“Thy Mind, O Man, Must Stretch”: John Welch’s Maeser Distinguished Faculty Lecture

Cross-posted from www.heavenlyascents.com. This post is especially relevant in light of recent discussions on this blog regarding believing scholars and holding on to convictions in the face of intellectual challenges.

On May 17, 2011 (the day after I left Provo for my recent visit), Professor John W. Welch, Robert K. Thomas Professor of Law and editor-in-chief of BYU Studies, gave the 2011 Karl G. Maeser Distinguished Faculty Lecture at a Brigham Young University forum after having been awarded the 2011 Maeser Distinguished Faculty Lecturer Award, the university’s highest faculty honor.  Jack Welch is one of the most recognizable and admired LDS scholars of our day, a prime example of a believing disciple-scholar, and I really wanted to hear what he had to say on this memorable occasion.  Fortunately, I have since had the opportunity to see and read his comments and would like to share with you some of his inspiring remarks.

Professor Welch’s speech was inspired by Joseph Smith’s words penned at Liberty Jail, “Thy mind, o man, must stretch,” and structured around the principles of BYU’s Mission Statement (which you can read here).  The speech gave some very poignant examples of how BYU,  and, more broadly, how Mormonism itself, encourages and facilitates this vision of ever-expanding our mind — our knowledge, experiences, and capacities.

Before I begin, I share links to his speech so that you can see it for yourself here: http://www.byutv.org/watch/158-173, or listen to it in .mp3 format here: http://speeches.byu.edu/download.php/Welch_John_2011_05_17.mp3.

John Welch began his speech, after brief introductory comments and thank-yous, encouraging faculty and students to familiarize themselves with and follow the BYU Mission Statement.  He remarked,  “Take any line in it, and it will bless your intellectual life with perspective and purpose.” Various points of this statement would continue to inform his remarks.  He continued by citing Joseph Smith at Liberty Jail:

“The things of God are of deep import, and time and experience and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O Man [and we may add O Woman as well], if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost Heavens, and search into and contemplate the lowest considerations of the darkest abyss, and expand upon the broad considerations of eternal expanse; he must commune with God. How much more dignified and noble are the thoughts of God, than the vain imaginations of the human heart, none but fools, will trifle, with the souls of men.”

Welch finds great inspiration and vision in these words, emphasizing that they are a prophetic mandate “for a broad BYU education and a lifetime of learning.”  While the world may see “believers” as narrow-minded, naive, or as isolating themselves from rational thought, Welch explained that these characteristics were not part of Joseph Smith’s religion.

“There is nothing closed-minded about being a true Latter-day Saint. With the Holy Ghost, you will never get a ‘disk full’ warning. Every year, there have been new and amazing discoveries.”

Welch encouraged us to seek for more such discoveries, which often come as “flashes of inspiration, or as the Doctrine & Covenants says, ‘as moved upon by the Holy Ghost.'” How do we prepare ourselves for such discoveries?

“The first thing is to be looking, purposefully and constructively for something of value. The mind expands by recognition, or re-cognizing. Seeing in one thing something that is faintly reminiscent of something else, that is higher, deeper, or of greater substance, is the beginning of knowing and not just observing. Connecting, and seeing recurring patterns, such as those with which the gospel is replete, is the beginning of discernment and the development of potentially meaningful relationships.”

He illustrated this state of readiness to make deep connections with a great story about the different perspectives of Charlie Brown and Linus as they both lie on a hillside looking up at the clouds.

Lucy asks, “What do you see in these formations?” Linus says, “Well, those look like the map of British Honduras. That up there looks like the artist Thomas Eakins. And those clouds give the impression of the stoning of Stephen. Why, I can see the Apostle Paul standing there to one side.” Lucy says, “Very good,” and asks Charlie Brown, “What do you see?” He answers, “Well, I was going to say a ducky and a horsie, but I changed my mind.”

