I was seven years old when I realized the local Catholic church wasn’t another Mormon ward. That revelation dropped the theological ground out from under me into a quicksand of shifting beliefs. The ground I found to stand on then, I stand on still: truth is the stuff that features transparency, doesn’t get nervously defensive, fears no questions. We can recognize truth by its open arms, its open invitation to investigation.
I came to the secular ivory tower by an ecclesiastical route. I’d planned since tenth grade to teach seminary, worked through the training, student teaching, even got offered a job in Payson, prime offer for that time when teachers started in the boondocks and gravitated with seniority toward the center of Zion. So it was with reluctance that I considered a counter offer teaching English. BYU Chairman Dale West asked, “Now what is it you’ll be doing all week long if you teach seminary? And what is it you’ll be doing on Sundays?”
The potential monotony of round-the-clock theology wasn’t the problem for me: I’ve never been able to get enough, couldn’t imagine what I could teach that could matter nearly as much as life values. But Dale did make me wonder about the best venue for teaching those values. Might testimony, however sincere, be suspect in religion class because I was paid to espouse the party line? Could English class, because of its secular atmosphere, better certify the authenticity of my convictions?
Having ventured into a secular venue for religious reasons, I’m anything but naive about how vulnerable faith can be to fact. A BYU classmate left the Church when she found out about the Mountain Meadows massacre. My two best friends at Harvard, after reading a 1968 Newsweek article about the Church’s stand on blacks, would have nothing more to do with anything Mormon, especially me. My favorite brother-in-law lost his faith when a high councilor scammed him with a Dream Mine investment. My ten-year co-author drifted away from Mormonism into agnosticism as his researchings lead him into some of the dark sides of Church history. My closest faculty colleague, a friend whose life featured the most dramatic healing miracle I’ve witnessed, disavowed his belief because “poststructuralism makes more sense.”
Maybe it’s some kind of intellectual defense mechanism with me. Maybe I just lack imagination. But seeing from an inside perspective the things that have soured the faith of my friends—intelligent friends, goodhearted friends, big-souled friends whose views I not only respect but admire—seeing up close and personally the precise evidence that has eroded the faith of my friends has somehow enhanced my faith.
If that appears to you to be in any way heroic, the result of determined orthodoxy, think again. I suspect the enduring strength of my faith has more to do with realistic examination of the evidence than with any sort of moral stamina. And if my faith seems to you hardheadedly mulish or lightheadedly Pollyannaish, think again again. I suspect the resilience of my faith has more to do with honesty of doubt than with ignoring negative evidence.
Faith can be a kind of clinging to certainties, a theological Linus’s blanket. But to me faith is at its best a refusing to close any doors to potential truth, however hard the winds of possibility may blow. That might be just my natural contrariousness; I’m a born professor, a person who naturally thinks otherwise. I find myself more conservatively orthodox in Boston than in Provo, more spiritually engaged teaching English than teaching seminary.
As a result of that going-against-the grain disposition, I may have had deeper doubts, and almost certainly have had earlier doubts, than any of my faith-forfeiting friends. From my realistic—maybe even skeptical—view, graduate school is too late to learn about the Mountain Meadows massacre—we need informative inoculation against the realities of Mormon history earlier. Similarly, from my questioning perspective, it takes a heavy-duty dreamer, in such cynical times, to be taken in by dream mine schemes. Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo polygamy problems seem to me capable of making disbelievers only of those who’ve somehow convinced themselves that prophets, against every example of prophet we’ve ever had in history or in scripture, are supposed to be perfect. And from where I stand—sorry, kind colleague, because I know how bright you are, and how learned—anyone who thinks poststructural literary criticism runs deeper in its implications than Mormon theology just doesn’t know enough of either.
I’m not trying to pull intellectual rank on disbelievers. Nor do I think they’re insincere, or self-deluded. The last thing I wish to suggest is a stereotype of those who see faith differently than I do. But I can’t help noticing a definite pattern among the people I know who’ve lost their Mormon faith. The pattern is not what we tend too simplistically to think—not sin leading to rationalization. Nor does the faith erosion I’ve observed result from standing so close to the secular evidence as to be burned by it. In every instance where I’ve seen faith lost I was at least as familiar with the negative evidence as the friends for whom that same evidence triggered disillusionment.
The pattern in every loss of faith I’ve observed is not overreaching into too much learning. It is, rather, uninformed expectations. It is an insistence on perfection in anything religious that sets up overidealizing believers for inevitable disillusionment. Far from being too much learning, the consistent cause of the loss of faith I have seen is in fact too little learning, or learning too late. Every person I know who’s lost faith has been a true believer of the straight arrow Eagle Scout “best two years of my life” missionary variety until the messy facts caught up with their faultless ideals.
