In mindfulness/contemplative practice, we sometimes talk about releasing delusions, aversions, and attachments (the three poisons). While this is not an exact representation of that concept, I think it is a variation that can benefit Latter-Day Saints.
When I am really, really serious about seeking personal revelation, these are the kinds of things I pray:
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.
Some of the most vexing questions for students of scripture have to do with 1) the nature of relationships between texts, and 2) the relationships between texts and the environment and worldview of the people who produce them. As an example of the first problem, it is common for Latter-Day Saints to approach the Book of Mormon text with the assumption that the word translation connotes an exact rendering of a set of words and phrases in one language into a corresponding set of words and phrases in another language. Operating with that assumption, we might be dismayed to see commonalities between the King James biblical language and passages in the Book of Mormon, or confused by Royal Skousen’s characterization of the Book of Mormon text as a “creative and cultural translation of the Nephite record.” Skousen’s characterization finds support in Doctrine and Covenants 9:8, where the Lord specifies that the translation of the Book of Mormon required one to “study it out in your mind,” an imprecise process in which the mental building blocks of the translator (including cultural forms of expression) would be formed into an approximation of the intentions of the original authors.
In the 1985 Priesthood Session of General Conference, Elder Marvin J. Ashton gave a talk called “Spencer W. Kimball: A True Disciple of Christ.”
We Latter-Day Saints are often criticized for hero worship; we revere leaders of the past and we even sing hymns and primary songs about prophets in the present. In recent years, we have rightfully engaged in introspection regarding these tendencies and their unhealthy extremes. As more mature historiography has brought to light a litany of personal failings and shortcomings among church leaders and other prophetic figures of the past, many have found the gap between their previous cherished perceptions and their new uncomfortable awareness to be an insurmountable challenge to faith.
In the Council in Heaven, all the spirit children of God were introduced to the Father’s plan, including its mortal consequences and trials, its heavenly helps, and its glorious destiny. We saw the end from the beginning. All of the myriads of mortals who have been born on this earth chose the Father’s plan and fought for it in the heavenly contest that followed. Many also made covenants with the Father concerning what they would do in mortality. In ways that have not been revealed, our actions in the spirit world have influenced our circumstances in mortality.
That last sentence struck a nerve with a lot of people, because the doctrine of the preexistence has in the past been misused to promote racist and ethnocentrist religious ideas. But I’d like to propose a better way of seeing that statement, informed by our personal experiences.
Epistemology is the study of knowledge. In discussions of epistemology, it is common practice to make distinctions between belief, justified belief, and knowledge. Generally unaware of these distinctions, Latter-Day Saints have sometimes employed binary categories of knowing/not knowing in expressions of personal conviction, and doctrine/not doctrine when discussing boundaries of belief. We embrace more and better distinctions among these concepts. Professions of knowledge are appropriate when one possesses experiential or revelatory confirmation of a principle; when one possesses none of those things, professing knowledge out of cultural or other forms of pressure can have the effect of thwarting our spiritual progress, giving us the sense that we have arrived at an important destination when in fact we have barely begun the journey. Personal knowledge of gospel truths is a lifetime pursuit, and until knowledge is obtained, the decision to exercise hope, belief, trust, or confidence is a perfectly valid form of faith.
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!
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.
In some respects, many of our youth activities in recent years have supplanted the home and family.
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.
Two talks really stood out to me from this session. FIrst, there was (then) Elder Oaks’ talk, World Peace. It’s interesting to me, having heard him speak on similar themes in the most recent General Conference, to see how consistent he’s been across three decades. In particular, I’m struck by how he consistently addresses questions of political discord by focusing on individual righteousness: “What can one person do to promote world peace? The answer is simple: keep God’s commandments and serve his children.”
The second talk was even more impactful, and it was Elder Richard G. Scott’s Finding the Way Back. The talk is about what it sounds like it is about: repentance from serious sin. As Elder Scott pointed out, the precise nature of the sin doesn’t really matter:
I need not define your specific problem to help you overcome it. It doesn’t matter what it is. If it violates the commandments of the Lord, it comes from Satan, and the Lord can overcome all of Satan’s influence through your application of righteous principles.
