Elder Holland, Free Soloing, and the Fall #ldsconf

300px-Snow_Canyon_4My childhood memories of General Conference are replete with stories about farming; my memory may exaggerate, but in it, virtually every talk derived its moral lesson from some combination of scripture and farming.[fn1]

The omnipresence of farming stories sticks in my mind in large part because I couldn’t relate to them. At all. I grew up in a Southern California suburb, entirely removed from agriculture, or even agricultural heritage. (My great-grandparents, at least on one side, had been farmers, but had given it up in favor of dentistry, a field both my grandfather and my father subsequently pursued.

I wondered, as I sat hearing about chickening the cows, or milking the turkeys, or whatever it is one does on a farm, what stories General Authorities would be telling in the future, when they were no longer all the children of farmers, when agriculture had lost its primacy in our culture. 

This morning,[fn2] as Elder Holland started to talk, my daughters’ ears perked up. They are rock climbers, and Elder Holland started his Easter discourse with a story about two kids climbing.

Two teenage brothers, he told us, went free soloing up a canyon wall in Snow Canyon State Park. Only they chose a wall that was above their skill level—getting to the top, they discovered a ledge that they couldn’t get over. The older brother managed to boost the younger over the ledge, but couldn’t pull himself up. He asked his brother to find a tree branch, knowing there were no trees, so that, if he fell, his brother wouldn’t see him die. He then jumped up, but couldn’t hold onto the loose sand on the flat rock. As his hands slipped, suddenly his brother grabbed his arms, pulling him to safety.

Elder Holland uses this story as a hook into those “brotherly hands and determined arms that reached into the abyss of death to save us from our fallings and our failings, from our sorrows and our sins.”

He proceeds with a beautiful sermon, outlining the dire straits we find ourselves in, as a result of mortality and sin, and the grace that Jesus’ hands bring into a world that, without them, could be an indifferent cliff on which we’d hang until our eventual fall. But, he testifies apostolically, Jesus lives and, as a result of both his life and his death, we too can live, and can avoid slipping into a cold and indifferent abyss.

In his sermon, Adam and Eve function as an essential metaphor. Their fall—their fortunate fall in Holland’s cosmology—set the stage for Jesus’ triumphs; it was, in fact, necessary to and connected with the Atonement. Jesus was, in both Pauline and Lehite thought, a final Adam, the finisher and perfector of what Adam started.

(Though perhaps necessary and central  to Elder Holland’s rhetoric, I actually disagree that belief in a literal Adam, Eve, and Eden is somehow necessary to or sufficient for a complete understanding of the Atonement—even believing that their literal historicity doesn’t provide necessary insight into the hows and the whys of the Atonement, and Adam and Eve as allegory is can provide the same foundation for understanding it as Adam and Eve as literal people can.)

Literal or not, I want to expand Elder Holland’s initial conceit just a little: free soloing is dangerous; the talented climbers who do it understand their skill level, and do their homework before they start. The boys in the story didn’t—they apparently started climbing with no idea of what they would eventually run into.

In other words, they were stupid. If the older brother had fallen, it would have been, in no small part, his own fault.

But that’s the thing: Jesus’ sacrifice can save us not only from our unintended sins, but also from our stupid and deliberate acts. His grace is sufficient even when we don’t deserve it.

But there’s more than that: our community (including our church community) has a role in salvation. Without the older brother to push him to the ledge, the younger brother never would have made it. And without his younger brother to catch him as he slipped, the older brother would have dropped off the wall.

Yes, Jesus saves us, even from our stupidity. But his atonement doesn’t eliminate our obligation to bear one another’s burdens.

[fn1] Also, World War II.

[fn2] Early afternoon, actually, here in Chicago.


  1. I agree with you about the fall. I don’t believe in a literal Adam and Eve or a garden of Eden. I think it’s an allegory for how we are all born innocent and sinless, gradually gain knowledge, and then fall into sin. Which, for me, still necessitates an atonement. If we all sin, we all fall, and therefore all need the Savior. But I can agree to disagree with Elder Holland on that.

    I loved all the discussion of grace at this conference. It’s nice to finally be hearing more about that. I think it’s a really important concept that doesn’t usually get emphasized much.

  2. Rockwell says:

    I really liked this talk until the literal fall interpretation came up. I’m still trying to reconcile how to handle the talks where a GA’s vehement interpretation disagrees with mine. It seems like I should be able to get past that since to me the literality [1] is a side issue, but it’s difficult here because Elder Holland was so adamant about it.

