MIConversations #4—Thomas F. Rogers with Terryl Givens, “Risk-taking discipleship”
Maxwell Institute Conversations are special videocast episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast, hosted by Terryl Givens and created in collaboration with Faith Matters Foundation.
In this episode Terryl Givens sits down with Thomas F. Rogers to talk about the risks of discipleship, and worshiping God with all one’s heart, might, mind, and strength.
Thomas F. Rogers is a noted playwright, essayist, and scholar who taught Russian at Brigham Young University from 1969 to 2000. He also served as director of the BYU Honors Program in the 1970s. From 1993 to 1996, he was president of the LDS Church’s Russia St. Petersburg Mission, the subject of his memoir A Call to Russia: Glimpses of Missionary Life (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 1999). Subsequently, he and his wife, Merriam, served in the Stockholm Sweden Temple. From 2007 until his release in 2014, Rogers was a traveling LDS patriarch assigned to the LDS Church’s Europe East Area. He is author of Let Your Hearts and Minds Expand: Reflections on Faith, Reason, Charity, and Beauty (Neal A. Maxwell Institute, 2016). Tom and Merriam currently live in Bountiful, Utah, where he spends time painting and visiting their seven children and forty grandchildren.
BLAIR HODGES: Welcome to Maxwell Institute Conversations—special videocast episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast, hosted by Terryl Givens and created in collaboration with Faith Matters Foundation.
Thomas F. Rogers is a noted Latter-day Saint playwright, essayist, scholar, and former BYU professor. He’s written extensively on the relationship between reason and faith. The Neal A. Maxwell Institute published a collection of his writings as part of our Living Faith book series. The book is called Let Your Hearts and Minds Expand: Reflections on Faith, Reason, Charity, and Beauty. Terryl Givens sits down to talk with Rogers about his deep interest in the human connection—the family of God.
TERRYL GIVENS: So what can you say about discipleship as a kind of risk taking venture?
THOMAS F. ROGERS: It needs to be that for all of us. The people we read about in scripture, the prophets and others, apostles, in the New Testament, they had to do that. They had to walk the razor’s edge as Christ himself did. I think that we need more of that challenge. I think it’s available to us if we respond…
HODGES: Thomas F. Rogers joins Terryl Givens in this episode of MI Conversations.
TERRYL GIVENS: Hello, and welcome to Faith Matters Foundation’s Conversations with Terryl Givens, a videocast devoted to exploring the experience of lived Mormonism as a catalyst to the abundant life and the public good. I am your host, and our guest today is playwright, linguist, and artist, Thomas Rogers. We’re delighted to have you with us today, Tom.
THOMAS ROGERS: Thank you. I’m very honored.
GIVENS: Well, I like to start by having my guests introduce themselves to the larger public. So why don’t we do it this way. Why don’t we ask you what three things do you expect would probably be in your obituary?
ROGERS: Well, I’d rather think it will be like any other. They will recall the family relationships I have, who my parents were, and our family and children. Then probably what I’ve done professionally.
GIVENS: Hit just a couple of those high points for us.
ROGERS: Well, I ended up being a teacher of Russian language and literature throughout my career after switching at Yale, the graduate school, after two years of the Yale School of Drama, where I was writing plays. That still stuck with me somehow.
GIVENS: It came back later.
ROGERS: It came back later. About fifteen years later. Meanwhile, I made the mistake, I guess you could say, of taking one elective in the second year at the School of Drama on Pushkin, which was a year length course. We read his great novel and verse, which Tchaikovsky made use of very faithfully for the libretto of his greatest opera, Eugene Onegin. That turned my head. I had to go back to Russian. I had studied it as an undergrad is all. Never regretted it, even though I was I think about a year away from a doctorate of fine arts in theater.
It took another eight years for me to get my degree in Russian, attending after two years Yale and then again at Georgetown University, where I first began to teach as well across town at Howard University, and taught Russian and German. Then moved to the U of U for three years, and intended, that’s my alma mater, intended to be there indefinitely, but the institution forty miles to the south rolled out its red carpet and enticed me there. That was a great thing too, and I’ll say a little bit more maybe later about the promptings that have caused me to make these choices along the way.
So that accounts for what I did professionally. The third thing that I think the obituary would probably mention is my church callings.
GIVENS: What were some of those?
