Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

“Mere teaching”: What are we really doing as teachers?

Posted by joespencer on April 2, 2008

Over at teachyediligently, Jeff Batt and I have just posted what seems to me to be the most fruitful discussion of teaching I have ever been a part of (or heard, for that matter, if I can get away with saying something so modest about a discussion I was a part of!). The podcast can be downloaded here easiest (or listened to right on that page, for those who do not use ipods or itunes, by the way).

But I’d like this post to be quite a bit more than a bit of self-promotion: I’d really like to see a discussion of what Jeff and I talk about in that podcast happen here on the blog, especially because I really think we raise some of the most important questions about teaching, and they are questions we’ve not really yet engaged in the short life of the blog. I will try to begin the discussion here with a few comments of my own.

I should first confess that I’ve not gone back yet and listened to the podcast since we recorded it. But I’ll take that as an advantage for the moment, using my relative unfamiliarity with what we said in the course of our discussion to talk about a few impressions I’ve been left with after the fact.

First, I should note how clear it became to me, both during the course of recording and in the days since that I’ve been reflecting on it (we recorded this discussion Sunday night), how much my own comments and thoughts in the podcast are a reflection of three days of almost constant discussion I had with Adam Miller, Robert Couch, Jenny Webb, and Jim Faulconer before we did the podcast. I should also note that my thoughts since the recording have been intertwined with further discussion with Robert, and a long catching-up discussion with my wife (after my being in Utah at the SMPT conference for a week). What seems to have been the rather constant theme of all of these discussions, both before and after the recording, is the relationship between the actual task of teaching and the theoretical task of thinking about what it means to teach.

Hence, the comment that I myself would like to make about the discussion, and one I hope can be taken as a kind of self-interpretation: It seems to me absolutely necessary to make a sharp distinction between the actual task of teaching and the theoretical discussion of the practice of teaching, and ultimately, I think that is what Jeff and I are getting at in the course of our discussion. But let me explain what I mean a bit.

Jeff and I, I think, nicely articulate what is fundamentally missed in most all of our discussions about teaching (here and elsewhere), a point that perhaps goes back to my post (a year ago or so) on applying things to our everyday lives. That point is this: It is not what is communicated from the teacher to the student that matters in the classroom, but what actually happens RIGHT THERE in the classroom. This is, it should be noted, a way of saying that it is not I who teaches, but the Holy Ghost: though I inevitably communicate information to my students as a teacher, it is something besides that communication that really matters, and that is what the Spirit (D&C 50) is all about.

But if it is something other than direct communication that is at work in teaching as it is “supposed” to be done, that does not mean that the teacher is without any real task (D&C 50 makes this quite clear: teaching by the Spirit is a great deal more difficult than any other way, just like salvation by grace is so much more complex and more difficult than salvation by works). The teacher has to figure out what sort of thing to communicate directly to her students in order to allow for the Spirit of truth to have full sway in the classroom, in order for the right thing to happen. In other words, direct communication still plays a part in what must happen in the classroom, but it indirectly accomplishes something other than just direct communication: it must reveal to the student (the particular student, this student right here) that he is in sin.

The great irony, though, is that this is never accomplished by the teacher’s telling such-and-such student that he is in sin! Sin is revealed to one through the Spirit, not by direct communication. That is, sin, since it is symbolic (that is, structured as a symbol is: sin is folded… and this is perhaps why Christ speaks of the “eye single,” or literally translated from the Greek, the “eye without fold”), can only be revealed symbolically, spiritually: sin is a kind of mystery (as it is expressed in 2 Thessalonians) that must be “unfolded” by the Spirit (cf. 1 Nephi 10). This can only be done, I would suggest (as Jeff and I do in our discussion), by teaching the texts, and with a radical fidelity to them.

Two tasks, then, for the Latter-day Saint: teaching and thinking about teaching. The former must always be grounded completely in the texts so that the faithful hermeneutic, guided by the Spirit, can reveal to the student his sin. The latter (which would also benefit from being grounded in the texts) must lay out practically how it is that faithful scriptural hermeneutics accomplishes conversion, and must do so clearly enough that the teacher can begin to see what her task really is.

Where does this take us? And what does all of this imply about “application”? And how important, then, is the actual time we spend in the classroom itself?

And let me further open up the discussion for any comments on the podcast, whether or not they address the issues I’ve raised above. Let’s get this matter sorted out!

37 Responses to ““Mere teaching”: What are we really doing as teachers?”

  1. Joe, I like what you have to say here, and I will go over and listen to the podcast. I heartily agree with your conclusions, and I find that almost always as I immerse myself in the scriptures I am convicted of sin, but also greatly encouraged to improve. My frustration as a teacher in the LDS arena is that the manuals (most especially the SS manuals) are great hindrances to teaching from the texts. Does anyone else find this to be true, or is it just lil ol’ apostate me?? Does one focus on the texts, or, as we are constantly counseled, ground oneself in the manuals? How deserving of the Spirit will I be if I set aside these admonitions to give what *I* think is a more effective lesson? or what *I* feel the Spirit is guiding me toward?

