This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Friday Afternoon Session from the April 1973 Conference.
Well, I didn't go into this session expecting to have my two favorite talks be the ones by Elder McConkie and Elder Benson. I don't want to categorize these men too simplistically, because I'm trying to learn to hear their voices for myself, so as to avoid having to rely on their "reputation" (often unreliable, built by hardly-objective observers). But…nevertheless, rightly or wrongly, I do associate both of these men with a more, um, forthright and unyielding stance on things, and I tend to have to work harder to appreciate that perspective than some other styles. Bruce R. McConkie is…well, he's who he is, and statements like this at the beginning of his talk just make me laugh with their pure McConkie-ish-ness:
"I have counseled with the Lord as to what I should say today; have made some suggestions to him as to what I thought proper, subject, of course, to his approving concurrence…"
Ha ha, "Made some suggestions to Him!" I'll just bet you have! It's so funny, but also unfair of me to laugh, because of course that IS a good way to go about preparing for a talk, using your own initiative and preparation and then asking the Lord for approval—but it's just the way Elder McConkie describes it. He sounds so much…like you'd expect him to.
Anyway, from both him and Elder Benson, I was bracing myself for talks that were a bit stern or maybe abrasive, and then I ended up really liking both of them!
There's a phrase in my consciousness—I think it came from feminist theory, trying to justify taking issues that were usually considered part of the private sphere and making them fodder for political activism: "The personal is political." But as I read these talks, I couldn't help thinking the truth is somewhere closer to the opposite: the political is actually personal. The spiritual is personal. The economic is personal. Everything is personal to God.
In other words, it's untrue that personal issues are caused by huge systemic and cultural failures. And it's certainly not true that personal problems will be cured by political solutions. Politics, economics, religion—these things ONLY matter because of how they affect an individual soul (or, if you like, a family)'s return to God. It is only on an individual level, with one person individually loving and caring for and serving another person, that hearts can be changed. And any love animated by Jesus Christ must necessarily be a personal love, because this is how Christ loves us: individually.
Driven by such love, Elder Benson obviously felt his own responsibility as a prophet very much on a personal level. He quotes from the Old Testament about the blood of the people being on the prophet's hands, if he does not preach repentance (it reminds me of Jacob saying he must "rid his garments" of the people's sins) and then says,
"As one of these watchmen, with a love for humanity, I accept humbly this obligation and challenge [to warn against wickedness] and gratefully strive to do my duty without fear. In times as serious as these, we must not permit fear of criticism to keep us from doing our duty."
No one likes being criticized and misunderstood, and Elder Benson DID get criticism for his message, and is still getting it, I'm sure! But it seems so clear that his personal love for the Savior, his personal concern for the saints, was the force behind everything he did. When he talked about political or economic or social issues, it was because he knew how fundamentally they could affect the personal righteousness of the church members he loved. I'm sure the same is true for Elder McConkie.
Some of you know how much I love the economist Thomas Sowell. Recently for our homeschool, I taught an Economics Unit based on his writings, and I kept thinking, "this may be one of the most important subjects we ever learn about!" It's not because I think knowing about the stock market, or about Keynesian vs. Supply-side Economics, matters so much. And Sowell often says that the study of economics doesn't provide any prescriptions for how to choose which resources to use, or how to prioritize things that are scarce. It simply tells us that there must BE choices, that resources ARE scarce and NEED prioritizing. So this, again, goes back to the personal, and why I feel these principles truly matter. Someone can tell us something is valuable. The government can set prices and manipulate supply; it can mandate ownership or prohibit distribution. But it cannot GIVE VALUE. Only we can do that—each of us, as individuals. Only we can decide if something has worth, TO US, and our actions display our true feelings much more truthfully than our rhetoric does. The things we seek, the things we choose to do with our own personal time and money—or with any of our scarce resources that have alternative uses—those choices convey the underlying reality of what we value.
I think this is what Elder Benson means when he says,
"Economics and morals are both part of one inseparable body of truth. They must be in harmony. We need to square our actions with these eternal verities."
You could say that Economics—how each person chooses to allocate his scarce resources—IS truth. Morality—how each person chooses to respond to the guidance of the light of Christ within him—IS truth. We can't protest that it is somehow separate from reality; that, although we chose to spend our time on earth murmuring or doubting or seeking worldly approval, we really did value God's advice, we really did value Christ's sacrifice. No. Our actions, as Elder Benson says, must "square with these eternal verities." Changing the price of something does not change its underlying costs; changing the label for something does not change its underlying reality; changing the worldly value of something does not change its heavenly value. And maybe most importantly, nothing—not cultural trends, not ignorance, not sin, not doubt—can change the reality of God and of his love for each of us, personally.
