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The Tension Between Assimilation and Differentiation, and Other Thoughts from General Conference

October 12, 2007

(Topic: General Conference Memories)

By Steve M

The Church has been in the public eye recently, and it showed in General Conference. As usual, it seems that our efforts to respond to critics and appeal to a wider audience create somewhat of a tension between a desire to be assimilated into the mainstream Christian community and a desire to distinguish our faith from other churches and religions. Here are some quotes from last weekend’s General Conference to demonstrate these sometimes competing goals.

On Assimilation:

“Next, people need to know something of our faith as committed Christians with strong traditional values….

“We believe that Jesus Christ is our personal Savior, and we try to model our lives after Him and His teachings. We commemorate Christ’s atoning sacrifice in our Sunday worship services, similar to taking communion in other churches. We accept as fellow Christians all who believe Jesus Christ to be the Son of God and the Savior of all mankind. Many Christians do not understand that we have much common ground with them.” (M. Russell Ballard; emphasis in original)

“So with a desire to increase understanding and unequivocally declare our Christianity…” (Jeffrey R. Holland)

“Love for the Book of Mormon expands one’s love for the Bible and vice versa. Scriptures of the Restoration do not compete with the Bible; they complement the Bible. We are indebted to martyrs who gave their lives so that we could have the Bible. It establishes the everlasting nature of the gospel and of the plan of happiness. The Book of Mormon restores and underscores biblical doctrines such as tithing, the temple, the Sabbath day, and the priesthood.” (Russell M. Nelson)

On differentiation:

“We see in the Christian churches their struggle to fill the need for clergy. We do not have that problem. Once the gospel is preached and the Church is organized, there is an inexhaustible supply of faithful brothers and sisters who have that testimony and are willing to answer the call to serve. They commit themselves to the work of the Lord and live the standards required of them.

“Members have had the Holy Ghost conferred upon them after their baptism (see D&C 33:15; 35:6). The Holy Ghost will teach and comfort them. They are then prepared to receive guidance, direction, and correction, whatever their position or needs require. (See John 14:26; D&C 50:14; 52:9; 75:10.)

“This principle sets the Church on a different course from all other Christian churches in the world.” (Boyd K. Packer)

 

“Enduring to the end, or remaining faithful to the laws and ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout our life, is a fundamental requirement for salvation in the kingdom of God. This belief distinguishes Latter-day Saints from many other Christian denominations that teach that salvation is given to all who simply believe and confess that Jesus is the Christ.” (Dieter F. Uchtdorf)

“We agree with our critics on at least that point—that such a formulation for divinity [as is found in Christian creeds] is truly incomprehensible….

“It is not our purpose to demean any person’s belief nor the doctrine of any religion. We extend to all the same respect for their doctrine that we are asking for ours. (That, too, is an article of our faith.)….

Any who dismiss the concept of an embodied God dismiss both the mortal and the resurrected Christ. No one claiming to be a true Christian will want to do that.” (Jeffrey R. Holland; emphasis in original)

“Years ago I presided over a mission headquartered in the Midwest. One day, with a handful of our missionaries, I spoke with an esteemed representative of another Christian faith. This gentle soul spoke of his own religion’s history and doctrine, eventually repeating the familiar words: ‘By grace ye are saved. Every man and woman must exercise faith in Christ in order to become a saved being.’

“Among those present was a new missionary. He was altogether unfamiliar with other religions. He had to ask the question, ‘But, sir, what happens to the little baby who dies before he is old enough to understand and exercise faith in Christ?’ The learned man bowed his head, looked at the floor, and said, ‘There ought to be an exception. There ought to be a loophole. There ought to be a way, but there isn’t.’

“The missionary looked at me and, with tears in his eyes, said, ‘Goodness, President, we do have the truth, don’t we!’” (Douglas L. Callister)

“Why are we members of the only true Church?” (Enrique R. Falabella; this is also the name of his talk)

“When Constantine became a Christian in the fourth century, he called together a great convocation of learned men with the hope that they could reach a conclusion of understanding concerning the true nature of Deity. All they reached was a compromise of various points of view. The result was the Nicene Creed of A.D. 325. This and subsequent creeds have become the declaration of doctrine concerning the nature of Deity for most of Christianity ever since.

