The Moral Obligation to be Spiritually Intelligent

This is the script for a talk I gave in 2012 (edited and with added tips on note-taking).

During my youth, I found strength and solace in the scriptures. When I was middle school age, I read about Jesus in the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and wrote my own summary of each chapter. I found not just comfort, but much-needed knowledge for how to improve myself and better my situation. I started to learn the role I could play as a young person to effect change in my life.

In my 9th grade English class we read The Inferno by Dante Alighieri. It is a 14th-century Italian epic poem about hell. We were asked to write our own versions of hell. Then we read them in class. My peers’ versions of hell were characterized by scenes of darkness and hatred. There were monsters, sludge, and swamps. Fear and violence pervaded their poetic words. When it was my turn to read my poetic version of hell, the hell I had envisioned was quite different. It wasn’t dark; in fact, in my hell I’m certain it was daylight. There were bunnies and fluffy clouds and lollipops sticking out of the ground. What made it hell were the people in it who were mindless, empty, blissful souls in utter ignorance. They had no depth, but smiled and pranced without a care in the world. They had no desire to grow or learn. Having been well acquainted with fear, darkness, sadness, and loss, it does seem strange I would describe hell in such a way. But for me, hell was ignorance.

John Erskine wrote an essay (published in 1914 and 1915) called "The Moral Obligation To Be Intelligent." He makes fun of some popular English novels of the day because their protagonists were “a well-meaning blunderer who in the last chapter is temporarily rescued by the grace of God from the mess he has made of his life.” Erskine is hinting to us what Joseph Smith has said, “It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith 301).

Joseph Smith also said (TPJS 138),
“ignorance, superstition and bigotry placing itself where it ought not, is oftentimes in the way of the prosperity of this Church.” 
John Erskine said, “Intelligence is the virtue we particularly need.” He goes on to say,
“We really seek intelligence not for the answers it may suggest to the problems of life, but because we believe it is life, – not for aid in making the will of God prevail, but because we believe it is the will of God.”
Intelligence is life. Men and women change their life's course when they gain intelligence and understanding. Think of Nephi, Lehi’s son in the Book of Mormon, who was known for his brawn and his can-do attitude and obedience. He is extolled as a sort of spiritual football star in the scriptures, but he was also studious. He constantly refers to the scriptures and uses the words and examples of past prophets to help himself and others adjust their life course.

He spoke to his older brothers, saying, “Therefore let us go up, let us be strong like unto Moses; for he truly spake unto the waters of the Red Sea and they divided hither and thither.” He references Moses and several other prophets on many occasions; he studied their words enough to refer to them in conversation (1 Nephi 4:2).

So the question is, do we seek learning as Nephi did, or are we content with the portion we have obtained? In the Book of Mormon, Jacob says (Jacob 3:11),
“...arouse the faculties of your souls; shake yourselves that ye may awake from the slumber of death.” 
Do not be an intellectual infant, neglectfully slowing or halting the growth of your spiritual knowledge. The Lord has commanded through a revelation to Joseph Smith, “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118).

There are 3 ways we can meet our moral obligation to be spiritually intelligent:

  1. Personal scripture study
  2. Group scripture study
  3. Writing and remembering

Put energy into your scripture study

Sitting back, listening, and ‘soaking it in’ in religious meetings doesn’t make the cut. A meeting is a starting point for further study. Are you a Sunday Christian or an everyday Christian? On Sunday we enjoy some wonderful instruction, but we are also responsible for our spiritual learning the next six days to follow. Are you someone who claims to believe in the scriptures, but does not study them?

Sources matter

Be not deceived. Matthew says (JS-Matthew 1:37),
“And whoso treasureth up my word, shall not be deceived.”
If you’re going to gain spiritual knowledge, use true sources for religious education. Open the scriptures. Part of being intelligent is using reliable sources.

When studying for personal insights or to prepare a lesson, be mindful of where you are getting your information. Don’t trust that other people did their research. Try to find a primary source or as trustworthy a secondary source as you can. There are many misattributed quotations on the Internet, for example. For years a myth has propagated throughout the Church claiming that President Brigham Young said ‘a man who is unmarried at the age of 25 is a menace to society.’ Brigham Young did not say this. The person who said something similar was George Q. Cannon, who said, “I consider every unmarried man of the age of 24 years a dangerous element to society.” The quote in error is found all over the Internet in blog posts, quote images, and more, but I found Cannon’s quote in Volume 46 (1884) of The Millennial Star, a publication that was contemporary to Cannon. It is much more likely that the quote is attributable to him. Then you have to ask yourself if he was right about 24-year-old unmarried men (keep in mind that in the late 1800s the age of 24 was middle age).

Understand the basics

Can I explain what faith is? Can I really define the word grace? Can I define ‘priesthood’ and do I understand the roles of the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods?

The essential role of studying with groups of people

It is essential not only to have a personal study of the scriptures but also to join in group studies. These include family scripture study, Sunday School hour on Sundays, and Institute courses. No matter how much you can learn alone, because of the limitations of your own personality, you will gain certain understanding only from others and what they can teach you.

