Reflections on an Anniversary

This month marks the twentieth anniversary of my theism. In 1990 I was an angry autodidact in semi-rural Utah, reading Sartres and announcing my agnosticism to audiences both willing and unwilling. I wore my hair long and my clothing torn as badges of adolescent independence.

Over a long summer, I came to a muted respect for the tradition of my family, for the clear-sighted and powerful faith of my mother. I remained agnostic but felt open to involvement in a church community and to the moral responsibilities of the adulthood I sensed before me. An experience involving the LDS sacramental prayers on the first Sunday in August gave me my first experience of the Divine in a formally religious setting. That numinous conversion—were I evangelical I think I would call it my rebirth or regeneration—forever changed my life. Four weeks after that converting experience, I left the Rocky Mountains to begin college in the Northeast.

I arrived in Boston in the fall, surrounded for the first time by a critical mass of people who loved to read and argue and expatiate. I cherished this new environment of intellectualism and energetic debate, even as I found myself stretched as a neophyte believer. I attended church, bore testimony on most Fast Sundays, volunteered in a homeless shelter, expropriated food from the cafeteria in the Freshman Union to feed people busking near the subway stop. And I read books, constantly. Toward the end of my freshman year, I developed doubts about the intellectual integrity of Mormonism, realizing dimly that I had been converted to theism that Sunday morning in August but not to any particular community or tradition. Mormonism is not a religion born in the late twentieth century, and I believe in retrospect that I was experiencing with the vivid intensity of early adulthood the incongruity between the world I was learning to inhabit as a college student in Boston in 1991 and the world in which Joseph Smith revealed the faith tradition within which I had come to God just a few months earlier.

Like many aspiring intellectuals with religious yearnings, I turned to C.S. Lewis to locate myself within Christianity. There was something in the self-assurance of that strange man, of his love of words and books, that made me think that I could one day believe that Christ was Divine. I could not yet entirely imagine myself as a Latter-day Saint.

Having already submitted my application for LDS missionary service and taken a leave of absence from college, I decided that I would follow my hunch of August 1990 and serve an LDS mission. Following the prescribed sequence for missionaries in preparation, I soon found myself, an earnest theist beginning to imagine myself as a Christian, sitting in a comfortably dark room in the temple in Dallas, four seats from my mother. I understood that I was to learn the secrets of eternity in that endowment room, but instead I found the temple rites frustrating and disorienting. For two intensely painful weeks I debated leaving the Church. My mother, ever wise, expressed to me only her love, her confidence that I would find my way, and her support no matter where my paths would lead. I prayed energetically, and at the conclusion of the fortnight of struggle felt only that God would warn me if I were on the wrong path. He did not warn me against a mission for the LDS Church, so I continued on my charted course.

The Missionary Training Center (MTC) looms darkly in my memory to this day. Still smarting from the insult that had stolen from me a mission to Russia (I had studied Russian in college and always assumed I would serve there but was instead detailed to southern Louisiana), I found the MTC foreign and disorienting. The horrible, angry tension of the two weeks after my temple endowment returned. My branch president, sensing that I was a readerly boy who could still be saved by the bard of Mormon bookishness, loaned me copies of Hugh Nibley’s key works. Nibley allowed me to think that it was not wholly absurd to embrace Mormonism as the setting for my discipleship. Most importantly, no matter how tense my experience, I did not hear God tell me to leave. I remained in the MTC, and though I struggled for many months to feel that I belonged, I served diligently, even obsessively, in southern Louisiana.

There were times during my mission, moments of profound power, when I felt God communicating to someone else in my presence, perhaps even—though this was harder for me to believe—through me. As I counseled with and loved people drowning in multigenerational poverty, as I interacted with other missionaries and local Saints, I felt both love and the power of conscious commitment. I chose those people, chose to love them, chose to commit to them, to sacrifice for them, to see them as God saw them. In this sacred exercise of my will, I felt God’s divine affirmation. By the end of my mission, I found myself believing in the Jesus of the Latter-day Saints, committed to Christ and the Church, delighted at the cosmic and human mysteries treated in the temple.  My initial conversion to Theism was an urgent, visceral response to an overwhelming divine encounter. Though I had sought God, there was something inexorable in that first conversion. The transformation I experienced during my mission was anything but inexorable. My path from general theism to specific Mormonism represented a series of choices and commitments made, a network of relationships on which God’s seal rested. This belief in Mormonism was no less real than my first belief in God.

