The Shortest Distance is a Straight Line

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week we’re covering the Saturday afternoon session of the April 1989 General Conference

I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of Elder Oaks’ talk, Alternate Voices, already. But I hadn’t read it before today. Nor had I read Elder Pace’s talk, Follow the Prophet. But the two really go together. 

I also happen to have read my father’s final draft of the authorized Eugene England biography just a couple of months ago. (It’s not out yet.) I don’t have the details firmly in mind, but–if I recollect at all correctly–Elder Oaks’ talk was directed at least partially towards Dialogue (which Eugene England helped found in 1966) and Sunstone (which started up in 1974). Meanwhile, the September Six were just four years in the future from this General Conference. A lot was going on in Mormon intellectual circles, to put it mildly, and the echoes still reverberate today.

I wouldn’t have really been aware of any of that in 1989, if I listened to the General Conference live, because I was just a kid. I’m still not really well-versed in this history, but I do have vague notions of it, at least. And so I was surprised–and this certainly isn’t the first time–at how gentle and reasonable these talks were.

Consider Elder Pace’s discussion of the three sources of criticism directed at the Church. First, he considers criticism that comes from outside the Church:

Responsible nonmember teasing and criticism is harmless. In fact, it helps keep us on our toes. Occasionally, we need to step back and look at ourselves from a nonmember’s perspective. Really now, to them, aren’t we just a little bit strange? Imagine yourself coming into a Mormon community for the first time and hearing talk about gold plates, an angel named Moroni, and baptisms for the dead. Imagine seeing, for the first time, nine children and two beleaguered parents in a beat-up station wagon with a bumper sticker reading, “Families are Forever.” The puzzled nonmember doesn’t know if this is a boast or a complaint. And where do these families go to church? At a stake house. We are strange to nonmembers—until they get to know us.

This is self-aware and, honestly, pretty hilarious. He goes on: 

In this regard, my counsel to members would be to relax, lighten up, mellow out, and not get so huffy. While the gospel is sacred and serious, sometimes we take ourselves a little too seriously. A sense of humor, especially about ourselves, is an attribute worthy of development.

Turning more serious, he acknowledged that a lot of the criticisms have real merit, urging Latter-day Saints to take responsibility and fix the problems: 

Criticism always hurts most when we deserve it… We would eliminate the most painful criticism from responsible nonmembers by simply internalizing and living what the Church teaches.

Even when it comes to criticism from the most controversial source–former members–Elder Pace’s words surprise anyone who comes looking for a fight: “The danger lies not in what may come from a member critic, but in the chance that we might become one.”

Elder Pace then closes out with a description of the perils of prideful intellectualism that seem more relevant today than ever, noting that:

Our problem today is with members who seem very vulnerable to the trends in society (and the pointing fingers which attend them) and want the Church to change its position to accommodate them. 

It doesn’t get much more on-target than that.

So next up was Elder Oaks’ (in)famous talk. Here, again, I was surprised. I guess I’ve tended to hear about these talks from folks who felt stung by them, so my expectation is always that I’ll see some pretty harsh words. Instead, I was kind of shocked to see that Elder Oaks’ starts out by defending space for “alternative voices”:

Some alternate voices are those of well-motivated men and women who are merely trying to serve their brothers and sisters and further the cause of Zion. Their efforts fit within the Lord’s teaching that his servants should not have to be commanded in all things, but “should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness.”

As someone who’s been blogging about the Church for almost ten years now, I realized that this means I’m an “alternative voice” and–I certainly hope–among those who “fit within the Lord’s teaching.”

This is not what I expected to find in this talk.

Elder Oaks then turned to the kinds of conferences and journals where it’s common to find defenders of the Church sharing pages with detractors, and here again his discussion–though frank–was nuanced and surprisingly open-minded. Far from a kind of absolutist puritanism, this is the counsel Elder Oaks had for members considering participating in forums like those:

Some of life’s most complicated decisions involve mixtures of good and evil. To what extent can one seek the benefit of something good one desires when this can only be done by simultaneously promoting something bad one opposes? That is a personal decision, but it needs to be made with a sophisticated view of the entire circumstance and with a prayer for heavenly guidance.

No simplistic checklists. No ultimatums. Instead, an appeal for responsible weighing of competing pros and cons with a “sophisticated view of the entire circumstance.” This is not the rhetoric of a church intent on controlling or manipulating its members, but one that is serious about having disciples develop their own, independent testimonies and convictions. 

I found both of these talks–along with others that I don’t have time to delve into–substantive, provocative (in a good way), and edifying. This is good stuff. I really appreciate the counsel and guidance from our prophets, seers, and revelators. 

And, in the end, I come back to what Elder Pace said early on in his talk and what I used as the title for this post: “the shortest distance from the world to the celestial kingdom is a straight line.”

I love thinking about these things, and writing about them, too. For me, theology is a kind of worship, akin to singing or painting. It’s a way to bend our minds and hearts to God. Even when we get it wrong, it still lifts our gaze to heaven. It reminds me of singing along with an awesome song in the car. If, like me, you’re not a very good singer, you still enjoy being a part of the song, even if you’re not actually getting it right.

But intellectuals needs to understand their places. We can use our bodies to serve others–digging ditches or carrying heavy loads–and so strong and healthy bodies can be useful in the service of God. But becoming a saint isn’t accomplished solely by body-building. Same idea applies here. We can use our minds to serve others–writing words to edify and teach and inspire–but preening and refining our theories and intellects can’t be the totality of our discipleship or we’ve missed. 
Sharp minds and strong muscles can be a part of discipleship, but only if they are properly seen as means to a higher end: love of neighbor and love of God. In that pursuit and in no other way, intellectualism–like all talents–reaches beyond mortal meaningless to become something great and truly good.

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