Of Prophets, Elephants, Truth and Charity


On January 13, 2013 President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the current First Presidency of the Church, gave a fascinating and potentially important message in the first Church Educational System (CES) Devotional of the year. The video is currently available, with an official transcript to follow. [UPDATE 1/25/2013: The text is now available here ]

The topic was Truth – generally a difficult and problematic subject. What fascinated me most about this message was a unique focus on the necessity of continuing to seek after clarification of truth, with historical (and scriptural) examples of well-intentioned myopia leading to the widespread establishment of relative beliefs into statements of Truth.

The foundational parable/illustration President Uchtdorf utilized was the well-known story of a group of  individuals investigating isolated parts of an elephant, and making hilariously off-the-mark broad declarations concerning the nature of the whole based on their limited experience and exposure.

In expressing application of the story, President Uchtdorf notes, “It seems to be part of our nature as human beings to make assumptions about people, politics and piety based on our incomplete and often misleading experience. … So often the ‘truths’ we tell ourselves are merely fragments of the truth and sometimes, they’re not really the truth at all.[1]

One broad example used of a belief once widely understood as Truth is the ancient view of a flat earth – a view that, interestingly enough, we find expressed in the assumed worldview of prophets and and writings found in much of the Bible. In fact, it is partially because the ideas were expressed in the prophetic literature that we find a dogmatic unwillingness to contradict the words of earlier prophets in order to accept new scientific discoveries having a duration of what to our modern eyes is an embarrassingly long amount of time.  While this connection to scripture and biblical prophets is not explicitly expressed by President Uchtdorf in this example, based on later examples and statements, I don’t feel the correlation should be so quickly discounted.

We too often confuse belief with truth,” says Uchtdorf, “thinking that because something makes sense or is convenient, it must be true.”

And then the punch:  “Conversely, we sometimes don’t believe truth or reject it — because it would require us to change or admit that we were wrong. Often truth is rejected because it doesn’t appear to be consistent with previous experiences.”

This declaration immediately reminded of my favorite apostolic observation of 2012, given, again by President Uchtdorf, in the February 2012 Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting, where he said,

Unfortunately, we sometimes don’t seek revelation or answers from the scriptures…because we think we know the answers already.

Brothers and sisters, as good as our previous experience may be, if we stop asking questions, stop thinking, stop pondering, we can thwart the revelations of the Spirit. Remember, it was the questions young Joseph asked that opened the door for the restoration of all things. We can block the growth and knowledge our Heavenly Father intends for us. How often has the Holy Spirit tried to tell us something we needed to know but couldn’t get past the massive iron gate of what we thought we already knew?” [2]

In his 2013 message, President Uchtdorf goes further by giving another explicit scriptural example – that of the stereotypes the Nephites and Lamanites respectively had of each other as cursed debased inherently wicked villains. While to a degree he validates their initial reasons for those beliefs based on their experience (and lack thereof), he also makes clear that the complete view as revealed in the overall Book of Mormon narrative shows the incomplete and overall inaccurate quaintness of those parochial nationalistic views.

What is fascinating to me is that while acknowledging the incorrect conclusions founded on incomplete information – many of which were first asserted or promulgated by authentic Nephite prophets as well as those seen as Book of Mormon ‘villains’- he does not demonize them, and he does not condemn them. He very charitably presents their limited and quaint views as unfortunate, but contextually understandable.

It brought to mind Elder McConkie’s famous 1978 expression of his errors concerning his bold statements to the effects that Africans would never be permitted to receive the Priesthood in mortality.

There are statements in our literature by the early Brethren that we have interpreted to mean that the Negroes would not receive the priesthood in mortality. I have said the same things, and people write me letters and say, “You said such and such, and how is it now that we do such and such?” All I can say is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet. Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or George Q. Cannon or whoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.” [3]

History [4] shows us the intense process of pondering, prayer, study, and questioning tradition that occurred prior to and leading up to the paradigm-shattering 1978 Revelation to President Spencer W. Kimball and the currently serving Apostles. (see Official Declaration 2)

I do believe we have been seeing a pattern of President Uchtdorf pleading with the Church membership to educate themselves, to be willing and open to faithfully question [5] tradition and myopic beliefs, and to not allow prejudice, arrogance, laziness, and comfort with the status quo to create an “iron gate” that could impede the progress of a knowledge and acceptance of more truth.

The sentiment has been expressed before, in a different context [6], by Joseph Smith in a visually powerful, yet curiously uncanonized section of his March 20, 1839 letter from Liberty Jail:

I beg leave to say unto you, brethren, that ignorance,superstition and bigotry placing itself where it ought not, is oftentimes in the way of the prosperity of this Church; like the torrent of rain from the mountains, that floods the most pure and crystal stream with mire, and dirt, and filthiness, and obscures everything that was clear before, and all rushes along in one general deluge; but time weathers tide; and notwithstanding we are rolled in the mire of the flood for the time being, the next surge peradventure, as time rolls on, may bring us to the fountain as clear as crystal, and as pure as snow; while the filthiness, floodwood and rubbish is left and purged out of the way.”

