‘If Truth Were a Child,’ with George Handley [MIPodcast #105]
We live in an age of polemics. Choices are presented as mutually exclusive and we are given little time to listen. You are either secular or religious. You either believe in the exclusive truth of your own religion or you believe that truth is everywhere—or nowhere. The battle over truth rages on. But what if truth were a child? What if we pursued a relationship with the truth and each other in more caring ways?
Dr. George Handley joins us in this episode to talk about his book, If Truth Were a Child. If you’re a church leader who is looking to connect better with the flock, or if you’re one of the sheep who feels undernourished, George Handley has important things to share with you.
George B. Handley teaches interdisciplinary humanities at Brigham Young University, where he also serves as the associate director of the Faculty Center. He received his BA from Stanford University and his MA and PhD in comparative literature at UC-Berkeley. His scholarly publications and creative writing focus on the intersection between religion, literature, and the environment. His books include the memoir Home Waters: A Year of Recompenses on the Provo River, the novel American Fork, and two collections of essays in the Living Faith series entitled If Truth Were a Child and The Hope of Nature.
BLAIR HODGES: Testing. One, two. Testing.
DORIAN HODGES: Testing.
HODGES: How does yours sound, Dorian?
DORIAN: Testing. Testing.
HODGES: Okay, great. Um. And how old are you Dorian?
HODGES: And you just had a birthday.
HODGES: Where are we at right now?
DORIAN: In the car.
HODGES: Why are we sitting in the car?
DORIAN: To do the podcast.
HODGES: To do the podcast! ‘Cause it’s kind of quiet in here. What’s going on in the world right now, pal?
DORIAN: A virus.
HODGES: And we’re trying to stay safe at home, right?
HODGES: What does the virus do?
DORIAN: Uh, it gets people sick. But this one is makes people really sick!
HODGES: How can we prevent people from getting the virus?
DORIAN: Well, not touching things that other people touch.
HODGES: And what can we do with our hands?
DORIAN: Wash our hands.
HODGES: Wash our hands a lot. And keep physical distance from other people, right?
HODGES: Are you having fun with mom and dad both at home all the time?
DORIAN: [whispers] Can I tell them a story?
HODGES: Yeah, you can tell them a story.
DORIAN: Uh…we’ve been making banana bread muffins.
HODGES: Oh, banana bread muffins?
DORIAN: The end!
HODGES: Okay, I’m gonna introduce people to this episode now. Why don’t you tell people what this show is called? But don’t put your face on the mic. Just speak like—See how I’m holding it like this? That’s perfect. Okay.
DORIAN: Okay. It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
BLAIR HODGES: I’m Blair Hodges. George Handley is a professor in the humanities department at Brigham Young University. The humanities encompass the study of human societies and cultures. This includes things like history, philosophy, religion, the arts, politics, anthropology, language, literature. All of these fields fall into the realm of academic humanities.
George Handley has dedicated his intellectual life to the humanities. One reason, he says, is because by learning so much about other people, he’s come to learn more about God. In this episode, we’re talking about his book, If Truth Were a Child. The book is part of the Maxwell Institute’s Living Faith book series. If you’re a church leader who is looking to connect better with the flock, or if you’re one of the sheep who feels undernourished, George Handley has important things to share with you.
Questions and comments about this, and other episodes, can be sent to me at email@example.com.
HODGES: George Handley, welcome again to the Maxwell Institute Podcast!
GEORGE HANDLEY: Thanks Blair, I appreciate being here.
HODGES: It’s been a while. You were here way back in the beginning. I think you were episode two.
HANDLEY: When you were just a wee little lad back then.
HODGES: Just a wee little lad. We’ve come a long way. The current episode that is coming out as we record this one is episode 92. So, I don’t know what number this one will have.
HANDLEY: That’s exciting. You’ve been doing a great job.
HODGES: And you’re back because you’ve published a book with the Maxwell Institute now—a book in our Living Faith Series called If Truth Were a Child. Let’s talk about that, the title itself, which came from one of the essays.
HANDLEY: It’s borrowing from the biblical story of King Solomon. The famous story of the child who has a disputed identity between two mothers who claim to be the mother of the child. I was sort of playing with the idea in the essay that the woman who loves the child and is the true mother is willing to sacrifice the child in order to keep it whole.
HODGES: Sacrifice her to the other person, not to the knife!
HANDLEY: Sacrifice to the other person. Sorry, I should clarify that. Yeah, to give the child up in order to keep the child whole. Whereas the woman who is lying is willing to actually split the child, which is sort of a strange and violent image.
So, I was sort of thinking about how we might handle truth differently and more carefully if we thought of it as a child. Part of what I’m getting at in the essay is the multidimensionality of truth. That we are inherently limited, as Jesus says in one of his great teachings. That when we think we see, we’re actually blind. He’s trying to help us understand that we always see partially and incompletely. So, our approach to revering truth and proclaiming truth ought to reflect the kind of humility that I think Christ enjoins us to have that is more aware of our limitations.
That is a fine line, of course, to walk, because he has also charged us to proclaim the truth, to be bold when we need to be bold. It’s not always an easy balancing act, but I guess I’m trying to stress that it is, in fact, a balancing act. And it’s something that requires proper circumspection.
HODGES: This essay was first published during a time of high partisan divide, I think, in the United States where you live, where you’ve grown up, where you wrote this essay. And there’s a sense in which truth can become, in this context, a battle. A war of words, winner take all, in back and forth polemical exchanges. And you’re trying to re-frame things and say, “Look, if we treat truth as a child, would we be willing to go in there with guns blazing and view are exchanges with other people in this really aggressive way? Or would we try to treat truth more carefully and see it as its own living thing that we can’t even own, that we can’t possess.”