    [1] “literality” is a perfectly cromulent word

  3. Glenn Thigpen says:

    I, myself, rather agree with Elder Holland’s need for a literal Adam and a literal fall. Lehi’s discourse on the fall and the the Book of Moses discourse make a literal Adam and fall necessary to LDS theology. If they were not literal, we have some lying prophets and the LDS story is a fabrication.

    Of course, that flies in the face of what we think we know about science, the universe, and this earth.

    I still believe that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Corinthians 1:25)


  4. Eh, at least he specified that “no human death” occurred in the garden, setting himself apart from the silly “no death, not even insects or single-celled organisms” crowd. His idea also seemed to involve a garden of limited time and space.

  5. I also prefer to think of Adam and Eve as real people, the first man and woman, and not as allegories or myths — thinking of them as real people works better for me. The cruxifiction and resurrection of Jesus, too, works better for me literally with a real Jesus and a real cruxifiction and a real resurrection than figuratively, allegorically, or mythologically. A real fall and a real redemption.

  6. Rockwell: I have moved from actively arguing that a literal Adam didn’t make sense in terms of evolutionary biology, and wasn’t necessary to understanding the atonement, to believing in a literal Adam. From that perspective, I would say don’t worry too much about the literal interpretation–I used to, and now feel a little silly. (Not saying you ever will, of course.)

    I think a literal Adam does have a lot to offer. It would mean that not only are our spirits literally of God, but some part of our physical heritage (however fallen) is also from God. From that perspective, the “bodies as temples” symbology is not too far afield, and all the commandments that focus on the body (so many!) make slightly more sense. Paul saw Adam as Jesus, but fallen in both mind and body, and we can see ourselves the same way. The resurrection and atonement are then two sides of the same coin, saving our divine heritage–spiritual and physical.

  7. Tavarish says:

    Jacob teaches that “if the flesh should rise no more our spirits must become subject to that angel who fell from before the presence of the Eternal God, and became the devil, to rise no more” (2 Ne. 9:8). A literal resurrection is necessary for the spirit to be in the presence of God. Why? Weren’t spirits in the presence of God in the pre-mortal life? The answer is because we are inheritors of an actual Fall. 1 Cor. 15:22 reads, “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” A single act of transgression introduced death; a single act of atonement restored to life. The two concepts are interwoven in the scriptures so deeply as to be inseparable. It’s clear from his talk that Holland has a deep scripture-based doctrinal understanding of both of these concepts and how they relate.

  8. J. Stapley says:

    …anyway, yeah, I think the biggest take home might be that God might save us from our own stupidity (but perhaps not in it for those inclined to be persnickety).

  9. Exactly, J. The literalness thing was barely a throw-away line, especially in comparison with the true meat of his talk, which was (always appropriately, but moreso on Easter Sunday) the broad reach of the Atonement.

  10. John Harrison says:

    I am not sure that people will see literalness as a throw away. I was speaking to a ward mebermer tonight and he seemed to think that this was the most striking thing brought up at conference. Not only was there a strong emphasis on certain aspects of literalness being important but also a de-emphasis on other aspects of it. Room was left for evolution before the garden and non-human death outside of it.

    I have to admit that this is a mode that I have not seen clearly articulated previously at conference. Also, it seems to be an interesting move to almost concede some points and then double down on others.

  11. Doubling down indeed. In my opinion part of the problem with insisting on a literal Adam and Eve would be the necessity of portraying them accurately: probably a black couple somewhere in Ethiopia and not lily white Southern Californians who have been transported to the Midwest.

    The amount of cognitive dissonance felt by some in attempting to accept literal aspects of Mormon cosmology will only necessitate more talks like those given by Sister Wixom and Elder Nielson.

  12. Let me have one more go at this: the literal fall thing was an aside, not important (other, perhaps, than rhetorically) to his talk, and not important to our understanding. He was wrong about its necessity, though his being wrong should not incite faith crises (unless, for some reason, you believe that he has an obligation and ability to be infallible).

    But put that all aside. Assume both that the literal fall was a central point in his talk and that every word in his talk was True. Where does that leave people who don’t believe in a literal Adam and Eve?

    In mortality. With as good a chance as anybody to make it to exaltation. Elder Holland didn’t assert that belief in a literal fall was somehow salvific, or necessary for salvation; rather, he said that without such a belief, one couldn’t fully comprehend the Atonement or the resurrection, and that one couldn’t adequately appreciate the the unique purpose of Jesus’ birth or death.

