This episode is a front row seat to a conversation between two of the great intellectual figures in the Latter-day Saint community, Samuel Brown and Terryl Givens. Enjoy the feast and prepare to be challenged in all kinds of good ways.
Often, the conversation takes unanticipated turns toward the realm of experience “beyond thought.” Brown and Givens touch on the conversion experience that compelled Brown to leave the atheism of his youth behind, on the nature of beauty and its place in our spiritual lives, on embodied spiritual practices, on kin identity vs. category identity and more.
Sam lays out in his own unique, disarmingly honest way his own discipleship and challenges.
SAMUEL M. BROWN is a medical researcher, intensive care unit physician, and historian of religion and culture. He is author of First Principles and Ordinances, part of the Maxwell Institute’s Living Faith book series, and a number of other titles including In Heaven as it is On Earth and Through the Valley of Shadows: Living Wills, Intensive Care, and Making Medicine Human, both from Oxford University Press.
TERRYL GIVENS: Hello, and welcome to Conversations with Terryl Givens, a video cast sponsored by the Faith Matters Foundation, and dedicated to the exploration of the lived experience of Mormonism as a catalyst to the abundant life and the public good.
Our first segment of video casts will be on the topic “The Ways of Discipleship.” Our guest today is Sam Brown, an epidemiologist, a historian, a writer, author, and what else would go in your obituary, Sam?
GETTING TO KNOW SAM BROWN
SAM BROWN: Obituaries scare me. The one thing I hate about funerals, other than the sadness at the passage, is the sense of utter inadequacy I feel compared to the eulogies of these fine people. So the obit and the eulogy just makes me feel like a total schlub.
GIVENS: Well, give us three things that you expect would appear in your obituary.
BROWN: So what I want in my obituary more than anything?
GIVENS: No, this is what probably would appear. But go ahead.
BROWN: Well what I want the most in my obituary is that “he died defending his family from a grizzly bear attack with his bare hands.” That’s what I want for my obituary.
GIVENS: Okay. Lacking that nice touch, what—
BROWN: I’ve got no idea. Pictures of the people who I love and who love me. That’s what I would want in my obituary.
GIVENS: But professionally what will you be remembered for?
BROWN: Oh, professionally? I run a center called the Center for Humanizing Critical Care at Intermountain Medical Center that is trying to reboot the way we as clinicians accompany people through the frightening experience of a life-threatening illness. We’re working hard to fix what seems to me to be a deeply wounded system that dehumanizes all the participants, clinicians and patients and families. I’ve been working hard at it, but culture change is tricky and sometimes you feel like you are a crazy prophet eating grasshoppers and ignored by the bustle of the main system.
But professionally I think I would like to be known as a figure who forced us to reconsider how we deliver intensive care during a life-threatening illness.
IN HEAVEN AS IT IS ON EARTH
GIVENS: You wrote a book some years ago In Heaven as It Is on Earth. The rest of the title is—
BROWN: I don’t know.
GIVENS: It’s on the Mormon culture of death.
BROWN: Joseph Smith was in it.
GIVENS: So to what extent did your interest of death and dying inform that book as influenced by your professional work, or was it vice versa?
BROWN: That book started for two interesting reasons that moved in parallel. One was I’d finally become a doctor. I finally was treating patients and making decisions, I wasn’t just a med student. I was seeing some death and feeling like I was involved in that process in a very emotionally fraught and morally fraught way, wanting to make sure I always did precisely the right thing medically and feeling always a touch of sadness. Not just sadness like John Donne talks about in a beautiful poem, but a sadness that maybe I was somehow complicit through my failings as a person.
That’s what I think people don’t realize about doctors and the notion of malpractice, that doctors are in general relentless self-critics and are always worrying and wondering if they have done something wrong. So I was having that initial experience of feeling like people’s physical lives were resting in my hands. At the same time that I was talking to my wife, who is the actual scholar in the family, in the humanities—
GIVENS: And someone we hope to have on our podcast.
MOVING TO UTAH
BROWN: Yeah. She’s great. Kate Holbrook. So I was talking to her, and I think all good-hearted young people interested in religion have a moment of being sort of in love with Mircea Eliade and his evocation of this religious human being and of the sense of the relationship that we share with the time of origins.
