[Clementium is the National Library of the Czech Republic in Prague.]
Sacrament Meeting Talk: Moral Agency
Delivered June 28, 2009
It has been three years since I have been asked to speak in church and I guess Brother Jimenez was absent on that Sunday when I last spoke because he has asked me to speak again.
Since our Ward seems to change constantly there are people that I do not know and that do not know me, so please allow me to introduce myself. We have lived in El Centro for 17 years. I usually sit over there [pointing to the pews on my right]. Those are some of my kids [pointing]. And most importantly…I am married to…THAT GIRL [pointing at the music director on the stand]. I am married to “the girl” that leads the music. The one my daughter talked about on Mother’s Day. The one with no gray hairs and no fillings in her teeth. The unpretentious one. (Alison referred to her mother as “the girl that leads the music” and made some humorous descriptions of her that I allude to here). Although she looks like she could be another one of my daughters, she is my wife. Her name is not Ann Marie and I am not Donald Hollinger. We are merely Pam and Todd.
Now I hesitate to tell you what Brother Jimenez has asked me to talk about because it’s from the same ol’ short list of topics that we always seem to talk about, and I don’t want to loose your attention immediately by telling you.
Have you ever heard of Free Agency?
Well, you can relax because I’m not going to talk about Free Agency--that’s the old term. Moral Agency is the new term. And here's my take on it.
I grew up in the Church and have heard countless lessons about Free Agency. But in the last few years the Church has been making a conscious effort to replace the term Free Agency with Moral Agency. So my topic is not Free Agency. I am going to speak on Moral Agency. Perhaps someone, somewhere might associate the word “Free” with some wanton connotation, it’s hard to be sure. This “Free Agency” versus “Moral Agency” issue may seem like just another case of “tom-A-tos”/“tom-AH-tos,” but this really is an excellent example of progress at the micro level in the Church--no kidding. Add up 10,000 such advances and we are moving nicely into the future, improving upon the religion of our ancestors, one jot or tittle at a time, one talk at a time, one conference at a time, one generation at a time.
If we were to do a little research we could probably trace this change of words,“Free Agency” to “Moral Agency,”to one specific talk given by someone, somewhere. Said talk marks a turning point for the church about which we soon forget. And there are thousands of such talks in the history of the church where new terms are coined and old terms are retired, or new policies are introduced, and old policies are retired. Even doctrines can be retired and replaced. [See Moral Agency by D. Todd Christofferson, BYU devotional address given 31 January 2006.]
But for every change of ideas that is evoked by some talk given somewhere, the innovative idea had to first be conceived or “received,” and incubated in some human mind. And it can be very enlightening to discover when and where ideas originate.
Uncovering and tracing the genealogy of ideas in the church, and in the world, is a very fascinating endeavor, though sometimes disconcerting, it is always rewarding. As I have done MY genealogy--that is, the genealogy of ideas--I am astounded at how many different individuals have made some contribution to the evolution of ideas and progress in the church, and the world.
Jesus Christ stands at the head of the church, of course. But I have come to know that the Lord is not a micro manager. He expects us to study things out in our minds (D&C 9:8), read out of the best books (D&C 109:14), not be told what to do, or compelled to do things (D&C 58:26), but to be anxiously engaged in good causes, and do many things of our own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness (D&C 58:27).
Each one of us is an AGENT of the Lord. Each one of us is an “agent of change” in the church. Each one of us has “eyes to see and ears to hear”, and each one of us is the eyes and ears of the whole, and of each other. Each one of us has hands to do good works, and since we are agents of God then our hands are God’s hands. We are agents of God, and agents of the world. And we are agents of each other in this great enterprise of building the kingdom of God—which Kingdom is for God AND for US—“It is the same” (D&C 1:38).
Every agent in the Kingdom of God can and should make a difference. Anyone can be among those members to conceive of one of the next 10,000 good ideas to improve the church. For example, any agent can be the one to point out a hidden iceberg in the path of the Church. Or any agent can write the next “I am a Child of God.”
The Church Headquarters in Salt Lake City is the official clearinghouse of good ideas for the Church. To be sure, there will always exist a formal chain of command, and formal communications channels that one could plot on an organizational chart. Yet, there will always exist the informal communication channels that are also a necessary and important part of communicating. Both formal and informal communication channels are needed and normal.
And all these ideas that flow through these channels that I am talking about are all revelations. And while these revelations may originate at Church Headquarters, they may also originate in many other places. Improvements in communication means improvements in revelation. And that is why I am so excited that the information age is now upon us.
Now, I would like to share with you a recent discussion we had in my economics class.
I was talking to my students about the many biases and points of view in the world. Every group has their own bias. Al Jazera has its point of view. The Jerusalem Post has its point of view. The NY Times and Washington Post each have different points of view. Time Magazine, Newsweek, and CNN are much different than Fox News. English Majors seem to see the world differently than Business Majors. San Francisco seems to be the home of distinct ways of thinking. Hollywood types have their own cultural perspective as do Texans. The same goes for Latin Americans, African Americans, Anglo Americans, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Catholics, Latter-day Saints, Quakers, Mennonites, Pharisees, Puritans, Atheists, Agnostics, scientists, paranormal enthusiasts, Apocalypticists, Millenarian Christians, Americans, Europeans, Asians, our parents generation, this generation, the founding fathers, The early saints, ancient societies, secret societies, males, females, the young, the old. This Ward and that Ward. This Stake and that Stake. Utah Mormons, California Mormons, Converts and those Born-in-the-Covenant.
