Conversion and Gambler's Logic
My mother used to hide in her bedroom when the Mormon missionaries came over; she would sit among her mother's old boxes and try to read the cookbooks she'd gathered up from the kitchen moments before the missionaries arrived. There were so many boxes in her room she had to make a trail to her bed. On days when she would lose something, she would sometimes rummage through the old boxes looking for the lost item, only to lose herself in memories of her mother. She could spend a frightening amount of time reading cookbooks in this cluttered room while the missionaries were over. She preferred to remain there, because she was sure that if she joined us in the living room, the missionaries wouldn't let her just sit and listen but would try to "get her."
My father liked stained-glass windows and the passion of Christ, but he never stayed in any church long enough to call it his timeworn home. He often boasted how our ancestors traced back to the eleventh-century Hildegard of Bingen, a German nun imbued with the gift of music. Hildegard's songs -- she refers to them as revelations -- are about as divine as can be. My parents were divorced, so it wasn't like my father was out in the living room with me and the missionaries -- but he was a large influence on me nonetheless. At one time my father used to assist an Episcopal minister in Seattle, sometimes giving the sermons (this was when I was a baby, too young to remember). Then he became Catholic, and told me I ought to think about becoming a Roman Catholic priest because they were in such high demand. Later he became Russian Orthodox, and bought some tapes to learn Russian, but that didn‘t work. Years later he switched again and became Methodist, reading and teaching the doctrine of John Wesley. Sometimes he dismissed them all (because of "political caving"), and polished his collection of guns.
I grew up in Burlington, Washington, sixty miles south of Canada, where I'd never even heard of Mormons. But I was good friends with the son of a Christian pastor and sometimes attended his church. The sermons of Mr. Medlin, a mild-mannered, ice-cream-eating man with a pot belly, included intense climaxes of speech that would distort the microphone with static and spit as he became enthusiastic about putting on the shield of righteousness, the sword of truth, the helmet of prayer, and other symbolic Christian protection. I didn't care much for his messages, but I did enjoy the intermittent singing, the jubilant hymns. I found them refreshing and uplifting. After the meetings ended, when the congregants departed, my friend and I slid his father's church keys up and down the aisles, swigged the holy grape juice in the church refrigerator, and ate the Christ wafers in the kitchen cupboards.
When my parents split up, my father stayed in Burlington while my mother and I moved two hours south to Tacoma. Feeling alone in the new city, I told my mother I wanted to find a church, and I picked out several and asked her to accompany me. First we went to the Presbyterians, and then the Baptists, and then the Church of Christ, but I was always distracted by some element I disliked. My mother, the chauffer, quietly drove me around, not expressing any preferences about faith except that she discouraged Catholicism for its policy against birth control. Her philosophy was to make me happy, provided I steered clear of drugs and other teenage ills.
About this time I met my first Mormon. He was not a missionary in a shiny suit wandering along the sidewalk with his companion, but was a boy my age, sixteen. I first saw him practicing his tennis serve on the side of a court in our apartment complex. He looked normal, with blond-hair and pale skin. I didn't know he was Mormon then, but nearly every day after I met Mike, beneath four towering apartment buildings with balconies, we bashed a fuzzy green ball back and forth until we could no longer see because of nightfall. He often cracked his racket in anger, and I often hit the ball over the fence, but these problems never happened on Sundays, because Mike didn't play tennis on Sundays.
One Sunday Mike invited me to his church. Tacoma's Mormon chapel stood on a hill near the Puget Sound. The chapel, made of red brick, consisted of a large indoor room surrounded by a hallway that contained dozens of classrooms. All the walls were plain and white, without any iconic adornment at all. The only icons were the children -- dozens of young girls in brightly colored dresses, young boys wearing ties of various lengths. They looked like model children except when they broke free and raced recklessly around the halls. Inside the main foyer, dozens of padded pews were lined up, as they are in most churches, except that, strangely, there was no cross or mural of Christ beyond the wooden pulpit -- just a white wall to look at, which was a staggered white wall with light shining from behind, if you can picture it. It looked as if heaven, or something very bright, was just beyond the wall.
