When I look at my life and pick out its most significant spiritual events, one that stands out is a night when, unbidden and unexpected, God told me that he was angry because I was reading the New Testament. The experience came in my freshman year of college. I had spent much of my earlier life skimming along the surface of Mormonism, but I largely avoided dealing with the basic questions that I had about my faith because by an accident of birth certain issues within Mormonism were entwined in my mind with the divorce of my parents, who are both deeply involved in Mormon studies in their deeply different ways. I felt that the delicate system of emotional and familial arrangements that I had built up in the aftermath of that event was threatened if I became involved in what I regarded as the intellectual quagmire of Mormonism, especially Mormon history and scripture. This was one of the chief reasons that I chose to major in philosophy rather than history at BYU. I wanted to avoid getting sucked into the world of the Smith Institute, BYU Studies, Dialogue, the Mormon History Association, Sunstone, and endless squabbles about Book of Mormon historicity, polygamy, or Joseph Smith’s money digging. So I turned my energy to Hume, Descartes, and Jim Faulconer’s excoriations of both in class.
College at BYU provided for me, however, what college is supposed to provide: some intellectual independence. Ironically, it was only after I had made a conscious decision to turn away from the intellectual issues of Mormonism that I began to engage them seriously . I spent hours in the Harold B. Lee Library’s excellent collection on Mormonism reading almost at random. This was the early 1990s, and after a decade or two of gestation the debates about Book of Mormon historicity had reached a white-hot maelstrom, and I found that again and again I was being thrown back to the Book of Mormon. I read the Book of Mormon. I read scores of articles about the Book of Mormon. I thought and I prayed and I grew exhausted, so for a while I simply gave up. I stopped reading the Book of Mormon and started reading only the New Testament. The easy historicity of first-century Palestine was reassuring, and Christ seemed like such an unthreatening and easy focus of religious energy.
One night as I read the New Testament, however, the Spirit of God came to me in anger. I am not a particularly spiritual person. In the absence of Mormonism, I would most likely be a cheerful, anti-foundationalist empiricist. Barring atheism or agnosticism, I would be drawn to either something like the intricate rationalism of Thomism or the playful hermeneutics of the Talmud. What I cannot imagine, however, is Nathan as mystic — New Age or otherwise — or as a quester for intense “spiritual experiences.” I say this as a way of emphasizing the surprise of my experience that night. It is not the sort of thing that I expect, and it has seldom been repeated in my life. The other source of my surprise came from the fact that I had been taught to expect the Spirit of God as something warm and reassuring. There was a powerful love in the spirit of that room, but it was not the accepting and unconditionally empathic love that our therapeutic age had taught me to expect from the Divine. It was a sterner, more powerful love calling me to hearken and promising the discomfort of repentance and transformation.
At the time, I interpreted the experience as a command to return to the Book of Mormon, which I did, reading passages in Alma to my great and lasting benefit. (There were several visits of the Holy Spirit to my closet that night.) Upon reflection, however, I have another interpretation of God’s wrath toward me that night. I had turned to the New Testament because it was safe. In particular, I had turned to Jesus because I didn’t expect him to make any difficult demands on me. To be sure, I regarded — and still regard — the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount as impossibly difficult. But I didn’t think of them as being intellectually or spiritually challenging. It was simply that being nice to people is hard.
For me Christ was easy because of the way that I thought about his perfection. At the end of the day, I thought — in my conceit — that Christ, while offering an unattainable ideal, basically offered me everything that I already believed. In other words, Christ would save me from my wrestle with doubts and demands on my soul. I am basically a nice guy, I reasoned, and all that Christ demands is that I be nicer than I am. Hence, I could turn to the New Testament with the assurance that it would make nothing more than ethical demands on me.
I think that this is part of what angered God that night. Speaking of Christ, C.S. Lewis observed, “He is not a tame lion.” Ethics and morality are tame. They are difficult and demanding to be sure, but they are not dangerous. Christ, however, strikes me as a dangerous figure. He calls for more than good behavior. He calls for a wrestle with sin and redemption. He makes wild and crazy claims about death and salvation. His worship requires a host of improbable beliefs about the past. He offers love — unconditional love, even — but I am convinced that it is not the therapeutic love of perfect acceptance. Christ does not accept us as we are. He has far, far greater ambitions and plans for us. To be sure, those that are heavy laden can go to him and find rest; his yoke is easy and his burden is light. But it is still a burden of struggle and doubt, and no amount of panegyrics over the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount can rescue one from the terrible questions of faith and allegiance. In this sense, belief in Christ is just as improbable and difficult as belief in Joseph Smith; indeed much more so. Joseph merely claimed to be a prophet. Jesus claims to be the Only Begotten Son of God, the Resurrection, the Way, the Truth, the Life and the Savior of All Mankind.