Nephi’s Faith Crisis

Although “faith crisis” has become a bit of a buzzword, there’s a real phenomenon beneath the fad: sometimes your expectations and assumptions collide catastrophically with new information.

You have three options when this happens. You can try to pretend nothing has changed, but if the new information is real, this denial won’t last. At best, it’s a delaying tactic. Eventually you will have to either walk away from your former beliefs or rebuild them.

One great example of a faith crisis is Paul. Prior to meeting Jesus, he thought he had it all figured out. Meeting Jesus demolished his old beliefs. He knew he was wrong. But he didn’t know what to believe instead. Not on an intellectual level, at least. According to N. T. Wright’s biography, Paul spent years figuring out how to take the raw material of his old beliefs (especially the Hebrew Bible) and put the pieces back together so they fit his knowledge of the Savior. (This is the third option.)

Nephi is another example of a faith crisis, but the depiction in the text is a lot more subtle. Still, the pieces are there. Start with 1 Ne 2:16:

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The Second Change of Heart

This is an adapted version of the lesson that I taught for Easter Sunday yesterday.

The Good News of Christ makes faith and repentance possible. We have cause for faith because, in vanquishing death and sin, Christ gives us all something to believe in: the possibility that every grief and sorrow may one day be turned to joy. Christ’s perfect example and his Atonement also serve as the motive and means for repentance, filling us with a desire to turn to Him as well as a path back home. These principles—faith and repentance—will lead us be baptized and then to receive the Holy Spirit, which will cause us to become new creatures. This is it, the whole Gospel, in one paragraph.

I want to expand this message into three parts: the what, the why, and the how of the Gospel, each expressed as a promise of Christ’s gifts to us.

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Little Prayers

Sometimes I am embarrassed about the things I say in my prayers. Sometimes I’m embarrassed while I am still praying. Here I am, getting down on my knees to commune with the Creator of the Universe and the Author of the Plan of Redemption and what do I have on the agenda? Well, dear reader, I’m not going to tell you exactly. See above, re: embarrassment. But you can fill in your own examples: concerns about bills or work, fears about work, little worries about the future. Day-to-day problems that even I won’t remember a week from now.

There are times when shame washes over me, and I apologize for taking my Heavenly Father’s time up with such trivialities. Not that I think He’s really short on time, in a literal sense. If He can field billions of prayers a day, I’m sure He’s got a handle on the logistics. But sometimes when I realize how tiny my concerns are, it makes me feel small.

But I think my shame is misplaced.

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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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How to be a Man

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This is the 300th week, and we’re covering the Priesthood session of the April 1994 General Conference.

“We must be there with the lambs when we are needed.” That’s what Elder Lindsay learned in relating one of the most poignant stories I’ve read in General Conference. One morning his 6-year old son called Elder Lindsay at work to excitedly say that the ewe he was in charge of caring for had had her lambs. “Please come home and help me take care of them,” his little boy said, but Elder Lindsay was busy. He stayed at work, telling his son everything would be fine.

Two hours later his son called back. “Daddy, these lambs aren’t doing very well. They haven’t been able to get milk from the mother, and they are very cold. Please come home.” Again, Elder Lindsay refused. 

Then a third phone call. ““Daddy, you’ve got to come home now. Those lambs are lying down, and one of them looks very cold.” Elder Lindsay gave his son advice on how to take care of the lambs, but he stayed at work, not getting home until two hours later.

I drove into the driveway of our home and was met by a boy with tear-stained eyes, carrying a dead lamb in his arms. His grief was overwhelming. Now I tried to make amends by quickly milking the mother sheep and trying to force the milk from a bottle down the throat of the now weak, surviving lamb. At this point, Gordon walked out of the room and came back with a hopeful look in his eyes. He said, “Daddy, I’ve prayed that we will be able to save this lamb, and I feel it will be all right.”

The sad note to this story, brethren, is that within a few minutes the second lamb was dead. Then with a look that I will remember forever, this little six-year-old boy who had lost both of his lambs looked up into his father’s face and with tears running down his cheeks said, “Daddy, if you had come home when I first called you, we could have saved them both.”

The name of Elder Lindsays’ talks is “Feed My Sheep,” and as you can see he does not pull any punches with his own poor decisions.

“Dear brethren of the priesthood,” he concludes: 

Those who are entrusted as keepers of the Lord’s precious flock—we must be there with the lambs when we are needed. We must teach with love, principles of faith, and goodness and be righteous examples to the lambs of our Heavenly Father.

