Though I grew up in a "Mormon" household my family was not the typical Mormon family. My mother was a member who was semi-active. My father was not a member until late in life. Neither my brother nor I went on missions when Mormon boys are supposed to at 19. I did not think I could bear witness to Mormonism. I was not active in college and I had my doubts. My brother is now a Rabbi. That leaves only my sister in the Mormon fold.
In my journey to Catholicism I have in some ways been the last to know that this is where I truly belong. On the first weekend of October 2010 my brother closed off the side street in downtown Salt Lake where he lives and had a great Oktoberfest party. At the party I pulled my brother aside and said, "we need to talk." He was the first person I told of my decision to leave Mormonism and become a Catholic. He looked at me and said straightforwardly: "Rick, you haven't believed in Mormonism in decades." As we talked he said that he knew when I was a graduate student at Harvard in the 1970's that I was essentially a Catholic theologian. After all, I wrote my dissertation using the resources of Catholic moral theology.
When I showed up to Harvard in the fall of 1970 I roomed in Divinity Hall with a budding Catholic patristic scholar from Notre Dame, Michael Hollerich. We have been friends for 40 years. 20 plus years ago he was teaching at the University of Santa Clara. I was presenting a paper at a conference in San Francisco. My family and I went down together and stayed with one of my brothers in law who has a big house in the bay area. I went down for part of a day to see Mike. After we talked for quite a while and he showed me around his campus, he turned to me and in all seriousness said " Richard, from the way you talk and think, you should be a Catholic." Even then something inside of me knew he was right. But life intervened.
A third example is another old friend and also Harvard graduate who is senior vice-president for academic affairs at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. He is a devout Catholic. About 15 years ago we were at a small discussion conference I was running. The format allows for about 2 1/2 hours each afternoon for breaks, informal discussions, or walks. We went on a long walk together and talked animatedly. When I told him recently of my conversion he said that after our first long discussion he thought for sure that I was a conservative Catholic, until I told him I was not.
Finally, this last summer I was a speaker at a summer honors program for really talented undergraduates run by his organization. Two other faculty members, Jonathan Yonan from Eastern University and Paige Hochscheid from Mount Saint Mary's University became friends. Jonathan is an Oxford trained church historian and protestant. Paige is an Augustine scholar and like her husband a convert to Catholicism. Until I told them at the end of the week, they also both thought I was a conservative Catholic.
Enough of the "I am the last person to know" stories. What you want to know is "why."
Conversion must be a matter of both the head and the heart, both the intellect and the spirit. But it must be a whole reorientation of one's life, a whole that transcends just the sum of the parts. Two further points I must make. First, conversion in the Catholic faith is never a completed event. It is always a process. Even devout "cradle Catholics" are still on a journey to become closer to God. Second, conversion as an adult Catholic cannot be begun and completed in a short period of time. In Mormonism one can meet missionaries and be baptized in a few weeks. In my Catholic case I started attending weekly meetings of the adult conversion class in October, 2010. I hope to be a catechumen in June 2011 and I hope to be received into the Catholic church with baptism, confirmation and first communion at Easter 2012. I believe that this is superior. One should understand the Catholic communal, sacramental, liturgical, and theological life before making a true commitment.
Let me begin by telling you of 3 deeply moving experiences that brought my heart to where it is now, where it must be, and where it will always be.
In February 2010 I got a flyer for a conference In Rome at the end of May devoted to the work of the great Catholic phenomenologist (and convert) Dietrich von Hildebrand, especially his seminal work The Nature of Love. Since I had just finished working through the Christian love literature in Catholic and protestant forms I decided that if my university travel budget would pay at least part of my trip to Rome I should have a paper accepted so that I could see Rome for the first time. I persuaded good friends who are devout Catholics to come with me so we could see Rome together. The conference went from Thursday through Saturday. On Friday after the conference was over, the conference had a special Latin mass in a majestic cathedral next door to the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross where the conference was being held. If my friends had not been with me I probably would not have gone. But we did. In that mass I felt the power of the Holy Spirit in a way I had not felt in years. It was a feeling but it was more than a feeling. It was a grasp of truth; an illumination if you will. I both felt it was right and knew it was right.
