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This post is Nathaniel Givens’ contribution to the ongoing General Conference Odyssey, a collaborative project to engage with a study the addresses of prophets and apostles from past beginning from the April 1971 Conference to the present.
Dean L. Larsen’s talk, Self-Accountability and Human Progress, was one of my all-time favorites from the General Conference Odyssey so far because it’s one of those rare talks that takes something that I believe is really important but that is often implicit in other talks and made it explicit. The main thrust of the talk was to reconcile the apparent contradiction between obedience and free will.
There is an impression that a lot of folks seem to have that the only way to have free will is to do your own thing, but—as Larsen put it—“productive obedience comes through the exercise of free will.” This might seem straight-forward, but it has a lot of powerful implications that don’t get discussed enough, and foremost among those is the death of checklist religion:
If righteousness is judged primarily by the degree to which one responds to programmed activity, then a condition develops within which opportunities for progress decline. The resulting tragedy affects the mortal potential of man and has a profound effect on his eternal possibilities as well. Programmed behavior cannot produce the level of spiritual development required to qualify one for eternal life. (emphasis added)
Obedience matters, in other words, but it can’t just be about stimulus and response. There is more to obedience than that. If obedience is only about conformity with something we’ve been asked to do, about “programmed activity” then the entire purpose of our mortal life—progress—is frustrated. And so righteousness can’t be reduced to just a question of whether or not we go through the right actions.
There’s another implication here, and it is that real freedom entails real risks.
We must understand that as freedom for unrestricted development is enhanced, the possibilities for failure are also increased. The risk factor is great. The ideal cannot be achieved otherwise. Celestial attainment can be reached in no other environment. (emphasis added)
And one final point Larsen makes is my very favorite of all:
We have inspired leaders today who are reconfirming the fact that there is no ultimate safety in programmed security where others assume accountability for our direction and performance.
Those who insist that a Church program exist for every contingency and need are as much in error as their counterparts who demand that government intervene in every aspect of our lives. In both instances the ideal balance is destroyed with a resultant detriment to human progress. (emphasis added)
Critics of religion—and sometimes well-intentioned but misguided adherents as well—often thing that religious authority figures exist to take responsibility for our lives. They stand between us and God, explaining what God wants of us and providing direction from God, and so absolve us of responsibility to figure these things out on our own.
Mormons understand that this isn’t possible. Although we have one of the most conformist, hierarchical, and authoritative religions out there we also have an emphasis on individuality and freedom that is just as deep a part of our faith. Yes, we have leaders, but those leaders cannot take our personal religious and moral obligations off of our shoulders. The General Authorities give us direction from God, but then it’s up to us to decide for ourselves to heed that direction or not and also to figure out how to apply their general guidance to our particular lives.
“These are challenging truths,” Larsen concludes. “They demand much of us. They press us to make our lives better by our own initiative and by our own efforts. They make no unconditional promises.”