The sin of avoidance

When I attended a young adult congregation, Brother Chase (who was a member of the bishopric) stood at the pulpit to plead the case to attend Sunday School and to stop loitering in the chapel and in the halls. "I cannot tell you all the things whereby ye may commit sin; for there are divers ways and means, even so many that I cannot number them” (Mosiah 4:29). Well, here are a few temptations to sin in relation to Sunday School, Institute courses, or other opportunities for spiritual edification:
  • not going or showing up terribly late
  • attending with a vapid disposition (lacking life)
  • going unprepared
  • going and leaving empty, having learned nothing, which is not the teacher’s fault; you are responsible for your learning
  • going and paying no attention, perhaps texting or playing games during the meeting
  • not trusting the teacher’s capacity and not being open to learn

We need others to gain new insights

When you are alert and sharp and open your heart in class, you will gain a valuable insight that may stick with you forever. It was in Paul Adams’ Sunday School class (Jan 15, 2012) that I first heard his term ‘Faith Obedience’. He defined it as “you know what you have to do and that it is right, but you don’t know how you will accomplish it.” He told us that it is by faith we can accomplish the seemingly impossible.

Why and how to remember what we learn

Listening without remembering is close to not listening at all. For example, the ward and personal goals Bishop Thomas gave his congregation (Longfellow Park Ward) at the beginning of 2012 and repeated at a meeting in February were to attend the temple, have a personal plan for your life, feast upon the Word of God, and share the gospel. We are given instruction on Sundays; if we don’t remember what it is, how will we live it?

Remembering what we learn is essential. Writing impressions and referring to them is key, especially if you plan to learn something from a religious experience and act on it in the following days and weeks.

How to take notes

A great way to make up for the limitations of memory is to write down what we learn. I take notes in all my classes at Church, when I do personal study, and even when I go to other events like firesides, presentations, and performances. When I learn something or receive a spiritual impression while at the event, I note it down immediately. I have several years of notes that I look back on and build upon.

Effective note-taking is itself something that must be learned. Over the years I have developed my writing skills to help me study. Here are a few tips:
  • Leave space to ponder. Don’t write notes in such detail that you aren’t able to ponder and ‘digest’ what is being spoken or taught. For example, during General Conference, let go of trying to get down every quote (especially knowing that it will be available to watch or read again later). Focus on writing down your impressions, action items, and critical insights.
  • Title your notes. This makes it much more easy to find a note (especially if you are handwriting your notes). If the lesson is on the Atonement, and the discussion was mostly on how to use the Atonement to repent, I would write all my notes, then at the end of the lesson write/type at the top of my notes, “The Atonement’s Role in Repentance.”
  • Write for someone else. Summarize what you learned in church each week in a blog post, in a letter to someone who wasn’t at church that week, or to a family member or friend. When you teach a principle you just learned, you go through the hard work of putting it into your own words, solidifying your understanding.
  • Write 1-3 takeaways at the end of your notes. This keeps us from falling into taking notes on a lot of facts and quotes. Instead, give meaning to it all. Otherwise, you have a page of “information.” You give information meaning by asking yourself, “so what?”

The benefits of being spiritually intelligent

When we study the scriptures alone and in groups and write and remember what we learn, I testify we will receive the promise of revelation and spiritual intelligence.

The LDS Church offers religion courses (called Institute of Religion) for college students around the world. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, courses were offered for MIT students on weekdays at lunchtime. I worked at MIT, so I would attend the offered classes with the undergraduate and graduate students. I’d use my lunch break to attend a class, then I returned to work inspired and rejuvenated. I did this for years. I studied before, during, and after class. I felt a closeness to the Holy Ghost, like I could hear God communicating with me. I felt guided through my decisions as if by the Liahona. I was a better employee, more effective with my time, and my mind was opened to more creative ideas that had a positive impact on several departments (I was promoted twice in my time there).

I gained beautiful insights by attending the Institute of Religion courses, which give us the chance to study the scriptures in a new light and to treasure them. I’ve been able to feast upon the words of Christ in a way I never could before. We must value the word of God and value learning much more than we do today.

I served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Uruguay. When I lived in Tacuaremb√≥, I got to know a man and his wife: the man was completely blind. His wife would read the scriptures to him every day. For us, the excuse may be we are busy, but the excuse for him is seemingly more legitimate—he is blind—and yet he still found a way. If in your heart you love the scriptures, you will find a way to read them. One day a family in the town bought for them the scriptures on audio CDs as well as a CD player to play them. The man would bring his CDs (in a case) with him to church meetings, even though he could not refer to them. He treasured them so much that he held them in his hands during the meeting.

I now circle back to John Erskine, who said,
“We believe that even in religion, in the most intimate room of the spirit, intelligence long ago proved itself the master-virtue. ...if intelligence begins in a pang, it proceeds to a vision. ... In history at least, if not yet in the individual, Plato’s faith has come true, that sin is but ignorance, and knowledge and virtue are one.”


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