Monday, March 14, 2016

An open letter to an atheist friend

Note: This is sort of an a-typical post. Hope you enjoy it anyway.

First, you have to know that I have a sense that there is a deep, ebullient laugh at the heart of existence, a joyous, radiant love that overcomes all hatred and anger and failure. God, as I understand Him, might weep a while with and for us and then smile, knowing that there is a power sufficient to overcome every hurt, a grace so luminous and abiding that it will ultimately banish darkness and despair forever. The scriptures offer a depiction of God as a Father so loving that no rebellion will not be forgiven and forgotten in the expansive embrace of forgiveness and generosity. There is the story of the prodigal son, who wishes his father dead, takes his inheritance and wastes his existence. When he returns home miserable and hungry, the father sees him afar off and runs to him, weeping and embracing and then offers him a ring, a robe, a fatted calf, and a place in his home (see Luke 15:11-24). That seems like a fitting depiction of God. Or there is the story of David and Absalom. David forgives his son for murdering his brother (after a woman has told David that God devises means to bring home His banished—actively looks for any excuse to forgive and restore, see 2 Samuel 14:14). After the forgiveness, Absalom raises an army to depose, dethrone, and destroy his father. When Absalom dies, David mourns passionately (see 2 Samuel 18:33). Again, this seems to be a reflection of true fatherhood, which is embodied in God the Father. All this is to say that for all you fight against God and mock and belittle, I sense that He will always love you. And I imagine He is not worried too much about—nor threatened at all by—your vitriol and froth.

Have you ever heard of Pascal’s wager? Blaise Pascal was a French physicist and mathematician in the 17th Century. He became a convert to Christianity when his rationalistic worldview became inadequate to his experiences. He was a great philosopher and thinker. His wager is essentially this: There are two possibilities with regard to God—either He exists or He does not. And there are two ways to live this life—as if there is a God, or as if there is not. Because faith depends on the possibility of God’s absence, there will not be sufficient evidence to effectively prove one possibility or the other, either God’s existence or His non-existence. So we get to choose how to live life in that space of unknowing. Pascal says essentially that if he were a betting man, he would live as if God exists because if God does exist and you live as if He does, you get the peace, joy, hope, and comfort living with God in the world offers (I’ll show you some scientific research on this later) AND you get the eternal happiness that comes from having developed a relationship with God. But if you live as if God does not exist and it turns out that He does, you not only miss out on the radiant life that God offers in mortality, you also miss out on an eternity of blessedness. If it turns out God does not exist, just eliminate the second half of each of those sentences.

I recently came across this poem that captures some of my feelings on the matter. It’s by an LDS poet named James Goldberg, and it’s called “Let me drown with Moses”:

If these walls of water fall, O Lord,
let me drown with Moses.

And let me praise you with my final breath
for lending me his mad, prophetic dream
for letting me wander out past the edge of this world
beside a man who could see all the glory of Egypt
and still say it wasn’t enough.

If these walls of water fall, O Lord,
let me drown with Moses.
Yes, let me die with the same fire in my eyes
Moses saw in a desert bush.

The essence of the poem is that even if following a prophet into the middle of the Red Sea ends in death, it was a thrill and a privilege to be a part of the great bright adventure of belief in a new world, in other possibilities. The prophet offers a new and glistening way to view existence, a reality riddled with hidden joys and miraculous light. I feel the same sense of gratitude and wonder. Did you ever read the novel or watch the film Life of Pi? It’s a wrestle with God, an attempt to find meaning in life. There are two possibilities: Either Pi has an outrageous, unlikely experience with a tiger on a boat, or he does not. And the novel asks the question, “Which story do you prefer?” Ultimately, it’s a story about believing in improbable and beautiful things. I prefer the story with the tiger, honestly, to a limited, lightless view of a reality constrained to what I can explain in words. With Pascal, I’ll put my wager on God, and hold on for the ride.

Atheism, like theism, is unprovable and unproven. Atheism is a solid faith in the absence of God. Rationally-speaking, it is not superior to faith in God. Science has absolutely nothing to say about the absence or the existence of God. And your claim that “94% of all the scientists in the U.S. are atheists” is simply not true. According to the most recent Pew survey on this, more than half of American scientists believe in God or a higher power, and 95% of all Americans so believe ( But God’s existence has never been contingent on people’s belief, so this is no solid argument either way.

Most of the “scientific” certainty that would seem to deny the existence of God might more appropriately be called parascience or pseudoscience. The scientific method cannot prove a negative. Science will never show that anything does not exist. That is not scientific. Occam’s Razor is a heuristic, a logical shortcut, and not an irrefutable principle of logic. And to follow it unquestioningly would preclude much of contemporary scientific discovery which flies in the face of rationalism and reductionism. Dark energy, dark matter, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, quantum strangeness—all affirm that our historical view of reality is insufficient to describe the complexity and mystery of existence. Authentic contemporary science is a humble, awed endeavor.

