Tag: unity

Interpreting Scripture, Unity, and Charity

I spent part of the morning reading Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither?: Three Views on the Bible’s Earliest Chapters, on Ben Spackman’s recommendation (here).

It’s a really, really good book about an issue near and dear to my heart: what is Genesis 1-11? This issue originally became near and dear to me because I love science, and I wanted desperately to know how I could accept the best parts of science, scholarship, and scripture. How do we bring together the best findings of “Biblical criticism” (which often consists of very good, Christian scholars trying to read scripture closely) and the amazing scientific findings of the last several hundred years, and make sense of them in light of the best parts of the Restoration? The Book of Moses and the JST, the Book of Abraham, and the Temple–God’s word to us in these Latter-days? For me, this has always felt essential: synthesizing all these approaches to truth–revelation, reason, authority, observation, and science–without letting one overwhelm the other.

As I’ve been trying to “get” Genesis 1-11 for myself, and synthesize these approaches, I’ve also been concerned with the pastoral side of things: how do I discuss this kind of thing with fellow church members? Is it even important? (I believe it is.) And how do we do it in a way that doesn’t diminish faith, or cause contention, or fracture our church? How do we discuss issues like this in a way that fosters unity? And how can we, if unity simply means–we all believe the same thing?

In the spirit of these questions, a particular section of this volume of “Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither?” really stuck out to me. In the conclusion, and after reviewing the positions of each of the volume contributors, Charles Halton (the editor) tries to describe the relationship between the debate about Genesis 1-11 and the church. He writes:

[In talking about these different viewpoints]… this is not to say that questions of genre and historicity are unimportant for the study of the book of Genesis. These are topics that concern many within the contemporary church and, accordingly, we should think deeply about them. In doing so, it is vitally important that we should take care to not let these issues become impediments to Christian unity. Christians have a very long and deeply troubling history of division, rancor, exclusion, and fratricide over a myriad of issues, including the ways in which Gen 1 – 11 is understood. The root of these conflicts–whether they split churches, get seminary professors fired, or even lead to bloodshed–is a lack of charity.

…Each of the contributors to this volume is a respected and senior scholar of biblical studies. Each of the contributors wrote their essays with deep insight and expertise that came from a lifetime of study. And all of the contributors share a concern that their work benefit the theological understanding and practice of the church. Nonetheless, each contributor offered different conclusions regarding the genre of Gen 1 – 11. This should give all of us who read their essays a healthy dose of humility and an appreciation for the complexities involved in this topic. If they cannot come to a consensus, this must be a thorny question indeed. Even more importantly, this fact should join Christian readers together even more deeply and make us all the more reticent to fracture the body of Christ when we have disagreements regarding issues such as this.

Charles Halton, “Conclusion”; emphasis my own

He goes on, and I’ll quote this in full (because it’s do dang good):

Let me make what might strike you as a startling claim. Actually, I’m not the one making it — I am repeating what St. Augustine has said: avoiding errors is not the primary task of interpretation. In other words, when we are reading Scripture, our primary goal should not be to prevent ourselves from making a hermeneutical mistake. To put it differently, the thing we want most from our reading of the Bible should not be to attain its correct interpretation. Augustine was not saying that correctly understanding Scripture is unimportant. Arriving at proper interpretations was important for him but more paramount within the act of Christian reading is for the reader to interact with Scripture in a way that builds up charity. Augustine said: “[I]f he is deceived in an interpretation that builds up charity, which is the end of the commandments, he is deceived in the same way as a man who leaves a road by mistake but passes through a field to the same place toward which the road itself leads.” For Augustine, charity is what God most wants to foster, not correctness of belief. In his understanding, charity was such an essential component of Christian devotion that he said this within a sermon on 1 John: “But there is nothing to distinguish the sons of God from the sons of the devil, save charity. They that have charity, are born of God: they that have not charity are not. There is the great token, the great dividing mark.”

One might rejoin Augustine with Paul’s desire that the church be united in “one mind” (Romans 15:6) and, accordingly, argue that uniformity of belief and correct interpretation are marks of the true church and are the goals for which we should aim. However, Ephraim Radner points out that in Romans 15 Paul links this one mindedness with “contributing to the needs of the saints,” being “hospitable,” “blessing one’s persecutors,” “rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep,” and not being “haughty” or “conceited.” In other words, Paul does not mean that Christians have one mind when they are united together in uniform doctrinal understanding and biblical interpretation. On the contrary, “Agreement is bound to a way of living with one another that is rooted in the heart or form of Christ Jesus and that grows out of a certain bondedness whereby deference is made to others.” Christians are united together in a way of life that points toward Christ. Of course, this implies that we share in common a few bedrock ideas (such as, who is Jesus?), but Paul sees this one-mindedness as an interconnected way of life and not as unitary belief structure. This way of life is centered around deference to others, or, as Augustine may have put it, charity.

