“Shuddering Before the Beautiful”: Trains of Thought Across the Mormon Cosmos
If then th’ Astronomers, whereas they spie
A new-found Starre, their Opticks magnifie,
How brave are those, who with their Engine, can
Bring man to heaven, and heaven againe to man?
If you take the Green Line from the Salt Lake City International Airport to the Temple Square TRAX station downtown, you’ll be within walking distance of the Salt Lake Temple. If you decide to venture onto the temple grounds and cast your eyes up its lofty spires and battlements, the castle-like exterior will reveal a host of astronomical markings: sunstones, moonstones, Earth stones, and even Saturn stones adorn its granite face. Most captivating for me as a teenager—a starry-eyed wannabe scientist and scrupulously obedient Mormon—was the Big Dipper on the western face of the temple’s central tower. The seven stone stars are positioned so Dubhe and Merak, the two end stars of the cup, align toward Polaris, the North Star, just as they do in the night sky—an elegant tethering of Earth to heaven.
The architect of the temple, Truman O. Angell, said he included the Big Dipper to remind Mormons that the lost might find their way by the aid of the priesthood, the power of God given to men to do his work. When I was a teen, my exclusion from this priesthood—as a female—did not consciously bother me. But I did long for knowledge, for understanding, and yes, even for power: the power to heal the sick, to baptize the living, to raise the dead.
I was also excited to find out what exactly happened in the upper echelons of our temples, where many of my faith’s most sacred ordinances and rituals are held. Before they go on full-time church missions or marry in the temple, Mormons are expected to attend a ceremony called the Endowment, where they receive additional spiritual instruction and make covenants with God. Church leaders forbid members to disclose the details of this ceremony outside the temple, so I didn’t know what covenants I was expected to make. However, we were encouraged to learn about the temples, so to prepare, I consumed Hugh Nibley’s 1992 tome Temple and Cosmos. Nibley taught at Brigham Young University and was highly respected in Mormon circles as a scholar of ancient cultures and as a prolific—if esoteric—apologist for Mormonism.
In Temple and Cosmos, I learned that templum originally referred to any consecrated space. A Roman augur, or prophet, would find an open space and, with his staff, scratch an encircled cross into the ground, the urbs quadrata. With this earthy compass, the prophet could establish the precise direction in which prophetic birds flew. He’d wait at the point of origin between the cardo (N/S line) and the decumanus (E/W line), and he’d record when these winged messengers came, or failed to come. He’d then use these signs from heaven to understand the universe and his place in it. Nibley saw this practice as a parallel for modern temple worship, and I was enchanted with the idea. The temple was the faithful Mormon’s urbs quadrata, a place to get my bearings, the ultimate spiritual coordinate system.
Brigham Young, second prophet of the Mormon Church after Joseph Smith, also knew a thing or two about coordinates. An inspired planner, he oriented entire cities around the Salt Lake Temple. One block north of the temple was 100 North, one block east 100 East, and so on. I always knew how far away the temple was. My home in Sandy, Utah, was about 11 blocks east and 110 blocks south, at the foot of Lone Peak. Looking westward across the valley, I could see the Jordan River Temple, the temple where eventually I would promise to give myself to my husband and he would promise to receive me. At night the white glow from its one massive spire acted as a beacon of peace and hope—and a literal beacon for airplanes flying toward the Salt Lake airport.