And THIS is why the personal level is the only true arena for change. It goes both ways. We can only be changed as we, personally, decide to change. We can only change others as we, personally, open their eyes to God's personal love. Organizations can illuminate or obscure truth. Governments can facilitate or inhibit choice. But love is only transferred person to person, and that is how God's kingdom is built.
That brings us to Elder McConkie's talk, which has this need for the personal as its entire point. Sharing the gospel, he says, must always have two components. There is the doctrinal side—the teaching of principle, the setting forth of truth, the arguments and the reasoning. He values this, as you would expect the author of Mormon Doctrine to value it. He says:
"We are obligated and required to know the doctrines of the Church….We are to reason as intelligently as we are able. We are to use every faculty and capacity with which we are endowed to proclaim the message of salvation and to make it intelligent to ourselves and to our Father’s other children."
But then (and this is more unexpected)—he says that more importantly, and even AS we are valuing the intellectual side, we must simply testify. The things that defy reason, the feelings, the impressions, the experiences in our hearts—the personal things—we must share these as well, even if we subject ourselves to ridicule or skepticism in the process.
It is difficult to want to share the personal things, sometimes, because of that very economic principle of value. We hate to offer something of such great personal value and risk it being "set at naught and trampled under the feet" of others. And, of course, there are times the spirit will prompt us to hold back. But often, we are expected to just get over the difficulty and discomfort of sharing these personal experiences, and just to OFFER them, regardless of our fear or reluctance, because they are the things that, as Elder McConkie puts it, "put the seal" on all the other doctrines.
"Now I do not minimize in any degree or to any extent the obligation that rests upon us to be gospel scholars, to search the revelations, to learn how to reason and analyze, to present the message of salvation among ourselves and to the world with all the power and ability we have; but that standing alone does not suffice….We have to put an approving, divine seal on the doctrine that we teach, and that seal is the seal of testimony, the seal of a personal knowledge borne of the Holy Ghost.…After you have reasoned and after you have analyzed, you have got to stand as a personal witness who knows what he is saying.
What I think is amazing is that our individual experiences with the spirit are not only intended to lead us personally to Christ, but also to give us a net of our own with which to gather other souls to Christ, to be fishers of men. Paradoxically, it is the very personal nature of our experiences that makes them potentially valuable to others, because only on this fundamental, heart-to-heart level can we communicate the things of the spirit; things that can be shared no other way. That's why I always love a talk or a lesson that shares something, anything, of the personal. A testimony is, by definition, personal, and perhaps that is why a testimony, no matter how limited or fragile—if borne sincerely—always carries spiritual power.
Elder McConkie gives an example of this happening with Paul:
"After he had taught the doctrines and after he had reasoned, he bore a personal witness of the truth and divinity of what he was presenting to his fellowmen; and the Lord prepared him to do just that by giving him spiritual experiences, by letting the power of the Holy Spirit rest upon him."
This emphasis on "the personal" is not selfishness; it is the opposite of that. It starts with our internal emphasis on personal humility and repentance. That leads to personal experiences with God, leading to deep gratitude for a personal salvation from a Savior who loves us personally, and that in turn leads to personal charity for those around us, leading to loving personal interactions, leading to personal conversion for ourselves and those we serve.
The personal is everything. It is the cure for the political. It is the solution to the spiritual. It is the fruition of the economical. It is the root of the moral. The personal begins with God's child, and God.
And, just as Elder McConkie would want me to, I can indeed bear my own personal witness of this. Politics matter to me. Of course I'm concerned about education, medical care, taxes, foreign policy. But it's because of how those things affect the personal that they really matter in my heart. And spiritual things are no different. I love to learn about the culture of the Old Testament. I'm interested in Nephite currency and the United Order and the City of Enoch. But the things that change me, that leave me full of love and gratitude and the desire to serve, are those times when somehow I feel a personal connection with God. That connection takes different forms: maybe a well-timed email from a friend who understands. Words written by Nephi that seem directed to me alone. A day that starts with despair but ends with hope. A sudden lightening of a burden, or the gradual opening of a clouded mind. These are experiences that come so often, so generously, that all I can do is marvel at God's goodness in giving them to me—and yet none of them, taken intellectually, mean much at all. It is on the personal level that they have worth, and I can't force anyone else to accept that worth. I only know that, to me, their value is inexpressible, because they convey God's very personal love.
Other posts in this series:
Other posts in this series: