He Is Not in the Desert

September 12, 2009 | 46 comments
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“So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the desert,’ do not go out; … do not believe it” (NIV Matt. 24:26).

Given the prominent role that personal revelation is given in LDS doctrine and practice, it is surprising that there is little or no official support for spiritual retreats (in the desert or elsewhere) or even meditation. That was the odd conclusion I arrived at toward the end of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. Abbey was a tree-hugger before it was fashionable. He took his wilderness in season-long chunks rangering in remote areas of Southern Utah, not, as you and I do, by way of well planned and provisioned hikes of a few days or even a few hours. When he viewed a striking sunrise or transited a hushed canyon, he encountered (and wrote about) wilderness or Nature, but not God.

Are we any different? There are Christian traditions that press the devout to find God in the desert, whether by residence in remote monasteries or by visits and short-term retreats. But Mormons seek enlightenment by attending conferences; by engaging in personal scripture reading and prayer; and by visiting LDS temples, quiet places but not wilderness retreats and not even designed for lengthy reflections or meditation.

There are, or course, passages in LDS scripture that give support to the “God in Nature” view that somehow does not get expressed in LDS doctrine and practice. For example, the beautiful passage at D&C 88:45, 47:

     The earth rolls upon her wings, and the sun giveth his light by day, and the moon giveth her light by night, and the stars also give their light, as they roll upon their wings in their glory, in the midst of the power of God.
     Behold, all these are kingdoms, and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power.

At 1 Nephi 19:12, the Spirit of God moves “kings of the isles of the sea” to exclaim, upon viewing violent storms and earthquakes: “The God of nature suffers.” If the Spirit of God provokes the utterance, “God of nature” would appear to be a perfectly acceptable title for God, but I do not recall having heard Him so addressed in LDS prayers or hymns.

Less directly, in Alma 30:44 Alma tries to persuade Korihor that there is a God:

     [A]ll things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all 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.

Perhaps there are LDS leaders or writers who have taken up this theme, but to me it appears to be a road not taken in the modern Church. Like Abbey, I don’t see God’s reflection in the snow-covered hills. Should I?

46 Responses to He Is Not in the Desert

  1. Dan on September 12, 2009 at 9:36 am

    Isn’t the headquarters of our church in a desert? ;)

    Of course, this verse is talking about not listening to false prophets who claim Jesus is somewhere remote, and not readily accessible. After all, John the Baptist was also in the desert.

    26 Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the desert; go not forth: behold, he is in the secret chambers; believe it not.
    27 For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.

    Jesus is saying that he will be as clear as the sun rising in the morning, as consistent as the daily spin of the earth on its axis going around the sun. There will be no question when he arrives.

  2. Tamary on September 12, 2009 at 10:10 am

    The Sacred Grove, Enos’s day and night in the forest, and Nephi’s mountain come to mind. And what about the Primary song “Whenever I hear the song of a bird…” and the addition of “How Great Thou Art” to the 1985 hymnbook? I haven’t noticed any Church discouragement of seeking God through his creations, and I think there are some firm encouragements. Just my opinion.

  3. Tim on September 12, 2009 at 11:12 am

    My stake president at BYU taught a weekly institute class that filled a local chapel. He asked the question, “Why did Joseph Smith go into the grove to pray? Why not somewhere else?”
    I’m not usually one to raise my hand and answer questions, but after a few responses it was clear that no one else was going to offer the answer the stake president was looking for. They didn’t understand it. So I responded with the answer he wanted.
    He went there for the same reason Moses climbed the mountain. He went into the wilderness to speak with God.
    If we’ve lost that understanding in the LDS culture (and I think, largely, we have), it’s a shame.

  4. Glen Hopkinson on September 12, 2009 at 11:39 am

    Dave: You say “…it is surprising that there is little or no official support for spiritual retreats (in the desert or elsewhere) or even meditation.” I just did a quick search on the Church website going to General Conference Talks and used the word meditate. There is plenty of encouragement to meditate. Over the past two decades there has been enormous “official support for spiritual retreats”. Uh, like the TEMPLES!
    I agree with you though, that on a personal basis, none of us probably pray and meditate out in nature near enough. I paint pictures, and as often as I can, I go out on location in nature to paint. It is a wonderful feeling to be in our Heavenly Father’s wonderful and glorious workshop.
    It’s up to each of us to find our own “Sacred Grove” or “mountain top” or “desert place”.