This sacred duty is a defining attribute of what it means to be a Latter-day Saint man and especially a Latter-day Saint father. We are to feed the sheep, and we are to do so with love.

Elder Wirthlin, in his talk Live in Obedience, described how young horses were taught to be obedient and related:

When I asked how the gauchos taught the horses to be so obedient, I was informed that their training started when the horses were colts. Each one learned from its caring mother and from other mature horses. The gauchos began training the colts when they were young, with kindness, never using force of a lasso or a whip.

Elder Didier taught in Remember Your Covenants that:

As a husband and father and later as a grandfather, I was and still am responsible for the development, temporal support, protection, and salvation of my family.

And:

The husband and wife serve as partners in governing their family, and both act in joint leadership and depend on each other. They are united in the vision of their eternal salvation, one holding the priesthood, the other honoring and enjoying the blessings of it. One is not superior or inferior to the other. Each one carries his or her respective responsibilities and acts in his or her respective role.

The were some stern aspects of the talk but–like Elder Lindsay’s self-effacing story–they were directed towards the audience of men. Elder Monson, in The Priesthood – A Sacred Trust, cited President John Taylor: “If you do not magnify your callings, God will hold you responsible for those whom you might have saved had you done your duty.” As Elder Lindsay’s little boy said, “if you had come home… we could have saved them both.”

Even on the topic of brethren who are falling short in their duty, however, the sternness is tempered with love:

Brethren, there are tens of thousands of priesthood holders scattered among you who, through indifference, hurt feelings, shyness, or weakness, cannot bless to the fullest extent their wives and children—without considering the lives of others they could lift and bless. Ours is the solemn duty to bring about a change, to take such an individual by the hand and help him arise and be well spiritually. As we do so, sweet wives will call our names blessed, and grateful children will marvel at the change in Daddy as lives are altered and souls are saved.

I am so grateful for what I was taught growing up in the Restored Church of Jesus Christ. I learned from an early age what being a good man looked like. I learned that it meant the strength to be gentle, the humility to ask the Lord’s assistance to provide for my children, the compassion to recognize need, and the selflessness to give of myself.

I am far from perfect, but I thank God that at least I got the instructions, and I’ve had the chance to work to bend my stubborn, prideful, selfish nature to the beautiful, fulfilling work of service. The mistakes have all been mine–and so many remain–but for what good I’ve been able to offer my sweet children and my wife, the love of my life, I offer thanks to God for showing me the way.

Doctrine Hidden by Culture

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This is the 299th week, and we’re covering the Saturday Afternoon session of the April 1994 General Conference.

One of the recurring surprises (how many times does it have to happen before I stop being surprised) is the consistency of the General Conference talks from decades past with the tone and concerns of our most recent addresses. Yes, there a handful of notable changes, but there are more examples where the stereotype of an austere, misogynistic is confounded than anything else. Consider Elder Ballard’s talk on councils, where he stressed that for bishops to be effective leaders of councils they needed to listen more, and especially to women:

Eventually I asked the bishop to try again, only this time to solicit ideas and recommendations from his council members before making any assignments. I especially encouraged him to ask the sisters for their ideas.

The problem Elder Ballard encountered was that leaders in the church were too much like leaders in the ward: eager to delegate and direct. They weren’t enough like Christ: eager to listen and understand. It was also a little depressing just how dysfunctional the councils were–although he didn’t use the word–in operating far, far below the optimum. 

Once the appropriate councils are organized and the brethren and the sisters have full opportunity to contribute, ward and stake leaders can move beyond just maintaining organizations. They can focus their efforts on finding ways to make their world a better place to live. Certainly ward councils can consider such subjects as gang violence, child safety, urban blight, or community cleanup campaigns. Bishops could ask ward councils, “How can we make a difference in our community?” Such broad thinking and participation in community improvement are the right things for Latter-day Saints to do.

The baseline–“just maintaining organizations”–is not where we want to be. To be a light that isn’t hidden and a salt that hasn’t lost its savor, Latter-day Saints ought to be engaged in “broad thinking and participation in community improvement.” 

I’ve never been in a ward or stake council. I have no idea how far we’ve come since the mid-1990s, but I hope we’ve made progress.

Another stereotype I often hear attributed to the Church–or, at least, to its members–is the prosperity gospel. I’ve certainly seen this one with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears, but only at the local level. 

We often act as though we’ve heard it all before when it comes to General Conference, but if we would actually listen maybe we’d be able to move on from the basics, But as long as people are still emphasizing the way you can exchange obedience for material prosperity as though God were a cosmic vending machine, we’re not understanding what we’re being taught. Elder Lloyd P. George–in a talk about gratitude–provided just another in a countless litany of example from over the pulpit at General Conference about how just wrong this paradigm is:

I am grateful for the things which I have suffered in the flesh, which have been blessings in my life that have taught me patience, long-suffering, faith, and a sensitivity to those who are less fortunate.

