Good morning Matthew,
A copy of your book arrived on Friday, fast work by your distributor. This Sunday morning I have just finished reading it, testimony to how intrigued I was by your thoughts.
I write to you sitting on our deck 1000 feet above the Utah Valley floor, looking down at the Woodland Hills ward house and its parking lot full of the cars of morning worshipers. I often feel worshipful here, surrounded by groves of maples and scrub oak, breathing in the dusky fragrance of the pink Palmer’s penstemons that are so plentiful this spring, watching white butterflies in clusters of narrow-leaf sunflowers (the third set of yellow flowers that have burst from our meadow in succession, first arrowleaf balsamroot, then mule’s ears), listening to the liquid warbling of a black and white and bright yellow black-headed grosbeak, watching a doe that (I’m tempted to say “a doe who”) has just emerged from the grove below the grosbeak to browse the bunch grasses that are thicker and taller than usual this year, hearing the soft, deep triple coo of the dove that has just landed on the roof, thrilling to the swift buzzing flight of humming birds and the sharp-angled flight of a cliff swallow, following the segmented flight of a bright blue scrub jay, and, on cue, a sharp-shinned hawk, or is it a cooper’s hawk . . . maybe the latter, given its size . . . skims my perch with maybe ten feet to spare, disappears through a grove of trees.
The hawk’s flight elicits lines that have risen from my lips for decades at the sight of a raptor:
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! Then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, — the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Yesterday evening I read these same lines in your book, words written by Gerard Manley Hopkins “To Christ our Lord.” The light that breaks from Christ, the sonnet goes on to say, is “a billion / times told lovelier, more dangerous” than that from the magnificent bird. Because of my own belief that no light is lovelier or more dangerous than the light that breaks from nature, a nature that includes my fellow human beings, I don’t repeat the powerful lines about Christ when inspired by a hawk. But I do resonate with Hopkins’ thrilling perceptions. And I love your book.
You draw your title from another extraordinary passage I memorized while a student at BYU, Parley Pratt’s expansive statement about the gift of the Holy Ghost. He wrote that that gift “quickens all the intellectual faculties, increases, enlarges, expands and purifies all the natural passions and affections. . . . It invigorates all the faculties of the physical and intellectual man. . . . In short, it is . . . life to the whole being.” That is what I most wanted as a young man. It is what I still most deeply seek in my seventh decade. You return to Pratt’s declaration repeatedly in your book, as I do in my own life. The only difference between my belief and the beliefs of Pratt, my younger self, and the ones you express in the book is that I no longer see the Holy Ghost, or God, for that matter, as part of the equation.
In my book Dwelling in the Promised Land as a Stranger, I describe the epiphany I experienced while walking one day across the campus of Princeton University: I don’t believe in God. The sudden realization was momentarily disconcerting, but I quickly realized that the fact of that disbelief didn’t fundamentally alter who I was. In the ensuing years, I have experienced the same quickenings and expansions of body and mind and sociability I had earlier attributed to the gift of the Holy Ghost, experiences predicated on being attentive, thoughtful, charitable, perceptive, and loving, on being as good a person as I could be, given my own quirks and proclivities, on learning to be a better person.
Like you, I have made my living as a professor of literature…Scotish literature in your case, German literature in mine. Like your decision to return to BYU rather than continue at the University of Aberdeen, I made a momentous decision to leave Vanderbilt University, an institution better suited to a professional career as a Germanist, to return to BYU. I made my decision as an atheist devoted to the education of my people, to the opportunities that would arise through interactions with colleagues and students who shared a history and culture . . . and I missed the scent of sage. You describe your decision as inspired by the Spirit, contextualized by the various needs of your family, inspiration you parse with delicacy and great insight. The result for both of us, if I read you well, was and is experience that has broadened and deepened us human beings.
You eloquently interweave the inspirations and provocations literature affords us with related spiritual experiences. I know well those literary gaps and defamiliarizations, as you call them. I’m profoundly grateful for how they open the world to me, challenge me, offer new and productive perspectives, awaken empathy for and solidarity with fellow inhabitants of our planet.
As for religion, which you suggest lends structure and possibility for meaningful action, I understand and fondly remember the intimate interactions church service provides. I have found similar possibilities in efforts to support colleagues unjustly treated by institutions like BYU and UVU, in work your friend, Catholic theologian Mary Frohlich (oh to have a name that means cheerful!) describes this way: spiritual experience “is manifested in such forms as human love, intuitive knowing, or a sense of group solidarity. It is as important to extroverted forms of spiritual such as commitment to social justice or involvement in a Christian community as it is to traditional forms of . . . prayer.” You cite numerous moving experiences of your involvement in a Christian community. My book delineates my own commitment to social justice and fairness and to the idea of a less coercive university, one more in line with ideals I learned from Joseph Smith’s expansive vision, one that inspires and fosters “life to the whole being.”
A couple of final thoughts.
In your chapter “On Gaps and Defamiliarization . . . but mostly Gaps,” you took my breath away as you talked about challenges face by devout Mormon parents of gay children. This is the passage: these parents must “turn on a dime from expressing love by teaching ‘correct principles’ regarding chastity and marriage to expressing that love even more earnestly as stress fractures appear in those same principles under the weight of their children’s actual lives.” That you place “correct principles” in quotation marks opens the possibility for change. And then you double down on what is fundamental: earnestly expressed love in the context of the children’s actual lives.
My dear friend Alex Caldiero is a mystic, a Sicilian-American, Catholic-Mormon, truly mystical poet and artist. I am not a mystic in his sense, just as I’m not spiritual in your sense, Matthew. But Alex’s and your thoughts, your experiences, your inspirations work in me metaphorically. Do I believe in God? Yes, metaphorically. Do you believe in Joseph Smith as a prophet? Yes, metaphorically. I believe in nature. I believe in Whitman and Goethe and Nietzsche and Dostoevsky and Parley Pratt and Joseph Smith as prophets, metaphorically. Their literature works in me, thrills me, disconcerts me, makes me a better human.
By the way, I think you give Nietzsche short shrift as you focus only on his “God is dead” and on the story of his breakdown in the presence of the fallen horse. You assert that unlike Nietzsche, “Dostoevsky does not fully identify with his troubled protagonist; rather, he animates his character while making him part of a much larger symphony of meaning.” Your comparison of a biographical event with an event in a novel doesn’t really work. Further, the symphony of meaning found in Nietzsche’s work is also beautiful and inspiring and life changing. Reading Nietzsche is analogous, in a way to Prince Mishkin’s experience on viewing Holbein’s “Dead Christ.” That painting could make one lose one’s faith in God, he remarks, and the experience leads to one of the bleakest endings in all of literature, a trial of faith like no other. Nietzsche’s questioning of metaphysical certainty reminds me, in a way, of the questions you hold open with such skill throughout your book.
On another note, I was struck by the connection between Ivan Karamazov and Christ: “each promotes freedom.” I cherish freedom. Your book advocates for freedom in ways that resonate with me. I thank you for a weekend marked by the intimacy of your experience and by your thoughtfulness.