D&C Catch-Up

I’ve fallen behind in writing about the D&C Sunday School lesson scriptures!  Woe is us.  Will there ever be a time when I do not regret this failure?  Perhaps, after I write this post covering lessons 38-40, my shame will subside enough that I can come creeping out of the closet that I’ve been hiding in for the last three days — the very closet from which I write these words, O Beloved Reader.

Three lessons in one post seems audacious, perhaps even doomed to failure.  Be that as it may, I can dispatch one lesson immediately: Lesson 40 has no assigned reading.  Hasta nunca, cuarenta!

Lesson 38 involves four short passages.  The first of these is an apocalyptic warning, in the full, Old Testament sense.  Section 38 promises that Jesus Christ will come again soon, but also offers a warning.  Here is the first, partial and cryptic, iteration of the warning:

And now I show unto you a mystery, a thing which is had in secret chambers, to bring to pass even your destruction in process of time, and ye knew it not; but now I tell it unto you, and ye are blessed, not because of your iniquity, neither your hearts of unbelief; for verily some of you are guilty before me, but I will be merciful unto your weakness.  (D&C 38: 13-14)

I am very much in favor of mercy unto our weakness.  But what is the mystery in secret chambers?  So far, so confusing.  The text pauses for a long digression before the secret chambers reappear; the intervening verses remind us in beautiful and Biblical language that God loves and owns the world, and that He cares about and gives ethical rules on behalf of the rich and the poor.

But the secret chambers eventually return, and the verse selected for Lesson 38 is right in the middle of them.  Here’s the relevant passage:

And again, I say unto you that the enemy in the secret chambers seeketh your lives.  Ye hear of wars in far countries, and you say that there will soon be great wars in far countries, but ye know not the hearts of men in your own land.  I tell you these things because of your prayers; wherefore, treasure up wisdom in your bosoms, lest the wickedness of men reveal these things unto you by their wickedness, in a manner which shall speak in your ears with a voice louder than that which shall shake the earth; but if ye are prepared ye shall not fear.  And that ye might escape the power of the enemy, and be gathered unto me a righteous people, without spot and blameless –— wherefore, for this cause I gave unto you the commandment that ye should go to the Ohio; and there I will give unto you my law; and there you shall be endowed with power from on high; and from thence, whosoever I will shall go forth among all nations, and it shall be told them what they shall do; for I have a great work laid up in store, for Israel shall be saved, and I will lead them whithersoever I will, and no power shall stay my hand.  (D&C 38:28-33)

So the basic content of the revelation is that people in New York want to kill the members of the church as a body, and therefore they should flee to Kirtland.  Fair enough.  I don’t know of historical evidence documenting the planned genocide of Latter-day Saints, but the revelation does frame this as a secretive conspiracy that perhaps wouldn’t have left other evidence.  So, as we know, the Saints went to Ohio, received the endowment of power that was given at the dedication of the Kirtland temple, and eventually fled in disarray as perhaps foreshadowed in the final verse of the quoted passage.

The lesson manual wants us to focus on a sentence drawn from the middle of the quoted text about the enemy in secret chambers:

I tell you these things because of your prayers; wherefore, treasure up wisdom in your bosoms, lest the wickedness of men reveal these things unto you by their wickedness, in a manner which shall speak in your ears with a voice louder than that which shall shake the earth; but if ye are prepared ye shall not fear.

In light of the broader passage, this isn’t that hard to interpret.  “These things” consist of the warning about the genocidal plot in combination with the instruction to move to Ohio; these messages in conjunction with God’s laws as discussed earlier in the section constitute the wisdom to be treasured up.  If the Saints disregard this wisdom, particularly the part about moving to Kirtland, then they’ll regret it because of the genocidal plot (i.e., the “wickedness of men… by their wickedness”).  If the Saints prepare for this plot by fleeing the New York area, then they don’t have to fear the wicked men, who will be geographically out of reach.  In other words, this passage is deeply entangled in the broader instruction to move to Kirtland.

