Home / Testimonies / Walter E. A. van Beek

Knowledge and Sanctification, a Perennial Quest

I became a member when I switched from studying biology to cultural anthropology at Utrecht University, The Netherlands. As a prospective anthropology student I was maybe not the most probable target audience for the missionary message, and my first openness for the Mormon message was from pure curiosity: I was becoming an anthropologist, and that is what anthropologists do—study people and beliefs, and the stranger the better. So I contacted them through a street board, and they did not mind coming. What I looked for and what I found were not the same. I was looking for ‘an interesting church’, and what I found was the notion that a church really could be true. That struck deep, for that was not how I was raised. Raised in a quite liberal mainline Protestant tradition in a rapidly secularizing country, the ‘Divine’ had already lost any form, any concreteness, thus shedding also any way of relating directly to ‘It’. In this tradition you could believe anything, as long as you believed it just a little bit. God had become a principle, a thought experiment, a warm feeling, in effect a cuddly cloud. (‘Liberal’ in Europe has a different meaning, implying mainly ‘freedom’). And then I found in the restored gospel what I was looking for, albeit without knowing so: a relationship with the divine, both through the concreteness of God and through the collapse of the distance with Him, all in the simple notion of revelation. The message struck home: a Heavenly Father who loved me, and Jesus as my Elder Brother who took me by the hand to come home. The heavens were not only open, as Joseph Smith’s story made crystal clear, but also close. Not only open to him as a prophet, but also to me. And, we were all family.

At the time of first contact I indeed was changing my study topic, which meant a lot, as I had to do my army duties first before entering a new academic discipline. In fact, I encountered the missionaries just before entering the barracks, not the easiest situation by far. Living the Word of Wisdom as a recruit took some determination, and when my mates discovered that I did not drink alcohol and in their eyes abstained from anything that was ‘fun’, they tested me! Once they decorated the whole sleeping quarters with pinup photos, and were all watching me closely when I came in. The test was clear: what would I do? Humor is essential in such a situation, so I declared that it was time for an immediate ‘impromptu inspection’—in conformance with the army manual!—and would do it first myself, then ask the sergeant major to perform a regular one. So I ‘inspected’ all the photos closely, declared them all great and wonderful, and then said that I would go to the sergeant major in fifteen minutes to have him inspect the quarters. Within ten minutes the photos were back on the inside of the lockers, and I never had any problem whatsoever again. Later, when other platoons offered me a beer, my own mates immediately explained that I did not drink, effectively shielding me. I was ‘their Mormon’, thus, I’m afraid, serving also as their moral excuse to do exactly what they wanted. At that time I was not even a member yet, as I was baptized as a ‘private’ a month later; I still have the letter in which I ask for a day’s ‘special leave’ for ‘Baptism in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’. I got that day, and was baptized. Later, during shooting practice the next week, our lieutenant came over to me while I was shooting, asking what that meant to me. So between the shooting rifles, I explained to him what the gospel, the restoration, and the Book of Mormon meant to me—a strange experience, having a gospel talk on the shooting range.

I finished my study in anthropology, got married, got children (four eventually), went to Africa with my family to study the Kapsiki (an ethnic group way back in the Mandara Mountains of North Cameroon), wrote my dissertation, received a post at Utrecht University, and served in the Church in many ways, including three times as branch president (this is not Deseret!) and as stake president of the Rotterdam Netherlands Stake. Looking back on those forty-five years of membership it seems just a flash, and sometimes I wonder how I did deserve these wonderful years (and the ten fantastic grandchildren I have now). I hold the chair of Anthropology of Religion at Tilburg University and a joint appointment with the African Studies Centre in Leiden, and consider myself very blessed. Being LDS inside Dutch academia, one is a rara avis. And how did my colleagues react to my membership? Was my membership a hindrance for an academic career in Dutch academia? It would have been nice to say that I never experienced any drawbacks from being the ‘religious man out’, but that would not be true. I did experience some setbacks in my career due to my being a Mormon—though it was never expressed that way—but the problems were with confessional universities, never with the secular ones. Having a professorship now at such a—formerly—confessional university feels like a vindication. And with my colleagues my being a Mormon never was a problem.

Faith or a testimony (the difference is not really that large) develops, evolves, changes, matures, and is never finished. A testimony is not a product but a project, like a bicycle on a long road that you have to push to get to your goal (a very Dutch metaphor), sometimes swooping downhill, sometimes struggling uphill (not so Dutch here, we have no real hills), at times driven by the wind in the back, then laboring against a heavy gush of rainy wind from the front (now we are back in Holland). Inevitably my testimony has grown, evolved, and matured through all experiences, with the almost inevitable journey from the simple true-false discourse of early membership to the insight that doctrines are less important than principles, that truth claims are less important than existential meaning, and that symbolic signification is much more inspiring than historic actuality. My deep appreciation of the two African traditional religions I studied in depth and at length prevents any simplistic dichotomy of us versus them, and I am deeply convinced that we do not need such defensive mechanisms in the restored gospel.