Obedience does bring about blessings, but those blessings can include trials. Suffering is part of the plan, and it’s part of the plan for everyone. Sometimes suffering comes about because of our own choices or because we are victims of the bad choices of other people. Not every instance of suffering is heaven-sent or approved by God. There is more suffering in the world than there should be, and it’s our sacred duty to alleviate it wherever we find it.

But the amount of suffering that a righteous person should–and will–encounter in this life even when they are being obedient is not zero. The fact that we inhabit a world where suffering exists and even many specific instances of suffering are intended parts of the plans, and obedience is no shield from this fact. The General Authorities know this. They–and the scriptures–teach this. 

And yet somehow I feel we still have not learned the lesson, as a people.

Then again, I suppose I should concede that the message is a little paradoxical. I confess I was a little uncomfortable with (then) Elder Oaks’ talk on tithing in the same session where he emphasized the material blessings that come from paying tithes with stories that–I confess–I really dislike. Elder Oaks said:

During the Great Depression, President Grant continued to remind the Saints that the payment of tithing would open the windows of heaven for blessings needed by the faithful. In that stressful period, some of our bishops observed that members who paid their tithing were able to support their families more effectively than those who did not. The tithe payers tended to keep their employment, enjoy good health, and be free from the most devastating effects of economic and spiritual depression. (emphasis added)

He also cited President Joseph F. Smith, “By keeping this and other laws, I expect to prosper and to be able to provide for my family.” A basic aspect of the pride cycle in the Book of Mormon also involves the people being blessed with prosperity and material wealth whenever they are righteous. So it’s not as though the whole prosperity gospel heresy comes out of nowhere.

But that’s how heresies work, right? They don’t come out of nowhere. They are generally true and good principles that are ripped out of their proper context and/or pushed out of balance with other principles.

The prosperity that people experience collectively when they follow the commandments is just that: collective. It does not prevent individual people from suffering misfortune and tragedy. In fact, one of the major problems with the Nephites in the Book of Mormon is that when they prospered, they often grew in inequality. That tells you that the prosperity was not evenly distributed. Many people grew wealthy and the people overall prospered, but many individuals were left behind and faced hardship and want and this was not a result of individual disobedience

We know that because the Lord was often angry with the rich and the wealthy for setting themselves apart and refusing to help those who were being left behind. We also know that because it was often the poor people who were the more righteous. 

This collective / individual distinction is really important. Yeah, if people are obedient overall they will prosper overall, but this is much less about God handing out wealth like tossing candy individually into the bags of trick-or-treaters and much more about the fact that the Gospel is pro-social. When you have people who generally eschew war and contention and are basically honest, then society will grow wealthier as a natural consequence. This is less about divine favor and more about basic cause-and-effect. And it means that the distribution of wealth to individual people within an overall prosperous society will not systematically reflect their righteousness. Some of the rich will be good and decent and others liars and thieves. And the same goes for the poor.

It’s also worth noting that tithing is an exceptional case. Because tithing specifically asks us to give up our material possessions, it is not surprising that–more so than other commandments–the blessings it brings often tend to have a material component. 

The point is that the prosperity gospel didn’t come out of nowhere. The reason people keep falling for it is that there’s a kernel of truth to it. But there’s also a lot of lies. They include:

  • Following commandments will insulate you from suffering
  • God’s blessings always have a temporal component
  • A person’s material wealth is a proxy for their spiritual righteousness

The really dangerous thing about these lies is that when they become expectations they lead to really bad behavior. If you think God always blesses righteous people with money, then why should you help someone who is poor? You’d just be interfering with God’s system. And, after all, they deserve their poverty since it resulted from their disobedience.

And if God’s blessings always have a material component, how can you possibly lay up for yourself treasures in heaven? You will be so focused on the earthly treasures that you will miss out on the much, much more important treasures that God wants you to receive.

And perhaps most tragically, if you think that following commandments will insulate you from suffering then when you come to our own personal Gethsemane–and everyone must, to some degree or other, as part of the proces of learning and growing here on Earth–what will you think? Will you blame yourself and let a toxic, unhealthy shame eat away at your self-worth and your relationship to God? Will you grow bitter towards the Church or God Himself for deceiving you, misunderstanding your own warped expectations for what the scriptures and prophets teach?

