My Journey as a Scholar of Faith, Part III

My Journey as a Scholar of Faith, Part III November 13, 2015

IMG_8012I wouldn’t have gone to Stanford, majored in Comparative Literature, or taken my career path as a professor without my brother Bill’s example, encouragement, and brilliance that lighted every step of the way for me through my education. He was and is my intellectual soul-mate. My freshman year at Stanford included a year long dorm-based intensive course on the Western tradition, perhaps the single-most valuable educational experience of my life. In the haIlways and in class, we debated the meaning of Greek tragedies, the value of biblical wisdom, and the very nature of the universe. We wrestled with Darwinism, the meaning of grace according to Luther, and the root causes of poverty and the legacies of the Holocaust. I was debating with atheists, with other Christians, with Muslims and Jews and Hindus. This, for me, was heaven! The experience that year was enough to convince me I wanted to make a career out of reading, discussing, and writing about great ideas. What was especially exciting was that we could explore ideas without restraint, without pre-established conclusions, and in the company of a wide diversity of viewpoints. I learned that part of criticism is listening to the criticism of others, something central to scholarly work. I felt comfortable saying something that I might later decide was utter hogwash. I was often told my ideas were, indeed, hogwash, although my friends used other words for it. Sometimes it meant I got stinging and hurtful criticisms of my beliefs, but more often than not such exchanges helped me to recognize my own sexism or racism or naiveté about the world. I sensed my professor, an atheist, a Jew, and a Marxist, was not thrilled with the idea of me wanting to serve a mission, but he also had a respect and interest in Mormonism. He had already read the Book of Mormon, but wanted to read more, so I gave him a collection of essays by one of my most influential models of a Mormon scholar in those days, Gene England, which he enjoyed. When I got too worked up in my criticism of a writer, whether it was Marx or Nietzsche, he would ask me if I was reading carefully enough to understand their point of view. I figured that if he had bothered to read about Mormonism, I should bother to be as curious about other ideas.

I was fortunate to have spent my summer before and after my freshman year with another pivotal model for me, Lowell Bennion. I worked as a counselor at his boys ranch. Lowell was a man who balanced criticism, compassion, and charity better than anyone I knew. I also devoured his books in those days, as I did the books of another important influence, Elder Maxwell. Both were men of learning and of careful and bold judgment, but they also devoted their lives not to thinking brilliantly, as brilliant as they were, but to service. Lowell took time to treat my wounds in the wake of my brother’s tragic death and he helped me to keep things simple when looking at the church and thinking about the gospel. He had lived with his questions, particularly about blacks and the priesthood, and he never stopped asking them openly and honestly but he also never let such questions overshadow his life or lead him to anger. For him, life always boiled down to “what can I do to help?” What a gift that man was.

My one semester at BYU after my freshman year and before my mission exposed me to many more professors and peers who modeled lives of integrity, intellectual curiosity and deep faith. It was an embarrassment of riches. Indeed, Brigham Young’s vision of education sunk deep into my soul and ultimately drew me back here to teach. As I think about it now, it was as if I always knew I would be here. Since my arrival here almost 18 years ago, I have taught, recreated, researched, worshipped, mourned and rejoiced with my exceptional peers, women and men who are among the most remarkable people I have ever known. Our conversations together on complex and difficult topics have been the most exciting and soul-fulfilling conversations in my life. And I cannot overstate how much I admire and love the students at BYU. I will always defend this place and believe in it as the most exciting and important experiment in higher education. We don’t always get things right here at BYU, of course. We sometimes prefer to coerce consensus or to micromanage it. We are overly anxious about differences of opinion. I think it probably comes with the territory of engaging in an unusual but essential experiment. Elder Holland says “In this Church there is an enormous amount of room‚ and scriptural commandment‚ for studying and learning, for comparing and considering, for discussion and awaiting further revelation…. In this there is no place for coercion or manipulation, no place for intimidation or hypocrisy.” I hope we can work harder to create an atmosphere for honest conversation and exploration as brothers and sisters. Since faith is strengthened more by relationships than by ideas, this is vital.

