Another week, another session of conference. I’m going to start this overview of the Sunday afternoon session of the April 1971 conference with some of the least memorable parts.
Theodore M. Burton makes the comparison between Daniel’s “stone…cut out of the mountain” (Dan. 2:44-45) and the modern church. Nothing really new or interesting. One should consult David J. Whittaker’s excellent article “The Book of Daniel in Early Mormon Thought” or Cheryl Bruno’s insightful blog post “Breaking Things in Pieces: Early Mormons and Daniel 2:44” for some contextualization of the Mormon interpretation of Daniel.
Bernard Brockbank’s talk struck me as just another roundabout way of saying, “If you love God, pay your tithing.” I never find this kind of talk inspiring or even effective. I’d much rather see tithing’s connection to consecration highlighted, but too often our cultural and historical conception of tithing is wrong.1
In the most Southern Baptist-sounding talk I’ve ever heard in General Conference, Hartman Rector, Jr. provides the quotable phrase, “Ignorance is expensive.” While he doesn’t develop this thesis in an entirely satisfying way, I think he sums up his point well with the following:
But why do we receive not the light? The Lord tells us why over and over again in the scriptures. Simply stated, the reason we do not learn is because we are not in condition to learn. We are not in condition to receive the light because we are not willing to receive it. We just plain don’t want it.
We are often unwilling to do what is necessary to receive the light. This relation between knowledge and action reminds me of the late biblical scholar John L. McKenzie, who translated hesed in the Hebrew Bible as “covenant-love,” viewing it as a parallel to the “knowledge of God” in the book of Hosea: “[K]nowledge, to the Hebrew, was not a mere intellectual apprehension, but a vital union of possession. Knowledge of Hebrew morality did not mean ethical science, but a vital union with the traditional morality which qualified the whole human life; one knows this morality by having it, by living it.”2
Joseph Anderson states that eternal life consists “not only [of] eternal existence but eternal growth and activity. This is the joy of which Lehi spoke.” I would’ve liked to hear more about this “eternal growth and activity” given some of my research into a Mormon theology of work. But this largely serves as a springboard for his discussion on the importance of obedience, with the grace of Christ being largely associated with the resurrection.
Now we move into more interesting territory.
Harold B. Lee provides a fantastic quote from a Columbia University theologian that I think captures the essence of what religion actually is: “Religion represents the accumulation of man’s insight over thousands of years into such questions as the nature of man, the meaning of life, the individual’s place in the universe. That is, precisely, the question at the root of man’s restlessness.” Lee blasts those “liberals” who attempt to answer this inner restlessness with man-made theories. Lee doesn’t hold back. He describes these liberals as “the scoffers in Lehi’s vision,” those who “read by the lamp of their own conceit” (quoting Joseph F. Smith), and “one who does not have a testimony.” While likely overly harsh, it is a reminder that the scriptures not only tend to condemn the rich, but the learned as well. Lee believes that “more professors have taken themselves out of the Church by their trying to philosophize or intellectualize the fall of Adam and the subsequent atonement of the Savior.” This may be true, but if so, we should be very careful in our dismissal of things like the Trinity due to their supposedly “incomprehensible” nature when we can’t even explain a central doctrine like the Atonement. Nonetheless, Lee provides this important reminder: “Conversion must mean more than just being a “card carrying” member of the Church with a tithing receipt, a membership card, a temple recommend, etc. It means to overcome the tendencies to criticize and to strive continually to improve inward weaknesses and not merely the outward appearances.”