Over the course of the talk, I was really impressed by how practical a lot of the counsel was. There was ample testimony of God’s love, yes, and of the power of His grace, but also a lifetime’s worth of applied wisdom in helping the wayward find their ways home. For example, Elder Scott talked about two transition periods during the repentance process:
The first is the most difficult. You are caging the tiger that has controlled your life. It will shake the bars, growl, threaten, and cause you some disturbance. But I promise you that this period will pass. How long it takes will depend upon the severity of your transgression, the strength of your determination, and the help you seek from the Lord. But remember, as you stand firm, it will pass.
The second period is not as intense. It is like being on “battle alert” so that you can fend off any enemy attack. That, too, will pass, and you will feel more peace and will have increased control of your life. You will become free.
These really resonated with me, but I don’t think I’ve seen them taught anywhere else. I think this talk ought to be considered essential reading for everyone. How important it must be to know the way back before we are lost?
Finally, the very first thing that he said is the one that sticks at the forefront of my mind: “The purpose of this message is to help many of you find the life you want, not the one you are living.”
What a positive message about sin and repentance. Who doesn’t want that? Who doesn’t need that? We are all sinners, and even if this talk is especially for those of us who are in a particularly dire spot, the principles of repentance are for everyone.
Other posts from this weeks General Conference Odyssey:
I’m catching up with some GCO posts that I’ve missed, so even though I will post and backdate this entry to October 13, I’m writing it a month after the fact. Which means I’m writing it in the middle of uncertain controversies following the US election.
One of the odd things is that, depending on which particular social networking connection I click on, I can see at least two little echo chambers where there is no uncertainty. In one, Trump unquestionably won the 2020 election, but for Democratic interference, and this is evidence that the last recourse of violent, open conflict is upon us. I can’t tell if these folks are seriously serious, but they seem to think they ar.
In the other, the idea that there was any widespread, systematic voter interference that could even conceivably have any meaningful impact on the election is a laughable farce concocted by a racist, fascist president in an attempted autocoup.
Switching back and forth between these two extremes is physically easy. It only takes a couple of mouse clicks. Trying to reconcile the incredibly divergent worldviews is much harder. But I can’t help trying, because I know people I think are generally good and smart and well-meaning in both of these worlds.
The strain of it all makes me want to disengage entirely. I get nostalgic for my country as it was when I was younger, and concerned for how much worse things might get if this trend continues.
Withdrawing somewhat is probably healthy. We are not of this world. But we are supposed to be in this world, so withdrawing completely is dereliction. For me, the purpose of mentally pulling back for a short time is to let go of more and more worldly attachments and assumptions, and find a deeper foundation that can keep me stable when everything around me is built on sand.
As I think of the blessings God has given us and the many beauties of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I am aware that along the way we are asked to make certain contributions in return, contributions of time or of money or of other resources. These are all valued and all necessary, but they do not constitute our full offering to God. Ultimately, what our Father in Heaven will require of us is more than a contribution; it is a total commitment, a complete devotion, all that we are and all that we can be.
In one sense, this is a little extreme. In another, it’s the only rational response to a dividing world.
I’ve been spending a lot of time playing video games over the last week. More than usual. When life seems complicated and uncertain and I’m not sure what to do, playing video games is an easy way to pass the time between finishing work and going to sleep so I don’t have to think about it.
There isn’t anything wrong with this, in and of itself. But there’s nothing really right with it either. That kind of withdrawal is a cop out.
I know what good reading all these General Conference talks does for me, but I’m not so sure what writing these blog posts does. Writing is the thing I turn to first when trying to influence the world for the good. I wrote my first blog posts in 2006, so I’ve been blogging–of and on–for fourteen years now. I’m not sure it’s really had any meaningful impact.
