GENE’S SUNDAY SCHOOL CLASSES AND EXTRA-CREDIT READINGS
By Gary Browning
Soon after Gene joined the Brigham Young University English Department faculty in the late 1970s, we served together in the Honors Program directorate. Also, on occasion, my wife Joan and I were guests in Gene and Charlotte’s welcoming home where we enjoyed musical performances, discussions, and study group sessions. Gene was our family’s home teacher for a time, and served us and others as a member of our ward’s bishopric. However, we may have come to know Gene best through his always stimulating and faith-honing Gospel Doctrine Sunday School lessons taught over a span of more than a decade. During this time we were members together in the LDS Pleasant View First Ward meetinghouse located adjacent to the northwest side of the Provo Missionary Training Center.
Gene was always well-prepared, always having written on the chalk board before class an outline, a scripture, or a thought-provoking quotation frequently, but not always, from an LDS source. He was an enthusiastic teacher with an agenda. He wanted to treat a body of material and conclude with a memorable flourish before dismissing the class—on many occasions well after the second bell had sounded five or more minutes earlier. But during the lesson, we always knew that he welcomed class members’ comments, even, or perhaps especially, their challenges to his views. Gene’s mind was quick and flexible, but he did not yield an idea for convenience or from condescension. He was confident and tenacious in defending his thinking, but also attentive and considerate of others’ differing perspectives. It appeared that he reveled in the opportunity to discover how a contrary view, nevertheless, enhanced rather than detracted from the essence of his idea.
Gene was an inquiring, restless intellectual in the finest sense of the word, whose faith was deep and firm in the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Atonement, the Savior’s restored Church, and in revelation and living prophets. Though occasions presented themselves, to my knowledge he never criticized the beliefs or teachings of Church leaders. I had the feeling that, somewhat parallel to a rehabilitated addict who knows his vulnerabilities, Gene had committed to himself never to take even a sip from the malevolent cup of sarcasm or belittlement, or to offer it to another—never.
Over time, however, I realized that Gene, like many great Mormon thinkers, was a far deeper and more complex Latter-day Saint than I had seen in Sunday School. This became clearer as I read and re-read several of his brilliant, penetrating essays, such as “Joseph Smith and the Tragic Quest,” “Obedience, Integrity, and the Paradox of Selfhood,” “Great Books or True Religion? Defining the Mormon Scholar,” “Can Nations Love Their Enemies?: An LDS Theology of Peace,” “We Need to Liberate Mormon Men!”, “Why the Church Is As True As the Gospel,” and, especially, “Enduring.” It certainly was not that Gene was hypocritical – presenting one persona on Sunday and living another before and after. In my view, Gene was a splendid example of vital, conscious integrity. His testimony and convictions of the truth were unrestrained and immovable, but he respected his audiences and taught according to their interests, needs, and level of awareness.
As usual, Gene’s faith grew over the years, but certainly first blossomed under the tutelage of his remarkable parents, as suggested in the following autobiographical account of a young boy walking by the side of his father, carefully stepping in between rows of ripening wheat:
He asked me to kneel with him, and he spoke, I thought to Christ, about the wheat. He pledged again, as I had heard him at home, to give all the crop, all beyond our bare needs, to build the kingdom, and he claimed protection from drought and hail and wind. I felt, beside and in me, something, a person, it seemed, something more real than the wheat or the ridge or the sun, something warm like the sun but warm inside my head and chest and bones, someone like us but strange, thrilling, fearful but safe. (From “Enduring”)
Further nurtured by the faith and thinking of fellow-believers, as a man Gene could stand confidently before us on Sundays and proclaim his moving testimony without equivocation, for as he wrote,
I have tasted the precious fruit of faith in specific things; I have been able, in all my proving, to discover and to continue to hold some things fast as certainties—faith in the divinity of Christ and in the saving power of his teachings and Atonement, faith in the divine mission of his Church and his modern prophets—and the deep hunger of my soul has been fed as I have given myself to this faith.” (From “The Possibility of Dialogue”)
Gene deeply believed and often quoted in Sunday School and in his writings the apostle Paul’s encouragement to “Prove all things; hold fast to that which is good (1 Thessalonians 5:21), and the striking insight from the Prophet Joseph Smith’s King Follett Sermon that “By proving contraries, truth is made manifest.” In his provings, he encountered another contrasting but also complementary dimension to life that cast additional light on his experience and quest for an always greater fullness of knowledge. Continuing the quotation from the wheat field:
At the same time I have sensed the risk of choice, the limitation of commitment to a defined context in this world that is full of richly complex possibilities and allows only finite vision into their worth. Yet I have found that my very specific faith does not cut me off from this rich complexity; it actually intensifies and informs with meaning my involvement in it.