It seemed to me that Mormons valued function more than form. Paintings and sculptures belonged to the category of the unnecessary; perhaps they were distracting, perhaps they were considered graven images -- it wasn't clear to me. Basketball hoops in holy places made the church friendlier, offering us a free-throw line to shoot from as well as a pew to rest on. The first meeting I attended was a fast and testimony meeting. Whoever wanted to speak could walk right up to the pulpit and take as much time as he or she wanted bearing his or her testimony. Sometimes the testimonies were drowned in the tears of the speakers, and I wished they would just buck up and say what they got up there to say, but I at least liked the idea that one could have a testimony. Having a testimony was a new concept to me. Someone told me that Brigham Young feared church members would believe anything he preached without praying to confirm the truth. He described these passive believers as people living with "reckless confidence" who had mistakenly chosen to "settle down in a state of blind self security."[i] I thought it was remarkable that people were encouraged to demand a reason for belief rather than believing blindly. It as if we were allowed to receive a spiritual sign. For all the warning about signs being demanded only by "an evil and adulterous generation," this was the one spiritual sign you could earnestly ask for without blasphemy.
I greatly anticipated the Mormons' hymns, but found them so slow and dour that I almost stopped singing in amazement that those around me could go along at a funereal pace. The hymns, I later learned, were mostly from the nineteenth century, the lyrics often altered from pre-existing tunes to suit Mormon doctrine. The slow pace was a let-down, though my friend reassured me that the organist was simply playing the meter slowly. Despite the hymns, I was quickly introduced to more than fifty smiling people who all welcomed me heartily. Enthusiastically shaking my hand, the members introduced their family members, who likewise shook my hand. I shook hands with so many people that first day I felt as if the bones in my hand folded inward.
With just a few exceptions, almost everyone was divided into family units. It seemed like these families had love; they were solid and traditional. They weren't perfect families -- as I learned when I visited some -- but they were together families, working to stay together, and as my own parents had run a different course, I was intrigued by a church that could keep families together. In the ensuing Sundays, when I showed up to church alone, a different family invited me to sit with them, adopting me for an hour or so. This adoption got to be a bit annoying, and soon I preferred to sit on a back pew all alone and watch them interact.
After I'd been to church a few times, my friend asked if I would hear the missionaries. I felt I couldn't say no. The missionaries were dressed in suits and looked mature for their age, sitting with upright posture on the edge of their chairs and presenting their messages with the precision and cordiality of business professionals. The two Utah-bred boys were well-groomed, polite, and attentive when I spoke. During the very first lesson one of the missionaries asked a question that caught me off guard. "How do you feel inside?" one of them asked. I didn't understand the question's intent, and I responded that I felt fine. "No," he said, "how do you feel, inside, right now?" I paused at the question, which required a personal answer rather than an opinion. As I concentrated, I realized that inside I felt as if I were stretched out in a hot bathtub of water, calm and comfortable as can be.
The missionaries of course had a purpose in identifying the feeling -- they firmly believed that this comfortable presence during the lesson proved that the things they were teaching were true. This placed a direct challenge on me -- they had offered a logical argument to which I had to answer, if not answer to them, at least to reconcile the question with myself. For the rest of the lesson I tried to judge whether my state of comfort was due to a divine influence or due to the couch I was halfway sunk into. I hadn't initially set out to find the "true" church, nor had I considered there to be one. I was ignorant of religion, really, and lumped all churches into one category, believing that there might be a best one, or a church most suitable for a certain person, but not one true at the exclusion of others. Yet in the process of the listening to these missionary lessons, I became more curious about religion and the assertions the missionaries were making. The idea of church was becoming more than a social community -- it included a mysterious, supernatural element.
My attempt over the next several days to judge whether the identified feeling was divine or ordinary probably resulted in my first philosophical contemplation. All day long I replayed again and again the moment I'd been sitting on the couch when the missionary asked how I felt inside. I know feelings are fickle, no doubt intimately connected to one's psycho-biological state. At the same time, they can be quite convincing. There were many variables that might have accounted for the pleasant internal atmosphere, which I would not have noticed had it not been suddenly pointed out to me. There was a difference inside of me, yes, but was it sufficient to arrive at a conclusion? It was not, in my opinion. I wanted more tangible evidence.
