The Invitation of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ
I cannot remember a time when I did not believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in the restoration of its fullness in our day, and in the central role the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints plays in proclaiming the “good news.” Even as a child, I did not see the practices and beliefs that constitute Mormonism as an imposition, but as the unfolding of “who I was” in the meaningful and purposeful World that God created for all of his children. The gospel was an invitation for me to fulfill my potential.
The Roots of My Childhood
My mother and father were only a generation removed from the pioneers who journeyed across the vast plains of America’s heartland to settle in the valleys of the Mountain West. After my father graduated from the George Washington University Law School, the Great Depression drew my parents back to Utah, where he was fortunate to find work in a number of legal capacities in the Southern part of the state. Shortly after my birth, in the midst of World War II, my father was appointed to the Utah Juvenile Court, and our family relocated to Ogden, Utah.
It was in Ogden that I first gained a sense of my life’s journey and the rich connections that linked my personal world to the larger space of family, church, community, nation, and more. I came to see the roots of my testimony not as something external or foreign, but as the foundation that had always been a part of who I was and am. The Gospel and its claims on my life during my adolescence opened up before me a meaningful future in a world that harbored the promise of great good alongside the dangers posed by negative and destructive behavior. I felt protected from these dangers by the warmth and safety of a secure home and the acceptance of a loving family.
I vividly recall the abundance I sensed, as the family kneeled around my parents’ large bed to offer thanks to the Lord. My parents’ prayers so pervasively evoked the presence of the living God that I could not imagine life without the power and peaceful assurance of this loving relationship. To diminish this experience by placing it at a distance or examining it as some kind of foreign object subject to question, had it occurred to me at all, would have seemed a betrayal. There was nothing outwardly unusual about these prayers, but they had a quiet and simple power that revealed the deep trust and gratitude my parents felt and were infused by the Holy Spirit, which witnessed God’s pleasure at their words. This experience engaged something central in my being. Even as an adolescent when I sometimes pretended fall asleep due to the prayer’s “undue” length, I could not pretend that my heart had not been touched.
Ogden, Utah, was a unique place to grow up. World War II brought a number of critical defense emplacements to the area along with a work force drawn from around the country. This supplemented the diversity of the city that already included the largest Hispanic and African-American populations in the state. While most people belonged to the Church, there were still many Catholics, a diversity of Protestants, a notable Jewish and non-Christian presence, and some who remained non-religious by choice or circumstance.
Although I had neighborhood friends who were of other faiths, in most respects their manner of living differed little from mine. In high school, the differences were more evident, but did not have much influence on my views. Like many at that age, the challenges of growing up seemed all-consuming and involved regrettable choices in conflict with my beliefs and commitments. It was in the gulf of these contradictions that I came to understand how my personal vulnerabilities could place at a greater distance the truths I had learned as a child. Fortunately, the steadfastness of a few friends and the unrelenting support of my parents drew me beyond this gulf. In every respect, my parents were followers of Christ. My mother’s conviction and loyalty and my father’s patience and gentle goodness helped me leave behind the distractions and accept a mission call to France where my life and future came together in a tangible and positive way.
My Mission Experience
My missionary service opened up a new chapter in my life, one filled with countless blessings and a challenge to become more than I was. I learned that genuine tolerance was not to be confused with the bland sort of relativity that sees everything an individual sincerely believes in as personal or private and possibly true. Most of all, I learned how far I need come in order to stand in a proper relation to my Father in Heaven.
After landing at Orly Airport in Paris, the incoming group of missionaries I arrived with excitedly jumped into the small Volkswagen Vanagon that awaited us and were driven to the mission home in the center of Paris. My senses were alive with the sites and sensations of this extraordinary city so far removed from my everyday world. The mission president, Rulon T. Hinckley, invited us into the mission home and held a brief meeting. President Hinckley was a short, sturdy man who radiated good will.