  5. Velikiye Kniaz on September 12, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    RE: #4
    Would that happen to be around Ft. Bridger (WY), Glen? If so, I believe that you are related to a friend of mine, Scott Hopkinson, who owns a modest ranch founded by his grandfather just west of the Ft. Bridger State Park. If you head south from there towards Utah and the High Uintas the places for meditation and contemplation can verge upon the sublime. There is another oft neglected realm of reflection and that is the sky itself. The weather changes fast and dramtically on the high plains of Wyoming and observing the roiling clouds and lightning of a storm front coming in can cause you to reflect on the power and majesty of God. Sometimes the beauty of the land itself can move one, as when after a month of nearly constant rainfall this past June, most of central and southern Utah blossomed forth with wild flowers and a hundred shades of green. The effect was not diminished by the fact that I was travelling at 65 MPH down old 89. The beauty brought tears to my eyes as I thought, “This will be what Utah will look like during the Millenium”.

  6. Toria on September 12, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    I think the litmus test for whether or not this is culturally emphasized is if the topic comes up at church when a teacher asks something the elicits the “basic Sunday school answers”.

    Unfortunately I can’t recall a time when experiencing God through nature has been brought up at this point in the lesson. I’ve heard a lot about pondering, but usually in the context of scripture study or Temple worship.

    I think I’ll bring it up next time I get the chance and see what the response is. Hopefully I get something like “I’ve had sacred experiences in nature too” instead of the “are you really telling me to set aside even more time out of my busy schedule” kind of response.

  7. patricia k. on September 12, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    That was the odd conclusion I arrived at toward the end of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. Abbey was a tree-hugger before it was fashionable.

    Edward Abbey was a pioneer in a rhetorical field, and like a lot of pioneers, he did what he welldamned pleased, often making a big mess of matters. He imposed his image upon the landscape, carving his name on more than a few of the ideological trees he hugged. It’s hard to see other people, let alone God, if you’re stuck in a mirror.

    I’ve written a bit about about Abbey here: http://www.motleyvision.org/2005/criticism-lds-literary-nature-writing-or-the-lack-thereof/

    That doesn’t mean he wasn’t meaningful. Jonah was meaningful; the Ninevahns changed their lives because of what he said, even though, as prophets go, he lacked vision.

    Seeing God in nature is a matter of establishing relation with nature. At this point, overall, the LDS culture’s awareness of the natural world and the language it has at hand for engaging nature remains something of a pale, wan thing growing beneath a board left over from the construction of a stake center. As I said elsewhere recently.

  8. Bob on September 12, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    Dave, I grew up in the 60s as both a Mormon and transcendentalist/naturalist.
    In a nutshell, for a Mormon, Nature is a ‘subset’ of God. For the naturalist (IMO), God is a subset of Nature. Or, God works for Nature, not Nature for God. Remember, these ideas (Mormonism and transcendentalism/naturalism) were hot at the same time in the mid 19th C.
    If your question is, can a Mormon be a naturalist? Dan Vogel says he is, but I am not sure we mean the same thing.
    The only one I can think of who even came close to being a bridge, was Wallace Stegner. Again ALL my opinion.

  9. Dave on September 12, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    Thanks for the comments.

    Patricia, those are interesting comments in the AMV post. Yes, it certainly seems like there should be more of a Mormon presence in nature writing. Maybe we could reassign a few Mormon sci-fi writers.

    I wasn’t able to work TTW into this post, but I did a post on her book Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place over at DMI a few years back. Given the success and quality of that book, it seems like other writers influenced by Mormonism would have followed her lead.

  10. patricia k. on September 12, 2009 at 5:41 pm

    Dave, until recently, I found Refuge the most promising and interesting part of TTW’s work. I’ve followed her writing since Refuge but thought that mostly it failed to carry through on that promise in full-bodied fashion. In 2008, she published Finding Beauty in a Broken World. I attended a pre-publication reading of Finding Beauty over a year ago. She said that night, “My rhetoric was becoming as brittle as [that of the] the people I was railing against. I needed to find my way back to poetry.”