    I beg you to read the above as a sincere attempt to cultivate the Spirit in my teaching, and not to generate controversy.

  2. Adam Miller said

    Joe says:

    “Direct communication still plays a part in what must happen in the classroom, but it indirectly accomplishes something other than just direct communication: it must reveal to the student (the particular student, this student right here) that he is in sin.”

    I think (surprise!) that this is entirely correct. Though, without having yet listened to the podcast, I’d simply like to add that the revelation of our being “in” sin is simultaneously the revelation of our being already “in” love/grace.

    To recognize and confess our insufficiency and incompletion (our lack of autonomy) is to recognize our already being in open relation with others.

    Hence, the importance of the classroom setting: we need to be together in order to confess our lack of individual autonomy (i.e., our dependence on grace or our essentially open relatedness). The aim in a classroom is to induce the appearance of a common body (the body of Christ) rather than a bare assembly of individuals acquiring information (or not!).

    Joe also says:

    “Teaching by the Spirit is a great deal more difficult than any other way, just like salvation by grace is so much more complex and more difficult than salvation by works.”

    This is also right on the mark. Salvation by grace doesn’t efface works, it saves works by taking them much, much more seriously than does a theology of works.

    In grace, one always works only for the sake of the work and never for the sake of gaining some reward or avoiding some punishment.

    To work within the framework of reward/punishment is to say that the works don’t matter, only the rewards/punishments do. Thus, a doctrine of “salvation by works” ends up subverting the very concept of works that it means to defend. Only “salvation by grace” takes works seriously.

    My best,
    Adam

  3. joespencer said

    Adam says: “I’d simply like to add that the revelation of our being “in” sin is simultaneously the revelation of our being already “in” love/grace. To recognize and confess our insufficiency and incompletion (our lack of autonomy) is to recognize our already being in open relation with others.”

    Joe responds: Absolutely! And I think this is a point that is much clearer in the podcast (we talk incessantly about grace and charity in the podcast itself, though my ruminations here dwell more on the split between theory and praxis). But I entirely agree with the way you’ve put this.

    Adam also says: “Hence, the importance of the classroom setting: we need to be together in order to confess our lack of individual autonomy (i.e., our dependence on grace or our essentially open relatedness). The aim in a classroom is to induce the appearance of a common body (the body of Christ) rather than a bare assembly of individuals acquiring information (or not!).”

    Joe responds: I wish I had written that!

    BiV says: “I find that almost always as I immerse myself in the scriptures I am convicted of sin, but also greatly encouraged to improve.”

    Joe responds: I as well, though I would phrase the latter part somewhat differently: I am always greatly encouraged to get to work, that is, to love.

    BiV asks: “My frustration as a teacher in the LDS arena is that the manuals (most especially the SS manuals) are great hindrances to teaching from the texts. Does anyone else find this to be true, or is it just lil ol’ apostate me?? Does one focus on the texts, or, as we are constantly counseled, ground oneself in the manuals? How deserving of the Spirit will I be if I set aside these admonitions to give what *I* think is a more effective lesson? or what *I* feel the Spirit is guiding me toward?”

    Joe responds: We revisit this question about every three months or so on the blog here, so I won’t be saying anything in response that would surprise anyone. But I do think it important to say at least this: the lesson manuals themselves say to teach and to prepare by the Spirit, and they offer “suggested” outlines, etc. Can’t we assume that it is to be grounded in the manuals to leave them behind whenever (and it is almost every time…) the Spirit presses in a direction other than the manuals?

  4. SmallAxe said

    Let me make sure I’m following you here. The role of the teacher is not to teach in the straight forward sense, but to facilitate an experience with the Spirit. This is done by teaching the texts with a “radical fidelity to them”, which I take to mean something like searching for the meaning of the text (which in some cases could be significantly different then what we originally think it means or what we want it to mean). This should be accompanied by an awareness that the goal of teaching isn’t simply for the student to understand the text, but to gain a revelation of the Spirit. The Holy Ghost will reveal to the student that s/he is in sin.

    I’m pretty comfortable with most of this except for the notion that the HG “must reveal to the student… that he is in sin”. I have a couple of problems with this. First of all it restricts the ways in which the HG can “teach”. Why must it be about realizing “sin”? Not that this isn’t an important part of the gospel (and maybe this is your way of saying that the HG will help us realize how/where we need to do better), but even D&C 50 seems to allude to a situation with mutual “edification” and I’m not sure that edification must be defined in terms of realizing sin. Secondly I also have a practical/pedagogical concern. While you state that the teacher should not directly claim that such-and-such a student is in sin, one cannot help but wonder how one would gauge the success of one’s teaching except by recourse to so-and-so realizing that he is in sin. This is to say that it still puts the teacher in a position of judge, despite claims otherwise.

