Apologetic Notes from General Conference – April 2013

Now, I know that there are much more useful ways to read/listen to conference then with apologetic issues in mind. And I certainly wouldn’t advise that anyone seek out an apologetic message from conference at the expense of other, far more important messages that the General Authorities and the Spirit are trying to communicate. I’ll also grant that things which one, such as myself, might read/hear an apologetic message in are probably, more often than not, not indented apologetically. But, I do think that conference often has some things in it that are useful in our efforts to defend the faith, and so with that in mind I give you these apologetic notes. Some of things are not strictly apologetic, but have some bearing on the matter.

Saturday Morning

President Boyd K. Packer seemed to clearly have the issue of sex-same marriage in mind when he said the following:

Tolerance is a virtue, but like all virtues, when exaggerated, it transforms itself into a vice. We need to be careful of the “tolerance trap” so that we are not swallowed up in it. The permissiveness afforded by the weakening of the laws of the land to tolerate legalized acts of immorality does not reduce the serious spiritual consequence that is the result of the violation of God’s law of chastity.

While these words certainly could – and probably should – be applied to heterosexual cohabitation, given the current political climate it seems clear that President Packer had same-sex marriage in mind. He has pointed his remarks in that direction before, and caught the ire of many in so doing, but I think his remarks here are sound. We certainly should try and be tolerant and understanding of those who have same-sex attraction, even when they chose a lifestyle that goes against the gospel of Jesus Christ. But we must be sure not be so bending in the name of “tolerance” as to yield any and all gospel standards. There are still commandments – a point frequently made this last conference – and they still apply, regardless of what the laws say.

Some fuss is being made about Sister Elaine S. Dalton’s talk and her “deliberate emphasis”, as some are calling it, to say that young women are daughters of Heavenly Father, rather than “Heavenly Parents,” or even just “Heavenly Mother,” despite the fact that others have used such language in General Conference. I, for one, think people are reading way more into that “word choice” than exists – she was using the Young Women’s theme (or motto or whatever it is called) as the basis of her remarks, and that theme uses “Heavenly Father.” I honestly doubt there is anything more to it than that.

More significant to matters of women in the Church, I thought, were her remarks based on the old adage: “What-e’er thou art, act well thy part.” After relating her personal experience in coming upon that phrase, she had this to add:

As daughters of God we are each unique and different in our circumstances and experiences. And yet our part matters – because we matter. Our daily contributions of nurturing, teaching, and caring for others may seem mundane, diminished, difficult, and demeaning at times, and yet as we remember that first line in the Young Women theme – “We are daughters of our Heavenly Father, who loves us” – it will make all the difference in our relationships and our responses.

In light of the recent commotion with women in the Church – particularly with a small group calling for women to get ordained to the priesthood – Sister Dalton’s message to young women of the Church seemed loud and clear: Stop worrying about what you don’t have, but know your part and perform it well. Though it may seem unglamorous, your role in God’s plan is important, and when you remember that he loves you as a daughter, it can lighten the burden when fulfilling that role seems difficult or undesirable. This is really a message that can be applied to anyone in the Church, regardless of age or gender, but that it was pointed to the young women seems directly related to criticisms and press the Church is getting over the role of women.

Elder M. Russell Ballard followed up later in that same session with more comments that seemed directly pointed at those who are currently seeking that women receive the ordination of the priesthood:

In our Heavenly Father’s great priesthood-endowed plan, men have the unique responsibility to administer the priesthood, but they are not the priesthood. Men and women have different but equally valued roles. Just as a woman cannot conceive a child without a man, so a man cannot fully exercise the power of the priesthood to establish an eternal family without a woman. In other words, in the eternal perspective, both the procreative power and the priesthood power are shared by husband and wife. And as husband and wife, a man and a woman should strive to follow our Heavenly Father. The Christian virtues of love, humility, and patience should be their focus as they seek the blessings of the priesthood in their lives and for their family.
It is crucial for us to understand that Heavenly Father has provided a way for all of His sons and His daughters to have access to the blessings of and be strengthened by the power of the priesthood.

Elder Ballard then goes on to mention the story of Mary Fielding Smith, a women who accessed the blessings of the priesthood for her family:

She was the widow of Hyrum, the Prophet Joseph’s older brother. As a single parent, through her strong faith in the priesthood, she called upon and relied on that power to raise and bless her children in love and the light of the gospel. Today her posterity of thousands of faithful leaders and members of the Church thank her for her faith, courage, and example.

Again, it seems clear to me that Elder Ballard is speaking to the issue of women in the priesthood, stressing that – despite common rhetoric used in the Church – men are not the priesthood, and that ultimately the full powers and blessings of the priesthood can only be shared by husband and wife, and not individually possessed. According to Elder Ballard, the men only uniquely hold the authority, everything else is shared.

