BYU Speeches – The Sacred Gift of Agency

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Today I listened to Dr. David Dearden’s BYU address given on 31 March 2009. He is a chemistry professor at Brigham Young University. As a fellow scientist (although I am in the neurosciences and psychological sciences) I appreciated his views on science, faith, and agency. His talk is entitled The Sacred Gift of Agency. He states that all he sees in science affirms his faith in God; in other words, all he learns about nature, chemistry, physics, and the universe strengthens his faith and belief in God. He believes this way because he chooses to: “Well-meaning people may honestly disagree with my interpretation of how the universe is put together. Agency allows and requires this possibility. But for me, as I noted above, science is faith affirming because I choose to believe, and everything else follows.”

That is exactly my experience. Everything I learn about the brain or behavior or other sciences, strengthens my faith in God. I look at someone’s brain and I see God’s work. My faith in God is strengthened by science because I too, “[first] choose to believe, and everything else follows.” However, science is not sure; it is never sure. What I mean is that science is not perfect – our methods of science are not perfect. Even more than that, being completely, 100 percent sure goes against the very fabric of the method by which we conduct science. This does not mean that we can never trust science but it also means that through science we can never be entirely sure of what we learn from science. We can be reasonable sure about most things we learn from science but fully trusting all science is placing ‘blind faith’ in a fallible knowledge system. Science is the search for knowledge, it reveals little about Truth. I love science, it is what I spend most of my time doing; I love research and discovering knowledge and learning but I recognize the limitations of science.

There is something about which we can be sure. That is God. Those who have not felt the influence of the Holy Ghost (or at least did not recognize it) might not understand this principle. Those of us who have felt this Spirit and recognized it for what it is know this principle – certainty only comes from God. There are other things we can know for certain – we can know of someone’s love for us or our love for them. We can know other things but even with my love example, how often have you heard someone say, “I thought I loved them” or “I thought they loved me.” Even love can be deceiving some times (but thankfully, not all the time).

There is something about the influence of the Spirit that is absolute. What I mean is that His influence is certain. This is not to say that we can not deny it – we certainly can, that is part of our agency – but by denying it we are only lying to ourselves and to God. An example of someone who knew the truth but chose to deny it is Korihor. Here is part of the exchange he had with Alma:

“37 And then Alma said unto [Korihor]: Believest thou that there is a God?
38 And he answered, Nay.
39 Now Alma said unto him: Will ye deny again that there is a God, and also deny the Christ? For behold, I say unto you, I know there is a God, and also that Christ shall come.
40 And now what evidence have ye that there is no God, or that Christ cometh not? I say unto you that ye have none, save it be your word only.
41 But, behold, I have all things as a testimony that these things are true; and ye also have all things as a testimony unto you that they are true; and will ye deny them? Believest thou that these things are true?
42 Behold, I know that thou believest, but thou art possessed with a lying spirit, and ye have put off the Spirit of God that it may have no place in you; but the devil has power over you, and he doth carry you about, working devices that he may destroy the children of God.” (Alma 30:37-42).

Alma knew Korihor believed in God and have felt the Spirit. Korihor was simply lying to himself and others. He acknowledged as much after he asked for a sign from God and then lost his power of speech.

“52 And Korihor put forth his hand and wrote, saying: I know that I am dumb, for I cannot speak; and I know that nothing save it were the power of God could bring this upon me; yea, and I always knew that there was a God.

“53 But behold, the devil hath deceived me; for he appeared unto me in the form of an angel, and said unto me: Go and reclaim this people, for they have all gone astray after an unknown God. And he said unto me: There is no God; yea, and he taught me that which I should say. And I have taught his words; and I taught them because they were pleasing unto the carnal mind; and I taught them, even until I had much success, insomuch that I verily believed that they were true; and for this cause I withstood the truth, even until I have brought this great curse upon me.” (Alma 30:52-53).

Korihor used his agency to choose to not believe in God, even though he always knew there was a God. His actions stemmed from that lie. I choose to believe in God, to not deny the feelings I have felt; I try to let my actions follow from my belief.