“I have read them all a number of times. I cannot understand them. I think others cannot understand them. I am sure that the Lord also knew that many would not understand them.” (Gordon B. Hinckley)

Any thoughts on these remarks?

I’ll also mention a couple of other quotes that are unrelated to this theme, but which I found interesting (no, I won’t be addressing President Beck’s talk; I think it’s received ample attention in the Bloggernacle already).

 

“When the 23-year-old Heber J. Grant was installed as president of the Tooele Stake, he told the Saints he believed the gospel was true. President Joseph F. Smith, a counselor in the First Presidency, inquired, ‘Heber, you said you believe the gospel with all your heart, . . . but you did not bear your testimony that you know it is true. Don’t you know absolutely that this gospel is true?

“Heber answered, ‘I do not.’ Joseph F. Smith then turned to John Taylor, the President of the Church, and said, ‘I am in favor of undoing this afternoon what we did this morning. I do not think any man should preside over a stake who has not a perfect and abiding knowledge of the divinity of this work.’

“President Taylor replied, ‘Joseph, Joseph, Joseph, [Heber] knows it just as well as you do. The only thing that he does not know is that he does know it.’

“Within a few weeks that testimony was realized, and young Heber J. Grant shed tears of gratitude for the perfect, abiding, and absolute testimony that came into his life” (Douglas L. Callister; emphasis added)

How do we reconcile the idea that we should have a “perfect and abiding knowledge” with Alma’s description of faith as not being a perfect knowledge?

 

“We can see the scientific method has brought about an extraordinary expansion of our understanding as the Lord has inspired gifted men who may not understand who created these things nor for what purpose. Many of these may not even recognize such inspiration or give credit to God for the origin of their contributions.” (Richard G. Scott)

I thought Elder Scott gave a nicely balanced talk that recognized the value of science as a means of discovering and understanding truth, in addition to spiritual means.

Any other thoughts, anyone?

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13 comments

  1. I’ve been mulling over the concept of balancing between building bridges and being bold for the past month or two. This Conference really did represent the tension between the two. Great compilation of quotes to illustrate it.

    As to the idea of faith and a perfect knowledge, Alma says that we can have a perfect knowledge of the goodness of a seed. I think we can know that the work is divine, even if we don’t know all things perfectly. I think the two are not inconsistent. At some point, the question of faith isn’t about whether or not the work is true, but is exercised to help our knowledge grow and expand with that knowledge as a foundation. We exercise our faith to become more perfect, to be sanctified (think Elder Bednar’s talk), to learn more of God and His nature and plan. But we can do that with a knowledge of the truthfulness of the work.


  2. I agree that this tension exists in the Church.

    I was a little surprised, to be honest, to hear so much defense of Mormonism as Christianity in General Conference. Although I certainly think I am a Christian, I didn’t feel the need to defend that point to people who think otherwise. If someone else thinks I’m not Christian by his definition, then so be it. We are supposed to be peculiar, right?

    But the talks in General Conference made me rethink my opinion. There is something to be said for people thinking we’re Christian, as it makes them relate more to us and be more willing to tolerate, which leads to understanding, and sometimes conversion. Still, there is obvious danger that we could become too assimilated, and then the salt will have lost its savor. Therein lies the tension.


  3. You might be interested in this post on Helen Whitney’s the Mormons. There was a round table discussion on Utah NOW where this tension was raised. Robert Millet said this in the discussion:

    It’s the question of: Do the Mormons today want to be perceived as similar or as dissimilar? And I think that is a very critical question because it is a dynamic of the faith, right now, that we must address. I’m convinced that the answer is yes, that is, I want that there’ll always be a tension. And if there isn’t a tension, then I think we lose something. There are certain things that I want my Christian friends or my Jewish friends to understand about my Christianity. Certain things I have to stand up for and say no… The maintenance of our distinctives, while at the same time maintaining that we shouldn’t hide from our similarities is a tough dynamic to maintain, but I think it is one that the LDS faith has to maintain if we are to do what we’re supposed to do.

