I first paid serious attention to the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints early in my high school years, because I found them attractive and intriguing. Very soon thereafter, I also began to suspect that they were true. I was impressed by a radical set of doctrines – radical in the best sense of the word, meaning deep down to the roots – that rested not upon inferences and speculation but upon credible witnesses. I continue to be exhilarated by the grandeur, vast scope, and cosmic sweep of Mormonism, as well as by its dramatic history, and I have long been firmly convinced that it is all that it proclaims itself to be.
From the outset, my conviction that the startling claims of Joseph Smith and the church he founded are true has rested upon a mixture of intellectual analysis, empirical evidence, and what many would call flashes of intuition. (With my fellow Latter-day Saints, I would term these personal revelations.) In its most ordinary form, such intuition for me has resembled the Sehnsucht or sense of longing that C. S. Lewis describes in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. Lewis recounts his quest for what he calls “pure northernness,” for the immense, cold, clear, and fiercely beautiful world that he had glimpsed in various works of literature and – perhaps rather oddly to some – in the music of Richard Wagner. I know exactly what he means. Experiences from youthful backpacking in the Sierra Nevadas of California, coupled with two years as a missionary in Germanic Switzerland, have made that very image a potent one for me, too. Like Lewis, I believe that such yearnings point validly to the possibility of their own fulfillment. If there were no actual object for such desires, we would not have them. Our hunger indicates the existence of food; our thirst demonstrates the existence of water. Yet I am convinced, as Lewis was, that our spiritual yearnings will not and cannot be fully satisfied in this life, however desperately we may seek to quiet them with inadequate substitutes. Even the splendor of the Swiss Alps or the Canadian Rockies, even the exultation of Beethoven’s “Emperor Concerto” or the majestic choruses of Puccini’s Turandot, do not fully still the longing. But they do, I believe, hint at the existence of something that can. Augustine was right: Our hearts will continue restless until they rest in God.
For, by contrast, the secular, naturalistic position seems to me a constricted, flat, and ultimately meaningless worldview that trivializes all of human life. I’m struck by Huston Smith’s image, in one of his later books, of a tunnel (which he uses to symbolize secularism) running beneath a gorgeous alpine meadow. (Again, coincidentally, there is the image of “northernness.”) Travelers in the tunnel have literally no idea of the glory and vastness of the world through which or, rather, beneath which they are traveling.
Not only is the cosmos that Mormonism discloses to me a rich one, but the doctrines of Mormonism are satisfyingly deep even when compared with other, more “major,” religious traditions. Mormonism is a profound way of looking at the world, seven days a week. It preserves all of the fundamental virtues of theism in general and of Christianity in particular, including the deity of Christ and his vital saving role as Redeemer and Mediator. Indeed, buttressed by the testimonies of modern prophets and apostles, it provides solid backing for Christian theism in a corrosively skeptical age. But it also bathes religious faith in a brilliant and exciting new light. (I cannot conceive of a more hopeful message.) And its claims withstand examination. I have attempted, and continue to attempt, to set out in writing some of the powerful empirical evidences, including marks of Semitic antiquity in the uniquely Latter-day Saint scriptural texts, that, to my mind, argue for the authenticity of Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling and the inspiration of the movement he founded. I will have made only the merest beginning on that task when I finally turn my computer off.
At the same time, however, Mormonism is remarkably open to the idea that God is at work in other communities beyond the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While, as almost everyone who knows anything about us surely realizes, we are ardent missionaries, we do not condemn others to damnation. Although we declare, quite frankly, that the fullness of saving truth, religious ordinances, and priesthood authority has been entrusted to the Lord’s restored Church, we also believe that truth and goodness are to be found elsewhere. God has inspired and does inspire others beyond our community, and most likely even unknown to us. In the course of my work editing and publishing classical texts of philosophy, theology, mysticism, and science from various Near Eastern languages, I’m frequently asked, “Why are the Mormons doing this?” I typically respond along the following lines: You know us as an exclusivist group, dispatching tens of thousands of missionaries around the world, summoning others to accept God’s modern revelation to living prophets and apostles. This is accurate. But it is incomplete. We are also, though the fact is far less well known, an inclusivist group, open to all truth and all people. Our own canonical scripture demands of us that we “seek . . . out of the best books words of wisdom,” and our prophets have advised us to gather up truth wherever we can find it. Even more fundamentally, our view of missionary activity (extending beyond this life) and of vicarious service for those who have died without hearing our message, testifies to the impartial love of God for all of his children, no matter when or where they have lived. “Our Heavenly Father,” the Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “is more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive.” And our expansive view of the eternal destiny of humankind means that, in the end, only those who defiantly and finally refuse God’s love will be deprived of at least some level of salvation. This is, to me, an immensely comforting doctrine.
