George B. Handley’s If Truth Were a Child: Essays is a deliberate and measured expression of lived Mormonism. The book resonated with me quite a bit, which is not that surprising given the shared, broad humanistic elements that color both Handley’s and my faith. The essays’ measured quality is rarely shaken, though there are a few moments peppered throughout the book, where Handley’s frustration with or distaste for a particular idea or practice or disposition comes through a bit more forcefully.
I found the whole collection worth reading, framing ideas in ways that were often similar to my own conception, but using language that I’d lacked, as well as occasionally providing some provocation for the certainty and zeal that I bring to some of the hottest topics in Mormondom. I may still believe that that zeal is justified, but Handley’s work calls for some introspection and epistemic humility that I appreciate and think we’d all do well to follow a bit more closely.
The guiding thesis of Handley’s religious life, and life generally along with the core beliefs that inform the entirety of the essays, I find embodied in the third essay in the collection, “On Criticism, Compassion, and Charity”.
The essay posits that a life of true discipleship balances those three titular principles. I found traces of Eugene England and Bruce C. Hafen (as well as some A.O. Scott) in this essay and it resonated strongly with my own approach to discipleship.
I was struck by Handley’s articulation of charity, where he states that:
“[Charity] recognizes there is a gap between our thoughts and God’s thoughts that we must seek to overcome by a perpetual search for more truth.”pg. 37
The first part of the phrase draws our attention to what we lack as we interact with the divine and sets up the epistemic humility that characterizes much of Handley’s work. There’s a constant sense of checking himself, and the certainty of others, against the reality of recognizing the gap between what we think and what God thinks. I find this valuable, though I do still have a few other convictions that I personally am drawn to (though perhaps some of that is my relative youth in comparison to Handley’s experience).
The second part of this phrase pushes us to constantly learn and thirst after further light and knowledge and sets up one of Handley’s pre-occupations that colors the next two essays in the collection more explicitly and hang around the background of everything that Handley writes here.
I find myself challenged and motivated by the way that Handley describes epistemic humility as a drive to learn more, that our recognition of how little we know and understand should guide us in the pursuit of more and more truth (including the truths of the lived experiences of those around us, as Handley is always interested in how our discipleship frames and energizes our relationships with those around us).
This concern is clearly expressed in one of the lines from the next essay, “A Poetics of Restoration”, in a way that to me is perhaps the thesis of Handley’s work:
“We must resist, in other words, the temptation of assuming that it matters more to be or think right than to do good.”pg. 64
As someone with an intellectual bent, I often feel this temptation. Or more that if I, and others, simply thought right I, we, would do good. Which is probably some side effect of a certain Boyd K Packer quote from Preach My Gospel.
Handley doesn’t delve too much into the relationship between thinking and doing good, but does consistently come back to a lived, practical sort of faith, rather than a thought, theoretical one. I appreciate the pragmatism of Handley’s work, even if I am sometimes wanting something more wild and cosmic in my search for the transcendent.
As Handley describes this poetics of Restoration (using language that I found familiar and comfortable, but could be mildly unfamiliar to those outside of advanced study in the humanities), I was again struck by how he takes a theoretical concept that I love about the Restoration (that Mormonism encompasses all truth regardless of its source) and once again ties it to the practical, lived faith experience of individuals in the pews:
“a poetics of restoration that seeks to find the reasons for inclusion of all God’s children rewards our leap of faith with a return to, not a dissipation of, the foundations of our religious identity, refreshed and restored in profoundly new ways.”pg. 79
I LOVE this.
I love the way that seeking truth and deeper understanding is the way to expanding the bounds of our religious community.
I love that this greater understanding returns us to the foundations of our religious identity (that has been my experience as I have and continue to experience my own faith remodel, that many term a “faith crisis”).
I love the way this reframes the Restoration as continual and that the foundations of that very Restoration may be “refreshed and restored” as we learn more. That we reimagine and re-understand the significance of the past because of the present. There was something very Adam Miller in Future Mormon about Handley’s work here.
I dig it (though I am perhaps less optimistic about institutions and tend to be less generous, you could say less charitable, in my assessment of them than Handley is throughout the collection).
Handley models some ways in which we can live and embody this general poetics of the Restoration that he describes in the tenth and penultimate chapters of the collection that focus on how to read scripture. The tenth essay, “On the Moral Risks of Reading Scripture”, is phenomenal and offers a beautiful articulation of what I have been striving toward with my scripture reading for the past few years.
I love Handley’s framing of reading scripture as taking “moral risks”. It imbues the whole endeavor with excitement and stakes in a way that I often find it lacking. And obviously as someone with two English degrees and about to embark on a third, I think we don’t talk enough as a community about good, deep reading habits.
To the meat of the essay, where Handley describes succinctly the two moral risks in tension:
“We risk self-deluding idol worship—worshipping the god of our imagination—on one hand, and we risk self-exposure to the piercing eye of God on the other. There is no escape from these risks. We must be willing also to admit we have been wrong—wrong about God and wrong about ourselves.”pg. 198
Scripture is one of the key places we learn about God and in that learning, learn about ourselves. Handley places that front and center here. Scripture is the text of our relationship with the divine and it is through careful, close reading of that text that we come to better understand God and ourselves because we better understand that relationship.
The criticism, compassion, and charity of the third essay return here, as Handley presents a view of what it means to read scripture faithfully:
“To read scripture in faith is, in the end, to believe in the possibility that all our broken readings might somehow be made whole once all the pages of the sealed book have finally been opened.”pg. 209
This idea of faithful reading as the making whole of our broken readings echoes to me ideas of Paul and the Body of Christ, as well as Handley’s earlier discussion of the poetics of the Restoration. We must first recognize that our readings, our efforts, our lives will inevitably fall short and that in the end, we believe that some wholeness will be found.
My broken readings feel a little more whole, as I’ve encountered and wandered the halls of Handley’s mind and soul in these pages. I hope to better embody the spirit of generosity, the epistemic humility, and the unquenching thirst for truth that I see here in my own discipleship.
For those in search of a pragmatic, grounded, deeply measured faith, Handley offers ideas worth engaging.