The Gift of Faith (Elder Andersen, Priesthood Session) #ldsconf

Elder Neil L. Andersen, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (source: http://tinyurl.com/od5vv2v)

Elder Neil L. Andersen, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (source: http://tinyurl.com/od5vv2v)

Faith, or lack of it, is a rather divisive issue and always has been. An Oxford-educated, well spoken LDS friend of mine, for example, frequently directly engages Richard Dawkins and a number of his new atheist “groupies” in massive twitter brawls. These forays into the twitter badlands are, however, defensive, as he responds to the criticisms of religion and faith that constantly emanate from those quarters. These dust-ups are not merely a product of our “secular” age in which secular society derides religious people and their faith. The twitter angle is. And there’s no mass murder associated with it in this situation, which makes it very different from previous ages of time. Things are much better now; virtually every aspect of human existence is exponentially better than at any other time in all of recorded history. For example, in this situation, the new atheists can deride, criticize, and mock without burning at the stake, and religious people can believe without being rounded up into concentration camps or murdered in killing fields.

Religious people in most developed, and even possibly the majority of developing, countries enjoy an unprecedented level of true religious freedom today (that is, truly free to choose their faith or whether to have any faith at all, rather than having that choice made for them by the imposition of a state religion or the oppression of a religious legislative majority passing targeted legislation meant to create difficulties for those who do not share their beliefs, which has been the default for almost the entire period since the transition from despotic monarchies to democratic forms of government). Irreligious people are also uniquely protected by our intentionally secular forms of government in their choice not to believe in religious teachings. But despite this present robust religious freedom enjoyed by more people than at any other time in recorded history, it cannot be denied that being a person of faith can entail some very real inconveniences and even some indignities, both intentionally at the hands of new atheists or other secular evangelists or indifferently at the hands of the agenda-less irreligious who simply find religious devotion silly or misguided.

For example, colleagues or superiors at work might not respect a pious believer; the mischievous coworker or superior might find in the believer’s sincere faith a way to tease or torment. More seriously, if one’s faith is known, particularly if one belongs to a minority religion like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a place like Belgium or France or South Africa — I guess anywhere outside the Mormon Corridor or Utah, that is, anywhere where Mormons are not the largest among various minority religions — it is possible that superiors at work might take it as a sign of mental infirmity or lack of intelligence and withhold promotions or other opportunities. Many other opportunities might be lacking as the outcome of subtle or latent prejudice: the parents of your children’s peers might set a precedent for their children to shun your children; you and your children might be permanently excluded from certain networks of opportunity that exist in various communities only for those who belong to the majority religion, or to no religion. These are sometimes very real consequences of nurturing and maintaining a religious faith, particularly as adherents of a widely despised minority religion. Armand Maus has recently considered this exponentially higher “cost” of Church membership outside of Utah or the Mormon corridor from a sociological perspective.[1]

And yet, even despite this unprecedented religious freedom that individuals enjoy in most of our societies today to believe whatever they want,[2] and even in the face of sometimes extreme social or societal pressure not to believe, faith is still and always has been a gift for the believer.

11 For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God.

12 To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby.

13 To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world.

14 To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful. (Doctrine and Covenants 46:11-14)

Verse 12 highlights the importance of Elder Christofferson’s words during the Sunday Afternoon Session about the doctrine of the Body of Christ. Since we each have different spiritual gifts, we are all essential to the Body of Christ; our presence, even despite all our flaws, enlivens, strengthens, and enriches the whole. We should take every occasion to sincerely thank our fellow disciples for their presence among us and for all they do in service to the whole Body of Christ, especially if we are in leadership positions!

