Pillars of my Faith
August 16, 2014
by John Gustav-Wrathall
(Originally presented at “The Pillars of My Faith,” Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium, August 1, 2014.)
I feel obligated in a forum such as this to say at least something about intellect and faith. I first became acquainted with Sunstone as a young student at BYU, when a couple of my professors, namely Mike Quinn and Bill Bradshaw, assigned Sunstone articles as readings in history and religion courses, respectively. My time at BYU, between 1981 and 1986 (including a brief 2-year interlude for a mission), began shortly after Elder Boyd K. Packer’s statement to C.E.S. teachers that “There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful.” This was also when Leonard Arrington was released as Church historian and the Church archives were closed, and the time of the Mark Hoffman forgeries, murders and scandal. It was, putting it euphemistically, an exciting time to be an aspiring Church historian.
Questions related to the historicity of the Book of Mormon, and related to challenging aspects of early Mormon history, and related to the role of intellect and free inquiry in the life of the Church weighed heavily on me during my last year at BYU. They played a role in a downward spiral into depression that nearly led me to commit suicide during the summer of 1986.
Resigning from the Church in 1986 freed me to explore and to read books I had previously avoided as heretical or suspect, like Sonya Johnson’s From Housewife to Heretic and Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History. Resigning from the Church freed me to read literature about Church history and about the Book of Mormon with an open mind, and from any perspective I wanted, skeptical or faithful or in between. It freed me to dig into books like Brent Lee Metcalfe’s New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology (1993), or newsletters of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (to which I subscribed for a time), or D. Michael Quinn’s 2-volume study of The Mormon Hierarchy (1994), or Greg Prince’s David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (2005), or Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling (2007), or Armand Mauss’s All Abraham’s Children (2003), or Darron Smith and Newell Bringhurst’s Black and Mormon (2004), or Juanita Brooks’ Mountain Meadows Massacre (1950).
At this point, there are a few affirmations I am willing to make about the relationship between faith and intellect.
First, faith without knowledge is meaningless. If I do not know, for example, the facts of Joseph Smith’s career as a prophet, belief that he was a prophet would be meaningless.
Second, faith cannot be counterfactual. If Jesus Christ did not in some literal way descend to and minister to a remnant of the House of Israel living in the Americas near the meridian of time, there is no meaningful sense in which the Book of Mormon can be “another testament of Jesus Christ.” I continue to feel driven to evaluate historical and scientific data that are relevant to theological truth claims, which is why, for instance, I’m currently reading Brian Hales’ three-volume history of Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, and plan to read Earl Wunderli’s Imperfect Book: What the Book of Mormon Tells Us About Itself.
Third, everything is not always what it superficially appears to be. The problem of what a “fact” is and how we decide we “know” it is not trivial. And the older I get, the more I learn that much of what I once thought I knew is really nothing more than prejudice, and that what I actually do “know” with anything approaching fullness is relatively little. The life of faith and the life of intellect seem more alike to me than different. Both require patience, perseverance, and at times irrational leaps.
Fourth, that being the case, I regard with skepticism intellectual critiques of faith having as an a priori that there are no such things as angels, spirits, gods or miracles; that all there is to know is what is seen and tangible. I accept my own spiritual experiences as data that are at least as reliable as other sensory data and logic, all subject to validation through a continuous process of observation and discernment.
In other words, I tend to look at my life as an experiment, the results of which can only be known when it is completely finished, in which each experience, either good or bad, is an opportunity to validate or disprove my various working hypotheses about what is true and what is not.
There was never a time growing up in my home, when I did not feel the power of the Spirit. There was never a time when I did not have absolute trust in the power of the priesthood that my father exercised righteously and lovingly. I was extraordinarily lucky.
I still remember, as if it were yesterday, the first time my father sat down with me on the couch, opened the Book of Mormon in front of me, and we read it together, and I felt the Spirit. I grew up in a home where prayer was the fabric of our home life and where answers to prayers were received frequently. I remember one day when I was in the fourth grade staying late after school to work on an art project. My mother came to pick me up and drove us home. We were in a terrible car accident. I remembered as soon as the car had stopped spinning saying to my mother, “I think we need to pray.” So we took turns praying for the well-being of the family in the other car. In our home, whenever there was illness, whenever there were surgeries or other medical procedures, we received priesthood blessings, and we were never surprised by full and speedy recoveries.
