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On Being a Mormon Missionary: A Manifesto of Faith and Reason

Sometimes during my studies in college and graduate school, I felt like I was some kind of mythological beast like the legendary Yeti or, to take something from the country, a Jackalope. I am a faithful, believing, and ordinary Mormon. I am also a history student at a major university. In a sea of ​​doubt, pessimism, and agnosticism, my colleagues find my faith at once perplexing and strange, and have at times commented in passing how sad it is that such a capable person is dominated by such delusions. My native shyness often led me to avoid confrontation and debate, but here I wish to respond to those people to all the others who have made similar comments over the years. Most of the discourse I see related to Mormon missionaries on the internet and in the media is cynical and critical. The authors highlight the minority of cases in which a missionary hated his missionary experience or where the missionaries clashed with ministers of religion or secularists. I mean the seemingly unspeakable: I enjoyed my mission.

Like most young Mormons, I served as a Mormon missionary when I turned 19. Since my sixteenth birthday, I had been saving money for this planned event. My meditations and my prayers about this future were generally one and the same, or at least they flowed so naturally from one another that I was never quite sure what I was undertaking. I decided that I would not go unless I felt and knew in my heart that it was the right thing to do. The Prophet Joseph Smith once said:

[T]The things of God are of profound importance; and time, experience, and careful, ponderous, solemn thoughts can only uncover them. Your mind, oh man! If you want to bring a soul to salvation, it must reach to the highest heavens and seek and contemplate the darkest abyss and the wide expanse of eternity, you must be in communion with God. How much more worthy and noble are the thoughts of God than the vain imaginations of the human heart! No one except fools will play with the souls of men. (Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vol. 3: 295)

In Mormonism, God is not found simply through mere reflections as in natural theology, but through experiences with Him, and those experiences come from service to God and humanity. As Joseph Smith said, what is needed is time, experience, and heavy thinking. The truth of a thing is found by doing it. So, I studied and lived what I read and, over time, I had the conviction that God lives and that the Book of Mormon was true. As a Mormon missionary, I spent two years teaching that to everyone I knew. Another essay at another time will perhaps deal more fully with my basis for theism, but let me say here that faith is not irrational. It is not illogical. It arises from a spiritual longing and understands that sometimes, to be understood, a fact must first be accepted and placed in the best light or in the most charitable consideration. Logic, as my philosophy professor at university said repeatedly, is simply a tool that builds a priori assumptions and as a machine calculates the necessary conclusions. It is not knowledge in itself, but a framework for organizing knowledge. A person of faith is as capable of reasoning and inquiry as the most ardent adept of positivism.

What does a Mormon missionary do? This question certainly puzzles some. Some, whose own lack of deeply held values ​​distorts their perception of the world so much, refuse to believe that anyone would actually spend two years of their own time; delaying school, career, dates, and friendships; And on your own spending day after day sharing a message that you know the majority will reject. It seems like a quixotic task and perhaps it is. But let me place myself on the witness stand as one who did and has no regrets. For two years I wore shoes and got calluses from walking and working every day. They rejected me, they spat at me, they threw stones at me (and once with packets of tomato sauce), they insulted me, they harassed me, they almost arrested me twice and once they threatened me at gunpoint.

I will not attempt to claim that I enjoyed this negative treatment. At times, however, I was able to understand the person’s frustrations and anger. It can be irritating when someone comes up to you and tries to guide you into a conversation about something as deeply personal as religion. However, my experience has taught me that most people, once my missionary companions and I, were able to sit down with them and frankly discuss each other’s beliefs, enjoying conversations even if they chose not to believe it. that we teach. Some were devoutly antithetical to our beliefs or practices and probably would have been annoyed by my mother’s presence in their neighborhood. To all who were willing to listen, I taught my beliefs and bore a grim testimony of the influence that God and my commitment to Him have had on my life. In those two years I learned more about myself, my God and my fellow men than in any other comparable period and it is not unlikely that I will draw these experiences for the rest of my life.

