Man against Darkness

“Man Against Darkness.” This was the title of an article I read decades ago by British-American philosopher W. T. Stace. Of Western civilization he wrote, “We are told the truth shall make us free. In fact, we have only been able to live by lies, and the truth may very well destroy us.” The truth, Stace argued, was that religion in all its forms was an impediment and a burden. Whatever the costs, it should be jettisoned.

Years later, after a more than academic encounter with Eastern religions, Stace wrote a book, Time and Eternity.1 In it he argued that scientific methods lead to truth in one realm, that the religious, mainly mystical, approach, leads to truth in another, and that these are utterly different realms. No interplay, no compatibility, no reconciliation.

Stace, as many I have read since, illustrates two axioms that intersect my own life. First, the “absolute presuppositions” of a given era change. Second, much of the history of thought, and especially religious thought, can be rewritten as an attempt, often ingenious, to separate what cannot be separated and unite what cannot be united. One might make a case for this in a lengthy tome. Here what is called for is a brief treatment.

Today, not for the first time, the cry in academia is increasingly that there is no truth or, more modestly, that every discipline is in the same arbitrary boat.2 Strangely, this points to a fact of life. Neutrality in matters of value and religion is rare. But while it is the business of philosophers to sleuth assumptions and prior assumptions, I am not with those who want to argue that all assumptions are created equal. The major disputed assertions (a pre-programmed slip of my computer from “assumptions”) of my religion have startlingly old and startlingly new credentials. Thereby hangs a tale.

An Ultimate Religious Question

As a child I had a recurrent nightmare: It was as if everything “out there” was surrounding me and closing in. It left nothing behind, and then condensed, with me, into nothingness. When my father awoke to my outcries he came anxiously to bedside. “What is the matter?” he asked. I usually answered, “Nothing.” Maturity has brought me to see what I sensed as a child, what I take to be the beginning and end of the religious quest: Is there any meaning in all this? Is there, as most religions affirm, a Grand Design?

For me, intimacy is ultimate. Is there anyone in this vast universe who cares about and for us? Who cares with power enough to reach us, reassure us, and enable us to become what we have it in us to become? Is there anything deep enough in me to care and to give in return? I have a need, even a desperate need, to overcome my debilitating ignorance, strident sins, perennial flaws and follies. Hence, the promise from any quarter of enlightenment, forgiveness, healing, or redemption resonates with me. Just as anguishing are the broken harmonies of relationships with those close to me. In my own body and mind I face irreversible losses. And death.

A colleague once said to me, “You can’t choose your parents or your religion.” Clever—but mistaken. One cannot avoid the choosing and the rechoosing. The refusal to choose is a choice with infinite consequences.

I had four sets of ancestors who burned all bridges to make the Mormon aliya, that is, to come at appalling sacrifice from their European roots to America for freedom, then up to the “mountain of the Lord’s house” because, as they believed, everything in the New Testament was happening all over again. The original vitality of the community of Jesus Christ and his disciples was being rediscovered in a modern Zion. A new book of Acts was underway.

My mother died when I was two, leaving three little boys, and I have no memory of her. A close-knit family closed ranks after her death. My father did not remarry until after my own marriage. In a neighborhood high overlooking the promised valley, my grandparents and we thirty grandchildren lived in each other’s homes and absorbed the verve of all-consuming kinship and dedication. So it may be said that I was cradled in the full-bodied vision of family love as the supreme blessing of life. I have been asked by friendly and hostile associates: “Were you born a Mormon, were you a convert, or were you reconverted?” The answer is yes. “But didn’t you ever doubt?” Yes, sometimes I doubted everything. But like Descartes I could not doubt my own existence.

It would follow, and did follow, that my propensities for the history of ideas and the voluminous study of my own heritage were natural. Since my teens I have been thrust into the teaching mode, sometimes on the side, then as vocation, but always as predisposition. Over the years I have offered many reasons for my professional focus. They may be good reasons, but they are mostly after the fact. The real reason is twofold: my mentors encouraged me in the direction of comparative literature, psychology, and philosophy on grounds of aptitudes and interests; and a scholarship opened up after I won a philosophical essay contest. Still, that is not the whole truth. I felt nudged by something inner—something more than inner. But that is ahead of the story.