I remember one Sunday after Sacrament Meeting, my dad said something to me along the lines of, “You have to make your own decision about which religion is true.” At the time – and even now – to me this was an astounding statement. Could my dad really countenance the possibility of my leaving the faith that he had devoted his life to? Was I truly free to make my own decision?
How could I, growing up in such a home, fully appreciate what I had? I never knew anything else. I didn’t know what it would have been like to grow up without such blessings. Maybe that’s why I had to leave. Maybe the intellectual doubts that drove me away in search of answers where the greatest gift of my life. They were a pathway to understand what I had always had and what I needed most.
It was not inevitable that I leave the Church, simply by virtue of the fact that I am gay and came of age in the early 80’s. Other gay men and lesbians of my generation found other paths within the Church. Perhaps the chain of events that led me to resign my membership after nearly committing suicide in 1986 had as much to do with the fact that at the end of my sophomore year I moved from on-campus university housing to off-campus housing, and as a result went from a ward with a gentle, compassionate bishop who possessed a sense of humor and sensible attitudes toward sexuality, to a ward with a bishop who was legalistic, authoritarian, and seemed unhealthily obsessed with sex. If I had stayed in the former ward, perhaps that bishop could have helped me reason through some of the intellectual doubts that were tormenting me, and I wouldn’t have been denied a calling and a temple recommend and the right to take the sacrament, for admitting that I occasionally masturbated. Perhaps with a calling, and regular opportunities to partake of the sacrament and to pray and meditate in the temple, and an understanding bishop, I would have found a way to stay and make it work, even with the tremendous burdens and limitations of being gay under such circumstances.
There have been lots of twists and turns of that nature in my life, like that fact that I chose to leave the Church during a BYU-sponsored internship in Helsinki, Finland, which helped me establish connections with the Finnish-American community in Northern Michigan, which is where I fled after deciding not to go back to BYU. It was my work with the Finnish-American collection at Northern Michigan University that led me to enter a PhD program in immigration studies at the University of Minnesota, where I received a full, four-year fellowship. I moved to Minneapolis in 1987, the same year the man I ultimately married moved there after a falling out with his parents in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Seemingly inconsequential decisions resulted in chains of events with momentous impact. But while my life has been shaped in unanticipated ways by random events, my life has also been guided at key crossroads by powerful – sometimes visionary – spiritual experiences.
In August 1986, after nearly committing suicide, after a long period of depression and inability to speak to God, those communications channels were reopened when I felt the Spirit inviting me to pray. As I got on my knees and began by confessing to God that I was gay, the Spirit poured out on me the peace that passes understanding, and God reassured me that he knew that I was gay because he knew how I was woven “from my inmost parts.” It was shortly thereafter that the Spirit also made clear to me that it was time to leave the Church “for a time.” I wrestled with and resisted the notion that it could be possible or right for me to leave the Church. As I prayed for guidance to write letters announcing my intention to my parents and my bishop, I was carried away, up and out of my body, beyond the confines of the earth, and I saw the throne of God. I saw multitudes of people dressed in white, worshiping God, and among them I recognized deceased members of my family. I heard a voice reassuring me that all would be well.
In 1988 I decided I needed clarity about how to deal with my sexuality. I told God I would begin a fast and not end it until I received an answer to an urgent question: should I commit myself to a life of celibacy, or should I pursue the possibility of marriage to a woman? It was the morning of the third day of my fast, while I was walking across the University of Minnesota footbridge between the east and the west banks of the Mississippi that the Spirit gave me a clear answer to my query: “Consider all the options.”
All my efforts at dating women over the previous decade had demonstrated to me that that was a dead end, for me and for them. After spending the summer of 1989 in a Roman Catholic monastery to learn more about celibacy from people who had experience with it; after spending many hours in prayer and meditation every day during matins and vespers and while working on the monastery farm, I received clarity that God’s calling for me did not involve celibacy. It was then I opened myself to the possibility of a relationship with a man. After dating men for a few years, I met my husband Göran in 1991.