    Robert Goldberg followed up this comment with a comparison to the Jewish faith:

    I want to respond to that which is I find with Mormons as often with Jews an action and a defensive crouch, a ‘bunker mentality,’ which is yes we’re distinctive, yes we’re different, we’re proud of that and when is the next blow going to fall, and how do we protect ourselves from this wider society, how do we protect ourselves from within? So this defensive crouch which keeps people, I think, often from being who they are, people are more Mormon in the home than outside, more Jewish in the home than they are outside. So, I welcome a sense where people can be who they are, what they are, without fear of recrimination, fear of any sign of prejudice. (43:00)

    This issue was also raised in the BYUTV episode “Mormons and the Media.” Perhaps it will be rebroadcast in the future, but from what I remember the discussion pointed out that LDS want to be a “strange and peculiar people” but they also want to be so on their own terms. My sense is that this tension is not a negative thing and one which will always be present, as it is in the Jewish faith.


  4. I assume it was an oversight on Elder Scott’s part when he only referred to “great men” (and not women) who have contributed to science. But it kind of bugged me.


  5. Tension for real.

    Ditto comment number one about Alma’s seed of faith growing into a perfect knowledge “in that thing.”

    I’ve heard the same conundrum phrased as a question: how did God create the earth using faith (Heb. 11:3), which faith is not a perfect knowledge of things, and yet God is supposed to have a perfect knowledge of all things? The answer is that faith is also a principle of action, exercised by all intelligent beings according to Lectures on Faith, lecture the first, of course.


  6. “Members have had the Holy Ghost conferred upon them after their baptism . The Holy Ghost will teach and comfort them. They are then prepared to receive guidance, direction, and correction, whatever their position or needs require. “

    That belief is not unique to the LDS church. Many fundamentalist, evangelical, and pentecostal types of denominations/churches also believe and try to practice the above.

    While driving home after our (LDS) services yesterday, I felt motivated of the Spirit to just pop in and visit another church/denomination as I drove past it.. Their preacher was talking about this very thing. Granted, they don’t have the authority we do, but those particular points of doctrine were strikingly similar.

    Here are a couple links to a very inspiring story of a lady preacher who was inspired to do something very simple, yet turned out to be very moving and influential. She describes the conversations she had in her head with the Lord via the Holy Ghost.

    The story is by Beth Moore (who’s not LDS), who was inspired of the Lord to comb an elderly man’s hair for him while he was in a wheelchair, waiting to board a plane at an airport.

    http://www.forministry.com/USTXECUSAHCECH/Mins/ChristianEd/

    http://www.proclaimhisglory.org/html/lesson_with_a_hairbrush.html

    This idea of living by the daily guidance of the Spirit is a _very_ important doctrine, and it is one we _do_ have in common with evangelicals. Therefore it surpises and saddens me that many evangelicals and LDS have assumed such a contentious stance.

    It is my opinion that the evangelicals are doctrinally the closest to LDS beliefs. The constituency or nature of the Trinity/Godhead is a technicality in comparison to the big picture. The bogus arguments over grace/works are all semantics, because they preach commandment-keeping too.

    However, perhaps it’s easy to get sensory overload by miracles and outpourings of the Spirit (assuming they’re genuine, of course), and to then assume that because one has received one blessing or miracle, that one has _all_ truth. And if members of other churches “gin up” revelations, or ascribe miraculous intervention to coincidences, then don’t Mormons often do the same thing?

    By our stance that “we’re right/true”, we give an impression of not only that “you’re wrong” but that “you’re _completely_ wrong”. And by resisting/countering the obviously incorrect latter accusation/impression, the members of other churches thereby resist or refuse to listen to our _entire_ message.

    Other churches may not live up to the revelations, blessings, Spirit that are available, but in the bigger picture, neither do Mormons.


  7. Re: m&m (#1)

    As to the idea of faith and a perfect knowledge, Alma says that we can have a perfect knowledge of the goodness of a seed…. But we can do that with a knowledge of the truthfulness of the work.

    For the most part, I really agree with your comments. My only quibble is with regard to your analysis of Alma 32 (and this may be somewhat tangential, so feel free to disregard it).

