A God-obsessed mother gone mad. A once-devout father turned cynical. The only thing as challenging as growing up in a faith-fractured home is carrying your devotion into adulthood. Especially if you happen to be Mormon.
Shortly after Nathan Cheney turned that corner in Upstate New York, my family embraced their own Shangri-La, a place and a mindset they called "Zion." They considered it a repository of truth and wisdom, and they believed it would endure when all else failed. Recoiling from Mom's madness, my father stepped beyond the edge of faith. I imagine he experienced a Conway-like moment of profound uncertainty, an inability to tell if he was squandering what previous generations had gained, or if he was gaining what previous generations had squandered.
In Mom's absence, I had seen my mission as a long-term effort to show Dad that Shangri-La still beckoned. The more I practice my religion, however, the less I see any association between Mom's madness and my beliefs. Faith, as I presently experience it, is an intellectual act aimed at nothing less than Truth, an honest search for things as they really are.
In my recent readings of Lost Horizon, I find myself, not my father, in Conway's position on the border between two realms, the sacred and the secular, each of which is increasingly disinclined to accommodate the other. It seems clear that someday I too will have to choose between the two. I cannot say for sure which world I would opt for, but my hunch says that I would go with faith—not in order to connect with my long-gone mother or to rebel against my agnostic father, but to practice religion because I believe—because it enriches me, and, with any luck, others.
In the meantime, when I'm asked for a rational justification of my beliefs, my first impulse is to shrug and cite a passage from my great-great-great grandmother Eliza Cheney's last letter home. It was her own final attempt to explain herself and her religion. After everything, she kept it simple: "It is ...a marvelous work and wonder," she wrote. "It is not, nor will it be understood by all." m
Jeffrey Oliver is a 5280 contributing editor.