    Even before she said that, I thought, as I listened to her speak and read, “Something’s changed.” I’m reading Finding Beauty now. It creates a very different environment from those she prepared for readers in earlier work. Some think it lacks the fire they’ve come to expect of her. I think the fire is changing because she’s changing; she might be between styles and between visions, on her way to somewhere else. But FB is another book whose lead “writers influenced by Mormonism,” as you put it, could follow. Sometimes it falls back upon her old “everybody’s complicit” style of trying to motivate through guilt and shame. But overall, I think it moves well toward her goal of becoming “less brittle.”

    Speaking of following writers’ leads, TTW’s protege, Amy Irvine, is a rising star literary nature writer influenced by Mormonism. I find her work so far to be an exercise in cultural artifact collecting–extracting from experience what she finds useful to bolster her at times very shaky narrative take. While publicly successful–she’s won two prestigious awards over the last year, beating out TTW’s FB for one–Amy’s message demands greater attentiveness to human social and natural environs while at the same time engaging in unsustainable acts in the natural environment of human language. IMO, it sets us back 25 years.

    Thank you, Edward Abbey.

  11. Bob on September 12, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    Nature is full of beauty and poetry. I respect and honor Patricia’s writings in these areas. I also feel there IS room for more Mormon writers in this kind of work.
    But again, the reigning power of Secularism is Nature, not God. I can’t see Mormonism making peace with this. (nor am I asking it to)
    Environmentalism is not a Mormon thing. If it were, the Udall family would have received greater respect in the Church.

  12. Jim F. on September 12, 2009 at 9:11 pm

    Glan (#4), I remember well then-Elder Hinckley telling us that we ought to mediate more sometime in the late 60s in the Seoul yebaedang. But I also remember not having a clue how we were going to do that.

  13. Jim F. on September 12, 2009 at 9:12 pm

    That should have been “Glen” rather than “Glan.” I need to learn to type and proofread.

  14. Jim Donaldson on September 13, 2009 at 12:05 am

    Re: #11

    Environmentalism may not currently be a Mormon thing, but it probably should be. I think the scriptures drip with it—all those verses about wise stewards and our dependence on the bounty of the earth. Certainly it was important to Hugh Nibley and Brigham Young (at least if you believe HN), just to pick a couple of fairly notable Mormons.

    I’ve also puzzled over why it is so difficult to persuade conservatives to conserve things, seems like a no-brainer.

  15. m&m on September 13, 2009 at 12:43 am

    It may not be in the typical SS answers, but I have heard Mormons talk many times about finding peace and communion in nature.

    I can’t help but feel that is part of why we have YM/YW camps.

    I also think that part of why we hear of Joseph Smith and Moses and others being outside to worship is for the very reason that they didn’t have temples. Not that I don’t think there is a wonderful peace in being outside, too, but we have sanctified, consecrated holy places that those who only went into nature didn’t have, at least not until they built them.

    And, Jim F. Pres. Hinckley talked much more recently about this. For example, see here.

    He even mentioned being outside, under the stars. :)

  16. patricia k. on September 13, 2009 at 11:02 am

    Had a very productive, inspiring, brief but deep-diving desert meditation this a.m. It can be done.

    Thanks, Dave, for calling attention.

  17. Cameron on September 13, 2009 at 11:29 am

    At least my immediate family and acquaintances connect with God through nature. I think experiencing the Creator’s miraculous creations helps remind us of him and his attributes.

    Didn’t Elder Perry mention Thoreau and make some nice points about his Walden experience either this past conference or the one before it?

  18. Cameron on September 13, 2009 at 11:33 am

    Sorry for the double post, but I think one of the great accomplishments of modern architecture was the idea of walls of windows. This helps us connect on a better level with nature in spite of being surrounded by the creations of man, and was ironically made possible by the industrial revolution.

  19. Ardis E. Parshall on September 13, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    Hasn’t seeing/finding God in nature always been part of the rationale for the Scouting program, and for girls’ camp and fathers’-and-sons’ outings and for the canyon retreats that used to be purchased and maintained by Utah stakes? I mean, there’s a reason those activities are conducted in the woods and deserts rather than in downtown hotels.