My best friend, Brent, lived up the street. On Sundays, he made the clock tick a little faster and the hard beige chair seem a little softer as we talked and laughed—quietly—and on weekday mornings he forced me to listen to Counting Crows and Third Eye Blind as we drove to high school. We competed fiercely for the top grades in our classes, and he usually beat me. I especially appreciated his friendship because it was difficult for me to connect with other girls in my neighborhood/church/school, whose primary focus seemed to be attracting boys and preparing for marriage and families. But who wanted to talk cosmetics when you could talk about the cosmos? What are boys to black holes? If only God could tell me what lay beyond the event horizon! As I studied The Book of Abraham, a text Joseph Smith said he had translated from ancient Egyptian papyri, I grew wistful. Why couldn’t the Almighty give me a vision like he’d given Abraham, a glorious revelation of all God’s creations—including the prophesied existence of a planet named Kolob, a planet “nigh unto the throne of God”? Wasn’t I, like Abraham, a seeker of greater happiness, righteousness, and knowledge? How long would it take before I proved myself worthy? It didn’t seem right that I had to wait so much longer than my male friends and leaders for heavenly power, knowledge, and connection, just because I was female.
I wrote page after page—hundreds of pages—in my scripture journals. I often copied scriptures like the monks of old, as if doing so would cause new meaning to spring from the words. At the same time, I read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and other science books whose vocabulary captivated me: accretion disk, Schwarzschild radius, singularity. In class, a friend called me a “space dork” for passionately describing this new information about the universe; after that, I tried to curb my enthusiasm in public. But privately, as Mark Twain once wrote in a letter, I yelped astronomy like a sun dog and pawed Ursa Major and other constellations. My neighborhood seemed small for my ambitions, and I began to chafe under rigid gender expectations.
Still, science conveniently seemed to confirm many of my religious beliefs. When new studies showed that beams of light could physically move small particles of matter, I considered it “proof” that Joseph Smith’s many heavenly visitors, who were often described as arriving in glowing pillars of light, knew how to ride the light rail, too. (Among these visitors were Adam, Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and Elias from the Old Testament; Peter, James, John, and Paul from the New Testament; Nephi, Mormon, Alma, and Moroni from the Book of Mormon; and, in the 1820 vision that started it all, God the Father and Jesus Christ.) My Sunday School teacher, a chemist, once said, “Of course Jesus could walk on water! He knew how to manipulate surface tension. If he wanted to, he could walk through walls by rearranging the empty space in atoms.” In 1992, scientists detected the pulsar Lich; it was not the first pulsar ever discovered, but it was the first observed instance of Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting another star. Maybe we weren’t crazy after all for believing in the planet Kolob or believing that God would eventually give to the righteous, as gods themselves in the afterlife, the power to create their own stars and planets. The first planet I would create, I decided one Sunday, would have variable gravity so I could hike up the highest mountain, throw myself off the top, and float gently back to the ground. I didn’t see my projected ascension to godhood and the creation of these new worlds as greedy, blasphemous, or delusional; I saw it as the natural birthright of God’s children, like a son inheriting his father’s business. It was a promise extended to anyone willing to come unto Christ—even women and (after 1978) anyone of any skin color.
Science and religion went hand in hand in many other ways. One of Joseph Smith’s revelations said that the elements are eternal, which meant Mormons had no quarrel with the law of conservation of energy and generally rejected the ex nihilo creation doctrine many other Christians believed. (We were flexible on the definition of a “day,” too, in the creation story, so the accepted geological age of the Earth, as defined by isotope-studying geologists, never clashed with Genesis; seven “days” might mean 4.5 billion years.) Neither did Mormons object to a universe filled with increasing disorder, as defined by the second law of thermodynamics, which says that any ordered system tends to dissolve into chaos over time. Hugh Nibley testified in Temple and Cosmos that it was only through Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection that we could ultimately be saved from this degenerative process of entropy. God was the Creator, but he had to live by his own laws, too, so the idea of science opposing our religion seemed laughable.
And if non-Mormon archeologists hadn’t found incontrovertible evidence proving that the Book of Mormon was a true record from ancient American inhabitants, that was okay—maybe the archeologists were looking in the wrong places, or maybe God wanted us to live by faith and not evidence. The Book of Mormon itself contained multiple warnings for those who questioned God and demanded proof of gospel truths. In one epic confrontation, Korihor, an anti-Christ, goads the prophet Alma:
And now Korihor said unto Alma: If thou wilt show me a sign, that I may be convinced that there is a God, yea, show unto me that he hath power, and then will I be convinced of the truth of thy words.