I’d like to share an experience from Dr. Dearden’s BYU address. It strikes a melodic chord with me because in many ways, I’m in a similar situation as he was in this experience.

“One of the great experiences of my life came as I was beginning my independent career as a faculty member at the University of Texas at Arlington. Paul had a great experience on the road to Damascus, and I had my own on the road to Dallas. No, I did not see the Savior as Paul did, but I did experience His love, and I got to see how many little, seemingly less-important choices added up to bless me.

“I was trying hard to raise a family and to serve faithfully in the Church. It is challenging to do this as a young assistant professor. I had taken the job planning to pursue a certain course of research that appeared to have good opportunities for funding. I set up my lab and needed a test problem to check whether or not my instruments were working. I wasn’t quite ready to do what I had originally planned, and I remembered some work I had done years before as an undergraduate at BYU. This gave me an idea for a new experiment. It wasn’t a big deal, but I tried it, and it worked.

“I wanted to attend a scientific meeting I thought would further my career. I needed something to present at the conference because the university required me to present in order to fund the trip, so I took the results of my test experiment and drove 700 miles from Dallas to Nashville to attend the meeting. It was just a poster presentation, one among hundreds, but I was shocked at the strong positive response I received.

“I had to drive the 700 miles home by myself, and that was when the revelation began. All
the way home it was as if I heard a voice saying over and over, ‘Drop your original plans and pursue this other course of research.’ I did, and that choice laid the foundation for my entire subsequent career. In part, that is why I am here at BYU today. It may not have won a Nobel Prize, but the choice was a good one. It came after much thought and hard work and led to much more thought and hard work. I still don’t know if the Lord cares about the science I did. I doubt it matters at all to Him, but I do know for sure that He loves me and my family, and that matters a lot. It has blessed my life.”

Let me repeat my favorite part: “I still don’t know if the Lord cares about the science I did. I doubt it matters at all to Him, but I do know for sure that He loves me and my family, and that matters a lot.

God loves each of us. We can know Him beyond doubt, even though we do not see Him (at this time in our existence). “All thin
gs denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and call things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator” (Alma 30:44). All things denote there is a God to those who choose to believe and serve Him. “Choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:15). We all have agency; what is important is that we use that agency to believe in God and do His will.

BYU Speeches – Pres. Monson’s Principles From Prophets

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I love reading and learning about the Presidents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Their lives are inspiring and their teachings powerful. I also love reading about and studying the lives of the scriptural prophets – Moses, Abraham, Isaiah, Nephi, and Alma. I try to picture what the prophets looked and sounded like. What were their personal characteristics? How was their sense of humor? What did they like to eat or do for fun? But most importantly I focus on what they taught and how they lived. All the prophets testified of Jesus Christ. He has always been the central theme of their messages, in fact one cannot be a prophet without testifying of Jesus “for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Rev. 19:10). A prophet is one who testifies of Jesus so anyone who has a testimony of Jesus Christ is a prophet. However, in a more specific sense, prophet is a calling given to only a few men who, in our day, are set apart and ordained and given priesthood keys to administer the Lord’s kingdom here on earth, namely The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Recently I have been listening to the podcast of devotional and Church Education System (CES) addresses given at Brigham Young University. I listen to the talks as I ride to and from school on the bus or as I am walking across campus. Devotionals are one thing I miss about BYU. When I attended there as a student I did not always attend the devotionals, I know I missed many great talks, but I attended often. Every Tuesday at 11 AM we could go and listen to a talk given by a BYU faculty member, a General Authority, the prophet, or someone else. All these speeches are available online at BYU’s Speeches website as MP3s or PDFs or other formats. Recently I started downloading the PDFs of the talks I most enjoyed so that I’ll have them ready to use in talks or essays or simply to re-read for enjoyment and knowledge and spiritual uplift.

