Maxwell Institute Podcast #133: Where the Soul Hungers with Samuel M. Brown

  • Though raised as a Latter-day Saint in Utah, Samuel M. Brown was an atheist from an early age and proud of it. Yet, by his own account, God became an undeniable presence in his life. Now a faithful Latter-day Saint, this practicing research physician narrates some of the waypoints on his journey into believing and belonging. Some are dramatic–his wife’s cancer diagnosis or working in a hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic–while many are simple yet profound: being mistaken for a homeless person while a student at Harvard, growing to like little children and opera, and learning to bake cookies for others. 

  • Though raised as a latter-day saint in Utah, Samuel M. Brown was an atheist from an early age, and proud of it. Yet, by his own account, God became an undeniable presence in his life. Now a faithful Latter-day Saint, this practicing research position married some of the waypoints on his journey into believing and belonging. Some were dramatic––his wife’s cancer diagnosis or working in a hospital during the Covid-19 pandemic––while many are simple yet profound–– being mistaken for a homeless person while a student at Harvard, growing to like little children and opera, and learning to bake cookies for others.


    On this episode of the Maxwell Institute podcast, we speak with Sam Brown about his book entitled “Where the Soul Hungers: One Doctor’s Journey from Atheism to Faith” from the living faith series at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. Please follow us on Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook which are all under the title @byumaxwell. Now, let’s get to our conversation with Dr. Brown.


    Joseph Stuart: Welcome, Sam Brown, to the Maxwell Institute Podcast.


    Samuel Brown: Thanks, Joey, it’s good to be with you.


    Joseph Stuart: Well, we have been looking forward to speaking with you for a long time, but your work has made it a little bit difficult to get a hold of you. What do you do for work, Sam?


    Samuel Brown: Yeah, I’m sorry about that, Joey. It’s been really frustrating to feel like I’m an accidental primadonna with the scheduling. I’m a physician scientist and expert in ARDS, the acute respiratory distress syndrome. And that means I’m a specialist in both treating and studying the problems that Covid-19 causes. So back at the beginning of the pandemic in the end of March-early April 2020, I shut down all of my research and committed 100% to Covid and have been working on Covid––mostly on research. Trying to find and validate treatments for people with Covid but in addition I’ve been pitching in on the clinical side as well.


    I’ve never worked this hard in my life and I’m someone who’s never shied away from work. It’s been exhausting.


    Joseph Stuart: Well, please know that Maxwell Institute Podcast listeners are praying for you and for your family. I can’t imagine that it’s been easy for them either.


    How does your work as a physician shape the writing that you do for Latter-day Saint audiences?


    Samuel Brown: You know, it’s funny, I told the story after my first book a long time ago, but I got into writing initially religious history and then subsequently theology and books about the actual experience of faith––what I might call devotional books––because I was in my early and middle thirties and we were moving back to Utah and I worried that I wouldn’t fit in. I had that smug coastal view that the church is only true in the cool cities and thought that when I moved to Utah it would be so disappointing to go to church––that I would need some connection to the restoration and so I decided I would write academic books about it. And that first book really grew directly out of my work. That first book was about the theology and culture of death in the early restoration and it came from my experience being with people as they died. As an ICU physician, you’ll, over the course of a career, be with hundreds of people when they die and you’ll do battle to try to prevent it, and that sense of grappling with the big questions with people and of encountering death in mortality on a regular basis I think has a direct influence on how I write and what I write about.


    The other thing I would say is that my scientific training has really helped me to be a better believer because it’s helped me to be carefully skeptical and rigorously skeptical. Not only about the kinds of things that people like to be skeptical about, usually it’s whatever their grandparents believe, but also skeptical about what people now take as simple, unobjectionable truth. And I’ve found that training my analytical mind over the years has made it easier for me to see patterns and connections and beautiful things in the gospel. But I would say that those two things: my experience with death and mortality, and my training in scientific rigor have both been hugely influential in my religious thinking and writing.


    Joseph Stuart: Well thank you for sharing that. Today we’re discussing your book, Where the Soul Hungers: One Doctor’s Journey from Atheism to Faith and you discussed on a podcast that you did with Blair Hodges about another living faith book that you wrote entitled First Principles about how you became a theist––how you came to believe in God after atheism. But I was really caught in your introduction that you say that the word “modern” can mean many different things. How do you use it in Where the Soul Hungers?