The lesson manual abstracts away from all of this, reading only the one verse and interpreting it as a call for “spiritual self-reliance.”  This makes little sense to me.  After all, the verse in question is manifestly one in which the Saints spiritually and temporally rely on God, not themselves.  The verse describes a revelation given in response to prayers; this is inherently a relation of dependence.  Without God’s personal and immediate intervention, the revelation suggests, the Saints would face mortal peril.  Setting aside the broader question of what “spiritual self-reliance” could even mean, this verse is clearly not an instance of it.

Remember how God promised to give the Saints His law if they moved to Ohio?  The second passage in Lesson 38 is from that law, which is found in D&C 42.  The lesson focuses on this text:

And behold, thou wilt remember the poor, and consecrate of thy properties for their support that which thou hast to impart unto them, with a covenant and a deed which cannot be broken.  And inasmuch as ye impart of your substance unto the poor, ye will do it unto me; and they shall be laid before the bishop of my church and his counselors, two of the elders, or high priests, such as he shall appoint or has appointed and set apart for that purpose.  (30-31)

These instructions, regarding sacrifice by those who have enough to support themselves on behalf of those who don’t, are not the whole of the law given in this section, but they are a major component of it — perhaps the largest single component.  They, in conjunction with the additional details given in the following verses, take up roughly 10% of the text of the entire section, while no other single commandment takes nearly as much space.  We would, perhaps, do well to pay attention.

The manual also emphasizes a later verse in the section:

Thou shalt not be idle; for he that is idle shall not eat the bread nor wear the garments of the laborer.  (42)

This passage is often read by Mormons today as a special condemnation of the idle poor.  But that just isn’t what the text says; it’s a condemnation of the idle in general.  People may be idle because they are poor and choose not to work, but that’s certainly not the rule — unemployed people are often frantically busy trying to find work, food, housing, clothing, medical care, and so forth.  Furthermore, people can also be idle because they have the money and other resources to avoid work.  This text is as much a condemnation of the idle affluent as of the idle poor.  The lesson manual in fact agrees with me:

Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve said, “Work is always a spiritual necessity even if, for some, work is not an economic necessity” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1998, 50; or Ensign, May 1998, 38).

The lesson then moves to the famous text in D&C 58: 26-28 about how obedience alone is the virtue of the slothful and will produce no reward.  In discussing this passage, people often emphasize the memorable text about being anxiously engaged in a good cause, which is clearly important advice.  But it’s also noteworthy that the first verse in this passage states that obedience to commandments alone will never earn us any reward — a message that is often garbled in unscriptural talk about obedience as the “first law of heaven.”

The final passage for this lesson highlights God’s concern for the poor with a threat:

If any man shall take of the abundance which I have made, and impart not his portion, according to the law of my gospel, unto the poor and the needy, he shall, with the wicked, lift up his eyes in hell, being in torment.   (D&C 104:18)

That’s the voice of a prophet.

Lesson 39 begins with a passage that, reminiscent of New York, is so nice the scriptures quote it twice.  The text of D&C Section 2 also appears as two verses in the Joseph Smith – History, and for some reason the lesson manual encourages us to read both of these word-for-word identical texts.  Here’s one of the texts — you get to guess which!

Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.  And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers.  If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming.

Actually, I’m not sure you’ve gotten the message yet, so here’s the other version:

Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.  And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers.  If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming.

I know, I know.  You think you’ve got a handle on this Elijah, hearts-of-the-children stuff.  But I’m not so sure.  Here, read this, too:

After this vision had closed, another great and glorious vision burst upon us; for Elijah the prophet, who was taken to heaven without tasting death, stood before us, and said: Behold, the time has fully come, which was spoken of by the mouth of Malachi — testifying that he [Elijah] should be sent, before the great and dreadful day of the Lord come — to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers, lest the whole earth be smitten with a curse — therefore, the keys of this dispensation are committed into your hands; and by this ye may know that the great and dreadful day of the Lord is near, even at the doors.

Other than the everlasting and intergalactic importance of the em dash, this text adds a bit of content to the last two, establishing a connection of some sort between turning the hearts, etc., and Joseph and Oliver Cowdrey having the keys of this dispensation.  What this connection consists of is a bit oblique.  It can’t be just authorization to do temple work for the dead, because that’s presumably the product of the heart-turning and not the whole of it.  So how did Elijah intergenerationally turn hearts?  This is sort of murky, the kind of thing that missionaries and high priests describe as “deep doctrine.”  Fair enough; I’ll leave it to find its own depth.

