Every year it seems, my mobile phone becomes antiquated and “old.” It might still work for me, but there is always a newer and better version that the phone carrier wants to talk me into. It might have a bigger screen, better camera, or maybe more memory. The old phone works, but the new phone is better, faster, easier to use. The mobile company never tries to deceive me into keeping my old phone, hiding the new and improved one away for only itself. It actually invites me to try the latest phone, telling me how much more I can do with it and what a wonderful tool it is.
When I think of the first smartphone I had, a BlackBerry that I loved, it was only 7 years ago. That phone, now 7 years later, is a relic. My smartphone is now a computer. I never use my laptop anymore because my phone can do everything. I design artwork on my phone. I do banking and email. I write for my blog. I do family history work. I buy books and clothes online. I make hotel and airline reservations. I check the weather and road conditions. I get Twitter feed from the International Space Station. Why would I want the old phone that only did email and text?
Boundaries are both natural phenomena and man-made, set by men and by nature. A river draws a boundary and so does a cliff. A steep canyon creates a boundary, and so does the sea. One might be careful to think about crossing both. We place fences around our properties to keep children and pets in and other children and pets out. We place cattle guards on busy road crossings to protect cows and people. Homes have thresholds and locks on doors. Elevator doors close to protect people from falling to their deaths during the trip up a high-rise. Even people have boundaries and carefully guard their personal space.
Michael Otterson, Managing Director of Public Affairs for the Church, delivered a speech at the academic conference titled, “Mormonism and the Art of Boundary Maintenance,” on Tuesday, April 12, 2016, at Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah. His talk was titled, “Understanding Church Boundaries: How Big is the Tent?” Brother Otterson reminded us:
“If we could transport ourselves back to the mid-1800s, we would find in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a faith that seemed to the Christian world to do nothing but push boundaries. A literally physical God, separate in substance from His Son, Jesus Christ. The Apostasy. Restoration of the priesthood. New scripture. Heavenly parents. Temples. Redemption for the dead. Building Zion. Ours has never been a faith to feel confined or constrained in its declaration of doctrine or its commitment to spreading that message through more than a million missionaries who, since the Church’s humble founding in that little log cabin in Fayette, have been sent across the world.”
There are indeed boundaries and we need them, but to say that the Church is resisting change or new ideas does not line up with a church that believes in modern-day revelation through living apostles and prophets. With the doctrine of modern-day revelation, it is only logical that in structural and organizational ways the Church is open to better and more modern ways to carry out the administration of Church affairs in order to reach and teach an ever-expanding, worldwide population. The Church would simply be unable to administer its programs to its vast membership if it were still applying 19th-century methods. (Boundaries on Church doctrine will be discussed in a follow-up essay).
Boundaries can be restrictive and they can be expansive. The Church works tirelessly to expand and push boundaries every day, while still respecting the boundaries both of other entities and peoples, and those of its own. One area where the boundaries have been expanded is in the area of academia. The Church has been pushing the boundaries of academics with new and widely accessible resources made available to anyone who wants them. Just since 2008, the number of writings and historical documents now available to the entire world is astounding, a few of which include the Joseph Smith Papers Project, and the Gospel Topic Essays, and recently, The First Fifty Years of Relief Society. The Washington Post and Associated Press have described this as “a new era of transparency,” but with this word, “transparency” often follows the word, “betrayal;” these are clearly two different things.
Some disaffected members claim the Church has “betrayed” them. Imagine that. Some are willing to leave, or are considering leaving, a lifetime of membership, ordinances, covenants, and blessings behind because they have come to believe the Church has betrayed them. They have been convinced that they have been intentionally led astray, that “falsified,” or hidden documents, have been rewritten to only emphasize the feel-good aspects of the Gospel, and that they have even been lied to about Church history and doctrine. These people point fingers and say the Church “knew” these things all this time yet only now is sharing. They feel disenfranchised that modern-day prophets, apostles, seers, and revelators concocted an “evil” plan to keep them in the dark, shouting, “we should have had access to these things 50 years ago.” Otterson said:
“Some critics accuse Church leaders of deliberately painting a false picture of Church history and doctrine, all the time knowing that they were deceiving Church members. The imposed boundary, they say, was complete orthodoxy with no exploration allowed …You would expect me as a Church spokesman to reject those claims, and I do. But I want to go further and reject it wholly, utterly, and irrevocably because I simply do not believe it and it does not square with my personal experience about how Church leaders think and act and what motivates them.”
The prophets and apostles, other general authorities and officers of the Church have been doing exactly the opposite: pushing boundaries, breaking down barriers, and traveling the globe tirelessly to spread light to anyone who cares to pay attention. The Church has well over 15.5 million members, 30,000+ congregations, 74,000+ full-time missionaries serving in 418 missions, with 150 temples, and materials available in 188 languages. I am confident they do not have time to intentionally deceive people while simultaneously carrying out the mission of the Church (under the direction of the Lord, Jesus Christ) and still have time to see their families and maintain a personal residence.
Some of these disenfranchised souls claim we should have been learning all these things in church “all this time.” Brother Otterson reminded us that most people learn Church teachings at home, in seminary, and in the three-hour block on Sundays. That is hardly enough time to delve into the Joseph Smith Papers, all the other writings, journals and historical accounts of the other prophets and apostles, Church curriculum, media, and music, not to mention the immensity of the scriptures themselves. The Church writes curriculum to “motivate and inspire,” said Otterson, and “the three-hour block was never intended to be a course deep in Church history and doctrine. Students interested in those subjects could always find scholarly works if they wanted.”