    The thing is, here, I think he’s right. But I don’t think these failings are unique to those who don’t believe in the literal fall—I think they’re common to the human condition. That is, yes, if you don’t believe in a first ancestor couple made up of Adam and Eve, you won’t be sufficiently greatful for Jesus’ sacrifice. But even if you do, you won’t be sufficiently greatful.

    But if we relax the need for Elder Holland to be infallible, we actually get to apply the point of his talk. It’s not only teenagers in southern Utah, or people arguing on blogs, who are imperfect and who need the Atonement. The Atonement applies equally to the prophet and apostles: its grace covers their mistakes—even the unforced and unnecessary errors—too. And they too deserve the charity and support we offer each other.

    Which was the message of Elder Holland’s talk.

  13. I usually loathe stories and metaphors which seem to manipulate the heartstrings with vivid details of heart-wrenching death, catastrophe and pain. In Mormonism, we have as many of these stories (fictitious and real) as farm stories. Anyone remember the one about the train conductor who saves the train by sacrificing his son who is caught on the tracks? For those with PTSD and those suffering with tragedy and loss, it’s a trigger- hurtful and counterproductive to the intended spiritual enlightenment the speaker seeks. Also, I wonder too if the emotions manufactured (tears, chocked back words) are counterfeit to the effects of the spirit- concocted with drama.

    In the Independence Visitor’s Center, the exhibit was changed from a mostly historical recounting of the saints in the area- to a story of a family- beginning with a little boy falling off a cliff on a family hike in Arch’s Nat’l Park (parent’s horror and suspenseful drama as they run to see where he fell and how bad the damage was). For the most part, I think these drama stories are emotionally manipulative, especially when handled clumsily by the average Sunday School teacher, sacrament speaker, or film crew.

    However, Elder Holland’s metaphor was beautiful and apropos for the weighty content he taught, and quite relevant to Easter. Standing alone without the drama, it would still be a relevant and meaningful metaphor. I think it had a special place at that time, by that speaker, for the sacred Easter service.

    At the same time, I’m cringing having to hear this often in church.

  14. “rather, he said that without such a belief [in a literal fall], one couldn’t fully comprehend the Atonement or the resurrection, and that one couldn’t adequately appreciate the unique purpose of Jesus’ birth or death.
    “The thing is, here, I think he’s right.”

    I disagree wholeheartedly with this. In fact it’s the insistence on a literal Adam and Eve and a literal fall that make it harder for me to believe in and understand Jesus Christ and his Atonement. When people set up this black-and-white dichotomy, that if you don’t believe x, then you can’t really believe y, it becomes very problematic because it doesn’t actually make people believe x; instead it makes them question whether y is true.

    As for me, I simply can’t believe in a literal fall. It makes no sense to me. But Elder Holland’s adamant assertion that it’s necessary suddenly had me questioning if Jesus was even real then, which filled me with despair. I prayed intensely about it and eventually got the calm, peaceful assurance that this was one man’s opinion, and that if this belief helps him, great. But I also received the impression that I don’t need to believe in a literal fall at all to keep my very strong testimony of the Savior and his Atonement. Because I do believe in a fall – it’s just a more personal one – which actually makes the Atonement more personal and real to me. So I would argue that believing in one’s own personal fall is more necessary to fully comprehend the Atonement or resurrection and to adequately appreciate the unique purpose of Jesus’ birth and death.

    But why put people through this? Why all the adamant, black-and-white, if-x-then-y rhetoric? It causes so many people to lose faith, including all of my immediate family. It’s also the thing that’s been making it more and more difficult for me to stay in the church. There needs to be enough room for all of us AND our different understandings and beliefs. President Uchtdorf once said that, but most of the time, it doesn’t feel like there is room.

  15. I don’t get it! Why the push for a literal Adam and Eve, and the Fall? Why the “without x there is no need for y” rhetoric? This is leftover theology from the days of President Joseph Fielding Smith and Elder Bruce R. McConkie. Do we really need an Adam and Eve to understand Christ? I hope not.

    Evolution is foundational to biology. It is no longer a theory. Trying to fit Adam and Eve into an evolutionary past is probably impossible, unless we believe the Garden of Eden was in Ethiopia, and Adam and Eve were not lily white.

    Encouraging a belief in a literal Adam and Eve is going to cause many to question unnecessarily. There was death before the Fall. There has always been death. We need to deal with these realities, or live with the consequences.

  16. MOQT, I’m not convinced you disagree with my comment, at least if you read a sentence further. That is, you almost certainly don’t fully understand or appreciate the Atonement. Neither do I. Neither does Elder Holland. So we’re all in the same boat.