Verses 13 and 14, of course, are directly relevant to Elder Andersen’s Priesthood Session talk in which he taught that “[t]he future of your faith is not by chance, but by choice.” Elder Andersen’s broader point is that each individual’s faith is in a state of flux for most of his or her life. “Your faith is either growing stronger or becoming weaker.” Frequent introspection, inspired by the Savior’s probing questions about faith during his ministry, about the state of our faith can help us stay on the right path, constantly making choices that contribute to a strengthening of that portion of faith that might have been received previously as a spiritual gift. As for faith being a choice, which Elder Andersen reiterated in closing, perhaps President Uchtdorf described it a little more accurately in his Priesthood Session sermon when he mentioned that we each choose to want to believe as a foundation for overcoming doubts in a world increasingly cynical about sincere piety. The scriptures, however, seem to indicate that faith is indeed a gift from a loving Heavenly Father.

And yet, Elder Andersen reinforces a truth that each Christian disciple needs to hold fast for a lifetime, that “[b]y the grace of Christ, we will one day be saved through faith on His name.” Elder Andersen devotes much of his talk to examples of individual disciples whose gift of faith carried them through particularly difficult times in which many people might have given up on their faith. Aroldo Cavalcante, an adult convert in Brazil, had to muster a fledgling faith when his mother died, leaving him to raise his siblings. The Spirit inspired him to serve a mission despite these trying financial and existential circumstances, and he was receptive and brave enough to recognize this counter-intuitive calling and act on it. As Joseph Smith and other latter-day Apostles and Church Presidents have taught, faith is a principle of action. Now, Brother Cavalcante is a Stake President in Brazil with a loving family and an even stronger faith.

Learning to walk by faith has always been a challenge for the Christian disciple. This is no different today, though cynicism or temptation to abandon faith might stem from different sources than at times in the past. We must guard our faith on a day to day basis just as our Latter-day Saint foreparents had to guard theirs as they were driven from place to place by violent mobs and just as our Christian foreparents throughout the ages have had to stand strong against influences tending to weaken or destroy their faith, from the first disciples of Jesus all the way to the Restoration of the Priesthood through Joseph Smith. Elder Andersen advised that

“addressing honest questions is an important part of building faith, and we use both our intellect and our feelings. The Lord said: ‘I will tell you in your mind and in your heart.’ Not all answers will come immediately, but most questions can be resolved through sincere study and seeking answers from God. Using our mind without our heart will not bring spiritual answers.”

At a Regional Conference for central and southern Utah on September 13, 2015, Elder Ballard discussed declining rates of adherence to traditional faiths (as found by recent Gallup polls) in this context of asking sincere questions and seeking answers from both feelings and information. Elder Ballard said, “I raise my warning voice, as Paul did, that there are those ‘that trouble you’ — people that ‘pervert the gospel of Christ.’ I would be shirking my duty if I did not raise my voice to warn you of the challenges we face today.” From the context of his sermon, Elder Ballard seemed to be referring to those challenging the mainstream Mormon faith from both sides of the spectrum, both the Denver Snuffer/Julie Rowe types and their followers and the more traditional critical sources, often on the internet, whose presentations of episodes of Church history often seem jarring to Church members simply because these episodes are packaged without the correlated or hagiographic gloss or feeling that we as a Church have inculcated among generations of members through our curricular choices throughout the last half of the twentieth century or so. But often such presentations are not neutral as claimed and are, indeed, aimed at undermining or destroying members’ faith, even if their presentation of certain aspects of Church history are indeed more accurate on their face than the Church’s own presentation of that particular episode (which episodes are sometimes ignored by the Church entirely).

Elder Ballard asked, in the face of such obstacles, “how can we ensure that our spiritual feeding roots are always connected to the well of living water?” so that we can constantly nourish our faith. The answer was not surprising or complicated, but it was reassuring to hear an Apostle give this counsel:

“The Lord outlined simple, personal habits that keep us rooted, grounded, and connected to Him. Such habits, when done with full purpose of heart, real intent, and without hypocrisy and deception, allow us to be unwavering disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. . . .

“They include sincere daily prayer, faithful fasting, regular study and pondering of the scriptures and the words of the living prophets, making the Sabbath day a delight, partaking of the sacrament with humility and always remembering the Savior, worshipping in the temple as often as possible, and, finally, reaching out to the needy, poor, and lonely—both those close by and across the world.”

