Elder Cook and Theodicy

October 10, 2011 | 25 comments
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My last year at BYU, I sat through an Elders Quorum lesson where the teacher discussed the etymology of “atonement.” I was skeptical that it actually derived from “at-one-ment,” and, immediately after church ended, I walked across campus to the Writing Center, keyed in my code, and pulled out the Center’s OED.[fn1]

And, to my surprise, I learned that, although it looks suspiciously convenient, atonement does come from “at-one-ment.”

Fast-forward a decade or more. I continue to be skeptical of stories that seem a little too pat and convenient, including Elder Cook’s story of the missionaries who didn’t board the Titanic. It felt a little too much like the story of the missionaries who called off their meeting in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.[fn2] Thrown off, I didn’t catch the profundity of his remarks.

After Conference, I quickly Googled and discovered (a) there is credible evidence, predating Elder Cook’s remarks, that Elder Sonne, et al., did, in fact, cancel their fateful tickets, and (b) there is also credible evidence that Sister Corbett did, in fact, believe that Mormon missionaries would be on the Titanic with her.

As a result, the second time I listened, I actually listened. And I realized that I had entirely misheard Elder Cook’s talk. His was not a laundry-list of Mormon cliches—rather, he complicated our simplistic view that righteousness = happiness.[fn3] Elder Cook says that

[t]he scriptures are clear: those who are righteous, follow the Savior, and keep His commandments will prosper in the land.

But what does it mean to “prosper in the land”? Sometimes, apparently, it means our lives will be saved, whether through divine intervention or hapless lateness. Other times, though, it means we will suffer, even though we were “careful, thoughtful, prayerful, and valiant.”

Elder Cook does not suggest that the missionaries were spared because of their righteousness, or that Sister Corbett died because she lacked something. Instead, suffering is part of this life. Sometimes, Elder Cook says, challenges are the result of others’ agency; sometimes, they’re the result of our own. And sometimes they provide us with experience that we need.

Ultimately, Elder Cook does not try to solve the problem of evil. He acknowledges that there are things we don’t know.[fn4] But, he says, there are things we do know: we have a loving Heavenly Father, an atoning Savior, and are participating in a plan of happiness that doesn’t end with our death. And, unlike the Titanic, the Savior’s sacrifice provides lifeboats for all of us.

[fn1] Yes, I worked at the Writing Center, and yes, it was my favorite undergrad job (even better than teaching at the MTC).

[fn2] For the sake of anybody who doesn’t click on the link, let me make clear that there was no missionary meeting in the WTC to be called off. I don’t want to get rumors started again.

[fn3] “Happiness” may not be the word I want here, if you believe that happiness is the ultimate state of the righteous. But I mean happiness at a specific point in time; my righteousness clearly does not guarantee me that I will be happy every moment of every day, even if it does mean that ultimately, I’ll be happy, or that on a net basis, my happiness will exceed my not-happiness.

[fn4] That there are things we don’t know is not at all central to his talk, but is, nonetheless, profound: although we have access to all truth, that does not mean that we know everything. Sometimes when we struggle to understand, it is because we really and truly don’t have all of the information.

25 Responses to Elder Cook and Theodicy

  1. Julie M. Smith on October 10, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    You think someone who can’t be bothered to click a link will read a footnote? Pft.

    Anyway, great post. I’ve heard that Sister Corbett was going “against counsel” by traveling away from her family for education . . . glad that wasn’t what was emphasized here.

  2. Paul on October 10, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    I’m glad you gave Elder Cook a second chance. This was in my view one of his better talks since becoming an apostle.

  3. Jax on October 10, 2011 at 7:42 pm

    If I’m not mistaken, the word “Atonement” was one of the contributions of William Tyndale when he translated the Bible into Engligh (an act which cost him his life). Tyndale translated our reconcilliation with God as our “at-one-ment” with Him. As a new word in english it means exactly what it is spelled out to mean.

  4. Kent Larsen on October 10, 2011 at 7:50 pm

    Re [fn2] — you think that people who don’t click on links actually read footnotes? [GRIN]

    Great post. I especially appreciate the search to verify the stories Elder Cook told. I’d actually like to hear more, and I’m half expecting something from Ardis on her blog about these stories (if she hasn’t posted on them already).

  5. Sam Brunson on October 10, 2011 at 8:17 pm

    Thanks all. Kent, Ardis provides some additional color in the comments to Tracy’s wonderful post on Elder Cook’s talk.

  6. Sonny on October 10, 2011 at 8:58 pm

    I thought Elder Cook did a good job of ‘delinking’ the concept that good things happen to righteous people and bad things happen to wicked people, therefore if something bad happens to your neighbor…….

    I thought he got across well that sorrow and pain can be brought on from any one or combination of reasons (yes, from wickedness to simply living in mortality), and from an outsiders view it is not ours to judge–at all. We simply don’t know enough, particularly when we think we do.

    Theodicy is perhaps the topic I have thought about the most since reading posts in the Bloggernacle. It does not consume me like it may others, but still I dwell on it often. Before, I did not think much about it mostly because I was not exposed to much suffering, on my own part or of others, and also because I simply had short one sentence answers that I felt explained everything. I was, as they say, blissfully unaware.

  7. Rachel Whipple on October 10, 2011 at 9:40 pm

    I liked that Elder Cook’s talk did not gloss over the problem of bad things happening to good people. As frustrating as it can be, I think it is good that there is conflict and mystery. Sometimes it is only as we wrestle with God on these matters that we can gain the strength and resolve we need to keep the faith even as we lack clear understanding and certain knowledge.

