Sunstone Article by Wayne Booth
MUSING ON MY MISSION
Though a doubter, I found myself a missionary wanting to believe in the validity of my service.
After five or six years of reading and questioning and privately conferring with pious but unorthodox teachers,4 as well as heated debates with orthodox and unforgiving authorities, the twenty-year-old Wayne Booth, argumentative and increasingly skeptical about many Mormon claims, and even more troubled by the behavior of many “Saints,” surprised a lot of people by accepting a mission call. As he put it to skeptical friends at byu, but never to the Church authorities, he was not going out to make converts, not to “get people dunked into the baptismal water,” but “to do good in the world” and “to start liberalizing the Church from within.” Did that feel hypocritical? Yes indeed–at least some of the time.
The key moment of decision went like this (reconstructed nearly thirty years later, in 1969, as I wrestled with my religious doubts and convictions in the light of my eighteen-year-old son’s accidental death):
Scene: The northwest corner of the Brigham Young University farmland, where the head sluice gates lie–sluice gates that I manipulate as I irrigate the farm through the long summer hours, reading my pocket Plato as I wait at the end of the furrows for the water to arrive. This evening, Professor M. Wilford Poulson has happened by, seen me pulling up a headgate, and stopped his car nearby. After finishing my simple task, I go to his car, place one rubber-booted foot on his fender, and we start talking. We talk and talk–talk on through the beautiful sunset, on into the twilight, slapping mosquitoes, talking, talking mainly about the Church and my doubts.
POULSON: Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water. You keep leaping ahead into areas you know nothing about. The fact that some Church leaders are dishonest or unjust doesn’t mean that the Church is valueless. Every institution, including every church, has some immoral leaders. Surely you’re not going to relapse into the position that because the Church claims to be divinely led, and its leaders are clearly not divine, it must be valueless, when judged in human terms.
WAYNE: No, but I don’t see any reason to . . .
POULSON: You shouldn’t be looking for reasons to. You should be looking only for reasons not to. Here you are, raised in a marvelously vital tradition, surrounded by an astonishing number of good, intelligent people who have found a way to organize their lives effectively. You come along and ask them for reasons to do what they are doing! What you should ask for, before giving up anything they offer you, is reasons not to go along.
WAYNE: But I just can’t stand even sitting in Church without speaking up when somebody talks nonsense. Last Sunday they were talking about personal devils, and some of them really believed that stuff.
POULSON: Well, you know what I’ve always said when some authority grills me on that one: “Of course I believe in personal devils. All my devils are personal.” It’s so unimportant whether you call it devils, or personal quests, or temptation, or schizophrenia. . .
The fifty-five-year-old widower, hated by many students for his nagging discipline in the classroom, mistrusted by the Church and university authorities, owner of “the best collection of books on Mormon history” (he has previously invited me into his basement to have a look at his collection of “forbidden” sources) talks on into the dark, feeling lucky (I have no doubt) to have with him one of those rare students who really loves discussing deep questions for hours on end.
Of course I cannot see the boy; I only feel myself standing there, chilling a bit in my wet socks, tired after twenty hours of irrigating (not hard labor, admittedly, but still–), changing from one foot to the other–and exhilarated beyond description: this is what life can be, this is one of the great times–I’ll stay here forever if he’ll only go on talking.
POULSON: What you should be doing, instead of trying to undermine other people’s belief, is discovering beliefs that you yourself can live by. And you’ll find most of them being taught right in the Church, by the people you’re attacking. That’s why I keep saying, “Show me a better Church.” I’m not determined to stay with this one, if you’ll find me another one that does as much good and that has fewer corrupt leaders, a better attitude on race, or what not.
WAYNE: But that’s not good enough. Don’t we have the right to hope for an institution that is at least honest with itself? I long for a cause that I can give myself to as fully as the believers–my father and mother, my grandparents–could give in earlier times.
