On being learned

One of the most striking messages for me when I first read the Book of Mormon is the constant condemnation of people who are “learned.”

I am thinking of 2 Nephi 9:28, which famously says: “When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish.”

In the Book of Mormon we are constantly hearing about lawyers who are “learned in all the arts and cunning of the people; and this was to enable them that they might be skillful in their profession.” (Alma 10:15). Sherem, the first anti-Christ introduced in the Book of Mormon, was learned and had perfected the art of flattery.

But there is much, much more: 2 Nephi 27:20 says of the scriptures: “The learned shall not read them, for they have rejected them, and I am able to do mine own work; wherefore thou shalt read the words which I shall give unto thee.”

We are warned that the learned become “puffed up” (prideful) because of their learning (2 Nephi 9:42). People begin to distinguish themselves by the fact that they are learned (3 Nephi 6:12). In 2 Nephi 28:15 the learned are compared to those who commit whoredoms!

All of these references to the “learned” in the Book of Mormon raises an interesting point: what they heck were they learning and how were they learning things?

Things that you could read were extremely rare in the ancient Americas. People probably had scrolls, but clearly metal plates lasted longer. The metal plates were used to keep historical and scriptural records (this is the source of the Book of Mormon), but we keep on hearing that the process of writing on metal was time-consuming and difficult.

Keep in mind that Sherem is described as “learned” and he was presumably from another area and not a Nephite. So, how did he get his learning?

We can imagine some kind of Socratic method where people became learned from hanging around other learned people and discussing things. There may have been legal traditions that helped people become learned.

It is also possible that “learned” was just another word for “literate.”

I get the overwhelming impression, however, that all of these warnings about being learned fall into the category of admonitions for our day. We know that the Book of Mormon was intended for us, and these warnings seem to be aimed directly at us.

For many of us, it is obvious that you can become prideful about your learning and completely forget the most important thing to learn about: Jesus Christ and the Gospel. We all know people who have gone off to college and lost their testimony for one reason or another. It seems that very often it is because these people get impressed by all of the smart people around them. And many of these smart people are atheists or agnostics who scoff at religious people. Is there any doubt that many a testimony has been lost in this environment?

As Paul wrote to Timothy: “Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (2 Timothy 3:7).

Let’s be clear that this post is not a warning not to go to college. The Church is also very clear that learning is a good thing. Joseph Smith clearly believed in learning. In addition, we have: D&C 90:15: “study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people.” We also have: D&C 109:7: “seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom, seek learning even by study and also by faith.”

We are not a church that is afraid of learning.

But notice those key words “by study and also by faith.” It seems that the key is to study from a faithful perspective.

I have learned a bit about what this means: rely on the Holy Ghost to guide you, and you will study things that are truly important rather than concentrating on much of the garbage that the world would try to convince you is important.

The Book of Mormon includes a curious passage that shows how this is done. When Nephi must build a boat to get to the Americas, he says in 1 Nephi 18:2: “Now I, Nephi, did not work the timbers after the manner which was learned by men, neither did I build the ship after the manner of men; but I did build it after the manner which the Lord had shown unto me; wherefore, it was not after the manner of men.”

It seems this passage is a bit of a metaphor for how true learning takes place: concentrate on the things the Lord shows you and you will gather truly useful knowledge. If you concentrate on the learning of the world you will be lost or at the very least will not be able to accomplish your eternal goals.

The Book of Mormon also points out in 2 Nephi 9:29 that “to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.” How do we gain true knowledge?

Matthew 11:29 holds the key: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.”

Learn about Christ and the Gospels and let the Holy Ghost be your guide, and you will learn truly useful things. Then follow this pattern to learn things for your job, for your home and for your family. This, it seems, is learning by study and by faith.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B has had three main careers. Some of them have overlapped. After attending Stanford University (class of 1985), he worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. In 1995, he took up his favorite and third career as father. Soon thereafter, Heavenly Father hit him over the head with a two-by-four (wielded by the Holy Ghost) and he woke up from a long sleep. Since then, he's been learning a lot about the Gospel. He still has a lot to learn. Geoff's held several Church callings: young men's president, high priest group leader, member of the bishopric, stake director of public affairs, media specialist for church public affairs, high councilman. He tries his best in his callings but usually falls short. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