Finally, this section asks us to read the vision of the 20th century: D&C Section 138.  I think this is mostly a beautiful section, and it’s far too much to bite off in the closing paragraphs of a monster post — this post was indeed doomed to fail!  Woe is me, etc.  So I’ll just offer a single thought.

Roughly the last half of Section 138 is composed of a Mormon catalog of the faithful departed.  This is a sort of act of reverence that we don’t often engage in, and in a way it is a fitting coda to the Mormon book of revelations.  As the epic history of God’s verbal and visual communication with humanity once again fades into silence, we see the heroes of the story from all generations gathered in peace, joy, and radiance, and continuing their work of testimony.

Comments

  1. Peter LLC says:

    the everlasting and intergalactic importance of the em dash

    But even that’s a tricky issue with the text clearly coming down on the side of spaces fore and aft with nary a hint of justification or indication that the non-spaced em dash is perfectly acceptable (in some circles).

  2. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Spaces fore and aft are due to me doing most of my writing in LaTeX, which encodes em dashes with a space, three keyboard dashes, and another space. I take no position on the underlying typesetting issue…

  3. “spiritual self-reliance”

    No such thing.

  4. Nice write-up. My main quibble is that the endowment of power from on high occurred at the June conference of 1831 in Kirtland.

  5. Thanks for this.

  6. As someone who was recently called to teach these lessons and who took some last Sunday to review the remaining lessons from this year, I got the distinct impression that the curriculum makers were struggling to put together enough lessons to make it through the last 3 months of the year. Lesson 36 is the last real “Church History” lesson. Lessons 37 and 42 are both lessons about the importance of modern prophets. There seems to be a need for two back-to-back lessons on genealogy and temple work (39-40). There’s a shout-out to the Proclamation on the Family in lesson 45. And lesson 44 seems to have the kind of potential for discussion that leaves certain members hoping that we never get to that lesson.

    Seems like kind of a hodge-podge to me. Could they have gone farther forward with church history? Does sacred history in the Church end with the settlement of the West?

  7. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    AHLDuke, what about a couple of lessons about the history of the Church outside the U.S.? People outside the U.S. might even feel included…

    There’s another point, of course, which is that the pace during the part of the year in which we actually read the D&C is too fast. There’s a lot of material which is not adequately covered. An alternative could be to slow down and, you know, talk about the text. Then we wouldn’t need these sort of filler lessons.

    On the other hand, for odd lesson-to-content ratios, just wait until next year. In the Old Testament manual, there is (for example) one lesson that covers the entire book of Psalms.

  8. “spiritual self-reliance”

    I’ve not read the lesson manual, so can’t speak to what is said or intended there. But when I’ve heard this phrase, I’ve never understood it as suggesting some sort of spiritual independence from God. Rather, I’ve always understood it as referring to the need to have a personal, direct connection to or reliance on God rather than relying on someone else for that connection.

    Am I missing something?

  9. JNS,

    100% agreement here. If the Church trusted its members, we could even leave it up to teachers and members to come up with a couple of lessons on local Church history. I for one would be fascinated to learn about the Church’s growth in Texas, or Mexico, or Japan, or ____ (insert country here).

    And I agree about manual pacing– it seems to be a problem with all of the curricula (IMO, especially the NT, where whole doctrinally-rich letters of Paul get a single-lesson treatment). its a bad joke.

  10. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Randy, the lesson manual provides a quote from Elder Packer in which he defines spiritual self-reliance as studying the scriptures and quotes from past leaders so that we have those ideas readily at hand and can rely on them in the same way that we might rely on food storage in the event of a disaster that (a) cut us off from food; (b) left us in our homes; and (c) didn’t lead to looters breaking into people’s homes to steal their food supplies. In other words, this is in one way the opposite of what you’re saying: instead of relying on one’s own connection with God, “spiritual self-reliance” here is used to refer to relying on texts describing other people’s connections with God. Obviously, of course, everybody always does both, and should. Which makes the “spiritual self-reliance” idea hard to understand.