Talk about the context of this essay and what informed it—these polemical battles. It’s pretty bad right now. The United States has experienced polemical extremes in the past too, so it’s not necessarily new, but it seems to be at a pretty high pitch right now.
HANDLEY: Well according to a lot of historians and scholars, it’s the worst it’s ever been right now in terms of polarization. Maybe not in terms of incivility, but in terms of polarization between the two political parties in particular. And the acrimony between them is from seeing each other essentially as an enemy to the nation. It’s never been this bad with the possible exception of shortly after the Constitution. But even then, there’s some evidence to suggest that it’s worse. So it’s a serious problem.
And of course, we’re talking about two different kinds of truth, in some sense—at least I’m wrestling with that. I actually have an essay about politics and the church in this book and then this other essay about “If Truth were a Child”—both addressing this problem. I think the political truths that we believe we are in possession of are particularly vulnerable to this kind of a problem of overstating what portion of the truth, with a capital T, we think we own when we have a particular conviction. And there’s a sort of unwillingness to try to engage someone who is an opponent—who thinks differently than you do. We’ve really lost that willingness to try to find common ground before we properly understand our differences.
When I was in college—I went to Stanford University—and I had an atheist Marxist professor my freshmen year and he found out that I was Latter-day Saint. And he was respectful, but he was pretty sure—hopeful even—that he could persuade me to not proceed along the path of a religious life because he was convinced it was wrong. But one thing he taught me, as much as we occasionally disagreed on things, he was very insistent that if I was going to disagree with any argument that I was reading or that we were debating in class, I had to do—and that wasn’t just pointed at me, it was at all of us—we had to make sure we understood the argument that we were actually arguing against. And if you couldn’t articulate that argument in language that the person who possesses that argument and is convinced of it would agree is accurate, then you may still have more work to do before you should really get into the arm wrestle about who’s right.
But part of the problem that I’m wrestling with in this book is that—and this is a danger that creeps into religious culture as well as to political culture—we sort of end up thinking that the ultimate objective is really just to be right. I mean, it’s just to have the right worldview and that time is well spent and energy is well spent when we just try to influence other people to have the right worldview. And that we get bent out of shape when they don’t—
HODGES: Or we feel scared or nervous—
HANDLEY: Or we feel scared and threatened, exactly. And we don’t realize that Christ has called us to the good life and the abundant life, which is a life of loving and serving and not thinking of ourselves and of striving to become good. Striving to become more like him. And truth is an important component to that, obviously, but the ultimate goal isn’t to be right about what is true and what is untrue. It’s to be good. And goodness is a kind of fidelity to goodness. It’s a fidelity to light and it’s a fidelity to God.
But I think sometimes we just maybe put the cart before the horse, and we think that it’s actually more important to be right. If I read Paul correctly in Corinthians when he’s talking about charity, he’s saying, “It actually doesn’t matter how much truth you possess. You can teach the truth all day long until you’re blue in the face, but it you do not have love in your heart, it doesn’t really actually add up to a whole lot.”
And in fact, you could do damage—severe damage—to the truth that you’re striving to protect.
HODGES: There’s a striking passage in the Doctrine and Covenants that comes to mind where it says, “Are you teaching the truth in the spirit of truth or in some other way?” So that suggests you can try to communicate truth in untrue ways that kind of cancel out that truth. How would you say truth can be communicated in the spirit of truth?
HANDLEY: Well, in another essay in the book, “On Criticism, Compassion, and Charity,” I essentially try to make the not-original argument that charity is really important and that it is a gift of God, that it actually is not natural. I mean, that’s how I read Moroni 7. I read that as saying to me, you can muster love and affection for people, and it’s quite easy to do for people you like. It’s maybe natural to do for your own children on the day they’re born and for your spouse on the day you’re married and so on. But ultimately, life is going to exhaust those natural affections. Maybe not permanently or always, but at some point, you’re gonna run out of gas. You’re going to find that you can’t even muster natural affection for the people that you should love and you’ve lost your patience, or whatever it might be. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s lost patience with their children or with their spouse.
At least I hope I’m not, because that would be a very lonely world. But I think the point is that Christ has offered us a gift of His love and Mormon teaches us that it’s actually something that can be bestowed upon you. But that is actually dependent upon desire. Like, you really have to want it with “all the energy of your heart.” And that to me means that I recognize that I don’t have it. I recognize that there’s a gap between my love for human beings and God’s love for human beings. And that gap is significant enough that I hunger and thirst after it and I want it badly enough to plead for it.
I guess maybe I’m sounding like I’m not really answering the question. I don’t think there’s a methodology, other than it’s a spiritual methodology of recognizing insufficiency and being really careful.
Some of our most serious mistakes as parents, and as spouses, is when we think that being right and loving another person are sufficient reason to be outraged that we have been betrayed by someone’s behavior.
HODGES: —A choice that they’ve made or something that they’re doing.
HANDLEY: Yeah, and that’s just not good enough, as it turns out. I mean, it wasn’t good enough for Jesus. He was right and he was in possession of the truth, but he had to have charity. He had to allow himself to be insulted and wounded by the world.
HODGES: But George, this is where it gets difficult. So, throwing out some hypotheticals, let’s say when the person that you’re supposed to be loving is in a position to hurt you. So, in abusive situations. Or in situations where a child decides that the church isn’t working for them and they leave. Or, families who have family members who come out as LGBT, and these types of issues where the rubber is really hitting the road and there are real things at stake. In fact, trying to love someone else can end up hurting you pretty bad. What do you do in those circumstances?
In other words, how can charity be operative when you’re in a position of great vulnerability?
HANDLEY: Yeah, well that’s a really important question and different places in the chapters I try to address that particular scenario. For example, I point out that in sustaining church leaders, the scriptural mandate is actually to sustain only those who are honoring their responsibilities.
