Doubts & People

This is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

Keeping it short this week with a few quotes that stood out to me.

Bruce R. McConkie’s talk touched on “two commissions—on the one hand to teach the doctrines of the gospel, and on the other hand to testify by personal knowledge that we know that the things that we are proclaiming are true—” that, in his view, lead to “two premises”:

On the one hand we are obligated and required to know the doctrines of the Church. We are to treasure up the words of eternal life. We are to reason as intelligently as we are able. We are to use every faculty and capacity with which we are endowed to proclaim the message of salvation and to make it intelligent to ourselves and to our Father’s other children. But after we have done that, and also in the process of doing it, we are obligated to bear testimony—to let the world know and our associate members of the Church know—that in our hearts, by the revelation of the Holy Spirit to our souls, we know of the truth and divinity of the work and of the doctrines that we teach.

He explains that he does not mean to “minimize in any degree or to any extent the obligation that rests upon us to be gospel scholars, to search the revelations, to learn how to reason and analyze, to present the message of salvation among ourselves and to the world with all the power and ability we have; but that standing alone does not suffice…We have to put an approving, divine seal on the doctrine that we teach, and that seal is the seal of testimony, the seal of a personal knowledge borne of the Holy Ghost.” I’ve briefly written on doubt elsewhere and I think we need to be very careful with what I call “I knowism” in the Church. The tension between increased learning or continual revelation and spiritual certainty is a paradox within Mormon culture. There has been an increasing amount of pastoral works on dealing with doubt within Mormonism over the years, but unfortunately I think most are only aware of popular Church publications that disparage doubt. Some even use President Uchtdorf’s plea to “doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith” as nothing more than a battering ram against doubters meaning “you can’t have doubts.” While I agree with McConkie’s premises of knowing the doctrine (which is itself a slippery term, but I won’t go into that) and bearing testimony of it, I think we need to be careful not to overprescribe the need for intellectual certainty. As I’ve been reading through James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, this profound insight by Taylor should be taken into consideration when we discuss knowing and belief:

A society is secular insofar as religious belief or belief in God is understood to be one option among others, and thus contestable (and contested). At issue here is a shift in “the conditions of belief.” As Taylor notes, the shift to secularity “in this sense” indicates “a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace”…It is in this sense that we live in a “secular age” even if religious participation might be visible and fervent.[ref]Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular, pg. 20.[/ref]

The cultural conditions (at least in the West) are different than that of ancient times. Approaches to how we discuss belief and spiritual knowledge may need to be too. Nonetheless, study with the Spirit. And then testify of what you’ve learned.

Moving on.

Elder Paul H. Dunn highlights a similar point made by author Michael Austin last year at By Common Consent:

We [Latter-day Saints] pride ourselves on making sure that everybody in our community has a calling, or a well- defined place–one that both facilitates, and constrains, one’s interactions within the community. The highly correlated nature of both the Church’s organization and its curriculum means that most people in it have a pretty good idea what they are supposed to do in their callings, what they are supposed to teach in their classes, and how they are supposed to interact when they visit each other’s homes.

The downside of all this organization is that it is entirely possible to confuse categorical relationships for real human connections. One is moderately important to program development; the other is the main reason we exist.

Home teaching, visiting teaching, fellowshipping, and curricular correlation are valuable programs, but programs aren’t the same thing as relationships. We must be careful not to mistake one for the other—to think that somebody who has been through training has been educated, or that somebody who has been assigned a visiting teacher now has a friend. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the development of meaningful human connections is the belief that, through our institutional attachments, we already have them. It is a simple and ordinary belief, to be sure, which is precisely why it is so terrible.

Elder Dunn confirms this line of thinking when he states, “I understand from what the Lord has revealed to us through the prophets that people are his greatest concern…Programs, then, wonderfully inspired programs, like the Sabbath, exist to help people. If we are not careful, it is very easy to put the mechanics of the program ahead of the person. Jesus was constantly trying to put the spirit back into the letter of the law. Our first priority, I feel, as parents, leaders, and teachers should be the individual within the home or Church program.”

Never forget the point of the program is people.

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!

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