But Alma said unto him: Thou hast had signs enough; will ye tempt your God? Will ye say, Show unto me a sign, when ye have the testimony of all these thy brethren, and also all the holy prophets? The scriptures are laid before thee, yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator. (Alma 30:43–44)
The very grandeur and complexity of the cosmos—despite its degenerative and destructive nature—bore witness of God’s power, before I had ever heard anything about teleological arguments, watchmakers, or David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Any argument against the existence of God meant that someone was looking for trouble and an excuse to sin. Doubt was the foil of faith, sent from the devil to weaken and confuse us. Already struck mute by Alma’s God-given power, Korihor goes begging for food and is trampled to death by a random throng of Zoramites. The lesson is clear: those who doubt, look out.
But I had few doubts in those days. (Too few, I think, which made my eventual disillusionment even more painful.) When my faith was challenged with new scientific information—new for me, anyway—Mormonism acted like the semipermeable membrane of a cell: the new information was either allowed to pass and assimilate into my worldview, or it was rejected as untrue and banned from being investigated further. The theory of human evolution? Yes, it could enter, albeit with trouble, since the Church had no official position on evolution but still culturally claimed white-skinned Adam and Eve as the first common ancestors of all humans. And what about the assertion that homosexuality occurs naturally in humans and is not inherently evil? No, not a chance; the leaders had made themselves clear on that point, although they have recently softened this stance in the wake of so many teen suicides. When I rejected facts because of my faith, I brain-tagged the information with the extremely useful title of “anti-Mormon,” a label liberally applied to things or people I didn’t like or didn’t understand.
Such a label could easily be applied to people in other religions, too. One day, outside a Christian convention downtown, someone handed me a pamphlet. It was the first of many “anti-Mormon” pamphlets I would receive from people trying to save me from my religion. On this particular pamphlet was an image of Jesus, his eyes replaced by flames, and beneath it was the word sinner. I did not recognize this angry Jesus. Why should this fire-eyed god be upset with me if I were trying my best to follow his teachings? The Jesus I knew was based on Greg Olsen’s calm, quiet paintings: the Savior wore soft robes and expressions and held lambs as gently as newborns. In church movies, Jesus sat and laughed with children and coaxed large monarch butterflies to land on his shoulder. The only time my Jekyll Jesus went Hyde was when people started commercializing his temple.
I threw the pamphlet away without opening it.
In the summer of 2001, just before my senior year of high school, the Utah Transit Authority had almost finished building a second light-rail line, the Red Line, out to the University of Utah. A good bus route was still in place, however. Descending the steep bus steps, I marched into the university’s cosmic ray research department and, with all the confidence my seventeen-year-old self could muster, told the program manager why he should hire me as a summer intern. I suspect he was more amused than convinced, but he hired me on the spot. Day one, on the conference room whiteboard, he began an overview of the project and my assignment.
“Cosmic rays aren’t actually rays—”
“They’re tiny particles that hit the Earth,” I interjected, wanting so badly to please.
“Very good,” he said. “We’ll just have a quick review, then.” He proceeded to bombard me with information as I wrote furiously in the large brown notebook he had given me: ultra-high-energy protons and iron nuclei, extensive air shower arrays, Cherenkov radiation, pions with neutral charges decaying to photons, isotropic scattering, atmospheric fluorescence detectors, photomultiplier tubes, photoelectric effect, GZK cutoff, the 1991 Oh-My-God particle (Oh-My-Gosh particle, I autocorrected in my head).
