Dammit Jim! I’m an Engineer, not a Theologian!

Some of you may recognize the title as a play on the familiar phrase that was frequently given by Doctor McCoy on the popular television show named Star Trek. This post is an attempt to draw some parallels between my career as an engineer, and my approach to living the gospel as a member of the church.

As an engineer I apply the laws of science and the language of mathematics to solve practical problems. This does not make me a mathematician or a physicist. I know and can apply algebra, trigonometry, calculus, and an occasional differential equation when I have to. But there are higher level mathematics that I have yet to learn or have a real need for in my career so far. As far as physics, give me Newton’s laws. F=ma and its variations. I have little use for the theory of relativity or a unified theory of physics to get my daily tasks done.

As a member of the church I am familiar with the basics of the plan of salvation. I know about and have applied the first principles and ordinances of the gospel. I generally keep the commandments and hope to endure to the end. I have received the ordinances of the temple and hope to someday experience eternal life. This is not to say that I am an expert, or even well read in philosophy or theology. I do not have a good grasp on the jargon, or argument patterns in these fields. And I really don’t feel that I personally have troubling questions that demand answers at the moment from a theological standpoint.

An engineer however, might come across a problem sometime when the regular mathematics and physics he uses are not sufficient to solve the problems he faces. He then would need to do more research, and stand on the shoulders of those who went before to gain some additional insight to his problem. It would be helpful for this engineer to be at least somewhat prepared to do this research. The better prepared he is with the laws of science and the language of mathematics the better he will be at gaining the additional knowledge he needs.

Does it not make sense then for the small and simple member of the church to seek to be somewhat familiar with the philosophical and theological thoughts of others so that if and when questions do come they are somewhat prepared for them?

I am considering obtaining an introductory book on philosophy, something on a freshman in college level, and perhaps buying McMurrin’s ‘Theological Foundations …’ book, and also perhaps Ostler’s ‘Mormon Thought …’ books. Is it a beneficial thing for a common member of the church to become familiar with this type of thing? Will it lead to better understanding and deeper faith?

I have made a similar post on Blogger of Jared here.

18 Responses to “Dammit Jim! I’m an Engineer, not a Theologian!”

  1. 1 J. Stapley April 24, 2006 at 10:37 pm

    I say go for it. I don’t know that I will ever have the chops to jam with Blake and Clark on things philisophical (but who knows); but, I think it is important for those interested to educate themselves. The better question, is why not?

  2. 2 Geoff J April 25, 2006 at 12:58 am

    I’ve never had a philosophy class or read an intro to philosophy book. But I feel like I’m getting the hang of things pretty well with wikipedia always at my fingertips. I think that McMurin’s and Ostler’s books are very readable and understandable with wikipedia there to reference.

    As to the question of whether such digging is worth it. Consider Joseph’s quote in the KFD:

    “My first object is to find out the character of the only wise and true, God, and what kind of a being He is”

  3. 3 Eric Nielson April 25, 2006 at 8:34 am

    J and j:

    It seems that on this site the score is 2-0 in favor of the endeavor. Thank you for your input on this.

  4. 4 RoastedTomatoes April 25, 2006 at 1:01 pm

    Eric, I think it makes all kinds of sense for rank-and-file members of the church like you and me to study more and get past the surface. The question is, how? Which way of proceeding is most beneficial? Life’s short: will reading philosophy and theology be more useful than, say, spending the same amount of time and effort on church history?

    I’ve been reading philosophy as an occasional form of recreation since I was 11 or 12 years old. (Plato was a great starting place for a young kid; Hobbes, Locke, Machiavelli, and Marx also proved accessible. On the other hand, Kant and Hegel I haven’t yet really nailed down.) It’s an invigorating style of literature. On the whole, though, it’s not really clear to me that I’ve gotten more out of that reading than I would have done if I had instead spent that time reading fantasy novels or playing basketball. Philosophy suffers from serious evidentiary constraints, especially on religious issues. Practitioners of philosophy have also often been unaware of cultural constructions and differences, drawing on the temporary and specific as if it were eternal and universal. As a consequence, I haven’t found that much worth keeping in my philosophical reading.

