The Progress of Widtsoe


I received the book ‘Rational Theology’ by John A. Widtsoe for Christmas last year, and read the entire book in about two days. I had requested the book because I had heard a few good things about it. I felt it was a ‘safe’ book to get because it was written by a man who became an apostle, was commissioned by the church, and was used for many years as the Mechizadek priesthood manual for the church. It was at least at one time regarded as an authoritative text of the church. I find it interesting that it is so seldom used and quoted in the church currently.

I recently reread the forward in my copy that was written by Dale C. LeCheminant. The forward really struck me this time in a way it had not before. It presents a movement by Widtsoe from a gospel that was to be a discovery of knowledge, to a gospel that was something that must be experienced. A move from the scientific to the spiritual. The writer of the forward seemed to see this as regrettable, I think I look at it as progress – perhaps.

When Widtsoe wrote Rational Theology he had just been the president of what would become Utah State University, and was just beginning a term as president of the University of Utah. It was six years before he was called as an apostle. It was at the height of his professional career. He was filled with optimism regarding science and life. He idealized science, as the following quotes (and many others which could be given) show:

Those who are lead to study this rational theology in the light of the best knowledge and soundest thought, will enter a fertile field, and will find a surprising harmony between the gospel and all discovered truth.

The triumphs of science are evidence of the supremacy of mind – a supremacy which dominates all nature.

In later works, after his term as a missionary in Europe, Widtsoe warned readers that:

Science is trustworthy as far as human senses and reason are trustworthy – no more. When the credentials of science are examined, the claims of religion seem more credible than ever.

The writer of the forward tried to explain this change in Elder Widtsoe as the results of his missionary efforts in Europe. He gives this opinion:

Also, for several intense years he had concentrated on converting people to the gospel in a simple and fundamental way, not on presenting the church members with evidence from science that Mormonism is true. Such an intense and simplified mode of work among people quite different from scholars and intellectuals must have altered his thinking about how science contributes to religion.

LeCheminant then makes what he seems to feel is a sad and regrettable statement of Widtsoe’s state of mind later in life. He says:

For Widtsoe, science offered evidence to support religion, but did not lead men to experience it.

One of the concluding statements of the forward is similar:

Religion as experience rather than proposition was what Widtsoe finally came to ‘cling’ to at the end of his life.

LeCheminant seems to view this as a sad paradox, and an unsatisfying conclusion to the life and legacy of John A Widtsoe. I tend to see it as an opposite.

This is getting a little long, so I will try to tie in my conclusion briefly. I have often tried to follow and join in the conversation of some of the more philosophical and theological posts on the bloggernacle, only to be left behind in a cloud of philosophical dust. Getting Widtsoe’s book was a step to try to remedy this. I am now considering getting McMurrin’s ‘Theological Foundations …’ book and perhaps Oster’s ‘Mormon Thought …’ books. I am also considering getting an introduction to Philosophy book, maybe checking something out from a local library. I hesitate because I wonder if it will lead anywhere I want to go. I wonder if it will at best support religion but not lead one to experience it.

So, would pursuing the basics of philosophy and theology for someone like me lead to increased knowledge, testimony, and spirituality of the gospel? Or would it be a distraction? Are the philosophies of men, mingled with scripture, always a bad thing? I realize that ultimately it is a decision I need to make, but do not mind getting some advice on it. I wonder what Widtsoe would say. It would probably depend on when you asked him.

I made a similar post in a more personal way here.

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20 Responses to “The Progress of Widtsoe”


  1. 1 Wade April 24, 2006 at 6:21 pm

    Nice work Eric; I really enjoyed your review of Rational Theology. I’ve had the book for about 7 years now and have used it more as a reference book than anything else, i.e. I haven’t read it from cover to cover yet. However, I have read Widtsoe’s book entitled Joseph Smith: Seeker After Truth, Prophet of God. I have to say, that book contributed greatly to my testimony! Also, I’ve read his book entitled Joseph Smith as Scientist, it’s a great read–I think I read it in just over a day. I’ve always enjoyed Widtsoe’s view of the restored Gospel.

