My Journey as a Scholar of Faith, Part I

IMG_8745I was invited by the Faculty Center to share my journey as a scholar of faith. I share here, in three parts, the content of the talk. I have wrestled with my feelings these past few weeks because I am not sure how much of my experience is applicable to others nor am I entirely sure that I have enough wisdom. I do know that I want to communicate honestly and, most importantly, I want to edify and strengthen your faith. The challenge is that my journey is idiosyncratic. However, I take comfort in two things. Although your story is different than mine, yours is just as idiosyncratic. There are as many ways of reaching Christ as there are people in this world. As Elder Bruce Hafen has said, “Nothing brings the spirit into a conversation or a classroom more than hearing people bear honest testimony, not so much by exhortation as by just telling the story of their personal experience.” So I seek to speak candidly, but also in love and respect for the dignity of every person here.

This is a part autobiography and testimony but it is also an argument. And here’s my thesis. I believe that the humanities are not just an adornment but are essential to our spiritual lives, and by that I also mean that intellectual and spiritual growth need to grow in at least some relation to one another. However, neither religion nor the humanities can have the greatest impact and best influence in our lives without three crucial ingredients: criticism, compassion, and charity. These three things often work together but sometimes they get separated, and when they do, the quality of our intellectual and spiritual lives suffer.

Let me start by explaining that criticism is not the same thing as contention. Contention isn’t what happens when people disagree. It is what happens when they lose trust and respect for one another. Criticism, on the other hand, is the means by which we protect ourselves from deception and by which we strengthen our autonomy as moral agents. It implies that we can see ourselves in a context of difference and plurality. In critical thinking, we distance ourselves from an experience or from some idea enough to assess and judge its value and interpret its meaning. Without criticism, we are swept up by the whims of opinion; we parrot what we read or watch or listen to.

Compassion is an important companion to criticism. If we never allow ourselves to feel what others feel or see through another’s eyes, our critical judgment will become centripetal and self-reinforcing. We will end up only talking to those we already like or identify with. It can lead to cynicism and categorical mistrust of others. Compassion, which means to “suffer with,” can trigger learning and change. And as our own baptismal covenant implies, it is what we owe everyone, both those most different and those most familiar. It helps us not to overgeneralize or bypass the particular circumstances of individuals. Of course, compassion without criticism runs centrifugal risks, something akin to gullibility where we feel impressions, attractions, and distractions at every turn.

Charity, I want to suggest, is the means by which we learn to live with the tension between criticism and compassion. And I want to make it clear that wherever charity emerges, there Christ is also. We know its characteristics: longsuffering, believing, enduring, trusting, not easily offended. As the Mexican poet Octavio Paz says, it is akin to what a metaphor does: it holds differences together in a meaningful relationship without collapsing those differences. It helps us not to be driven by emotion, to weigh things in the balance, both the good and the difficult, and it recognizes that there is a gap between our thoughts and God’s thoughts that we must seek to overcome by a perpetual search for more truth. In this way, it helps us to avoid polarized and polarizing conclusions. This is why a personal commitment to repentance and humility and a steady practice of submission to God’s will and a constant plea for Christ’s pure love are essential to thinking clearly.

The humanities are a wonderful training ground for charity. They teach us how to imagine communion. They are methods for experiencing reconciliation, for imagining beauty and meaning in the wake of chaos and suffering, and for connecting us to one another and to the cosmos. Reading great literature, learning languages, listening to music, watching live theater or great films, or participating in religious ritual—these are all experiences that are aimed at reinvigorating and expanding our sense of self and belonging in the world. Nothing captures the way literature can teach charity more beautifully than this statement by CS Lewis: “Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality…. In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself…. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.” Without the experience of charity, we are prone to the allures of mass emotions which obliterate particularity or, perhaps worse, we face what some have called balkanization—the abandonment of the quest for community and the retreat to our own like-minded camps.

Sometimes I have experienced charity in the arts and sometimes in religious contexts. I don’t think God is as interested in the distinctions we like to make between the sacred and the secular. Like the time a few years ago when my son Sam and I flew out to LA to visit my brother and we sat listening to Mahler’s 2nd Symphony with the Los Angeles Symphony and we all wept as we listened to the words “What was created/Must perish,/What perished, rise again!/Cease from trembling!/Prepare yourself to live!” I was both transported and grounded, purely loved and invited to change. Or the time when, on a research trip to Chile, I sat in the celestial room in the Santiago temple by myself at a particular desperate and low point for me and I imagined what it would be like to have my deceased brother by my side, and suddenly I felt the real presence of his arms wrapped around me. I felt guided in my research from that moment. Or the time—just two months ago—when I was called into my stake presidency and Elder Marcus Nash asked me in an interview to imagine what I would say if Jesus were in the room alone with me. At that moment, Christ’s presence became unmistakably real and I was overcome with tears and could only mumble, “thank you.” I felt forgiven, accepted, known, and loved. And called to serve. It was empowering to discover how much I loved Christ.

I have also had this experience when listening to church leaders, which gave me a foundational witness of their calling as his special witnesses. I can still recall as a missionary in the MTC the way my hair felt blown back (short as it was) by sheer force of testimony of the living Christ from Elder Oaks and Elder Maxwell. Similarly, with Elder Eyring when he was a Seventy and visited my stake in Oakland when I was in graduate school, with Elder Christofferson when he was a Seventy and visited my stake in Flagstaff when I taught there before coming to BYU, and twice with Elder Ballard here in Provo. In each case, I have felt the unmistakable presence of the Savior and experienced and received their witness of his living reality. These experiences have anchored my hope and faith in the restored gospel. In each case, God’s love healed me of doubt, of hurt, of pain, and discouragement. Doubts sometimes benefit from answers but most often doubt springs from fear, anxiety, abandonment, or from lack of self-confidence. For this reason, doubt is best resolved, not with knowledge per se, but in loving relationships and with experiences of God’s pure love. Nothing is more important to experience than this.

What I want to suggest is that aesthetic and spiritual experiences teach that understanding matters and it comes but it doesn’t matter most and it doesn’t come first. As the great Spanish poet, Miguel de Unamuno says in his inimitable masterpiece, The Tragic Sense of Life, “the primary reality is not that I think, but that I live.” Thus: “the end purpose of life is to live, not to understand.” In other words, truth is to be lived more than it is to be apprehended. The most painful and challenging times are invariably the most transformative, even and especially when we don’t understand. If we refuse to absorb contradiction and instead rush to premature or shallow explanations, we may end up shielding ourselves from Christ’s experience of the matter. It is the same principle of marriage. Amy and I might not always love each other as we should and we don’t always understand or agree with each other. But as we strive for unity and loyalty in the face of those differences, not despite them, our experience deepens and our character changes.

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