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I understand things now that I didn’t before. I also know that this understanding has come because of an enduring pursuit that has led to experiences with the divine that have changed my heart. At times, I have wanted to abandon this pursuit; but I have persevered for a few reasons.

The principle reason is humility. The temple ceremony puts the nature of religion in primal terms: the endowments are empowering. How, then, does having humility about becoming powerful make any sense at all? This is a confusing matter—but confusing for a reason.

There are real limits to human power, including my own. I am humble in the sense that I know I could be doing better. I generally feel this same way about other people, too. I want to believe in God simply because so much about human life falls short of the mark. Smart people are not that smart. Good people are not that good.

The problem with this humility is that to pursue God’s will is to become like God, to share a power that is not available to those who do not seek it. On the face of it, could anything seem less humble than saying, “I know that God lives, and that he loves me”?

Were it not the case that God’s power is good, I fear the humility that propels me to seek it would only leave me in a less redeemed state. But this is not the case. I know that the Spirit actually heals. It inspires. It protects. It guides. It enlivens. It softens anger and resentment. Most importantly, it connects me with other people and other things—family members, neighbors, my colleagues, my students, animals, trees, mountains, and on and on. It is the essence of consciousness.

As Paul put it, God’s empowering love is not aggrandizing. It is not selfish, willful, or manipulating. Human power tends to be all these things—easily abused and self-interested. Yes, “power in the priesthood” can be degrading in this way, as well. But the one thing I can say about priesthood power is that it is generous and compassionate in nature. It is one of a few things we can pursue wholeheartedly and not harm others.

God’s power is easily misunderstood. This is because, by its very nature, it is only partially understood by those who seek and have faith in it. At some level, our misunderstandings and abuses cannot be avoided, because we learn things gradually, line upon line, one experience at a time. We also stop learning. We also forget. As the garden at Ginkakuji teaches us, enlightenment is a matter of daily practice.

The good news is that there are people who actually become thoroughly good. They are rare. But they exist. I know a few, and their presence gives me a lot of hope. The presence of a truly good person takes away my excuses.

When I was a young man, beginning to bump up against the limitations of human frailty, I used to despair. As a high school student, I was filled with an almost paralyzing sorrow—both because of what I couldn’t do, and because of what the world didn’t do. My usual way to gain relief from this sorrow was through art and other forms of escape. My personal tendency was to distance myself from things I disliked or felt uncomfortable with, even to the point of cutting myself off from the experiences that I needed to have in order to find my way as a member of the human community.

Luckily, I was shaken by God’s power. One night I attended the ordination of my brother Warren, prior to his going on a mission, and I tried to distance myself from the good will that President Stewart extended to me. On the way home, I suddenly began weeping, and I kept sobbing uncontrollably for the next two hours. God’s love came as an earthquake. It made me fall to the ground, and to reach out for something to hold on to. The simple message was this. “Don’t harden your heart. So much is at stake.”

Partly because of that experience, I decided to attend Brigham Young University and to go on a mission. In many ways, my two years in Hokkaido were joyous. I gave myself wholeheartedly to the work of seeking out and teaching anyone who might be searching for the things I too was searching for and had found to some degree. What I discovered on the night I returned home from my mission, however, was that I had somehow missed the point of those two years.

In my desire for God’s love, I had forgotten my love for people. The love I had developed was an obedient, pure kind of devotion. But it was empty in its beauty. In fact, it was beautiful because it was so perfectly untouched by the hearts of the people I had interacted with as their supposed teacher. I kept remembering the comments of one man, the husband of a woman Buchanan-chōrō and I were teaching in Sapporo. When we asked him about what he thought of the principles we were teaching his wife, he said, “I would listen to you if I thought you understood the first thing about how my life really is.”

On the night of my homecoming, my parents got a call from some Mexican workers who had fled to town and were calling from a pay phone. Henry Timican, the Paiute man who had spent most of his adult life working for my father, was drunk. He had a gun, and the other workers were afraid he was going to shoot them. Realizing how completely I had forgotten Henry, this man I had grown up with on the farm, I remembered the words of my investigator’s husband in Sapporo. “If I thought you understood the first thing . . .”

Henry was a gentleman. But when he got drunk, he became a different person. I sometimes feared he would kill my father someday. So when my father went to check up on him, I went along. We found the house dark. Henry was wallowing in his vomit. There was a loaded pistol in the drawer of his desk; the gas burner was unlit and turned full open.

I left Utah soon after that. I went to Stanford to learn about the world. Henry died a few months later.

As someone trying to appreciate the world, I made the common mistake of thinking that the intellectual methods I was eagerly learning applied to all questions in the same way. I came to the conclusion that honesty is the most important element of personal integrity, and that if I were honest I would admit to myself that I didn’t really feel perfectly comfortable as a Latter-day Saint.

Wanting to be honest, I decided to leave the church. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the people in my ward. It was just that I didn’t have an answer to the question of how smart people could honestly believe in all parts of the Mormon narrative.

I decided to attend church one last time. I prayed with the congregation one last time. I took the sacrament one last time. I listened to the talks one last time. I sang the hymns one last time.

When the closing prayer was said and the meeting was over, I shuffled over to the aisle. I was eager to leave the chapel, but waiting there to greet me was my home teacher, Dale Nielson. A graduate student in physics, Dale was also a good person. He asked me, “Charles, are you all right?” Apparently, he could tell that something was up. I told him I was fine. In response to that obvious lie, he replied, “If there’s anything I can do to help you, just let me know.”

There are a lot of things I didn’t know. But I did know that Dale meant what he said. He really did care about me, and knowing that made it harder to carry out my plan to leave the church. But I was resolved.