(For those of us who more often find ourselves in the position of Charlie Brown, Welch later returns, consolingly, to his plight, remarking that: “by the way, it’s alright, like Charlie Brown, to see a ducky and a horsie, if that’s what you honestly see”)

But this initial ray of light, the spark of illumining insight that comes to us, is “just the beginning of the discovery process.” Welch proceeds to explain that further “extensive reading, pondering, and lots of work” are required to reap further insights. “Indeed, most academic discoveries come after pouring over materials again and again. The mind expands by hard work over sustained stretches.” “There are no shortcuts to good scholarship.” As Joseph Smith stated, true knowledge comes from “time, experience, careful and ponderous thoughts.” We learn best by “strenuous effort.”

Welch commented that this is the Mormon way: “We do hard things.” Hard work, determination, diligence — these are necessary pre-requisites to the “a-ha moment.”

Exerting “endless energy spinning one’s wheels” is not the type of hard work that Welch envisions — we need to be asking the right type of questions and looking “outside the box” for the answers. We have to expect that the answer is out there and trust God that he will guide us in the right direction.  He explains:

To expand our understanding, we must formulate more precise, potentially answerable questions, and then keep searching, believing that an answer is out there somewhere, giving the scriptures credence, suspending judgment, giving God the benefit of the doubt, praying every day for his guidance, trusting that he knows the answer, that it can somehow make sense, and not presuming that the answer must necessarily come out “your way.” What we are looking for is frequently going to be found outside of the box. Sometimes the answer is “none of the above,” or “all of the above.”

An important aspect of this search for truth is believing that the truth exists. “How can one logically pursue something that one assumes does not exist?” He cites former BYU Academic Vice President Robert K. Thomas as saying, “Skeptics, by definition, cannot affirm anything—even their own skepticism.” Welch, therefore, believes that it is more satisfying to begin your search by “assuming the correctness of a text, the truthfulness of a proposition, or the wisdom of an instruction given by one in authority.”

But isn’t this approach contrary to the basic principles of the scientific method? Don’t we propose a hypothesis and then attempt to falsify it? Yes, but, as Welch rightly points out,  “the hypothesis is not considered false before it has been found to have failed. There is something wrong—as much in academic halls as in courtrooms—about assuming something or someone to be guilty until proven innocent.”

This was a key insight that I drew from Welch’s speech: we don’t need to approach our research, including (and especially, I would say) religious scholarship, from the assumption of its falsehood (which seems to be the norm for many fields, including biblical studies, today).  He suggested that “the astonishing momentum that has developed in Mormon studies” in recent times can be seen to have received its impetus from Hugh Nibley’s willingness to search through historical evidence with the assumption that LDS claims were true, rather than commencing from the assumption of their falsehood. “It was Leibniz who insisted that one cannot adequately understand the meaning of a proposition without assuming its truth,” he added, quoting BYU philosophy professor Terry Warner.

When confronted with difficult questions regarding Mormonism, or “interesting anomalies” as he referred to them, Welch’s instinct is to expect that these are “often clues of something going on below the surface” and expect that a helpful answer will be found. He gave examples of how he has been guided, often to unexpected places, to find amazing answers to questions that have come up during, for instance, his reading of the Book of Mormon.  If we are attentive to the Spirit and have an open and searching mind, we will be guided to the answers.

In a similar manner, we can be directed to notice sublime connections that we had never before seen, including in texts that we have read countless times before.  Welch recounted one such experience while reading the “hardly ever mentioned parable” of the two sons in Matthew 21, when an exciting insight came to him. I’ll share the story in his own words:

After Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the Chief Priests approached him, in the Temple, and demanded: “By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority?” Jesus answered by telling a story about a certain man who had two sons. When asked to go down and work in the vineyard, the first son, initially refused, but then he went, while the other initially said yes but then does not go, or so it seems. This parable may be useful in parenting, and it can be read at that level; but remember, that’s not what Jesus was asked about. With the question of authority in mind, as I read this parable in the Greek, something jumped off the page at me. Think about it: When did a certain father have two sons, one who went and the other who did not? When did the first (the firstborn) say, “ou thelo,” which in Greek means “I will it not,” or “I’d rather not” or “it is not my will.” As the Greek continues, that son reconciled himself (not repented himself) and went. In contrast, the “other” (the heteros) son simply said, “Ego,” meaning “I.” But “I what”? Readers must fill in this blank. In this verse, the word “go” in the King James Version is italicized because it has only been implied there. One might as well supply other words: “I . . . will have it my way,” or “I . . . will get the glory.” In any event, this egotistic son did not go. As Latter-day Saints, we can easily but unexpectedly see at this deeper level how this unassuming little parable answers the all-important questions about Jesus’ authority. He received it from the Father in the council in heaven when he was commissioned to go down and do, not his will, but the will of the Father.