I met my husband Göran at a gay bar in Minneapolis called “The Gay 90s.” Göran invited me to dance. We dated briefly. He knew I was the right one for him. I didn’t know that yet, and broke it off with him. We met again nine months later quite by chance in a meeting of the Association of LGBT Student Organizations, I as a co-chair of the LGBT grad students’ organization and he subbing for the representative of the gay fraternity, Delta Lambda Phi. It was finally then that the emotions the sight of him stirred in me made me realize he was the one for me. He’s always said he knew I was “the one” from the beginning. It took me a year longer to figure that out, a fact he’s never let me live down.
In August 2005, at the Sunstone Symposium here in Salt Lake, during a session by Lavina Fielding Anderson critiquing the “For the Strength of Youth” pamphlet, the Spirit spoke to me with a clarity and power I had never before experienced in my life, telling me that it was time for me to come back to the Church. I wept, I cursed, I tried to deny it. But in the end, I realized that I wanted the peace that came from following that prompting more than I wanted a life free from contradiction and conflict. I started attending my ward in Minneapolis in October 2005. I felt the Spirit at Church more powerfully than I had felt it in more than 15 years.
When I met with my bishop, he listened attentively to my story, asked questions intended to get to know both me and my husband better, prayed with me, blessed me, encouraged me to live as much of the Gospel as I could within the constraints of being excommunicated and in a committed same-sex relationship, and promised me that I belonged, and that he would personally deal with anyone in the ward who gave me any problems. We continued to meet regularly, as I have with all my bishops since then. There were times I met with my bishop when I saw a visible heavenly light filling the room. On occasion I have seen that same heavenly light in my ward meeting house, and in the lobby of the temple. I know that the priesthood these men hold is real.
As my testimony of different Gospel principles was reaffirmed – most often through practicing them – and as I became more and more convinced that this Church was true, I faced a stupendous conflict. How could I have received such clear and convincing directives from God – promptings that I myself had mentally resisted because I had found them so difficult to believe – that my gayness was an inherent part of who I am “from my inmost parts,” that my relationship with my husband was commended to me and blessed by God, but also have such a clear, compelling, undeniable sense that the Church was true and the men who led it held true priesthood authority from God, when what they taught about homosexuality seemed so utterly to contradict my personal experience?
Periodically I would attempt to pray about it, but always the Spirit put me off and told me not to worry about that right now. Still, I wrestled. I had never in all my life been filled with such an abundance of peace and happiness and a sense of perpetual companionship of the Spirit. I thought, I want my life to be in harmony with the Gospel in every particular. And finally, in April 2006, I put it before the Lord very bluntly, and I said I need to know. If you need me to leave my husband I need to know now. And then the answer came to me unequivocally. Under no circumstance was I to leave my husband. Under no circumstance was I to, through inattentiveness to his needs, cause him to leave me. To do so would be a sin.
In May 2008, as soon as I heard of the California Supreme Court ruling that legalized marriage for gay couples, the Spirit said to me very clearly, Go now and get married. Göran and I were prepared to fly out to California with our foster son Glen as soon as the ruling went into effect in mid-June of that year, but ended up delaying one month at the insistence of my parents, who wanted to be able to meet us in California and attend. After our return to Minnesota, I felt different. I felt blessed for having done what the Spirit told us to do, and I experienced access to spiritual gifts intended to bless my family, my husband and our son.