Saturday Afternoon

Elder Quentin L. Cook offered these thoughts that touch on atheism and the problem of evil:

For those who reject God, there is no peace. We all participated in the councils of heaven that provided for moral agency, knowing that there would be mortal pain and even unspeakable tragedy because of the abuse of agency. We understood that this could leave us angry, bewildered, defenseless, and vulnerable. But we also knew that the Savior’s Atonement would overcome and compensate for all of the unfairness of mortal life and bring us peace.

He later makes these remarks about the popular trend today toward the kind of feel-good spirituality over religiosity:

The Church is a refuge where followers of Christ attain peace. Some young people in the world say they are spiritual but not religious. Feeling spiritual is a good first step. However, it is in the Church that we are fellowshipped, taught, and nourished by the good word of God. More importantly, it is priesthood authority in the Church that provides for sacred ordinances and covenants that bind families together and qualify each of us to return to God the Father and Jesus Christ in the celestial kingdom. These ordinances bring peace because they are covenants with the Lord.

While such matters are not necessarily apologetic, these are things that the apologist may face from time to time, and thus having the thoughts of one of the Lord’s apostles on the matter can’t hurt.

Elder David A. Bedner’s talk returns us to the topic of Chastity and same-sex marriage. Elder Bednar lays out the doctrine that undergirds the Church’s position on same-sex relationships:

After the earth was created, Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden. Importantly, however, God said “it was not good that the man should be alone” (Moses 3:18; see also Genesis 2:18), and Eve became Adam’s wife and helpmeet. The unique combination of spiritual, physical, mental, and emotional capacities of both males and females was needed to enact the plan of happiness. “Neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:11). The man and the woman are intended to learn from, strengthen, bless, and complete each other.
The means by which mortal life is created is divinely appointed. “The first commandment … God gave to Adam and Eve pertained to their potential for parenthood as husband and wife” (Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2010, 129). The commandment to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force today. Thus, marriage between a man and a woman is the authorized channel through which premortal spirits enter mortality. Complete sexual abstinence before marriage and total fidelity within marriage protect the sanctity of this sacred channel.
The power of procreation is spiritually significant. Misuse of this power subverts the purposes of the Father’s plan and of our mortal existence. Our Heavenly Father and His Beloved Son are creators and have entrusted each of us with a portion of Their creative power. Specific guidelines for the proper use of the ability to create life are vital elements in the Father’s plan. How we feel about and use that supernal power will determine in large measure our happiness in mortality and our destiny in eternity.
As a part of “the standard of sexual morality,” Elder Bednar stresses first and foremost that “intimate relations are proper only between a man and a woman in the marriage relationship prescribed in God’s plan.” Understanding these theological underpinnings are essential to understanding the issue of same-sex relationships and the Church. Unfortunately, it is these teachings that are so often absent in the way that dynamic is understood. Apologist, I think, can play a major role in shaping the conversation on these issues by stressing the theological side as they engage others on this topic.

Elder Bednar closes by making a similar point as that of President Packer: “The doctrine I have described will seem to be archaic and outdated to many people in a world that increasingly mocks the sanctity of procreation and minimizes the worth of human life. But the Lord’s truth is not altered by fads, popularity, or public opinion polls.”

While some are wont to push to the Church in one direction or another based on such fads, the Church will stay the course God provides, and if and when a course change is needed – in regard to women and the Church, or same-sex relations, or any other topic – it will come as revelation through the proper channels. That does not mean we cannot have an open dialogue about these issues, and how to help those who struggle with the Church’s position on them, or what the possibilities and implications might be for the future. But it does mean that we, as members of the Church, should leave it the Lord’s chosen servants to ultimately decide what to do about these issues and how to handle them.

In closing out this session, Elder Russell M. Nelson gave this admonition to those responsible for preparing the rising generation of missionaries: “Be ready to give an answer to those who ask why you live as you do. Be ready to give a reason for the hope and joy that they see in you.” Elder Nelson’s words echo 1 Peter 3:15, “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you,” in which  “answer” is the Greek term πολογίαν (apologian), meaning “apology” or “defense,” and is quite obviously the root source of words apologetics and apologist.

Priesthood Session

Elder Robert D. Hales counseled the brethren in the priesthood session “to stand strong with a shield of faith against the fiery darts of the adversary.” He then states that Latter-day Saints are “role models to the world, protecting God-given inalienable rights and freedoms. We stand in defense of our homes and our families.” He speaks of a childhood experience where his dad drew “a warrior capable of defending castles and kingdoms,” and then said his father proceeded to teach him “how to be a faithful priesthood holder – to protect and defend the kingdom of God.”

To me, these kinds of statements make apologetics – the defense of the kingdom – a priesthood responsibility.

