Dialogues with My Former Self: On Why I Still Love God (Part Two)

Posted: December 8, 2019 in Mormon Studies

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void.” (Genesis 1:1-2 KJV)

Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace,
whose mind is stayed on thee:
because he trusteth in thee.
Trust ye in the Lord for ever:
for in the Lord Jehovah is everlasting strength:
(Isa 26:3-4 KJV)

by Paul Nurnberg
The Great Prologue
A pastor friend of mine has a favorite axiom that he coined: “Truth is discovered, not downloaded.” By this, he means something akin to what American novelist and Presbyterian minister, Frederick Buechner meant when he said, “All theology is biography.” In another clip, Buechner spoke of the sense we have:

That life is a plot, yes, the sense you have sometimes that life is trying to take you someplace, it’s not just — it is random events — I mean, who knows why things happen the way they happen? And you could say it’s just a sort of a farce, a black comedy, that all, that everything ends in death and dissolution. But once in a while, the sense that it was not entirely by accident that you found yourself wandering into a church at Madison Avenue and 74th Street where there was a man named Butrick who brought tears to your eyes and changed your life. You know that somehow or other something is at work in the world to take you someplace or show you some thing… Just a sense of a plot, of a shape to life.
(Frederick Buechner, “Life as a plot”, transcribed from YouTube video, Published Nov 26, 2012) 

There are several stanzas from William Kistler’s poem America February that move me deeply. It is a poem about visiting his father’s grave in middle age. Kistler writes of World War I:

Thousands are plunging through the open
door of death in fear and shock,
their souls and furthest memory lost
to the life of their bodies and falling
back across time suddenly and without harmony
as automatic weapons fire World War One lead
at uncontrollable rates. Picasso, Cocteau,
Satie and Massine are creating the forms
for the movement of the new century
in the towers and walking typewriters
of the jazz, cubist, dance-ballet, Parade.

They are gone now, the framers of the pure line
and the moving geometry of the twentieth century.

He is gone too. And though they spoke for him
in a way he did not understand and though
he lived in a commerce they could not accept
they were of the same urban, individual,
democratic freedom. Grain to our grain, but
darker more determined in their discovering
of the hidden shapes of the spirit . . . [4]

Kistler draws starkly contrasting images here; bodies — round and fully shaped — falling, cut down, while every numinous part of them, their souls and memories, are lost. They are also captive to the life of their bodies, though “they” would, perhaps, do differently? They die and fall back across time without harmony — that singing harmony of which Buechner spoke — the sense that “life is trying to take you someplace.” And of course, by “life” is meant “God.” What a place for those young men to be taken! It’s no wonder that WWI made unbelievers of so many.

“and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:2 KJV)

Kistler juxtaposes that imagery with the “pure line” sought by the Cubists. With their themes of mechanization and modern life, the Cubists nevertheless are “darker more determined in their discovering of the hidden shapes of the spirit.” It is that line and that word that I used — numinous — that now gives shape to my conception of God. It’s not lost on me that a word that conveys non-materiality gives shape to my faith. That’s the beauty. The mystery.

When I was younger, my Evangelical uncle sent our family a wall hanging. It contained a print of a painting of Jesus, after the resurrection, revealing himself to Mary Magdalene, and the text of the Great Prologue from the first chapter of John’s gospel.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
(John 1:1-14 ESV)

And the Word was God. [ . . . ] And the Word became flesh. If I were to speak hyperbolically, I might say, “Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again [ . . . ].”[5] The wall hanging was placed in our home where I saw it often. I read those lines over and over. I puzzled and puzzled until my puzzler was sore. I’d been raised on the God of Joseph Smith’s First Vision [the canonized 1838 version], which aligns well with Smith’s later teachings of an embodied God.[6] I’d imbibed at my mother’s knee the arc of the LDS Plan of Salvation that makes gods in embryo of humanity — an eternal progression from intelligences to spirit children to mortals, and finally after much obedience to gods and goddesses. This same arc it has been said was passed through by the Son of God, and the Father himself. I believed it because Lorenzo Snow’s couplet told me so. On this view, God is embodied, material, tangible — and became such as part of the necessary eternal progression to exaltation.