Among my fondest memories were many pleasant conversations with people from all walks of life, from the educated to the ignorant, from the deep-rooted American to the most recent immigrant. I quickly learned that debate and dispute were worthless undertakings. I am convinced, and my later life has more convinced him of this, that truth and understanding are the greatest victims of forensic science. The result is usually the same: both parties are more convinced of the veracity of their own position and the issue becomes more polarized than before. By confessing that idea, I feel that I am committing a sin against modern society where debate has per se become a value. Let me clarify that I am not referring to disagreement or discussion, but to that childish variety of parallel argumentation that so dominates our public discourse where speakers, who cannot truly be called interlocutors, speak in such an individual and disconnected way that there is no exchange of ideas. or even an acknowledgment of the other’s point of view. Rather, it is the solipsistic pontificate of experts and spokesmen.

As Mormon missionaries, we were taught, and made a point, to share our message, invite others to consider it, pray about it, and live it, but nothing more. It is true that sometimes we were prompted to debate and I succumbed to too many such baits, but most of the time my fellow missionaries and I testify, warn, and invite others to listen to our message without resentment. Some have tried to argue that our reluctance to debate is evidence of some deeply held fears on our part about the veracity of our message; but that review is wrong. We simply acknowledge that there is seldom a good thing to come out of such debate and the victim of such battles is often good relationships between people. Most of those who wished to debate us lacked the ability to listen to and capture the point of view of others, that the debate would have simply been a battle of wills and egos.

So, you might ask, why do we do it? Why do we run the risk of provoking so much controversy and resentment? I am convinced, after much experience, that it is the missionary work of this Church that inspires such vehement diatribes against us more than any peculiarity of practice or principle. Similarly, many groups have divergent beliefs about God and salvation, but no other group makes such an effort to make sure everyone else knows about them. I can only answer by saying that our belief compels us to do so and if we ignored the imperative to share this message, we would wallow in unnerving hypocrisy. We believe that our message can calm hearts, strengthen relationships, and allow all people to understand and worship God. This belief will cause controversy and will earn us the bad opinion of many who maintain that truth and values ​​are relative, but to stop sharing our message would be as good as denying that we believe it and that we cannot do it; I cannot do that, because I have had too many experiences that have confirmed the veracity of this message and the need to share it with others. I have seen that faith, both in God and myself, works too many miracles to step aside now and say that I will not work to help others because it might offend some. Life has taught me this: someone will be offended no matter what they do, so I will live not to offend my conscience because that will be my constant and eternal companion.

My plea is in favor of this: that people take more time to understand each other in our public discourse, particularly regarding religion. This appeal has been done before and will be done again. I am not deceived that this little essay has a great effect on society, but I hope someone will listen to me. True discussion and true communication about ideas and values ​​requires that we first understand the views and beliefs of our interlocutors. Too many people assume too quickly that they know what others believe about this or that. Such intellectual mondegreens stifle our ability to communicate because language and speech is fluent and highly dependent on socioeconomic conditions. It is not enough to know what God Y Grace Y values mean to us, we must understand what they mean to others. If not, we will happily and arrogantly attack the straw men of our own creation because, as Cervantes said, “they can be giants.” Then, when we have overcome our chimerical adversary, we will unilaterally and uselessly proclaim our empty victory.

Go to the fountain and ask a Mormon what a Mormon believes. Those who devote their energies to leaning against Mormon windmills and killing Mormon chimeras will no doubt continue to claim that all Mormons lie about their own beliefs or hide the truth about what they really believe. They will no doubt continue to claim that Mormon missionaries are highly trained propagandists and purveyors of misinformation (nothing could be further from the truth), but such claims are circular and based on the claims of blind and prejudiced eyes. As a former Mormon missionary who took pride in serving his faith and still follows the principles of his religion, let me tell you that while in America and the West we are likely to still disagree, the first step to improving our speech is to improve our listening.

Unless we first seek to understand, we can never be understood. I have grown weary of the prejudices, casual slights, quick layoffs, and moral outrage from those who attack not just my faith, but all creeds and belief systems. These deliberately ignorant and prejudiced attacks come not only from other religious leaders, but also from secularists who are so isolated in their own belief systems that they believe anything else must be irrational. Such a dismissal of even the ability of others to rationally disagree with you and to rationally believe something you find fantastic will only serve to divide and exacerbate our public discourse. Let me finish as I began by saying the incredible: I believe in God and the message of Mormonism and I do so with full understanding and with all the powers of my mind. I do not ask any reader to suddenly convert to my faith, but hope that, with an open and inquiring mind, you will seek to understand those of us who still believe in faith and hope through a living God.

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