Professor Welch noted that our belief that God has revealed and will yet reveal things to his people means that we will likely approach and find things different from the rest of the world.  This is to be expected.  I sympathize with this sentiment and would suggest that this should not be a source of embarrassment for us as Latter-day Saints, but that we should be ready and willing to defend our unique views.  A young person embarking on a course of biblical studies in a non-LDS environment will quickly become aware that the world doesn’t share our interpretation of, for example, the words of Isaiah, Daniel, or the Book of Revelation, to mention only a few.  This contrast in perspectives between what one has been taught to understand and what their new esteemed mentors are presenting can cause feelings of doubt, confusion, or shame.  In light of such situations (he doesn’t use my specific example), Welch explains:

There will always be worldly things that will make it difficult to be a Latter-day Saint, by making some Mormon beliefs objectionable, frustrating, or awkward. And we won’t always have all the answers to these difficulties, certainly not the moment they first arise. But this too invites further stretching and expansion. Our ongoing task as Latter-day Saints is to locate defensible answers that are also consistent with our scriptures, doctrines, and assumptions, and to understand how opposing views often depend principally upon other fundamentally different assumptions.

This is an important lesson for LDS students (whether in formal education or not) to remember.  The world is bound to have different answers because the world is often asking different questions and approaching them from a substantially different paradigm or world-view.  This doesn’t mean that we have to discount or ignore the views of others and the potentially valuable insights that they can teach us.  As Welch notes, the  “BYU Mission Statement speaks of the pursuit of ‘all’ truth,” an endeavor which has been fundamental to Mormonism from its foundation.  He astutely states:

Our desire is for further light and understanding, to circumscribe all truth. To me, Mormonism thrives because it welcomes the idea that the world is fundamentally pluralistic by nature. Over and over, the Mormon world view relishes multiplicity. Words found traditionally only in the singular are boldly spoken of as plurals in Mormon doctrine: we speak of priesthoods, intelligences, noble and great ones, two creations, worlds without number, continuing revelations, scriptures, covenants, degrees of glory, eternal lives, saviors on Mt. Zion, and even gods. Joseph Smith spoke of there being many kingdoms and that “unto every kingdom is given [its own] law,” and “all truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it.” To me, such statements of cosmological relativities unleash and transfigure the concepts of natural law and eternal truths.

Joseph was light years ahead of his time with these notions. For Joseph, it was all about the Big Picture.  All truth was part of one big Whole and could be fit together like scattered pieces of a grand puzzle.  Welch noted how the rest of the world took a century to catch up with such expansive ideas.

For example, I am fascinated by the implications of Gödel’s 1931 incompleteness theorem, which demonstrates that a system can be either complete or consistent but not both. Thus, systematic theologies or rational philosophies may well be internally consistent, but they do so at the expense of completeness. Sets and abstractions may be helpful, but they are simply extractions of selected elements of otherwise messy realities. Mormon thought, in contrast, privileges fullness, abundance, completeness, and all that the Father has, even if that means that Mormon life becomes joyously overloaded or torn by competing pressures that pull, stretch, and expand us in many ways. This may produce episodes of cognitive dissonance, social quandaries, mystery and uncertainty, but if forced to choose, Mormon thought will always prefer openness over closedness, boldly inviting further growth, progression, and fortunately for us in academia, further questions…

… Because we know that there must be an opposition in all things, LDS thought often harmonizes traditional paradoxes. The world has fought wars over whether we are saved by faith or works. We peacefully say, “both.” People argue over whether we come to know by study or faith. We confidently say, “both.” “Each of us must accommodate the mixture of reason and revelation in our lives. The gospel not only permits it but requires it,” President Packer has said. In the same way, Mormon thought brings together both rights and duties.