That theological naivete may explain why, as Tennyson has it, “there lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.” It’s certainly why my personal faith is deeply invested in the facts of my secular academic discipline. I find God sometimes in church. I find Him more often in scripture, still more often in nature. I find Him a lot in people. I find Him surprisingly often in literature. I don’t expect others to find Him where I do, to share the spirituality that is so real to me in my academic discipline—it’s too intricately and idiosyncratically integrated into the most personal dimensions of my personal testimony. But that spirit is very real to me.
When I was six, showing off my newfound reading abilities to my Uncle Clyde, I seized the Book of Mormon, nearest book at hand, to read aloud to impress him. Hardly aware of what I was reading, reading for audience effect only, I was stunned to find how moved I was by such unprepossessing words as “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat. . . .” (1 Nephi 1:1). Not half a dozen verses into that quiet prose, I found myself in tears. Chagrined at having failed to impress my Navy-tough uncle, and nonplussed at such a reaction to any words on any page, I asked my mother what had come over me. She said then, and I believe her still: “It’s the Spirit, Steve. God is in that book.”
The spirit is so untheoretical to me, so experientially specific, that it doesn’t surprise me to find it in places where others might not. It’s not just that I feel it more sometimes in the Book of Mormon than in Sacrament Meeting. I even feel it at times more in the Bible than in the Book of Mormon. I teach the “Bible as Literature” at BYU, a course which for some will be a contradiction in terms, so little will they concede the possibility that the literary can inform the scriptural, let alone the spiritual. But for me it does exactly that.
Yesterday my class came across the “taunt song” at the conclusion of Judges 5, a poem whose precise purpose is to add insult to the injury of the Assyrian defeat at the hands of Deborah. Reading that brutal account of the grisly death of Sisera, his imperial head nailed to Jael’s dirt floor, we were surprised to detect amid that vicious triumph some suggestion of compassion. When Sisera’s mother looks out her window for the son we know will never return, we sense not only Israelite gloating but a hint that for every enemy warrior conquered, however heinous, there may be a mother grieving. One of the students said “If there is compassion here, in this fiercely unlikely context, it has to be from the spirit.”
The spirit comes easier in The Book of Mormon, more accessibly. Open the book and you can practically feel it on your fingertips. But I find the spirit more forceful when it pushes through the murder and mayhem of the Old Testament: it’s so hard-earned in that context, so natural and realistic, so honest and close to the bone.
So I’m not surprised to hear sometimes echoes of that hard-earned spirit in other literary places–-in Wordsworth’s great “Immortality” ode or Paradise Lost or King Lear or The Lord of the Rings or The Grapes of Wrath or Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Keats’s “To Autumn” or Robert Frost or Emily Dickinson or Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poetry: “For Christ plays in ten thousand places,/ Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his/ To the Father through the features of men’s faces.” Whispers of the spirit may be harder to hear in English class than in seminary, but they’re more convincing when I hear them.
So when I hear unbelievers claim that “knowledge undermines faith,” I only half believe it, believe it for them, but not for me. Awareness has clearly disillusioned some of my friends, but it appears to me the facts may have disillusioned them from their own uninformed expectations. And when I hear that same “facts threaten faith” assumption from the faithful, sharing the faith as I do, the notion seems to me nonsense, or worse: defensive, a little cowardly, at best lazy, not having done its homework on the Mountain Meadows massacre or prophets’ foibles.
That’s why fear of facts and fear of questions equates in my experience to: not true. My truth-seeking experience has convinced me that doubt may be the very stuff of which faith is made—for me doubt is as necessary to faith as fear is to courage. Fact is even more crucial to my faith, the evidence on which it is grounded. Doubt and factuality—aspects of higher learning which I realize make it dangerous to the faith of some—are the very dimensions of the academy that make my professional world, with its frank secularity and insistent questioning and unabashed skepticism, anything but a liability to what I believe. My intellectual life may be the place where my faith most consistently expands.
Steve Walker (Ph.D., English, Harvard University) is professor of English at Brigham Young University, where he has taught Modern British Literature and The Bible as Literature for forty-four years. He has worked as Harvard University Research Fellow, director of the Center for Christian Values in Literature, Karl G. Maeser Distinguished Teacher, Honors Professor of the Year, Golden Key National Influential Teacher, Brigham Young University Alumni Professor, and Nan Osmond Grass Professor. His seven books include The Power of Tolkien’s Prose: Middle-earth’s Magical Style, Mourning with Those Who Mourn, and Seven Ways of Looking at Susanna (winner of the Association for Mormon Letters Award for Criticism).
Posted February 2010