“In spite of the fact that all of my mentors in science were hard-nosed agnostics or atheists, I have somehow been able to maintain my faith—indeed, thanks to them it is a better-informed faith”
by Gregory A. Prince
Affirmation Board Member Greg Prince delivered the following “Pillars of My Faith” speech at the Sunstone Symposium held in Salt Lake City on August 2, 2013.
A decade ago, during a week of lecturing at UCLA, I spent an hour interviewing the only Mormon ever to win a Nobel Prize. I suppose most of you are not aware that there ever was one—certainly you didn’t read about it in the Church News. Born in 1918 and raised in Provo, Dr. Paul Boyer graduated from BYU prior to doing doctorate work at the University of Wisconsin. In 1997 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on adenosine triphosphate, one of the most important molecules in biology. I interviewed him in his office in Boyer Hall, the home of the Molecular Biology Institute at UCLA.
The likely reason that Dr. Boyer never made it into the Church News—I’m guessing here—was suggested during our interview:
“I was particularly satisfied by a nice survey in Scientific American about religion and science, in which they did surveys of how scientists looked at monotheistic deity. It disappointed me that the percentage of scientists that believed in a monotheistic deity back in 1914 was around 40%, and it is almost that now. In a sense that disappoints me, because I look back and see how little the recognition of the ways we have found about our world and our biology has penetrated society at large.
In that survey, they also looked at the scientists of today to try and see how the level of accomplishment correlated with what their beliefs were. They found that the greater the scientific accomplishment, the greater the number that did not believe in a monotheistic deity. That was very clear. It was also very interesting that the mathematicians were more likely to believe in a monotheistic deity than physicists; the physicist were more likely than the chemists; and the biologists were the least likely.… So my atheism isn’t an intellectual struggle for me; it’s an intellectual consequence of my life in science. It would seem to me that it has been a natural path of learning.” (Paul D. Boyer interview, October 6, 2003)
As a practicing biologist for over forty years, I have a keen appreciation for where Dr. Boyer was coming from. Indeed, few of my colleagues in biomedical research have been active religionists. The fact that I am is likely due to circumstances largely out of my control. Another Nobel Laureate, Saul Bellow, described my situation in his novel Herzog:
“’You got trouble, I can see that. Jumping out of your skin. You got a soul—haven’t you, Moses.’ He shook his head, smoking his cigarette with two stained fingers pressed to his mouth, his voice rumbling. ‘Can’t dump the sonofabitch, can we? Terrible handicap, a soul.’”
Handicap or not, I have both a soul and an optimistic outlook that includes the ability to look at life through the eyes of faith, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. It is a gift that I cannot imagine having earned, but it carries with it a heavy responsibility to try to make sense of this world and the other, and to help others to do the same. In spite of the fact that all of my mentors in science were hard-nosed agnostics or atheists, I have somehow been able to maintain my faith—indeed, thanks to them it is a better-informed faith.
With that as background, I give a bit of foreground. I was raised in a conservative LDS household in Los Angeles. After high school I spent two years at what was then Dixie Junior College in St. George, Utah, where I had exposure to some fascinating characters that included a barber who was a member of the John Birch Society and proud of it; and a neighbor and home teacher by the name of Will Brooks—the 90-year-old husband of Juanita Brooks, whose influence on me began then, but blossomed in later years.
After Dixie, I served in the Brazilian South Mission, where a “nest” of liberal-thinking Elders exposed me to ideas that I had never previously encountered. Although they drove the mission president to distraction, their immediate effect on me was minimal—except that I took a copy of Bruce McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine to Brazil, but left it there.