In other words, I don’t think our intention—which is a very strong one in our church to sustain leaders because we’re a lay church. And how I read that is, “Hey, we’re all human. We need to help a leader be successful.” But if a leader is being abusive and if you’re aware of that abuse, the scriptures seem to indicate to me that my responsibility is to indicate that that’s a problem and I’m not obligated to sustain someone who is abusive.
That doesn’t mean that I’m not obligated to love, in some sort of generic sense. But love does not mean excusing other’s abusive behavior and absorbing the wounds that people are sort of inflicting on us unjustly. I do think charity is not just extendable to the person who is the abuser or the violator, but it’s also to one’s self first and foremost. And understanding and accepting Christ’s love for us. But to the degree that we feel that we are burdened by something—by an enemy that is beyond our capacity to bear, that’s precisely why we need Christ.
I think the command to love our enemies is the mandate to try to—in many of those cases in my experience, and I’m not talking about like, enemies who have come after me to abuse me. I have not been abused, neither sexually or physically by anyone in my life. So I can’t speak to that experience. Have I been mistreated by those in authority? Yes. Have I felt betrayed by people I’ve trusted? Yes. And do I feel like, on occasion, I have enemies? Yes. And my quest is to try to use Christ’s love to see if in loving my enemy, that perception of an enemy actually vanishes or it changes in some way. And it may be that with all the charity in the world, I look at my enemy and he or she is still my enemy. In other words, they do still in fact mean to harm me and they are a danger to me. And I think I’m obligated to remove myself from that situation, to call that out for what it is.
But because I’m also potentially blinded by my own biases and my own weaknesses, the mandate seems to be, just make sure that you’re not dehumanizing your enemy to the point where you have done yourself some added spiritual harm by creating more of a problem than really exists.
HODGES: And this can get difficult. I remember I was able to read some of your book’s manuscript early on, in the early stages, and at that time, there were some things that, as I’m reading it, were really connecting. And then now when I read the finished product, things have happened that I’m noticing something new. I’m noticing this problem of “both sides-ism.”
This is the idea: “Oh, everybody’s a child of God. There are good people on all sides.” Which can tend to paper over some real troubling things. What do you think about that? That the problem or the tension that exists there when you’re trying to have charity for others, but there’s also this idea of like, “Well, both sides do such and such”?
HANDLEY: Well, I don’t think it’s charity to just be blankly tolerant. I think that is not what Christ is calling us to do. He’s not saying don’t use your mind. Don’t use judgement at all; don’t assess a situation and identify error. So, actually I think a sort of blanket tolerance—whether you’re on the political right or on the political left—is really kind of a vacuous concept. Because it doesn’t actually address specific harms and specific problems.
In my essay where I talk about criticism and compassion, I mean it’s sort of a triangular relationship that I see between using criticism, which is critical judgement—that’s how I kind of understand that term. I’m not talking about harping or the sort of negative connotation of contention that we sometimes have in church culture. I’m talking about the mandate that I think is crucial to our wellbeing to be critical judges of ideas and values and of people and of situations and circumstances we find ourselves in. And if we don’t cultivate those skills of critical judgement, we’re in danger. We’re in danger of being duped, right? I mean, an elderly person or a young person who is duped in a relationship of trust by somebody who tries to abuse their economic situation or physical situation. We want to teach children and adults and everyone to use critical judgement and suspicious. There’s this sort of healthy suspicion.
But at the same time, we would have to say, well a life of a disposition of suspicion that never knows how to break out of that and never knows when to trust is also a problem. So, I think compassion is kind of a way of balancing that. If I can learn practices of compassion and understanding so that I can really feel and suffer with another person and their circumstances, then I’m learning something crucial.
But charity seems to be the added ingredient that’s not natural. It’s a gift of God. And I think that helps us to go beyond, for example, just being compassionate toward people who are like us. And actually, learning a kind of regard for their inherent dignity, even when their behavior is abhorrent.
And I actually think charity is more of a crowning jewel precisely because I can identity the really awful things that someone has done. Like, if I can still find some love and regard for the humanity of another person who has been an abuser or who has been capable of awful things, that to me is wisdom. It’s not naivety and it’s not a sort of blanket trust that makes me vulnerable. But it’s also a protection against allowing anger and hatred to just overwhelm me. Which is also what we’re vulnerable to when we’re violated and injured by people or by circumstances in real and painful ways.
HODGES: That’s George Handley. He’s author of the book If Truth Were a Child. It’s part of the Maxwell Institute’s Living Faith series. He also teaches interdisciplinary humanities here at Brigham Young University and serves as the associate director of the faculty center.
I want to circle back to something you said a little bit earlier, it’s connected to what we were just talking about. You mentioned how skepticism is part of your makeup. You brought that from your childhood. You engaged it with your career at the university. But it’s not just skepticism about others. There’s also this skepticism about yourself. In one of the essays you’re talking about personal revelation as one of the principles of the gospel that really draws you to be a Latter-day Saint. And you talk about religion as being a check on your own biases. So there’s this skepticism that turns inward that you’re trying to turn people to.
HANDLEY: Yeah, I guess I’m talking about it in a different way than members of the church might be more familiar with. First of all, let me just say that in a church that believes in revelation like we do, and in prophets, seers, and revelators, to my mind, if we didn’t also believe in personal revelation, then I would walk away from it. I would say, “Well, that sounds like a formula for adoring a cult figure, rather than what I consider to be the universality of Christianity.”
HODGES: You’d surrender your agency. You’re outsourcing your own moral engagement?
HANDLEY: Yeah. And I just love that Joseph Smith, from the very beginning, was so hungry to share his experiences with others and to enable them to have the kind of experiences he had. And that’s what I found so moving about President Russell M. Nelson’s first talk as president and prophet of the church was an invitation to us to learn how to have more personal revelation.
