0 Comments

    Homepage







Let Your Hearts and Minds Expand: Reflections on Faith, Reason, Charity and Beauty, by Thomas F. Rogers. Provo, Utah: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, Brigham Young University, 2016. 349 pages. Reviewed by B. Kent Harrison.

Thomas F. Rogers, the author of Let Your Hearts and Minds Expand: Reflections on Faith, Reason, Charity and Beauty, is a retired professor of Russian at Brigham Young University, where he taught from 1969 to 2000. His degrees are from the University of Utah, Yale University, and Georgetown, and he holds a certificate of teaching of Russian from Moscow State University and a certificate from the Theatre Workshop in Wroclaw, Poland. Before coming to BYU, he taught at Howard University and the University of Utah. While at BYU he served as a director of the Honors Program. Besides his professional qualifications, he is a playwright, essayist, author, and painter. His callings in the LDS Church include branch president on campus and at the Provo MTC, president of the Russia St. Petersburg Mission, service with his wife Merriam in the Stockholm Sweden Temple, and traveling LDS patriarch assigned to the Church’s Europe East Area. Dr. Rogers is the author of several books and nearly thirty plays, including Huebner, a play about a LDS teenager executed in Nazi Germany for writing pamphlets against Hitler and the Nazi regime, and Fire in the Bones, the first literary (as opposed to historical) treatment of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

This book is composed of a collection of 30 different essays, poems, lectures, and other writings, from a period from the 1970s to the present. Various ideas inform the essays, from such sources as Plato, the apostle Paul, and Russia’s most celebrated philosopher, Vladimir Solovyov. The four parts of the book address the broad concepts of faith, reason, charity, and beauty.

Themes of the Book

The writings in this collection are broad, staggering, bewildering, fascinating, inspirational, faith-promoting, cautionary, and compassionate. The author’s erudition and comprehension of and allusion to literature of all kinds is remarkable.

It is difficult to adequately review this book because it doesn’t feature a single thesis; I classify Rogers’ thoughts in a few sections and then give some summary comments at the end.

At the outset I make an important observation: these writings and talks were delivered mainly in the 1970s and through the 1990s. Consequently, they are somewhat outdated, though the beliefs and principles presented are eternal. It is practices and attitudes in the Church that have changed, and mostly for the better. For example, Rogers gives examples of Church members who are self-centered or self-righteous. I believe—and I am sure he would concur—that our members are striving to overcome this.

a. Faith

Rogers is a faithful Latter-day Saint. That is clear from his record of Church service. But his writings also make it clear. He gives reasons why he is a Church member. He has extensive ancestry and family ties. His inquiring mind resonates with the Restored Gospel’s explanation of life and human destiny—including its concept of family continuity and eternal life. The organization of the Church is clearly inspired, including lay leadership, a nonprofessional priesthood, the gifts of the Spirit, and continuous revelation. The Church is committed to service, in regular proselyting, work for the dead, member welfare, and humanitarian work. Most important to Rogers, in connection with his testimony, is the understanding that though we are potentially glorious, we are still infinitesimal in the sight of God and must therefore be obedient and committed.

An example of his deep commitment to the gospel is mentioned in an incident during Rogers’ tenure as mission president. In a gathering of the missionaries, he felt prompted to share with them a short story called “The Student” by Anton Chekhov.

The story is set in Russia during a dark and cold winter. A young seminarian visits two destitute widows, mother and daughter, in his village, to warm himself. He shares with them the story of Peter’s denial of Christ, which has a similar setting to their own: a dark, cold night by a fire. The women, sensing the Savior’s loneliness, begin to weep. The story has meaning for them. Suddenly the seminarian feels joy, an unexpected mysterious happiness, and life seems full of lofty meaning. It is clear that this happiness comes from the Savior’s Atonement. The seminarian is afforded a vision of the connectedness of all God’s creation through shared experience. Shared suffering and compassion, as stated in Mosiah 18:9, paradoxically brings joy.

Rogers could hardly get through the story, so struck was he by the parallels to their own situation. He hoped the young missionaries could feel how like they were to the young seminarian. Their investigators, with their faith and appreciation, strengthen the missionaries’ own faith and appreciation. Rogers’ faith is buttressed by his long experience with Russian literature. Many writers depict Christian faith in their characters. Foremost for him is Fyodor Dostoevsky, who created what Rogers contends is literature’s most full-blown Christ figure—Prince Myshkin, the protagonist of Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot. Myshkin is clairvoyant, guileless, Quixote-like. In defense of his claim, he gives examples: Myshkin’s befriending of a disgraced young girl whose name is Mary; a donkey he observes when traveling to Switzerland; his title of prince; his submission when slapped in the face; and his designation as “idiot,” which implies in Russian lore not imbecility but holiness.