Within weeks of returning from Brazil, I enrolled in dental school at UCLA. The year was 1969 and the country—particularly the college campus—was in a state of turmoil over the Vietnam War. UCLA Ward was an amazing center of intellectual fermentation, with the medical and dental students generally occupying the right wing, the graduate students the left wing, and the law students brokering an uneasy peace. The most successful ward party in the six years I was at UCLA was “Monte Carlo Night,” complete with roulette wheel—albeit fake money—and a menu of non-alcoholic drinks that included the popular “Johnny Webster,” named after the bishop—who was not pleased. An LDS student newspaper, Contempo, was shut down by regional church leaders after it ran an unsympathetic review of BYU President Ernest Wilkinson’s book, Earnestly Yours. The ward Relief Society published its own periodical, Paper Plates, that included a memorable article entitled “A Day in the Life of the Holy Ghost.” A Gospel Doctrine class argument over the appropriate pronoun to use in praying—thee vs. you—was followed by John Cooley, a graduate student in philosophy, giving a closing prayer that addressed the issue by not using any pronouns. The waves of nostalgia still sweep over me more than four decades later—and the imprint of the experience has been indelible. I gradually moved to the left—I didn’t switch my political party registration for another twenty years—and the shift was driven internally. I was discovering what I already was, rather than morphing into something that I wasn’t.
Two years into my UCLA career I had a conversion experience—into pathology and a second career. A year’s residency in autopsy pathology followed by a PhD in experimental pathology brought me under the tutelage of the hard-nosed scientists to whom I referred earlier. The dual lessons that I learned from that experience have informed all aspects of my life ever since: First, always work on something that is important. Second, question everything, and then follow the data.
After graduate school I moved from one coast to the other, taking up residence in Maryland for a post-doctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health. I have lived in Maryland ever since, and have often been grateful for the 2,000-mile buffer that it affords me.
We purchased a home in Maryland without having any idea of the makeup of the ward in which we would live. Only after we moved in did we discover that a year earlier Lester Bush and his family had moved into the same ward. We quickly became closest friends and have remained so ever since. Lester also became my role model as someone outside the field of Mormon studies who brought his own tools to the task—he is a physician—and wrote an article for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought that changed an entire church. Over four decades we have spent countless hours together, thrashing through what we have seen to be the most important issues facing Mormonism. Data, not dogma, have driven our discussions. Through Lester, I became involved in Dialogue, an involvement that continues to the present. Along the way we were joined for several years by Tony Hutchinson, one of the brightest theological lights I have ever met—and one who we unnecessarily lost to Anglicanism. Tony’s ongoing doctoral studies at Catholic University constantly challenged and illuminated Lester’s and my thinking. I became—and remain—unapologetically liberal.
Two years after we moved to Maryland, I was called to be president of the Gaithersburg Ward Elders Quorum, a calling I held for four years. That experience moved me from the theoretical to the practical. I learned, first-hand, that the Sabbath, indeed, was made for man, and not vice-versa. I remember vividly a visit to our stake by Boyd Packer who, in a moment of remarkable candor, told us that there would be times when we would go against what the handbook said, because it would the right thing to do for the situation. That brought to mind the story of my great-uncle when he was called to be a stake patriarch. Upon attending the first General Conference after his new calling, he paid a visit to his friend Joseph Fielding Smith, who congratulated him on the calling. My great-uncle said, “So where is my handbook?” Smith replied, “There is no handbook. Just rely on the Lord, and you’ll be fine.” Good advice then and now.
My tenure as an Elders Quorum president was followed by three years as a counselor in a singles ward bishopric, where I became—and remain—painfully aware of our shortcomings in ministering to those who fall outside the norm of the Mormon nuclear family—a norm that paradoxically represents a smaller and smaller minority of LDS members. I grieve at the pain and suffering of single—particularly female and LGBT—Mormons, whose pain and suffering often come at the hands of the Church or its well-intentioned but ill-informed members.