When it comes to the instruction of young minds, abundant blessings of knowledge are inseparably connected to certain academic responsibilities, as well. As Joseph Smith said, “none but fools will trifle with the souls” of others. “Yet, as Stanford President Donald Kennedy wrote in 1997, ‘The responsibility of the professoriate is a difficult subject about which surprisingly little has been said,’ and that serious defect still remains inexcusably unaddressed.”

Dr. Welch explained that BYU Studies, for example, has, in fact, a written code that “draws on scriptural mandates, hoping to encourage among LDS scholars such things as unity (‘if ye are not one, ye are not mine’); charity, (for, if we have not charity, we are nothing); edification (‘the goal is to be spiritually and intellectually upbuilding’), and honesty and integrity (for, accuracy and reliability are the essence of scholarship).”

Furthermore, our duty in teaching others requires us to “charitably putting other people ahead of one’s own self-interests” as President Monson has so often taught us. “Our minds stretch the farthest when they are pure and actively concerned about the welfare of others.” We should be willing to listen to others and learn from them, including gaining insights from those of other belief systems and cultures.  He cites George Handley, an associate editor of BYU Studies, as stating: “My discovery has been ‘that listening carefully to other voices and other cultures doesn’t have to involve sacrificing our values,” but rather helps me to understand better my own Mormonness.  Learning from others does not necessarily entail giving up our own unique beliefs.  As Brigham Young declared to outgoing missionaries: “Whether a truth be found with professed infidels, . . . or the Church of Rome, . . . it is the [duty] of the Elders of this Church . . . to gather up all the truths in the world pertaining to life and salvation, to the Gospel we preach, to mechanism of every kind, to the sciences, and to philosophy, wherever it may be found . . . and bring it to Zion.”

Welch shared how he has had the opportunity to experience the benefits of this mandate in his own search for truth: “Indeed, it was from a Catholic Jesuit that I first learned about chiasmus; and from a Jewish barrister that I learned about the ancient legal difference between thieves and robbers. And, by the way, both of those scholars were genuinely glad to see in the Book of Mormon these things that they had found in Hebraic settings.”

He explained that our theology and our experiences working in church councils and presidencies help prepare us to reach out and collaborate with others in academic settings as well.  To this point, he shared some interesting thoughts:

Among the best memories of my academic life are many team efforts, such as Macmillans’s Encyclopedia of Mormonism with Dan Ludlow’s team of eight hundred contributors. I am now thrilled to be working on the Legal Team of the vital Joseph Smith Papers project. We now know that Joseph was distracted by over 200 lawsuits in his lifetime, and their documentary records are astonishingly more complex than any one person can sort out. Two or three lawsuits are usually enough to overwhelm most men, but Joseph succeeded by working collaboratively and expansively with numerous associates, including the Holy Ghost as his regular companion.

Welch emphasized the fact that we, as Mormons, are in a wonderful position to be able to contribute to many fields because of our expansive perspective and propensity to cooperate and support.  He made an effective analogy between BYU basketball star Jimmer Fredette and Joseph Smith regarding the ability to hit “intellectual long-shots.”

As mediators between competing views, we can offer alternative solutions. And we need not be reluctant. We have all been electrified this season by Jimmer’s incredible, dramatic long-shots. The sign I liked the best was “Jimmer’s in range when he steps off the bus.” Mormon thought is also capable of hitting a stunning array of intellectual long-shots, doing things that traditional Western thinkers have said cannot be done. Everywhere you turn, Joseph’s words hit the mark. He was in range every time he opened his mouth.

Joseph’s religion has stood the test of time and continues to gain admirers from outside its ranks.  Welch shared:

In a book now at press with Oxford, Stephen Webb, a non-LDS professor of religion, writes of Mormonism: “No other religious movement lies so close to traditional Christianity . . . . Mormon theology is Christology unbound. . . . Of all the branches of Christianity, Mormonism is the most imaginative, and if nothing else, its intellectual audacity should make it the most exciting conversational partner for traditional Christians for the twenty-first century.”

