10 questions with Philip Barlow

Philip Barlow is Associate Director of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU.

Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and your academic background?

I have been a Latter-day Saint from my earliest memory. My childhood was privileged—not financially but through an ocean of love in a stable, attentive, principled, thoughtful, and devout family. Not all of my seven siblings stayed aligned with the church, but each has remained magnificent in their diverse ways, living admirable lives and retaining fond, permanent bonds.

Raised in Bountiful, Utah, I focused on history and psychology at Weber State College, under the tutelage especially of Richard Sadler in the History Department, Kenneth Godfrey at the LDS Institute of Religion, and well-known skeptic Jennings Olsen in the Philosophy Department. Subsequently I pursued masters and doctorate degrees in the study of religion at Harvard.

My wife and I boast of our six children and of theirs.

Philip and Deborah Barlow with their six children in 2015. Photo provided by Philip Barlow.

When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in religious history?

I had a good experience at Weber State, but upon graduation had little idea how I wanted to cast my professional life. So I stalled.

For a time I explored the idea of going into the same business that my successful and happy older brother, Stephen, was in. I also considered the academy, though no particular graduate program called to me. Exploring and awaiting inspiration, I studied German and French for a couple of years while selling motor homes, motorcycles, snow-mobiles and the like at my uncle’s Loyd’s recreational vehicle lot in Ogden.

One June day I met an appealing new friend, Judd King, who had returned home for the summer between his two-years-long study of religion at Harvard. His seemed a road less traveled and my fascination with his path was followed by “divine envy:” That, I thought, is what I would like to try.

No analogous program existed at Weber State nor at any Utah school and I had never at that time heard of a Latter-day Saint pursuing such a course.

Upon meeting Judd I realized that beneath all my natural wonderings, behind my study of history, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, literature, and even science, lay unformed questions of meaning, of ultimacy, of what it means to be a human being.

How have societies imagined and lived out their maps of ultimate reality and morals?

Under what influences had these maps and behaviors formed and adapted?

Such concerns can be framed by the construct of “religion.”

So I applied to the program and walked in Judd’s path for a time. I wasn’t confident of a professional outcome — my Latter-day Saint friends teased me about “training for the ministry” — but I did sense that a serious encounter with rigorous thought about religion would change my perspective on the world no matter what profession I latched onto.

The history part came later, after I was immersed in religious studies. Through history, I came to reason, I could consider any field that can be imagined, accenting how notions and consequent behavior have emerged and evolved as they have.

As you look back on your time at Harvard Divinity School, what are some of the most poignant memories that come to mind?

As a boy-man from a small town in the west, a boy possessed of only selective confidence, I initially found the Divinity School, as also the University more broadly and Boston as a whole, as daunting as it was exhilarating. Everyone seemed smarter and more seasoned than me. But presently I found my legs amidst the kaleidoscope of wonderful people and remarkable resources.

Here are two memories.

The first concerns my own innocent absurdity: Near the end of my first semester I had a looming deadline for a term-end paper, on which much of our grade depended. The course was on “Conceptions of the Afterlife” among the world’s religions.  I had labored for several weeks to create something worthy, but on the night before the paper was to be turned in, I gave into the impulse to rip it up and begin afresh with a new inspiration (as I hopefully deemed it).

I stayed up the entire night (not something natural to me). A fierce, window-rattling wind outside the apartment tower kept me alert while I crafted the new approach.  Upon the paper’s completion at dawn, I discovered that the record-setting and later-famous “Blizzard of ‘78” had struck with full force.

24 inches of new snow, still descending horizontally through ongoing winds and drifts that buried all parked cars, was all about. No traffic in normally busy Cambridge stirred.

I, however, assuming that no graduate student at lofty Harvard had ever turned in a late paper, braved the two-mile walk to the Divinity School through the blizzard only to encounter locked buildings on a historic, rare day when the University had shut down.

Photos from Philip Barlow’s time at Harvard. Provided by Philip Barlow.

A second memory, for which I am more grateful, is the occasion during orientation days prior to my first classes, when the famous scholar of the New Testament and early Christianity, Helmut Koester, taught us something of his weekly routine, implicitly recommending it to us. 

No matter how beset he felt by obligations and deadlines, Koester spent each Friday afternoon wandering the stacks of the Divinity School library, or the stacks of one of the many other University libraries, until he came across a book that compelled him to take it from the shelf. He then found a chair and expended the remainder of his Friday with that work, usually one not directly connected to his immediate research.

His habit I found instructive, a kind of inoculation against over-specialization.

As a whole, the Divinity School changed my life, humbled me even while giving me confidence, reconfigured my perceptions of the world and how I might approach it, helped me to think about what religion in its myriad expressions is and how it works, and provoked me better to understand that there are few people around me from whom I cannot learn something significant.