So I’d been reading a ton of Mircea Eliade. I’d been thinking about time of origins, and realized, my very first paper in Mormon studies was this semi-quantitative comparison of rhetorical changes in temple dedication prayers. This was back when I was doing bio-informatics and writing computer code, and I wrote code that would analyze the different prayers that I had downloaded into the system. I noticed strikingly that the very earliest temple dedication prayers invoked sacred ancestors and the time of origins, and they would specify each individual angelic, prophetic figure that had been relevant to that temple, and over time it tended to focus in on really ultimately the figure of Moroni, who comes as a statue to adorn on the tops of the temples. I was thinking intellectually about the ways that an Eliadan view might oppose a Mormon, so I’m dealing with life and death and the possibility that we’re gone, professionally, and vocationally I’m thinking about the very distinctive angelology of early Mormons, our angels aren’t like other angels to wit they’re dead people.
That intellectually, as Kate and I were walking in Camden, Maine, we were walking through a colonial cemetery and looking at the epigraphs and trying to imagine the lives of some of the people who had been in Camden in the eighteenth century, and when there was a cluster of dates very close to each other in one family plot, thinking about what kind of epidemic might have caused it or the mother and child, just pulling together these stories. There was a kind of spark in my mind that Kate in that context lit that made me very curious about what is our theology of the dead as Mormons?
So that was the intellectual component, and then there was the very practical component, we had decided that we wanted to raise our children in the mountains. We had decided that after all that time in a big coastal city, in the big coastal programs, we wanted to be more country folk. We decided we’d come back to Utah. In my mind, in retrospect now, I see it as sheer arrogance, but at the time I thought if we move to Utah am I going to have to become inactive to survive?
I had been an atheist until eighteen, until I moved, I think, within three weeks of becoming a believer I had left rural Utah and moved to Boston to start at Harvard College. So my whole fifteen years of my belief as a person committed to God and committed to the life of the mind had all only been available or real in the Boston academic liberal ward environment. So in my mind moving to Utah meant I would have to become inactive and I decided, it’s hilarity now in retrospect, I decided I would write a book on this, of Mormon history, to keep myself connected to the church, even if I felt like I needed to become inactive.
Then we got to Utah and realized that these wards were beautiful and filled with soulful and bright and wise and compassionate people. My thinking I would need to be inactive lasted like ten days on the ground of Salt Lake City.
GIVENS: Let me switch gears a bit. I want to go back to more of your personal history. I like to start with part of a poem that Wordsworth once wrote, which he said there are in our existence spots of time. Then he went on to say that there are these moments that shape us, that transform us, that are both a reservoir of inspiration but also that explain how we got to be who we are.
Can you pick two or three transformative moments in your life where you shifted direction? Or that you can trace as the origin of the kind of person you are today?
BROWN: That’s a good, hard question. Clearly my turn to theism at age eighteen has had an influence in my life. I talk about that in a little yellow book I did for the Maxwell Institute, that I went from this… I remember reading Jean-Paul Sartre in the way that a seventeen year old reads any complicated philosophy, superficially and bombastically, but I remember—
GIVENS: And sticking it out of your backpack so everybody sees it.
BROWN: Exactly, exactly. I would ride the bus to go to work or whatever in Salt Lake, we were living up in Davis County, and I would just make sure that I would have Jean-Paul Sartre or whoever it was that I was reading, visibly reading it, understanding, I don’t know, fifty percent at most of what I thought I was understanding. But it was very important to me that I was not some idiot buffoon that was dumb enough to believe in God.
So I’d been raised in a Mormon family. I think I had understood myself to be an atheist around the age of eight, had not wanted to be baptized and was so angry that my father was forcing me to be baptized that I wept, and my dad said, “Oh, see, you’re feeling the spirit.” It was just… so from age eight to eighteen I just was not religious. From age eight to age seventeen I was probably not even particularly interested in wondering whether I ought to be religious. But at age seventeen I started to wonder what it was, what was it that life meant?
I think what people forget when they debate about whether they ought to abandon theism entirely, is the hard questions do not go away when you abandon theism. They just don’t.
GIVENS: Cognitive of dissonance. It’s always on both sides of the faith and divine, it seems to be.
BROWN: Yeah, it’s part of being human. When you abandon, you don’t suddenly find the answer to the meaning of life by abandoning this infrastructure of the quest. You can sort of hook onto somebody else’s car as it goes by and not inspect it too closely, and then you go to your little rallies or you feel good about your little cause here and there, but the hard question hasn’t been really addressed by that.
