“Declarations at the pulpit, expressing the familiar pattern of ‘I know,’ are but shallow imitations of such intimate encounters that remake us and bring us face to face with a world, a life, and a God endowed with their true identity.”
In the Christian world and among our fellow Latter-day Saints, many are choosing, in John’s words, to “[walk] no more with [us].”1 The numbers are heartbreaking. Many and varied are the causes, and all are to be lamented. I am going to propose, as one explanation for what is happening among our own community, the words of the poet Thomas Traherne: “No man … that clearly seeth the beauty of God’s face … can when he sees it clearly, willingly, and wittingly forsake it.”2 These words have become scripture to me: “No man … that clearly seeth the beauty of God’s face … can when he sees it clearly, willingly, and wittingly forsake it.”
There is a love of Christ known to medieval Saints and mystics; there is a devotion to the Savior that has carried many to their martyrdom. There is a love of Christ that has led one of the God-touched to comfort a solitary woman in her grief and another disciple to reshape the history of civilization. Such a love is transformative. Some of you, through grief and heartache, have felt the Savior’s embrace, the stirrings of a personal gratitude, and a transforming love. Gregory of Nazianzus, a fourth-century voice of light, did. He portrayed in his most beautiful sermon a visual account of the Savior’s ministry. His reason for following the Christ comes through clearly and poignantly: In his imagined retelling, “[Jesus] teacheth, now on a mountain; now He discourseth on a plain; now He passeth over into a ship; now He rebuketh the surges. And perhaps He goes to sleep, in order that He may bless sleep also; … perhaps He weeps that He may make tears blessed.” Continuing on, Gregory sees in his mind’s eye the Savior as he approaches his earthly suffering: “He endureth all things …. He put up with blows, He bore spittings, He tasted gall….” Abruptly, Gregory breaks off because he is overcome with the feeling that he is not worthy to put into human language this incomprehensible being and his incomprehensible sacrifice: “And pardon me meanwhile that I again suffer a human affection. I am filled with indignation and grief for my Christ (and I would that you might sympathize with me) when I see my Christ dishonored on this account on which He most merited honor.”3
I believe Traherne is correct, that no one who sees the beauty of God’s face can willingly and wittingly forsake him. If that is true—yet everywhere we turn, men and women are “willingly forsaking the beauty of God’s face”—then perhaps the choices are not being made “wittingly.” Perhaps too many of us never came to fully know and see what Traherne—and Gregory—knew and saw and therefore loved. The poet John Milton wrote that if one believes because “his pastor says so … without knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes his heresy”;4 John Stuart Mill issued a parallel warning: “There is a class of persons … who think it enough if a person assents undoubtingly to what they think true, though he has no knowledge whatever of the grounds of the opinion …. This is not knowing the truth. Truth, thus held, is but one superstition the more, accidentally clinging to the words which enunciate a truth” (my emphases).5 Milton and Mill, like Traherne, are making the same point: we may hold the truth but hold it with insufficient understanding, appreciation, or intimacy; we may give it our assent without giving it our hearts; or we may know the correct facts about Christ and his Restoration without having experienced the Christ and his gospel. When Adam and Eve “knew” each other, they experienced each other in the most complete, total, immersive intimacy of which humans are capable.6 When the angel asked Nephi if he “knew” the condescension of God, he was clearly referring to more than an intellectual apprehension.7 He wanted to know if Nephi had been remade by the experience of Christ’s absolute compassion, the stunning realization of Christ’s shared suffering in our pain. Had he lived through what Alma referred to as a “mighty change” that impels one to “sing the song of redeeming love”?8
Declarations at the pulpit, expressing the familiar pattern of “I know,” are but shallow imitations of such intimate encounters that remake us and bring us face to face with a world, a life, and a God endowed with their true identity. One of Christianity’s first great apologists, Irenaeus, recognized the importance of reasoned argument in sustaining faith. Ultimately, however, he said Christ’s purpose was to effect an atonement—that is, a reconciliation, a union—of humans and God. And that union, that at-one-ing, is already unfolding under the transformative reality of the Spirit that brings us into communion with God. It is in the face of this reality—a lived transformation one can see at work in the life of his disciples—that the gospel of Jesus Christ finds its irrefutable witness. In the face of these lived, experienced, discernible truths, “all the doctrines” of the doubters “fall to ruin.”9 The rationality of faith is nowhere more evident than its lived efficacy.
