Beginnings and Endings

764 - Beginnings and Endings

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post for Times and Seasons1 responding to a 1981 General Conference talk by President Hinckley2 that I found challenging. In the post, I worked through some thoughts about President Hinckley’s talk, and I included this sentiment about reading the word of modern prophets:

President Hinckley’s talk was given 34 years ago. I was a baby then, so of course I have no memory of this talk. I did not know that it existed until last week… And I must confess a sense of shame as I read it for the first time and realized that this past year was the first year (since my mission) that I even tried to listen to all the sessions of General Conference. How many more talks have been given over my lifetime that I have never heard? Never read? Never considered? I say that I sustain the apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators, and yet I have nearly two centuries of their official talks given in General Conference and I have never even considered that I might want to go back and systematically read them to see what they had to say. I think it’s time I change that.

Max Wilson, who runs the blog Sixteen Small Stones, pointed out that there was nothing preventing me from converting that sentiment into action. Together with a few others, we hatched a scheme. We decided to start with the April 1971 General Conference (the earliest readily available online) and read them all at a rate of one session per week.

I plotted this out in a Google Spreadsheet and found that, assuming General Conferences continue to include 6 sessions per year as they currently do3, it would take us until 2029. Late in the summer of that year we will revisit the April 2029 General Conference and finish it up before the October 2029 General Conference begins.

Naturally, because we’re all bloggers and writers of some stripe or another, we also decided to do a post every week in response to one or more of the talks that we’d read the week before. So this post—in which I decided to write about President Ezra Taft Benson’s talk Life is Eternal—is the first in a weekly series that is going to go on for the next 14 years.4

My motivation is pretty simple: I seek to take modern prophets seriously. As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we believe that our leaders are fallible and make mistakes, but we also believe that they are inspired and serve as watchmen on the tower. I want to know what the watchmen have been telling us. I especially want to look across a really large volume of contemporary writings to see what trends, patterns, and themes stand out most prominently.

So, without further ado, let’s get started.

The first thing that struck me about President Benson’s talk was his optimism. “I am convinced that our Father’s children are essentially good,” he wrote, and then, “Again I say, our Father’s children, my brothers and sisters, are essentially good.”

And then I was struck by the simple beauty and simplicity of President Benson’s talk: “Yes, life is eternal. We live on and on after earth-life, even though we ofttimes lose sight of that great basic truth.”

I spend a fair amount of time thinking about death. Not in a morbid way, but with the attitude of someone who has a finite budget and aims to make the most of it. I don’t know how many years I will have, of course, but I want to have achieved basically two things when my time does come.

First, I want to have felt that I gave everything I had. “We should waste and wear out our lives,” Joseph Smith told the Saints from Liberty Jail.5 Time and energy are resources. We can conserve them in the short-run, but in the long run the objective is to spend everything. My father taught me that when I was young, and I decided then to do my best to live up to it.

Second, I want to meet my death with confidence. I’m too keenly aware of my own capacity for rationalization. I can imagine—if I was careless—spending a lifetime as an active member of the Church only to learn at the very end that it was a combination of wishful thinking and agile mental gymnastics that had kept me going that whole time, and that in the end I didn’t know—not really—what was coming.

It’s rather fashionable to discount faith as blind belief, but what those critics do not understand is that no one is more sensitive and apprehensive about the capacity for self-deception than a believer. This is doubly true for believer with an intellectual bent. Anyone with an interest in philosophical can easily invent arguments that take the risk out of faith. The problem is that what that leaves you with is counterfeit faith. Then you really do have nothing but wishful thinking and blind belief.

I’m not sure this is what he intended, but consider Pascal’s famous wager. The logic goes something like this: if you act as though you believe in God then at worst you will die and lose nothing (because there is no God) but at best you stand to gain eternal live. If you act as though you do not believe in God then at best you will die and gain nothing (because there is no God), but at worst you stand to miss out on eternal life. The argument is famous for its contribution to probability theory and decision analysis, but it’s also clearly an attempt to arbitrage our way out of risky belief.