Then again, how much meaningful impact can one person have, ultimately? Everyone gets their vote. Everyone gets to use their influence for good or ill. Nobody really stands out except for celebrities, and I’m not so sure they have that much influence either.
But since writing is what I have to work with, I want to keep doing it.
Ordinarily, if I put off goals or responsibilities to write, I feel guilty. I haven’t felt very guilty about playing video games this past week. I’ve been wondering why that is, and I think I understand the message. God is giving me space to do the right thing on my own.
The word that keeps playing through my mind is “consecration”. I’ve had a little bit more time than usual, even after getting in the minimum stuff like work and scriptures study. In a sense, that extra time is mine. I’ve done the minimum. What am I going to do with the surplus?
I want to consecrate it. I want to use my talents–whatever they are, however small the impact may be–to try and help.
The reason this isn’t just a withdrawal, like becoming a kind of silent hermit, is because everything is connected. As President Hunter said:
Please understand that I do not speak only of a commitment to the Church and its activities, although that always needs to be strengthened. No, I speak more specifically of a commitment that is shown in our individual behavior, in our personal integrity, in our loyalty to home and family and community, as well as to the Church. Of course, all of these loyalties are interrelated and closely linked because it is the teaching and example of the Lord Jesus Christ that shapes our behavior and forms our character in all areas of our life—personally, within the home, in our professions and community life, as well as in our devotion to the Church that bears his name.
“Loyalty to home and family and community, as well as to the Church.” I’m worried about my ward. I’m worried about my town. I’m worried about my country. I’m worried about my family. These worries are not separate and independent. They are part of the same concern.
The ability to stand by one’s principles, to live with integrity and faith according to one’s belief—that is what matters, that is the difference between a contribution and a commitment. That devotion to true principle—in our individual lives, in our homes and families, and in all places where we meet and influence other people—that devotion is what God is ultimately requesting of us.
This week I feel that call. And I want to respond. Not with a contribution, but with a commitment.
There’s no melodramatic crescendo to this post. No big life change. I just decided not to play video games this evening. (I play some this afternoon, to be honest.) Instead, I wrote this post. I’m going to try and writer a few more before it’s time to read scriptures with my kids and get ready to go to bed.
Tomorrow morning, I will try to do some more. I don’t expect any great consequence. That’s not really the point. We all have our talents. We all have our callings. Mine is to write, I think. And so that’s what I’ll do. At the very least, no matter what else, I will know that I’ve set aside my time and talents and efforts to try and do my best to reflect back a little of God’s glory in these dark times, no matter the size of my mirror.
If I do that, I cannot fail.
A successful life, the good life, the righteous Christian life requires something more than a contribution, though every contribution is valuable. Ultimately it requires commitment—whole souled, deeply held, eternally cherished commitment to the principles we know to be true in the commandments God has given. We need such loyalty to the Church, but that must immediately be interpreted as a loyalty in our personal habits and behavior, integrity in the wider community and marketplace, and—for the future’s sake—devotion and character in our marriages and homes and families.
Other posts from this week’s General Conference Odyssey:
This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This is the 253rd week, and we’re taking a break from historical General Conferences to cover all sessions of the October 2020 General Conference.
Two nights ago, I prayed for things that Heavenly Father was already going to give me anyway. I prayed for Him to never leave me alone. To never stop calling me to come back home. To never lose patience with me. To never stop being ready to forgive me. To never give up on me.
I did not pray for these things because I was afraid they might not come true. I knew, even as I spoke the words, that I was only praying for Heavenly Father to do exactly what He had always done, and what He had always promised to do. I asked anyway.
Nephi quoted his younger brother, Jacob, who taught that without the intervention of a Savior, “our spirits must become like unto [the devil], and we become devils, angels to a devil, to be shut out from the presence of our God, and to remain with the father of lies, in misery, like unto himself.” (2 Nephi 9:9)
I know this is true.
I don’t say this with melodrama. I am not a great soul, and I don’t think I have much capacity for great evil or great good. I have ordinary temptations and I make ordinary mistakes. I am mediocre.
