What can we see from the mountaintop?
General Conference is around the corner, and one of the things I can always count on during that weekend is at least one talk lamenting the unprecedented wickedness of these last days we’re living in. Things have never been worse, and the accelerating wickedness will surely hasten the end of the world. To these speakers change is hardly ever good, it’s the wheel that rolls the world toward it’s inevitable destruction.
I hate these talks. Not only because they’re depressing, but also because I don’t think the world is getting worse. I think there is awful suffering and perversity in the world, but that is not new. Maybe we recognize it better now, with our advanced communications. But sunlight is the best disinfectant, and by shining more light on the ugly things of the world I think we start to turn them around, bit by bit.
So given that I don’t think the world is on a perpetual decline, I like this talk* by Craig Harline, a historian at BYU. He talks about change, how early Christians would have been shocked at our acceptance of everyday things like using the word “Sunday” or lending with interest. He shows how opinions on slavery, interracial marriage, evolution, and women’s suffrage have changed, with examples of things like the fact that in my mother’s lifetime women couldn’t even play full court basketball because it was thought the sport would harm their fragile bodies. Yes, we are shocked at the narrow mindedness of our ancestors. But Prof. Harline says some historians theorize that younger generations don’t reject the older generation’s values, but rather extend those values into new territories.
This is where things get really interesting to me. At the end of the talk Prof. Harline refers to Edward Kimball’s BYU Studies article about his father’s revelation extending the priesthood to all worthy men. I had heard the story of Spencer W. Kimball making almost daily visits to the temple to seek divine guidance on the topic, but references to that story always implied (at least to me) that he was seeking a “yes” from God. As in, “I feel that it’s right and good for all worthy men to be ordained. Can this be? Do you, God, approve of it?” But according to Edward Kimball’s article that isn’t the full story. Apparently President Kimball wasn’t going to the temple to seek revelation in this way, but to get over his assumptions.
President Kimball said this: “I was very humble. I was searching. I had a great deal to fight. Myself, largely, because I had grown up with this thought that negroes should not have the priesthood and I was prepared to go all the rest of my life until my death and fight for it, and defend it as it was.”
I find this stunning. Prof. Harline says that President Kimball was a hero not in the traditional way we think if religious leaders – as one who fights for his convictions – but because he was willing to reconsider them. How much harder is it to search your soul and ask which of your convictions may need reconsideration than is it to cross your arms in front of your chest and insist nothing you believe is wrong? Much, much harder. But much, much more enlightening. I hope to have the courage and humility that President Kimball had in my life.
And I hope that our current prophets will as well. I think the story of President Kimball’s trips to the temple is paradigm changing. That might sound hyperbolic, but I really think it is. I’ve usually thought of prophets going to the mountaintop to see visions of what God has in store for humankind. And it probably does happen that way sometimes. But what about the times they go to the mountaintop to ask God for different eyes, so that they see the world differently?
* The whole talk is great and fun to listen to, but if you only have time for the bit about Spencer W. Kimball, fast forward to 47:00 and listen to the end (it’s a 5 minute segment).