POULSON: Well, I’m sure you can find it, if you want to badly enough. Because all you have to do is just put your mind to rest and let your emotions take over. Almost any church can easily become that to you, if you want it to badly enough. The Mormons have plenty of members like that; all causes do. What they lack is devoted men [I’m pretty sure he did not add women] who still are willing to think, not just be carried away with sentimentality. What they really need is a corps of missionaries who know everything that’s wrong about the Church and who don’t care, because they know that it can be an instrument for good in their hands.
In the dark, now, the moon not quite ready to rise, the stars bright as they never seem to be in 1969, the “old” man’s gray hair is faintly visible inside the car; the deep thoughtful voice pours out into the night. His dirty fingernails are now invisible, and there is nothing but prophetic voice and silver glow.
WAYNE: Do you mean to suggest that I should go on a mission?
POULSON: Why not? If you could work not to get the people under the water in the greatest possible number but to take them where you find them and help them to grow–why not? Can you think of a better way to spend two years than setting out to help other people–with no concern about your own welfare or future? That’s what the missionary system is, at its best. Oh, yes, I admit that it seldom works at its best. Most of the boys are so badly prepared, at nineteen or twenty, that they couldn’t even do a good job in the narrow definition of making converts. But you might, if you worked hard, if you thought hard, and if you could keep from worrying too much about your own reputation–you might make a real difference for a lot of people. Just take for example the whole question of charity toward backsliders–who has that in charge, in our present set-up? None of the other missionaries will be working on that, and you might. Why not?
So at ten o’clock they break up and a few days afterwards Wayne Clayson Booth accepts the call.
Now, here in the late nineties, it’s clear that young Booth thus landed himself in rhetorical waters far more turbulent than he could ever have predicted: even Poulson, who had served as a missionary before doing the historical research that for him dissolved the gold plates, could not have predicted what this “second-generation Mormon liberal” would encounter.
From day one, the young Booth had to deal with shock concerning differences between what he believed and what “every missionary believes.” His experience in the temple ceremony was so distressing that he almost gave up and went home, and he recorded in great detail the bloodthirsty oaths and other absurdities that were much more prominent in the ceremony then than now; Poulson and others had warned him that he would be shocked, but they had understated it.
And then he found himself tracting, door to door, struggling to reconcile what the manuals said he should teach with what he believed to be the best spiritual food for himself, for his companions, and for prospects who turned up. Now living daily with companions and supervisors who considered what he called “the superstitions” to be more important than love or charity or any of the other virtues, he found himself inevitably pursuing a practice that he would no doubt have cringed to hear called “rhetorology.” He became not a mere practitioner of persuasion (a “rhetor” trying to win converts to his views), and not the mere student of how people persuade (a “rhetorician”), but a rhetorologist: “How can I reconcile their rhetoric with mine, their surface codes with what I am sure are shared beliefs that are more important than all those conflicting literal claims?”
Elder Booth got to be pretty good at some amateur versions of rhetorology, sometimes in ways that his younger self (still surviving as conscience) damned as hypocritical. He somehow didn’t get far on liberalizing the whole Church from within, but he did learn how to pray in public in a language that accommodated the literalists without violating his own meditations. He learned how to give sermons that woke some people up, undermined their clich�s, and led them to dwell on the central virtues and limits of Mormonism, without leading (most of the time) to angry attacks against him for unorthodoxy. He learned how to learn from the orthodox what was really valuable in their orthodoxy. He did so well at it that the liberal mission president, Leo J. Muir, absorbed in Egyptian numerology rather than rhetorology, chose him as mission secretary at headquarters in Chicago. He even felt some sense of triumph, as he returned home, in January of 1944, at last facing the draft. How I wish I had a transcript of the “celebratory” talk he gave at his homecoming sacrament meeting.
NOT OF ONE MIND
How could I reconcile my liberal skepticism with my calling as a missionary?
That description of what he learned about dealing with rival rhetorics is much simpler and more cheerful than the picture I find in his journals of the time, full as they are of vast swings from up to down and back again. Sometimes he is in despair. Sometimes he finds himself cursing under his breath when listening to prayers that he considers not just stupid but wicked. Only rarely does he write openly, in the daily accounts, of the rhetorical problems he faces as he deals with the surrounding orthodoxy.