The morning of March 29, 2009, as I was preparing to go to Church, I felt prompted to bear my testimony during Fast and Testimony Meeting, something I knew I was not permitted to do as an excommunicated member. My bishop at the time was a stickler for rules, but the Spirit told me to ask my bishop for permission to bear my testimony. The Spirit warned me against couching the request in a fancy speech, or thinking ahead what I would say in my testimony. I arrived at my bishop’s office just as a ward executive committee meeting was ending. Without fanfare I asked him simply, “May I bear my testimony today?” He looked me in the eyes and said nine words: “You have the gift of faith. Yes you may.” My bishop later confirmed that he would not likely allow me to repeat the experience, but the Spirit had prompted him to make an exception that particular morning. He called it “a tender mercy of the Lord.” So with no plan aforethought as to what I would say, I stood at the podium as soon as it was opened to the congregation and simply told my story – of learning I was gay, of nearly leaving the Church by way of suicide, of my relationship with my husband, of the spiritual experiences that had brought me back to Church and taught me it was true. And I bore testimony of Jesus Christ, of what I knew from an experience I had had in October 2007, that he was real, that he lived, that all power given to him by the Father, and that he was coming again, and that it was easier for me to disbelieve my own existence than to disbelieve his. After my testimony, individuals stood up and bore their testimonies of what they knew of me. A throng surrounded me afterwards to encircle me with hugs and tears. I’ve never been permitted to bear my testimony in my ward since, but for me that was an eternal mercy.
In the past year, as the tide has turned nationally in relation to the issue of marriage for gay and lesbian couples, Church leaders have responded by, first, preaching a message of tolerance and love toward those who disagree with the Church accompanied by, second, an unequivocal rejection of same-sex marriage.
I have frequently heard the notion expressed that the Church must inexorably evolve toward acceptance of same-sex relationships; that Church leaders would quietly phase out high profile statements expressing opposition to the legalization of same-sex marriage; that the shifting tide of public opinion on this issue would force Church leaders to reevaluate their position or risk losing a critical mass of Church members (particularly in the upcoming generation). Obviously, folks who were expecting that path forward have been disillusioned, at least for now.
Recent Church statements have not surprised, disillusioned or upset me. Unless our leaders receive a revelation revising our current understanding of the doctrine of Eternal Marriage, I’m not sure our leaders have any other choice than to do this. Since I personally have little interest in belonging to a Church not governed by revelation, ironically perhaps, recent statements reassure me that the Church operates in the way my testimony has taught me it should operate.
Still, the recent high profile statements in General Conference have had the overall effect of making it more awkward and uncomfortable than ever to be a gay married believing Latter-day Saint.
There’s a temptation in my situation to resolve the conflict through the assumption that the Church will eventually receive light on the subject of homosexuality that will make better sense of my experiences and the experiences of so many others in the framework of eternal family. I have found that I lose the Spirit when I succumb to the temptation to believe that I know more on this subject than those who have the keys to receive and reveal doctrine. I know that the Spirit is at work in my life, and I have a relationship with God, and I know what I am supposed to do, within the constraints of my particular circumstances. I accept the possibility that mine may be a lesser path than that of others who are strictly obedient to the current teachings of the Church in relation to marriage. But I accept the assurances I’ve received from God that my present offering is accepted by Him, despite my faults and weaknesses.
I’ve looked for outward signs of God’s grace in my life. Shortly after returning to activity in the Church, I felt prompted to pray for the resolution of a problem that put my husband and our relationship in serious jeopardy. When he was four years old, his mother kidnapped him and went into hiding from the rest of his family, going under an assumed name. After she passed away in 1996, we discovered that he had never had a birth certificate, and were informed by an attorney that if he could not prove his citizenship, he was at risk to be incarcerated indefinitely. We worked for eight years trying to resolve this situation without success. I received a prompting from the Spirit early in 2006 that if I would pray for help with this situation, the Lord would help us resolve it. In 2007, even though repeated previous efforts to seek help from elected officials had been rebuffed, we felt prompted to approach our newly elected congressman, Keith Ellison. His office agreed to help, and asked us to provide copies of all the documents we had collected over the years attempting to establish Göran’s citizenship, with a summary of what we knew about his situation. Shortly after we did so, Congressman Ellison’s office located Göran’s birth certificate in Tennessee, and secured the state’s agreement to release the document to us.
I still remember the day we learned the news, ending a long nightmare of fear and uncertainty we had experienced in relation to his citizenship status and our ability to remain together as a couple. I felt an outpouring of the Spirit confirming that this was the answer to the prayers I had been offering for over a year on his behalf. I also felt a strong impression that this breakthrough was symbolic of a breakthrough we would someday receive in the eternal world in relation to our marital covenants with each other. The Spirit said to me: “Have faith.”