A second decisive moment also was the result of what some would think a coincidence, but I do not. In early September last year I heard a rumor from someone I thought should know, that the monastery in Huntsville, Utah would be closing in the next 6-9 months. A friend and I decided that if this really was true then we should visit the monastery in September when the weather is good.
Suffice it to say that we spent time in the chapel twice. The first time was not very moving for me because several monks were deep in prayer and the door made a small noise. I was concerned that this would disturb the monks. We went to the chapel later and I brought my Catholic Jerusalem Bible. I was deep in meditation and reading the passion narrative in Luke. For only a second or two the Holy Spirit touched me like I had been touched in Rome, only stronger. I almost broke down. I am not one to break down easily. I will never forget it. Feeling was present but so was a Biblical narrative that anchored my feeling.
The third moment came on the first weekend in October. A Catholic friend in Cache Valley picked up an announcement at the parish for an Immaculate Mary, Divine Mercy, Pro-Life Conference in Park City.
We went in Friday afternoon and then to the conference Saturday and Sunday. I'll be blunt: Saturday was transformative. Saturday afternoon, hearing Father Wade Menezes and then Deacon Jones (for you old enough to remember not that Deacon Jones who played with Merlin Olson in the fearsome foursome), I was reduced to tears. I tried to hide it. I took my glasses and rubbed my eyes constantly, like I had something in them. I did, but not what I tried to have people think. A couple of times I thought I would have to go out for a minute to collect myself. The experience was majestic. The presence of the Holy Spirit to me that afternoon was more than just feeling. It was and remains a gift of truth that is more than just feeling. I knew it was right and what I was being called to do. That night was when I told my brother and then a few others.
Each of these moments was unplanned and unexpected. If you had asked me 2 years ago if I wanted them I might have said, "I don't know". I know now. As physical human beings such experiences will involve emotion. But it cannot be merely emotion. If it remains emotion it cannot ultimately lead to eternal truth
Conversion is a matter of both the heart and the head. Mormonism is all about feeling and almost never about a conversion of the head. But conversion must be more than just feeling. The experience of the Holy Spirit often, but not always, involves feeling to be sure; The Holy Spirit, however, is a profound sense of the presence of God, not merely emotion. It is hearing a music that is transcendent. But if it is truly the presence of God it will lead to wisdom and intellectual curiosity, not away. Reason is a precious Divine gift. We should use it. If the beliefs to which you become emotionally attached are intellectually wrong, emotional attachment won't magically make them right.
In a truly moving opening passage in his seminal encyclical Fides et Ratio Pope John Paul II expresses this marriage of faith and reason: " Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know Himself—so that by knowing and loving God, men and women may come to the fullness of truth about themselves."
I was a "head convert" much longer than I have been a heart convert. It began really at Harvard. Even a non-specialist study of patristic literature convinced me that the story I had grown up with about the "great apostasy" in patristic period was wrong. Of course the Nicene Creed is not found literally in the New Testament. But it is an essential development out of the teaching of scripture. I am not even in the same intellectual universe as Cardinal John Henry Newman. But my journey, like his, was begun by realizing that there is a development of Christian doctrine, not a sharp break.
A passage from a book chapter written by one of the most distinguished Mormon thinkers of the last 50 years tells a story so much like mine that I must quote it. It is from Edwin Firmage, a truly distinguished law professor at the University of Utah and grandson of the beloved Mormon leader Hugh B. Brown. Ed writes this after he has left Mormonism: " As I consciously look back, it began for me probably in the mission field because I smuggled into my digs in England and Scotland the writings of the early fathers—Origen, Tertullian, Clement of Rome, Clement of Alexandria, ...as I read these writers of the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries I felt that they had been touched by God ... I was laying some mines that would be detonated later, because the idea of preaching an apostasy and restoration was wrong. ... The idea that God was sort of snoozing until 1820 now seems to me absurd."
Augustine's theology is a theology that develops out of the Bible. It is not a break. But once you realize that the story of an apostasy is wrong, you must conclude that the need for a "restoration" is simply untenable. Once it starts to unravel it unravels. I have come to realize that the teaching of my former church is inadequate and in key cases, and I do not say this lightly, incoherent. If the theology developed by Joseph Smith in the 1840's, a theology that has become canonical for Mormons, is seriously wrong, then it should not be believed no matter how passionately it is asserted or how comfortable is the social environment where it is asserted.
