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cynthiahallenFaith and Intelligence: a Dialogue with Deity

First Questions

When I was nine years old, my brother Mike and I attended Sunday School at the Lutheran Service Center on Okinawa. Our teacher was an off-duty soldier who served as a layman, not as a professional pastor. One Sunday morning, he told us that unless people accept Jesus as their Savior, they can’t go to heaven. I asked, “What if someone does not have a chance to hear about Jesus?” The teacher said, “That is why we need to be missionaries.” I persisted with another question, “But what if there is an old man in China, and he dies before he gets to hear about Jesus?” The teacher did not know how to answer, so he just repeated his original assertion, “People can’t go to heaven if they don’t accept Jesus.” I did not receive a more definitive answer to my childhood questions until nine years later, when two missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints taught me about the Plan of Salvation.

When I was a senior in high school, Elder Clausen and Elder Knight taught me that the Lord is a God of mercy, who loves all of His children. He would not create a system that was fair to some people and unfair to others. The Lord authored a plan that enables everyone to hear the gospel message, whether on the earth during this life or in the spirit world after this life. The old man in China that I had worried about would have a chance to hear the fullness of the gospel, and he would be able to choose for himself whether or not to accept Christ as his Savior. I immediately knew the truth of this principle of non-discriminatory universal access to salvation. I also felt the spirit of truth as the missionaries explained that Temple ordinances would provide baptisms for the dead and would enable families to be sealed together in bonds of eternal love. Not just for the Chinese man and his family, but for me and our broken but beautiful family, recovering from divorce and other desolations.

Second Questions

When I was ten years old, we lived on Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa, and I became friends with Jamie Cross. Jamie and her family were the first Latter-day Saints or “Mormons” I had ever met. One day I saw a book on the couch in Jamie’s living room, opened to a picture of a boy kneeling in prayer. “Who is that?” I asked. “That is Joseph Smith,” said Jamie. “He went to the forest to pray, and he saw God and Jesus.” I accepted Jamie’s answer with the faith of a fifth grader. I never thought about it again until eight years later, when I had developed a habit of stopping in churches to pray, asking God to please show me the right way to go in life.

One May morning in Phoenix, Arizona, I went to pray in the big yellow church building across the street from Maryvale High School. As I was praying, two “glorious personages” appeared to me (the custodian and the first counselor in a Bishopric). “What do you know about the Mormon Church?” they asked. “Wasn’t there a boy named Joseph Smith, and he went to the forest to pray, and he saw God and Jesus?” I replied. The two men invited me to attend an Open House later in the week. I could not attend, but they remembered my name and the name of a high school acquaintance I had mentioned. They called her Bishop and told him about me. Bishop Dan Moore called Nancy Miner, who found me at school and invited me to listen to the missionary discussions in her home.

The missionaries were young, clean-cut, and polite. Elder Clausen, Elder Knight, and Elder Brown did not try to force anything on me. They explained what they believed to be true with a sincerity that impressed me. They instructed me to ask Heavenly Father in prayer about the truth of their message. “We know it is true,” said Elder Clausen, “because we have prayed about it. But people can be deceived. You can’t just take our word for it. You have to find out for yourself from the Lord.” Their respect for my agency created a bond of trust.

More Questions

During my high school years, my friends and I were seeking truth in the cultural movements of that era, as were many people of that generation. During my junior year, I read a book entitled Do It! by Jerry Ruben. The author’s stated purpose was to overthrow the democratic republic of the United States by means of a communist revolution. His strategy was explicit: to destroy the American family. His tactics were specific: 1) promote illegal drug traffic, 2) deflower all the virgins of America, 3) gain control of the press, and 4) stockpile weapons. Ruben’s plan was eye-opening. This was not the peace, love, justice, and freedom that the songs and slogans were preaching. This was not the truth I had been seeking. I decided that if there was anything true, it had something to do with Jesus Christ.

A year later, the missionaries began teaching me the gospel. Their message was a plan of happiness and salvation for all. Their mission was the antithesis of the radical agenda to destroy families through addiction, promiscuity, suppression, and violence. The mission of The Church of Jesus Christ was to foster lasting love through family life. The teachings were basic: 1) to avoid substance abuse, 2) to blossom as a rose through principles of chastity and fidelity, 3) to publish the gospel of peace, 4) and to respect those who have defended our freedoms.

I was able to compare the teachings of the gospel to truths that I had been gathering from many other sources. For example, when the Elders taught about chastity, modesty, healthy living, and wearing white as a symbol for covenants, I had learned about those principles in my weekly yoga class. When they taught about the Book of Mormon and how Lehi had traveled with his family across the great waters to a new land in the Americas, I said, “Yes, I read all about that in the Book of the Hopi by Frank Waters.” The tiles of truth I had been collecting seemed to come together in a marvelous mosaic.

First Confirmations

During the final missionary lesson, the Elders invited me to be baptized on the day after my eighteenth birthday, to be immersed in water, a symbol of a new clean life. I deferred the invitation, saying that I would think about baptism while I was on a “Challenge/Discovery” wilderness scholarship for a month in the Rocky Mountains near Crested Butte, Colorado. The deferral was just a polite way to say “No.” On the afternoon of my birthday, as I was walking home from high school, an inner voice spoke to my mind with great urgency: “Why are you running away? You say that you want love, peace, a happy family, and universal brotherhood. Why don’t you say YES!” After my birthday party that evening, I called the missionaries to say “Yes.”