We can do better than what at Stanford and at Berkeley was a conversation limited to a hermeneutics of suspicion, that is, a method of interpretation that starts and ends at a position of distrust. Don’t get me wrong. I believe in the worth of such suspicion. I believe it can keep at bay a whole host of evils. I believe it has helped me, for example, to keep my distance from the allures of capitalism, from the seductions of propagandistic punditry, from the sometimes false illusions of our own national innocence, and from the glossy appearances of a mythologized past. I think it was useful for understanding the kind of persecution we suffered as Mormons, which I think is why I found myself drawn to minority discourse in graduate school. I was suspicious of the ways in which majority cultures and hegemonic discourses forge and perpetuate their own authority by means of denigrating, ignoring, or otherwise oppressing minority voices. This is perhaps why I became a comparatist. It helped me to check the norms and assumptions of one culture against those of another.

But a hermeneutics of suspicion can lead to a categorical suspicion of the centers of power and of all kinds of authority. It can motivate us to be more cynical, less trusting, and more angry than everyone else. As Alan Jacobs brilliantly described it, it is an attitude of distrust that “would rather suffer anything than the humiliation of being fooled.” Ultimately this leaves us feeling utterly and totally self-satisfied with ourselves and our own like-minded crowd. After listening to a particularly tiresome rant against Republicans by my colleagues one day at Berkeley, I remember asking if any of them actually had any Republican friends. I was met with blank stares. Liberals don’t have a corner on paranoia and mistrust of everyone else, however. During my one semester at BYU in the fall of 1984, I once said to my friend as we crossed campus, “Sometimes it feels around here as if people believe a good Mormon can’t be a Democrat.” Just as I said this, a student passing us turned and yelled, “You CAN’T be a good Mormon and a Democrat!” I guess apparently you can’t have a majority of like-minded people without your share of chauvinists either. Suspicion today is the ethos of government, the ethos of public discourse, and the ethos of civic duty.

I prefer what scholars have called a hermeneutics of love, or of recovery, a way of interpreting that uses criticism to complete or fulfill or restore. It is the difference between looking for the faults of others in order to justify mistrust or using those faults as a way to measure how the spirit nevertheless moves through weak human vessels. To my mind, it is Christian to see what it is an author or artist aspired to, even if they didn’t quite achieve it. This is what I learned from Caribbean novelist and theorist, Edouard Glissant, who admired the white southern writer William Faulkner but also suspected that his representations of black characters and of women were perhaps a symptom of his own biases. Faulkner’s racism mattered, but Glissant decided it was better to imagine and work to complete the vision of a postslavery world of which Faulkner was first to catch an essential glimpse. In other words, the most appropriate response to limited human instruments through whom inspiration comes is not deconstructive cynicism or condemnation but the creativity to help build on the inspiration offered. Similarly, when I was ordained as a bishop, the stake president told me to listen for what his blessing was trying to say. I thought that was good advice for any Sunday.

The other day two young friends from my ward asked me how I reconcile a belief in the universal claims of the restored gospel with the diversity of the world. What a great and important question. I suppose I would say that the challenge of doing so is itself so much more meaningful than giving up on the possibility of truth. Give up on the idea of a universal truth and there is no challenge left, since you end up abdicating the responsibility to discern. We have to believe in something, even if it is only an absolute belief in absolute relativism. The benefit of a belief in God is that by making you answerable for your sins, you avoid creating a worldview made after your own whims and appetites. Once you begin to trust in the living God, you begin to experience his love, which as Nephi teaches is enough to keep you on the good path even with unanswered questions.

As I started college, I knew at least the meaning of God’s love. When my oldest brother took his life in the middle of my senior year after a prolonged battle with clinical depression, I was comforted one night when I experienced the living presence of my brother in my bedroom and where I received confirmation that he was at peace and that he loved us. I knew then that God was involved in the details of my life, not to the degree, of course, that he will always arrange things to my liking or prevent terrible things from happening but that he will respond to our experiences with genuine compassion and mercy. I still want to know why biology seemed to have betrayed my brother. I still want to know why anyone should have to suffer severe mental illness. But God’s love took me one step further. My patriarchal blessing told me there were things I could still do for my brother. Later I realized I needed to perform the ordinances of the temple for him. I did so and afterwards had a dream in which he told me with great excitement that he was learning so much from the best teachers. You had to know his insatiable curiosity for learning to appreciate what that meant. I knew then that the ordinances of the temple were effectual for life after death, that the powers of the Atonement reached beyond the grave, and that my brother was progressing beyond his earthly limitations. On my mission a few years later I read in the writings of Joseph Fielding Smith that he felt a member of the church should never go through the temple for someone who had committed suicide. This was disappointing, to be sure, but I didn’t bristle at this nor feel inclined to judge. I have never said anything about it publicly until now. I don’t recall that I said anything to anyone about it. I want to be clear: I don’t share this to undermine trust in the leaders of the church. I say it because maybe it is helpful to someone who might be struggling to realize that such contradictions shouldn’t cancel out your knowledge of God’s love. The general consensus of the General Authorities over time on the essentials of the gospel is what matters most. Styles, personalities, isolated statements, and even policies can change, but the fundamentals of the gospel—obedience, service, repentance and faith—do not. Our challenge and responsibility is to hold fast to the iron rod, especially in the mists of darkness when we can’t see clearly. Keeping ourselves committed to the fundamentals will not always provide answers to our questions, but it will provide the strength to live with the questions. If that consensus still conflicts with your beliefs, be like Lowell Bennion. Still look for and uphold the good and truth of the church, keep your covenants, love and serve generously, keep asking questions, and wait on the Lord. The important thing is to maintain access to Christ’s healing power and keep yourself open to the possibility of more understanding.