So at age seventeen I started to try to figure out what will be the form of my answers to the hard questions? I tried to be open to atheism, agnosticism, a variety of different religious traditions, and over a year of wondering came to be open to the possibility of God but not in any way convicted to it, and then had an experience as I was… I decided because I thought my mom was a wise and good person and because we had been so well loved despite my strident anti-authoritarian, almost anti-social persona, by this group of lower middle class Mormons in Kaysville, Utah, in 1980s, I thought I can give my natal tradition, not necessarily the benefit of the doubt, but I’ll allow them to be a mechanism by which I begin a more formal interrogation of a possibility of God’s existence. So I used that mechanism.
So I started with the natal tradition. These people have been good to me, my mom is a really wise and bright and good woman, and let me just ponder it through. It was in that context of allowing this natal tradition to be a mechanism for my interrogation of a possibility of God that I had what was one of the very few transcendent experiences of my life. Transcendence makes good intuitive sense to me, now, but it’s not something experientially particularly available to me, just a few episodes that I think very are rather like what Wordsworth and the other romantics are trying to describe in their poetry and their philosophy. That left me quite convinced and convicted of the reality of God. This encounter with him one fall morning in 1990.
VALUE OF THE EXPERIENCE
GIVENS: Let me ask you at this point, because those kinds, of what we often call conversion experiences, these conversion episodes, they can have two kinds of value in our lives, right? Wordsworth referred to spots of time as having two functions, he said they could provide a renegade of virtue. In other words, in times of weakness and apathy we turn back and we’re kind of infused with vigor when we relive that moment. So it can be that kind of anchor, or it can also represent a kind of portal through which you pass that introduced you to a new way of experiencing reality. Did it do both of those things for you?
BROWN: I no longer have access to that virtue in the old sense of the power of that experience. It’s not something that I return to and it refills my cup. So I think that what I don’t, I probably don’t mention in the book, I can’t remember, because not all that detail is all that relevant in a short trade book, but I remained a theist, but became deeply skeptical of Mormonism within nine months of the conversion I experienced. It took a couple, three years of sorting and wondering and pondering to figure out where exactly I sat in the broader camp of theism. In that exploration I think there was that sense of virtuous power that came from that event.
When I struggled very hard to know whether I should leave the MTC or head to the mission field, when a month later I had to struggle to decide do I resign from the mission and go to the Peace Corps for a year or do I stay on the mission? As I was agonizing over these hard questions for me, I knew that God lives. I knew it. I knew that he would make sure that I didn’t too terribly destroy my life.
GIVENS: Because of that experience?
BROWN: Because of that experience. But, you know, now it’s more that the world looks different. I forget who, you’ll probably remember, some philosopher said that it’s not so much the looking at an object, but the new vistas that it discloses that describe for you the true significance of something. I think much more now, maybe not even necessarily portal, but an instrument of seeing. There are things that I can see that would otherwise be invisible to me if I were not a theist.
So I think there’s been at transition, that it was virtue in power, and now very much more it’s about a capacity to see things that I would otherwise be invisible to.
GIVENS: That gives me a nice segue into a question that I have. You also wrote this book, First Principles and Ordinances, which is a very beautiful kind of meditation on the first principles and ordinances through the lens of the prism of the temple. So I’ve picked out a few phrases from your fine book, First Principles and Ordinances, that I wanted to pursue a bit further, prompted by your own account of your pivotal spiritual episode as a young person.
You wrote, “All of us will at times be tempted to see God as a set of facts or doctrines rather than as a living being.” Can we talk about this idea a little bit? Because it seems that faith in Mormonism seems to me to operate in ways that are fairly distinctive. Mormons seldom stand up in testimony and affirm a kind of Alma or Paul-like conversion experience, where they found Christ.
BROWN: Like the Puritans—
GIVENS: Or like the Puritans.
BROWN: They were supposed to give their testimonies, that’s what they were for.
GIVENS: And Oliver Cowdery talked about imitating the Puritan model very specifically. It’s clear that’s what he had in mind early on in church worship services. They don’t really go that route. Instead what we have are a series of assents to intellectual propositions.
BROWN: Although, note, when people complain about testimonies they complain about them as travelogues. They keep trying to corral the parishioners from doing an assent testimony narrative, but if you listen to people’s testimonies when they’re not being corralled, they’re wide-ranging, sprawling stories that I think ultimately, in a kind of circumlocuting way, are about God’s divine presence. But they’re that feedback. Stop telling a stories about your life, start testifying to X, Y, or Z, which forces back into that—
GIVENS: Okay, so that’s an interesting point. So the problem is if we do try to conform to a template, the template is often just a set of intellectual claims. This happened in 1820. The Book of Mormon is historical. These things are factually true, which seems to be what you’re lamenting here, that we mistake the set of facts or doctrines for the experience itself.