I personally cannot learn everything I desire to learn or feel I am responsible to learn in the three-hour block at church. I believe I am responsible for my own learning during my personal and family study and that the three hours spent at church is to enhance my study, not take its place. We hear from the pulpit at General Conference twice each year the emphasis on personal gospel and scripture study, personal prayer, personal service, personal family history work. To say we could expect to learn all we need to know in three hours, once per week, would be to say we could get by for the entire seven days with just the prayers we hear and offer on Sunday.
Harold B. Lee said,
“We would remind you that the acquiring of knowledge by faith is no easy road to learning. It demands strenuous effort and a continual striving by faith…In short, learning by faith is no task for a lazy man [or woman] … Such a process requires the bending of the whole soul, the calling up of the depths of the human mind and linking it with God.”
Simply put, we are each responsible for our own gospel learning. We each have 24 hours in a day. It is up to us to choose how we spend that time. If we want to find Church materials to study, we only need to look and we can find them. There have always been books and papers to read, symposiums and conferences to attend. It is wholly unfair to spend all our study hours during the week on other activities, only to blame the Church because we aren’t learning “heavy doctrine.”What did Joseph Smith say? He said, “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves. “Boyd K. Packer added: “We should not, according to the scriptures, need to be commanded in all things.”
“For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.” — Doctrine & Covenants 58:26
Otterson continued, and this is important:
“With the advent of the Internet and the arrival of a generation that is wired 24/7, that no longer suffices and even seems superficial. Members now Google terms and topics on their smartphones while they are sitting in class. I do that myself. But the realization by Church leaders that they needed to substantially strengthen and deepen Church curriculum and introduce better resource materials was a natural evolution as audience needs, interests, and study habits changed. Responding gradually to these changing needs is a very long way from betrayal.”
The Church did not have these resources on a secret server, prepared and ready to go, and then suddenly decided to upload and publish them. This was a painstaking effort by many people over several months and years, under priesthood direction, after much prayer and fasting, love, and sacrifice to bring these things to us now, because we are ready and hungry for them now. It is a blessing—not a lie uncovered. Technology has indeed made us sharper, more demanding, more interested, and more apt to research. Let us remember that the Church could have said it was too arduous a task and too heavy a cost to undertake such an endeavor. Living prophets and apostles, under the direction of the Lord, Jesus Christ, gathered people of talent and determination and made these things available at the click of a mouse, for you and for me and anyone who wants them. There is no betrayal in that, my friends.
Perhaps I might paint an illustration for you. Have you ever heard of Facebook groups or blogs dedicated to dragging the reputation of Steve Jobs or Apple through the dirt, simply for not giving us the iPhone 50 years ago? No. There are no groups or public forums dedicated to the sole purpose of attacking Steve Jobs because he was 50 years late in giving us our favorite technology. The world was not ready for the iPhone 50 years ago. People did not have home computers 50 years ago. My parents used a camera with real film and disposable flash cubes. TVs had antennae. Phones had cords. Adding machines and cash registers had buttons on them; there were no bar code scanners. And there was no internet. People and the world had to be ready for it. Now people cannot live without this technology. Nobody ever curses Jobs and accuses him of “betrayal” because 50 years ago nobody could have possibly known what we would come to depend on today. Life was more simple then. No one even knew what a terabyte was. The idea of digital anything was science fiction. It’s dizzying to realize that only in very recent years has storage on mobile devices and computers been so immense. My son’s new tablet has 128 GB. Our first desktop computer had less than 1 GB.
I think we should trust Christ. This is His church, after all. We all profess to believe that He is at the head of this church and that He directs the affairs of it and makes His will known to prophets and apostles. He does, my friends; He does. There is safety in trusting the Savior. He will not lead us astray. He will never allow His leaders to lead us down the wrong roads. He sees everything and we can only see a few hundred yards. Jesus is not here on the earth, in the flesh, to run the church. That is why He has chosen, before they were born, prophets and apostles to represent Him. If we trust our Messiah, then surely we can trust His servants; He chose them. We need to relax and have some faith. We are in His hands. He only asks that we repent and come unto Him.
“O ye house of Israel whom I have spared, how oft will I gather you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, if ye will repent and return unto me with full purpose of heart.” —3 Nephi 10:6
Otterson also said,
“The boundaries for classroom and personal study, then have clearly expanded. But study in Church classrooms or seminary classes is not simply for study”s sake, or for the acquisition of knowledge and insight divorced from obedience to God”s commandments. It is also “study by faith,” and the objective for faithful Latter-day Saints is to strengthen their commitment to covenants and a faithful life. Whatever personal interviews follow this mortal life, I am persuaded that the most important question will not be, “how much do you know?” but “how did you live?”
Moreover, words like “betrayal” and “boundaries” can be highly subjective, especially when we use them to seek validation for our own biases. How much of our listening is to reinforce our own settled conclusions or bias? If that’s all we do, we have established our own mental boundaries that are just as rigid as those found in any institution.”
We could do as President Hinckley advised: “Try a little harder to be a little better.” We could switch the last word to “kinder.” We could try a little harder to be a little kinder–to the Savior. This is His church. He does lead it. He makes the decisions, and prophets and apostles carry out His plans and ideas. He is the Master Artist. Boundaries ebb and change and need to be finely honed, by the Artist, someone who knows what the finished masterpiece is supposed to look like. How prideful to assume that one would know what His painting should look like. How thoughtless, after all He has done for the whole human race, to push a personal agenda on Him. As Bonnie L. Oscarson asked at General Conference just weeks ago, “Do you believe it, or not?” It’s simple. Study, pray, ask. And then trust Jesus.