“Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep.” (John 11:11)
“Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” (Ephesians 5:14)
I’m reminded of the opening lines of the first canto of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
There, Dante claims that we each wake, if we wake at all, to find ourselves already midway through life. We, each of us, are shaken from feverish dreams to find ourselves already promised to bodies we did not choose, to families we did not elect, to times and places we did not will.
Or, to borrow a similar image from Jonathan Swift: we each wake, if we wake at all, to find ourselves like the hero of Gulliver’s Travels, smack in the middle of Lilliput, shipwrecked, bruised in the head, and already bound by ten thousand gossamer threads of circumstance.
I, born and named and promised a Mormon long before ever catching glimpse of my life, found, upon stirring from my dreams, that I was already bound by the invisible twine of ten thousand threads to Mormonism.
Such accidents of circumstance qualify me to claim (outside the bounds of a more or less appropriate sentimentality) precisely nothing about Mormonism.
And, it must be confessed, to find oneself bound in such a way does not mean that, upon waking, one is powerless, despite their vast numbers, to upend such fragile anchors. Certainly many have done it, and certainly it continues to be in my power as well.
But I have remained. I have remained because of one conclusion that I have been entirely unable to avoid:
I am convinced that not only did I wake to find myself bound to Mormonism but that it is Mormonism (with Joseph Smith, handcarts, extra-Biblical scripture, modern prophets, Jell-o molds, temples, missionary work, and all the rest) that has done the waking.
This is, without question, a matter of faith. But, at least on this particular point, it is not a faith rooted in hope or preference or fond wishes. Rather, it is a faith pressed upon me by the raw liveliness of the breath drawn into my lungs, of the warm blood circling in my veins, and of the electricity crackling through my nerves.
The substance of my conviction about Mormonism amounts to a running account of the ways in which, because of Mormonism, I have been and increasingly am awake.
For my part, I can conceive of no other measure for religion. Does it or does it not conduce to life? Does it or does it not roughly shake me from the slumber of self-regard, from the hope of satisfaction, from the fantasy of control? Does it or does it not relentlessly lead my attention back to the difficulty of the real? Does it or does it not reveal the ways in which my heart, my mind, and my body have always already bled out into a world not of my own making, into the hearts and minds and bodies of my parents, my wife, my children?
As Parley P. Pratt, the quintessential early Mormon apostle, put it in his Key to the Science of Theology:
The gift of the Holy Spirit adapts itself to all these organs or attributes. It quickens all the intellectual faculties, increases, enlarges, expands and purifies all the natural passions and affections; and adapts them, by the gift of wisdom, to their lawful use. It inspires, develops, cultivates and matures all the fine toned sympathies, joys, tastes, kindred feelings and affections of our nature. It inspires virtue, kindness, goodness, tenderness, gentleness and charity. It develops beauty of person, form and features. It tends to health, vigour, animation and social feeling. It develops and invigorates all the faculties of the physical and intellectual man. It strengthens, invigorates, and gives tone to the nerves. In short, it is, as it were, marrow to the bone, joy to the heart, light to the eyes, music to the ears, and life to the whole being.1
Mormonism has indeed been marrow to my bones, joy to my heart, light to my eyes, music to my ears, and life to my whole being.
Thus lit up, I woke to find Jesus leaning over me, smiling wide, with the Book of Mormon snapped like smelling salts beneath my nose.
A final note, because I have, to this point, spoken only in such an emphatically personal way.
I am convinced that the scope of Mormonism’s power to wake people up far exceeds the particulars of my own experience. This conviction rests on two considerations.
One. Increasingly awake, I have found myself progressively pressed out into a world that is marked as real precisely by the degree to which it is common. I have found the fog of my idiosyncratic daydreams burned away by the warmth and friction of a life that is openly shared. To wake to one’s life is, invariably, to wake to its rootedness in a plurality of lives.
Two. Whenever I pull, in matter or conception, as a practitioner or a scholar, on any of the threads that tie me to Mormonism, I find that the whole world comes with it. Mormonism’s thinly cast lines run straight through the heart of the world and wend around and about all its major thoroughfares. The resulting tangle appears irreparable.
With it, I am convinced that the scope of Mormonism is genuinely universal.
1Parley P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology (Liverpool: F. D. Richards, 1855), 98-99.
Adam S. Miller is a professor of philosophy at Collin College in McKinney, Texas. He and his wife, Gwen Walters, have three children. He received his MA and PhD in Philosophy from Villanova University, as well as a BA in Comparative Literature from Brigham Young University. His areas of specialization include contemporary French philosophy and philosophy of religion. In addition to a number of book chapters and scholarly articles published in such journals as Philosophy Today, Horizons, Journal of Cultural and Religious Theory, and Review Journal of Political Philosophy, he is author of the book Badiou, Marion, and St Paul: Immanent Grace (Continuum, 2008), the current director of the Mormon Theology Seminar (www.mormontheologyseminar.org), and a co-owner and managing editor of the independent academic publisher Salt Press (www.saltpress.org).
Posted February 2010