Indicted by Love

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This is the 305th week, and we’re covering the recent October 2021 Semi-Annual General Conference in its entirety.

I was initially a little underwhelmed by the most recent General Conference. There were some standout talks, but there were no surprising new announcements and the heated issues of the day were conspicuous by their absence. Nothing on the Proclamation on the Family or moral issues. Nothing on politics. Vaccines were mentioned, but primarily just in the context of explaining the precautions that let us start taking baby steps towards normal, live conferences again. In short: nobody I wanted to get zinged got zinged.

And when I realized why I was feeling let down–that nobody got called out like I wanted them to–I felt terrible. And I realized how important this General Conference was to me. Because I had some repenting to do.

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Positively Biased for Conference

If you are hitching your happiness to things being a certain way, it’s a setup for suffering.

-Tara Brach

As General Conference approaches, Latter-Day Saints are going to be hearing conflicting messages on social media, and they can generally be grouped into two themes:

  • General Conference is coming, and we get to hear teachings from prophets. Hooray!
  • General Conference is coming, so brace yourself. There will probably be things said that are harmful or insensitive. You need to steel yourself against the possibility of being hurt.

The first theme is one that views Conference as a time of rejoicing. It affirms that Conference speakers are good people and that their messages are inspired. Whatever they say, it will be for our good.

The second theme views Conference as threatening. It is neutral or negative about the motivations and/or divinely-ordained callings of the speakers, and it doubts the capacity of the hearer to process conference messages in a healthy way.

Both themes reflect bias, and bias is not a bad thing. Everyone brings their biases and worldviews to every part of life — including faith — and people who claim to be unbiased are just demonstrating another form of cognitive bias called the Bias Blind Spot. For a lengthy list of cognitive, emotional and other forms of bias, see here.

There is no such thing as an unbiased viewing of General Conference, but it is possible for us to be mindful of what we bring to the Conference experience and respond to our biases (and conference) in ways that lead to our growth.

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3 Nephi and The Revealed Christ

I finished the Book of Mormon again a few weeks ago. This year, I didn’t have a specific theme to focus on, but I knew I wanted to do a writeup of impressions, and I had a thought to focus on 3 Nephi. It’s maybe the spiritual summit of the Book of Mormon text, but to be honest in all my readings of the BoM, I’ve never really applied myself to understand that book like I have others.

Here at the outset, I want to make a claim about the Book of Mormon in general, and 3 Nephi in particular. If you have never heard of Marcion and his heresy, he was a theologian in the early Christian community who developed a strong position that the God of the Old Testament was not the same God who had come in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. In Marcion’s thinking, The Jewish/Hebrew Jehovah was mean-spirited, ruthless, and cruel, while Christian Jesus of Nazareth was completely different: kind, loving, merciful, and so forth. Therefore, they could not be the same entity.

Parts of the Marcion heresy are still alive and well today, even among wonderful Christians around the world. But Latter-day Saints bring to our understanding a Book of Mormon witness that Jehovah and Jesus are one and the same. And 3 Nephi is the book where this reality is shown with the most clarity. 3 Nephi thoroughly destroys the Marcion heresy.

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We Love Best by Telling the WHOLE Truth

My friend and co-blogger Dan Ellsworth’s article in Public Square Magazine was prescient, given that just a few hours later Elder Holland’s address to BYU faculty and staff was published. Dan’s description of our tendency to hear what we want to hear as a form of idolatry is bracing but needed. “Ironically, one of our most persistent idolatries is the refashioning of the divinely revealed Christ into a sentimentally-appealing false Christ named ‘Jesus,’ who exists to make us all feel loved and happy,” he writes. I thought I would provide three examples of this trend I have noticed that buttress his point.

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Where the Family is Safe

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This is the 298th week, and we’re covering the Saturday Morning session of the April 1994 General Conference.

Several themes stood out to me from this session, and a couple of them line up with thoughts I’ve been having in my own scripture study. First, I liked what Elder Faust taught about those of us who aren’t especially talented being able to contribute to the Church in his talke Five Loaves and Two Fishes.Although some of us have been “given minds and talents equal to fifteen loaves and ten fishes,” he taught that “if God has a work for those with many talents, I believe he also has an important work for those of us who have few.”

