The Roots of My Faith–Part II

By Eric Samuelsen

Continued from Part I

My high school experiences taught me two lessons that I’ve clung to my whole life. First, the Book of Mormon invites the Spirit. That is to say, reading it engenders feelings that seem to me to have been externally generated. Though I still had doubts and questions, I liked the way the Book of Mormon felt.

The other thing I learned was that the Brethren, the leaders of the Church, are capable of making mistakes. They hold ideas that reflect their culture, their time and place in the world, especially when it comes to big social/political issues. Those who supported the war in Vietnam were wrong to do so. Those who opposed civil rights were wrong to do so. As much as I knew that reading the Book of Mormon led to certain feelings, I also knew that thinking about the idea that black people were being punished for pre-existent disobedience led to a sick feeling, a horrid awful ugliness. I could trust that feeling, too, just as much as the happier ones I got from King Benjamin or Father Lehi. Later, I felt the same way about the Church’s opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment. The institution had gotten another one wrong.

This was true on my mission as well. I learned that if I trusted those good King Benjamin-y feelings, I could actually get good things done. I also learned that the general authorities over our mission weren’t always right and sometimes were spectacularly wrong.

There was, for example, the case of the Dusseldorf door approach. The regional general authority over our mission spoke at a mission conference and recommended that we try a new door approach that had apparently been very successful in Dusseldorf. The approach went like this: We had these small white cards saying we were official ministers in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. One missionary would get right up by the door, and when the person answered it, stick his foot in the door opening, shove that ID card right in the face of whoever answered, and declare, “I am an official representative of Jesus Christ. I have a message for you from Jesus Christ. He commands you to hear our message. Can we come in?” The other missionary stood in the background holding up a picture of Jesus from our flip charts. Then, no matter what the person at the door said, the missionary with his foot in the door was supposed to repeat, “Jesus Christ commands you to let us into your home.”

Since I was a district leader, I thought I’d take the lead, so my companion and I committed ourselves to trying the new door approach for an entire morning. We learned some things. For example, when you were the missionary in back holding the picture of Jesus, you felt stupid and useless because you couldn’t do much to help your companion on the front line. But when it was your turn to hold that ID badge and stick your foot in the door and command people to let you into their homes—well, I never want to feel like that again in my life. The good doors were the ones where they laughed at you. “You what? Please. Get lost, loser.”

Mostly people just got really angry. They’d back away, startled, and then they’d tell you to get your foot out of the door now, and threaten to call the police. And then they did it! We scrambled behind a tree when we saw a police car slowly patrolling the neighborhood we were working.

But even the doors where people got really angry and called the cops weren’t the worst doors. I served in Norway from 1975 to 1977, just thirty years after the Second World War, and a number of the older people still remembered the Nazi occupation. We saw it on some of their faces that morning—that old horrible fear re-awakened. We could see it in their eyes. Those were the worst doors, the ones where I understood in my gut, in my soul, what it would feel like to knock on their door in the middle of the day, to take them by surprise, to stick a badge in their face, to shout orders, to arrest them. I’ll admit this too; there was sometimes a moment—just a tiny second—when it was sort of thrilling, when I felt a little buzz of self-righteous power. When I felt like a member of God’s secret police.

When we went home for lunch, my companion told me that he couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t, either. I talked with my zone leader about it. “He’s a general authority,” I said. “Shouldn’t we exercise faith? Shouldn’t we obey? Shouldn’t we keep trying it until it works?”

“It’s never going to work,” he replied. “We either quit now or we quit when the cops or someone make us quit. It’s a bad door approach. It doesn’t respect people; it’s coercive. It’s unrighteous. Maybe it worked in Düsseldorf, though I doubt it. But in Norway? Not a chance.”

“But he’s a general authority,” I said weakly.

“Yeah,” said our zone leader. “And a guy with a really bad idea for a door approach.”

And that was the end of it.