Since those first turbulent years of commitment and belief, my faith has weathered many vicissitudes, bright days of dazzling light and cold winter nights of uncertainty and self-doubt. By acts of my divinely affirmed choosing, Mormonism has been my life these last two decades. I believe in God as much as I believe in my own consciousness, and I believe that he has called me to be a Latter-day Saint, a calling I have chosen to accept, a calling I have given my heart to.

Some Protestants, uncomfortable with traditional theology, have begun to advocate an extension of process theology that they term relational theology. Much of the writing on relational theology is muddled; some reads like befuddled pop psychology. Despite my misgivings about applications in Protestantism, for me the term relational theology points toward something critical about the nature of religious truth and community. The God I worship is a God who relates, and the truths I seek are found within Divine relationships. Of all the various facts and propositions that can be entertained, accepted, or disputed about the nature of Divinity, humanity, and cosmos, it is the ones that serve relationships among humans and God that matter most to me.

In the two decades I have spent reading and digesting the documents of the earliest Restoration and its contexts, I have been increasingly struck by how radically and powerfully Joseph Smith preached a gospel of relatedness. From his model of scripture as the whispering of voices from the dust to his adoption theology, from the patriarchal priesthood and the power of Elijah to the creation of the “stakes” of Zion’s grand tabernacle, Joseph preached a Gospel of cosmic interconnectedness. When he encountered funerary papyri filled with Egyptian hieroglyphs, he found in them the promise of relationships among peoples and planets, tying connections between spheres of existence into the salvation narrative of the cosmos. Through long study of religious and cultural history, my mind has joined my heart, and my commitment has expanded.

When I worship with the Saints, I feel God directing me to stay, telling me that these are my people, my ethnos, my Tribe of Israel. I feel with Paul the magnificent power of the “Spirit bearing witness” with my spirit that I am a son of God and that through my membership in the Church I stand in fellowship with the Saints as an heir of God, a joint-heir with Christ. I have come to think of the familiar distinction between the “Gospel” and the “Church” as reflecting relational networks—the Gospel represents our relationships with God, while the Church represents our relationships with each other.

Understanding truth and theology in terms of relationships serves for me as a natural analogy for understanding the role of the will in the exercise of faith. I believe that the image of Christ as the groom and the Church as the bride has more to teach us than the marital customs of Second Temple Judaism. New Testament images of marriage between God and people point out parallels between our intimate relationships and our religious faith. In marriage I understand more about my relationship to the Church. I love my wife; I believe in her. I am aware of her flaws and failings, her insecurities. I also see her glory, her brilliance, her kindness, her future. My marital love is not just the passionate attachment that first drew us together, it is my choice, my commitment. Not every moment is blissful, but we are more together than we are apart, our family is more than the sum of our experiences. Thus it is with my faith.

My relational testimony not only allows me to give my heart to other people and to the Church, it has left me free to pursue Truth at my own pace, to allow time for better information, to avoid snap judgments, to recognize that not every requirement of sense or logic will be satisfied the first time I encounter a problem. I find in this relational testimony a close parallel to the way I think our minds work. Though I am not trying to make a claim about cognitive science—the fluid and tentative map academics draw from brain to active consciousness—I am struck by how easily our minds find order, meaning, relationships in the sensations presented to them. Our capacity to make connections, to see the mind of God in the song of a swallow or human fate in the magnificent orbits of celestial bodies, is a core part of our religious being. It is one we should be reluctant to separate ourselves from.

Borrowing language from the Hebraist’s “cloud of witnesses,” (Hebrews 12:1) I see life, religion, and science as containing a “cloud of meanings.” We seek patterns within this cloud, but we do not exhaust its meanings with any particular pattern we identify or propose. I do not believe in the extreme relativism that stands behind most expressions of postmodernism. That a phenomenon contains a cloud of meanings does not mean that it cannot be understood, that nothing about it is True, that it is entirely limited to the subjectivity of observers. I believe in Truth, believe in our need to pursue it methodically, assiduously. Simultaneously, recognizing life’s cloud of meanings allows me to respect ways of understanding that do not rely on external validation through experimental reproductions of specific hypotheses.