I had similar thoughts reading Helaman Helaman 5, which I posted publicly on Facebook.You can read the whole thing, but what struck me was how God used both spiritual giants from the Book of Mormon’s most elite spiritual dynasty (Nephi and Lehi, descended from Alma the Elder) and some random apostates to do his work. If you’re trying to feed 5,000 people, does it actually matter if you start out with 10 loaves or with 15? Individual differences in talent and ability don’t matter without God, because we are all unprofitable servants, and they don’t really matter with God, either, because as long as he’s multiplying the loaves and fishes there will always be enough.

I was also struck–one again, this is probably the single most consistently surprising thing since I started the General Conference Odyssey–by how consistent the teachings of the General Authorities are. There’s a kind of folk history of the Church that says in the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s the Church was much more austere and punitive and that only in the very recent years has the Church softened its positions. 

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Come, Listen to a Prophet’s Voice

This week, the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a statement regarding facemasks and vaccines, that reads as follows:

 Dear Brothers and Sisters:

We find ourselves fighting a war against the ravages of COVID-19 and its variants, an unrelenting pandemic. We want to do all we can to limit the spread of these viruses. We know that protection from the diseases they cause can only be achieved by immunizing a very high percentage of the population.

To limit exposure to these viruses, we urge the use of face masks in public meetings whenever social distancing is not possible. To provide personal protection from such severe infections, we urge individuals to be vaccinated. Available vaccines have proven to be both safe and effective.

We can win this war if everyone will follow the wise and thoughtful recommendations of medical experts and government leaders. Please know of our sincere love and great concern for all of God’s children.

The First Presidency

Russell M. Nelson

Dallin H. Oaks

Henry B. Eyring

I’m writing for two reasons today.

The first is to congratulate the number of my friends who have strong reasons for opposing the vaccine, and have changed their tack in view of the prophet’s call. This letter is making a difference for folks, and I appreciate them for it. It takes faith and humility, and they will be better for it.

When I went to church today, I saw a great number wearing masks. The bishop addressed the issue directly, and kindly. He said “the overriding two concerns of the ward council are to follow the prophet, and to ensure that every member of this ward is treated like a member of our family.” There was kindness, there was following the prophet, and there was a special sort of camaraderie. I’m grateful to all who listen when the time comes to listen.

But that’s not the only reason I write.

Spiritual Experiences, Motivated Reasoning, and Objectivity

A sometimes-perplexing issue in Latter-Day Saint epistemology is the question of how we value what we call “spiritual experiences.” We believe that God can communicate to us through powerful feelings, which critics sometimes dismiss as the elevation emotion, as if they have somehow determined that God cannot or would not use the medium of emotion to communicate with us. I have a little more in-depth discussion of what we call “spiritual experiences” here in my post on epistemology, and I also recommend Blake Ostler’s FAIR presentation on that topic.

But for the sake of this discussion, I want to focus on the question of our feelings. Are they valuable in helping us to know what is true? And to what extent? Are they more or less valuable than reason?

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A Love Note to the Universalists

For believing Latter-day Saints, universalism speaks to a legitimate problem and a legitimate yearning.

The problem universalism speaks to is as follows: exaltation is the product of choices in the direction of eternal life (God’s life) that are made by souls who see their options with clarity.  In mortality, many of us — to some extent all of us — have trouble seeing our choices with clarity.  Some of the reasons for this (sin, rebellion) are within our control, but other reasons for our inability to see clearly (culture, trauma, neurological wiring, lack of opportunity) are to some extent not within our control.  So after this life, there will be periods of time where people come to see reality with the clarity that has not been possible in mortality.  Universalists are confident that everyone who sees with this clarity will choose eternal life, or that God will somehow unilaterally impose eternal life on everyone, regardless of their choices.

The legitimate yearning that universalism answers is the desire to be with loved ones for eternity.  Latter-day Saint universalists see in the statement “families can be together forever” not a statement of possibility, but a statement of divine intention.  They view any possibility of eternal separation from loved ones as being contrary to God’s plan, and view the eternal gathering of our Heavenly Parents’ children as being an ideal that is fully within our Heavenly Parents’ power to achieve.

