Having entered recently the ninth decade of my mortal existence, I have settled on relatively few intellectual and spiritual positions on which I am prepared to testify with some degree of certainty. During my lifetime, I have come to be much more impressed with what I don’t know for sure—or wonder if even I can know—than with what now seems definite to me. Much of what I can’t claim to know is routinely included in the testimonies of other Latter-day Saints, whose conventional lists of what seems true and certain to them leaves me baffled at their apparent spiritual attainments. Yet I have learned that I have no right to gainsay the individual spiritual experiences of others, as I hope they will not gainsay mine, different (and fewer) though mine might be. Later I will set forth those relatively few matters to which I wish to testify, but first I shall review some of the life experiences that have contributed to my testimony.
I am a third-generation Mormon. Three of my four grandparents were converts, who joined the Church and came to Utah from European families late in the nineteenth century. The fourth grandparent was the daughter of a British convert who had joined the Church in Lincolnshire during the 1850s. They were all plain folks who sacrificed much for their faith but eventually prospered in Utah. I was born in what is now Murray, Utah, but my father moved us to California when I was but three years old, so my upbringing was entirely in California, most of it in the San Francisco East Bay area. We were a part of the great Mormon diaspora that started in the 1920s, when the new wards and stakes that were gradually established in “gentile” cities during those years became outposts and havens of Church influence and support. Growing up Mormon there meant dealing with a certain amount of latent prejudice, which made me a little defensive about my religion at times, but kept me close to my LDS ward community.
I benefited greatly from a rich public school education in Oakland, from which I accepted a mission call well before my nineteenth birthday in 1947. As with so many others, my mission had an extraordinarily formative influence, most especially because of an adventurous (not to say radical!) policy by a new mission president, S. Dilworth Young, who sent us out in the rural areas of New England “without purse or scrip” (except during the winter months). With my various companions, I walked the highways and byways of rural New Hampshire, Vermont, and much of eastern Massachusetts (before suburbanization had set in there). It was not an experience for the faint of heart, but eventually we learned to depend on the Lord for our food and lodging (through the hospitality of the locals), since there was nowhere else to turn. From that early experience, I developed a relationship with Deity that has served me well since then, even though I have not always cultivated it as I should have done.
I had been home from my mission only a matter of weeks when my father, Vinal G. Mauss, and my mother, Ethel Lind Mauss, were called to preside over the Church’s mission in Japan (then still under post-war military occupation), a mission which at that time (1949) covered all of the Far East. I had been planning to enter UC Berkeley as a freshman that fall, but I quickly elected instead to accompany the rest of my family to Japan. There is not space here for a systematic account of my varied experiences during almost five years in Japan, but together they had even a greater formative influence on my young life than my mission had had. The most important of these experiences in Japan (in no particular order) were (1) regular exposure to (but limited involvement in) the LDS missionary effort in Japan; (2) a modest conversance with the Japanese language and culture; (3) an education at Sophia University, a distinguished Jesuit institution in Tokyo, culminating in a bachelor’s degree with a major in the history of the Far East; (4) induction into the U. S. Air Force for training and service in military intelligence (without leaving Japan); (5) callings as president of a large LDS servicemen’s branch in Tokyo, and then as president of the servicemen’s district covering all of central Honshu (the main island of Japan); and (6) courtship and marriage to Ruth E. Hathaway, also there in military service, and the subsequent birth of our first two children (who thus were “made in Japan”!). The rest of our eight children were born after we returned to the U. S.
From my church service in Japan, I learned about the limitations of trying to apply standard operating procedures from church headquarters to exotic locales and idiosyncratic situations, and the consequent need for seeking divine guidance in improvising appropriately. My constant association with the local Japanese (we lived in a Japanese neighborhood), and with the Saints and investigators among them, added rich personal experiences to my formal academic studies of Japan, but I never felt that I achieved an adequate understanding of that culture. In my encounters with the Japanese, in and out of the Church, I did, however, confront for the first time a culture in which “one true religion” was an alien concept, and I was forced to consider seriously the constructive and functional aspects of relativity in both morality and religion.