Let me just give you four additional points that are central in my intellectual journey. I do not have time or space here to do anything more than a summary statement. But I am prepared to defend any of these points at length including the material about the patristic period and Augustine.
The central problem that theists must face, the problem that gives rise to serious atheism as opposed to the adolescent rebellion against all things traditional or the pseudo scientific claim that no one has proven the existence of God like one would prove the existence of a new asteroid, is the problem of evil.
When I was an undergraduate philosophy student and in graduate school every professor I had argued that the solution to the problem of God and evil was provided by John Hick in his magisterial 1966 book, Evil and the God of Love. It remains a great book, and the best defense available of perhaps the most commonly held theist response to the problem of evil.
Hick's solution was also a solution that Mormons might find and did find congenial. To be brief, Hick thought that evil could be understood as allowed by God for building human character, "soul making" he called it. Difficulties make people stronger, so a good God gives us difficulties. Character development requires human freedom so you get a combination of character building and free will as a comprehensive answer to the problem of evil.
Unfortunately, however, this sort of solution is biblically inaccurate, philosophically flawed, and spiritually deadening. The problem has been most deeply articulated by Marylyn Adams in her crucial book, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God from 1999. The problem is not some hard times that we all have and from which we typically grow better. Rather, it is "horrendous evils" that cannot, without special pleading, be interpreted as building character: e.g. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, the genocides in Rwanda and Armenia. Consider just the current plague of child pornography and pedophilia. Pedophilia does not build character. It destroys souls and lives.
How then can horrendous evils be comprehended by those of us who are deeply committed to the Christian faith? The answer is not in a character building/free will theodicy. It is in scripture and it leads to a picture of God that is seriously at odds with that of my former church but which is richly reflected in the classic Christian tradition. The answer is in Job 13:15: " Though He slay me, yet will I trust (or hope) in Him." Job is faced with truly horrendous evils for himself and his loved ones. His 3 friends and then Elihu at the end want to find reasons they can comprehend. They want to make God, in a way, just like us. Job wants such an answer too. He pleads with God to answer one central question: why? But his insight in 13:15 is a breakthrough. It leads directly to God's answer to Job in chapters 38-42. God tells Job to have faith in him. He, God, has a larger purpose than Job can comprehend. God has created the whole universe for reasons that transcend human wisdom. Job must trust in God, even when reason fails.
But what kind of God is it in whom we can have such trust? What must be the nature of such a God in whom we can hope and on whom we can rely in the face of the most terrible suffering, sufferings that in Job's case and millions of others appear endless, undeserved, and purposeless? It is not a God whose wisdom, power, and goodness are limited or finite. It is not a God who is like a great scientist, a good friend, a brilliant philosopher, or a powerful ruler. It is the God of the tradition who is perfectly wise, good, and powerful; who knows the end from the beginning and who created the whole universe out of his bounteous goodness and love. Anything less cannot be our anchor in the midst of grave tragedy or horrendous evils. Christians cannot accept anything less.
Mormonism is and must be committed to the idea that God is a physical being like us and, as a corollary, that matter is eternal. This belief leads to what philosophers call an inconsistent triad. This is three propositions that you cannot hold together.
- 1. God created the whole universe.
- 2. The universe starts with big bang that begins with a singularity of energy. No matter is present.
- 3. God is a material being.
Mormonism is committed to number 3. I can demonstrate this with dozens, if not hundreds of citations from Joseph Smith onward. This means that they must either deny number 2 or number 1. Denying a very well established finding of modern science such as 2 seems equivalent to denying that the earth is several billion years old so you can preserve a literal reading of Genesis. Once this is granted matter cannot be eternal. If you think that matter is eternal then you have denied 2. I do not think that any Christian faith can be accepted as true if it requires us not to believe something very established science shows to be true.
Denying 1 is both philosophically wrong and deadening for faith. I have, however, seen eminent LDS astrophysicist Hollis Johnson say, in writing, that since 2 is true and God must be physical, members of his faith must deny that God created the universe. To be blunt, I stand aghast. If you are a passionate believer as I am then denying that God created the universe is, I believe, spiritually lethal. Theists of all people should believe that their lives have eternal meaning or purpose. But how can my life or yours have such a purpose if it exists in a universe that has no purpose because it was not created by God.