What scientific research has shown pretty consistently is that religious people are generally happier than irreligious people. ( UC Berkeley has a center devoted to the science of happiness, and the teachings of Christianity pretty much sum up how to live a joyous life, scientifically-speaking ( Also check out

As for the scriptural anomalies you mention as evidence of the moral superiority of atheism over religion, they are simply that—anomalies. Religion has always spoken to humans in their real-time situations and in their inadequate language. D&C 1:24 says, “these commandments . . . were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.” Most biblical scholars see each of the instances you note (death penalty for rebellious children, slavery in Hebrew culture, women preaching in synagogue, etc.) as cultural in origin an unenforced in practice. To take four verses of scripture which appear to your limited perspective from your limited worldview to show the moral bankruptcy of biblical religion is not only ridiculous, it is unscientific and irresponsible. Science would gather all the data, and weigh the instances of apparent immorality against the overwhelming burden of scripture which affirms the holiness of every human being and the importance of treating each person you encounter as if they were the incarnation of God. To claim that the atrocities committed in the name of religion disprove the power, majesty, and beauty of religion is akin to claiming that since Kim Jong-Il, Jeffrey Dahmer, Jim Jones, Mussolini, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and Stalin were atheists, all atheists are murderers, psychopaths, usurpers, and dictators. You rightly argue that religion is not essential for ethics, but to call it unethical is to ignore its claims.

To classify religious experience as delusional and unfounded in reality is to ignore the fact that our minds and our experience are all we have with which to comprehend reality in the first place. Who can argue against experience? The problem with atheism is that it asserts that because the atheist has not recognizably experienced God, therefore no one else could possibly have any authentic experience with the divine. It is an arrogant, unethical, and logically-untenable position.

To arrogantly claim that all religious people are unintelligent and therefore not deserving of your respect is, first, unethical because lots of unintelligent people are deserving not only of your respect, but of your honor and your love (see John 14:34-35). Secondly, it is to ignore the evidence. Since most of the world’s inhabitants have been religious in one way or another, most of the great thinkers have believed in God. If you want some contemporary examples of brilliant theists, go pick up My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman or any book by Marilynne Robinson (who, by the way, has some great insights into the “hysterical scientism” of new atheists like Richard Dawkins:

You cannot prove the absence of God. I cannot prove His existence. But my experience leads me to value the radiant reality belief in God opens up for me. For me, belief transfigures existence, giving it a luminosity and a meaning that charge every moment with transcendent possibility. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to verbalize some of my thoughts. Blessings.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015


Artwork by Brian Kershisnik

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious ointment upon the head. —Psalm 133:1-2

Two days ago I boxed up all of my books and a thousand random things that filled the drawers and shelves of the place that had been my second home for the past nine years. I packed them into a truck driven by my unstinting, querulous, remarkably selfless and gentle friend—a friend I met several years ago in the hallways of this place I am leaving—and drove to a new place. Three more of the remarkable brothers I met at that holy place I just left—a place where the bush was constantly burning and yet not consumed if you had eyes to see it, a place where several of my students literally removed their shoes one day and set them smilingly outside the door to my classroom so that when I approached the class I was met by a mass of smelly, worn and pleasant footwear—these three brothers also came and helped me unload my belongings at the new place. And then I went back one last time to the old place to pack my computer gently into my car and to hug and thank my friends and to leave weeping and grateful for nine remarkable years at Pleasant Grove Seminary.

I shared four thousand meals and ten thousand jokes with the men and women who became my brothers and sisters there. We sat around that lunchroom table and spoke of the sacred and of the mundane. Of families and houses and memories and eternities. So much life passed there.

Over three thousand gangly and gifted miracles, all created in the image of God, walked through the door to my classroom over the course of those nine years. Teenagers are remarkable creatures, full of angst and awkwardness and astonishing beauty and grace. One swore at me on the first day of class and later wrote me a letter full of vitriol and wrath. But he was the exception among the luminous young people I taught, and I trust that he, like the rest of us, is fully within the expansive reach of the love and power of God, truly.  

I sang more than five thousand hymns there, by my reckoning. Thousands of stories permeate those halls. There are too many to tell. Stories of heartache and courage and hope. Students weeping in my office or laughing at the joy of God’s word.

