I was invited by an esteemed colleague several years ago to share, as a fellow scholar in the humanities, my testimony of Jesus Christ and his restored church. I eagerly put the request on a short list of important things to do. That is where the request has lain for several years now, continually preempted by other, more urgent but less meaningful tasks. Although I regret having procrastinated so long, I am glad for the opportunity finally to share my feelings and testimony with others.
Let me first make it clear that, by professional training and by personal disposition, I have at times in my life been more a skeptic and a reluctant believer than a man of unshaken and unshakable faith, more a doubting Thomas than a readily accepting Peter. I suppose I can take some small comfort in knowing, however, that even the chief disciple of the Messiah himself appears to have had moments of uncertainty and weakness, as in his halting steps on the Sea of Galilee, his fatigued slumber in Gethsemane, and his denial under peril that he knew the Savior. I am being sincere and not merely self-effacing when I say that I can relate all too readily to the response of every one of the disciples, as recorded in Matthew 26:22, when told by Jesus at the Last Supper that one of them would betray him: “Lord, is it I?” I hope, and believe, my self-doubt is honest, and not the disingenuous query of a Judas recorded a few verses later.
Having confessed my doubting nature, however, let me also make it clear that, like Thomas I believe; I have come, through study, prayer, and years of life experience, to love the Lord and to have at least a degree of knowledge of his life, a degree of faith in the reality of his divinity and his resurrection, and a degree of hope in his promised atonement on our behalf. That is not to say that I no longer question matters of faith, nor that I accept blindly the pronouncements of others of faith, but that I willingly, rationally, and heartily embrace the idea that the more I learn and know, the more I realize I have yet to learn and know – the “smarter” and “wiser” I become, the more ignorant I realize I truly am. And yet it is exciting to me to be engaged in the process of trying to grow in knowledge and wisdom, and especially in knowledge and wisdom of the things that matter most – our relationship to a Father in Heaven, to his only begotten Son in the flesh, and to our fellow travelers in mortality. The probability that there is supremely intelligent life beyond the speck of dust upon which we dwell, and that the elaborate, self-conscious web of human history that has developed is not purely the result of some cosmic accident seems far more compelling to me than the arguments of Hitchens and other atheists, or antitheists, to the effect that there is no evidence of a god or a supreme being and that the erroneous belief in such is more limiting than liberating. At the very least, it seems more rational and even more scientific to me to suspend judgment on important questions the answers to which are currently unknown, or unknowable with our current level of knowledge and technology, or knowable only in ways not countenanced by the logical positivism embraced by much of modern science.
In the meantime, I confess in my own life to have taken a Kierkegaardian “leap of faith…but only after reflection.” Kierkegaard may have oversimplified it when he stated that “[t]here are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.” I don’t think it is mere cowardice that inclines me to believe, when it comes to faith in God, that the consequences of being fooled in the former way are far less harsh and ultimately limiting than those of being fooled in the latter way. In a way, I can’t help believing. My choice to believe, to the extent that it has been a conscious choice, has been driven in part by logic – logic based not only on knowledge (albeit incomplete) of things as they are, but on intuition of things as they seem to be. My faith has indeed been a work in progress. Alma in the Book of Mormon eloquently captures this process in his analogy of a seed being nourished into a tree bearing fruit and the cyclical and interactive growth of faith and knowledge, in which faith-based experimentation leads incrementally to empirical knowledge, which in turn informs faith in other, related areas, which, when acted upon, is in turn replaced by knowledge, and so on. (Alma 32:26 ff.)
Having rambled briefly with abstract impressions of my faith, let me now personalize it a bit with a few remarks drawn from experiences I’ve had during my seven-plus decades of life. As far as I can recall, my earliest reflections on my relationship to an unseen, supreme being were based on “conversations” beside the garden with my Grandpa Russell when I was only five or six years old. I vividly recall a clear, starry summer night (or nights?) when my Grandpa and I went to the garden, pulled a couple of carrots from the rich soil, washed them under the tap beside the garden, then went to lie down on the grass and gaze together at the stars overhead. While the details have been clouded by the passage of time, I do recall my Grandpa’s telling me and assuring me that we have a Father in the heavens who loves us and cares about us. This fundamental “knowledge” has stayed with me from early childhood to my present, much more advanced age, growing sometimes imperceptibly and sometimes clearly and with conscious force. While I have sometimes questioned my own knowledge and even doubted it, it remains an anchor to my personal identity which has grown stronger over the years.