Like many of you, I suppose, criticism and compassion can sometimes create sparks of tension. Church life is a source of great joy but it can also be a source of sorrow. I am fiercely loyalty to the church, but I struggle to agree with everything that is said or done by church leaders. I admire so many in the church who stay and thrive and I miss and long for so many good people who have gone, people I fear we didn’t make enough room for. I love my temple marriage to Amy and all that it has given us, but I also deeply love and feel great compassion for my one and only remaining sibling Bill. Given what happened to our oldest brother, perhaps you can understand the anxiety it causes me to know that I might be the cause of any more pain. The policy change last week was an acutely hard challenge in this regard. I love the leaders of this church. I trust them. I know they pray and act on behalf of all God’s children. It is important to remember, as a believing gay friend of mine says, that there are no bad guys here. It is certainly true that my difficulty is because I am not valiant enough. But I believe that in my sorrows and my contradictory feelings, I share something of the contradiction it was for Jesus to feel abandoned by his father and friends just at the moment when he fulfilled his father’s will and suffered everything for all of us. Christ suffered even this moment, you see. Because of his charity, no one’s feelings are unknown to him, no one’s perspective is incapable of finding a basis in an important truth. If you feel tempted to leave, please reconsider. We need you. We need to hear your pain. We need your questions. We need your gifts. We will all be better for working this through together. It would be, I think, a colossal mistake not to mention a contradiction for any of us, no matter our feelings on this issue, to refuse charity for others just because we perceive them being uncharitable. So look around you. There are others who are hurting. We are all members of the same body. As the humanities teach us, there is something fundamental healing about listening compassionately to the stories of others. Let’s listen together. In this regard, the way that the church makes us responsible and answerable to people different than we are is an opportunity to offer our charity widely. I have heard some people say that this a “sifting” moment in the church. Let’s be clear: you and I have no right to be sifters. We are commanded to be gatherers, one by one.

I still don’t understand all things, but I still know God loves us and that we should love one another. As I have prayed over my family’s situation, the Lord has never revealed why things have happened the way they have in my family. Instead he has repeatedly told me, almost to the point of redundancy, to love, love, and love some more. He has told me to relieve the suffering of others. That’s it. To have charity. When I have instead focused on wanting answers or on trying to explain or justify things, I find it can make me a bit crazy and sometimes I get filled with anger. Then there is the temptation of finding someone to blame and feeding an anger addiction. The internet is good for that. How I wish people of faith would learn to defend their faith with love, not with vitriol. How I wish critics too would exhibit even a modicum of the kind of love they claim the church doesn’t have. Even wounds of love can spread hate like toxic pollution if we don’t have charity. God is gentle with us, he sorrows with us, and he absorbs the reality of the world day by day with charity and forbearance. Knowing that should give us more reason to be gentle with others.

In answer to my young friends’ question, I would say that I have lived long enough to see that the gospel has worked and born good fruit. When I had finally decided after a few years of Word of Wisdom abuses in high school to keep the commandments, I noticed a remarkable peace come into my life. I felt strong. When I prayed and studied the scriptures I felt deep longing and connection. All through my challenging and stimulating years at Stanford and at Berkeley, I learned that obedience to the commandments is a low risk/high yield proposition and that to deliberately drop God’s commandments until my mind could sort everything out was, on the other hand, a high risk/low yield proposition. I have sinned and repented often in my life—honestly I think I am somewhat of an expert. I don’t say that to be cute or funny or falsely humble. And it has taught me how easily my mind and worldview shift according to my level of obedience. It has been tempting to change my worldview rather than to change my life. While I am not proud of my mistakes, I will never, ever be ashamed to proclaim the blessings of the atonement of Jesus Christ. Christ has made me what I am and given me everything I have. I am not here because I learned perfect obedience once and for all. I am only here because God is gracious.

