Beginnings and Endings

764 - Beginnings and Endings

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post for Times and Seasons responding to a 1981 General Conference talk by President Hinckley that I found challenging. In the post, I worked through some thoughts about President Hinckley’s talk, and I included this sentiment about reading the word of modern prophets:

President Hinckley’s talk was given 34 years ago. I was a baby then, so of course I have no memory of this talk. I did not know that it existed until last week… And I must confess a sense of shame as I read it for the first time and realized that this past year was the first year (since my mission) that I even tried to listen to all the sessions of General Conference. How many more talks have been given over my lifetime that I have never heard? Never read? Never considered? I say that I sustain the apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators, and yet I have nearly two centuries of their official talks given in General Conference and I have never even considered that I might want to go back and systematically read them to see what they had to say. I think it’s time I change that.

Max Wilson, who runs the blog Sixteen Small Stones, pointed out that there was nothing preventing me from converting that sentiment into action. Together with a few others, we hatched a scheme. We decided to start with the April 1971 General Conference (the earliest readily available online) and read them all at a rate of one session per week.

I plotted this out in a Google Spreadsheet and found that, assuming General Conferences continue to include 6 sessions per year as they currently do, it would take us until 2029. Late in the summer of that year we will revisit the April 2029 General Conference and finish it up before the October 2029 General Conference begins.

Naturally, because we’re all bloggers and writers of some stripe or another, we also decided to do a post every week in response to one or more of the talks that we’d read the week before. So this post—in which I decided to write about President Ezra Taft Benson’s talk Life is Eternal—is the first in a weekly series that is going to go on for the next 14 years.

My motivation is pretty simple: I seek to take modern prophets seriously. As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we believe that our leaders are fallible and make mistakes, but we also believe that they are inspired and serve as watchmen on the tower. I want to know what the watchmen have been telling us. I especially want to look across a really large volume of contemporary writings to see what trends, patterns, and themes stand out most prominently.

So, without further ado, let’s get started.

The first thing that struck me about President Benson’s talk was his optimism. “I am convinced that our Father’s children are essentially good,” he wrote, and then, “Again I say, our Father’s children, my brothers and sisters, are essentially good.”

And then I was struck by the simple beauty and simplicity of President Benson’s talk: “Yes, life is eternal. We live on and on after earth-life, even though we ofttimes lose sight of that great basic truth.”

I spend a fair amount of time thinking about death. Not in a morbid way, but with the attitude of someone who has a finite budget and aims to make the most of it. I don’t know how many years I will have, of course, but I want to have achieved basically two things when my time does come.

First, I want to have felt that I gave everything I had. “We should waste and wear out our lives,” Joseph Smith told the Saints from Liberty Jail. Time and energy are resources. We can conserve them in the short-run, but in the long run the objective is to spend everything. My father taught me that when I was young, and I decided then to do my best to live up to it.

Second, I want to meet my death with confidence. I’m too keenly aware of my own capacity for rationalization. I can imagine—if I was careless—spending a lifetime as an active member of the Church only to learn at the very end that it was a combination of wishful thinking and agile mental gymnastics that had kept me going that whole time, and that in the end I didn’t know—not really—what was coming.

It’s rather fashionable to discount faith as blind belief, but what those critics do not understand is that no one is more sensitive and apprehensive about the capacity for self-deception than a believer. This is doubly true for believer with an intellectual bent. Anyone with an interest in philosophical can easily invent arguments that take the risk out of faith. The problem is that what that leaves you with is counterfeit faith. Then you really do have nothing but wishful thinking and blind belief.

I’m not sure this is what he intended, but consider Pascal’s famous wager. The logic goes something like this: if you act as though you believe in God then at worst you will die and lose nothing (because there is no God) but at best you stand to gain eternal live. If you act as though you do not believe in God then at best you will die and gain nothing (because there is no God), but at worst you stand to miss out on eternal life. The argument is famous for its contribution to probability theory and decision analysis, but it’s also clearly an attempt to arbitrage our way out of risky belief.

Well I don’t think that’s possible. There are lots of temporal benefits from membership in the LDS Church: longer life expectancy, a warm community wherever you move in the world, a great place to raise your kids. These are all real benefits, and anyone can enjoy them no matter what the truth about Joseph Smith and the Restoration might be, but I don’t believe that in the end these benefits alone—the self-evident, temporal ones—are worth the price of admission. I don’t think they are worth the time we spend in meetings, the effort we put into our callings, or the vulnerability we incur when we tie so much of our lives to a bureaucratic institution run by ordinary mortals.

The real danger is in fooling ourselves into thinking that we can participate in the Church without facing the tough questions. If we let ourselves be lulled into a kind of passive, consumerist version of faith we run the risk of waking up one day and realizing that we got the cost/benefit calculations wrong, but not having the individual spiritual reserves to sustain our membership because for so long our spiritual witness has atrophied while we relied on the obvious benefits to paper over a need to ask hard questions and subject our faith to intense scrutiny. If we do not interrogate our own faith, then eventually life will, and our testimonies will wilt under the inquisition.

Or, returning to my fear, we might not reach our own moment of truth until we are facing death’s final question. Then, for the very first time, we may realize that we can’t rationalize our way around the final question. That’s the motive behind my second goal. I want to be able to face death with confidence because only then will I avoid finding out, when it is too late to do any different, that my faith is made of paper.

And this is why, returning to the talk, I found President Benson’s words so full of resonance.

Our affections are often too highly placed upon the paltry perishable objects. Material treasures of earth are merely to provide us, as it were, room and board while we are here at school. It is for us to place gold, silver, houses, stocks, lands, cattle, and other earthly possessions in their proper place.

Yes, this is but a place of temporary duration. We are here to learn the first lesson toward exaltation—obedience to the Lord’s gospel plan.

And also:

Yes, there is the ever expectancy of death, but in reality there is no death—no permanent parting. The resurrection is a reality.

Symbolism and allegory are nice, but they are not what I am searching for in this life. What I am searching for is reality. I want to live with the real sense that my time spent on earth is time spent at a waystation. I want to face death with the conviction in my heart, as sure as my conviction that a dropped object falls to the floor, that I will live again. That is something that wishful thinking and blind belief cannot produce. Only real, genuine, tested and tried faith can produce that.

That’s the kind of faith that I believe our Father wants us to have, and I think that is one major reason why we face a life so full of chaos, uncertainty, and tragedy. If things made sense, we could rely on rationalization and philosophy. We could escape the hard question until it was too late. But things do not make sense. The world is, as Camus noted, absurd. The hard questions dog us like the stubborn hounds they are. It is the very absurdity of the world that gives us the chance—time and time again—to cast aside the crutches of convention, of inertia, of rationalization, of tradition, of herd mentality, and of anything else that can provide a façade of faith to seek to try and find the real thing.

I won’t stop until I find it. I won’t be satisfied with anything less.

Here are the other folks participating in this grand scheme who have also written blog posts responding to the Saturday Morning session of the April 1971 General Conference. (If any of the links don’t work, try back later. They are all coming online during the day.)