Oscarson: Do I Believe? #ldsconf

President Oscarson has been the Young Women’s president since 2013, and is the first female member of the Church’s Missionary Executive Council. While she was born in Utah, she has lived outside of the state for many years (notably in Sweden, Missouri, and Texas). She returned to school 35 years after her initial studies to finish her degree. President Oscarson brings a good deal of experience to the table. As YW president, she has been immensely concerned with the activity level of our youth and the statistically increasing drop off of teens as they transition to adulthood within the Church. Her view is that the influence of the “great and spacious building” is the greatest challenge our youth face today. President Oscarson is intensely focused on retaining those youth despite that influence; she rightfully notes that “To believe, we need to get the gospel from our heads into our hearts!” How, then, do we go from that state of complacent ‘knowledge’ of what is right towards an active, believing heart?

For Michele Carnesecca, as recounted by President Oscarson, the catalyst was the near-death of her son and moment of contemplation in the midst of that storm. It is not coincidental that a passive faith built of doing what we’re supposed to do can be broken down and rebuilt by immensely traumatic events. Living a religious life without real belief is something of frictionless illusion. It is when that illusion is shattered that we can contemplate a living, breathing faith, one that is messy at times but one that brings us real power. As President Oscarson notes, we can “fail to fully comprehend the miracle and majesty of discipleship in the Lord’s true Church” because we are accustomed to blessings and patterns. She tells us that we must “seek to have our hearts and very natures changed” in order to appreciate the miracles and power that this Church provides to us.

What’s interesting here is that President Oscarson emphasizes the likely-gradual way in which we orient ourselves away from superficialities and rote worship patterns. “True conversion is a process that takes place over a period of time and involves a willingness to exercise faith… It comes from earnest prayer, regular temple attendance, and faithfully fulfilling our God-given responsibilities. It takes consistency and daily effort.” In short, there’s no magic to it, even though the changing of our natures through the Atonement is, in a sense, the most magical thing there is. The scriptures have lots of miraculous conversion narratives, from Paul to Alma the Younger. But Christians know that being born again can involve a labor of a lifetime, and it is not a flashy event worthy of a video. As Mormons, we work towards our salvation, not because those works make a lick of difference in cleansing us from sin, but because we seek to change our natures, to be like Christ and to do all we can. It is one of the most interesting mysteries of Christianity: we fight our way through mists of darkness (which can take the form of our own unexamined religious culture) to taste the fruit of the tree of life.

President Oscarson then describes the somewhat odd phenomenon of when people with testimonies fall away. They have fought their way, tasted the sweetness of the Gospel, then (in part because of that great and spacious building) are ashamed of their belief and let go. Why does this happen? Oscarson focuses on the need to continue to press forward and to engage in real life, real activity to keep our hearts focused on messy reality instead of polished forms of belief. This is right, and President Oscarson is also right that our Church has the power and doctrines of salvation, but part of the illusions that can lead us astray is an unrealistic belief in the perfection of the Church and its people. We are indeed, as Oscarson notes, already on the boat, but that doesn’t mean all is well. Salvation won’t come to us via the philosophies of men or the Internet, but salvation also won’t come to us via the three-hour block or going through the motions. President Oscarson is right: we must continue to feast, we must continue to do the work. And that work is not abstract, it is not hypothetical. We step in and get to work. Elder Kearon shows us how we can do it. We tend to the sick, the weak and the weary, and by doing so we are strengthened, and we can say that we can do better than know the Gospel is true — we believe it.

Comments

  1. slow clap. thx for this.

  2. Awww shucks

  3. True Blue says:

    Why can the leadership of the church not accept some responsibility for people leaving? The biggest problems I have is reconciling the discrimination of the church leadership against gays and women, with the Gospel of Christ. I would be surprised if that is not the case for a lot of young people.

    It comes across as disingenuous to blame the world (which we can’t change) and ignore the real problem which they can. Did anyone explain/justify the policy against gays?

