I was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, into what in those days was called a part-member family. My mother was a member of the Church but my father, although he was supportive of our activity in the Church, was not. So from a young age I attended Church and enjoyed the support and friendship of a small community of LDS people that in time grew to be quite large. My first memories of Sunday meetings are of an Odd Fellows Hall in Beaverton, which served as our meeting house at the time. Often there were little brown beer bottles left on the window sills from some Odd Fellows activity from the night before, and I remember going around with other members collecting them and putting them in the trash can. Over the years, our little branch grew into a ward and our ward into a stake, and I remained active in the Church.
I cannot say when I first knew that I had a testimony of the gospel. One thing I do remember is the sweet, peaceful feeling I had one summer afternoon as I sat in Sacrament Meeting in our ward—by then known as the West Hills Ward—listening to a talk. At the time I must have been a deacon or a teacher in the Aaronic Priesthood, because I was sitting on the front bench in the chapel, after the Sacrament had been administered. It was a warm day, and the side door was open, and as I listened to the speaker I was looking out and up into the leaves of a tree outside. I didn’t hear an angelic voice or see anything out of the ordinary—just the rustle of the leaves and the sight of the sunlight playing its usual games of light and shadow. But as I sat there I had a sense that this was the place I should be, maybe even the place I was meant to be.
This feeling, and support and encouragement from my mother and ward leaders, sustained me through adolescence. At that time I knew I loved books and schoolwork, but I had no dream of becoming a scholar. Only after serving a mission in Japan and beginning my studies again at BYU did I start to think that I might become a college professor. A few years of graduate school at UC Berkeley clinched the issue for me. But by then I was married and had a small family and enough sense to know that the road I had chosen would not be an easy one—not only because scholars don’t make much money but because I knew from my experience as a student that for a member of the Church, the academic world presented a constant challenge to one’s faith.
I cannot pretend that even now, more than thirty-five years after a determined to make my living as a scholar, I do not meet occasional challenges to my religious beliefs and affiliations—both from without and from within. But long years of coping with that problem have taught me the efficacy of exercising faith even in the presence of doubt, which is a crucial thing for someone in the doubting business, which for good or ill (both, I think) is what the academic life is. And in my mind I always remember the story, in the Gospel of Mark, of a man who came to the Savior asking for help for his afflicted son. When the Lord, no doubt knowing the state of his heart as a father desperate for help, said to the him, “If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth,” we are told that “the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” I am greatly encouraged that despite this honest expression of doubt, the Lord accepted the man without rebuke and healed his son. Whenever I think of that story I remind myself, first, that there are those who depend upon me, whatever my limitations, to seek the Lord’s blessing in their behalf; and, second, that if I go to the Lord honestly, not dissembling, he will not turn me away—although how he chooses to answer my requests must of course be left to Him. Not all children will be healed, but all fathers must have the courage to ask.
When I first decided to pursue a doctoral degree, I did so with the rather stern counsel of Jacob (in 2 Nephi 9:28-29) in mind: “O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish. / But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsel of God.” All in the household of faith who aspire to be learned should heed that counsel, and I am glad that I had the benefit of it from the very beginning of my career as a scholar. I am happy to say that over the years I have found echoes of that counsel in the writings of scholars, too. One of my favorite quotations is from Pascal, who in his Pensees says, “The last proceeding of reason is to recognise that there is an infinity of things which are beyond it.”
No truer words were ever spoken. The older I get and the more I experience the vagaries of human existence, the more I am also aware of the “infinity of things” beyond the power of empirical and analytical methods to adequately define or comprehend. Despite all my strivings, I do still have doubts. I am fortunate, however, that that feeling of peace I first experienced as a young man still comes over me often in my activity as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints striving for help with his unbelief. I know this is not an accident; I know that it comes from exercising faith even in times of doubt. I hope and intend to continue, then, to do precisely that, hoping that in time the Lord may say to me what John was asked to write the church in Philadelphia (Revelation 3: 8): “I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name.”
Steven D. Carter (Ph.D., University of California at Berkeley) holds the Yamamoto Ichihashi Chair in Japanese History and Civilization at Stanford University, where he has also headed the Department of Asian Languages. His research and publications focus on Japanese poetry, poetics, and poetic culture; the Japanese essay (zuihitsu); travel writing; historical fiction; and the relationship between the social and the aesthetic.
Posted October 2010