An Answer to Anyone Who Cares to Ask (1 Pet. 3:15)
To many people, spiritual belief appears irrational and organized religion can seem like a threat to autonomy. On both counts, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints looks suspicious. While its claims of angels, gold plates, lost civilizations, and modern prophets may not inherently be any more implausible than the miracles and beliefs of other faiths, the fact that all of this came together less than two hundred years ago, at a time when Joseph Smith’s life and teachings could be documented, gives one pause. And since 1830, the Mormon Church has developed into a large, hierarchical, tightly-controlled institution that wields considerable economic and political power, and which excludes women from most leadership positions. In addition, surveys regularly show that Mormons are among the most highly partisan religious groups in the United States with respect to party affiliation, they are among the least likely to believe in evolution, and their track record on civil rights is mixed, at best. Why would someone who cares about history, science, intellectual freedom, and pluralism be interested in such a religion?
The short answer is that I was raised a Latter-day Saint, and from the inside, the religious belief system is nearly seamless. Mormonism provides clear, satisfying answers to the great questions of existence: What’s the purpose of life? What happens after we die? How should we live? What does God expect from us? I grew up in a household in which the principles and precepts of Mormonism were accepted as self-evident, and in which most of the books on the shelves were by Latter-day Saints writing for other Latter-day Saints, but because I did not live in Utah I was aware from an early age that I belonged to a religious minority. And I was curious about how other people answered those same questions. I read voraciously as a teenager and then enrolled at Brigham Young University (of course).
BYU is often considered a “safe place” for young Mormons to study, and indeed, even as a Greek major I was carefully shielded from twentieth-century New Testament scholarship, though Plato, Aristotle, and even Aristophanes were fair game. Yet it was in Provo that I first encountered LDS opinion journals such as Sunstone and Dialogue and learned of some of the more difficult aspects of Mormon history, culture, and theology (such a belated discovery is now probably impossible in the age of the internet and blogs). At the same time, I also became acquainted with intelligent men and women, both fellow students and faculty, who combined the courage to ask hard questions with the conviction that faithful answers were possible, even if they were not immediately apparent. It was also during those years that I served an LDS mission in Taiwan and became fascinated with a rich, ancient culture that had known nothing of either Athens or Jerusalem. Chinese history, literature, and philosophy changed my life. In a very typical way, education brought a realization that the world was much more complicated than I had once thought, and that the easy, rather simplistic answers of my childhood were no longer adequate. And then I went to graduate school to study Classical Chinese.
(From this point on, good friends will realize that nearly every “I” that follows stands in for a “we.” I married Heather Nielsen a few months after my mission, as I was starting my sophomore year in college, and every subsequent opinion, belief, or achievement has been the result of nearly constant conversation with her. She is the source of many of my best ideas, she fiercely critiques all of my writing—including this essay—and she constantly forces me to refine and rethink my positions. Heather is the kindest, wisest, most faithful person I have ever met, and also one of the most intellectually engaged. The prospect of continuing this relationship into the next life is, for me, one of the most appealing aspects of Mormonism.)
Yale is a fairly secular university, but they care deeply about freedom of thought and expression, and they deliberately make room for religion. I remember going to a convocation where the president spoke to new freshmen and encouraged them to explore their religiosity along with other aspects of their lives (“even those of you,” he said, “whose faith may at this point be latent”). As Latter-day Saints, we had a small student congregation of about thirty members and we were given a place on campus to conduct religious services on Sunday mornings. It was a small chapel on the freshman quad in a building that served as a center for all kinds of students groups and student activism. We were probably the only Sunday school in the entire Mormon Church that met in a room decorated with “US out of El Salvador” and “Down with American Imperialism” posters, or that held worship services in a space that had been the site of a gay and lesbian dance the night before. Some people found it uncomfortable, but I was grateful that we too had a voice and a presence, and I was eager to extend the same courtesy and dignity to others.
Not every Mormon student took advantage of the religious opportunities at Yale. I was in the branch presidency and we used to joke about the “Chapter 2’s”; that is, students who came to church with their parents the first Sunday of the school year, and then quietly confided to us afterward, “You may not see too much of me in the future; I’m starting a new chapter in my life and I’m not sure that the church will be part of it.” But just as there was the freedom to not be religious, there was freedom to find and even share religion, and we were a very close-knit group, probably because we felt so outnumbered. Some of the most satisfying religious experiences of my life came during those years; in fact, I still keep in contact with many of the members of my congregation from that time.
I believe that it is possible to love God with your mind as well as your heart (Mark 12:30), and a university education can be an essential part of that sort of devotion. There is no better way to learn about one’s own faith than by trying to explain it to others. Part of college life is making new friends, interacting with people of different beliefs and backgrounds, and responding to opposing viewpoints, challenging perspectives, and contrary evidence. Sometimes faith gets lost in these sorts of discussions, but it can also be strengthened and deepened. What makes the difference? In my case, it wasn’t simply a summary dismissal of whatever conflicted with my beliefs. I am still bothered by a number of things—the lack of direct archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon, its anachronistic quotations from Second Isaiah, polygamy, the Mountain Meadows massacre, our exclusive reliance on the King James Bible, our tendency to mythologize our history, our preference for sentimentality over substance, our quickness to label honest disagreements as anti-Mormonism, our devotion to the Boy Scouts, and my own impatience when the church doesn’t speak out more forcefully on moral issues such as torture or access to healthcare. There is a lot that I am still trying to figure out, and many thoughtful Mormons could probably construct similar lists of their own. Some may even choose to leave over such issues. But for me, these uncertainties are greatly outweighed by what I do know, from years of experience in the church and reflection on its teachings.