  11. Steve (3): “‘spiritual self-reliance’ No such thing.”

    Only in the same way that there is no such thing as “work[ing] out your own salvation.” The words on their face don’t make much sense for one who believes that Christ is the only way to salvation. However, as I understand both phrases, they are referring to taking responsibility for our own salvation, our own spiritual welfare – meaning not having to go through other mortals (such as the bishop or home teacher) to get our salvation or spiritual strength. For example, a spiritually self-reliant person would not have to depend on his/her bishop or home teacher for gospel knowledge, because he/she would already be well-versed in the principles of the gospel through his/her own study. In addition, he/she would not rely on others’ testimonies or faith, but could rely on his/her own. That is how I understand it anyway.

    JNS (OP) – I don’t think it is too far off to generalize spiritual self-reliance from D&C 38:30 any more than it is to generalize moral courage from Gen. 39:9 (Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, prior threads notwithstanding). It’s a great general statement that can be taken from a specific context and applied to many others.

  12. Ha – looks like this was brought up by Randy while I was typing.

  13. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    JT, it’s such a “generalization” that the original point vanishes altogether. “Spiritual self-reliance” as described in your last comment makes no appearance — none — in the D&C text in question. In that text, a close-knit and spiritually inter-reliant community asks God for revelation and guidance which is granted through one person for the group. The rest of the group has to rely on that one person for information, as well as on each other for help during the process of moving to Ohio. So this is a text about spiritual inter-dependence within the community, as well as about preparation for apocalyptic assault from outside the community. Your proposed generalization really wipes out all that content and replaces it with unrelated ideas.

  14. JT, even with your explanation I say: no such thing. None of us are saved in isolation from other mortals.

  15. I mean, yes – get your own testimony. Borrowed light and all that. But don’t pretend for one second that you can go it alone, and I don’t just mean a connection to Jesus.

  16. Steve – I agree, but I think you are broadening the definition of spiritual self-reliance than how it is normally used (at least by GA’s). Sure, on its face it sounds funny, but as I mentioned above, so do other gospel terms.

  17. JNS (10) — Thanks, that helps. I should go back and read Elder Packer’s comment in context. If what he is saying is that reading and thinking about these texts can help us in making our own spiritual connections, then I’m completely on board. If, instead, what he is suggesting is that we should read these texts so when the time comes there is no need for us to search out our own answers or look for our own spiritual connections, then I just disagree with him.

    JNS (13) — Very interesting thought, that the text and context of verse 30 may actually subvert the idea of spiritual self-reliance. All of which is made even more interesting by the Elder Packer quote. Seems to bring us back to the familiar debate of prophetic authority versus individual witness and how the two relate, which is always an interesting discussion.

    Thanks, as always, for your good thoughts.

  18. JNS (13) – I don’t think your interpretation of the text in your comment and in the OP is the only way of looking at that verse (and the fact that it was a “spiritually inter-reliant” community has, as I mentioned above, little to do with “spiritual self-reliance” as it is used today). But suppose being “prepared” in this verse only refers to being prepared as a people to move to Ohio, as you suggest. Is it that far off to take a phrase that refers to preparation vanquishing fear and apply to it a spiritual sense – kind of like an object lesson? However, you don’t actually need to jump that far. If you notice in the manual, it asks: “What does this passage teach about the importance of self-reliance?” It doesn’t make the jump to spiritual self-reliance until later, independent of the D&C 38:30.

    I think I get your point that, given the context, the verse may not be directly referring to “spiritual self-reliance” or even just plain “self-reliance.” I just think that it can be used as an object lesson of sorts without too much of a stretch.

