So, something interesting struck me during conference.
We sustain these apostles, presidents, leaders, etc., as authorities. We believe they can receive revelation from God and are authorized to build up the church across the world.
We don’t, however, sustain them as perfect speakers. How often do we hear someone criticize a conference talk because they don’t like this or that line? This could be from both sides of the “faithful” divide: some might be immensely frustrated and fall away because they think an apostle is naive or uneducated; or, some might be annoyed that apostles use the same phrases for things without giving us a new, punchy line. Or, sometimes an apostle will use a certain phrase, and people jump all over it like it’s a clear new revelation when it was simply done in a rhetorical or conversational tone.
(The example I’m thinking of here is when Elder Maxwell was asked if he knew the implications of his comments that God was outside of time. He said he was not aware that people were taking his words as justifications of certain philosophic positions; he was simply trying to teach that God is more powerful than we are! People should take Elder Maxwell seriously, but what does that really mean?)
I have all sorts of thoughts on these reactions, but a new one came up this last weekend. We sustain these people in their calling; they profess no other gift than that. They don’t claim to be perfect writers or speakers. They don’t claim to be exactly precise in all their teaching. They are witnesses of Christ, with the ability to receive revelation and prophesies. That’s all!
That does not mean we could dismiss talks because we don’t like how they said it: but it does mean we need to be careful. We need to be careful not to read too much into one line (whether that zealousness comes from faith, doubt, or whatever). We ought to read the whole talk carefully and see how that one line fits into the whole talk. They were not trying to pack as much truth into each sentence as possible, writing in a way that any line could be taken out of context on its own and understood perfectly! They are writing a message, a whole talk, and the themes that run through it will come out in various ways throughout the talk. But since we know we aren’t perfect in writing, maybe we should assume that of them as well. How does it fit into their talk? They are individuals, just like us. I know when my husband teases my kids it is a joke, because I know him. I have become familiar with his way of communicating, and I know how to fit his sentences into his personality. To take one sentence and see all of the possible misreadings would be a disaster!
For example, today I am reading Moroni 8:12. The logic here doesn’t work for me: “of course babies don’t need baptism, for how many have died without it! That wouldn’t be fair!” But that could be said of the people who lived throughout the earth: how few have ever heard of the gospel and had a chance to accept it? Therefore the gospel and baptism are not necessary.
A few verses later, Mormon gives the answer that really clears it up, at least for me: “Little children cannot repent” (v.19). There, that does it! But the appeal to common sense in verse 12 just doesn’t work for me. But, when I think of him writing to another human, then I see him using some human reasoning as any person would in any conversation. But it doesn’t hold up long term. If someone took that verse out of context and started building a theology on it, then that person would soon have the idea that baptism was unnecessary in general.
This reminds me of some of the phrases I heard in general conference this past weekend. I remember this being said, and it bothering me: “Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone?” That seems to appeal to our human reason, and not to doctrine. I support this person in his authority and I got the overall message of his talk, but I squirm at the idea of basing any sort of argument in this sort of logic: “of course it can’t be that way. Would you think God would do that? I don’t, and I’m sure you wouldn’t think that either.” If we go off of that logic, then we could side with all the people who say that “Would God command a prophet Nephi to kill Laban for a book? My idea of God says no, so I won’t believe this.”
I think President Packer’s talk as a whole holds up, but some of the wording is problematic.
It it hard to open up this door, to say that some of the things said in conference are just ways we communicate as humans and can be treated with less importance. It is a dangerous door to open, because we could lump any thing we don’t like into that category. However, what I’m at least trying to talk about here is not commands, doctrines, directions, counsel, etc. but a certain way of arguing – a technique, if you will. I can separate that out and claim that as a human device, and in that sense it helps me clarify what a speaker is actually saying and support the speaker even more.
A tricky topic to bring up, but I think it is an important one. We sustain these leaders as authorities, but not as perfect rhetoricians.