BROWN: My memory is Thomas Shephard, the big Puritan master at Cambridge, then New Town, has this whole sequence where he says, “I get the facts, but they don’t transform my heart, and please, God, allow them to transform my heart.” I think there’s a heuristic convenience to the assent. It’s a way of saying hey, I’m here, I’m with you, we’ll get through this together. That’s what the assent does. But then I’m with Thomas Shepherd, not on everything, but on that specific thing that we, yeah, but, so what? Right?
GIVENS: This is what I wanted to talk to you about. I want to get your opinion, your ideas as to how do we get that kind of discipleship. Here’s the quote from Thomas Shepherd, actually, I have it: “Strength of reason would commonly convince my understanding that there was a God, but it was utterly insufficient to persuade my will, except by fits and starts.”
GIVENS: So how do we move from the one to the other? Where do you find the catalyst?
BROWN: And how is it not a retreat? Because I think for a lot of people, as I’ve gotten to know people that are more accustomed to that fact assent model, they’ve tried to goad me into taking a stand on the traditional catechistic elements of the testament and are somehow unwilling to hear of a possibility of another approach that’s not negating them, but just says let’s get to the will, let’s get to the transformation, let’s get to the experience.
I’ve noticed frequently people will say no, I need you to say in no uncertain terms what you think about X, Y, or Z, crucial core, truth claim. Come on, Sam, don’t be coy. Say it now. Say it publicly. Make it happen. Or you’re full of crap. It’s because there’s a sense that any modulation or movement beyond is a confession of defeat, that we decided that we would compete on the secular field of battle, and if you say I’m not interested in this battle anymore, I don’t think it makes of me a more gracious vessel of the love of God, I don’t feel that it brings me into greater proximity to God. I’m not that interested.
It’s sort of like the person who tries just a little bit in an athletic game, obviously is losing, and says I’m not into this anyway. Let’s pull it to another point. I think part of it is figuring out how to say, how to make this not be a retreat—
RESPECTABILITY OF MORMONISM
GIVENS: I maybe throw myself into a different kind of temptation, and that is that I find the doctrines, I find the theology so powerful and intellectually compelling. To me it’s astounding that it took eighteen hundred years for a Christian thinker like Joseph Smith to arise and say there’s got to be a way to save the entire human family.
BROWN: For universalism to actually work in a robust and sacramental way.
GIVENS: Yeah, exactly. Or to say no, I don’t really think that infants are going to be damned forever, there’s accountability, these principles of agency matter; God isn’t a sovereign deity that engineered the Holocaust. God isn’t this inflexible, impassable, unfeeling God, which is how the creeds define him.
So just as a matter of comparative theology, I agree with Sterling McMurrin, who after he wrote his book on Mormon theology, supposedly his colleague accosted him in the hallway and said, Sterling, you’ve made Mormonism so much more intellectually respectable than it is. And he said, well that’s true. That’s because Mormons think it’s so much less intellectually respectable than it is. So I’ve been accused at times of basing my testimony on a sort of aesthetic principle, rather than some personal conversion experience.
BROWN: I don’t think that’s wrong.
GIVENS: I think it’s a good starting point.
BROWN: I think where it ultimately would probably be nonproductive is if it merged quietly with the capital “R” Romantic appreciation of art, rather than some connection to divinity.
That’s why in more recent work, playing theologian a bit, I think that pieces impress a dialogue sometimes here, and working it through. I’m trying to triangulate whether Joseph Smith’s light of Christ theology allowed him to have an overarching divinity that mattered, while also having this more rigorous and robust and tangible experience of God and community that allows them to get some of the aesthetic beauty that you’ve described, but also an aesthetic religious beauty that’s grounded in God. Ultimately the love of aesthetic purity is a beautiful thing. That’s great. I don’t have any particular objection to it. But I worry if it’s wholly circumscribed by the imminent frame, if it really is just the appreciation of symmetry, is it godly?
BROWN: Not godly in the sense of oh, that’s a better person, I’m not trying to get into these arguments about who is better than whom, but does it connect us to God and divinity? That to me is the important question.
GIVENS: I think it can. I think also that a greater appreciation for the divine nature of beauty and the aesthetic would go a long ways towards enriching our lives in very practical ways.
I’m thinking of Marilyn Robinson and her book Gilead. The preacher says at one point, “I’m not so sure God will judge us in strict moral standards. I think he may judge us on the basis of how beautifully we lived our lives.” I think that’s a wonderful sentiment. I think what it suggests is that too often we think there’s always a right and a wrong, whereas often I think there’s a beautiful and a less beautiful way to live a life.
