10 questions with George Handley

Sponsored by BYU Studies—George Handley is a professor of Interdisciplinary Humanities at BYU and author of If Truth Were a Child (Maxwell Institute, 2019).

Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and introduce If Truth Were A Child

I am a professor of Interdisciplinary Humanities at BYU where I also serve as the Associate Director of the Faculty Center. I was educated at Stanford University where I received my BA in Comparative Literature and at University of California at Berkeley, where I received my MA and PhD also in Comparative Literature. I taught for three years at Northern Arizona University before coming to BYU in 1998.

My wife, Amy, and I have been married for 30 years this summer and we have four children, two of whom are married. Amy is a nurse practitioner in oncology here in Provo. We love living here and embrace all of the recreation Utah has to offer, especially hiking, tennis, biking, and fishing.

Because I was trained in Comparative Literature and focused on literature of the United States and of Latin America and the Caribbean, I have always felt that bridges between different political, cultural and geographical divisions were possible and important. I felt that as a student at two rival schools in California and as someone who moved from one of the most liberal places in the country to one of the most conservative. Even my family history is evenly divided between the American West and the East Coast, and between the rival schools of BYU and the University of Utah, and between active and less active members of the church.

I guess you could say that I like to find common ground as much as possible.

This has a lot to do with my book, If Truth Were a Child. It is a collection of essays that explores the the often multi-faceted dimensions of truth and our sometimes incomplete understandings of it and the reasons why we sometimes end up in polemics that are counter-productive to the pursuit of truth.

I wanted to make as much room for faith as possible, since I am a firm believer in the restored gospel, while also recognizing the dangers and pitfalls of becoming overly protective and dogmatic in our interpretations of the truth.

I use as a central metaphor the story of King Solomon who, when faced with two women both claiming to be the mother of the same child, decided to divide the child in two. The fact that the real mother was willing to give up the child in order to keep it whole tells us a great deal about the importance of our love of truth. It cannot be selfish.

‘If Truth Were a Child’ is a series of essays by George Handley that examines truth from several perspectives of faith. Image provided by Maxwell Institute.

Who was Lowell Bennion? How did you meet him and what kind of influence has he been in your life?

Lowell Bennion was one of the greatest intellects and humanitarians in our tradition. He served as the first director of the first Institute of Religion at the University of Utah and as a leader of student service in the greater Salt Lake community. He wrote many important books about the restored gospel in the second half of the 20th century and they were important to my formation as a young man.

I came under his influence by attending a boys ranch he started in Teton Valley in Idaho when I was a young boy in the 1970s and then later when I served as a counselor at the ranch following high school in 1983 and 1984. I found him to be an inspiring model of how to live a consecrated life. He gave all of his time and talents to serving others and it was clear that he was centered and grounded in his love for the Savior.

I loved how he modeled a successful balance of faith and intellect as well as a balance of dedication to the church and integrity and individual conscience.

Are faith and reason opposites? How can secular knowledge nurture faith?

They certainly can be, but when that happens, it is usually the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding about faith, intellect, or both.

Faith is a kind of trust. It isn’t the same thing as sure knowledge and least of all willed certainty. It involves trust in God and also, I think, a healthy willingness to question oneself and one’s assumptions. It means we acknowledge that there is a gap between our understanding and the Lord’s, even if we can’t measure that gap exactly. It means being careful not to imagine that we can always speak for God even if we should also be courageous enough to bear witness to Him.

The idea that faith doesn’t need reason is absurd. Faith uses reason all the time. And reason uses faith. To imagine that I can reason about the world without trust, without belief in things unseen or unverified, is a dangerous illusion.

So I think it is best to find ways to allow them to work together. And when they do, it is almost as if the distinction falls away altogether.

The same could be said of the difference between secular and sacred knowledge. Of course, there are times when different forms of knowledge appear to conflict but that is usually because they are accessing different ways of knowing, rather than accessing different or mutually exclusive truth claims.

Truth is a lot less fractious and less a cause of division when we approach it with love.

What do you mean when you said, “I want to have a new heart and to be a better person, but I don’t want to be a different person”? 

I believe Christ wants me to be a new creature. I love that idea. I believe Christ has that power to remake me. But in so doing, I don’t think he demolishes what I have thought or experienced or that he extinguishes my personality.

I think what he does is redeem my story, but it is still my story to tell.

I guess what I was trying to suggest is that if we feel that our story doesn’t quite fit the pattern or ideal, it is tempting to think we don’t belong in the gospel at all or that we belong but only despite those differences.

I think we belong precisely because of what makes us unique and Christ is interested in making good use of our stories and experiences, but he may need to repurpose them. They may mean something different than we think and he will help us, if we allow him, to see the deeper purpose in our particular circumstances. He isn’t trying to make us all the same but he is trying to make us more unified in our differences.