    That said, enough already with literality; it seems to be impeding many of us in our ability to get to the substance of the talk, a talk the was really and truly powerful and substantive.

    Also, rock climbing.

  17. I guess my point is, and I may not have made it very clearly before, that regardless of whether you believe in a literal fall, you have just as much ability or opportunity to understand the Atonement (which seems to be the opposite of what Elder Holland was saying). Though I do agree with you that no one will probably ever fully understand the Atonement in this life. I appreciate your drawing grace into the discussion. I think the OP was great. I just found Elder Holland’s talk hard to listen to, which is unusual for me. I usually love his talks.

  18. John Harrison says:

    I just want to give a hearty “amen” to everything MOQT wrote above. While it might not have been the point of the sermon, making definitive declarations and introducing new possibilities regarding the creation quickly becomes the listener’s focus. I thought the climbing stuff was great and memorable but I like climbing.

  19. Apologies for the threadjack, and with all due credit to your main point, Sam, but I wish you’d delete “free soloing” from your title and discussion. Elder Holland didn’t use “free solo” and what he described is stupid kids getting into trouble. It’s not what free solo is about, and a halfway reasonable use of free soloing as an opening story or metaphor or whatever would make a very different point (solo activity, high danger, not what anybody would ever recommend, expression of freedom, extreme version of individual realization . . . down that line). I actually have a lot of empathy for free soloing (and yes that worries me, some days) but it would be a wild ride in a different direction to use free soloing in a talk at church.

  20. Christian, I totally respect that that they weren’t responsibly free soloing. And my daughters are the climbers, not I, but, based on my (surface-level, to be sure) searching, “free soloing” was the best description I could find of what they were doing (i.e., climbing without using any safety equipment at all). Other, of course, than “irresponsibly screwing around.

    If it really, really bugs you, I’m happy to change it, though, especially if you can suggest a better descriptive term.

  21. Sam, I’m not sure there is such a thing as “responsibly free soloing”. That’s sort of the point, that one has dispensed with responsibility. “Free soloing” bugs me enough to make the point in a comment, but no more. I view it as in the nature of headline writers everywhere–a little exaggeration and mis-use of terms to draw clicks. Now that I’ve said my piece, I say leave it alone.

    One problem is that (speaking as a climber) what Elder Holland described I would call “scrambling” or maybe “playing” on the rocks, and those don’t work well in a headline.

    On the (third?) hand, my guess is that scrambling leads to many more dangerous situations and injury than true free soloing. The soloist is doing a really dangerous death-if-there’s-a-fall kind of thing. But almost always done with a lot of experience and care, taking a very large but recognized and studied risk. The scramblers often fail to recognize the danger they’re getting into and do not prepare or take precautions. Furthermore, there are a lot more scramblers than soloist. If I’m going to lecture (i.e., gently instruct) my children, it’s going to be about scrambling. And there you can see the frame of a sermon starting.

  22. Christian, thanks. Part of my problem is, I really don’t have any idea what Snow Canyon State Park looks like; in my head, listening, I envisioned two kids going up a cliff face that was several stories high, doing something where they should have had a top rope, given their apparent (lack of) skill. But you may well be right that that’s not what they were doing; either way, I acknowledge your point.

    Also, at some point, I want to here the sermon you’ve started framing up.

  23. The opening scene to the 2000 movie Vertical Limit is a way better rock climbing metaphor. It has the advantage that it saves hours of not having to be subjected to Mel Gibson’s vision.

  24. Sam — As a highly experienced rock climber, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to use the correct term for this activity. I actually really appreciate that you took the time to research this. Seriously.

    Christian — Come on man, cut him some slack (pun intended). Climbers should be rejoicing in Sam’s efforts with the title of this post. That he bothered to learn and use the term free solo is awesome! Also, he’s 100% correct. This activity is free soloing. Full stop. Trying to call it otherwise is like a serious basketball player objecting to calling what I do in the church gymnasium “basketball.” It may not be up to his standards, but it’s definitely basketball, and calling it otherwise just makes you sound weirdly defensive and insecure. These kids may have been impulsive and dumb, but what they were doing was definitely free soloing.

  25. Chris: It’s not worth arguing over, so I’ll start and stop with saying that I do not agree.

  26. If anybody’s still reading this thread—and cares about the literalness issue—you need to read Jason’s post here.

  27. Most importantly – was the Genesis fall the result of a careless free solo? Could it have been prevented had Adam and Eve used proper belays and safety equipment?

  28. it's a series of tubes says:

    NI wins the internet for the day, folks. Nicely played.

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