Assurance and Cynicism

Religious assurances aside, all of my life in this world has been attended by a pessimism without bottom. One may learn from the recent past that we seem to learn nothing from the past. No solid line, for example, protects me, my children, or anyone else from a fury-fueled holocaust. Five years in Jerusalem brought me nose to nose with people who would much rather shed anybody’s blood, even their own, than make peace. But worse deaths are also around and in us. In this shrinking world, the stings of ethnic hate are on the next block and imaged night and day in our living rooms. No invisible shield separates a normal, functional person from one in the dark corner of an asylum. Further, who or what can counter the headlong self-absorption that permeates our time? It is my considered judgment that multiple bromides seduce us to adjust to our sicknesses rather than to overcome them. I will be asked, “Who is to say what is sickness?” The cemeteries say, as the result of alternative death-styles. But who is to say what it means to be healed and to overcome? It is a fair question if one is really interested in an answer.

As Dostoevsky’s character Dmitri Karamazov tells his friend Rakitin, “If God does not exist then everything is permitted.”3 That widely quoted notion may help explain why many want to hold the funeral. For me, God dead or absent or utterly mysterious or silent all comes to the same thing: namely to nothing. I have devoted much study to the intellectual frameworks that argue for the existence of God. Even if the classical arguments were valid, and as formal structures they are not, conviction of existence, without a clue to God’s nature, is not yet a relationship that motivates and masters. Unless from somewhere there is moving appeal, unless there is power to galvanize the will and burn out or reverse human impulses toward the violence and vapidity and narcissism of our time, what hope is there?

I prop myself up, as many do: give us more self-correcting science, more technology, better communication, a new generation, more education, and civilization will flourish. But will it? I have not lost my nerve, but I have lost my faith in the sufficiency of most backups for breakdowns, just as I lost some of my secular faith while attending three graduate schools—Utah, the University of Southern California, and Harvard.

When I arrived at Harvard, I had an M.S. degree in the history of philosophy. I was for a time preoccupied mainly with ethics: I could see in that discipline direct connections to life, to choice, to solutions. Slowly it became clear that every question leads to other questions and that how one views reality has implications for everything else.

At the time, logical positivism was the dominant trend. Aside from symbolic logic and mathematics, anything not sensate was nonsense. This criterion, it was assumed, undercut all traditional ethical, aesthetic, and religious “pseudo-statements.” The history of philosophy, except philosophy of science, was seen as a history of mistakes. Meaning was reduced to verifiability and verifiability to sense-testing in the laboratory. Physics was archetypal. W. V. Quine, Morton White, Carl Hempel, and Philipp Frank made language analysis the focus, and Gilbert Ryle and Ludwig Wittgenstein were models. So we did linguistic exercises on topics such as these: Can the analytic and synthetic be reconciled? Is there empirical certainty? How are the theories of truth related? Is freedom compatible with determinism? Is reason the slave of the passions? Can altruism be reduced to egoism? Are good and obligation separate categories? Is the verifiability criterion itself verifiable? What possible justification can there be for induction? Are there new models for moral discourse?

In the other department, which might as well have been on the far side of the planet, I studied history of theology—Jewish philosophy, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Rudolf Bultmann. I had tutoring in Buddhism—hinayana and mahayana—and Continental philosophy, especially Heidegger. This was before hermeneutics became the slogan for the philosopher’s vocation. Between analytic philosophy and existentialism there was an ocean. I troubled my professors, for opposite reasons, by taking both quite seriously.

Studying the Bible

During this same period I pursued biblical and literary studies with Robert Pfeiffer, Amos Wilder, Krister Stendahl, and later Helmut Koester. More recently, I have become indebted to text experts who have also become friends—Frank Cross, James Charlesworth, W. D. Davies, David Noel Freedman, Raymond E. Brown, and in Israel, David Flusser, R. J. Zwi Werblowsky, and members of a new Jewish and Christian Dead Sea Scrolls team. I labored at form criticism, redaction criticism, textual and contextual analysis, linguistic comparisons, conflation, gloss, variant readings, and historiography of texts.

I wrote something close to a Master’s thesis on Maurice Goguel’s Life of Jesus. Was there a “Q” (an original source used by the synoptic writers)? And which redaction was first? Change one assumption and you have to start over.

The apparatus I learned was dismantled within two decades. In fact, I was asked to write an addendum to my doctorals because I showed a mastery of the “Welhausen era,” the multiple-document hypothesis of the Pentateuch, but less of the newly influential H. H. Rowley and others who ascribed more historicity and prophetic content to the sources than had earlier Higher Critics.