    I have a few issues with a couple of other points, but I’ll leave it here for the time being. I’d also like to know what you think about a post I put up on FPR a couple of weeks ago called “Church Education as Consequentialism”. You can find it on the homepage.

  5. joespencer said

    I think you are mostly following me, SmallAxe. As for what it means to see that one is in sin, see Adam’s comment above and my response to it: to see that one is in sin is precisely to see that one is in grace. Edification is that complex moment of “double” revelation. It is marvelously illustrated in Benjamin’s speech: the people see themselves in their carnality and so precisely are changed in their hearts and have no disposition to do evil, etc.

    I’ll take a look at your post as I have time today. Thanks for mentioning it.

  6. SmallAxe said

    Joe,

    I can understand the sin/grace relationship, but I don’t see how my criticisms wouldn’t still apply.

  7. NathanG said

    I would just like to say that I have experienced this type of teaching (not that I’ve taught this way necessarily). My last ward we had a great teacher who would read passages and ask, “Doesn’t that make you uncomfortable? It makes me uncomfortable.” It would be related to passages such as Jesus’ rebuke to the Pharisees. The discomfort was not, why is Jesus so harsh on these people, but how similar am I to a Pharisee (or to a hypocritical Pharisee)? How close to home does that rebuke hit me? The application was to put ourselves in the wicked position rather than how we often apply wicked/condemnation passages to other groups of people than ourselves. Similarly, in the same ward a substitute teacher dealt with the parable of the sower, and rather than say he must represent fertile soil as an active member of the church, he saw principles of the gospel that fell on his own personal rocky soil, fertile soil, etc.

    I noticed that when Jacob teaches in 2 Nephi 9 he uses interesting pronouns. Verse 14: Wherefore, we shall have a perfect knowledge of all our guilt, and our uncleanness, and our nakedness; and the righteous shall have a perfect knowledge of their enjoyment, and their righteousness, being clothed with purity, yea, even with the robe of righteousness.

    He includes himself and those he addresses in the wicked group and applies righteousness to some other group.

    I think one way we wrest the scriptures is when we use the scriptures to justify ourselves, or lull ourselves into a false sense of security and we ignore the scriptures that would convict us of our sins. I’ve shared and example of this before, but I’ve seen that I would attribute my sins to the natural man in me, rather than see that this sin made me an enemy to God. The latter was much more moving to repentance. This approach of course should be coupled with finding that salvation comes only through Christ and his grace is freely given to us, so salvation is free to the taker.

  8. joespencer said

    SmallAxe, I’ve finally had a few minutes just now to take a look at your post at FPR. Interesting thoughts. I have a bit of quibble about the meaning of “precept” (which has reference, I understand, to something like “worldview” rather than something like “information”), and another about the meaning of “effective Church service” (I would take the emphasis as being on “effective,” hence as highlighting the importance of “producing” teachers rather than scholars). Otherwise, I think you have put your finger on an important difference.

    Of course, as my own post here probably already makes clear, I’m convinced that conveying information in the classroom is more a means than an end. This is not so much because information is unimportant (it is vital as a means!) as it is because information is inexhaustible. In other words, thousands of pages of scripture (for now) and thousands of volumes of commentary, discussion, and thought suggest several problems: How does one decide what information is “more important” or even “necessary” to be conveyed? How do saints make even the slightest dent in all the possible information that can be received? How can enough ever be said on any given text or subject such that a lesson is satisfactory? And so on.

    And yet! And yet there is obviously something about the information itself that makes it more than mere means. How do we articulate that? I’m not sure…

  9. Robert C. said

    Great thoughts, Joe and others. I might not have time to listen to the podcast till next week, but I thought I’d add a couple thoughts about what I thought was most interesting in our discussions last weekend.

    One thing that is only obliquely touched on above is the sense in which getting caught up in scriptural texts can have a distracting effect from our own lives that allows us to “step outside ourselves” in order to see ourselves more clearly. Like with the parable Nathan uses against David: this was effective, I would assert, only because David got caught up in the story without consciously worrying about how to apply the story to his own life. If Nathan had tried a more direct approach in condemning David, or even if he began the story by saying, “OK, this is a parable that has application to your own life” then I think it would’ve ruined the distracting, psycho-analytic type of effect of the parable. I think there is a similar danger in becoming too focused on trying to apply the scriptures to our lives.

    On the other hand, I think there is a danger of getting too caught up in metaphysical speculation that has little relevance to our own lives. But this is different than the kind of speculation that is necessary—even called for—in interpreting a text. The difference, I think, is how close and relevant the speculation we are doing is to interpretation of the text.

    Whoops, kids need my attention, so I have to wrap this up quickly/prematurely. It’s between these two dangers that I think the best kind of reading and teaching occurs: when we get sufficiently distracted from our own lives to allow real change to occur (so that we don’t just incorporate the text into our current self—reducing the text to the Same, Levinas might say—but that we let the text, at a genuine distance from our current self, call us beyond our current state), but don’t get caught up in questions that are so far removed and detached from our own lives or anything real that have no immanent relevance. I’m very interested in thinking about and discussing these two pitfalls more because I think most problems in Sunday school (and more broadly) can be thought in these terms….

