on the cover:
“The chances against this book’s ever being written are astronomical—you won’t find another like it. It says what is on everybody’s mind but nobody wants to talk about. Relentlessly honest, England asks us to take the plunge with him into icy and sometimes forbidding waters, and invariably we emerge on the other side feeling refreshed, invigorated, and glowing with a strong sense of testimony. How does he do it? By giving us experience all the way, instead of speculation and argument. He invites us to criticize to our heart’s content—but be sure to go all the way. For him, the Gospel demands dialogue in the manner of Abraham and Enoch, who dared to ask searching questions of the Lord and in reply got not reprimands but answers and blessings. His intensely personal reflections would be embarrassing if they did not always turn out to be the reader’s own. Always experience comes to the rescue, and the fact of existence itself silences the distant drum of entropy. A little learning is touchy, impetuous, and vain, but England is not goingto let us off with a little learning.” —Hugh Nibley
“The dean of the Mormon personal essay, Eugene England is a writer whose intellect feeds his spirit and whose spirit informs all his writing. This much anticipated volume contains the best essays of a man who believes that the Church is the true body of Christ and so has dedicated himself to keeping the members of that body, including himself, healthy—however painful the cure. On the altar of that belief he lays his considerable talent.” —Mary Bradford, editor, Mormon Women Speak
“Eugene England has a knowledge of Mormon history and insight to Mormon culture that is unique. But what he writes is more than historical explication or literary criticism; it is itself an experience, a struggle to know and to understand–to see feelingly. His essays are pilgrimages of spirit and form which often challenge fashion, but always exhibit that deep intellectual and spiritual integrity which has been the distinguishing characteristic of our finest meditational and devotional literature.” —Clifton Jolley, columnist, Deseret News
Dialogues With Myself
Personal Essays on Mormon Experience
Copyright 1984, Orion, an imprint of
Copyright © 1984 by Orion Books
All rights reserved.
Printed in the United States of America
Distributed by Signature Books, Midvale, Utah
dedication page: This book is for Charlotte,
who brings joy and pain and endures
By proving contraries, truth is made manifest.
—Joseph Smith, 1844
Foreword [see below]
01 – Joseph Smith and the Tragic Quest
02 – Obedience, Integrity, and the Paradox of Selfhood
03 – The Possibility of Dialogue
04 – Letter to a College Student
05 – Speaking the Truth in Love
06 – Great Books or True Religion? Defining the Mormon Scholar
07 – That They Might Not Suffer: The Gift of Atonement
08 – How Can God Be Both Good and Powerful?
09 – Blessing the Chevrolet
10 – Going to Conference
11 – The Hosanna Shout in Washington, D.C.
12 – The Mormon Cross
13 – Can Nations Love Their Enemies? An LDS Theology of Peace
14 – We Need to Liberate Mormon Men!
15 – What It Means to Be a Mormon Christian
16 – Enduring
[p.ix] On June 5, 1844, just two days before the publication of the libelous Nauvoo Expositor, which provoked a reaction in him that led directly to his murder by a mob, Joseph Smith wrote a generous, expansive letter to a Mr. Daniel Rupp, who had sent him his book on various U.S. religions. Joseph offered to provide information on Mormonism for a subsequent edition and praised the author for letting each church “tell its own story” and then putting those presentations together for comparison, because
By proving contraries, truth is made manifest.
For me this is a climax of tragic awareness in the man I believe has done more for the salvation of humankind than anyone except Jesus Christ. Part of the Prophet Joseph’s moral and spiritual heroism is focused for me in his growing insight (and willingness to risk all, including his life, on that insight) that tragic paradox lies at the heart of things and that life and salvation, truth and progress, come only through anxiously, bravely grappling with those paradoxes, both in action and in thought. In the next few days, after facing in writing the “contrary” nature of existence, he grappled in violent action with perhaps the central human paradox, public responsibility versus private integrity—community versus individual values, and he paid with his life for his courageous blend of loyalty to his covenant people, his covenanted Savior, and himself. I have been as true to his example as I know how as I have chosen what experiences to grapple with and have [p.x] confronted my central inner conflicts as I have written these dialogues with myself.
Ten years ago I became interested in the personal essay as a separate art form. I had already been writing personal essays for ten years and had published others’ essays in Dialogue without thinking much about the particular literary and religious strengths of the form. But in studying Mormon literature of the nineteenth century and then analyzing what many Mormon writers of my generation were doing that might be part of a recognizable literary tradition, I became convinced, as I wrote in a review of the first anthology of Mormon literature, that the Mormon heritage “shows to best advantage in various forms of personal witness to faith and experience, genres in which the truth of actual living, of quite direct confession, is at least as important as aesthetic or metaphorical truth, [such as] diaries, letters, sermons, lyric poetry,… autobiography,… and increasingly, the personal essay” (BYU Studies, Spring 1975). Since that time the Mormon personal essay has indeed increased in availability and conscious quality.
