Put Away Our Telescopes? Not a Chance! The Heavens are Calling.

From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth,

From the laziness that is content with half-truths,

From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,

Oh God of Truth, deliver us.

     ~ Ancient Prayer

IN 1633, THE ROMAN INQUISITION CHARGED Galileo Galilei with heresy. His crime? Entertaining the notion that the sun “does not move from east to west, and that the earth does move, and is not the center of the world,” and for espousing a theory deemed “false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scripture.”

Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 2.58.36 PMWhile Galileo didn’t invent the heliocentric model of the universe, he discovered plenty of evidence for it. His own powerful telescopes were showing him things never before encountered, and mathematical reasoning confirmed what others, like Copernicus, had been saying. To a rational mind, there was no denying the soundness of the astronomer’s conclusion, but it was an inconvenient truth, to say the least, in an age where burning heretics, not fossil fuels, contributed most to global warming.

To be fair, scientists and philosophers, not just the Church, opposed him. But it was the Church with the power to coerce and intimidate. As the sole mediator of rites essential to salvation, God’s priestly representatives could strip Galileo of his eternal salvation. What could man do more?

I can imagine Galileo’s family and friends pleading with him to stop studying the heavens. It’s dangerous, they must have said. Put away your telescope.

Inquisitive Latter-day Saints hear that, too. Why study the night sky when its constellations have already been named, catalogued, and described in our Church-approved manuals? Why look at the heavens when Deseret Book publishes thousands of titles on Astronomy? There’s no need to look for yourself. And it could be dangerous: You could lose faith in the truthfulness of the Star Map. Put away your telescope.

And yet, like Galileo, the urge to know the truth by our own experience, to understand what’s really out there, compels us to look for ourselves. So we look. And then we begin to understand why there was so much institutional hand-wringing over what we might find.

We’re discovering some stars in the night sky that don’t correspond to the official Star Maps we’ve been issued at Church. Certain constellations have been left off the official charts, and it appears that some stars have even been redrawn to suggest patterns that aren’t present in a clear reading of the starry sky. Not only that, but those who’ve traveled far and wide report that what we see printed on our Star Maps constitutes only one perspective, from a Northern line of latitude, and that skywatchers in the Southern Hemisphere see an entirely different set of stars. The discrepancies are not easily dismissed.

We are confused.

We hear leaders telling us not to trust our own eyesight, to doubt our faculties of reason. We hear apologists pat us on the head and explain that there’s really no contradiction between what we’re seeing in our telescopes and what’s on our official Star Maps. Then we go to Church and hear people bearing testimony of the Star Map. And we sing, Praise to the Cartographer. And what we hear most of all is that we shouldn’t be looking through our own telescopes in the first place, but instead should exercise faith that the Star Map is True.

That last point prompts me to ask: Should we have testimonies of the Star Map and its Cartographers? Or should we have direct encounters with the Heavens they attempt to describe? Isn’t it rather like going to a restaurant and worshipping the menu instead of savoring the food?

Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 3.18.39 PMI’VE BEEN AIMING MY OWN TELESCOPE at the spectacular cosmos that is Mormonism, collapsing its distance, but until recently I’ve been reluctant to share an honest account of what I’ve seen. For one thing, I realize my view is filtered through a particular lens, shaped by my personal and cultural biases, faulty reasoning powers, and limited perception. For another, I haven’t wanted to force anyone to look through the telescope with me, believing it’s the prerogative of each person to decide if and when they look for themselves. But mostly, it’s fear that has kept me–and so many like me–from giving an honest report of our experience. We stand much to lose by admitting that we see things differently. We are branded as arrogant, faithless, deluded, disloyal, and dangerous.

I get it. I’ve been there myself. By discrediting a person, we don’t have to grapple with the questions he or she raises. And when our most crucial claim as an institution is that we’re right about everything, it’s simply not permissible to allow someone to suggest we may be wrong about anything. The community protects itself from the vulnerability of uncertainty by marginalizing anyone who doesn’t reinforce their sense of certainty. And if there’s one thing out of which we Mormons fashion a Golden Calf, it’s our personal and collective certainty.