My experiences as an Elders Quorum president had left me with questions about priesthood that lingered beyond my calling in the singles ward. After several years of waiting impatiently for the “real” historians to answer those questions, I followed the role models of Juanita Brooks and Lester Bush and began to research the subject on my own, beginning with my own library. Eight years and thousands of hours of research later, I published Power from On High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood. I learned, first-hand, two lessons from the experience—lessons that I had already learned second-hand from Juanita and Lester. The first was that serious scholarship, which included the use of the tools of science with which I was already equipped, is capable of shifting major paradigms of a religious tradition. In Juanita’s case it was the Mountain Meadows Massacre; in Lester’s it was the Church’s policy that excluded blacks from ordination to the priesthood; in mine it was the priesthood itself. The second lesson was that such paradigm shifts, even though beneficial to the Church in the long haul, are not welcomed by some church leaders. Juanita’s and Lester’s experiences had made me well aware of that. My own experience, which was far more benign than theirs, was further buffered by a letter that I received from Leonard Arrington shortly before his death that commented onPower from On High: “It is satisfying and sufficient that people you regard as faithful servants approve. We felt that way with approval from the First Presidency and a majority of the Apostles. Blessings on you!”
Power from On High led directly to David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, a 10-year project; and the McKay biography led directly to my current project, a biography of Leonard Arrington. I have been blessed not only with opportunities, but also with extraordinary access to data and people as a result of these projects, including over 700, recorded interviews, including many General Authorities.
On to the Pillars of My Faith.
Pillar #1 – Diversity is the lifeblood of a vital church
Nowhere in scripture is diversity better understood and celebrated than in Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. He wrote first in generalities:
“Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit.
And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord.
And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all…” (I. Cor. 12:4-6)
Think of those three concepts. Not only are there differences in thegifts found in members within the Church, but there are differences in the way in which members act as administrators, and differences in the operations—think programs—within the Church; and all of this is countenanced by the same Spirit, the same Lord, the same God. The message is not “One size fits all.” Paul continued: “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.” (I Cor. 12:12)
Fair enough for a starter: there is one body, one church. In his Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul restated the same message: “One Lord, one faith, one baptism.” That said, the people who worship that one Lord, who hold to that one faith, who submit to that one baptism are quite different from each other. To make that point, Paul likened the church to a body, and the people to parts of that body:
“For the body is not one member, but many.
If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?
And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?
If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling?
But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him.
And if they were all one member, where were the body?
But now are they many members, yet but one body.
And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.
Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary:
and those members of the body, which we think to be less honorable, upon these we bestow more abundant honor; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness.” (I. Cor. 12:13-23)
Let me repeat that last verse for emphasis: “Those members of the body, which we think to be less honorable, upon these we bestowmore abundant honor; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness.” That reminds me of a time over a century ago, when Church leaders were working to achieve statehood for Utah. Given the need for political diversity, they urged members whose sensibilities went in a different direction that it was possible for a person to be a good Latter-day Saint and a Republican! I continue to hold to that possibility.
There is a tendency in the Church to have one size fit all, to eliminate the very diversity that is its lifeblood. That is a destructive tendency, one that was undoubtedly behind President Uchtdorf’s most recent General Conference address:
“While the Atonement is meant to help us all become more like Christ, it is not meant to make us all the same. Sometimes we confuse differences in personality with sin. We can even make the mistake of thinking that because someone is different from us, it must mean they are not pleasing to God.… This would contradict the genius of God, who created every man different from his brother, every son different from his father.… As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are united in our testimony of the restored gospel and our commitment to keep God’s commandments. But we are diverse in our cultural, social, and political preferences. The Church thrives when we take advantage of this diversity.” (Ensign, May 2013, p. 59)
Pillar #2 – Doubt is one side of a coin whose other side is faith
Doubt has gotten a bad rap in this church. In the case of many including myself, healthy faith is contingent upon healthy and co-existent doubt. At least two others taught the same thing: David O. McKay and Jesus. In response to a young missionary whose doubts prompted him to want to leave his mission, and perhaps the Church, McKay wrote autobiographically:
“Over fifty years ago, when I was about to leave for my first mission, an agnostic friend said to me, among other things: ‘David, teach only that which you feel to be true – things about which you are in doubt, keep to yourself until your doubt is removed.’
Following that injunction, I went from what was known to what was unknown with respect to doctrine and Church policies, and today, believe me, doubts that shook me as a young man, as doubts are now shaking you, became as clear as Thomas’ assurance of the resurrection of the Savior when he said, ‘My Lord and my God.’” (Letter dated March 2, 1949 from David O. McKay to a young mission ready to give up his mission and come home. Clare Middlemiss Scrapbooks.)