A commentator on the book points out, “The Prince pays for the hurt that is visited on him by accepting it and suffering it, and by suffering it he breaks the vicious circle of hurting and being hurt, and by breaking the circle, he effects changes in others… The Prince is a success because for a moment he is able to kindle the faith in others of a truer image of themselves; for a few minutes he is able to quiet by his own suffering, the rage of insult upon insult. His faith, or the faith of anyone, can change another person only if the person accepts the faith, or accepts the forgiveness, or, what is the same thing, forgives himself—all the most difficult things in Dostoevsky’s world.” Latter-day Saints can relate well to these ideas.

Another Christ figure is the fallen, young girl Sophia in Crime and Punishment. On the other hand, Stavrogin of The Possessed is really an Antichrist. He is a petty revolutionary who converts some to Christianity, some to atheism, and is indirectly responsible for the deaths or corruption of many characters, including his own by suicide.

Another Christ-Antichrist opposition occurs in The Brothers Karamazov, between Father Zossima and Alyosha on the one hand and Alyosha’s brother Ivan and his disciple and half-brother Smerdyakov on the other. An unforgettable passage in the book is Ivan’s composition “The Grand Inquisitor,” in which the title character condemns a returned Christ for not giving his disciples real bread and for failing to impose his will on humankind, but then is kissed by Christ in forgiveness.

b. Relationships to Others and Their Relation to the Church

In this section, I include a number of comments Rogers makes about his feelings about how to treat others. It is very broad and can be best described by presenting specific examples.

Rogers is concerned about hypocrisy, as with a prayer he once heard given before a meal that said, “We thank Thee that we are friends and neighbors, but more that we are Christians, and even more that we are good Mormons.” This prayer reminded me of the Zoramites. Rogers is also troubled by those who would oversimplify religion, such as those who are too content with abstract stereotypes, or those who view good as simply the avoidance of evil.

He is compassionate and nonjudgmental toward those who struggle with the Church and its doctrine and gives examples of some who have left the Church, such as returned missionaries who became involved in homosexuality or embezzlement, or one who came to see religion as mere sentiment. These thoughts were originally expressed in letters to a former student who had doubts about the Church, and to his own son, who left the Church. Their concerns are real and genuine. Sometimes they result from unfortunate encounters with a member who does not live his religion, one who has cheated another, or one who is too pious. Or these may spring from that person’s inner turmoil, expressed as a cry for help or acceptance. Rogers suggests we must not condemn those who leave, but see them as lost sheep that the Savior insisted we must save.

In a chapter on the importance of doing the “mundane” (that is, “routine but important” things), Rogers speaks of the need for balance, for skepticism but not cynicism, and mentions many guides he looks to: our Church leaders, certainly, but also other religious, literary, and philosophical leaders, such as Niebuhr, Voltaire, Montaigne, Aristotle, Goethe, etc. He explains that in his view, skepticism involves “honest, candid, critical examination,” as distinct from cynicism. A quote from Learned Hand illustrates this distinction: “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right… [it] seeks to understand the minds of other men and women… [and] weighs their interests alongside its own without bias…” In a sense, this spirit is the end result of this life's education; as a friend once quipped, “Education is the transition from cock-sure ignorance to thoughtful uncertainty.”

Of course, there are pitfalls in “honest, candid, critical examination.” Sometimes the examination really is honest questioning, but sometimes it is done merely to prove a point in a debate, and is therefore insincere. Even in honest questioning, one should be aware of who is listening. (An example I have noted is the remarks of the apostle Paul, who, in 1 Corinthians 8:7-13, makes the point in a discussion of eating meat sacrificed to idols that while there may be no problem with doing so, it might offend a weak member and prove to be a stumbling block.)

Rogers quotes Joseph Smith, who said that “By proving contraries, truth is made manifest,” and also refers to 2 Nephi 2:10-11, the beginning of a discussion of the need for opposition in all things. In alluding to the need for balance mentioned above, he writes that “Neither abandoning nor overly criticizing the church enables one to maintain that essential life-giving balance.”

