Comforting the Afflicted and Afflicting the Comfortable

St Michael Defeating Lucifer's Army, by Luca Giordano (MediaWiki Commons)
St Michael Defeating Lucifer’s Army, by Luca Giordano (MediaWiki Commons)

This is the fifth week of the General Conference Odyssey, and we’re covering the talks from the Sunday Afternoon Session of the April 1971 General Conference. Before I get to the talks, however, I’m going to start with three disparate exhibits.

Exhibit A: Affliction and Comfort

You’ve probably heard some variant of the phrase, “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” American humorist Finley Peter Dunne (writing as the fictional Mr. Dooley) penned the original.

Th newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, controls th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward”.

It’s supposed to be about newspapers, but I’ve always felt it applied much better to the Church. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a welcome haven for wayward sinners, but for those of us who are comfortable it can seem more like a frustrating and confusing bootcamp than a quiet refuge. That is not a bug. It is a feature.

Exhibit B: The Military Mental Model of Mormonism

One of the most important bloggernacle posts I’ve ever read is “The Military Mental Model of Mormonism.” In it, MC contrasts two models of Mormonism, the military model and the school house model. According to the schoolhouse model:

mortality is sort of like a giant high school where we are primarily here for self-improvement, and where the ultimate goal is to get good grades and hopefully be one of 50 million or so people tied for valedictorian[ref]I’d describe it as a slightly more personal variant of moralistic therapeutic deism[/ref]

The schoolhouse model is optimally suited for comfortable people leading comfortable lives, and it has a lot of truth to it. However, it also has pretty serious drawbacks. The military model is not perfect either, but it has the potential to explain aspects of Mormonism that seem irredeemably problematic under the schoolhouse model.

I embarked on this General Conference Odyssey not because I found General Conference talks soothing and enjoyable but because I found them challenging. (You can see that in the Times and Seasons post I wrote before the Odyssey started: The Assurance of Love.)

For the first four weeks, I was pleasantly surprised by the talks I read, however. I wasn’t challenged by the talks. I was predominantly comforted, impressed, and reassured. You can see that in my posts from the third and fourth weeks: “Love Fervently” and “The Mormon Way to Love.

For this fifth week, however, the talks were a little harder on me, however. And—as I alluded to earlier—I think that pattern is a feature rather than a bug. Christ’s Church is a shelter first, but once you start to feel comfortable it begins to feel more like an obstacle course.

President Harold B. Lee’s talk “The Iron Rod,” (the first in the session) seemed very stern to me. It includes surprisingly strong language that appears very political, as in his recounting of a friend’s statement that “A liberal in the Church is merely one who does not have a testimony.”[ref]I’m not a liberal, so you might think I would enjoy this kind of frank talk. I don’t. It troubles me. Some of that might be that I don’t fully understand the way “liberal” was used, of course, but it’s troubling nonetheless.[/ref] Then he quoted Dr. John A. Widstoe:

The self-called liberal [in the Church] is usually one who has broken with the fundamental principles or guiding philosophy of the group to which he belongs. … He claims membership in an organization but does not believe in its basic concepts; and sets out to reform it by changing its foundations…It is folly to speak of a liberal religion, if that religion claims that it rests upon unchanging truth.

Elder Bruce R. McConkie also spoke during this session, and his talk “The Lord’s People Receive Revelation” contained more of what Laman and Lemuel might have called “hard things.”

“We do not come to a knowledge of God and his laws through intellectuality, or by research, or by reason,” declares Elder McConkie. Instead, revelation is the key. “Unless and until a man has received revelation, he has not received religion, and he is not on the path leading to salvation in our Father’s kingdom.”

He further elaborated the pitfalls of intellectualism:

I know people who can talk endlessly about religion but who have never had a religious experience. I know people who have written books about religion but who have about as much spirituality as a cedar post. Their interest in gospel doctrine is to defend their own speculative views rather than to find out what the Lord thinks about whatever is involved. Their conversations and their writings are in the realm of reason and the intellect; the Spirit of God has not touched their souls; they have not been born again and become new creatures of the Holy Ghost; they have not received revelation.

This is, to me, a fairly harsh line to take. If someone has “never had a religious experience,” my reaction would be one of concern first and foremost. But Elder McConkie’s stance seems to run the risk of compounding the sense of failure such an individual might feel when he says, for example, that “God stands revealed or he remains forever unknown.”

So I have explained some of the things that troubled me in these talks. Now I will talk about working my way through them.

Let’s start with something I mentioned at the outset: the Church ought to make you uncomfortable from time to time. This is true even in the schoolhouse model. When discussing secular education, we often talk about the need for children to be challenged. Well, being challenged is not always comfortable. It means stretching beyond what is comfortable. It implies being asked to do things you have never done before and are, in a sense, not ready for yet. In the Church we are always learning, and we learn by doing.