Today, prolonged probing of the fifty-plus volumes of the Anchor Bible, and new Bible dictionaries, will show revised and reversed methodologies at work. Many of the premises and conclusions we worked with are passé. Keeping up with the literature is a prodigious task. One net effect is a change in dating: Both Old Testament and New Testament sources have been pushed back from very late to much earlier. Otherwise, there is almost no consensus.

Except one. Like the speed of light for Einstein, there has been one constant in biblical studies since Albert Schweitzer wrote his Quest of the Historical Jesus: the Jesus of history is beyond recovery. What he was, what he taught, especially about himself, what he did, are blurred beyond recognition. Jesus as Christ, these scholars say, is a construct built out of centuries of Church polemic and institutional distortion. Just now the Jesus Seminar is using a five-color code for expunging the presumably invented or imposed sayings in the Gospels by degrees of probability. My own background had put me on the alert: texts can indeed be marred, mutilated, and manipulated—by moderns as well as by ancients.

In distinguished company I have raised questions: Are there things out of the Bible that should be in it, and things in it that should be out? From many outside and inside the circles of faith (Jewish, Christian, and Muslim), the standard responses are “Don’t touch”; “No need for more”; “One canon is enough”; “I am a minimalist.” Yet almost every biblical scholar I know would give a great deal for documents close to or contemporary with Jesus. Else how could the Dead Sea Scrolls, dated 150 B.C., have taken center stage in recent discussion?

Which brings me to the Book of Mormon. Krister Stendahl, formerly dean of the Harvard Divinity School, who did his homework comparing the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and the teachings of Christ in 3 Nephi, writes with self-critical candor:

It struck me how cavalier we biblical scholars have been in our attitude toward the biblical “after-history.” Every scrap of evidence for elucidating the origins of Christianity and its first formative periods receives minute attention and is treated with great seriousness, however marginal. But, as this essay makes clear, the laws of creative interpretation by which we analyze material from the first and second Christian centuries operate and are significantly elucidated by works like the Book of Mormon or by other writings of revelatory character.4

For myself, I consider the Book of Mormon just what it purports to be. It is evidence. And it is evidenced. It is not a historical novel. It is a novel history. I have pulled this collection of writings through every critical wringer that has come to hand. I have applied measuring sticks ranging from Christology to wisdom literature, from the use of divine names to contextual tests of narrative, from Semitic allusions to aesthetics. It is an understatement to say I am filled with increasing wonder and appreciation. I probe and respond to the book, especially to the portrait of Christ in 3 Nephi, with an intensity comparable to the Hasid and his Talmud, the Jesuit and his Thomistic sources, or the cabalist and his Zohar. All these works, I should note in passing, are treated as if they were scripture by their adherents.

But religiously speaking, appreciation is only a start. When a whole way of life is at stake, one cannot wait on the morning’s mail for the latest best guess on whether there were two or three Isaiahs (recent scholarship has come full circle and it is trendy now to speak of the “unity of Isaiah”). The clock is ticking. Life is to be lived.

So strategies for skirting these probabilistic queries have arisen. One may impose a general theory of meaning upon the whole received text of the Bible, including the four Gospels. Such a theory was the subject of my dissertation, which brought to bear in one project my analytic training, my studies in existentialism, and my biblical studies. The result was a critical analysis of Paul Tillich’s theory of symbols, an analysis that he himself and two of his Harvard exponents encouraged.

Tillich makes a radical distinction between sign and symbol. The Bible is for him a constellation of symbols—not of signs. Symbols have functions that signs do not: they reach into the “depth self”: they point beyond themselves; they express depths otherwise inexpressible; and unlike signs they cannot be consciously coined or invented. They are organic; they grow, live, and die. Tillich warns against saying “only a symbol” because in religion symbols are all we have. He insists that everything we say about God must be symbolic. Likewise, everything in the language of scripture is symbolic.

For example, the words “eternal life” permeate the New Testament. A priori, Tillich says, religious language must never be taken literally. So one can circumvent hard historical questions of the intent of the writer, the root words in Greek, the background in the milieu, and so forth. As a symbol, “eternal life” is to be tested by its reverberations in one’s ultimate concern, which is Tillich’s definition of religion. If we ask what does the symbol point to, Tillich answers: to being-itself, that is, God. But aside from this function, does the symbol “eternal life” have any meaning? After laborious processing in his systematic theology he transforms “eternal life” into “life beyond ambiguity.”