I came to realize that this particular general authority was a person, human like me, struggling to live by the Spirit, like I was. We were the worst baptizing mission in the Church. Maybe he thought a stronger door approach would help. It didn’t, but that was okay. Mistakes happen—we learn from them and move on to the next thing.

And besides, while it’s true that the Brethren can be wrong on occasion, look at what they get right. I’m not just talking about the 1978 revelation lifting priesthood and temple restrictions, which to my mind just corrected something that was never anything but a colossal, appalling mistake. Think about the Perpetual Education fund. Hurricane relief, earthquake relief, tsunami relief. Just a week ago, I was talking to a friend who told me about his new calling in the Church as an administrator for a program to provide free health care for the poor. Three nights a week for five hours a night, doctors and nurses and other health care professionals get together and provide free health care for people with no other recourse. Patients with long-term problems get treated and referred to other agencies where they can get continuing help. Free medications and supplies are donated by Intermountain Health Care. He estimates that 90 percent of the patients they see are illegal immigrants. But he doesn’t know for sure, because that’s not what’s on his mind. His task is to help people. That’s the Church; that’s what the Church can accomplish. And have you noticed the Church’s stance on the illegal immigrant debate? Calls for compassion and civility. I think I can read that code.

This talk is supposed to be about the maturing of faith, and for me, a mature faith must necessarily have an intellectual dimension. It certainly did for Joseph Smith, the illiterate farm boy on fire to learn Hebrew, Greek, and German. Before my mission, I was appallingly ignorant of the main intellectual currents in Mormon culture. But when I got to BYU, professors and friends turned me on to Hugh Nibley and Gene England and Leonard Arrington and Juanita Brooks and Mormon history generally. The science vs. religion problem that still derails some of my students was never an issue for me because my stake president in high school was Hollis Johnson, a pre-eminent astrophysicist, who just didn’t have patience with anti-intellectualism and who gave firesides from time to time to combat it. So I was lucky there. But the discovery of a larger LDS intellectual community was tremendously exciting. I no longer felt alone. I didn’t have to skip the Shakespeare study group to play cards with Christians anymore. I didn’t have to feel torn between two groups. I could just find simpatico friends of my own. It was like that wonderful day in the LTM when I discovered one other missionary there who also hated Saturday’s Warrior. Kindred spirits.

This is supposed to be about a mature faith, and here I am talking about high school. But the fact is, I don’t know that I’ve grown much from high school. Those twin insights—the Spirit feels great, the Brethren make mistakes but also get a lot right, too—remain about the only two things I’ve really figured out.

What has happened, I think, is that I’ve grown reluctant to draw hasty conclusions based on scanty evidence. I’ve become more aware of the language of our worship and the rhetorical strategies we employ.

In Mormonism, we’re supposed to “bear our testimonies” that the Book of Mormon is “true,” that the Church is “true,” and that we’re “led by a prophet on the earth today.” We seem to feel that merely saying we believe in God is inadequate: we must “know God exists and that he has restored his Church to the earth today.” I know all those phrases; I’ve even used them. But I don’t particularly want to anymore. Not because I don’t treasure the times I feel the Spirit, treasure those moments when a whisper or feeling leads me somewhere unexpected, but because I feel the need to be careful, to be completely honest, to not overstate things. Strong rhetorical stances speak to me of insecurity, not certainty.

So we bear testimony. But what are we testifying to? A certain narrative: the First Vision, the Restoration of the Church, the golden plates and their translation? Even though we seem to be saying that certain historical events really happened, the fact is, we weren’t there, and all the people who were there are long dead. It seems to me that the most we can say is “I received a spiritual manifestation that persuades me that these events took place.” We’re saying that we prayed, and feelings resulted that seemed to us to have been externally generated.

And then we testify that the Book of Mormon is true—a rather strange thing to say. We don’t say “Middlemarch is true,” or “Hamlet is true.” We don’t even say that Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is true, or Newton’s Principia is true.