My experience with Mormon communities on five continents replicates, even in the very human problems that all of us experience (and cause), the life of the early Christian church that I see depicted in the biblical Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul. Latter-day Saint “wards” provide genuine community, a “haven in a heartless world,” in which members of the Church live together in love and mutual caring. Lacking a professional clergy, each of us is responsible to lead and teach and serve. And the power of Latter-day Saint doctrines is especially evident at what might be called the great “nodal points” of human life, such as weddings, the birth of children, and death. Marriage and family are given not only social significance but eternal weight, which powerfully sustains the vows that undergird them and charges even seemingly small daily acts with cosmic meaning. The Church’s emphasis on the central concept of “covenant” seems to me especially relevant in our individualistic society. Additionally, we benefit from rituals of blessing on occasions of crisis and illness, as well as at moments of new opportunity. And the gospel speaks with especial eloquence at times of death, when, in the Latter-day Saint view, those who depart do so into a very real and concrete world in which social ties and family relationships flourish even more richly than they do here, and where learning and growth continue into boundless eternity.
On a firmly practical level, the organization of the Church continues to astonish me with its brilliance and adaptability. Whether responding to catastrophes or sustaining individuals and families during rough times, it is remarkably effective. Specifically, in an era when female-headed households are on the rise in the United States and other western nations, when the disappearance of fathers increasingly leads to what has been termed the “feminization of poverty,” Mormonism, I think, does a strikingly good job at the difficult task of socializing males. From the very earliest stages of adolescence, priesthood callings (and especially missions) train them to serve, to grow up, to think of others rather than of themselves. And from their earliest days, they are taught that their most important role will not be as athletes or as CEOs, but as husbands and fathers, and – notwithstanding the unfortunate connotations the word carries in some circles – as patriarchs, whose primary function is to serve and (literally) to bless their families. This seems to me clearly not a retrograde step but, in the climate of our time, a necessary and salutary one.
Are there dry periods? Yes. Of course. I believe that mortal life was designed to put us through such trials. And they’re not always brief. During those times, though, I recall moments of piercing insight when, as Latter-day Saints sometimes say, the veil between this world and the next has seemed very thin. In my case, at least, these have often been connected with what we regard as the holiest places on earth, the temples built and dedicated by the Church. These sanctuaries are marked off as sacred and inviolate from the ordinary, compromising traffic of daily life and its mundane demands, and I have experienced them as beachheads of that other world in this one.
Do questions remain? Yes. But they intrigue and suggest; they do not paralyze. “For now,” as the apostle Paul noted, “we see though a glass, darkly.” We “know in part.” But I have seen enough and understand enough to be assured that the day will come when we shall see “face to face.” And “then shall I know even as also I am known.” Until then, as the ancient American prophet Nephi said, although “I do not know the meaning of all things,” “I know that [God] loveth his children.”
A famous and somewhat enigmatic fragment from the ancient Greek poet Archilochus says that “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” It is my professional obligation, as a scholar, to know many things. (I wish I knew many more than I do.) But it has been the most fulfilling joy of my life to know one big and very important thing. The nineteenth-century zoologist Ernst Haeckel is reported to have said that, if he could have just one question definitively answered, it would be, Is the universe friendly? My experience, my reason, and the teachings of modern prophets and apostles all concur in testifying that it is.
A native of southern California, Daniel C. Peterson received a bachelor’s degree in Greek and philosophy from Brigham Young University (BYU) and, after several years of study in Jerusalem and Cairo, earned his Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).
Dr. Peterson is a professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic at BYU, where he teaches Arabic language and literature at all levels, Islamic philosophy, Islamic culture and civilization, Islamic religion, the Qur’an, the introductory and senior “capstone” courses for Middle Eastern Studies majors, and various other occasional, specialized classes. He is the editor of the twice-annual FARMS Review, the author of several books and numerous articles on Islamic and Latter-day Saint topics–including a biography entitled Muhammad: Prophet of God (Eerdmans, 2007)–and has lectured across the United States, in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, and at various Islamic universities in the Near East and Asia.
He has served as a member of the board, chairman of the board, associate executive director, co-director of research, and, currently, director of outreach for what is now known as BYU’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship–which has, among other things, produced a computer-digitized version of the Dead Sea Scrolls; electronically recovered damaged documents from the ruins of Herculaneum (Italy), Petra (Jordan), Bonampak (Mexico), and elsewhere; and, with the Vatican Apostolic Library in Rome, electronically published editions of ancient Syriac Christian manuscripts. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of BYU’s four-part Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, which includes not only the Islamic Translation Series but three sister series: the Medical Works of Moses Maimonides, Eastern Christian Texts, and the Library of the Christian East. These series publish dual-language editions of classical works of medieval Arabic and Persian philosophy, Arabic medicine and science, and early Syriac and Christian Arabic literature. (The volumes are distributed by the University of Chicago Press.). In 2007, in recognition of his establishment of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, Dr. Peterson was named a Utah Academy Fellow and declared a lifetime member of the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters.
Dr. Peterson served in the Switzerland Zürich Mission (1972-1974), and, for approximately eight years, on the Gospel Doctrine writing committee for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He currently serves as the bishop of a student singles ward adjacent to Utah Valley University.
Dr. Peterson is married to the former Deborah Stephens, of Lakewood, Colorado, and they are the parents of three sons.
See, additionally, Dr. Peterson’s chapter in Expressions of Faith: Testimonies of Latter-day Saint Scholars.
Posted December 2009