  10. SmallAxe said

    Joe, thanks for taking the time. I agree that ‘precept’ may have implications other than ‘instruction’ or ‘book learning’, etc. It really isn’t my term of choice. However that’s the way it seems to be used as far as CES’s goals are concerned. In any case, the more fundamental issue is perhaps how you relate the text to the purpose you want it to serve. I’m having a hard time clearly understanding your position and I’ll try to explain why. My first thought on reading your post was that you were making the argument that understanding the text is an ends in itself (maintaining a “radical fidelity” to them), and taking it as such will indirectly lead to the (desired) outcome of gaining a spiritual experience. But to take it as a means would be to break from that radical fidelity.

    Your last comment however seems to be saying something different (or at least clarifying the point). Are you saying that due to the practical aspect of having only so much time to teach a lesson, we are forced to choose certain parts to investigate above others; and as such we make a choice based on which parts are more likely to bring in the Spirit (although after the choice is made we do our best to fully understand the meaning of the passage); and this therefore is using the text as a means to invite the Spirit? If this is your position, I’m not quite sure how it’s different from what’s currently being done in most of the church classrooms already. Isn’t this what happens for the most part: Teacher recognizes his/her role is to invite the Spirit to teach. Teacher reads the assigned passages, and picks those which will invite the Spirit to discuss with the class. Teacher does his or her best to get at the “real” meaning of the passage. Spirit comes with emotional outpouring.

    It would seem under these circumstances that the best critique that could be made of this paradigm is that it 1) Naively understands what the “real” meaning of a passage is. And/or 2) Narrowly defines the Spirit into a particular kind of manifestation. I don’t see either of these two critiques in terms of issues that you raise which makes me wonder if either you don’t realize how close you really are to the paradigm that’s currently in play, or that I’m misunderstanding your position.

  11. joespencer said

    Thanks for these words, SmallAxe: they make it much clearer to me how we’re talking past each other.

    In a sense, I’m saying something paradoxical (in the nice, Kierkegaardian sense). Ultimately, I think reading the text is a means to an end (namely, conviction, in its double sense: one is convicted of one’s sins, one gains the conviction to get to work at last). But if it is taken as a means to that (or any other) end, it will cease to serve that purpose! In other words, in order for scripture to serve as the means to the appropriate end, it must be treated as an end in itself.

    This is the insight that so much struck me during the course of the recording (and which I far too gushingly endorse in the introduction to the post): textual interpretation must be taken as an end in itself in order for it to become the means it must be. Hence, radical fidelity to the text, and yet precisely so that something other than textual work happens.

    Hence, I’m not saying that the task of the teacher is to think about what of all that can be talked about will have the greatest spiritual impact. Rather, I think the task of the teacher is to teach the scriptures in radical fidelity, with passion and rigor. Or to teach the words of the prophets that way, or whatever text is assigned (I am convinced that it must always be textual, but that’s another story).

    So let me then clarify why I brought up the infinity of communicable details. I bring it up in order to dispel the idea that it is ultimately what is communicated (the content) that brings about salvation: if it were a question of knowing certain details (it could never be a question of knowing all details!), then we are left with the impossible task of sorting out what details are important and what aren’t. And so soon as we have that task, we end up with so many canons within the canon, this teacher assuming that only the Book of Mormon is of importance, that teacher assuming that only Paul is of importance, and the other teacher just assuming that the 100 scripture mastery scriptures seminary teachers have their students memorize are of importance, etc. It seems to me, rather, that the entire canon is canon: it hardly matters whether I go to Joel 3 or whether I go to D&C 17, so long as I am giving myself to the text in radical fidelity (as a teacher, or even as a student).

    Does that make more sense? I’m guessing that it is the paradox articulated above that has caused the difficulty here.

  12. JennyW said

    I listened to the podcast yesterday while weeding the backyard with my daughter. I’ve been frustrated at times in Sunday School lately, and I think part of that frustration is linked to what Joe and Jeff discuss: it’s not a matter of material, but rather of somehow being open to the communal relationship available in teaching (in coming to myself as a member of a community in sin and simultaneously in Christ—i.e., being taught by the Spirit). To me, somehow caring enough to critique pedagogy is linked to caring enough about the material to maintain that radical fidelity. In other words, if I’m teaching, entering the classroom with a teleological orientation towards the material, I’m cutting myself off from the full range of relational possibilities both towards the material, but more importantly, towards others and God.

    Regarding the exchanges between Joe and SmallAxe, their comments made me question how I think about maintaining a “radical fidelity to the text” because that’s where I saw them talking past each other. There’s something important about taking the textuality of the scriptures seriously, rigorously, faithfully—while we often take a verse and try to contextualize it historically, culturally, spiritually, etc., I think we often pass up the oportunity to then take things to the next step and question both the text and its textuality. It’s like teachers are afraid of not having an answer, so they avoid opening up the text via questions. But then we’re missing the point—we don’t have the answers—the gospel isn’t about learning how to ingest and store answers, it’s about learning how to question God so that we can receive further light and knowledge (which is always going to reaffirm our own sin and salvation) so that we can ask better questions. In my opinion. Today.

