This is an attempt (in four installments) to explain a few things about what might be called my spiritual autobiography. I have felt compelled to write something like this for some time, but I haven’t always known how to write about such a personal subject for a wide diversity of friends for whom I have great love and respect let alone for unknown readers. My intent is not necessarily to persuade but to share what it feels like to be inside of my belief a little bit. I always felt that this was the primary purpose in writing Home Waters. My main objective was to provide a chance for a reader to inhabit, however briefly and insufficiently, the mind and heart of a person who loves his religion and loves his landscape. I guess the reason I feel this motivation is a persistent and nagging feeling that faith in general and my faith in particular are so little understood in our culture today. And a similarly nagging feeling that I will have dishonored my experiences by remaining reticent.
I don’t understand why it is so uncomfortable and awkward to address religious belief and religious feeling in a straightforward manner. I was raised in a religiously plural as well as somewhat secular environment of Westport, CT and then did all of my schooling in the Bay Area of California, first at Stanford and then at UC Berkeley, with two brief stints at Brigham Young University. In other words, I have experienced many different versions of a secular and religiously plural context, and I have appreciated how such contexts are ideally meant to provide maximum freedom for individuals to pursue their passions and beliefs without interference. While I never felt that such contexts fully succeeded in this endeavor, especially with regard to personal religious convictions, I often took silent inspiration from individuals and groups who were comfortable being outspoken about their identity and who helped remind others the importance of tolerance and respect. And at BYU I learned what it could feel like to be completely free to express and explore my religious life, an experience I found exhilarating and one of the main attractions for me of returning to teach at BYU.
Mormons have been a very small, often misunderstood, and once upon a time persecuted minority. I think the net effect of this is that many Mormons, rather than trying to be in your face, just want to be nice. We can be pretty good at nice. We do preach, even more than most, but at heart we want even our preaching to be nice. Maybe at some future point, I have often hoped, I might also be understood, but the truth is it took me years to gather the courage to be more outspoken. It is a hard balancing act to learn how to get along with as many different people as we can while also being true to ourselves and our convictions, and I have made many mistakes here and there in the effort. This balancing act is hard within a believing and practicing community like my Mormon culture just as it is hard in the broader world. We don’t always know when to speak up and defend how we see things and when to listen and build bridges and be diplomatic. In these posts, I am merely trying to make sure I am being honest and consistent about who I am and what I believe. I wouldn’t want a public persona that didn’t match my private life. I want authenticity. I certainly mean no offense to others.
Until I moved to BYU to teach as a professor of Humanities in 1998, I had never lived in a place where Mormons made up anything but the smallest of minorities, so I think my Mormon identity was shaped to a large degree with a sense of being a mere blip on the social map. I came to like it that way, since I found other people so interesting and since it helped me to feel that my involvement in the church as a Mormon could indeed be my own choice and wouldn’t have to be the result of social or family pressure. Indeed, genealogically speaking, I am as Mormon as they come—having pioneer ancestors on both sides of my family. And by that I mean that my maternal and paternal ancestors of the mid 19th century joined the church in the early days in Europe mainly and eventually moved West to Utah. Some later scattered to other parts of the country, but in the main my heritage is centered here in the history and landscape of Utah.
But all of that really has very little to do with why I am a Mormon. I am not a Mormon because I was raised Mormon or because I have Mormon history. I am a Mormon because I believe in the claims of Mormonism, even though I have not always identified with the mainstream political culture of Utah Mormonism or with the many various personalities I encounter within the church. And I certainly didn’t always believe in the tenets of my faith. I came at them a bit as a contrarian. Sometimes that spirit of resistance is still in me, wanting to double check things. Indeed, I find the cultural and political identification model of religious affiliation a little odd and morally counter-productive. I guess I find it strange to imagine that choosing a religion should be merely about choosing an affiliation with like-minded people. I expect more from my religion than reinforcement of my predilections and preferences. Indeed, I do a great deal of worrying about Mormonism when it feels too homogenous, too easily like-minded, and I sometimes feel pity for those in the church who haven’t had to wrestle with at least a little of the turbulence that usually comes with affiliation. Turbulence is to be expected. It is normal and it helps to refine our motivations and impulses. To wish it away or to run from it is to fail to learn the key component of a Christian life: charity.
What keeps me in the church and what keeps me working at living according to its principles is the fundamental fact that, for me, the religious beliefs of my church make sense of life for me; I accept them as plausible, compelling, and deeply moving. They make sense to me intellectually. More importantly, they have taken root in my very being as a result of acts of faith that brought personal witnesses of the gospel’s spiritual truths. These were and continue to be attempts to make a go at being a Mormon, to “practice” the religion; that is, acts of conformity to what I understand to be the will of God which then bring me gradually and consistently closer to God, happier in my life, and more aware of the tangible and good fruits of faithfulness. I am speaking specifically of the many dos and don’ts of the religion such as proper Sabbath Day observance, tithing, keeping the Word of Wisdom (no drugs and alcohol), sexual abstinence before marriage and faithfulness within marriage, dutiful fulfillment of lay responsibilities given to me in church, personal prayer and scripture study and other important forms of spiritual discipline.
