SALT LAKE CITY — Kate Bowler has devoted her life to the study of religion as a professor at Duke Divinity School, but that study has taken on a deeper meaning since being diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer in 2015. In her new book, "Everything Happens For A Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved," (Random House, 208 pages) Bowler details her personal religious discoveries as she experiences life at its extremes.
Bowler spoke with the Deseret News about her work as a religious scholar, the sweetness of discovering God in painful times and what she believes The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gets right. Editors note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: My first question for you relates to your health: How are you doing?
Kate Bowler: I’m living in that purgatory that so many cancer people know too well. I just live between scans. So yeah, I’m doing a lot better than they thought I would initially and not quite as well as everyone else. It’s that in between where I sort of live most of the time.
DN: For you, Kate, what made you originally interested in religion in general?
KB: I think I’ve always been deeply invested in questions about faith. In part, because I’m a believer myself and also because I had parents with really divergent ways that they approached their own faith. I think I knew early on that religion was one of the ways to have the most important questions in the world with anyone you ever met. So when I went to college I thought maybe I would do history or philosophy and then quickly I realized that religion was the way to get to know anybody at their core, so I’ve always kind of held onto that.
DN: I feel like ultimately your point in this new book is that the most important thing we can do and the most important thing God can do for us is to be there and to be with us. What would you say you have learned most about that concept, both in experiencing it firsthand and in writing this book?
KB: Well, I’ve been completely bowled over by how much love and community makes everything possible in the worst moments of your life. It’s incredible how helpless you are after a tragedy and how much everyone is stepping in, not with certainty but with love, and it just changes your world. I think people from my church and other churches brought me casseroles for over a year, so I was like, “We need to simmer down with baked goods.” And the amount of people who showed up in the hospital room just to hold my hand and to pray with me. And then yeah, as you mentioned, what I needed from other people is exactly what I needed from God. I needed an experience of overwhelming love just to make the ugliness of the pain feel bearable, and the great relief is that it does. It really makes things feel possible again.
DN: What has this illness made you appreciate more about the study of religion that you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise?
KB: I think studying religion helps us understand the significance of communities. We see them build civilizations from scratch and help people orient their lives in these deep and meaningful ways and I think it helps people figure out what makes their lives meaningful. I’m struck, when I look at communities of faith, by just how much it helps us answer very basic questions like “What do I make my kids care about?” “How do I deal with suffering in the world?” “What will make me not curse at people in traffic?” It helps us figure out how to be human in the most meaningful way, and I don’t know how I would’ve gone through my own situation without it.
DN: At one point in the book, you talk about your old Sunday School teacher, Carol, and how she said “I have known Christ in so many good times, and now I will know him better in his sufferings.”
KB: What struck me about some of the faithful people that I met is their willingness to hold the most precious things in their life really lightly. … They’re willing to say “What will I learn about you, God, if I let this go?” And as someone who has been desperate to let go of the life I have with my husband and my son, it has seemed impossible. It has absolutely seemed impossible to know what it means to accept the terrible things that are happening and not just want to grab everything with some kind of stranglehold.
DN: Do you feel like you’ve progressed in that in any way or is it still impossible?
KB: You know, I don’t know. I come from denominations like Mennonites and Methodists that have a really strong account of sanctification, of Christian progress, but I don’t even know if the things that I learned were just things that I experienced because I felt God show up. So, like, for instance, when I was in the hospital and I couldn’t see my son and all of the most precious things in my life felt like they were floating away, the only thing that made it feel possible to not go crazy was just an experience of the love of God. So while I hope that I am growing and changing in faith and becoming a deeper, more faithful person, I try to give myself a break just knowing that the very hardest stuff might actually be stuff that God does through us.
DN: I think people feel that love from God in so many different ways, but what does that look like for you?
KB: In the hospital it felt like I was in this little bubble where I just felt like I was floating a little bit above the ground — every terrible thing wasn’t quite so bad (even though) things were so terrible. It was like something of a surprise for me that I felt held (by God) and that my life was somehow precious (to him) because you get this horrible feeling like you’re disposable, like you’re just fragile and broken, and somehow I felt put together and like my life mattered to someone other than me. … I’ve never felt that connected to God before.
DN: Another part I love in the book is where you say “I can’t reconcile the way that the world is jolted by events that are wonderful and terrible, the gorgeous and the tragic. Except I am beginning to believe that these opposites do not cancel each other out.” How have you come to understand that these opposite things are part of this life experience and how do you think that people can better accept that?
