April 2014 General Conference Highlights

Temple Square during Conference weekend.

I thoroughly enjoyed General Conference last week. I always have enjoyed General Conference, but this time was especially meaningful. Not only did I get to once again visit my family in Salt Lake City, including my mother, father, and brother who just flew in from overseas in time for me to visit with them, but I also got to relax and chill out over the weekend. What’s more, I thought each session of Conference was excellent, and I felt genuinely inspired by many of the addresses. The music was delightful, and it’s always fun to see my fellow Saints crowding downtown.

So what I want to do here in this post is highlight a few of the talks that especially impressed me.

Saturday Morning Session

“The Cost—and Blessings—of Discipleship” by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland

General Conference began with a bang as Elder Holland took the podium to blast the popular misconception that Jesus was some kind of 1st century hippie who was all about love and tolerance and not at all about keeping commandments and forsaking sin.

Sadly enough, my young friends, it is a characteristic of our age that if people want any gods at all, they want them to be gods who do not demand much, comfortable gods, smooth gods who not only don’t rock the boat but don’t even row it, gods who pat us on the head, make us giggle, then tell us to run along and pick marigolds.

I can think of some very specific individuals both inside the Church who want to promote this “Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist” deity who “is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”[1] They want to turn the Church of Jesus Christ, with its attending commandments and moral requirements, into a nice social club that doesn’t require any level of discipleship or dedication. Of course, Elder Holland isn’t saying that Jesus isn’t loving or forgiving, only that the contemporary image of Christ as one who doesn’t ask anything from us disciples is mistaken.

Christlike love is the greatest need we have on this planet in part because righteousness was always supposed to accompany it. So if love is to be our watchword, as it must be, then by the word of Him who is love personified, we must forsake transgression and any hint of advocacy for it in others. Jesus clearly understood what many in our modern culture seem to forget: that there is a crucial difference between the commandment to forgive sin (which He had an infinite capacity to do) and the warning against condoning it (which He never ever did even once).

Elder Holland then concluded with this powerful testimony.

Friends, especially my young friends, take heart. Pure Christlike love flowing from true righteousness can change the world. I testify that the true and living gospel of Jesus Christ is on the earth and you are members of His true and living Church, trying to share it. I bear witness of that gospel and that Church, with a particular witness of restored priesthood keys which unlock the power and efficacy of saving ordinances. I am more certain that those keys have been restored and that those ordinances are once again available through The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints than I am certain I stand before you at this pulpit and you sit before me in this conference.

Even though I am a Democrat and a pretty liberal fellow on a number of theological and social issues, I thought Elder Holland’s remarks were a welcomed warning. I realize I need to be careful to safeguard some of the foundational aspects of the gospel that are easily ridiculed or disregarded by more liberal believers.

“Spiritual Whirlwinds” by Elder Neil L. Andersen

Elder Andersen spoke on a subject that is right now a very divisive topic: gay marriage. This was couched in the meta-theme of “How do you prepare for your whirlwinds?” meaning the trials and temptations that one encounters in life. Elder Andersen spent time addressing this pressing issue in the Church.

While many governments and well-meaning individuals have redefined marriage, the Lord has not. In the very beginning, God initiated marriage between a man and a woman—Adam and Eve. He designated the purposes of marriage to go far beyond the personal satisfaction and fulfillment of adults to, more importantly, advancing the ideal setting for children to be born, reared, and nurtured. Families are the treasure of heaven.

In reiterating the Church’s position on this, Elder Andersen stressed something important.

Of special concern to us should be those who struggle with same-sex attraction. It is a whirlwind of enormous velocity. I want to express my love and admiration for those who courageously confront this trial of faith and stay true to the commandments of God! But everyone, independent of his or her decisions and beliefs, deserves our kindness and consideration. . . . In the gospel of Jesus Christ, there is no place for ridicule, bullying, or bigotry.

Elder Andersen’s main theme can be summarized with one of his concluding lines.

My young brothers and sisters, how we love you, admire you, and pray for you. Don’t let the whirlwinds drag you down. These are your days—to stand strong as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.

This is a topic that, as a Mormon liberal, I’ve wrestled with. On the one hand, I wholeheartedly support the Church’s position on the Law of Chastity and the sacredness of the marriage covenant. Temple marriage between a man and a woman is the key to exaltation, and I absolutely believe that the eternal blessings of the temple are real. On the other hand, I do not feel like it is right for me to impose my religious convictions on others through legislative means. Although I do not believe homosexual relationships are moral in the eyes of God, I do not want to infringe on the agency of others to live their lives as they see fit, including the choice of consenting adults to marry each other regardless of sexual orientation.

