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Mormon Scholars Testify: Robert A. Rees - "Witness"

TitleMormon Scholars Testify: Robert A. Rees - "Witness"
Publication TypeWeb Article
Year of Publication2012
AuthorsRees, Robert A.
Access Date2 April 2018
Last Update DateApril 2012
PublisherMormon Scholars Archive
KeywordsAdversity; Atonement; Historicity; Love; Restoration; Scholarship; Testimony; Textual Analysis; Trials; Truth

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Robert A. Rees


“Men seem to be constitutionally believers and unbelievers. There is no bridge that can cross from a mind in one state to a mind in the other. All my opinions, affections, whimsies, are tinged with belief,—incline to that side. All that is generous, elegant, rich, wise, looks that way. But I cannot give reasons to a person of a different persuasion that are at all adequate to the force of my conviction. Yet when I fail to find the reason, my faith is not less.”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journal, 17 September 1833

“Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind
& in the mind’s mirror, the world.”
–David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Since first being asked to write this testimony, I have given considerable thought as to what it means to testify, to bear witness, to say those most sobering of words, “I know.” I have come to the conclusion that bearing witness is one of the most meaningful and perhaps ponderous of human acts, one that carries with it enormous responsibility. People tend to listen more attentively and seriously and to trust more completely words spoken as testimony or witness. Think of the words of the messenger in Job— “I alone am escaped to tell you . . . ”; of Holocaust survivors— “I was there and saw it with my own eyes”; or of John, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life. . . . That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you” (1 John 1:1-3).

When we say with conviction and passion that we “know” something is true, our words have a moral weight. When we bear witness it focuses others’ attention in a way that mere report or opinion do not. On the other hand, as recent research on the reliability of eye witnesses demonstrates, what we see with our eyes and hear with our ears is not only not infallible, it can be seriously distorted by subjectivity. Although Mormons tend to rely more on inspiration, spectral evidence, and the witness of the Spirit as confirmation of truth, I would guess that most of us hear testimonies on fast Sundays (and possibly every day) the veracity of which we have cause to doubt. We are all witnesses to those who bear witness casually and irresponsibly, even insincerely. I admit to having been guilty of this myself: As a young missionary I bore witness to things I later learned were unfounded. Serving an extended senior mission with my wife during my sixties, I was more cautious but still clear in my testimony. As a Mormon scholar, I begin this invitation soberly, thoughtfully and with some trepidation. I hope that whatever I can say as a witness here is honest and responsible—and open to examination and challenge.

One of the problems with bearing witness is that it can be a learned expression. It isn’t that I am against modeling, since that is a constant human activity; from one another we learn, to borrow J. V. Cunningham’s lines, “not only what to say/but how the saying must be said.”1 Nevertheless, ultimately not only the words but the conviction behind them must be ours and ours alone. I must confess that I am not always comfortable with little children bearing their testimonies in sacrament meeting. While I sometimes find it charming and occasionally touching (and sometimes humorous), usually when four and five year olds say they “know the gospel is true” or that “Thomas S. Monson is a prophet,” what they likely are doing is either parroting what others have said or repeating verbatim what their parents are whispering in their ears at that moment. It may be that this is a good thing, but I often feel uneasy about it. It reminds me of a panel I was once on that included a convert from a Communist country. He said he didn’t see much difference between such recitations and those he and others made as “young pioneers” in the Soviet Union, dutifully and happily voicing formulaic propaganda. Hopefully, children in our testimony meetings grow up to bear their own sincere and hard-won testimonies.

What do I “know”? Clearly not nearly as much as I once did or thought I did—not as much as I at times have claimed or in my youth hoped I knew. Nevertheless, after considerable thought, after examining my heart and mind, the following are a few of the truths to which I can testify at this seventy-fifth year of my life:

