In the Expanse of Silence


Not long ago, I found myself asking the same questions over and over, “Do other people think that too?”

For a long time, I believed that all those encompassed under the cloak of Mormonism believed the same thing. I felt the Church was unanimous in what it believed – that the leaders of the church were there to tell us all what was right to believe and that all who believed merely agreed with that which was said. It was a world of right and wrong. It was a world of doctrine and non-doctrine. It was a world of things that should be said and believed, and things that shouldn’t.

It was a simple life: go to church, read my scriptures, pray to receive the answers I knew I should receive, listen to the leaders of the church so that I might better discipline my own beliefs to be in line with that which was true. Questions were welcome in theory, but if the answers weren’t readily available, questioning seemed to require too much work and was simply left for future days to come.

“Does everyone live like this?” I asked myself. “Do people still live like this? Are people happy living such a way?” I no longer felt I could live in such a manner. Questions creeped up and wouldn’t subside. I found myself not having answers to the questions I had, but I no longer wanted to wait for future days to come. I heard the same answers, but they no longer satisfied me. Was I going astray? Was I losing my testimony, my belief? I’d ask God for the answers but I didn’t seem to hear Him speak. Did I really expect to hear answers? I doubted God would speak to me to give me an answer to my confused and uncertain questions. I wrestled with my questions and the lack of answers.

In the expanse of silence my questions became more refined and more thoughtful. God has an amazing talent of knowing when to speak and when not to speak. I’ve come to believe that much of revelation comes in the process of questioning opposed to that of receiving an answer.

This isn’t to say that the answer isn’t important, but rather that the answer brings no fruit if the soil wasn’t first properly prepared. In wrestling with our questions we are forced to really formulate and solidify what we believe or think we believe. Asking questions helps us to realize that which we do not know and leaves us in a vulnerable state from which we can learn and grow – to experience a metamorphosis of faith.

It can be frightening. What changes will we experience? Where will we be left in the end? Perhaps it’d be best to remain inside our cocoon – though we see the fractured lines running across the membranes of our tenuous faith. Uncertain of what awaits on the outside or our capabilities of coping with it; maybe we can remain within our cocoon a little longer.
I believe to ask a question is to act on faith and hope. The sole purpose of asking a question is to find a reassuring response even if we might have given up that an answer will come or that a voice will be heard.

True and genuine questions release the contents of our hearts. The soul yearns to connect with something or someone so that it can once more feel tethered to something. Questions are the soul’s attempt to reconcile that which we don’t understand with that which we hope to believe, and it isn’t until we really begin to question that we can find out what it is we truly believe or hope to believe. It’s also in the question where we can find the cords which connect us all and see the hearts of those around us.

Difficult Run 2015 Recap

At the beginning of every year, I post a review of the prior year. I like to go over traffic stats, finances, other changes, and then talk about the year ahead. As an added bonus this time, I’m going to also review some of the stories from 2015 that have caused me second-thoughts since I wrote them.

2015 Traffic

Traffic stats do not motivate our posts here at Difficult Run, but as a data nerd I find them inherently interesting. And let’s not kid around: writing is a lot more rewarding when it has an impact. And for that to happen, other people have to read your stuff.

On that score, I’m pleased with the healthy growth we have here at Difficult Run. It might be a small fish in a big pond, but it’s our fish, and it’s growing nicely. Here’s a look at blog traffic for the three complete years DR has been online.

DR Annual Traffic 2013-2015

The exact totals are 57,270 (for 2013), 112,668 (for 2014) and 146,936 (for 2015). Here’s to cracking 200,000 in 2016!

We also have a Facebook Page that is up to 215 followers and an email list with 140 members. I also use a WordPress plugin called Jetpack to do basic site monitoring, traffic, and a few other things. And Jetpack puts its own year-in-review together. Here it is.

2015 Top Posts

Here are top 5 posts from along with their total views by the end of 2015:

  1. When Social Justice Isn’t About Justice (22,732 views since November 25, 2015)
  2. Some Sad Puppy Data Analysis (21,151 views since April 14, 2015)
  3. Lots of Hugo Losers (6,774 views since August 24, 2015)
  4. Why John Dehlin Faces Church Discipline (6,590 views since January 20, 2015)
  5. Wisdom and the Wiesn (2,076 views since October 1, 2015)

It’s kind of an interesting range of topics: politics, sci-fi, and Mormonism. Eclectic. That’s how we like to roll here at Difficult Run, although we also tend to have a lot of posts on economics (but no big ones that made the list this year.)