Furthermore, I believe that the cosmological or first cause argument is correct. Without it, the universe has no purpose. Basic to human beings' way of interpreting the world is the principle of sufficient reason. Basically this is the idea that everything that exists has a cause. Once this is granted as basic then the universe must have a cause. Things, i.e. matter, energy, etc, cannot have purposes. Only intelligent agents can have purposes or intentions. For those who are Christians as I am this cause or this intelligent agent must be God.
Mormonism is also committed to the idea that God became God through a developmental process on a world like ours. However, if God created all the universe then He cannot have started out on a part of the universe. This is not debatable. Trying to believe both is incoherence. Many of my students say that God became God on some part of the universe or in an alternate universe. So the God they worship is only the God of this world or this part of the universe. But why worship the captain and not the 4 star general? When some students tell me after this sort of discussion that they do not believe in a "top god" I am speechless. I remind you again that warm emotional feelings cannot make the incoherent, coherent.
Since the creator God is not "just like us" and our destiny is to rejoin His presence what then is required for us to do so? This topic is much too large to discuss here. Let me make one argument. For humanity to rejoin God's presence we need a mediator, a person who is both divine and human. As human, God the Son shares our pain and suffering, our hunger, thirst, exhaustion, and especially our mortality. As God, he can show us God's qualities of love and mercy, teach us God's way of life, and especially give us eternal life by overcoming the barrier of our mortality. This is why there must be an incarnation of God in human existence. The incarnate God is the only anchor of our salvation, the foundation of our hope, and the root of our trust. Mormonism does not invest much effort in thinking about the incarnation because a commitment to a God who is just an "exalted man" does not allow them to see the need. But a need there is.
Jesus as God the son is utterly unique. The New Testament shows this in a way we often ignore. The New Testament does not often call Jesus God or even the "son of God". But the phrase "son of man" is used about 40 times if we take out the textually doubtful cases and those places where one writer quotes another. In every case of " son of God " or "son of man" the phrase is preceded by the definite article. It is always "the son of man" or "the son of God". Jesus is not like us only better, as I might say that Plato is a mortal, physical being like me only a far better philosopher.
Since we need a mediator who is both Divine and human and since Jesus is the mediator, the son must have a special relation to the father. It cannot be that they are "really close friends." It has to be different. They must have the same divine substance, in Greek "homoousion". It cannot be anything less or Jesus cannot be a true mediator between the Divine and the human.
Once the nature of a God in whom we can have absolute trust is admitted and the place of Jesus as both divine and human is recognized we are right back with the Nicene Creed, which we joyously recite as a Catholic community every Sunday in the mass. Since the Creed represents a truth developed out of scripture and sustained by reason as I have done it cannot represent an apostasy from biblical truth. Since the Creed states essential truths, how can you not be a member of the Church that, following the guidance of the Holy Spirit, developed and defended it for almost 1700 years?
I have not gone over to the dark side. I am a richer, deeper Christian than I have ever been. The other day I received an online poll that is done by a political scientist in Utah. I do this perhaps twice a year. One of the questions asks about one's religion and how strongly one is committed to it. It was truly liberating to answer Catholic with a strong commitment. The experience of Holy Spirit does, sometimes, have an emotional component. But it is more than just emotion. The Holy Spirit is one person of the triune God who is wisdom itself. One of God's greatest gifts to us is reason. Thus we cannot remain content with emotional moments or warm feelings. If we are to remain true to the gift God gave us we must use this gift, like the man in scripture who expanded his talents, to deepen and enrich our faith with the gift of reason.
As I am sending this in I have just gone through the Easter Tridium. This one of the most majestic spiritual experiences I have ever had. Before my journey began in earnest a year ago I had been to mass a number of times. But I had never been to a mass of the last supper, including the washing of the feet. Nor had I been to a stations of the cross with the seven last words. I even was asked to read one the seven last words. I was moved almost to tears with the request. But literally nothing in my journey could have prepared me for the Easter Vigil on Saturday night. Coming into the dark chapel with little candles in our hands I realized in a way I never had before that Christ is the light of the world and we are his people in the church he left.
I know this journey is right and I have known it for a long time. But it has been more joyous than I could imagine. For those of you who are doubting or unsure, even for those on a different path: come on in. The water is fine and neither God nor those of us already on the journey will let you sink.