Ashby D Boyle II, JD, PhD, with a Wall Street-based law practice, has returned to Yale after two decades away, to write a book on the Book of Mormon.
After two decades away, some Yale memories are still vividly felt.
PhD Fear and Trembling: Dissertation Brain Pain
You know someone with a doctoral degree. If you happen to be of the Mormon persuasion, you may have earned one yourself.
Either way, no PhD ever is won without intense brain pain.
Why does being back at Yale make me feel pained instead of good?
I ought to feel some justified pride, even just derivative of how proud my family is, of having been sanctified to think by Yale University. After all, the journey to Ph.D. wound through languages and technical vocabularies. My own dissertation required reading thinkers who routinely wrote sentences that cracked the skull like this: “The notion of End, then, to which Reason in its role of observer rises, is a Notion of which it is aware; but it is also no less present as something actual, and is not an external relation of the later, but its essence.”
And boy has that sentence come in handy in the last two decades!
If I’m to make anyone uncomfortable by quoting a philosopher who actually uttered statements like that, all I can say is, one can just never learn enough from the prophets of the latter days: “Mormonism is philosophically true,” stated President John Taylor, “but all Mormons are not philosophers—neither do we consider it necessary.”
I learned Hegel in a reading class with Professor Hans Frei. Once a week we would meet to read and discuss Hegel’s work.
But for Professor Frei, learning Hegel could have been a Bataan death march.
A return to Yale is an opportunity to take my psychic energies from all that doctoral brain pain and sublimate it! To go forward with energy and a renewal of vocation!
I, of course, realize that somewhere in the underworld, Hume, like Hegel another philosopher, must be scoffing at me when I express such optimism. What Hume would laugh at is the energy for the future I have, expressed in these grumpy lines of doggerel:
And from the dregs of life hope to receive,
What the first sprightly running could not give.
The melancholy, I start to realize, is that this walk down Memory Lane is absent that my better half, and my wife Heidi is back in Utah with our kids.
As Ozzie Ozborne is famous for saying of his wife, Sharon: “Sharon!”
Being back here without my wife (who is home in Utah) is a double dose of loneliness.
I miss her, but I also feel again the loneliness I felt when I arrived at Yale single, to begin graduate school. Yale matured me, being here alone taught me that I couldn’t breathe without her. I felt with real intent the time to marry had arrived. So one Tuesday in October thirty years ago, I called Heidi at her home in Pomona (we had first met at Princeton) and proposed.
She accepted. But not until calling me back with her answer. By using an extra day of Thanksgiving break – and even then the acting Director of Graduate Studies frankly counseled me not to get married — I flew out to Los Angeles on a Thursday right after having spent an agonizing 90 minutes presenting a paper in a seminar on the so-called mind/body problem, a problem I then had at that moment.
My own, personal mind/body problem was acute; my mind was as if already on the plane to California, but my body in a Yale seminar room, reading aloud a paper to three of the world’s most prominent theologians: Hans Frei, David Kelsey and George Lindbeck.
All temporary things, my Grandmother Boyle once taught me, can be endured. And I felt so much happier by Sunday night, back in New Haven, now with my eternal companion. I’m going on and on like Heidi is lost, or only a memory. But she’s home safe in Utah, with our 9 and 11 year-old daughters. And the good memory I just related has lifted my spirits. Anyway, an excess of recollections is unhealthy, if it rob us of the present. Remembering too much can squelch our capacity for action.
On the other hand, I notice that there is some good from seeing past events in a new light.
One sense of ‘providence’ is clear from the Book of Mosiah, how God can work with those who work, and how he providentially sustains the whole world while also providentially sustaining my free agency in action.
Past events in a new light can disclose how He blesses our work with success–if work there be to bless.
In our working, we experience sometimes a sense of His concurrence with us. It is also the case, as President Packer has said, we might more likely feel the lack, so that we can stop and revise.
Yale taught me that I am dependent on Him in my work. That insight did not require going to more than primary, of course, but as long as I was taught well the point, I’m happy to give Yale the credit.
I also know the Lord to be an accompanying God who also overrules us at times.
