Matters of Conscience
Sterling M. McMurrin and L. Jackson Newell
At Home in the World
[p. 351] Sterling, in addition to your rich personal life, three institutions have been the focus of your lifelong interest: religion and the Mormon church, education and the University of Utah, and government in the form of cultural policy. Start wherever you like, and let’s look at your conclusions about each institution after eight decades on this planet.
Well, Jack, I’ll begin by reflecting on my life as a whole. Looking back over the years, I can easily see where I should have done things differently and might have steered clear of some things that didn’t pan out. But there are other places where I overcame an obstacle or removed one, or successfully advanced an idea, or effected changes in an organization.
If it were simply a matter of doing it all over again, what might you have changed?
I would rather have written two or three good books on philosophic problems, in the hope of making a contribution to learning and human values, than to have done what I did in the university’s administration or in the federal government. It gave me far more pleasure to sit in my own study and try to run down some basic idea in ancient Greek thought than to sit in a meeting of the Graduate Council or a federal commission and hassle over regulations and financial problems. I found more pleasure and satisfaction in dealing with university students than in working with members of Congress.
Are you saying that you found no satisfaction in academic leadership or national policy making?
Of course, we gain some satisfaction from administrative work, but seldom a sense of intellectual accomplishment. I have found far more pleasure in scholarly activities than in institutional leadership.
Sterling, how would you appraise the development of your philosophical interests over the years?
My interests have changed a good deal in research and writing. [p. 352] When I was an undergraduate and graduate student, my interests were primarily in the theory of knowledge, and that lasted right through my doctoral studies and dissertation, which was on the logical analysis of value judgments. Then I got over the epistemological syndrome and began to pay attention to other things. I was never much interested in the study of ethics or aesthetics, but I gave more attention to problems in metaphysics. For many years my main interest has been the philosophy of history and the history of philosophy. Recently I’ve gone back to the history of religion, which was another major interest of mine as an undergraduate.
But that’s not the sort of course you taught at the university until toward the end of your career?
When I first came to the University of Utah, I taught courses in Asian philosophy and religion, and also in the history of philosophy. I didn’t teach the philosophy of religion or the history of occidental religion. Obert Tanner was in the latter field—and later Max Rogers. In the sixties I began paying attention again to the history of Christianity, and I’ve probably spent more time there than I should have. This has been due in part to my involvement with Rogers and Tanner in the volume Toward Understanding the New Testament.
Why do you say you have spent too much time on the history of Christianity?
I can think of so many other things that I should have devoted more time to, that’s all. I would like to have devoted much more time to the study of logic and, among other things, the history of philosophy. At one time I was under agreement with two publishers to produce two books, a history of philosophy and a volume on Mormon philosophy, neither of which materialized because of lack of time.
You have mentioned several times that you wish you had spent more time studying languages. Which languages and where would you have fit this pursuit into your education?
I should have studied more Latin and Greek as an undergraduate, along with more mathematics and logic. I could always have used more competence in modern languages, too.
Most doctoral programs don’t require any foreign languages now. Is this a step backward?
Actually, eliminating the standard all-university language requirement for the Ph.D. was my gift to graduate students across the country. My predecessor as dean of the Graduate School, Henry Eyring, a great scientist, had a typical iron-clad rule about languages. He used to say, “They’ve got to know French and German if they’re going to get a [p. 353] Ph.D. from this institution.” Well, I was no sooner dean of the Graduate School, replacing Henry in 1966, than I learned that as dean he had wisely made all kinds of exceptions—often on the recommendation of a student’s doctoral committee. For instance, if a student were doing something related to Russia, he could use Russian for one of his languages. That made perfectly good sense. I felt that if a departmental committee could be trusted with determining what the person should study for the degree, it should also be entrusted with decisions regarding what languages are pertinent. In some cases it might even be a requirement of advanced statistics or, more recently, a computer language.
At about this time you were invited to address the national meeting of the Council of Graduate Deans?
Yes. Well, the chair of that plenary session was Peter Elder, dean at Harvard and a scholar of very high order in the humanities. I had a feeling Elder wasn’t going to like what I was about to say. My paper was on the standard all-university language requirement, and I went right down the line opposing this requirement. I insisted that it has created a tyranny of language departments over graduate students and tends to be a mechanical requirement rather than one geared to the best education of the student.
Well, Peter Elder was a classicist, and I was sure he would just hit the ceiling. Instead, he got up after my address and said that he wanted to know, by a show of hands, how many of the deans would go home and do the right thing—and the right thing was what I had recommended: get rid of the all-university language requirement for graduate degrees and open it up so that requirements could be designed that fit each student’s particular needs.
How did the audience respond?
A few hands started to come up, but Elder wasn’t satisfied. “More, more,” he insisted, and you know pretty soon he had most of those hands up. I walked out of there as a kind of hero of the day. That’s why I say it’s my gift to graduate students. Now I didn’t intend, of course, nor did Elder, that language requirements simply be dropped—just that they be tailored to the student’s scholarly work. I also argued, Jack, for more undergraduate language as a requirement for admission to graduate school.
In your own case, you studied Latin in high school and college, but where did you pick up Greek?
I never had a formal course in Greek. A Latin teacher who wanted me to know Greek spent a lot of time tutoring me. I can wade through [p. 354] Latin, but Greek is another matter.
Sterling, you have written several books of enduring value. Your two “Foundations” pieces on Mormon philosophy and theology created quite a stir in the 1950s and sixties and still enjoy high respect. We’ve talked previously about the unusual circumstances that led to you, as a nonbeliever, writing them, but I want to hear more about official and personal responses to these works.
As you know, the first of these, The Philosophical Foundations of Mormon Theology, is an extensive essay that I wrote for delivery in a lecture series on religion that was established cooperatively by the major universities in Utah in 1958. I read the lecture at those institutions, and then, when Ohio State asked the LDS church to provide a lecturer on Mormonism for its religion week, Apostle Harold B. Lee asked me to give it at your alma mater, Jack.