This collection is an attempt to show by example what the resources of the personal essay can be in a Mormon’s search for self and community. I have selected from my work with a variety of purposes: to show something of the range of subject matter and approach possible in the personal essay; to give a personal version of the intellectual and cultural history of Mormonism over the past twenty years; and, of course, to bear witness to the conditions of my own growth of mind and spirit during that period.
I begin with two essays that set forth the theological and historical basis for the unusual potential of the Mormon personal essay. Joseph Smith revealed and lived a restored Christianity that profoundly highlights our tragic predicament: We are eternal, indestructible beings who have unlimited potential for progression, with the example and aid of God, whose work and glory is to bring us the joy of that progression. But we live in a universe of matter/energy, other beings, and natural laws that were not created by God and cannot be destroyed or forced by God, a universe that is, in its fundamental nature, full of opposites, paradoxes, incompletions—all of which cause pain and loss as well as make possible struggle and growth and joy. The fundamental opposition, the most fruitful paradox, is that our lonely eternal selves can only flower into full selfhood in relationship with other eternal selves, particularly [p.xi] God the Father and Mother, the community of Saints which God establishes on the earth to teach, nurture, and test us, and our own eternal married companion. Those relationships require that we curb our radical egotism in obedience and self-sacrifice, even at the cost of what seems our precious integrity. They require that we enter into genuine dialogue with other selves, appreciate their sometimes contradictory integrity, learn to speak the truth, but in love. As I explain and try to demonstrate in the next four essays we must learn to appreciate, even enjoy, that process of give and take, especially in the Church, which is truly, I believe, “the school of love”—and is that in good part because of the very challenges and struggles that it confronts us with.
Next I define what I believe a Mormon scholar in our time can be—critical and innovative as his gifts from God require but conscious of and loyal to his own unique heritage and nurturing community and thus able to exercise those gifts without harm to others or himself; then I try to demonstrate that role by taking on some of the thorniest theological and ethical issues confronting modern Mormons. First I develop my understanding of the unusual Mormon view of the most important and perplexing theological idea in Christianity—that we can be changed, saved from our universal human sinfulness, by the suffering and death of a being who lived 2,000 years ago. I explore the uniquely Mormon idea that our eternal, individual agency is what must be surmounted by Christ—who cannot do it by force but only by using our innate sense of justice to bring us guilt and remorse for our mistakes and then by lifting us out of that immobilizing remorse through his unconditional love that gives us the power, in our personal response, to change, to have “faith unto repentance.” Then I explore the unique Mormon response to the perennial problem of explaining evil in a universe created by a supposedly all-powerful God—as well as God’s seemingly selective interference in that universe. I do this first through reviewing a popular book on these questions and then through reporting my own experiences in healing family and friends and even my Chevrolet.
After a respite from this heavy going—provided by accounts of my experience with two unique Mormon traditions, traveling to general conference in Salt Lake City and participating in the “Hosanna Shout” at temple dedications, I return to the most pressing ethical dilemmas of the past twenty years: withholding the priesthood from blacks, participation of Mormons in war, and our view of the roles of men and women. I find in all three cases that central Mormon doctrines are the most [p.xii] challenging and exemplary, even exciting, that are available to help with these troubling matters—but that the practices and popular theologies of many Mormons, including myself, come up short. In the same manner, I address the current flurry of anti-Mormonism, sparked by “Ex-Mormons for Jesus” in cooperation with various Evangelical Protestant churches; I defend the solid scriptural basis for our Christian theology and high ethical ideals but recognize our failure to live up to either fully, our need to learn from other Christians who emphasize certain things, such as grace, in ways that may be helpful to us and them, and our responsibility to endure these growing persecutions without overreacting or turning in suspicion on each other.
My final essay is about such enduring—in the face of the unanswerable paradoxes I have explored throughout and the continuing injustice, suffering, and suspicion, as well as wonder and joy and service that our lives as Mormon humans are made up of. It expresses part of what it has been like for me, over the past few years, as I have, in constant dialogue with myself and others—particularly Charlotte—struggled to be faithful in the tragic quest that my testimony of Joseph Smith and his Church have called me to.
I am grateful to the Association for Mormon Letters, BYU Studies, BYU Today, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Ensign, Exponent II, and Sunstone for permission to publish certain of the following essays, as indicated in the headnotes. I also gratefully acknowledge the following people: Richard Cracroft and Gene Dalton, for counsel and encouragement; Karen Howard, Melvin Smith, Pamela Lindsay, and Twila Van Leer for typesetting and proofreading; Michael Graves for design and Brian Bates for photography; and Mary Bradford, Clifton Jolley, and Hugh Nibley for reading the manuscript and writing responses for the back cover.