ROGERS: Well, it happened for the most part after I got to the Y. I wasn’t acquainted with the Y. I’d never really been there on that campus to speak of until I agreed to go there. We were interviewed by apostles back then, the faculty were. It was LeGrand Richards who took me on. Finally I said, “Brother Richards, tell me that this is a calling,” and I thought that would take care of it. I would then be obligated to go, but he said, “Nope. It’s just a job.”
So I had to make that choice too. It was certainly a providential one. Lots of wonderful opportunities came along with that. I don’t think that would have been the case at the U, both in academic, I directed the honor’s program at BYU for a time, and ecclesiastical, I was a president of what was then called a student branch, now they’re student wards. Then I was for three years branch president at the MTC. Never could have anticipated that I would ever, or even my students, would have the opportunity to be missionaries in Russia itself, until the fall of the Iron Curtain. Then all of a sudden they needed some mission presidents over there, particularly those who knew Russian. I’m sure that’s the only reason I was called to do that. No other school if you were on the faculty would say, “Go ahead and take three years off. We’ll keep your position for you,” except for BYU.
GIVENS: So one of the first mission presidents in Russia.
GIVENS: Then you returned for subsequent church service in Russia in your later years.
ROGERS: Oh yes. In fact after retiring, Merriam, my wife, and I, we were asked to teach for a year at Peking University, in English, to graduate students in China. That was memorable too. Then shortly after that we were called to the Swedish temple in Stockholm, because at that time the several church missions all sent their members to Stockholm to go to the temple. They needed somebody to coordinate that. So that was for a year and a half.
Then more recently I was called to be a patriarch for all of Eastern Europe; we have a couple. That lasted for eight years. It took about a total of twenty-five France-Atlantic trips, two of them global circumnavigations, and after about two thousand, six hundred and sixty blessings and about three to five trips a year, I had that great experience.
GIVENS: So you’re well traveled professionally and ecclesiastically. I would say spiritually, as well. I consider you kind of an encyclopedia of spiritual insights.
ROGERS: Oh boy.
GIVENS: Many of which are collected in this wonderful collection, Let Your Hearts and Minds Expand, which I may be referring to it a little bit later in our conversation. But I’d like to explore a little bit, if we could, your own spiritual formation. One way I like to phrase this question is to refer to the poet Wordsworth who in his great Prelude wrote that there are in our existence spots of time. He refers to the renovating virtue of those moments that are pivotal, foundational, informative. I wonder if you could choose two or three moments in your life that shifted your direction.
ROGERS: Well, I hope that’s true for everybody. That they have these spiritual promptings, which they don’t even anticipate or recognize as such. That has certainly been true in my case. I hear people, and I hear the admonition of people to search prayerfully and anxiously for answers. I haven’t done that in too many instances. I haven’t needed to. But the opportunity came and the prompting, the suggestion, somehow, willy-nilly, that I make a choice. I had always to make that choice. That’s what led me to BYU, as a matter of fact. It’s also what led me to switching, I believe, from theater to Russian.
Then there were a number of instances of that later, but even before. I was the president, the inter-chapter president of the church fraternity at the University of Utah, in connection with the Institute of Religion, which was then called Lambda Delta Sigma, for LDS. Its founder was Lowell Bennion, who was one of my great spiritual mentors incidentally, and who was the director at the time as well at the U. So I was very active in that organization, which would tend to suggest, would it not, that I was totally with it spiritually. However, I certainly had no intention to serve a mission at that time, even into my senior year. My peers were called after their sophomore year and they dutifully went. But I wasn’t going to waste that two years or so on that.
However, in that senior year my bishop happened to be the manager of the Genealogical Society, or the archives of it, and he employed some of us in the ward to do part-time work at the archives on weekends, which I was doing. Why this didn’t occur to me sooner I don’t know, I was very satisfied with my professors at the U, but I suddenly had a sense about so many of them that their religion was their discipline, and they were very good at it. But I said to myself unexpectedly one day, sitting at the archives, “You know, life has to have more to it than just that, then just to pursue a particular academic or intellectual discipline.” So it caused me to rise from my desk, go upstairs and knock on the office door of my bishop, and ask him to call me on a mission, which he did manage to do.