I know that petitionary prayers seem especially effective as I work. And I also know that without working, God seems placed in the tough position as to whether or not He can bless my work where there has been no work to bless. How many times is my prayer not to “please soften the heart of Professor Yale-person” but instead to “please soften her brain” because no work underwrites my petition.
Discerning Providence can be done sometimes only with 20/20 hindsight: retrospective providence.
Right now I can see that God does work for our good. And so while I miss Heidi, it is here, as I walk down Memory Lane that I feel, or I discern, the full blessings of my LA Temple marriage to Heidi.
Continuing experience after an event also seems to enlighten the initial, up-front spiritual discernment.
At Yale as a Little Child
So Yale was full of lessons I could have learned in Primary if I had been more reverent.
There was, in fact, some book-learning too. “Without faith in God’s providence the freedom of man is intolerable,” Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote. “Faith in the wisdom of God is a prerequisite of love because it is the condition without which we are anxious and driven by our anxiety into vicious circles of self-sufficiency and pride.
“[T]he admonition ‘Be not anxious,’ has meaning only in conjunction” with the faith of the Lord and especially the children of 3 Nephi.
Note to self: While remembering that God works with those who work, I am also commanded to “be ye not anxious”: “Your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of these things.”
To me, perhaps the best example of being submissive as a little child is the Lord’s example in the Book of Mormon in 3 Nephi.
The narrative of 3 Nephi teaches us of the resurrected Lord’s on-going reliance on His Father in prayer again and again without needing to exhort us to.
This lesson is, as it were, in the air as we read the scripture. The Lord engages in prayer with Heavenly Father (as examples, in Chapter 17:14-18, Chapter 19:19-23, Chapters 27-29, and Chapters 31-34). Insights into the nature of the Trinity are also made manifest without needing definition or theologically cleaning-up, because it’s all in the presentation of the narrative.
In Chapter 14 at verse 21, the Lord teaches His “other sheep” that only those “that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven” shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Again in 3 Nephi, the now resurrected Lord states that “all things are written by the Father; therefore out of the books which shall be written shall the world be judged,” in Chapter 27:26. And at Chapter 28:10-11, the Lord adds clarity to the roles of the three persons in the Godhead, as well as participation in that unity by his chosen.
Theology as a Testimony and a Testimony of Mormon Theology
As Mormonism in the United States has grown as a social power, Mormonism has correspondingly grown as a topic of study in Religious Studies programs and as a topic for books from the best academic presses.
Because Mormon Theology, it is now clear—“happens” — my belief is that, given quality of scholarship in religion improves with a sympathetic feel for the topic, I am chosen without being called, in the position of “portfolio without minister”. (It is also true, as a University of Maryland Professor, Mark P. Leone has described it in his Roots of Modern Mormonism that each Mormon is her own theologian.)
I began to explore theology, as I recall, when I started to read a book called Jesus the Christ at the age of 15. It’s an 804 page book. Written by a Mormon Apostle in 1915, it states in its Preface the book was “approved by the First Presidency (of President Heber J. Grant, my Great-Grandfather) and the Council of the Twelve.” Subtitled “A Study of the Messiah and His Mission according to Holy Scripture both Ancient and Modern”, the author, James E. Talmage, was of the opinion (these next quotations are from his book, The Articles of Faith, that theology (which he differentiated from religion as “theory is differentiated from practice”) could not be over-estimated as to its importance in directing how our efforts are applied during “the short span of our mortal existence.”
Elder Talmage’s view of theology had an effect on me. In hindsight, it is one reason why studying religion at Princeton for my A.B., an M.A. in Religion from Columbia, and a PhD in Religious Studies at Yale seems providential.
I’m a night person; my brain is at its peak late in the evening.
And so in 1970, late at night I was reading Jesus the Christ. Weeks had become months, and I was through about the final third of the book. I distinctly recall setting the book down, and in that moment, the Holy Spirit at that moment revealed to me that Jesus is my Savior.
As missionaries bear testimony in a foreign language, at their homecomings, so too shall I try now the same bilingual witness to the academic: as “the wind listeth”, I had the immediate apprehension of the Holy Spirit, apprehended in its being itself that night, apprehended not as an appearance but as a hearing, a hearing to me that was personally the speech and address of God, a hearing of perfect clarity, that the Lord is my Savior.
© 2010 Ashby D Boyle II