Q. Are you an apologist or neo-apologist?
A. No, I’m just a philosopher. Others have said I’m an apologist, but I’ve never been interested in apologetics. Mormonism can stand on its own two feet and it doesn’t need me to defend it.
I am intensely interested, though, in what it means to live a religious life. This question is my almost exclusive concern. This is what Letters to a Young Mormon is about.
What does a religious life look like? What kinds of beauty or liberation does it foster? What kinds of costs does it impose?
More, I’ve always been sensitive to something that prophets, saints, and mystics of many traditions (Mormonism included) confirm: that there is a paradox or inversion, a kind of Mobius loop, at the heart of a religious life that looks like moonshine from the outside and that can only be verified by tracing your very own finger along that same twist in the path.
I want to trace this loop with as much of my body, heart, and mind as I can manage. Writing and thinking about the loop can look like a new kind of apologetics, but it will always fail on that score and that’s not what I’m after.
I don’t want to defend the weird topology of this knot, I want to think it.
Q. Are you a Mormon? Why?
I’m Mormon because I was born and raised a Mormon. It’s in my blood. It’s in my bones. Mormonism has me by the brainstem. That’s not a defense, just an explanation.
Also, I’m Mormon because I’m a well-educated, American, heterosexual white-guy. I’m a privileged member of the tradition and that privilege makes it easy to stay and harder to leave.
But, too, I’m a Mormon because of spirit. Mormonism introduced me to spirit and spirit keeps me in the pew each week.
There is a live current running through Mormonism, a subtle but palpable current of electricity that occasionally arcs in spectacular ways but that mostly, humming in the line, is just strong enough to regularly jar me out of my daydreams and into caring for the ordinary run of daily life. Ordinary life is the place — and I’m increasingly convinced that it may be the only place — where the twisted ends of the transcendent and the immanent join to justify the costs and effort of a religious life.
This electric spirit is not unique to Mormonism (and Mormonism doesn’t claim that it is) but Mormonism’s way of configuring and distributing this current — it’s manner of boosting and converting it — has some unique and obvious strengths.
Q. It seems like you’re asking “spirit” to bear a lot of weight. Why hang the whole tradition on a subjective, psychological phenomenon like “spirit”?
Spirit is the thing. There’s no denying this.
But I would deny categorically that spirit is a subjective or psychological phenomenon. It’s a basic but common mistake to think that spirit is subjective or psychological.
Spirit is, rather, fundamentally a relational phenomenon. It manifests only to the degree that I’ve gotten outside of my own head and am, as a result, more tightly intertwined with the people and objects around me. In this sense, spirit is more objective than subjective.
But it’s also true that, in the end, spirit defies objectivity as much as it does subjectivity. This is why it’s really hard to talk about.
Spirit depends on my being exposed to the root that’s common to both the subject and the object. It depends on my being exposed to the original ground they share. Spirit shows itself at that ur-place where world bleeds into mind and mind bleeds into world.
Spirit is that place where the ends of the loop join.
It sounds mystical, but to arrive there, you just have to do the most ordinary things.
You have to be still and pray. You have to sit and read old scriptures that you don’t understand. You have to sing a song in church while you hold your wife’s hand. You have to find your great-grandmother’s tombstone. You have to bake a pie and go home teaching and knock on a stranger’s door. You have to play checkers with your children for half an hour on Monday night.
This is nothing special. And it’s tempting to think that you don’t need Mormonism to do these things. Maybe you don’t. But I wouldn’t be doing any of them without Mormonism. And the way the tradition configures my relation to these ordinary things, though subtle and pragmatic, is what makes them crackle with enough life to wake me up again and again.
Q. What is grace?
Grace is what you didn’t choose, didn’t earn, and couldn’t deserve. Grace is a name for the give and take of life, for the costs and gifts involved in even our smallest exchanges with the world that embeds us.
Grace can save us, but it can do so only because that’s what it’s always (already) doing. Grace is another name for spirit.
This may sound like a pretty idiosyncratic definition of grace, but I think it’s consonant with both Mormonism and the broader Christian tradition.
I’ve written a dissertation and published two books about this. They’re a little technical, but you probably prefer that kind of thing anyway. The devil’s in the details.
If you’re interested, try my book Speculative Grace, published by Fordham University Press in 2013.
Q. It’s your view that people should be quiet, stop asking hard questions, and just do their home teaching?
People should do their home teaching. And I think people should spend more time being quiet. Spirit shows itself in silence.
But I don’t think people should stop asking hard questions.
In fact, I think a problem many people have is that they don’t ask enough questions. They’ve got a handful questions and then stop with those.
We tend not to range far enough with our questions. We just ask the same handful of comfortable questions over and over again, regardless of who we’re talking to and what we’re talking about.
The questions themselves start to feel safe. That’s a bad sign.
Ask your questions. Ask more questions. And then ask your questions even more seriously than you already have. Stop assuming that you already know the answers to your questions before you even ask them. And, especially, be sure to ask really hard questions about your really hard questions.
Always work to ask even better questions than the one’s you’ve already asked.
Don’t stop halfway with your questions. If you stop halfway, you’ll just lose what you had and fail to find what you could’ve.
Whatever you do, once you start asking questions, don’t stop. Keep going. Keep going. Keep going.
I think this is good advice.
And it’s advice I need to hear as much as anyone else.