That wasn’t the end of that test. After I got to Germany, our mission was headquartered in Berlin, I wasn’t there for very long before I realized for the first time I couldn’t really be sure that the message I was bringing these people was divine and the truth. Without knowing that I just could not continue. So I in desperation wrote a letter to the apostle who had set me apart as a missionary, Hugh B. Brown. Fortunately it was Hugh B. Brown. He sent me a consoling letter, understanding, and made me sense something I had been taught in primary, frankly, but had never really applied it seriously, was how you get a testimony. I also wrote another person, a young woman that I had known at the Institute of Religion. Why I selected her is also telling, I think. She wrote me back too and that was very helpful.
Well anyway, weeks went by and nothing changed that much. I wouldn’t face my family and friends by going back if I had to stop being a missionary; I’d be too chagrined and embarrassed. So I had studied French as well as Russian and I thought I’ll go to France and join the Foreign Legion. Now isn’t that adolescent? I was in my early twenties already. That was how I was thinking to myself, little realizing that had I done that, a year later or so I would probably have been in Algeria during that conflict.
But I do so well remember the one morning when I was sitting by myself, our missionary apartment was attached to the chapel in Hanover, which was my first assignment there. I was studying grammar and the scriptures and the discussions, this was before we had an LTM or an MTC, and all of a sudden I looked at the blank wall in front of me and I knew. I just knew. There was no drama attached to that, no thunderbolt from Zeus, it had come for me. That’s over sixty years ago. I cannot dismiss the memory of that, or the confidence and the certainty that came from that realization. It made all the difference.
Also then I was prompted to write a letter just shortly after that to that young woman, sending her my Lambda Delta Sigma president’s pin, since I didn’t have a ring for her. It was a two and a half year mission, which language missions were then, and had great faith. She had to wait for me to return. We were married nine days after my return in the Salt Lake temple. We were sealed there by apostle Richard L. Evans. So that’s another instance of this.
Now I’ll just quickly cite two more, if I may. They seem very strange, and very irrelevant in a spiritual sense. I had forgotten that I had even written a play. I was so busy involved with teaching Russian, and particularly Russian literature. Until a colleague of ours in the department of Germanic and Slavic languages, Alan Keele, making a presentation to the college of humanities at BYU to the faculty on one occasion, which I attended, suddenly, and he was citing what two very famous post-World War II German novelists had written in favor, very favorable toward the young German martyr who was LDS who was beheaded by Hitler at age seventeen for protesting Hitler.
GIVENS: Helmuth Heubener.
ROGERS: Helmuth Heubener, yes. These two novelists had in turn in their work, both Nobel prize winning novelists, Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll, cited Heubener in the affair, regarding him in glowing terms. Suddenly Alan turned and pointed at me in the audience, knowing about my background at Yale I guess, and said, “Tom, you should write a play about that.” Yes, another prompting in that form. A light bulb went on.
I was then honors program director, I was campus branch president, I got a phone call every fifteen minutes during the waking day. The next two nights I stayed up, not only for therapy, but in order to write the first draft of that play, which as you know, was more than just another play at BYU. It was a happening, it was a sensation. The final week of the many long extended runs we had of it, I saw students sitting in serpentine circles on the floor of the fine arts building waiting for the box office to open, kind of like you would expect to be the case over at the Marriott Center for some athletic event. Now another—
GIVENS: We’re going to come back to that.
ROGERS: Okay. And another happened after that. My retirement. Rather than just sit on the porch and vegetate, which I think a lot of people sadly do after they retire, I had an occasion where I wanted to find a Pink Pearl eraser of all things. That had been my favorite eraser over the years, even when I was in junior high. You couldn’t find them anymore. So I thought there was a stationary store on Main Street in Bountiful, it’s Karr’s Stationary, and I thought maybe they would carry one. So I went there. They did have a Pink Pearl. I bought several. Then the clerk said to me, “Now if you go through that arch right there,” it looked like it was part of the store, “you should look at the gallery.” “What gallery?”
There was an art gallery attached to it. They were renting it to artists. I had no idea. I said, “What gallery?” And she pointed the way and I went there. I made a turn inside of the arch. The first painting I looked at was a pastel portrait of a young girl in a wool sweater. For the first time in my life I looked at a painting and said, “I want to do something like that.” Then I looked at the signature of the artist. It was Anne Chesley. I said aloud, “Who is Anne Chesley?” And a woman standing next to me, closer than you are sitting across from me at this moment, said, “I am Anne Chesley.” One of the artists there at the Lamplight Art Gallery. She was my first teacher. I have been involved with them as one of the co-op members ever since.
