Preparing for my oral and written exams for my PhD, I put myself on a rigorous schedule of reading five days a week, spending up to twelve hours daily flying through novels, poetry, and criticism, and taking notes furiously, all in an effort to fill my head with as much information as I could digest. I was amazed at how hard it was, but I was equally impressed that the brain was like a muscle and, with practice, I got stronger, more focused, and more capable of processing what I was reading in a sustained way.
I was married and had one child at the time, and I was serving in the bishopric of a singles ward. I remember that it occurred to me that the time I devoted to reading secular literature in comparison to what I was giving the sacred literature of my religion was embarrassingly disproportionate. While I had devoted at least an hour a day of study to the scriptures during my mission, I was now down to maybe a few minutes a week, and when I did read the scriptures, it was when I was exhausted, in bed, without a pencil, paper, or any other method for allowing it to make an imprint on my mind. It was then that I decided to start taking notes when I read the scriptures, a habit I have kept over the years. More importantly, I realized that I had to take my spiritual growth as seriously as I did my intellectual growth, for it is more important to be good than to be right.
As hard as it was to serve actively in the church during my graduate years and to be starting a young family, those responsibilities kept me mindful of the importance of developing my character and of creating opportunities to practice selflessness. The intellectual life can easily become an end in and of itself. The appeal of writing, indeed the very appeal of playing at ideas itself, is the temporary suspension of the self and the illusion of radical autonomy. After a good writing session in the depths of the library, I am often disappointed, although not as surprised as I used to be, how much more difficult it is to return to the work of self-reformation. If only it were as easy to reform our character as it is to correct poor grammar or edit a poorly expressed idea!
But this temporary suspension of the self is only a problem if it becomes a permanent state of mind. The playful freedom of thought and expression can provide us needed practice in formulating our selves. As we learn, we become committed to a pattern of reading and listening because we know that one good book, or a good conversation with a thoughtful friend, might be enough to find ourselves on an entirely new path of consideration that would have otherwise passed us by. This means that what we think we know is perpetually contingent, and accepting this contingency with humility is essential to any intellectually fruitful life, since it encourages us to cultivate and sustain the discipline and hard work of overturning the soils of accepted ideas. But if we are not equally serious about reforming ourselves, of pushing the limits of the contingencies of our character, and developing the discipline and hard work of overturning the soils of habit and sin, then we allow our intellectual pursuits to stand in for character. Because we have responsibilities to our own bodies and to the bodies of others, the life of the mind is not as radically free as intellectual endeavors might make it seem. When my life is grounded by committed moral action, my intellectual freedoms feel more like intimations of potentiality rather than the grounds for my radical autonomy. This means that as my discipleship has deepened, I have become more committed to obeying with exactness even though I have also become less, not more, orthodox. This is because I have better reasons to be increasingly patient with the work (and play) of thinking.
We are frequently warned against being beings of mere thought. To believe in the gospel but not to work on developing the right character, James warns, may leave us without an idea of our potential, only able to see our image in the mirror. Usually this involves either perpetual self-hatred in our disappointment of seeing our many blemishes or, in an attempt to protect our vanity, striving to see all our faults as virtues. But as James warns, if we are merely hearers of God’s word and not doers, we may end up deceived about who we are. As thoughtful, creative people, it can become far too easy to mistake the freedom of thought as the essence of who we are.
This might be a cause of some disappointment to those devoted to the intellectual life, since so much of our energies is consumed in learning how to master the art of thinking. But it is perhaps precisely because thinking about the ultimate reality of things is an art and not a science that we need not assume that the content of our thinking is more important than the content of our character. We are at play with ideas. It is serious play, to be sure, but it is the nature of conscious, deliberate, and critical thought to be amenable to new questions and new information, for our perception of the truth to be dependent on the quality of our imagination and expression, and to seek dialogue and engagement with others. Scholarly inquiry, in other words, is not the work of declaration but of exploration, a willingness to test ideas against the backdrop of what we, in our feeble and limited ways, might imagine to be the totality of all that can be known.
Of course, it is difficult to contextualize scholarly inquiry in this way without some trust in something that approximates the idea of God, which is one reason why being a believing scholar has never seemed to me to be a contradiction. To be a scholar without any capacity to trust or believe in such totality means that our certainty of the nature of things only extends as far as our latest idea. This can be a formula for the worst kind of secular dogmatism. Belief in God, for me, however, has never meant license to believe one is already in possession of that ultimacy, a license for religious dogmatism. Instead it is cause for a constant reconsideration of the contingencies of my own understandings.
I mean to suggest that belief, or what we might rightly call faith, does not give us license to oversponsor what we know, to triumphantly announce a hypertrophic testimony of the nature of all things. Secular and sacred knowledge alike give us reason to be humble in our declarations of what we have witnessed. I do not mean that we shouldn’t declare what we know, only that what we know should be honestly and humbly offered.