The talks by Bruce R. McConkie and Loren C. Dunn go hand-in-hand and nicely complement Lee’s above. McConkie reminds us that “we cannot comprehend what is involved [in scripture] until we see and hear and experience for ourselves.” This is because “the only way to gain true religion is to receive it from the Lord. True religion is revealed religion[.]” While McConkie–without a hint of irony–disdains those who “defend their own speculative views rather than to find out what the Lord thinks about whatever is involved,” he does emphasize the most essential element of the spiritual life: “Religion must be felt and experienced.” Dunn recalls a story in which he challenged a couple doubting young men to a three-month experiment in which they would reintegrate certain aspects of the gospel back into their lives: attend church meetings, say personal prayer, keep the Word of Wisdom, read the Book of Mormon, etc. According to Dunn, this was a way to see if the young men’s doubts “represented the symptoms of their problem and not the cause. Wasn’t their real question whether or not this church is true? Whether or not it is actually the Church of Jesus Christ? And whether or not it is led by divine revelation?” He admits that “what was really hoped for was the experience that every member has a right to enjoy and everyone else has the right to receive, and that is the knowledge of a personal testimony.” Dunn’s challenge reminds me of a similar one put forth by Eastern Orthodox philosopher David B. Hart:
It cannot be gainsaid that Christians have faith in Easter largely because they belong to communities of believers, or that their faith is a complex amalgam of shared confession, personal experience, spiritual and ethical practice, and reliance on others, or that they are inevitably obliged to make judgments about the trustworthiness of those whose word they must take. Some also choose to venture out upon the vast seas of Christianity’s philosophical or mystical traditions; and many are inspired by miracles, or dreams, or the apparent working of grace in their lives, or moments of aesthetic transport, or strange raptures, or intuitions of the Holy Spirit’s presence, and so on. None of this might impress the committed skeptic, or seem like adequate grounds for faith, but that does not mean that faith is essentially willful and irrational. More to the point, it is bizarre for anyone to think he or she can judge the nature or credibility of another’s experiences from the outside. If [a skeptic] really wishes to undertake a “scientific” investigation of faith, he should promptly abandon his efforts to describe religion (which, again, does not really exist), and attempt instead to enter into the actual world of belief in order to weigh its phenomena from within. As a first step, he should certainly–purely in the interest of sound scientific method and empirical rigor–begin praying, and then continue doing so with some perseverance. This is a drastic and implausible prescription, no doubt; but it is the only means by which he could possibly begin to acquire any knowledge of what belief is or of what it is not.3
Historian and Joseph Smith biographer Richard Bushman once recalled a conversation with a Catholic colleague regarding the reasons for his testimony. “Not stopping to think,” Bushman relayed,
I told him I remained a Mormon because when I followed my religion I became the kind of man I want to be. No philosophy, no evidence, nothing elaborate. Simply the personal reality that my religion helps me get better. That’s what it comes down to in the crunch. The scripture verse explains what will happen when you listen to the spirit speaking in the wilderness: “My Spirit is truth; truth abideth and hath no end; and if it be in you it shall abound.” For me that promise becomes a simple matter of fact: when I hearken to the spirit, truth seems to abound in me as the verse promises. By that I mean not just truth as propositions about the world but truth as in the true and highest way to live.
Returning to Dunn, he seems to echo the sentiments of Harold B. Lee about man’s restlessness and yearning:
To youth who associate themselves with various causes, some popular, many designed to accomplish much good, and a few militant; to the adult who can find no satisfaction in his vocation and perhaps only frustration in his marriage and emptiness in his life; to the militant who spends his life bitterly denouncing what he is against but never quite certain what he is for; to the person who turns to drugs, perhaps even attempting to equate it with a spiritual experience, and then realizing that for every high there is some kind of dismal low—perhaps these people and many others seize upon special issues and act unpredictably more from an inner need to satisfy a yearning soul than because of the face value of that in which they are involved, however worthy it may be.
This yearning can only truly be satisfied by “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6); by revealed religion; by the Spirit abounding within oneself.
Other bloggers involved in the General Conference Odyssey:
Nathaniel Givens – Comforting the Afflicted and Afflicting the Comfortable (Difficult Run)
J. Max Wilson – LDS Conference April 1971 – A Rebuke from President Harold B. Lee and Debunking the Iron Rod vs Liahona Taxonomy (Sixteen Small Stones)
John Hancock – The Eternally Durable Iron Rod (The Good Report)
Michele Linford – Religion, Revelation, and Resolutions (Mormon Women)