The missionaries constantly invited me to pray about the truth of the Book of Mormon, challenging me to take up Moroni's promise. I did pray several times for this spiritual sign to confirm my faith in the Book of Mormon, but I didn't get a hands-down, without-a-doubt-God-certainly-exists kind of answer. I mostly received silence and darting echoes of my own voice in my head. I figured that eventually something would come, so I continued with the lessons.
There were six missionary lessons taught over a period of three weeks. The missionaries talked about the Plan of Salvation, explaining that before we were born we lived with God and chose to come to earth where we would undergo trials and tribulations and so on and so forth. The missionaries said other churches were good but lacked the fullness of truth. "They're like a piano with some missing keys," they said. "Really?" I said. I didn't know how to respond, but one thing was for certain: whereas before I was ignorant about the world of religion, I was now being drawn into it. This idea of the Holy Ghost, was it real? Could one prove something through feelings rather than reason?
At this time I was in high school taking biology and learning about Darwin's theories of human evolution. Our teacher offered us extra credit for reading The Origin of Species. I took advantage of the opportunity, and soon the question of my origin began to occupy me. I wanted to know, as I suppose everyone does as some point, whether I came from some heavenly abode or from a worm in a cesspool. I hadn't initially set out to probe questions of origin, but now I thought about them. I made extensive lists of the pros and the cons. The arguments on the religious side were scant and lacked evidence, while the arguments of science had the persuasive power of scholarship and technology. When my construction of lists failed to help me decide, I proceeded to research the matter at the public library.
There was one pro-Mormon book and a handful of anti-Mormon books at the Tacoma Public Library. The pro-book offered simple explanations about the wholesomeness of the Latter-day Saints, describing their pioneer trek across the plains, the experience of the seagulls eating crickets, and a general introduction to their moral codes and faith. The anti-Mormon books, on the other hand, described Mormonism as a "cult," and asserted how horses and compasses and barley weren't in America two thousand years ago. After skimming these books, I drew up a list of questions for the missionaries.
When I presented the first question to the missionaries, they easily answered it and looked forward with eagerness for the next. I felt embarrassed after three and wadded up the rest of the questions. When I asked about evolution, they said ultimately I'd have to pray and ask God for an answer. They were certain I'd get an answer about the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, if I only asked with sincerity. But praying was not something I did at sixteen. My feeble attempts at it were short, unproductive, and unenlightening. They didn't know how strange it was for someone to pray to a being who only half-exists in your mind.
At age sixteen I wasn't much of a reader. I barely cracked open the Book of Mormon and was unfamiliar with Elizabethan English. Most of the reading I accomplished was with the missionaries themselves, who contextualized, summarized, and rephrased the passages to make them more immediate. One verse that stood out to me was a verse in Alma about a plant: Give place for a seed to grow, it said, and you will feel its swelling motions in your breast. It will feel delicious to your soul. When you feel these good, warm, delicious swelling motions in your soul, how can you say it is wrong? You will know that it is good. Religion wasn't cold, authoritative, and distant. It could be good, delicious swelling motions inside of you.
Once I asked the missionaries if there were remains of the Nephites scattered about the continent. They said there were, but that my testimony would not come by way of archeology. I later learned that archeological evidence of the ancient Nephite civilization was pretty obsolete, in terms of direct proof, though apparently there is no proof of Jesus Christ either. At any rate, I liked the Book of Mormon. It was American. It came out of American soil, through an American prophet, and presented a religious history that took place in a much closer hemisphere. The Bible was not only thousands of years old, its events took place on a continent oceans from my own. It was a history of one people in a tiny, distant land. Did the whole universe revolve around that one place? Did God have something against the rest of us? What about the Native Americans while the events in Jerusalem were taking place? It made sense to me, if God loved all of us, that others wouldn't be excluded. A God that excluded some and gave to others wasn't a god worth worshipping. And if the people of the ancient Americas weren't excluded, I felt they ought to have a religious history somewhere.