Despite his ordinary manner, I would come to learn that he was an individual of extraordinary spiritual power. In his sixties, President Hinckley was more than forty years removed from his own French-speaking mission and now spoke only rudimentary French at best. It was inspiring to see how the French members, normally demanding about proper French usage, would wait patiently to hear him speak. No matter how eloquent the other speakers at district conferences might be, members came to hear President Hinckley. A spirit of warmth, goodness, and certainty would radiate across the hall when he rose to the podium to bear testimony of the Restored Gospel in his broken and sometimes halting French. His words held genuine power and all who listened left filled with hope.
In contrast, during a short testimony meeting that President Hinckley held for us on that first day in the mission home, I safely and politely said that “I believed in the Gospel and hoped to one day know that it was true.” In the years since, I still distinctly remember the sense of having shared less than the light I had been granted in order to portray myself in a more “sophisticated” light. The rest of my mission, fortunately, provided me with abundant opportunities to share that light, many of them intensely personal. One in particular stands out. My companion and I were tracting on the outskirts of Paris in one of the many “cités” constructed after World War II. This was prior to the creation of the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, so I had just begun learning French. It was my turn to take a door. I rang, waited, and rang again. A middle-aged man opened the door, listened patiently to our initial greeting, and invited us in.
The man kindly told us that we were too late; for years, he had sought religious truth, examining all of the major belief systems, but he had since renounced the search and resigned himself to a future of doubt. Nonetheless, the man politely allowed me to share the story of Joseph Smith. As I began to recount the events leading up to the First Vision, I recognized an earnest sincerity in the man’s eyes and felt a wave of peace rush over me. The account of Joseph’s search for truth seemed to flow seamlessly—from the discouragement Joseph felt in his search for the true faith to his decision to follow the admonition of James ask of God—and I felt a warmth and power testify of the truth of the words I spoke and envelop us both. Learning of the appearance of God the Father and his Son to a young farm boy seeking answers in a secluded grove clearly moved this humble man. To this I added my conviction that this had in fact occurred; then I requested the opportunity to return and meet with him again.
During a long period of silence, this man tried to process all that he had been told. Finally, looking down, he quietly said that he could not revisit the question—that he had moved on with his life. I urged him to consider the truths I had shared as an answer to his life-long search for the true and living God. After another long silence, he took a deep breath, thanked us for our visit and showed us out. Although this man had not opened himself up to our message that day, I nevertheless recognized that I had been a literal conduit for the Holy Spirit’s witness of the restoration. I was humbled and grateful, but also saddened at the irony of the situation: after searching for religious understanding for so long, this man appeared to close the door just as the answer had come.
Family and the Pursuit of an Authentic Life
Following my mission, I received undergraduate degrees in History and Political Science, married my beautiful wife, and moved to New York City to pursue a graduate degree at Columbia University. I eventually graduated with a PhD in Political Science, focusing primarily on theory and political thought. Initially I focused more on the empirical and normative character of my interests in history, politics, and philosophy, but I later felt drawn to more purely philosophical issues. I wondered about the status of various way of making sense of “the world,” how they might be grounded, and what the limits and possibilities of such ways of thinking might be. Increasingly meaning, and the various ways language gets used to constitute meaning, seemed at the heart of these questions.
I had been warned by many people of faith that such concerns harbored dangers and that philosophy had become an enemy to religious belief and should be avoided. While I agreed that “intellectual life” in general and philosophy in particular could never be a substitute for the deeper witness of the Restored Gospel I had always experienced, I valued those approaches to philosophy that sought to ground the various ways in which language gets used to constitute meaning. Here, philosophy had more often than not undermined the claims of a whole range of secular religions (versions of reality) that seemed to advance themselves without proper foundation.