    In my reading, it appears that Alma is more concerned with “goodness” than “truthfulness,” at least in the sense that the word “true” is normally used in Mormondom.

    For instance, most Mormons consider the Book of Mormon to be “true” in the sense that it is a literal history translated from Reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics on gold plates that a prophet named Moroni buried in upstate New York; not in the sense that it is merely a “good” book.

    In verse 28, after using the word “true” only three times, Alma switches from talking in terms of “truth” to speaking in terms of “goodness.” He exclusively uses the word “good” thereafter (and he uses it 13 times).

    When you think about it, Alma’s experiment isn’t very effective at proving that the Book of Mormon is a literal history or that it was literally translated from gold plates, but it’s quite effective at establishing that the principles taught in the Book of Mormon are “good.” Or, in other words, that the book is full of good, life-changing truths.

    So, while you may have gained a knowledge of the “goodness” of the Book of Mormon and the principles it teaches, your belief in the book’s historical truth, or in the founding events of the Restoration, or in the Resurrection of Christ, is still faith-based rather than knowledge-based. That’s not to say that this faith isn’t bolstered by evidence (including personal experiences with God), but that’s not the same as “perfect and abiding knowledge.”

    In my opinion, Latter-day Saints tend to overstate how much they “know.” Recognizing that faith–even strong faith, bolstered by personal spiritual experiences–isn’t the same as knowledge doesn’t negate its power or imply a spiritual deficiency. Rather, it recognizes the very reality that makes faith necessary–uncertainty! As Paul wrote, in mortality we see as through a glass, darkly. We exercise faith in God, the scriptures, the Church, and so on, precisely because we don’t have a “perfect and abiding knowledge.”

    Anyway. End of soapbox.


  8. There was a round table discussion on Utah NOW where this tension was raised. Robert Millet said this in the discussion:

    It’s the question of: Do the Mormons today want to be perceived as similar or as dissimilar? And I think that is a very critical question because it is a dynamic of the faith, right now, that we must address. I’m convinced that the answer is yes, that is, I want that there’ll always be a tension. And if there isn’t a tension, then I think we lose something. There are certain things that I want my Christian friends or my Jewish friends to understand about my Christianity. Certain things I have to stand up for and say no… The maintenance of our distinctives, while at the same time maintaining that we shouldn’t hide from our similarities is a tough dynamic to maintain, but I think it is one that the LDS faith has to maintain if we are to do what we’re supposed to do.

    Robert Goldberg followed up this comment with a comparison to the Jewish faith:

    I want to respond to that which is I find with Mormons as often with Jews an action and a defensive crouch, a ‘bunker mentality,’ which is yes we’re distinctive, yes we’re different, we’re proud of that and when is the next blow going to fall, and how do we protect ourselves from this wider society, how do we protect ourselves from within? So this defensive crouch which keeps people, I think, often from being who they are, people are more Mormon in the home than outside, more Jewish in the home than they are outside. So, I welcome a sense where people can be who they are, what they are, without fear of recrimination, fear of any sign of prejudice. (43:00)

    This issue was also raised in the BYUTV episode “Mormons and the Media.” Perhaps it will be rebroadcast in the future, but from what I remember the discussion pointed out that LDS want to be a “strange and peculiar people” but they also want to be so on their own terms. My sense is that this tension is not a negative thing and one which will always be present, as it is in the Jewish faith.


  9. Steve,
    I’m chewing on what you said. And I see what you are saying. I guess the quibble is to determine if discernible light means more than just ‘good’ but not necessarily “true.” In a sense, I don’t think it matters, but at the same time, we can also test declarations by our leaders that, for example, the Book of Mormon is indeed historically true as well as doctrinally good. Alma talks of testing words/teachings. So I am not convinced that we can’t test the things that you have mentioned.

