Home / Testimonies / Jeremiah John

I am a believing Mormon, but also some kind of scholar. Besides that, I teach and I write, with a continual hope of saying something true and interesting. My testimony of faith—in form, content, and origin—is not very different from the testimony of countless other ordinary Mormons. But it needs to be declared, just like all the others, and perhaps it will be useful to those who wonder what Mormon scholars think.

I enthusiastically endorse having faith (specifically in Christ), but I also take the view that thinking is better than merely muddling through. These commitments, joined together, can be viewed as a curiosity, or as a problem. In my own experience, the encounter between faith and reason is a practical, even existential question, not merely a theoretical one. What I mean by this is that I think people reflect upon the relationship between faith and reason only after being drawn, or even committed, to both. So this reflection is a reflection upon existing allegiances and affections, not upon options that lie neutrally before us. Whether it is the word of revelation or the word of rational argument, I have long “experimented on the word” (as a Book of Mormon prophet put it) and found these words to be enlightening, well before I figured out how those words could be coherent with all the other true ones that I know of. Nevertheless, commitments are not all absolute or irreversible. This reflection upon prior allegiances cannot, I believe, abandon itself to blind choice, or give in to commitment without any grounding. A dedication to reason cannot dispense with giving reasons for itself, any more than a covenant to speak the truth about God can put truth in quotation marks. Both my religious life and my intellectual life point beyond themselves. Indeed, I hope they point to the same thing.

I am convinced that all good things have some common ground. There is only one truth. To be sure, there is no reason to expect an easy joining together of all the separate strands. Reality is often disordered, or tragic. Human beings are limited. Moreover, the habits of mind typical of the philosophic, scientific outlook are not the same as those typical of disciples of Christ. But it strikes me—and has struck me for some time—that the values of each point of view are in large part the true values. The lives of the mind I’ve been drawn to the most have taught me the lesson that Pascal taught, that “our dignity consists of thought. It is from there that we must be lifted up, and not from space and time, which we could never fill. So let us work on thinking well.” But I’ve also become wiser because I’ve exercised faith. It is possible for a pure rationalist to see that cleverness is nothing without truth, and that human life is not worth living without goodness and grace. But I think my eye of faith sees these things more clearly. My religion teaches me reverence, humility, and unashamed hope; it has shown me how to desperately seek, and to long for what is real but not seen. I’ve never called myself a Mormon simply because it is my heritage, or inescapably who I am. On the contrary, the truth of the Restored Gospel is something other than myself that has lifted me up and made me something better than I was. It has drawn me on to wisdom that I’ve been able to find in no other way.

I know of two great scriptural allegories of the life of the disciple: Lehi’s dream of the Tree of Life, in the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 8), and Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Son (in Luke 15). At the center of each story is the tasting of food. In Lehi’s dream, the eating is the tasting of the desirable fruit of the Tree of Life, which represents the love of God. The Tree is the end point of a journey through a vast, foggy waste. For the prodigal son, the eating is the tasting of the husks that the swine also ate, the revolting food of the world, and the son ends where he began, in the house of his father. As a young person my experience resembled the second story more than the first. For me, coming home to the Gospel was a return to where I began, a point on a circle, not the far end of a straight path. It was also a return driven not—at first—by desiring something sweet, but by turning away from something bitter. I had neither squandered an inheritance nor dramatically turned away from the good teaching of my parents and teachers in the Church. But I had tasted enough of frustration and failure to feel deeply the smallness of human achievement, the pointlessness of so many everyday rituals and routines. Many of these feelings, to be sure, sprang from adolescent disenchantment. I think they were no less true for that. They came to me during that time before we grow up and learn to stop calling the whole world into question. But the world deserves to be called into question. The Gospel, which on some level I already believed, was not at that point an answer to that dissatisfaction, but it held out the possibility of such an answer. That answer I sought out specifically in my missionary service, which I left for when I was nineteen, to the southeast of Brazil.

One day near the end of my mission, I was standing with my missionary companion on a dirt road in a town called Colatina, watching a curious sight unfold. A large truck was trying, with little success, to turn around in a sloped and deeply rutted narrow street. The driver would turn the wheel, and put the truck in reverse, but then a rear wheel would go into a rut. He tried to move forward again, but could only go a few inches, because there wasn’t much room to turn. The sequence was comically repeated several times. A woman leaned out her window, and joined us in silent watching. We three all stood there, watching this awkward scene. At some point, I turned to this woman and asked: “Would you like to hear a message about Christ?”