He slogs it out for two solid years, much of the time wrestling in his journal over the question of just which remaining “religious” ideas, if any, he can embrace. Like the history of many probers through their youth, his account reveals great swings from doubt to belief and back again, sometimes sounding absurd to me now, sometimes a bit pathetic, sometimes fairly impressive, depending partly on my mood as I re-read.
Often the journal reveals conflicts between the gods of scientific truth and the rival gods of moral and political service: “If you care about the truth of things,” I find him implying again and again, “you ought to quit this mission.” “If you care about human welfare, now or in the future, if you care about helping people, you should continue.”5
Most striking to me now are the ways in which Elder Booth labors to reconcile diverse views of religion and science in his missionary journal. When he reads Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution, for example, a book then touted by “liberal believers,” his response is that of a would-be believer rescued from the seas of doubt:
September 5, 1942
Bergson is magnificent, especially where he is obviously wrong or only guessing. Bergson is “righter” than most philosophers. Bergson is a man after my own heart . . .
[He says that] evolution does not come about through natural selection but through the existence of an original vital impetus–�lan vital–which is consciousness or “life” pushing upward against materiality (which naturally is descending). Through intuition and not through intellect we can discover this �lan vital. There is no limit in time to the impetus; it may even transcend death. It is a becoming–as is all movement–and the aim of philosophy should be to turn inward toward this becoming in order to apprehend, “in order to follow its present results.”
The “scientist” in him–he had enrolled at BYU intending to become a chemist of course raises doubts: Bergson “carries himself away in his enthusiasm” he writes, “and uses specious reasoning instead of real proof.” But what is palpable is the relief Booth feels at having found a reasonable argument for a new version of religious commitment. “One of my reasons for liking Bergson is the beautiful way in which he suits my recent conversion’ to spirituality, my reversion from materialism.” As he goes on reading Bergson and “mystics” such as Aldous Huxley and religious psychologists such as Carl Jung, his joy is palpable as he experiences a “feeling of oneness and sympathy for all life and especially all human life, the feeling of a creative and impelling force greater than oneself.” Elder Booth reports his pride in being able to do so without violating the tiny bits of “irreligious” or “scientific” knowledge that he thinks he has. But the threats of “hard reason” are never far removed:
Increased knowledge will surely supplant or modify much of Bergson’s metaphysics; his jet of life or energy or whatever it was must be little more than pure fancy. Quite probably his big idea of the consciousness and its instrumentality on matter is faulty. But that consciousness now transcends matter and can transcend it more in the future will not be refuted–I hope.
In entry after entry, I find Elder Booth struggling to reduce the dissonance between “religious belief” and “rationally defensible belief.” Armed with Bergson, and Plato, and (later) Jung (who “says that he has never known a psychological problem that was not essentially a religious problem”), Elder Booth can sometimes, with a clear conscience, “liberalize” whatever seems ready to be liberalized as it comes his way.6
September 8, 1942
Last night Clive Bradford [fellow missionary] and I had a long talk about the church, philosophy, the war, and the missionary system. Brad is an intelligent fellow, original in his thinking. . . . I’ve had him reading Hocking and Will Durant and James’ Varieties of Religious Experience.
|Elder Booth (right) and
his missionary companion, Elder
Marion D. Hanks. Booth went
on a mission to “liberalize Mormonism
from within” and ended up
framing a life-long interior dialogue,
the dynamic of which is religion for him.
That’s the tone of a young would-be wise man, spreading his mature harmonics to the world. The best critic of such pomposities was his favorite mission companion, Marion Duff Hanks. “Duff” provided brilliant challenges to most of his ideas, radical and conservative, and later provided the best possible model of what it means to be a totally devoted and active yet “liberal” Mormon. (As everyone says who knows Duff well, “He should have been made one of the Twelve.”)
Meanwhile, as the idiosyncratic mission drags on, the self-divided missionary takes refuge many hours each week in literature and music, sometimes with conscious reference to religious problems but often simply lost in the joys of art.