The Judgement of Solomon, by William Blake. This faithful photographic reproduction is in the public domain because the copyright term in the United States is the author’s life plus 100 years.

How is today “an age of polemics”? 

Just watch cable TV or read some Facebook posts! It is an age where we are seemingly presented, time and again, with mutually exclusive choices.

This is so unfortunate. I place a lot of blame on partisan politics right now which has created the impression that you are either a savior of all that is valuable about America or its worst enemy. And it has given us apparent license to be uncivil whenever possible.

I don’t mean to suggest that there isn’t a line that separates right from wrong or good from bad, but when we think that every issue has one clear and true perspective and everything else is wrong, we lose any interest in other points of view. We no longer feel answerable to them and we cease to learn.

I can learn truth from my trusted leaders and friends, but I can learn it from those not of my faith, not of my political persuasion or professional background or ethnicity. I can even learn it from my enemies.

But this requires charity, forbearing, listening, and civility.

It requires making sure that the common ground between me and another person or another perspective is visible at all times before I decide to venture into debate and deliberation about our differences.

It is simply too easy and too tempting to overstate differences of opinion and to imagine them as a great betrayal of all that is right and good in the world. It is certainly easier to live this way since it doesn’t require us to enter into relationships with anyone different than we are, but that is not only a lonely way to live your life, it is terribly boring, it seems to me. It is certainly not very Christian.

Why is it “you can’t win” when life is viewed through a polemical paradigm?

Well, I think it is a losing prospect to imagine that a problem can only be solved once everyone agrees on the right solution. To imagine a problem has only one winning side and everything else is failure is to end up fighting perpetually against opposing viewpoints instead of fighting on behalf of finding and enacting real and pragmatic solutions.

We will never all come to agreement on all points. We have to learn to live together as individuals who see things differently and find ways to use those differences productively.

If you have imagined to yourself that your perspective of the truth can be equated with things as they really are, you can’t really claim to have faith because faith means acknowledging that our thoughts are not His thoughts. It is to imagine to yourself that there is no risk of error in your own judgment.

Jesus made it pretty clear how dangerous it is to focus your attention on trying to identify error in others. It simply blinds us to the work of self-examination that is required of every disciple. We use our convictions as weapons and imagine that the goal of life is to be right.

The goal of life is to become like our Savior, to be good and to do good in the world. I think we misunderstand the call of discipleship when we think of it as simply a matter of coming to the right convictions and worldviews.

All we have to remember is that plenty of people have done tremendous good in the world with incorrect ideas about the nature of God or of the universe and that similarly plenty of people have done great damage in the world in the name of a correct idea about such questions. Christians have murdered and enslaved other human beings and thought that they were doing right. That is not to suggest, of course, that belief in Christ is unimportant. It is merely to say that it is vital to make sure we are clear about what difference we think it should make.

How does The Human Condition by Rene Magritte help you understand your reliance on God? 

I think the painting points to the inherent challenge of being able to represent the world to our mind’s eye in any other language or frame than the one we use to see that world.

That is to say that we are very solipsistic in how we see things. I believe that revelation helps us to find ways out of our own worldviews, but it is often a gradual process that requires listening, learning, and changing the kinds of questions or frames that we use.

The Human Condition (1933) by Rene Magritte portrays a painting of a painting, highlighting the difficulty in discerning reality. The low-resolution image qualifies as fair-use under United States copyright law in this instance for critical commentary on the work in question.

But if we use again Jesus’s warnings about the dangers of judgment, he is suggesting that everyone is blinded to different degrees in how we see.

If that is the case, then we need each other and we need God to assist us in our blindness. He promises sight to the blind, but that promise isn’t really in force if we can’t start with an acknowledgement of the fact of our limited vision.

How has reading other translations of the Bible enhanced your appreciation and understanding of it?

I am a great lover of literature and I am, for that reason, particularly fond of the beauty of the Bible and the richness of its stories. I recognize that it is not only an instruction manual in the moral life, but it is also a great achievement of literary art.

Knowing how challenging it is to translate anything and that all translation is to some extent an art and not a science, I think it is always valuable to check other translations to add to our understanding of the range of meanings in the original text. I love the King James Version. It will always be my favorite and go-to translation, but I see no reason to believe that other translations can’t help us. In fact, our doctrine about the status of the Bible described in the Articles of Faith specifically points to the possibility that translation may be erroneous.

How would I know this if I never bothered to understand different translations?

I am not a scholar of biblical languages, of course, but that is not the point. The point is to allow maximum room for the spirit to instruct me, and sometimes when I have read the same passage many times in the KJV, I am struck by how original and new a passage feels when I read it in another translation. That keeps my feeling and love for the Bible alive. It also keeps me from falling into habitual reading and cliched understandings, which are two great enemies to personal revelation and growth.