2015 Finances

We display Amazon ads on Difficult Run. The way those work, is that if you click the ad and then buy something from Amazon (even if you don’t buy the thing we were advertising), we got a small percentage of the order (usually about 4%).

We also ran some ads for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the end of the year, and that’s something we might try again in 2016, if they’d like us to. (None of the money from that brief campaign was received in 2015, however.

Additionally, I’ve received two very generous and unsolicited donations from an anonymous reader. Here’s how that all stacked up:

  • Amazon Ad Revenue: $100.78
  • Donations: $600
  • Total: $700.78

During 2015, we were paying $30/month for hosting, and we spent another $15 on domain registration. So that was $375. So, for the first time, Difficult Run paid for its own hosting this year! That’s pretty exciting, and there’s enough money left over to pay for (most of) the hosting in 2016.

Difficult Run was never intended as a major source of revenue. The only goal has been to cover the hosting costs, which will continue to go up as our traffic increases. So far, we look to be self-sufficient (thanks primarily to our generous benefactor), and that is really nice.

Blog Changes: New Host! New Domain Registrar!

At the start of 2015, we outgrew the budget $5/month hosting that I’d been using since launching Difficult Run. Instead, we migrated to a dedicate WP hosting company. It was a huge improvement, but by the end of the year the new host was starting to let us down with extended outages and emergency server migrations. (Luckily a lot of this was during the Christmas – New Year’s period when traffic is pretty light.) So, earlier this month, we migrated to a new host.

Our new host is Appteryx. They were absolutely great about the transfer, despite the fact that I goofed and took down the old site before telling them that we had a deadline to get the new one up. They were gracious about that and—more than that—really, really fast. Website speed and reliability has also been great. If you’re looking for a host, definitely consider them.

We also switched our domain registrar. Our new registrar is Google. The old one went down several times in 2015, and I’m hoping that with Google that will no longer be an issue!

Second Thoughts from 2015

There are two posts that have given me second thoughts since I posted them in 2015. I’m sure these aren’t the only mistakes I’ve made. In fact, I don’t even really consider either one to be a mistake. (Although I have certainly made some of them!) They are just posts that haven’t really sat well with me in the months since I posted them. Let me tell you why.

Irving, Texas Saved from Homemade Clock (September 16, 2015)

This story seemed so simple to me when it broke. More than that, it resonated with me. Kids being bullied for being different? Especially nerdy kids? Yeah, that hit home. And so—along with a great deal of the Internet—I rushed to the keyboard to vent my outrage.

Don’t I know better than that?

I do. Or at least, I should. Looks like I had to learn the lesson one more time.

As far as I can tell, a lot of the original criticisms are still valid. The school’s reaction—and the police’s—seems unreasonable. No one ever thought that anyone was in real danger. However, the more that I read the less clear-cut it seemed. There was no single article that opened my eyes, but I paid attention over the coming months and lots of little things combined to make me think I’d been hasty in my rush to judgment. Examples: first, no clock was created. The kid just broke open an old clock and stuff it inside a little pencil case that looked like miniature briefcase. Those images were missing from the first stories (I saw one before I published mine, but ignored the second thoughts it prompted). This gets worse rather than better combined with stories that Ahmed actually was fairly skilled. He had made cool projects, but this wasn’t one of them. Several other things didn’t feel quite right, and then—most recently—came word that he was suing for $15 million. Given all the incredible gifts, opportunities, and offers he’d received from Silicon Valley and others, that just seems excessive.

I’m not going to make the same mistake in reverse. I don’t know exactly what was going on. I just can’t feel any confidence in my initial response, and I wish I’d waited rather than rushing to judgment.

Lesson learned. Again.

Thoughts on Immigrants, Refugees, and Fear (September 10, 2015)

Even more than with the previous issue, the emotional core of this is something I stand by. Reaching out in love and rising above our fear is so important to who we are—or should be—as a nation. I watched another GOP primary debate (this one without Trump), and it was so depressing to hear the candidates fall over each other to talk about how scary the world is, how scary ISIS is, how scary everything is. ISIS is a bunch of truly evil dudes, yes, but they’re not the USSR. We’re not facing the possibility of existential defeat in ISIS. Not from their guns or bombs, anyway. The bigger thread, by far, is that in our overreaction and in our fear we lose our own soul.

