When I arrived at Brigham Young University over a decade ago—bright eyed and bushy-tailed, eager to change the world—there was a big push about “disciple-scholars.” President Samuelson had written a wonderful article on Elder Maxwell that same year, titled “On Becoming a Disciple-Scholar,” that goes some way to explain the push. President Samuelson felt inspired to make sure we all knew about this idea of disciple-scholarship, and I was determined to follow along.
One of my favorite verses about the subject, even before my time at BYU, is from Joseph’s “Olive Leaf” revelation (D&C 88), given during the Saints’ time in Kirtland. While in the translating room, Joseph asked nine other elders to pray that the Lord would “reveal His will to us concerning the upbuilding of Zion and for the benefit of the Saints and for the duty . . . of the elders.” In turn, these verses were given:
Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand; of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms— that ye may be prepared in all things when I shall send you again to magnify the calling whereunto I have called you, and the mission with which I have commissioned you.D&C 88:78-80
What a charge. I’ve always wondered why God wants his Saints to be so knowledgeable about so many things. Why astronomy? Why geology? Why history and politics? Why the breadth, the expansive curriculum? I think there’s a lot of reasons, but one occurred to me years later, as I was reading Alan Jacobs’ excellent book How to Think. There he introduces the idea of terministic screens.
Decades ago the idiosyncratic literary critic Kenneth Burke wrote a brilliant essay called “Terministic Screens,” in which he made this point. Whenever we use a particular vocabulary—political, say, or aesthetic, or moral, or religious, or sociological—to describe a person, or a thing, or an event, we call attention to certain aspects of what we’re describing. But we also, as long as we look through the screen of that language, inadvertently hide from ourselves, become blind to, other aspects. Burke doesn’t believe we have a choice about whether or not to employ terministic screens: “We can’t say anything without the use of terms.” But for that very reason we need to work hard to understand how our terms work, especially how they “direct the attention”: What does this language ask me to see? What does it prevent me from seeing? And—perhaps most important of all: Who benefits from my attention being directed this way rather than that?Alan Jacobs, How to think, pp. 90-91
Burke is pointing out that concepts, like any technology, mediate our perception. It shapes what we see. If a geologist, a realtor, and an ecologist look at the same mountain, they’ll notice different things. A geologist might see the strata, fault lines, and be able to deduce something about the orogeny (the mountain building event) that created that mountain as well as its future fate, how erosion and uplift will continue to work on it. A realtor might look to see how the mountainside can be bought, sold, and commercialized, and what sort of liability they’ll be under. An ecologist will be looking to see what kind of climate this mountain exists in, what niches it offers to residents, and what kind of wildlife inhabit it.
All of these people–geologist, realtor, and ecologist–have a vocabulary and worldview, shaped by the terms and words they know to use. All of these have power to see what the others cannot; but all of these are also blind to what the others can see. (And in a world given over to the love of money, the realtor in particular may hold an earthly advantage deleterious to the health of mountainside and ecology.)
Bernard Williams once wrote, “We suffer from a poverty of concepts”—something the Lord Jesus Christ clearly knows too, hence D&C 88. And this is apparently the same as saying “We suffer from a poverty of seeing.” The more we remedy this poverty—the wider our vocabulary, the more expansive set of terms we have on-hand and available to use—the more prepared we’ll be to notice not only what is around us, but also see who benefits from the vocabulary we’ve inherited. I think God wants this discernment for us. Not only to appreciate the wider world, rich and inspiring awe, but to know when we’re being conned and exploited. He wants us to be wise as serpents, harmless as doves: shrewd, cunning, strategic, for our sake, for the world’s sake, and for the Kingdom’s sake.
I don’t think this means we all need to be erudite know-it-alls. No one can know everything. But it’s a blessing to expand one’s mind (Thy mind, O man!). I spend a lot of time learning about eclectic things: urban planning, geology, climate change, systems thinking, technology, ethics and philosophy, design, theology. Part of this stems from being a designer professionally, and designers have historically been “eclectic generalists”:
Not long ago, designers were eclectic generalists. They studied art, science, and religion in order to understand the basic workings of nature, and then applied what they learned to solve the problems of the day. Over time, the quantity and complexity of accumulated knowledge led to increased specialization among designers, and breadth of knowledge was increasingly traded for depth of knowledge. This trend continues today. As designers become more specialized, awareness of advances and discoveries in other areas of specialization diminishes. This is inevitable and unfortunate, since much can be learned from progress in other design principles.William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler, Universal Principles of Design
Being a generalist, someone with a variety of vocabularies and terministic “screens” on hand, has its advantages. It gives us new eyes to see the world truthfully—as it is, as it was, and as it will be (D&C 93:24). New terms and words, from a variety of disciplines, give us the power to be designers of our own lives, and to participate more powerfully in the design of God’s kingdom on earth and in heaven. It gives us the power to resist the worst parts of the modern world, like surveillance capitalism and the worst effects of social media, since just understanding something can be a form of resistance. It grant us wisdom, Biblically understood as a kind of “skilled discernment.” And frankly, it’s exciting and invigorating to develop wisdom and see the world from all these new angles. It can, in short, prepare us for whatever God’s calling us to do (D&C 88:80).
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