But Elder Ballard also emphasized very strongly in very important counsel that members are encouraged to ask questions and seek answers, even about the same types of challenging issues about Church history and Joseph Smith that Elder Andersen alludes to in his Priesthood session talk:

“Let me make sure that you are hearing my epistle and that you understand this important point. There is absolutely nothing wrong with asking questions or investigating our history, doctrine, and practices. The Restoration began when Joseph Smith sought answers to his sincere questions.

“Parents; Young Men and Young Women leaders; Church teachers, including seminary, institute, and BYU religious educators; bishops; and Relief Society and stake presidents: When someone comes to you with a question or a concern, please do not brush the question off — do not tell him or her to not worry about the question. Please do not doubt the person’s dedication to the Lord or His work. Instead, help the person find the answers to their questions. . . .

“We have heard stories where someone asking honest questions about our history, doctrine, or practice were treated as though they were faithless. This is not the Lord’s way. As Peter said, ‘Be ready always to give an answer to every man [or woman] that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you.’

“We need to do better in responding to honest questions. Although we may not be able to answer every question about the cosmos or about our history, practices, or doctrine, we can provide many answers to those who are sincere.

“Help those with questions to realize that the Lord does not require His Saints to have advanced degrees in history and Church doctrine. Therefore, we should not expect that parents, leaders, and teachers will have all the answers to every question. Even among the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, there are those who have very different backgrounds and training that allow a sharing of a wide range of experience to our discussion and deliberations.

“When I have a question that I cannot answer, I turn to those who can help me. The Church is blessed with trained scholars and those who have devoted a lifetime of study, who have come to know our history and the scriptures. These thoughtful men and women provide context and background so we can better understand our sacred past and our current practices.

“The Church is dedicated to transparency and has donated precious resources to provide new insights and offer even more context to the story of the Restoration through the Joseph Smith Papers website and the Gospel Topics essays on LDS.org. It is a remarkable time to study Church history and doctrine, with abundant resources and experts providing helpful background and understanding of our past.”

It very much seems, in this passage, that Elder Ballard has shown a way forward for those who are losing faith, not because of anything that Joseph Smith said or did, but because of what Church leaders after him, particularly in the mid to late twentieth century, have said about what Joseph Smith said or did. This probably applies to 90% or more of the devout believers who end up dropping out of Church activity shortly after reading about Church history for a few weeks or months on the internet.

As Elder Ballard taught, we need to do better in responding to honest questions. At the same time, we as the believers answering the questions need to be honest about the fact that we don’t know all the answers — that we don’t know why Joseph Smith said or did some particular thing. Everything can’t be correlated into a smooth, coherent, internally consistent narrative at this time. Nor should it be — both A and B can be true even if they seem inconsistent under present modes of thinking or knowledge. Church leaders in the past seem to have thought it would be possible and beneficial to do so and they attempted it. But we have seen that the correlated curriculum that emerged from that effort planted the seeds for the exact loss of faith that is now being harvested in the internet age, when information is readily available in multiple interpretations alongside the “official” narrative.

Each competing narrative about Church history or doctrine initially appears on more or less equal footing to the curious mind in the information age. Appeals to the priesthood authority of the authors of some sources might go some distance in creating credibility for a particular narrative, including the official narrative. But the narratives presented need to account for the evidence — that is a symptom of the information age in which we live. And the credibility of sources hangs in the balance. Faith is certainly not dead in this age — how could it be as a gift of the Spirit? Rather, different obstacles get in the way of the continuity of faith today, and these obstacles are often less physical than factual. Even devout believers can feel betrayed if a particular narrative, which has been taught as doctrine or the official position, turns out to be only the barest shadow of the relevant, extant factual record, or seems to blatantly leave out much of the relevant material. Above all, we must not treat people as faithless for simply having encountered information that varies from official narratives and are therefore raising good faith questions about the information and the narratives. “This is not the Lord’s way.”

