In the immediate shadow of the rising walls of the Salt Lake Temple, the brilliant Mormon polyglot Orson Pratt built an adobe observatory. A partially faded photograph captures one of Mormonism’s most sublime images: in a desolate desert refuge, in the midst of poverty and struggle, hundreds of miles from the great centers of learning and culture, a magnificent granite temple, testament to a resilient faith in God, shelters a mud hut with a telescope, emblem of an irrepressible hunger to expand human knowledge the old fashioned way. The temple and the observatory, faith and study, study and faith.
In 1818, as Keats nursed his beloved brother Tom through the final months of a hopeless struggle against tuberculosis, he wrote a sonnet about his own fears that he, too, would die before his pen could glean the wonderful riches of what he called his “teeming brain.” By the next year, the disease had indeed caught hold of him as well and he burst forth in a creative flood of poetry, producing a string of odes that are still the staple of an English major’s diet: Ode on Melancholy, Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode to a Nightingale, and others. As winter turned to spring, the torrent of words spilled over the borders of his poetry and into his letters, where he contemplated the grandeur of the human race and the wellsprings of his own inspiration. To his brother George, he wrote, “there is an electric fire in human nature tending to purify – so that among these human creatures there is continually some birth of new heroism. The pity is that we must wonder at it: as we should at finding a pearl in rubbish.” He opined that Jesus may have represented a heart and a system completely pure—before his words were “written and revised by Men interested in the pious frauds of Religion.” Like so many of his age, Keats was disheartened by institutionalized systems of religion that almost universally emphasized human depravity, inherent guilt, while themselves doing more to justify than to alleviate human suffering. But something would not let him give in to despair. As he wrote hopefully, “Yet through all this I see [Christ’s] splendour. Even here though I myself am pursueing the same instinctive course as the veriest human animal you can think of – I am however young writing at random – straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness.”
He continued, that while unsure of his own conclusions, he was confident that a “superior being” could not but be pleased with the struggle put forth to make sense of it all. In his analogy, “Though a quarrel in the Streets is a thing to be hated, the energies displayed in it are fine;” So at the least, he pled—whether to God or to his brother is unclear, “Give me this credit – Do you not think I strive – to know myself? Give me this credit.”
John Keats is a model of the greatest kind of intellectual striving, because he occupies a ground—and is content to occupy a ground—midway between the despairing uncertainty of a Walter Raleigh (who abandoned his History of the World when he became convinced that we can have no certainty about historical matters) and the awestruck fullness of a Thomas Aquinas (who abandoned his Summa Theologiae when he was overwhelmed by a blinding beatific vision). Rather than smugly embrace either the atheism of his contemporary, Percy Shelley, or retreat into comfortable indifference in the face of the unknowable, he relishes the struggle to find meaning. Even if my energies bear no fruit, he considers, I will strive to know.
The haunting image of the temple and the observatory hovers in the background of Mormon culture, suggesting one of our tradition’s many paradoxes: that the certainties represented by sturdy temples have never overwhelmed the love of learning that fired the minds and spirits of that tradition’s founders. May we be true to both divinely implanted impulses—the yearning for God, and the hunger for knowledge—and know they are the same.