How was this essay received when it was published by the University of Utah Press in 1959?
President Olpin of the university sent published copies of the address to the general authorities of the LDS church. He received several letters in reply, which he passed on to me. One, from President David O. McKay, concluded by saying: “I am glad [McMurrin] is on the faculty of the University of Utah and also a member of the church. I hold his name in high regard.”1 Another letter, from J. Reuben Clark, the second counselor to President McKay, stated that “there is a great deal of difference of opinion regarding [McMurrin’s] address and its usefulness to us …. A lot of people are troubled about a lot of things about which they know nothing.” So, you see, it all depended on the reader. This little book was still in print the last time I checked. I see it once in a while in the bookstores and still occasionally receive letters that have been prompted by it.
Now, about the other volume, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion?
It arose from a series of lectures on Mormon theology that the Extension Division of the university asked me to give during the winter of 1965. I offered my lectures with the understanding that they would initiate a larger series of lectures on world religions—featuring Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Unfortunately, the larger series never materialized.
[p. 355] How did your lectures go? I know they were published very soon after you gave them.
They were well attended, even though there was an admission charge. In 1965 the University Press published the lectures as a single volume, just as I read them for the public audience. I added an additional lecture treating the question of whether God is a person which I had given on the Great Issues Forum sometime earlier. The book was published first in hardback and then in paperback. This book is not an argument either for or against Mormonism, or religion, for that matter. It is entirely expository and was intended to call attention to the more important facets of Mormon theology.
What about your 1982 book Religion, Reason, and Truth: Essays on the Philosophy of Religion?
It’s a volume of essays that I had written earlier, together with several that I wrote especially for this publication. The essays are both analytical and substantive and, as with most things that I write, they have a pronounced historical flavor. I was pleased that Charles Hartshorne, whom I regard as the foremost contemporary philosopher of religion, commented favorably about this book in his essay in The Library of Living Philosophers volume on his philosophy. Hartshorne, as you know, was a leader in the process theology movement.
How extensive is the body of your published work?
I think my work to date, including books edited or co-authored, comes to a total of about twenty-three volumes. That includes three things that I wrote for the Committee for Economic Development with the assistance and support of a number of research scholars, and which did not actually carry my name as author. I am listed simply as the director of the educational projects in which the volumes were issued. My bibliography lists about 250 or 300 published papers and many unpublished writings.
Of your major published works, Sterling, which ones have brought you greatest satisfaction?
Oh, hell, I don’t know. I’m not sure that any of them have brought a lot of satisfaction. What I would really like to do, my main interest now, is to write a good book on the philosophy of history. I have a manuscript on this subject in the works. Perhaps it will represent what I have really wanted to say.
Speaking of satisfactions, Jack, one of the things about the pursuit of academic philosophy is that you are concerned with minds of the highest order. There isn’t time to spend on minor ones. This has meant [p. 356] for me some association with a few of the world’s leading thinkers. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, for instance, later became president of India and was the foremost philosophical scholar of Asia. When he visited Utah in the 1950s, President Olpin and I were his hosts. I arranged for him a meeting with President McKay, a special concert in his honor by the Tabernacle Choir, and a luncheon with the governor. His lecture at the university was published. It was a memorable association. We even went to the Bingham Copper Mine across the valley.
When Brand Blanshard, the nation’s foremost rationalist and a philosopher of great distinction, visited the university from Yale, I did a series of televised interviews with him. I think you’ve seen the tapes, Jack. Both Radhakrishnan and Blanshard are in the prestigious Library of Living Philosophers, along with Martin Buber and nearly twenty others. I serve on the board that selects the world’s leading philosophers for inclusion in this series. It has been my good fortune to have associated with a surprising number of truly great scholars, including Jewish theologians Louis Finkelstein and R. H. Pfeiffer.
What about the personal side of living, Sterling, your social life and your cultural interests?
I have sometimes been asked, especially in the East, how I can survive in Utah—by which they imply that we live in an intellectual and cultural wasteland. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Although here we are quite isolated geographically, we live in a state that is unmatched for its physical variety and beauty, in a culture that encourages imagination and action, and in a place where human relations are strong and lasting, and where there is an authentic commitment to the pursuit of humane values. I don’t know what you think about it, Jack, but I’ve seen a lot of places and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
Of course you were born here, and partially grew up here, so you can’t be objective, Sterling! Now I came here to the University of Utah at the age of thirty-five, with the aim of staying only a few years and moving on, but after two decades Linda and I have not found a place we’d rather live and work. This is our home. So perhaps you’re right after all. Let’s talk about your social life next, Sterling.
Natalie and I have had a rather wide, far-reaching social life in Utah. When we were living in California in the late 1940s, we did very little but associate with a few close friends and members of my family. Natalie had no relatives living in that part of California. After we came to Utah in 1948, however, our circle of friends expanded greatly. Our social life [p. 357] has been primarily through the university and other colleges in the state—though we have had many pleasant connections through the LDS church, and we have wonderful neighbors. Of course, we have also made numerous friendships beyond the boundaries of Utah and the mountain west. The serious discussion group that you and Linda and Natalie and I belong to—the so-called “Monday Nighters”—includes some of our most intimate friends. Several who were original members of the group have died, and we have replaced them with younger people like you and Linda. It has been a delightful experience for Natalie and me.
What are Natalie’s special interests?
Natalie belongs to the Daughters of the American Colonists and has been regent of the Utah Chapter. She has the qualifications for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution (the DAR), and her great-aunt Mattie and her mother, who were both active in the DAR, insisted that she join that organization. But she didn’t like some of their group prejudices, so she settled for the Colonists. Natalie’s Aunt Mattie once said to her, “Natalie, your prejudices have been sadly neglected.”
