Building a Life Story

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

The first time I wrote in my journal was in the days immediately after my baptism when I was 8 years old. I still have the pages somewhere in a box, including the hand-drawn map of the different routes I could take when I walked back and forth from school.

I have started and stopped journals countless times since then because it’s one of those things that, as Elder Groberg reminded us in Writing Your Personal and Family History, good Mormons are supposed to do.

As much as I enjoy writing, there’s always been one big thing inhibiting me from keeping a journal more reliably, and it is this: I don’t know what the real story is. This isn’t some weird post-modern hang-up, so much as it is (as far as I can tell) a weird psychological hang-up. I never know how I feel about things. Interrogating my true feelings about the things that are going on in my life is like collecting mist with a butterfly net. I can record the brute facts of my life—I can draw the map and label the streets—but I can’t tell you what those facts mean. Not even, and perhaps most especially, to me.

My inner life is an optical illusion. It is a collection of lines that looks like the inside of a cube one moment or the outside of a cube the next. It is a picture of a rabbit for a blink, and then it is a picture of a duck. It is two faces; it is a chalice. It is an old lady; it is a young woman.

This is why I spend almost no time at all thinking about my past. My friends and family all remember so much more of the things that I’ve been through than I do. For me, the past is like a crime scene, and I am afraid to contaminate the evidence. I have a superstitious belief that there is a true story, an objective reality, and I’m afraid that if I try to hard to find it then I will only erase it.

I have a couple of binders somewhere that contain all the letters that I sent home while I was serving my mission in Hungary and all of the letters that people sent to me. I think the binders were a gift when I got home, but I’m not sure. I’ve never opened them. I’m not sure where they are. I don’t even like to look at the binders, let alone consider reading the pages inside. Because my mission was the one time in my life when I acted like I knew what was going on and when I told everyone how I felt about things, and I’m afraid that it was all lies. It was the hardest time of my young life, and I have vague recollections of writing relentlessly optimistic and happy letters despite feeling so depressed that it felt like physical pain on most days. The whole thing is wildly embarrassing to me. I acted like I knew what was going on. I had no idea. I have lived almost as many years after my mission as I lived before it, and I still have no idea what was going on or why it was so hard for me.

If writing a journal is about writing the real story of my feelings, then I can’t write a journal for the simple reason that I don’t know my own story.

And yet, I should. Write a journal, that is. Like Elder Groberg says, writing a journal “helps immeasurably in gaining a true, eternal perspective of life” and “should be a great motivation to do what is right.” I know that’s accurate: the reflection of writing about my life has helped me put things into perspective.

Maybe that’s the point?

I’m teaching the Old Testament in Gospel Doctrine this year, and it’s a mess. We just made the transition from Joshua to Judges, and I taught about how all the mass slaughter that supposedly happened in Joshua is pretty flatly contradicted by Judges. On the bright side: you don’t have to believe in a genocidal God.  On the downside: it’s hard to make sense of all the contradictions. In Deuteronomy, we’re told a Moabite will never enter the assembly of the Lord until the 10th generation. Ruth, the hero of the Book of Ruth, is Moabite and that makes King David 1/8th Moabite. And, while we’re on the topic, how do we reconcile the apparent gap between the miracle-laden Exodus story and the miracle-free story of Ruth and Boaz?

The one encouraging thing is that, as I read Elder Groberg’s talk, I realize that the Old Testament is a mess in a lot of the same ways that my own life story is a mess.

There may be one, true, ultimate truth about everything. Not just the objective facts of life, but the subjective ones as well. Maybe there is an absolutely true narrative. But if there is, we will never know it in this life. In this life, stories are things we make up. Fictional stories are based on imaginary facts. And real stories—including history—is made up based on true facts. But they are both made up.

I’m not sure if I have that right or not, but it sounds promising. At the very least, it’s worth giving a shot. I’m going to try writing in my journal again, and this time I’m not going to try and find a life story. I’m going to use the raw materials of my experiences to build one.