BYU scholar translates New Testament with Latter-day Saints in mind

I am sometimes shocked at how betrayed we sometimes feel in Sunday School with any perspective that is contrary to what we have heard many times before. I come to church to learn, to be corrected. That doesn’t mean my own opinions are wrong. It just means that I shouldn’t be paranoid about the differences I encounter.

I think our differences of interpretation are a constant undercurrent and it is best to understand them in the spirit of love, just like it is helpful to understand different translations.

You point out that Adam and Eve “initially got more information from Satan than they did from God,” referring to the fact Satan seems more willing to stick around Adam and Eve to answer their questions after their fall from the Garden when God is now more removed from them. What can we learn from this?

I think it means that one of the conditions of mortality is learning how to wait upon the Lord. And that includes, crucially, learning on whom we should wait.

Satan is eager to talk. He wants to appear to be eager to have answers. If we are too impatient for answers, we might get some useful information from the world but it might pull us away from our relationship of trust with God.

That is not to say that all knowledge we gain in the world that is not from scripture is Satanic or that we shouldn’t be hungry, curious, or inquisitive. If we pay attention to Adam and Eve, they show us the way. They listen and eventually come to understand that there was a much greater significance to the fruit than they at first understood. In that sense, I guess you could say that the information Satan gave them was put to good use, but only because they have the sense to listen but not follow.

They show us that we can listen and glean truth from the information we gain from worldly sources, but we should not lose sight of the importance of fidelity to God’s revelations.

We have to be careful not to underestimate God’s revelations but we also need to be careful not to overstate what they actually reveal or else we won’t learn more. Waiting faithfully means testing the spirits, seeking to understand what we can from our experience.

We are always waiting for more information, but the gap between what has currently been revealed and what will yet be revealed is a space Satan wants to take advantage of.

He can do this by making it appear that God is either a liar or just plain dumb since he seems to have told us less than we need. But God’s purpose, of course, is merely trying to help us to develop faith and character by not giving us everything all at once.

George Handley’s latest book is a thoughtful essay compilation entitled, ‘If Truth Were a Child.’ Credit: Maxwell Institute.

What I find fascinating is that Satan is primarily interested in gaining the loyalty of Adam and Eve. He doesn’t care about their development at all. He will tell lies and partial truths to achieve that but he will also try earnest truth-telling too, if that works. Satan tries to take advantage of their waiting by speaking plainly and implying that God is the one who is lying.

In the end, he doesn’t seem to care what we believe as long as we are impatient with God’s timing and willing to rush to judgment and to transfer our loyalties elsewhere.

Why do you think more Latter-day Saints don’t “(read) great writers from all walks of life”? How does doing this enrich your life?

I think language is vital to our religious experience and to our relationships with others. It is the single-most important tool we have for communicating ideas, learning, and listening to others. It is how we come to understand ourselves and our place in the world.

It is incredibly important that we use it well.

We have centuries of extraordinary writers in every language, and we have never had more access to the world’s library than we do today and yet tragically most of us never spend any time at all learning from the greatest users of language in the world. This impoverishes our ability to understand and articulate the meaning of our experiences to ourselves and to others.

Why have so many prophets also been poets?

Why would translation matter so much that it would be a capacity of a prophet?

Why would a prophet be called a mouthpiece if language didn’t matter?

No one wields this tool perfectly. The brother of Jared understood that. So did Moroni, Moses, Isaiah, and Joseph Smith. But when we confront our weaknesses in relationship to language use, with faith in Christ, we stand a chance to have those weaknesses transformed into strengths.

We all pray for language to convey more than it at first glance appears to convey. The most powerful language is usually language that acknowledges its limitations. That is what gives language its poetic force.

Think of when the story of Jesus in the Americas is told and the few times where the narration declines to tell us precisely what happened—Jesus’s prayer on behalf of the disciples comes to mind— as a way to honor the power of experience. We can’t see those limitations if we can’t distinguish between paltry commercial language and great poetry or between cliché and a truly powerful figure of speech.

I wanted to suggest in my book that renewing our language is one way to renew our faith and spirituality. I think it is spiritual work to come to understand language better. It is one reason why I feel that reading great literature is important nourishment for the soul.

Rank your Top 5 favorite classic books.

Well, there are hundreds I love, but since I am a literature profession I will stick to novels, poetry, and creative nonfiction.

In the realm of fiction, I would recommend Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Melville’s Moby Dick, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

My favorite poets include Derek Walcott, Rainer Maria Rilke, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Bishop, and maybe William Butler Yeats.

In creative nonfiction, I would recommend Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Holy the Firm, Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, John Graves’s Goodbye to a River, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, and John Elder’s Reading the Mountains of Home.

This interview is sponsored by BYU Studies.

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