  4. People leave the church for all sorts of reasons – they were leaving before the policy and frankly it’s too soon to tell whether the policy is increasing the numbers, mass resignation events notwithstanding. A fundamental reason people leave is because the religion doesn’t speak to their day to day spiritual needs. Oscarson’s talk addresses that directly.

  5. Yes people leave for all sorts of reasons, and yes Oscarson’s talk is about as good as I could ever expect to hear at a General Conference (and thanks and applause for this review). However, I wish we could allow for–what I believe to be actual sincere experience–that for some truly comprehending “the miracle and majesty of discipleship” takes them in a different direction, away from this particular church.

  6. I wouldn’t hold my breath on that front, though we have seen talks recently about how it can be a long and twisting journey for many.

  7. Kristen says:

    Steve, I have to say that this was my least favorite talk in conference. Nothing against Sister Oscarson, it’s just why do we have at least one “stay in the church/boat” talk at every conference? It seems to me that if you have to be constantly telling people to stay or warning people what will happen if they leave—there is a problem. Why not just speak of the good news of Christ. Why not uplift us with inspiring verse. Why not talk of Christ and rejoice in Christ and offer love to everyone in and out of the church. Why not just be a church that is so beautiful that no one wants to leave?

  8. It wasn’t my personal favorite talk, either, but I tend to view President Oscarson through the lens of someone who is very focused on an immediate symptom — people leaving the church — and addressing that concern as best she can. I hear you and largely agree that the solution is to instill in people a recognition of the beauty of what we have. In fact, I think that’s what President Oscarson is driving at.

  9. Thanks for the review Steve.
    Until I read the comments here, I didn’t even realize that this was the mandatory “stay in the church/boat” talk. I thought that that Pres. Oscarsson was addressing those members who are firmly in the boat, but who don’t understand how blessed they are to have the boat. I don’t think she aimed her words at those who might jump off the boat.

  10. “The scriptures have lots of miraculous conversion narratives, from Paul to Alma the Younger. But Christians know that being born again can involve a labor of a lifetime, and it is not a flashy event worthy of a video. As Mormons, we work towards our salvation, not because those works make a lick of difference in cleansing us from sin, but because we seek to change our natures, to be like Christ and to do all we can. It is one of the most interesting mysteries of Christianity: we fight our way through mists of darkness (which can take the form of our own unexamined religious culture) to taste the fruit of the tree of life.”

    This is profound Bill. You’ve slowly become one of my favorite scriptural/Gospel exegetes of all time.

  11. President Oscarson is obviously very worried about those leaving, especially among the youth. And this talk was comforting in seeing her try to address that directly. But it was also problematic because it revealed that even with her heightened concern and constant efforts to address the problem in her ministry, she still doesn’t understand it well. Although I am grateful for this talk, unfortunately, I found an undercurrent of blaming the doubter in it. The problem is with the person who searches out “philosophies of men” to answer difficult issues (aside, perhaps, from Elder Gong, who references both Kierkegaard and Proust, not to mention T.S. Eliot and others, in his talk). Nevermind the Thirteenth Article of Faith which tries to express that Mormonism encompasses all Truth wherever it might be found. The scriptures vs. “the Internet” is a false dichotomy. And there is no acceptance of the fact, as Elder Ballard recently outlined in his CES talk, that we, the Church, have been part of the problem through our misguided curricular choices and portrayals of history. These have directly contributed to the crisis we are now facing — the crisis that is keeping Sister Oscarson up at night.

    But I am very glad that we have someone like Sister Oscarson at the helm precisely at this time. I see her as being uniquely capable of providing the right moral leadership at a time like this, and sustain her efforts. If she ever sees this comment, I just want to express that it is not a personal criticism of her or her talk. Just a personal lamentation of my own that so few seem to be grasping on to Elder Ballard’s realization of what the problem is here.

  12. Uh, Bill?