I struggled to keep up, but I was filled with awe. These were the mysteries of the universe, unfolding before me! I was at the forefront of astrophysics research! The manager gave me a place in the Undergraduate Slum, a largish cubicle with a scattering of computers, programming books, half-empty coffee cups, and half-groggy interns. My task? Create a set of computer programs that would convert one geodetic, or Earth-based, coordinate system to another. The end goal of Geolib, as we called the program, was to help full-time cosmic ray researchers more easily use our data to determine where ultra-high-energy cosmic rays came from. We—I liked saying “we”—had theories that they came from supernovae, magnetic variable stars, quasars, or active galactic nuclei, the powerful radiation surrounding the supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies. Here was my big chance to connect heaven and Earth through the scientific templum.
Stan, my direct supervisor, took me outside later that day with a surveying unit, a plumb bob, and a GPS device. In geodesy and cartography, he told me, a fixed reference point is called a datum. I squinted at him in the bright sun, trying to squint knowingly. Azimuth and elevation; an east, north, up vector system; GPS coordinates; an XYZ coordinate system with an origin placed anywhere you wanted, augur-style—these were all geodetic datums I had to connect mathematically in my conversion program.
“Which coordinate system do we most need for the cosmic ray data?” I asked him, pretending to know what I was talking about. Stan reached up to readjust his giant tinted glasses.
“Depends on what you want to measure.”
Creating Geolib was not easy, but I did it. In my brown notebook, I drew many oblate ellipsoids skewered by various sets of axis lines without fully understanding what I was seeing. I actually used the trigonometry and pre-calculus I had learned in school. I tried to imagine what the Earth would look like as a geoid—a more accurate model of our bumpy, uneven planet—so we could measure surface elevations more precisely. I fell asleep on my keyboard trying to learn how to create an array of pointers in the C programming language. I ate an obscene number of Nutty Buddy bars. I asked the other undergraduates for help with partial differential equations and was frustrated by my inability to understand the math.
Whenever I’d banged my head against the mathematical wall for more than a few hours, I’d take my calculations to Stan’s cubicle. His desk was overflowing, mad scientist-like, with papers, folders, mugs with various levels of dark liquid, multiple computers, and assorted gizmos and gadgets, including a high-tech laser photometer. Stan was a conundrum: he’d never gotten a college degree, but he had worked for decades in astrophysics research for a reputable university; he was atheist, but he loved living in Utah. Sometimes we’d get sidetracked from our Geolib diagrams by intense dialogues about religion. I’d rib him about drinking coffee—forbidden to Mormons—and he’d retort that I was supposed to eat meat only in times of winter or famine, or didn’t I know my own Word of Wisdom scriptures? It turned out that Stan was technically one of those ex-Mormons I had been taught to fear, but he was not like any kind of anti-Christ Korihor I had pictured: Stan had refused to attend church at the ripe old age of eight, when he felt pressured to proclaim in front of the entire congregation that he knew the Church was true. He didn’t know, he said. He could believe, he could even want to believe, but he couldn’t know.
“But there are many ways of knowing something’s true,” I countered. I talked about how God sends powerful experiences and feelings to those who ask in faith. This is great missionary experience, I inwardly crowed, spiritually patting myself on the back.
“I thought you weren’t supposed to seek for signs,” Stan responded. “I thought you were supposed to live by faith.”
“Well, the scriptures tell us to search for truth, and God’s willing to open the door if we knock. But the more we know, the more we’re responsible for, so it’s really an act of mercy if he withholds something we’re not ready for. Milk before meat, and all that.”
“Whatever you say!” Stan replied cheerfully, lifting his ever-present coffee mug to his lips. “I’m vegan, so I don’t want milk or meat. I’ll stick with coffee, thanks.”
“You’re so frustrating, Stan!”
He just grinned. “I think you mean Sa-tan. Now, get back to work. You’re going to kick ass in college if you keep working this hard.”
A more pleasant apostate you will never, ever meet.