    Your review of Rational Theology is really good. I have thought a lot about (and continue to think about it often) the relationship of science and philosophical truth to religion as revealed through Joseph Smith. I had the privilege of studying a lot of philosophy in college (I majored in political science with an emphasis in political philosophy). I came to love a lot of ancient Greek philosophy (particularly Plato) because so much of it rings true to me.

    However, I have to say that as time goes by I find myself becoming more of a skeptic when it comes to what Man as a “rational” being can “know”. Since the so-called “enlightenment”, the world, for the most part, has slowly but surely rejected the need for faith and revelation because it thinks science is the end-all, be-all. Thus, I really liked the quote you gave us from Widtsoe: “Science is trustworthy as far as human senses and reason are trustworthy – no more. When the credentials of science are examined, the claims of religion seem more credible than ever.”

    I love this statement. Because NO ONE mortal has a complete understanding of all truth or reality, any attempt at making “sense” out of anything is fundamentally flawed! In other words, any attempt at being logical will fail because we are starting from an incomplete beginning–our foundation is not sure. Thus, the desperate need for revelation and religious experience.

    So, as for your question about picking up some philosophy, I would highly recommend it. But make sure you study scripture and truth in order to keep the beacon shining as you delve into the darkness that is called the “enlightenment”. I would recommend reading anything but post modern philosophy – that stuff is mostly crap, IMO.

    Sorry for the long comment. (back to my dungeon).

  2. 2 Bradley April 24, 2006 at 7:49 pm

    Many (most?) members of the church don’t feel a pressing need to intellectually investigate their religions. The LDS blogs have been a great forum for those who do crave that kind of brain work. I think those who crave a greater understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of our religion are an even smaller subset of Latter-day Saints. I don’t personally feel the craving, but I’m curious. Curious enough that I will probably read one or both of those books someday, but not in the near future.

  3. 3 Geoff J April 24, 2006 at 9:41 pm

    I’m planning on starting a Rational Theology reading series at the Thang too Eric. You’ll probably enkoy that one.

    Are the philosophies of men, mingled with scripture, always a bad thing?

    What else is there? Unless God himself is teaching you then you have some of the philosophies of men mingled in there. Prophets are men too after all and the messages in the scriptures (and over the pulpit in GC) come through them. That means their assumptions color their views just like ours color our views.

  4. 4 Wade April 24, 2006 at 10:55 pm

    What else is there?

    Nothing. All we have is our own religious experience and the spirit of revelation — which is the testimony of Jesus.

    I look forward to the Widtsoe readings too Geoff!

  5. 5 Eric April 25, 2006 at 5:40 am

    Wade: Thanks for your kind words. This is really just a brief summary of the introduction to Rational Theology. But your advice to pursue this with caution is good.

    Bradley: Once again I feel much like you. This pursuit is based more on a curiosity than a craving. It almost sems a search for questions instead of a search for answers.

    Geoff: Interesting take. It just seems to me there has been a negative connotation regarding philosophy in the church. Am I misreading that?

  6. 6 Ryan April 25, 2006 at 8:34 am

    I can understand the presence of a negative connotation. Obviously there are some who use philosophical principles to expand their comprehension of gospel principles, but the exceptions can wander into dangerous lands.

    Right now for example, I am reading a collection of works by Nietzsche. He is recognized as a premiere philosopher by most of academia and yet he is quite famous for his step-by-step dismantling of theology and Christianity in particular. So much so that the foundations of his arguments have proven to be nearly atheistic doctrine. I can think of several people who would likely end up getting themselves pretty derailed by his works due to their spiritual youth in the gospel.