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The Bridge that Spans the Chasm

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

This is my first post in the GCO in a long, long time and it feels great to be writing again. I really hope to stick with it this time. I plan on working my way through the entire backlog of posts I’ve missed (I don’t even know how many there are at this point. 10? 20? 30?) But my first priority will be keeping apace with the current ones. I’ll fill the backlog in as I can.

I have so many thoughts about the April 2018 GC that just concluded. First and foremost: a temple in Richmond, VA? I thought that the day would never come. With the huge DC temple so close by (relatively speaking) I didn’t even dare to hope. We had lots of friends over at our house watching the session, and we all went nuts when they made the announcement!

Friends and family react to the announcement of the Richmond, VA temple.

What I decided to write about—before then—was a pair of talks from the Saturday morning session. The two talks are Am I a Child of God by Elder Brian K. Taylor and Even as Christ Forgives You, So Also Do Ye by Elder Larry J. Echo Hawk.

In his talk, Elder Taylor talked about the experience of a friend of his who—when she was a teenager—caused a car accident that took the life of the other driver. “Someone lost their mom,” he quotes her as saying, “and it was my fault.” It was a strong talk about the power of learning to hold onto our identity as children of God even when we feel terrible about our own mistakes, but part of me couldn’t help thinking: Yeah, it was tough for her. What about the children of the mom that died?

That was still in the back of my mind when I heard Elder Echo Hawk begin a story in his talk:

On a December night in 1982, my wife Terry and I were awakened by a phone call to our home… As I answered the phone, I heard only sobbing. Finally, my sister’s struggling voice said, “Tommy is dead.”

Elder Echo Hawk went on to describe how his family, with the help of Christ, was able to open their hearts to the family of the drunk driver who killed his brother.

These talks were not about the exact same accident, but I was incredibly struck by the fact that here we had two talks—back to back—about fatal car accidents. One from the perspective of a person who had caused a fatal car accident and survived, and one from the perspective of the family of a man killed by a car accident caused by someone else.

This is what forgiveness looks like: it has two sides.

One of the hardest things to learn about Christianity is that ultimately there are no bad guys. We’re not really wired for that, and it’s a radical and explosive perspective to take. But—in the end—it is the perspective of a God who loves all of His children.

It doesn’t mean that all of our mistakes cancel out. That would be trivializing. The perspective is hard precisely because they don’t. Because mistakes so often have the sinner on one hand and the sinned on the other, and that creates a divide that can seem unbridgeable.

We are not taught to pretend the sin didn’t happen. Nor—it should go without saying—are we taught to subject ourselves to ongoing abuse. But we are taught to forgive the one who has wronged us and, when we are truly penitent and have done all we can, we are taught to forgive ourselves.

Both aspects are hard. Both aspects are necessary. And ultimately, none of us are strong enough to bridge that chasm alone. It is Christ—His example and the power of His atonement—that allow us to cross the divide between the wrong-doer and the wrong-sufferer.

He is the bridge that spans the chasm.

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An Accusation, An Exhortation

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

We know that a key role of prophets is to serve as a voice of warning, but that voice is not often as stark as it was from Elder Perry in the Sunday afternoon session of the October 1977 General Conference:

I stand before you today to accuse many of the husbands and fathers who are within the sound of my voice and throughout the world of failing in your two major God-given responsibilities.

This talk is another in the long, long list of examples for how seriously the Church has been committed to the ideal of the family going back long before I was born. As Elder Perry says:

God in His divine plan ordained that marriage was to bring about his basic organizational unit, the family. The role of husband and wife was clearly defined from the very beginning. In the Lord’s plan, these roles are unchanged and eternal.

So that’s one of the recurring surprises for me as I go through these old General Conference talks. I didn’t know—and hadn’t expected—that the exact same ideas about the family would be taught to clearly and emphatically back then.