The story to which President McKay referred is in the Gospel of John, and is usually referred to as the story of “Doubing Thomas,” even though it does not include that adjective. Beyond that, consider two other things about the story: First, Thomas was no different than the others in the Twelve, all of whom believed because they had already seen the resurrected Jesus. And second, Thomas was not chastised by Jesus for having been “wired” to believe only upon seeing. Rather, Jesus commended those who, being wired differently—or, in the teaching of Paul, had received a different spiritual gift—believed without seeing, but he did not place one kind of belief ahead of the other.
On another occasion, Jesus healed the son of a man who confessed his own doubt, while rebuking his disciples despite their belief:
- And one of the multitude answered and said, Master, I have brought unto thee my son, which hath a dumb spirit;
- And wheresoever he taketh him, he teareth him: and he foameth, and gnasheth with his teeth, and pineth away: and I spake to thy disciples that they should cast him out; and they could not.
- He answereth him, and saith, O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? bring him unto me.
- Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.
- And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.
- But Jesus took him by the hand, and lifted him up; and he arose. (Mark 9)
As for me, I believe some things, I hope all things, I doubt many things, I deny few things. And a phrase from one of our hymns, “Lead, Kindly Light,” gains increasing significance for me over the years:
“Keep Thou my feet;
I do not ask to see the distant scene;
One step, enough for me.”
Pillar #3 – Revelation occurs on both sides of the science: religion interface, albeit through different models
Revelation on the side of religion occurs in the language of religion; and on the side of science it occurs in the language of science, which is data. When either side attempts to co-opt the other, trouble ensues; and yet the two sides are not otherwise inimical to each other. For example, the statement, “God exists,” is informed by the language of religion; but the assumption of God’s existence is enriched by the language of science as it deals with the data points of history and defines the boundaries within which God’s works must be explained. However, using the language (and the tools) of science to attempt to prove that God exists, or to prove that this is the One and Only True Church Upon the Face of the Earth is a fool’s errand; and yet most of the volumes of my substantial library come from people who either were absolutely certain that they could prove the positive, or absolutely certain that they could prove the negative.
The interface between science and religion is fluid, and generally has moved in a direction that has expanded the domain of science. Think of biological evolution as an early example of the fluidity. For a more recent example within the LDS tradition, think of the recent about-face that the Church laudably made in acknowledging, in the face of rapidly accumulating and overwhelming evidence from science, that homosexuality is not chosen. Where science can inform, it eventuallywill inform, and religionists will save themselves and their followers a lot of grief if they allow the process to occur naturally.
As a practicing scientist, I have never had difficulty defining, for myself, which questions were on which side of the interface. Having defined the questions in that manner, I apply a simple approach: where faith informs, follow the faith; where data inform, follow the data.
Pillar #4 – Continuing revelation means continuing change, so get used to it
Historian Thomas Kuhn coined the term “paradigm shift” to describe the process by which scientific progress replaces old paradigms with new ones. Think of the ancient paradigm of the universe wherein the earth was the center of everything, and all other heavenly bodies revolved around it. As instruments and observers evolved, the increasingly precise measurements they made of the heavens were inconsistent with the earth paradigm. For centuries the problem was addressed by adding an ever-expanding list of exceptions to the rule—“epicycles”—until the old paradigm finally collapsed under its own weight and was replaced by a new paradigm: the sun is the center of the solar system and the earth revolves around it.
The heliocentric paradigm gradually began to sag under its own weight, with epicycles being added to support it in the same manner that the geocentric paradigm had been supported. It was later replaced by a series of paradigms as it was discovered that our solar system is but a speck of matter within the Milky Way galaxy, which in turn is but a speck of matter within a universe whose center was the Big Bang, billions of years ago, and whose circumference is expanding at an accelerating pace.