I appreciated Professor Welch’s strong and unwavering testimony.  He is, to me, a shining example of what a Gospel scholar should, and potentially can be. His demeanor, prolific writings, admiration among peers, and faithfulness to the Church demonstrate how one can be both a rigorous scholar and also a sincere believer.  His concluding remarks:

We need not be ashamed of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Joseph Smith was truly a prophet. The scriptures are true and in them we find our way. The expansiveness of the truth invites us to venture forward, as high, and as deep, and as broad as our minds may go. Thy mind, O man, must stretch. Indeed, it can and will stretch, if you will lead a soul (including your own) unto salvation and will commune with God, that our joy may be full and abundant, in time and all eternity…

13 thoughts on ““Thy Mind, O Man, Must Stretch”: John Welch’s Maeser Distinguished Faculty Lecture

  1. Thank you so much for providing this write-up. This is such good stuff — I am always uplifted by his perspective and, indeed, wish it were more prevalent at all levels of the Church (I believe it is already prevalent at the highest levels of the Church but not, unfortunately, among a not insignificant portion of everyday members). My wife and kids watched it live all the way over here in the UK! Thank goodness for the internet and live video feeds.

    This particular talk is rich on so many levels and is not only an excellent synopsis of his views on scholarship and discipleship but also provides an excellent example of his presentation of his faith and his intellect. The real value here is not that people who hear this or other talks by him or who read his books and articles will necessarily themselves become scholars capable of making the kinds of intellectual connections and discoveries as he has done. Rather, it is the possibility that people might be influenced by the way in which he looks at these issues and take that approach themselves. It is a fundamentally optimistic and faithful outlook, meaning that the whole approach and way of being on display here is a “glass half full” attitude. And that attitude makes a huge difference in his scholarship and also in his everyday life, in his personal relationships and his extra-curricular interests.

    It’s hard to isolate a particular aspect of the talk to highlight and there is really no need to since it all fits together and flows so seemlessly. But as this is a blog comment I’ll just emphasize the following:

    Mormon thought, in contrast, privileges fullness, abundance, completeness, and all that the Father has, even if that means that Mormon life becomes joyously overloaded or torn by competing pressures that pull, stretch, and expand us in many ways. This may produce episodes of cognitive dissonance, social quandaries, mystery and uncertainty, but if forced to choose, Mormon thought will always prefer openness over closedness, boldly inviting further growth, progression, and fortunately for us in academia, further questions…

    … Because we know that there must be an opposition in all things, LDS thought often harmonizes traditional paradoxes. The world has fought wars over whether we are saved by faith or works. We peacefully say, “both.” People argue over whether we come to know by study or faith. We confidently say, “both.” “Each of us must accommodate the mixture of reason and revelation in our lives. The gospel not only permits it but requires it,” President Packer has said. In the same way, Mormon thought brings together both rights and duties.

    This is one of the most amazing aspects of Mormon thought or of the potential for Mormon thought. It is so readily capable of synthesizing/harmonizing/accommodating (as the case may be) elements or premises that seem opposed or contradictory. Faith vs. works, study vs. faith, reason vs. revelation. The point about Gödel means that since the Gospel seeks out all truth and automatically incorporates it by its very nature, it is a system that invites completeness or fullness — we have the fullness of the Gospel. Such completeness comes at the expense of internal, logical/systemic consistency, at least under current intellectual parameters.

    One wonders, therefore, if other premises that some currently see with temporal eyes as being inconsistent with each other might also likewise find a home together in the completeness of the Gospel, adding evolution and creation or socially conscious/responsible legislation and God-preserved moral agency to faith and works or reason and revelation or rights and duties in the list above.

    The beauty of this talk is that it encourages all Latter-day Saints to be open minded about such possibilities and not to be afraid of cognitive dissonance or the perceived initially awkward fit that can sometimes result. “And we won’t always have all the answers to these difficulties, certainly not the moment they first arise.” Taking the long view becomes key. In both scholarship and discipleship, patience is a necessary virtue.

  2. David, the blockquote in my comment above didn’t work — any chance you could fix it to improve the readability?

  3. David, great post, and John F, great comment. John F, let me try to fix your comment. I am the last person you want trying to do that, but I think there is a (small) chance I can do it.

    David, I will be borrowing that interpretation of the two sons and authority for my gospel doctrine class this weekend. Keep up your great work.

  4. Thanks, John and Geoff, for the comments.

    John, I think I fixed the blockquote problem (thanks for your help, Geoff).