One Sunday in church our teacher drew a long line across the chalkboard and put a tiny dot in the middle. She explained that our position in life reflected the position on the line, meaning we had existed for eons before, and would exist for eons after. And what awaited us when we arrived at the end of that line? Nothing short of literally becoming gods. Not just imbued with a sense of godliness, or having charity somewhat approaching God's, but to be actually, physically, totally omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. To be a father children pray to. To run the big show, to manipulate the laws of the universe; to organize unorganized matter -- the whole kit-n-caboodle of deity. And women? Likewise, gods, but female Gods. Husband and Wife Gods. He, the Eternal Father in Heaven, she, the Eternal Mother. Both equal in power and glory. This idea changed how I perceived myself. Imagine me, I thought, a nobody, born in anonymity, a boy who lived half his childhood in a trailer park, now in training to become a god. God wasn't some cold, shapeless, disembodied echo, like alpha waves bouncing off the outer reaches of the universe. He wasn't alone either. He was human, a man; he walked and talked with a divine woman. They had a divine family. And I was a part of it.
According to many critics, this doctrine made Mormons non-Christians. But I could never worship a Father who would have little serfs for children. No doubt this refusal to be a serf stems from my American sense of limitless potential, and would be considered detrimental pride in other cultural contexts. A church member once told me Joseph Smith was lying on the grass and looked up at heaven and said to another, Do you know what I see? I see a Father, and Mother, and a Son. In other words, the family pattern on earth mirrored the pattern in heaven. This principle changed my idea of who and what God was: we weren't "sinners in the hands of an angry God,"[ii] we weren't destined to serve and worship the megalomania of another being, we weren't divine children handicapped in potential, and we wouldn't plucking a harp throughout eternity. We would be just like him.
This doctrine filled me with unbounded confidence in myself. If I was destined to be like God, then of course I could figure out how to do calculus. Of course I could map out a route to Texas on my motorcycle. I could do, do, do, man! -- there was nothing that I could not do, become, or understand without enough effort. I was here on earth to undergo learning experiences that would shape me into a god. If I suffered the pains of stilted romance, it was for such a purpose. If I broke my collar bone, then perhaps it was to understand others who had broken bones. My destiny was not to be a servant to God, but to be a God who would be a servant to his people.
I also soon learned another major theological concept: God was once a man. He had once been a boy like me, but had progressed, "line upon line, precept upon precept" until he reached the state of godhood. This theology was new and different; it was even Whitmanesque. Man was celebrated and deified for a change. A God who progresses from innocence to experience, or a state of boyhood, like I was in, to a state of ultimate manhood, or personhood, must pass through a series of trials; he must continually undergo tests and difficult experiences that will make grow, that will enrich him. God probably got sick and puked with the stomach flu. Maybe he tripped over cracks on the sidewalk while looking at the clouds. Perhaps he dribbled blueberry pie onto his shirt while eating in fancy restaurants. Hell, he probably even swore a few times. Joseph Smith said that if men don't understand God, they don't understand themselves.[iii] To think that I could even begin to understand what was in God's heart, only to find that in mine beat the same emotions -- he could cry, or be happy, get annoyed, or jealous, or be sad; he was full of feeling, maybe he became swept away in ideals, or got discouraged at how everything always failed. God was not different. I was not talking to an incomprehensible being best described as "Other." At my core were same feelings as His. He wasn't an alien hovering in outer space. He was like me, and if I could understand myself, I could understand God.
When my old friend Lance, the pastor's son, learned I was dipping my foot into Mormonism, he begged me to meet with an older brother in his church, "just to talk," he said. The older brother tried to dissuade me from the path I was following, and his chief argument he tried to stump me with was how God could have once been a man -- upon what earth would he have existed, created by who? Essentially for this doctrine to be logical, God would always require a father, and at some point we must arrive at an original creator.
I admit this is a good question, but no more difficult than the question of who created God. The answer, He always existed, is no better than the answer that each God always had a father. I have since come to discover a plethora of arguments against Mormonism, and while each one seems to shake my faith at the time, with more reflection and study I come to discover that the situation is always more complex than I initially imagine, and often neither side can ultimately establish a definitive argument. There are always arguments and counter-arguments ad infinitum, and if one cannot identify a rebuttal it isn't because no rebuttal exists, but because one is not clever or informed enough to create one.