Well I don’t think that’s possible. There are lots of temporal benefits from membership in the LDS Church: longer life expectancy, a warm community wherever you move in the world, a great place to raise your kids. These are all real benefits, and anyone can enjoy them no matter what the truth about Joseph Smith and the Restoration might be, but I don’t believe that in the end these benefits alone—the self-evident, temporal ones—are worth the price of admission. I don’t think they are worth the time we spend in meetings, the effort we put into our callings, or the vulnerability we incur when we tie so much of our lives to a bureaucratic institution run by ordinary mortals.

The real danger is in fooling ourselves into thinking that we can participate in the Church without facing the tough questions. If we let ourselves be lulled into a kind of passive, consumerist version of faith we run the risk of waking up one day and realizing that we got the cost/benefit calculations wrong, but not having the individual spiritual reserves to sustain our membership because for so long our spiritual witness has atrophied while we relied on the obvious benefits to paper over a need to ask hard questions and subject our faith to intense scrutiny. If we do not interrogate our own faith, then eventually life will, and our testimonies will wilt under the inquisition.

Or, returning to my fear, we might not reach our own moment of truth until we are facing death’s final question. Then, for the very first time, we may realize that we can’t rationalize our way around the final question. That’s the motive behind my second goal. I want to be able to face death with confidence because only then will I avoid finding out, when it is too late to do any different, that my faith is made of paper. 6

And this is why, returning to the talk, I found President Benson’s words so full of resonance.

Our affections are often too highly placed upon the paltry perishable objects. Material treasures of earth are merely to provide us, as it were, room and board while we are here at school. It is for us to place gold, silver, houses, stocks, lands, cattle, and other earthly possessions in their proper place.

Yes, this is but a place of temporary duration. We are here to learn the first lesson toward exaltation—obedience to the Lord’s gospel plan.

And also:

Yes, there is the ever expectancy of death, but in reality there is no death—no permanent parting. The resurrection is a reality.

Symbolism and allegory are nice, but they are not what I am searching for in this life. What I am searching for is reality. I want to live with the real sense that my time spent on earth is time spent at a waystation. I want to face death with the conviction in my heart, as sure as my conviction that a dropped object falls to the floor, that I will live again. That is something that wishful thinking and blind belief cannot produce. Only real, genuine, tested and tried faith can produce that.

That’s the kind of faith that I believe our Father wants us to have, and I think that is one major reason why we face a life so full of chaos, uncertainty, and tragedy. If things made sense, we could rely on rationalization and philosophy. We could escape the hard question until it was too late. But things do not make sense. The world is, as Camus noted, absurd. The hard questions dog us like the stubborn hounds they are. It is the very absurdity of the world that gives us the chance—time and time again—to cast aside the crutches of convention, of inertia, of rationalization, of tradition, of herd mentality, and of anything else that can provide a façade of faith to seek to try and find the real thing.

I won’t stop until I find it. I won’t be satisfied with anything less.

Here are the other folks participating in this grand scheme who have also written blog posts responding to the Saturday Morning session of the April 1971 General Conference. (If any of the links don’t work, try back later. They are all coming online during the day.)

12 thoughts on “Beginnings and Endings”

  1. “Symbolism and allegory are nice, but they are not what I am searching for in this life. What I am searching for is reality.”

    Symbolism and allegory are inescapable. ‘Reality’ is unavoidably representational. Every reality involves narrative, even (nay, especially) the reality of gods.

  2. One more thought about symbolism: I am reminded of something Dominic Crossan said at a panel discussion that took place recently at Writ and Vision Bookstore in Provo: “Instead of arguing over whether one should interpret the Bible and its characters literally or metaphorically, we should discuss what our beliefs cause us to do. … You argue that I would never die for a metaphor. I argue that that is in fact the only thing I would actually die for. I would not die for a piece of real estate that spans from the Mexican to the Canadian border, but I would die for my country.”

  3. Nathaniel, as something of a silent fan of your blog for a long time, I want to tell you that I love this. I started reading the talks last night, too. (There’s something about several people all doing the same righteous thing that makes one want to jump in, too.) I don’t know if I have the fortitude to last 14 years, but I *love* this idea and look forward to this series.

    I finished “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” recently, and that book, short as it is, made me really think about death. (Reading Steven Peck’s “A Short Stay in Hell” just before set off the thought too, albeit with a very different tone.) Tracking Ivan’s death, he definitely did *not* know either one of those things until the last moment (and even that’s debatable). I would say that, if possible, I want to *live* with the two facts you describe, for as long as possible.