In remarks to honors students, Rogers insists that they must think for themselves so that they will not be ill-equipped by the challenges of the world. I myself have similar concerns about biology students who, for example, do not learn that evolution can be accommodated—if a little uncomfortably—by the gospel. If they do not learn this in a Church environment, they will be prey to evolutionists who scornfully dismiss all religion. We need not fear the truth. All will be consistent in the end.

To those who charge that Mormons are sheep who blindly follow their leaders, it is useful to cite for them a quote from J. Reuben Clark, Jr., who said that in order to know when our leaders are speaking under the direction of the Holy Ghost, the requirement “shifts the responsibility from [the speakers] to us to determine when they so speak.” We must think, pray, and seek the Spirit for ourselves.

Rogers provides a fascinating metaphor from Juanita Brooks, whose father was a cowboy. He said, in response to some doubts she had about the Church, that he had learned that “if I ride in the herd that I am totally lost…One who rides counter to it will be trampled and killed… One who rides behind… leaves all responsibility to others… It is the cowboy who rides the edge of the herd, who sings and calls and makes himself heard who helps direct the course… Ride the edge of the herd and be alert, but know your directions, and call out loud and clear. Chances are, you won’t make any difference, but on the other hand, you just might.”

Rogers stresses the importance of spontaneity and authenticity and speaks of the well-known passage in D&C 58 about doing things of one’s own free will. He expresses concern about our overemphasis on materialism, our intolerance of those who differ from us, and our rather obsessive desire to follow the manual. Many early Mormons followed orders with too little questioning. Sometimes church leaders confuse being authoritarian with having authority; fortunately this is more characteristic of local church leaders than of general authorities.

Rogers gives a famous quote from Elder Hugh B. Brown, who spoke at BYU in 1969: “We have been blessed with much knowledge by revelation from God, which, in some part, the world lacks. But there is an incomprehensibly greater part of truth which we must yet discover. Our revealed truth should leave us stricken with the knowledge of how little we really know. It should never lead to an emotional arrogance based on a false assumption that we somehow have all the answers—that we in fact have a corner on truth. We do not.” This should remind us of the ninth Article of Faith.

Rogers provides a pragmatic method of living that he learned from a missionary: “In matters of belief, follow what your conscience tells you; in matters of action (including public utterance of belief), follow what your leaders tell you; and in the matter of emotions and hurt feelings, forgive and forget.” A student’s essay on the attitudes of Brigham Young and Hugh Nibley, while too long to quote in full, notes that they both agree that the world is a whole which is at once orderly and expanding… which is above all open, creative. “Brigham Young himself would rather admit that God has something yet to learn than to accept that he is no longer involved in man’s greatest activity, the acquisition of knowledge.”

Rogers has a long discussion on contingency, suffering, uncertainty, and Habakkuk 3:17-18: “Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither fruit be in the vines… Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.” There is a divine restraint. We do not know why God intervenes in some cases and not in others.

Rogers’ section on charity echoes some of the same themes treated earlier in the book. He includes famous quotes from Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and Hugh B. Brown, all of which underscore the importance of keeping an open mind toward others. One should not judge a person because he or she has ideas that seem wrong to us. We are encouraged to think things out for ourselves, an idea that is not well understood by nonmembers (many of whom believe that we slavishly follow our general authorities) nor by many of our members. It is critical to develop our own strong testimonies; to accept others’ testimonies for our own is to court disaster when those others turn out to have feet of clay. Hugh B. Brown declared, “We are not so much concerned with whether your thoughts are orthodox or heterodox as we are that you shall have thoughts.” Rogers urges us not criticize other persons who seem to be in doctrinal error; Joseph Smith said, “It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.”

As part of our growth, we should, as quoted from a First Presidency letter to all who conduct temple worthiness interviews, respond to questions about faith as if we were speaking to the Lord Himself. A quote from an 1858 missionary illustrates the ideal spiritual life: “This, then, is true Priesthood—to be images of the living God… to be girt and endowed with the purity of his nature; to be unsullied in heart and mind… to bless… the weak, the downtrodden, and the helpless… till our very presence is as the sun… And the characteristics of the holy Priesthood will grow out from us like the branches of a fruitful tree that yield shelter, shield, and fruit.”

Charity requires compassion. On one occasion, Rogers recounts having given a patriarchal blessing to a stern middle-aged man, a former officer in the Red Army, who had been called to be a branch president. He wondered whether he would be able to give such a man a blessing. But then the words entered his mind, “You were not called to judge this man by his gruff exterior. He has come to you, trusting that you would be a conduit for the inspiration he needs.” He was then able to give him a blessing, noting that he would be more successful as a branch president and a father if he would try to emulate the Savior’s kind and gentle nature. Later Rogers told his superior in the area presidency that he had learned that, while a patriarch needed to be worthy and in tune with the Spirit, his most important quality should be to love the people.

