RS/MP Lesson 1: “Learning by Faith” (Lorenzo Snow Manual)
Posted by Robert C. on January 6, 2013
These are some thoughts for the lesson Learning by Faith in the new Lorenzo Snow manual.
This is such a great lesson, and I think it stands by itself really well. So, for this lesson in particular, I’d recommend composing your own thoughts and notes for the lesson, before reading my comments on the lesson.
One question I’d be tempted to structure the whole lesson around is: Why doesn’t God just give us knowledge? Why do we have to work so hard to learn things?
I’ll start with the lesson content in reverse, starting with a quote from the very last paragraph of the lesson. I think it’s a great quote to start with, and I worry it’ll be ignored because it’s at the end of the lesson (we’re such a linear culture that we often run out of time before the end of a lesson is reached):
And in proportion to the exercise of our faith do we receive information, communicated through the Lord’s servants.
D&C 88:118 gives us the commonly quoted phrase, “seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” But I think we are often apt to think about learning “by faith” more in terms of the content of what we are learning rather than the mode by which we learn. That is, D&C 88:118 doesn’t command us to seek knowledge of a spiritual kind. Rather, it says we should seek learning by faith. What is the significance of this difference between spiritual knowledge and learning by faith, and why does scripture admonish the latter?
I think many, many quotes in this lesson are best understood as, effectively, an answer this question. My short answer is we need to take responsibility for fostering a desire to learn (cf. Alma 29:4; 32:27). And if our desire is authentic and sincere, actual efforts will follow (just as works follow from authentic faith).
President Snow warns us of one of the most important obstacles to learning by faith in the penultimate paragraph of the lesson:
We have gathered for the purpose of worshiping God and transacting business necessary for the furtherance of the cause of truth on the earth. The character of the instructions will depend largely upon the condition of our minds. We should dismiss therefrom our secular business and devote our attention to the purpose of this Conference.
How do secular concerns and worries undermine our efforts to learn by faith? What can we do to overcome these obstacles? How and why have we succumb to these obstacles in the past? What new resolutions should we make to avoid making the mistakes of the past?
Earlier in the lesson, President Snow gives a similar warning about secular distractions:
We must not neglect our spiritual improvements while we seek for worldly wealth. It is our duty to make every effort for the purpose of advancing ourselves in the principles of light and knowledge. . . . If our minds are too one-sided, paying too much attention to the acquiring of earthly goods, to the neglect of spiritual wealth, we are not wise stewards.
There are a series of fantastic quotes provided that get at the following point, but I’ll pick just one succinct one:
I have thought, and still think, that our being edified does not so much depend upon the speaker as upon ourselves.
How many times have you felt uncharitable thoughts during a bad lesson or talk? How often did you come to recognize the problem was with you and not the teacher or speaker? What can we do during talks and lessons (or scripture study sessions…) that do not naturally impress us or pique our interest?
One last quote from the last section of the lesson:
When [a teacher] stands before the people he should do so realizing that he stands before them for the purpose of communicating knowledge . . . . This cannot be done, except by a labor of mind, by an energy of faith and by seeking with all one’s heart the Spirit of the Lord our God.
What does President Snow mean by “a labor of mind” and “energy of faith”? How can one seek “with all one’s heart the Spirit of the Lord our God”? What are the challenges we face, or can expect to face, in trying to do this better?
In the penultimate section of the lesson, President Snow talks about the benefits and need of repetition in learning:
It is with us as with the child learning the alphabet. The teacher says to the child, “Here is the letter a; will you try and remember it?” The child replies, “Yes, I will try to remember it.” The teacher goes to the next letter, and says, “This letter is b; will you look upon it and try to remember it?” “Oh, yes,” says the child. Then the teacher turns back to the letter a. “What letter is this?” The child has forgotten it. . . . And so the lesson has to be repeated over and over again, so much so that if the teacher had not had experience, and knew what to expect, he certainly would be discouraged. So it is with the Latter-day Saints. Though we may get tired of hearing things repeated, they have to be in order that we may learn them thoroughly.
Why is repetition in Gospel learning necessary? What can we do to get the most out of this kind of repetition?
I have been teaching finance classes now, at the undergraduate and MBA-level, for about 8 years now. What I am struck with is how un-repetitive the process feels to me. Part of this is because I am constantly tinkering my class and trying to teach the material in a better way. But part of the reason I do this is because I am constantly understanding the material in new, different, and surprising ways.
I remember that when I was a youth, studying the Gospel and reading the scriptures oftentimes felt tediously repetitive. I also used to feel this way frequently even after becoming an adult (by age, others might question whether my maturity matched!). But then something happened. For me, it coincided with my reading of Jim Faulconer’s Sunday school study questions, where I started to realize the depths and layers of scriptural meanings and significance that I hadn’t even even scratched the surface of. I sometimes revert back to my previous immature attitude toward the Gospel that I had as a child, feeling bored, or feeling that the repetition was tediously repetitive (rather than, say, provocatively repetitive). But I have to confess that these recurrences of boredom are rare for me now. This is one of those things about which I had a life-changing kind of conversion. Also, it is worth noting, this conversion came to me rather unexpectedly. I was open to having the experience, but I didn’t really seek to have this experience. Anyway, because of this, I’m very inclined to think that a desire to learn, just like learning more generally, is more of a gift of the Spirit than something that we merely work for and obtain as a result of our own efforts. Most learning occurs this way, in my experience: we prepare ourselves to learn, and prove our desire to learn, but the experience of learning is something that flows into me from an outside source (as a grace), rather than something internally generated by my own efforts.
I say these thoughts before moving, finally, to the first section of the lesson, since I worry the first part of the lesson could be misinterpreted. Pres. Snow says:
[T]here is something new to learn every day, that is of great value. And it is not only our privilege but it is necessary that we receive these things and gather these new ideas.
The whole idea of Mormonism is improvement.
I think the notion of “self-improvement” in Mormonism underscores what i think is an endlessly fascinating tension in scripture. As it pertains to learning, this tension can be expressed between an attitude of receiving knowledge as opposed to an attitude of obtaining or “taking” knowledge.
I do not believe, and I don’t think Pres. Snow means, that we conquer ignorance through our own efforts, without divine help. Rather, although we must exert faith and perseverance, we do so only so that we can “receive these things” that are “of great value.” In this sense, I think Pres. Snow is admonishing an approach nicely conveyed by the scriptural expression “to wait on the Lord.” In this sense, my experience with learning, in all forms, is one that involves attentiveness on my part, a kind of fidelity or faithfulness (“learning by faith”) toward the goal of learning—but an attentiveness that is more easily contrasted than compared with, say, a strong form of will.
So, for example, rather than sitting through a boring talk or lesson and thinking about the way that I (and my will) wish the lesson or talk were being delivered, I attend to the thoughts being offered by the speaker or teacher in a receptive attitude, more willing to be taught something genuinely new, that I hadn’t previously supposed (cf. Moses 1:10). This attitude, it seems to me, is a critical ingredient in our efforts to seek the further light and knowledge that God has promised.