    I’ve long held that because I don’t face the same level of persecution or trial, I can’t know as surely as Joseph or the early saints did that. I don’t have the same “opportunities.” But as I’m growing up in the gospel, I’m starting to realize that maybe I don’t need a ton of external problems to advance quickly or swiftly like they did. Maybe, by really pondering the “tough questions” you describe and “wrestling the angel,” so to speak, I can create the problems internally (assuming a problem is just a gap between what is and what we want to be). And God can step in, seeing we both see the problem, and give us certainty.

    Of course, I also wonder if I can ever escape Descartes’ dilemma—couldn’t we just be living in a mirage? Can I *really* know anything beyond my own existence? I suspect, and really hope, I’ll figure out the answer to those questions as I go along. I like what you said about not being able to rely on reason alone in an “absurd” world. That gives me hope. Maybe I’ll figure it out one day. =)

    Great OP. Looking forward to this series!

  4. Carl-

    Symbolism and allegory are inescapable. ‘Reality’ is unavoidably representational.

    I think I see what you’re saying, but I also think it misses the point. Human perception is an act of creation. And, since we have to inhabit the world as we perceive it, you could argue that there’s an inescapably narrative aspect to our lived experience.

    But that’s a layer above base, raw, objective, material fact.

    That’s the whole reason that constructing narrative can be difficult. We experience or learn things that make old narratives impossible to maintain, and then we have to build new ones. This shows that our narratives are (1) not the same thing as objective reality and (2) not capable of independent existence.

    In any case, I fundamentally disagree with Dominic Crossan’s statement. Or, at least, I think he made a fatal mistake. He confused two things that are not the same at all: an abstraction and a metaphor. A metaphor is “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.” Metaphors are teaching tools and literary devices. They are not worth dying for. No one ever has and no one ever will die for a metaphor, not any more than someone is going to die for an alliterative phrase or a pun.

    But a person’s “country”? Now, that might be worth dying. But it’s an abstraction. Not a metaphor.

    The urge to defend symbolism and metaphor from the apparently brutally reductive nature of materialism is understandable but, in this case, misplaced. I am not saying that all non-material entites are in some case unreal or less-real. This is a common argument of materialist reductionists, but I’m not a materialist reductionist. I believe that abstractions do exist (perhaps as emergent properties of physical reality) and so are of vital importance. But:

    1. I don’t confuse abstract or non-material entities that are real and important with metaphors

    2. I don’t think that abstractions are important instead of physical reality, but rather in addition to physical reality.

    So, let’s be quite concrete: I was promised a physical resurrection. That’s part of the message of the Gospel. Mormonism–of all the variants of Christianity that exist today–is particularly committed to literalism in this regard. We talk about God Himself having a body of flesh and bone. A physical, tangible body. Because that is a rebelliously, defiantly materialist claim it cannot be reduced to metaphor without doing damage to it’s clear intent.

    Relationships are not physical. Relationships are extractions. Mormonism is committed–again, in a way that is extreme in comparison to other forms of Christianity–to the idea that these abstractions can have eternal existence. The bonds of marriage, the bonds of family, the bonds of friendship: these are abstractions people die for. They are real. And they will continue into eternity.

    I am committed to a vision that–embarrassing as it might be to some for its dogged simplicity–values these concepts equally. That says our physical bodies–material, tangible objects–are going to continue to exist forever and that our relationships–immaterial, intangible concepts–are also going to continue to exist forever.

    It’s not either/or. It’s both/and.

    And symbolism is not enough. Metaphors are not enough. Symbols and metaphors reference something. If we get too enamored with the signposts, we’re not going to realize that they are there to point the direction to something else.

  5. Bryan-

    Thanks!

    I will tell you that the most interesting aspect of this project to me, so far, has been the reception. I have found a really surprising number of people who have told me “I had this idea, too!” or even, “I had this idea, too, and I’ve already started reading the talks!” I realize there’s some selection bias going on here: people who were already interested in this idea are more likely to read and reply to posts about it, but even given that it feels like there was already a kind of movement going on before J. Max Wilson suggested that I move beyond a personal goal to make something public out of it.