In his theory and its applications I found a tissue of fallacies that cannot be labored here. But one core issue was and is, What do Tillich’s existential translations such as “life beyond ambiguity” mean? Unless we are to have an infinite regress of symbolic pointing, we have in each phrase what Tillich was systematically concerned to avoid: literal meanings. These meanings are intended to undercut other meanings, also literal, that Tillich is attempting to replace—for example, everlasting life beyond the grave. If his “life beyond ambiguity” has no literal meaning, how can it negate, which he concedes it has, the often-ascribed meaning of everlasting life?

My committee was searching and searing in their review of my thesis. They followed me through Tillich’s contradictions. Their response was: “Maybe in this realm contradiction is unavoidable.” But Tillich had written in his Systematic Theology  that he must submit his conclusions to formal logic. My argument—too long to present here—is that the whole enterprise Tillich himself symbolizes is based upon a fundamental and pervasive confusion. It is an untenable dualism. It can be said correctly that all language, even the mathematical posits of science, is metaphorical. But metaphors either float in midair without designation, or they sooner or later come down to designation and description. One may study an allegory as allegory. But the question then is what does the allegory mean? The attempt, beginning as early as Philo and Rabbi Akiba (both of whom lived in the first century A.D.), to “save” the scriptures by saying that they are primarily allegory is deceptive. Other genres are there: narrative, propositions, laws, instructions, ordinances. All of them, however attenuated, are cognitive. So are the sayings and parables of Jesus and the sayings about Jesus. The radical dualism of symbolic and literal needs demythologizing.

So is there an alternative? One of the acknowledged authorities on comparative religion, with whom I have had long correspondence, has written to me,

Do you understand how unique the record of your origin-events is? Do you realize what it means to have objective shared visions, to have witnesses of Divine conferrals? For you, God, Christ, angels, spirits are seeable and hearable. You do not advocate a transcendent escape from the space-time continuum. As in Judaism you advocate their enhancement. There is close continuity and similarity between this world and the next. You have taken the confluence of Judaism and Christianity and emancipated it from unverifiable metaphysical hangovers. You have a kind of theological empiricism. Do you realize how distinctive, refreshing, and yet Biblical this is?

Yes. I think I do.

The Lost Manuscript

Early on in graduate school I wrote a master’s thesis on William James and have continued to read everything he wrote, and have tried to keep up with the critical literature. Just now he is being given new recognition as a forerunner of phenomenology. But that is another story. In his Varieties of Religious Experience, both the raw material and his generalizations, I found impetus for comparative work in this field.5

One day at Harkness Commons in Cambridge, I heard myself tell a colleague I would someday write a Varieties of Mormon Religious Experience. It would present the richness, the diversity, but also the unity of Mormon experiences. The book would place this summation in its nurturing setting, the prophetic heritage of Jewish-Christian antiquity. It would show the contrast to extreme mysticism: retreat into ineffability, the denial of the subject-object distinction, aspiration to the cosmic loss of the individual, and the disparagement of the senses. Instead it would derive from men and women who left a straightforward record of what they saw, heard, and felt—and whose outlooks had, and have, a way of making a tangible difference in the real world.

Over the decade that followed, amid other consuming tasks, I built just such a collection of materials combing journals, autobiographies, letters, and memorabilia, beginning with Joseph Smith. My only copy of this rough draft manuscript was in a brand-new suitcase, which I took to Berkeley before a lecture. The case was stolen out of a car trunk. And the manuscript? Probably tossed in the bay. I did not have the heart to begin over. And anyway I was having second thoughts: How enlightening is the extended display of others’ experience? Does second- and thirdhand knowing about knowing yield significant knowledge by acquaintance? One can conceivably master all there is to know about eyes and still be unable, or unwilling, to see. The point of my religious background is to duplicate, relive, bring what is vital into the present tense. Here again I find myself uncompromisingly with the prophets and specifically with Joseph Smith:

Reading the experience of others, or the revelation given to them, can never give us a comprehensive view of our condition and true relation to God. Knowledge of these things can only be obtained by experience through the ordinances of God set forth for that purpose. Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject.6

Of course you would, if you could. But who can? The answer of the Latter-day Saints is, finally, everyone can.

