With all the reserve of a seasoned and genteel scholar, and all the reticence of a sympathetic and gentle soul, Richard Bushman delicately and obliquely addressed the spiritual elephant in the room in a recent interview:
“Why some recover their faith and others do not is a perplexing question. People with the same information take divergent paths. … Those who leave the Church often present their decision as a logical choice based on new facts they have learned. I am not entirely persuaded of that. I think there must be something deeper.”
What is that “something deeper” to which Brother Bushman refers? Perhaps too often, reluctant to touch it with even a ten-foot pole, we exhibit an irrational fear of the rationalist maxim against the ad hominem fallacy. I would not say that questions of belief and behavior should be injected routinely into the handling of conventional subjects with conventional evidence, using reason and logic (though Brigham Young advised even this to Karl G. Maeser). But spiritual knowledge, and matters that bear more directly on the larger meaning, values, and direction of our lives, depend on more than conventional intellectual tools. As President Russell M. Nelson has reminded us, when it comes to preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, the command is to say nothing but repentance unto this generation.
“One Samuel, a Lamanite,” was less subtle than Brother Bushman as “he did preach, many days, repentance unto the people.” Many who rejected Samuel’s message — those who we today might call “rationalists” — claimed that they did so because Samuel’s message was “not reasonable.” I don’t dispute that the gospel can seem unreasonable from a perspective limited to comfortable common sense, academic rigor applied to conventional evidence, and a time frame and focus limited to mortal life and experience.
What, then, can justify the unreasonable demands of the gospel? What can we experience here and now that leads to trust in the promises of eternity above the insistent signals of the flesh? The evidence comes, unmistakably if unconventionally, “as we repent daily and receive [the] cleansing, healing, and strengthening power [of Jesus Christ]. Then we can feel enduring peace and joy, even during turbulent times.” Compared with the noise and shiny objects of the world, this is the quiet and invisible glory of the Saints. It is real, and it is discernible.
That answer, expressed in President Nelson’s words, is not unrelated to one Bushman himself has given in trying to find the right words with incredulous academic colleagues. “In one of the few instances when I have risen to the occasion, I said, ‘When I live the [Latter-day Saint] way, I become the kind of man I want to be.’ Only something like that, like redemption, is powerful enough to create the good hearts of our missionaries and our faithful brothers and sisters.”
Repentance — “rethinking” — is not a comfortable message to give or receive, and very often it will not be heeded. But because of the fruit it bears when acted upon, it deserves our best efforts to make it relatable and intelligible, and our willingness to not shy away from it.
“Richard Bushman on the Gold Plates,” From the Desk of Kurt Manwaring, August 2020 https://www.fromthedesk.org/richard-bushman-gold-plates/?mc_cid=3014330b9b&mc_eid=94d8ac6206
“We Can Do Better and Be Better”, President Russell M. Nelson, April 2019
“Opening Message,” President Russell M. Nelson, April 2020, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2020/04/11nelson
“Richard Bushman: Embracing a ‘radiant’ Mormonism,” Deseret News, November 2017 https://www.deseret.com/2017/11/16/20623103/richard-bushman-embracing-a-radiant-mormonism