The other recurring surprise for me has been how soft and gentle a lot of the language was. Yes, there is some rhetoric—especially on topics related to sexual morality—that is a lot harsher than what we’re used to. The word “abomination” got used a fair amount, and I don’t think we ever hear that at all these days. But when it comes to teaching about how fathers should treat their children and how husbands should treat their wives, the language is diametrically opposed to the stereotype of the stern, remote, authoritarian patriarch. The Church’s teachings on marriage and family—we’re supposed to believe—are some kind of anachronistic throwback to an era of rigid inflexibility. But when I read the words, what I find instead are things like Elder Perry’s story of how he was so besotted with his wife (after decades of marriage) that a random bystander at a car wash noticed and talked to his wife about it. He wraps up the story with:  “Husbands, are your actions at all times a reflection of your love for wife?” Just for good measure, he reiterates: “it is a twenty-four-hour-a-day job to show appreciation and consideration for [your wife].”

Elder Perry’s talk is far, far from unique in this regard, and the cajoling words of the general authorities with regards to how fathers should treat their children are just as emotion and—for lack of better words—soft and squishy. I can’t find it offhand, but I know the word “cuddle” was used at least one in this general conference.

This is why I’m so glad I’m going back to read these talks for myself. There’s incredible value in knowing for yourself what the message has actually been all this time.

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Practice Makes Tolerable

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

I sure love Howard W. Hunter. He was one of the most intellectual of the general authorities, and he talked about the issues of modernity with the directness and foresight. Of course I like Elder Maxwell—everybody liked Elder Maxwell—but my appreciation for President Hunter took me by surprise because the only reputation he had for me before then was as a bit of a disappointment: he was the first prophet to be ordained while I was old enough to be paying attention and I hoped he would be around for a long time, but instead his tenure was incredibly short.

In any case, his talk in the Sunday Morning session of the October 1977 General Conference is a pretty great example of why I like him so much. Here is the opening:

Henry Ward Beecher once said, “It is not well for a man to pray cream and live skim milk.” That was a century ago. There is now before us a danger that many may pray skim milk and live that not at all.

Our modern times seem to suggest that prayerful devotion and reverence for holiness is unreasonable or undesirable, or both. And yet, skeptical “modern” men have need for prayer. Perilous moments, great responsibility, deep anxiety, overwhelming grief—these challenges that shake us out of old complacencies and established routines will bring to the surface our native impulses. If we let them, they will humble us, soften us, and turn us to respectful prayer.

If prayer is only a spasmodic cry at the time of crisis, then it is utterly selfish, and we come to think of God as a repairman or a service agency to help us only in our emergencies. We should remember the Most High day and night—always—not only at times when all other assistance has failed and we desperately need help.

I highlighted quite a lot from this talk, but I’ll share just one other section of President Hunter’s words. He wrote that:

Prayer, reverence, worship, devotion, respect for the holy—these are basic exercises of our spirit and must be actively practiced in our lives or they will be lost.

In my life, viewing prayer (and the others) as something to practice has been incredibly beneficial. I read that ancient prophets prayed “mightily” and I thought about my own prayers and realized that there was really nothing “mighty” about them. So I stated practicing, approaching prayer with the same basic attitude as I approach long-distance running. It helped to have a plan, but more than that, it helped to view even my weak prayers as a part of a process of becoming better at praying.

Now I want to expand that to other areas of my life. Something I’m pretty bad at is getting spiritual sustenance out of a typical Sunday service. I like to be entertained. I like articulate lecturers with interesting ideas and novel ways of presenting those ideas. This is not what you’re gonna get out of a typical 15-minute talk prepared by a randomly-selected fellow congregant. And so, to be honest, I tend to read through Sacrament meeting.

I feel uneasy about that, and I should. The fact that I’m reading something spiritual—usually General Conference talks, over the last couple of years—doesn’t make it OK.

We tend to blame the speakers and Mormon culture for its general lack of emphasis on rhetorical ability and latent anti-intellectualism. I’m not going to tell you that those things aren’t real, or aren’t a problem. But I prefer to take responsibility whenever possible. If God wants me to worship with my fellow saints and be nourished by the experience (and He does), then He’s going to provide a way for me to make that happen.

Best start practicing, I suppose.

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A Regular Dad

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

One upon a time someone tried to insult me on the Internet and inadvertently paid my parents a lovely complement. I was, my interlocutor informed me, “emotionally spoiled.”