KB: I think it requires a little bit of courage from all of us so that when we see something, like … when we see something being lost that’s irreplaceable that we don’t immediately step forward with an explanation. Every woman who has ever tried to get pregnant knows this inherently. Some babies miscarry and some babies come to term in perfect health and some babies come to term with terrible illnesses. And there’s an experience of helplessness and a deep desire on the part of other people to step in with an explanation that is supposed to feel like comfort. And what it requires from everybody who is on the front lines is to take a deep breath and to know that what is required when we see those contradictions is intense love and care and to know that we don’t always get explanations for why things happen but we do know that we’re deeply needed by each other. So I’m trying to allow for there to be a greater space for ambiguity in my life but just know that that also makes the role of community that much more important.
DN: I was listening to a podcast interview you did with the Maxwell Institute where you talked about how no one is guaranteed any amount of time in their lives, but when you’re diagnosed with a terminal illness you just feel that more than others. So going back to this book, you say, “God may be universal, but I am not. I am Toban’s wife and Zach’s mother and Karen and Gerry’s daughter. I am here now, bolted in time and place, to the busy sounds of a blond boy in dinosaur pajamas crashing into every piece of furniture.” How, when you’re experiencing something like this, do you focus on the present and how has God helped you to do that?
KB: I think that’s the trick: to try to figure out how to not let tomorrow overwhelm today, and that’s very tempting when things are especially dramatic. And as it turns out, the arc of my life has been toward drama, so it means I do have to have very strong boundaries around the experience of today. So I do a couple of things today that I never would’ve done before. I always try to pick my peak moments in every day. … One moment always happens every day where I just feel so much joy, I feel like my heart is going to break and just try to stay in it for a second longer than I would’ve before, where I just feel the contours of it. So today, I came home from my workout early in the morning and my son was playing Legos and he was wearing a different pair of dinosaur pajamas and he sprinted across the room as fast as he could and jumped into my arms. And the way he closes his eyes and snuggles into my neck and makes this adorable cooing sound like he doesn’t want to be anywhere else, I think “This is it. This is today. And this may very well be the best second I’m going to have in it and I’m going to make it last.”
So I do that and I also make rules like not talking about sad things before 10 a.m. and after 8 p.m. because I cannot be trusted to have important thoughts during those times.
DN: Another part that I loved in the book that goes along with that is the part where the man who had had cancer and how he said “Don’t skip to the end.”
KB: Yeah, that’s right. It’s so easy. I mean our brains are just tilted toward the future, and I think we just want to tell the story and we want to know how it ends. And if we do it, the problem is we’re going to live in that middle distance. Part of living in the moment is experiencing gratitude, like “Thank you God for the parts of my body that work and for the ability to enjoy my friends and for the gorgeous weather” and everything that reminds you that every little detail counts and is also a reminder of God’s love for us.
DN: Many of our readers are Mormon as you probably expect, and I wondered how does your understanding of Mormon doctrine relate to what you’ve discussed in this book?
KB: I think one of the things that Mormon faith has done especially well is try to help people order their best love: love of God, love of family. It’s like they understand intuitively that there are certain things that anchor our lives and make them meaningful. … From the second I was diagnosed, the only thing that I wanted to hold on to was my family, and I think we both share an understanding that so much of God’s love is expressed to us … in the experience we have in loving one another. And I think we’re all trying to run the math on how do I make sense of a God who allows suffering while at the same time knowing that God also put these people in my life for me to love because there is a tragedy inherent in being separated, there just is, and the Mormon faith has reconciled that in part by its strong vision of eternal family, and other denominations have done it by pretty souped-up visions of heaven, which I’m for and all, but I think what I want so much is to be able to know God through the love of them in my life here and now, and I think we certainly share that in common.
DN: That was actually going to be my next question, because I think that theme was so strong in your book, your family was what you wanted to stay with, so I wondered what your thoughts are on that doctrine of eternal family, but you answered that unless there’s anything you would like to add?1 comment on this story
KB: Well I’ll never forget I was walking through Temple Square … I think I was already sick when I was visited, and I was struck by how much of the images and how, when I was chatting with one of the lovely greeters, one of the first questions was, “Well wouldn’t you want to be together forever?” And what I took from that is that is a question that really goes to the heart of theodicy because what it says is there’s an answer to this. A loving God would never ask you to be separated, and while I’m not really sure about the finer points of the way that we’re together forever, what I found so beautiful about that was my experience of God’s love is so deeply tied to my experience of being a wife and a mom. And what it said was I shouldn’t have to feel like I’m a better Christian if I love them less in order to feel like I’m a true believer. So I don’t know how that will get sorted out, but I felt like they had hit on the right question.
_Content advisory: "_Everything Happens For A Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved" has one section with prolific strong language and swearing. There is some occasional swearing in other sections.