25 June 2008

On Milk and Meat...

You're probably thinking 'Not another post on Sunday School!' Not that I've posted profusely on the topic, but the milk and meat theme tends to be a hot-button issue on the bloggernacle. My goal isn't to rehash what we usually say on the subject, but rather to reframe the discussion slightly.

In 1 Corinthians, 3:2, Paul explains to the saints at Corinth that his instruction has progressed along a milk-meat axis, so to speak, saying "I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able." It is this verse to which Latter-day Saints point in justification for their assertions that Sunday lessons be premised on the "milk" of the gospel, leaving the "meat" for other occasions.

Setting aside the oft-repeated rejoinders to this line of thinking for now (addressed in some of my earlier posts which suggest that teaching and learning requires some degree of "discomfort"), I opt here to take Paul at face value, and evaluate the effectiveness our milk before meat approach to gospel learning.

With missionary work being an appropriate beginning point for such an evaluation, I turn to the Preach My Gospel manual which contains the material of instruction for our introductory lessons to the gospel. These lessons rely on scripture and point the student toward the Spirit to receive further instruction beyond the lessons. In this manner, the teaching and learning promoted by the missionary lessons transcends the "teacher" and "student." Thus, lasting conversion becomes a reasonable aim to such lessons given the focus and emphasis on experience with the Divine. It seems that the lessons progress from the fundamental to the particular, allowing for a deepening of testimony prior to immersion in the smaller points of the laws of the gospel. Perhaps this model might be one way of approaching milk and meat. It seems incomplete, however, in that the more fundamental teachings seem more "meaty" (for lack of a better word) than those regarding the specifics of tithing or the Word of Wisdom. Thus, we must look further to determine what we really mean about milk and meat.

Another approach allows for milk to be obtained at official Church functions, with meat being an individual pursuit following up on the foundation laid by the distribution of milk. This seems to be a preferred mode of instruction in our Sunday School classes. By keeping doctrine pure and basic, we give starting points to the more "mature" while avoiding the discomfort that might uproot the testimonies of those who have just come to the milk of the gospel recently. Sunday School lessons typically (although not by absolute requirement) offer an overview of passages of scripture with a few thoughts, targeted at either increasing awareness of scriptures or at providing inspirational/devotional moments. This approach does a good job of offering opportunities to delve more deeply into scripture if the students act on the starting points articulated in class and actively study to answer some of the "hard questions" or "hard doctrines" mentioned in passing during the meetings. The approach does not offer, however, a pattern for study, in that it tends to visibly show milk as the desirable end unto itself without it leading to meat. Paul surely did not intend his statement to suggest that the saints at Corinth would (or should) never eat the Gospel's meat. Similarly here, the Sunday School approach seems to occupy a necessary and good place within our teaching and learning structure; however, if left on its own, it would be insufficient. "[N]either yet now are ye able" (1 Cor. 3:2) seems to almost emphasize the future involving a feast upon the meat of the gospel.

Where, then, do we turn next? Worship services generally, occupying their place on our Sabbath, would seem to provide a suitable forum for learning and receiving "meat." Indeed, the sentiment expressed by Prophets and Apostles that our saints should come away from worship services having been nourished and fed, rather than entertained or appeased, suggests that Sunday services are an appropriate, if not necessary, place for "meat" to be served.

If so, how do we resolve the seeming paradox before us? How should gospel instruction and learning be approached?

Perhaps before considering this, we ought to evaluate how personal study and learning fits into the framework described above. Personal study is bounded by counsel to avoid "deep doctrines." Notwithstanding this, we are also encouraged to make daily, meaningful study of the scriptures a part of our lives. Again, a seeming paradox presents itself. How does one feast so as to comply with the latter portion of advice without crossing into the uncharted territory of the former?

One approach to personal study may offer a way of splitting the horns of this dilemma, and it should appear familiar. Nephi describes it as "liken[ing]" all scripture unto us. 1 Ne. 19: 23. This approach, however, often turns into a superficial twisting or wresting of scripture to justify our pre-existing and preconceived notions of what scripture means rather than a means for allowing the scriptures to unfold themselves to us.

To avoid this, perhaps the exercise of "likening" merits reevaluation. Should scriptural contortionism be a competition in the spiritual olympics? Or would we learn and teach better if we learned a different method of likening?