In the academy and in other more or less secular settings, a curious etiquette forbids such experimental attempts. Moreover, the gifts and fruits of authentic convictions and conversions belong to a category our generation has almost entirely lost: the holy. They are not treated kindly, or objectively in most circles. The operative rule is when in Rome, especially in the Forum, speak in the secular vernacular.

Friendship, however, may allay this rule. For two decades my role was to represent the Richard L. Evans Chair, an endowed chair at BYU, underwritten by persons of many backgrounds, designed for serious religious and interdisciplinary exchange. So it happened that I was often in academic settings with students and faculties of diverse outlooks and philosophies. I have visited more than a hundred universities here and abroad and invited double that number of scholars to symposia and intercultural meetings. Linguists, scientists, philosophers, and advocates of all the world religions participated. In the spirit of fellowship they have welcomed cross-examination of their own views.

Whatever their stance on the way or ways of knowing, I take their religion to be what they live by. It is more apparent than they realize. Some do not live down to their disbeliefs. Many perform and decide and even risk everything by “yeas” and “nays” that use data they officially tone down or repudiate in the academy. Some will never give a straight answer on religious matters, but are striving sentimentalists. All live, as bookish people do, lives of quiet perspiration.

I have learned that as hopes and fears may get in the way of truth, they may also lead to it. I have no illusions about how in the very moment of calculated discounting of religious impulses some may be haunted with doubts about their doubts and become seekers. Then their inquiries may be both more objective (will this rope break?) and subjective (it is a long fall from this cliff!) than they have ever been about their professional studies or the conduct of their lives. Moreover, from renowned figures in the world, including some notoriously secular, and in many languages, I have heard whispers of genuine envy. This from people who know enough to know that the Latter-day Saints are onto something, but who just can’t stand the cost of embracing that something.

About the cost. If religion does not demand our all, if it does not order our most lasting concerns, it does not qualify as religion. But what if it yields everything worth having and giving, and worth becoming and being? There is a certain logical neatness in giving all for all. Is that too much to be expected of Christ? Not of the Christ I know.

Reconciliation

My testimony, with that of others, is a witness arrived at through and attended by the Spirit of God. That Spirit is to me and those close to me recognizable, even tangible. Like a fine-edged sword it goes to the marrow of the bone. God is present in the real world as person, and immanent through his Spirit. Christ is the full revelation of God and of the possible destiny of man. He has empowered authentic prophets throughout human history and in our own time. Moses saw God; so did Joseph Smith. Living prophets are in the world today. All testify of Christ.

Again, how can one know? Only if he finds the revelation in himself. “Here,” says the unreconstructed naturalist, “you leave us. Here you abandon science and reason. Here you lapse into irrationalism.” One reply is that so does everyone else, whatever his positive or negative faith. But I believe that understates the case. The case is that whatever I, and you, consider evidence has been provided or is available.

The cumulative testimony of this modern Mormon movement is, much of it, public, shareable, and repeatable. That makes it not the least empirical religion in the world, but the most. At the same time, it is without the traditional piling of paradox on paradox. Contradictions, even when enshrined in creeds, do not bring one closer to God. Reason can show that this accumulated body of Latter-day Saint convictions is both consistent and coherent, though incomplete. The movement is also pragmatic. It works. Measurable effects follow when one learns what can only be learned by doing. Just as surely, the Mormon movement is revelatory in the most comprehensive sense. And it is open to further disclosure. I know of no other religion so responsive to the entire range of human awareness.

Humanity, however darkened, still stands against darkness. And the darkness cannot totally extinguish the light. It is not the truth that will destroy us. Truth as embodied in Christ can alone save us.

NOTES

1. W. T. Stace, Time and Eternity: An Essay in the Philosophy of Religion (Princeton: Princeton University of Press, 1952).

2. See Richard Bushman’s articles, “The Social Dimensions of Rationality,” in this volume.

3. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, part IV, book 11, chapter iv.

4. Krister Stendahl, “The Sermon on the Mount and Third Nephi in the Book of Mormon,” Meanings: The Bible as Document and as Guide (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 99.

5. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature; Being the Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion Delivered at Edinburgh in 1901-1902 (New York: New American Library, 1958).

6. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1961), 324; emphasis in original.