BROWN: I think there is some room for the possibility that beauty is a part of that harmony, so not every beautiful object, or not every beautiful life will be identical. I think you could even argue that a museum full of identical reproductions of the Mona Lisa is not even worth going to. It’s like a smirking performance art kind of a thing.
I think we’ve had a tendency to believe that if you believe in God and you’re religious then what you really want is this caricature appearance that we all have, that we’re all identically afraid of pleasure, or all identically afraid of anything that remotely differed from them, absolutely afraid of their sex organs, all these characteristics that we have of Puritans, we assume that if you’re godly, even if you’re talking about beauty as in connection with the godly, that what we mean is everything looks exactly the same. Which is bullshiz. It’s not even true of the Puritans, let alone what out to be true of us.
I think maybe having that accessibility, that if what we’re after is being vessels of God’s grace and of both experiencing and crafting and responding to and being shaped by beautiful things, is not some capital “R” Romantic cop-out. It’s the work of salvation. It will have this incredible harmony of different kinds of things.
MISSING MEDITATIVE DEVOTIONAL TRADITION
GIVENS: Another point you make in your book is you refer to faith as being a principle of action. I want to talk a little about action in Mormon culture. Our vocabulary at times betrays us. We do home teaching, we don’t minister. We do home teaching. We say our prayers. We don’t pray. We do temple work, we don’t go to the temple and worship, we do temple work. We aren’t devout Mormons, we’re active Mormons.
There’s this kind of obsessive preoccupation with activity, work, engagement. That’s all well and good. Was it Wilford Woodruff who said we can’t… No, Brigham Young, we can’t get to Zion by sitting on a log and singing everlasting songs of bliss. That’s not holiness. But at the same time, do you sometimes feel the absence of a more meditative devotional tradition in Mormonism? Where is it? Where might we find it?
BROWN: I’m deeply sympathetic to this, and I think that we have sometimes worked as if Max Weber was right, that we’re just alone and haunted and rushing furiously to prove that we’re actually loved of God. I don’t know that he’s necessarily correct, but he’s been helpful I guess for a lot of us thinking about it, this notion of thinking our work ethic is driven out of a fear of not mattering. I think those of us that are workaholics probably are driven by a similar… it’s not just religious people. We write more manuscripts, we get more grants, we do our studies and write more books, not just because we love the experience of it. It’s also because we’re a bit haunted.
GIVENS: You’re cutting it a bit close to home here, Sam.
BROWN: I think it’s… we are a little bit. If we weren’t haunted we would probably wander about barefoot in the mountains with our beloveds a lot more than we do. I don’t think it’s clear that Mormonism is uniquely haunted. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad that we’re as good at working as we are, because there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. There are a lot of people that need to be fed. There are a lot of people that need to be clothed. There are a lot of people that need to be listened to and cared for and touched.
So there’s an element of it that I think is very good, and I think that sometimes when you spend too much time in your own head you get quite muddled. I’m not saying that you should be afraid of thought, I’m saying that good thought, embodied thought, doesn’t really happen in a Cartesian thought experiment. Some stuff does. Some components of it, fair enough, but not all of it.
My worry is that the risk of describing a more philosophical, meditative, contemplative Mormonism is an important corrective, is a risk that some people may interpret that as a call to more Cartesianism, which I don’t think—
GIVENS: Explain what you mean by that.
BROWN: Oh, and I confess that I am indebted heavily to Charles’ Taylor’s characterization of it, this notion that the only true thoughts thought are those that are disembodied and stripped of emotion, and not just the emotion of anger or fear, but the broad array of emotion, so that the Cartesian project as it comes to unfold is the stripping away, a deep reductionism. Not just methodological reductionism, where you try to take a complex biological phenomenon, reduce it into simpler parts, and then do hypothesis driven experiments along a particular sliver of the overall problem, but reductionism in the sense of what it’s possible to imagine thinking being. Is thinking only what’s done in an utterly disembodied, utterly apathetic way? Apathetic in the sense separated from emotions.
I think Taylor makes a pretty persuasive argument that that’s crap. That’s not actually true. There’s a role for it. There’s absolutely a role for it. But it ought not to be understood as anything more than a heuristic for some certain kinds of problems. So the one fear I have if we argue too strongly that we’re not intellectually rigorous enough, we’re not philosophical enough, is that we can end up with this sort of Cartesian flaw.
