This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.
This week we’re covering the Friday afternoon session of the October 1971 General Conference, and there is one talk that stood out to me: Should the Commandments Be Rewritten? by Elder Richard L. Evans.1
The title of the talk is stern, and the opening paragraph is blunt:
Perhaps I could begin with an interesting question posed recently and an equally interesting answer. The question was, “Don’t you think the commandments should be rewritten?” The answer was, “No, they should be reread.”
It’s easy and it’s tempting to write off a talk that opens like this as a fossil of an older, more black-and-white time. Just obey. Stop thinking. Right?
Well, no. Absolutely not. What this talk conveys–and what is probably the number 1 lesson for me in going through General Conference talks written before I was born–is that they reward the person who comes with an attitude of humility and a thirst to learn. Not only that, but they quickly, consistently, and emphatically confound the stereotypes. Consider Elder Evan’s words from just a couple of paragraphs further into the talk:
Some things the commandments say thou shalt not do, and if that is what they say, that’s what they mean, and there’s a reason for it.
This paragraph starts out on a straight railroad track headed directly to Divine Command Theory Central. Divine command theory is “a meta-ethical theory which proposes that an action’s status as morally good is equivalent to whether it is commanded by God.”2 In simpler terms: DCT is the idea that if we ask God, “But why?” he will respond with just “Because I said so.” And that’s all there is to it.
Because Elder Evans’ talk has a stern tone, you might think that this is where he’s headed. But at the last moment, Elder Evans suddenly veers off in a completely different direction. We aren’t supposed to keep the commandments just because God says so. No, “there’s a reason for [them].” Just a couple of paragraphs later, he elaborates:
Essentially this is what the gospel is: counsel from a loving Father who says to his children, “You have limitless, everlasting possibilities. You also have your freedom. It’s up to you how you use it. This is what you can become if you take my advice—and this is what will happen if you don’t. The choice is yours.”
Now, let me make a quick digression. The quote from LDS.org actually says “a living Father” instead of “a loving Father.” I was pretty sure that was wrong. “Loving” makes a lot more sense than “living.” So I cued up the video and watched. First of all: I was right. Elder Evans is talking about a loving father. Secondly: hearing him read the talk was also incredibly eye opening for me.
We all know, as denizens of the Internet, that tone is hard to convey in text. We’ve all had experiences where we got into trouble because we tried to make a joke online and it was taken the wrong way, or because someone said something that seemed rude or unkind to us, only to realize later that they had been trying to be playful. The same thing is going on here. I can’t help but think of Nephi writing,
I, Nephi, cannot write all the things which were taught among my people; neither am I mighty in writing, like unto speaking; for when a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth it unto the hearts of the children of men.3
Nephi understood the difference between the spoken word and the written word, and he well understood the limitations of writing. One of those limitations is tone.
If I’d been listening to Elder Evans’ talk all along–instead of just reading the text–I would have realized much sooner that his dogged emphasis on obedience was not born of an authoritarian disposition but out of a sense of urgent concern. In this sense, Elder Evans is modeling our Father. In that case, too, commands are not about bossing underlings around. They are about beseeching wayward, recalcitrant, stubborn, and (quite frankly) bumbling and incompetent children to be careful.
As I continue to read these talks, I am humbled again and again to find that a lot of the things that I have grumbled about in the past “Why aren’t the General Authorities more clear about X?” or “Why don’t they just come out and say Y?” are actually there, plain as day, in talks that I could have easily read any time. It is, quite frankly, a little humiliating. In a good way.
The first is the clear dismissal of DCT in favor of moral realism. Here’s another one, from this talk: sometimes I’m frustrated that the General Authorities aren’t more clear about the need for members to be autonomous and independent in our obedience. To figure things out on our own. To stop depending so much on the leaders. And yet here is Elder Evans:
The Lord expects us to use wisdom and common sense and not quibble about what obviously isn’t good for the body or mind or spirit or morals of man.
Also, this is a talk where Elder Evans quotes from Emerson, Cromwell, and Ruskin. Clearly, when Elder Evans said, “I have a great respect for scholarship, for education and research, for academic excellence, and for the magnificent accomplishments of sincere and searching men,” he meant it. He knew what he was talking about. And so clearly, when he followed that up with, “But I also have great respect for the word of God, and his prophets, and life’s purpose; and it comes to a question of where to place our trust,” I should pay attention.
So that’s my experience with the General Conference Odyssey thus far in a nutshell: I’m embarrassed that I didn’t start reading these much earlier, and incredibly grateful that I finally have the opportunity to do so now. I won’t have time, unfortunately, to watch the videos for all the talks. I read much, much faster than the talks are given. But, in addition to learning that I have a tendency to misread the tone, this also makes me more grateful that in just a couple of months I’ll be able to listen to the talks live.
Yes, that’s right. It’s January, and I’m actively looking forward to General Conference. And not just because I get to stay home. No, I’m actually impatient to have a chance to listen to the talks. That’s a really, really big shift in my approach. I’m honestly kind of shocked at how much of a change this project has already had on me, and I’m as excited as ever to see what the next decade brings.
Now, here are some other quotes from some of the rest of the talks given during this session.
“Respect for father and mother is respect for your own birth and life.”
“There are many lonely people, people whose loneliness is hidden. We need to seek them out and relieve them.”
The reason this struck me so forcefully is that it reminds me of some of the most important research I’ve ever learned about: Adverse Childhood Experiences. Read this article to see more about that topic, and how true it is that there are so many people–friends and neighbors–laboring under the burdens of invisible tragedy. This whole talk was a really beautiful sermon on service.
“Each child should be made to feel at all times by his parents that he is of great importance in the family.”
Definitely something for me to keep in mind in my own home. My children are in sort of the childhood sweet-spot. They’re old enough to be mostly self-sufficient, but they are still young enough to hold my hand now and then in public. It’s a treacherous time, however, because now that they don’t literally require supervision, it’s tempting to turn away too often. And I know if I do that that, in the blink of an eye, the window of opportunity will be gone and they will be teenage strangers living in my house. And so I appreciate–deeply and truly–every single reminder I get to focus my energies consciously and deliberately on being a more present parent. It’s not just a duty to be there for my kids. It’s one of life’s greatest blessings.
Which, if you think of it, is a great model for all commandments. They’re not really obligations. They’re stepping-stone to peace, happiness, love, and safety.
Here are the rest of the blog posts in this iteration of the General Conference Odyssey.
- No Easy Path (G. at Junior Ganymede)
- LDS Conference October 1971 – The Mysteries of Being Righteous Aren’t So Mysterious (J. Max Wilson at Sixteen Small Stones)
- Football, FHE, and Sacrifice (Daniel Ortner at Symphony of Dissent)
- Obedience, Sacrifice, and Love (John Hancock at The Good Report)
- Choose the Right. Why? (Ralph Hancock at The Soul and The City)
- Permacallings (Michelle Linford at Mormon Women)
- Practicing (Obeying) Virtue (The Commandments) (Walker Wright at Difficult Run)
- Love and Sacrifice (Silver Rain at The Rains Came Down)
- Battle of the Wills (Jan Tolman at LDS Women of God)