I know that God lives. I say this as someone who wrestles every day with issues of theodicy—questions relating to God’s justice and therefore his existence. I cannot say with Emerson (as I did say twenty-five years ago2) that “All I have seen teaches me to trust the creator for all I have not seen.”3 I can say that some of what I see leads me to that conclusion, but some does not. I do not understand the design of a world in which every year millions suffer and die from malnutrition, starvation, and disease; in which thousands of young girls are sold into sexual slavery; in which girls and women in some cultures are raped with impunity; in which hundreds of thousands of innocent people are tortured and brutalized; in which innocent people are imprisoned sometimes for life or cruelly executed simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In addition , I am unable to harmonize the idea of a just and caring deity with the blind indifference of natural disasters, so called “acts of God” in which tens of thousands are drowned in the depths of sea, buried in mud or volcanic ash, sucked into whirlwinds, or their famine-stricken bones left to dry on desert sands. Equally perplexing is the seeming randomness and capriciousness of birth disorders, crippling disabilities, and disease. I have no way to reconcile such things—or others like them—with a just and loving God, and yet I believe in a just and loving God.

What makes such acts and phenomena more challenging are the testimonies that people bear that these are indeed conscious acts of God (set in motion, we are often told, to humble us and make us stronger or, more troubling, to punish or destroy the wicked—even though the righteous are often destroyed in greater numbers). Equally disturbing are the assertions (even testimonies) that God acts in individual lives in minor, even trivial, matters but not in dramatic, ultimate ways in the lives of millions of others. I cannot make the equation work in which God apparently saves one child from abduction (as some Latter-day Saints feel he did with Elizabeth Smart4) and yet allows another child—equally innocent and precious to God–to be abducted, held in captivity for over twenty-four years and repeatedly raped by her captor father (as happened with Elizabeth Fritzi5).

It makes even less sense to me to argue, as some did, that God acted in the case of Elizabeth Smart because she was a Latter-day Saint. Equally inexplicable are those who assert that God allowed/approved of (perhaps even inspired) the United States to go to war in the Middle East because it opened the way for Mormon soldiers to preach the gospel in “the Land of Abraham.”6 If indeed such capricious or seemingly capricious events can be attributed to God then we must conclude, as did Mark Twain, that he is the “Jekyll and Hyde of sacred romance.”7 But he is not. Rather, he is the loving, suffering God who, though God, or perhaps because of that fact, has his heart broken continuously by the wickedness and suffering of his children. Further, and this too is a sobering realization, if we are worthy of exaltation and inherit all that the Father has promised (D&C 84:35, 37–38), then one of the things we inherit is some inescapable degree of suffering; that is, we too will continue to suffer as long as we love and as a consequence of that love ensure our children’s agency, the exercise of which leads to their suffering. Thus, our suffering, like God’s, can never end, although, presumably, it will be tempered by a greater measure of joy and glory. This is one of the profound paradoxes of Mormon Christianity.

In my twenties I came to the conclusion that agnosticism is a defensible, even in some ways a persuasive position. Though less defensible and persuasive, even atheism has its convincing arguments. And yet I am neither an atheist nor an agnostic but a believer, perhaps even a true believer, if by that term we mean “one who is strongly attached to a particular belief.”8

I know that love is the most powerful, essential and inexhaustible force in the universe. I bear witness that in all of its divine and human manifestations love makes mortal life worth living—and enduring—and eternal life worth hoping for. Love is the clearest definition of and evidence for God. Without love God would cease to be and without love, humans wither and die. I bear witness that in ways we only dimly understand, love and light are somehow, physically, metaphysically and spiritually related. When God said, “Let there be light,” he could just as easily have said, “Let there be love,” for that love which shines in the darkness lights our lives because its ultimate source is God’s heart and mind, and when we allow it in, such love lights the dark chambers of our own hearts and minds.

I can say with utmost confidence that our Heavenly Father, Heavenly Mother and their son, Jesus Christ, love us with a love beyond our capacity to fully understand—or imagine, or reciprocate, except as we attempt to do so from our own limited wholeness. And yet we can feel the reality of it in our bones and in our cells and, especially, in the deepest recesses of our hearts. I don’t believe that the multiple manifestations of love, especially in a world in which so many forces seem bent on denying and countering it, can be explained by naturalistic causes, forces, or processes. We are capable of loving beyond the edges of evolution, beyond our own need for love, astonishing even ourselves at times with spontaneous, unbidden, and abundant love in acts that Fay Weldon calls “the unexpected lurch of the heart toward others which can take the heart by surprise.”9