Now in terms of meditation and contemplation that is gently mystical, I’m not talking about where you put your crystals or what kind of incense you burn or your essential oils. I’m talking about this possibility that certain modes of conscious experience can be closer to, or proximate to God, than others. Prayer, fasting, aesthetic experiences, prayer and fasting in the woods, or prayer and fasting in the setting of beautiful music. I think there is a role for those, and I think we could stand to have a little bit more of that.
But there is always the risk that you end up just wandering off in your yoga pants, never to be heard from again.
GIVENS: That’s true. Serving the squirrels in the forest.
BROWN: Yeah. Not actually helping people. The one place that I’ve seen us do it, and I don’t know whether it’s still true or whether it was even true when I was there, it was historically at least in my experience, the Celestial room at the temple. You were told you’ve done your temple work, you’ve done your endowment, but then you get to the Celestial room, and in the Celestial room you’re supposed to leave yourself open to revelation.
I remember as a young believer, eighteen, nineteen, first going through the temple, that I at first did not love the liturgy of the temple. I didn’t love the rituals at first. I’ve come to really love them quite a bit. At first I found them very disorienting and strange. But what I did love was the Celestial room. I loved the sense that you’ve been welcomed into the presence of God, and you were there to bask in his glory. I’ve noticed that a reasonable number of Latter-day Saints do pause in the Celestial room. I wonder whether that could be a kind of model for meditative Mormonism.
GIVENS: That’s lovely. I hope that is a representation of what I have found as my own kind of reconciliation of this tension, because we tend to dichotomize. You know, you have the Mary or you have the Martha tradition, you have the contemplative or you have the active, and I think a real insight that was helpful to me was reading Proverbs’ sixteenth chapter or so: commit thy works unto the Lord, and thy thoughts shall be established. So there’s this sense that the one should blend into the other and its right action becomes holiness.
BROWN: That’s a very cognitive science kind of spin—
GIVENS: And so in the temple you go through all of the steps and processes and procedures and obey all the laws, and then you enter into that moment of contemplation and reverential appreciation.
BROWN: And it’s a direct indictment of this Cartesianism. It’s a notion that thinking involves bodies. Thinking involves patterns of experience and behaviors. I’ve wondered, again, that’s just following Charles Taylor I confess, but I wonder whether more of a call to embodied thought and embodied worship is a useful model for it, because they both—
GIVENS: This is one thing I love about the Mormon conception of God that we see in the book of Moses, that Mormons don’t use the word “omniscience” very much. I’m glad we don’t because it seems to suggest an unembodied, non-perspectival simultaneous apprehension of reality, and what we get in Enoch’s ascension narrative is this glimpse of God who is deeply imprecated in human relationships, and whose knowledge emanates from that immersion in a real, embodied, relational kind of existence. I think that’s a lovely way of thinking about the meaninglessness of a kind of non-perspectival or disembodied knowledge or thought—
BROWN: Our cousins with the creeds, use Incarnation with a capital “I” as a way to start to think about some of that. I’ve found Eastern Orthodox particularly, but not exclusively, but also some Catholic writing about Incarnation. It’s been helpful to feel like there is a kinship, a theological kinship with them around this particular notion, that you’ve got to have both, and without both you have nothing, which I think is something that is very tricky and heretical that Joseph Smith does. Both transcendent and eminent, both disembodied, impersonal, and personal. If there’s not some sense of both, you ultimately have neither.
Incarnation is this deep argument for our dependence, for our earthly experience, or fleshly experience, and the divine and spiritual experience. You can’t have one without the other. If it’s all just embodied, then I think you get a strict materialism, which I think is incoherent as a theological system. But if you do not have the marriage of some transcendence and some, even if it’s majority, embedded and embodied experience or substance, then I don’t think you have… maybe Joseph Smith’s story about the spirit and the body are the soul of man, the spirit can’t exist without the body and the body can’t exist without the spirit, maybe that’s a story about this broader sense that you’ve got to have both.
GIVENS: Let’s move from the abstract to the particular and personal. If you don’t mind sharing, are there any particular devotional practices that you have found that lift you out of the realm of just intellectual engagement with the wonderful doctrines and theologies of Mormonism?
Let me frame that another way, you can answer either one, and that is what should the relationship be between history and faith? Because it seems to me that much of the millennial kind of intellectual universe today represents a confusion of the two. To be a Mormon means to be immersed in a certain history, and to assent to a certain kind of history and a certain narrative, and that becomes identified with their faith, and if the one begins to collapse then the other collapses its totality. How do you migrate between the two?
