Mother had modest expectations when she encouraged me to attend church college in Lamoni, Iowa. She figured Graceland College (now one campus of Graceland University) was the best place for me to find a husband who was a member of our small sect, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (which later became the Community of Christ ). Had she known one of the professors would ask questions that would lead to my leaving the church, she would have had serious second thoughts about the value of a higher education.
I loved Graceland College. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by peers who shared my beliefs. We all knew Joseph Smith was a prophet. We had no doubts about the authenticity of our sacred texts, the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants.
We were thrilled by the stories of Smith’s brave martyrdom in Nauvoo, Illinois. We were convinced polygamy only began when the heretic, Brigham Young, split from the True Church and led his followers into the desert.
God didn’t just speak to our leaders. He spoke to and through anyone of us with a pure and ready heart. When the end times came, we would be on the right hand of God, scooped out of the chaos and welcomed into the rewards of eternal life.
Truth was in our pockets, sewed up in a neat package. We were smug as we walked through life fingering it, knowing we were among the few who possessed such treasure.
In my second year at Graceland, I signed up for a Bible course taught by Robert Speaks. Old Testament in the first semester, New Testament in the second. When Speaks lectured, he became the prophets, striding across the room and drawing us into the Scriptures as if he were re-living them. He was probably the finest storyteller I met during the six years of my university career. He was certainly the most memorable of my profs.
Speaks even made examinations fun, at least for me. I remember one in particular when he asked us to become Paul and write a letter to the Ephesians on some theological point. I can’t remember what I wrote. I can remember I settled into the exercise with zeal.
One of the things I liked about him was that he did not like sloppy thinking or rote responses. He was not interested in our regurgitating the truisms we’d brought with us to Graceland. He didn’t even want us regurgitating what he taught. He wanted us to think and question for ourselves.
Thinking and questioning tossed me out of a comfortable nest and forced me to fly. I don’t remember the topic he dropped into the discussion one memorable day. I do remember we parroted back the theology of our childhoods. Then he asked the nest-tipping question: “Where do you find that in Scripture?”
Our tongues were tangled in a forest so thick we fell silent. He sent us off to do some detective work and bring back the answer.
And what we found was…nothing. A major cornerstone of our religious foundation was based on air. Nothing in our three religious tomes supported it. My comfortable belief base collapsed.
I wondered what else we believed that had no basis in Scripture, and I set off to find out. I don’t know if any of my fellow students were similarly shaken. I was the only regular church attender in the class who never again darkened the chapel door.
I felt as if I’d been in a dark room with no windows. Suddenly a wide door was thrown open. What streamed in was the light and fresh air of intellectual curiosity. I’d always held my own in discussions on a wide variety of current issues, but my religious beliefs had been closed to examination. They were unassailable truths.
Once those truths were thrown into the mixer, I lost the last of my need to possess absolute certainty in at least one area of my life.
What I lost in community I gradually regained elsewhere. What I lost in unquestioning belief I never re-found.
And I’ve been grateful to Robert Speaks ever since.