That said, personal revelation multiplied across a landscape of very diverse people could be a formula for chaos and mayhem. Because everyone is now taking their own personal convictions and adding God’s sanction to it. And suddenly, we’re in a scenario where we’re wrestling over the ultimate realities of things and we’re not recognizing our own partiality. And that sometimes is, frankly, what happens in church settings. We’re unable to recognize the possibility that good people sitting together could receive different impressions and maybe even opposing impressions about a particular issue. And where do we go from there? And so, I think I was trying to suggest that revelation is both personal and collective. It’s both individual and corporate in the sense of being a body of Christ, and when I go to church, I am learning how to refine my own revelations.
Many of my most important revelations have actually come to me through other people. They haven’t been through my own individual meditations and prayers and scripture reading. But they’ve been conversations. I’ve had many with you, Blair, where something just kind of—a light just turns on and I perceive something that I hadn’t perceived before. And the idea that I could do that in a vacuum without all these challenging relationships in my life and stimulating relationships in my life is absurd to me. It’s a very lonely thing. So, I sort of feel like because I believe in personal revelation, I also believe in being a part of the body and I welcome the chance to refine my thinking and in the presence and dialogue with other people.
That isn’t always easy. I mean, sometimes it’s extremely painful actually. Again, it goes to our most intimate relationships in our families and in our close neighborhoods and most important relationships. But that’s, again, where charity is called for.
I think charity is a willingness to say, “Could I be wrong? Am I wrong? Am I missing something here? What do I need to listen to? What’s God trying to tell me right now?” That requires a pretty high degree of humility. So, if I’m really serious about personal revelation, what I should do is cultivate that humility rather than become a person who just thinks that God just attached himself to all of my opinions and now I have, sort of, extra authority to be really arrogant.
HODGES: I think this goes back to the metaphor of the book, If Truth Were a Child. Like, this is something that you care for and hold, but there’s a way that you could hold a child that would just crush it. You could squeeze the life right out of it. If you hold it too loosely you could drop the child. You could hurt the child. So, when we’re dealing with our own faith in community with other people, there’s a sense in which if we think of truth as a child, it’s a precious possession that has a life of its own that needs us, and we need it, and we need to care for it and be careful with it, but not too careful. Life is about learning to strike this balance.
HANDLEY: That’s a great image too. And in fact, I’ve used this story to illustrate this point. When I was a little boy, my dog had puppies. And I remember taking one of the puppies and I was holding it with that kind of—I must have been five years old. And I was cuddling it to the point where I hurt it. I remember hearing it cry out like, “Ouch! You’re breaking my legs.” And I remember putting it down on the ground scared that I had hurt it. And it kind of limped a little bit and it was fine.
But that’s the story of that mother. She gives up her child—so she understands that true love is actually not a kind of possession. It is recognizing that I can’t own this thing. And if I squeeze it too tight and if I try to defend it to vehemently, I may actually do damage to the thing that I think I’m trying to protect.
And I think there are lots of examples in our lives with family. Even if we say family is so important and family unity is something we value, but you can use that as a weapon. And if your child becomes wayward or your spouse becomes wayward, you’re presented with this challenge of, “Okay, was my love for my family just based on the assumption that we would all be like-minded? And now that we’re not, do I feel betrayed by this? Do I—”
HODGES: —Or, do you need to protect yourself from it or punish them? There are a lot of different options you could take at that moment.
HANDLEY: Right. And the irony of someone who, in the name of family would reject a child who has made other choices, in my mind is an example of—I mean, it’s the same thing, I think, of in the name of Christianity, either condoning the abuse of other people or actually participating in it. I’m so moved by—I think it’s chapter 22 in 3 Nephi where Jesus is talking about being sure that we’re worthy to partake of the sacrament. But He repeats the warning four times that we should never cast anybody out. We should never stop ministering to anybody ever for any reason. He says because you never know what the final story is. And what He’s trying to say is, “Being my disciple means you have to keep yourself open. And you cannot allow yourself to come to premature judgement about people and about situations. You have to allow for the possibility for goodness to emerge and to be taught by the situation that you’re in. Closing the circle more tightly is not the answer. The door has to be wide open.”
HODGES: So, we’re talking about interpersonal relationships and how this works, so this model of truth being a child also works personally. You paraphrase Emily Dickinson in one of your chapters saying that the questions people have, or doubts that get raised about different things about the gospel or the church or whatever, that doubts and questions can actually keep your faith nimble and alive if—you offer a caveat—“if you’re motivated more by trust than by fear.”
HANDLEY: Well, and maybe another way to phrase it is that belief is not a function of will. I can will something to be true and want it so badly to be true that I could run myself into the problem where I can’t be taught anything new. But I think if I remember the mandate that I am to love the stranger, I am to love the enemy, I am to love the sinner, etc., and that my embrace of others is that wide open, then it does, I think, mean that I need to be more trusting.
Maybe not necessarily trusting in other people, again going back to that other issue of safety, it could be that someone really is a danger to a community and we do need to protect children from predators or whatever. But we have to be willing to trust God’s love and God’s purposes enough. And that also means recognizing a gap between our understanding and his understanding—which is a scriptural principle, that his understanding and his thoughts are not our thoughts.
So, to be a believer in God means that I can proclaim God and I can live according to what I believe he has asked me to do. But I have to do so in a way that acknowledges that gap between what I understand and who he might be. And if I can’t acknowledge that gap, then I worship a God after my own image, to use a phrase from the first section of Doctrine & Covenants. It’s false worship, right? I mean, that’s essentially what he’s saying. You’ve made your own convictions into an idol.
