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McKay: Boyd Packer and Confucius

Published April 23, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

I read the op-ed "Of Gays, Greeks, and an LDS Apostle" in the April 13 Opinion section, wherein McKay Holland took issue with LDS apostle Boyd K. Packer's recent general conference address.

Specifically, he was put off by Packer's comment that too much tolerance is a vice, especially with regard to laws in our country being changed to legalize acts of immorality.

With semantic slight-of-hand, Holland invoked Aristotle's ideas that virtues are not quantifiable and therefore you can't have "too much" of a virtue.

The piece left me wondering what Confucius would make of all this.

Why Confucius? Well, while the Greeks loved idealized theorizing, in ancient China we find a wonderful balance in practical, earthy Confucianism. Confucius advocated "the doctrine of the mean," meaning that the Goldilocks principle applies to virtues.

Furthermore, virtues interplay with each other, so courage plus a lack of propriety results in political disorder, while obeying parents and respecting elders make one a true gentleman.

Finally, one's innate personality and predilections must be regulated by rites and principles of social propriety, which leads to the attainment of ren, the consummate virtue of love.

Thus, Holland's arguing that you can't have too much virtue is a moot point in Confucianism. Confucius sees the "mean" as a zone, not a quotient. Too little tolerance and you're left with me-ism, where all must subjugate their wills to mine.

Too much tolerance and I've got myself a one-way ticket to you-ville, where all mental, emotional and behavioral autonomy is eventually surrendered to whatever you want.

In his address, Packer related an incident at his home involving snakes eating finches and his subsequent insight that "we need to protect our nestlings" because "the family, the fundamental organization in time and eternity, is under attack from forces seen and unseen."

This then was interpreted by Holland as "Packer not-so-subtly compared gays and lesbians to snakes invading the 'Garden of Eden.'"

The problem with this comment is that the tolerance statement (which was directed toward gay marriage) didn't occur until 11 paragraphs later, after having discussed covenants, the atonement and being true to inspiration.

Somehow I don't think that outspokenness plus selective reading is a virtue combo anywhere, even in "gay apologetics."

From a more holistic point-of-view, the fact is, since becoming an apostle in 1970, Packer has spoken against more than just homosexuality. He has spoken strongly in defense of morality and the family to the delinquent dad community, the pornography and masturbation community, the pro-choice abortion community and the riotous rock and roll community. Maybe it's not just about the LGBT community after all.

In the end, Holland called for an end of mere tolerance and a beginning of love. I wholeheartedly agree.

It's my guess that most gays and gay-marriage activists only hear (about) talks given by Packer. If we're to begin loving, perhaps seeing him in a different setting would help.

In the recent issue of BYU's School of Family Life alumni magazine, the spotlight article mentions that in the late 90s, Packer spoke to the SFL faculty, encouraging them to produce textbooks that combined the best research and scholarship with moral and spiritual values.

"The faculty in attendance still remember Pres. Packer's voice wavering with emotion as he urged them to take these charges seriously: '[Y]ou must ... you must succeed…,' he implored, and left an apostolic blessing on them."

In this light, maybe Packer is not a gay-hater after all, but rather an ardent family-lover whose duty it is to strengthen society's core — the family — while warning against potential pitfalls as we navigate the uncharted and thus precarious landscape of modernity.

Trever McKay is a doctoral student at National Taiwan University and a visiting instructor of Chinese at BYU.