    This is unfortunate especially because…

    ” Although an avowed atheist, who proclaimed that “God is dead,” and who railed against the ill effects of Christianity, Nietzsche was in many ways a religious thinker, preoccupied with religious themes. “Has it ever been really noted [observed Nietzsche] to what extent a genuinely religious life…of self-examination…requires a leisure class…I mean leisure with a good conscience…And that consequently our modern, noisy, time-consuming industriousness, proud of itself, stupidly proud, educates and prepares people more than anything else does, precisely for ‘unbelief.’”

    But of course, unless you studied his life as well as his works, who would know that? It changes the entire light under which Nietzsche should be read.

  7. 7 Wade April 25, 2006 at 9:20 am

    Ryan:

    I think you might be interested in reading some of Leo Strauss‘ work. Strauss was a German philosopher like Nietzsche, but was born a generation after Nietzsche and eventually came to America.

    There is a lot of debate about whether Strauss actually believed in his maine idea (that eternal law exists and goodness can only be achieved by adherence to it; and that it may be discovered through ancient texts) or whether he was actually a bigger atheist than Sartre or Nietzsche. Either way, I think you would find his approach as an interesting contrast to what Nietzsche had to say.

  8. 8 RoastedTomatoes April 25, 2006 at 9:42 am

    Eric,

    First of all, a quick, semi-irrelevant comment: Dale C. LeCheminant was in my ward when I was in high school. He’s a really great guy. I say that because I’m about to disagree with him completely.

    In my view, a move from rational theology to an experiential conception of religion is unambiguous progress. I’m going to be completely blunt about my opinion here: rational theology doesn’t work. There simply isn’t enough information available to make real sense of what God is, or could be, or couldn’t be.

    Is God evil because of the immense load of moral and natural evil in the real world? Not necessarily; perhaps He is merely pursuing some transcendent good beyond our understanding that can’t be achieved in any other way. Is God good because of the beauty of the world? Not necessarily; perhaps the world simply seems beautiful to us because we evolved to fit it. Yet my lived religious experience is that God is good.

    How does the Atonement work? Why did Jesus have to suffer in order for forgiveness to be available to us? Does sin leave behind a spiritual substance of suffering? (If so, I prescribe repentance and Xanax.) Did Christ’s pain and death infuse reality with a divine imminance, creating the conscience or light of Christ that makes progress and repentance possible? Was Christ’s misery necessary to create empathy in Christ, who would otherwise have been imperfect? Or is God’s justice such that the sufferings of one person can be accepted as payment for the sins of another — in spite of scriptural and moral evidence against this claim? None of these theories seems acceptable; the very best rational theology has yet to produce an account of how the Atonement works that I find satisfactory. Yet my lived religious experience is that the Atonement works.

    I think Enlightenment-style ratiocination about God is interesting. It’s fun to watch. But I’ve never seen it succeed, for the simple fact that we don’t really have very much publicly replicable evidence about God. Reason is a powerful tool, but only when there is grist for the mill.

  9. 9 Mogget April 25, 2006 at 11:00 am

    Unless God himself is teaching you then you have some of the philosophies of men mingled in there.

    This is true, but it doesn’t go far enough. There are men behind all scripture, but those men are not Satre, Neitzche, Ostler,or Widtsoe and they do not have the philosophies of S, N, O, or W.

    Reading scripture in its historical context — trying to understand what the original author meant to convey to his original audience — is the only sound basis for theological endeavor.

    THEN…go play with the modern boys.

  10. 10 Mogget April 25, 2006 at 11:04 am

    In my view, a move from rational theology to an experiential conception of religion is unambiguous progress

    I totally agree with this, as well. Paul’s work is not built on theological speculation, it’s based on his experience. He actually felt freedom from the Law and reconciliation with God; actually experienced the Holy Spirit as “the earnest” of his personal inheritance…etc.

  11. 11 Wade April 25, 2006 at 12:02 pm

    Reading scripture in its historical context — trying to understand what the original author meant to convey to his original audience — is the only sound basis for theological endeavor.