How many thousands of prayers did I utter there? God, help me love this boy. Or, Please, open her eyes. And also, Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

I tried to be an instrument in the hands of God. I wanted to be a guitar—something thrilling and thrumming that God could pick up and play with such verve it would make you want to sing and dance and rejoice in the beauty of God’s love and His goodness and His remarkable and infinite mercy. Or I wanted to be a harmonica that the voice of God breathed through joyously and energetically, something to make you tap your feet. There were days, of course, that I felt more like one of those kazoos kids make out of wax paper and a comb. A buzz and an emptiness. But even those days were filled with grace and with wonder, I believe.

I cannot condense or fully convey here what that almost-decade of life meant to me. But it was rich and wonderful and rewarding. In the dedicatory prayer of the Pleasant Grove Seminary, offered by Elder Jack H. Goaslind the Seventy, he prayed, “Father, bless those who teach here that they may do so with humility and courage. Wilt thou give them entrance into the hearts of those who come to be taught, and may they know as they enter those hearts that they stand in holy places.” I want to say here that I did feel that holiness, that I acknowledge the rare and sacred privilege of having my testimony and my words stand in the hearts and minds of my students. Pleasant Grove was for me a sacred grove.

I did not always stand, of course. I often sat on my teaching stand—in part, yes, because I am the father of five wild and holy children and so I am perpetually looking for places to sit down for a while—but also because I love the thought of sitting together, enjoying hopefully some form of true  communion. Elder Nelson taught us that one meaning of the word atonement is reconciliation, which literally means “to sit again with.” And so, my friends, I bid farewell to a place where I sat and wept and laughed and loved well for nine years. Until we again sit down to the great final feast in the kingdom of God. May God make your lives pleasant and good. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

For taste and for smell

In the beginning, God was getting down with the extravagance of His creation
And one of the stodgier angels muttered something about too much color
And God laughed and the laugh smelled like pomegranates and glittered like birdshine
This world does not need to break my heart with its loveliness, but it does every day--
And it pleased God--pleases God, if you like--that it, this earth, should possess redolence and verve
For taste and for smell, to please the eye and to gladden the heart
To enliven the soul. These are His words.
So raspberries break like laden clouds of grace on my tongue.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

It Was Mom

"Climbing Mother" by Brian Kershisnik

Here’s a tribute to my mother: Santa Teresa La Tranquila. I wish I could remember sitting in her sacred lap, sucking my finger as she showed me the magic of books, of words, of stories. I wish I could hear again the songs she sang into my sleeping spirit. My mother is one of the gentle ones. Santa Teresa de la Exquisita Caridad.

She taught me that charity never fails. True love overcomes all things and is everything. It is the it of it all. Love is the real deal. She loves people, all people. You see it in her dancing brown eyes when you meet her and she takes your name into her mouth and tastes the essence of it and never forgets it. Names are sacred for her, not as a source of power, but as a source of connection, of affection. She used to have every phone number in our neighborhood memorized, so she could call out her kindness at the hint of a whisper of need.

One day when I had grown into a lanky, surly teenager, I tried to throw my father down the stairs. It was not a good day, you could say. When I was getting ready for bed that night, mom came and leaned in the doorway. This is what she said: “What happened to the little boy who used to sit on my lap and read with me? I miss my Robbie-do.” Still makes me cry to think of it. What is it like to watch life drift away from its source, to become something so foreign and so strange? To become a teenager?

She used to say things when I was young that baffled me. “I am only one person; I can only do one thing at a time.” Now, as my own flock of sacred sparrows surrounds me and my wife, fluttering and flitting and squawking their raucous cacophony of urgent demands, I understand. She was the vine. We needed her. She was the nourisher. Oh, there were days she told us she needed to walk outside. I found her one day outside sitting on the corner of the sidewalk a block from our house, just drinking in the silence and the dark of the starlight sky.

“I have figured out the true never-ending story, and it has nothing to do whatever with a dog-dragon. It is the story of laundry. This is the story that never ends.” Motherhood is relentless, like the spin of the earth, like the tides. Mom clothed us, protected us, fed us. Watched us run through the orchard across the street, throwing apples and climbing trees. She emptied herself for us. We came from her and became the her of her, in a way. Her reason for being.

“Have fun. Be good. If you can’t do both, be good.” This she said almost every time I left the house. I have since learned that there is outrageous fun in goodness, extravagant, wild joy in it; but she was speaking to a mind lacking a frontal cortex. Always keep this in mind.

I named my daughter after her. Gatherer. Teresa of the light. Tessa of the radiance. Harvester of haloed glistening luminosity. At her naming and blessing, Tessa lay still and engaged as a nun as a powerful circle of men enfolded her. I watched her eyes during the prayer. They were intent on my face. She was draped in a flowing white dress cut from the cloth of my mother’s temple sealing dress, a dress my mom made herself because she is modest and simple and lovely. Because she is unadorned beauty and she knows what matters. May the life of this little gatherer of light be cut from the same cloth as her grandmother’s.

