The other day, reading a few random talks from random individuals, I came across a very short essay written by Hugh Nibley. This essay discussed the idea of a paid clergy within the church and the pros and cons of a paid clergy. What is so interesting about many of Nibley’s essays is how they discuss history and how that applies to a modern context. That essay, entitled “The Day of the Amateur,” is still as applicable today, if not more so, than it was then.
The article, as the title alludes to, is little more than a discussion and contrast of professionals on the one hand, and amateurs on the other. Professionalism is, as Nibley states, “the child of the universities.” Before there were professionals, there was what is called the Sophoi, “ancient traveling teachers who gave the modern world its moral and intellectual foundations. They were, to a man, amateurs.” Professionals, as we all well know, are paid for their opinions, works and teachings. Amateurs, like Olympian athletes, are not. They simply do what they do either out of charity or because they feel compelled to do so out of some duty to the human race.
According to Nibley, the amateurs were required by law to be amateurs, “because what they were doing was holy business and not to be contaminated by ulterior motives and ambitions.” In ancient history the Sophists, the great imitators of the Sophoi, eventually overran everything and professionalized it all. These Sophists were the great professors and the reason why Socrates eventually “advised students to examine prospective teacher’s credentials very carefully and critically.”
As Nibley opines about a day gone by in his usual manner:
“Learning, [now] forgotten in the universities, was revived in academies, salons, societies, courts and coffee houses where amateurs came together to revel in the things of the spirit and make the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the high point of western civilization. It was the Age of the Amateur.”
Fast forward a few years to the mid-nineteenth century, universities slowly took hold of society and by the twentieth century (and now in the twenty-first century) everyone goes to school for accreditation of some sort. College teaching, for the most part, offers a “safe birth for mild and mediocre souls who in time, by the sacred role of seniority, [end] up ruling [the] institutions.” Professionals, in this regard, can be boring, inept and lacking of any real inspiration, but the amateur, to get any recognition of any kind, has to be good and inspired. To maintain the status of an amateur, as the Sophoi of old, the amateur must be honest, dedicated and incorruptible.
Professionals, however, all they need is a certificate, a piece of paper hanging on a wall, a couple of initials after one’s name and, magically (at least in today’s society), they’re granted virtual hero status. People fawn over them, accept their word as scripture and certainly give much more credence to a professional than some guy with no initials after his name, no degree.
What is particularly troublesome about this essay, to me individually, is that I have often fallen prey to some of the arguments used by the Sophists. I have been swayed by their opinions, their calls for degrees and certifications. I went to college because I felt I needed a degree to succeed (financially) in the world, not thinking that there were other ways to succeed, to get by, to live and learn. I had bought into the following statement, hook, line and sinker:
“You are moving into the most competitive age the world has ever known. … You need all the education you can get. Sacrifice a car; sacrifice anything that is needed to be sacrificed to qualify to do the work of the world. That world will in large measure pay you what it thinks you are worth, and your worth will increase as you gain education and proficiency in your chosen field.”
I went to school to get a degree in order to get paid from the world “what it thinks [I’m] worth.” While I appreciate the opportunity to go to school, I nevertheless look back on those years wondering why it was that I fell in line with the crowd and failed to think for myself. Today, however, I would hope that this statement would raise a few red flags for someone interested in establishing Zion and someone who is, if only slightly, aware of LDS history from the 1800s. While I agree that education is important, I disagree with the premise of the above statement that implies that education is found only through college and universities, institutions where we may become a “professional” and get a degree, a certification, or whatever it is these days to tell the world that you are now “[qualified] to do the work of the world.” This quote was restated in the April 2009 New Era, page 19, and is juxtaposed between statements of youths from across the United States discussing the importance of attending college and gaining an “education.” Even more bothersome for me is the urging of the President of the Church imploring the youth of the church to “sacrifice anything that is needed … to qualify to do the work of the world.” Seems, to me at least, to be a bit too Babylonian in nature, especially when prophets of old have given counsel in direct contradiction to this statement.
According to a discourse given by Brigham Young, Joseph Smith appeared to him in a vision “given right in broad daylight” and gave him a message relating to the building up of Zion. Young related the following:
“Said [Joseph Smith] – ‘Never spend another day to build up a Gentile city, but spend your days, dollars and dimes for the upbuilding of the Zion of God upon the earth, to promote peace and righteousness, and to prepare for the coming of the Son of Man, and he who does not abide this law will suffer loss.”