I can truly bear witness to the truth of the Restoration. That is, I know that something powerful and transcendent happened in that grove of trees in 1820. Part of that conviction is related to the conviction that the spiritual fruit from that grove has taken root, both in my own heart and in the hearts of others all over the world, and flowered like the white, luminous fruit on Lehi’s tree, which is, after all, as the angel tells Nephi, the love of God. When I consider how much love has resulted from young Joseph’s courageous voyage into that foreboding wood, including the enormous blessing of love in my own life, I cannot pronounce it as anything but good, even though I acknowledge that, as with all human acts, sorrow and tragedy have also flowed from that astonishing vision of light and love. That is, such light is always filtered through the imperfect prisms of our mortal, that is our fallen, natures. Nevertheless, it is light, however diminished by human limitations.

Over the course of a lifetime, including six years of fulltime missionary service for the Church, I have borne witness to the truth of the restored gospel to thousands of people, including some of my own colleagues, students, and professional associates. When my students have asked how I could possibly believe the things I do, my response typically has been, “As honestly as I am able to evaluate the totality of my experience, I have to say that if what I have experienced as deep spiritual experience is not real then perhaps nothing is.” I remember a conversation with Kurt Vonnegut and Allen Ginsberg during meetings I was responsible for organizing between distinguished writers from China and the United States. When I told them of my belief about Joseph Smith’s experience in the Sacred Grove and the Book of Mormon, they were incredulous that a UCLA professor could seriously hold such beliefs. Ginsberg, who later became a friend, asked skeptically, “This is believed?” I assured him that it was, by me and many others.

An extension of that witness is a witness of the fact that the Book of Mormon derives from the history of actual ancient peoples. After a lifetime of serious study of the Book of Mormon, including an earnest and honest consideration of the critical literature challenging the book’s claim as an authentic ancient sacred text, I can come to no other conclusion than that it is what it purports to be: a history of several groups of real people who migrated to and flourished in the New World BCE. I have seriously considered the arguments of those who contend that it is a fictive invention by Joseph Smith or others living in nineteenth-century United States, but conclude that the construction of such a book in such a time and place was impossible given the book’s intricate and complex structure; its nuanced, even convoluted composition; and the depth and consistency of its spiritual messages.

I am not qualified to discuss archeological, anthropological, geographical or linguistic issues related to the Book of Mormon, nor am I a specialist in genetics and mitochondrial DNA analysis. What I can claim is expertise in rhetorical and textual analysis—the study of the actual language and narrative structure of the book. In “Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon and the American Renaissance,” I examined the Book of Mormon in relation to the foundational literary texts of the American Renaissance, a literary period roughly parallel to the Mormon restoration. My conclusion was that in comparison with his more illustrious contemporary authors (Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Whitman, and Hawthorne), Joseph Smith lacked the education, literary imagination, talent, maturity as a writer, time necessary for composition, knowledge base, and sophistication necessary for writing the Book of Mormon. I further stated, “I don’t believe that Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, and Whitman, colossal writers that they were, together could have written the Book of Mormon. Further, I don’t believe that if all the scholars in the world in the mid-1820s had gathered in a large room and had had access to every extant book and manuscript and had a decade of work on it, that they could have written such a book. That is my seriously considered, scholarly opinion. There is simply too much that the book points to that no one in the nineteenth century knew or could have known.”10

I don’t by any means wish to suggest that questions about ancient inter-continental migrations, archeological artifacts, anthropological patterns, linguistic connections, biblical borrowings, nineteenth-century parallels, or DNA traces are irrelevant; indeed, I believe that any serious exploration of and about the Book of Mormon is legitimate. What I am suggesting is that what should have primacy in approaching this good book is the book itself, its narrative styles, rhetorical patterns, vocabulary, images, symbols, and allusions—and what all of these reveal about its essential, stated purpose—to be a witness of Jesus Christ in our time, to our world.

I bear witness that God’s truth and love are found in many places beyond Mormonism. One of the things I find most assuring and affirming in teaching at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley is how much my students enlighten me, expand my knowledge of our shared and sometimes unique sacred texts, and, at the same time, deepen my spiritual understanding, including my understanding of God and Christ. These are gifts from other believers that I cherish. As Rumi says,

We can’t help being thirsty.