I mean, I know I’m talking about a really nuanced idea here and it runs counter to the feeling that as a Latter-day Saint I am called to stand for something and I need to stand up for the gospel and stand for principles and teachings and commandments, and I accept that. And actually, in my introduction to my second chapter about “Why I’m a Latter-day Saint,” I talk about not only personal revelation, but missionary work. The challenge of having to share what I believe with other people is really inherently valuable because it does actually help me to work through my fears. I could be fearful of other people making wrong mistakes. I could also be fearful of being mocked or rejected by people once they find out what I believe.
HODGES: —Or being wrong yourself too. That’s another fear.
HANDLEY: Right, right. And none of those fears are productive. They’re potentially quite damaging. If I acknowledge the possibility and even the inevitability that I’m wrong about some things—maybe even wrong about a lot of things—and yet, I may not know what those are yet. I don’t know if I’m wrong about some things. All I’m trying to suggest is our need to recognize that oppositional relationships or situations can teach us things that are of God. Even when the person who is the adversary in a certain situation isn’t acting on behalf of God or whatever. But I can learn from my circumstances if I have the humility to do so.
HODGES: And Latter-day Saints try to learn like that with family, friends, and neighbors. But that also is something Latter-day Saints are trying to do within the church as well. One of the things you do in the book is invite Latter-day Saints to create what you call “a more trusting environment where we can ask and explore questions together in church meetings and in other places.”
I’d like to hear more about what that would look like, because some of the feedback I get about that idea is, “Oh, I can’t do that at church,” or “I don’t talk about certain things at church because I don’t want to upset people,” or “People go to church to be comforted, not to explore these difficult issues.” So how do you recommend people go about fostering a trusting environment where we can ask and explore questions together?
HANDLEY: That’s hugely important. If we can’t do it at church, then I don’t know where we’re gonna do it.
HODGES: Well, a lot of people do it on the internet! You’ve got that. [laughter]
HANDLEY: Yeah, I guess that’s true. What I mean, I guess, is that if a brother or a sister—I mean, I can maybe just speak to my experience in my ward when we used to have a High Priest group. Which of course is now the Elder’s Quorum. It still has the same feeling to me where I live. There are members of our quorum who have been very open about their struggles with faith. And they’ve made themselves very vulnerable in doing that. And I’ve never forgotten this one time—and this has happened multiple times in my quorum, but the first time I saw it happen was just so moving to me. Where a man stood—he actually had been assigned to teach the lesson for the day—and he talked about the crosses he bears in his life. And the sorrows that he’s lived through in his family and why these things have made it very hard for him to adopt the language that other people use in church about God and belief in God. One of the most conservative and “orthodox” members of the quorum, without hesitation, just blurted out, “I love you Brother so-and-so!” Just said it so beautifully and so directly. And I remember after the lesson was over many of us were embracing and weeping together.
By contrast, I’ve heard of situations—many—where people say, “You know, I did do that in my quorum and I got a cold shoulder from everybody.” And I think that in the brotherhood of a quorum or the sisterhood of relief society, if you can’t be safe there, then I don’t know where you’re gonna be safe. And if we’re failing there then we’re really failing. If we can’t embrace people with love and say, “You’re where you’re at, I see you, I hear you. Maybe you and I don’t see eye to eye, but you’re my brother, you’re my sister. I love you and I want you here and I want all of your gifts, even if you feel like one of those gifts is not faith, that’s okay. You’ve got other gifts.” I mean, we actually have scripture that says this is actually how it works anyway! (D&C 46:13)
And so, why should we feel like we all have to be cut from the same mold? I just feel like that’s so damaging to what we’re trying to do, you know? And I hear this in the leadership of the church. Elder Holland has talked about this and Elder Uchtdorf has talked about this—the need for recognizing the many gifts that are among us and that everyone has a place in the choir and that there’s no litmus test. Anybody can walk through the door, and when they walk through the door, they are equal. It doesn’t matter where they’re from, what their life circumstance is, what their faith is, what their convictions are. They are equal. We are brothers; we’re sisters. We’re all children of God.
I know I’m saying platitudes here, but I actually don’t think we practice it deeply enough.
HODGES: So in talking about that practice, you’ve been in church leadership and stake presidencies and so on. What would you say to bishops and relief society presidents and other people about how they can make this real in their wards? And also, what would you say to individuals in wards who feel like they’re just kind of alone in it, and that this type of community doesn’t exist for them in their wards? What kind of practical advice to you give? How do leaders and how do regular members go about fostering that type of community in real ways?
HANDLEY: Well, remind me to come back to the latter question after I talk first about leadership. But I think your latter question—
HODGES: —I’m stacking questions on you. [laughs]
HANDLEY: Well, but I think that latter one’s probably more relevant to most people. But I would say, what I’ve seen happen—I can give a couple of examples.
I knew a bishop whose ward started to have some real tensions in Sunday school. People were coming to the bishop and saying, “I can’t take it anymore. I’m hearing stuff in church that just is making me crazy.” And in this particular case, it was stuff that kind of made the bishop crazy, too. I don’t remember the content of it. But he was—what I mean by that is that the bishop was convinced that what was being said was probably not helpful. But what he did was he actually, for a fifth Sunday, had a conversation with the adults about how to be adults together. Like, when we gather together, we have to be aware that not everyone thinks like we do and when we open up our remarks, we can’t just assume that everyone’s with us. And we have to show deference and respect for people who see things differently. So he actively identified the problem, gently invited people to be more careful, and gently chastised them for not being sensitive.
HODGES: It’s like a meta-lesson. He used a fifth Sunday to talk about how to talk about stuff.
HANDLEY: Right, right. They didn’t get into any of the specifics. They just talked about how we’re a community of Saints and that we’re trying to create unity, but unity isn’t achieved first and foremost by agreement. It’s achieved by love and respect and the acknowledgement of the dignity of other people. And it can go a long way to help someone feel like they belong. And this example I gave in my ward of this brother who said “I love you,” out loud like that, the fact that it came from him was not lost on people. It was like, that was really moving to everybody, because we knew there were strong feelings of different opinions about the church and the gospel and the truth claims and so on of the restored gospel.
