Theology college courses change people. As the student sits down for his first lecture, he is surprised to hear the instructor sound atheist. Jericho was destroyed long before the Israelites got there. The bible was written during Israel’s captivity in Babylon, long after the supposed events took place. The Garden of Eden was just a fairytale based on other local legends.
“Well I still believe in the bible,” the student thinks. “I can learn all this important information and still hold on to my faith.”
Years later, the student receives a college degree. He still believes in his religion, but now he talks and acts very differently. When someone asks him about Paul’s sexist doctrine in the New Testament, he replies with a lengthy rationalization about what Paul actually meant according to the original Greek. When a young woman confides that she is ashamed about having sex outside of marriage, he tells her God loves all His children and she will not be damned for such a minor offense. In his Sunday sermons, he delivers pearls of wisdom from the scriptures, feel-good lessons that help people lead a better life.
But does he really believe the words he reads from the bible? Not any more.
People treat religion like a headache medicine. They want quick-term relief and comfort to help them sleep at night. But what happens when you become the pharmacist? What happens when you become the authoritative expert? Few are prepared to engage their religious beliefs in a rigorous classroom setting, and involve archaeology, philosophy, linguistics, ethics, and rhetoric.
When you turn personal beliefs into science , what you thought you know and what you find is reality rarely match up. It’s like that moment when you are dating and you realize all the imperfections in your partner, things you never could have imagined at first, and you have to decide whether to go on with the relationship. These dissonances will make the most brilliant and determined student push faith away, making it less personal. It will become detached and academic.
Follow Your Instinct
My number one rule has always been to follow my inner voice. My college teachers and even my church leaders may be smart and inspired people, but some of the biggest problems in life are caused by following the advice of others. There are core beliefs that are only between you and God.
Archaeologist Frank Calvert defied all his colleagues as he searched for the legendary city of Troy. Everyone told him that Troy was nothing but a myth from Iliad. But after many years his convictions paid off, and the city was discovered right where he said it would be.
There will be plenty of disillusionment as you study theology, but unless these moments of realization are uplifting, they do not make you a better man. Did Joshua really knock down the walls of Jericho like the bible says? The site of Jericho was destroyed before Joshua, so how could he? A weak theology student will take this as overwhelming evidence that the story was a myth. But, well, maybe there were two Jerrichos. There were two Bethlehems, after all. Or maybe the walls were wood, not stone, and have long ago rotted away. Or maybe the walls were dismantled and distributed to construct other buildings. There’s any number of explanations.
Or maybe the bible account we read is not what was originally written.
The challenge is to be open enough that you aren’t rationalizing everything that you presuppose, and yet you are sticking by your core convictions. Do not distance or detach yourself from your theology. I find that when I earnestly follow my honest instinct, my beliefs happen to end up in line with canon and true prophets. I find that my core convictions pay off and end up being right.
Avoid Social Justice Theory
There is no avoiding the primary question of existence: free choice vs. universal salvation. Oh we may think we got past that question long ago in the preexistence, when Lucifer’s plan was overthrown and we chose to come down to earth. But this battle is still at the heart of every non-believer, and the influence of Lucifer’s plan infests every society on earth.
How could a benevolent God allow suffering to exist? Why didn’t God create human beings who innately have enough integrity so that everyone chooses the right path? These doubtful questions are the reason why there are so many nonbelievers in America today, and they affect theologian more than anyone. The more you study theology, the more you get pushed to confront these foundational questions. Consider how great theologian C.S. Lewis doubted God’s benevolence after his beloved wife died. Or how Peter thrice denied Jesus after he saw Jesus being led away to his death. These doubts will come no matter who you are. The more you know about theology the less you are willing to just say: “I don’t know how the atonement works.” The important thing is that you are prepared in how you will deal these temptations when they come.
Popular culture today thrives on social justice. Environmentalism, social equality, gender equality, etc. all rely on social justice as the fundamental belief. The same rhetoric we fought against in the pre-existence is taught nonstop on PBS television and in the gender studies classroom–and in theology university courses. Social justice is merely a rehash of universal salvation, the same highly-competitive belief system that has been around from ancient Babylon to modern-day Communism.
The God of Christianity is like a math teacher who gives some students A’s and other students C’s. But is it just for God to create some people who eventually fail? Why can’t everybody get A’s? Universal salvation declares that nobody should be allowed to be better than anyone else. They will force you to live the right way to get to heaven. We are surrounded by chilling social justice rhetoric today.
Most religion professors and journalists put the cart before the horse in order to push a social agenda. They use religion to push gender equality or gay rights. But you get your social agendas from religion, not religion from your social agendas. With faith deconstructed, the theology classroom convinces students to replace empty meaning with social justice causes. So what is really at the heart of your social crusades, religious journalists?
Go On Your Own
In 1967, the LDS church acquired some fragments of the Joseph Smith papyri that some falsely say Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Abraham. The church’s leading expert in archaeology, Dr. Hugh Nibley, translated the fragments and discovered they were from the Egyptian Book of Breathing, not from the Book of Abraham. Nibley was tasked with presenting his findings to the world. So how did Nibley explain it?
Nibley wrote the most important volume on Mormon archaeology ever produced: Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri:. The fragments contained only a small handful of hieroglyphics, so the easy explanation was that the Book of Breathings was a companion to the Book of Abraham text, which has not survived. But this was not enough for Nibley. He researched the crap out of it, exploring every angle and the background of every piece. He did not seek rationalizations of his religious beliefs, but earnest investigations from various conjectures. His answers fit neither the narrative of the church nor the narrative of mainstream archeology. He explored new theories on the nature of translation and inspiration. He confronted what the world fundamentally thought about Egypt and ancient literature, and changed everything. He was honest and sincere.
Do not be afraid to break new ground. Now, this is dangerous because I see plenty of religious journalists out there pushing all kinds of wacky theories, spreading false doctrines. It is important to keep your ideas grounded in reality. Wacky theories arise when people try to take shortcuts to truth. No, Ezekiel 1 is not about aliens. The answer is much more complex, and only an earnest, hard worker will discover it.
Do not rationalize your false beliefs. Yet do not make hasty conclusions without exploring every piece of evidence. The answer is there. The scriptures lead you to the answer. Theology is great because you can involve all kinds of fields of study to back you up. We are encouraged to “seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118) The key is a combination of study and faith.
Science can enrich your theology. Sir Francis Bacon pointed out, “even that school which is most accused of atheism doth most demonstrate religion.” An atheist scientist who sincerely seeks out truth can deliver truth. I find that to be true. It is up to you to deeply ponder the facts and tie them all together. The Social Justice ideology is thin and easily defeated with reason and logic. The “contemplative atheist is rare” to be found, indeed.
Evil ideology is cold and bears a false resemblance of humanity. True religion embraces human warmth in a sincere way, as it points man to God for his magnanimity. Feel out this direction with your eyes closed, like rays of the sun, and do not heed the calls of anyone else. To comfort the widow, strengthen the weak, cloth the naked, this is true religion.