It was from the very beginning for me a deliberate choice to act in faith, and it certainly wasn’t automatic. Early on and throughout my teens, I struggled to understand my religion, to understand and know God and even to know myself. I slipped into some bad habits for a few years, experimenting with drugs and alcohol in my teens. I was an adolescent being an adolescent more than I was a rebel, I guess, but I was also a pretty serious explorer, wanting to test limits, to gain a variety of experiences, and to see if I couldn’t make my own way. Although I was eventually converted in a very powerful way and changed my habits, I continue to have to work at it, to stay on the path of obedience to God’s will, and to overcome doubts, weaknesses, offenses taken at others, and to withstand the vicissitudes and emotional ups and downs of life. I often feel those early years left me with a thorn in my flesh. It is never easy to stay faithful, even if it is always worth it. I try to repent often and early. The religious life, for me, isn’t just about maintaining a certain level of heightened spirituality; that is certainly the goal but it is also about learning to repent often enough that it becomes a way of life. Maybe it is different for others, but it is always work to stay believing and to stay faithful, but I do it because without cultivating that belief and without making the effort to be faithful to it, I have never found the same level of happiness. In that sense, I am profoundly grateful for weakness, since it has taught me some humility and the need for dependence on God. It’s that simple. I believe and live according to my beliefs as best as I can and I repent whenever I fail because I am much, much happier that way. I feel God’s spirit more often that way and I feel it calling me to a higher plane of love, commitment, service, and devotion. It brings out the best in me. Indeed, I would say that I know the teachings of the church are true because I know of the goodness that willing conformity to them brings.
Sure, I have opinions and questions about theological and social issues, but I have never spent too much time wringing my hands about them in public because I continue in faith that I will find resolution. For that matter, I would like to believe that my faith has been accompanied by a healthy dose of reason as well as healthy skepticism, but ultimately I believe in my church and in its teachings because serving and believing and obeying God have simply felt so good; it has brought deep and lasting happiness that have only increased and deepened with the years. At my age, it is very hard to feel the need to doubt the validity of such experiences even when I remain with some unanswered questions. The fact is, in all of my early experimentation and in my rather intense intellectual curiosity ever since, I have never found any other more compelling case nor any way of life that provides such deep and lasting happiness. If these acts of faith hadn’t resulted in deeper happiness or if they hadn’t brought me so many spiritual experiences in which I have found myself convinced of the truths of my church’s teachings, I would have looked elsewhere. I never would have stayed otherwise. Mormonism, as a culture, has its strengths and its weaknesses, but I didn’t choose the religion for cultural or political reasons in any case. I chose it because I believe it. Once I committed to it, I eventually came to understand that my job was to try to build a culture worthy of what I consider to be the religion’s revealed truths. I felt this would be the best use of my energy, rather than taking my emotional temperature every day, as I did early on, to see if I liked the “fit.” That is no way to be happy in a religion. At some point, you have to dive in and decide to accept the responsibility to make it work as best as you can for others.
I suppose if I weren’t a believing and practicing Mormon, I would still feel Mormon in many ways and would have a profound respect and sense of gratitude for the heritage I have, but I doubt it would go beyond that. As any Mormon knows, it isn’t easy being a casual Mormon in any case. It asks a lot of you. Ultimately, I am convinced that being religious is a profoundly personal choice about what one comes to trust as ultimate realities that one then uses as guiding principles in how one lives life. It’s not or at least shouldn’t be the result of other people’s preferences for one’s life or of intense socialization. It has to be a personal, heartfelt, and sincere choice. And that process should bear good fruit; if not, something else is needed.
My parents are remarkable people who, although practicing Mormons at the time of my upbringing, somehow managed to inspire their three boys with a sense that they could become the best that they can be, whether or not they chose the religious path. I don’t know if their parenting style works for everyone, but it worked for me and my brothers. I grew up with a strong sense that the religious path was a choice I could confront directly on my own. My parents never cajoled, manipulated or otherwise pushed me into my religion, and I knew all along that whatever my choice, my parents would respect me. Although we lost my oldest brother to suicide over thirty years ago as a result of a very serious mental illness and although my other brother Bill and my parents and I now have different views about religion today, we are as close as can be and we maintain genuine and profound respect for each other. And I think we share a kind of fundamental spirituality that is based in a shared love of great music, literature, and art; respect and admiration for the great moral minds of our civilization; a commitment to keeping family ties strong under any and all circumstances; and a deep and abiding hope in the meaning of love, compassion for human suffering, learning of all kinds, and in the goodness in all people. I feel my brother’s and my parent’s unconditional love for me as a practicing and believing Mormon as I hope they do mine. I feel grateful that I can look upon my own life as a Mormon and know that it has been my choice and my faith that brought me and keeps me here. I know I still have biases and blind spots to overcome, but I can at least say that I am not living on borrowed light.
In an earlier post, I have written more about why I am a Christian, so I would like to focus in three future installments more specifically on why I am a Mormon. In these subsequent posts, I intend to outline that I am a Mormon because 1) I believe in continuing and personal revelation, 2) I believe in missionary work, and 3) I believe in temples. In each of these posts, I intend to explore my personal experiences in these areas of Mormon belief.