I just know that, left to my own devices, the trend is inexorably downwards. I set goals for myself, I repent and do better, but then I get tired or bored or distracted and lose interest in doing what’s right. I settle, and then I start to sink. When that happens, I don’t immediately repent. Instead, I often rationalize and make excuses. I avoid living up to the standards and goals I have set for myself. I grow unhappy and depressed and confused, and then I cast about for some way to improve my mood other than changing my behavior.
I haven’t fallen far. I haven’t done any great wrong. But I have sunk, already, a little. Looking back is hard when looking back also means looking up. I try to find some other way. Often as not, I play video games for a few hours to shut it all out.
There’s nothing grand or epic in these little descents. These are periods of hours or days or, at most, weeks of infantile rebellion. I am not seeking to hurt anyone. I’m not motivated by any terrible desire. Mostly, it is just pathetic. And I know that if I were in charge, watching myself make the same mistakes again for no great reason in the face of no significant obstacle or challenge, I would turn my back in disgust.
But God never has.
That was the realization I had Friday night, when I’d managed to pull myself out of one of these shallow, unremarkable descents. These spiritual regressions to the worldly mean.
Less than a week after General Conference talks had filled me with conviction and fire and righteous ambition, and here I was already veering towards my old ways. And despite this, as soon as I made up my mind to press on again, to repent, to ask for forgiveness, I felt God’s Spirit descend upon me. Not grudgingly. Not accusingly. Gently, lovingly. Invitingly.
“OK,” my Father said. “I’m glad you’re back now. Let’s continue.”
No one has ever seen me at my lowest and most fickle so often and so perfectly as God. And yet He looks past these boring, repetitious, mediocre mistakes with perfect, infinite, loving grace and acceptance. Not of the mistakes, but of who I am, despite them. I cannot fathom the extent of a love that never grows exasperated or disdainful no matter how many times I repeat the same, stupid patterns of self-destructive rebellion. I cannot fathom a love that never gives up on me, no matter how many times I give up on myself, even temporarily. I cannot fathom it, and yet I have felt it. I know it’s real, and I am awed and humbled by God’s condescension to come back down to my level, time and time again, to help me rise when I have fallen.
I knew that Elder Whiting’s talk, Becoming like Him, was going to have a long-lasting impact on me even before it was over.
The Savior’s admonition to be “even as I am” is daunting. We rationalize this as hyperbole and choose the path of least resistance. What if it’s not figurative even in our mortal condition? What if it is to some degree attainable in this mortal life. What if it’s precisely what is meant? Then what? What level of effort are we willing to give to invite His presence into our lives so that we can change our very nature?
Elder Whiting cited Elder Maxwell:
As we ponder having been commanded by Jesus to become like Him, we see that our present circumstance is one in which we are not necessarily wicked, but, rather, is one in which we are so half-hearted and so lacking in enthusiasm for His cause—which is our cause, too! We extol but seldom emulate Him.
Also Charles M. Sheldon:
Our Christianity loves its ease and comfort too well to take up anything so rough and heavy as a cross.
I’ve never felt before a talk so directly addressing me, and I knew I would have to redouble my efforts to become a true disciple.
And yet, as I said, my resolved lasted less than a week before I faltered for the first time.
I am not a very bad or a very good person, but I do think that I am a very self-centered person. This is not always a bad quality. I have a high degree of self-awareness that can be of some good use, now and again. But it is predominantly a bad quality. I do not know how to give of myself unstintingly. I hold back. I look out for myself. I have plans of my own.
Elder Whiting challenged us to acknowledge the gap between ourselves and our Savior. “If we are honest with ourselves, the Light of Christ within us whispers that there is distance between where we are in comparison with the desired character of the Savior.” Then, he urged, pick a particular trait and make it our goal.
[I]t is vital that we also ask our loving Heavenly Father what we are in need of and where we should focus our efforts. He has a perfect view of us and will lovingly show us our weakness. Perhaps you will learn that you need greater patience, humility, charity, love, hope, diligence, or obedience, to name a few.