  20. m&m on September 13, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    Ardis, that was one of my thoughts as well (#15).

  21. Alison Moore Smith on September 13, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    We had YW Camp at a beach hotel one year. Personally, I’ve very fond of appreciating nature after a hot shower in a private bathroom. :)

  22. m&m on September 13, 2009 at 10:42 pm

    Ah…beach. I miss the beach!

  23. weston on September 14, 2009 at 1:28 am

    “I don’t see God’s reflection in the snow-covered hills.”

    Probably wise. I hear what you see in the snow-covered hills is your own reflection. Right before the landslide brings it down.

  24. Bob on September 14, 2009 at 8:58 am

    #23:”Probably wise”.
    You are right. For about 20 years, I backpacked, often alone for days. I am not sure one has ‘communed’ with Nature, until it offers to take your life in the middle of the conversation.

  25. Mike on September 14, 2009 at 8:59 am

    Every Mormon living on the Wasatch front faces a decision every Sunday morning. Do you go over to the ward house and participate in whatever is going on there, or do you lift your eyes to those magnificent mountains and head in that direction. Every month bills come due and unless you are very wealthy you have to decide whether to pay your tithing or make another payment towards the maintaince/ upgrade of a boat, cabin, horse, snowmobile, camper, etc. Every Scout troop has to decide what days the summer camps will fill and whether to camp over Friday and/or Saturday night on each of its monthly weekend expeditions. Two nights of camping is an order of magnitude different from one night, in my scouting experience.

    I visit Utah every summer and it seems to me there are two large visible religions there. The faithful LDS people fill the numerous chapels that dot the land. The unorganized nature-lovers of every stripe are out enjoying the unparalleled picturesque mountains and deserts in vast throngs and engaging in a bewildering variety of recreational activities in every season. I think they both seek after God in different ways.

    Outside of Utah the details might be different, but the principle is similar. We only have so many hours each week and so much money. It is hard to achieve a balance. I have an Uncle nearing 80 years old who lives out in Millcreek (Salt Lake suburb). He has been the Bishop along with the usual ward callings and raised a righteous family and served half of a handful of full-time missions. He also has made over 180 multi-day trips into the Uinta/Wasatch mountains. I personally envy him more for the later than the former, although I am not on track to doing even close to what he has in either area.

  26. patricia k. on September 14, 2009 at 9:08 am

    Weston, #23. Wow, that’s perfect. ;)

  27. Mike on September 14, 2009 at 10:25 am

    I apologize for the second entry;

    The level of philosophical discussion and communing with nature at a scout back-packing expedition may not be up to the usual standards that the academic types might expect. If you are staring at snow-covered hills, that might be an avalance instead of a landslide…. Not a big distinction if you find yourself crushed at the bottom of either one. Not many of either in church, the last time I checked. Church is certainly the safe and sensible option come Sunday morning.

    Saturday night, a beefy 13 year old scout, born in Israel from the Cohen lineage but an avowed atheist, threatened to “kill” me in both English and Hebrew if I didn’t give him a serving of my salami and dirty rice dutch oven casserole, flavored with only a little pine ash. Eating ramon noodles every meal for a couple days of a camping trip can do that to a growing boy. But I feared more than his idle threats the phone call from his conservative(?) Jewish mother where I might have to explain why I thought it was so funny to give her son pork to eat. Perhaps a more goaty than sheepish excuse, and I was hungry too.

    Yesterday morning, an 11 year old scout asked my 16 year old son why he had to do what he was told to do. I thought this was a rather profound question, why do we have to do what we are told? Or do we? The given answer: because I am bigger than you and I am going to throw you in this river if you don’t.

    For our devotional, the same 16 year old read out loud through the three parables in Matt 25 (10 virgins, 10 talents, sheep and goats) explaining as he went along how they apply to camping and scouting, while a dozen of us sat quietly winded beside our backpacks on a moss covered log at the top of a steep ridge. I don’t think church gets any better.

  28. Vader on September 14, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    #27,

    Isn’t all rice eaten at Scout camp dirty?