But almost every day he wrestles with religious questions. He says that he has discovered that every person is “a walking bundle of ineffability, a bit like God himself,” by which he apparently means that the existential richness of each person finally escapes any attempt at description: forget about conceptual problems, essentially irresolvable, and revel in the riches God’s world offers you. He reads Ulysses–can you picture it, reader, that young missionary, moving from orthodox testimony meetings to James Joyce’s night-town scenes and back to the meetings? — the “most clever, most intellectual, most sophisticated book I’ve ever read!”
Of course, by my definition of intellectual and sophistication I exclude practically every-one before the nineteenth century, though in reality they may require more downright intelligence — the great ones — than any of the moderns.
And then he goes on wrestling with the Church he had hoped to rescue. As his first long year draws to a close, he gets the idea of organizing the liberals:
If all the so-called Mormon liberals . . . could organize . . . some beneficial changes could be wrought (might even be just plain made, without having to be wrought, but I’m sure it would be much more effective if they were wrought).
But then, in a long, fascinating paragraph, most of which I’ll spare you, he describes the differences among the liberals and concludes that
the group who think as I do probably numbers no more than twenty at the most (and of course this is the right way, and all the others will eventually come to our position: of course!). Yes, we are a hodge-podge [the larger group of “liberals”] of mal-contents, and we’ll probably never get together.
By the middle of Elder Booth’s first year, the original reasons for becoming a missionary have grown rather dim. But the steady battle for intellectual freedom goes on, unofficial, never clearly formulated. In late December, eleven months in, “putting off the critique of Ulysses,” the boy decides to “tabulate and mull over my various interests,'” and he proceeds to do so in three, single-spaced typed pages. After some preliminary efforts at humor (one page), he finally begins what from the perspective here could almost be described as a dialogue among three rival gods: Truth (reality), Goodness (human progress, individual and social), and Beauty (the religion of art then dominating the lives of many he most admired):
My primary interest . . . is to get closer to reality–or, I could say, “I am interested in Philosophy.” I could profitably spend my whole time giving myself a rigorous philosophical education, working out a stable personal philosophical (al, al, al) position, getting at the truth of this mysticism business. This is partly intellectual curiosity, but more it is something akin to aesthetic yearnings. I want something–the right, real thing–to replace the religion-philosophy of my childhood. I think that the mystics and the humanists and the scientific materialists all have vital things still to say to me, and I wish I could be with them constantly. . . .
Among my [deepest interests] is my passion (please let me call it that, and don’t laugh) for great fiction and poetry. For instance, I could spend my whole time reading novels and training myself to write them–or at least to criticize them intelligently. . . .
Also in the “quest for reality” category is “science,” the much abused and much misunderstood bane and joy of all modern thinkers. Really my first intellectual love, it still looms large in my horizon. I leave it alone–when you spend time reading this book–you just can’t be reading that book far more than I should, because certainly with all my mystical leanings I must keep a firm grip on the genuine truth which science discovers.
Less ethereal, less theoretical, is my interest in politics. I’m subject to spasms of political conscience . . . the feeling that I should go actively into some liberal movement. . . .
And then, after adding music and art to these “passions,” he makes a slight bow to his missionary work:
Missionary work–I neglect it horribly, always able to justify myself by saying, “Well, I’m really not ready for mature missionary work yet; what do I know? What can I teach?” . . .