On my eighteenth birthday, one of my little sisters came clattering down the stairs to tell me that Paul, a boy from my physics class, was at the front door. I had begun to consider that black holes and boys were not mutually exclusive topics of interest after all, and I had developed a crush on him. Paul delivered two gifts: a burned CD of the NeverEnding Story soundtrack (Mormons love their cult classics) and a book by Richard Ingebretsen titled Joseph Smith and Modern Astronomy. I still have the book: the pages fall out no matter how lightly I try to turn them.
Ingebretsen was part of a cadre of Mormon science lovers who wrote books describing their grand unified theories of science and religion. These books were never official publications of the Church, but they still pervaded our discourse and occupied hallowed spaces on our bookshelves. “With his mind,” Ingebretsen decrees on page one, “Albert Einstein reasoned what Abraham had been told by God thousands of years before. It took science over 3,500 years and the superb intellect of Einstein to re-discover what Abraham knew.” I gobbled it up.
A few weeks later Paul kissed me, and a few months after that he broke up with me so he could focus on preparing for his mission, as good Mormon boys were supposed to do. We remained friends, but the incident made me feel as if I were a wicked distraction from his more important priesthood responsibilities. Black holes were safer and less mysterious than boys, I decided, and I threw myself at my college textbooks.
At the age of twenty-one, just before setting off on my own mission, I finally attended the Endowment session in the Jordan River Temple. More impatient than nervous, I entered the Endowment room, which looked like a small theater containing enough self-folding seats for least forty people. Women were directed to sit to the left of the central aisle, men to the right. I sat in the front row on a chair cushion the color of desert sage, which matched the floor-to-ceiling curtain at the front of the room. My mother, settling in beside me, was dressed as I was, in a long-sleeved white dress and white slippers. I wiggled my toes in the slippers; they made me feel like I had satin clouds attached to my feet.
A portly man dressed in a white suit stood calmly but unsmilingly at a simple altar in front of the enormous curtain. When everyone was settled, he pressed a few buttons to start the audio recording of the presentation. After a deep masculine voice announced the importance of the ceremony, the lights dimmed and a large screen at the front of the room descended. The video presentation of the creation story from Genesis was so beautiful I wept. Later, I would experience the same awe as I watched the new Cosmos series with Neil deGrasse Tyson and BBC’s Human Planet and Planet Earth II documentaries. They all shared sweeping landscapes, close-ups of flowers and animals, and music that created visceral physical responses down my spine and across my skin: a divine feeling, whether sent by a divinity or not. The Earth we have, lumpy and asymmetrical though it may be, is ours, the pale blue dot over which we can be better stewards.
A sense of overwhelming reverence is something both science and religion can provide. Both proffer to their acolytes the notion of the sublime, as preached by the Romantic poets. An eighteenth-century German philosopher and gardening enthusiast, Christian Hirschfeld, defined the sublime as seeing our own potential in the grandeur of nature and its many landscapes, which are outward symbols of our many inward human realities. The poet William Wordsworth considered the sublime to be the mind trying to “grasp at something towards which it can make approaches but which it is incapable of attaining,” a mood where mystery’s burdens and “the heavy and the weary weight / Of all this unintelligible world, / Is lightened.” This is the mood I have felt in singing praises to God, scanning poetry, snuggling with pets and people, studying planets. In his book Truth and Beauty, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, an Indian American astrophysicist who won the 1983 Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on the physical configuration and evolution of stars, also wrote of the human need to search for the sublime:
This “shuddering before the beautiful,” this incredible fact that a discovery motivated by a search after the beautiful in mathematics should find its exact replica in Nature, persuades me to say that beauty is that to which the human mind responds at its deepest and most profound.
The subsequent parts of the Endowment ceremony were less awe-inspiring for me. Painful childbirth and patriarchy (Genesis 3:16) seemed a heavy price for Eve’s sin of eating a piece of fruit in search of knowledge. Hand in hand, Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden into a lone and dreary world with the promise that if they were obedient, they could return to God’s presence.
