This is part of the General Conference Odyssey.
Our blast into the General Conference past continues with my second installment of this 14-year project. Once again, this session has a mixture of gems, doozies, and pleasant, if not forgettable, instruction for the Latter-day Saints.
Marion G. Romney begins the April 1971 Saturday afternoon session by focusing on the existence of Satan (an odd topic in my view). “A corollary to the pernicious falsehood that God is dead is the equally pernicious doctrine that there is no devil,” he pronounces. “Satan himself is the father of both of these lies. To believe them is to surrender to him. Such surrender has always led, is leading now, and will continue to lead men to destruction. Latter-day Saints know that there is a God. With like certainty, they know that Satan lives, that he is a powerful personage of spirit, the archenemy of God, of man, and of righteousness. The reality of the existence of both God and the devil is conclusively established by the scriptures and by human experience.” While Romney engages in decontextualized scriptural proofs (e.g. the Satan of Job is not the Satan of the New Testament; Moses 1 seems to draw on Matthew 4), I was somewhat drawn to the declaration of the reality of spiritual entities and, by implication, spiritual warfare. It must be remembered that while
the early Christians did indeed regard the gods of the pagan order as false gods, they did not necessarily understand this to mean simply that these gods were unreal; they understood it to mean that the gods were deceivers. Behind the pieties of the pagan world, Christians believed, lurked forces of great cruelty and guile: demons, malign elemental spirits, occult agencies masquerading as divinities, exploiting the human yearning for God, and working to thwart the designs of God, in order to bind humanity in slavery to darkness, ignorance, and death. And to renounce one’s bonds to these beings was an act of cosmic rebellion, a declaration that one had been emancipated from (in the language of John’s Gospel) “the prince of this world” or (in the somewhat more disturbing language of 2 Corinthians) “the god of this world.” In its fallen state, the cosmos lies under the reign of evil (1 John 5:19), but Christ came to save the world, to lead “captivity captive” (Ephesians 4:8), and to overthrow the empire of those “thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers” (Colossians 1:16, 1 Corinthians 2:8, Ephesians 1:21, 3:10) and “rulers on high” (Ephesians 6:12) that have imprisoned creation in corruption and evil. Again, given the perspective of our age, we can scarcely avoid reading such language as mythological, thus reducing its import from cosmic to more personal or political dimensions. In so doing, however, we fail to grasp the scandal and the exhilaration of early Christianity.1
The metaphysics are interesting. The talk not so much.
ElRay L. Christiansen’s address has some fairly pointed criticisms of the easily angered: “To become upset and infuriated over trivial matters gives evidence of childishness and immaturity in a person.” While this doesn’t really take into consideration natural temperament and environmental factors (and thus the need for anger management), Christiansen’s talk is nonetheless important in drawing attention to our often harmful behaviors that are influenced by anger. “Anger does not contribute to good,” he states. “It is a destroyer, not a builder.” Righteous anger is justified in his view (such as Moses breaking the tablets or Jesus “cleansing” the temple), “[b]ut to lose our temper, to explode, to become ugly, punitive, and hateful when faced with frustrations is inexcusable!” Anger “destroys wisdom and sound judgment. When we become upset, reason is suppressed, and anger rushes in.” To have an “uncontrolled temper is [to be] like an undisciplined child.” Such a person expresses “emotions explosively or by sulking, and disregards the feelings of those about him.” In short, “[o]ne of the greatest accomplishments of a person in this life is to develop and practice self-control.” While anger can lead to inspired actions (one must not forget the wrath of God toward evil), many times in our modern age it leads to nothing more than divisive outrage statuses on Facebook or Twitter. “Your anger is a gift” only if it leads to action that actually helps people. Otherwise, it is just ego masturbation.
In the most uninteresting of the talks, S. Dilworth Young explains to the audience that they should bug their non-member neighbors about the Church because that is what Peter and Paul would apparently do. Moving on.