The intellectual humility that Hugh Nibley prized is more called for now than ever, both from those in authority charged with answering tough questions and from the questioners. Church leaders have Elder Ballard’s mandate “to do better in responding to honest questions” and to “not doubt the person’s dedication to the Lord or His work. Instead, help the person find the answers to their questions.” If we are humble in doing so, if we are strong enough to admit that we simply don’t know but that our faith remains bright because of our personal relationship with God, then we can trust the members that they will find similar solace from the source of our faith himself.

And the questioners need to exhibit similar intellectual humility. So you’re an accountant from Orem (for example) — are you really going to have all the answers to tough questions about some of the strange occurrences and miracles of the Restoration of the Gospel after reading Mormon related websites for a few weeks or months? Have you honestly evaluated and weighed the agenda of particular sources of information — even if you feel betrayed by an initial flow of unknown information? Even if the information presented is, unfortunately, more accurate than the Church’s own correlated narrative about such information (likely out of a good faith lack of trust of the members to hold strong to the faith in the face of such information; other times simply because a lot of information that is now available actually genuinely was not available at the time the correlated curriculum about the particular matter was created)? Are you willing to provide the Lord’s Apostles with a presumption of good faith as a starting point? In my mind, each of these are facets of intellectual honesty for a believer approaching these questions.

Elder Andersen touches on this point in his talk as well: “Faith never demands an answer to every question, but seeks the assurance and courage to move forward, sometimes acknowledging, ‘I don’t know everything, but I do know enough to continue on the path of discipleship.'” Ultimately, faith is not about empirical evidence and never was. Those who demand it unceasingly are perhaps our brothers and sisters who have been blessed with the gift to believe on the words of those who have received the gift of faith (D&C 46:14). If so, then we with the gift of faith have a heightened duty to answer such questions “only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:41-42). The answers must be humble and filled with Christian charity for the questioner — not annoyance that they have raised the questions or suspicion about their faithfulness. In fact, one could be forgiven for thinking that these verses, revealed as they were in the latter days and canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants, are specifically meant for our use in the information age. Perhaps it is no longer enough or appropriate to try to achieve desired outcomes by naked appeals to priesthood authority without more — after all, the same verse directs that “[n]o power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood” (D&C 121:41). Elder Andersen is correct, however, that continuing on the path of discipleship does not always depend on what can be constructed of a narrative out of the particular facts that exist. The main problem is that for a long, long time we sort of taught or at least implied that it was — hence the correlated curriculum about our narratives.

And Elder Andersen provides us with sound advice on this topic — advice we would be well to accept, though I admit that perhaps the manner of its delivery might unfortunately be a stumbling block for many of those who most need it:

“For now, give Brother Joseph a break! In a future day you will have one hundred times more information than is found in all of today’s internet search engines, and it will be scrupulously reliable. Consider the totality of his life — born in poverty and given little formal education, Joseph translated the Book of Mormon in less than 90 days. Tens of thousands of honest, devoted men and women embraced the cause of the Restoration. At age 38, Joseph sealed his witness with his blood. I testify that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. Settle this in your mind, and move forward!”

This is good and true. As Joseph Smith said, it tastes good. I have no doubt that at a future time, the flood of information that we have right now will seem the smallest drop of the actual context and factual matrix that is relevant to an academic appraisal of Joseph Smith’s prophetic work. As disciples of Jesus Christ, then, let us embrace the prophet Joseph Smith and his work through our faith as nourished both by the Spirit and our own intellects! In the process, if we lack the spiritual gift of faith at the moment, let us believe on the words of those who have it! As Elder Andersen mentioned, thousands who knew Joseph Smith personally believed him. That is a high degree of credibility, especially for those of us whose own ancestors were among that group. (And, of course, this admonition to believe on the words of those who do have faith does not excuse the latter — whether they be siblings or parents, local Church leaders, or General Authorities at the highest levels — from also combining their expressions of faith about this matter with accurate and relevant information, not leaving out important details! The information age is here to stay, as is the real threat of even devout members feeling betrayed by a superficial or seemingly inaccurate portrayal of historical facts that are relevant to our doctrines.)