BROWN: I’ll answer the first question because I think that’s easier to answer. I would say that there are three things that I currently do that are devotionally very important to me. One is scripture study and prayer with my wife and children. We never used to do that. We always meant to but never got around to it, and my wife, God bless her, put an alarm on her iPhone. Every night at 8:45PM the alarm goes off.
GIVENS: So you’ve actually gotten Lehi out of the wilderness?
BROWN: We’re doing a little bit more episodic reading rather than trudging through it sequentially. But we gather together, these people I love and who love me, and we do two verses each, it’s relatively quick, we chat just a little bit and we pray. It’s a sense again of incarnation. It’s not just these vast abstract notions, these scriptural texts, it’s also these people that I love. Hearing these scriptures read aloud by my beloved child is really quite moving to me. Their voices and their minds and their immersion and these sacred texts, I just love it. It means a great deal to me.
The second two I think will strike people as a little bit less traditional, but I may as well just tell the truth. One is opera. I love opera. When my life changed substantially about five or six years ago with an illness, I had a real moral crisis wondering what exactly am I doing with my life, and how am I living? I wasn’t doing anything debouched. I was just a busy workaholic. I was missing out on transcendency and the earthy substance of being a devoted husband and father. In that transformation I learned about the Metropolitan Opera’s high-def. broadcasts, met-HD that they do to the local popcorn movie theater that normally shows disemboweled zombies, do opera, and for me opera is the total art form and it is gorgeous and glorious. Sometimes I’ll even have one little headphone in listening to opera as I go about my workday. It just fills me with this sense of beauty and divine power and longing and love in a way. I was talking to a spiritual and wise and intelligent Protestant. She thought I was trying to invoke that capital “R” Romantic thing, the appreciation of great art is good for you, but for me this is one of the vessels by which God communicates to me. This is opera.
The third thing, the third devotional practice is what I call cookies of the priesthood. It’s a riff on keys of the priesthood. Somebody got it in his mind that I needed to be in the Elder’s Quorum presidency for my ward. What on earth do I have to offer? It harried a confused intellectual. Well, my wife taught me to cook five years ago. There’s no reason she couldn’t teach me to bake, and people like cookies, so she taught me to bake cookies. I probably bake two hundred to three hundred cookies a month and I take them to church and I give them to people, and I’ve found that sense of earth and hearth is really important. I find that that sense of gently troubling Victorian gender norms is probably healthy at a time when people are feeling so fractured and sclerosed on both sides of it.
I think this sense of awareness of the pleasure of the common meal, these agapes, love feasts, that used to be conducted, I wondered about that because I’ve been so moved by the ancient Christian agapes, and frankly of the modern agapes, and to be honest with you these cookies of the priesthood are in part my contribution to the agape.
Kristine Wright, she’s a grad student at Princeton right now in religion, just a phenomenal thinker about material culture in Mormonism, she wrote a chapter in an edited volume that Kate, my wife, and Matt Bowman edited that was called We Baked a Lot of Bread. It was about women baking the bread for Eucharist, for the sacrament, and about them sewing the lace covers for the altars, and about them sewing the temple garments. It was this gorgeous essay, this meditation on ephemerality and incarnation, that these are evanescent, but they’re encounters with divinity, and they matter.
So it was sort of, I’m not that useful, I mostly just say things that make sense to no one, that’s what I’m good at. That’s not particularly helpful in an Elder’s Quorum presidency, but cookies might be. So I would say family scripture study, opera, and cookies. What about you? What are your devotional practices?
GIVENS: Well I remember one time I was here on campus at a sacred space conference, and we had a break in the proceedings. There were two Jewish scholars, an Islamic scholar, and a few Protestants, and myself. During the break I was walking across campus and I saw the one member who was an Orthodox Jewish scholar. I approached him because I wanted to engage him in conversation, and I noticed that he was in the midst of prayers. This was at like two o’clock in the afternoon.
So I backed away, but I remember being struck by the intensity and what seemed to me the beauty of his devotional moment. It was kind of a remote area of campus, not many people were likely to encounter him there. I thought I wanted to replicate something like that in my own life. So I have found that every morning I try to find time for a Psalm and a sacred hymn and then a reading.
BROWN: Do you sing it? Or do you read the Psalm? Do you use Isaac Watts?
GIVENS: No, I read the Psalm, but I have a hymn. Then I have a devotional reading that comes from a list of my preferred kind of devotional authors like—
BROWN: Whose psalter do you use?
GIVENS: I don’t use a psalter. I just use the book of Psalms.