However, when it comes to the actual policy of immigration (especially to Europe), I have to admit that some of the skeptics had a point. One thing that was covered frequently at the time was that a great deal of the incoming refugees were unaccompanied young men rather than families. That raised red flags at the time, not necessarily in terms of their intentions, but in terms of the unique problems that this could have for integration.

Since then, one article that caught my attention came from the Gatestone Institute in October. Titled Germany: Migrant Crime Wave, Police Capitulate, the article cites the President of the German Police Union saying that German police “hardly dare to stop a car” in some neighborhoods, “because they know that they’ll be surrounded by 40 or 50 men.”

Meanwhile a December article shows that the response in Germany has been a historic run on weapons of all kinds.

And then early this month there were the harrowing tales of mass sexual assault committed by immigrant populations against young German women in cities across Germany, most notably in Cologne. It’s important to be cautious about stories that fit so neatly into racist stereotypes (“We have to protect our women!”), but the facts seem beyond dispute. One IB Times article has the total number of criminal complaints from New Year’s Eve up to 516, with nearly ½ of them related to sexual assault. Reporting at CNN and Der Spiegel concurs.

It’s not like this is all new to me. In the original article, I wrote:

We should not be reckless and we should not be irresponsible, but we should also not be afraid to take chances to do what ought to be done.

I knew things could go wrong. I just didn’t expect it to be so blatant or so fast.

I’d like to end on a positive note. As covered by the BBC, in December 2015 Muslim Kenyans refused to allow themselves to be separated from Christian Kenyans and in so doing prevented their Christian neighbors from being massacred by Islamist terrorists. And then, just a couple of days ago, a conference of Muslim leaders meeting in Morocco released a statement citing religious freedom in the ancient Constitution of Medina, highlighting the “urgent need for cooperation among all religious groups,” and saying that “such cooperation must go beyond mutual tolerance and respect, to providing full protection for the rights and liberties to all religious groups in a civilized manner that eschews coercion, bias, and arrogance.”

Religious understanding is possible. It is essential. But it can also be hard and complicated. For me, this means I assess the risks as even higher than I thought they were, but still believe in the essential mission of moving against the current of fear instead of giving into it.

Difficult Run in 2016

We already have a ton of great articles lined up. As for myself, personally, I have several topics that I want to do some research on before presenting them here. Sites like Wait But Why and Slate Star Codex along with pieces like When Social Justice Isn’t About Justice and Some Sad Puppy Data Analysis all give me confidence that if you invest the time in research and longer, original pieces you can find an audience and make an impact. In particular, I’ve got a series of articles on the definition of religious freedom a friend (and law professor) gave to me and also a series of articles comparing the role of Sharia in the US court system to ecclesiastical courts from other faiths (especially Jewish Halakha.) So look forward to those, and also to some new members we hope to bring on board this year.

2016, here we come!

Deflecting Asteroids: The AEI-Brookings Poverty Report

The American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution have come together to produce a report on reducing poverty. Recognizing the increase in child poverty with in the U.S., the group recommends multiple policies to combat it, including:

  • Promote marriage as the most reliable route to family stability and resources.
  • Promote delayed, responsible childbearing.
  • Promote parenting skills and practices, especially among low-income parents.
  • Promote skill development, family involvement, and employment among young men as well as women.
  • Expand opportunities for the disadvantaged by improving their skills.
  • Make work pay better than it does now for the less educated.
  • Expand both work requirements and opportunities for the hard-to-employ while maintaining an effective work-based safety net for the most vulnerable members of our society, especially children.
  • Make more jobs available.
  • Increase public investment in two underfunded stages of education: preschool and postsecondary.
  • Educate the whole child to promote social-emotional as well as academic skills.
  • Modernize the organization and accountability of the educational system.
  • Close resource gaps to reduce education gaps.