  29. brigham on September 14, 2009 at 1:15 pm

    We should see God’s hand in nature because it is His creation. I think that it is appropriate that Mormon pioneers gave Zions Canyon and Kolob Canyon the names they did. I think is right that Moses went up on a mountain to get the commandments. I think a big part of seeing God in nature is just being grateful that God created the world. Feeling awe with nature alone misses part of the experience: God shows his love in part by the world he gave his children.

  30. Raymond Takashi Swenson on September 14, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    When I was a Boy Scout, the main motivation was character building in the great outdoors, with not a lot of emphasis on the spiritual aspect of a 50 mile hike, or snowshoeing in a blizzard. Efforts to integrate Scouting with Aaronic Priesthood training have sought to ameliorate that; I don’t know if it has been any more successful than giving basketball competition a spiritual tenor.

    I know that Young Women’s camps generally include a testimony meeting. I never participated in a Scout campout that did.

    One of the interesting aspects of the Hugh Nibley biography that came out a few years ago was the sheer extent to which Nibley went hiking and camping. His essays about the need to be less rapacious with nature were founded in deep personal experience with the outdoors.

    To turn Scouting into a spiritual experience, you need to have Scout leaders who are a bit more Nibley-like. Most of my Scout leaders would regard the weight of scriptures in your backpack as useless.

  31. Mike on September 14, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    #28

    “Dirty rice” is a specific kind of rice from New Orleans with peppers and tomatoes and other spices. So you are more correct than you might imagine; this rice was dirty in two seperate ways.

    The others:

    I too would never take my regular church scriptures camping; they might get wet, lost, burned, etc., and they are too heavy. (This from the guy who has his son pack a 15 pound dutch oven). I take a boy scout published New Testament from Philmont that works for us.

    Reverence is the 12th point of the scout law and with boys that age you can easily overdo it. But at the same time virtually all of the other 11 points are spiritual; trustworthy, loyal, helpful, etc. I don’t see a difference between spiritual development and character development at that age.

    Scouting tries to duplicate challenges of life in a way that allows a boy that age to test himself out for a few days, somewhat independent from his parents. Hopefully he develops the character atributes that will make him a better citizen, husband, businessman, soldier, missionary, father or whatever future role he might encounter. We can easily forget the leadership/character development/ service function of scouting when we are blinded by a semi-coersive sprint for the eagle’s nest.

    The essense of scouting is camping and hiking. I think it is very difficult to accomplish the goals of scouting without going outside into the wilderness. What I call parlor scouting has its place as part of preparation and I appreciate the paper-pushers and bean-counters, but they should not be central.

    In a recent eagle palm board of review, I asked the best LDS scout I know what he would change about the LDS troop if he could change anything. He said more boys (obvious since we only have about 7-8 active in the ward) and better adult leaders who will stay for years and don’t get other higher callings every year or two. Ouch! He agrees with the sediment that we need more leaders like Nibley.

    But the BSA does not agree, exactly. They are moving in the direct of developing better BOY LEADERSHIP (which is the opposite direction my ward seems to be going). For me the question is where are the next generation of teenage Nibleys (probably right under our nose) and how do we bring them out of obscurity?

  32. Bob on September 14, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    Re:#24: To be clear-I backpacked for the beauty, poetry, and meditation of Nature…not to die.
    I have read the writers of these things.(Muir, Burroughs, Thoreau, Teale,) I think Mormons can write in this manner. (Maybe Thoreau was too godless).
    But I am not sure Mormons can or will write of Nature as did Melville, Steinbeck, or Hemingway. Too dark.

  33. Daniel on September 14, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    Thoughts on Alma 30:44 “[A]ll things denote there is a God;”

    I spent almost 3 weeks helping after the tsunami in Indonesia (the relocation of Calang)… I did not have the opportunity to help with the New Orleans hurricane relief efforts, but when I think on these disasters, I have to wonder what kind of a God is denoted by such devistation…?

  34. Raymond Takashi Swenson on September 14, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    Re #33: Since so many of the scriptures about the events leading up to the Second Coming talk about devastating natural upheavals being events that should wake up people to their need to be reconciled to God–that is, they can’t assume that they can ignore God and their lives will be completely within their own control–the argument might be made that such events confirm prophecy.

