George B. Handley is a humanities professor at Brigham Young University. He has a BA from Stanford University and an MA and PhD from UC Berkely. This book, part of the Maxwell Institute’s “Living Faith” series, is a collection of personal essays he has written about “the seamlessness of humanities and belief, intellect and faith” (page XI).
Handley explains in the preface that “What keeps me in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint and what keeps me working at living according to its principles is the fundamental fact that I accept the tenets of my faith 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” (page XII).
There are several essays that I particularly enjoyed. In “Why I Am a Christian,” he says “We talk of sin as a deliberate rejection of God, but sin often feels to me more like being a slave to myself, unable to escape my own psychology, genes, upbringing, habits, or personality even and especially when I am aware that life calls me to better habits and deeper commitments” (page 3). He further explains, “nothing has given me more confidence in the living reality of Jesus Christ as the Redeemer and resurrected Son of God than the way that my trust in him has converted my awareness of my insufficiencies into hope, into a palpable increase of love for myself, for others, and for life itself that is beyond my natural instincts…. A willingness to repent and then to declare my faith has opened me to deeper appreciation for the meaning and power of Christ’s atonement” (pages 4-5). He also makes the important distinction that “Christ’s pure love is not the same thing as blanket tolerance for all human behavior or belief” (page 7).
In “Why I Am a Latter-day Saint,” he says that “I am a Latter-day Saint because of my experience with personal revelation, the method that the restored gospel places front and center as its promise to believers” (page 10). He talks about the difficulty of receiving personal revelation and the patience required. “I would go as far as to say that I am a Latter-day Saint both because the Lord has answered my prayers about my fundamental commitments and because he doesn’t answer all my questions, at least not right away or in the way I hope…. There is one answer, however, I always get when I pray with sincerity and humility, and that is that the Lord hears me, that he is with me, and that he will give me the power and love to sustain me in times of trial and difficulty” (page 14).
The Church is sometimes criticized for its efforts in sharing the gospel. Handley points out that “The fact that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is so determined to declare its beliefs to the world can sometimes turn people away from it, but if a religion has any claim to truth, wouldn’t we expect and even want it to be shared?” (page 22). He also answers a similar criticism: “Feeling chosen or called by God should not be equated with membership in an elite club. Rather, it bestows a responsibility to extend God’s blessings to others” (pages 23-24).
On the topic of temple work, he says “If a religion believes in its own universality and in the idea of its own saving power but cannot provide adequate means of providing those teachings and saving ordinances to the whole human family, it strikes me that religion becomes just a method for condemning the majority of the human family” (page 28). He later adds, “The temple is the great promise of eternal progress, of second and third and fourth chances, however many it takes. It provides the circumstances and the means by which life’s many injustices might find more balance and mercy. It provides the means to hold families together even when in this life, for reasons we don’t completely understand, people take different paths” (page 32).
In “On Criticism, Compassion, and Charity,” he addresses a concern that has become common as of late: “Styles, personalities, isolated statements, and even policies can change, but the fundamentals of the gospel–obedience, service, repentance, and faith–do not…. 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” (pages 51-52). He also pleads, “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” (page 54).
In the title essay, he talks about the fallacy of binary choices. “You either believe in the infallibility of church leaders or you believe in moral relativism. You must decide whether to either stand up for moral truth or be compassionate toward those whose lives have taken different directions than your own, but you can’t have your cake and eat it too. You either believe in the truth of your own religion or you believe that truth is everywhere and nowhere. You can’t expend your energy in compassion for others while also defending God’s truths. In the end, the unfortunate result of such polarized and mutually exclusive thinking is that you come to believe that you are one of the good ones because now you know who the bad ones are, and good thing too you figured that out soon enough because, well, the judgment is not coming at some future point. It is already here. And of course everyone wants to be with the winners” (pages 82-83).
Some other things in the title essay that resonated with me are “my worldviews and attitudes seem to change according to my mood, and my mood, although a fickle thing, is generally shaped by how I am living” (page 91), and “It is little wonder that what awakes me from spiritual stupor is invariably a sudden reminder of the soulful presence of another, whether it be the glance I steal at my wife while she sleeps next to me and I suddenly feel flooded with love or those moments of discovery that my children are far more complex and beautiful and individual than I had realized” (page 94). Also, “I wonder why anyone should believe they need to have answers for everything” (page 95).
This collection of essays is a literal fulfillment of the “Living Faith” series title. It is a glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of a fellow Latter-day Saint that many of us can probably relate to in some way. I enjoyed reading most of the essays and they gave me a lot to think about.