Moving toward the voice of water
Milk drinkers draw close to the mother.
Muslims, Christians, Jews,
Buddhists, Hindus, Shamans—
Everyone hears the intelligent sound
And moves with thirst to meet it.11

As Coleman Barks, Rumi’s American translator, summarizes, “If you think there is an important difference between a Muslim and a Jew and a Christian and a Buddhist and a Hindu and a Shamanist then you are making a division between your heart and your ability to act in the world.”12 While I believe there are important differences between what I believe and what others believe, I do not want there to be a division between what my heart knows and how I act in the world. So I believe that in spite of important differences, what is at the heart of every religion is not different—that the highest form of worship is to love God with all of our hearts, minds, and souls and to love others as we would want to be loved. Wherever we find these practices, we find fellowship.

There are many other things to which I could testify, but perhaps these will suffice for this purpose.


1“To a Friend, on Her Examination for the Doctorate in English,” The poems of J.V. Cunningham, ed. and with an introduction and commentary by Timothy Steele (Athens, Ohio : Swallow Press, 1997), 27.
2Robert A. Rees, “Monologues and Dialogues,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 20:2 (Summer 1987)
3“Immortality,” The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Concord Edition. Vol. 5 (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Co., 1904).
4Pat Reavy, “Elizabeth’s life a ‘miracle’,” Deseret News,; accessed 20 April 2012. See also, Alex Tresniowski, “The Miracle Girl,” People Magazine,,20139640,00.html; accessed 20 April 2012.
5“’House of horror’ children never saw daylight,”, accessed 20 April 2012.
6Robert A. Rees, “The Cost of Credulity: Mormon Urban Legends and the War on Terror,” Sunstone 144 (Dec. 2006),
7Notebook, 1904,; accessed 23 April 2012.
8; accessed 20 April 2012.
9Introduction to “Corinthians,” Pocket Canon Bible (New York: Grove Press, 1999), xii.
10Robert A. Rees, “Joseph Smith, The Book of Mormon and the American Renaissance,” Dialogue 35:3 (Fall 2002), 83-112.
11In Bill Moyers, The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 57.
12As quoted in Bill Moyers, The Language of Life, Season 1, Episode 2, “Love’s Confusing Joy,” PBS television program directed by David Grubin; original broadcast 23 June 1995. Available in DVD.


Robert A. Rees (Ph.D., University of Wisconsin) is an educator, scholar, and poet.

Dr. Rees has taught at a number of universities, including the University of Wisconsin; the University of California at Los Angeles, or UCLA (for twenty-five years); the University of California at Santa Cruz; (as a Fulbright professor) at Vytautaus Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania; and the California State Universities at Northridge and Los Angeles. He has lectured at universities in China, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Kaliningrad, and has been a visiting scholar at the Centers for Arts and Humanities at Claremont Graduate University. Currently, he teaches religion at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

Professor Rees has extensive experience in international education. He established and was the Director of Studies for three UCLA Extension programs in England—with Cambridge University and with the Royal Colleges of Art and Music. He was also involved in education initiatives in London, Paris, and the former Soviet Union, and led two delegations of distinguished American writers to China.

In 1998 he was named Director of Education and Humanities at the Institute of HeartMath in Boulder Creek, California.

Dr. Rees has served as bishop of the Los Angeles 1st Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and he and his wife Ruth served as education, humanitarian, and service missionaries in the Saint Petersburg Russia and Baltic States missions of the LDS Church. In October 1992, Dr. Rees and his wife became the first LDS Church missionaries to work in Lithuania after the fall of the Soviet Union.

For the past twenty years, he has been active in humanitarian and interfaith work. He was Director of Humanitarian Services for Deseret International Charities in the Baltics (1994-96), President of the University Religious Council at UC Santa Cruz (1998-2000), and a member of the Santa Cruz Interfaith Council (1998-2001). Currently he serves on the Advisory Board of S.A.F.E. (Save African Families Enterprise), a non-profit organization providing antiviral drugs to HIV-positive pregnant women in Zimbabwe. He is also a founding member and vice president of the Liahona Children’s Foundation, an organization that provides nutrition and education to children in the developing world, and serves as a director of the New Spectrum Foundation.

From 1971 to 1976, he was the second editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.

Posted April 2012