Science and religion do not mix easily; after all, as Karen Armstrong said, logos and mythos are uneasy bedfellows. But as a Mormon I feel God did not want life to be easy, nor religion to be comfortable, while science can never be simple. We are here on this earth not as a place of exile—though we do have perpetual yearnings for a better existence, and I do cherish the notion of preexistence—but as an arena of learning, and I believe we have several pathways for accruing knowledge that are independent of each other: revelation and research. Earth is our home. I have the deep feeling that our existence here has a mission, other than just being tested and going back; anyway, even after our return to our Heavenly Father we ultimately will dwell again on this earth. We are creatures of earth, each gifted with a heavenly spirit, and this is exactly the tension that is our challenge throughout life. ‘Je suis mon corps comme esprit incarné ouvert au monde‘ (I am my body as an embodied spirit open to the world), the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty wrote in his Phénoménologie de la Perception, and though he did not believe in a pre-existence, it fits perfectly. Life is a challenge to grow, and that is, in essence, what I find the most stimulating in being a Latter-day Saint. Our bodies have evolved through the eons of time, becoming intelligent enough to comprehend some of the light and wisdom that emanate from the divine realm. As the only ‘animal with a supercomputer’ we have developed a brain complex enough to understand something of the laws that govern the universe, but also a body plus a brain that are deemed worthy to receive that part of the divine we call spirit, our deeper self and our eternal core. That I find beautiful in Mormon thought, our being co-eternal with God and with the whole universe. Science tells us that we share deep genetic roots with all life on earth, as the provisional end product of a wonderful great process of evolution of living beings, and that insight I cherish deeply. We share a fundamental identity and unity with all life on earth, and on top of that our Latter-day revelations tell us that God not only meant us to be one with life, but also that we have stewardship over this great creation, that we are meant to mean something for all the other forms of life. The wonderful symbolism of the creation story makes it very clear: the non-human animals were here before us and we had to take care of them, to ‘cultivate’ the ‘garden’. The very first commandment was to give each of them a name, implying the recognition of common kin bonds, thus bringing them and us all into one family through that unique, divine gift of language. And ‘Adam’, meaning in fact red man of the earth, is still busy doing just that, as he is not finished by any measure. Not only is naming the animals far from completed—biologists estimate than less than 10% of all animal species are named and known—but we are still exploring our garden in all aspects, in the largest project ever undertaken by humanity, the quest for knowledge and truth. So the first commandment to mankind is to create knowledge, and I cherish the garden tale as the story of how we became human, and how creating knowledge is the very essence of our humanity. One lacuna in the revelations is insight into the eternal goal of animals, plants, of life in general. Someone said: “I can envisage heaven without people, but not without animals.” I do not agree on the first item, but definitely on the second. The creation tale gives us a tantalizing hint that all life is extremely valuable—as that wonderful ‘Apocalypse of Moses’ (Moses 7:48, 49) does for the whole Earth—but what the sanctified future of living beings is, remains almost completely blank. Here I wait for further light and knowledge.

The garden story goes even one step further, because the knowledge about good and evil—i.e. about ourselves in our relation to deity—in principle makes us godlike. Whereas we are the only animals who can sin, just as we are the only ones who can lie, we are also the only ones who can (and have to) repent; non-human animals have no need for repentance. So as red men we are also fallen and have to live with that. (At least I am; others have to speak for themselves). That fallen state brings me limitations in my quest for truth, limitations that can only be overcome by another source than experience and observation—i.e. through divine grace in the form of revelation. For me, Mormonism is the door into that revelation, which is given lovingly but sparingly as it is contingent upon worthiness, meaning my ability to integrate it not only in thinking but also in doing, in theory plus practice. We are human not only because we discern between good and evil but also because we perform both of them ourselves. So the divine spark of our pre-existent spirit needs a norm that transcends our earthy origin, and that is what the Restoration of the gospel has given me. Earth is not only home, but also a field of growth into becoming better, more godlike. So I need two things, knowledge and revelation, and none of them can be missed. Then and only then can I proceed on my road to salvation, working out the many choices that life on earth presents me with, using knowledge and inspiration, in a reasoned mix that I have to work out for myself.