The white screen ascended back into its slot in the ceiling, and we were asked to put on special temple attire over our clothes, each item signifying spiritual progress toward God in some way. It was strange, but I clung to what my grandma had said the day she purchased my temple clothes for me: whenever I donned the symbolic temple clothing, she said, she wanted me to feel wrapped in God’s love and her love. When prompted by the masculine voice, I bowed my head and covenanted to be faithful to my church and its teachings. If I broke those covenants, I risked losing my place with my family in the afterlife. We were then allowed to pass by a curtain into the Celestial Room, which contained a glorious three-tiered chandelier and stately chairs and couches fresh out of a high-end furniture magazine. Copies of the scriptures, tissue boxes, and impressive flower arrangements stood on ornate end tables. We were encouraged to reflect on the ceremony, to commune with God in private prayer, and to whisper if we needed to speak to others. I felt relieved we could sit by the male members of our families again.
Slightly disappointed by the ceremony but still wanting to share the sublimity I had felt, I set off on my mission. As a Spanish-speaking missionary in Toronto, I often talked to passengers on subways and buses: a captive audience. It was my first step into the wider world, and how wide it was! On just one bus ride I’d talk to immigrants from China, Peru, Ghana, Ukraine, Mexico, and Afghanistan. Our mission president asked us to visit Spanish-speaking church members who had fallen away and invite them back to the fold, and in our missionary lessons with them in their homes, I often used an analogy: if a train is heading to the place you want to go, and a fellow passenger steps on your toe, are you going to get off in a huff and deny yourself your destination? If the Mormon Church is the train, heading toward eternal happiness, why would you ever disembark?
I had many faith-affirming experiences, but some moments were terribly destabilizing, the kind of feeling you get when your subway car breaks down in the tunnel and the lights flicker on and off. Late one afternoon, my mission companion and I were out knocking doors through a neighborhood of run-down townhouses. I had fasted all day in the summer heat to be worthy enough to find someone who would listen to us, and I was weak from hunger and thirst. We noticed a man in a black turban walking by; we gave him a card for our free English class but did not try to engage him in conversation. We had just started talking to some teenagers in a driveway when a woman came barreling out of the house, screaming that she was a proper Christian and ordering us off her property.
We apologized and immediately crossed to the other side of the street. Shaken, in tears, I was trying to compose myself when the man in the turban came back and said, in excellent English, that he had seen what happened. He kindly invited us to dinner with his family. His smiling wife greeted us at the door and introduced us to their young son. The small apartment boasted little fancy furniture but was clean. The family had emigrated from the Middle East, and together, at a low table, we ate basmati rice, vegetables, and fruit. They were not interested in our religion, but their kindness demonstrated a principle that religion teaches better than science: to show goodness and mercy where none is required. The son shyly showed us his detailed Basmalah calligraphy, which formed an image of a child praying. As we thanked them for their generosity at the door, the boy gave me the drawing.
The incident troubled me: of course I knew there was goodness elsewhere in the world, outside Utah, outside Mormonism, but here was a family who didn’t need what I was offering, a family—and the thought felt blasphemous—who didn’t need saving. Throughout all the years that followed—returning from my mission, kneeling at the altar with my husband, Andrew, in the Jordan River Temple, graduating in English instead of Physics, editing science books and articles, giving birth to my son (all the while cursing Eve’s curse), moving from country to country for Andrew’s work—I kept the boy’s picture.
In thinking of all the people I have met, I find it difficult to lock down any philosophical axiom concerning science and religion. I can do so only from my very particular—some may consider it singular—point of view and set of circumstances. The more stories we hear, however, the more I believe we will begin to see guiding constellations in the metaphysical sky.
I have recently been fascinated by Isaac Newton and his particular circumstances. Abandoned by his mother at the behest of his new stepfather, Newton spent hours alone on his grandmother’s farm creating makeshift sundials. In his solitude, as James Gleick said, Newton made knowledge “a thing of substance: quantitative and exact.” Newton’s epitaph, written by Alexander Pope, is most fitting:
Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night:
God said, “Let Newton be!” and All was Light.