Yet, in spite of this statement by Brigham Young, we are much further away from the “upbuilding of the Zion of God upon the earth” today than we ever were then. Now, in lieu of counsel to build up Zion, we receive counsel which essentially builds up none other than the Great Babylon. Truly, it is an interesting juxtaposition. Nevertheless, this quote is used in this article to merely discuss our proclivity to obtain certifications, degrees, and an “education” at the hand of Babylonian professors. We, naturally, then rely on these certificates to be taken seriously in our personal and professional lives.
Relating this to things of the spirit and the church, some of you may have noticed a certain trend that occurs within the halls of most meeting houses and places of worship, especially among the LDS faith. Other than the first Sunday of the month, members are asked to prepare and given talks over the pulpit. This is a way of encouraging mere members of the church to share their experiences, knowledge and spirit with the congregation at large. It is an inspired practice, it would seem. It serves as a way for member’s to learn to acquire the spirit, to study the gospel and teach everything by the spirit.
What is an inspired practice, however, has morphed into uniformity of thought. It’s a true LDS oddity how this could happen. Pay attention to the next week’s talks, those given by regular members on any given Sunday. What you will likely find, if your ward or branch is anything like mine, is that most members will simply relay their thoughts in the form of an old Ensign or General Conference talk. Some of these members will simply read the old Ensign or General Conference talk as if it were their own words, others will re-read the talk word-for-word giving due credit and others still will intersperse their words with the words from the talk.
What makes this unique to the LDS faith is largely the role of general authorities and members of the first presidency and quorum of the twelve apostles in the lives of everyday members. These men, once called to one of these positions, take on super-human status. They are no longer capable of error, of giving bad advice or interpreting scriptures to fit a box for which they weren’t meant to fit. Instead, they become mostly infallible (though no one will admit as much). Obedience to their words is what is required to be a card-carrying member of the LDS church. Somehow their words become inspired, their statements become scriptures. No longer do we, as mere members of the church, filter their words through the spirit to verify whether it is the spirit that is teaching us or whether we’re hearing the man’s opinion. Instead we rely, word-for-word, on what they say. Their words then, as a result, become our words. We quote them, reference them, and repeat them, verbatim, over countless pulpits nearly every week of every year. Instead of using the scriptures and allowing the spirit to speak through us, we draw on their words to give authority to ours, we rely on their words to justify ours – everything we do is filtered by what “so-and-so” apostle or general authority said.
I am, in this regard, no different. I have used these very same practices to justify my statements both here on this blog and in talks I have given over the pulpit in years past. My ability to recognize this issue is highlighted mostly by my own experience, day in and day out, practicing this very method to support and uphold my words. Only recent have I begun to question what it is, exactly, that we are doing by practicing this sort of “idol” worship, if I may say as much.
Somehow, somewhere along the way, the “general authorities” have taken on expert status when it comes to the gospel and the doctrine of the gospel. Somewhere along the way we gave them what they never (to my knowledge) asked for – doctrinal authority. Christ, in his interactions with the Scribes and Pharisees, “distinguished between their right to preside over the church (which He did not challenge), and their assumed exclusive right to teach and interpret scripture (which He utterly rejected).” The scribes and Pharisees, as well as the Sanhedrin, jealously guarded their right to claim leadership by asserting their authority. “Their appointment to leadership offices, … priestly trappings, and possession of the temple were all used to buttress their claimed rights to preside and exercise control and dominion over the Jews.”
I am not prepared to place these same accusations on the LDS hierarchy, though I see striking and troubling similarities. At this point, it is the members who presume that the LDS leadership has an “exclusive right to teach and interpret scripture,” though certainly the leadership has, in certain instances, declared that to be their right as leaders. This exclusivity to teach and interpret scripture is the reason why so many talks rely on so many quotes and statements from “professionals” within the LDS church. By professionals, I mean those who have a title in front of their name, be it Elder or President or something else. In our private lives we generally rely on the initials which follow someone’s name to know what to do, what to believe and how to act, be it an M.D., a PhD or something else, while in our religious lives we do exactly the same thing, the only difference being how we rely on the title which precedes a general authority’s name. No longer, as the logic follows, is it the message that is the most important thing, though surely it is important, rather it’s the title in front of the name which lends especial credence to the message.