In my view, this quotation offers an important key to Gene’s greatness. In the most profound sense, his deep faith is broadened by intense and often troubling scrutiny of life’s vexing paradoxes, ironies, contradictions, mysteries, disillusionments and pain. In often unexpected ways, his faith is informed, that is, endowed, with a fuller and, hence, more credible meaning, even when important parts remain stubbornly impenetrable. Gene’s faith would endure despite challenges which, for some others, have proven too difficult to withstand.
For me, Gene’s spiritual heroism and integrity are rooted in this loyalty both to his faith in “specific things” comprising the core, revealed truths of the Restoration and to an unstinting examination of life’s most difficult questions, to which fully satisfying answers are uncommon. I have thought that the words of the father pleading with the Savior, who has just told him that his son could be healed if he, the father, had sufficient faith— “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief” —might apply reasonably well to Gene or, better, be augmented by the phrase “and also help thou my yearning for a fuller truth.” Gene’s search did not imply nor result in a loss of faith, although the gift of increasing awareness often came with not a few troubling ramifications.
Gene was sensitive to paradoxes, or conflicting intellectual claims, in just about all of life’s important spheres. He often formulated his central paradox as encompassing stresses between public obedience and private integrity. This may seem to imply that one’s belief and behavior contrast to what one privately would prefer. Cast as a traditional paradox, that would make sense. But Gene most often portrayed this paradox not as opposing sets of values but as a hierarchy of competing values. The examples Gene chooses for his essay entitled “Obedience, Integrity, and the Paradox of Selfhood” include B.H. Roberts, Orson Pratt, and John D. Lee, among others. All of these men held deeply felt views in important areas which they were called upon to recant (in the latter case, not only to sacrifice his views but even his life) in order to demonstrate obedience to public (group or community) values—in which they also believed.
Gene wrote of and himself lived as the men and women he considered his heroes, who “pursued the truth with courage, and new ideas and creative expression with delight, but they finally put their faith in the Lord and loyalty to his Church over everything—over their pride, their comfort, health, lives—even their gift itself, when it came to that.” (From “Great Books or True Religion: Defining the Mormon Scholar”)
Gene recounts another moving example of the obedience/integrity dichotomy which concerns a little-known but similarly heroic Latter-day Saint who reluctantly conformed to the fallacious thinking of the group, and then worked wholeheartedly to save group members from the results of their poor judgment. This provides another instance of one who preserved integrity in both halves of the paradox—obedience to the community and allegiance to one’s own views. Brother Levi Savage of the 1856 Willie handcart company stood alone in opposition to the promises and even prophecies of Church leadership in Nebraska. He counseled strongly against risking their lives by leaving for Utah so late in the year. Levi Savage’s views were overwhelmingly rejected. Rather than abandon his fellow Saints, he chose a more heroic course:
Brethren and Sisters, what I have said I know to be true; but, seeing you are to go forward, I will go with you, will help you all I can, will work with you, will rest with you, will suffer with you, and if necessary, I will die with you. May God in His mercy bless and preserve us. Amen.
As Gene reminds his reader, over fifty of the company—men women, and children—paid with their lives inWyoming’s winter storms for the group’s foolhardiness. (From “Obedience, Integrity, and the Paradox of Selfhood”)
Actually, this is much the way I see Gene’s behavior. He raised his voice in concern for the community’s well-being but did not abandon it when he was rebuffed. He continued trying to communicate his message more effectively. For only one of many possible examples, consider his position in relation to the blacks and the priesthood. As Gene wrote in 1973:
The policy of denying blacks the priesthood is rationally untenable from a number of perspectives, historical, theological, ethical, social, psychological, in fact from all perspectives but one: ecclesiastical authority. But for me that perspective outweighs all the others because I am convinced that ecclesiastically the Church is doing what the Lord has directed, even though morally and spiritually its members may not be. I am certain that the Church is directed through revelation, believing that at least the most recent Prophets have prayed sincerely about this matter and that if the Lord thought it best to make a change at this time he could get through to his leaders and have a change made. However, as I will try to explain later, I also believe that the Lord does wish a change could be made and that we all bear responsibility for the fact that it hasn’t been made yet. (From “The Mormon Cross”)
Gene then devotes the remainder of the article to a treatment of the misunderstandings and prejudices among Church membership on the topic of the blacks and the priesthood, and to showing where we need to repent and “get ready to live the higher law … by working honestly and vigorously to overcome the burden of our racist past.” I would say this episode shows Gene at his best, as he often was. He prepared himself well, even requested and was granted a meeting with the Prophet Joseph Fielding Smith to discuss his carefully considered views, became convinced that Church leadership was doing all that could be done presently, resisted any inclination to criticize or belittle Church leaders, and worked conscientiously among us members (I recall him treating this issue in Sunday School) to help prepare the groundwork for the change, which did come—only five years later in 1978.