  19. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    JT, how can it be an object lesson? In the verse in question, mutual dependence leads to escape and spiritual blessing. Can we use that to teach an object lesson about self-reliance? If so, it seems to me that we could also use it to teach an object lesson about prostate exams. If the preparation that vanquishes fear is to be given a broader spiritual interpretation here, I’d prefer that it be one connected in some way with the events and text we’re building from. For example, the preparation could involve finding a prophet who is currently receiving and publishing revelations from God. Or it could involve being without spot and blameless, in the words of the revelation. Or, finding and uniting oneself with a community of God’s people in the name of gathering. And so forth. These are all generalizations that have something to do with the text, and are therefore to be preferred…

  20. Interestingly enough, I was reading an Encyclical Letter today (looking for an issue that has at least twice been predicted but not yet, apparently, released), in which Pope Benedict strongly rejects the idea of individualistic salvation; per the Pope’s (and historic Catholicism’s) view of communal salvation, we are responsible not only for developing an individual relationship with Christ, but with building up the community of believers and the world at large.

    I tend to agree–while I may ultimately bear responsibility for establishing a relationship with Christ, if I do that selfishly, at the exclusion of the community and the world, I haven’t really figured out what salvation entails.

  21. Sorry–meant to link to it. I was reading Spe Salvi.

  22. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Sam B., I think your line here is good Mormonism. Latter-day Saints have since Joseph Smith tended to side with Catholic tradition and against Protestantism on the individual salvation notion. For us as for Catholics, salvation/exaltation inherently means being part of the body of Christ.

  23. JNS (19) – Any of your preferred generalizations would be consistent with spiritual self-reliance as I understand it. I still think you are using a different definition of spiritual self-reliance than what is referred to in the manual or in general conference addresses.

    In any case, a general phrase like “if ye are prepared, ye shall not fear,” even if applied to a different, specific context, can still have merit in a different context. Even prostate exams :).

    If we really want to get into drawing out lessons that really have absolutely nothing to do with the verse they are supposed to be based on, how about the acrostic S.M.I.L.E. in 2 Ne. 9:39, or “swear not at all” referring to profanity. Those have come up a surprising amount of times in my neck of the woods.

  24. Wait – I take that back. Being spiritually-minded unto life eternal makes me smile.

  25. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    JT, if you are using “spiritual self-reliance” to mean “preparation,” then it might be an okay generalization. However, the terminology becomes obfuscating. In any case, the stickler in me has to remind us that the “if ye are prepared, ye shall not fear” promise was made to a specific group of people at one place in time regarding one threat. It may be the case that this promise can be generalized, but the authority for that generalization has to be somewhere other than D&C 38:30, because this section is about the threatened anti-Mormon genocide in New York and the need to flee to Kirtland. (If we’re free to apply all scriptures to all audiences, then perhaps we should all always flee to Kirtland?)

  26. Latter-day Guy says:

    …it seems to me that we could also use it to teach an object lesson about prostate exams.

    I didn’t know you went to my ward, JNS! Honestly, some of the lessons are about that pleasant.

  27. JNS – I think that is what the manual was doing – using preparation as a fundamental principle of self-reliance. It then asked how the principle of self-reliance can be applied to spiritual things (which I infer to mean that it wasn’t drawing spiritual self-reliance directly from that verse).

    But I think what you are saying in (25) strikes at another issue: how do we apply the Doctrine & Covenants to our lives? Is it useful for anything other than just a bunch of revelations to specific people in specific situations that have no applicability to us? Is the only way to apply D&C 38:30 to our lives to “always flee to Kirtland”? Or can we liken the scriptures unto ourselves for our profit and learning? I think that (the latter) is what the manual is trying to do.

  28. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    JT, here’s the thing — if our “likening unto ourselves” isn’t constrained in some way by the text, then we can actually just throw the text away. If D&C 38:30 means, as the manual’s discussion implies, that we ought to study old copies of the Ensign, then it can mean pretty much whatever we want. But if our desires are driving the meaning completely, then the text isn’t really part of the conversation anymore.

    I don’t want to let the text go, because I think it matters. It confronts us with worlds other than our own, and thoughts which are different from ours. That’s why I think we ought to return again and again to the text as a way of keeping our ideas in dialogue with it. If there’s one thing this D&C series is about, it’s reading the words and trying to engage with them, rather than knocking them out and redecorating them until they look more or less like what we want them to.