    Very well said! If only some of our friends on the Supreme Court felt this way about our guiding governmental text (i.e. the Constitution) we’d be in good shape.

    Unfortunately, we not only have those in the religious world who seek to mingle the “modern boys” with scripture, we have those in places of governmental power who seek to minlge the “modern boys” with sound tradition and ethics expressed in old texts.

  12. 12 Eric April 25, 2006 at 2:13 pm

    RT:

    Thanks again. You say things so well. I also thought that what Widtsoe went throught was progress.

    You asked a lot of questions, that seemed retorical. It seems that many questions like these tend to come from philosophical discussion, not get answered by it.

    Mogget:

    Thank you for your insight on this. The scriptures are such a key to understanding. Perhaps delving in to them more would bring greater results.

    Wade:

    I hope to see you on the supreme court someday so you can clean up all the mess. Unfortunately I do not see you making it through confirmation hearings however – and I don’t mean that in a bad way.

  13. 13 Wade April 25, 2006 at 2:34 pm

    Eric:

    Thanks for the vote of confidence! It’s easy for me to be a side-line critic of what I see happening in the most powerful branch of government, but I’m not even close to being smart enough to make it near the Supreme Court (perhaps with time and experience I would feel comfortable arguing before the bench, but probably never from the bench). We are resigned to being ruled by our robed masters (the dictatorship of 5).

    However, if the stars are ever aligned just right, I may seek a local judicial position (confirmation hearings are conveniently avoided this way).

  14. 14 Geoff J April 25, 2006 at 5:42 pm

    Reading scripture in its historical context — trying to understand what the original author meant to convey to his original audience — is the only sound basis for theological endeavor.

    Good point, Mogget. In addition, it seems to me that best way to know what was originally menat is to ask God himself. He was there when the canonized scriptures were revealed after all. Mormonism is all about revelation and I’ve said it many times — if we’re not getting revelation we’re wasting our Mormonism. Or as Moses put it: “Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit upon them!” (Num. 11:29)

  15. 15 Eric April 26, 2006 at 5:46 am

    Geoff:

    Right again. Personal revelation is what it all boils down to. I often refer to the ‘study it out in you mind and ask if it is right’ approach. I think all of this comes together as an effort to study it out and then ask.

  16. 16 Mogget April 26, 2006 at 7:24 am

    I hope to see you on the supreme court someday

    Oh no. Not the USSC. Put him on the Ninth Circuit. Opposition in all things, etc., etc.

    [Mogget grins with evil intent…]

  17. 17 Ryan April 26, 2006 at 8:17 am

    “USSC”

    Interesting. I’ve always seen it: SCOTUS.

  18. 18 Wade April 26, 2006 at 8:39 am

    if we’re not getting revelation we’re wasting our Mormonism.

    Great line Geoff! I’ll be using this one if you don’t mind.

    Ryan: Interesting. I’ve always seen it: SCOTUS. Are you just trying to show off your extensive blogging knowledge? You’ve honestly never heard of USSC but you you’ve heard of SCOTUS?

    Mogget: I think you mean the 9th “circus” court of appeal right. 🙂

  19. 19 Brent April 28, 2006 at 1:15 pm

    Two thoughts even though I came late to the discussion….
    1. In Elder Maxwell’s biography the author talks about Maxwell’s studying political science and how he kept from having problems with his testimony by putting the secular things that he was learning in to his religious context and not his religious belief in to the context of what he was learning. I like this way of thinking.
    2. Following this thought is Elder Oaks’s book The Lord’s Way. In it he talks about using reason and revelation to understand God and the world and how, in the end, you must have revelation to understand the Devine.
    I just think we can never forget that we are not yet capable of understanding all things of God and that we must rely on Him for understanding.
    In other words I pretty much agree with what’s been said.

  20. 20 Eric May 1, 2006 at 2:08 pm

    Thanks for your comments Brent!


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