Thursday, March 12, 2015

Some thoughts about religious education



When I was a student at Yavapai College (the little school in my hometown), I was fortunate to take a class about world religions, in which we learned about everything from Judaism to Islam to Buddhism. The class was called "comparative religions" at our school, and it was the only time that I took a class about religion from a secular college. (We covered some world religions stuff in high school history, but I didn't have an entire class in world religions until early college.)

My church offers some fine world religions classes through its Institute program, which are well-recommended to those with access to them; but it was good to get some instruction about this from a secular school, where I could hear perspectives from people outside my faith. (The class was taught by a Jewish lady, incidentally - someone who brought an interesting perspective to the class - and we also had a Hindu student in the class, who could read the Hindu holy language of Sanskrit. It all combined together to make an interesting class.)


But the finest classes I've taken in religion were not the comparative ones offered by secular schools, but the ones taught by my church about its own beliefs. I'm sure devotees of other religions can understand a bias toward one's own faith, and I am no exception to the rule - I am a great fan of my church's religion classes. I took some classes through my church's Seminary in high school, and then some classes through its Institute in college. (In our faith, Seminary classes are geared towards high school students, while Institute classes are geared towards college students.) The classes focused on topics like the Old Testament and the New Testament, as well as Mormon-unique scriptures like the Book of Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants (more about that here); and I learned a lot from these classes. There are also many classes about church history as well, including one for church history since 1900. (This was a little unusual, given the church's more typical focus on earlier history; but it was an excellent class, and I greatly enjoyed taking it.)




The church's Seminary and Institute programs teach the content wonderfully to students in their native language; with the Biblical languages considered optional, and not counted for credit in the Institute program. However, other departments at BYU (an official church school) offer classes in Ancient Scripture, in which one would read the Bible in the original Hebrew and Greek. I never participated in any such programs, but I did decide one day to read the New Testament in the original Greek. As you might imagine, this increased my interest in my church's scholarship in this area. This ancient scripture program at BYU goes by the name of "Ancient Near Eastern Studies," and they offer classes in Hebrew and Greek. The classes in the languages themselves are taught by other departments, but are required for the program; and must be taken as prerequisites to those classes studying the Bible in the original.


Greek New Testament

I consulted this program at one point, in deciding what version of the Greek New Testament to get; by finding out online what version they were using at BYU (see the full story here), and so got myself a copy of the version that they used. (The Nestle-Aland, in case you're wondering.) This turned out to be a wonderful success; and I now have this copy of the Greek New Testament on my bookshelf. I'll start reading it the day that I feel fluent in the language. (Still working on that part now ... I look forward to the day I can do it.)

The program also offers courses in the history and archaeology of the region; and some classes in Greek and Roman history can be counted toward its requirements. Greek and Roman history both interest me greatly, and I have studied them both; partly out of a desire to understand the cultures of the Bible. (The Romans controlled much of the world when Christ walked the earth, and the language of the New Testament comes from the culture of Ancient Greece. Thus, my desire to understand these things is somewhat relevant to my Biblical studies.)


My favorite painting of Jesus Christ

One can be a great scriptorian (a Mormon word there) without understanding a word of Hebrew or Greek; and I do not wish to downplay the knowledge of those of my faith who read in translation. There is a reason that the Institute program does not cover Biblical languages, and that they are only taught by the Ancient Scripture departments at BYU - not everyone needs to know them. Nonetheless, some special insights can result from reading the Bible in the original; and I have dedicated considerable time to trying to gain these insights. I've spent many a day doing Greek exercises in my car, my school library, and my own home; and I hope they will one day pay off for me.


Bruce R. McConkie

But most people will never do these things; and one can be a perfectly good Christian without doing any of them. In the words of the Mormon apostle Bruce R. McConkie: "None of us should be troubled or feel inferior if we do not have a working knowledge of the languages in which the Bible was first written. Our concern is to be guided by the Spirit and to interpret the ancient word in harmony with latter-day revelation." (Source: Talk given in 1984)

Later in that talk, he said: "The key to an understanding of Holy Writ lies not in the wisdom of men, not in cloistered halls, not in academic degrees, not in a knowledge of Greek and Hebrew - though special intellectual insights may result from all of these - but the things of God are known and understood only by the power of the Spirit of God. Thus saith the Lord: 'I call upon the weak things of the world, those who are unlearned and despised' to do my work." (Source: Talk given in 1984)


My introductory textbook about Greek

So if you want to learn about our church's doctrine, there's no need to order a book about learning Koine Greek, or study Biblical Hebrew or Aramaic. All that you need to know is found at the church's Institute program - or for that matter, in Sunday school classes throughout the world. One can learn from general conferences, from talks in church, and from the scriptures themselves. All that you need to know about Mormons can be obtained easily in your native language.




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