    Rather than diving into the realm of infinite speculations and debatable (and debated!) possibilities, why not take the same amount of time and really try to get to know Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and Wilford Woodruff by reading the writings they’ve left behind? These guys are surprising, wonderful, kind, ruthless, inspired, arbitrary, and wonderfully individual — wonderfully empirical.

    OK, rant over. Thanks for your patience!

  5. 5 C Jones April 25, 2006 at 1:23 pm

    Nice title, Eric!

    I’m so not qualified to comment on this, but why let that stop me šŸ™‚

    I told my son who was complaining about his philosophy class that anyone who wants to be considered educated should have a passing acquaintance with at least the more well known philosophers.

    Even so, I love what RT said:

    Rather than diving into the realm of infinite speculations and debatable (and debated!) possibilities, why not take the same amount of time and really try to get to know Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and Wilford Woodruff by reading the writings they’ve left behind? These guys are surprising, wonderful, kind, ruthless, inspired, arbitrary, and wonderfully individual — wonderfully empirical.

    So go for it– but if you start using “Existential” and quoting Occam’s Razor in your posts, I think I’ll cry!

  6. 6 J. Stapley April 25, 2006 at 1:53 pm

    I concur with RT’s analysis. History wins over philosophy šŸ™‚

  7. 7 Eric Nielson April 25, 2006 at 2:36 pm


    Very well put. You have addressed one of my unstated concerns, limited time. So what do I pursue? Not an easy question to answer.


    Thanks again. I think I am with you on this. I do not want to become a ‘guru’ in this kind of stuff. I’m not sure I am even capable of that. I really just want the basics, which seems beyond what I currently have.


    History wins?

  8. 8 Geoff J April 25, 2006 at 6:17 pm

    History wins over philosophy šŸ™‚

    Blech! I prefer to let all y’all do the grunt work of historical digging while I get to the fun (and I think ultimately more important and useful) theological musings. Of course it turn out that theological musings end up requiring some acquaintance with philosophy (just to have the terms necessary to describe theological ideas with any precision) so a basic understanding of philosophy becomes necessary.

    I think that studying Mormon history is like studying classical music — it important to as a foundation but simply studying the works of the old masters will not make us like the old masters. In order to be like them we must do what they did and in the case of the early Mormon prophets that means we must spend a lot of time and thought on theology ā€“ not just history. Besides, Mormon history buffs are a dime a dozen ā€“ where is the Mormon theology love?

  9. 9 J. Stapley April 25, 2006 at 9:35 pm

    You see, Geoff, you need an excellent grasp of the history so you understand the revelations and the actors. Otherwise, you tend to get nut-jobs that pull quotes from wherever in support of stuff like Multiple Mortal Probations. They throw out everything that that they don’t like from our history and speculate madly.


    Serriously, though, the tools of philosphy are important and theology is great, but without Science and History, it is merely a thought experiment without basis in reality.

  10. 10 Geoff J April 26, 2006 at 12:48 am

    Stapley, you were the one that showed me my favorite Heber C. Kimball quote where he is preaching multiple mortal probations! If the idea was good enough for the apostles and prophets who knew Joseph I guess I can deal with it too. (See what I mean about letting you guys do the grunt work for me?) šŸ˜‰

  11. 11 RoastedTomatoes April 26, 2006 at 2:03 am

    Geoff, yeah, well, “spiritual wives” (in the sense of having sex with anyone the man wanted, married or not, not in the polygamy sense) were good enough for some of the apostles and other high church leaders who knew Joseph. So some caution is in order…

  12. 12 Eric Nielson April 26, 2006 at 8:44 am


    I kind of agree that history seems a little boring. I think it is the content of the history, not the history itself that is important. I am grateful to those who plow through it and can find and pass along the good stuff.


    Good points, but I think the comment by Mogget at BofJ regarding the scriptural texts in an important addition for the religious discussion, but I imagine you might lump that in with history perhaps?


    Yes. I think ultimately everything we find in our search for truth needs to fit together, so caution is very important.

  13. 13 Nate T April 26, 2006 at 2:16 pm

    Perhaps I am biased ( a former PhD student in History here), but I agree with the History trumps Philosophy croud.

    Like roasted tomatoes I read Philoshphy alot as a kid going through the same process as he did. I even started out before my mission as a philosophy major. I droped the endevour because utimately I found the limits of the European experence expressed in what we call “Philosophy” constraining, and often far removed from actual life. As others have pointed out, they do not deal with issues of culture very well either.