Two quotations illustrate the need to be broad in our acceptance of others. One is by Tancred I. King, a student at Columbia, who was writing on ecumenism and the Mormon missionary experience: “Christianity can gain from Islam a heightened awareness of the majesty, the grandeur, and the absoluteness of God. From Hinduism, Christianity can gain greater respect for meditation and reflectiveness. From Buddhism, Christians can understand the impersonal side of ultimate truth. The emphasis on humanism, the social order, and filial piety can enhance Christian life. From Taoism and Shintoism, the Christian can more fully realize the sacredness of nature.” The other quotation comes from a 1978 First Presidency statement: “The great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light.”

c. Huebner and other plays by Rogers

Much of the following is taken from an interview with Rogers by Todd Compton and published in the Spring 2008 issue of Dialogue.

While on his mission to northern Germany, Rogers became aware of the amazing account of Helmuth Huebner. Huebner was an LDS teen-aged boy living in Hamburg during World War II. While listening to the BBC on an illegal radio, he realized that Hitler’s propaganda machine had been lying to the German people. He was the clerk to the Hamburg branch presidency and had access to a mimeograph machine. So, with integrity, bravado, and naiveté, he printed leaflets attacking Hitler and official accounts of the Nazi conduct of the war. With the help of two other LDS youth, Karl-Heinz Schnibbe and Rudi Wobbe, he distributed these throughout Hamburg.

Of course, these young men were caught. Huebner took full responsibility. He was executed, firmly standing by the truth at his trial. Schnibbe and Wobbe received prison sentences. Huebner was immediately excommunicated by his branch president, who was a fanatical Nazi. While one can see blame in that, it was actually a necessary move, since Huebner’s actions had put the Church in great danger. After the war, Huebner’s Church membership was posthumously reinstated. “Fortunately the Church leaders in Salt Lake posthumously reinstated Huebner in 1946, shortly after the war ended, for the mistaken excommunication that did not follow proper procedure.”

Huebner is very much like Sophocles’ Antigone, who, in the classic dilemma between conscience and loyalty, also stood by the truth against the state and was executed for it.

Although he was relatively unknown in Utah, Huebner became a hero in postwar Germany. There is a street in Hamburg named for him. In the 1960s, Alan Keele of BYU’s German department gave a presentation to the college faculty about Huebner’s impact on German authors such as Nobel Prize winners Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass, and during the lecture challenged Rogers to write a play about him. Keele and colleague Douglas Tobler shared their research with Rogers, and the play Huebner was written.

BYU produced the play in the 1970s. The drama department had earlier petitioned the BYU administration for permission to produce the play Fire in the Bones, about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, but that had been viewed as too inflammatory, and the politically correct decision was made to deny permission. However, Huebner was produced and received rave reviews.

In an interesting development after the production, Rogers, Keele, and Tobler were asked to desist from further productions or publications on Huebner. Rogers is uncertain why, but notes that glowing reviews of the play in Salt Lake City newspapers may have alarmed people in far places, possibly throwing unfavorable light on the Church. Could it have affected plans to build a temple in Freiberg, Germany? Rogers looked into the matter but doesn’t think that was the case seeing that the temple erection came much later.

Of course, this caused more interest in Huebner than ever before. Fortunately, since 1992, there hasn’t been any ban on writing about Huebner or speaking about his story. Schnibbe spoke on it in many places.

But facing these types of episodes can be a better course of action than avoiding them, and that may have been why Rogers wrote the play Fire in the Bones. For example, the Mountain Meadows Massacre is an event that enemies of the Church continue to attribute to Brigham Young. It did not help that until Juanita Brooks had the inspiration to write its history, Church members ignored it. However, the Church has now acknowledged it, deplored it, and has produced an unvarnished history of it. A monument has been erected at the site and Church leaders have sought to mend relations with the Fancher party descendants.

That being said, the event remains difficult to understand. The late Rex E. Lee, former President of BYU and great-grandson of John D. Lee, wrote an item for Rogers’ book Huebner and Other Plays, saying that he always struggled with understanding it, but noted that Rogers’ play was very helpful for him in re-creating the situation. (Incidentally, John D. Lee was excommunicated but his membership has since been restored.)