  29. JNS (28) – I wholeheartedly agree with you. My disagreement is that I don’t think the manual throws the text away. Here is what the manual says:

    (block quote)
    • Read D&C 38:30 with class members. What does this passage teach about the importance of self-reliance? How have you found this counsel to be true in your life?

    • What does it mean to be self-reliant in spiritual things? (We should strive to develop spiritual strength that will enable us to resolve difficult problems in our lives and strengthen others in their times of spiritual need.) Why is it important to be spiritually self-reliant?

    Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve said:

    “We have been taught to store a year’s supply of food, clothing, and, if possible, fuel—at home. … Can we not see that the same principle applies to inspiration and revelation, the solving of problems, to counsel, and to guidance? We need to have a source of it stored in every home. …

    “If we lose our emotional and spiritual independence, our self-reliance, we can be weakened quite as much, perhaps even more, than when we become dependent materially” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1978, 136–37; or Ensign, May 1978, 91–92).

    • How can we become more self-reliant in spiritual things?

    • How can parents help their children learn spiritual self-reliance?
    (end block quote)

    This is what I see: We can draw from “If ye are prepared, ye shall not fear” a principle of preparation. Preparation is a principle underlying self-reliance (as the term is generally understood in the church). The manual then moves from there to ask how self-reliance can apply to spiritual things, and then quotes Pres. Packer regarding spiritual self-reliance (this is independent of D&C 38:30). I don’t think the manual is saying that D&C 38:30 means we should study old copies of the Ensign. Interpreting the manual that way would indeed be “just throw[ing] the text [of the manual] away.”

    Is it generalizing away from the specific circumstances of the verse? Yes. In a way that throws the text away? I don’t think so.

  30. JT, I think that focusing too intently on the word “prepared,” and then connecting that with sensible actions we can take like buying life insurance, is just a misreading of D&C 38:30. What preparation was involved there? I think the key preparation in that passage is God’s act of preparation by imparting a revelation. God prepares the people by warning them of the plot so that they can avoid the fear of being hunted by genocidal murderers. So the idea of preparation that starts your (and the manual’s) daisy chain is really a different sense of the word from the one at work in the passage of interest. Preparation/self-reliance is just different from preparation/God’s-loving-revelation. So the first step in the argument is a mistake that tends to cloud engagement with the D&C text.

    The second step, of asking how preparation/self-reliance can apply to spiritual things, is a bridge to nonsense as Steve has pointed out above. So the manual’s reasoning consists of two errors and no real effort to converse with the scriptural text. That’s a text I’m happy to throw away.

  31. JNS – I find your interpretation of the scripture to be insightful and thoughtful. I don’t think it is the definitive one. Whether it is or isn’t, though, I still don’t see why the manual’s discussion is a “daisy chain”/”bridge to nonsense.” Unless you can explain it in kinder terms, perhaps we can just leave it at that.

    This has been an interesting discussion. Thank you for helping me think deeper about section 38 and the manual’s discussion. Forgive me if my persistence has been annoying.

    Much respect. Cheers.

  32. JT, I don’t frown on persistence. Regarding the terminology, “daisy chain” isn’t an insult here; do you remember the old days when you could daisy chain computer appliances such as hard drives? I’m using the phrase to point out that one faulty link in your argument makes the whole collapse — and I think there are two, which is more than enough. Regarding the bridge to nonsense point, this is just the argument which has been made but not adequately rebutted that spiritual things simply don’t involve self-reliance; it’s a faulty metaphor that seemed sensible because it involved two good things — spirituality and self-reliance, so obviously they must be great together. But they’re not.

  33. 25 Wherefore, let them bring their families to this land, as they shall counsel between themselves and me.
    26 For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.

    I often hear the “not commanded/be anxiously engaged” connection described as us not needing God to direct us in every little thing (spiritual self-reliance maybe?). And while that is probably true to some extent (ie. God probably does want us to use our agency without his giving us every little piece of direction) vs. 25 seems to invite us to seek personal revelation (“as they shall counsel between themselves and me”) rather than expecting the prophet, the bishop, etc. to tell us every little thing.

