PRELIMINARY NOTE: The following is based on my personal experiences and opinion of what President Boyd K. Packer’s talk entitled “The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than The Intellect,” originally given on August 22, 1981, at a religious educator’s symposium at BYU. Please keep that context in mind.
In 1981, President Boyd K. Packer gave a talk at BYU to help guide LDS academics regarding the sometimes fine line between faith and the intellect. Unfortunately, this wonderful talk has become the object of scorn and ridicule for many people in the shadows of doubt and apostasy. Indeed, in my opinion this talk has become a litmus test regarding the testimony of all who receive it.
I first read this talk when I embarked on my journey to England to attend graduate school at the University of Oxford. This talk is not about obfuscation, it is not about “lying for the Lord.” It is about how to teach and learn the messiness of history when it comes to one very specific and glorious event: the founding of the LDS Church, verily the Church of Jesus Christ. Thus, I see President Packer’s talk in 1981 as a beacon of light in today’s sea of spiritual darkness that is much of academia; a handbook of instructions on how to allow the Spirit of God to guide one’s conclusions in a sometimes dangerous minefield of calumny, half-truths, and references to things that are no longer understood culturally when viewed through the lenses of 21st century paradigms. It is nothing more or less than a practical application of an ancient injunction, given to us in the Book of Mormon, that “to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsel of God.”
The minefield is indeed dangerous because it is so easy, and so seemingly logical, to draw negative inferences and conclusions about the motivations and characters of the Lord’s annointed from what we understand of the historical record presently before us. We must always remember that here in mortality, we only see through the glass “darkly.” It is so easy to “objectively” want to divorce the history of this Church from its divine source, to attempt to view these events in a vacuum. As noted by President Packer, one “might as well try to write the biography of Mendelssohn without hearing or mentioning his music, or write the life of Rembrandt without mentioning light or canvas or color.”
The truth is that those who laughingly or bitterly dismiss President Packer’s words regarding the mantle and the intellect are not being “objective” as they claim to be, but have made a quite conscious and deliberate decision. They decide to actively “put aside” their testimonies as they examine “unpleasant” facts about Church history that they have “left on a shelf.” They actively decide to assign less value to what they once regarded as their spiritual witnesses of truth, instead replacing those valuable impressions with the vogue historical epistomologies of the day. Just as some of us choose to view the historical record through the lens of faith and our spiritual impressions, they choose to address the intricacies of this Church’s history through the glasses of disbelief and doubt. As many historians will tell you, there is no “objective” lens through which history is viewed, but the facts are always viewed through the lens of some historical theory or another.
But don’t take it from me, take it from my friend who made the conscious decision (a decision I can understand and respect even if I disagree with it and its ramifications after serious thought and consideration myself) to give less weight to his “spiritual experiences” and more weight to the negative inferences he chose to draw regarding the history of the LDS church:
[T]hough I had questions about some things and was deeply troubled by others, I still remained fervent in my testimony and diligent in my service in the church. I was a true believer. So, the question naturally arises: why did the problems in church history not matter to me then but in recent months these same issues have been so troubling to me as to cause me to re-evaluate my belief and activity in the church? What changed?
[. . .]
I was able to continue believing in the church despite the many evidences to the contrary because, figuratively, I put my concerns in a box on a shelf in deference to my testimony. I chose to give greater weight to my spiritual experiences than to any other facts or evidence regarding the foundational truth claims of Mormonism.
[. . .]
Although I can’t locate it with precision, at some point my doubts about Gordon Hinckley led me to entertain the idea that there was a chance that maybe, just maybe, the church might not really be led by an “uninterrupted” “continuous melody” and “thunderous appeal” of revelation, as the church claims. . . .
My doubts about whether Gordon Hinckley really was communicating with the heavens prompted me, eventually, to take that box of issues down off the shelf, empty it out, place my testimony in the box, and put the box back up on the shelf.
(From Equality’s Blog).
Equality then goes on to say that this decision on his part, namely the decision to “place [his] testimony in the box . . . and put [it] up on the shelf” enabled him to “remove the testimony filter, effectively holding in suspension his . . . testimony, and look at the information in direct light—light that is not filtered by the lens of testimony.” I note here that I believe it is impossible to view this information in “direct light”, and certainly viewing these things through the lens of doubt and disinclination does not qualify at any rate, in my opinion. In fact, given the importance of these issues to the souls of human beings, the most “direct light” through which to view specifically the facts surrounding the restoration of the Gospel is through the lens of testimony, through the eyes of faith.
President Packer’s timely talk is surely aimed at training those with whom we entrust some of the teaching of our youth and membership generally in the Church to keep viewing the foundational events of the LDS Church in the light of personal testimony and divine assurances of its truthfulness so that, wherever possible, the members may draw positive inferences from the historical record and choose to believe in the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ through Joseph Smith. Such teachers and influences President Packer attempts to reach with this handbook on placing Spirit above intellect include our LDS Institute, Seminary, Religion, and Gospel Doctrine teachers, as well as other LDS academics and teachers to whom we look for intellectual guidance.
It has been my privilege to listen to President Packer speak about the Gospel and bear his special witness of the Savior and the head of our LDS Church, Jesus Christ, on countless occasions and in many, many places. His testimony has touched my soul and enlighted my mind since I can remember paying attention to anything of spiritual consequence. I have personally sat in his presence many times as the Holy Ghost witnessed to my heart his divine calling as an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. I have met him on several occasions, and have been greatly impressed by his kindness and willingness to engage in conversation. I know from profound personal experiences that he is a modern Apostle, chosen to minister to my generation by the Savior of the world himself. His counsel has changed my life for the better in many ways. I testify that his mantle as an apostle, and the mantle we all bear as teachers in Christ’s Restored Church, is far, far greater than the intellect.
We each must make a decision- either we will decide to draw positive inferences from the historical record before us, relying on doing so on the impressions of the Spirit of God, or else we will decide to not heed those promptings, casting them aside and choosing to believe and draw negative conclusions. If you teach in this Church, I strongly urge you to read and apply this wise handbook of instructions regarding how to decide to draw positive conclusions from this record under the influence of the Holy Ghos. I personally believe that this is the counsel of God, given through one of his Apostles on the Earth today. We should hearken. If we do, we will be blessed with continuing testimony through the darkness of doubt, despair, and disbelief. The talk is here in .pdf format for you to download and/or read, in case you have not seen it.
NOTE: When I first began drafting this post, I meant to go through each point that seems to trouble some people about this talk and discuss why those things ought not trouble us. But this is what came out instead.