    I’m still thinking about all of this, but that’s ok since it’s part of the point Joe and Jeff make—we as a people, need to be thinking our teaching seriously …

  13. RuthS said

    Thinking about some of the statements made here over the last couple of days, I have come to a place where I feel comfortable with the dilemma proposed. As D. & C. 50 points out the purpose of our coming together to learn from each other is to be edified. Through that edification we draw closer in spirit to each other and to the Savior. This requires something of the teacher who may or may not be filled with great knowledge as to facts and languages or history necessary to an intellectual understanding of any subject matter. What is requires is that she have the ability to recognize the spirit when it is present and to use it to the advantage of all present.

    The student needs to bring an attitude that enables them to feel the spirit and to learn from it. A teacher can teach with the Spirit, meaning the Holy Ghost, and the Spirit be willing to testify and edify to those present and yet not everyone will receive that witness. So some will be edified and some will not. No one can reach everyone. Not even the Holy Ghost can reach those who are unwilling to be reached.

    It is not unusual for us to take ourselves far to seriously. It is too easy for us, when it is our turn to be in the learner’s chair to decide that a less learned or skilled teacher has anything to offer and therefore we miss out on the spiritual experiences that might be ours if we would listen with our ears and open our hearts and minds to the Holy Ghost.

  14. mjberkey said

    Adam, I’ve never seen anyone contrast salvation by works and salvation by grace as clearly as you just did. That’s wonderful, thank you.

    But I can’t follow you on your first point. Adam says, “I think (surprise!) that this is entirely correct. Though, without having yet listened to the podcast, I’d simply like to add that the revelation of our being “in” sin is simultaneously the revelation of our being already “in” love/grace. To recognize and confess our insufficiency and incompletion (our lack of autonomy) is to recognize our already being in open relation with others.”

    Immediately the story of Alma comes to mind (Alma 36). He recognizes his sins in v. 12 (12-15), but he doesn’t realize that he’s in grace (assuming that he’d been in grace all along) until at least v. 17.

    It seems to me that the recognition of sin is to recognize our estrangement from God. It’s as if we’ve done something wrong to a friend that has estranged us from her. That’s how I see sin anyway. And then grace, the at-one-ment (Nibley) itself, reconciles us. But I don’t think the recognition of reconciliation can come until after the recognition of estrangement.

    …just guessing.

  15. Robert C. said

    mjberkey #14, I hope Adam will answer your question, but if you’ll indulge me I’d like to take a stab:

    The reason we are estranged from God is precisely because we do not recognize our dependence on God; or, equivalently, because we do not recognize the grace that God offers us. This is expressed nicely in Romans 1:18-22 (NET; my emphasis):

    For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

    It is the failure to recognize God as our Creator and to give him thanks that is at the root of our estrangement for God. So, although Alma gives us a nice logical progression for understanding first our own sins and estrangement for God, and only afterward being reconciled to God, there’s a sense in which the second step follows naturally and immediately from the first. (Also, I think the first step itself would not be possible were it not for Christ, but this gets into more issues than I have time right now to discuss. For now, I will say that I think that this is closely related to Joe’s obsession with angels delivering books: only through the word of God, delivered to us by messengers, can we come to see our own state of estrangement and, simultaneously, God’s gracious offer to return to him, despite are acts/choice of estrangement….)

  16. SmallAxe said

    textual interpretation must be taken as an end in itself in order for it to become the means it must be.

    I’m on board with you here. This is what I thought your original meaning was. I don’t have a problem with this kind of paradox, as I think it plays out in other aspects of life (directly aiming at acting naturally, for instance, probably won’t lead to one acting naturally). I do however have a problem dictating the impressions of the Spirit as mentioned above. I think restricting the purpose of the Spirit in teaching to fall within the sin/grace paradigm will cause the teacher to choose passages with that purpose in mind, and not bring about the radical fidelity you call for. On the other hand, if the Spirit edifies (which I take to mean a wide variety of things) and edification is based on mutual understanding, then our communing with the text will bring about edification when we understand it. Edification may or may not bring about the realization of sin.

    it hardly matters whether I go to Joel 3 or whether I go to D&C 17, so long as I am giving myself to the text in radical fidelity (as a teacher, or even as a student).

    Is all scripture equally valid? I don’t think this tends to be the standard position. The Song of Solomon, for instance, is regarded as less inspired as other books are. This (among other things) leads me to believe that most members think some portions of the canon are more canonical than others. Secondly, even assuming that all scripture is equally sacred, there is the pragmatic issue of time, which I thought you were alluding to. Given that only so many passages can be spoken about in a 45minute lesson, should the choice of which passages to read be more or less random?