I can tell you this from sad experience: I have seen too many otherwise good and obedient Saints founder on the rocks of suffering not so much because of the suffering itself, but because the suffering felt like a betrayal. Their false expectations created a trap within their own hearts, just waiting for the right moment to spring.

And so, while I confess I don’t love Elder Oaks’ talk, everything he taught was true. The danger is not in his talk. The danger is in taking his talk out of context.

This post is already a bit long, so let me just mention that Elder Johnson’s talk We All Have a Father in Whom We Can Trust, was also great. There were two parts of it that I liked.

First–going back to my theme that the Church’s teachings have been remarkably consistent–he said that he and his wife decided that “it was our responsibility to teach the gospel to our son and that Church programs would reinforce the teaching in the home.” Sound like home-centered church anyone? From back in 1994. I remember–a few years before this stuff became super-prominent in General Conference–trying to explain that it was my belief that the Church was for the family and not the other way around, and some (faithful, active) Latter-day Saints pushed back with, essentially, “That’d be great if it were true, but I just don’t think it’s what we’re actually taught.”

Yes, it is. Now and in the past as well. But–like the prosperity gospel heresy–you’ve got to get past some cultural chafe to find it. It’s there, though, I promise. And it always has been.

Second, I really love the mileage you can get out keeping in mind that we are children of God and comparing that to how earthly parents relate to their children. Elder Johsnson reflect on the time he spent helping his father build things as a child and noted:

As I look back and reflect upon those wonderful memories, I realize that my contribution was not necessary for my father to complete the work he was engaged in. I was the beneficiary, as through these experiences I came to know him and to love him.

How like the association we have with our Heavenly Father, believing at times that the service we engage in is for his benefit, when in reality it is comparable with my handing tools to my father. It is the relationship that develops that is of greater significance more than the contribution we make…

Just as I was not able to fully comprehend what my earthly father was building until he completed his work, so it is with our Heavenly Father. When his kingdom is established and the work is complete, we will recognize our home and shout for joy.

We are children of God. It’s not just the lyrics to a song. It’s a lens that can help to make so much sense of our often bewildering and frustrating experiences in this mortal life.

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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Updating the Old Truths

Righteous Traditions of the Fathers

Anti-Nephi-Lehis burying their weapons of war. Artist unknown.

One of the hard lessons of the Book of Mormon is that the next generation does not automatically inherit the righteous traditions of their fathers. Worldly traditions propagate easily, spreading within and between generations like the common cold, but the Gospel is otherworldly. It takes constant energy and attention to thrive in the intrinsically hostile climate of a fallen world. This means that no matter how deeply one generation is converted, there is never a guarantee that the next generation will inherit the legacy. No matter how well they are taught, every generation has to rediscover the truth for themselves.

Although he was talking about the liberal tradition and not the Gospel, F. A Hayek’s description is extraordinarily apt. Here it is, lightly adapted:

If the old truths are not updated for each new age, they will slip from our grasp and lose our allegiance. The terms in which those truths have been couched will become hollow, potted mottoes, will fail to galvanize, inspire, and move us. The old truths will remain truths, but they’ll be dismissed and neglected as mere dogma, noise. And [we] will again face a crisis of faith.

One of the things that tends to confuse people about Latter-day Saint Radical Orthodoxy is that we talk both about loyalty and fidelity to the basic, essential truths of the Restored Gospel and we talk about exploration and innovation. How are these two things combined? 

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Radical Orthodoxy and Alternate Voices

This is part of an ongoing project to articulate and clarify the principles described in the Latter-day Saint Radical Orthodoxy Manifesto.

Speaking in the 1989 General Conference, Elder Oaks referred to “alternate voices” as:

those voices that speak of God, of his commandments, and of the doctrines, ordinances, and practices of his church…. without calling or authority.

This might sound like a bad thing, but in his talk, Elder Oaks stated that the Church is not opposed to alternate voices. As he put it, 

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not attempt to isolate its members from alternate voices. Its approach, as counseled by the Prophet Joseph Smith, is to teach correct principles and then leave its members to govern themselves by personal choices.

Not only that, but Elder Oaks also made it clear that while some alternate voices have nefarious designs (such as the pursuit of power or money or the intent to deceive), there are also positive alternate 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.”

This describes the intent of those of us who are participating in the LDS Radical Orthodoxy movement. We are not seeking to displace, supplant, subvert, or supersede the Church, but to “serve [our] brothers and sisters and further the cause of Zion.”