How else can we liken? One approach that I have found useful relies on the patterns and themes and transcending stories of scripture to shape my life. This does not mean that I twist the scriptural accounts to inject my contemporary understanding or problems into it; nor does it mean that I project my current understanding of doctrine or theology (whatever I may define that to mean) onto the scriptures. Rather, this manner of likening attempts to grapple with the questions and problematics presented in scripture and evaluate the God who stands behind each account. In this way, I attempt to gain knowledge, but also to learn about learning. Articulating this approach will probably require more than this post to flesh out; however, the basic principle of attempting to present personal learning in a way that permits a balanced diet of milk and meat seems important.
In this vein, one final thought seems to merit attention. In more than one instance, the scriptural record uses a peculiar phrase. First appearing in Numbers 11:12, then recurring in Isaiah 49:23 (quoted in 1 Ne. 21:23), and again in 2 Nephi 6:7 and 10:9, the phrase at issue refers to "nursing fathers." This phrase might seem like a significant departure from the theme introduced above. Notwithstanding this change in focus, the phrase bears reflection. When prophets in these verses refer to queens as "nursing mothers," the phrase carries none of the jarring paradox that "nursing fathers" brings to the scene.
How can this phrase contribute to the preceding discussion? First, I note the obvious: males do not nurse their young. I only make mention of this obvious biological fact because this creates the underlying question of these verses. If kings shall be their nursing fathers and queens their nursing mothers, the prophets are attempting to teach a truth beyond the nourishment of children. In what sense, then, can kings act as nursing fathers just as queens act as nursing mothers? This can become clearer by determining what we mean by "to nurse." In this sense, it seems that the phrase refers to breaking down milk into meat. This returns us to the opening thoughts of this post. Perhaps gospel learning and teaching serves this same purpose. If so, then the ongoing calls to teach in the gospel (such as Home and Visiting Teaching, among others) provide opportunities and obligations for each member to feast upon the meat of the gospel through personal study and then to break it down into milk such that it can be presented in a teaching/learning context such as that mentioned above which gives preference to the public instruction focused on milk. In this way, these programs, which for other purposes may be less than necessary in some contexts, provide each member the medium through which a balance of milk and meat is possible. How to engage in this process of breaking down meat into milk, however, merits future attention...


Jimmy & Becky said...

Interesting question to consider. Could you provide a reference on your comment that "Personal study is bounded by counsel to avoid 'deep doctrines.'"

I'm not really sure what the phrase "deep doctrines" means sometimes. Anecdotally, it seems to mean "opinions promulgated by general authorities in personal writings, but not explicitly taught in any official church publications."

My personal short list of "deep doctrines" to avoid:

-Blood Atonement
-Reasons for Priesthood restriction

I've found that discussion of these issues is best addressed in casual conversations among friends held away from meetinghouses. In that context, personal speculation is understood as such, rather than misconstued as "official teachings."

MattM said...

Thanks for the comment (and apologies for a nearly-post-length comment in response), that point was merely based upon my observations of counseld given by local leaders and others in various areas and settings. The anectodal meanings were what I had in mind. As a touchpoint, and in your desire for a reference, I turn to this teaching of President Hinckley:

“I want to plead with you to keep balance in your lives. Do not become obsessed with what may be called ‘a gospel hobby.’ A good meal always includes more than one course. …

“… Beware of obsession. Beware of narrowness. Let your interests range over many good fields while working with growing strength in the field of your own profession.”
(Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley (1997), 31–32.)

I think that too often, church members regard "deep doctrines" as anything regarding the gospel that would require more than cursory study. Such a perception (in my opinion) errs. Certainly we should not attempt to create "gospel hobb[ies];" however, deep and meaningful study of the scriptures suggests that this idea of "deep doctrines" misses the mark. Similarly, limiting "deep doctrines" to those speculative opinions expressed by church leaders or general authorities seems too narrow. In the context of the milk and meat conversation, I think that the phrase too often is used as a sword to advocate against the teaching of "too much meat." That use probably most aptly and succinctly covers what I initially had in mind.

Upon further consideration, I maintain that personal study is bounded by the teachings of President Hinckley to avoid "gospel hobbies" or obsession in our study. Similarly, speculation about such "deep doctrines" as included on your short list would appear fruitless with regard to spiritual learning and development. That said, the occasional speculation appears not to contravene the prophetic counsel until it becomes obsessive or becomes a subject of more intensive study to the exclusion of other, more potentially fruitful doctrines.

I hope these thoughts make some sense... Basically, our personal speculation is not bounded by the counsel; yet our personal study should be so bounded. And in that spirit, we may turn to Moses 1:35 which implicitly teaches a similar principle, when the Lord tells Moses: "But only an account of this earth, and the inhabitants thereof, give I unto you." The knowledge which will move us forward in our spiritual development comes through study and faith. Attempting to approach knowledge in any other way might allow pride to enter into that facet of our lives and limit our progress.

So "deep doctrines" might be characterized as those gray areas between the revealed word which have not been taught by the Lord and which have no bearing on our eternal salvation. The counsel to avoid "gospel hobbies" (again, in my opinion) merely suggests that when we sit down to engage in scripture study or pondering, we set those areas of speculation to the side. The "likening" I allude to and which will require further thought is my attempt at unveiling the plentiful "meat" offering itself to us in the form of the scriptures and our dedicated study thereof.

Davey Morrison said...

Good thoughts, bro. I think some of the milk and meat conundrum is addressed when Christ is asked why he teaches in parables. He answers that those who have eyes to see and ears to hear will understand, and those who don't will not be held accountable for the doctrines for which they are not yet prepared. Teaching by stories and symbols is one of the fundamental aspects of gospel learning, found in the ancient scriptures, in temple ceremonies, and in everything President Monson says--there is often greater profundity in the juxtaposition of characters, events, and images than in a simply articulated sentence of doctrine, as stories deal with eternal principles by means which are both more concrete and more abstract than any abstraction. They express their own meanings even as they offer endless opportunity for reevaluation and personal revelation.