Fortunately, astronomical charts can be redrawn to more closely reflect reality. At the institutional level, curriculum and resources are being re-written to acknowledge some of the more egregious discrepancies between our traditional narratives and more honest tellings. No doubt, this change comes as the Church is hoping to earn back the trust of those who have been far more more troubled by the lack of openness than they are by a clear reading of the stars. I applaud this forthrightness for its own sake, and am persuaded that whenever institutions resist transparency they will lose credibility with Millennials for whom unrestricted access to information is seen as a birthright.

Call me crazy, but I still find value in those Star Maps. They fire my spiritual imagination. They bestow a mythic power on our collective narrative. And the awe they’ve instilled in me over so many years has become the prime motivator for me to seek my own direct, unmediated experience with the Universe.

Put away our telescopes? Not a chance. The Heavens are calling!


Want to discuss? Share your thoughts and your experiences here, or start your own conversation among friends by sharing this essay with someone else.

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14 thoughts on “Put Away Our Telescopes? Not a Chance! The Heavens are Calling.

  1. Jonathan Cannon

    Keep sharing. Mormonism has so much richness. It would be a shame to not have all the voices that show that richness speaking out.

    (Side note: I’m unaware of apologists who are salaried to do apologetics. The ones I’m aware of all are paid for other things and do apologetics on the side. Spending time on apologetics is more likely to harm their salaries than help them–even the BYU professors.)


    1. lonyoung1973 Post author

      Jonathan, thank you for affirming the need for a big tent and an open mic! I’m grateful for your point about most apologists making unsponsored contributions. I’ve removed the modifier “salaried” from the essay, because I think you’re right.


    2. Steve Lowther

      In that especially BYU professors are required to show ecclesiastical loyalty, I simply do not follow how reaffirming their allegiance through the extracurricular activity of apologetics could in any way harm their salaries. That is unless in their research they discover their allegiance is misplaced.


  2. Lance M.

    Great article and analogy! Loved it. Be outspoken…you’ll soon see who your true friends are, sadly.


    1. lonyoung1973 Post author

      Thanks, Lance. I’ve seen both the best and worst of human nature at play. I try to remind myself that some are pulling away to protect themselves from feeling insecurity and cognitive dissonance. But, yes, it’s not easy to be marginalized, and authenticity bears both bitter fruit and sweet. One or two friends have been rock stars of acceptance. And as I’ve felt more inner peace, I think it’s translating to less friction. What’s your experience been like?


  3. marilynsandperl

    Well said and beautifully written! I loved reading this post! As a Jew who lived in Utah for 17 years, my view through the lens probably comes from a different perspective. However, I understand about grappling with discrepancies.


      1. marilynsandperl

        I haven’t. The writing process is painful and slow for me. I’d much rather read my husband’s, yours, Michael’s or Jennifer’s!!! (But maybe it just needs to percolate a bit more, and when it’s ready, it will all come flowing out.)


  4. BMWmama

    We stand much to lose by admitting that we see things differently. We are branded as arrogant, faithless, deluded, disloyal, and dangerous. This sentence……I love it and simultaneously reject it! And maybe what I would suspect helped form it within you is the most outstanding reason I probably wouldn’t enjoy living in Utah. My path as a follower of Christ through the LDS church has been formed by being a convert, growing up in Sin City, following natural parenting, homeschooling, living in other countries. I have never been umbrella’d under conventional or cultural mormonism. I don’t know if that was just the way it was, or if I just subconsciously eluded it. Nonetheless, I can see that openly questioning all things could be as you describe. Because I don’t describe it that way, or at least not in the home I have created, I don’t agree. I guess I asked myself, not just one day but over time, if all things point to God, or if all things will be brought together under Christ, and also, if every knee shall bow and every tongue confess….well, then why stress so much and bow to the mighty throne of cultural mormonism?! BUT maybe I love that is all those things! After all, opposition is more often than not a blinking neon sign of a sign that I am doing the right thing because I am not a sheep! Anyhow, glad at least you and yours and me and mine are probably raising children and influencing those around is that we gotta keep looking and questioning those stars.


  5. Pingback: Postcards from a Spiritual Journey: Postcard #5 | Buddha in the Beehive

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