On John’s view, the Word was already God before the Incarnation. I wondered at such a claim. It didn’t fit the path laid before me by LDS scripture and doctrine. Later, when I was graduating high school and LDS Seminary, my stake president gave to each graduate a hardcover gift copy of The Lectures on Faith with our names gold-embossed on the front cover. As I read the teachings there about God, I became even more flummoxed in my mental efforts to reconcile John 1:1 with D&C 130:22. Lecture Fifth: The Godhead contains statements clearly demarcating a difference between the Father and the Son — The Father being “a personage of spirit, glory, and power” and the Son being “a personage of tabernacle.”[7]

The confusion was especially acute because the Publisher’s Preface in my edition says that the Lectures “consist of seven theological and doctrinal treatises prepared chiefly by the Prophet Joseph Smith (with perhaps some assistance from other brethren)…”[8] I didn’t yet know that The Lectures had once been the “doctrine” part of the Doctrine and Covenants, or that the extent of Smith’s direct influence on their content has been contested. I recognize in the Lectures now, as I do in the Book of Mormon, the Campbellite doctrine of Sidney Rigdon, an individual, with his theological training, more likely to have written the type of structured theological treatises found in the Lectures, than the unlearned farm boy who we are told could hardly compose a letter. But all of that encapsulates a decade and more of study and wrestling through my theology. Still, the Christology of the Lectures aligns better with traditional Trinitarian doctrine than with later LDS doctrine on the nature of God and man. It makes more sense of John 1:1-14.

earth-from-space

“And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” (Genesis 1:2-3 KJV)

God is Love
During late spring and summer of 1998, I was a Mormon missionary laboring in the southern part of Budapest, on the Pest side of the Danube River. I had been on a mission for over a year and had anxiety about not being a fruitful missionary. Success was measured in obedience and baptisms. The obedience part, I was certain, I had locked down, mostly. We worked hard and followed mission rules, but baptisms hadn’t come. I was doing my part! Why wasn’t God leading us to humble people who would join the LDS Church? In my prayers, I bargained with God. I set unrealistic and arbitrary goals for the number of baptisms I wanted to realize before the two years were up. I wanted converts, but not for their sake. I felt the pressure of not wanting to return to Utah without having baptized many members. That would be a failure. I didn’t want to disappoint my family or the good people in my congregation back home. Mostly, I didn’t want to dissatisfy God. When I didn’t see results from my work, I looked for reasons. If a contact ceased meeting with us, I wondered if it was because I’d hit the snooze button once before I got up and showered. I put a lot of pressure on myself, and I was sure God did as well.

My companion and I had a standing Monday night appointment with the Mission Leader in the small branch in which we served. I was a senior companion for the first time, so it fell to me to prepare a message to share with this couple. On one Monday I was preparing my message on the bus ride out to their house. I had a red pocket-sized New Testament — the kind printed for members of the military. I thumbed through the topical guide looking for passages about God’s love — I needed that message — and hit on 1 John 4:7-12. As I read through the passage, I was struck by the grammar: “God is love.” My LDS mind spun trying to understand the implications of that. It didn’t say, God has love, God loves, or God is loving. It said, “God is love.”

Partway through the trip, we had to transfer to another bus. This couple lived several kilometers to the south, and well outside the city. As we sat waiting at a bus stop, I watched people pass by on bicycles or in Trabants, and let my mind roll over that statement. How can a God who exercises judgment and wrath be love itself? The passage worked on my heart. It was a key to something I couldn’t yet grasp. My view of God at that time, though I presumed to serve Him, was not a pretty picture. I was terrified of God. Not because I had a healthy view of God’s holiness. Rather, I viewed God as eager to punish, and I worried that I fell far short of the demands my religion taught me he levied.

When I was a kid, my mom showed my siblings and me a science project with a bowl of water, black pepper, and Ivory soap. We had to check the results, so we replicated the experiment far more times than our family’s pepper and soap budget — and our mom’s patience — could bear. We would shake the pepper into the bowl until the surface of the water was covered with a black film. Then we would place a corner of the bar of soap into the water and watch as it repelled the pepper towards the side of the bowl. The way this passage of Scripture worked on me was like that — pushing aside black shadows that held my mind and heart bound to a false view of God.

As I shared 1 John 4:7-12 with that couple that night, one verse, in particular, stuck in my mind. “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” My Mormon upbringing had placed a heavy emphasis on another Johannine passage: “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15), and it is true that love of God and of Jesus leads to obedience, but the way that this was taught then in Mormon life and culture gave the impression that obedience proved our love to God.

That night south of Budapest, as the sun set, my mind was racing. We sat in their small kitchen, having eaten an amazing meal of pot roast and potatoes. Synapses and connections were firing in my mind that were radically shifting my conception of God. The translation in my Hungarian Bible was more direct than the KJV (“Herein is love, not that we loved God . . .”). The Hungarian reads something more like, “Love is not in the fact that we love God, but rather . . .” I spoke rapid Hungarian, trying to convey to my audience the new understanding I was seeing in this passage. The man and his wife could tell that I was animated, and listened patiently, but something was getting lost in translation. After several minutes of me trying to explain how this passage was moving me, the man said, “Well, I’ve never seen it that way, but it is interesting.” Then he keyed in on the first sentence of verse 12 and asked how that could be the case given Joseph Smith . . .