I suppose this is an issue where I will have to be patient and careful as I finesse exactly where I stand. In the mean time, I fully agree with Elder Andersen’s counsel that there is no place for ridicule, bullying, or bigotry in the Church.

Saturday Afternoon Session

I attended this session in the Tabernacle. I was hoping to get into the Conference Center, but I arrived too late and I didn’t get a standby ticket.

Church members sustaining President Monson and other  Church leaders.

One of the reasons I wanted to attend this session in the Conference Center was so that I could sustain President Monson in person. After triumphing over Tom Phillips’ anti-Mormon legal mischief, I wanted to sustain President Monson as a prophet, seer, and revelator in the presence of others. Sure, it was just a symbolic gesture, but it would’ve been meaningful for me to do it. Although I didn’t get into the Conference Center, I was able to sustain President Monson in the Tabernacle, which wasn’t all that bad either.

I’ll also admit that singing “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet” with my brothers and sisters in the Tabernacle was a highlight for me. I sang with pride and as loud as I could, which I’m sure generated weird looks from those around me.

“Let Your Faith Show” by Elder Russell M. Nelson

Elder Nelson’s address was partly devoted to how we show our faith.

We might each ask ourselves, where is our faith? Is it in a team? Is it in a brand? Is it in a celebrity? Even the best teams can fail. Celebrities can fade. There is only One in whom your faith is always safe, and that is in the Lord Jesus Christ. And you need to let your faith show! . . . Clinicians, academicians, and politicians are often put to a test of faith. In pursuit of their goals, will their religion show or will it be hidden? Are they tied back to God or to man?

I though the anecdote provided by Elder Nelson was significant in illustrating his point.

I had such a test decades ago when one of my medical faculty colleagues chastised me for failing to separate my professional knowledge from my religious convictions. He demanded that I not combine the two. How could I do that? Truth is truth! It is not divisible, and any part of it cannot be set aside. Whether truth emerges from a scientific laboratory or through revelation, all truth emanates from God. All truth is part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet I was being asked to hide my faith. I did not comply with my colleague’s request. I let my faith show!

These remarks by Elder Nelson were interesting to me since I’ve had discussions with individuals who want to “bracket” the truth claims of the Church in order to advance certain scholarly studies of Mormonism. I agree that Mormon scholars need to be sensitive and judicious when discussing Mormonism in a secular, academic setting. However, I am not comfortable with totally pushing aside the ultimate question of the truth of the Restoration to save face with gentile academicians.[2] I’m all for interfaith dialogue and introducing the study of Mormonism in a secular academic setting, but I agree with others like Dan Peterson and John Gee that we need to not only be cognizant of some of the problems this might introduce but also that we should never be afraid or hesitant to defend the Church when necessary.[3] I also agree with the counsel given by the Brethren not too long ago to the same effect.

“Roots and Branches” by Elder Quentin L. Cook

The doctrine of performing vicarious saving ordinances for the dead is one of the reasons why I’m a Mormon. It is a beautiful, ennobling, logical, powerful doctrine that answers one of the stickier questions of the problem of evil faced by classical theists.[4] It is also an ancient Christian doctrine that was restored by the Prophet Joseph Smith.[5] It was also the subject of Elder Cook’s talk.

Jesus Christ gave His life as a vicarious atonement. He resolved the ultimate question raised by Job. He overcame death for all mankind, which we could not do for ourselves. We can, however, perform vicarious ordinances and truly become saviors on Mount Zion for our own families in order that we, with them, might be exalted as well as saved.

I thought this sermon was not only remarkable for its doctrinal content, but also for its historical emphasis. Elder Cook related the letter of Vilate M. Kimball to her husband Heber C. Kimball as he framed the unfolding events of the restoration of this precious doctrine.

Vilate Kimball included this rhetorical question in her letter, “Is not this a glorious doctrine?” The answer is an overwhelming yes! “The essential doctrine of uniting families came forth line upon line and precept upon precept. Vicarious ordinances are at the heart of welding together eternal families, connecting roots to branches.”

Priesthood Session

“The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood” by Elder Dallin H. Oaks

This was the sermon that got Mormon feminists of the Ordain Women stripe all riled up, so you know that Elder Oaks did something right. I won’t attempt to summarize it here. Go read it for yourself.

“Be Strong and of a Good Courage” by President Thomas S. Monson

President Monson’s address was powerful for a number of reasons. First, he began his talk by decrying the discontents of secular civilization.

We live in a world where moral values have, in great measure, been tossed aside, where sin is flagrantly on display, and where temptations to stray from the strait and narrow path surround us. We are faced with persistent pressures and insidious influences tearing down what is decent and attempting to substitute the shallow philosophies and practices of a secular society.