I’ve seen other scenarios. As a stake presidency, we try to always—the very first word that came out of the stake president’s mouth when he was called as the stake president were, “Everyone here belongs here and we will meet you wherever you’re at. You all are welcome. All of you belong.” I mean, just saying those words with real sincerity. He said them with great passion and sincerity. We heard for years afterwards what a difference that made for people just to hear that message and to hear it repeated occasionally.
So, I just think actually saying it out loud is just really—if you’re in a position to be a leader, or you don’t even have to be a leader. Maybe this goes to the second part of the question. If you’re giving a talk, you can say that sort of thing. I mean, you can’t say it maybe on behalf of the leadership, but you can say, “I believe that this is what the gospel teaches us, and as far as me and my household are concerned, you’re all welcome and I love every one of you here.” And I frankly feel like we ought to pray more often in church for our enemies. I rarely prayers for enemies, and I think we ought to actually—Jesus told us to do so. So, I don’t know why we don’t actually practice that.
But I think just as a member of the church, I don’t want to sound like I’ve got all the answers and that this is a simple formula for everybody. But I just find that it helps in general to approach church—and this maybe sounds a bit arrogant—but I come to church to give as much as I come to receive. And if I’m only there to receive, then I’m probably going to go away a little empty handed. I’m probably going to go away feeling a little disappointed at something. But if I’m there with the intention that I have gifts, God’s given them to me. I know my story, I know who I am, I know that I’m imperfect, I know that I’m flawed. But I also know that I’ve got something to give. I’ve got insights or thoughts. Maybe I’m good at reaching out to the quiet person and the shy person. I’m good at talking to the elderly. I’m good with kids. I should just go to church with those gifts in mind.
I mean, there’s a brother in my ward who, as far as I can remember, I don’t think he’s ever had a calling in the youth, but he has had this habit of like, becoming a mentor to a young person in the ward. Overtime, he’s done this with dozens of young people. And he’s changed lives in the process. He’s given them experiences. He happens to be an outstanding organist and he has access to the organ in the Tabernacle—the old one. And he invited my son up there and let him play the tabernacle organ. It was a life changing experience for a twelve-year-old boy.
So, I just think there are ways in which we can be really proactive, creatively trying to just see where the wounded people are. I mean, there’s that saying which I love, which I can’t quote directly, but Mr. Rogers said something to the effect of, “Look around and see who the people are who are–”
HODGES: “Look for the helpers.”
HANDLEY: “—who are the helpers and the healers, and then be one of those.” And I actually just think that’s—it can boil down to something that simple in a certain sense. I come to church to be of help. And if I see someone who looks like they’re hurting, I know their situation, and I get creative and prayerful about how I might be able to respond. My feeling of belonging goes up. My feeling of connection improves. Anyway.
HODGES: In one of your chapters, “A Poetics of the Restoration” you point to Christ’s compassion. You’re talking about how he suffered not just for humanity, but also with humanity. So, when the scriptures are inviting us to cultivate the mind of Christ, you say that means we’re supposed to learn how to see through the eyes of other people like Jesus did.
Like, Jesus came down, he didn’t just suffer for people, he suffered with them. He learned what it was like to be them. And so, developing the mind of Christ is to be able to see through other people’s eyes. You say this is, “A call to develop an increasingly profound understanding of how the gospel relates to the diversity, range, and levels of human experience.”
What did you have in mind there? That seems very broad. And it speaks, I think, to this question about making wards work in healthy ways.
HANDLEY: Well, this is also—As a literature professor, a humanities professor, I wanted to bring to bear some understanding from the humanities to my gospel experience and church life and share that with others. And I just feel that it’s such an extraordinarily important mandate, to educate ourselves as much as we can about the world. And the more educated we are, it doesn’t mean that we’re an automatically better Christian, of course. We like to quote that scripture, “To be learned is good.” But only if we–
HODGES: —”hearken unto the counsels of God.”
HANDLEY: —are faithful to the teachings of the gospel. But I think it shouldn’t be lost on us that the Lord said, “To be learned is good.” He really needs us to be aware and to be informed about life experiences. And so—
HODGES: Right, he doesn’t just say, “To be learned is acceptable. That’s okay, as long as you do this.” That’s not what it says. It says that it’s “good.”
HANDLEY: Yeah. We’re all born into certain circumstances, right? And those circumstances are both enabling of potential growth but they’re also inherently limiting—every single one of us is born like that. And to varying degrees. Some of us have more exposure to more diversity in life than maybe others do. But I’ve never seen that becoming more aware of diverse experiences is an inherently bad or risky thing. I think it actually broadens our understanding of humanity.
HODGES: It can be disorienting.
HANDLEY: It can be disorienting. That’s very true. And I talk a little bit about that.
And I’ve talked with students over the years about that. I’ll say, “Look, you’re gonna read this book and this book’s gonna take you on a journey into another world and if you’re really reading compassionately, and you’re reading well, you’re going to be disoriented by the time you finish the book. But consider that an opportunity to rearrange the furniture a little bit.”
I mean, this happens to us on a personal level. When you really listen to somebody and you really listen to their situation and you really have compassion for it, it should change you in some way. And you should be able to trust and have faith that that change can be positive. Because what I always try to tell students, and I tell myself, is that Christ understands this as well, this set of circumstances that I’m learning about.
I mean, I’ve studied the history of slavery in the Caribbean and the United States and the early colonial period and I’ve read about Native American genocide. I mean, I’ve read chapters of human history that are absolutely devastating and overwhelming. And the only thing that brings me comfort is knowing that I’m not reading anything that is a surprise to Jesus. It wasn’t a surprise to him at the time that he suffered, and so how can I look upon the condition of humanity with compassion? And respond with compassion?