My time there was not always easy or painless. I am glad they let me attend.

The Andover Library at Harvard Divinity School. Credit: Paradigm23.

Did you have any trials of faith in graduate school? If so, how did you approach them and to what do you give credit for making it through with your faith intact?

Oh, sure — almost inevitably.  Coming from a culture that valued faith, love, service, and practical, pre-professional education rather than intellectual rigor in the humanities meant that in going to study religion formally, I collided — before the age of the Internet — with versions of all the issues that concern people these days and a good many more. What was different for me was that I found myself surrounded for years by a sampling of the most critically informed religious thinking in the world rather than by a sea of opinions and complaints by anyone and everyone on the Internet.  It was serious business and I did have cause to consider carefully whether I was in or out as a committed member of the church.

Eventually, through prayer, thought, study, conversation, experience, and superb role models, my faith evolved and grew less shallow and more sturdy, more organic, and more supple.

Our abbreviated format here does not lend itself to probing, which I have written about elsewhere, but what follows is a sketch of a half-dozen principles I embraced. I try to remember that:

  • We cannot be too informed or think too well, but it is possible to think too much, like a musician or an athlete during a performance. “Reason” is essential, but has its limits and is not the sole means we have of taking in reality.

  • Our God is a God of truth. We have nothing to fear in the pursuit of truth, though we must be wary of assuming we have an unbreakable grasp on truth and of assuming we know the proper implications of such truth as we have. This requires humility, study, talk, and prayer.

  • The Church on earth, from its leaders to the humblest disciple, consists of humans who are imperfectly trying to respond to the divine. The marvel is not that we discover their historical or contemporary flaws. The proper marvel is the meaningful, potent majesty of the goodness and light that eclipses human foibles.

  • Despite all the critical thought we can muster, our character and attitude affect what we pay attention to and filters what we can know.

  • The culminating (13th) Article of Faith compresses generous, crucial, and inspired wisdom articulated by the Prophet Joseph in his later years. We are invited to reject the arrogant piousness of the Zoromites’ Rameumptom stand (Alma 31) and to embrace anything that is virtuous, lovely, praiseworthy or of good report, whatever its source.

  • Learning and spiritual growth require faithful inquiry. Do not fear questions, but do seek out a wise, informed, and faithful mentor as well as good conversation partners while you inquire. Remain active in prayer, service, and the Church while magnifying our callings and experiencing directly the goodness and fulfillment this brings while we question. This will improve the quality of the questions.

You have been asked before about your perceptions of Mitt Romney stemming from your time serving together in a Boston bishopric. Let’s turn the question around. How do you think Romney would describe a young Philip Barlow?

That’s a clever question I’m not equipped to answer well! As opposed to the endless caricatures that come from living a public life in partisan politics, Mitt himself was a discerning, imaginative, and generous leader in our ward and stake; Ann was thoughtful and engaging and together they were resilient and responsive when confronted with tragedy.

For two years we spent Saturday mornings in their Belmont home where he directed bishopric meetings full of compassion, good will, discussion, and frequent laughter.

Mitt at least knew that I inclined to uttering comic one-liners in complex circumstances. And he knew that I was on a shoe-string budget as a doctoral student and a teacher at the LDS Institute of Religion.

I’ve had more than one coach at secular colleges where I was teaching ask if I’d be interested to come to the locker room to offer prayers with and for the football team before a big game­ — confusing their perceptions of my pastoral role and my reality as a teacher-scholar.

Similarly, it is possible that Mitt, like many others, didn’t have a feel back then for what a scholar of religion actually does.

We did, however, occasionally discuss consequential matters such as what could be done to put the poor on a more secure, prosperous footing.

What initially interested you in the Leonard J. Arrington Chair at Utah State University and what accomplishment are you most proud of during that tenure? What challenges await the next chair, Patrick Mason?

It was not easy to leave beautiful, private Hanover College, on the banks of the Ohio River in southern Indiana, where my family had thrived for 17 years. But the invitation to join Utah State University meant the opportunity to help build from the ground up the first religious studies program in the state where students could major in the study of religion. It was also one of the first such enterprises in the Intermountain West. 

It further meant the opportunity to experiment with and model what a balanced and rigorous academic study of the church and the wider culture and history of “Mormonism,” as it was traditionally labelled, could look like and be. A professorship primarily dedicated to this effort had never before had official and permanent station at a university either because the subject was not previously understood as sufficiently important to warrant it or because different constituents feared such a position might be used either to foster the Church’s agenda or, to the contrary, to undermine the faith of students. 

