Samuel M. Brown’s splendid and sensitive meditation on the fourth article of faith, First Principles and Ordinances, reveals a mind that is simultaneously restless and faithful, rigorous and compassionate, sensible and sensitive. For Brown, the language of our faith, our talk of a loving Heavenly Father, suggests a social dimension to worship. This language locates devotion in an ongoing dialogue not just between Deity and supplicant, but between worshiper, family, and a larger faith community. As he puts it, “Faith to me is a story about commitment and abiding relationships; we limit the power of faith when we fail to see the role we play in our faith” (1).
Brown is also a scientist, a medical researcher, and he shares gospel insights drawn from his professional life. He describes the inevitable tension between “grace” and “works” in terms of patients suffering from illnesses relating to blood pressure. Some patients suffer from shock, which depresses blood pressure; they need adrenaline. Others suffer from hypertension; they need medications that reduce blood pressure. By the same token, some sinners need to be reminded of God’s grace; need to be persuaded that, yes, God’s love can even extend to them. Others may need to be reminded that that same loving God will be displeased if one does not make the effort to carve enough time from a busy schedule for service. “Grace” and “works” emerge, not as dueling theologies, but as two equally valid spiritual medications, depending on our needs. Doctrines do not exist in some sterile exegetical vacuum; they are meant to be lived and applied to our own interactions within our faith community (47–48).
I found his penultimate chapter, on the gift of the Holy Ghost, particularly meaningful and moving. Mental illness disrupts our ability to discern the Spirit. Mental illness can damage or even destroy our spiritual senses. He cites the familiar poster-wisdom of “footprints in the sand.” But then he asks “how could a person’s life story be told with only one set of human footprints? The Mormon version of that visionary beach would have so many footprints that it would be hard to find undisturbed sand” (125). And for those of our brothers and sisters who find themselves struggling with the scourge of mental illness, it becomes our obligation and pleasure to join together to carry them along the beach, for as long as they need.
Brown’s book is not just thought-provoking, not just wise. It is inspiring, and I found it terribly moving. It is never incompatible with a mainstream, orthodox Latter-day Saint faith, but there was also never a page I did not find provocative. I cannot recommend First Principles highly enough.