    Also, this:

    I’ve long held that because I don’t face the same level of persecution or trial, I can’t know as surely as Joseph or the early saints did that. I don’t have the same “opportunities.” But as I’m growing up in the gospel, I’m starting to realize that maybe I don’t need a ton of external problems to advance quickly or swiftly like they did. Maybe, by really pondering the “tough questions” you describe and “wrestling the angel,” so to speak, I can create the problems internally (assuming a problem is just a gap between what is and what we want to be). And God can step in, seeing we both see the problem, and give us certainty.

    is just fantastic. I really love the whole paragraph, and especially the definition of “problem” that you presented: the gap between what is and what we want to be. That’s really something for me to add to my thinking about this stuff, thanks.

    So, I’m glad you liked the post, and hope you enjoy the rest that we’re all going to be publishing. Thanks!

  6. This was great. We have a lot of similar thoughts when it comes to this. The price of admission IS too high if the restoration isn’t true. Too damn high. I’m not willing to make that wager. And you know, I am very comfortable living, breathing, drinking, symbols. They are more real to me than most realities. That being said, you’re right…they are cold comfort when it comes to death’s final question. I haven’t had to face it directly (I am still alive!), but last year I stood in a room while the man who raised me faced it alone (we all face it alone). After he left me to find the answer for himself, I had to ask again and again and again if what I was raised to believe is true. If my dad is still in existence somewhere, somehow. If there is a God who weeps. It’s been an agonizing, shockingly symbol-bereft, reaching process. And through experience too sacred to share here and impressions too fluid to catch long enough to explain, I’ve found conviction I am compelled to carry with me. I’ve found my faith in – my brief, bright understanding of – the after…even if I’ve got little knowledge of the now and even less of before. Most days, it’s all I’ve got. But, as you’ve noted here, it’s more than enough. And so I remain.

  7. 1. I don’t confuse abstract or non-material entities that are real and important with metaphors

    2. I don’t think that abstractions are important instead of physical reality, but rather in addition to physical reality.

    So, let’s be quite concrete: I was promised a physical resurrection. That’s part of the message of the Gospel. Mormonism–of all the variants of Christianity that exist today–is particularly committed to literalism in this regard. We talk about God Himself having a body of flesh and bone. A physical, tangible body. Because that is a rebelliously, defiantly materialist claim it cannot be reduced to metaphor without doing damage to it’s clear intent.

    Relationships are not physical. Relationships are extractions. Mormonism is committed–again, in a way that is extreme in comparison to other forms of Christianity–to the idea that these abstractions can have eternal existence. The bonds of marriage, the bonds of family, the bonds of friendship: these are abstractions people die for. They are real. And they will continue into eternity.

    Great response. First off though, I think you’re being a little too dismissive and pedantic about the difference between a metaphor and an abstraction. I see your point, but I think Crossan’s point (whether he uses the right terminology or not) is that stories and narratives (of which metaphors are a part) aren’t just derived from our reality but help shape it also, and they are embodied in the media we inhabit. I think they are more real than you’re acknowledging, and that there is perhaps more overlap between abstractions and stories/narratives/metaphors than you’re acknowledging.

    Speaking of abstractions, one could argue that even you are an abstraction, an emergent property of more fundamental atoms. Indeed, many neuroscientists believe that consciousness is an emergent property of vast neuronal networks.

    At any rate, I heartily agree that these abstractions should be considered in addition to the more bedrock layers below them, and your evocation of a physical resurrection and a real-world redemption strongly resonate with me, especially as a Mormon transhumanist. We take these claims more seriously than many Mormons, and often lament that an insufficient number of Mormons seem to really live as though Zion were a real place that we should be striving to build here and now with real science, technology and other virtues, rather than waiting for a miraculous and externally-imposed hereafter. Do we really believe in a physical redemption that depends (at least in part) on our own practical faith and progress toward it in this life? Do we believe that God operates according to some kind of natural law, and that therefore all miracles must eventually be explainable? Do we realize that exaltation without an understanding of the operative principles by which it is achieved would be insufficient to achieving the type of life that God lives? These and many other questions occupy our discussions and explorations. If these questions interest you (and they seem to do so), I would highly recommend that you consider participating. We would love to have your insights and would benefit from your unique perspectives!

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