I’ve painted well over five hundred portraits and many landscapes from photos always, photos I took while I was in Eastern Europe. Many of them of Swedish members and Russian members who came to the Swedish temple. I would take their picture, and then I do pastels, pastel portraits, particularly of the couples that I had sealed there at that temple.
GIVENS: And you’ve become an accomplished artist. I own two prints of your works.
ROGERS: Yes. I’m flattered.
GIVENS: From your exhibit in the gallery in Bountiful.
ROGERS: So anyway, that’s how that happened. Another prompting, another odd prompting you could almost say, and I like to think that’s true for almost everybody, that those come into their lives. So why am I an exception?
GIVENS: Well I want to turn to the first two that you mentioned and kind of weave them together. Your first spot of time was a moment that confirmed you in a kind of discipleship, and then your writing of a Heubener play described a trajectory in which you explore some of the particular tensions in the life of a disciple. Gene England, by the way, called you the greatest playwright that Mormonism has.
ROGERS: I think he called me the father of modern Mormon drama.
GIVENS: I think he also said you were the greatest practitioner of the art as well. That’s a sentiment in which I’m in agreement. But it can’t be a coincidence that your two most renowned plays, Heubener and Fire in the Bones, both describe a disciple caught in a particularly agonizing predicament.
ROGERS: That’s right.
GIVENS: So I want you talk about what those two plays have in common, why that particular kind of dilemma appeals to you, and if you wouldn’t mind for those tuning in if you could give a very quick overview of each one of those plays, if they’re not familiar with them.
ROGERS: Okay. Well Helmuth Heubener is in my view the perhaps greatest most important LDS martyr of the whole twentieth century. He was listening to BBC broadcasts in German that were contradicting the propaganda that he was getting, and others, in Germany—
GIVENS: This would have been at the beginning of the war?
ROGERS: I wish I could recall the exact years now. It might or might not have been the beginning.
GIVENS: But it’s after the rising of Hitler.
ROGERS: Oh, after Hitler’s rise, yes. It was in Hamburg, that’s where he lived. He was the clerk to the district president of the church in Hamburg as a young man, only sixteen or seventeen. He used the mimeograph machine in the district office in order to turn out propaganda pamphlets arguing against Hitler and what he was doing. Then he recruited two other young LDS boys, friends of his in Hamburg, to help him distribute them and plant them wherever they could in public places. Until they got caught and then arrested. He was younger than the others. At their show trial in Berlin the prosecuting attorney said that he had the mind of a thirty-year-old professor and therefore he deserved to be executed as an adult, which he wasn’t. By the existing law he should not have been executed. But he took on the responsibility for the whole thing.
GIVENS: He was seventeen.
ROGERS: He was seventeen when he was beheaded, yeah. The other two were arrested. They were sent to the army and otherwise. They survived and they ended up in Salt Lake, both of them. I got to know them and other principles in the whole story. His branch president was a Nazi himself. I made him look pretty good in the play. He did not know in fact about what Helmuth was doing until after his arrest, but I have them have a confrontation where they argue with each other about the merits, or the demerits, of what he’s doing, which I think is one of the better scenes in the whole play. There’s another scene where his mother comes to visit him before his execution, and that never happened either, she only learned about it when she saw it on a poster one morning in Hamburg, and so forth. That’s the story of Helmuth Heubener.
The other, which I wrote right afterward, deals with John D. Lee, who was a very valuable member of the church. He helped provision the saints when they came here in ’47. He was a great Indian representative. He negotiated with the Indians. Farmer, and so forth. He was actually, I think, Brigham Young’s first adopted son, according to that tradition. Then we had Mountain Meadows Massacre, which he was foremost in leading, and later scapegoated I believe in order to find somebody to blame, and was executed also like Helmuth had been, or would be, after a federal trial in Salt Lake City.
GIVENS: So they’re certainly not parallel characters. And not exactly parallel predicaments, but what do they share?
ROGERS: They both were model members of the church who were both excommunicated before their deaths, and executed. They have that in common. But there’s another broader background that I didn’t recognize at the time, that came to my attention after I’d written even more plays. I could see that I had a situation that it occurred to me, and usually in somebody’s biography, not made up, where a younger person was in contention with his parent or surrogate father, which the branch president was for Helmuth Heubener, and which Brigham Young was for John D. Lee.