    You make some great points, John. I was thoroughly impressed with the speech as well (watching, as you did, from the UK).

    “Taking the long view becomes key. In both scholarship and discipleship, patience is a necessary virtue.”

    I agree, 100%!

  5. David,

    Thank you for this excellent analysis. Welch gave a great lecture.

    I’m not sure if you intended this as a continuation of our previous conversation; although you perhaps suggest this in the header to this post. If so, then perhaps you could explain by how you understand a term such as “the world”. In your usage it seems to serve a function similar to “the philosophies of men”, which I asked you to define in the previous thread.

    Also, regarding

    This was a key insight that I drew from Welch’s speech: we don’t need to approach our research, including (and especially, I would say) religious scholarship, from the assumption of its falsehood (which seems to be the norm for many fields, including biblical studies, today). He suggested that “the astonishing momentum that has developed in Mormon studies” in recent times can be seen to have received its impetus from Hugh Nibley’s willingness to search through historical evidence with the assumption that LDS claims were true, rather than commencing from the assumption of their falsehood.

    How does this work for a LDS not studying Mormonism, but say Buddhism or Catholicism. Is this LDS to also work with the assumption that their claims are true?

  6. John F. — Yes, and have been for quite a while now! I’m up in St Andrews, Scotland.

    Small Axe — I’ve actually been planning to post this for the past few weeks, but have had a chance until now. It is more coincidence than anything that it happened to have some bearing on our recent discussion. I did make sure that I took advantage of the relevance, however, by adding those comments in the header, as you note.

    Yes, I am making a distinction between “LDS students” and “the world.” I wouldn’t say that I’m using the term “the world” in exactly the same way I used “philosophies of men”, but I do see the world as possibly, but not necessarily, in opposition to LDS culture and belief, in a similar manner to the way in which the “philosophies of men” are possibly, but not necessarily in opposition to “revealed truth.” BTW, I did answer your questions on that post.

    On your last question — I think your best response would come from asking Dr. Welch what he had in mind and see how he would answer. I don’t think he meant that we have to assume every proposition is true — I understood him to be saying that we shouldn’t always be approaching our research subject as if it were false-until-proven-true. As Latter-day Saints doing research on LDS-related subjects, we should feel confident to start with the assumption that our truth claims are true.

  7. BTW, I did answer your questions on that post.

    Did you see comment #72?

    On your last question — I think your best response would come from asking Dr. Welch what he had in mind and see how he would answer. I don’t think he meant that we have to assume every proposition is true — I understood him to be saying that we shouldn’t always be approaching our research subject as if it were false-until-proven-true. As Latter-day Saints doing research on LDS-related subjects, we should feel confident to start with the assumption that our truth claims are true.

    Perhaps next time I have a chance to speak with him I will ask about this; but I imagine this is your position too no? I’d like to more fully explore your last sentence, although, again, in the larger context of religious studies. Are you saying: 1) That Mormonism should be given a privileged position among the study of other religions; 2) That all religions should be treated equally (as if their truth claims are correct); Or 3) Something I’m missing?

  8. John F. — I’ll be in London on July 2 — at the Temple Studies Group symposium at Temple Church. In fact, it’s likely that Jack Welch will be there as well!

    SmallAxe — I don’t think Welch was saying that “Mormonism should be given a privileged position among the study of other religions.” I believe, rather, that he was referring to Mormons studying topics related to Mormonism. I studied theology at a Catholic university among Jesuits and I can tell you that they (at least the majority of them) study Catholic Theology with the assumption that it is true! I imagine that a somewhat more neutral approach would need to be taken by someone intending to study, for example, world religions in a broader sense.

    Also, the approach you take depends, to a great extent, on what you plan to do with the results of your studies. If you plan to teach or write for an audience that is wider than just LDS Church members and plan to keep your personal beliefs to yourself, you will probably want to take a neutral, balanced approach, treating all religions equally. If,however, you are addressing an LDS audience, then I see no problem in giving Mormonism a privileged position in relation to other religions (but not in the sense, of course, of referring to other religions in any derogatory manner). We do believe that ours is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” (D&C 1:30). So, again, I would say that it depends on your purpose and your audience.

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