  17. SmallAxe said

    Jenny,

    There’s something important about taking the textuality of the scriptures seriously, rigorously, faithfully—while we often take a verse and try to contextualize it historically, culturally, spiritually, etc., I think we often pass up the oportunity to then take things to the next step and question both the text and its textuality. It’s like teachers are afraid of not having an answer, so they avoid opening up the text via questions.

    I’m not entire sure what you mean here. Perhaps you could elaborate.

  18. joespencer said

    I’m also eager to see how Adam responds to Mike, but since I’ve done just a little bit of thinking about Alma 36, I’ll say a word or two about that particular text.

    I would say that Alma does not see his sin until his prayer. The play of the word “remember” is vital to reading the text: the memory of his sins remains (or comes into being at last), while he no longer remembers the pain. Alma does not have a genuine memory of his sins until he can break the cyclical pattern of self-destruction (the compulsion to repeat that is undeniably intertwined with a kind of death drive in Alma’s narrative). Sin becomes memory and not suffering—and hence is actually recognized/remembered—at the moment of Alma’s reorientation to the grace he has misconstrued all along. Alma 36, it seems to me, bears Adam out perfectly.

    (I’ve not written the above paragraph well at all, but that is in part because I have been rethinking Alma 36 quite a bit lately. I apologize for the sloppiness, but petition patience and any questions so that I can clarify it.)

  19. joespencer said

    SmallAxe,

    I’m not sure I understand your concern about the role of the Spirit. It seems to me that, as teaching must be done by the Spirit, the Spirit is caught up into the same paradox, and so there seems to be little reason to see the paradox as reducing the Spirit to one side of the paradoxical equation. That is, the Spirit guides the interpretation of texts, and precisely so, reveals to the individual his or her sin/God’s grace. The Spirit does not merely reveal sin: the Spirit does this by guiding the interpretation of scripture.

    Is all scripture equally valid? I can’t see why not. I’ll agree that the usual position taken is that some scriptures are more important than others, but I confess that I’m not entirely comfortable with that understanding: it too easily becomes self-justification. As for the pragmatic issue: random, sure… but the Spirit! One must go by the Spirit! Of course, whatever one does by the Spirit may just as well appear random from the outside, right?

  20. mjberkey said

    I think you’re really stretching, Joe. I can see the point you’re trying to make when you say, “Sin becomes memory and not suffering”. But I can’t be reconciled to the idea while I have the text in front of me.

    Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell; yea, I saw that I had rebelled against my God, and that I had not kept his holy commandments.

    If Alma means something different that actual “genuine” memory, I’m not sure why he would say it at all. He also says that he saw that he had rebelled against God. In fact, this memory (as Alma calls it, but perhaps he has some private language and means something other than memory?) gave the thought of coming into the presence of God “inexpressible horror”. To the point that he wishes for extinction. He’s recognized his estrangement. Then in 17 it’s clear that it’s the actual memories of sin that are afflicting him, so I don’t think this can be an after-the-fact memory.

  21. Adam Miller said

    mjberkey says:

    “It seems to me that the recognition of sin is to recognize our estrangement from God. It’s as if we’ve done something wrong to a friend that has estranged us from her. That’s how I see sin anyway. And then grace, the at-one-ment (Nibley) itself, reconciles us. But I don’t think the recognition of reconciliation can come until after the recognition of estrangement.”

    The example of being estranged from a friend is helpful when thinking about sin, but I think our relationship with God is different in at least one crucial respect. While a friend may be estranged by our actions and leave us, God never will. God’s commitment to us is unconditional. In our estrangement from God, we’re the ones who have chosen to be ashamed, resentful, or estranged. God doesn’t leave us, we leave him.

    Another way to say this is that – contrary to our typical way of thinking about the relationship between sin and grace – I think that it makes more sense to talk about sin as a response to grace rather than about grace as a response to sin.

    Sin is a rejection of our dependence on God’s grace (for life, agency, etc.).

    So, in a crucial sense, God’s grace is always already given. Sin is a reaction against this dependence and an attempt to fabricate some kind of self-sufficiency or autonomous righteousness. And repentance is confession of our lack of independence. But this confession of dependence is a recognition of God’s always already (and unconditionally) given grace.

    Since sin is a rejection of an already given grace, a recognition of sinfulness is identical with a recognition of a grace.

    Or we might say: we are always already necessarily bound to God. Sin is pretending that we are not bound to God. Or, sin is the vain attempt to not be bound to or dependent on God. If we recognize our sinfulness, we’ll see that “reconciliation” is essentially a willingness to stop pretending that we aren’t already dependent on – and recipients of – God’s grace.

    So, though the experience of reconciliation may involve experientially distinct moments of recognition/reconciliation, reconciliation amounts to recognizing the logical unity of both.

    Hopefully, that’s more helpful and than confusing.

    My best,
    Adam

  22. mjberkey said

    Actually that clears things up very well, Adam. I guess you could say there’s a lag-time in our own thinking that causes the recognition/reconciliation moments to be separate. But then, how are we to view the atonement, if not reconciling some real estrangement between ourselves and God?

