I wouldn’t have gone to Stanford, majored in Comparative Literature, or taken my career path as a professor without my brother Bill’s example, encouragement, and brilliance that lighted every step of the way for me through my education. He was and is my intellectual soul-mate. My freshman year at Stanford included a year long dorm-based intensive course on the Western tradition, perhaps the single-most valuable educational experience of my life. In the haIlways and in class, we debated the meaning of Greek tragedies, the value of biblical wisdom, and the very nature of the universe. We wrestled with Darwinism, the meaning of grace according to Luther, and the root causes of poverty and the legacies of the Holocaust. I was debating with atheists, with other Christians, with Muslims and Jews and Hindus. This, for me, was heaven! The experience that year was enough to convince me I wanted to make a career out of reading, discussing, and writing about great ideas. What was especially exciting was that we could explore ideas without restraint, without pre-established conclusions, and in the company of a wide diversity of viewpoints. I learned that part of criticism is listening to the criticism of others, something central to scholarly work. I felt comfortable saying something that I might later decide was utter hogwash. I was often told my ideas were, indeed, hogwash, although my friends used other words for it. Sometimes it meant I got stinging and hurtful criticisms of my beliefs, but more often than not such exchanges helped me to recognize my own sexism or racism or naiveté about the world. I sensed my professor, an atheist, a Jew, and a Marxist, was not thrilled with the idea of me wanting to serve a mission, but he also had a respect and interest in Mormonism. He had already read the Book of Mormon, but wanted to read more, so I gave him a collection of essays by one of my most influential models of a Mormon scholar in those days, Gene England, which he enjoyed. When I got too worked up in my criticism of a writer, whether it was Marx or Nietzsche, he would ask me if I was reading carefully enough to understand their point of view. I figured that if he had bothered to read about Mormonism, I should bother to be as curious about other ideas. [Read more…] about My Journey as a Scholar of Faith, Part III
My first experiences with criticism, compassion and charity were in family life at home. As Mormons, we lived as a very small minority outside of New York. We were taught to love human diversity and that God must too. Dinner table conversation at my home was free-flowing, covering politics and culture and the church. We went to concerts and museums in the City and we hosted friends of other faiths at our home. I was the youngest of three brothers, and the older two were exceptionally bright and observant and full of strong opinions. They read serious literature at young ages, they loved and played classical music, and they knew how to have a meaningful experience in a museum. Even though neither of my parents would have considered themselves experts, they remain among my most important adjudicators of taste. They have always been amateurs in the best sense of the word: lovers of all good things, consistent with the charitable work, as Mormon describes it, of “laying hold of every good thing.” [Read more…] about My Journey as a Scholar of Faith, Part II
I was invited by the Faculty Center to share my journey as a scholar of faith. I share here, in three parts, the content of the talk. I have wrestled with my feelings these past few weeks because I am not sure how much of my experience is applicable to others nor am I entirely sure that I have enough wisdom. I do know that I want to communicate honestly and, most importantly, I want to edify and strengthen your faith. The challenge is that my journey is idiosyncratic. However, I take comfort in two things. Although your story is different than mine, yours is just as idiosyncratic. There are as many ways of reaching Christ as there are people in this world. As Elder Bruce Hafen has said, “Nothing brings the spirit into a conversation or a classroom more than hearing people bear honest testimony, not so much by exhortation as by just telling the story of their personal experience.” So I seek to speak candidly, but also in love and respect for the dignity of every person here. [Read more…] about My Journey as a Scholar of Faith, Part I
It is a clear and central tenet of Mormon belief that we are led by revelation, by living prophets. It is less clear perhaps to everyone what this means. I know it probably baffles many of my academic colleagues. I would like to suggest here, however imperfectly and briefly, what it means to me.
My understanding is no doubt incomplete, not only because I am learning and growing in my own ability to receive personal revelation but because I am not privy to the process at the highest levels of church governance. We have often been told that it is not altogether unlike the same process at the more local levels of church governance and that is where I draw my insights from. [Read more…] about Led by Revelation
(Adapted from comments I shared recently with the College of Humanities at BYU)
Grading, I am convinced, is a circle in hell. And maybe an even deeper circle in hell is dealing with student complaints and anxieties about grades. But as much as we professors like to moralize about this, we all know that we have helped create the problem by being part of a system that treats students like rats in a maze, chasing the elusive cheese. To try to direct my students’ anxieties away from their GPA, I ask them to work not for a particular final grade but for a particular kind of letter they imagine I might write about them at the end of the semester. I have always fantasized about the Bennington College model of only writing letters instead of assigning grades because you can say so much more about a student that way. The truth is, many “A” students would get inferior letters to some of my “B” students. There is so much more to a student’s contributions to a class than what they are able to get right on a test. Passion and discipline are what set apart the best students, not raw ability. And my mission, as I see it, is to help my students discover that passion and appreciation for the privilege of an education before it is too late. [Read more…] about On the Spiritual Joy of Academic Work
There is a paradox at the heart of the practice of religion. Religion is designed to produce rich experiences of spirituality both individually and in communities—experiences that are often characterized by their renewing power—but it relies on repetition, ritual, and habit in order to produce such results. My LDS religion provides a variety of stratagems and exercises to assist me in cultivating the discipline and practice of such spirituality. For example, I am encouraged to pray and read the scriptures daily, to attend church every Sunday for three hours, and to serve in a calling in my church community in order to help the community cohere and grow together. I am encouraged to attend the temple regularly, to do my home teaching, to do my family history work, and to keep my body pure, and so on. It’s a long list and even though I have come to depend on this structure of my church to assist me in my spiritual growth, like many members of the church I suppose, there are times when it feels that the very structure of these practices is what is getting in the way of my growth. Recently I dreamt of a quest for deeper conversion and found myself pushing myself along a series of unending, unconnected, and half-broken railroad tracks with no end in sight. Was I trapped in a maze of bureaucracy? Was I engaged in a labor that took me to no place in particular? I awoke deeply disturbed. So many meetings, so many responsibilities, so many reasons to feel guilty and enervated. It raised the question for me: where can I turn for renewal when even the religion I have chosen and have faith in stops providing me with the feelings of joy it once gave me? Would one would be better off without so many rituals, so many practices? [Read more…] about The Quest for Renewal and the Religious Life