I am, admittedly, not quite sure why we have such a fascination with quoting others. As I previously stated, I am as guilty as the next. It is, indeed, easier to write and share my thoughts when I bring in quotes from outside sources. That all being said, it is simply not a black and white issue, though the current practice in the LDS church, in my opinion, is overkill. Members are all too eager to pick up their favorite talk or a talk which has been given either to them by a member of their Bishopric or one on the subject at hand, and regurgitate it for all to hear. That, to me, does little more than destroy the spirit of the meeting. It is true that a well placed quote, a poignant thought and outside sources can indeed enhance the message we are trying to convey, but all too often those quotes become paragraphs. The paragraphs extend into pages and, before you know it, the talk is over and it turned into one giant quotation. So be it. I can only change myself – and I aim to – and you can only change yourself. The change starts at an individual level and hopefully it does. Let that change begin with you. Instead of opening the most recent Ensign, open your scriptures and your heart to hear what the Spirit would teach you.
John Taylor Gatto wrote, in his book Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, the following, which underscores one of the reasons why we are so quick to look for the expert to lead us, guide us and save us from ourselves:
“We are addicted to dependency; in the current national crisis of maturity we seem to be waiting for the teacher to tell us what to do, but the teacher never comes to do that. Bridges collapse, men and women sleep on the streets, bankers cheat, good will decays, families betray each other, the government lies as a matter of policy, corruption, shame, sickness, and sensationalism are everywhere.”
In writing this, ironically enough, I was reminded of a book I just started reading. A friend recommended this book several months back, at which time I bought it, but it’s been sitting on my shelves gathering dust until this past week. In the introduction to this book, I found a statement that rang true to my spirit and one which I am trying to convey in this article:
“…What I have tried to convey are the thoughts and consciousness of Jesus that were behind his words when he uttered them. I commune with Christ and ask him: ‘I don’t want to interpret the Bible from my own views. Will you interpret it?’”
Encapsulated in this brief sentence is a meaning that is easy to forget: we are all too often eager to use someone else’s opinion of the scriptures to justify our thoughts, beliefs and intentions. Rare, indeed, is the man who searches the scriptures and seeks out the only true interpretation from the true source of light and inspiration. We would do well to seek Christ and His interpretation of the scriptures as opposed to another man’s interpretations, no matter how good that person’s interpretations may be. The Pure Source is really the only source from which we should drink.
Nibley, in closing his essay, addresses this very issue and states his opinion on the importance of everyone contributing to the dialogue:
“If we have no professional clergy in the Church, it is not because the Church cannot use expert knowledge, but because all members should be experts where the gospel is concerned, and as such they should make their contribution. All the same contribution? Not at all! The Church is structured for eternal progression, and that takes place as we all feel our way forward along a broad front. Seeking and searching are among the most common words in our scriptures; we are all supposed to be seeking all the time. Just as missionaries go forth as an amateur army, searching out the honest in heart in the most scattered and unlikely places, on the widest possible front, so the rest of us increase in knowledge, here a little and there a little, not by trusting a few experts to come up with the answers, but by all of us searching, all along the line, finding out a fact here and a document there, and reporting the discovery to the whole body. When he was editor of the Times and Seasons, the Prophet Joseph invited all to contribute.”
The next time you give a talk, or assign someone to give a talk, I hope you take these thoughts to heart. Stop quoting others and start trusting the spirit and your ability to be taught by the spirit.
What is especially interesting is Nibley’s typical retort at the end of one of his lectures, after having discussed similar ideas:
“Just remember — these things we’ve talked about here today aren’t really that important. What is important is that you keep the commandments and pray for the Lord’s guidance.”
Truly, that is what is most important. Instead of relying on others to tell us what to believe, to interpret the scriptures for us, to give us quotes and statements to justify what the spirit has undoubtedly taught us, we should pray for and then rely on the Lord’s guidance.
**Approximate percentage of this essay which is made up of direct quotes from others: 23.2% – (676 out of 2,916 words)**
 Nibley, Hugh. “The Day of the Amateur.” New Era. Volume 1, number 1. January 1971. Pages 42-44.
 Hinckley, Gordon. “A Prophet’s Counsel and Prayer for Youth.” New Era. January 2001, Page 8.
 “Questions & Answers,” New Era. April 2009. Pages 18-19.
 Young, Brigham. “The Priesthood, Etc.” JD 12:59.
 Snuffer, Denver. Come, Let Us Adore Him. Page 97.
 Ibid. Page 60-61.
 Gatto, John Taylor. Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. 1993, page 99.
 Yogananda, Paramahansa. The Second Coming of Christ: The Resurrection of the Christ Within You. 2004, page XXX.
 See John 4:10.