Being spoiled isn’t great, of course, but what this person was actually saying was that I was relatively well-adjusted. This was an angsty little corner of the Internet, but I didn’t really share in the angst. I didn’t feel lonely, or isolated, or bitter, or wronged, or any of those things. Most relevantly, I didn’t harbor any of the simmering anti-parental resentment that your typical 90s kid was supposed to harbor. I was free of all these hang ups not because of some virtue on my part, but because I came from a normal, typical, regular home: one where mom and dad loved each other.

Of course, I consider that normal, typical, and regular, but it’s not something to take for granted. That was what came to mine, when I read the end of a story from Elder Hanks’ talk in the Priesthood session of the October 1977 General Conference:

Somehow early in his life Bob has mastered principles and developed character that set him apart from most others. He is a regular boy in every choice sense of the description. Can anyone doubt that he will be an equally fine man, a good husband, a regular dad, a concerned leader who will help many others?

Elder Hanks came back to the idea of a “regular dad” again later on in the talk:

Only a few days ago in Arizona as I was at the pulpit in a conference meeting, a tiny boy came walking down the aisle and up on the stand, perhaps searching for a mother in the choir, maybe just investigating. He wasn’t making any fuss, but he was a wonderful little boy and I couldn’t refrain from pausing a moment and talking with him. I asked him his name and where his mommy and daddy were, and at that point a tall, handsome young man stood in the chapel and advanced to retrieve his child. When the father took his son in his arms in front of the pulpit he kissed him, and I had to swallow a quick lump in my throat. There was no embarrassment, no spanking, no yanking, no anger. There was just the gentle kiss and a loving hug in those big strong arms, and for all of us present a warm, tender, memorable experience from a fortunate youngster and a wise, mature, regular dad.

There is something both beautiful and perilous in this kind of normalcy. The beauty is easy to spot, like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life if just for a moment. The peril is there too, however, because once a moment like this becomes ordinary—which is the goal of any religion, society, nation, tribe, or family—we start at once to forget all the lessons that made such an everyday moment seem effortless and forgettable in the first place.

Every generation has to relearn the same lessons again for themselves, and the conduit for transmitting kernels of wisdom from the parents to the children is slender and fragile.

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The No Vote

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

Ordinarily, I skim really quickly over General Conference talks that aren’t really talks: financial reports, statistical reports, and the sustaining of church officers. But the sustaining of church officers for October 1977 caught my eye for this reason:

President Tanner: It seems, President Kimball, that the voting has been unanimous in favor of these officers and General Authorities, and we would ask those new members of the First Quorum of the Seventy to take their seats with their brethren, please.
Voice from the gallery: President Tanner? President Tanner?
President Tanner: Yes?
Voice from the gallery: Did you note my negative vote?
President Tanner: No. Let me see it.
Voice from the gallery: Up here.

So, a couple of things come to mind.

First, this was long, long before the new Conference Center. The Salt Lake Tabernacle was a lot smaller; it had overall capacity for 7,000 people compared to the 21,000 that fit in the new conference center. This kind of one-on-one exchange really wouldn’t be possible in the Conference Center.

Second, I had to Google around to find out what the concern was. I found an article from LDS Living that mentioned the event, stating:

The voice from the gallery belonged to Byron Marchant. He objected over the Church’s stance at the time of not sustaining those of African descent to the priesthood.

President Tanner addressed the event in the next General Conference (April 1978), saying:

During the last conference we had one dissenting vote, and there was some misunderstanding about it. Someone said that I treated him very curtly. I would just like to explain just what takes place if anyone or a number of people have a dissenting vote. We give them the opportunity to go to one of the General Authorities to explain to that General Authority why they feel the person is not qualified, and if he’s found not qualified, then we take the necessary action.

That April 1978 General Conference was the last General Conference prior to the 1978 Revelation that opened the priesthood to all faithful Mormon men, regardless of race. I don’t know much about what happened to Marchant after this, other than that he was excommunicated shortly afterwards.

The exact history of the Church’s policy of barring Africans from the priesthood and the revelation that ended the policy are complicated and controversial topics, and I’m not an expert. It strikes me as very sad that Marchant—and another man, Douglas Wallace (mentioned in the same article above)—were both excommunicated less than a year before the policy they protested was overturned. The Church hasn’t had too much to say about these things, other than the very-important Race and the Priesthood essay published a couple of years ago on LDS.org that stated the racial priesthood ban had no known revelatory origin but stopped short of outright calling it a mistake.

