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Sometimes during my studies in college and graduate school I felt as though I were some sort of mythological beast like the fabled Yeti or — to take something from part of the country — a Jackalope. I am a faithful, believing, run of the mill Mormon. I am also a student at a major university studying history. In a sea of doubt, pessimism, and agnosticism my colleagues find my faith both baffling and strange and have sometimes remarked in passing how sad that such a capable person should be under the sway of such delusions. My native shyness often led me to avoid confrontation and debate, but here I wish to reply to those people to all the others who have made similar comments over the years. Most of the discourse I see relating to Mormon missionaries on the internet and in the media is cynical and critical. The authors highlight the minority of cases where a missionary hated his mission experience or where missionaries clashed with ministers of religion or seers of secularism. I want say the seemingly unsayable: I enjoyed my mission.
Like the majority of young Mormon men, I served as a Mormon missionary when I turned 19. Since my sixteenth birthday, I had been saving money for this foreseen event. My meditations and my prayers over this future were generally one and the same, or at least they flowed so naturally one from another that I was never quite sure which I was undertaking. I determined that I would not go unless I felt and knew in my heart that is was the right thing. The Prophet Joseph Smith said once,
[T]he things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity-thou must commune with God. How much more dignified and noble are the thoughts of God, than the vain imaginations of the human heart! None but fools will trifle with the souls of men. (Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 Vols. 3:295)
In Mormonism, God is not to be found simply through mere musings as in Natural Theology, but through experiences with Him and those experiences come from service to God and to mankind. As Joseph Smith said, what are needed are time, experience, and ponderous thought. The truth of a thing is to be found in the doing of it. So, I studied and lived what I read and in time, there came a conviction that God lives and that the Book of Mormon was true. As a Mormon missionary I spent two years teaching that to everyone I met. Another essay at another time will perhaps deal more fully with my basis for theism, but here let me say that faith is not irrational. It is not illogical. It arises from a spiritually yearning and understands that sometimes, to be understand, a fact must first be accepted and placed in the best light or in the most charitable regard. Logic, as my professor of philosophy at college said repeatedly, is merely a tool that constructs a priori assumptions and like a machine computes the necessary conclusions. It is not knowledge in and of itself, but a framework for organizing knowledge. A person of faith is just as capable of reason and inquiry as the most ardent adept of Positivism.
What does a Mormon missionary do? This question no doubt bewilders some. Some, whose own lack of strongly held values so distorts their perception of the world, refuse to believe that someone would truly devote two years of his own time; delay school, career, dating, and friendships; and at his (or her) own expense spend day after day sharing a message he knows most will reject. It seems a quixotic errand and perhaps it is. But, let me place myself on the witness stand as one who did it and does not regret it. For two years I wore out shoes and grew calluses from daily walking and labor. I was rejected, spat at, pelted with rocks (and once with ketchup packages), insulted, harassed, nearly arrested twice, and once threatened at gun point.
I will not try to claim that I enjoyed this negative treatment. Sometimes, though, I could understand the person’s frustrations and anger. It can be irritating to have someone approach you and try to steer you into a conversation about something as deeply personal as religion. However, my experience has taught me that most people, once my fellow missionary and I could sit down with them and discuss frankly one another’s beliefs enjoyed the conversations even if they chose not to believe in what we taught. Some were devotedly antithetical to our beliefs or practices and would likely have been upset my mere presence in their vicinity. To all who were willing to listen I taught my beliefs and bore somber testimony to the influence God and my commitment to Him have had in my life. In those two years I learned more about myself, my God, and my fellow men than in any other comparable period and it is not unlikely that I will be mining these experiences for the rest of my life.
Among my most cherished memories were many pleasant discussions with people of every walk of life from the educated to the ignorant, from the deep-rooted American to the most recent immigrant. I learned quickly that debate and disputing were worthless ventures. I am convinced, and my subsequent life has convinced more of this, that truth and understanding are the greatest victims of forensics. The result is usually the same: both sides become more convinced of the truthfulness of their own position and the issue becomes more polarized than before. In confessing that insight, I feel as I am committing a sin against modern society where debate has become per se a value. Let me clarify that I am not referring to disagreement or discussion, but rather to that puerile variety of parallel argumentation that so dominates our public discourse where speakers, who cannot truly be called interlocutors, speak so singly and disconnectedly that there is no exchange of ideas or even a recognition of the other’s point of view. It is rather the solipsistic pontificating of pundits and spokesman.