    On the other hand, as the planets in our own solar system demonstrate, things could be a lot worse for life on earth. Even with tsunamis and storms, earth is still a million times more hospitable to life than any other planet or moon in our immediate astronomical neighborhood. Are we just lucky, or have we been given a special gift?

    As was pointed out in the book Rare Earth (definitely NOT a work arguing for the existence of God, but only for the rarity of planets like ours with conditions conducive to development of larger, intelligent animals), plate tectonics has a major role in creating continents and atmospheres where beings like us can live; earthquakes and tsunamis are a side effect of a hugely beneficial phenomenon. Similarly with hurricanes and other tropical storms, they are a phenomenon that is part of the weather process that is essential to moving moisture back onto dry land. Both large quakes and large storms are the few cases at the extreme edge of the bell curve of the distribution of natural geological and meteorological events that are essential to having a habitable planet. They are the rare, extreme bad instances of what are overwhelmingly beneficial phenomena, reflecting a natural law. It may be that any change to the nature of our planet that eliminated such events, by reducing the magnitude of the distribution curve overall, would be far more devastating in eliminating a large portion of the events that are beneficial to our lives and our ecosystems.

    An analogy can be drawn with wildfires. The devastation that was caused by the major fires in Yellowstone a couple of decades ago is clear, yet we also know that the natural progression of the Yellowstone ecology relies on occasional forest fires.

    So if you had the technology to terraform a planet, and were aware of natural laws that tie beneficial conditions to occasional disastrous events, would a committee of intelligent planetary engineers take the occasional bad with the usual good, or make the planet uniformly mediocre–even uninhabitable–in order to avoid the occasional disaster? If the committee chose the first option, would citizens then have a legitimate argument that the committee members were cruel and thoughtless? Would those who supported the committee’s decisions argue that the critics lack scientific understanding of the constraints that reality imposes?

    (Could it be argued that the essence of the conservative political viewpoint is that the occasional bad that comes with the good of economic and political freedom is a better choice than the alleged risk free world of socialism? The criticism of the current health care market in the USA is that it does not prevent all disasters, yet a “disaster proof” system may be far worse overall in providing good health care to the largest number of people.)

    One thing that Scouting can do is to teach that Nature is Not a Disney Theme Park, that reality can bite you, that there are natural consequences for carelessness. God is not Uncle Walt. As a starting point to appreciate the fact that we all are fallible and need redemption and reconciliation, that is a good one.

  35. Tim on September 14, 2009 at 5:59 pm

    For the record, the church publishes a miniature-size Book of Mormon that’s perfect for backpacking. I bought one for my ten-week Europe trip, but I’m sure it would work well on Scouting trips too.

  36. Raymond Takashi Swenson on September 14, 2009 at 7:40 pm

    The Church Military Servicemember Committee has long published a small edition of the Book of Mormon and a matching Gospel Principles volume that contains hymns, basic doctrinal teachings, and guidelines for conducting church meetings and performing ordinances. It is a pocket size volume that has been the subject of an occasional “a bullet was stopped by the Book of Mormon in my pocket” anecdote, especially back before soldiers were issued protective vests.

  37. Daniel on September 14, 2009 at 7:45 pm

    A suggestion for Tim and Raymond: take your tiny editions and go into the desert! We will allow you your privacy. Go!

  38. Bob on September 14, 2009 at 7:45 pm

    #35: For the record: Moroni carried HEAVY GOLD PLATES in his backpack for years and thousand of miles.

  39. Mike on September 15, 2009 at 7:00 am

    #38

    Do we really know this?

    What if Moroni had a horse or a mule (or a tapir)? When you read of the trappers and miners a century ago they were usually toast without beasts of burden. Even with modern technology it is hard to carry more than a weeks worth of food. To survive at a technology level that did not include beasts of burden required a culture and a set of hunting & gathering skills that modern people have difficulty comprehending and took decades to learn. Primitive people had to be much smarter than we are to survive.

    How much did the gold plates weigh? We know their size from a wooden box Hyrum Smith made for them and we know the weight of gold and copper and other metals that might have been used in their construction. If the plates were very thin and crinkly there might have been some air space. I have read that they weighed at least 100 pounds and possibly closer to 200 pounds. When I was young, some smart-ass made a duplication of the gold plates out of lead which is lighter than pure gold and left them on the front steps of the tabernacle. The security guards were not strong enough to even pick them up and get them moved for several hours.