In Sunday School class and in his personal essays, Gene often spoke admiringly and with reverence of the faith of everyday, unsung members of the Church. These members were quiet, steady, and spiritually mature. I recall him telling us the story in Sunday School of Mary Goble Pay, an unpretentious “voice of spiritual nobility.” Her mother and sister lost their lives as a result of the winter handcart tragedy. On 11 December 1856, Mary entered the Salt Lake Valley with her father and two siblings. Three out of four suffered from severe frostbite. Brigham Young greeted them the next morning and wept when he saw their condition. An accompanying doctor amputated Mary’s toes using a saw and a butcher knife. “Brigham Young promised me I would not have to have any more of my feet cut off,” Mary recounted. However, Mary’s feet continued to get worse. The doctor urged Mary to allow him to cut her feet off at the ankles, otherwise the consequences might be dire. But Mary recalled Brigham’s promise and would not allow him to perform any further surgery.
Eventually “a little old woman” knocked at Mary’s door. Mary was weeping from pain. “I showed her my feet and told her the promise Bro. Young had given me. She said, ‘Yes, and with the help of the Lord we will save them yet.’” Daily this sister dressed Mary’s feet with a poultice. “At the end of three months my feet were well. … I have never had to have any more taken from them. The promise of Brigham Young has been fulfilled and the pieces of toe bone have worked out.” (From “We Need to Liberate Mormon Men!”)
That is the way we like stories of quiet but sterling heroism and faith to end. Gene, too, had strong faith in the power of prophecy and in priesthood blessings. He often utilized priesthood power within his family and among close Church members to effect healing and relieve the distressed. On a few occasions he shared some of those tender accounts with us in Sunday School. But he was well aware of contrary occasions when a blessing given in faith by the power of the priesthood was not realized for reasons poorly, if at all, understood. In his powerful and moving essay entitled “Enduring,” Gene writes his most intimate and, in significant ways, troubling piece. At the time of writing, many trials had beset him and Charlotte. He tells of Charlotte’s deep faith and relentless efforts to save her mother’s life after she was promised in a blessing that she would recover.
Charlotte, encouraged by the blessing’s promises and by the attending physician, was determined to return her mother to health. Finally, when the doctor could see that chemotherapy was not working, he stopped the treatment.
Josephine [Charlotte’s mother] told me that she thought she could have the faith to make the promise work, but there was so much pain and she was so tired. Charlotte kept trying, fiercely believing in the promise, hoping. Our daughters lay on the bed with Josephine, held her in their arms and talked about canning apricots with her years ago. She died on October 2.
“Enduring” is, in part, troubling because in this beautifully written, melancholic essay we glimpse a vulnerable, wounded Gene England, not the valiant, resolute champion we are used to admiring. Apparently, too many irrational burdens had fallen on his and Charlotte’s shoulders. A reflective Gene admits in this essay to experiencing periods of existential angst. At that moment he wonders whether perhaps commonly accepted answers to life’s most challenging questions were insufficient. This is a wrenchingly honest admission for Gene, although surely he knew a great many of us have had those same fleeting or lingering feelings when even tempered-steel certainties and rock-solid convictions seem to yield before crushing doubt.
As early as in his youthful years, Gene experienced periods of this frightening perplexity:
One evening there began to come moments when I could feel moving into my mind, like a physical presence, the conviction that all was quite absurd. It made no sense at all that anything should exist. Something like nausea, but deeper and frightening, would grow in my stomach and chest but also at the core of my spirit, progressing like vertigo until in desperation I must jump up or talk suddenly of trivial things to break the spell and regain balance. And since that time I am always aware that that feeling, that extreme awareness of the better claim of nothingness, lies just beyond the barriers of my busy mind and will intrude when I let it. (From “Enduring”)
Gene’s anguish brings to mind BYU English professor Parley A. Christensen’s enlightening essay entitled “Tragedy as Relgious Paradox,” in which he present a view of tragedy which for many has grown more compelling as the years pass: “Tragedy rises to realization in human experience, not when hearts break in human relations, but when man discovers or suspects he discovers that the objects or values of his ultimate concern, his deepest solicitude, have no status or being in the texture of reality.” Related, one may recall that faithful and saintly Mother Teresa who, as an incarnation of Matthew 25 (“Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.”), has inspired the world in our day as have few others. Many of her admirers were perplexed when, following her death, excerpts from her writing surfaced revealing not infrequent feelings that resonate with Gene’s, and others’ like them. Mother Teresa, who worked among the poorest of Calcutta, wrote in 1958: “My smile is a great cloak that hides a multitude of pains.” Because she was “forever smiling,” people thought “my faith, my hope and my love are overflowing and that my intimacy with God and union with his will fill my heart. If only they only knew.” Further, Mother Teresa wrote in a later letter: “In my own soul, I feel the terrible pain of this loss. I feel that God does not want me, that God is not God and that he does not really exist.” The point of Gene’s story and his life, and perhaps of Mother Teresa’s letters, seems to be that at those times of darkest doubt, one simply endures.