Through the ups and downs of my youth and, especially, later during my mission to Japan (1963-66), I had begun to develop a greater knowledge of, and love of, Jesus Christ – first as an incredible human being who defied the secular world with both great power and paradoxically great meekness, and then as the divine Son of our Father in heaven, whose atoning sacrifice paves the way of our redemption from the sins and trials that bind us in mortality. The New Testament early on became my favorite work of scripture because it most directly dealt with the life and words of the Savior. Another work, as I have read, re-read, and pondered it over the years, is the lengthy treatise, Jesus the Christ, by James E. Talmage, a work that has had, and continues to have, a great impact on my knowledge of, and belief in, the gospel of the Christ.
Another pillar of my testimony has been the Book of Mormon. During my mission years and later while living in Mesa, Arizona, as a pilot in the Air Force (1971-73), during my doctoral studies at Harvard University (1973-76), and even later while teaching Japanese at the University of Hawaii-Manoa (1976-79), I recall being fascinated with the idea of demonstrating the authenticity of the Book of Mormon by archeological and other empirical forms of evidence. On a number of occasions during those years, I shared my findings and feelings with others of our faith at firesides and other gatherings. At some point, however, I began to feel the pointlessness of such efforts (not that there haven’t been some impressive external suggestions of the book’s authenticity, including those of wordprint and other studies done later), and I began to consider, even more carefully than I had previously, the messages of the book and the internal evidences of its truthfulness. As I have read, re-read, and prayerfully pondered the narratives and the central messages of the Book of Mormon, I have concluded that the book is indeed a powerful witness of Jesus Christ, and that no unlettered, early 19th-century farm youth in his early twenties could, on his own, have produced such a detailed and internally consistent work in the 80-or-so adversity-filled days that he did, unless it was through the divine inspiration and means he claimed to have received.
In short, the experiences of my life have led me to a strong belief that there is a God, that he is a loving spiritual Father to all of his children here on earth, past, present, and future; that his Son Jesus Christ lives and has paved the way for our redemption from both physical and spiritual death; and that Joseph Smith was indeed a prophet of God who, in spite of his own self-recognized frailties, was instrumental in helping to restore the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ in our time. When doubts have caused me to question my knowledge and beliefs, as they have from time to time, I ask myself three questions: “Is there a God, Father to my spirit, who knows and loves me?”; “Is Jesus of Nazareth who he says he was – the Son of God and our Redeemer?”; and “Is Joseph Smith who he says he was – a soul (imperfect by his own admission) who sought divine inspiration and responded to the ensuing call as a prophet to begin the process of restoring the knowledge and power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?” To all three questions, if I am being honest with myself, I must answer in the affirmative.
Do I ever have questions or doubts about my own beliefs? Again, if I am being honest with myself, I must answer in the affirmative. But I move forward with faith, knowing that things that I don’t or can’t know with certainty at present, will be brought to light as our knowledge of things that are “true” expands. From my limited mortal perspective, the more I know, the more I realize there is yet to be learned. But to me, this is not a cause for pessimism, but a reason to celebrate the process of eternal progression, in which we are ever learning, growing and, ideally, becoming more and more like our divine parents and exemplars.
Robert A. Russell
Associate Professor of Japanese, Emeritus
Brigham Young University
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
A native of Arizona but transplanted to Utah at an early age, Robert A. Russell served a mission to Japan (1963-66), received a B.A. in anthropology and linguistics from the University of Utah (1968), and earned a Ph.D. in linguistics from Harvard University (1977), with concentrations in Arabic and Japanese. Between degrees, he served as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam era. He began his professorial career at the University of Hawaii-Manoa in 1976, where he taught Japanese and linguistics, then found his way back to the mainland, where he joined the faculty at BYU in 1982.
While at BYU, Dr. Russell taught Japanese courses of all levels, graduate courses in linguistics and language acquisition, courses in business Japanese, and in Japanese linguistics and teaching methodology. He has published research in Japanese second language acquisition and attrition and CALL materials design and development, with most of his work in JSL attrition. He was a principal investigator of large external grants for developing multimedia courseware for Japanese. His service at BYU included two terms as chair of the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages. Service to the profession included two terms on the Board of Directors of the Association of Teachers of Japanese and service as Language and Linguistics Editor of the Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese. With MBA coursework and experience working in the machine translation software industry, he also helped to develop the field of teaching Japanese for business purposes, giving numerous invited presentations and workshops for teachers of business Japanese at the national level.
After retiring from BYU in 2011, Dr. Russell continued teaching business Japanese part-time before embarking with his wife in 2014 for BYU-Hawaii to serve for eighteen months as senior missionaries, where he taught ESL, linguistics, and business Japanese and helped to develop online courseware for ESL. He has been teaching Japanese as an adjunct at Utah Valley University since Fall 2017, and has also been involved in Japanese proficiency test development for ACTFL (the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages).
Dr. Russell is married to Cassandra Grimshaw, originally from Milford, Utah. They have five children, seventeen grandchildren, and, to date, six great-grandchildren.
Posted March 2021