A series of blessings came into our lives in rapid succession after that. We became foster parents of a wonderful gay son later that year. (Our son Glen will soon be graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in urban studies and urban planning, and next month will be legally marrying his fiancé in our home state.) In early 2008, using information that had become available to us through the release of Göran’s birth certificate, we made contact with his birth family in Memphis, Tennessee, and he was reunited with his father, three half-siblings, his grandmother, his aunt, and a plethora of cousins, great aunts and uncles and other extended family, all of whom had been praying and searching for him some forty years. We met them in Memphis in a dramatic, tear-filled, laughter-filled reunion, one month after Göran and I were legally married in Riverside, California. All of these events made a deep impression in my mind and my heart as symbolic of blessings of family available in the eternal world, if we continued faithful.
Since then, we have also suffered challenges and setbacks that have humbled us and reminded us of our utter dependence on God. In August 2012, toward the end of our second foster care placement, I was involved in a bike accident that resulted in a severe head injury. I had a subdural hematoma that went undetected by my doctors for over six weeks, and that, according to my doctors, would have resulted in my death had it not been for the intervention of a member of my ward. I requested and received a priesthood blessing prior to my brain surgery, and have since made a full recovery, with no discernible mental impairment from the injury or the surgery.
Last year, a few months after I returned to work following post-surgery disability leave, my husband experienced a disturbing decline in health. He was diagnosed with kidney failure. Since July 2013, my husband has been on dialysis and is on the waiting list for a kidney transplant. In the past year my family has experienced a number of additional emotionally and physically difficult challenges which I won’t detail here.
In the midst of the trials and challenges of the past two years, I have on bad days wondered if I was somehow being punished. On good days, I view the challenges, like the blessings, through eyes of faith, and like Nephi I can say, “having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God,” I bear testimony of my proceedings.
At the heart of my predicament is the question I think all people of faith must answer, though for me the question is particularly poignant. To what extent should I rely on internal versus external guides in order to answer the great questions about my life’s meaning and trajectory? Should I reject my own perceptions and spiritual experiences as too subjective, in favor of definitive statements of modern-day prophets and apostles about same-sex marriage? Should I dismiss teachings, no matter how ecclesiastically authoritative, that don’t make sense in my world? Is it possible to find in my life good fruit born of a good tree objectively manifesting God’s hand in my life and his blessings on my marriage? Or is my perception of good or bad fruit hopelessly indistinguishable from my presuppositions and subjectively constructed narratives?
The great temptation in my life has been to prematurely call the question, to resolve the problem quickly and easily in one direction or another. But I find that kind of resolution ultimately unsatisfying. There have been profound moments in my life when I have been forced to acknowledge, like Moses, “Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.”
It is better to be annihilated by the truth than to be saved by a lie. But if that rings true it is only because deep down inside we know that it is not us, not our true selves that the truth can annihilate, but only our ego, that false god in each of us. We know in the marrow of our bones that the truth will exalt and free the true us. Shouldn’t we stake our salvation on that? But it takes patience to discern what is exalting, liberating truth, and what is masquerading as truth, what is our ego clamoring to be god.
My soul demands that the outward, external world align with and validate my inward, subjective world. Until the outward and the inward align, I am determined to dismiss neither, but to patiently work, listen, watch and wait.
So what does that mean?
It first of all means abstaining from self-judgment, as I also abstain from judgment of others. It means acknowledging that God is the sole judge, of me as well as of all others. When I stand in judgment of others, I find myself less sure of my own standing before God.
I will not criticize or speak evil or put myself in the place of Church leaders, first of all because I find that I lose the Spirit when I do. But also because, I realize, it is from their lips that I look for my salvation to be declared, if there is salvation to be declared to me. At key moments in my voyage, when I have felt almost overwhelmed by the contradictions of my life, it has occurred to me that Christ, whose will is the Father’s, had rather we sink or sail together than that we do either separately. So I abide with the Church, and find comfort in the abiding.