8 thoughts on “On being learned

  1. It is interesting to note that Nephi also valued having been taught ‘in all the learning of my father’ (1 Nephi 1:1). Mormon emphasizes that Mosiah taught his 3 sons ‘in all the language of his fathers’ including the ability to search the plates of brass. This made them ‘men of understanding’ (Mosiah 1:2). This argues that all learning is good, so long as it is focused with the lens of the Spirit (D&C 88:77–80). In all our efforts to become learned, we must not forget the language/learning of our fathers (the Doctrine of Christ) or set aside the counsel of God. Once we do, 2 Nephi 9:28 gets set in motion. Thanks for another great post.

  2. I think you are definately right that the Book of Mormon authors are speaking to the learned in our day.

    Today, among intellectuals, someone who “hearkens to the councils of God” cannot be considered truly learned, because the learning of our age rejects any kind of binding religious authority. It is impossible to overstate just how anti-authoritarian/religious the learning of our age is. The entire base of the scientific method is anti-authoritarian, and upon it rest most of the advancements in the modern world. Same with democratic principles, which reject all authorities, religious and secular, which do not have their origin in the people: humanism. Protestantism is fine for secular humanists, because there is individual autonomy to believe whatever church you want to believe. Mormonism and Catholicism are abominable, because they claim authority.

    To anyone who lives by the hallowed principles of secular humanism, the Book of Mormon must be automatically rejected as out of hand: it is non-falsifiable, patriarchal, authoritarian, and full of religious superstition.

    Yet it is the truth.

  3. You mentioned people who go off to college and lose their testimony. Some percentage of people simply will lose their testimony, regardless. If college is causing it somehow, the percentage should be higher among those who attend college. Is that the case? I’m not sure, but maybe.

    If it is, I doubt it is due to meeting a bunch of smart, articulate atheists. In fact, I would guess the result and reasons would vary quite a bit by college and field. My field at least has provided me with intense training in a certain way of thinking (mathematics). That way of thinking causes me all kinds of trouble at church and in politics. I expect arguments or explanations to be logical. When they aren’t I have a great deal of difficulty taking the conclusion seriously. So I sometimes feel like an outsider at church.

  4. Cowgirl,

    Many people have gone to college, met happy agnostics and atheists, and have abandoned their religious upbringing and faith. I don’t think Geoff is saying that “college” is at fault for that; it is simply an unfortunate side effect of secular training, for “some people”, yes.

    “I expect arguments or explanations to be logical. When they aren’t I have a great deal of difficulty taking the conclusion seriously. So I sometimes feel like an outsider at church.”

    I am fascinated with this statement. Do you believe that things like Atonement, prophecy, visions, revelation, scripture, etc., *ought* to be *logical*!? Logic belongs to the Sophic tradition, not the Mantic. You can’t reduce things like priesthood or baptism for the dead down to a cold mathematical equation.

    As Spock once said to a protege, “Logic is the *beginning* of wisdom…”

  5. I’ve always thought that the phrase “all the language of his fathers” was oddly specific. What other language or languages were there? The repeated use of the phrase throughout the BoM implies that there were other languages spoken. One other language mentioned is the corrupted language spoken by the Mulekites. But the Mulekites seemed to have adopted the Nephite’s language, as evidenced by Mulekite descendents who dissented from the Nephites, went over to the Lamanites, and had no problem communicating with them.

    Another evidence for multiple languages was Sherem, who is also described as having been learned in the Nephite language, which is also “oddly specific”, because, again, what other language would he or could he have been taught in?

    I’m of the opinion that the BoM authors were instructed of the Lord to not make specific mention of other peoples and civilizations in the area. The authors openly admit they were instructed to omit other things

  6. “I’m of the opinion that the BoM authors were instructed of the Lord to not make specific mention of other peoples and civilizations in the area.”

    Or, it simply didn’t seem relevant to them to mention it. While many of them were writing to future generations, perhaps it didn’t fully occur to them that their biggest audience would have no knowledge *whatsoever* of ancient American affairs. After all, when writing in our own journals about internal American politics, do we think to write in any detail that Mexico shares a border with America? Or that Canada exists up North? We generally assume that even our great, great, great grandchildren won’t be ignorant of those facts, so it might not even make it into our narrative.

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