The same process holds true in matters of faith, with religion sometimes being the force driving the paradigm shift, and science being so at others. Think of the 1978 Revelation on Priesthood in the former instance, and the current LDS position on homosexuality in the latter. Those examples notwithstanding, I am constantly amazed at the willingness of Latter-day Saints to sustain the concept of continuing revelation on the one hand—after all, it is one of our Articles of Faith—and yet fight any semblance of change. To those who continue to fight change, I quote President Uchtdorf: “Stop it!”
Pillar #5 – The Book of Mormon is as the Book of Mormon does, so don’t freak out
Many people act as if the Book of Mormon is the “cornerstone of our religion” only because we have placed it in that position precariously, and all that keeps it from toppling is our constant fussing. Quite to the contrary, it gained and maintains its position because over a period of nearly two centuries it has been the primary means by which people who have encountered Mormonism have converted to it—not to the book itself, but through it to a better place of living. That position is independent of the book’s provenance, and yet there are many who are willing to die on the hill of ancient historicity. To them I say, “Grow up!” Science has already informed greatly on the issue of historicity, and will continue to inform “many great and important things.” Relax and don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
If you look at the history of biblical studies, you will see that the initial years of “higher criticism,” a century ago, sent shock waves through religious communities, particularly the fundamentalist ones whose houses were built on sandy foundations of scriptural literalism and inerrancy. Instead, what happened and continues to happen, thanks to biblical scholarship, is that the Bible is in a far stronger position than it was prior to “higher criticism.” Once my co-religionists who are defending their hill are able to make one paradigm shift, they will find the doors flung wide open to a deeper appreciation of what the Book of Mormon really is.
Pillar #6 – Symbols are the currency of religion, but they are ephemeral
The primary task of the founder of any religion is to provide the community of believers with a set of symbols that give them access to the Infinite. Joseph Smith’s symbols, both visual and verbal, were particularly powerful during the formative years of Mormonism, but many of them—for example, those borrowed from Freemasonry—lost their power over time, and some have been abandoned. Just consider a time, not that many decades ago, when one could purchase long-legged and long-sleeved temple garments made of 100% wool!
A primary challenge for Smith’s successors has been to decide which received symbols to maintain intact, which to remodel, which to discard—and which new ones to introduce in order to facilitate access of current believers to the Infinite. To the extent that new symbols resonate—and the CTR ring is a superb example of a relatively new one—the community is enriched. To the extent that outmoded symbols are retained, the community is restrained.
Pillar #7 – Interfaith work sharpens, not obliterates, one’s own religious identity
In the only press conference of his presidency, Thomas Monson made an extraordinary observation to this effect:
“I think we should not be sequestered in a little cage. I think we have a responsibility to be active in the communities where we live—all Latter-day Saints—and to work cooperatively with other churches and other organizations. My objective there is that I think it is important that we eliminate the weakness of one standing alone, and substitute for it the strength of people working together. There are many efforts where, as we get together as various religions in the community and work toward the common goal, it shall be successful. We have cooperated with Red Cross, the Catholic Church and other churches, to make this a better community and a better world.”
For many years I have been involved in the community of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, and for the past three years I have served on one of its steering committees—the only Mormon ever to do so. It took two minutes for them to decide that I wasn’t going to try to convert them to Mormonism, and since then we have gotten along fine. They not only respect my religion more than they did in the past, but also are cognizant of the fact that I—and Mormonism—have something of value to bring to the table. But I am the greater beneficiary, for I quickly realized that I had far more to learn than to teach, and that I—and Mormonism—had a lot of catching up to do even to pull even with the great and godly works that these other traditions are doing.
Having realized that, I am now in a position to work with them on problems of concern to all people and all religious traditions. There are genuinely bad people and genuinely grave threats throughout the world, and all that is required for their triumph is for people of good will to fail to work together. As we increasingly work side-by-side with each other, the things that divide us will gradually fall away as the things that unite us exert their priority.