I’ve been keeping a pretty close eye on the talks as we get closer and closer to the October 1978 General Conference (the 1978 Revelation dates to September). I’m surprised that the topic has received almost zero official attention. There are a couple of implications here and there, but overall it’s basically completely absent. So a couple of further thoughts.

I don’t think there’s much basis to the complaint that—as opposed to in 1978—contemporary dissenters are directed to their stake presidents instead of general authorities. For one thing, there are more dissenters, in part because of organized attempts to acquire tickets to General Conference for the sole purpose of protesting. As the Church grows, this kind of thing is going to be pushed farther and farther away from the upper leaders. That’s unfortunate, but it’s hardly unprecedented. Moses learned that lesson the hard way.

I also don’t think there’s much comparison at all between the state of the priesthood ban in 1977 and the Church’s position on same sex marriage in 2017. The Church has communicated again and again and again that it’s position on the definition of marriage will not ever change. It’s been saying that a lot in recent years, but frankly it’s been saying the same thing—explicitly and repeatedly—all the way back to 1974 (the earliest General Conferences I started reading.) For the Church to change now would be to contradict decades and decades of loud, clear, authoritative teachings. The chances of this happening are essentially nil, and the effect if it did would be seismic (to say the least). In contrast—as I mentioned—I can’t find a single General Conference talk that defends the racial priesthood ban.

The contrast could not be starker. The racial priesthood ban wasn’t defended a single time in General Conference (at least, not in the years leading up to 1978). The Church’s position on marriage has been defended in every General Conference that I’ve read (from 1974 to 1977) and every General Conference that I can remember (over the last few years).

The hope some have that this policy is about to be changed does not appear to be grounded in any of the available evidence.

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Marriage is a Quest

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

You know the old saying: life’s a journey, not a destination. Journeys are cool. Quests are cooler. So I really liked Elder Faust’s quintessentially Mormon teachings on marriage in the opening Saturday Morning session of the October 1977 General Conference: The Enriching of Marriage. His exact phrase, coming at the end of the talk, is that “Marriage is a joint quest for the good, the beautiful, and the divine.”

The more I think about it, the less likely that is as a characterization of marriage. Oh, don’t get me a wrong. A lot of Elder Faust’s counsel is what we, as Mormons, are fairly used to hearing. The idea that “Our homes should be among the most hallowed of all earthly sanctuaries” places a Mormon home as basically one step below a Mormon temple and—I believe, at least—one step above Mormon meetinghouses. This might be an unusual position relative to the world today, but it’s exactly how we usually think about marriage and family and the home.

Similarly, Elder Faust’s teaching that “We understand best the full meaning of love when we become parents” is another absolutely distinctive Mormon teaching. We’re the guys, after all, who believe not only in God the Father but also in God the Mother. It is naturel for us to see our role as parents as echoes of Gods’ roles as Parents, and to see in our love and willingness to sacrifice for our little ones the love and willingness of our Father and Mother to sacrifice for all their children.

And yet, the idea that marriages is a quest still struck me as new.

I can’t even tell you for sure what it means, but I’m mulling it over.

My early thoughts? The idea that marriage is a quest emphasizes that marriage isn’t just a state of being. First you’re single, then you’re married. At one time you were young, now you’re old. Sometimes you’re happy, sometimes you’re sad. No, marriage is a goal-directed activity. It’s intentional. It’s something we do, not just a state we happen to be in.

What I am still pondering—and will continue to ponder after I finish this post—is how the goals of marriage (things like: coming to a unity of love with your spouse and exercising love for your children) generalize to the goals Elder Faust spoke of: the good, the beautiful, and the divine.

I haven’t got that resolved yet, but I’m going to be meditating on it until (hopefully) I do.