The project is based on three core values:

  1. That all Americans should have the opportunity to apply their talents and efforts to better themselves and their children, regardless of the circumstances of their birth;
  2. That all Americans have a responsibility to provide for themselves and their families to the best of their abilities before asking others for help;
  3. That all Americans are entitled to a basic level of security against the vicissitudes of life and, in a nation as rich as ours, to a baseline level of material well-being.

Perhaps even more interesting than the data and policies is the backstory of the project. It was ultimately the brainchild of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (who has been mentioned frequently here at Difficult Run) known as The Asteroids Club. He explains, “The metaphor was that American political life consists of each side pointing to real threats, real asteroids hurtling toward the Earth, but neither side is willing to turn its head for a moment to look at the other side’s perceived asteroid. If we could at least acknowledge that the other side’s concerns are valid, maybe we could help each other deflect our asteroids.” You can see him describe the origin and results of the project below.

This is what our political system needs and Haidt’s successful project provides me a little hope.

Animal Cognition

The Economist recently ran a great article on the recent studies into animal cognition. The article doesn’t introduce the raging background discussions on the theories of animal cognition, but considering the topic takes up three full Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) entries, I don’t blame the author. Rather, the article does an excellent job providing empirical information that can help one better pick among the myriad theories of animal minds. More than most subjects, I believe this topic continues to need more empirical information, because we have so little on account of how hard it is to study the inner workings of animals. And where information lacks, theories abound with little way to adjudicate among them.

In reading deeper into the topic on SEP, I found one particular passage enlightening:

One concern is that researchers may have a failure of imagination when it comes to hypothesis generation; they may make an inference to the best explanation argument without considering all the possible explanations. This reflects Kennedy’s worry when he claims that the following argument for attributing mental properties to animals rests on a false dichotomy: either animals are stimulus-response machines, or they are agents with beliefs and desires; since animals are not stimulus-response machines, they must be psychological agents (Kennedy 1992). According to Kennedy, the problem with this argument is that not all machines implement stimulus-response functions; some machines are complex and indeterministic, and if animals were machines, they would be machines of that sort (Barlow 1990; Kennedy 1992).

This observation seems to fit what I have read in studying animal cognition. Authors will gather a jumble of facts, and then either fit them into the box of ‘animals have minds just like human beings’ or ‘animals are completely unconscious.’ But what about a spectrum? I do not see any reason animals cannot possess mental capacity which puts them beyond pure unconscious decision-making but also doesn’t launch them to the same level of mental capability and freedom as human beings. Now, I hardly have the philosophical capability (or credentials) to give any substantive comment on what this spectrum would look like, but I think pointing out the possibility of spectrum might help break the logjam of either/or in animal cognition.

I think animal cognition also has a simmering background fight over naturalism vs. theism in the western world that encourages either/or thinking. For theists, man must remain separate from animals. For naturalists, breaking down the distinction between man and animal is a step forward. Add in sparsity of information, and what information we do have being closely tied to theory for interpretation, and we have a mess where almost anybody can get what they want with enough massaging. But I find this mess exciting! I think we have a golden opportunity to remain open to new information in a rapidly developing field, and one where careful thought on theoretical underpinnings goes a long way.

National Review: “When Abortion Suddenly Stopped Making Sense”

lifeI know we’ve had a lot of pro-life pieces here recently, I guess the March for Life that coincides with the anniversary of Roe v. Wade brings it out in us.  The National Review has a great piece from an early 70s “anti-war, mother-earth, feminist, hippie college student” who once believed the pro-choice message.  The piece explores how she was eventually persuaded otherwise (hint: science, the absence of rarity, and pro-womanhood.)  It includes great quotables like

Abortion can’t push the rewind button on life and make it so she was never pregnant. It can make it easy for everyone around the woman to forget the pregnancy, but the woman herself may struggle.


Abortion gets presented to us as if it’s something women want; both pro-choice and pro-life rhetoric can reinforce that idea. But women do this only if all their other options look worse. It’s supposed to be “her choice,” yet so many women say, “I really didn’t have a choice.”


We had somehow bought the idea that abortion was necessary if women were going to rise in their professions and compete in the marketplace with men. But how had we come to agree that we will sacrifice our children, as the price of getting ahead? When does a man ever have to choose between his career and the life of his child?

Bam. Bam. Bam.  It’s great, check it out.

