The following is a guest post written by Morgan, a longtime BCC reader and friend of the blog.
If we start right, it is very easy for us to go right all the time; but if we start wrong, we may go wrong, and it be a hard matter to get right.”
This sentiment of Joseph Smith’s (the actual words are an amalgam from the reports of Willard Richards, Thomas Bullock, and William Clayton) impresses me as one of his most simple yet profound insights. I have found it to be true at a very practical level on many occasions, and I’ll bet you have, too. Lots of examples come easily to mind—from something as common as making a first impression, to activities as diverse as designing a new home or a new website, setting up a mathematical equation to solve a story problem, or planning an academic course of study. The original context for Joseph’s insight, of course, is the King Follett funeral sermon that he delivered 7 April, 1844. On that occasion, Joseph advanced his remarkable claims about the nature of God as an exalted human being who had attained His position through a process that we, His children, could follow as well.
Joseph’s teaching was shocking to folks who had grown up with the traditional Christian understanding of an unembodied God who alone had been God from eternity, who had created out of nothing, and who was therefore absolutely sovereign over his entirely contingent creation. I hear in Joseph’s comment about starting right an answer to an implicit (and sometimes it was explicit) challenge to his teachings. It was the challenge of eighteen-plus centuries of Christian tradition demanding of him an answer as to how, after so many councils, so many wars over the Trinity, so many martyrs, so many sermons preached, and so very many readings of the Bible by so very many seekers after God—how could he now presume to stand Christian dogma on its head and dismiss so much of it as an error?
Joseph’s prophethood (and his offense to tradition) was grounded, I believe, in his willingness to courageously explore conceptual alternatives to tradition and see where they led. “I despise the idea of being scared to death at such a doctrine,” he said of the notion of heavenly pedigrees. This openness to new ways of seeing, together with something the scriptures call grace, are the sine qua non of revelation. The openness began for Joseph very simply, with a desire to get something right. And grace came to him early, as a youth praying in the grove behind his home. It shook him awake, and he learned that he could commune directly with God and find relief from his sins. He learned that there was a source of wisdom beyond his own that was willing to be in relation with him, and that he could trust that source to guide him, even as an inexperienced and scantly-educated boy. And he learned what we all learn in various ways throughout our lives, that it is worth great effort to get something right at the outset.
At the beginning of a new year, this idea of starting right surfaces again for a lot of us, even though many of our so-called beginnings are more conceptual than formal. The only thing separating Jan. 1 from Dec. 31, after all, is the transit of the seconds hand into midnight. The problems facing the world don’t change, neither do the contents of our pantries or the names written in our hearts. But we are creatures in search of renewal, so we “begin” again.
In the Church, this means, among other things, a new theme in Primary, a new manual in Priesthood/Relief Society, and, this year, an entirely new curriculum for the youth. I am excited about this new, long-time-coming program of learning for our youth, and hope to share a few ruminations on each month’s topic during the coming year. This first post of mine here at BCC will count as the first installment in that series because, significantly, the new youth curriculum begins where Joseph began, with an inquiry into first principles, with a going back to the beginning to ask, once again, what kind of a being God is and what it is He expects of us. It is as good a question now as it ever was, and we should ask it as fearlessly and fervently in our days as Joseph did in his.