persecutors into apostles.
(Source: “Paul and the Faithfulness of God” pg. 34)
So here’s my advice: Expand your world-view, build more shelves, and keep asking questions! Mormonism (and indeed religion or world-views) cannot be reduced to one topic. Do you have questions about the scriptures? Learn about literary analysis and Biblical criticism. Do you have questions about rituals/ordinances and temples? Learn about semiotics, ritual studies, and use that knowledge to expand your treatment of those things. Do you have theological questions? Study the broad field of theology remembering that while Mormonism embraces all truth, it doesn’t clam a monopoly on truth (1) (2). Do you have questions about faith, belief, and knowledge? Then learn about epistemology — particularly noting the mode of epistemology (“knowing”) Christ mentions in the four gospels (3) (4). Do you have questions on Christ’s life, the origins of Christianity and Mormonism, and/or scriptural historical evidences? Then study history with an emphasis on primary source documents — where available. Do you have questions on covenants? Then study ethics and forms of epistemology rooted in covenant living. Do you have questions with regards to science and religion? Then study science, religion, and the limits to both (5) (6). Do you have questions about culturalisms surrounding religion? Then study sociology and see the deep layers of meaning in things like Zenos’ allegory. Etc. Mormonism and faith in general must be an interdisciplinary experience and to deeply explore it we need to learn about philosophy, literature, semiotics, epistemology, history, ethics, sociology, etc. To pick just one and exclude others strains the view and is likely to collapse.
So, avoid the danger only having one set of tools (one shelf) to approach questions and doubts. Go out and learn, build more shelves, keep asking questions, and file those questions in the right way bringing to bear the wide range of tools we have to answer questions. But do so having faith in God rather than put your own wisdom above God (see 2 Nephi 9:28-29). And call this library “faith”. I call mine “Mormonism”.
1) “God is using more than one people for the accomplishment of His great and marvelous work. The Latter-day Saints cannot do it all. It is too vast, too arduous for any one people… We have no quarrel with the Gentiles. They are our partners in a certain sense.” (Source: Elder Orson F. Whitney, Conference Report, April 1928, p. 59.)
2) “Mormonism is truth; and every man who embraces it feels himself at liberty to embrace every truth: consequently the shackles of superstition, bigotry, ignorance, and priestcraft, fall at once from his neck; and his eyes are opened to see the truth… Mormonism is truth, in other words the doctrine of the Latter-day Saints, is truth. The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men, or by the dominations of one another, when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same.” (Source: Times and Seasons, Feb. 1840)
3) “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” (John 7:17)
4) Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. (John 8:31-32)
5) “Let us not try to wrest the scriptures in an attempt to explain away what we cannot explain. The opening chapters of Genesis, and scriptures related thereto, were never intended as a text-book of geology, archaeology, Earth-science or man-science. . . . We do not show reverence for the scriptures when we misapply them through faulty interpretation.” (Source: James E. Talmage, “The Earth and Man,” address delivered in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, 9 Aug 1931; published by the LDS Church)
6) See our “Quotes on Science and Religion” resource page