Practicing (Obeying) Virtue (the Commandments)

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

In some of my previous posts, I’ve connected the counsel of Church leaders to that of the ancient concept of eudaimonia (flourishing). Lately, I’ve been going through a couple books on the topic of virtue ethics. One of them is philosopher Julia Annas’ Intelligent Virtue, which argues that virtue can be learned as one would a skill. One can continually progress and become more dynamic in their use and application of virtue, just as they can with an acquired skill. This is not unconscious habit, but knowingly applied mastery. Given my interest in developing a theology of work that draws on studies in organizational theory and positive psychology, I was excited to see her compare the state of virtue with the concept of flow. This virtuous state described by Annas reminded me of Christ’s Beatitudes in Matthew 5. As one pair of biblical scholars explains, “[W]e often interpret [Matt. 5:9] to mean, “If you are a peacemaker, then God will bless you.” But this isn’t what Jesus meant. Jesus meant, “if you are a peacemaker, then you are in your happy place.” It just doesn’t work well in English.” This is because “happy sounds trite…” The Greek makarios conveyed much more than a mere psychological state: “In the wider Greek world that sets the background for biblical use makar- was used of the gods, who were above all the vicissitudes of life, of the dead, who had left it all behind, and of people who were thought to be in a good situation and were deemed to have reason for being happy: wealthy, having family, being wise or famous or an honored citizen, and so on.” In essence, one could say that makarios was the divine life. The idea of living the divine life–of flourishing–through the practice of virtue is something that pops up again and again throughout this session.

Richard L. Evans starts it off by explaining that far from needing to be “rewritten,” the commandments need to be “reread.” The reason for this is because “the experience of the ages has proved the need for them, and has proved what happens if they are ignored.” According to Evans, the commandments are for our benefit. “Essentially,” he says, “this is what the gospel is: counsel from a loving Father who says to his children, “You have limitless, everlasting possibilities. You also have your freedom. It’s up to you how you use it. This is what you can become if you take my advice—and this is what will happen if you don’t. The choice is yours.”” Evans declares that “there is a law of compensation that is built into life,” one that echoes the words of Alma: “…the meaning of the word restoration is to bring back again evil for evil, or carnal for carnal, or devilish for devilish—good for that which is good; righteous for that which is righteous; just for that which is just; merciful for that which is merciful” (Alma 41:13). Obedience for the sake of obedience is not inherently virtuous. Embracing and doing “the good” because it is good is what brings about more good. Obeying the commandments is practicing the skill of virtue.

ElRay L. Christiansen continues this trend by noting, “Man’s progress is to a great degree dependent upon his willingness to remain steadfast and immovable, especially when faced with opposition and adversity.” To choose virtue in all situations leads one to become truly virtuous and obtain “that which is most precious and desirable—peace, liberty, and salvation” (italics mine). The lack of virtue leads to “crime and contention” and “crises and violence.” It is likely a similar recognition that led Bernard P. Brockbank to say, “The Lord personally gave commandments that would help mankind to grow and develop his Godlike attributes.” The commandments (specifically the Ten in Brockbank’s talk) are not arbitrary. Rather, they are “a basic part of God’s way of life and a basic part of the gospel of the kingdom.” And what is the foundation for God’s way of life? According to Milton R. Hunter, “The central theme and the most dynamic force of the gospel of Jesus Christ is love.” This is because ” [o]ur Eternal Father and his Only Begotten Son both have intense, comprehensive, and full love for us. They have much greater intelligence and understanding than we have, and so their feelings of love go far beyond our capabilities to love. The attribute of love is so highly developed in these divine Beings that the scriptures state: “God is love.” (1 John 4:16.) In fact, Deity’s transcendent love is above and beyond our deepest feelings and keenest conception. At times of great spiritual experience when we feel an abundance of the Spirit, we have a greater realization of the magnitude of God’s love.” Quoting President David O. McKay, he states, “Homes are made permanent through love.” (Pathways to Happiness [Bookcraft], p. 114.)” This is because “[l]ove should also characterize the center of the family life. Each child should be made to feel at all times by his parents that he is of great importance in the family. Parents should express their love to their children and show them in numerous ways that they love them dearly. Then the Spirit of the Lord will reside in the home. The family will be love-centered and thereby God-centered. The children in turn will reciprocate the love to the parents and strive to please them.” As I pointed out in a previous post, “Family life is the context in which the good life is found.”