I believe President Uchtdorf, in this message directed specifically towards the rising generation – the Young Single Adults of the Church –  is opening the door to an important paradigm in viewing and interpreting the Church’s history, and the decisions, judgments, motivations, and assertions of past leaders (and scriptural texts) that we have perhaps moved beyond.

Without passing judgment of those on the past, there is a current plea for us to better ourselves, and to have affirmed that our progress need not be stunted as it may have been in times and seasons past in the Church. That progressive revelation is often ready and prepared to roll out and be implemented, but its presence is not welcome nor invited.

While his talk did contain the observation that there are some out there who maliciously sow seeds of doubt based on dubious material, I believe the overwhelming majority of the message showcases that President Uchtdorf is lovingly, gently, and diplomatically continuing an important campaign to break down iron gates within the Church.

[1] At this time of composition, a text transcript was not available. For convenience, I have used many quotes pulled from the Deseret News summary by Marianne Holman, accessed here: http://www.deseretnews.com/article/765620144/President-Uchtdorf-speaks-at-fireside-urges-listeners-to-learn-to-recognize-the-truth.html

[2] “Acting on the Truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ”, https://www.lds.org/broadcasts/article/worldwide-leadership-training/2012/01/acting-on-the-truths-of-the-gospel-of-jesus-christ?lang=enge

[3] “All Are Alike Unto God”, http://speeches.byu.edu/?act=viewitem&id=1570 – While McConkie held onto many other notions regarding the reasons and justifications for the ban, his willingness to publicly acknowledge error in this specific regard is notable, and commendable.

[4] Please review the outstanding and unparalleled work of Edward L. Kimball in https://byustudies.byu.edu/showTitle.aspx?title=7885

[5] See “The Reflection in the Water” – http://www.lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?locale=0&sourceId=81e3f5036e881210VgnVCM100000176f620a____&vgnextoid=43d031572e14e110VgnVCM1000003a94610aRCRDIs it all right to have questions about the Church or its doctrine? My dear young friends, we are a question-asking people because we know that inquiry leads to truth. That is the way the Church got its start—from a young man who had questions. In fact, I’m not sure how one can discover truth without asking questions. In the scriptures you will rarely discover a revelation that didn’t come in response to a question. Whenever a question arose and Joseph Smith wasn’t sure of the answer, he approached the Lord, and the results are the wonderful revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants. Often the knowledge Joseph received extended far beyond the original question. That is because not only can the Lord answer the questions we ask but, even more importantly, He can give us answers to questions we should have asked. Let us listen to those answers.”

[6] The original context was to external oppositional forces. I believe that it is not improper to apply the impediments to those on the inside as well.


Of Prophets, Elephants, Truth and Charity — 5 Comments

  1. Thanks for this — I had only heard a snippet of the talk that seemed to vilify the doubter. I’ll have to go back and read the whole thing.

  2. Brad,

    I had wanted to write this as soon as I heard the message, and it was only as I was already involved in drafting this post that I began to see snippets from the end of the talk circulating, with the claims that Uchtdorf was vilifying asking honest questions, and writing off all inconsistencies as rubbish. I think the full message, plus the wider context of the explicit thoughts presented in other messages by Uchtdorf (see especially footnote 5 above) show that this trending characterization of the message may be the very scenario of the de-contextualized elephant parts in action.

  3. I have watched Uchtdorf’s sermon twice now, and I love it. It’s high time someone with the authority to do so reminded Latter-day Saints not to lazily abdicate their personal search for truth to church leaders, or to assume that we already understand everything, including the “right” politics. A plea for open-mindedness, intellectual humility, and independent inquiry is so refreshing. It shows Uchtdorf’s trust in people’s capacity to discern truth for themselves, and his belief that people don’t need to be commanded in all things.

  4. “I think the full message, plus the wider context of the explicit thoughts presented in other messages by Uchtdorf (see especially footnote 5 above) show that this trending characterization of the message may be the very scenario of the de-contextualized elephant parts in action.”

    Haha, nicely said. Enjoyed the post.

  5. “Unfortunately, we sometimes don’t seek revelation or answers from the scriptures…because we think we know the answers already.” This statement is so trite. I can imagine Noah busily reading his scriptures. It is the “scriptures” that got us in this mess. And, goodness sakes, isn’t the elephant metaphor getting a little old? I like him, but this talk reminds me to renew my subscription to Dialogue.—- I just got here. Am I in the wrong place?