This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.
From the Sunday morning session of the April 1974 General Conference, it was Elder Boyd K. Packer’s talk We Believe All That God Has Revealed that caught my attention. Elder Packer has a reputation for being stern and doctrinaire that—to my mind—seems undeserved. In this talk, for example, he not only quotes from Hugh Nibley but also states flatly that Joseph Smith—aside from acting as a conduit for revelution—“was otherwise an ordinary man, as were the prophets in ancient times and as are the prophets in our day.”
This is an important perspective to keep in mind, especially when the other talks sometimes verge on the hagiographic. I dislike it when folks use needlessly complex words, but I like “hagiography.” It means “the writing of the lives of saints” or, in common usage, “biography that idealizes its subject.” So, it’s a useful word to employ when it comes to how Mormons sometimes interact with our leaders. There is a tendency to hero worship that we don’t always do a good enough job of avoiding.
Whenever new General Authorities start waxing poetic about how much they love each other and how great they all are, I confess to feeling a little alienated. It makes me uncomfortable when they testify to each other’s positive qualities, much as I’m uncomfortable when people get up and bear testimonies of their friends or family in the ward. I honestly don’t care that much if the General Authorities are good people. Joseph Smith said, “I do not want you to think that I’m very righteous, for I am not. There was one good man, and his name was Jesus.” That is my concern.
I believe in loyalty to the Church and in obedience to the leaders, but they can neither earn nor disqualify themselves from that loyalty and obedience because it has nothing to do with them. I owe everything to my Savior. When He calls representatives to serve in His Church I follow them out of my devotion to Him, not because I think they are particularly wise or spiritual people. I hope they are, but it’s not really my concern one way or the other.1
But before anyone gets too excited about agreeing with me or disagreeing with me on this point, I think it’s wise to keep in mind that it’s almost always possible to miss the mark in either of two directions. Speaking of acquiring a testimony of the scriptures, Elder Packer said in the same talk that:
There are those who have made a casual, even an insincere effort to test the scriptures and have come away having received nothing, which is precisely what they have earned and what they deserve. If you think it will yield to a casual inquiry, to idle curiosity, or even to well-intentioned but temporary searching, you are mistaken. It likewise will not yield to the overzealous or to the fanatic.
You can miss the mark by not trying hard enough, by being casual, insincere, or even lazy. But you can also miss the mark by trying too hard, by being overzealous or fanatic.
If you preach a sermon only on the peril of blind belief and fanaticism, you’re going to risk misleading or enabling those who already have a tendency towards taking an insincere interest in their testimonies. If you preach a sermon only on the peril of casualness and insincerity, you’re going to risk providing ammunition to the zealots.
So I am more bothered by the tendency towards hero-worship in the Church. But it seems plain to me that there’s also a problem—and probably a far larger problem—of members who don’t take the leaders and their council seriously enough. It’s not an either-or. It’s even quite possible that I go too far in my sense of alienation and in my skepticism towards the hagiographic approach to our leaders. If that’s the case, then I rely on the Savior to bring me into line as I continue to follow Him and sustain His leaders.
There are two more quotes I want to mention from his talk. First, he said that in order to learn of the scriptures, “one must, of necessity, move from criticism to spiritual inquiry.” Our society is hyper-critical and drowning in irony. That is because irony and criticism are safe. A critic is always detached from and opposed to the thing he considers, and never risks being accused of foolishness because he never fully accepts or embraces anything. This is short-run wisdom and long-run folly. In the end, if you have not fully given yourself to anything in this life, then what was the point?
The pretext of superiority that comes with an attitude of cynical detachment or hardened irony is just that: a pretext. Understanding requires love, and love requires risk. We have to be willing to venture if we want to gain.
When a humble man bears testimony based on spiritual inquiry and righteous living, be careful before you repudiate his witness because he is otherwise unlearned. Many an academic giant is at once a spiritual pygmy and, if so, he is usually a moral weakling as well. Such a man may easily become a self-appointed member of a wrecking crew determined to destroy the works of God.
I’ve got an uneasy relationship with the term “intellectual.” I like to analyze and think and ponder and talk about ideas. If I could get paid to do it, I would do nothing but take classes in linguistics and philosophy and history and physics and math and computer science and psychology for the rest of my life. So maybe I am an intellectual. But I’m pretty profoundly disappointed with what passes for academic discourse—in the secular world and also within the religious community—and so I have to confess to a predisposition to agree with Elder Packer. After all, I think the ambiguous relationship between intelligence and learning is rather baked into our scripture, with “the glory of God is intelligence” on the one hand, but also the pointedly conditional, “to be learned is good if [you] hearken unto the counsels of God.” These days, it seems like most of the counsel from PhD-holding Mormons tends to flow the wrong way. We’ve got an embarrassment of riches when it comes to councilors willing to tell Christ’s Church how to amends its policies and teachings.
And—last of all—a quick quote from a different talk. In Build Your Shield of Faith, Elder L. Tom Perry said, speaking of his siblings as they were growing up with faithful parents, “While our shield was being made strong, theirs was always available, for they were available and we knew it.” I love the image of parents extending their own shields of faith over their children to give their kids time to grow their own shields before going out to face a hostile and treacherous—but also beautiful and promising—world.