  40. Mike on September 15, 2009 at 8:10 am

    I have got to get to work but this discussion is really weighing heavy on my mind.

    I think the scouting experience in the LDS church really goes to the heart of this topic. Here are some basic facts:

    General:
    1. The LDS church is youth oriented and has adopted (and modified to some extent) scouting as the basis of its youth program for boys.

    2. Boy scouting is the single most effective youth program in modern history, measured in terms of number of lives changed and the extent thereof.

    3. The essence of scouting is camping and hiking in the wilderness. If you take the “outing” out of “scouting” it really sucks, the saying goes. There are many other aspects of scouting.

    Specific to me:
    4. In my ward in Atlanta it is a 2-3 hour drive to the places we camp, without traffic. However on Friday afternoon, this travel time is invariably extended to double that or more. Even living 5 miles further out in the surburbs would be an improvement.

    5. Because mothers are not allowed on LDS scout trips and not all the boys have fathers who support them, someone usually has to drive around to several scattered residences to pick the boys up (who need to go the most) and it becomes next to impossible to leave together on a trip before about 5:00 pm or later.

    6. All the boys in the 9th grade and older have early morning seminary on week days. They get up at 5:00 – 5:30 am and if they take challenging classes at school they will be up past midnight most nights doing homework. By Friday they are going to be sound asleep when they arrive at the camp site, usually around 10:00- 12:00 pm. State parks close at 10:00 pm which has forced us to camp extemporaneously in more dangerous places. No time for hiking to a nicer site.

    7. Sleepy boys do not properly set up tents in the dark. Other than the recent drought, it rains about 75% of the time. The boys are usually going to get wet. About half the year the temperature will go below 50 F and they will get cold. Cold, wet, tired, miserable boys can’t cook the next morning and hunger is added to the mix. Some boys sleep in the car and stay up all night at the camp and still get cold, wet and hungry.

    8. Our Bishops have been adamant that camping over Saturday night and missing church on Sunday WILL NOT HAPPEN EVER!!! It does not matter what other constraints we face. He is mildly concerned about cold, wet, hungry, sleepy, miserable boys and will raise an eyebrow at group pissing in fires, something I will not tolerate because of the other filthy practices it leads to. But camping on Sunday is strictly VERBOTEN.

    9. I am a pariah when I take my son camping with the non-LDS troop on Sunday and we have extremely wonderful experiences in the wilderness and unmatched opportunities to share the gospel. We avoid all of the other problems.

    Conclusion:
    From this string of observations I think we can conclude what the current LDS church thinks about the wilderness experience, assuming my ward is typical. It is all fine and good, but it is not very high on the priority list. A long list of rules and other priorities and taboos hobble scouting to where it really doesn’t work for us. Other priorities, even those that make little sense to youth are far more important. If scouting fits around a host of other constraints, we do it. Otherwise, the church hypocritically says it is your fault if it doesn’t work.

    Other observations:
    My 16 yr old son loves camping and has slept outdoors more than 200 nights in 5 years. But he does not go camping willingly with the Mormon boys. It is not worth it to him.

    Most Mormon boys never learn how to camp well and lose interest in camping by the time they are about 14 years old and never really connect with the wilderness experience. I see this illustrated best in a parade of recently married men who have received their eagles and are called to serve in our ward YM program for a few months and most really do not enjoy camping in the wilderness.

  41. Bob on September 15, 2009 at 8:11 am

    #39: Well, we know he didn’t have a mule and the horse in his time is still a question. But South America did have 4 kinds of camel.
    Modern Man does a much better job at survival than Primitive Man.

  42. Bob on September 15, 2009 at 8:42 am

    #40: Mike, I was a Boy Scout, a Marine, a Scoutmaster(LDS), a long time Backpacker, and married my Scoutmaster’s daughter.
    I see Scouting and camping as great hobbies, but not needed to reach manhood in today’s world.

  43. Mike on September 15, 2009 at 9:45 am

    #42 Bob:

    Depends on the boy. I respectfully disagree with you in one case, the only one I have much influence over. That would be my son.