The quest for knowledge and truth is not over. By no means. We are here in a collective and perennial quest for knowledge and truth, but we do have the tools to do so. The gospel is one, and thus the church is one entrance into it. For me the church is my door into the house of the gospel; the two are not identical. When I was stake president, Ronald Poelman once was our visiting authority, and we connected very well. He had just remarried and was happy to be back in his mission field as a GA, even speaking quite acceptable Dutch. Later he gave a General Conference talk that has become famous, in which he expressed the same: the church as a gateway, a facilitator into Christ, our real goal and test being our relationship with Christ. The church is a means, not a goal in itself. I never forgot it and I have sincerely tried to implement it in my own service in the church: the institution, also my priesthood—of which I have a real testimony—as the means to help people. Without the priesthood we have empty hands, without inspired leadership we have little direction, but ultimately the gospel is a relationship—with God, with Jesus, and with our fellow men.

We are here to sanctify the world we live in. Here, Joseph Smith became my great example, not only for the revelations he purveyed, and thus for the information that was unavailable in any other way, but especially for the way he sanctified the immediate world around him. He sanctified America through the Book of Mormon, transforming it from a backdrop into sacred history, from a terra nulla into a land of choice, linking America to the risen Christ. Even Jerusalem, so deeply rooted in the Old World for all other Christians, received its American counterpart, when first the frontier in Missouri became Zion, and then even the place of self-chosen exile in the Rocky Mountains became Zion. Thus, Joseph imbued his life, his people, and the lands he encountered with sacred meaning, and it is this project of sanctification which is for me the other side of our perennial quest for truth. First of all, of course, I have to sanctify myself, a duty to my Heavenly Father, because relation with Him has been restored through the church. But then, as I will not be saved in ignorance, the quest for knowledge has become my personal pathway to sanctification. The restored gospel gave me one other precious insight, the assurance of free agency, embedded in one of the most profound revelations of our time, Doctrine and Covenants 93. I do have free agency, I do have the right to inspiration, and I do have the assurance that the gift of reason is the basis of our human condition. All that is precious for me, and should never be squandered, as it forms the basis from which I can go out of the garden into the world and produce knowledge, in order to be fully human.

For me that world is anthropology, which started out as the study of the ‘other’ and which has rightly turned towards our own culture as the ‘study of ourselves’ as well. The study of religions is not the easiest topic to square with the acquired texts and interpretations of the Church. Logos and mythos are different ways into knowledge, and though the gospel defines all truth as one, there is no reason the two projects at this stage of human development have to produce identical results. At this stage . . . both in science and in the church. Science is never finished, and we know very well that all scientific knowledge, as all knowledge, is socially constructed. ‘Doubt is the chastity of the mind,’ Robert Zelazny said, and that holds. Though some insights are more hypothetical and other theories are more sturdy, all are with us till something better comes along. But the same holds for religious knowledge: the steady increase in revelation, the developing interpretation of texts, and the deepening of our understanding of ancient and modern texts all lead to more insight on the revelation front as well. One major advantage of the restored church is the insight that revelation is never finished: the heavens are still open. We know partly, like Paul said, both in science and in revelation. The symbol of the Book of Mormon’s sealed part is poignant, and throughout the restoration there are many hints to other and future revelations and texts. It reminds us that—just like science—texts, interpretations, doctrines, and testimonies are also socially constructed. Anyone who has ever listened to a testimony meeting knows that very well, but we cherish revelatory experiences till new insight supersedes them. That is what a prophet means for me, as I see in Joseph Smith: not the simple purveyor of messages from above, but the creative translator of eternal values to our own time and culture. Like all prophets, Joseph was a religious genius who, in being diaphanous to God, gave us a glimpse of the eternal.

Historically, science set out as an apologetic exercise, a project to underwrite the doctrines of Islam and Christianity (yes, Islam came first here!). Now the tables have been turned; science has become mature, weaned from religious dogmas, and all for the better. Now it is scientific knowledge that sets the limits of believability; for instance, preaching a flat earth—as implicit in the Flood tale—would find few eager ears now. Wisely, the church indicates that we leave knowledge about the world to the relevant scholarly disciplines, among which is anthropology. The advantage of this primacy of science in our present world view is that the gospel has been redefined to its core, which is to save human beings. It took me some time to realize that the two types of knowledge do not necessarily have to meet in the middle, but that they are speaking about different levels of reality, facts against salvation. To think that scientific knowledge eventually will come around to our present texts and our present interpretation is a failure to acknowledge the fundamental epistemic difference between ‘history’ (what happened?) and ‘sacred history’ (what message God gives us in history). We tend to treat the two as identical, and it would solve quite a few problems if we stopped doing so.