On the other hand, my studies and associations with the Jesuits provided a powerful counterweight to relativity, for in those days (before Vatican Council II), the Jesuits took seriously their charge as defenders of the faith, and to them there was only one true faith—as, indeed, there was to me. Since my education at Sophia required a minor in philosophy (largely theological philosophy), I gradually gained some skill in turning the Jesuits’ arguments against them as I defended my “true faith” against their “true faith.” Yet we shared the premise that to God truth was absolute, not relative. The priests and I developed a grudging mutual admiration through our occasional arguments, and I grew to appreciate their gentle and pastoral mentorship, even as they seemed usually to get the better of the arguments. What I mainly internalized from my Jesuit teachers was their commitment to defending the faith, though for me, of course, it would be the LDS faith.
I returned with my wife and growing family to the U. S. early in 1954, and after finishing my military obligation in Spokane, Washington, we moved back to the California Bay Area, this time to Walnut Creek. In 1955, I entered graduate school at UC Berkeley for twelve years of on-and-off matriculation that eventually earned me a teaching credential for secondary schools, a master’s degree in history, and a Ph.D. in sociology. The process was prolonged and interspersed with a 5-year stint in a bishopric and a series of full-time teaching jobs to support my family. I never had occasion to regret the academic hiatus for service in the bishopric, but it did slow me down. At length I finished my graduate work and took a position on the sociology faculty at Utah State University. After two years, I found it professionally advantageous to move to Washington State University (Pullman), where for 30 years I was a professor of sociology and religious studies, retiring in 1999 to settle with my wife in southern California among many children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. In retirement, and on an adjunct basis since 2005, I have been teaching periodically in the new Mormon Studies program at the School of Religion of the Claremont Graduate University to help establish the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies, eventually (and initially) occupied by Richard L. Bushman.
My academic career has both nourished and modified the conceptions I had as a young man about God, about truth, about the Church, about revelation, and about religion more generally. Of course, much of my academic research and writing had nothing to do with religion but rather with standard theoretical and empirical issues in sociology. Yet the study of religious movements and institutions, especially the LDS Church, has occupied my scholarship increasingly since mid-career. Combining my disciplinary training in both history and sociology, I have sought to understand the transformation of the Latter-day Saints from an ephemeral new movement to an institutionalized and bureaucratic modern organization. Not everything involved in the rise and development of a religious movement can reasonably be attributed to Deity—not even in the case of the Latter-day Saints. So, in the panorama of LDS history, what can be attributed to the influence and revelation from God and what to human agency? How can we tell? If prophets are fallible and imperfect like other mortals, how can we know when their teachings might contain error? My research and study in LDS history have convinced me that prophets and other leaders do make mistakes, sometimes serious mistakes, which can affect the flow of church history. Yet, it is not my job to identify their mistakes, and I am more likely to avoid mistakes of my own if I follow their counsel.
More than any other academic disciplines, the social sciences implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) challenge the basic premises of belief in God and in an afterlife. It is not because these disciplines are deliberately perverse, but only because of their operative epistemology and their usual dependence on empirical positivism. Such challenges rarely arise, if ever, for Latter-day Saints in disciplines such as business, engineering, medicine, dentistry, law, or even history, which do not, by their very nature, offer alternative explanations for the creation, purpose, and destiny of humankind, as the social sciences do. When survey data are repeatedly cited to show that belief in God (and/or in the gospel) is positively correlated with advanced education among Latter-day Saints, we don’t see the whole picture; for if we break down that finding by discipline or academic specialty, we see a great deal of variation in that correlation : It is far less true for LDS students and professionals in the social sciences than for those in the other, more applied, disciplines. I have often observed that one does not have to be an atheist to be a sociologist—but it helps!
A fundamental philosophical premise of sociology (and other social sciences) is that truth and knowledge are, by definition, socially constructed. That is, every society, community, and even every family constructs its own understanding of what is true and real through an ongoing process of negotiation across generations and between reference groups. As individuals, the only truth and reality we learn in growing up is what has been constructed in our families, communities, and nations before we were born. To a social scientist, this process of social construction is the only operative source of truth and knowledge available to us. There might be, in the mind of God, or in the ultimate design of the universe, a final, ontological, absolute reality, but such is not available to mere mortals, and thus much depends ultimately upon faith. The only reality we have by which to live our lives is socially constructed. During our lifetimes, it will be subject to change, so it is relative not only to culture but also to time and place. So what does a good Mormon boy do with that perspective on truth and reality? I understand and accept it as a sociologist and as an analyst of human experience and behavior, even when I study Latter-day Saints (especially across changing generational cultures in the LDS experience).