BROWN: Good old fashioned King James.
GIVENS: Yeah. Let me end with three questions. First, what do you think Mormons do really well? Or Mormonism does really well?
BROWN: I think we pull off the having a coherent community. I think we do that very well. Sometimes it feels stifling, we do it so well. But if you get sick, food appears. If you are in trouble, help comes. When you’re well, you are the food and the help. Even though it’s hard for me, Kate thinks I’m full of crap, but I do think I’m a little introverted. I do like to have time alone, and not be so much in the thick of socializing. Even for me, I appreciate and understand the importance—
GIVENS: That’s kind of a historic attribute, that we and others have associated with Mormonism. It seems to be increasingly called into question as we hears increasing voices of those who feel they are not made to feel a part of that community. Single women, single mothers, gays, others. Do you think we have the resources to overcome those challenges?
BROWN: I think it depends on the terms of engagement, because there is a component of our simple failings that I think we can fix. We can be better. We can have more important and visible roles better tailored to their specific walks in life, for gay members, for single women; we can do a heck of a lot better about how we talk together and work together as men and women. I think there is so much beauty in our history and in our future, and I think there’s a reasonable amount of Victorian ideology that really is not particularly relevant to the fundamentals of gospel and church.
So I think we’ve got work to do there. I think that those criticisms ought to make us thoughtful, and even ought to make us remorseful. I think we all do need to repent and I think those calls are helpful for that. The complexity comes in the terms of engagement. I don’t think that it’s true that that’s the only way we can love is in a post-Foucauldian identity politics world, and there are some—I don’t think the individuals themselves are trying to make this argument, I think it’s more something that emerges in the rhetoric.
GIVENS: So explain that in simpler language. “Post-Foucauldian.”
KIN IDENTITY VERSUS CATEGORY IDENTITY
BROWN: Oh. I think there is a sense in which in our contemporary, hyper-individualized, anti-community world, there has been a move from kin identity, this is again Charles Taylor, from kin identity to categorical identity. Kin identity has a flexibility. Within a kindred, you will be many different things to many different people. You’ll be a sibling, a parent, a cousin, a nephew, etc. Because those identities are inherently flexible, communities that are based in a kin identity have a capacity to tolerate difference that the current stereotypes suggest is absent. That stereotype is quite misleading.
There’s been a move through the politics of recognition, identity politics, Foucauldian identity, and this sort of fetishization of victimization and subalternity that requires the creation of a victim for every time a victim is created, that has evolved into what he calls a categorical identity. The categorical identity says I’m not embedded in the kin network, I am this. I am a that, and then you insert the demographic variable that has been decreed by contemporary society to be the determinative variable that defines you.
Then you say your interactions with me must conform to this categorical identity. That locks people. People think that it creates this great flexibility, but it locks people in, and I watch these nascent communities around particular identities and watch them fracture very quickly because all it unites is this one strict definition of what it means to be a gay man, or what it means to be a lesbian, or what it means to be an intellectual, or what it means to be an agnostic, or whatever precise category we are using to describe the other capital, the other subaltern using this Foucauldian idea of the oppressed individual. This whole notion that every encounter we have is in itself an expression of a power structure that needs to be deconstructed as a victimizer, victimized—
GIVENS: What you’re saying we need to resist.
BROWN: That’s what we need to resist. If what we’re saying is for the church to actually be a meaningful community we have to agree with a very particular view of what it means to be a gay man, or what it means to be a lesbian, or what it means to be transgender for some of the biggest, most dramatic, and most painful areas of argument, then I don’t think we’re going to get very far.
It’s going to be hard. There’s been a huge change in what it means to have a sexual identity, what sexual identity means, even having one. Things are very different than they were fifty years ago. We’re going to have to find a way that emphasizes community and embodiment and kin rather than categorical identity, in a way.
GIVENS: I like that. Kin rather than category.
BROWN: But I think it’s hard. I think we need to be patient with each other, and we need to acknowledge that some really good people are homophobic and some really good people are gay, and we’ve got to find a way to see the goodness in these people as we find our way through what matters most, our becoming vessels for the love of God to each other.
GIVENS: Thank you. Our guest today has been Sam Brown, an accomplished intellectual historian who wrote a terrific book on In Heaven As it is On Earth, and who also is the author of First Principles and Ordinances. Sam, I greatly admire and appreciate the contributions intellectually as well as spiritually to the kingdom. Thank you for being my guest.
BROWN: My pleasure, Terryl.
GIVENS: Thank you.