Her name was Maria Ana. She was a single mother, well-liked in her poor hillside neighborhood, an occasional churchgoer from a family of Pentecostals. She was quiet and gentle, and serious about spiritual things. Her two children—a boy of around eight and a much younger girl—were charming and happy. We taught Maria Ana for a few weeks. One day, after our lesson, she prayed, “I thank you, Lord, that you have spoken powerfully to my heart.” By that time, He had spoken to me, too. That was something we had in common, something more important than anything else that I had in common with anyone. There was so much joy in sitting and talking with the people I taught and served, so much joy in seeing them after a long absence, in wishing them well and praying with them. I had tasted the love of God, “which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of men” (1 Nephi 11:32), as I would taste it so many times again, in fasting and prayer, in service during and after my mission, in friendships formed in religious fellowship, and in my family. It is the most real thing I know of. The fact that I haven’t yet found a way to translate it into a kind of proof of theological principles is so much the worse for theological principles, or at least for my skill with them. But there are connections and flashes of insight that come from this love, which continually open my eyes to new things. As I write this, a marginal note from Hegel comes to mind: “What is holy? That which binds humans together—even if it does so lightly, like the straw binds a wreath. What is most holy? That which eternally combines and reconciles spirits, fashioning a genuine bond.” In my life it is Mormonism that brings about and makes sense of this joining together, this communion of spirits. It is only in the gospel of Christ that the idea of the divinity of human relations has something more than an abstract meaning to me.

There are, to be sure, low and difficult points—periods of doubt and confusion, and droughts of inspiration. I should admit that it is precisely the skeptical grain of philosophy and the human sciences that takes me to some of those low points. For this reason, while I present an intellectual life to my faithful students as a worthy calling, I do not say that it is without pains and anxieties. Though for many intelligent disciples, science and philosophy wonderfully fill in the gaps and vague spots in religious doctrine, it is usually different for me. More often I find myself agreeing with Hegel that a rational knowledge of the ways of God must come to terms with the “slaughterbench of history,” and like-minded with Pascal who famously remarked that the “eternal silence of infinite spaces” frightened him. My mind lingers on the harrowing and tragic, in part because that is where I find the hardest human puzzles and most troubling spiritual concerns. My efforts in thinking and believing often seem risky, tiring, and unsettling. But there are great riches and adventures, too. I see these most of all in the best of my Mormon students. They combine reverence with curiosity and intellectual courage, scholarly diligence with the joy of discovery and exploration. The pitfalls they mostly avoid. Learning and “harkening to the counsels of God” (2 Nephi 9:29) seem to come naturally to them. They continually remind me of the possibly happy fit between a covenanted, believing life and a life of study and thinking.

I cannot do without the Gospel, because I am convinced that it is true. I cannot dispense with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, because that is where I find the Spirit of God, and the words of eternal life. Most of all, I need Christ, whom I seem to find at the end of all of these good paths.

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I was born to Mormon parents, each from pioneer ancestry, mostly Welsh Mormon immigrants who settled in Southeast Idaho in the 1800s. I grew up in Utah and Northern Virginia. My full-time mission was in the Brazil Rio de Janeiro North mission, from 1994-96. After my mission, I attended what was then Southern Virginia College (in Buena Vista, Virginia), and later graduated from Hampden-Sydney College (in Farmville, Virginia) in 2000. After working in the Utah state capitol and in Washington DC, I attended graduate school at the University of Notre Dame, studying with Guillermo O’Donnell, Fred Dallmayr, and Vittorio Hösle. I earned a PhD in political theory and comparative politics in 2008, and my dissertation was on law and morality in Hegel.

Since 2007, I have taught politics at Southern Virginia University, where I serve as the coordinator of the politics program. My recent research and teaching interest has been in political theology, and in philosophical reflections on political freedom. My most recent publication is “The Site of Mormon Political Theology” in Perspectives on Political Science (Spring 2011). A chapter I wrote on Mormonism and politics is forthcoming in a book entitled The World of Mormonism (Routledge).

I live in Buena Vista with my wife Stephanie and our four children, Whitney, Asa, Iris, and Percy. Outside my teaching and research, I help out with the SVU cross-country team, and serve as elder’s quorum president in the Buena Vista Ward.

Posted July 2011