On my mother’s birthday this year, we drove to Salt Lake together to listen to my older brother’s band play. On the car ride up mom told stories about her childhood. But the notable thing was mom’s relative absence from so many of her own stories. The stories were always about others, like her life has been. Her kind hero big sister Kris, the Dave Silva Fan Club, the people at the warehouse where she used to go to church in Southern California. You should have seen the way mom watched as God might as her oldest son played quirky music on the bass and keyboard and theremin accompanied by quirky, holy men, one of whom played a singing saw (I imagined the love God must feel for every person in that small indie record shop that evening, divine love nestling into their pockets like coins, just to be close to them; this is the love of a parent). I thought about the small boy I used to watch perched atop the piano bench with perfect posture, magic fingers moving, and knew mom was thinking of that same boy, now grown grand, but still her sacred sparrow, twig-legged and open-beaked. She smiled like transfiguration there.

My mom suffers long, and is kind, and envies not, and is not anywhere close to puffed up, has never sought her own (perhaps has lost any claim of ownership whatsoever), is not easily provoked (trust me, I would know), thinks no evil, and rejoices in the truth, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. My mom is the pure love of Christ, and she endures forever.

Well, who put the bomp in the bomp bah bomp bah bomp? Who put the ram in the rama lama ding dong? Who put the bop in the bop shoo bop shoo bop? Who put the dip in the dip da dip da dip? It was mom. And, boy, am I glad she did.

Friday, May 9, 2014


I want to be a bird
just for one day
to briefly flit around you in
the flickering light of evening
before alighting fluttering onto your
outstretched palm
full of song so sweet
that you can't help
believing in miracles

Thursday, March 6, 2014


My love and prayers go out to the God-haunted, to the wrestlers with angels.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Natural History of the Chicken

"They're Just Doing This" by Brian Kershisnik

I liked the film all right, for the most part. It had a lady in it who resuscitated a frozen chicken. That was a heroic and a lovely thing. And she called her hens “girls,” just like the kind Long Islander who runs the little bed and breakfast in Salt Lake and makes exquisite morning food. And the movie had that gentle bearded man with the intelligent eyes who likes to know where his food is coming from and so he raises chickens and sends his small children out into the slanting early sun to gather the eggs of the free-range birds from the long grasses of his backyard—like Easter every day.

But sometimes the film almost seemed to smirk a little, you know? And that sort of bothered me. Look at how idiosyncratic some people are, it seemed to say, elbowing me in the ribs, urging me to join in with a conspiratorial smile, I mean, this lady puts underwear on her rooster and drives him around in her car.

Well, people are idiosyncratic. That’s a lovely thing. Quirky, sacred human beings living out their eccentric, holy lives all over this peculiar, blessed planet.

Here’s Hopkins:

GLORY be to God for dappled things—
  For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
  Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
    And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                  Praise him.

That’s what was missing from the movie—a sense of reverence for the strangeness in others, for the otherness of others. Idiosyncrasy is to be met with honor, I believe, with great affection. I have long appreciated something Joseph Wirthlin, that quiet-voiced apostle, once said: “The Lord did not people the earth with a vibrant orchestra of personalities only to value the piccolos of the world. Every instrument is precious and adds to the complex beauty of the symphony. All of Heavenly Father’s children are different in some degree, yet each has his own beautiful sound that adds depth and richness to the whole.”

The novel Gilead begins and ends with a similar affirmation. Old Reverend Ames tells his young son, “You might have a very different life from mine . . . and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life.” And this from the final pages: “There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.” And thousands of thousands of people living this life, every one of them cherished and sufficient and worthy of reverence.

Which makes me think, for some reason, of that baffling response Spencer Kimball once gave when someone asked him what he does when he finds himself in a boring sacrament meeting: “I don’t know,” he said, “I’ve never been in one.” That anecdote is usually told in the church with a little bit of a chuckle, because heaven knows some meetings are tedious. But a large part of communal worship may be the privilege of experiencing the holiness in others, of attending to someone’s utter otherness. This may be a large part of why I go to church—to learn to love and to briefly inhabit the foreign countries and strange planets of other people’s souls. Neal Maxwell once commented that “God is never bored . . . because of His perfect love for His children.” Boredom, then, is a failure of love, and also, I think, a failure of imagination. Every unusual human being, every ostensibly wearisome speaker, every oddity and every quirk I encounter is an invitation to see God’s image in the countenance of the other, is a summons to reverence.