At the heart of this talk is the concept of "ambiguity." Elder Hafen says:
"The fundamental teachings of the restored gospel are potent, clear and unambiguous; but it is possible, on occasion, to encounter some ambiguity even in studying the scriptures. Consider for example the case--known to all of us--of Nephi, who slew Laban in order to obtain the scriptural record (see 1 Nephi 4:518). That situation is not free from ambiguity until the reader realizes that God himself, who gave the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" (Exodus 20:13), was also the origin of the instructions to Nephi in that exceptional case."
God sometimes appears inconsistent in the scriptures -- especially when it comes to killing other human beings -- something that God can do himself, but for some reason that I cannot understand, supposedly orders us to do at times. Mormon Heretic did a great post a while back about whether genocide can ever be sanctioned by God in Joshua's Unholy War. Ambiguous or not, I'm not sure that the order to slaughter innocent human beings -- especially children -- can ever really come from God.
Elder Hafen presents an interesting example of ambiguity and what it can mean for different interpretations of the same story:
I enjoyed this particular theory about the story of Peter. Maybe I'm just strange, but I often find myself feeling bad for the "weaklings" in the scriptures who are often dealt with very harshly for their mistakes. Did they always deserve what they got? Did Lot's wife deserve to be turned into a pillar of salt for simply looking back (Genesis 19)? Did Onan deserve to be liquidated for "spilling his seed" instead of impregnating his sister-in-law (Genesis 38)? Did 42 children deserve to be killed for mocking Elisha's bald head (Numbers 16)? (I used to make fun of David O. McKay's hair or Spencer W. Kimball's pointy ears in pictures that I saw as a kid. Am I lucky to be alive because of that?) Does Peter really deserve being accused of cowardice or betrayal for denying Christ? I think that the suggestion that Jesus was making a request to Peter instead of simply a prediction makes sense. We've probably assumed that a light bulb suddenly went off in Peter's mind when he heard the cock crow, as if he thought, "Oh yeah, I forgot what Jesus said about my denying him three times before the cock crowed. Dangit, he was right!" Surely Peter hadn't really forgotten something as significant as that prediction or, perhaps, request.
Elder Hafen continues:
"Let us compare some other scriptural passages. The Lord has said that he cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance (D&C 1:31), yet elsewhere he said to the adulteress, "Where are . . . thine accusers? . . . Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more" (John 8:10, 11). There is indeed a principle of justice, but there is also a principle of mercy. At times these two correct principles collide with each other as the unifying higher principle of the Atonement does its work. Even though God has given us correct principles by which we are to govern ourselves, it is not always easy to apply them to particular situations in our lives."
One of the hardest parts of Gospel application is where justice and mercy collide. I usually lean heavily towards mercy. I admit that if I were a judge, I'd hear the sad stories of people and would want to send them away with a slap on the wrist. In Church settings, I really wish sometimes that we could just cut people some slack. In a lot of cases (not all, but a lot), I think that if we really try to see things from the perspective of another, we would also be able to honestly say, "Neither do I condemn thee." When Elder Hafen says regarding justice and mercy that, "(a)t times these two correct principles collide with each other as the unifying higher principle of the Atonement does its work. Even though God has given us correct principles by which we are to govern ourselves, it is not always easy to apply them to particular situations in our lives," I can't help but think of those who find themselves unable to live the Church's laws concerning homosexuality when overwhelming loneliness takes over. In those cases, I think the Lord knows that some just cannot do it, and so "the higher principle of the Atonement does its work" once the person does all that he/she can do.
"Church and family life are not the only areas where the right answer is not always on the tip of the tongue. If you would stretch your mind about the implications of ambiguity, you might think once again of the Vietnam War. Should our nation have tried to do more than it did, or less than it did? Or perhaps you could consider whether we should sell all we have and donate our surplus to the millions of people who are starving. You might also ask yourself how much governmental intervention in business and private life is too much. The people on the extreme sides of these questions convey great certainty about what should be done. However, I think some of these people are more interested in being certain than they are in being right."
I think my one of my favourite parts in this entire talk is the ambiguity that Elder Hafen leaves around the question of "how much governmental intervention in business and private life is too much." In fact, I find ambiguity in this matter to be refreshing, since I don't think there is a black and white, right or wrong answer to the question -- contrary to what many members of the Church seem to be under the impression of. I'm open about the fact that my personal political preference is an ideology that embraces certain social democratic values. I tried ad nauseum to educate fellow Mormons about what social democracy really entails around different blogs and groups during the election when Obama was being branded an "evil socialist" by many in the Church. Yes, I think the world would be a better place if every country could adhere to certain social democratic values, and I think that liberalism has at least just as much of a legitimate place in Mormonism as conservativism . But I don't think God is a socialist. Neither do I think He's a Democrat, a Republican, a right-wing libertarian, or a Constitutionalist. Even though we all have our preferences, virtually every political philosophy probably has at least some value that we can learn from and use in our progression -- even those that we would personally never vote for. I don't think it's coincidence that there is enough ambiguity surrounding this question in order for us to be able to reach our individual conclusions in the matter of politics and government intervention -- despite the fact that many members I encountered in various discussions proclaimed that this party or that philosophy had God's stamp of approval.
Thoughts on any of the issues presented in this part of the talk? Do you draw any personal interpretations from ambiguity?