    Samuel Brown: Thanks. It actually was something that the Deseret Book reviewers and editors really pushed me on. I’ve been so absorbed in writing within the humanities broadly and there, “modern” is a kind of term of art to describe a cast of mind that begins, people debate when, but it seems like it coheres around, moves toward protestantism, moves toward experimental science, moves toward larger scale capitalism and industrial production. But it’s broadly, in those academic environments, it’s used to describe what people thought the early to middle 20th century was all about. The success of technology, the power of the individual, the dominance of liberal democracy, the power of capitalism, and the ascendance of protestantism and faith as an individual act of conscience rather than as a communal mode of living or efficacious worship. That notion of “modern” owes a lot to people like Max Weber and the people who come after him who describe this fundamentally new way of thinking about the world that has been felt by some to be incompatible with religious faith/life and experience.


    So I just used modern in that sense and then the Deseret Book reviewers were like, “dude”, uh they’re not quite that informal, sorry. They said, “Sam, modern is like modern art and up-to-date things and iPhones. Why are you making this claim that modern or modernism or modernity are some kind of meaningful culture? And so that’s why I paused and remembered that we’re speaking in jargon when we use the word “modern” the way we do in the academy. So I don’t mean something that happened in 2021 or something that your smartphone can do, I mean very specifically, this set of assumptions that get wrapped up in industrial power, the rise of capitalism, protestantism, individualism, and liberal democracy that sometimes are used in ways that are really poisonous to gospel life.


    Joseph Stuart: So, I really like that you explained that it meant and means different things to different people because you later write in the book that framing is more important than the questions that are asked. What did you mean by that?


    Samuel Brown: There are examples from medicine that I think capture this that are part of being a supervisor or professor for young doctors. It can be really easy to decide, for example, in medicine that what you’re dealing with is a kidney problem because you see a kidney lab abnormal and if you frame the patient’s problem as a kidney problem, you’ll go barking up the kidney tree. But what if it turns out that the actual underlying problem is that the patient’s heart is failing, and because the heart is failing the kidney’s not receiving adequate support from the heart and therefore is complaining? And reframing it as, “what’s the underlying problem?” rather than, “what’s wrong with the kidney?” can be crucial to taking care of the patient. And that’s a pretty simple example from medicine but again and again and again the kinds of questions we ask are often going to dictate the answer that we get back. And often we’re asking wrong questions so the answer that comes back can’t possibly be relevant to the underlying problems we want to solve and the purist and the pedants will say that questions that assume their own answers are begged questions. It’s not that they’re questions that it’s time to ask, but they’re questions that assume one particular answer to them as they’re asked. And it’s getting at that same sort of notion: that if you’re not careful about the kinds of questions you ask, you’re going to get accurate answers that are utterly irrelevant to the problems you’re trying to solve.


    Joseph Stuart: Another principle that you said that you live by in the book that I find really compelling is that one should never consider themself to be the best or smartest person in the room. How did you come to make that one of your life principles and how can we do that as individuals trying to live within a society where we care about what people think about us?


    Samuel Brown: For me it really came about through training in the Harvard system and there are so many wonderful people and wonderful opportunities within the Harvard system that I don’t want to be misinterpreted. It’s simultaneously true that Harvard exists by perpetuating a false story about itself––Harvard is the only place smart people come and gather. And if you resist that lie, you are a threat to the system. If you are raised within the system, as I was, it can take a while for you to pull that kind of falsehood out of your brain. And one of the things that Harvard teaches you as maybe one of the pinnacles of the modern meritocracy, is that everything a Harvard person says matters and matters more than anything anybody else has to say. And I spent about fifteen years in that system and I’m really grateful. I learned so much and had wonderful relationships with professors and other students and had real expansion and maturation of my spirituality. I met my wife there, and started up my family. So I want to be very careful to not be suggesting that everyone affiliated with Harvard is somehow corrupt. In fact, the large majority of people at Harvard are marvelous human beings. Nevertheless, there is something about that culture that says that it is the most important culture. And so, when I moved to Utah in the early phase of mature adulthood in my thirties, I came to Utah with the assumption that I was going to be the smartest person in any room and that was quite arrogant. And I think you could infer that from my comment about needing to write academic books to make sure I stayed connected to the gospel. That’s just obtuse and bizarre arrogance. But I didn’t know at the time because, again, I’d been acculturated that way. So for me there was a kind of process of withdrawal. Almost like withdrawing from a substance that you’re addicted to, where I had to rely on something more than my academic credentials or my quick wits or facility with words. I had to learn, again, to matter in community with the people I was with. And it takes a long time to unteach yourself bad habits around arrogance and dominance. And the scriptures and life in Christ have been central to me in that process. And a lot of it, honestly, has to do with what I call, again, somewhat pretentiously, triggered metacognition. Triggered means that there’s something that you create as basically an alarm clock to warn you when something’s going wrong. Like an early warning system or with these new cars that know how close you’re following the person in front of you––it’s an alarm system. So that’s the triggering. And then metacognition is just reflecting on the flow of your thinking. Instead of thinking, you’re stepping back to look at yourself thinking. And that kind of triggered metacognition has been the approach that I have come to use. So one of my triggers for metacognition is when I have been speaking continuously for more than thirty seconds. It gets tricky in podcasts because you’re asked to talk and I’m breaking that rule now, but if I’m talking continuously for more than thirty seconds, I pause and think, am I dominating? And I’m trying to learn better to watch people’s facial expressions and if I see fear or boredom or contempt that’s a trigger for me to reflect: am I being pushy or domineering or arrogant? And then the other thing that I’ve been doing, and here, my wife and kids and friends have been helpful guides in this process, I try to spend a lot of time, even if only as a thought experiment, considering what the world looks like from the perspective of my interlocutor. That’s harder to do; it takes a lot of extra mental energy at a time that you’re trying to contribute to a discussion or a committee meeting, but maybe that’s part of the point. Maybe it’s important to pull your cognitive effort on to something other than getting your point across.