And, happily, they have remained so! What cultural events do the two of you especially enjoy?
We have always held season tickets to the Pioneer Theatre at the university, the Utah Opera, Ballet West, and the Utah Symphony. The fine arts have always played a large role in my life with Natalie, especially music. I sometimes hear of people who spend a week or two in some “retreat” to “renew” their souls. A two-hour concert of the Utah Symphony is all it takes to renew mine. Or a half-hour concert of the Tabernacle organ will do the job. As a matter of fact, I am a “Tabernacle organaholic.” When we were students at the university, Natalie and I were fixtures at the Tabernacle organ concerts. In later years we were close friends of the great organist Alexander Schreiner, whom I first met as a student at UCLA when he was the organist in Royce Hall. Alex did a Ph.D. in music composition at the University of Utah, minoring in philosophy. He took all of my classes. He was a delightful person. On several occasions he gave special concerts for distinguished visitors at our request, taking them back into the heart of the organ and sometimes into the roof of the Tabernacle to examine its unique “cowhide” construction.
What is it about music that speaks to your soul?
Like music itself, musicians have always seemed to me to be inhabitants of an ideal world. If I had several lives to live, I would want [p. 358] one of them to be in music—not as a performer, but as a composer of symphonies. I have been more deeply impressed by the music that I have heard than by the books I have read. My deep sense of the tragedy and triumph of life, expressed in the world’s greatest literature, for example the Book of Job, is a living experience in the world’s greatest music.
Natalie and I had a warm friendship with Maurice Abravanel, the chief creator of the Utah Symphony, whom we admired not only for his great artistry, but as well for his becoming a sincere and understanding member of his adopted community. We have had many friends in the world of music, including Aaron Copland, Leroy Robertson, the celebrated Mormon composer, Harry Rickel, a brilliant pianist and harpsichordist in Arizona; Lowell Durham, a composer and music critic whose honesty and humor never failed to delight his audiences; Ardean Watts, who can produce a symphony on the piano; and the highly talented choir director Jay Welch. More recently, we have become close friends of Russian-American violist Mikhail Boguslavsky and his wife, Nina, who are mines of artistic and literary culture. All of these people have given dimension to our daily lives.
Do the visual arts inspire you, too?
I think Natalie is more sensitive to the visual arts than I am. We are both addicted to ballet, partly through the influence of Willam Christensen, the creator of Ballet West. I am affected emotionally by great architecture, such as the Salisbury and Chartres cathedrals, the Brooklyn Bridge, the basilica of Saint Peter’s and the Pantheon in Rome, the Parthenon in Athens, and the Taj Mahal. On one occasion we went from Rome to Istanbul primarily to see the interior of the dome of the Hagia Sophia. Natalie and I are both pleased that our second son, Sterling James, turned to architecture, and that our youngest daughter, Melanie, is now pursuing painting, for which she has real talent.
I know you have also visited some of the world’s great museums . . .
Yes, we have always been drawn to great art museums and have visited many of them, from the Prado in Madrid to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. I am personally overwhelmed by these collections, and I’m aware that I don’t have the capacity to appreciate what I am seeing. The University of Utah is fortunate to have a small but very high-quality art museum whose director, Frank Sanguinetti, is a man of most unusual talent and sophistication.
Friends have always been central to your life and work—to the kind of life that you and Natalie live. How do you think about friendship? What is it?
Of course, Jack, there are friends—and friends—family friends, [p. 359] friendly neighbors and colleagues, and casual friends. True friendship, the real thing, however, is more restrictive and intense. For me, such friendships are an ineffable experience that cannot be adequately defined or described, but they affect the whole qualify of a person’s life—attitudes, pleasures, and general temperament.
Among our intimate friends there have been many of uncommon talents and achievement. None has been more celebrated than the portrait artist Alvin Gittins. He was a wise and highly sophisticated person and without question an artist of supreme talents. He did a portrait of me for the university when I returned from serving as U.S. Commissioner of Education back in the sixties. He and I retreated to a hilltop villa for a week near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, a favorite spot of his, to do the portrait.
It hangs in the Winder Board Room in the Park Building. During long and boring meetings there, I have often contemplated your youthful bearing in that somber brown suit. Now I must picture you posing in that dark wool coat under a palm tree in the sweltering heat of the tropical sun!
Just two or three weeks before his untimely death, Al told me he was planning another portrait of me because, being older, I would make a better subject. I was very pleased with the first one.
Gittins was a master. I think his portraits of Jack Adamson, Brig Madsen, and David Gardner were among his best. His use of light, and his ability to capture subtle personality traits, were truly awesome.
Great poets make me feel the same way Gittins’s paintings do. I have no talent whatsoever for poetry, and I’m afraid I have an inadequate appreciation for it, but I think I know great poetry when I hear it. I have had at least some connection with two major poets, Brewster Ghiselin at the University of Utah and Carl Sandburg when he visited the university back in the late fifties. Sandburg was scheduled to lecture at the university, and he called me by telephone from Provo and asked if he could stay with Natalie and me while he was in Salt Lake. I had never before had any contact with him. Natalie and I with our daughter Trudy drove to Provo to bring him to Salt Lake. He was a delightful guest, as long as we had him, but we learned that the student body president who had invited him to lecture had planned to have Sandburg stay with him at his parents’ home. So we gave him up for the night. But we had a delightful time with Sandburg and delivered him to the airport when he left.
I’ve heard many colorful accounts of Sandburg’s presentation at the university. You have mentioned a number of artists, Sterling, but I know [p. 360] you are equally fascinated by the sciences.