Over the years, Gene taught a BYU freshman Honors colloquium and occasionally invited guest lecturers to present material within their areas of specialty. A few times I spoke on Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Both Gene and I were challenged and stimulated by the Russian author’s astonishingly fresh and perceptive, if at times disturbing, revelations concerning the human mind and spirit. Among much else, we spoke of Dostoevsky’s view that a person is capable of feeling allegiance to more than one complex idea at the same moment, even if the ideas are mutually exclusive. The competing ideas do not necessarily replace one another, but rapidly transition to positions of dominance back and forth. Virtually simultaneously entertaining conflicting ideas does not necessarily make a person duplicitous, hypocritical, or fickle. Rather, some people are intellectually and spiritually broad and active across a wide spectrum of thought or perception. For example, one may claim he possess deep faith bordering on sure knowledge that there will be an afterlife, and at the same time experience unwelcome but insistent concerns that death in the worst of all scenarios could mean the utter end of a person’s existence, period. For Gene to have felt besieged with such dark thoughts as are expressed in “Enduring” and still to cling to a deeply sincere faith is not unexpected for a man of his intellectual and spiritual range. While the apostle James reminds us that a fountain does not send forth sweet and bitter water at the same place, nor does a fig tree bear olive berries, or a vine, figs, one realizes that the human being is not a fountain, an olive or a fig tree, or a grape vine. He or she is capable of complex thought and, concerning life’s most challenging concern, may not be able to settle permanently on one single unalterable resolution, unless that person closes the windows of the mind and ceases to think.
Now, back to our calmer, less chaotic Sunday School classes at the Peasant View First Ward. While I served in the ward bishopric, occasionally a complaint would come to the bishop from some disgruntled member agitated about Gene’s (or another’s) gospel teaching. The concern typically arose from Gene’s not being sufficiently “orthodox” or conventional in his views. But for the overwhelming majority of loyal Church members, Gene’s approach and style were refreshing, mind- and soul-stretching, and, finally, faith-enriching. I can only imagine the outcry of disappointment and despair that would have arisen had we replaced Gene with any one else. Then, after Sunday School, to read Gene’s essays is only to strengthen and expand one’s admiration for this brother of exceptional perception and integrity.
On one occasion the day after a fine Sunday School class as Gene and I conversed in front of my home—Gene was returning an extendable tree pruner he had borrowed—I told him privately that in my opinion the person whom I knew well and who was most similar to what I believe Joseph Smith to have been in intellectual vigor and openness, in the courage to confront life’s stubbornly “accursed” questions, in temperament that would include and encourage rather than disparage an antagonist, and in the ability to extend and adjust personal horizons as his knowledge and experience expanded—was he, Gene England. I did not mean this as a superficial compliment, rather as an expression of my carefully considered conviction. Although Gene had a healthy, active ego, he appeared disconcerted by this comparison, but I felt it to be true then and do so even more today. In my imagination I can easily picture Gene having a lively and mutually enlightening discussion with the Prophet Joseph about some perplexing and paradoxical issue. Gene possessed the same capacity, passion, fearlessness, and integrity that I believe characterized Joseph. They both had the curiosity and openness to ask intelligent, probing questions, and not to be content with the superficial, apologetic, “safe” responses.
Gene’s polished and well-utilized gifts and finely-honed acquired skills served him well as an Honors Program directorate colleague, as our sensitive home teacher, as a thoughtful counselor in our ward’s bishopric, as a genial host in his home, as a brilliant and affirming Sunday School teacher, and for me, as an enlightening and stimulating essayist. It is impossible and unnecessary to try to gauge where his contribution was most important for me, but I do know that I have seldom looked forward to Sunday School class as much as I did when Gene stood before us, posed a challenging question, and then with joy and deep conviction taught us from the scriptures, the words of living apostles and prophets, and the writings of the great thinkers of philosophy and literature, which included, in my view, himself.