Professionally I try to understand human bodies in states of severe stress, life-threatening situations in which multiple organs are failing. These organ systems are profoundly and irreducibly complex. Those of us who try to understand these systems recognize, in an aphorism popularized by statistician George E.P. Box that “all models are wrong, but some models are useful.” I seek patterns and rhythms that are not immediately apparent to the untrained eye in a quest to identify specific types of patient who may benefit from particular therapies and to understand which patients are likely to recover. My work in biomedicine parallels my work in cultural history, in which I attempt to understand how worlds and ideas are interconnected, trying to envision the inner working of cultural and conceptual systems as people lived them in the past. The same quest motivates much of my religious life.

A relational God allows me to embrace a dialogic revelation in which prophetic ideas arise in a network of meanings. I am not forced to believe that the doctrines of the Restoration must not be found in the cultural milieu in which Joseph Smith lived and heard the voice of God. I can find meaning in the ways Joseph Smith, by God’s inspiration, altered and refracted ideas from other religious and intellectual traditions.  I can also imagine the ways that God would continue to communicate with us as individuals and communities.

I am whole in the Gospel through the relationships it engenders with my wife, my children, my friends and neighbors, the members of my ward and extended family, even with strangers. I am whole in the Gospel through its illumination of the great connectedness of humanity, the sense I have from Joseph Smith that everyone with a “friend” in that eternal world will find her way to eternal blessedness.

Comments

  1. Very powerful, Sam. Many thanks for this.

  2. It's Not Me says:

    Very well-written. I have never thought of the Church as a structure for my relationships with other people and the Gospel as a structure for my relationship with God. I believe I will come to find that helpful.

  3. MikeInWeHo says:

    Thanks very much for this, Sam.

  4. Great way to start my Sunday. I liked the analogy of the modern marriage and faith.

  5. Awesome. I am on my way to church, but I wanted to say that I appreciated what you said. I do think that relationships are key in understanding the gospel. Thanks.

  6. Thank you Sam MB. Lately it seems as though the universe is telling me I need to better understand and appreciate the incredible and profound lessons to be learned by willingly putting myself in relationship with people/entities with whom it is difficult to put myself in relationship. This was another beautiful reminder.

  7. I especially like that your belief in God is what enabled you to reach the point where you are now. I have had times when the only way I could get past the frustration and disappointment I felt about certain things in the church was to tell myself ‘this is where God wants me to be’ and hang on.

  8. “it has left me free … to recognize that not every requirement of sense or logic will be satisfied the first time I encounter a problem”
    This is a particularly helpful observation for me. Thanks for your story.

  9. Can I tell you how profoundly pleased and delighted I am to read of an intellectual’s movement TO rather than FROM the
    Gospel. Bless you! Both for your journey and your sharing. Happy Anniversary, to you and your family! Best.Post.Ever on the bloggernacle.

  10. Thanks for sharing, great post.

  11. I’ve had similar ideas for sone time, and even put them in writing from time to time, but never so eloquently as this. Thank you. You have enriched my worship and strengthened my commitment.

  12. Damn! Best testimony I’ve heard borne today, including my own. Very good stuff. Thank you for sharing it.

  13. Brewhaha says:

    Great post. I’m amazed that your MTC BP gave you Nibley. Good for him.

  14. “the Gospel represents our relationships with God, while the Church represents our relationships with each other.”

    Never heard the difference between the two expressed this way. Perfect.

    “I believe in Truth, believe in our need to pursue it methodically, assiduously. Simultaneously, recognizing life’s cloud of meanings allows me to respect ways of understanding that do not rely on external validation through experimental reproductions of specific hypotheses.”

    Very wise and, may I say, a bit unusual and refreshing.

    “I am whole in the Gospel through the relationships it engenders with my wife, my children, my friends and neighbors, the members of my ward and extended family, even with strangers. I am whole in the Gospel through its illumination of the great connectedness of humanity, the sense I have from Joseph Smith that everyone with a “friend” in that eternal world will find her way to eternal blessedness.”