I dislike the idea that we should stay in the Church in order to change it. It assumes we know how the Church ought to change. In the past few months, there have been enough Mormons foundering on the shoals of that idea. I think it’s a terrible idea. We should stay in the Church because we find growth and joy and truth in it; and if we don’t, we should go somewhere else where we can find those things. That is healthy.
But I can say that if we find that growth and joy and truth, and if we do stay, the church will be different and better for our staying than if we left. And we will be different and better too. And I believe there is a place for every single one of us in the kingdom of God, if we have the love and humility to find the place Christ has prepared for us in it.
I love my husband Göran. I have loved him for twenty-two years as of our upcoming anniversary at the end of next week. In that time my love for him has only grown stronger, through every fight we have resolved and every challenge we have faced. It was a long, long time ago I realized I would give my life for him. What diminishes him diminishes me. My soul, body and spirit, cleaves to him. And I can honestly say that today, on this day, I love him more than I have on any other day that has preceded this. And I can honestly say that that love has always elevated me. It has always made me want to be, and has helped me to be, a better man.
I love God. I love his Church because I love Him. And I have found that this love elevates and exalts my soul, and makes me want to be more, to be better, to be like God. This love has made me see more clearly than any other the connections between me, my husband, our son, my parents, my siblings, all my brothers and sisters of every nation, all my brothers and sisters, human, animal and element; all creation.
I yearn for all those loves and connections to be eternal. I yearn to love in a way that is worthy of eternity.
Those are the pillars of my faith.
 Boyd K. Packer, “The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect,” Address to the Fifth Annual CES Religious Educators’ Symposium, 1981; see also Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1991), 101-122; see also Boyd K. Packer, “‘The Mantle is Far, Far Greater than the Intellect.’,” Brigham Young University Studies 21 no. 3 (Summer 1981), 259–278.
 I credit Fawn Brodie at least in part with the renewal of my testimony of the prophet Joseph Smith. Though I found her narrative of Joseph Smith as a conscious, pious fraud who came to believe his own lies fascinating, data she presented in her own book convinced me that whatever the prophet’s failings might be, he was not a fraud.
I thank Brian C. Hales for, in his three-volume study of Joseph Smith’s Polygamy (Greg Kofford Books, 2013), presenting a wealth of primary source materials and historiographical analysis. His perspectives on the Prophet’s character and on the place of polygamy in Mormon theology are much needed counterpoints in the literature.
 It’s tempting to assume that the Church has taken the position it has because our leaders haven’t yet asked God the question about homosexuality, that our Church leaders’ views on this subject are so colored by a thousand years of cultural homophobia that they can’t figure out how or why it would be necessary to ask such a question. Maybe. In Acts 10, Peter was shocked by the vision of the canopy of unclean animals that God commanded him to eat. He was shocked in Acts 11 to see the Spirit being poured out on uncircumcised Gentiles. The Church as a body was convulsed and divided by the implications of Cornelius’ baptism, resulting in the contentious Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). Jewish Christians like Peter had been raised from childhood to view the Levitical law as “a statute forever.” (See Exodus 28, 29, 30; Leviticus 6, 7, 10, 16, 17, 23, 24; Numbers 18, 19; and Deuteronomy 4, where the Lord repeatedly refers to Levitical statutes as “a statute for ever.”) Gentiles already had a mechanism for joining the Church that required no new revelation. They could be circumcised and submit themselves to the law. Through Cornelius and through the vision of the unclean beasts, the Lord made it known that the Church was no longer bound by laws they had taken for granted to be eternal. Maybe the issue of homosexuality is similar, and it will take some dramatic act on the part of the Lord to open the Church’s eyes to a new paradigm. But maybe not.
 In 1995 I made a public, marital commitment to my husband Göran before family, friends and God. Maybe in so doing I was binding myself in the manner described in Numbers 30: “If a man vow a vow unto the Lord, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth…. Every vow… wherewith they have bound their souls, shall stand against [them]” (verses 2, 9). Perhaps that is the reason the Lord has made it clear to me that to leave my husband would be a sin, even if the end result is to restrict my eternal potential. I feel I have no objective basis to deny that possibility.
 1 Nephi 1:1.
 Moses 1:10.