Joseph Smith found language terribly important, and was clear that no translation into English could be perfect because of the limits of the language. Brigham Young expounded on the theme a number of times, that all revelation that came through prophets, all scripture and all records had flaws because of the weaknesses of the language, the impact of culture and other overlays that create the connotations we live with and the sub-texts of our lives. My first memory of a devotional at BYU was of Spencer W. Kimball quoting Brigham Young on how we would go astray if we relied on him for truth. Brigham Young believed in the errant nature of language, scripture and revelation that came through men.
As a result, he taught a number of times on the essential nature of communing with God directly for truth and that anyone who failed to do so was at risk to go astray from where God wanted him or her to be — relying on what others said would not do the task of leading one to truth because everything that was said was flawed.
Of all things, Elder Oaks recent talk at Harvard made me think of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young in the lens of an experience my mother had.
She needed to sign a legal document and have it certified and sent to Greece. So, she got the document, took it to the embassy in Los Angeles, and had it certified. The official then typed a translated copy, put the original in a tray in the safe (along with a lot of other documents) and stamped wax and seals on the copy and mailed the copy off to Greece.
In theory, anyone who wanted to verify the document could come back to Los Angeles and compare the typing and the translation for themselves.
Elder Oaks suggested that revelation from prophets was like getting a certified copy and that we had access to God to confirm the meaning and accuracy of the copy. It struck me that we had not so much the opportunity to do so, as the obligation to do so, much as Brigham Young preached, because the copy necessarily will have some flaws of language, culture and expression that only contact with the author can rectify as to our needs, understanding and comprehension.
To fail to seek God out is to guarantee that we will be misled. Perhaps only in insignificant ways, perhaps more so (thinking of a translation of a text I studied in college that used the term “valley” when it turns out that the author meant “warm bath.”). But we can’t know until and unless we seek out God for ourselves.
For me, as to Elder Oaks talk, that meant a convergence of meaning that included my mother, Brigham Young and Joseph Smith. You probably don’t share my experiences with my mom, the context and meaning you might gain could well be different, as well it should, which is what inspiration and revelation is all about, bringing us to truth in spite of our differences.