All these groups have different ways of seeing the world, and based on their experiences and subset of knowledge with which they are familiar, they form unique opinions.
Then suddenly, one student who was sensing the dilemma, asked me in class, Who can you trust? And how can you find truth? The whole class seemed eager to know.
I said to this student, and to the class, it is not always easy for one to know the truth, or the whole truth. But if we are lifelong learners--and that is a big key--we can get closer to the truth no matter where we begin our search for truth. I challenged my students to start with the truth that they have inherited from their parents. They should start their quest for truth by first trying to understand what their parents believe. I told them that I am not one of those radical professors that tries to undermine their parents’ teachings, and snuff out the faith that students hold dear, and replace it with nothing. I told them to honor their fathers and their mothers (Exodus 20:12). I told them to first adopt the faith and the opinions of their parents and then--slowly but surely, one idea at a time, and over the course of their whole lives—try to see if they can make some improvements on those ideas. I told them to very carefully update and upgrade their opinions so that they can say that their opinions are getting better and better each year of their lives. Never stop learning and NEVER stop improving their opinions. And I warned them about being overly entrenched in their opinions. And that one’s opinions should evolve and continuously get better over the course of a lifetime. But opinions cannot get better if one never accesses new information to consider. The only way to improve an opinion over time is to be a lifelong learner. The obvious impediment to improving one’s opinions is to believe that one’s opinions are already certain.
If everybody would do this—be lifelong learners--then all traditions would eventually converge at the same point, the point of the knowledge of all things. The point I like to call, “Absolute Truth.”
Of course it may be true that not all the faith traditions or branches of science will find absolute truth together. Some will probably get there first. I am less concerned about who arrives at Absolute Truth first than I am concerned about everybody arriving eventually. This search for truth is really a collaborative effort that includes the whole world and every tradition in it.
Now I want to read some of the words of Brigham Young who essentially said the same things that I am trying to say now:
“…from the very start of my life to this time, I have never received one particle of intelligence, only by revelation, no matter whether father or mother revealed it, or sister, or neighbor…“Do you [Brother Brigham] have revelations of the Lord Jesus Christ? [some people ask]” I will leave that for others to judge. If the Lord requires anything of this people, and speaks through me, I will tell them of it; but if he does not, still we all live by the principle of revelation. Who reveals? Everybody around us; we learn of each other. I have something which you have not, and you have something which I have not; I reveal what I have to you, and you reveal what you have to me. I believe that we are revelators to each other…but the revelations which I receive are all upon natural principle…The revelations of God contain correct doctrine and principle, so far as they go; but it is impossible, for the poor, weak, low, groveling, sinful inhabitants of earth to receive a revelation from the Almighty in all its perfections. He has to speak to us in a manner to meet the extent of our capacities…The construction of the electric telegraph and the method of using it enabling the people to send messages from one end of the earth to the other, is just as much a revelation from God as any ever given…Men who know nothing of the Priesthood receive revelation and prophecy…and yet these gifts belong to the Church…and all [of us] ought to live so as to enjoy the spirit of [revelation]…continually.” (Discourses of Brigham Young by John A. Widtsoe, pp 60-62)
Brothers and Sister, it is not possible to receive continuous revelation, like Brigham Young has admonished all of us to do, without being lifelong learners.
It sounds to me that the Lord is suggesting we hitch our wagons to the scientific method, and statistical analysis, with the reminder that we must have intellectual honesty, or in other words, “real intent” (Moroni 10:4), and “faith,” in order for the revelations to come. We must always bear in mind that greater light and knowledge are not ours just for the asking, but the result of our efforts.
D&C 1:30 says we are a “living church.” We are a living church, aren’t we? And everything living is changing. And I think we are changing for the better, mostly. And if we are changing for the better, then we must not have been perfect before, and if we will change again for the better, we must not be perfect now.
It is my testimony that if all people in all the world will seek truth without regard to their own vested interests—if all people will seek truth without regard to any inconvenience that the discovery of new “light and knowledge” may require--then truth WILL be discovered because truth is DISCOVERABLE.
It is my testimony and understanding of the gospel that we should be anxious seekers of knowledge for “The Glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth.” (D&C 93:36).
Seeking after God requires “seek[ing] learning, even by study [using the scientific method, statistical analysis, and learning] and also by faith, [real intent, and intellectual integrity] (D&C 88:118), and to study things out in our minds (D&C 9:8).
If we knock it shall be opened. If we seek, we shall find. But we must do more than just ask, we must knock and we must seek. And we must study.
Every one of us is a moral agent to bring about this marvelous work. Every one of us must make some contribution to build up the kingdom of God—not the contribution that a robot could make—but the contribution of a thinking, conscious agent of God. It is incumbent upon all members of the Church, as agents of God and each other, to make some intellectual contribution as we are able--even if our contribution merely consists of not being an obstacle to progress--we must contribute to this ever brightening body of knowledge. For the Kingdom of God is not bricks and mortar, it is light and truth