But as a principle of action, faith is much more than information — it has real power to guide lives of Christian discipleship. Elder Andersen provided another example to illustrate this truly enriching aspect of faith. It is a dimension of life that is, indeed, ethereal to a large extent, but it is no less real and meaningful. The Openshaw family of Provo, Utah, suffered a major blow when the parents and two of the children were killed in a plane crash a few months ago. Three surviving children, a youth on a mission in the Marshall Islands, a high school senior on a foreign exchange trip to Germany, and a five year old who was in my daughter’s pre-school last year, have provided an example of faith in action in the aftermath of this tragedy. Each of these children had an other-worldly confidence inspired by their gift of faith, despite the tragedy that had occurred to their family. Cultivating a similar faith is a worthy goal, and President Cavalcante and the Openshaw boys provide us with strong examples of how such a faith can strengthen us on our paths of Christian discipleship. May they retain their own faith as we follow their example in strengthening ours!

————–

[1] See Armand Maus, “Can There be a ‘Second Harvest’? : Controlling the Costs of Latter-day Saint Membership in Europe”, International Journal of Mormon Studies Vol. 1 (2008), 1-59. (available at this link)

[2] As Justice Kennedy on the United States Supreme Court controversially observed a little over a decade ago in Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003),

Liberty protects the person from unwarranted government intrusions into a dwelling or other private places. In our tradition the State is not omnipresent in the home. And there are other spheres of our lives and existence, outside the home, where the State should not be a dominant presence. Freedom extends beyond spatial bounds. Liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct. . . . At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.

Comments

  1. Thank you for this, John. For me, one of the greatest benefits of General Conference (and, on good days, blogging) is the opportunities provided to see things with new eyes, and your post does that.

  2. christiankimball says:

    Very fine as a reflection on Elder Andersen’s talk.

    Except that I am incredulous that there will ever be a time when “the flood of information that we have right now will seem the smallest drop of the actual context and factual matrix that is relevant to an academic appraisal of Joseph Smith’s prophetic work.” When dealing with early 19th century American history there really is a limit on available information. It is close enough to be readily explored, and far enough to be exhaustible. I may not be anywhere close, but I’m inclined to believe that Richard Bushman (as a particular example relevant to Joseph Smith), is approaching that limit asymptotically.

    At the same time, for myself this talk and other comments about “doubt” in this Conference, caused me to reflect on the fact that the topic and the current LDS General Conference approach is not a good fit to my lived experience. When I think about faith or belief or commitment today versus, say, 10 years or 20 years ago, it doesn’t occur to me to think of gain or loss, of more or less. Of Elder Andersen’s “growing stronger or becoming weaker.” I don’t think debits and credits. Instead, I think in organic terms like growth and change and development. The shape of my faith is different, but in mostly incommensurable ways. Sure, one could pick one of any number of univalent scales and ask where I fall on that scale today compared to before. Allegiance to the 21st century CoJCoLdS, for example. Which may be what most General Conference addresses are really about? Yes we can make up check boxes to X or not. But it doesn’t feel that way on the inside. When I try on the idea of any single scale I immediately think “but what about God, what about Christ, what about Christian ideals, what about restoration, what about temples, what about the sick and afflicted, what about scripture, what about authority, what about . . .” Every “more or less” question–even if well-defined and answerable–seems artificial. Made up for someone else’s purpose about which I’m not sure I care.

  3. What’s often missing from discussions of faith is the recognition that faith does not exist in the abstract. Faith is a choice to act upon something or someone you trust. As an example, planting a garden is an act of faith that warm temperatures and rain will come. It can also be an act of faith in a person who encourages the garden (Mom, the Prophet, etc.).