The Mormon theology was attractive and I wanted to believe in it, but I couldn't make up my mind. I didn't know. I didn't know if it was all just a lie, because it almost sounded too good to be true. It placed man at the center of the universe, even the center of God's universe -- we were his entire "work and glory," one scripture said. But I couldn't create a faith out of pretending. I knew I wouldn't be able to return each Sunday pretending that it was all true. What about evolution, and all that evidence? I couldn't lie to myself. As much as I might pretend to believe, my pretending would ultimately leave me hollow.
I didn't want to join unless I could make a decision and believe whole-heartedly that it was correct. I wasn't going to get baptized just to win friends or security or whatever else the church offered. It is possible for those who grow up in the church, for those who are "cultural Mormons," perhaps to go along with the program without believing the program's events are real, only because the social consequences of leaving are so severe that it is sometimes better to bite your lip and endure. But for those without the social pressures, there is not much reason to endure what you might perceive to be a lie.
Mormons seemed upright, honest, wholesome -- "brothers and sisters," they called themselves, friendly and wanting nothing more than to do right and good. They lived strict moral and health codes, refraining from extra-marital sex or any other promiscuity, abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. Exceptions to obedience existed, of course, but the Mormons I met displayed such admirable qualities that I wanted to be one of them; they must have a hold of something good, I reasoned, because they themselves are good. If they were happy because of their beliefs, then I wanted to see if I too could believe and be happy too. But could I lie to myself? Were they all deceived, or did they each agree to pretend? How did they find the faith to believe?
I felt I had to decide where I stood in the world, whether I believed in God or not. Science had a dozen cogent points against religion, and all religion had for proof, as far as I could see, or feel, was the Holy Ghost, or my supposed brief feelings of it. I didn't want to lie to myself and pretend that I believed in the Mormon Church if in fact I did not.
I had to make a choice. The two options were not compatible. Either God existed somewhere or he did not. It came down to that. This was no either/or fallacy. And how could I ever know which was right, and which was the lie? Because I had felt a sense of peace during a missionary lesson? This didn't seem sufficient proof on which to base a life of spiritual dedication. The missionaries were prepared to deal with explaining why their church was the correct one, but not why I should believe in God in the first place. In my mind I never contemplated which church might be most correct, because I couldn't get past the first step of actually believing that God existed. If God didn't exist, then no church could be true. But how could I ever know for sure if God existed?
Was I to go about life only hoping that he existed? To raise my future children on a tenuous reasoning for God's existence, amounting to little more than finding an alternative to the dismal idea that with death all life ends? If God did exist, why did he make his presence so ambiguous in the world? I prayed but I didn't know what to say, and I didn't know how to listen, so I visited my Mormon friend and contemplated the happiness of his family, which wasn't really all that happy, but they did things together; they all sat down around the dinner table; the mother and father interacted, smiled, watched BYU football on the couch.
Coming to a definitive conclusion about God's existence, I decided, was a question I could not answer at the time; indeed it might never be fully answerable. So I made my decision according to gambler's logic: Supposing I were wrong about the inner feelings proving God's existence, what would I lose? Nothing. Because if I were wrong, I would wither away and become nothing, and my decision would not matter anyway, because nothing would ultimately matter. But if I were right, I had everything to gain. I decided I would try faith.
I told the missionaries I wanted to be baptized. They filled up the baptismal font -- which resembled a giant square bathtub -- and I stepped into the water. Since even young men can perform baptisms, I asked that my friend baptize me. He said a prayer and lowered me back into the water, and I emerged soaking wet but apparently free of sin.
[i] Young, Brigham, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 9. (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1974), 151.
[ii] Edwards, Jonathan, The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader, ed. Wilson H. Kimnach, Kenneth P. Minkema, and Douglas A. Sweeney (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 51.
[iii] Smith, Joseph, The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph, ed., comp. Andrew Ehat and Lyndon Cook (Orem, UT: Grandin Book Company, 1991), 340.
©2003 by Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson teaches writing at The American University of Cairo, Egypt,
where he lives with his wife and daughter. He is a recent graduate of
Columbia University's School of the Arts.