As Mormon missionaries , we were taught — and I aimed — to share our message, invite others to consider it, pray about it, and live it, but nothing more. True, we were sometimes goaded into debate and I succumbed to too many such baitings, but more often than not I and my fellow missionaries testified and warned and invited others to hear our message without ill feelings. Some have tried to argue that our reticence to debate evinces some deeply harbored fears on our parts about the veracity of our message; but such criticism is misguided. We merely recognize that rarely does any good come from such debate and the casualty of such battles is usually the good relations among people. Most of those who wished to debate us were so lacking in the ability to listen and grasp another’s point of view, that debate would have been merely a battle of wills and egos.
So, you might ask, why do we do it? Why do we risk stirring up such controversy and rancor? I am convinced after much experience that it the missionary work of this Church that inspires such vehement diatribes against us more than any peculiarity of practice or principle. Many groups similarly have divergent beliefs about God and salvation, but no other group makes such an effort to ensure that everyone else knows about them. I can only answer by saying that our belief compels us to do so and were we to ignore the imperative to share this message we would wallow in enervating hypocrisy. We believe that our message can soothe hearts, strengthen relationships, and enable all people to understand and worship God. This belief will cause controversy and earn us the ill assessment of many who hold that truth and values are relative, but to cease to share our message would be as good as denying that we believe it and that we cannot do; I cannot do that, for I have had too many experiences which have confirmed to me the truthfulness of this message and the necessity of sharing it with others. I have seen faith, both in God and in self, work too many miracles for me to step aside now and say I will not work to help others because I might offend some. Life has taught me this: someone will be offended no matter what I do, so I will live so as not to offend my conscience for that will be my constant and eternal companion.
My plea is for this: that people take more time to understand one another in our public discourse, particularly with regard to religion. This appeal has been made before and will be made again. I suffer no delusions that this little essay will have some grand effect on society, but hopefully someone will listen. True discussion and true communication about ideas and values requires that first we understand our interlocutors views and beliefs. Too many people assume all too quickly that they know what someone else believes about this or that. Such intellectual mondegreens stifle our ability to communicate for language and discourse is fluid and highly dependent on socioeconomic conditions. It is not enough to know what God and grace and values mean to us, we must understand what they mean to others. If not, we will blithely and arrogantly attack straw men of our own creation because, as Cervantes said, “they might be giants.” Then when we have bested our chimerical adversary, we will proclaim unilaterally and pointlessly our hollow victory.
Go to the source and ask a Mormon what a Mormon believes. Those who devote their energies to tilting at Mormon windmills and slaying Mormon chimeras will no doubt continue to claim that all Mormons lie about their own beliefs or hide the truth about what Mormons really believe. No doubt they will continue asserting that Mormon missionaries are highly skilled propagandists and purveyors of misinformation (nothing could be farther from the truth), but such claims are circular and rely on the assertions of prejudiced and blind eyes. As a former Mormon missionary who was proud to serve his faith and still follows that tenets of his religion, let me say that while we in America and the West will most likely continue to disagree, the first step toward improving our discourse, is by improving our listening.
Unless we first seek to understand, we can never be understood. I have grown weary of the prejudices, the casual slights, the quick dismissals and the self-righteous indignation of those who attack not just my faith, but all faiths and beliefs systems. These willfully ignorant and prejudiced attacks come not only from other religious leaders, but also from secularists who are so isolated in their own belief systems that they believe anything else must be irrational. Such dismissal of even the ability of others rationally to disagree with you and rationally to believe something you find fantastic will only serve to divide and exacerbate our public discourse. Let me end as I began by saying the unbelievable: I believe in God and in the message of Mormonism and I do so with full understanding and with every faculty of my mind. I do not ask any readers to suddenly convert to my faith, but rather I hope they will with an open and inquisitive mind seek to understand those of us who still believe in faith and hope through a living God.
write by Alan Gill