The Stone Cut With Hands

I grew up in Sandy, Utah (named for its sandy soil), at the southern end of the Salt Lake valley.  My family on my mother’s side has lived in Sandy going back six generations.  The town prospered in the beet farming industry, and also supported the local miners, who ored silver, zinc, and other minerals from the nearby Wasatch mountains.

My second great grandfather owned a dairy farm on the bench of the Wasatch mountain range.  His sons, including my first great grandfather, Orren, would lead the cows up into the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon every day for grazing.

I discovered nature in the same canyon, exploring trails and streams every chance I got.  There is something powerful that comes from being associated with a particular landscape for multiple generations.  Space, and the memories associated with it, transcends time, and has the ability to create a living history like a journal that can be trodden and breathed.

I grew up listening to tales that reinforced the nostalgia of the valley, like that of my mom and her brothers riding their bikes up 94th to Bell Canyon Reservoir.  There was no need to bring a towell, since by the time they raced their bikes down the two-mile hill, their backs would be bone dry.  I cannot describe the feeling that swelled inside me as a 14-year-old boy, when I experienced the same phenomenon, on the very same hill after swimming in the very same reservoir, an entire generation later.  1365864

Little Cottonwood Canyon has become a physical part of the Mormon Church’s history as well.  The granite stone cut out of that mountain was hauled by cart 12 miles north to Salt Lake City, as material for the Salt Lake Temple.  You can still hike the quarry trail and observe the scattered granite boulders, stark lines running through their open faces where quarry workers split the rock.

After my first year at BYU, I returned to Sandy for the summer to work for my Uncle Todd, and from time to time, I would make my way up the canyons.  On one occasion, while hiking Catherine’s Pass (at the upper end of the canyon), I happened upon a pile of cleaved granite, with those familiar lines running through the fragments.  Certain that these were relics of the temple quarry, I did not hesitate to grab a 20lb rock as a memento of my Sandy-Mormon heritage.

Half way back down the trail, I crossed paths with an older man with his two young grandsons.  I did my best to hide my rock, as if I were absconding with an ancient artifact, but the man noticed my straining arms and asked me what I had found.  I nonchalantly showed him the rock, and began to tell him about my exciting discovery.  But before I could finish, the man erupted with a disheartening laugh.  He explained that he was a geology professor at BYU, and he took his students up this trail each semester to core samples from the loose granite.  My rock was not a Mormon relic, but a byproduct of a freshman geology experiment.

I can’t recall how we finished our conversation, but I remember hurling that rock with contempt into the brush beyond the trail as soon as I was out of sight from the esteemed professor, whose laughs still echoed through the canyon. I suspect that man used our encounter as fodder for comic relief in his classroom for the semesters that followed.

Eleven years have passed since I had that experience.  The event has taken on its own significance for me as I reflect on the feelings that a simple rock aroused in me.  If I had not crossed paths with the old professor, that impostor rock would be sitting on my mantle today, inspiring all who looked upon it.

While I have ventured away from my Sandy home, I still return from time to time to walk and breathe my dairy-farming, beet-topping, hammer-swinging heritage.  The soil may be sandy, but the foundations are as firm as ever.

I wish I had kept that rock.

JN

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Dinosaurs and Domino Rally

Last week I eagerly digested everything I could find about a thought provoking debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, the curator of a creationist museum in Kentucky. (God bless both of these men for willingly submitting themselves to the criticism that will follow for months and years to come!) The premise of the debate is a simple one—could the Earth, and all of the living organisms that have ever lived on it, have existed only within the last 6,000 years, in accordance with the historical account of the Bible?

As a Mormon, this was my first real exposure to the evangelical doctrine of creationism, and I am completely fascinated! (Mormons by and large accept the account of the creation in Genesis as allegorical—even mythic, and have no problem with the science of evolution.) It was refreshing to watch a religious community other than the Mormons make their very best attempts to defend a position that the secular world views as nothing less than absurd.

The debate, and everything I have read about it since then, has led me to think about why we defend our beliefs so vehemently. Why is it so important that our children believe that our first parents ate spinach salads with dinosaurs at the Eden Country Club? Why is it so important that they believe that the Book of Mormon was translated using a purposefully crafted urim and thummim, as opposed to a peepstone in the bottom of a hat? I suspect that if all of us Mormons and evangelicals were honest with ourselves, we would accept that the answers to these questions are really quite trivial, even irrelevant, when it comes to the important questions. But, perhaps because it is human nature, we (I) tend to harbor an uneasy feeling that these outlying questions are the first dominoes in a really, really important game of Domino Rally that absolutely must not ever, ever, ever come crashing down. In other words, we tend to have this fear that if what we always believed about the creation or the translation of the BOM is wrong, then we must also call into question the existence of God himself or at least our understanding of God. And this simply cannot happen.

It is not my intention to (re)debate the veracity of creationism here. I think it’s perfectly fine to believe in something that from a secular view is unbelievable. After all, any believer must ultimately accept that with God all things are possible. But I think it is very important for us to continually evaluate whether our beliefs are worth the energy it takes to believe in them (much less defend them). Is believing that the world was created by God in six days important to my understanding of God and my relationship with Him? If the answer points more toward no than toward yes, perhaps I can be satisfied with simply hoping that it is true or expecting it to be true, knowing that it is not a dealbreaker either way.

As you can imagine, this belief-assessment test is quite helpful as a Mormon.  Most of the time, these inquiries lead to my taking a step or two back.  Instead of insiting that God created the Earth in just six 24-hour days, I can preserve my belief system by settling with a simple belief that God is the creator of all things, which requires no evidence other than a sunset or a perfect day of fishing on the Provo River.   Basically, this process helps me to identify which dominoes must remain a part of the Domino Rally game, and which ones I can throw back into the box. It frees me to move on and redirect my focus toward the really important questions.

Some may call this my own negotiated version of cognitive dissonance, but I disagree.  I have found that by changing the lens and broadening my focus, I get a much clearer picture of the truth, as opposed to trying to make sense of each pixel in a photograph, one at a time.  Take, for example, Wordsworth’s popular description of the origin of the human spirit:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

I love these stanzas, notwithstanding their overuse in high school English and Mormon Sunday School classes. As the lines above demonstrate, Wordsworth was a content-focused poet who emphasized the importance of the message of a poem over adherence to formalistic rules. His effective synthesis of a simple truth is the product of his careful “Goldilocks” focus—not too close, but not too far. To summarize it more crudely, the human spirit came from God and existed before birth and will continue after death. Perhaps to say anything more or less than this only takes away from the truth.

It is also important to point out that, at least for me, the truths that are really worth knowing tend to lack a sufficient amount of evidence to make them undeniably true (i.e., everyone must accept it). This creates a space where faith and doubt each make their case, like electrons constantly orbiting the nucleus of an atom. Their mere presence proves the existence of some truth—in fact, faith and doubt are in many ways a physical part of the truth. But their constant motion makes it difficult or impossible to identify the truth precisely.  The presence of doubt essentially forces us to maintain that wide focus, as if God were directing us toward the most meaningful viewpoint.  Yes, ironically, it requires faith to throw those little pixel-dominoes back into the box, but the idea that God is guiding my spiritual evolution gives me courage.

We tend to reject the truth (or at least become dissatisfied with it) because we want the factory tour. We want to fill in the gaps by unnecessarily adding a dangerous number of dominoes to our Domino Rally game. Like the math teacher, we want God to show his work. I look forward to seeing that worksheet someday. But for purposes of living a worthwhile life here on earth, from day to day and from moment to moment, I suspect that it would just be a distraction.

JN