What probably disappoints me the most is when people are presented with human suffering and they don’t actually see it. Because they already have in their head a narrative that explains why either it didn’t really happen that way, it’s not as bad as we thought, or, it’s just not really a bad thing because it’s part of God’s purposes.
HODGES: Those responses seem like ways to explain suffering or wrongs away rather than to engage with it or even to help to prevent it or stop it.
HANDLEY: Yeah, right. And I think that’s immoral. I think it’s immoral to refuse to respond to human suffering that is right in front of us because we think we know why it’s necessary. I mean, it may be that in God’s purposes, some things are necessary or they are certainly known of him. But Jesus was always first and foremost a fellow sufferer, right? He took our sorrows upon him and he said, “You should do the same. You should mourn with those who mourn.”
Now some people have a difficulty. I know some people who feel like, “If I read too much about the holocaust, it’ll drown me.” Or, “If I listen to a story of abuse, I’m utterly and totally overwhelmed and consumed by the sorrow that I can’t even pull myself out of it.” And I think that’s where Christ can help us. But I think the alternative of just saying, “I don’t want to know. I don’t wanna hear. I would prefer not to imagine that those kinds of things are even possible.”
And then, of course, when we’re presented with evidence that something terrible has happened, we say, “Oh no, Brother so-and-so’s incapable of that kind of behavior.” Or, “America is incapable of that kind of behavior as a nation.” Or, whatever it might be. I think we can’t run the risk of falling into that kind of naivety.
It takes a lot of courage to have that kind of openness and compassion to human experience, and allow the experience to work upon us, and I think trust in Christ enough to believe that even if we’re not there yet, we can get to a point where we can understand a little bit more about who it is we are as children of God and who we are in relationship to one another and to God.
HODGES: There’s a quote here in the book where you say, “We cannot model Christian acceptance if we refuse to acknowledge, let alone honor, the lived experiences of others.” That’s a quote from George Handley’s book, If Truth Were a Child. It’s a new book in the Living Faith series from the Maxwell Institute.
Let’s talk about the chapter called, “Letter to a Remarkable Student.” This is a letter you wrote to someone who raised some concerns with you and your letter is responding to these concerns.
One of them was their sense of the church’s priorities and their priorities aren’t aligned as much as they want them to be. For example, they might be really worried about climate change or war or other issues that church leaders aren’t speaking about very often. And so, they see tension there. They want their religious community and their religious life and their religious leaders to be engaging in these kinds of issues and they don’t feel like they are, and so they feel disconnected from the faith. How did you respond to that?
HANDLEY: Well, I really want to keep as many people in the church as I can. I just feel like the church is better for every person that stays.
HODGES: Good ecologies are diverse ecologies. Healthy—
HANDLEY: Yeah, yeah. So, I don’t know whether that essay is actually useful or helpful, but part of what I wanted to say in that essay was, I hear you and I see you and I understand and share a lot of your concerns about a lot of things in the world that are going on that you feel you want to do something about. And I do share that disappointment you feel too that maybe your fellow church members or the church leaders aren’t saying enough about those kinds of things.
I was trying to give some leeway to the church leadership to say—and I’ve said this in different ways throughout a couple of the essays—their calling is to be witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And that’s a very sacred and important mission and I accept and believe in them as such, as those witnesses. But I don’t necessarily look to the church leadership for every opinion on every issue and I find it very damaging to the church when people do that.
In other words, someone might say something like, “Well, if climate change was such a big deal, church leaders would be saying more about it.” Or “If genocide in Darfur had been such a big deal, why didn’t the church leaders say more about it?” Are we saying that those people didn’t die? Or that it wasn’t a big deal? I just don’t know why I should expect the church leaders to lead and guide me on every small or large world issue. That’s a big mandate for them to say, “You not only have to teach me about Jesus and how to live like Jesus, but you have to teach me how to apply all of that to every situation in the world.”
And so I take a lot of inspiration from D&C 58 that I should be “anxiously engaged in a good cause,” and if I embrace my Christian duty to make a difference in the world, bring healing to the world, and that brings me to a career devoted to stopping human trafficking or saving the polar bear or whatever it might be, I see no reason why that should be a problem.
And unfortunately, I think in our church there is almost this feeling at times in our culture that if you get too concerned about too many issues out there in the world, you might be sort of losing your sense of priorities. I don’t see the Christian life as one that should be content merely with caring about “me and my own.” Making sure that my kids are well and they’re well-fed and protected and that they’re well raised and educated. That’s my fundamental responsibility. But if this fear of my moral responsibilities stops there—
You know, Joseph Smith talked about the feeling that should overcome us of wanting to bless the whole world, the whole family of God. And that’s the restored gospel that I’ve always believed in and have embraced. And I just hope that students and anybody in the church who feels drawn to a certain cause doesn’t feel that this is a mutually exclusive—they’re suddenly hitting a crossroads where they either have to choose the Latter-day Saint life or they have to choose the life of humanitarian work or something like that.
I just love to celebrate Latter-day Saints doing anything in the world, whether it’s pop singers or artists or scientists or politicians or humanitarians. You know, I think it’s wonderful. And I just want to see more and more of that all the time, because I think we can be small in number but extraordinarily influential in the world because we care about making the world a better place and that’s who we are as a people.
HODGES: George your book was put together during an intense period for many Latter-day Saints. One of the essays in the book was first delivered here at BYU shortly after the church enacted a policy involving the children of parents who are gay and who are married to someone of the same sex. So, you gave this talk right after that policy happened, and then your book itself was released right after the policy was removed by the First Presidency and rescinded. That makes for really interesting bookends to the work.