Additionally, the entire point of having a prophet is to have someone who can warn you of danger when you don’t recognize the danger for yourself. Of course there are times when—upon being given a warning—you will immediately look and see the danger yourself. In that case, gratitude is easy and instant. But the most valuable warnings are those which tell you to beware of something that you already see, but that you think is not dangerous. A grateful reaction is not as automatic in these cases. For starters, you might simply refuse to believe the warning, especially at first. What’s to be grateful for, if there’s no danger? Moreover, if someone is telling you not to do something and you can’t see any good reason for their restrictions, then there might be resentment at being bossed around. And lastly, there’s a risk that even if you do see the danger you will begrudge a sense of embarrassment that you didn’t see the problem yourself first. If a prophet is doing their job, then they are not very popular. That’s the whole point.

Now, the leaders are not perfect. If they were, this would all be very simple. We could simply turn off our brains and do what we’re told. Just as relevantly, the General Authorities give general advice. It’s up to us to understand where and how to apply what we hear in our own lives. There will be exceptions, and there isn’t a comprehensive guide to each and every possible exception. This means we cannot pass the buck to the leaders: we have to decide for ourselves what we’re going to do with their counsel.

But—given our understanding of a prophet’s role—we should be careful that dismissing their words as incorrect is not our first recourse. If you’ve got a prophet, you should use the prophet. And that means that you do your utmost to second-guess your own beliefs, your own cultural assumptions, and your own expertise. You can’t learn unless you’re willing to be taught, and there are times when you can’t receive more and better if you’re not willing to let go of what you’re currently holding.

And so, returning to Elder McConkie’s talk, something he said is worth highlighting: “It is the right of members of the Church to receive revelation.” His talk will be utterly incomprehensible without understanding that precept. At a minimum, it means that we can (and should) understand his stern statements regarding those who have not received revelation not as condemnation for failure, but rather as encouragement.

I also found Elder Hartman Rector, Jr.’s talk “Ignorance is Expensive” interesting. We’re all familiar with the idea that a theme develops in General Conference sessions, often when the talks touch upon the same themes in the same ways. But in this case Elder Rector’s talk—which immediately followed Elder McConkie’s—tackled many of the same themes with different emphasis.

In contrast to the almost anti-intellectual tones of Elder McConkie’s talk, Elder Rector’s seemed downright intellectual, using terms like “intelligence,” and “enlightened.” “We all should place the pursuit of light and truth, or intelligence, uppermost in our selection of goals, since we may have them eternally,” he said.

He also tackled head-on the issue of why we sometimes have difficulty receiving the light we seek:

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 prone to say that we are waiting on the Lord to receive light and truth when, as a matter of fact, the Lord is waiting on us—waiting for us to get into condition so he can reveal the light we seek and so desperately need.

Most importantly, he explained that “commandments are calculated to get us in condition so that we can receive light and truth, even intelligence.”

Elder Rector’s talk flowed seamlessly into Elder Loren C. Dunn’s (Drink of the Pure Water), which emphasized this importance of keeping commandments to revelation-seeking, and delineated what that revelation might look like:

If things go properly, you’ll notice some by-products, such as a growing awareness and concern for your fellowman and greater appreciation and consideration for other people.

Elder Bernard P. Brockbank’s talk (Love of God) and Elder Joseph Anderson’s (Eternal Joy is Eternal Growth) also had interesting insights into the idea of commandments. “The price the Lord has asked us to pay to be delivered from evil is to sincerely ask him,” said Elder Brockbank. In other words: the Lord stands ready to bless as soon as we are willing to receive the blessings. And “commandments are God’s laws—nature’s laws too,” said Elder Anderson, emphasizing that God’s laws are not capricious or arbitrary demands but rather wise and benevolent directions. God isn’t bribing us to jump through hoops. He’s trying to teach us to be like him.

So here are my thoughts on a session that was, at least initially, rather hard for me to read.

First, keep in mind the military model. The stakes are high and the decisions are real. This explains a lot of apparently troubling aspects of our faith: both individual commands and also the entire, hierarchical aspect of the Church. We are here to learn, but we’re learning under fire, as it were. Parents sometimes yell at their children out of love, for example not to run out into a busy street. Even if that is not A+ parenting, it shouldn’t be conflated with a lack of love or an unrighteous desire to dominate. Thus: even if our leaders do err in some ways, we should not assume that it is out of some kind of warped, selfish motive.

Second, keep in mind that discomfort is a feature, not a bug. We’re creatures of least resistance. We need to be prodded. And no one likes to be prodded. So you shouldn’t expect to feel comfortable in the Church. At least, not all the time. Sometimes it is a refuge. Other times, however, it is more akin to physical (spiritual) therapy.

Third, read what the leaders have to say in context. And not just in context of their own talks, but in context of how different leaders talk about the same issues. We have Twelve Apostles for a reason. We have dozens of Seventies for a reason. Revelation is neither easy nor precise. Not even for our leaders. But if we integrate their words together, I believe we can best discern the message that our Father has for us.[ref]In this case, the message I got was an emphasis on experienced religion that takes personal revelation seriously and also offers a road map on how to get it (via obedience) along with an accompanying discussion of why and how that method works.[/ref]

Which, when you think about it, is kind of the point of the General Conference Odyssey. No more cherry-picking what strokes your ego or what stokes your indignation. The goal is to read everything (at least starting in 1971). We’ll see where that takes us.

Other General Conference Odyssey blog posts for this week:

You can also check out the full index of all posts so far here.