Then I realized that this was me subconsciously reflecting my own crisis conflict in these characters. I was relating to them, identifying with them that much. My father was committed to a mental institution when I was an infant. He remained there for about seventeen to eighteen years, throughout my youth, my childhood and youth, then returned to my family. So it was similar in that regard. If you can ever psychoanalyze yourself I think that was mine. But then after writing those two plays I suddenly realized, “I’m in a rut here. I’d better not write about excommunicates who have been executed.”
GIVENS: Heubener was rehabilitated, right?
ROGERS: They both were by the First Presidency, subsequently after World War II he was. Then later also John D. Lee.
So then I wrote a third play, which we had a number of staged readings of at the Y, with faculty from the department of English who participated in those. It’s called Reunion. It’s set during a General Conference session in Salt Lake City, where adult children come to be with their parents. One is a straight-laced high councilman, who is a letter of the law type. The other is a very permissive liberal professor who is no longer an active member of the church. They spar with each other. My sense was the ultimate truth must transcend their arguments. That’s represented by their father, their dying father, who was dismissed at one point as a seminary teacher for various reasons. He wants to bring them together somehow.
So that play ends, all of these plays ended with a ritual, which was like a libation or something. In this case he asks his sons to bless him prior to the curtain, including a younger son who is about to go on a mission who had become so disillusioned with the bickering of his older brothers that he’s reconsidering going. When the inactive professor son is asked by the father to be the voice for the blessing he says, “Why me?” And his father answers, “It’ll do you good.” And we leave it at that. We don’t have the prayer. In the case of John D. Lee it’s his execution. That play begins with his execution and ends with it. That’s the frame of it.
GIVENS: I don’t know if you’d agree with my characterization of your work, but I’d say you’re a disciple’s provocateur. You are committed, you continue to be deeply committed to your spiritual roots, and yet you’ve written, I’m just going to quote some of the phrases from your collections.
ROGERS: Before you go on, let me just say, I don’t know that I deserve such high praise because there are other wonderful Mormon playwrights who have come along, and Eric Samuelson is certainly one of those. I have called Eric our agitational propagandist for his discussion, his treatment of social issues, of real problems that occur in our social life together. So he deserves credit.
GIVENS: Okay. But here’s one of the things that I like most about your writing message. You say that the problem is we should be taking the gospel more, not less, seriously and that if we did it would cause us to ask more questions. You’ve also suggested the good can be radical. One of our problems is we tend to stay in too close to the shore, and we want too comfortable in a margin of safety. So what can you say about discipleship as a kind of risk taking venture?
ROGERS: It needs to be that for all of us. The people we read about in scripture, the prophets and others, apostles, in the New Testament, they had to do that. They had to walk the razor’s edge as Christ himself did. I think that we need more of that challenge. I think it’s available to us if we respond and go beyond just what is the normal expectation. I think as a people we are so much like, in the United States for example, we’re so much like members of our greater society, who want comfort and who are so materialistic.
There’s that wonderful admonition in the Doctrine and Covenants that we should not wait to be commanded in all things, but do many things of our own free will. Some do, for sure, but many do not. That’s what I’m talking about. I call that condition the “Mormon malaise.” I think that’s been used by others in another context, but the Mormon malaise. I sense that around me. Here I am pointing the finger when I should probably be looking at where my thumb is pointing.
GIVENS: Here’s something else you wrote. This is actually a quotation from Richard Elman, but I think it feeds into the same sensibility that you’re trying to indicate.
ROGERS: I quoted that in the book, right?
GIVENS: Yes. Where he said, “Our responsibility is to save what is eccentric and singular from being sanitized and standardized.”
ROGERS: Isn’t that good?
GIVENS: Now, is this a problem or a challenge to Christian disciples everywhere, or do you think there’s something about Mormonism that creates a uniquely vexing set of challenges given how thorough going it is in its organizations, its forms, its structures, its guidelines?
ROGERS: I think we are far more structured as a confession than most any other that I can think of at the moment. That has its merits, but we have a saying in ward that’s come down to us through one of leaders there, he called it the “simple six.” If we would all just adhere to the simple six, which included daily scriptural study, daily prayer, temple attendance, family home evening, and paying tithing, and attending meetings, I think that’s what they are. That’s wonderful. That’s what we all should be doing. Just this last week in our high priest group I was quoting what I impulsively said to my wife a few days before, I said there’s one thing that’s wrong with the simple six, and that’s that if we’re not careful it persuades us that we don’t have to do anything more. It’s more the letter than the spirit, it can become that. That’s what concerns me.