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Man and Woman Working Together

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

Here is a story from Sister Barbara Smith’s talk during the welfare session of the April 1977 General Conference where she compared the role of the priesthood holders and Relief Society working together in the welfare program to a man and a woman working together in a marriage:

Something of this relationship might be seen if I relate a conversation with a friend of mine. He said, “My wife and I decided to face the front of our home with rocks. So I called around and located a place where I could get them.

“I started to get into my truck when my wife called to me and said, ‘Let me go with you. I want to help you.’

“When we got to the place where the rocks were located, we found them on the top of a hill. I complained, ‘That’s going to be a terrible job to get those rocks down.’

“My wife said, ‘I’ll go up to the top of the hill and roll the rocks down to you and then you’ll just have to carry them over to the truck. How does that sound?’

“I thought that was a good idea,” he said. “I watched her climb to the top of the hill and disappear for a few minutes. Soon she called out, ‘Here comes the first rock. Here comes another one.’ Then she said, ‘Oh, this rock is a beauty. I hope this one won’t be too heavy for you to carry.’

“I said, ‘I’ll carry anything you roll down.’

“Then she said, ‘Look at this rock. It has real character. Here comes my favorite.’”

He said, “She actually had me waiting anxiously for each rock.” And then he said, “In this endeavor, as in many other of our projects together, she had given me not only the help I needed but a perspective that often eludes men.”

I would like to see all sisters, particularly Relief Society presidents, acting as helpmeets to the priesthood in the rendering of welfare assistance.

The relationship between husband and wife is something we’re all still figuring out, I think. To one extend, this is because every marriage is as unique as the people in it, and so even if we had the general pattern figured out (and we don’t), we’d still need to figure out the specifics.

But we don’t even have the general pattern figured out to general satisfaction. We’re figuring out how to reconcile (and to what extent to even try) teachings about the husband as leader of the family (which seems unequal) with the belief that men and women are equal and that marriage is an equal partnership.

I’m not sure exactly how this story relates to that question, but I do like the story and I thought I’d share it.

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The Power of Plainness

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

I straight-up stole the title of this blog post from the title of Elder Marvin J. Ashton’s talk in the Sunday afternoon session of the April 1977 General Conference. Of course plainness isn’t a new concept to Mormonism. The Book of Mormon talks a lot about “plain and precious” truths. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen an entire talk with plainness as its theme, and I did like what Elder Ashton had to say. Here are a couple of excerpts that I highlighted as I read:

Plainness is best comprehended by the humble, the teachable, the intelligent, the wise, and the obedient. Often plain truths are perverted by the pretentious, the crude, the low, the critical, the contentious, the haughty, and the unrighteous. More so than in any other time in our history, there is an urgency in today’s society for men and women to step forward and teach the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of plainness. God delights when His truths are taught clearly and understandably with no conspicuous ornamentation. Plainness in life, word, and conduct are eternal virtues. When the plainness of Christian teaching and living is lost, apostasy and suffering result. People walk in darkness when the light of plainness is taken from their lives.

Interesting that plainness is rejected by both “the low” and “the haughty”. Perhaps plainness is a kind of moderation or even a kind of modesty: free of unnecessary embellishment or ornamentation.1

The power of a plain, unadorned testimony is always impressive to me. I recall a twelve-year-old boy standing in front of a large congregation to share his testimony. As he stood trembling in fear and emotion, his voice failed him. He stood speechless; our hearts went out to him. The creeping seconds dragged on, making the silence of the moment intense. Prayerfully we hoped that he might gain composure and the ability to express his testimony. After great uneasiness and anxiety peculiar to a young person in such a circumstance, he raised his bowed head and softly said, “Brothers and sisters, my testimony is too small.” He cleared his voice and sat down. His message had been given. I thought then, as I think now, what a timely observation. Whose testimony isn’t too small? Whose testimony doesn’t need to be added upon? After this one-sentence sermon, I acknowledged before the congregation that my testimony was too small also and I was going to give it a chance to grow by more frequent sharing. I had been taught by a plain, simple statement.

Nothing to add. I just like this story.

Some of life’s greatest lessons are taught and learned as we go about our Father’s business in routine daily kindnesses.

How could I not quote that? You know how I feel about sifting the sacred from the mundane. And here’s one more, to exit on:

Certainly the Savior has spoken in plainness that we may learn. The words of the Savior are eloquent in their plainness.