Christians [and Latter-day Saints] are not a people who should fracture easily, particularly over the highly complex issues that we confront in Gen 1 – 11. Where there are areas of disagreement we must take pains to extend charity and deference to others, to recognize our own limitations, have patience with one another even as we work for change, and also rejoice in our agreement on the fundamental characteristics of the Christian faith. In Christian understanding, regardless of whether the events of the primeval history happened or not (or happened in the ways they are described), Gen 1 – 11 ultimately points toward the Christ in which Christians are rooted together and the person whom they are called to emulate. This shared way of living with one another not only unites us together when we disagree over the genre of Gen 1 – 11 but it also unites us together with Christians of all times and places — Christians who had tremendously different outlooks on their faith than we do today. This way of life unites us with the likes of Augustine and Charles Wesley and Catherine of Sienna and Teresa of Calcutta. But this way of life also unites us with Origen who, along with being one of the church’s greatest apologists and influencer of early trinitarian formulations, also denied the resurrection of the body and was denounced as a heretic by the Fifth Ecumenical Council in AD 553. This way of life unites us to Martin Luther in spite of his, at times, virulently anti-semitic rants. And it unites us to the Anglican Church that profited from directly owning and managing slaves on the Codrington plantation where punishments for slaves in the West Indies included being pinned to the ground and slowly burned from heel to head for rebellious behavior and for lesser crimes, castration and feet chopped in half. Before we start withholding charity from our brothers and sisters because they embrace a different idea regarding Genesis we would do well to contemplate the fact that if Origin, Luther, and the Anglican Church could stray so far, it is almost certain that generations from now Christians will look back on our ethics and beliefs with a mixture of horror and amusement. This should cause us to extend charity most generously to those with whom we disagree, particularly when it comes to topics as challenging as the genre of Gen 1 – 11.

Let us discuss matters such as the genre of Gen 1 – 11 and debate them vigorously if we desire. But if Christians are united together with the people and organizations that committed moral atrocities and who believed twisted and aberrant theologies, then how we regard Gen 1 – 11 should not come between us. May our God forgive us if this topic and even this book spur division in place of unity and strife instead of love.


As the Lord’s people, we’re commanded to be united. “If ye are not one, ye are not mine.” I’ve written about it before, but what does this mean? I’m inclined to say, with Charles, that it does involve some basic, shared beliefs. While we’re not a creed-loving people, but it does involve some basic ideas, perhaps best encapsulated in the temple recommend questions: do I believe in God, our Heavenly Father? In the resurrected Christ? In the reality of their appearance to Joseph Smith? But beyond this, we can believe many things.

I think sometimes those things can tend to distract us from what “unites us”: we get caught up in whether certain ideas are “conservative” or “progressive.” And we worry, with some reason, whether certain ideas will undermine the faith of the Church. But the Church is, and must be, a big tent: a collection of various people from various countries speaking various languages, all with various histories, but united by our covenant “to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death.” This unity does not emphasize orthodoxy, but “‘contributing to the needs of the saints,’ being ‘hospitable,’ ‘blessing one’s persecutors,’ ‘rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep,’ and not being ‘haughty’ or ‘conceited.'”

Further, in the Book of Moses, it says that “the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness.” The result was not that everyone believed the exact same things: no, it was instead “that there was no poor among them.” This lines up with the above quote’s summary of Paul’s teaching on unity: “Agreement is bound to a way of living with one another that is rooted in the heart or form of Christ Jesus and that grows out of a certain bondedness whereby deference is made to others”–or in other words, charity.

In light of Mormon’s emphasis on charity (which paraphrases Paul’s language), and the scriptures from the books of Moses and Mosiah, this certainly seems to align with our faith. Certainly, as a church, we can tend towards orthodoxy: and we have apostles to keep doctrine pure, and doctrine is the purview of prophets and apostles, and it is important. But as long as we’re aligned in the key things, then this unity-as-charity seems to make the most sense. We are not united in believing the exact same propositional statements about the nature of God (though a certain orthodoxy is necessary); and a quest like that is probably hopeless. No, we’re instead believers united in their allegiance to a loving Heavenly Father, and to His call to bless the nations. This unity leaves room to focus on what is most important, and leaves an allowable space for us to make the best sense of scripture, history, and science as we see fit.