Rogers defends serious literature. Some shy away from it because of bloodshed or because of difficult situations. Rogers wonders how one such person would handle the Book of Mormon’s depictions of slaughter and carnage and not be able to handle other types of literature. He quotes Joseph Smith, who said, “Thy mind, O Man, if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost Heavens, and search into and contemplate the lowest considerations of the darkest abyss, and expand upon the broad considerations of eternal expanse.” Such literature, he says, “… has important spiritual-ethical import… it arouses Christlike compassion for those less fortunate and also conveys to us… the nobility of self-sacrificing behavior…” I am reminded of Alma’s instruction to his son Helaman in Alma 37. Alma says that while Helaman must not follow the teachings of Satan, he must be aware of them. We see this today in the importance of bringing to light events that are hidden, such as spousal abuse or rape.

Overall comments on the book

It is evident that Thomas Rogers is a faithful and intelligent Latter-day Saint. What stands out to me is that he is a person of extraordinary compassion, not only for the active Church member but also for the disaffected or excommunicated member. His travels throughout the world have put him in touch with people in many lands, which broadened his understanding of them.

Christ was not concerned with ceremony but with people. He had boundless love and understanding of them. I interject a personal memory here: I remember a stake conference talk by Elder Marion D. Hanks thirty years ago when he emphatically pointed out that 2 Nephi 9:41 says, “… the way for man is narrow, but it lieth in a straight course before him, and the keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel, and he employeth no servant there… he cannot be deceived…” Elder Hanks said he was glad that there was no servant there—because He is the only one who understands us. I had always viewed that scripture with fear, but Elder Hanks’ remarks totally changed that for me. He told us this in the context of his wife’s cousin’s suicide. Her funeral was scheduled for a Thursday morning, and he hadn’t planned to go. But he was sitting in a meeting in the temple when the Spirit said to him, “You need to be at that funeral.” He went to the funeral and spoke, noting that while what she had done was very serious, that only the Lord could fathom the depths of her soul. She had been very close to her father, who had recently died, and she was devastated. The pages of this book indicated that Thomas Rogers is similarly compassionate.

Rogers also makes it clear that there is absolutely no conflict between intelligent thought and the gospel of Jesus Christ. We need not fear to think. God gave us brains—what a shame to not use them! Also, Rogers is impatient those who would limit us, who are authoritarian and rigid. For him, the gospel opens up to us an unlimited glorious future. The scriptures also declare this. Joseph Smith declared it, and thankfully so do our current Church leaders. What a wonderful, beautiful thing it is to have such a future lie before us!

There is one omission in the book, though it is unintentional I am sure. The book does not specifically address the need for service. This is not to say that service is not mentioned; indeed, in Rogers’ own life he has given extensive unselfish service, and he counsels others to serve. He refers to it in his statements about why he is engaged in Church life and in his citing of the need for temple attendance, home teaching, and carefully prepared family home evenings. But the need for explicit mention of service is that it helps people stay in the Church. We all know of examples when an inactive member is brought into activity by giving her or him a Church position. Often persons who have lost their testimonies, for any reason, can be brought back simply by giving them the chance to serve others. President Hinckley noted three important things to be given a new member: a friend, a job, and being nourished in the good word of God.

What, in summary, do we learn from this book? Greatly oversimplifying, I offer a brief list:

  1. The gospel is true.
  2. To know that the gospel is true, it is necessary to be faithful.
  3. Faith is not antithetical to thought. In fact, faith and reason must be joined together for our progress.
  4. Faith requires us to work and to develop a strong, independent, personal testimony.
  5. As part of our development, we must have compassion for others. These include sinners, those who have left the Church, those who err in doctrine, and members of other faiths and nationalities.
  6. Jesus Christ, who exhibited all of these characteristics, is our example.

I recommend this book to anyone wishing and willing to consider the righteous life. Careful study of the essays therein will reap rich rewards.

[Note: The author of this review would like to thank Mary Ellen Bramwell and an anonymous reviewer for their assistance.]


Full Citation for this Article: Harrison, B. Kent (2017) "Let Your Hearts and Minds Expand: Reflections on Faith, Reason, Charity and Beauty, by Thomas F. Rogers, Book Review," SquareTwo, Vol. 10 No. 3 (Fall 2017), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleHarrisonBookReviewRogers.html, accessed <give access date>.

Would you like to comment on this article? Thoughtful, faithful comments of at least 100 words are welcome. Please submit to SquareTwo.

COMMENTS: 0 Comments