    I agree, and your words have also made me whole today, Sam. Thank you.

  15. Thanks for sharing.

  16. Sam, that was a marvelous essay and testimony. You’ve expressed many feelings I share but wouldn’t have the art to express.

    I too believe we need to assiduously pursue Truth, but I’ve concluded I’ll never be able to really put my arms around it — it’s too big and has too many dimensions. The relationships I have with God and his children, though, I’m beginning to feel I may someday understand. They’ve become the lens through which Truth appears beautiful and approachable.

  17. This is a wonderful contribution. I would love to see this at MormonScholarsTestify.org.

  18. Thank you, Sam. This is amazing, from so many different directions.

  19. Sam, the words practically shimmered off the screen. Thank you so much for this articulate, up-lifting, “kindred-feeling” post. Amen and amen.

  20. Mark Brown says:

    Sam, thank you for this. Your words inspire me.

  21. Namaste, Sam.

  22. Joseph P. says:

    Wonderful. Thank you.

  23. I liked that, thank you.

  24. Cynthia L. says:

    Sam, you are extraordinary.

  25. Cheers, friend.

  26. Very insightful and beautifully written. Thank you.

  27. Happy Anniversary, Sam. We’re all richer for your journey.

  28. My husband and I just read your testimony together–a beautiful celebration of the sabbath, your life and experiences, and the network of relationships that have offered the privilege of friendship with you. Thank you for sharing your thoughtful, inspiring history and your continued growth and commitment to the gospel, to the church, and to people.

  29. Thanks for this.
    .
    My journey into darkness and back also taught me about what you term relationships and I call love. I’ve learned that addictions, compulsions, and sin are based in selfishness — a lack of love for, from, and with others. I also learned that recover from these is nearly impossible, and usually is impossible, without realtionships with others, without love from others — and so it was for me.
    .
    What I used to see as an irrelevant throw-away line by the angel in Nephi’s re-experiencing of Lehi’s vision I now see as a fundamental truth: that God’s love is “the most joyous to the soul.” From this, Christ naturally taught that the two great commandments upon which hang all the law and the prophets are to love God and to love each other.
    .
    Of all the various facts and propositions that can be entertained, accepted, or disputed about the nature of Divinity, humanity, and cosmos, it is the ones that serve relationships among humans and God that matter most to me.
    .
    I’ve come to see the Church as the organized opportunities that God’s given us to love each other: by serving in our callings, we are practicing how to love our neighbor and by supporting each other in our callings, we are practicing love for others by helping them perfect their love offerings.
    .
    In this light, I’ve come to see discussions about doctrines not in the context of human relationships as dithering over the tools instead of learning how to use them for their purposes. This borders on sinful in my mind, analagous to discussing the various items on the shelves of the Bishop’s Storehouse without sharing them with the poor and needy outside.
    .
    I also had an important insight during a sacramental service. It began when I noticed that the draped sacrament trays looked very much like a shrouded body. From that came a fuller appreciation for the sacrament’s symbolism of the bread and water representing Christ’s body that was offered for us through God’s love (“God so loved the world…”).
    .
    Then I came to see that after Christ’s flesh and blood are consecrated (“committed to the Lord’s purpose”), those with the *least* authority go out among the people to offer Christ to them. As each person accepts Christ and takes Christ into themselves, they turn to offer Christ to their neighbor. Interestingly, this is to their proximate neighbor, not their closest realtional person, answering the NT question, “who is my neighbor.” In this process, we act out the fulfillment of Christ’s plea in Gethsemane — just before his body became the broken original of which the the sacrament is an emblem — that all his believers would be “one.”
    .
    As each person in turn receives Christ from their neighbor and takes him into themself — or does not — they become the offerer to their neighbor until all have had Christ offered to them.
    .
    If someone does not accept Christ during this process, we neither question them nor judge them; instead, we encourage them to return for our next gathering and to remain in our fellowship, in which we will continue to offer Christ to them.
    .
    My ward’s chapel has taupe-painted walls and a stonework front. This helps me to see us all as gathered in Christ’s tomb to hold our weekly wake for him — for us to “always remember him.” I’ve been gladdened to realize that as I’ve visited other wards and as visitors have come to mine, that we offered Christ to each other through these once-in-a-lifetime encounters.
    .
    After having the sacramental service lead us together through this pattern, we are sent out to world — probably for us to continue this pattern of meekly offering Christ to our neighbors. We then come back each week to relive this experience and to be retaught its lesson.
    .
    Since coming to these insights, I’ve found it difficult to ponder quietly as I’m overwhelmed by a watching a roomful of people, some unknown to each other, join in acting-out the sacrament.
    .
    It’s a very relational experience.