From the outside, the Mormon Church can seem monolithic and potentially oppressive. In actuality, however, it is a volunteer organization that relies almost entirely on the good will of its members. There are clear directives from Salt Lake City, but leaders at the local level (both men and women) quickly realize how little leverage they have over their fellow congregants other than by example and exhortation. Everything is done through time-consuming, unpaid, rotating assignments, from administration to preaching to pastoral care. As a graduate student and a professor, I have always devoted at least 15-20 hours a week to my assignments in bishoprics and branch presidencies, teaching a scripture study class for high school students every morning at 6:15 am, working with children and teenagers, serving on the high council in a large stake, and now as a member of the stake presidency (among other callings; and this list is not all that unusual). The Latter-day Saint religious experience is highly demanding, but also highly rewarding. The closest relationships in my life, including my marriage, have come through shared church service. Latter-day Saints do not get to choose their congregations; rather, geography dictates where they will attend, and as a result, most Mormon wards encompass economic, ethnic, racial, and political diversity. And strikingly, such differences matter much less than the covenants we have taken to “bear one another’s burdens . . . mourn with those that mourn, yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:8-9). It is remarkable that political opponents as headstrong as Harry Reid and Orrin Hatch could still pass the sacrament to each other, or even attend the temple together.
I believe that this particularly intense sort of community makes me a better person and a better Christian. I have sat in church councils trying to help members living in poverty in mountain hollers, and thought, “If it weren’t for the church, I wouldn’t have much to do with these folks.” But this is not convenient, sporadic, relatively impersonal charity; I have been deeply involved in these people’s lives, for years on end, and they are equally involved with mine, teaching my children and helping me out of tight spots. At the local level, being Mormon feels like being part of an extended family. Yet this same warmth and community are available wherever one goes. And Mormon humanitarian efforts around the world, made possible only by the size, resources, organizational abilities, and access to skilled volunteer labor of the LDS Church, make me proud to be part of this religion. I love these people. I love their goodness and sincerity, their selflessness and faith. It’s a joy to be associated with them.
Of course, the sociology of Mormonism is separate from its truth claims, and though skepticism probably comes more naturally to me than belief, I nevertheless choose to believe. I savor what we have in common with other Christians—the Bible, resurrection, forgiveness of sins, gifts of the spirit, the example of our savior, the importance of moral living (though I certainly acknowledge that Mormons are not orthodox Christians)—and I love the doctrines of the Restoration (as we call it): that everyone who has ever lived has an equal opportunity for salvation, that sinners and unbelievers are not cast into hell forever, that God is not ultimately responsible for all the evil and suffering in the world, that marriages and families can last into eternity, that there is no end to knowledge and progress, and that God continues to speak to prophets today just as in biblical times. When I go to the temple, I marvel that I belong to a religion with such a sense of sacred ritual, and that it means so much to me. As I have studied and researched the Book of Mormon for scholarly, academic publications over the last few years, I find it more and more impressive. Though I respect the opinions of those who are attuned to its many historical improbabilities, it seems to me to be a revealed text, with roots in the ancient world. It may be hard to believe such things, but I do. They make sense to me, and as I have prayed, studied, served, and performed priesthood ordinances such as giving blessings and baptizing my children (another advantage of a lay ministry), I have had spiritual experiences that I interpret as the Holy Spirit bearing witness to me of the truths of Mormonism.
I believe that the LDS church is not just an alliance of well-meaning individuals, but that it is literally the restored church of Christ, and that the best way to follow Jesus is through Mormonism. Of course, Latter-day Saints do not have a corner on goodness, nor do we have a monopoly on truth. Although Mormons sometimes speak with the assurance of people who have all the answers (which can make those of us with doubts and questions occasionally feel out of place), it is nevertheless a core value of the faith that God “will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God” (Articles of Faith, 9) and that he has spoken in diverse times and places: “For behold, the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in his wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have” (Alma 29:8). So when I teach the history of Buddhism, I’m not interested in having my students convert to that Asian religion, but I do want them to understand it as fully as possible. And, belonging to a faith tradition myself that is often misunderstood, I try as hard as I can to present the religion responsibly, so that if there were a Buddhist in the class, he or she would say, “I may not always agree with your perspective, but that is a fair representation of what I believe.” (This has actually happened, even in North Carolina). Oddly enough, I think that studying Buddhism makes me a better Mormon. Buddhists have some very powerful critiques of our conventional notions of self and our lack of mindfulness; they are keenly aware of suffering and the destructiveness of desire; and they have pioneered an admirable ideal of environmental stewardship.
Mormonism is still a relatively young faith, and we have only begun to investigate the possibilities inherent in our distinctive scripture, doctrines, and practices. We have contributions, as Latter-day Saints, to make in several academic fields, but we also have much to learn. Joseph Smith once noted that that there were many truths in other churches, and he urged his followers to “gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true ‘Mormons’” (History of the Church, 5:517). That expansive vision of Mormonism is one that I find inspiring. Because I have had educational opportunities that my parents did not have, I believe a bit differently than they do, but I believe just as passionately.
Grant Hardy is Professor of History and Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He has a B.A. in Ancient Greek from Brigham Young University and a Ph.D. in Chinese Language and Literature from Yale. He has authored Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo: Sima Qian’s Conquest of History; The Establishment of the Han Empire and Imperial China; and Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (forthcoming in April from Oxford University Press); as well as the Introduction for Royal Skousen’s recent Yale edition of the Book of Mormon. He has also edited The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition; Enduring Ties: Poems of Family Relationships; and the Oxford History of Historical Writing, Vol. 1 (also forthcoming). Hardy is currently working on a 36-lecture DVD/CD course for The Teaching Company entitled Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition.
Posted December 2009