When we say the Book of Mormon is “true,” in other words, we’re saying something pretty complicated. The Book of Mormon might be true in the sense that it describes people who really lived, a civilization that actually existed. It might be true in a theological sense—the sermons included in its pages accurately describing God and how he wants us to serve him and each other. It might be true in an existential sense—this book came into being in a particular way, involving golden plates and an angel and a Urim and Thummim. It might be true in a spiritual sense. In fact, I think that’s how we generally understand it. Of course, we also think there really were golden plates and that there really were Nephites. But that’s all just assumed, unexamined. We’re supposed to read the Book of Mormon for a certain amount of time each day—fifteen minutes, a half hour—as an act of devotion. It’s how we develop spiritual discipline. It’s our rosary; it’s our mantra. It’s not like other books. We’re not supposed to read it for pleasure, for a story, for its prose. We can, of course, but that’s not the point. I read the Book of Mormon and I feel certain feelings. And those feelings lead to other, similar feelings.

And in my experience, the Spirit is useful. Thoughts pop into my head. My daughter has a fever and a sore throat, but it’s the weekend and we can’t see our regular doctor for a day or so. Should we take her to the emergency room? I lay my hands on her head, and a thought occurs to me—she’s pretty sick, but we can wait until Monday. Meanwhile, we should go to the store and get a can of chicken noodle soup. We should give her ibuprofen and a fruit smoothie. Would I have reached those conclusions anyway, on my own? Quite possibly. But they did pop into my head while I was praying, my hands laid on my daughter’s head. So: tentative conclusions, carefully parsed testimonials.

And then I got sick.

Four years ago, I was diagnosed with an incurable muscular degenerative auto-immune disease called polymyositis. My legs hurt a lot. For a long time I couldn’t drive a car. Sometimes I don’t see very well, and my hands hurt. It’s hard to write for more than a couple of hours at a time. I can’t walk a hundred yards. A few weeks ago, I realized how difficult it would be for me to get in an airplane and how hard it is to ride in a car for more than a couple of hours. And I had a horrifying realization: I will probably never leave Utah! Ever. For the rest of my life. That’s a truly terrifying thought. I’m not a Hoosier anymore. I’m a Utahn. Shudder.

I can live with that, actually. But what’s interesting are the ways in which my illness has complicated my testimony.

In February 2008, I was president of the Association for Mormon Letters. We were preparing for our big yearly academic conference. Terryl Givens was our keynote speaker. A couple of months before the conference, Terryl let us know that the date we’d scheduled for the conference, in mid-March, was impossible for him—could we meet in late February instead?

This was, of course, a very difficult request to meet. I should point out, by the way, that Terryl was very apologetic and great about the whole thing. But conferences are hard. They take a lot of work. Could we move everything up? Boyd Peterson and I took a deep breath and decided to try.

Now, the whole time we were working on the conference, I was getting sick. I knew I was in bad shape. But with so much work to do, I didn’t have time to see a doctor just yet. I promised my wife I would go as soon as the conference was over. And I did. When the doctor saw me walk in the room, he ordered some tests, got them back, and slammed me immediately in the hospital with acute kidney failure and congestive heart failure—complications of polymyositis.

If Terryl Givens had not asked us to move the conference back two weeks, I quite possibly could have died. The scriptures say we should acknowledge the hand of God in all things: did God work through Terryl to save my life? Part of me thinks so. But that same two weeks that saved my life was also a time of unspeakable suffering in Darfur, of massive horror in Kasmir, of disease and death from AIDS all over West Africa. Why in the world would God intervene on my puny behalf?

I was in the hospital for a week. On Sunday, two quite elderly men came into my room and asked if I would like the sacrament. I said I would. We sang a hymn together and then they brought out a cup of water and a small piece of bread. One of these brethren—he looked at least eighty—very slowly and creakily kneeled to bless the bread and water. Watching this humble old man struggle to kneel and struggle to get back up, all on my behalf, made my eyes fill with tears. I felt in that moment the meaning of grace. I don’t know that God prompted Terryl Givens to save my life. I do know that God sent these two wonderful brothers to serve me and the other patients in the hospital. That was their calling.