Milton R. Hunter’s talk on adultery is nothing new. However, I do like how he presents sexual morality in the context of human flourishing: “Frequently married people commit adultery and single people indulge their passions in acts of fornication. The results are unhappiness, the loss of love, breaking up of homes and destroying of family life, increase in the number of divorces, shame, loss of spirituality, apostasy, and eventually loss of eternal salvation.” This looks at sexual morality from the angle of eudaimonia; a perspective I tend to prefer. And while there are appropriate criticisms of the modern overemphasis on The Family™, Hunter provides an excellent reminder as to why the family plays such a large role in Mormonism: “The greatest of all laws in this gospel plan pertains to marriage for life and eternity. Thus it pertains to the family eternal. The sweetest joys and greatest blessings that can be gained in mortality and in the life to come are attained through family life lived in accordance with the gospel plan. Thus, a basic law in marriage is the law of chastity. Men and women cannot defile the fountain of life and reap a fullness of joy. Happiness and purity of heart and mind go hand in hand.” Family life is the context in which the good life is found.
So…Sterling W. Sill cusses over the pulpit:
Because we draw so much from the rebellion, weakness, and evil with which we are surrounded, we tend to load ourselves up too heavily with guilt complexes, mental problems, insecurity, and mediocrity. I recently heard of a man who compounded the problem by hoarding his mistakes. He often referred to the fact that his D.F.T. drawer was the largest file in his office. Someone once asked him what these file letters stood for, and he said they identified a collection of the damn fool things that he had done. Most of us are not bad people—we just let our D.F.T. files get too large (bold mine).
I fully plan on using this quote in a sacrament talk. What’s so great about it–beyond the ruffling of Mormon feathers–is that it addresses the all-too-common Mormon practice of self-flagellation. The talk highlights struggle and growth instead of impossible perfectionism and does so through the lens of optimism and hope. “The religion of Christ itself is not so much a set of ideas as it is a set of activities,” says Sills. “The purpose of the Church is to help us translate the principles of the gospel of Christ into constructive, meaningful human experience. And everyone should work toward this end by a daily practice of thinking some uplifting thoughts, listening to some fine music, reading some stimulating literature, doing some good deeds, and having some great experiences every day.” This fits with the above mentioned paradigm of eudaimonia. Sills offers a great reminder of how exciting life can be, beginning with one’s birth: “Great experience number one is that I managed to get myself born, and I have been very pleased about that ever since…I am very glad that [my parents] were not members of this modern breed of abortionists who are followers of King Herod in his program of slaughtering the innocents.” Drawing on Henry Thoreau, Sills believes “we should thank God every day of our lives for the privilege of having been born. And then he went on to speculate on the rather unique supposition of what it might have been like if we had not been born. Just suppose that you had never been born or that your parents had never been born. Think of all of the excitement and opportunities you would have missed as a consequence.” He then talks of rebirth, but not in the typical renew-my-covenants-every-week-via-the-sacrament way:
Phillip Brooks was once asked when he was born and he said, “It was one Sunday afternoon when I was twenty-five years old, just after I had finished reading a great book.” Saul of Tarsus was reborn on the Damascus road. Joseph Smith was born again after reading a great scripture. In 1932, Walter Pitkin wrote his book Life Begins at Forty, but that is ridiculous. Life begins every morning. Life begins when we begin. And our real lives begin when we determine to live by every word of the Lord.
This demonstrates that spiritual experiences can occur in many different ways through multiple forms and mediums. A good book is put on the same plane as Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus. It’s no longer strange to think that I may be far more moved by Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater or “Who Am I?” from Les Miserables than what I find in an LDS hymnal.
I appreciated Franklin D. Richards’ comments on wealth given the constant criticism (from both members and non) that the Church’s corporatism means it serves “mammon” instead of God. The first step to using wealth correctly according to Richards is responding to it with gratitude: “Regardless of the difficulties existing in the world today, we as a people must recognize that we have been blessed abundantly with the resources of this world; yet we know that whatever we have is the Lord’s and that he has blessed us with these things to see how we will use them.” Next, he touches on a subject I’ve written on for a forthcoming publication: the paradox of wealth as both a blessing and a curse.