I never thought it was right to call up a man and try him because he erred in doctrine. It looks too much like Methodism and not like Latter-day-Saintism. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be kicked out of their church. I want the liberty of believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled. It doesn’t prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.

Joseph Smith (Discourse, 8 April 1843, as Reported by William Clayton)

the argument became a part of the adventure

What happened then: they became a team, a family of two. There had been times before they ran away when when they had acted like a team, but those were very different from feeling like a team. Becoming a team didn’t mean the end of their arguments. But it did mean that the arguments became a part of the adventure, became discussions not threats. To an outsider the arguments would appear to be the same because feeling like part of a team is something that happens invisibly. You might call it caring. You could even call it love. And it is very rarely, indeed, that it happens to two people at the same time–especially a brother and a sister who had always spent more time with activities than they had with each other.

from the mixed up files of Mrs. BasiL E. Frankweiler, p. 39

Mature Unity, and Living “As For Years”

When Susan and I were in graduate school, we came to appreciate the wisdom embedded in three simple words from the Doctrine and Covenants: “as for years.” We embraced this phrase as we observed others in our situation who never truly unpacked and settled in. There is a strong temptation for young adults to look on their years in school or their first jobs as merely way stations toward a permanent job and home and hence to hold back. It’s easy for any of us to regard ourselves as simply passing through life, without making the effort—or assuming the risk—of putting down roots.

John Tanner, “As for years”

I’ve moved a lot in my life. Between 2008 and 2017, I never lived in the same ward for longer than a year. I had the same roommates for a while, and that was great! I got to know them quite well–we were great friends. But I didn’t get to know others very well, or for very long. “Fleeting” was my experience in each place, before moving on to the next apartment building, to the next ward, to the next place.

Until 2017, that is–when I moved into a ward in Utah County. It was my mother-in-law’s ward; my father-in-law had passed away, and we wanted to be close in the aftermath, and we found a great opportunity. We spent two-and-a-half wonderful, wonderful years there. And though my wife and I recently moved from Utah to New York City (in late 2019) for work, I miss that ward quite a lot. And I’ve been thinking about why. And I think, I think, it has to do with two things: a hard-won unity, and living as if for years. Let me explain.

In an interview between Blair Hodges (Maxwell Institute) and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, they had this exchange.

HODGES: So Tom, for the rest of our time together I thought we’d do a little something of a little primer on how different people have reckoned with Paul. We’ll talk about how historical figures understood Paul, and how we can see how their immediate concerns shaped the questions they asked and therefore the results of their studies. Along the way hopefully we’ll get a better sense of who Paul is and why he’s been the source of so much theological disagreement, which is kind of ironic given that one of his major themes was [laughs]—

WRIGHT: Unity, yeah, yeah. But he’s always after a mature unity. It’s not the lowest common denominator unity. It’s about a sense of a hard-won growing up into unity rather than filing everything down into an easy unity. So, [laughs] we shouldn’t be surprised that we’re still having that struggle.


Before hearing this, I’d never thought about different kinds of unity. What would an easy unity look like? And what’s the difference between an easy-won unity, and a hard-won, mature unity? There’s a few answers to this, but let me start with the “easy” unity. The first thing I think about here is a hypothetical Church lesson where something controversial or wrong is said, and people stay quiet, not wanting to “steady the ark,” or cause contention, or seem deviant and different because they might be expressing a controversial opinion. In each of these cases, it is fear keeping them at bay–fear of reprisal, fear of contention, fear of shame–fear of the unknown. What would happen if I questioned that view? Or shared my personal experience? Or voiced an opinion I know not everyone shares? I know I’ve definitely refrained from saying something because I knew the comment might not be accepted, or might be easily misunderstood.

But then, some fears are founded. Maybe I know that the teacher would shut me down. Maybe I know my neighbor would think I’m unfaithful. Or maybe I just think that’s would happen. Even the suspicion might be enough to shut us down. What’s required is a feeling of psychological safety, or even a feeling of relational and spiritual safety–the knowledge that candor won’t be punished, that vulnerability won’t be mocked, that we can be open with each other.