Pillar #8 – The lost sheep is worth saving, despite the cost and the risk
Forty years ago, while attending a scientific meeting in Atlantic City, I visited a used-book store and purchased, for one dollar, a book entitled Lectures on Preaching. Written by Phillips Brooks, one of the premier religious leaders of the 19th century, it captivated me with its wisdom—and continues to do so today. One of his concluding statements gained special significance for me during the four years when I later worked in the trenches as an Elders Quorum president, the first time in my life that I had engaged directly in the work of saving souls:
“It is by working for the soul that we best learn what the soul is worth. If ever in your ministry the souls of those committed to your care grow dull before you, and you doubt whether they have any such value that you should give your life for them, go out and work for them; and as you work their value shall grow clear to you. Go and try to save a soul and you will see how well it is worth saving, how capable it is of the most complete salvation. Not by pondering upon it, nor by talking of it, but by serving it you learn its preciousness. So the parent learns the value of the child, and the teacher of the scholar, and the patriot of the native land. And so the Christian, living and dying for siblings’ souls, learns the value of those souls for which Christ lived and died.” (p. 280)
One of the most powerful metaphors of Jesus is that of the Good Shepherd, and he frequently admonished his believers to work selflessly in behalf of the sheep—particularly those who had strayed from the fold. Let me quote the Parable of the Lost Sheep that you have heard countless times, but make some observations that you likely have not heard so often, if at all:
“What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.” (Luke 15:4-5)
Observation #1: The default position is that any shepherd, upon finding that even one of his one hundred sheep had strayed, would leave the ninety-nine in order to retrieve the one. Jesus would have been incredulous to hear that any believer would respond to a strayed sheep simply by shrugging his shoulders and writing off the loss—and horrified to hear the words, “Good riddance!”
Observation #2: The value of the lost sheep is such that the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine in the wilderness while he searches for the lost one. Ponder that for a moment—it is worth placing the ninety-nine at risk in order to pursue the lost sheep. I will leave it to you to decide for yourselves how much risk that is.
Observation #3: The shepherd will “go after that which is lost, until he find it.” A perfunctory effort is not acceptable.
What is the lost sheep that is of such value? Jesus did not describe its characteristics, and so we are left with the rhetorical question, “Who is it today?” Is it a black sheep? Is it someone who dresses differently than the norm? Is it someone with heterodox rather than orthodox viewpoints? Is it gay? Is it a Democrat? Is it a sinner whose actions offend us? Is it someone whose disability is off-putting to us? The point is that the features of that lost sheep are irrelevant to us, except to note that it was different than the 99. Yet how often are we eager to banish or kill—spiritually—the sheep that is different than the norm?
Pillar #9 – Life is not formulaic
We have been taught from an early age, “If you do A, you will receive B.” Generally, that works. But sometimes it doesn’t, and therein comes the trial of faith. What happens when you observe the Word of Wisdom continually, but die young? What happens when you live a pure life, following all of the commandments, and yet never meet the person with whom you can go to the temple to be married? What happens when you do everything right in raising your children, but one of them goes astray nonetheless? What happens when a loved one receives a priesthood blessing promising restoration of health, but dies shortly thereafter? All of you are aware of times when the formula didn’t work, either for you or for someone close to you. What then?
The most profound book I have ever read is the Book of Job. A book of fiction, it nonetheless contains some of the most significant truths ever written. The book begins by informing us that Job was a perfect man, and thus ideally suited for a formulaic life. Having followed all of the commandments, he was entitled to all of the blessings—or at least that’s what the formula says. But instead, something else happened: Job lost everything that mattered to him—his family, his possessions, his health. Up to a point, he took it in with incredible patience—hence the term “the patience of Job.” But eventually he broke, and began to shake his fist at God.
First he cried out, “Why do the righteous suffer?” There was no answer from God, and no answer from the author of the Book of Job. Nor is there an adequate answer even today.
Later in the story, he cried out a second time, “Why do the wicked go to their graves smiling?” Or, in other words, why do the wicked prosper? Again, no answer from God, no answer from the author, and no adequate answer even today. “Deferred compensation” in both cases is the best we can do, but if you’re the one who just lost family, possessions and health, the thought of deferred compensation is not comforting.