Traherne is suggesting that our devotion to the Savior and Healer of the world may be thought of as having two components: a willing heart and a witting mind. Since that latter expression is crucial but perhaps unfamiliar, a definition is called for. A witting mind is one that is conscious, fully aware, rooted in the requisite knowledge. I want to link the two concepts of wit and will together in this way: Anything short of a fervent love for Jesus Christ, any belief structure that is not predicated on a profound and personal response to Him—a living, trusting response—is sure to fail us in the end. The seeds of that response must be sown in the soil of correct understanding. The deepest levels of devotion can only be stirred by our full understanding of the Other. However, it is not knowledge alone, taught the mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, but love that kindles the will.10
We may begin with habit, duty, fear of hell, or hope of heaven. But the only durable discipleship is rooted in the capacity to feel and reciprocate the love of Christ. Such love is the final stage of the disciple’s journey. The problem with institutional religion—even one divinely restored—is the temptation it affords us to make our own spirituality the goal. Rules, standards, and commandments all provide us with the means of measuring our own progress, our own prospects for happiness. That is not discipleship—it is pious self-interest, little different in motivation than Pascal’s infamous wager,11 and it is a plant that will not bloom.
But how to develop the kind of love that we seek? The love that has fired the hearts of Christ’s most fervent and steadfast disciples is not easily acquired. One of the wisest of Proverbs counsels us that if we “commit [our] works unto the Lord, [our] thoughts shall be established.”12 Great hope can emerge from those words because they assure us that the purest love and transcendent motives to which we aspire may come after a life of disciplined, effortful striving. That is why Moroni urges us that we must pray “with all the energy of heart” to obtain it;13 why, as President Benson urged, we must make faithfulness to his counsel a quest;14 why, as King Benjamin observed, we cannot know the master we have not served;15 why, as Alma counseled his son, we must learn to place all “the affections of [our] heart” upon him.16 Finally, it is why, as the Cambridge Platonist John Smith recognized, “that which enables us to know and understand aright the things of God, must be a living principle of holiness within us.”17 Prayerful seeking, a questing faithfulness, consistent service, disciplined desire, holiness—all these are indispensable elements of a love of Christ, which love is the only sure foundation. They are not my focus at present, though each one deserves a sermon of its own. I want to develop another foundation for a love-based discipleship, implied by Traherne’s reference to a “witting” devotion—that is, a devotion steeped in a thoughtful, reflective, and perceptive awareness. A knowing love. Perhaps this fulsome knowledge is what is entailed in the scriptural key that knowing God is life eternal.18
Think of the times in your life that you learned a deeper truth about a person you knew—maybe it was a person you loved. But as further aspects of that person’s life, or goodness, or suffering were revealed to you, your love deepened. I served a mission many years ago, using money I had conscientiously saved from a young age. But it ran out before my term of service did. Still, the money kept coming in. Only later did I learn that my mother had taken a job as a custodian, cleaning the local chapel every week, to secure the funds that saw me through my mission. Can you imagine the deepening of my love for a mother willing to quietly render such anonymous kindness to her son? My love was enlarged by a deeper understanding of her love.…
Restoration teachings usher us into a world in which all things are new.19 What happens when we pass through these doors of faith? According to Luke, the Lord, through the apostle Paul, had “opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles.”20 Paul’s role in Christian history was to restore covenantal understanding to its primeval intent: an invitation that extended its purview to encompass the entirety of the human family—Jew and Gentile, all are alike unto God.21 All may come and freely partake. That was the revolution ushered in by Paul. The doors of faith were now open to all.