I have had friends among scientists, even though I am not a scientist and know far too little about science. Natalie and I have had a warm relationship, since our student days, with the linguist and anthropologist Charles Dibble, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Aztec language and culture. I can’t resist telling you of my first meeting with Charlie back in early 1935. He had seen Natalie and me together on the campus, and he came into a classroom where I was sitting and said, “Say, if you decide you don’t want that girl I saw you with, I wish you’d let me know.” Of course, that was before he met his wife, to whom he is greatly devoted. I decided to keep Natalie, and she me, but the three of us became and have remained close.
Your predecessor as graduate dean, Henry Eyring, was one of the world’s celebrated physical chemists. I know he was expected more than once to win a Nobel Prize. Here at home, of course, he was revered by the Mormon community as a scientist who never lost his Mormon beliefs.
We had countless conversations on matters relating to science and religion. Henry was, as is well known, religiously orthodox, and though we found areas of agreement, for the most part we were miles apart on religion. He wanted me to join him in doing a volume on religion and science, but that was out of the question for me. He could hold his magnificent scientific understanding separate from his theology, but that sort of compartmentalization never worked in my case. Henry was truly a great treasure for the university, the church, and, indeed, for the nation.
Your writing and teaching have been primarily in the humanities—what about your associates near your home base in academe?
I have talked already at great length about people in philosophy at the University of Utah, especially E. E. Ericksen and Waldemer Read, teachers and friends from my student days, and about my long and fruitful friendships with Louis Zucker, Boyer Jarvis, and Obert Tanner. But I must tell you about my daily associations with two or three others at the university. There aren’t many first-rate scholars in these parts in the field of religion, but you are well acquainted with Lewis M. Rogers with whom I worked on the book on the New Testament. Max is a highly competent scholar, and I regard him as the leading living biblical scholar in the Mormon community. Stan Larson at the Marriott Library is also a meticulous scholar and strong contributor in this domain.
Two other friends of mine, major university figures as teachers and writers, were Jack Adamson, who died at the height of his powers in 1975, and William Mulder, who writes elegant and insightful prose. An [p .361] unsung Utah scholar who deserves to be remembered in the humanities was Brigham Young University professor P. A. Christensen. P. A. was for many years head of the BYU department of English and he mentored many fine teachers and writers. Teachers of his stature too often get lost from history.
What about friends outside the halls of academe?
In recent years I have enjoyed the friendship of George D. Smith of San Francisco, a historian and writer of considerable capabilities, and a publisher of books. Through his company, Signature Books, he and others have made great contributions to the understanding of Mormon history and sociology. The Mormon church really owes them a great debt of gratitude for what they have done and are doing, but it’s a debt that will probably never be acknowledged.
We have also had wonderful neighbors here near our home of more than thirty years. Natalie and I have spent many hours discussing religion with two of them, Talmage and Dorothy Nielsen, who are now serving as missionaries in Germany for the LDS church. And, at Natalie’s eightieth birthday party, given by Pat and Boyer Jarvis, you met James and Beth Fillmore from Arizona, intimate friends for many years.
What are the bases of your closest friendships today?
For the most part, my friendships have been based on common intellectual interests. One of my chief pleasures in recent years has been a close association with four intimate friends who are interested in Western history: Brigham Madsen and Everett Cooley, both historians and authors of high competence, and Ernest Poulson and Richard Smoot who, like me, delight in the company of historians who know where the forts were located and the massacres took place. Each year the five of us take a couple of extended trips together to study early events in the American West.
Speaking of history, Sterling, you have a more complete grasp of the annals of the University of Utah than anyone alive. What were the real turning points as you see it? Who have been the key people in our development?
Jack, I have personally known every president of the University of Utah except its first, John R. Park. Two or three of them should go down as heroes of the university. George Thomas, who in the twenties and thirties fought the battles that yielded an intellectually free institution, and A. Ray Olpin, who catapulted the place into the ranks of strong research universities. Ever since Thomas, in fact, we have had strong presidents who knew what a university is for. More recently, I enjoy a warm personal friendship with David Gardner, who deserted us after [p. 362] leading the University of Utah from 1973 to 1983 and accepted the presidency of the University of California. I’m glad he’s coming back to Utah in his retirement.
Arthur Smith, our current leader and first non-Mormon president, is building on the foundation of intellectual freedom that his predecessors built and defended. Speaking of university presidents and what they can do for their institutions, you knew Daryl Chase long before he served as president of Utah State University.
Our friendship with Daryl and Alice dates back into the early forties. He was an accomplished scholar in the history of religion, belonging to that small group of scholars the Mormon church sent to the University of Chicago to study in its distinguished divinity school, back in the days when the church was not afraid of advanced education in religion. Speaking of religious education in the church, I should mention two people who have had a very significant influence on others: Lowell Bennion and George T. Boyd. We’ve talked a lot about Lowell, who is widely known and highly respected as a teacher and writer, and as a selfless worker among the poor and disadvantaged. Lowell’s great contribution to Mormon thought has been his insistence on the moral grounding of theology and religion. George Boyd and I taught together in Arizona, where with our wives we developed a warm and lasting friendship. George has been a tremendous influence on his colleagues in the church institute system and has always been an excellent teacher and a highly competent theologian.
The friends whom you have mentioned seem to have come largely from the arts, education, and the professions. But you have had considerable involvement with leaders from business and industry, especially through your work with the Aspen Institute and the Committee for Economic Development. We have talked often about Obert Tanner, but what about others?
There are too many to name here, although we have mentioned many of them along the way; people like Walter Paepcke, who transformed Aspen, Colorado, into a culture and recreation center, and Walter Reuther, the great American labor leader. Closer to home, I’ll mention Marriner Eccles, the chief creator of the Eccles banking and industrial empire, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, and his wife, Sallie. Marriner died several years ago, but we continued to have a most pleasant relationship with Sallie until she died in 1995. She was an institution in herself, a delightful bundle of talent and personality. Marriner was a great man in the world of finance and a public servant of the highest order. When I was graduate dean of the university, he [p. 363] gave the university more than a million dollars for graduate fellowships.