  23. joespencer said

    Mike,

    There are at least two very different (structurally different) meanings of remembering (incidentally, we ended up talking about this this morning in seminary: see the Isaiah 43-44 lecture). On the one hand, to remember is to repeat; on the other hand, to remember is to cease to repeat. The first sense: to commemorate, to memorialize, to remember ritually, anamnesis perhaps. The second sense: to do history, to read typologically, to remember non-ritually, mneme perhaps.

    I see Alma moving from one kind of memory to the other (as I argue in the first chapter of my book) as his memory (at first only in the first sense above) comes to wrestle with the thought (oriented to the future, to the open) of judgment/God/the angel. The dialectical tangle of thought and memory eventually results in a reworking of his cyclically destructive memory into a genuine narratable history—and that is what conversion amounts to.

  24. Adam Miller said

    mjberkey says:

    “Actually that clears things up very well, Adam. I guess you could say there’s a lag-time in our own thinking that causes the recognition/reconciliation moments to be separate. But then, how are we to view the atonement, if not reconciling some real estrangement between ourselves and God?”

    Great question. A couple of thoughts in response.

    I think that it is accurate to say (as you point out) that there is some real estrangement between ourselves and God. It seems to me, though, to make more sense to talk about ourselves as the estranged party rather than God.

    I would say that the aim of the atonement is not to convince God to take us back (as in a “penal-substitution” theory of atonement – this model is not without some merits, but in the end I, like many others, find it problematic for both moral and philosophical reasons). Rather, the aim of the atonement is to convince us to stop pridefully rejecting the grace that God has always already (and unconditionally) extended to us.

    In this respect, I think that Paul’s description of the atonement in the Romans 3.21-26 may be the best description we have of how this works:

    “But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets . . . since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God publicly displayed [proetheto] as a propitiation by blood through faith. He did this to display [eis endeixin] his righteousness, because in his divine forebearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; he did it to display [endeixin] in the urgency of the present moment his righteousness, and that he is upright and righteousifies the one who has faith in Jesus.”

    (The translation here is my own – the KJV seems to me to obscure many of the most important points in these verses.)

    The key, here, I think, is Paul’s heavy emphasis on “display.” (We could call this a “display” theory of atonement.) The atonement aims to accomplish reconciliation in that it definitively displays the fact that God remains unconditionally committed to all of us (i.e., he remains “righteous”), no matter what we have done. The death and resurrection of Jesus display beyond doubt that there is nothing God won’t give to get us back: he’ll even give his Son.

    The aim of this gift is to convince us to stop pretending we don’t need God and confess instead our gratitude for his grace. In other words, the aim is to convince to us to confess a grace we’ve been denying all along, not to convince God that he should accept us despite the fact that we wanted to but “couldn’t do it.”

    We don’t often talk about the atonement this way (maybe because we don’t often read Paul!), but I see no reason why we couldn’t. And, in the end, it seems to me to make a lot more sense, especially with respect to crucial questions about grace, works, etc.

    My best,
    Adam

  25. robf said

    Thanks Adam and Joe. I think this ties in nicely with Boyle’s notion of brokenheartedness. Like a broken record, our hearts keep repeating our sins, yearning to be separate/independent/a law unto ourselves. Only by sacrificing this aspect of ourselves do we fully accept the atonement, and come to Christ, allowing us to walk uprightly and not continually repeat the sins of the past.

    Sadly, I’m still not sure exactly how this is accomplished, how one fully lets go or sacrifices the broken and sinfully-repeating-remembering heart. I’m still a pretty stubborn and prideful guy.

  26. joespencer said

    Adam, I’m reminded of Elder Holland’s talk a few years back where he said: “Jesus did not come to change God’s view of man, but to change man’s view of God.” 2003 maybe?

  27. Robert C. said

    Adam #25, thank you very much for this. I’ve been coming to a very similar view myself (stemming from some marathon discussions at the NCT blog almost 2 years ago, for example see here), so you’re stating this so clearly and in the context of Romans 3:21ff is very exciting to me!

  28. SmallAxe said

    I’m not sure I understand your concern about the role of the Spirit.

    The purpose of teaching is to create an experience with the Spirit. This is done by taking our sacred texts absolutely seriously. Once the Spirit is present it will reveal that one is in sin/grace. This, again, is your line of thought.

    I have no problem with the first two statements, but my problem lingers with the third. I find it disturbing to make a statement that “the Spirit will reveal x” to someone because it confines the Spirit to x; and dictates how/what the Spirit will reveal to an individual. In this case you confine the Spirit to a paradigm of sin/grace, and determine what it will reveal to someone. I believe there’s more to the Spirit than sin/grace and would not want to dictate that the Spirit should be understood purely in these terms.

  29. joespencer said

    I don’t see the leap from “Once the Spirit is present it will reveal that one is in sin/grace” to “In this case you confine the Spirit to a paradigm of sin/grace, and determine what it will reveal to someone.” I don’t think the former entails the latter at all.

    To reveal grace/sin is not to reveal a fact (“Guess what! You’re in sin/grace!”), but to reveal what one really is, to teach one things as they are, were, and are to come. The Spirit does this not by whispering to someone the proposition “You are in sin/grace,” but by bringing about humility and understanding, insights and interpretations, and by sealing all of that up. I see the Spirit as doing a great deal in that “little” moment of revelation.

    In short, though I think that that moment of revelation is what the Spirit aims ultimately to do, I don’t therefore discount all else that is said of the Spirit. Rather, I understand the Spirit to be doing all else that is said of it in that moment of revelation.

    Does that help?

  30. SmallAxe said

    My hunch was that you are using ‘sin/grace’ in an all-encompassing sense. The way you tease it out here helps. This may be personal taste, but I’m not a fan of employing them as such. I guess I prefer revelation, fruits of the Spirit, or edification.

  31. JennyW said

    SmallAxe, you asked a ways back what I meant when I wrote about taking the textuality of the scriptures seriously. Sorry to be so late in my response. I was trying to suggest that part of a rigorous fidelity to the text (and textuality) of the scriptures is to realize that as texts, they are open to the same “problems” of textuality as any other text (i.e., the inherent gaps and slips in meaning, authorial intent, misprision, etc.). I think that part of seeing the scriptures as texts and dealing with them as such involves asking open questions concerning these textual problems for which we may have no (or many) answers. We tend to go to the scriptures searching for answers; I think we also need to go to them searching for questions and paying attention to the way they question us. Hope this helps somewhat.

  32. robf said

    After five days with no more comments on this post, perhaps the thread is dead. But after listening to Joe and Jeff’s podcast again a second time, it is easy to see how this post and comments don’t fully capture their views on teaching by the Spirit.

    Joe (#29) comes closest when he says that the Spirit reveals “what one really is, to teach one things as they are, were, and are to come”. For me, that means the Spirit shows us our relationship to God, which has the secondary effect, to show us that we are a) “nothing” as the scriptures state, b) loved unconditionally by God, c) incapable of saving ourselves, etc.

    So again, for me, teaching by the Spirit isn’t done “in order” to show the students their sins, but if we teach by the Spirit, one of the things that happens is that when the students perceive their true relationship to God through the Spirit, they will see their own weaknesses more clearly, as well as the love God has for them, etc.

    The reason to focus on the scriptures intently, to feast upon the word, is to get us all tuned into the Spirit that a) inspired the writings in the first place so that b) we can receive our own revelation of our status before God.

    I love to use the example of magnetism as a metaphor for the effects of the Spirit. Some elements can be magnetized if all of their constituent elements can become alligned withe the magnetic field. You can make iron into a magnet by rubbing it with a magnet. Or you can wrap an electric coil around it to make it an electromagnet. The Spirit is like the electricity that flows throw the coil (scriptures, etc.) that can make us “spiritually magnetic”. But turn off the Spirit, and we lose our magnetism. So, also through continual service in the Spirit (rubbing with a magnet) we can come to hold our own magnetic field.

    OK, maybe kinda loopy, but at least with kids and youth, they seem to “get” it when shown it that way.

  33. joespencer said

    Very apt interpretation, Rob. Thanks.

  34. robf said

    Rereading my comment (#32), the point of bringing up the magnetism analogy is that we can feel the Spirit, but if we don’t follow it (become aligned with it, like in magnetism), it really doesn’t have a lasting impact. And can probably be even damaging, as we get lulled into feeling like as long as we can get a little spiritual buzz now and again, we are OK (“all is well in Zion”). Teaching by the Spirit isn’t about giving people a buzz. Its about helping them feel the Spirit and then (break out the old missionary commitment pattern) inviting them to more fully align themselves with God (“come unto Christ”) by following the Spirit.

    Often I end my lessons by pointing out that I the Spirit has been present, and that if we have been impressed by the Spirit with things that we need to start doing (or stop doing) to better follow Christ, I urge us to follow those promptings.

  35. Robert C. said

    Rob, I think your clarification is helpful regarding “seeing our sinful state” meaning that the Spirit shows us “that we are nothing.”

    Also, I like your example, esp. b/c I think the “being aligned” is a nice way to think about how the Spirit affects us—it changes us and has a reconciling effect, so the trick is not to “fall again” back into our worldly, unremembering ways as we leave the classroom or stand from our knees or close the scriptures….

  36. robf said

    Robert (#35), As for falling again, that’s why King Benjamin gives us the two ways to “retain” the remission of our sins (we might say maintain our being aligned)–daily remembrance of our nothingness and service to others.

  37. joespencer said

    Interesting that that question of retaining is then parallel with Benjamin’s unique concept of a God infinitely faithful to an indebtedness He thrusts upon us: in Mosiah 2:23-24, our indebtedness is only eternal in that God continues to pay us, hence, through His indefinitely sustained attention to us.

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