    I have a lot of issues with how we approach self-reliance (spiritually or otherwise)–it seems to encourage individualism and discourage dependence (but even the head needs the hand or foot or little toe from time to time). I think we should do more encouraging of individuals to counsel with the Lord, and try to help each other figure out and follow that counsel, rather than trying to get them to follow our best advice (even if we’re the bishop). If following the spirit is important, let’s get into the nuts and bolts of trying to do that — and help each other do that — rather than beating each other over the head with generic counsel and commandments. That’s my vision of being anxiously engaged.

  34. JNS (32) – Fair enough. I just think you (and Steve earlier) are using the term “spiritual self-reliance” in a way that is much different than how the manual and Pres. Packer use it. So much so that I think you are bordering on a straw-man here. I don’t think this argument, brought up several times above, has been adequately rebutted either.

    If you look at it as a term of art vs. a definition-by-the-sum-of-its-words, it makes more sense. I agree that if you take the latter approach, you come up with an undesirable result. As mentioned above, the same would apply to a phrase like “work out your own salvation” or “daisy chain” (thanks for the clarification :)).

  35. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    JT, the problem with the term-of-art approach here is that it collapses “spiritual self-reliance” into empty jargon. What Elder Packer seems to have meant in his talk quoted in the manual is something like “Read your scriptures and pray.” That’s a banality that no Mormon could plausibly reject, and giving it a fancy new term seems redundant. But part of the Packer quote goes in a different direction than you seem to be recognizing. He talks about losing “our emotional and spiritual independence,” which seems like a wrong worldview. It isn’t really desirable, is it, to be “emotionally independent”? This is an old-school conception of rugged masculinity, I think, and not a description of healthy human interaction. A community like a family or the church is built on, fundamentally dependent on, emotional interdependence; emotional independence would tear us to pieces. I think this is just a mistake. Likewise with spiritual independence; if there is such a thing, then we’re wrong to say that going to church on Sunday is important, other than perhaps for the sacrament.

  36. “That’s a banality that no Mormon could plausibly reject.” Do you think he was trying to come up with some original and/or controversial new idea that many Mormons would reject to effect some sort of wheat-tare purging? I think it is just a term to refer to taking personal responsibility for our spiritual health/progression by doing things like praying and reading our scriptures. It’s not supposed to be controversial. Perhaps banal wouldn’t be a bad description if you would also feel comfortable in labeling the vast majority of general conference talks as banal (faith, repentance, etc.).

    I won’t go into what he meant by emotional independence, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

    I feel like we are having a strange semantics argument here – me arguing for what they meant to say, you arguing for what they didn’t mean to say. If what you are saying is that you don’t think the term is a good descriptor for what they are trying to say, than maybe I can meet you half-way on that one.

  37. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Honestly, I’m not sure what Elder Packer was trying to say. The phrasing regarding “spiritual self-reliance” is so odd that it throws the whole text into uncertainty for me. Here’s another person making this point:

    Self-reliance is not the end, but a means to an end. It is very possible for a person to be completely independent and lack every other desirable attribute. One may become wealthy and never have to ask anyone for anything, but unless there is some spiritual goal attached to this independence, it can canker his soul…. Thus far, we should have learned that self-reliance is a prerequisite to the complete freedom to act. We have also learned, however, that there is nothing spiritual in self-reliance unless we make the right choices with that freedom. (Marion G. Romney, October Conference 1982)

    That is, self-reliance can be a precondition for action, including spiritual action. But self-reliance, in Romney’s account, becomes a pathway to spirituality when only material self-reliance (i.e., prosperity) is used to materially help those in need. This is a clear perspective, and self-reliance as used here has specific content. As used in Packer’s quote, it doesn’t really.

    Elder Uchtdorf used spiritual self-reliance as an undefined slogan a couple of times in his talk a couple of years ago about the airplane that goes badly off course because the pilots didn’t notice that they were flying a couple of degrees in the wrong direction until it was too late. This becomes a mostly unrealistic example now, in a world with computerized flight, GPS, etc. Which also has a religious analogue; if the Spirit exists, it’s like GPS in that it can redirect us at any point along the path. So spiritual self-reliance in Uchtdorf’s talk appears to be the ability to fly to your destination without relying on GPS, and relying on the Spirit seems to break the metaphor — and the talk as a whole — completely.