A little later Joseph and Evelyn Rosenblatt gave their beautiful home to the university to serve as the president’s house.
I know you and Linda have been at many events at Rosenblatt House. Quite apart from that and other generous gifts to the university, however, Joseph Rosenblatt’s name has been known and respected far and near. He is a dedicated civic leader, a remarkably generous benefactor, and a man of great wisdom. Obert Tanner, Marriner Eccles, and Joseph Rosenblatt would be a powerful triumvirate to set the standards and give leadership to any community. Utah has benefitted greatly from their combined vision, generosity, and high idealism.
Looking farther afield, you and Natalie have been friends of Theodore Hesburgh, who recently resigned after many years as president of Notre Dame University.
Yes, he is a very dear friend of ours, a truly remarkable man. Our friendship with Father Ted developed when he and I were trustees of the Carnegie Foundation, of which another friend, John W. Gardner, was then president. Hesburgh holds the world’s record for honorary doctors’ degrees—more than a hundred. We gave him one a few years ago. He is truly a citizen of the world. I must tell you a little story. He is a very handsome man, the type that everyone finds attractive. Natalie is fond of him, and he of her. He always kisses her when we meet. A few years ago in New York, Father Ted, Meredith Wilson, and I were in a conversation on the subject of priestly celibacy in the Catholic church and the resulting shortage of seminarians preparing for the priesthood. Met Wilson said to me, “Sterling, you could enter a seminary and prepare for the priesthood and have a second career. All you would need to do is give up Natalie.” Father Ted said, “When Sterling gives up Natalie; that’s when I give up celibacy.”
Sterling, let’s turn to what you believe about the world today. Are you optimistic about the trends you see emerging here and abroad?
I am inclined to be somewhat pessimistic about the world—and I guess pretty much about everything else. The world is in terrible confusion at the present time. There is a great deal of chaos in our own country as well, and countless problems in our own immediate cultural environment.
The population of the earth has doubled since I was born in 1938, and I suppose the destructive power of weapons and the speed and reach of communications have multiplied a hundred-fold. No wonder we are confused. [p. 364] Is your pessimism part of our times or of your nature?
When I was young, I was somewhat optimistic about the future. I inherited the optimism about human history that developed especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was very strong in America, and especially in western America. There was a pervasive faith that with more education, more science, more democracy, and more people going to the polls to vote, things would get better and better. Human beings would become freer; there would be greater economic prosperity, and so on. This was a manifest destiny type of thing—that there is some kind of inevitable progress in history that was decreed by God or built into the very structure of the universe.
But in the last fifty years we have come face to face with two threats to human survival—both of our own making—nuclear bombs and environmental degradation. Who can escape the irony that the dreams inspired by technology have turned partly into nightmares in the twentieth century?
Overall, there is probably more freedom in the world now than there ever has been, and less slavery. But there has been so much war and so much evil in this century—evil that is symbolized by the Holocaust and the atomic bomb—that it’s difficult anymore to have that sanguine faith in human progress—the kind of faith that became very strong right up to the beginning of the First World War. Of course, there has been real progress in technology, which becomes more startling every day in the fields of electronics, communications, medicine, transportation, and food production. But, as you said, Jack, also great increases in the production of the weapons of war and in the toxic byproducts of our material prosperity. We don’t seem to be getting one bit better as human beings.
I agree with you on that ironic point. The disintegration of the Soviet empire since 1989 has brought some new hope for human freedom and some new worries about who or what may move into the power vacuum. Anarchy, civil war, and organized crime lurk everywhere in that sphere—and beyond it—as the Oklahoma City federal building bombing reminded us so tragically.
When one considers the evils of mass starvation, the new political and military oppression that we are experiencing in many different parts of the world, the decentralization of the nuclear threat, the corruption and incompetence in our own government and in virtually all governments, and the specter of terrorism, it is difficult to believe that things are going to greatly improve in the foreseeable future. We fail to learn from history. That’s one source of my pessimism. The great music and the great art of the world are, I think, more a product of the tragic than [p. 365] of the positive side of the human condition.
Knowing you as I do, Sterling, I can think of few friends who enjoy life more fully, who laugh more easily or more frequently! Is this the countenance of a doomsayer?
For myself and my own experience, I have no complaints whatsoever. I am now eighty-two years old. I have a wonderful wife and family and extended family and friends—everything has been a source of happiness in my experience. I’ve never been without work. I applied only once in my entire life for a job. That’s when I went to see Lynn Bennion and applied for a job teaching in the LDS education system. I’m not sure that that proved to be a wise thing to do, but it was the beginning of a great friendship with Lynn Bennion. I’ve never aspired to positions of influence or wealth. I’ve always had at least enough to get by on from the time that I became independent. I’ve never had a lot, but I’ve had enough to live on with a certain amount of comfort and some of the amenities of life, enough to feed my kids. My personal experience in this world has been a very happy one.
But as you look at the lives of others around the globe, do you see any reason for hope?
I have a sense of ultimate sadness about the general condition of the world—the way in which we are progressively destroying the biosphere and destroying one another. I do place hope in democracy and in the United States of America. This country can point the way for the future—though I’m not of the opinion that all peoples or all cultures should fashion their social and political lives after ours—not by any means. I’m not of the opinion, however, that everything is necessarily going to turn out right. Consider the overwhelming blunder and tragedy of the Vietnam War. I don’t believe that democracy as we have it now, or as it may become in the future, is written into the ultimate structure of the world—or that it will necessarily prevail. But I believe that the future is open and undetermined, that human beings have free will, that anything might happen. In this sense, Jack, I am hopeful.
Hopeful, but not too confident! Even so, I have often sensed that you feel quite disillusioned by the contemporary American political process.