When he was nineteen, Newton meticulously catalogued his sins, one of which was “Wishing death and hoping it to some.” Despite his sins, he believed he had been chosen by God to interpret the Bible, so he spent more time trying to find hidden meaning in the scriptures than trying to decipher the physical universe. One of my science writing students this past year argued that Newton would have accomplished much more had he not been so isolated in his religious pride. To play devil’s—or maybe heaven’s?—advocate, I countered with the idea that maybe Newton’s religious beliefs had actually given him the drive and focus to discover the laws of nature. We can only conjecture.
We may even find that there need be no quarrel at all between some aspects previously regarded as sore points between science and religion. As Alan Guth, an American theoretical cosmologist, said, “The big bang theory is not really a theory of a bang at all. It is really only a theory of the aftermath of a bang …. But the standard big bang theory says nothing about what banged, why it banged, or what happened before it banged.” Georges Lemaître, who first proposed the idea of the Big Bang, was not only an astronomer and a professor of physics but also a Catholic priest, and in the past few years, Pope Francis has openly supported the Big Bang theory and evolution, as well as the need to combat climate change. Our primary war is not against science or religion; it is against the forces of nature, including human nature, that diminish our capacity to feel the sublime in its many incarnations.
I had the chance to visit Hugh Nibley himself shortly before he died in February 2005. He was lying on a bed in his living room, propped up by pillows. Books lay all around him, on his bed and in stacks on the floor. My old friend Paul, who accompanied me, asked Nibley if the Mormon Church was true. Nibley’s answer, on his deathbed, was the same phrase Mormons use to describe their belief in the Christian Bible: “As far as it is translated correctly.” As I look back now, Nibley’s riddle-like answer seems laced with sadness, as if the birds of the heavens were not as reliable as he wanted them to be.
In 2013, my little family of three moved to Montreal for Andrew’s work, and we were quickly and lovingly integrated into a wonderful congregation. But two decades of studying Mormon doctrine and how it was practiced began to cause friction between my desire to be honest and my desire to by loyal. After investing so much in Mormonism, it was uncomfortable for me to realize how many members and leaders of the Church had, Newton-like, taken their personal translations of the scriptures and were preaching them as doctrine over the pulpit. I was also frustrated by the impotency I felt as a female leader in the Church. After practicing job interviews with the young women in my congregation, I was chastised for not focusing enough on teaching the girls to become dutiful wives and mothers. I was willing to stay in the church and fight this gender war, however, and I began meeting with my bishop and other male leaders to try to explain how benevolent sexism was still sexism, and still harmful. They listened patiently but told me they could change nothing.
That July, in a small town three hours east of our apartment, a train accident caused massive explosions, killing forty-seven people. The news unfurled images of giant plumes of black smoke, billowing mushroom balls of flame, and people shouting, “Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu!” as those behind the camera alternately ran toward the inferno for a better view and ran away in terror. We learned that the engineer had parked the train, seventy-four cars long and carrying millions of liters of petroleum crude oil, on an incline in Nantes, seven miles from Lac-Mégantic. Unfortunately, he did not set enough hand brakes on the cars, and the gravity of the incline overcame the friction of the brakes. The unattended train picked up speed as it went, and finally derailed at a curve in Lac-Mégantic. About half of the buildings in the area were destroyed, and nearly all the remaining buildings had to be demolished because of petroleum contamination.
Only months later, my own spiritual engine set out on a crash course to the center of my soul. My concerns about gender inequality, a God who sanctioned polygamy but not homosexuality, and doctrinal inconsistencies in our scriptures became more important than my fear of spiritual and social consequences. The last hand brake broke when I read In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith, by Mormon historian Todd Compton, which derailed my faith in Joseph Smith altogether and—although I neither expected nor desired this outcome—my faith in God.