Upon graduating, my immediate preoccupation was finding a job that would allow me both to support my family and to reflect on the religious and philosophical issues so central to my interests. I was fortunate to find a position with Brigham Young University’s Department of Political Science, which provided me the opportunity to teach courses in political theory and political philosophy, while also helping students to navigate difficult philosophical concepts from a religious perspective. The thirty-five years I went on to spend at BYU only served to deepen my religious convictions, from both an intellectual and a spiritual perspective. I owe a great debt to many with whom I fellowshipped along the way, including colleagues who shared similar interests (such as Louis Midgley, Don Sorenson, Jim Faulconer, and Ralph Hancock, among others), friends who pursued different intellectual passions but who still contributed greatly to my understanding through our common bonds in the Gospel, and the countless students I was blessed to teach or otherwise work with.
The Artificial Divide Between the Religious and the Academic
From the beginning of my career, I was excited at the possibility of exploring all subjects of interest, unrestricted by what I considered an artificial boundary separating religious and moral understanding from secular research and writing. My religious heritage was always the larger whole within which everything else in my academic and personal life found meaning and purpose. For these and other reasons, it is not surprising that after working at BYU for ten years, I found myself increasingly involved in seeking to bring into better view the limits inherent in the social sciences and humanities and their attempts to account for the “nature of things,” in particular the possible ways in which they retrieved the meaning of my religious heritage. I would discover that despite the diversion of legitimating appeals to objectivity and neutrality, most such approaches were ungrounded and some were little more than intellectual ideologies whose tenets were advanced as self-evident.
Even more troubling was the unexamined acceptance of a seemingly insuperable divide between what were termed “faith” and “reason,” “morality” and “science,” “facts” and “values”—an assumption that exuded an absolutism akin to some interpretations of the separation of church and state. Unfortunately, in this uneven divide, genuine religious understanding had been marginalized and characterized as little more than interesting fantasies: While “doubt” was elevated to a cardinal intellectual virtue, “belief” was increasingly relegated to the domain of the naive.
Over my next twenty-five years at BYU, it became increasingly evident that the meaning of “Mormonism,” in its past, present, and future possibilities, was in the process of being fundamentally redefined according to different interpretive categories, including some that undermined the self-understanding of believing Latter-day Saints. In a host of articles and discussions that followed—and alongside Don Sorenson, Louis Midgley, and many others—I sought to bring into the open the unclaimed limits of certain interpretations, revealing why they could not displace the more original self-understanding of the faithful.
While I view this ongoing discussion as important, I do not believe that testimonies depend on or are secured by such discussion. Even as a youth, I always understood that assuming a faithful relationship to the revealing power of the Spirit involved more than an abstract desire to “know the truth,” which in itself could only be a rather empty and abstract exercise. To stand in a relationship of faith involves the inherently moral imperative to “live the truth.” As our conviction of the truth of the Restored Gospel is enriched and becomes more deeply rooted, it cannot be separated from our willingness to be guided by the moral claim these convictions exert on the concrete possibilities that ceaselessly unfold before us.
The Invitation of the Gospel
As I look back on my life, I recognize that, when I have fallen short in what God has required of me, my testimony of the Gospel remained but seemed more remote; whereas, when I have overcome difficulties and risen to life’s challenges, my conviction of the Gospel has grown, much as a living truth that continuously fills my being and invites me to become more than I am.
I believe that, at its root, the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is an invitation to become more than we are, to leave behind all encumbrances and become new creatures in Christ. It is an invitation to move beyond understanding truth as a mere abstraction and toward a life that embodies the good and the true in both thought and deed—one made holy by the Spirit and renewed by the atonement of God’s Son.
David Earl Bohn (Ph.D., Columbia University) is a retired professor of political science at Brigham Young University, where he taught comparative politics and the history of political theory. He is the author of articles in Sunstone; The Journal of Politics; and with Earl H. Fry, ed., The Other Western Europe: A Political Analysis of the Smaller Democracies (Santa Barbara, 1983); as well as of “Unfounded Claims and Impossible Expectations: A Critique of New Mormon History,” in George D. Smith, ed., Faithful History: Essays on Writing Mormon History (Salt Lake City, 1992).
Posted October 2011