Eight days later, I was on my way to a month of kayaking, rock climbing, rappelling, and back-packing, ending with a three day solo in the aspens. As we prepared to ascend Taylor Peak, our teacher, Allan Derbyshire, read a quotation by Dag Hammarskjöld from his book of inspirational thoughts. When I borrowed Allan’s book later to write the quotation in my journal, I encountered another affirmation by Hammarskjöld that shocked me with unanticipated confirmation:

I don’t know Who – or what – put the question, I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone – or Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal. From that moment I have known what it means “not to look back,” and “to take no thought for the morrow. (Markings)

Last summer, I returned to the aspen-blessed mountains of Crested Butte for the first time in thirty-five years. It was as if I had only been gone for a day, as if I had come back for an interview with my Heavenly Father to report on some homework he had assigned. The feedback was unexpectedly positive: “Well done, my daughter, well done.”

Further Confirmations

While I was serving a mission in La Paz, Bolivia, my missionary companion Martha hired a Sister from church named Yola to fix lunch for us in her one-room adobe home. Every work-day at noon we got to play with Yola’s four children: Jorge Miguel, Oscar Eddy, Miriam Susy, and Edgar Luis. After I finished my mission, it was hard to keep in touch with families we had known in Bolivia. But my former companion wrote regularly, and in 1980 she sent me very bad news.

In January, the stove had exploded in Yola’s home while the three youngest children were inside. Outside, Yola heard the explosion and ran home to save the lives of the children. The two youngest children, Susy and Edgar, were severely burned on one side of their bodies. They survived after many months of hospital care, but they had terrible scars on their faces, hands, and arms.

I couldn’t stop crying about the accident, and I realized that my grief was nothing compared to what Yola’s family had suffered. I fasted and prayed, seeking comfort in the scriptures and in the Provo Temple. In the temple, a Brother gave a prophetic prayer during one of the sessions I attended in May 1980. He said, “Bless the suffering that friends will be sent to them.”

Two years later, I was ready to graduate from BYU with a Master’s degree. While I was waiting to hear about a job offer in Salt Lake, I had a dream. I dreamed that I moved into a home on the Avenues in Salt Lake with my former BYU roommate Carla. When I told Carla about the dream, she said that a vacancy was possible and to call if I got the job. I did get the job, and I moved into the Willis home, a block down from the old Primary Children’s Hospital.

One evening three weeks later, I felt prompted me to visit Karen, a Sister who lived across the street from the hospital. I said, “I can’t go tonight, but I promise I will go tomorrow night.” The Holy Ghost said, “Okay.” The next night, I went to visit Karen, but she wasn’t home, so I walked towards City Creek Canyon to look at the sunset. A nurse, a social worker, and two little children were ahead of me, a boy and a girl. When we got to the edge of the canyon, I noticed that the children had dark hair and bright eyes. They were wearing plastic bracelets, so I knew that they were hospital patients. Then, the girl started to go down the steep slope.

The nurse said, “Come back, Susy!”

When she said “Susy,” I had a moment of incredible recognition.

“Where are these children from?” I asked the social worker.

“From Bolivia,” he replied.

“Miriam Susy!” I cried out. Then I tried to remember Edgar’s name.

“Oscar Eddy? Edgar? Your mother is Yola, and your father is Felix, and you have a dog named Tarzan.”

“No,” they said, “Ya tenemos otro perro (Now we have a different dog).”

It was the last night that Edgar and Susy were in the hospital for in-patient care. It was the only night that they took a walk. Heavenly Father was the one who heard my prayers. He knew where we were and how to bring us together. Such dramatic answers to prayer may be once-in-a-lifetime miracles, but my daily bread also consists of quiet confirmations. My quest for love and truth has led me here, to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, a journey of faith and intelligence, a career of scholarly and spiritual dimensions that I never could have imagined as a child seeking answers to important questions.


Dr. Cynthia L. Hallen has a degree in Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English from the University of Arizona. Her dissertation topic was “Philology as Rhetoric in Emily Dickinson’s Poems.” She is an Associate Professor of Linguistics & English Language at Brigham Young University. She has a BA in English and an MA in Teaching English as a Second Language from Brigham Young University. Her interests include exegesis, figures, lexicography, philology, poetics, stylistics, translation, and creative writing. She is the chief editor of the Emily Dickinson Lexicon (EDL), an online dictionary containing all the words in Dickinson’s poems. In 2007, the EDL project received the Albert C. Colton award from the Utah Humanities Council. The Emily Dickinson Lexicon website includes a renovated edition of Noah Webster’s 1844 American Dictionary of the English Language. Her publications include articles in Dickinson Studies, the Emily Dickinson Journal, Dictionaries, Names, and the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. For two years, she worked as the Research Assistant for Dr. Arthur H. King of the BYU Moral Studies Group and served as his Teaching Assistant for Honors/English Shakespeare classes. She is presently the Honors Coordinator for the BYU Department of Linguistics & English Language. She began studying the poems of Emily Dickinson while she was working on a scripture lexicon for the Translation Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Posted December 2009