    Faith grows as the trust is confirmed. It is challenged when the trust is broken. It is very possible to have partial faith due to limited experience and/or wide-ranging success from prior -placed trust. For example, when I give the car keys to my 16-year old son for the first time, I am exercising faith in him. That faith is based on years of experience knowing that he is often responsible and on knowledge that he has passed a driving course that provides a basic understanding of how to operate a vehicle. As time goes by and my son successfully drives without incident, my faith in him grows. When he gets drunk and hits a tree, my faith diminishes. Following that incident, I may chose to trust him again based on his repentance. Again, it is a choice.

    These same principles apply to faith in church doctrine, church history, and church leaders. When a member learns that the BOM translation took place differently from how she was taught all her life, she naturally loses faith in accuracy of the church’s historical account. When a member sees that his son’s gay marriage results in great happiness, he naturally doubts the church’s doctrine against such relationships. When church leaders decline to apologize for past wrongs committed by the church, such as denying priesthood and temple access based on race, a stumbling block is left in place that prevents complete trust between members and their leaders.

    Faith is a choice. But that choice is not exercised only by the membership. It is exercised by church leaders when they decide whether to provide an accurate picture, confront the fruits of our doctrine, and provide an example of repentance. Surely members can and need to exercise more faith. But I believe the greatest loss at the moment comes from our leaders’ choices to avoid directly addressing past mistakes, faulty instruction, and conflicts between what we teach vs. what our experiences show to be right. So long as the church’s primary argument is one of authority – rather than reason, humility, and sincere truth-seeking – members will increasing choose to place their faith in things other than the church.

  4. Very fine indeed. Most people will focus on the “give Joseph a break” comment, perhaps rightfully so. But I think the point is different: faith is a gift from the divine, and we decide whether or not to accept that gift and use it as we should. If we are pursuing Joseph Smith relentlessly, are we using that gift of faith as we ought?

  5. I think this post is great. I will ponder it for a while. I think you really hit the nail on the head when saying we should all be more intellectual honest. Both the faithful and the doubters are guilty of dumbing down the faith discussion.

    Yes we can claim that because the Book of Mormon is true then every other principal of the church is true. But that invites the counterargument that because Joseph Smith said something wrong then then he wasn’t a prophet and all else is wrong.

    Both of these arguments are fallacious. We are supposed to develop faith line upon line and precept upon precept. We develop faith in these lines and precepts after our faith goes through trial. We should not tell our kids that it is easy or, if they only think about things more logically, their doubts will go away.

  6. “In a future day you will have one hundred times more information than is found in all of today’s internet search engines, and it will be scrupulously reliable.”

    I interpreted this as an after-you-die or during-the-millennium sort of prophecy, but I suppose it could apply to mortality. Problem is, what if that scrupulously reliable information reveals that JS indeed proposed marriage to a 14-year-old out of lechery? Or something like that. Elder Anderson’s implied premise (everything will make perfect sense when we know everything) is no foregone conclusion.

  7. Carl Youngblood says:

    Great points John and commenters.

    “The intellectual humility that Hugh Nibley prized is more called for now than ever, both from those in authority charged with answering tough questions and from the questioners.”

    One significant challenge that I see right now is that the humility seems to be demanded by leaders but not reciprocated. I see very little willingness to acknowledge that the position of unbelievers is reasonable. I see a whole lot of assertions to the contrary and insistence that the case for belief is a slam dunk.

    I echo Dave K.’s assertion that faith is highly dependent on the environment in which it is fostered, and that radical changes to that environment resulting from surprises about foundational claims can easily endanger faith’s flourishing. I think it would be good if the original post addressed this more.

    “Problem is, what if that scrupulously reliable information reveals that JS indeed [was an unworthy character]?”

    This is another point that deserves more air time from Andersen, in my opinion. Rather than claiming that the story of the prophet is a slam dunk, I think he would foster a more mature faith if he tried to lower our expectations of prophets instead of trying to argue that all the unknowns are favorable.

  8. I am surprised you have not been criticized more. Isn’t it unfashionable to extol faith and minimize doubt in today’s Mormon blogging world. I really like the feel of Elder Andersen’s talk — faith is beautiful thing.