My last ward, before moving to Manhattan, was wonderful. I was there for two-and-a-half years, which is just about long enough to form real relationships and feel at home. (I still miss it.) I once shared with a group there that I believe in evolution–it was actually while sharing a testimony, and I was using evolution to illustrate a point. Two reactions ensued: first, several people thanked me for my testimony, joking along with me that I gave the “Dinosaur Testimony.” The second reaction appeared the following Sunday, when I had the assignment to clean the church. I was cleaning the doors with an older lady in the ward. While squee-geeing the glass lobby doors, she asked me if I really believed in evolution? I said that yes, I did. She asked if I’d ever read Joseph Fielding Smith’s Man, His Origin and Destiny (wherein Joseph Fielding Smith comes down hard against evolution). She said I should really read it. I knew her well enough to be confident she cared about me, and worried about my soul–her shade about evolution notwithstanding. But I knew that, and I knew I wouldn’t convince her here–Joseph Fielding Smith had been an influential prophet in her lifetime, and she had gone to school before DNA had been discovered–so I told her thanks for the recommendation, and that I might check it out. I spoke to her a bit longer about my views. I could tell she was ruffled, but she listened. I ended with my testimony. We then talked about her family, and her long-time in Utah. I asked her how the city had changed. And after all that, she thanked me for helping her clean.

Although we were separated by gender, age, culture, and generational experience, we were serving together in the Church. I had been the Executive Secretary and had set up many appointments for her. We had spoken before during Sacrament. We were cleaning the lobby. And it was refreshing because I knew that we could speak frankly. We didn’t convince each other, but I think she left respecting me, and I respecting her.

In another episode of the Maxwell Institute podcast, Fiona and Terryl Givens gave an interview where Fiona voiced this fascinating thought:

FIONA: My feeling is whenever we moved to a ward, which we haven’t done particularly often, but I have found that in order to gain a voice it is really, really important to immerse oneself in that community. Not to stay at a distance from that community. So helping move, taking dinners. Whatever is required in a service-orientated capacity, we should be busily engaged in. Because that is a huge bridge builder. Because essentially, when you’re serving someone, you’re telling them that you love them. And that gains one an incredible amount of capital to be able to raise something in a gospel doctrine lesson, or a Relief Society lesson that might not otherwise be accepted. But because people recognize that you are a fully collaborating member of the community, you are more than likely to get a bye. So for example, in our Gospel Doctrine class a few weeks ago, the topic being discussed was how do you prepare yourself if you’re going to the temple. And so, you know, I sat for a while and then I thought, well, I’ll offer my contribution. And I said I think it actually might be very helpful to go to Catholic mass three or four times before one goes to the temple. Because Catholics do ritual and symbolism extremely well. And it was very interesting to watch how it played out, you know. Some people woke up and said, “Oh, did Fiona just tell us to become Catholics?” And then others thought, “Well, that is odd. Did I hear her correctly?” So it’s sort of a wake-up moment for most of the class. But actually, there were a lot of people who were entertaining the idea. There was no outright rejection of my suggestion, which I thought was very helpful.

TERRYL: And it was because they trusted you. They’ve seen you—

FIONA: And they did trust me, yeah.

HODGES: You aren’t trying to be a rabble-rouser.

FIONA: I was not trying to be a rabble-rouser. Exactly.

TERRYL: And it had nothing to do with academic credentials or anything else. It’s about being a part of the community and having paid our dues through service to the community.

Maxwell institute podcast, episode 30, with fiona and terryl givens

I love this thought. Coming back to my original tale, our most recent Utah ward–the one we spent over two-years in–was the first ward I felt we really gave our all. I’m an introvert at heart, and more at ease in reading a book then carrying on a conversation–but I tried. The fact that everyone in the ward knew my wife (she had grown up there) helped. We did not know how long we would live there, but we put our best foot forward.

In 1831, in Spring, the Saints had started to move to Kirtland, Ohio. A group of saints from Colesville, New York were given permission by a member named Leman Copley to stay on his farm in Thompson, a short distance from Kirtland. In May 1831, Joseph Smith received the following revelation:

I grant unto this People a privelige of organizeing themselves according to my laws & I consecrate unto them this land for a little season untill I the Lord shall provide for them otherwise & command them to go hence & the hour & the day is not given unto them wherefore let them act upon this land as for years & this shall turn unto them for their good…

Revelation Book 1, Page 87 (D&C 51:16-17); emphasis my own

“Act upon this land as for years.” What a wonderful phrase! I think I learned how to do this in 2017, in the Utah ward I came to love. Part of it was the time I spent there; part of it was the quality of the time I spent there. We had people over for dinner; we did service projects; we volunteered; we tried to do good. It was the first time I had really, really tried to take Fiona Givens’ advice: “to immerse oneself in that community… Not to stay at a distance from that community.”

We’ve been in Manhattan for five months so far. (Much longer than the Colesville Saints’ six weeks!) We’ve assumed some of the risk of setting down roots. We’re not perfect, but we’re trying–to give our all to the place; not to treat it as a waystation, but as a final destination, regardless of how true that really is; to win that hard-won unity. I’m anxious to report how that goes.