In January 2014, I visited the Palmyra Temple in New York with my husband. The temple overlooks the Sacred Grove, where Joseph Smith said he saw God. Inside the Celestial Room, sitting on the white couches under a white chandelier, as light streamed in from the glass windows, Andrew and I decided to leave the faith. We left the temple hand in hand, ready to face the lone and dreary world together.
The sudden vertigo caused by this decision was almost Copernican in nature for me—that is, leaving Mormonism was like believing that Earth is the center of the universe, then suddenly discovering it is an uneven chunk of rock rotating, as physicist Richard Feynman said, like a spit in front of a great fire. Comforting certainty has been replaced with ambiguity and nuance. Some of my friends and family believe I’m lost in my intellectual pride, deceived by the devil, and destined to be punished for seeking out the fruit of forbidden knowledge. When I called my dear high school friend Brent on the phone, fearful he had also shut his heart against me, we talked earnestly for five hours, and I felt nothing but compassion from him; he then showed it by flying out to Montreal with his wife to visit us. Other family members have also loved us through the whole ordeal, as have friends who revealed they had left the faith long ago but hadn’t told anyone for fear of social retribution. I am fortunate to still feel wrapped in my grandmother’s love. It takes time to put out the fires, clean up the mess, and rebuild, but we are doing it.
In July 2015, I e-mailed Stan to say I was flying in to give a presentation at the University of Utah on my new anthology of essays by twelve Mormon—and formerly Mormon—women. I told Stan I’d love to see him while I was there, and he was one of the first in line at our book signing. After the presentation, I asked to see my old cubicle in the Undergraduate Slum, which hadn’t changed much in a decade. Over cups of coffee and meatless salads for lunch, Stan told me that Geolib was still being used by researchers to convert one set of coordinates to another, and that the programs had been very helpful to them through the years. Something settled in me when I heard this. I wasn’t a world-renowned scientist, but I had contributed. Now, teaching astronomy and science writing to students in Nicaragua, I find great meaning in sharing the current knowledge we have about the cosmos. The school roof, where we host our star parties, has become my new templum. As I align the crosshairs of our school telescope on Jupiter, or Saturn, or Venus, or other planets named after gods, I feel tethered to heaven in a new way. That optical “Engine” of the astronomers, as John Donne calls it, is my students’ conduit to the heavens, an axis mundi as meaningful and as centering as the pagan Callanish stones of Scotland, a Mount Meru mandala from China, the unit circle on a Cartesian plane, or a Christian cruciform halo.
The fact that Polaris will not always be our North Star seems deeply symbolic to me now. Because of axial precession—the slight wobble of Earth’s axis—over the next thousand years, Polaris will gradually be dethroned, and Gamma Cephei, a star in the constellation Cepheus, will take its place as the North Star. The Big Dipper on the Salt Lake Temple will look strange and out of season. Constellations will change. The Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxies will merge. The firmament, in both the physical and metaphysical sense, is not firm after all.
Emerson once said, “There are no fixtures in nature. The universe is fluid and volatile. Permanence is but a word of degrees.” I find a strange stability in the idea that nothing is stable or fixed—not the stars, not even the universe itself. As uncomfortable as uncertainty is, it begets a healthy humility and the need to acknowledge margins of error in all our calculations, in all areas of life. Uncertainty can inspire us to keep searching for answers.
I now draw my own urbs quadrata from which to measure and gauge the universe, but birds that have lost their prophetic gifts are nevertheless respected and appreciated. Although Mormonism is no longer my system of orientation, I still love my people, and I applaud and support their belief in the Jesus of lambs and butterflies. The world will be a better place for it. Despite our theological differences, we are aligned in purpose as we train our eyes on the heavens—to seek out the sublime, the things we both fear and adore, and to share our shuddering with a world in great need of both humility and inspiration.