    Joseph Stuart: Yeah, it reminds me of something that President Nelson said to a group of primary children: that the Lord loves effort. And I wonder if that‘s part of what goes into it– where we are asked to try our hardest to do something that isn’t natural to us in order to show the Lord that we love His children as much as He loves them.


    Now related to not viewing oneself as the smartest or best person in the room, I think there’s also a propensity for people to use the term “authenticity”, that whatever they are doing is the most authentic version of themselves. Could you tell us more about why you’re skeptical of the term authenticity?


    Samuel Brown: Thanks for asking that. If we’re honest, I felt for a long time like authenticity was a real priority for me and, for me, it was a part of this arrogance that I had. That I could use authenticity as an excuse for being difficult to get along with or for being domineering. I used to, in my late twenties and early thirties, go on left-wing political tirades in the middle of a Sunday school class and just wait for people to react to my mic drop about some scandalous thing I had said about their politics. And I felt like, well this is the authentic me, and then I got to reading in the works of the catholic philosopher, Charles Taylor, and he talks a lot about authenticity in a way––he borrows it from a literary critic named Lionell Trilling who juxtaposes authenticity and sincerity, where sincerity means honestly communicating something that you understand to be true about the world whereas authenticity pivots. Instead of having the metric of meaning being out in the world, an actual existing truth or reality, authenticity says that something about the internal workings of an individual human mind is in fact the relevant judge of not only what might be true for an individual but also what might be true more broadly. What I realized is that often authenticity is a way of trying to celebrate one’s refusal to get along. Sometimes that kind of deliberate posture of refusing to be easy to get along with can be used to a good end––to interrupt a cycle of abuse or to identify and solve a problem. But most commonly evolves into a kind of shutting off access to other people. It becomes a kind of hypertrophied nihilism that’s most easily exploited by marketers and not particularly useful for human flourishing even though the pretense is that authenticity leads to greater overall flourishing. So for me, I’ve tried to ask and answer the question, what is true about the world? What is true about love? What are the opportunities for me to serve as a vessel of God’s love? Much more than to ask: What would the authentic inner me do? The reality is I’ve done a lot of thinking over the years of my belief and the authentic me is a crass and arrogant and misanthropic, selfish person. And that’s okay because there’s more to me than the authentic core. There is more to me in the deliberate life in Christ and in love with friends and family and in the community of the Saints than what I have by nature a right to claim. So I think authenticity is a giant mess that’s trying to solve a couple of important problems but there are better ways to solve those problems without having to end up in the rabbit hole of authenticity.


    Joseph Stuart: Again, we’re speaking with Samuel M. Brown the author of Where the Soul Hungers: One Doctor’s Journey from Atheism to Faith and in the book you describe a gentleman named Leroy. Who is Leroy and how did your interactions with him change your life?


