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.