Yes, politics has become all too negative in the United States. It shows up in Utah. It shows up everywhere. When I went to Washington, I functioned entirely on a nonpolitical basis. I have contempt for the way the major political parties go at each other, the way they frequently line up purely on party lines on matters that are crucial to the well-being of the nation. I have never had any political aspirations. As a young man, [p. 366] when I first started in college, I thought I would like to get into the diplomatic service of the federal government. But I’ve never been interested in holding political office.
Were you ever asked or urged to do so?
When I returned from Washington, there were efforts among some leading Democrats to get me to run for governor. Frankly, I didn’t take this at all seriously. I had no interest in such a thing, and I was well aware that the probability of my ever being nominated or elected to political office was absolute zero. So that didn’t last very long. I talked them out of it.
It may not be your thing, or mine, but I have great admiration for good people who will put themselves through the trauma of running for high office and face the possibility of defeat.
But I think that in some ways it is a kind of tragicomedy in America—the way people fight and spend money for high office. In the early years of the nation, the offices searched out the people, instead of the people searching out the office. I think the possibilities of statesmanship such as we saw in George Washington or Thomas Jefferson are long gone. I believe our country is still producing people who could become great leaders, but they simply aren’t interested in becoming involved in the kinds of things that go on in government. Or the kinds of things that you have to suffer through to be elected to high office. Occasionally, we have major figures in high office, such as Franklin Roosevelt, but by and large I think that we are subject to a great deal of mediocrity in the leadership of our cities, counties, states, and the federal government. This is not to ignore the fact that there are some people in office, of course, with real political talents, high morality, and obvious commitment to their work. I have known some of both kinds.
Religion has been your most persistent interest over the years—the study of it and the exploration of it in thought and practice. Why has this been so?
I think I have always, even from my childhood, been strongly inclined toward religion. When I was young, in high school, I was at times somewhat emotional—too emotional—with respect to religion. But over the years I overcame that, as I became more rational and more critical in my approach to religious matters. I guess it was a simple case of maturing.
What were your earliest religious instincts or feelings?
I think Alfred North Whitehead said, “Religion is what you do with your solitude.” I like that. When I was young I seemed to crave solitude; I wanted to be alone. And when I was alone I sometimes had very [p. 367] profound emotional experiences that now seem to me to have verged on the mystical—not genuine mystic experience, you understand, but simply something a little like that in the presence of great art, especially music, or in encountering cases of great suffering or profound moral achievement. In these matters I am sure that I am like everyone else, moved by tragedy and triumph, by the superb beauty of nature, or by the supreme goodness that can be found in the human soul.
But have you really changed that much, Sterling? It sounds to me like you never left the simpler religious perspective of your childhood, that foundation laid well before your graduate philosophical and theological study. The values and feelings you have just described as childhood experiences are still at the core of your life and the heart of your philosophy. You’ve never identified the religion experience with theology. You have lived one and studied the other!
I’ll grant you that religion is a sentiment; we experience it. Theology is just words and ideas. I think that most theology is nonsense—it simply doesn’t make any sense. Too much of it is wishful speculation that has very little, if any, factual grounding and little connection with genuine religion.
What about recent trends in theology? Are you attracted to them, or are they just more nonsense?
I will say that the kind of non-absolutistic theology which is emerging now, with a finite, temporalistic conception of God—and the belief that process is at the foundation of reality—has more to commend it than the traditional theology where God is a timeless absolute being who embraces the whole universe and its total history.
Theology, then, can serve to orient us in a baffling world by giving us an interpretation of how things work in the universe and where we fit into the larger scheme of things. But don’t our individual conclusions, based in part on theology we may choose to embrace, give rise to religious feelings and meaning to our personal experiences? If this is so, then might not theology be the underpinning of at least some religious experiences?
I certainly can’t argue with your proposition that theology can serve religious ends, Jack, but theology doesn’t necessarily lead to these ends.
And with respect to your own religion, Mormonism?
I have very strong attachments to Mormonism, but they are largely matters of sentiment and habit. These attachments certainly do not spring from my understanding of Mormon doctrine. There is a great deal of nonsense, in my opinion, in the corpus of Mormon belief, but there are notable strengths, too, especially in its non-absolutistic nature and its [p. 368] grounding in process, universal process. Mormon theology is temporalistic and intensely moral. In my opinion, that is all to the good. Despite the fact that much of it is rough and crude and obviously false, the basic theology of Mormonism is strong and commendable.
Mark Twain said that “Wagner’s music really is better than it sounds!” Is something like this also true of LDS theology?
Very true, but my personal views are essentially agnostic, naturalistic, and humanistic. This isn’t to say that I don’t have a genuine appreciation for the more liberal forms of theism, especially where there is a serious attempt to ground theism in scientifically verifiable fact. But I’m not of the opinion that it’s possible, for instance, to establish any kind of rational, factual proof of the existence of God—or, for that matter, the nonexistence of God. For the latter reason, I’m certainly not atheistic. My views are essentially agnostic, but with strong inclinations toward religion—religious attitudes, religious sentiment.
Unlike many people, some of whom you and I have known and care deeply about, you’ve never had a crisis in your religious experience.
I think this is due to the fact that, from my childhood on, a free discussion of religion was commonplace in my home. My father was well informed on matters of theology—especially within the LDS framework. We used to talk very freely. It was a very common thing for us to go to church when I was a kid and then go home and criticize the speaker’s ideas. I simply grew up with that kind of critical, analytical attitude toward church and religion, without being at all opposed to religion. So whatever views I have that are different from my early childhood or adolescence are views which have developed quite unobtrusively and without my even being aware of any radical changes taking place. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have doubts, for instance, about such things as the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, which I have never accepted as a genuine historical document or scripture, or of the divinity of Christ, or the factual truth of much that is found in the Bible. So I’ve never gone through any kind of religious crisis—either in my attitudes or my beliefs.