  8. Stephen M (Ethesis) on October 10, 2011 at 9:50 pm

    I worked in the writing lab around 1981 or 1982 while in law school. I found it relaxing. One semester they paid me, I came back as a volunteer after that.

  9. DLewis on October 10, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    I can testify that what Bro. Brunson has said is true: the BYU Writing Center is the best job on campus.

  10. cadams on October 10, 2011 at 10:23 pm

    My understanding is Thomas More came up with atonement in 1513, but in a secular sense…it was Tyndale who developed our only Anglo-Saxon term in the 1520s. Make sure you all watch the story of the King James Bible on BYUTV (Oct 16 at 6pm MST).

  11. geoffsn on October 10, 2011 at 10:26 pm

    Does anyone know of a biography of Alma Sonne? He’s in my priesthood line of authority and I wanted to learn more about him. Other than genealogical information and the titanic story I haven’t been able to find much.

  12. Crick on October 10, 2011 at 11:35 pm

    Funny, I used to think the same thing about analysis of the word “atonement”, looked it up and found out the same thing.

    But as for Elder Cook’s remarks about the Titanic, it never occured to me to double check his sources because he is very sharp and the Church appears to be very good at verifying the historical accuracy of stories before they make it into General Conference.

  13. Alison Moore Smith on October 10, 2011 at 11:47 pm

    Great post, Sam. Oh, and please, that last line is a jewel.

    Add me to the list of skeptics who heard the at-one-ment years ago and said, “Yea, right.” — until I looked it up.

    Crick, I guess you’re too young to have lived through the Dunn era? :)

  14. Cameron N on October 11, 2011 at 12:43 am

    This goes back to Brother Dieter’s point in the pre-conference Ensign ‘don’t discount/extrapolate a message just because it sounds familiar. =)

  15. michelle on October 11, 2011 at 1:06 am

    “But what does it mean to “prosper in the land”? ”

    I loved one of the meanings Elder Cook gave to this: “The scriptures are clear: those who are righteous, follow the Savior, and keep His commandments will prosper in the land. An essential element of prospering is having the Spirit in our lives.”

  16. john f. on October 11, 2011 at 5:09 am

    Elder Maxwell taught this principle as follows:

    Regarding trials, including of our faith and patience, there are no exemptions—only variations (see Mosiah 23:21). These calisthenics are designed to increase our capacity for happiness and service. Yet the faithful will not be totally immune from the events on this planet. Thus the courageous attitudes of imperiled Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego are worthy of emulation. They knew that God could rescue them. “But if not,” they vowed, they would still serve God anyway (see Dan. 3:16–18). Similarly, keeping the unfashionable but imperative first and seventh commandments can reflect the courage which three young women displayed anciently; they said no with their lives (see Abr. 1:11). Neal A. Maxwell, “Encircled in the Arms of His Love”, Oct. 2002 Conference Address (emphasis added).

    I really miss Elder Maxwell.

    Comparing Shadrach, Meshach and Aded-nego (the three Jewish young men who faced the fiery furnace for remaining true to their faith and were miraculously saved) with the three unnamed young women in Abraham 1:11 (who would not worship idols and were killed as a result) was a powerful technique for teaching this concept.

    We love to sing “Do what is right let the consequence follow” but we should be sobered by this song, properly understood. The “consequence” might not be pleasant. But that does not make what is right less right — just harder.

  17. Sam Brunson on October 11, 2011 at 8:39 am

    Thanks, all.

    Michelle, I think Elder Cook’s recontextualizing “prosper in the land” as meaning having the Spirit in our lives was a wonderful shift in rhetoric.

  18. Katherine on October 11, 2011 at 9:08 am

    Great post. You’ve convinced me to revisit Elder Cook’s talk.

    Count me as another former at-one-ment skeptic. I remember being presented with the etymology in a seminary class years ago and feeling annoyed at what sounded like a hokey, obvious word play trying to be deep. (Until I looked up the etymology and realized the teacher was right.)

    I’ll also add my vote for the Writing Center as the best job at BYU. That OED is still there, as far as I know.

  19. Ben S on October 11, 2011 at 10:08 am

    Excellent post and comments. Thanks

  20. H.Bob on October 11, 2011 at 11:50 am

    And the opposite of atonement is apartment.

  21. SouthernMan on October 11, 2011 at 12:07 pm

    Thanks for the message and the ideas revisited.
    I was in a FHE group with one of Alma Sonne’s granddaughters in the 70′s, and never heard this story, not that it means anything. I also wanted to bring up my impression that Elder Cook nearly called Sister Corbett a hero because she was likely helping injured people and not in a “women and children” lifeboat, and was probably comforting and giving aid to the end. If you research church history, in the decades prior to the Titanic, there were many LDS family women sent east for higher education for the benefit of the Utah community.

  22. Adam Greenwood on October 11, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    Excellent post, and excellent talk by Elder Cook.

    It seems to me that if we make correcting the ills of this life too effortless we risk devaluing the atonement and grace. (We also risk devaluing, you know, reality, but that’s another matter.) That’s why my favorite Christian culture may be the ‘death-haunted South’, at least in aspects.

  23. Kent Larsen on October 11, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    geoffsn (11), the printed edition of Elder Cook’s talk cites a biography:

    Conway B. Sonne. A Man Named Alma: The World of Alma Sonne (1988)

    The title sounds like it will give you what you want.

  24. geoffsn on October 11, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    Awesome! Embarrassed that I missed that. Thanks.

  25. Kent Larsen on October 11, 2011 at 4:21 pm

    If you look at my Conference books post on Motley Vision tomorrow or in the next few days (depending on when I get it posted), you’ll understand how I know. I have a reason for reading the talks closely.