GIVENS: I’ve quoted this before in other contexts, but I’m powerfully moved by Marilynne Robinson’s line in Gilead about living life beautifully is as important as living life morally. One reason why I think that’s true is because as Mormons we still bear, I think, a burden of the Protestant heritage. We still tend to resort to a conception of God as this sovereign deity who has our lives laid out for us, there’s a blueprint that we are looking to find.
ROGERS: Yeah, it’s very regimented.
GIVENS: Yeah, and I’d like to think that it’s more a question of, he gives us a canvas and he says, “Paint a beautiful life.” But that’s where the risk is. We want to feel like we’re in the groove. We’re following this pre-ordained set of expectations and I think he wants us to take more risk. It seems to me that what’s the most powerful Mormon mythos is the way that we reconceptualize the Garden of Eden. The lesson that seems to be taught from Joseph Smith’s re-rendering of that story is that the adventure lies outside the garden.
ROGERS: I think I recall your saying that in your preface to somebody’s book.
GIVENS: I may have. But it was your writing that prompted that observation.
ROGERS: Well what do you know? I certainly agree with that. I just think that we’re too much in a rut at times, waiting to be commanded, to be told what we should do.
GIVENS: But it comes with a cost, right? I mean, you paid a price. Sometimes you were a little bit more provocative than some of the institutional voices were comfortable with.
ROGERS: Yes, and I could have been punished in some form or penalized, but that didn’t happen really. Other than that I was prematurely released as director of the honors program because, I’m quite sure, they didn’t want somebody in so prominent a position on the faculty in case the play created even more disfavor, even though it was very popular with its audiences.
GIVENS: That was a very powerful message. We sometimes becomes so fixated on the Mormon pioneers of Utah that we haven’t paid due deference to those in other countries and other times.
ROGERS: Yes, indeed. I’ve had the great privilege of getting acquainted with the true pioneers of the church in the twentieth century. The first group were the East German members who were living under communism and they were so valiant. I had the great privilege before the wall while in Berlin to rub shoulders with a number of those people and their missionaries. Then the second group of course were those green members who were the Russian members who joined right after the fall of the Iron Curtain somewhat later, just before we went there on our mission to St. Petersburg. Boy, what a spiritual feast that was.
GIVENS: My wife and I were recently invited by a wonderful stake president in Albania to come visit his saints. Then to take a trip to Kosovo and speak to members in Kosovo.
ROGERS: Kosovo, no less.
GIVENS: You spend a day with some of the saints in a place like that and suddenly your first world problems and challenges seem pretty insignificant.
ROGERS: Well they’re among those pioneers, for sure.
GIVENS: Great. Paul Recoeur, I think, referred to what he called the “second innocence.” Seems that there’s a challenge, especially for those who feel called to the life of the mind. They develop what Dietrich von Hildebrand called a hypertrophy of the intellect. They so exercise their minds that their spiritual cells become a little bit calloused and their apprehension and engagement of the gospel is more a kind of intellectual apprehension and commitment of certain ideas and doctrines, rather than a feeling experience of the divine fire. I think no message is maybe more relevant to this moment in our own history.
ROGERS: Well it has everything to do with what we call the spirit. We invite that and we experience it in our interaction with others when we serve them at a very meaningful, personal level. That’s what we’re supposed to do as home teachers and visiting teachers. That does occur, I do believe. But that’s also commanded. There are immediate neighbors, there are members of our own family where we need to be able to minister, to serve one another, better than we often do. I agree fully.
GIVENS: I want to turn to some other passages where you give a kind of defense of beauty and the beautiful in art and literature as a particularly powerful prism through which to experience the gospel. So I’m reading from an essay called “The Sacred in Literature.” So I’m going to read two passages and then I’m going to ask you to comment on them.
ROGERS: Okay. That was the one forum address I gave at BYU.
GIVENS: Alright. And this is from George Santiana.
GIVENS: “Beauty seems to be the clearest manifestation of perfection and the best evidence of its possibility. If perfection is the ultimate justification of being, we may understand the ground of moral dignity and beauty. Beauty is a pledge of a possible conformity between the soul and nature, and consequently a ground of faith in the supremacy of good.”