And so the debates among the rival gods go on, each aspiring to replace or at least subdue features of the god he had once embraced without question. Sometimes he sounds like an arrogant prophet of the Enlightenment, with no self-doubt whatever, but more often it’s a dance back and forth, up and down:
January 4, 1943 [one year to go, after several pages on music, art, and literature]:
T. Y. [his cousin then in the army] and I are still arguing somewhat futilely about the “gospel.” I find myself totally unable to convince him that when he persists in believing every detail of the J. S. [Joseph Smith] story, he is being gullible and intellectually immature. I cannot muster in sufficient force the long string of “reasons” for my present opinions to convince him. . . . His difficulty is that he thinks he has passed through the doubting period, that he has reached the final, firm ground of belief, and that I am where he was when he doubted. That is totally untrue. At the time he doubted it was merely youthful “questioning,” curiosity, “show-me-ness”–the same kind I experienced at about the same time. He cannot see that the unfirm ground on which I now tread is an entirely different intellectual bog from the one he once “wallowed” in. He says to me: “What is your concept of God?” I can’t give it to him clearly. He says, “What kind of future life do you envision if the Mormon position is unacceptable for you?” I can’t answer. He wonders why I doubt miracles. I can’t give him acceptable reasons. He believes in a personal God. He is therefore justified in allowing that God to do miracles. One of those miracles could logically be the . . . [establishment of the Church]. All of my pointing-out of irrationalities, or inconsistencies, does no good. In the first place, he is a clever talker and can find explanations less far-fetched than the usual kind used for apologetics. In the second place, he can accuse me of trying to make religion rational which it is not (and I must admit that my kind of religion is more irrational than his). And so we go the pointless rounds, he in Australia, I in Chicago. It is good clean sport, and hurts neither of us. Although he wants to convince me more than I want to convince him, since according to his doctrine I am deliberately retarding myself, still he does not get dogmatic with me . . . and he is a great relief from the regular arguments I get on religion.
January 29, 1943
. . . the Partisan Review arrived . . . a section of three articles, “The New Failure of Nerve,” by J. Dewey and two other almost-as-acute joes, made me realize even more fully than I’ve done before that I can’t accept anyone’s philosophy but my own. Their devastating comments in criticism of the so-called swing to religion were acceptable and–devastating. But their criticism of Neibuhr and Hocking . . . was more hard to take. But I had to admit the justice of many of the things they said, especially since I had said some of the same things myself.
Things they object to: (a) Attempts to discard the scientific method or to discredit it in social and political situations. (b) Arguments about “original sin”– whether literal or symbolical. Believing, they say, that man is irrevokably [sic] limited because [he is] not God, inevitably discourages attempts to eliminate the limits which can be eliminated. (c) The idea that since man’s absolutes are usually if not always fallible, a divine absolute should be cooked-up. (They of course completely reject the idea of God. But if one accepts the Mormon theology–eternal progression of each man until he himself attains godhood–this one objection to God is done away with.)
As is quite general with me lately, I am unable to come to a decision, nor can I even accept a probability. I rather lean toward the rationalists, while still seeing that much of their “certitudes” are mythical, as Santayana would admit that they are. . . .
And then, only two days later:
Santayana, with all his naturalism, says more favorable things about religion–even dogmatic religion–than I would be able to. What is worse, he convinces me of the justice of his comments, thus making me apologetic for all the time I’ve spent condemning my religion and my people.
How to know where to draw lines, that is the goal of the Life of Reason, and because S. has never had to break away from a conventional belief on his own initiative, he doesn’t realize the difficulties involved in drawing lines; he acts as though any halfway sensible person would be able to work out his compromises gracefully and quietly, without fanfare even in a diary.
Naturally, Elder Booth’s guilt about his hypocritical missionary work frequently almost chokes him:
March 16, 1943
In trying to detect any particular theme running through my dreams each night, I find only one: I am a fake and in danger of being found out. One night I am back at my irrigation, doing my usual half-hearted job, not knowing where to go next nor when the water will get out of control, cheating the university (which, in reality, I did [I had sometimes charged them for more hours than I spent, even as they cheated me by paying only twenty-five cents an hour]); next night I am claiming five pictures in an art gallery as my own, when in reality they are not. I stalk through my dream trying to avoid questions about my methods of work, knowing I cannot answer them intelligently. I even forget which are “mine” and am in fear that someone will ask me, and so on. Another night I am a crook going to high school, and I get discovered and have to shoot my way out. . . .
April 6, 1943
One possibility [in explaining these dreams, considered, rather belatedly, after trying out some others] is the essential hypocrisy of my present “mission” . . .