These efforts are no less needed now than they were three decades ago. Speaking to the FairMormon Conference in 2019, Elder Craig C. Christensen thanked that group in particular and said that, when it comes to defending the Church, the Restoration and the Gospel, “we need your voices.” He stressed “the importance of faithful members engaging online.”

Another important point conveyed by both Elder Oaks in 1989 and Elder Christensen in 2019 is that the Church has to maintain a clear distinction between its own, formal pronouncements and the freelancing of its well-intended members. 

“The Church does have a responsibility to point out what is the voice of the Church and what is not,” Elder Oaks said. “Members of the Church are free to participate or to listen to any alternate voices they choose,” he went on, “but Church leaders should avoid official involvement, directly or indirectly.”

Not only is the separation between the Church and friendly, alternate voices necessary to preserve the clarity of the Church’s official teachings, as Elder Oaks stressed, but it also allows alternate voices to work more effectively. Elder Christensen pointed out that, although the Church works in tandem with formal groups like FAIR, Book of Mormon Central, and the Interpreter, “If you look like an extension of the Church, you wouldn’t have the power to do what you need to do.” 

Radical Orthodoxy is not a formal group like those just listed. It’s a rallying point for a decentralized group of Saints–many of whom do contribute to those groups–and one of our goals is to encourage greater enthusiasm and coordination among these alternate voices. 

Perhaps the most remarkable thing that Elder Christensen told the Fair Conference attendees was that, according to senior leadership within the Church, the vast majority of the faith-affirming messages on the Internet need to come from alternate voices: “partners [like Fair] and other individual members engaged in the conversation.”

Our hope for the LDS Radical Orthodoxy manifesto and the movement as a whole is that we will be able to help build a supportive, creative, proactive community of alternate voices. We will have diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and interests. We will not agree on every point. But we can be unified nonetheless in our discipleship of Christ and our fervent support His Restored Church.

Naturalism and Supernaturalism

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This is the 256th week, and we’re covering the Member Finances Fireside.

We’ve all seen the importance of home-centered Church during Covid, and I think we all recognize how prophetic those shifts were. I’m not sure if we recognize how long-term the trend in that direction has been, however. 

I remember trying to convince folks that the Church is for the family, no the other way around in the years before the home-centered program was announced, and I had a hard time persuading them that I wasn’t just making it up. I had a strong intuition that it was what I was being taught by the General Conference talks, but I didn’t have great examples ready to hand.

Too  bad I hadn’t read this session, because the message is very clear!

Elder Packer:

This change in budgeting will have the effect of returning much of the responsibility for teaching and counseling and activity to the family where it belongs. While there will still be many activities, they will be scaled down in cost of both time and money. There will be fewer intrusions into family schedules and in the family purses.

President Monson:

In some respects, many of our youth activities in recent years have supplanted the home and family.

President Hinckley:

This is a new and wonderful program… be grateful and prayerfully go to work to make it function. I promise you that you will be happy if you do so. Family life will be strengthened and faith will increase.

There was one other thing that really stuck out to me from President Hinckley’s quote:

This is a new and wonderful program. As with any new program, there will be a few items that will need to be corrected as we go along. There are still unanswered questions, particularly concerning recreation properties. Time and experience will provide the answers.

One of the weird tensions I often feel about our faith is the tug-of-war between miraculous and commonsensical. I’m not sure of a better way to describe what I’m talking about, even though I feel that description probably comes up short.

What I mean is that there are those who have a rock-solid belief in, say, miraculous healing power. But there seems to be a kind of simplistic “the miracle will be obvious and straightforward and perfect” corollary that goes with it.

On the other hand, folks who are more reasonable and realistic in their expectations tend to have, along with that, a general skepticism that they will ever see real miracles, the kind that are completely and totally inexplicable through any other possible rationale. For them, miracles tend to be of the “crazy coincidence” variety more than the “arise, take they bed and walk” variety.

Call it the supernatural and the natural. The two are in an uneasy tension within LDS theology and tradition. We believe that, in a sense, there are no miracles because everything God does is through the application of principles we just might not know yet. This renders all miracles a kind of footnote to Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

On the other hand, we emphatically believe that there are miracles in the more routine sense of gifts of tongues, revelation, and so forth.

I’m pretty sure that for the spiritually wise this tension fades. Maybe it goes away entirely. President Hinckley had the supernatural position that the changes were from revelation, but he also had the natural position that even divinely revealed polices would talk time to have their kinks ironed out. 

There’s an important lesson in there, somewhere, but I’m not sure what it is. Other than, if you have a temptation to go all-in-supernatural or all-in-natural: don’t. Though we might not see it yet, there’s a reconciliation. 

We don’t have to choose either-or.