One of his most gracious gifts is friends. To tell but one story, I was admitted to Stanford and keen on attending, but was worried about having enough support from fellow Mormons to stay strong. As I prayed about it, I felt that I would be alright. At Stanford, you fill out a roommate card during the summer and based on that information, they choose your roommate for you. I didn’t indicate my religion, since it didn’t ask, but I remember writing “I don’t want a roommate who parties too much.” My brother helped me to move in the first day. My roommate had already moved in but he wasn’t there. On his desk sat a Book of Mormon. My brother and I looked at each other astonished. We thought, was he an anti-Mormon?! This just seemed too improbable. As it turned out, there were only four male Mormons entering the freshman class of 1500 students. My roommate Andy Sorenson was from California and also had recently gotten active in the church and decided to go on a mission. He too had arrived at Stanford with a prayer in his heart that he would have help to get on his mission.

God brought us together and we remain best friends. We helped each other to stay active and to serve missions, which established a solid foundation for us to later begin our relationships with our respective future wives in that small wonderful Stanford ward. I could have devoted most of my talk to most important friend, Amy, but suffice it to say that I married a calm, steady, loyal, and brilliant woman whose critical capacities and compassion are exceptional and whose commitment to charity have helped me never to take myself or my ideas or my perspective too seriously. She is patient with contradiction, with difficult trials and difficult institutional situations, and has held strong through my darkest hours. She doesn’t overreact to my struggles and helps me to keep things simple. So I guess that moment of grace to start my college career was a small but pivotal and eternally important gift. I started out and remain a free spirit, but I was immature. I was sorrowful too. I could cry easily and I often did. I could fall apart. I think because of my brother’s recent death, I felt at any time that all that I knew and could believe in could be swept up in a dark tornado of violence at any moment. Or that I myself might drop the sacred value of my life on a whim and that would be the end of me. I have lived with a sense of urgency and anxiousness that has kept me clinging to Christ. It’s been a lifelong struggle and only the grace of good friends and good family and God’s tender mercies have saved me.

Enough experiences with God’s love, then, and you will realize something fundamentally good and true about the church and the gospel and also something fundamentally good and true about yourself and your life. Existence itself becomes a miracle and a rare and beautiful gift. This is the basis of my interest and research in environmental stewardship. It isn’t because it’s a political trend. It’s because nature as an expression of Christ’s glory has healed me of my sorrows and because creation care is how I show gratitude for His gifts. There is a scene in my favorite novel, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, that captures how God’s love increases our ability to bear contradictions, to withstand doubts, to endure suffering, and to embrace physical life with all of our heart. Zosima the monk is Alyosha’s spiritual mentor and he tells Alyosha his entire life story. Zosima says: “even one day is enough for a man to know all happiness.” Think on that. If we were truly aware of how little we have earned and how much is already given, we would have no needs, no anxieties or dependencies. Going in to the monastery, Alyosha was weighed down by unanswered questions about his own life, but he emerges from the monastery and collapses under the weight of life’s joy:

“Night, fresh and quiet, almost unstirring, enveloped the earth. The white towers and golden domes of the church gleamed in the sapphire sky. The luxuriant autumn flowers in the flowerbeds near the house had fallen asleep until morning. The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars . . . Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth. He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages.”

It took me many years to learn to accept myself and to see this exceptional privilege of the bare facts of existence, unadorned by the promises of money or good looks or reputation or fortunate circumstances, and unattached to anxieties about worthiness or being good enough. None of this is earned, you see. This body, this planet, these beautiful people around you, the mountains, the clouds, the very fabric of life’s inconceivable diversity. Maybe in some ways that means God’s pure love, his charity, can feel impersonal, since it is available to anyone. But that’s just it. It is universal, so it is yours for the taking and yours also for the giving, to assist others in their pursuit of deeper happiness in Christ, the Creator and the Redeemer. I have, in other words, the privilege and responsibility to love those I come to know in all their individuality and to love my corner of the earth I have come to inhabit in all its particularity. I look around at the bounty of what I have here, and I can do nothing more, and nothing less.

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