Yet as an individual trying to live my life successfully, I must choose, among all the known socially constructed philosophies and frameworks, one which I will embrace above all others to inform my aspirations, my behavior, and my ultimate commitments. I have chosen the gospel of Christ, as I understand it, as the construction of reality on which I will depend for my destiny. Thus, I am a believer because I choose to believe, and not because I have been convinced either by powerful and sophisticated arguments or by special spiritual or otherworldly experiences. I will readily concede that the depth and power of my testimony wax and wane. When nourished by faith-promoting experiences, or by my own special efforts, my testimony approaches certainty. At the other extreme, I fall back pretty much on the old Pascalian Wager. Always, though, even in its weakest moments, it calls on me to keep trying, to be better than I am, to return by faith to my incessant quest for understanding what this mortal existence means for me to do and to be.
I have been active in the Church all my life. My cherished partner Ruth and I brought up eight children in the LDS faith, including five sons who served missions for the Church in their youth. Like many others born in the faith, I began my adult life with a naïve and simplistic understanding of the gospel (which I sometimes recall with a certain nostalgia). However, I gradually learned, throughout my education and my career, how to assimilate the new ideas I encountered, whether in religion or in academia, and, in the process, how to adapt those ideas to my own evolving philosophy of life and faith. Thus, unlike many others, I never experienced any great spiritual lows or highs—that is, no great crisis of faith nor any specific epiphany that altered the course of my life. It’s just been one long process of thinking and rethinking—a process still going on. One element in that process that has inoculated me to some extent against disillusionment is the distinction that I have always made between the Church and the gospel.
While I concur with the late Eugene England about the value of church life in teaching us how to live the gospel, I have found it helpful to keep gospel and Church separate intellectually. Whatever divine agency has been involved in the founding and history of the Church, it seems to me that in its actual operation the Church has functioned pretty much like the other human institutions that I have studied as a sociologist. The human element in the history and the daily life of the Church seems more conspicuous to me than the divine element. My expectations for the behavior of church members and leaders are thus correspondingly modest, so I am rarely disappointed. Like certain other scholars who have studied our Church and its policies from an academic perspective, I have sometimes been misunderstood and unfairly criticized, both by members and by leaders, but I have also had several occasions to appreciate the quiet support and recognition of other church leaders, both local and general. As a sometime local priesthood leader myself, I know that our leaders are only human like the rest of us. Their performance can range from the sublime to the deplorable, but most of them, most of the time, are trying hard to serve us and our Father to the best of their judgment and ability. I honor them for that; and though at times I might see undesirable consequences deriving from their policies, I claim no authority to correct them.
I said at the beginning of this essay that my quest has led me to a relatively few matters about which I feel I can testify on the basis of my own study, experience, meditation, and prayer. Perhaps it is time now to conclude by setting these forth:
First, I testify that there is a personal God, for it seems to me that I have felt Him (or His emissaries) remonstrating with me at times and attempting (if not always succeeding) to direct me away from my own vain, carnal, and foolish inclinations. I see Him as anthropomorphic, since alternative conceptions (such as some kind of Cosmic Force) seem to reduce God to a non-person, not so different from other natural forces like gravity. To me, that is akin to atheism. I have encountered a variety of doctrines about Deity, both within the LDS Church and without, including doctrines about Divine Parents, male and female. I have no certainty or other basis for testifying about any of those other doctrines, though I am open to further understanding. At this stage, I testify only to the existence and power of Deity in my own life.
Second, I testify to the divinity and power of the mission and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. The Atonement is the most sublime and elevating means for human redemption and ultimate perfection that I have encountered in any religious or philosophical system. I do not understand how the Atonement actually operates in the divine, cosmic economy, but I do know that it is efficacious for me only to the extent that I strive to live in a constant state of repentance; and that’s all I need to know. Mystical or sophisticated theological explanations about the Atonement really add nothing to that basic understanding.
Third, I testify to the authenticity of the calling and mission of Joseph Smith as a prophet of God. I revere him for what he sacrificed and accomplished in pursuit of that calling, despite what seem to me a great many human flaws and errors in his life. He remains a paradox to me in many ways. Knowing, as I do, how the official accounts of his visions and revelations were produced, I cannot testify to any particulars in those accounts. I am convinced, however, that he had periodic encounters with Deity, and that these provided the basis for his recorded revelations. His contributions to the religious and spiritual fulfillment of millions of people will guarantee a revered place for him in the history of humankind. The Book of Mormon is a unique tour de force in the history of religion. I know the official account of how it was produced, but I don’t understand it, and I have no explanation of my own apart from the Prophet’s own account. I find the alternative explanations, proffered by non-believers, harder to believe than the angel stories, so I’ll go with those for now. Such a revered academic intellectual as Harold Bloom attributes Joseph’s accomplishments, including the Book of Mormon, to “genius.” To me, that’s as close as a secular explanation can come to “divine origin,” to which I would testify.