It is interesting to note that here, as elsewhere in the scriptures, promises of earthly wealth and increased talents are made to those who live the gospel principles, and counsel is given to use our talents and wealth for the building of the kingdom. Many scriptures, however, contain words of admonition regarding temptations brought about through the acquisition of wealth and its use for unrighteous purposes…Throughout the history of the Church its leaders have taught the value of the principles of work, industry, and thrift; and as they have been practiced, Church members have prospered in numerous ways. Likewise, members have been counseled to establish and maintain their economic independence, and employment-creating industries have been encouraged. In furtherance of these teachings, every man who has property and means should live so as to obtain wisdom to know how to use them in the best possible way to produce the greatest amount of good for himself, for his family, for his fellowmen, and for the kingdom of God.
In summary, “the real test of a man is his attitude toward his earthly possessions.” However, the second half of the talk connects this with tithing. While I am convinced of the theological connection tithing has with the law of consecration, I can see this talk being interpreted as nothing more than a marketing ploy. The message?: Pay your tithing or you love money more than God. That’s a cynical interpretation, but possibly a valid one. What’s worse is it trumpets the rhetoric of the widow’s mite as being “as important and acceptable as the rich man’s offerings.” Yet, as New Testament scholar Craig Evans explains,
The context of the widow’s offering suggests…that it is an example of the very thing that Jesus warned about: the “house,” or estate, of the poor widow has finally been consumed. The traditional, popular interpretation that views the widow as a model of sacrificial giving probably has missed the point. Nor is the point that the smallness of her gift is in God’s sight equal to the much larger gifts of the wealthy. The point lies in the fact that the poor widow cannot afford her tiny gift, which amounts to “her whole life”…while the wealthy person who gives a large gift does not even miss it. The example of the widow’s mite is a tragic example of the exploitation of a temple establishment that has become oppressive, not generous and protective.2
Nonetheless, Richards reminds us that the purpose of riches are for “doing good. Therefore, let us dedicate our means to the building of the kingdom of God. Let us this day resolve to be honest with the Lord in the payment of our tithes and offerings…The Church is designed to take care of the spiritual and temporal needs of its members, both living and dead; and the pattern encompasses programs such as educational, missionary, welfare, auxiliary, social services, genealogical, and many others.”3
Finally, Mark E. Petersen accompanies Spencer W. Kimball’s alarmist address with his own brand of apocalypticism: Crime rates are through the roof! The world is going to hell in a handbasket! Granted, crime had been rising for some time in 1971 and would continue through the 1990s. But crime has returned to 1970s rates. Furthermore, long-term trends show an overall decrease in violence worldwide. Even with slight upwards bumps in the U.S. homicide rate, the overall trend is one of decline. It’s data like these that makes it difficult to take claims that The World™ is getting worse seriously.
All in all, another enlightening, frustrating, and overall satisfying session of General Conference.
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.)
- Good Timber Does Not Grow At Ease (Nathaniel at Difficult Run)
- The Adiabolist, or Jihad of the Heart (G at Junior Ganymede)
- LDS Conference April 1971 – The Sexual Revolution and Entertainment Media (J. Max Wilson at Sixteen Small Stones)
- Being Slow to Anger (Daniel Ortner)
- Warnings from Warnings from the Past (John Hancock at The Good Gazette)
- “Satan” – Moral Agency and the Problem of Evil (Ralph Hancock at Soul and City)
- Creativity and Celebrating Success vs. The D.F.T. File (Michelle Linford at Mormon Women)
- 58 years of General Conference: What can we learn?/Messages on morality, religious freedom, and the Sabbath from 1971 (Michael Worley at Michaels Thoughts and Ideas)
- When Thou Art Converted (Chastity Wilson at Comfortably Anachronistic)