  30. Thanks for sharing these reflections Sam — a great testimony and a lot to ponder.

  31. Happy anniversary

  32. Thanks very much for the kind words, everyone. We had an apricot cake, and I went to the church where I first came to believe to participate in testimony meeting. A very tender and contemplative day.

  33. Sam this was stunning and beautiful. You add to my faith. Thank you.

  34. John Scherer says:

    “My mother, ever wise, expressed to me only her love, her confidence that I would find my way, and her support no matter where my paths would lead.”
    I hope to be that kind of parent one day. I’m late to the party, but this was beautiful. Thank You

  35. Please elaborate on the following if you have time and it is not too personal: “I believe in God as much as I believe in my own consciousness.” I like this topic and would like to read some more of your prose on it. I recognize that this statement could be the subject of an entirely separate OP, so if not appropriate here maybe e-mail me at longito@hotmail.com.

  36. Eric S, let me ponder that for a while. I went through a phase where I said “cogitat ergo est” (my play on Descartes) to describe my sense during numinous experiences that I had encountered another consciousness. I also have in mind something about the fabric of our awareness, the integration of theism so deeply into the function of human consciousness. And many other images (see “cloud of meanings” in OP).

  37. Sam, this was wonderful! You expressed so beautifully what I continually struggle to express when discussing my testimony with others. Thank you!

  38. I also liked this: “recognizing life’s cloud of meanings allows me to respect ways of understanding that do not rely on external validation through experimental reproductions of specific hypotheses.” It seems like this cloud you describe reflects an awareness that where our science ends our faith begins, and you have come to have a peaceful commitment, understanding, and respect for both as complimentary Truths. And I think there is something divine in that awareness, as you also suggest in (36).

  39. “This month marks the twentieth anniversary of my theism. In 1990 I was an angry autodidact in semi-rural Utah, reading Sartres and announcing my agnosticism to audiences both willing and unwilling. I wore my hair long and my clothing torn as badges of adolescent independence.”

    “Having already submitted my application for LDS missionary service and taken a leave of absence from college, I decided that I would follow my hunch of August 1990 and serve an LDS mission. ”

    Sam – I’m interested in the connection of these two paragraphs. I grew up in a mostly inactive family and never really considered a mission, although mine was a Mormon community, probably not unlike the one you grew up in. I saw many of my classmates and upper classmen leave for missions for less than honorable reasons. I was married in the temple but found my real conversion many years later. I have raised four sons and 3 of them have served missions. I served as bishop and sent many young men into the mission field from my ward. In each case I inquired about the reason for their desire to serve. I wanted to make sure that each of them were making the choice for the right reason – not because it was expected of them, not because mom and dad really wanted them to go – but because they had a desire to serve a mission and they understood the challenges of doing so.

    And so it interests me that one who has been bold enough to announce his “agnosticism to audiences both willing and unwilling” had also submitted application papers during this time of doubt. What caused you to make that decision? At what point did you submit the papers.

    I’m truly interested in your motivation for doing so because at this point in my life I wonder if I let my lack of pure faith cost me a life changing experience in the mission field. I don’t regret the path I took but I wonder about it sometimes.

  40. Lamonte, I submitted mission papers AFTER my conversion. I had no interest or desire in going on a mission until I came to believe in God. I think if I had served a mission as an agnostic I would have left the church–it was my belief in God that kept me going on the mission long enough that I converted to Mormonism.

  41. In all seriousness, will someone please make a note to nominate this for a Niblet next year.

    Incredibly powerful, Sam. Thank you! I certainly will be linking to this in the future.

  42. g.wesley says:

    pleasant, sam. thanks for sharing.

  43. Doug Wendt says:

    This is an incredible testimony. Thank you.

  44. Thanks for this, Sam.

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