Pure Religion and the Good Life

This is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. – Moses 1:39

I often cite the above as my interpretive paradigm of commandments. Eternal life or “exaltation” in Mormonism is, by every definition, a family ordeal. It is about relationships. As I’ve written elsewhere,

Continual research in the fields of neuroscience, psychology, primatology, and others find that we are wired to connect. Supportive, loving relationships help us to flourish because they help us become more of what we are: social beings. When we explore the theology of Joseph Smith and the rituals and practices of Mormonism, we find that God is plural and indwelling and that salvation is about kinship. In essence, as Blake Ostler put it, “I’m not saved unless you are. My exaltation depends on your exaltation. So when it comes down to it, it doesn’t really mean a thing unless you’re all there with me. Because if a single one of us isn’t there we’re all diminished by your absence.” 

Eternal life is eudaimonia–the good life–on an infinite scale. This theme runs throughout a majority of the talks in the first Sunday session of the April 1971 Conference.

In “last lecture” style, N. Eldon Tanner presents Joshua’s famous phrase, “choose you this day whom ye will serve…but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” His reasons for “serving the Lord” go back to human flourishing: “As we read the scriptures and as we read the history of the world, we find numerous examples where individuals, communities, and even nations who chose to serve the Lord were saved and prospered—not through their human genius alone, but by the will of God—while others who refused to do so suffered his wrath, were defeated and destroyed.” He continues: “I suggest to you that if we were spiritually sound, if we were living the teachings of Jesus Christ, whom we must serve if we are to survive as individuals and nations, then the political and economic problems already would be solved, because by living the Ten Commandments and other teachings of God we could all live together in peace and prosperity. As we review these teachings we can find nothing in them which, if lived, will not make us better and happier in every way.” As he acknowledges our “great strides of advancement in scientific fields” and “in the methods of war,” he wonders “what have we done in the interest of peace? What have we done in the field of human relations? What progress have we made in spirituality?” He asks, “If we were to be arrested for being Christians, I wonder if there would be enough evidence to convict us?” He thus calls for “a spiritual renaissance. Can you imagine what a glorious world it would be to live in if everyone were living the teachings of the gospel, loving God, and keeping his commandments? If we all loved one another, if there were no backbiting, no killing, no stealing, if everyone were honest, true, chaste, and benevolent? We would have no wars, but peace and heaven here on earth, and we could use the money now spent on war, law enforcement, and crime for worthy purposes to aid the needy, the sick, and unfortunate.” Serving the Lord will “contribute greatly to our success in the worthwhile things of life, both temporally and spiritually. We will raise better families and contribute more to the community than those who deny the Lord and ignore his teachings.”

Similarly, John H. Vandenberg recognizes that the basic needs of man–according to the poet Edwin Markham–are “bread, beauty, and brotherhood.” These things, Vandenberg says, require sacrificial love:

What is the seed of mother love? Is it not sacrifice? Such love is considered to be the deepest and most tender. Is this because a mother passes through the valley of the shadow of death to give birth to her child and is continually sacrificing for that child’s welfare? Is this why Christ loves the world? Because he toiled to make it? Because he sacrificed his life for the world and its people? We are told that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16) to save it from ruin, and the Son was willing to suffer for the salvation of that for which he had toiled. We all love that for which we sacrifice. Giving and serving to the point of sacrifice creates love. The term religion encompasses concern for our brethren, as we are told in James 1:27: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction. …” [James 1:27] When people say, “Religion is all right for some, but I am not religious, and it means nothing to me,” is it because they have not experienced the uplift that comes from sacrificing for and serving their fellowmen?

Once again, sacrifice creates love. Sometimes we wait for love to come around before sacrificing. But if you want to love your fellow man, remember: “The chips are down someplace every day.”

I’m skipping A. Theodore Tuttle’s talk on “the message of the restored gospel.” The Church is the same as when Christ was around, He was the Son of God with special Jesus DNA,1 Joseph Smith had a vision, yada yada yada. Moving on.

I was happy to hear Gordon B. Hinckley’s voice again given that he was the Prophet I was most familiar with growing up. His talk adds to the ones above, offering four cornerstones upon which to build one’s home:

  • Respect: “the kind of respect that regards one’s companion as the most precious friend on earth and not as a possession or a chattel to be forced or compelled to suit one’s selfish whims…This respect comes of recognition that each of us is a son or daughter of God, endowed with something of his divine nature, that each is an individual entitled to expression and cultivation of individual talents and deserving of forbearance, of patience, of understanding, of courtesy, of thoughtful consideration. True love is not so much a matter of romance as it is a matter of anxious concern for the well being of one’s companion.”
  •  The Soft Answer: “We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention.”
  • Honesty with God and One Another: “As you discipline yourselves in the expenditure of your means, beginning with your obligations to your Father in heaven, the cankering selfishness that leads to so much strain in domestic affairs will go out of your lives, for if you will share with the Lord whom you do not see, you will deal more graciously, more honestly, and more generously with those whom you do see. As you live honestly with God, you will be inclined to live honestly with one another.”
  • Family Prayer: “I know of no single practice that will have a more salutary effect upon your lives than the practice of kneeling together as you begin and close each day. Somehow the little storms that seem to afflict every marriage are dissipated when, kneeling before the Lord, you thank him for one another, in the presence of one another, and then together invoke his blessings upon your lives, your home, your loved ones, and your dreams. God then will be your partner, and your daily conversations with him will bring peace into your hearts and a joy into your lives that can come from no other source. Your companionship will sweeten through the years; your love will strengthen. Your appreciation for one another will grow.”

Hinckley promises “that if you will establish the home of which you dream on these foundation stones, the perils of your married life will be diminished, your love for one another will strengthen through the years, you will bless the lives of your children and of your children’s children, and you will know happiness in this life and joy eternal.” These things can help avoid the “nagging, corrosive evils of domestic misery, of separation, of abandonment, and of immoral and illegal relationships.” The consequences of broken homes are recognized by Hinckley as well: “Here is one of the tragic reasons for mounting juvenile delinquency: literally millions of children who come from homes where there is no parental love and consequently very little child security. Here is a root cause of our soaring public welfare burden, which is devouring billions of our treasure. Here is a denial of the kind of family ordained of God from the beginning. Here is heartbreak and failure.” Love and stability at home are not only necessary for the blooming of individuals, but for thriving societies as well.

Richard L. Evans’ final talk reminds us that “every day is part of eternity. What happens here and now is forever important.” It is easy to forget this, which is why “[w]e use much of our time in rushing around, not thinking always what we ought to be, nor what it is that matters most. Sometimes we set our hearts on things we feel we have to have, and when we get them find they don’t mean as much as once we thought they would. And so the years move by—and even while yet young we become aware that we are older than we were. Soberingly, more than one-fourth of this year already has passed—partly in pursuit perhaps of things that don’t matter very much…” This was a nice reminder, given my interest in finding the sacred in the mundane. But also because it is easy to forget the things we ought to be focusing on. “Well, we ought to live as we ought to live,” says Evans, “not only because it would please God, not only because it would please our parents, but as a favor for ourselves—for every commandment, every requirement God has given is for our happiness, for our health, and for our peace and progress. O my beloved young friends, even selfishly it is smart to keep the commandments God has given.” This is why he finds, “If someone tells you, my beloved young friends, that you can set the commandments of God aside without realizing the results—if someone tells you that, then you may know that you are listening to someone who doesn’t know, or isn’t telling you the truth.” Commandments are relational in nature and should draw us into deeper connection with one another.

Some great stuff this session.

Here are the other participants for this session:

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