How doing ‘intellectual legwork’ will increase our spirituality, according to one Latter-day Saint

Quick—how many examples from the scriptures and Church history can you think of where God expected someone to use their intellect to solve a problem? 

Really. Think about it. 

Many Latter-day Saint people struggle with this question (at least at first), because we don’t typically talk about the spiritual importance of the intellect in Latter-day Saint circles. Some of us have even come to believe, whether consciously or sub-consciously, that spirituality and the intellect are somehow opposed.

Going back to the original question, chances are one of two stories from the scriptures popped into your mind. The first involves lights and boats and an ancient prophet with a name so difficult we refer to his brother instead. The second one involves an intelligent young man in the 1800s who wanted to try his hand at translating ancient writing.

Asking this question was one of my favorite activities to do with students while teaching English rhetoric and argument at BYU–Idaho. Every semester during our section on critical thinking, I would pose the question to them. They always seemed to be caught off-guard at first. 

Once they thought it over, however, the answers came streaming forth like Jaredites out of a barge freshly landed in the promised land.

There is, of course, the brother of Jared being told to propose his own solution for providing light in their barges (Ether 2:25). There are the Nephites and Lamanites in 3 Nephi 17 who were told by Christ himself to “prepare their minds” and “ponder on the things which I’ve said” (the actual definition of pondering is to think about something carefully). There’s also Joseph F. Smith, whose careful thinking about 1 Peter led to the incredible revelation we now call Section 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants.

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The list goes on and on: Captain Moroni designing protective measures for their cities in Alma 49, Joseph Smith pondering the different sects before he received the First Vision, and Alma’s seed experiment in Alma 32—which, what with the collection of data, critical analysis, and use of deductive logic, might as well be a science fair project.

And perhaps the most famous example: Oliver Cowdery’s attempt to translate the plates. After asking to try his hand at translation, the bright young clerk was given the go-ahead as well as this crucial key: “Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost . . .” (Doctrine and Covenants 8:2, emphasis added).

And in the very next section, he is chastised in a way that is also instructive to us: “Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But . . . you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right . . .” (Doctrine and Covenants 9:7–8, emphasis added).

These verses convey an important truth about spiritual confirmation: it typically includes a combination of the mind (intellect) and the heart (emotion). Oliver failed because he’d neglected the mind—expecting to receive inspiration without doing any of the intellectual legwork.

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Using the Longitudinal and Latitudinal Lines

Oliver’s story is crucial to us today, as it parallels a growing trend in Latter-day Saint culture (especially in the age of the internet and 24-hour entertainment news). Sometimes, we can rely far too much on feelings and emotion while neglecting—and even distrusting—the role of the intellect in our spiritual lives.

The Lord has given us two tools to navigate the challenges and deceptions of this crazy, beautiful world: the longitudinal and latitudinal lines of the heart and mind, if you will. Neglecting one at the preference of the other gets us lost.

The rugged terrain of social media and the internet are especially easy to become lost in. Filled with truths, half-truths, and all-out falsities, the importance of fact-checking and “study[ing] it out in [our] minds” is more important than ever. In fact, Church leadership has become concerned enough about this to issue a warning in the General Handbook:

“Members of the Church should seek out and share only credible, reliable, and factual sources of information. They should avoid sources that are speculative or founded on rumor. The guidance of the Holy Ghost, along with careful study, can help members discern between truth and error.”

Some may bring up the dangers of relying too much on the intellect. This is a legitimate concern, and most of us have heard the sad stories of those who relied only on their minds. However, we must avoid the trap of being so concerned about this extreme that we fall into the other. As Jacob says, “to be learned is good, if they hearken to the counsels of God” (2 Nephi 9:29). 

For Latter-day Saints to survive and thrive in the age of the internet, we need to re-embrace the role of the intellect in our spiritual lives. Intelligence holds a prominent, even sacred place in Latter-day Saint theology. For example, in Doctrine and Covenants 93:36 we read that “the glory of God is intelligence.” Joseph Smith (and, by extension, the rest of us) was told to “seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith,” (see Doctrine and Covenants 88:118). Joseph also taught that “our knowledge and intelligence will rise with us in the resurrection,” and that “if a person gains more knowledge of intelligence in this life . . . he will have so much the advantage in the world to come,” (see Doctrine and Covenants 130:18–19).

What’s more, intelligence is literally who we are. Beneath these unwieldy vehicles of bones and meat, at the throbbing core of heart, might, and mind, is our intelligence (see Abraham 3:22).

Bringing heart and mind back into balance won’t only help us avoid deception and the wiles of the adversary—it will help us know ourselves.

So how do we re-embrace the intellect in our spiritual lives? It isn’t difficult. In fact, here’s a simple list:

1.  We, too, can seek learning out of the best books, making a goal to dedicate time each week to cultivating our minds. Also, to remember Joseph Smith’s teaching that Latter-day Saints don’t have a monopoly on truth (as this LDSLiving article explains), and that our religion is to seek truth out and accept it from any source we can find it.

2. We can take the time to fact-check things on the internet before believing or sharing them. In his new book,Real vs. Rumor: How to Dispel Latter-day Saint Myths, director of the Church History Library Keith Erekson provides fantastic methods for how to do this. There are also numerous non-partisan organizations that can be of help.1

3. Along with this, we can commit to more fully developing the gift of discernment, realizing it takes work both mentally and spiritually. As Brother Erekson says, “Discernment is a gift of the Spirit as well as a thinking skill that we can improve.”

4. We can realize that spiritual communication is often a combination of both thought and feeling (Oliver Cowdery’s heart and mind), and avoid the pitfall of assuming strong feelings alone are evidence of divine communication  (See Elder Mathias Held’s general conference talk “Seeking Knowledge by the Spirit.”)

5. Also, we can be aware of our own biases and understand how they impact our perception of the world.

6. Additionally, we can remember that true Christian discipleship—which includes the charges to be honest and true as well as to love our brother as ourselves—will supersede political partisanship. As the First Presidency has said, “Please strive to live the gospel in your own life by demonstrating Christlike love and civility in political discourse.”

7. Along with the above, we can force ourselves out of our comfort zones and expand into new social circles, knowing that all of God’s children have lessons we can learn.

While this list is simple, it can provide amazing dividends.

We as a culture must be aware of the dangers of compartmentalizing intelligence and spirituality rather than acknowledging their divine relation. Doing so will enrich our lives, help us avoid con artists of every kind, and bring us closer to God.

But more importantly? 

It is who we are.

Lead image: Shutterstock.

1. For example, SciCheck, PolitiFact, and, to name a few.

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