Probably the greatest accomplishments under my watch and that of my partners was (1) to dissolve much of those polarized fears; (2) to demonstrate to an increasingly wide circle of students and the public that the rigorous and fair study of religion matters to human affairs whether or not one is personally a believer and whether one majors in religion, in international business, or in science, art, or philosophy; and (3), to attract the support of generous and visionary donors to put the religious studies program and the Arrington Chair on a secure footing after perilous economic times.

I anticipate that the gifted Dr. Patrick Mason, in addition to mentoring a new generation of students, will build on those foundations, working with his associates to lift the program from a sufficient to a strong economic base and to add crucial new initiatives to those already begun, including religion and the environment, the Church in global perspective, and religion’s role in paths and obstacles to world peace.

What are your research foci at the Maxwell Institute?

My current attention centers on the idea of a war in heaven. I have wanted to pursue this ever since encountering Dostoevski in graduate school and sensing that we might be well-served to put Dostoevski and other serious thinkers in conversation with our founding prophet’s revelation. 

On the horizon are several other projects:

One is a consideration of what many insiders and outsiders consider the problematic claim of being “the only true and living church with which I the Lord am well pleased.”

A second is a fresh consideration of the Articles of Faith. 

A third is an attempt to de-trivialize common and dangerous notions of “idolatry.”

A fourth is to add to and ready for publication a collection of essays on faith and doubt that I’ve published in diverse venues over the years. 

These are some examples.

Describe some of the ways members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints struggle with faith in an increasingly secular culture. How do you view your role in helping them?

Some challenges to religious faith face most any prospective believer of any era. For example:  “Why should I believe what I cannot see or prove?” Or (perhaps unconsciously): “I like my habits just fine, thank you; I don’t want God or some church to tell me I must surrender them.

Philip and Deborah Barlow, with their grandson, Daxton. Photo provided by Philip Barlow.

Other hurdles are peculiar to a time and place.

Several streams inform the struggle many are undergoing today. In the United States and other technologically and educationally developed countries, these streams include (1) the uneven but improving effort to come to terms competently and candidly with aspects of the church’s history; 2) discomfort over past and present social matters such as race and gender, as well as the need for reinterpreting protection of Creation (our environment) as a moral issue; and (3) a malaise and boredom at church where some find discussions to be scripted and questions rhetorical rather than authentic, probing, and nourishing to adults.

All three of these streams occur, as your question suggests, in a wider secularizing culture in which the tide is going out on organized religion.

Where religion and belief in God was formerly taken for granted as the norm in the West, today’s children come of age increasingly in a society where religion is one option among others, where once respected institutions — Congress, the American Presidency, banks, the police, and religion — are regarded more skeptically.

This coolness toward established institutions, understandable in certain respects, is contagious once a critical mass is achieved.

In my career as a teacher and scholar of religion at secular colleges and universities I have always tried to help interested people think more critically about religion’s nature, to better understand religion’s genesis and adaptations and how its purposes can change form or be disguised but never extinguished without damaging human and social consequences. I have worked to exemplify historical study of the church that is honest, fair, and probing, and to publicly critique works I found less so.

In my private life, I have for decades spent hours each week counseling individuals, writing published works, or speaking to groups in support of the truth, light, goodness, and nobility of the core of Joseph Smith’s “restoration,” helping those who care to see that one can be at once informed and faithful — that the spirit and the intellect need not be at war.

Since moving to the Maxwell Institute my work in my day job as well as my private life is more explicitly religious than formerly.

I am, among other things, writing a collection of essays on faith and doubt and explaining in depth principles such as those I noted briefly in question #3 above; editing a collection of other scholars’ essays on the same subject (a new edition of A Thoughtful Faith); pursuing several projects designed to defend and lay bare the riches of the restored gospel; and preparing a lecture and coordinating with colleagues for a March conference where we put secularism itself under public scrutiny.

You are working on a book in the vein of The Screwtape Letters dealing with trivializing the Church. Tell us a little bit about the genesis of this project and share a brief sample.

So far I’ve been collecting material and developing the major points rather than casting this in the form of the eventual book, so I don’t have a sample to share in its Screwtape guise.

‘The Screwtape Letters’ by C.S. Lewis is a fictional series of correspondence between two devils and their efforts to tempt humans.

But the controlling idea is that when we trivialize the richness of the gospel by clichés and trite or unnecessarily limited understandings, we either choke off a richer testimony and lived response to it or we render our faith itself more vulnerable when challenges appear. When our maps of reality and our living of the gospel are constricted, they do not sustain thoughtful people as well as they might in the long run.