Curiously, when it comes to things of which I am most confident, I have little or no scholarly wisdom to offer. I only have experience. Which is why I believe that experience teaches more powerfully than any amount of reading and writing, any amount of scholarly exchange, because it does far more than transmit information. Instead it transforms our being, penetrates us into the very recesses of our consciousness, and presses the limits of our capacity to describe and convey to others. This is true of all experience, which is why we struggle to find adequate words to give proper account of a life, a week or a day in the life of one human existence. But it is especially true of those experiences that penetrate us most deeply, that shake us to our roots, and cause us almost to step outside of experience altogether and gain that rare and precious opportunity to see ourselves as we truly are or as we can truly become. All spiritual experiences, I believe, have this as their end: true repentance. And repentance cannot be meaningful or lasting if it isn’t instigated by a clear vision of what we can become and by a belief that such potential is within our reach.
For this kind of understanding, we are dependent on God. It cannot be generated by anything other than His spirit. These experiences can begin with a book, with a conversation with a friend, but they can also come from experiences in the wilderness atop a mountain or in the quiet of our own bedroom. The point is that they are experiences, not doses of information about the truth. Because of such experiences, I have come to trust some things to be true, and over the years that trust has yielded a confidence so strong, I would call it knowledge. These, then, are the things that I know to be true:
1) When I humble myself in sincere pleadings with God, I find my best self. In so doing I find the power to keep up the hard work of unfolding this true self to the world. Life is a competition between this unfolding and the concealment of light and goodness in our souls that comes from selfishness, sin, and pride. Sincere prayer is real conversation with God that yields real power.
2) I know that when I read the scriptures with a similarly earnest desire to improve myself, to hear the Lord speaking to me, I have an experience with the text that is uniquely self-transforming, as if the words become a part of my soul, as if I had heard them before. This I believe is the workings of the spirit, the annealing power of Christ’s atonement, the price by which every word of the Lord was paid. While I have found God’s truth in many books, only his revealed word has that power to change me.
3) I know that when I serve others, I move beyond the limitations of a tired habitual sense of self and purpose and begin to feel potentiality in me, a movement toward a new kind of being that is also a return to what I have always been. We seek to be most genuinely ourselves and yet we only discover that authenticity in service and worship because that is where we find the power to be transformed. A spiritual life depends on our willingness to believe we are on God’s errand, surrounded by, living with, and serving those who need us.
4) I have had the singular benefit in my life of experiencing repentance many times and in many ways. I have never found obedience to be entirely easy, nor have I arrived yet at that moment where even the very thought of sin causes me to shake in fear. I have thought at times, when the spirit of forgiveness has fallen upon me like a hard rain, that perhaps I had arrived at that blessed state, but alas, the habits of thought, of the heart, and of body return, and I am back again on the quest for a more perfect and permanent transformation into a new creature in Christ. At times this perpetual need for repentance has been discouraging, as if I keep circling around the same problems with little or no progress, but I have come to understand that sins are manifold in their nature just as are strengths, and sometimes changing circumstances require another examination in the mirror, another attempt to chisel away at the old self, and an even stronger commitment to do what is right in God’s eyes. If it weren’t for my weaknesses, I would have never learned such dependence on God.
There are two organizing principles to these things I have stated that I know. First, and most important, is that all of this knowledge points to Jesus Christ as my Redeemer and Savior. It is his saving grace that heals me when I am in sin and am weak, that provides me with the power to love and serve more fully and more purely, and that helps me to see and believe in my potential. Second, this knowledge has come to me within the context of the LDS faith and the experience of committed LDS service and living, guided specifically by the teachings of those who lead the LDS Church whom I regard as Christ’s special witnesses. I don’t know any other religious life, obviously, but I do know what it is to live without religious faith of any kind, and I have decided I need and like the strength and transformation that comes from earnest and committed devotion to living the gospel. That strength is so tangible, so undeniably real, that I have stopped doubting in the goodness and effectiveness of the church to serve as the instrument and its leaders as His mouthpieces—uniquely commissioned in these latter days— of bringing souls to Christ. Trust eventually gave way to unforgettable, anchoring experiences with the spirit that have witnessed to me that this is true. As exciting as intellectual growth can be, it pales in comparison to what I feel I am becoming and to the mysteries that I can sense my spiritual understanding encompasses when I give myself to Christ. Skepticism, cynicism, and criticism are useful in discovering hypocrisies and in fine-tuning arguments, but they are not sufficient for self-transformation, self-knowledge, and the kind of peace that surpasses understanding.
George Handley was born in Utah, grew up in Connecticut, and received his BA at Stanford and his MA and PhD at UC Berkeley, all in Comparative Literature. He served a mission in Venezuela, which convinced him of the value of learning foreign languages and of the wonder of the Caribbean and of Latin America. After teaching for three years at Northern Arizona University, since 1998 he has taught at Brigham Young University, where he is currently Professor of Humanities. He is the author Home Waters: A Year of Recompenses on the Provo River (University of Utah 2010), a book of creative non-fiction that explores Mormon theology, environmental history, and personal and ancestral family stories along the Provo River. His work in literary criticism includes New World Poetics: Nature and the Adamic Imagination of Whitman, Neruda, and Walcott (University of Georgia Press 2007) and Postslavery Literatures in the Americas (University of Virginia Press, 2000). He has also co-edited four books and authored various articles on literary criticism and on the relationship between Mormonism and the environment. He is active in various environmental causes, has served as a bishop of a BYU married student ward, and is the father of three daughters and one son. He and his wife, Amy, live in Provo.
Posted August 2010