I used to dislike and resent church. Now I want to go, even on Sundays when the medications I have to take every Friday are still in my system, when I feel completely exhausted and sick. It’s hard for me to sit on the hard wooden benches in our ward house, so the bishop has instructed the teachers to bring in one of the comfortable chairs from the lobby just for me.

Gene England wrote once that the Church is as true as the gospel. I now know what he meant, having been the beneficiary of so many acts of kindness and love from my brothers and sisters. Father Lehi also wrote about how there “must needs be opposition in all things.” The plan of salvation requires that we experience difficulty and illness and pain. I always understood that intellectually. Now I feel it in my bones.

The Book of Mormon sometimes seems a pretty obvious nineteenth century text, but historicity issues have become immaterial to me. Do I “know” the Book of Mormon is “true?” I’m hesitant to put it that way. But reading it, I feel things I don’t ordinarily feel. Some tranquility, perhaps; some compassion; some connection to Nephi and Benjamin and Ammon and the Savior. Characters in a story, words on a page. But also thoughts in my head, feelings in my heart. And acts of love. I don’t think Mormons say “in sickness and in health” in the temple sealing—actually what the guy said when I got married is pretty much a blur to me. What I do know is that Annette got the short end of the sickness and health stick. She gets to deal with my sickness, and I get the benefit of her health, and that’s just plain unfair. Not that she’s ever complained; not ever; not once. For Annette, faith is works and works is faith—which job should I start with and where can I find a mop? And so I’ve come to think that what I want just doesn’t matter. I need to get to the point where what I want is the lowest priority, the last consideration. I’m not there yet, not by a long shot, but that’s what the Spirit tells me. Patience. And then after that, more patience. And after that, a whole lot more patience.

Not long ago, a general conference talk asserted that doubt is not a gospel principle. But how can that be? Pain is a gospel principle, weakness is a gospel principle, sore legs and hurting hands and an inability to walk a hundred yards are all gospel principles. They lead me to humility, to patience, to learning. They are for my benefit, they give me experience, they are for my good. After all, my Savior descended below them all, didn’t he? So doubt must be an essential part of the gospel. I have to work through doubt, come to the edge of the cliff and see the white water break on the rocks below. That’s when I can sometimes close my eyes and jump. When I most need God to catch me, he does. I feel like Saint Augustine, cheering in his school of philosophical disputes whenever those arguing for the immortality of the soul won the day. I have a rooting interest. I don’t know a lot. I do know how I feel when I read the Book of Mormon, and how I feel when I go to Church and see the comfy chair carefully placed in the chapel just for me by kids younger than any of my kids; just trying to serve a brother. I can say I absolutely know what that feels like. And sometimes, just a little, I get the tiniest sense of what my Savior did for me.

I used to wonder when reading Mosiah 2–4 if I was reading the words of a real man. Now I think of that old brother struggling to kneel to give me the sacrament, and I know what King Benjamin meant by Christ-like service. Benjamin lives for me—not in my mind, but in my heart. So does the Lehi of 2 Nephi 2–4. Opposition in all things? I am sicker than I have ever been in my life: an illness that’s likely to kill me someday. And I count it a great blessing from my Father in Heaven.

So do I believe the Book of Mormon is true? I believe it. That’s all. I just believe. I don’t know. But that belief is enough. Meanwhile, is there something I can do? Can I love and serve my brothers and sisters?

My testimony is built on a foundation of illness and pain, an old man kneeling, an experiment with two books. Music and literature, movies and plays. Gene England and Tom Rogers as much as Spencer Kimball and Gordon Hinckley. Great teachers and great students. Struggles to walk, to drive, to write. Feelings that I may have made up but I don’t think so. Daniel Ludlow and Ray Hardesty, planting and harvesting sorghum of the soul. Things that used to matter don’t; issues I used to care about seem much less urgent. Meanwhile, when I read the Book of Mormon, it feels good. When I’m able to serve, even a little, it feels wonderful. That’s plenty for me to cling to.