HANDLEY: Yeah. In fact, you folks here at the Maxwell Institute thought that in order to celebrate the launch of a new book you should ask me to give a lecture. So, you made me give another lecture in the same room, actually—
HODGES: And one day the video will come out! [laughs] Hopefully by the time this episode is out.
HANDLEY: Yeah, and in that lecture, I talked a little bit about that irony that it was framed a little bit that way. When I was writing that essay—the “Criticism, Compassion, and Charity” essay—months leading up to the lecture, of course I didn’t know that the policy change was going to happen. And it happened, I think, just five or six days before the lecture. So, I didn’t really radically change the lecture a whole lot, but I did reference it—the moment. Because there were a lot of wounded people. There were a lot of wounded people around me and I felt some of those wounds as well. And so, I wanted to be a voice of healing and acknowledgement that this was a difficult moment.
But I also didn’t want to be rushing to judgement and pointing fingers of blame prematurely. So, I was trying to be cautious. And I think in retrospect now, after the policy was rescinded, I think the same rules still apply—compassion, care about not rushing to judgement, recognition of the sorrow is so important. And I’m very heartbroken about the many people who were very pained by that policy in the intervening years and that’s no small thing.
So, it’s not just to say, “Well, thank goodness that’s done and gone.” I mean, I’m really grateful for the new decision and I honor it and I recognize that it took courage, I think, on the part of the church leaders to just reverse it. Actually, one of the things I was—I sort of assumed it would get reversed at some point, but I think I was a little worried that it would take much too long. And I’m glad that it just happened. That it could’ve happened sooner—of course. But I’m glad it happened and I embrace the fact that it happened, but I also honor and recognize that there are people who have suffered in the interim and still do.
I don’t really have much to say about that, per se, except to acknowledge the fact that I think what I tried to do in these essays feels pertinent to me and I don’t regret things that I say in the book about striving to sustain church leaders. Nor do I regret what I say in the book about the importance of being compassionate and feel other people’s sorrow. I think those are not mutually exclusive positions, and hopefully we can learn from the experience and recognize the danger.
You know, what was heartbreaking to me was hearing people at the first instance of the policy change talking about, you know, a sifting process. In that there was—
HODGES: When some people would say, “This is happening and people who are upset about it are being sifted out before the last days. They’re the tares. The wheat and tares are being separated.” You talk about that in the book.
HANDLEY: Yeah, that was a very, very disappointing thing to hear. I mean, I just feel like—well, what it is, is judgement. And it’s the kind of judgement that Jesus told us not to do.
HODGES: That’s the point of the parable, is not to do that. That you can’t actually tell the difference between the wheat and the tares—they grow together. And you know, backing away from that, that God loves them all.
HANDLEY: And again, going back to Jesus saying, “You never stop ministering to anybody anyway.” So, why would anyone say that out loud and expect that that’s not gonna be hurtful?
HODGES: George, there is so much that we could talk about. I want people to know, and I told them at the beginning of this episode, you’ve written If Truth Were a Child. You were trained at Stanford University and UC-Berkley. You’ve written a lot of things on religion, literature, on the environment. Your books include a great memoir called Home Waters: A Year of Recompenses on the Provo River. You wrote a collection of essays called Learning to Like Life, which is a tribute to Lowell Bennion. And you also wrote a novel, American Fork. You’ve written a lot of things. Your newest book, If Truth Were a Child is available now.
And just to give people a sense of the book, we did not get through, I think, half of the things that I brought to talk about. People are going to have to check out the book. We were going to talk about avoiding cultural chauvinism in missionary work. We were going to talk about how religion can sometimes tempt us to avoid the risks of learning and growing and how to overcome fear when we’re learning and growing and when our views change and how we can remain true to the gospel while we’re dealing with questions and doubts and things like that. I was gonna talk to you about the humanities and how you’re professional training has benefited your religious life as you talk about throughout the book. I was going to talk to you about the dilemma that the gospel presents where we’re commanded to lay hold upon every good thing and cleave unto all that is good and then we’re also commanded to be aware of the false traditions of the fathers and how we can go about that—and we talked a little bit about that but I wanted to dig in more.
There are so many things in this book that you’re talking about. I hope people will check it out. It’s called If Truth Were a Child. You were also interviewed by Terryl Givens on the Maxwell Institute podcast a little while ago. People can check that interview out too.
So, George thank you for taking the time today and talking with us on the Maxwell Institute podcast.
HANDLEY: Well, thank you Blair. You’re a model reader. You are a truly charitable reader who reads with great interest and inquisitiveness and passion and I really admire you and admire what you do with this podcast. I’m just honored and grateful that the Maxwell Institute would agree to publish this book and I just hope that it’s of service to people. I wrote it with that intention. So, I’m grateful for the chance to talk with you today.
HODGES: Thank you.
HODGES: Thanks for listening. George Handley will be back in a future episode to talk about theology and the environment. He’s one of the leading Latter-day Saint voices on environmentalism and he just published a new book with the Maxwell Institute called Hope of Nature: Our Care for God’s Creation. You can check out a guest lecture inspired by that book that he delivered recently on our website and you can learn more about the book there as well.
Before we go, I want to say hello to some of the Maxwell Institute podcast completists out there. These are folks who have listened to every single episode of the Maxwell Institute podcast—Joseph Stewart, Jeff Roberts, Nicole Elkins, and Ellis Elkins. Our Maxwell Institute Podcast completists! We’ll be sending you something special in recognition of our achievement. Thanks for being such diligent listeners. If there are any other completists out there, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to claim your reward.
I’m Blair Hodges. Coming from you once again from home in Salt Lake City, this time in the car. We’re still dealing with this deadly pandemic. Stay safe and healthy. I’ll talk to you next time.
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)