    Samuel M. Brown: When I moved to Cambridge to start college I was a fresh believer and was really throbbing with the spirit of God. It was a year unlike any other I’ve ever lived. I jumped in quickly to hanging out in the homeless community and it actually started because our, they were called single ward meals maybe, or university ward meals, it’s been a long time. Now that I’m an adult they tend to get called “linger longers” where you hang out after church with food and have a meal. But our university ward meal was open to the community which I didn’t know when I showed up and I just got to know some people in that context. And they revealed to me that they were homeless and that they slept at night at the first congregational church shelter just down the way on the other side of the episcopal divinity school from the long pillar chapel, for those who have been in Cambridge, it’s all very close there. And I got curious about how I could be of greater use to these friends in the homeless community and so I ended up working Sundays. Sundays after church after the meal I would go over to the First Church Shelter and I would work. I actually donated my paycheck to the church humanitarian fund I think because I didn’t want to work on Sunday but I did want to do this service and they wanted to pay me for it. It was in that context of working in the First Church Shelter that I met Leroy, who was a very slender man with wild, white hair. That’s the story we like to tell about Albert Einstein’s coiffure.


    And he came to the shelter drunk one night and in tears because if you’re drunk you’re not allowed in the shelter at night, and I understand why those rules exist. But as he was trying to make sense of the fact that he would not be able to sleep in the shelter he was weeping and he was scared for his life and he communicated to me that last time he had slept on the streets he had been beaten almost to death. And I had a little flash, a thought of inspiration, and said, you know, I get off shift at 11, just come back to my dorm with me. I feel bad for my roommate, who was just a lovely human being, and I knew that he had OCD and was quite open about it, and so, Sam is already a hot mess, and then brings home a drunk, homeless guy to sleep in the bunk. But he was, my roommate was such a gracious person. He let us do it and so Leroy slept in my bed and I slept on the floor. I had an old pair of pajamas that somebody had given to me and I pointed him to the shower and after the shower he put on my pajamas and he slept the night in my dorm room and then I got him some breakfast in the morning and I sent him off. And it didn’t feel like I was doing anything heroic or strange. It didn’t even occur to me to ask my roommate’s permission because it just seemed like such a normal thing; a friend needs a place to sleep for the night. But in retrospect it felt like exactly what Jesus would want me to do. And I’m mindful that not everyone’s going to be able to feel comfortable inviting a drunk, homeless person into their dorm room and doesn’t need to feel like they have to but at that moment it really felt like this was just an opportunity to live in the body of Christ.


    Joseph Stuart: Another service opportunity that you had was when you were called as an Elders Quorum President in your ward several years ago. What did you do to minister to those men in your ward who you were called to serve?


    Samuel Brown: It was a tricky moment, Joey, because I’ve never really thought of myself, again, to this question around authenticity, and authentic selves, I’ve never really thought of myself as being suitable for church leadership. I’m just odd and I try hard to do the right things and to be sympathetic but I’m, I’m just a weird guy who lives in his brain and is always thinking about forty things simultaneously and often doesn’t make sense when he talks out loud, and doesn’t always understand what people’s needs are. So for me, for them to call me as an Elders Quorum President was a little disorienting. I like being a Gospel Doctrine teacher or somebody’s assistant. I don’t like being the one in charge at church. And I had to really introspect. And then my wife had taught me to cook some years prior and I’d seen how well she baked. Baking seemed too hard for me but I could see how well she baked, and I could sense that there was a kind of universal currency in baked goods, particularly in sweet baked goods, that just allowed people to be together. It helps that my wife is an expert in religion and food in terms of guiding my thinking, she really has been a mentor throughout our time together, and specifically there. So she taught me to bake cookies and so I just started baking cookies every week and there would just be a giant stack of freshly baked cookies with some citrus zest in them, good chocolate chips, for people when they came to Elders Quorum. And we’d sit around, this is all before Covid, we’d sit around and we’d eat two to four to five cookies depending on how hungry we were and where our impulse control level was, and then we’d talk about what really mattered to us. I think we spent a lot of time wondering about how to be good parents and trying to think through together how to help a child who was struggling. And it was a really soulful period of sharing that it was only really the Covid pandemic that disrupted that pattern of baking as service and then quickly, and then I’ll be quiet on this, Chris Wright, a friend of the Maxwell institute wrote just a luminous essay about the baking of bread and the making of tablecloths for the sacrament that was done by women. And the ephemerality of that bread but eternal nature of that sacred meal really resonated with me. And I mean no sacrilege at all when I say that I felt like those cookies really were partaking of the bread in the last supper.


    Joseph Stuart: Now, in moving from chocolate chip cookies you discuss other scents of the gospel. How does your sense of smell connect you to your memories of religion and to people that you’ve practiced religion with?