Then you go on to quote something even more specific, even a stronger claim by W. H. Auden. He said, “Every beautiful poem represents an analogy to the forgiveness of sins. Through its analogies, the goodness of created existence, the historical fall into unfreedom and disorder, and the possibility of regaining paradise through repentance and forgiveness are recognized.”
ROGERS: Aren’t those inspiring thoughts?
GIVENS: They’re beautiful.
ROGERS: To claim one another, these souls that have come to inherit our DNA, and that’s true of our ancestors, these of us as well, we are promised that we can have that relationship with them eternally. The miracle of that, we have that in common with all animals in terms of reproducing ourselves, and all plants for that matter, but it’s a glorious connection. I kind of think a lot of the essay that Phil Barlow wrote about Joseph Smith’s project, that’s what I think he’s referring to. Surely he believes as I do that that was also revealed that it’s also God’s project that we—
GIVENS: Weave a fractured reality? That one?
ROGERS: I think so. That we unite ourselves through faith, eventually as kin with everybody who has ever lived, or ever will live yet. When I think about what I would most like an angel to tell me someday—
GIVENS: Yeah, if you could ask an angel any one question, what would that be, Tom?
ROGERS: Would it be possible for us to get to know everyone that ever lived in the eternities? Why not? The great and the not so great. Including all of our ancestors and kin, and our horizontally related kin, our cousins, and get to know them well and care about them that much that we would have that affinity and that concord between us. Could I really shake Dostoevsky’s hand someday? And Gustav Möller’s, for example. Yeah.
GIVENS: I was going to ask what one thing you think Mormonism does really well. Is it related to this aspiration?
ROGERS: I think maybe so. The super structure that we’re given, the opportunity in it to serve and minister to one another as lay people. To me one of the very obvious marks of the apostasy was when that process became professionalized and academic, and when a single person for his career would then do all of this for us as it were. That sociality, have you ever heard that word anywhere else? Meaning, I think, socialization, and fellowshipping, that we now experience, I’m paraphrasing, will be more perfect and glorious in the hereafter.
Well, it certainly needs to be more real than it is. We need to be more interested and caring toward our fellow members on a ward level. This varies from ward to ward, I recognize that. That’s what I’m really concerned about. That we’d be more that way. And certainly within our families. Someone said to me recently that, that I mentioned this to, and he said he’d lived out of Utah and he said, “Well, in Utah we are mostly focused on our own families and their welfare,” and I think we do that. And that’s a wonderful thing, but it shouldn’t stop at that at all. Paul made that very clear to us when he said, “Ye are no longer strangers, but fellow citizens in a household of God.”
So, yeah. There are some people who have that innate inclination and are that caring and giving to others. That varies with personality, too. I don’t think that means we shouldn’t all try to be more that way.
GIVENS: One last question. I’d like to conclude by asking about holy envy, Krister Stendahl’s phrase about admiring to the point of envying something about another religious tradition that we would like to bring into our own. What would that be?
ROGERS: This might seem facetious, trivial, but I’m always enthralled and I often try when I’m in a Russian speaking country, particularly in Russia, to attend a Russian Orthodox service, and to listen to the a cappella singing. Now I know that the people who do that for the service are professional singers, they probably get paid to do it, but it is so lovely. I think there would be a way that we as a congregation could do that too. I really felt so bad that, certainly in Russia, and it might have been true even on my German mission, that the members were not trained the way we have been. We used to be in Sunday School with singing practice to sing parts, but that doesn’t happen over there. It’s all just singing the melody together. I really would rather not have organs or pianos, just the singing, if we could be like the Russian services singing.
That’s a very minor consideration. There is a sense of reverence in those services for sure, even if the manner of worship, here I’m becoming critical of them, again, is almost too submissive, and there are no seats, you stand, and then you kneel and you kiss the floor in front of icons. It’s, I’m sure, an import from the tradition of the obeisance that was required of subjects to the tsars and to the earlier representatives. That is not how we view our Father in heaven.
GIVENS: But their music is tremendous and boy, their early theology especially, you look at the early Christian church fathers from the east—
ROGERS: They had a sense of that, didn’t they? Definitely.
GIVENS: Well, Tom, is there any question that you wished I’d asked today that I didn’t?
ROGERS: I can’t think of any. We’ve covered a lot of ground. I hope that whatever I had to say made some sense.
GIVENS: Well it did to me. I’m really grateful to you for being with us today.
ROGERS: Thank you so much, Terryl.
GIVENS: Thank you, Tom.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)