  38. As one that often over-analyzes, I wonder if we sometimes unneccessarily complicate things.

    My understanding could be way off base from what President Packer or others that use the term intended to convey, but what I get from “spiritual self-reliance” or “spiritual independence” is simply that we take responsibility for our own spiritual growth. The thought that I had during this lesson was the parable of the 10 virgins. We each add spiritual oil to our own lamps through our choices, desires, etc. We cannot hope to borrow oil from others, nor can we hope to give our spiritual oil to others (although I might qualify that a little). Thus we develop our own spiritual self reliance.

    Is this consistent with the intent of the teaching? Is spiritual self reliance, even if that isn’t the best expression, anything more or less than this concept?

  39. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Jim, if that’s what is meant, then I return to my objection that D&C 38:30 has nothing to do with this. But I also think it’s theologically a bit off kilter even so. We do in fact help each other with spiritual issues all the time, and our own spirituality is a gift of the spirit.

  40. JNS, I agree that we influence the spirituality of others, and that is the qualification I alluded to. In fact, I would say that we are given stewardships for this very purpose, and where these stewardships are involved, I believe we will be accountable for our efforts to help others spiritually.

    Ultimately though, I think the principle is that we don’t rely on others or expect others to provide our own spiritual nourishment without making an effort ourselves. Yes, it will happen, but as Elder Scott described in conference, it will not be only through the effort of others but through our own preparation, willingness, desire to learn, etc. For example, with the oil/lamp analogy, I can desire to add oil to my son’s lamp, but ultimately the oil he ends up with depends on his own desire.

    I do agree that the particular verse used seems like a rather forced reading, but nonetheless I think the principle is still valuable and applicable.

  41. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    The principle at this point looks more palatable; it’s something like we have to take responsibility for not absolutely rejecting gifts of the Spirit and help from other people. This sounds sensible and theologically defensible, but rather severely attenuated, no?

  42. JNS – What Jim is explaining is basically what I was trying to explain the whole time, so I apologize if I haven’t been able to explain my point very well. I’m glad it is looking more palatable. I don’t think it is attenuated; I think it is exactly how the term has been used all along. It was never meant to be at odds with the gifts of the Spirit (or other divine help) or community strength.

  43. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    JT, the problem, I think, is that the term (a) seems to say something different from what you and Jim argue that it says, and (b) inflates the importance of a minor thing.

  44. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    That is, the name is wrong — self-reliance is just the wrong word to use — and the idea while acceptable probably isn’t important enough to need a special name. In almost any context, you’ll have clearer communication quicker if you say, “people are responsible for not rejecting gifts of the Spirit and help from other people” than if you say “spiritual self-reliance.”

  45. JNS- I guess that’s one of the limitations of language and words- they can mean different things to different people, and sometimes we may have to “invent” a phrase such as “spiritual self reliance” that taken literally may not quite capture the intended meaning.

    Regarding #41, I would say that you have described one facet of the principle, and this alone may be pretty weak. But it isn’t just that. How I understand the concept/principle that I believe is trying to be conveyed with this phrase is that we individually actively seek spiritual growth. We desire personal revelation and do what is required to obtain it, etc.

    What you described sounds more like someone acquiescing to something that they don’t really want, and this is completely different than what I’m trying to describe.

  46. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Jim, again — you’re going to get there a lot quicker by saying “we individually actively seek spiritual growth.” This isn’t so much a general problem of language (the phrase above does the job with little trouble) as it is a problem with obscure coinages.

    Regarding desiring personal revelation and doing what is required to obtain it, I’m not sure about this. It seems plausible that revelation doesn’t work that way.

  47. JNS: Wow, I’ll have to be very careful with how I word things! The part about personal revelation was only meant as an example of a way that we seek spiritual growth, independently, without relying on others. Maybe it wasn’t the best choice. I agree that revelation isn’t always available for the taking on our own terms, but still there is much we can do to facilitate revelation.

  48. I love reading your blog but I have switched over to my phone to surf the web more. Is there a mobile version of your site?

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