Normally I’d chalk this up to the sort of alarmist “us vs. the world” rhetoric one frequently hears in the Church. But, given recent events, include recent secularist attacks on the Church, I’m beginning to see the wisdom in President Monson alerting the Saints to the truly nefarious forces that want to destroy the Church of Jesus Christ. So what is President Monson’s counsel?

Because of these and other challenges, decisions are constantly before us which can determine our destiny. In order for us to make the correct decisions, courage is needed—the courage to say no when we should, the courage to say yes when that is appropriate, the courage to do the right thing because it is right. 

In addition, this line at the end of his remarks stood out to me as well.

We will all face fear, experience ridicule, and meet opposition. Let us—all of us—have the courage to defy the consensus, the courage to stand for principle. Courage, not compromise, brings the smile of God’s approval. Courage becomes a living and an attractive virtue when it is regarded not only as a willingness to die manfully but also as the determination to live decently. As we move forward, striving to live as we should, we will surely receive help from the Lord and can find comfort in His words.

“Let us—all of us—have the courage to
defy the consensus, the courage to stand for principle.”

I think “defying the consensus” sometimes also means defying academic or scholarly consensus that may run contrary to what we cherish and believe as Latter-day Saints. After all, the “scholarly consensus” is that the Book of Mormon is a 19th century work of fiction and that Joseph Smith was a well-meaning individual (if that) who was nothing more than the product of his times. What I don’t mean to say is that we should just ignore or dismiss out of hand the scholarly consensus, but rather that we shouldn’t be afraid to challenge or question it when it runs contrary to the truths of the Restoration. If what we have is the truth, and I believe we do, then we shouldn’t be afraid to submit to the scrutiny and tests of scholarship, as the truth will triumph in the end. On the flip side, if we have the truth, including the truth of the restoration of priesthood keys, the truth of the ancient authenticity of the Book of Mormon, and the truth of the prophet calling of Joseph Smith, then we likewise shouldn’t be afraid to push back when “scholarly consensus” deems these truths, well, untrue.

Sunday Morning

“Bear Up Their Burdens with Ease” by Elder David A. Bednar

This was a beautiful talk on the Atonement. I really had no problems with this talk . . . right up until the very end.

May each of us do and become better through the Savior’s Atonement. Today is April 6. We know by revelation that today is the actual and accurate date of the Savior’s birth. April 6 also is the day on which The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized. (See D&C 20:1; Harold B. Lee, “Strengthen the Stakes of Zion,” Ensign, July 1973, 2; Spencer W. Kimball, “Why Call Me Lord, Lord, and Do Not the Things Which I Say?” Ensign, May 1975, 4; Spencer W. Kimball, “Remarks and Dedication of the Fayette, New York, Buildings,” Ensign, May 1980, 54; Discourses of President Gordon B. Hinckley, Volume 1: 1995–1999 [2005], 409.)

I know this is a very popular teaching in the Church, but, given the reasons explained by Jeffrey R. Chadwick, I have some problems with it.[6] This doesn’t, however, detract from the overall message of Elder Bednar’s address.

Sunday Afternoon Session

“The Prophet Joseph Smith” by Elder Lawrence C. Corbridge 

I thought that Elder Corbridge bore a powerful testimony of Joseph Smith and made a very good point here.

There is no dispute about what Joseph Smith accomplished, only how he did what he did and why. And there are not many options. He was either pretender or prophet. Either he did what he did alone, or he had the help of heaven. Look at the evidence, but look at all of the evidence, the entire mosaic of his life, not any single piece. Most importantly, do as young Joseph and “ask … God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given [you].” This is not only how you may learn the truth about the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith, it is also the pattern to know the truth of all things.

It is my conviction that an honest and sincere look at the entire span of evidence for the divine calling of Joseph Smith, the “entire mosaic” of who Joseph was and what he accomplished, will strengthen faith in the conviction that he was a prophet. That whatever else he was, whatever flaws he had, whatever mistakes he made, he should be first and foremost remembered as a prophet of God. That is why those who know Joseph the best, those who know him the most intimately, know his life and teachings the closest, are believers. (So it was in his day, and so it is today.) Not, as some suppose, because of social or familial pressure to conform to belief, but out of a sincere belief.

“If Ye Lack Wisdom” by Elder Marcos A. Aidukaitis

This was one of my favorite talks! Not only was it topical, but it was also well-articulated.

Basically, the talk was all about the blessings and pitfalls of the Internet, coupled with an excursus on Mormon epistemology.

The Internet provides many opportunities for learning. However, Satan wants us to be miserable, and he distorts the real purpose of things. He uses this great tool to promote doubt and fear and to destroy faith and hope. With so much available on the Internet, we must carefully consider where to apply our efforts. Satan can keep us busy, distracted, and infected by sifting through information, much of which can be pure garbage.

Then came the zinger, “One should not roam through garbage.”

I’ll give you a hint. The website I’m thinking of uses
this fellow as its mascot.

The whole time I was listening to this talk I couldn’t help but keep thinking of a very specific anti-Mormon website. A website that bills itself as balanced and objective, of just wanting to present both sides of the debate and then let the reader decide. A website whose proprietors try to snooker unsuspecting Church members into thinking that they’re faithful, active Mormons who are just concerned with truth and transparency. A website that blindly and uncritically regurgitates any anti-Mormon argument, no matter how poorly argued or supported by the evidence. It is an obnoxious, deceptive, trashy, and pseudo-scholarly website run by an often morally and intellectually dubious gaggle of ex- and anti-Mormons.

It is, in short, exactly the kind of garbage on the Internet Elder Aidukaitis warned not to roam through. (Seriously, your time is much better spent looking elsewhere.)

Elder Aidukaitis also extended this invitation at the conclusion of his remarks.

I invite all to seek truth from any of these methods but especially from God through personal revelation. God will reveal truth to those who seek for it as prescribed in the scriptures. It requires more effort than to just search the Internet, but it is worth it. 

This reminded me of one of my favorite quotes by Steven C. Harper.

This combination of seeking by study and by faith enables seekers to discern whether Joseph [told the truth]. The foremost historians [of Joseph Smith] are seekers of the study and faith variety. They are disciplined practitioners of the historical method who were trained in respected universities. By contrast, people who go from belief to unbelief when they confront historical documents are comparatively ignorant of the historical method. Having visited with many of them, I believe that they are genuinely sincere but poorly informed souls who assumed they were well-informed and then found themselves in a crisis of faith when they encountered evidence that overturned their assumptions. They did not practice a disciplined method. They did not seek by diligent, systematic study along with exercising faith. Googling is not a synonym for seeking.[7]

So those were some of the highlights of General Conference.

I can’t wait until October!

Notes

[1]: Christian Smith, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American 
Teenagers, with Melinda Lundquist Denton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 165, quoted in John Gee, “On Corrupting the Youth,” FARMS Review 22/2 (2010): 218.

[2]: Hugh Nibley, “Nobody to Blame,” in Eloquent Witness: Nibley on Himself, Others, and the Temple, ed. Stephen D. Ricks (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2008), 125–141. One of my professors once said he thinks this article should be required reading for all Latter-day Saints interested in higher education or academia. I concur.

[3]: Daniel C. Peterson, “The Role of Apologetics in Mormon Studies,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 2 (2012): i–xxxvi, online here; John Gee, “Whither Mormon Studies?” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 4 (2013): 93–130, online here; Daniel C. Peterson, “‘Let a Hundred Flowers Blossom’: Some Observations on Mormon Studies,” Mormon Studies Review 1 (2014): 80–88; Daniel C. Peterson, “Reflections on the Mission of the Interpreter Foundation,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 9 (2014): vii–xx, online here.

[4]: David L. Paulsen and Blake T. Ostler, “Sin, Suffering, and Soul-Making: Joseph Smith on the Problem of Evil,” in Revelation, Reason, and Faith: Essays in Honor of Truman G. Madsen, ed. Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and Stephen D. Ricks (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2002), 237–284, online here.

[5]: See David L. Paulsen, Roger D. Cook, and Kendel J. Christensen, “The Harrowing of Hell: Salvation for the Dead in Early Christianity,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 19, no. 1 (2010): 56–77, online here; David L. Paulsen and Brock M. Mason, “Baptism for the Dead in Early Christianity,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 19, no. 2 (2010): 22–49, online here; David L. Paulsen, Kendel J. Christensen, and Martin Pulido, “Redeeming the Dead: Tender Mercies, Turning of Hearts, and Restoration of Authority,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 20, no. 1 (2011): 28–51, online here; David L. Paulsen, Judson Burton, Kendel J. Christensen, and Martin Pulido, “Redemption of the Dead: Continuing Revelation after Joseph Smith,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 20, no. 2 (2011): 52–69, online here.

[6]: Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “Dating the Birth of Jesus Christ,” BYU Studies 49, no. 4 (2010): 5–38, online here. See also the FairMormon wiki article here.

[7]: Steven C. Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision: A Guide to the Historical Accounts (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2012), 11–12, emphasis in original.