    This is not to say I have not stopped studying thought in general. Confucanism holds a special place in my heart, perhaps because I can read it in the original and am not bogged down by translations.

    Perhaps, if you want a middle ground, you could start at intlectual history.

  14. 14 Mogget April 26, 2006 at 9:35 pm

    I think the comment by Mogget at BofJ regarding the scriptural texts in an important addition for the religious discussion, but I imagine you might lump that in with history perhaps?

    If he does, I shall leap through my ethernet port and give him such a nipping…!



    Pardon me for my didactic approach, but what you are missing is a sense of how all these disciplines fit together in the study of “religious stuff.” Here’s a thumbnail appropriate for the Christian world:

    Christianity is about belief in Christ. The (almost) sole source of information on Christ is scripture.

    Scripture is appropriated through exegesis, that is study of the text in question in its original language and historical context. I am an exegete, concerned with the meaning of scripture.

    Exegesis, then, is supported by two other disciplines. Historical inquiry gives rise to an understanding of the people and culture (very broadly conceived), which is absolutely critical to getting at meaning. There are also folks who study all those dead languages for the fun of it all and to articulate the grammar, vocabulary, etc., etc., and then teach them to us exegetes so we can read the texts in their original languages.

    Systematic theology is concerned with presenting a clear and ordered overview of the main themes of the Christian faith. In addition to scripture, it also requires input from tradition, experience, and reason.

    The classic method of organization is something like the Apostle’s creed. More recently, philosophical ideas about how knowledge is gained may also determine how themes are presented.

    Historical theology is exactly what it says. Unfortunately, it is easily overlooked by those with a philosophical bent, thereby isolating theology from its own historical context.

    Pastoral theology concerns itself with the notion that theology ought to have a beneficial impact on normal people, that is, that theology ought to nurture souls. Unfortunately, you don’t get published for nurturing souls, you get published for lighting people’s hair on fire with new and unusual ideas. This brings us to the topic of philosophical theology.

    Philosophical theology employs the resources of philosophical inquiry to examine the meaning and truth of Christian faith in the light of reason and experience.

    Note the absence of any mention of scripture above. This is a feature, not a bug. Some examples of this sort of thought have no contact with scripture at all. Many have only a nodding acquaintance, or are the result of reasoning on just one passage. This gives interesting results, but the question of whether it nurtures souls or invites fights remains open.

    Why don’t you have a look at Alister McGrath’s Christian Theology: An Introduction, 2nd edition, or Daniel L. Migliore’s Faith Seeking Understanding, 2nd edition. Both are standard introductory theology books written by famous Protestant theologians for undergraduates.

    Then we can all discuss how this model does or does not support the study of “LDS religious stuff.”

  15. 15 Eric Nielson April 26, 2006 at 10:01 pm


    Thanks for straightening me out on this. I am not familiar with this level of study. Much of this seems to come down to what interests a person doesn’t it?

    Anyway, thanks for the recommended reading. I wish I were a speed reader, unfortunately I am not. So much of my hope is to take a few shortcuts and borrow from the results of the study of others. A lot of this goes on I’m sure.

    Also, I notice your brief bio says you are a graduate student at a catholic university. That wouldn’t happen to be in South Bend Indiana would it? I hear they have a lesser known catholic school there.

  16. 16 Mogget April 27, 2006 at 9:21 am

    South Bend Indiana

    I am sorry to be so coy, but the fact is that being LDS is not widely considered a positive item in the sorts of jobs I’ll seek. Just part of life.

  17. 17 Eric Nielson April 27, 2006 at 12:20 pm


    I guess the only thing I am getting at is that I live very close to South Bend, just across the border. I thought I had seen someone else on the ‘nacle was at Notre Dame. I would love to meet some of the people I have read about sometime.

  18. 18 Robert C. June 15, 2006 at 4:27 pm

    Here’s my late-to-the-party $.02:

    I recommend volume 2 of Blake Ostler’s book as a complement to your scripture study. He tackles what I think are very life-applicable topics without using super-philosophical jargon (at least not w/o defining it). I would say this is most worth your time. . . .

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