Russell mentioned that he is “a doubting, debating, Socratic philosopher.” I’m at least sympathetic. Neither of us would be doing what we do?teaching philosophy of some kind?were that not true. I’m happy to say that the longer I live, the less often I have difficult religious doubts, the more I feel that my intellectual life and my religious life are of a piece. But that has not always been true.
I suppose my doubts have decreased through a kind of habituation as much as any thing, but I’m inclined to agree with Aristotle that virtue is a way of being habituated, so that explanation doesn’t bother me. But there have been times in my life when I have had serious doubts and difficulties with the Church. Sometimes I had difficulty with a leader and, as a consequence, began to have questions about the Church. Sometimes it has been a teaching that bothers me. Sometimes it was just plain old doubt whether there is a God or an after life or . . . . It wasn’t difficult to find occasions for doubt or difficulty.
However, what has kept me going in such times has been my memory of spiritual experiences. I remember the experience that converted me. I hadn’t been reading the Book of Mormon or praying or doing anything else that the missionaries said I should do, but out of the blue I was overcome by a spiritual experience. I knew that I had to join the Church and I knew that it is true, though I wasn’t at all sure what it meant to say that the Church is true. I haven’t had many more such experiences, just enough to keep the original memory alive. I had a similar experience in a testimony meeting in a servicemen’s retreat in Korea and another in Brazil when I picked up my second son from his mission. With one or two similar events, those have been my bulwarks in times of doubt, skepticism, or cynicism. (I’ve written more about memory, if you’re interested.)
One of the most important experiences, however, was my mission. I’m sure that many people, perhaps most, found their missions to be quite difficult. I cannot explain how much I hate knocking on doors or accosting strangers, even more than I hate people I don’t know knocking on my door or talking to me on the street or in an airplane. I am constitutionally averse to chatting with people whom I don’t know unless we are in a formal setting, such as a classroom. No matter how many days I spent contacting people, I didn’t come to like it any better or, frankly, to be much better at it. Given my version of misanthropy, every day was a trial in that regard.
I also found the poverty in Korea in the early 60s overwhelming. I lived there for three years before my mission and returned for another two-and-one-half as a missionary, but I never got accustomed to facing horrifically disfigured beggars, emaciated young children in the streets, or young women sold into prostitution. But I’ve worded that poorly. It isn’t that I didn’t get accustomed to such things. Being accustomed to them wasn’t the goal. I never figured out how to deal with them at all, and I found facing those problems and having no good answers to be hard on me spiritually.
However, in spite of the difficulties of my mission, something about it added needed strength to my faith. Part of it was that I met so many Koreans of profound faith, people who shared their lives and testimonies with me in spite of my poor Korean, my bumbling manners, my ignorance of their culture, my immaturity, and my paralysis in the face of their temporal problems. Part of it was that there were moments in my mission when I knew that something was going on that was far beyond me and my abilities; I knew I was an instrument in spite of myself. Part of it was that I formed friendships with other missionaries that have lasted for almost thirty-five years, friendships that have the Gospel at their center. But even those don’t account for my mission’s importance.
When I was a visiting professor in Leuven, Belgium, I regularly went to a chocolate shop in the town’s main square. There were many such shops in the small city, more in Leuven than in most large American cities. But this shop was particularly good. All of the chocolates were handmade and the assortment was incredible. Janice and I would each buy one or, if we were splurging, two chocolates and savor them. Then we would come back in a day or two for more. The shop owner got to know who we were fairly quickly, and we talked about chocolates: “What is in this one,” “How do you make that one,” and especially “Why are your chocolates so much better than those of your competitors?”
His answer to the last question was that he always includes some flavor in a very small quantity so that when you taste the chocolate you say, “Hmm, dark chocolate, this-or-that flavoring, and yet something else, some I-know-not-what [un je-ne-sais-quoi].” The secret to good chocolate is the I-know-not-what as much as it is the identifiable ingredients. Though eating Belgian chocolates was infinitely more pleasurable and infinitely less important than my mission, it seems to me that both are what they are because of something I cannot identify, some I-know-not-what.
If I list all of the reasons that my mission has been important to me, when I am done something is missing that I cannot put my finger on, a something that made all the difference and that I think has been as important to my life in the Church as anything else.