Finally, S. Dilworth Young gives us an idea of the spill-over effect of this virtuous living:

The revelations given to Joseph Smith on this subject are numerous and were among the early ones. To care for the poor is one of the first and early obligations. To help the needy and those who mourn follows close behind. All of us have some time, but those who are not given great responsibility in the organizations have more time to seek out the poor, needy, and helpless. And this help is badly needed. All about us are those in need of encouragement, assistance, and help—help of a kind we can all give, not money, but time and attention and personal encouragement, especially to those who must bear great responsibility for loved ones and who cannot pass it to others for the simple reason there are no others to whom to pass it.

He continues, “There are many lonely people, people whose loneliness is hidden. We need to seek them out and relieve them. There are those who feel they are not accepted, who need to be built up in spirit and helped to find themselves.” We flourish as we establish connections with each other, building quality relationships. The commandments are pro-social in nature. They are meant to build Zion, to establish families, and make us of “one heart and one mind” (Moses 7:18).

Let’s start with practicing them.

The other posts from this week’s installment of the General Conference Odyssey are:



This Is What the Gospel Is

One of my favorite depictions of a loving Heavenly Father, by Cima da Conegliano.
One of my favorite depictions of a loving Heavenly Father, by Cima da Conegliano.

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

This week we’re covering the Friday afternoon session of the October 1971 General Conference, and there is one talk that stood out to me: Should the Commandments Be Rewritten? by Elder Richard L. Evans.

The title of the talk is stern, and the opening paragraph is blunt:

Perhaps I could begin with an interesting question posed recently and an equally interesting answer. The question was, “Don’t you think the commandments should be rewritten?” The answer was, “No, they should be reread.

It’s easy and it’s tempting to write off a talk that opens like this as a fossil of an older, more black-and-white time. Just obey. Stop thinking. Right?

Well, no. Absolutely not. What this talk conveys–and what is probably the number 1 lesson for me in going through General Conference talks written before I was born–is that they reward the person who comes with an attitude of humility and a thirst to learn. Not only that, but they quickly, consistently, and emphatically confound the stereotypes. Consider Elder Evan’s words from just a couple of paragraphs further into the talk:

Some things the commandments say thou shalt not do, and if that is what they say, that’s what they mean, and there’s a reason for it.

This paragraph starts out on a straight railroad track headed directly to Divine Command Theory Central. Divine command theory is “a meta-ethical theory which proposes that an action’s status as morally good is equivalent to whether it is commanded by God.” In simpler terms: DCT is the idea that if we ask God, “But why?” he will respond with just “Because I said so.” And that’s all there is to it.

Because Elder Evans’ talk has a stern tone, you might think that this is where he’s headed. But at the last moment, Elder Evans suddenly veers off in a completely different direction. We aren’t supposed to keep the commandments just because God says so. No, “there’s a reason for [them].” Just a couple of paragraphs later, he elaborates:

Essentially this is what the gospel is: counsel from a loving Father who says to his children, “You have limitless, everlasting possibilities. You also have your freedom. It’s up to you how you use it. This is what you can become if you take my advice—and this is what will happen if you don’t. The choice is yours.”

Now, let me make a quick digression. The quote from actually says “a living Father” instead of “a loving Father.” I was pretty sure that was wrong. “Loving” makes a lot more sense than “living.” So I cued up the video and watched. First of all: I was right. Elder Evans is talking about a loving father. Secondly: hearing him read the talk was also incredibly eye opening for me.

We all know, as denizens of the Internet, that tone is hard to convey in text. We’ve all had experiences where we got into trouble because we tried to make a joke online and it was taken the wrong way, or because someone said something that seemed rude or unkind to us, only to realize later that they had been trying to be playful. The same thing is going on here. I can’t help but think of Nephi writing,

I, Nephi, cannot write all the things which were taught among my people; neither am I mighty in writing, like unto speaking; for when a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth it unto the hearts of the children of men.

Nephi understood the difference between the spoken word and the written word, and he well understood the limitations of writing. One of those limitations is tone.