Fourth, I testify that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was established by divine intervention in human affairs. This was not the only such divine intervention, but I do not understand these interventions as routine, or even frequent. My understanding of God’s usual modus operandi is that He initiates events and institutions in human history by revelation and authorizes key human agents to carry them forward. From then on, these institutions typically become increasingly human, the more so to the extent that these agents rely upon human wisdom as opposed to divine inspiration. Those two sources of wisdom are not, of course, mutually exclusive. Ideally they go together. For example, modern general authorities have periodically hired professional consulting firms for advice, or have consulted professional scholars inside and outside the Church, either explicitly or at least by reading their published work. I myself served as such a consultant to the LDS Research Information Division in the 1970s and 1980s, and to the Presiding Bishopric in the 1960s, even before there was a RID. Yet, after all such consultations, it remains the ultimate responsibility of the priesthood leaders themselves to seek divine guidance in whatever uses they make of such human products.
Beyond these four fundamentals, I can testify also to the efficacy of certain specific gospel teachings in my own personal life. For example, I know that my life has been more successful economically, socially, and professionally during periods when I have paid a full tithe than when I have not. However, in most respects, and most of the time, I accept on faith the teachings of the Church as I understand them, without being able to claim any specific intellectual or spiritual bases for that acceptance. As a social scientist, I am impatient with theological discourses and arguments, which can rarely, if ever, be tested or falsified, and must therefore remain speculative and of dubious significance from an eternal perspective. I am much more interested in the empirical evidence for the relationship between theology (or doctrine) and actual behavior (which can, of course, be reciprocally causative). I know and respect the work of LDS philosophers and theologians, past and contemporary, and theirs is a legitimate preoccupation, but it is not mine. I have enough difficulty just trying to understand why I think and act as I do, without investigating the theological musings of others. May God bless us all in our efforts to gain greater understanding of our purpose and destiny as His children.
Armand L. Mauss received a bachelor’s degree in history and Asian studies from Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan, and both a master’s degree in history and a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley.
Dr. Mauss retired in 1999 as Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Religious Studies at Washington State University. Since 2005, he has taught courses in Mormon Studies as adjunct faculty in the School of Religion of the Claremont Graduate University. During his career, he has also been a visiting professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara; the University of Calgary; and the University of Lethbridge; and Visiting College Fellow in Religious Studies at Durham University in the UK.
He is author, co-author, or editor of several books, including Neither White nor Black: Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church, with Lester E. Bush (Signature Books, 1984); The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (University of Illinois Press, 1994); and All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage (University of Illinois Press, 2003), the latter two of which were awarded best book prizes by the Mormon History Association. He is also author of a hundred or so articles and reviews in professional sociological journals and in the journals of LDS scholarship, including Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought; the Journal of Mormon History, BYU Studies (reviews), and Sunstone Magazine.
His distinctions in academia during his career more generally include editorship of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the main national journal in the social-science study of religion; election to the governing councils of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and of the Association for the Sociology of Religion; and presidential candidate for those same societies. His distinctions in the realm of Mormon studies include twenty years on various advisory boards for Dialogue and then on the Dialogue Board of Directors,1999-2008 (four of them as chairman); selection as Redd Center lecturer at BYU (November 1982); two prizes for best articles in social literature from Dialogue (1972 and 1996); and, from the Mormon History Association, two best book awards (best first book in 1994 and best book in 2003), as well as MHA’s 1994 Grace Fort Arrington Award for historical excellence.
In his formal Church callings, Dr. Mauss served a mission to the New England States, 1947-1949, and since then he has served as a branch president and district president (overseas), a bishop’s counselor, a high priest group leader, a Gospel Doctrine teacher, and, more recently as a member of his stake’s Public Affairs Council. In less formal and more ancillary capacities, he has served the Church as a professional consultant to the Presiding Bishop’s Office (1964-1968) and to the Research Information Division (periodically during the 1970s and 1980s). Since 2005, he has also been active on the LDS Council for Mormon Studies at the School of Religion, Claremont Graduate University. He has been married to the former Ruth E. Hathaway for 59 years. They are the parents of eight children, 21 grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.
Posted February 2010