But what if a second meaning lies concealed in Paul’s words—a meaning that heralds a revolution equally profound but more intimate, more personal. The words door of faith, in Luke’s sense, may well signify a moment when all are now free to pass through a gate into a new arena. After all, doors normally open to let us in. I want to argue for an equally potent but opposite meaning of these words. Only when something has been disturbed in our own minds are we open to new possibilities coming toward us. Perhaps the most important doors that had to be opened were not the gates of Church membership; perhaps they were the closed doors shaped by our own preconceptions. The power and potency of our faith is that it collapses sacred distances, fills the empty tomb with concrete artifacts, materializes angels, and furnishes heaven with familiar furniture. It is otherworldly and this-worldly because it draws all things together. By so doing, it shows the efficacy of faith in remaking the here and now.
I take the doors of faith to refer to the world to which we are now fully open. Immersion in the lived reality of Latter-day Saint teachings remaps our universe, and by so doing, it turns us from wandering trekkers into purposeful pilgrims. It rescripts the narrative and transforms us from characters in someone else’s play (Freud’s? Darwin’s? Nietzsche’s?) into living, breathing selves with a deep history and a real family. Entering through the doors of faith, we conceive an origin in heaven raised by heavenly parents. We interpret our travails here as an intended immersion in an earthly school of love with Christ as our ever-present Healer and Comforter. And we live with hope and confidence in our heavenly parents’ desire and capacity to guide us into full heirship with them and lasting communion with all those we hold dear. …
The scriptural record is replete with allusions to these moments of splendid irony when one awakens into, rather than from, the world’s deep reality. For instance, it was after his vision that Joseph “came to [him]self,” after Saul’s vision that “there fell from his eyes as it had been scales,” after their conversion that Alma’s converts “awoke unto God,” and so forth22—“a shock of awful consciousness,” in the poet Wordsworth’s language.23 There is enormous distance between assent to propositional claims and a truth fully lived when we open the doors of faith.
To open the doors of faith is to multiply possibilities, to give all options their due, to reclaim a child’s open-eyed delight in a world ever full of surprises we could not possibly anticipate. It is to find your soul capacious enough, like Enoch’s, to swell wide as eternity.24 That is what is at stake in embracing Restoration Christianity. Our spiritual eyes awaken, our moral faculties expand, our intellect is unfettered, the veil dissipates, and our capacity to live—here and now, a more abundant life—opens before us.
- John 6:66.
- Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations, in The Works of Thomas Traherne, ed. Jan Ross (Cambridge: D. S. Drewer, 2013), 90.
- Gregory Nazianzus, “On the Words of the Gospel,” oration 37, in Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd ser. [NPNF2] (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 7:338–39.
- John Milton, “Aeropagitica,” in The Prose Works of John Milton (London: W. Ball, 1838), 113.
- John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty,” in The Basic Writings of John Stuart Mill (New York: Random House, 2002), 36–37.
- Gen. 4:1.
- 1 Ne. 11:16.
- Alma 5:14, 26.
- Irenaeus, Against Heresies V.I.1, in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers [ANF] (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977) 1:527.
- Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and its Wonders and Hell: From Things Heard and Seen, trans. John Ager (n.p.: Aziloth Books, 2011), 231–32.
- The philosopher Blaise Pascal argued that because the post-mortal payout is eternal pain or joy and the investment only a temporal dedication to the good, it made mathematical sense to bet on the reality of God and judgment.
- Prov. 16:3.
- Moroni 7:48.
- Quoted in Donald Staheli, “Obedience—Life’s Great Challenge,” Ensign 28, no. 5 (May 1998): 82.
- Mosiah 5:13.
- Alma 37:36.
- John Smith, “The True Way or Method of Attaining Divine Knowledge,” in Select Discourses by John Smith, ed. Henry Griffin Williams, 4th ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1859), 3.
- John 17:3.
- Rev. 21:5.
- Acts 14:27.
- 2 Ne. 26:33.
- JSH 1:20; Alma 5:7; Acts 9:18.
- William Wordsworth, “The Excursion,” bk. 4, l. 1157 in The Collected Poems of William Wordsworth (London: Wordsworth Editions, 2006), 971.
- Moses 7:41.