“And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.” (Genesis 1:4-5 KJV)

A Moral Pain and Loss
Recently, I sat speaking with a pastor who has served me as a mentor and friend. We were discussing a major upheaval that has flipped my life upside down and inside out. It is the result of moral evil; the kind that made me crave cold justice and sent my religious mind careening jarringly against the barriers of mercy. It represents pain and loss so severe that I have been left completely adrift and in free fall — in that darkest of silences within the hiddenness of God where theology rings hollow, but light, glorious light, is not overcome. Since the last time I had spoken with my friend, I’d been to an apologetics conference in Louisville, Kentucky. Dr. Frank Turek had been one of the speakers. I confessed to my friend over coffee and eggs that I had watched many videos on YouTube of Dr. Turek speaking at similar conferences, and had judged him to be arrogant and unfeeling, but that I recognized that my impression was likely colored by the click-bait style tags appended to the videos (e.g. “Frank Turek Destroys Atheist!”).

My friend listened as I recounted how I was pleased to find my impression to be misguided. Dr. Turek had told a story about a man and his sons who had questioned him at a conference in Michigan the year before. The tenderness with which Dr. Turek spoke of this man and his sons, and the backstory for their wrestling the angel showed me that he understands those who have deep and painful and legitimate reasons to ask, “If God, why evil?” In our breakfast conversation, my friend and I spoke of the Gordian Knot of determinism — either theological or material — and the implications for who is culpable for moral evil (such things to discuss over breakfast!). My friend alluded to the story I’d told him and then said something that I’ve been rolling over in my mind in myriad ways since. He said, “I don’t let God off the hook.”

Batter My Heart
A favorite band of mine, Jars of Clay, recognize that we are all culpable for evil. The lyrics to their song Oh My God nail every one of us to the cross. All are placed on equal footing in that song with regards to causing injustices — and needing relief from them. After making that point by reference to different groups of people representative of all of humanity, Dan Haseltine sings: “saviors always say” — noting that even Jesus himself cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” At 4:18, the song moves into the climax, which I find to be among the most convicting and powerful in music. Haseltine sings of the recognition that he is among the fallen while the other members of the band lift their voices in mournful, soulful praise-singing from the depths of broken, wounded, guilty souls.

Sometimes I cannot forgive
These days mercy cuts so deep
If the world was how it should be
Maybe I could get some sleep

While I lay, I dream we’re better
Scales were gone and faces lighter
When we wake, we hate our brother
We still move to hurt each other

Sometimes I can close my eyes
And all the fear that keeps me silent
Falls below my heavy breathing
What makes me so badly bent?

We all have a chance to murder
We all feel the need through wonder
We still want to be reminded
That the pain is worth the plunder

Sometimes when I lose my grip
I wonder what to make of Heaven
All the times I thought to reach up
All the times I had to give up

Babies underneath their beds
Hospitals that cannot treat them
All the wounds that money causes
All the comforts of cathedrals

All the cries of thirsty children
This is our inheritance
All the rage of watching mothers
This is our greatest offense.[9]

The questions. O, my God! The questions. I don’t have simple answers. In the face of both natural evil and moral evil, I have desired not answers, but presence. That is the beauty and the mystery of the Incarnation. Buechner said in one clip, “I used to think, as a minister, you know, you’re supposed to know the answers. That you go to somebody who’s going through a terrible time and you tell them something that’s going to make them feel better or give them something to hold onto. I’ve decided since that’s the least of what you do. You go and simply are with them.” The mystery of the Incarnation. God with us! The very concept of mystery in relation to the nature of God was neutered in the LDS teachings I received as a child and young man. I find in the Trinity and the Incarnation a beautiful mystery — the way in which God did not let even Himself off the hook. In Holy Sonnet 14, John Donne pleads, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” I’ve come to see the longing inherent in that line to be the key.

I love God, because he first loved me.

“And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31 KJV)

NOTES
[4] Kistler, William, “America February,” America February (Tulsa: Council Oak Books, 1991), 25.

[5] Joseph Smith — History 1:12a-c.

[6] See Doctrine and Covenants 130:22.

[7] “Lecture Fifth: The Godhead,” Lectures on Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1985), 59. Available online here: http://lecturesonfaith.com/.

[8] Ibid. v.;

[9] Songwriters: Charlie Lowell / Dan Haseltine / Matt Odmark / Stephen Daniel Mason; Oh My God lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group, Capitol Christian Music Group.

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