    If I had never done any scouting outside my ward, I think I might agree with you. I would query if you have ever been part of a really top notch troop, with several retired military officers and business leaders and hospitality experts empowering their sons in running it? While camping is at the core of scouting, it is so much more than a hobby. Something else happens at the camping and hiking expeditions. To me it is like the difference between building church buildings (hobby camping) and building churches (authentic boy lead scouting), which include the communities of people that use the buildings with their beliefs, charity and integrity.

    You can build buildings with many materials; granite, wood, adobe, straw, etc. For me proper scouting is like building boys out of steel.

    Without scouting I have little doubt my son would be a very withdrawn, shy, irreverent, self-centered bookish geek. He would arrive at that kind of manhood.

    I can’t begin to describe to you how:

    1. Actually working his tail off from age 11 to 15 to earn 40 merit badges and making it to Eagle in a troop that only allows the top 2% achieve this pinnacle;

    2. Going on 3 high adventure treks and leading one this last summer when I was injuried and the other adults were not that experienced, and where they paddled/portaged 120 miles;

    3. Being Senior Patrol Leader for 6 months over ~80 boys after losing 3 previous close elections and turning the corner in the recent decline in the troop due to hooliganism and drug abuse of some of his peers. (His level of responsibility and influence far exceeded that of an Elder’s Quorum President);

    4. Performing 200 hours of community service and being awarded two of those Presidential Service Awards that President Bush created;

    5. Saving the life of a 150 pound 11 year old LDS scout having a severe asthma attack last summer by physically packing him a few miles up and out of a canyon in 106 F heat and humidity (I have a bad back and the other adult was barely getting his own flabby carcass up the trail);

    The list goes on;

    All of this has made him into the man he is becoming more than anything else. Because of scouting, at age 16 he already far exceeds his father in so many crucial ways.

    Reaching manhood is not my goal for him. What kind of a man is what I am interested in. Scouting has made such an enormous difference in him that what you write, although true from your experience, sounds like pure gibberish to me, no offense intended.

    Scouting is more than a hobby.

  44. Bob on September 15, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    #43: I think your son made himself into a man. If Scouting could do it, then all scouts would be like your son. If Scouting could do it, then all boys who have gone into the Army, would come out as ‘men’…they don’t.

  45. Daniel on September 15, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    I think it is a misperception that there is something mystical and magical about the desert.

    Yes, Jesus went into the desert and up on mountains on many occasions, but I believe the text supports the idea that it was for practical rather than mystical reasons. Certainly, mystical things happened in those remote places, but that is not necessarily because there is anything uniquely spiritually primordial about deserts:

    John 6:15 “When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take him by force, to make him a king, he departed again into a mountain himself alone.”

    Matt 14:13 “When Jesus heard of it (the murder of John), he departed thence by ship into a desert place apart:”

    Mark 6:31 “Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while: for there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat.”

    See also John 10: 39 & Luke 1: 80

    You don’t necessarily “find God” in the desert, either. Indeed, Jesus taught that you are to “find God” in the faces of the people you meet, especially the poor, unfortunate, and downtrodden – whom you are most likely to meet in the cities, NOT in the deserts or mountains.

  46. kevinf on September 15, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    My experience is that you find God where you look for him, which is why Edward Abbey, although a favorite author and writer, didn’t find him in the desert. He wasn’t looking for him there, or anywhere else for that matter.

    I’d take issue with Daniel in # 45. Some of the most powerful spiritual experiences I have had have been in the desert or other wildernesses. The difference is that those experiences have generally not been alone, but in company with a stake wilderness youth conference, or a young men’s high adventure, or with my family.

    Solitary wilderness experiences of reflection and meditation are worthwhile, but our gospel is a gospel of action, and that action usually involves others. While a scoutmaster, I routinely took my scriptures and had scripture study with the boys in the evenings. Our youth high adventures always had a spiritual component, often with service or teaching opportunities. To me, scouting was in service to the gospel, and provided opportunities to get the young men (and young women, on those joint youth outings we had) outside of their comfort zone to confront themselves and nature. It is a humbling experience for many.

    I find God in nature, and in the faces of my ward members and family. I try to see his hand in all things.