1 Peter 3:15 comes into play again in President Thomas S. Monson’s priesthood council:

Obey the counsel of the Apostle Peter, who urged, “Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you.” Lift up your voices and testify to the true nature of the Godhead. Declare your witness concerning the Book of Mormon. Convey the glorious and beautiful truths contained in the plan of salvation.

President Monson urges members to speak up and declare their witness of the Book of Mormon. A witness in this sense is a “public affirmation by word or example of usually religious faith or conviction,” but a related meaning is “something serving as evidence or proof.” Hence to declare your witness of the Book of Mormon is not just to make a public affirmation, though it certainly is that, but to give your evidence for belief in the Book of Mormon.

Sunday Morning

For a third time, the words of 1 Peter 3:15 were invoked, this time by Elder Neil L. Anderson, “We also pray for our own opportunities to share the gospel. The Apostle Peter said, ‘Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh … a reason [for] the hope that is in you’.”

Later in this session, Elder L. Tom Perry noted, after speaking of his experience in World War II, that:

Today we find ourselves in another war. This is not a war of armaments. It is a war of thoughts, words, and deeds… Secularism is becoming the norm, and many of its beliefs and practices are in direct conflict with those that were instituted by the Lord Himself for the benefit of His children. 

As with any war, this war requires that we have a defense against the opposing side, which Elder Perry identifies with secularism. We must, therefore, have a defense of thoughts, words, and deeds against secularism. Part of apologetics seeks to make such a defense in thoughts and words, while living the gospel daily would seem to be our deeds of defense.

Sunday Afternoon

The most apologetically relevant talk came in the closing session, when Elder Jeffrey R. Holland gave a stirring address to those who are struggling with doubt. While apologetics is the defense of the faith, the purpose of that defense is help those whose faith is wavering, who are doubting as a result of the various attacks upon their faith. Elder Holland stresses, “In moments of fear or doubt or troubling times, hold the ground you have already won, even if that ground is limited.” He goes on:

When problems come and questions arise, do not start your quest for faith by saying how much you do not have, leading as it were with your “unbelief.” That is like trying to stuff a turkey through the beak! Let me be clear on this point: I am not asking you to pretend to faith you do not have. I am asking you to be true to the faith you do have. Sometimes we act as if an honest declaration of doubt is a higher manifestation of moral courage than is an honest declaration of faith. It is not! So let us all remember the clear message of this scriptural account: Be as candid about your questions as you need to be; life is full of them on one subject or another. But if you and your family want to be healed, don’t let those questions stand in the way of faith working its miracle.

He encourages patience when confronting controversial issues:

Brothers and sisters, this is a divine work in process, with the manifestations and blessings of it abounding in every direction, so please don’t hyperventilate if from time to time issues arise that need to be examined, understood, and resolved. They do and they will. In this Church, what we know will always trump what we do not know. And remember, in this world, everyone is to walk by faith.

And also asks that we understand that God’s servants have always been imperfect:

So be kind regarding human frailty—your own as well as that of those who serve with you in a Church led by volunteer, mortal men and women. Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we. And when you see imperfection, remember that the limitation is not in the divinity of the work. As one gifted writer has suggested, when the infinite fulness is poured forth, it is not the oil’s fault if there is some loss because finite vessels can’t quite contain it all. Those finite vessels include you and me, so be patient and kind and forgiving.

Elder Holland encourages those who are struggling to ask for help, and promises that if they do so sincerely, they will get it from both sides of the veil. He then relates the story of a 14 year old boy who said he could only believe, not know. Elder Holland than has this to say: “I told this boy that belief was always the first step toward conviction and that the definitive articles of our collective faith  forcefully reiterate the phrase “We believe.” And I told him how very proud I was of him for the honesty of his quest.” The message: It is okay if you can only say “I believe,” rather than “I know.” As taught by Alma of old, let that belief and desire work in you, and overtime your faith will grow and at some point you will be able to say that you know some things.

Elder Holland offers his own life as an example of this process, and invites those with doubts to lean on the strength of his testimony for now:

What was once a tiny seed of belief for me has grown into the tree of life, so if your faith is a little tested in this or any season, I invite you to lean on mine. I know this work is God’s very truth, and I know that only at our peril would we allow doubt or devils to sway us from its path. Hope on. Journey on. Honestly acknowledge your questions and your concerns, but first and forever fan the flame of your faith, because all things are possible to them that believe.

Closing Remarks

It seems appropriate to end with those words from Elder Holland. There may be other apologetically relevant counsel from this last General Conference, but this is a nice sample. Given that we were admonished three times to be ready always with an answer to give to those who question us about our faith, identifying apologetically useful words from the prophets, apostles, and other leaders can help us be prepared to give an answer.