There is a degree of legitimate truth in these universalist ideas, and we would do well to honestly acknowledge that.

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Tithing is a Covenant Responsibility Even When we Disagree With How the Church Uses it

I have seen quite a lot of discussion recently about tithing and heard a few people say that they do not feel that they can pay a tithe to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There appear to be three broad areas of concern. 1. The argument that the Church is not using it’s sacred funds wisely by investing and saving rather than using for immediate charitable works, 2. That the lack of transparency is troubling, and 3. That tithing funds may go to support causes that the individual strongly disagrees with. I’ve seen this criticism from liberal friends who see Church donations as homophobic and also from more conservative friends who disagree with partnerships with groups like the NAACP that they see as racist or pro-aborrion.

Others have written very articulately about the first two points and so I am not going to write about them at length. I would however briefly note that it is legitimate to question how tithing is used and to seek more information or transparency. But I don’t think that desire for greater transparency can justify withholding from God when he has instructed us to bring our tithes to his Church.

I want to mostly address the third concern head on because it goes to a point I feel strongly about.

In our Church we are led by individuals that we sustain as Prophets, Seers, and Revelators. These men have never hesitated to use the pulpit to speak out on matters of policy that they felt were of vital moral importance.

As members we are allowed to disagree with the Church on these matters. We are not required to give up own own political opinions or blindly agree with the Church on any matter.

And as President Oaks talked about powerfully in the most recent General Conference, when it comes to my vote or how I donate politically or otherwise participate in politics, I am free to exercise my agency, to weigh competing issue, and to make my own prayerful choices. The Church does not compel my free choices in this regard with narrow exceptions such as a prohibition on direct financial support for abortions.

But when it comes to tithing, I see it as a matter of offering a sacred sustaining vote for the work of the Lord. Tithing is an act of covenental trust and this trust is particularly vital when I may not see exactly eye to eye with Church leaders on matters of public policy.

Being willing to tithe in such circumstances is an act of humility which is vital for warding off the tendency to think we know better than the Lord and his servants. If we are so disaffected from their decisions that we are not willing to provide the tithing that the Lord has asked, then we are on very shaky ground when it comes to our sustaining vote and our temple covenants regarding consecration.

We get to use our God given agency to vote how we wish and support the parties and platforms that we wish to support. As President Oaks explained, we must do that prayerfully and other members should abstain from harsh judgments on these matters of personal conscience.

But can we put our political convictions and our moral certainty aside to offer or tithing to the Lord and his servants even when the donation may be at cross purposes with our political activity? I feel strongly that being willing to do so is an important and sacred part of the covenant I have made in the temple and each time I raise my hand to sustain the Prophet and the Apostles.

I believe this is at least part of what the Lord is referring to in D&C 64 when he speaks of tithing:

“I, the Lord, require the hearts of the children of men.

Behold, now it is called today until the coming of the Son of Man, and verily it is a day of sacrifice, and a day for the tithing of my people; for he that is tithed shall not be burned at his coming.”

Paying tithing willingly even when we do not perfectly see eye to eye with the leadership of the Church protects us from apostasy and in that sense is a crucial form of fire insurance. It is a way that we can give the Lord our heart even when that can be difficult.

Sunday Thought: The Natural State

We live in an age where we question our heroes and our legends and our myths, and I think that’s lame, so I have deliberately cultivated a list of heroes. Among them is Adam Smith.

When Smith wrote Wealth of Nations, he was already thinking about the framing. It wasn’t Poverty of Nations, because after all, poverty is the natural state. Wealth is what is interesting. How do we create it? How do we help people? What are the conditions under which it flourishes?

Another hero is Renee Descartes. He was willing to start over on everything he’d ever known in order to start from first principles. What could he say he knew by logical proof alone? He was willing to abandon it all unless he could say that he knew it. I so admire his courage. Had he not been willing to put it all on the line, he never would have arrived at “I think, therefore I am.”

Recently, I read a talk given by a church member in another congregation saying that we should “be as willing to proclaim earnest doubt as earnest testimony.” He lauded the importance of “normalizing doubt” and “giving space for legitimate questions.”

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