One talk I particularly enjoyed was Pres. Thomas S. Monson’s address given on Sep 15, 2009. It is called Principles from Prophets. Text and audio are available here. In his talk, Pres. Monson shares experiences and lessons from the various prophets with whom he had personal experiences. Pres. Monson is witty, poignant, and humorous as he shares stories and lessons from the prophets’ lives. Pres. Monson has known every prophet from Pres. Heber J. Grant, President of The Church from 1918 to 1945, to Pres. Gordon B. Hinckley, who was President of The Church from 1995 to 2008.

I’ll share a couple of the stories Pres. Monson shared. The first is about Pres. George Albert Smith.

“I believe one of President Smith’s most noble accomplishments was after World War II. Starvation was rampant in Germany and in other nations of Europe. President Smith met with United States President Harry S. Truman and said, ‘We’d like to send welfare supplies to the starving people of Europe, but the bureaucracy and the red tape in postwar Europe are keeping us from doing so.’

“President Truman heard his plea and opened the way. He asked, ‘How many months will it take for you to assemble your supplies?’ President Smith replied, ‘President Truman, they’re already assembled. All you need do is say go, and they’ll be rolling within twenty- four hours.’

“President Truman was taken aback by this slender man who spoke rather softly—but oh, could he move things along. The supplies were sent, and Elder Ezra Taft Benson was also sent to oversee their distribution. Lives were saved as a result.”

Pres. George A. Smith was a compassionate man.

The other experience I would like to share is about Pres. Howard W. Hunter. He was President of The Church for only 9 months but over the course of his 35 years as a general authority he had a large influence on many people. He was a soft and gentle man who was concerned with the needs of others.

“One of President Hunter’s hallmarks was that of courtesy. Whether in a moment of pleasant conversation or in times of constant pain, he was ever courteous. On one occasion a man who had been painting in President Hunter’s home said to me, ‘President Hunter is so remarkable. He graciously thanked me and my crew for painting a room. He commented on the color match, the absence of brush or roller marks, and repeated a hearty thank-you as he shook my hand when we finished our work and departed his presence.'”

There are many more stories and teachings in this talk. The talk is based on the principle that knowing the prophets better as people is inspiring. They lived what they taught; they taught what they lived. While knowing the character and personalities of the prophets is not as important as knowing and living the doctrine of The Church, getting to know the prophets can help us see how the Lord was able to take ordinary men and help them do extraordinary things.

BYU Speeches – Elder Holland

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I’ve been enjoying listening to the New BYU Speeches podcast (link opens in iTunes). As soon as I subscribed, I downloaded two of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s talks. The most recent was a BYU Devotional given in January 2009. It’s called Remember Lot’s Wife. It is one of the best speeches/talks I’ve heard in a long time (and all of Elder Holland’s are wonderful). I’ve listened to it 3 times in the past 2 days.

The whole talk is great but here are a few quotes I think are particularly important (although that’s a bit like saying we’ll just focus on the eyes of the Mona Lisa while ignoring the whole painting).

“There is something in us, at least in too many of us, that particularly fails to forgive and forget earlier mistakes in life—either mistakes we ourselves have made or the mistakes of others. That is not good. It is not Christian. It stands in terrible opposition to the grandeur and majesty of the Atonement of Christ. To be tied to earlier mistakes—our own or other people’s—is the worst kind of wallowing in the past from which we are called to cease and desist….”

“When something is over and done with, when it has been repented of as fully as it can be repented of, when life has moved on as it should and a lot of other wonderfully good things have happened since then, it is not right to go back and open up some ancient wound that the Son of God Himself died trying to heal…” (emphasis added).

“Faith is for the future. Faith builds on the past but never longs to stay there. Faith trusts that God has great things in store for each of us and that Christ truly is the ‘high priest of good things to come.'”

He also threw in one good joke: “Now, as a passing comment, I don’t know whether Lot’s wife, like Miniver, was a drinker, but if she was, she certainly ended up with plenty of salt for her pretzels.”

Again, I think this talk is one of the best I’ve heard (it reminds me a bit of Elder Holland’s talk An High Priest of Good Things to Come, which was given during the October 1999 General Conference). It’s available in the New BYU Speeches podcast I linked to earlier. It’s also available on the BYU Speeches website with a free PDF, free html, and a free MP3 of the talk.