Glamour and mystery do not lead to eternal life.

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The Agency of God

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

Mormonism has been called an atheological religion, notably by philosopher James E. Faulconer in Why a Mormon Won’t Drink Coffee but Might Have a Coke: The Atheological Character of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Faulconer begins:

It is a matter of curiosity to many and an annoyance to some that it is sometimes difficult to get definitive answers from members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to what seem like straightforward questions – questions of the form “Why do you believe or do x?” Latter-day Saints subscribe to a few basic doctrines, most of which they share with other Christians (such as that Jesus is divine) and some of which differentiate them, such as the teaching that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. They also accept general moral teachings, the kinds of things believed by both the religious and the non-religious. Apart from those, seldom can one say without preface or explanation what Latter-day Saints believe.

The explanation for this, according to Faulconer is that Mormonism is atheological, meaning “they are without an official or even semi-official philosophy that explains and gives rational support to their beliefs and teachings.”

Faulconer is right, and for the most part I see this as a feature rather than a bug. A lot of the strife in other Christian denominations has come precisely from the high stakes involved in authoritatively laying out doctrinal claims. This is why there are all those creeds out there, many of which not only played a role in religious wars and persecution, but frequently have no practical relevance today. In other words: a lot of people died for basically no good reason. By refusing to have any kind of an authoritative theology, Mormonism avoids that (metaphorical or literal) bloodbath and instead keeps the focus on the basics (for one) and on actions (for another).

One consequence—for good or ill—is that a lot of the tough questions that other denominations have scads of theological work on are basically wide-open fields. Such as: what is the nature of all that smiting and cursing that God foretells for the wicked through prophets? Does got really get angry—in a sense that we would understand—lose his temper and let natural disasters and wars and famines and plagues loose on the targets of his wrath? Or are those depictions in some sense metaphorical or hinting at some other, underlying reality that was either misunderstood by prophets at the time or intentionally misconstrued as a means to provoking better behavior?

For a Mormon: you’re kind of on your own.

Like most religious folks, we also tend to want to have it both ways. In the last General Conference (October 2017), Elder Rasband gave one of those “there are no coincidences” talks where every little (good) thing that happens is a sign of God’s micromanaging of our day-to-day lives. In the April 1977 General Conference, Elder Romney took up the flipside of this coin, arguing that God doesn’t intentionally smite anyone:

[L]et it not be supposed, now, that the Lord takes pleasure in these calamities. He does not. He graphically foretells the inevitable consequences of men’s sins for the purpose of inducing them to repent and thereby avoid the calamities.

So, if it’s a good thing that happens, we credit it to God’s personal intervention in our lives, no matter how small. But if it’s a bad thing that happens, we absolve God of any responsibility (i.e. we claim the “calamities” are “inevitable consequences” rather than divinely-willed punishment or retribution), not matter how big.

This is a tough conundrum, and I don’t have an answer. I believe God is all-loving, and I find this very hard to reconcile with a God who micromanages a world so full of suffering and injustice. It’s easier for me to imagine a God who is—perhaps because of the strictures of free will—more often than not constrained from direct intervention. On the other hand, it’s clear that what I’m doing is creating a theodicy to conform to my intuition of justice. It’s entirely possible that there are other solutions to the problem that reconcile God’s love and mortality’s seemingly senseless misery and beauty.

If you’re from an older, orthodox religion (like Catholics or Calvinists), then you’ve got literally dozens of tomes you can fall back on. There’s some comfort in that. On the other hand, you’re also bound down to one particular authoritative interpretation or the other. And that feels like a bad idea. Not only because I’m skeptical that anybody has really gotten it right, but also because in the end I think it detracts from what really matters.

I think it’s a lot less important—although clearly not irrelevant—how we interpret the problem of evil and other theological quagmires and much more important—positively vital—how we respond to those dilemmas with our actions. I’ll take an orthoprax religion without the answers over an orthodox religion with flawed answers any day of the week.

I  might even take an orthopraxy religion without the answers over a hypothetical orthodox religion with the right answers, to be honest.

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