As a devout Mormon scholar, I often find myself pondering the problem of how faith mingles with intellect. I say “problem,” because faith vs. intellect has been treated as a scholarly problem by faithful Christians throughout the Middle Ages (my own area of study) up until the twentieth century, when the general scholarly assumption shifted to the viewpoint that personal faith is something that a careful scholar pretty much has to set aside and try to work around if she is to undertake serious study. That fractured faith/intellect viewpoint is something I had to grapple with in graduate school, and it caused me to face something of a crisis of faith. My faith emerged more strongly as a result, but one thing that I learned from this is that intellect and faith in today’s world do not usually speak the same language. One must learn to be bilingual in order to work with this split, even if it is a temporary and artificial split that will not endure forever. The work of translating ideas between the two, however, can stretch thinking in ways that allow for previously-unforeseen insights. The greatest challenge, it seems to me, is that some insights which come spiritually have no equivalent in the world of scientific proof, and trying to reduce such insights to words (especially those that are documented and footnoted) is even more difficult than trying to reduce the harmonies of a full orchestra into a score playable by a single pianist. I am an indifferent pianist at best, but my lack of ability on that end does not diminish my love for the orchestra of spiritual experience.
I have no easy answers to offer on the challenges of translation between the languages of faith and intellect. But I take some comfort in the fact that scholars of the Middle Ages— Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Albert the Great, and many others— did not ever doubt God’s existence or the importance of faith, although they grappled with the best way of proving such concepts intellectually to nonbelievers. The success of their scholastic methods may be questioned today, but they did not allow themselves to be stopped by the limitations of intellect. Neither did the ancient Nephite prophet Moroni give up the struggle to express his faith, even when daunted by the greatness of the task and when he feared that he would be mocked because “when we write we behold our weakness, and stumble because of the placing of our words” (Ether 12:25). The Lord’s reply to this, that Moroni’s weak things would become strong unto him if he (Moroni) humbled himself through Christ (Ether 12:27), is fulfilled throughout the end of the record Moroni wrote; his invitation to readers of the Book of Mormon to ask God for a personal revelation of the record’s truth (Moroni 10:4-5) is among the strongest expressions of LDS doctrine.
My ability to explain concepts of faith in the world of scholarship may be limited, even limping, but God knows I do my best, and He can, if He chooses, make up the difference. He always has. And when I run into frustration, and doubt, I turn to the words of Nephi, who said “I do not know the meaning of all things . . . (nevertheless) I know that (God) loveth his children” (1 Nephi 11:17).
Charlotte A. Stanford earned a B.A. (with honors) from Brigham Young University in Latin and humanities, an M.A. from the University of Connecticut in medieval studies, and, in 2003, a Ph.D. in art history from The Pennsylvania State University. In that same year, she joined the Department of Humanities, Classics, and Comparative Literature at BYU, where she is an assistant professor of humanities. Her interests center on Gothic architecture and medieval devotional practices.
Posted October 2010