If I’d been listening to Elder Evans’ talk all along–instead of just reading the text–I would have realized much sooner that his dogged emphasis on obedience was not born of an authoritarian disposition but out of a sense of urgent concern. In this sense, Elder Evans is modeling our Father. In that case, too, commands are not about bossing underlings around. They are about beseeching wayward, recalcitrant, stubborn, and (quite frankly) bumbling and incompetent children to be careful.

As I continue to read these talks, I am humbled again and again to find that a lot of the things that I have grumbled about in the past “Why aren’t the General Authorities more clear about X?” or “Why don’t they just come out and say Y?” are actually there, plain as day, in  talks that I could have easily read any time. It is, quite frankly, a little humiliating. In a good way.

The first is the clear dismissal of DCT in favor of moral realism. Here’s another one, from this talk: sometimes I’m frustrated that the General Authorities aren’t more clear about the need for members to be autonomous and independent in our obedience. To figure things out on our own. To stop depending so much on the leaders. And yet here is Elder Evans:

The Lord expects us to use wisdom and common sense and not quibble about what obviously isn’t good for the body or mind or spirit or morals of man.

Also, this is a talk where Elder Evans quotes from Emerson, Cromwell, and Ruskin. Clearly, when Elder Evans said, “I have a great respect for scholarship, for education and research, for academic excellence, and for the magnificent accomplishments of sincere and searching men,” he meant it. He knew what he was talking about. And so clearly, when he followed that up with, “But I also have great respect for the word of God, and his prophets, and life’s purpose; and it comes to a question of where to place our trust,” I should pay attention.

So that’s my experience with the General Conference Odyssey thus far in a nutshell: I’m embarrassed that I didn’t start reading these much earlier, and incredibly grateful that I finally have the opportunity to do so now. I won’t have time, unfortunately, to watch the videos for all the talks. I read much, much faster than the talks are given. But, in addition to learning that I have a tendency to misread the tone, this also makes me more grateful that in just a couple of months I’ll be able to listen to the talks live.

Yes, that’s right. It’s January, and I’m actively looking forward to General Conference. And not just because I get to stay home. No, I’m actually impatient to have a chance to listen to the talks. That’s a really, really big shift in my approach. I’m honestly kind of shocked at how much of a change this project has already had on me, and I’m as excited as ever to see what the next decade brings.

Now, here are some other quotes from some of the rest of the talks given during this session.

The Ten Commandments (Elder Bernard P. Brockbank)

“Respect for father and mother is respect for your own birth and life.”

“By Love, Serve One Another” (Elder S. Dilworth Young)

There are many lonely people, people whose loneliness is hidden. We need to seek them out and relieve them.”

The reason this struck me so forcefully is that it reminds me of some of the most important research I’ve ever learned about: Adverse Childhood Experiences. Read this article to see more about that topic, and how true it is that there are so many people–friends and neighbors–laboring under the burdens of invisible tragedy. This whole talk was a really beautiful sermon on service.

The Vitality of Love (Elder Milton R. Hunter)

“Each child should be made to feel at all times by his parents that he is of great importance in the family.”

Definitely something for me to keep in mind in my own home. My children are in sort of the childhood sweet-spot. They’re old enough to be mostly self-sufficient, but they are still young enough to hold my hand now and then in public. It’s a treacherous time, however, because now that they don’t literally require supervision, it’s tempting to turn away too often. And I know if I do that that, in the blink of an eye, the window of opportunity will be gone and they will be teenage strangers living in my house. And so I appreciate–deeply and truly–every single reminder I get to focus my energies consciously and deliberately on being a more present parent. It’s not just a duty to be there for my kids. It’s one of life’s greatest blessings.

Which, if you think of it, is a great model for all commandments. They’re not really obligations. They’re stepping-stone to peace, happiness, love, and safety.

Here are the rest of the blog posts in this iteration of the General Conference Odyssey.



“You Can’t Use Media If You Want To Understand the World”

So says statistician Hans Rosling in the Swedish Deadline interview below. Modern journalism often distorts our perception of the world, making many believe that we are headed to hell in a handbasket. But we’re not. Rosling explains to his skeptical interviewer that most countries are “in the middle” in terms of prosperity and the people of these countries “go to school, they get vaccinated, and they have two child families.” The overpopulation scare is nonsense, according to Rosling, because “the number of children in the world has stopped increasing because most people use contraceptives.” In response to the claims of “war, conflicts, chaos,” Rosling points to Nigeria’s “fantastic election,” the 2014 election in Indonesia, and India’s elimination of tetanus. The problem, in Rosling’s view, is that news outlets “only show a small part and call that “the world.”” When challenged as to what evidence provides the base for his worldview, Rosling’s concluding remark is priceless: “I use normal statistics that are compiled by the World Bank and the UN. And that’s not controversial. This isn’t something to discuss. I am right and you are wrong.”

