This last Sunday in Priest's Quorum I taught a lesson on critical thinking that was in part a rebuttal. Earlier in the week, as part of our annual Stake Youth Conference, the invited keynote speaker (a local CES seminary teacher) used several trite mormonisms that I frankly disagreed with. My first clue that things were going in the wrong direction was when he read the poem "Invictus" and made no apologies for its proud and sometimes malevolent history (Timothy McVeigh used it as his final statement). I got more upset when the brother taught "there really is no agency--we just choose whether or not to break our covenants with God," and claimed this idea came from an apostle he heard speak at a local Priesthood Leadership Meeting. He went on to preach how the Gospel was black and white, and those who promote shades of gray are just complicating things.
Oh, that young minds could be white-washed so simply in one easy coating of mormonized guilt! But not on my watch.
I believe too often in the church we are led down the path of all or nothing. So, we played a little exercise I called, "Accept or Reject." Following is a list of some true, some partly true and some ridiculous religious statements, which I read to my class:
- The Church is true.
- Church leaders are always right.
- It's wrong to be critical of the Church.
- I have to follow the counsel of my Bishop.
- Talks in Sacrament Meeting are always inspiring and help my testimony to grow.
- I can pray about what to believe in, and will be led by the Spirit to truth.
- Seminary teachers are inspired by God to help youth and only teach true doctrine.
Then I think I surprised them when I said my not-in-the-manual lesson topic was triggered by the youth conference speaker's remarks, which I did not agree with. Whoa! What did he say? Open dissent?! Yes. I said I wanted to take the opportunity to teach the process of critical thinking, and the exercise we had just done was a good starting point. So what of the speaker's points did I have a problem with and why? I reviewed my sticking points and replied with Orson F. Whitney's poem, "The Captain of My Soul."
Another way to evaluate what we hear at church is to consider it in proper context. Did the Apostle want or intend to be quoted to youth at a Stake Youth Conference? He was speaking to Bishoprics and Quorum leaders at a Priesthood Leadership meeting. Did the speaker quote him correctly, or was it filtered through his own bias and desire to make a point? I taught that we should rely on the words of Apostles as they are recorded in General Conference. Then I read this quote from Howard W Hunter, taken from his October 1989 General Conference address entitled "The Golden Thread of Choice":
Isn't this teaching so much richer than the accept/reject proposition of "we don't really have agency, just the choice whether or not to break our covenants?" My heavens, if it was the Seminary Teacher's way, why even try? I usually manage to break a commandment or two every day!
"To fully understand this gift of agency and its inestimable worth, it is imperative that we understand that God’s chief way of acting is by persuasion and patience and long-suffering, not by coercion and stark confrontation. He acts by gentle solicitation and by sweet enticement. He always acts with unfailing respect for the freedom and independence that we possess. He wants to help us and pleads for the chance to assist us, but he will not do so in violation of our agency. He loves us too much to do that, and doing so would run counter to his divine character.
"Given the freedom to choose, we may, in fact, make wrong choices, bad choices, hurtful choices. And sometimes we do just that, but that is where the mission and mercy of Jesus Christ comes into full force and glory. He has taken upon himself the burden of all the world’s risk. He has provided a mediating atonement for the wrong choices we make. He is our advocate with the Father and has paid, in advance, for the faults and foolishness we often see in the exercise of our freedom. We must accept his gift, repent of those mistakes, and follow his commandments in order to take full advantage of this redemption. The offer is always there; the way is always open. We can always, even in our darkest hour and most disastrous errors, look to the Son of God and live."
Our Bishop sat in on the lesson and reinforced at the end that we need to take people's "he said/she said" with a grain of salt, particularly if it sounds a bit extreme or glossed over. Finally, I closed with a statement that spilled over a little into heartfelt emotion, that I loved each of them, prayed for them, and desired them to think about how the gospel applied to them, and not take whatever is said at church just at face value. I hope they got the point.