I think we are more than just scratching the surface of reality by now, from both sides, science as well as revelation. Challenges are there, inevitably, and for me one of them has been evolution. It no longer is. Biological evolution is a fact, well established, with overwhelming evidence from a large array of scientific disciplines, and with an integrating theory (called ‘natural selection’) that has been tested empirically and come out with flying colors. We know now that our bodies were formed in a long process, which in Africa resulted in early human forms from which we descend. At least our bodies did. For me, the tension between this fact and those parts of the scriptures that seem to deal with human history is a challenge and a stimulus. When I start out from these scientific facts, the scriptures accrue a deeper message, a more empathic voice, directing our eye not to the ‘how’ of our genesis, but to the ‘why’, to the ‘in order to what?’ of our existence. The same holds for the scriptures themselves. The convoluted history how we inherited these texts becomes a wonder in itself, first for the very fact that they did make it through the ages, but also for the additional insights we glean when we analyze them in their historical context. Both the old and the new, evidently. And then I see God acting in our history, deep as well as recent history. He created those very processes of evolution into which we have some insight now, and then he inspired prophets to comment on his work, in the language and the symbols and within the culture of their own times and our own time—the deep Mormon privilege—commenting on a world which is not only wonderful but also highly meaningful, a world waiting to be known, waiting to be studied, to be loved, and to be sanctified.


Walter E.A. van Beek was born in 1943 in Beverwijk, the Netherlands. He attended secondary school (Gymnasium, comparable with junior college) in Utrecht, and studied cultural anthropology at Utrecht University. After his MA in 1968, he set out with his wife and—then—two children for North Cameroon, where in the Mandara Mountains he performed anthropological fieldwork in 1972-1973. As Assistant Professor at the Department of Antropology of Utrecht University, he defended his PhD thesis ‘Bierbrouwers in de Bergen: de Kapsiki en Higi van Noord Kameroen en Noord-Oost Nigeria’ (“Mandara Mountain Brewers”; PhD theses have to be published in the Netherlands) in 1978. In 1979-80, he performed a second major field research in Mali among the Dogon, again with wife and—now four—children. Since then, he has continued to return to the two field sites, traveling to Africa at least twice a year, to the field houses he has at each location. Since 2003, he has had a joint appointment at the African Studies Centre, Leiden, and in 2006 he moved from Utrecht University to Tilburg University, to assume the Chair of Anthropology of Religion. He just became the proud grandfather of his tenth grandchild.

He has published widely on both African groups, Kapsiki/Higi and Dogon, as well as on the anthropology of religion in general. A conference on religion in Africa he co-organized at Brigham Young University (a university situated in Provo, Utah, it seems . . .) resulted in Religion in Africa: Experience and Expression, co-edited with Thomas Blakely and Dennis Thompson (Currey 1994). An article on religion and climate change in 1999, entitled ‘A climate for change’, won a prize from the Dutch Science Federation. Recent publications are Dogon: Africa’s People of the Cliffs (New York, Abrams, 2001, with photos by Stephany Hollyman), Meeting Culture (Maastricht, Shaker 2003, co-edited with W. Pansters & M. Fumerton) and Reality Reviewed: Dynamics of African Divination (Brill 2010, with Ph. Peek of Drew University). He has just finished two manuscripts: one, The Dancing Dead: Ritual and Religion among the Kapsiki and Higi of North Cameroon and Northeastern Nigeria, is now under peer review at Oxford University Press, and the second, African Hosts and their Guests; Dynamics of Cultural Tourism in Africa, an edited volume with Annette Schmidt, is now under review at Currey, Oxford. At this moment he is working on a monograph on Kapsiki blacksmiths, a project for Indiana University Press.

In addition to his work on African religions, he has also published on Mormonism in Europe in several articles in Dialogue, International Journal of Mormon Studies, as well in scholarly publications in Europe. His ‘Mormon Europeans or European Mormons?’ won the prize for the best non-fiction article of Dialogue of 2005. His main themes are European Mormonism and Mormon ritual. In June 2010 he hosted the fourth annual conference of the European Mormon Studies Association at Tilburg University. His work as an international sports administrator led to several publications as well, on sports-and-religion and the culture of sports officials.

Walter van Beek has held many positions outside and inside the church. He was president of the Dutch Anthropological Association twice (1975-1978, 1984-1987), and, following his lifelong fascination with the mind sport of draughts, from 1992 – 2003 was president of the World Draughts and Checkers Federation (FMJD), and, from 2003-2007 even president of the African Draughts Confederation (Africa is very strong in draughts), and is now ‘president for life’ of the FMJD. In that sports arena he was surprised to see very few Mormons in international sports bodies. In the church he has served in many functions and capacities, among which are his three times as branch president. He was stake president of the Rotterdam Stake, and is presently on the high council of that stake, while also teaching Institute and Sunday School. He is also member of the national Public Affairs Committee of the church in the Netherlands, and often translates for General Conference. In 2008 he received an official royal distinction for his various services, as ‘Ridder in the Orde van Oranje Nassau’ (‘Ridder’ means ‘knight’, a distinction comparable in the USA with a Congressional Medal).

Posted September 2010