I knew, without much reflection, that I needed greater selflessness. My children, my wife, my family, my ward, my friends and neighbors: all of them would benefit from more selfless service. Not because I am so special, but because God has given each of His children talents and perspectives and privileges that they can use to bless the lives of others. The Plan of Salvation is not just for individuals, but for families and communities. God’s gifts are distributed sparingly so that no one person has all of them. So that every person has something to offer. But we have to actually offer what we’ve been given, or it does no good.
On the night in question, I was tired. It was after 10PM. I wanted to go to sleep, but my oldest two children were still awake. My wife was at work, dealing with the insanity of teaching in a time of Covid.
I wrestled with my unaccountable (in the moment) feeling of resentful grumpiness, the dark confusion in my mind and the aimless, mild ache in my heart. I just wanted the day to end. Maybe the next day would be better.
And then I remembered Elder Whiting’s talk, and my own commitment to redouble my efforts to put forward just that little bit of extra effort every day to serve my family.
Very well. We could read a few verses from the Book of Mormon and have a family prayer. That much, at least, I could do.
No sooner had I made the resolution, then the darkness began to lift. As weary as ever, I summoned my kids and trudged upstairs to start to reading. After finishing, but before prayer, my daughter asked me if we were going to practice hiragana and katakana (the Japanese alphabets, more or less). I had made the resolution to learn Japanese alongside my children as they were doing homeschool this year, and I often ran through flashcard exercise with them before bed.
It’s only a few more minutes, I thought to myself. What could it hurt?
I agreed to get the cards after the prayer.
By this point, my dark mood was entirely gone. I felt peaceful and calm inside. But I was also still exhausted. I managed to make it through a few rounds of hiragana (which I have finished memorizing) but trying to expand my command of katakana was going nowhere. I left the two of them practicing while I went to brush my teeth. When I came back, my daughter was sweetly helping my son with his practice. I just stood there for a few moments, unnoticed, and savored the exquisite joy of any parent seeing their children getting along and helping each other.
After I told them to go to bed, I finally realized what the dark feelings had been: the withdrawal of the Holy Spirit. Not just what, but why. God hadn’t been punishing me. He’d been teaching me. I remembered the scripture, “For whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneth,” and I knew that I’d been chastened and also loved.
“In coming days,” President Nelson told us in 2018, before so much of our present craziness, “it will not be possible to survive without the guiding, directing, comforting, and constant influence of the Holy Ghost.”
I’ve never been that great at recognizing the presence or absence of the Spirit. That night, with the distinct contrast in the space of just a few minutes between petty rebellion and minor, sincere repentance, God helped remediate some of that ignorance.
So when I knelt to pray to Him, it seemed only right to beg for blessings that I knew I desperately needed, even though I’d never lacked them before. It was more than gratitude for His patience so far. It was a prayer in trusting faith that He would extend that same patience into the future for as long as it took to bring me safely home.
There was nothing at all pro forma or artificial about my prayer, because I felt keenly and deeply the desperate need I have for His forbearance, His patience, His forgiveness, and His intervention in my life. For the Atonement of His Son, most of all. I’m crossing a bridge over a chasm, and that bridge is made of the love of God as embodied in the sacrifice of His Son. Without the bridge, I will fall forever. And I have a long way to go before the crossing is complete.
I pray so often for things I’m not really sure God will give me because I don’t know the plan. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially if we’re humble enough to include the caveat “thy will be done”. We all have ordinary struggles and, from time to time, extraordinary ones as well, and in those moments we should cry to our Heavenly Parents like the lost, little children that we are.
But it felt wonderful, that night and a few nights since, to pray for something I was absolutely sure God had granted and would continue to grant me. To express my appreciation and my ongoing reliance on Him. To know that, for one sweet moment, my will had found unity in His.
Other posts from this week’s General Conference Odyssey: