"Disciple-Scholars" by Neal A Maxwell


In this selection from his talk entitled "Disciple Scholars," Elder Neal A. Maxwell, addresses an important and challenging dialectical tension. A fundamental aspect of his discussion, he offers a framework for faithfilled yet academically rigorous scholarship. The balance he describes between a reliance on faith and knowledge gives individuals a safe lane to swim in the turbulent waters produced where these two important principles come into conflict. As a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, he discusses the relative importance of truth, its various categories, and the source of each of these categories.  

Are All Truths of Equal Importance? 

Since truth is highly and rightly valued in the learning process, please allow me to present a few graphic illustrations about the gradations of truth. These points may seem obvious, but it is so easy to look “beyond the mark” (Jacob 4:14).

The restored gospel of Jesus Christ gives us a different view of truth. To begin with, there is no democracy among truths. They are not of equal significance. These gradations might be represented geometrically by a wide circle.

The outer edges of the circle would include truths which are accurate descriptions of reality. These facts, such as airline schedules and exchange rates, have only a momentary utility and relevancy, a short shelf life. They are useful, and they cannot be ignored, but they are simply not on the same footing as other kinds of truth. You could supply your own and better illustrations.

The next concentric circle inward would include more important truths. These are proximate and important truths, however, not ultimate truths. Some of these, for instance, are verifiable by the very serviceable scientific method. These truths can be very useful and valuable. For instance, in the realm of astrophysics they tell us much about the what and how of the universe, but they cannot (and do not even presume to) tell us why it exists.

In this same middle circle, the suburbs, so to speak, there is a churning and revising among some of these truths. Life in the suburbs may mean one can be “ever learning” but still “never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7). Even so, these truths are important and valued.

In the very center of the circle of truth lie the “deep things of God” (1 Cor. 2:10, 14). These come to us only by revelation from God, and they clearly have a greater significance than other truths and fleeting facts.

These truths concern things as they really were, really are, and really will be (D&C 93:24). There is constancy, not churning, among these strategic truths. These truths, for instance, are revealed from God and tell us why the universe exists. They are also very personal and crucial, such as is contained in Enoch's exclamation (see Moses 7:30). They represent the highest order of truth.

These truths are likewise verifiable. Jesus describes how: “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself” (John 7:17; see also Alma 32:26–43).

Prioritizing Truths

Thus we constantly need to distinguish between the truths which are useful and those which are crucial, and between truths which are important and those which are eternal. The restored gospel gives us this special sense of proportion.

Stephen Hawking, displaying that meekness which is found in great scientists, wrote: “Although science may solve the problem of how the universe began, it cannot answer the question: Why does the universe bother to exist? I don't know the answer to that.” (Stephen W. Hawking, Black Holes and Baby Universes [New York: Bantam Books, 1993], p. 99.)

Hawking also raised some ultimate questions pertaining to the innermost zone of figure 1. He wrote:

What is the nature of the universe? What is our place in it and where did it and we come from? Why is it the way it is? …

… If we do discover a complete theory, … then we shall all … be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason–for then we would know the mind of God. (Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time [New York: Bantam Books, 1988], pp. 171, 175.)

Such questions are answered only by revelation, not solely by reason. Certain high-grade knowledge, as Paul taught, is “spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). Only when mind and spirit combine can we penetrate the inner realm.

Nephi lamented over those who “will not search knowledge, nor understand great knowledge” (2 Ne. 32:7). Clearly he was referring to a particular gradation of knowledge. Jesus lamented that some had lost the “key of knowledge.” Joseph Smith translated the word key as “the fulness of the scriptures” (JST Luke 11:53; see also D&C 84:19–20).

Yes, we are nourished in many helpful ways by certain facts and feelings, but as Jacques Maritain observed:

“Poetry (like metaphysicsics) is spiritual nourishment; but of a savor which has been created and which is insufficient. There is but one eternal nourishment. Unhappy are you who think yourselves ambitious, and who whet your appetites for anything less than the [divinity] of Christ. It is a mortal error to expect from poetry the super-substantial nourishment of man.” (Jacques Maritain, Frontiers of Poetry [New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1962], p. 132.) 

Scholarship as a Form of Worship

For a disciple of Jesus Christ, academic scholarship is a form of worship. It is actually another dimension of consecration. Hence one who seeks to be a disciple–scholar will take both scholarship and discipleship seriously; and, likewise, gospel covenants. For the disciple–scholar, the first and second great commandments frame and prioritize life. How else could one worship God with all of one's heart, might, mind, and strength? (Luke 10:27.) Adoration of God leads to emulation of Him and Jesus: “Therefore, what manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am.” (3 Ne. 27:27; see also 2 Pet. 3:11.)

So much tutoring is required, however, in order for the disciple to become “as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:19).

The disciple–scholar also understands what kind of community he or she should help to build. Its citizens openly and genuinely desire to be called God's people. They are not secret disciples, but bear one another's burdens, mourn with those that mourn, comfort those in need of comfort, and witness for God at all times, and in all places, and in all things (see Mosiah 18:8–9). Hubris, including intellectual pride, reflects the ways of hell, not of heaven! No wonder a true community of scholars would qualify to be part of a larger community of Saints.

The disciple–scholar also understands Jesus' style of leadership, which includes persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, love unfeigned, kindness, pure knowledge–all being achieved without hypocrisy and guile (see D&C 121:41–42; Mosiah 3:19). There again, wholeness and meekness are emphasized. 

Questions to Consider

  1. What are the sources of ephemeral, important, and eternal truth? 
  2. What does Elder Maxwell mean by the statement, "there is no democracy among truths"? 
  3. In what ways is academic scholarship a form of worship?
  4. How does this discussion affect your thoughts about error? 

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