You have been criticized severely by defenders of the faith for dismissing the Book of Mormon without having made a thorough study of it. How do you respond to this charge?
I haven’t made a thorough study of whether Santa Claus lives at the North Pole either. I’m simply convinced that we don’t get books from angels and translate them by miracle. And such things as the narrative of Christ in the Book of Mormon, especially the prophecies of his coming [p. 369] and the descriptions of his very teachings centuries in advance of his birth, reveal that it is not an authentic document.
Quite apart from its doctrines, how do you feel now about the LDS church as an institution?
The church is very strong and efficient in its pursuit of practical affairs, but now it faces great problems as it becomes more and more a worldwide religion. It has a parochial mentality and seems incapable of turning its attention very far outside of itself. Its concern is to get more members, but there’s a question of what it’s going to do with them—people from other cultures grafted on to a Utah-Southern Idaho-California mentality. The intellectual leadership of the church has declined a great deal since the deaths of B. H. Roberts and James E. Talmage in the early 1930s.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the LDS church leadership today?
By and large, I think it is strong and effective. In my opinion, with very few exceptions, the central leaders, the so-called general authorities, have in recent years been men of unquestioned integrity and completely devoted to the good of the church and its people. But they are often lacking in the experience, knowledge, and wisdom to refrain from exerting political domination, especially in Utah and Idaho. Today the rapid expansion and internationalization of the church pose difficult problems with which the church leadership has had comparatively little experience. I’m afraid there is still a strong parochial mentality among the leaders that makes it difficult for them to deal with intercultural problems.
Are you optimistic that things will improve in this regard under President Gordon Hinckley? Do you expect any changes?
President Gordon B. Hinckley is a leader of the highest order. I only wish that he and other twentieth-century Mormon presidents could have taken office at an earlier age. Starting your administration at the age of eighty-four, just to take the case of President Hinckley, means that much of your energy and ideas have been spent and, even under the best of circumstances, you don’t have much time left. On another matter, I wish the church would face its own past honestly and with more understanding of the efforts of those who want to be a part of it while at the same time maintaining their own integrity.
The church has a highly efficient and effective organization, with enormous power and wealth, that is seriously adrift when it comes to concern for the dignity of those outside its circle—be they on the edge or far away— [p. 370] intellectually or geographically.
Yes, the central leadership of the church is very weak when it comes to tackling large intellectual issues. This shows up, for instance, very clearly at the time of the general conferences, when most of the time is taken up with simplistic, moralistic anecdotes. The conferences are a very tame and boring affair now compared to what they were in the old days when the Mormons produced great orators and independent thinkers.
Church authorities’ speeches are practically always designed in part to get the people to accept them as their leaders.
God’s own chosen deputies, as they see themselves. Never think for yourself! Following the leaders is the basic rule in the church, a rule which has produced a massive congregation of sheep. The leaders’ other ever-present message is pay tithing to build up the financial empire of the church. All in all, however, the rank-and-file members of the church seem uplifted by whatever their leaders say.
Ironically, a noble virtue like humility is now defined as obedience to leaders, and obedience has superseded love as the anchor of a good life. Attend your meetings, pay your tithes, say no to tobacco, coffee, and liquor, and all is well with you, now and forever!
Jack, it couldn’t be put better. I fully approve of a strong moral emphasis in religion, but the people need exercise in the meaning and foundations of morality that goes beyond being told over and over and over again to behave—and just how to behave. The church has gone through a remarkable expansion, and it has increased its top bureaucracy accordingly. If there is anything the Mormon church knows how to do, it’s how to manage things. I suspect it’s doing a remarkable job of managing the growth of the church. But the big problem is really not one of management. It’s a question of the imposition of Mormonism on cultures utterly foreign to the basic elements of this American religion.
It’s a question of what’s actually happening in the religious lives of these people who are being converted.
In Latin America it’s obvious that a large number of the converts come out of a pseudo-Catholicism combined with a certain amount of primitive animism. And I raise the question as to what the LDS church is interested in achieving with these people whether it wants to convert them into American-type Mormons, which is what it has always attempted in the past, or whether it is simply interested in some kind of accommodation with their religion—which has been the case with the Catholic church—or something else.
[p. 371] Do you think half-baked Mormonism would be better than the fully-cooked kind?
I don’t at all recommend what the Catholic church has done in this respect. But the great success of the Catholic church in dealing with people has been its accommodation to their cultures. This is a carryover of a practice of the Roman government which allowed conquered peoples to rule themselves as long as they went along with Imperial requirements to pay taxes, keep order, and recognize Roman authority. The Catholic church inherited that general attitude of accommodation as it spread around the world.
I’m inclined to think that the Mormon religion is going to become a strange hybrid or aggregate religion, which may or may not be all right. I’m afraid the church is moving into territory that it does not fully understand and may not be able to control to its satisfaction. But that’s a matter for the leaders to worry about, I suppose.
As a prominent and outspoken heretic, you have been treated very decently by the church.
Better than I really deserve, considering that some people get excommunicated for heresies that don’t begin to compare with mine. It’s outrageous when they excommunicate believing, practicing members simply because of some of their theological views or because they are taking an honest look at church history. The church’s effort to control the thought of the people, to destroy genuine intellectual freedom in matters pertaining to religion or church history, is a great evil.
They seem to excommunicate others for less critical statements about church doctrines and policies than you have made, while leaving you pretty much alone. Does it ever bother you to be getting what appears to be special treatment? Is it your university status, your family heritage, or your history of public service?
I’ll be damned if I know. Of course, by the time this is published I may be out on my head, and you may be, too! But you know, Jack, excommunication, in many cases, is a function of geography. It depends on where you live among bigots who will try to get you thrown out, or with people of mature experience, understanding, and compassion. Now for over thirty years we have lived in the only true ward in the church, where the people are intelligent, decent, and all you could ask for. Besides, though I am a total heretic, I’m not an apostate. I’m not running around trying to make trouble for the church.