    But I think your point about the necessity of faith because we have not yet entered into God’s presence (we don’t KNOW in that kind of way that He is real) and we haven’t had the whole of history opened up to us as Moses or the brother of Jared did. (Well, I should speak for myself — I haven’t had these experiences). But I don’t think it’s faulty to say that we know certain things. We can know things are true because they are about discernible light. We may not know all things within those things that are true, but we can have a conviction that they are true. Faith is necessary to continue to learn the mysteries, but we can reach a point, I believe, where we don’t have to revisit the questions like “Is this really true? Was Joseph Smith really a prophet? Is the Book of Mormon really the word of God, preserved for us and translated by His power?” I know these things are true, even if I haven’t received some heavenly messenger declaring it to me. The scriptures say we can know that something is true through the Holy Ghost. We can then exercise our faith to learn more truth through the same process.


  10. we can also test declarations by our leaders that, for example, the Book of Mormon is indeed historically true as well as doctrinally good.

    I don’t think Alma’s experiment is particularly effective at testing questions of empirical fact, i.e., whether the Book of Mormon is historically true.

    Alma says that if we plant the “seed” in our hearts, and don’t cast it out by our “unbelief,” it will produce the following fruits if it is a “good” seed: (1) it will “enlarge” our souls; (2) it will “enlighten” our understandings; and (3) it will become “delicious” to us. According to Alma, these fruits will tell us that the seed, or the word, is “good.”

    The fact is, an inspiring or inspired allegory might also produce these fruits. (Notice that I’m not declaring the Book of Mormon to be such.) A book, or a statement, or a principle, need not be, or need not be derived from, literal history or empirical fact in order to pass this test. A story might be “good,” teach sound principles, and change lives without being literally true. It might be full of “truth(s)” without ever having actually happened.

    So, even if the Nephites never existed, the Book of Mormon would still be full of sound principles, inspiring stories, powerful doctrines, and testimonies of Christ. It could probably pass Alma’s test of goodness, and even produce spiritual, life-changing experiences. But that says nothing of its historical truth. A conviction of the Book of Mormon’s historical truth will still have to be based on faith.

    Additionally, we have to recognize that even Moroni’s test–praying directly for revelation through the Holy Ghost–is necessarily subjective, and ultimately results in a faith-based conviction. Whenever we receive or experience some type of spiritual sensation or impression, we must process and interpret it. And that interpretation is going to be subjective. To assert that “knowledge” derived from such experiences is “absolute” or “perfect” is rather presumptuous.

    To demonstrate: On my mission, I met a Muslim man who testified to me, with absolute certainty, that he knew that the Koran was the word of God, and that Islam was the one true faith. He told me that he had an undeniable spiritual witness of this “fact.” It sounded remarkably like the testimony I was bearing to him of the Book of Mormon and my own religion.

    On what basis could I refute his testimony? I couldn’t say he was wrong without implicating my own “knowledge.” To merely state that he was deceived or that he was mistaken is circular; it essentially says, “My witness came from God and his didn’t, because mine came from God.” His testimony was just as sure as mine was, and because his experience was personal, I couldn’t arbitrarily deny it. I could not say that he must have been mistaken without admitting that I, too, might have been mistaken.

    Because I could not maintain that my spiritual witness had provided me with absolute knowledge while denying that this man’s witness had provided him with absolute knowledge, I realized that perhaps my testimony had more to do with faith–a belief in things of which I did not have a perfect knowledge–than it did with certainty. And I don’t think that cheapens it.


  11. I think we may be talking past each other a bit, Steve. I think you are right that faith is a huge part of testimony and for most of us, it probably always will be, and that’s ok.

    But I guess I was suggesting that if a leader says that the BoM is historically accurate, don’t you think that ‘word’ is testable? The book itself may not be testable in the usual ways, but we can test what leaders say, no?

    That said, your point about a faith-based conviction is a good one. It really does boil down to faith, and I agree with you that it’s ok.


  12. Yeah, we probably are talking past each other, somewhat. I guess my question is what “test” we can use to gain a “knowledge” of the Book of Mormon’s historicity?

    As always, I enjoy these discussions, m&m. They always get me thinking.


  13. I guess my question is what “test” we can use to gain a “knowledge” of the Book of Mormon’s historicity?

    Am I too idealistic to think that we could take a specific question like that to God and just ask Him? I know that sometimes God doesn’t respond in a direct way, but He could, no?

    As always, I enjoy these discussions, m&m. They always get me thinking.

    Thanks, I enjoy them, too.



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