I slowly made my way down the aisle to the back of the chapel. The exit was on the other side of the room. I turned right and started making my way through the crowd that had gathered there. But then, Patricia Webb jumped up from the bench that ran the length of the back wall and stood directly in front of me. With tears in her eyes, she blocked my way and said, “Charles, have you forgotten me?”

Patty was my home teachee. And, yes, in my doubt-filled agony, I had forgotten her. When she asked, “When are you going to come and home teach me?” I felt terrible. (For those who might not know, home teaching is basically a program of organized friendships, where the members of a congregation visit one another and make sure their needs are being met. It is a way to serve.) Well, what was I supposed to say? “Sorry, Patty, I’m out of here. You’re on your own now.”

Unable to say anything, I stepped around her and left the building. Once outside, I started toward the parking lot, ready to make my getaway. But then something happened.

It was one of those wonderfully clear Palo Alto days. As I stood there in that gentle sunlight, God communicated something to me with perfect clarity. What had just happened? I wanted to escape, to distance myself like Jonah of old. But I was stopped by one man who wanted to help me, and by one woman who needed my help. That was no coincidence. The message couldn’t be clearer. “Charles, you think you need everything to make sense in an intellectual way; and you demand that knowledge now. But what you really need to learn at this point is how to be loved and how to love. Focus there for a while, and maybe someday things will make more sense.”

I decided not to leave the church. I went back that next Sunday, and I’ve been going back ever since. I’m happy to say that my focus on learning how to love—Mormonism at the level of home teaching—deepened my understanding of many things. After graduating, I went to Japan for graduate school and spent my summers learning Chinese in Shanghai and Taipei. It was on a hot afternoon bus ride in Taipei that I was blessed again. This time, I felt God’s love in all its power. Sitting in that rattling bus, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of being forgiven, and I was filled with an empowering hope. I wanted to hug everyone in the bus. I wanted to tell them how much I loved them, how much God loved them. With tears in my eyes, I knew that my prayers to understand the world had been granted. I saw that God gives us the experiences we need, so long as we ask for them in true humility.

If we ask for God’s love, it is given. But it is given for a specific purpose. It teaches us to learn how to love others. This is how the humility problem that I spoke of earlier gets addressed. In this learning process, first things come first. Only when we master the loving part does the knowledge part come.

In the end, it turns out that my intellectual life and my spiritual life actually did come together in ways I never expected. What I have recently come to understand is that most of my problems with “the church” are problems I have with its modern cultural context.

In the field of literary studies, we call it discourse theory. The idea is simple. If you ask a certain kind of question, you get a certain kind of answer. This is only to say that if you ask the wrong kind of question you don’t get much of an answer. There are these limitations to our pursuit of knowledge. For example, the question “Does God exist?” is a great philosophical question. But it’s not a religious question. A religious question would be more like, “How does God feel about what I did just now?” The archeological evidence of the Book of Mormon is also not a religious question.

The problem most people have is that they learn one set of questions (history, biology, literary analysis) and think that they can apply it to all fields of human endeavor. It’s like having one tool for every possible job. You can take a spark plug out of your car with a pipe wrench. You can even drive nails with one if you have to. But there are wrenches especially made for removing spark plugs, just as there are many different kinds of hammers designed for driving different kinds of nails.

By analogy, there are questions that get you to the heart of what it means to believe in God, and questions that will never get you to a decent answer. The reason we have commandments is because they help us ask the right questions, even when we don’t know what the right questions are yet.

The temple teaches us that obedience is the first thing. We need to be obedient because the way to understand the profundity of God’s love is to receive it. We cannot give what we don’t have. Thus, there is a slight but important difference between the humility that leads to despair, and the humility that asks for help and eventually leads to compassion. In short, it’s all about asking the questions we’re qualified to ask. For slow learners like me, it takes time, patience, and sincere effort.

Now, discourse theory is a fundamental part of postmodern theory. Despite what I once thought, it turns out that Joseph Smith was way ahead of his time in his attempt to restore something ancient to a new world. He went into the grove to ask a modern question (which church is true?), but the answer he received was postmodern in essence (meeting Gods who were visible, embodied, personable, and communicative). That is a wildly unacceptable modern notion, but as a postmodern idea it could not be more on the mark.

I love this idea. It agrees with me, both spiritually and intellectually. I also love the notion that I have something to accomplish while I’m alive, and that I can pursue certain goals with full devotion, not having to worry about any collateral damage that my intensity might cause. (You can’t say that about flyfishing.) My faith has helped me not only understand reality much better, but it has also brought blessings to me, to my family, and to the people I encounter from day to day. Even with regard to my intellectual accomplishments, I can honestly say that my best ideas come to me because I pray every time I lift the lid on my laptop.

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Charles Shirō Inouye is a professor of Japanese literature and co-director of International Literary and Visual Studies at Tufts University, in Medford, Massachusetts.

Educated at Stanford University (B.A.), Kobe Daigaku (M.A.), and Harvard University (Ph.D.), he focuses his research on premodern and modern Japanese literature, especially fiction, and on the role of visuality in the development of modern consciousness.

Among Dr. Inouye’s major publications are In Light of Shadows: More Gothic Tales by Izumi Kyoka (University of Hawaii Press, 2004); Japanese Gothic Tales by Izumi Kyoka (University of Hawaii Press, 1996); The Similitude of Blossoms: A Critical Biography of Izumi Kyoka, Japanese Playwright and Novelist (Harvard University Press, 1998); “Picture Modern Japan: A Semiotic Analysis of the Meiji Slogan,” New Directions in the Study of Meiji Japan: Proceedings of the Harvard Meiji Conference (E. J. Brill); and “In the Scopic Regime of Discovery: Ishikawa Takuboku’s Diary in Roman Script and the Gendered Premise of Self Identity,” positions: East Asian Cultures Critique 2:3 (1994).

Posted August 2011