As you know, however, in the last several years some general authorities [p. 372] of the church have called on local leaders to try feminists, historians, intellectuals, and others for heresy, resulting in a number of excommunications. Yet you continue to be spared.
I guess it is because I don’t fit into any of those categories. Anyway, I’m what should be considered a “good heretic.” A good heretic is one who doesn’t believe, but who nevertheless likes the church. I like the church. It brings happiness to countless people, sometimes through devious means, but often in ways that are generous and in every way commendable.
For many people your age, this is a time to consider the meaning of death and the question of immortality. Do you ponder these things?
No, I don’t think in those terms at all. The prospect of dying doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t seriously concern me, though I realize that I am getting close to it. I want to be the first one in my family to die so that I won’t have to experience the death of any of the others. And I want to finish a few things I’m working on.
As for immortality, I simply am not a believer in the resurrection of the body or the immortality of the soul. I think it would be great if what the churches teach about immortality were true—at least for those who are among the saved. I wouldn’t want to end up with the damned—but that’s always a possibility. To me, personal immortality has meaning only as something that I read about and respect in the beliefs and teachings of others. I am not banking on immortality in any way.
This being the case, Sterling, the balance of your life takes on even greater significance. What’s next? What do you hope for in the coming years?
Of course, I hope that the world will have less evil and suffering and more freedom. We can at least hope. For myself, I am concerned that I finish up some of the things that I have wanted to do before I die. I have three or four books partially written that I should complete. I really don’t need to travel much anymore. Natalie and I have been around the world together; I’ve been around it twice. I’ve been in all fifty states and forty different countries. But I do like to travel around the western United States. Natalie and I have never been to New Zealand and Australia, and I think such a trip would be a very pleasant experience. I envy your recent visiting professorship at the University of Auckland.
We surely enjoyed it. But you and Natalie both like best to travel by train. You can’t get to Auckland that way.
There aren’t many good trains left anyway. Natalie and I traveled through Russia and virtually all of Europe by train, and that’s a wonderful way to see the country. We went back and forth across the United States [p. 373] many times in the days when we had the great trains, and we still do an Amtrack trip occasionally. But I like to drive with Natalie to see our children and grandchildren, and enjoy the countryside.
I recently read Ernest Becker’s prize-winning book The Denial of Death. He struggled mightily with the plight of humans living in our time. With science and technology having objectified so much of our existence, we have lost our life-enriching myths. He believes we search in vain for the meaning of life and death, faith and doubt, hope and despair. Surrounded by material wonders, we grope to escape the fear of oblivion and death.
That anything at all exists is an unsolvable mystery. There is much happiness in the life of some people, but very little, if any, in the life of an equal or greater number. But the end, of course, is always death—sometimes with great travail and sorrow as well as mental anguish and physical pain.
Isn’t religion primarily an attempt to overcome this sense of the tragic in human existence?
Yes, and I think it does so not by argument from evidence but by genuine human sympathy and compassion, by the perpetuation of myth, belief in immortality, and the promise of a felicitous salvation of souls in eternity. Christianity, of course, traditionally has believed in the salvation of some souls, but not all. The main Christian belief is that the souls of the elect—those whom God has created for salvation, or those who accept Christ as their savior—will be saved and the rest of us will be damned. I regard the Christian religion generally as a sublime myth. It brings comfort, happiness, and joy to countless millions, but I cannot accept as the final truth the claims of the Christian religion, or of any of the other theistic religions.
Did this myth bring you comfort or confidence as a child, Sterling? Must a myth be “true” to enrich culture, provide solace to a suffering child, or moral courage to a leader under fire?
I think you are quite right in suggesting the religious value of myth. Cultures depend to a great extent on their myth-making capabilities, and I have no objection to that. The Mormon myths are fascinating and for some they may be necessary, you know, gold plates and all. But I don’t think there were any gold plates; and while myths can be beautiful and profound and moving, if they are myths basically, they are not true, even though they may express profound feelings and attitudes. As you know, Jack, some of us want the truth. I have always felt that we can have an effective symbolism in religion without mythology. No society can function without a certain amount of symbolism.
[p. 374] In your book Religion, Reason, and Truth, at the end of a long passage on the meaning of religion, you wrote: “Religion should bring consecration to life and direction to human endeavor, inspire men and women with faith in themselves, dedicate them to high moral purpose, preserve their natural piety in the presence of success, and give them the strength to live through their failures with nobility and face with high courage their supreme tragedies.” That says it all, but it also sounds as if you see life as a struggle between faith and despair. Is this true?
You are quite right, Jack. That is the nature of human life. It is a struggle between faith and despair.
Sterling, we have uncovered the nub of your philosophy. But where do you come down personally on the prospects of life on earth as we close in on the twenty-first century?
I am discouraged enough by the suffering and agony I have seen in the world and by the likelihood for greater human suffering in the future that I cannot escape the awful judgment that it would have been better if human life had never existed or, for that matter, any kind of life. On balance, suffering has greatly outweighed joy in the total human experience. And our century, the century of science and technology, has been history’s most abject failure in its totality of human suffering.
But, Sterling, no one seems to enjoy life more than you do.
Well, as long as we are here, we should make the most of it. The future is not determined and the human spirit has magnificent strength. In the worst of times we create visions of the best of times. And no matter what happens, we look to the future with faith that good will ultimately prevail.
Is the irrepressible human spirit only a kind of naiveté born afresh with each new generation?
Perhaps it is. While I see no cosmic purpose or divinely ordained meaning in human history, I believe we can invest our lives with purpose and value and build meaning into history. We can always hope that I am wrong in believing that we are alone in an indifferent world, keeping alive the faith that the things that matter most are not ultimately at the mercy of the things that matter least.
Thank you, Sterling, for this abundant and challenging conversation.