Finally, Job’s patience was spent and he demanded of God a face-to-face meeting in order to set things straight—similar to what Ricky Ricardo said centuries later: “Hey Lucy, you got some ‘splainin to do!” God’s response came as a voice from the whirlwind: “When you get a face, we’ll talk.”
Thus, the real test of faith. Indeed, what need is there of faith if everything works according to formula? We hope for “deferred compensation,” but whether or not that occurs, we need a reality check for the here-and-now, a lesson in humility. The recent Supreme Court decision on Prop 8 underscores the importance of standing, and as was the case with Job, we are far short of having the standing to have everything explained to us now. Faith is Job saying to God, “Even if you send worms to destroy my flesh, I will not cease to see you.”
So there you have the pillars of my faith—at least of today’s faith. My list a decade ago would have had some differences, and if I compile another list a decade from now, it also will have some differences. One thing that 65 years of age have brought is lesser confidence that I understand anything very well, but greater confidence that my unbelief—not disbelief—is sufficient.
Now, let me take a step back from self-analysis and make a few observations about the church to which I, and six generations of my ancestors, have belonged. With apologies to Pogo, “We have seen the Church, and it is us.” The Church thus is no better than its leaders and members at any given time.
Ten months after the 1978 revelation that changed the Church, President Kimball made a statement in General Conference that was largely overlooked, but that informs the future and our role in shaping it:
“Now, my brothers and sisters, it seems clear to me, indeed, this impression weighs upon me—that the Church is at a point in its growth and maturity when we are at last ready to move forward in a major way. Some decisions have been made and other pending, which will clear the way, organizationally. But the basic decisions needed for us to move forward, as a people, must be made by the individual members of the Church. The major strides which must be made by the Church will follow upon the major strides to be made by us as individuals. We have paused on some plateaus long enough. Let us resume our journey forward and upward. . . . We have been diverted, at times, from fundamentals on which we must now focus in order to move forward as a person or as a people.” (Spencer W. Kimball, “Let Us Move Forward and Upward,” Ensign, May 1979, p. 82)
The good news is that when we are on our game, the Church moves forward, in part because of what we as individuals do. But the bad news is that when we are not on our game, the entire church suffers—and we can’t merely point the finger and blame the hierarchy. Over a decade ago, in preparation for the McKay biography, I interviewed Arnold Friberg, who won an Academy Award for set design for Cecil B. DeMille’s epic movie The Ten Commandments; whose Book of Mormon paintings are Mormon icons; and whose painting of George Washington kneeling in the snow at Valley Forge is an American icon. Out of the blue he related a story that has haunted me ever since, and that I relate to you verbatim:
“To show you what an understanding DeMille had, he had a homing instinct for truth. You didn’t have to prove it. He just knew. He didn’t use our terminology, but he said to me, ‘The thing itself is given to the world through prophets. For a while it’s the real thing, but after a while the priesthood becomes priest craft. Then they become more interested in their buildings and their powers, and then they’ve lost it, and it has to be given again. It’s given over and over again. It hasn’t happened yet to the Mormon Church because they’re too young, but it will.’ I said that to Reuben Clark [who was then a counselor in the First Presidency], and he shot back and said, ‘Don’t think it can’t happen, Brother! If it were not for the promise that we will not completely lose it before the Lord comes, I would be very worried about this church.’ Now, he wouldn’t say that from the pulpit. You get to know these men in a little different way when they’re out here, instead of listening to the sermons.” (Arnold Friberg interview, November 16, 2000)
I interviewed Arnold on two occasions and, as if to reinforce what was already a powerful story, he related it again during the second interview.
I’ll end where I began, with a quote from my interview of Paul Boyer:
“I see the difficulty in our society, the need for association. Man grew up as a social animal. He had to survive by being part of a group, he couldn’t survive individually. So social interactions are certainly a part of our natural heritage. We need some things in our society that will do that. But at the present stage, when I look at religion in its past and present, I come to the conclusion that religion has perhaps done more harm in the world than good. It’s the basis now of our divisiveness among man and nations.”
We have our work cut out for us.