An example is our common interpretation of the commandment, “Thou shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”

We take that as forbidding the pronunciation of the Lord’s name casually, comically, or especially as an expletive — a trendy, tiresome, and offensive commonplace in America.

Our prohibition is fine so far as it goes, but it does not go far enough.  My Screwtape surrogate might attempt to keep his “patient” focused merely on this level of prohibition­­ — while ignoring more substantive vanities: taking the name of the Lord upon us vainly in the sacramental covenant, for example, without earnest, in-depth intent and follow through.  Or praying vainly, by rote or hypocrisy, “in the name of Jesus Christ.” Or giving blessings or preaching or governing by unrighteous dominion in contravention of the 121st section of the Doctrine & Covenants, all in the name of the Lord.

By such means as this do we take the name of the Lord in vain, and perhaps at greater peril than with the thoughtless, stylishly vulgar words of an oath.

You are considering a project that looks at the war in heaven within the Church but also more broadly. Give us a small taste of what you are looking at as it relates to the war of heaven outside the Church.

This is highly interesting within the Church as well.  I am completing an essay this month, for example, tracing the evolution of the belief that Satan’s mode as he “sought to destroy the agency of man” was coercive obedience — a belief that did not originate until after the death of Brigham Young.

But you are right that my interest in notions of angelic rebellion against God, and in conflicts among the gods more broadly, ranges as wide as the ancient and modern cultures in which I can discover it.

Anciently, I find these notions in virtually every religion and society: in Mesopotamia, among the Greeks and Romans and Hebrews and Christians, in Egypt, in Sufi forms of Islam, in Zoroastrianism, among the Maoris in New Zealand­ — everywhere.

In part this seems merely a projection of earthly conflict onto the heavens.

But the analysis gets more complicated. One strand that intrigues me is what such conflict is ultimately about: what is the “rope” on which the antagonists are tugging?

That the prospect of human agency is at the center of the battle is sharply distinctive in the Prophet Joseph’s teachings.

If you could create a five-book reading list that all Latter-day Saints would read by the age of 21, what books would make your list and why?

Such a list might hinge upon my mood or recent reading, no doubt, so be skeptical. And I shall exclude the standard works as a given for essential literature.  But here’s my attempt, in no particular order, on this Tuesday:

Lowell Bennion, The Things that Matter Most.

I think of Bennion as the conscience of the 20th-century Church and as the Latter-day Saints’ Mother Teresa. He notes that we live in two worlds: an outer one in which we are fleeting and negligible and an inner world, which we have a considerable role in shaping. This slender volume sketches a pyramid of Bennion’s inner world of values. It is also an invitation for the reader to create her own. Don’t be fooled by the simple prose. Bennion’s is an achieved simplicity, a distillation. The book is at once accessible to adolescents and pithy enough for philosophers.

Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled: a New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth

Self-help books, especially in an era of self-publication, are cheap and plentiful.  Peck’s is not one of these. It is not difficult reading, but is as good a work as I know of for laying bare what mental and spiritual health looks and acts like.  I do not concur with every one of Peck’s points and one should not expect in him a Church member’s vantage. But he explains the psychology of health and love — and in later works their opposites, sickness and evil­ — like few others.

Terryl and Fiona Givens, The God Who Weeps

Pioneering in demonstrating that a succinct volume articulating key distinctive understandings proffered by the Restoration need not be hollow.

Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days: The Standard of Truth: 1815-1846. 

‘Saints’ editor discusses new history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

This is not the first volume of recommended history for more advanced readers and thinkers, but every young Church member should be introduced to the saga of the Saints in a volume that responsibly captures something of the saga’s drama and the Saints’ humanity, without obscuring their inspiration, all in readable, digestible guise.  This is a fine introduction — and the longest volume your 21-year-old is apt to enjoy.  Also recommended for the 21-year-old in any of us who did not get around to reading history until… later.

Rosemary Trommer, The Less I Hold

Every Church member come of age in the 21st century should learn the distinction between junk and quality.  Between the stunted, lazy, efficient, semi-aborted brevity of blurted texts and tweets, on the one hand, and, on the other, the accomplished beauty and compressed insight of a poem, in which brevity is the soul of wit.

Every young Church member should also know by experience that the Prophet Joseph taught us to find the good, the true, and the beautiful in other faith traditions and to make these our own.

Ms. Trommer’s simple, everyday insights, alternately whimsical and serious, spiritual and mundane, soaked in wonder and gratitude, grounded in Buddist inflection though a casual reader might not notice, exemplify both of these needs.

By the time our young Saints are 31, they should have taken on Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver and maybe Maria Rilke and made edifying poetry a staple of their diet.  They are otherwise malnourished.

This interview is sponsored by BYU Studies.

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