If you haven’t seen Rosling’s site Gapminder, you should. Check it out.

Abortion: A Legal Right or a Moral Wrong

Recently the Oregon State University Socratic Club hosted a debate on abortion between Dr. Nadine Strossen and Dr. Mike Adams. If a pro-lifer wants to learn how to effectively discuss this topic, this debate is the one to watch.

Mike made a number of great points. First and foremost, he would not let die the subject of defining what the fetus is. During his opening statement, he emphasizes repeatedly the indisputable fact that the fetus is a living, biological human being, complete with citations from textbooks. Later, when Nadine starts using the term potential life during the discussion section, he states (twice!) that dead things don’t grow. An audience member even chimes in later with a question asking whether these newly conceived, two-celled organisms have the DNA of a plant, a hippopotamus, or a human. The answer, of course, is human.  It’s a seemingly stupid question, but I’ve found asking and answering that stupid question helpful on more than one occasion because it once again centers the discussion of the humanity of the fetus.

Mike also did a great job discussing the future value argument, which I would rate one of the best arguments for the philosophical value of the fetus. I really liked his analogy, which I hadn’t heard before, of taking a photo of the Grand Canyon on an old Polaroid camera. While the picture is developing, does it not have value? If my brother takes that picture and rips it up, have I not lost something of value, even though currently no picture existed on the film? I like the analogy in particular because it’s brief, an all-important attribute for using analogies in debates and discussions.

Future Value!
Future Value!

Mike made another good point on value. Many people will express uncertainty on the moral status of the fetus. If such uncertainty is the case, doesn’t that recommend caution and erring on the side of respecting human life, rather than destroying something (or rather, someone) whose value you do not know?

Lastly, Mike brought up probably my favorite pro-choice philosopher: Peter Singer. Peter Singer is the single most helpful pro-choice philosopher. Singer illustrates that, if one argues for gradualism (i.e. an entity gains worth as it gains functions like cognizance), you have to endorse potential infanticide if you’re going to be consistent because newborns lack many key mental characteristics, such as self-recognition, just like fetuses. The only caveat I would add to Mike’s argument is that Peter Singer does argue that the love parents have for their children means infanticide would almost always be terrible, but that’s not really a comfort because underlying that statement is a very grim sentiment: newborns and infants only have value and therefore the right to live because their parents love them.

Parental kisses: now assuring moral worth

Overall, I have found that pro-lifers in debates have to keep the value of the fetus at the center of the debate. It’s not that the bodily autonomy argument isn’t also important, or that women in general don’t merit a portion of the discussion, but all too often the entire debate will proceed without a single discussion of the fetus’ value. Some pro-choice debaters actively argue that the topic isn’t relevant because bodily autonomy would win out no matter what the moral status of the fetus. My view: Don’t listen. The moral status of the fetus is of utmost importance. If we’re going to make a moral and legal assessment between two entities, we have to know what the moral and legal status of those two entities is!

Speaking of bodily autonomy, one question with which Mike did struggle was the organ donation question. He made a distinction between strangers and children, which isn’t bad, but I think a better distinction (related to the child/stranger distinction) is that you aren’t responsible for a stranger’s state of dependence, whereas the mother and father are responsible for the fetus’ state of dependence. And if a person wants to discuss whether sex entails a responsibility to any resulting children, that sets up a comparison to child support, which almost no one, pro-life or pro-choice, opposes.

Overall, an excellent debate. I apologize in advance for not giving any coverage to Nadine Strossen. I didn’t find any of her arguments particularly compelling, especially when they focused on the fact that abortion is legal or that some religious people are ok with abortion. She’s clearly a very smart women, but I just didn’t find myself moved by any of her arguments. Anyways,  if you have time to watch the full debate, I highly recommend it, and you can form your own opinions on Mike and Nadine’s arguments.