    Samuel Brown: That’s a great question Joey. It’s pretty easy to end up in that kind of medical determinism that says, well olfaction speaks to a very ancient part of the brain and it’s intricately connected to the Hippocampus which I think of as almost a non sequitur in this circumstance. For me, there is something about scent that represents and is a non-verbal way of encountering the environment. I think it’s intimacy with foods that we eat and with the natural world we encounter also ties us to the people with whom we share it. Then, to me actually, and in that essay I’m thinking in terms of the interaction of olive oil and of a warm scalp. It’s also the case that temperature plays an important role in our ability to sense and that the weather and the presence of another human body will change the smell of something. And I think that sensitivity to the temperature context, whether something is warm or cold, also, again, plays at this experience of ourselves as embodied beings able to communicate and remember and connect without language.


    Joseph Stuart: So, you’ve written several books but each book I assume is very different in what you think about after it’s published and I’m curious, what would you want your children to take away when they read, Where the Soul Hungers?


    Samuel Brown: My kids always laugh when a new book comes out from me. They love me very much and just think it’s sort of funny that I keep writing these books about religion. I think they’re proud of me and love me and I love them deeply. But it’s always funny, once in a while one of them will actually undertake to read some portion of the book and I think they get a little bored by it but still love me and are proud of me. What I think I want my kids to understand about life and what I think, and what I hope they will take home from a reading of Where the Soul Hungers is that we are called to live between two worlds. Between the world of heaven and of earth and both are lovely and of good report and delightsome and both are radically incomplete without the other. So rather than pushing toward an easy dichotomization or collapse of complexity into simplicity I hope they’ll understand that that rich life, the life lived in God and in the community of the saints requires work to be both in heaven and on earth.


    Joseph Stuart: Thank you for sharing that. And then one final question that we like to ask our guests on the Maxwell Institute Podcast: following the direction in section 88 of the Doctrine and Covenants to learn from the best books, what are three of your best books that you would recommend to our audience?


    Samuel Brown: Erazim Kohak, Between the Embers and the Stars. He’s a Czech ecotheologist within the Catholic tradition. He’s sort of a modern Czech, Henry David Thorough, but less pompous and lazy than Thorough was. He also built a shack in the New Hampshire woods but he actually built the thing and lived there independently rather than mooching off his mom. And he taught me, I think, more about eternity in that book and the interactions of temporality and eternity than I think I’ve learned from any other source. It is absolutely exquisite. My favorite work, I think, of theology. Erazim Kohak.


    Second book, I believe that the greatest latter-day saint philosopher of the 20th century and the 21st century now, the long 20th century, is John Durham Peters. Was at Iowa, now at Yale. If you’ve never met him, an absolutely lovely human being full of grace and goodness and one of the most active and cognitively agile and impressive minds you will ever encounter. And he writes a lot of great books but the book that has stuck with me I think the most is The Marvelous Clouds which is a mind-bending adventure around media studies. He’s, nominally, he’s a media studies professor and really a very successful one but fundamentally he’s a philosopher without parallel in our tradition and I love and admire a lot of Latter-day Saint philosophers so I mean no disrespect by that but John Durham Peters is just, wow. But he thinks through what it means for us to think, for the world to think, what symbol manipulation might mean, what it means for data to exist and move, what the cloud metaphor is, what weather is, how time is kept, sundials, how cephalopods, citations, find their way in the world and they communicate. And it’s just such giddy fun and so wonderfully wise. That’s The Marvelous Cloud by John Durham Peters.


    And then I think that a life without fiction, and this is another thing that my wife Kate has mentored me in, is radically insufficient. And one of my very favorite fictionists is Anne Patchet. And her novel Bel Canto (the operatic technique), is, I think, my favorite of her books, although she has many wonderful books. And it’s the story of an opera singer who is paid to do a performance at a party thrown by a dictator, I think it’s a Central American country, and then gorillas invade the mansion where this party is going on. And then it’s the relationships that grow between the hostages, including this opera singer, who’s the protagonist, and the gorillas that‘s beautiful and life-affirming, and sad; vexing and compelling. So Bel Canto is a synactocie for Patchet’s broader work I would say. It’s my third book.


    Joseph Stuart: Well Sam, thanks so much for coming by the Maxwell Institute Podcast. We look forward to what you publish next and please know that our prayers are with you and everyone working to end the pandemic and with the families of those who are also having a difficult time because their loved ones are trying to do the right thing and make the world a better place.


    Thank you for listening to the Maxwell Institute podcast. Could you do us a favor and recommend this show to others, review and rate the podcast in Apple podcast or other podcast providers, or share the episode on social media? Thanks so much and have a blessed week, y’all.