A Psalm

O Lord My God,
I shall praise thee in the morning
and in the evening.
I shall praise thee amongst hope
and amongst the blackest shoals of despair.

I am encompassed round about,
I am assailed on all sides,
yet I shall praise thee
for I know that thou art over all,
and orderest all things for our good.

Deliver me, O Lord,
from my afflictions and my enemies.
I know not what to do,
or where to go,
and feel beyond hope,
yet I know that thou wilt aid those without aid.
Thou art the final refuge,
and a sure redoubt,
against all the efforts of the enemy
and against all failings of the heart.

O Lord I desire to serve thee,
and greatly desire to do thy will.
Yet I stumble,
and fail thee,
and much is beyond my power.
Forgive thou my weaknesses,
and grant me strength to accomplish all that thou dost desire
and to become all that thou wouldst.

I am alone,
and my strength faileth.
My heart aches,
and I see no succor.
Yet I know that thy hand is mighty.
Help me, I pray thee.
Comfort my soul,
and ease my pains.
Make me to see thy aid
and that of thy servants,
that I might praise thee
and acknowledge all thy goodness,
and pour out thy comforting spirit upon me
and grant me thy peace.

Make me to serve thee,
and to dwell in thy rest,
and grant me thy hope
in all the blessings that thou hast promised.

Jacob and self-loathing

When I see a lot of academic attempts at looking at the Scriptures, including a lot of recent LDS attempts, I am reminded of the difference between interesting and important. Some stuff doesn’t even reach the level of interesting, of course, but some stuff does and I like thinking about it – things like chronology and so on.

But that isn’t really the point of the scriptures, as much fun as those things can be. Likewise things like historical issues can largely fall into this area. Knowing people existed and so their testimonies are real is important of course – otherwise the additional witness of Christ as presented by those of 3 Nephi 11:15 or Moroni’s own witness in Ether 12:39 is meaningless. But the exact cultural and geographical context, and things like that isn’t the important thing. What is important is that the scriptures are the word of God, containing revelation from him, that is meant to both kindle faith and change our lives. If we read or study the scriptures and come across nothing that affects our own lives, we have wasted our time.

There’s lots of ways we can encourage that, but one I’ve been reminded of lately is captured by the statement of Brigham Young that “Do you read the Scriptures, my brethren and sisters, as though you were writing them a thousand, two thousand, or five thousand years ago? Do you read them as though you stood in the place of the men who wrote them? If you do not feel thus, it is your privilege to do so…” (DBY, 128). I feel that one thing we can do is to find ourselves in the scriptures, by studying and then learning from the examples, both good and bad, we find within. When I read the lives of these individuals, I often find myself seeing things I can learn – examples to emulate, to beware and sometimes to endure. One of the reasons I love the Old Testament is what I learn from the people in it, and how honest the book is about human predicaments. The Book of Mormon is in some ways quite different from the Old Testament, and tends to be a lot less subtle about conveying its major points, but it can also be very sophisticated, much more than is recognised, about what it is saying about the people within it.

Copyright 2014 by Elspeth Young, All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of Al Young Studios.

So I turn to the example provoking this post – namely Jacob, the brother of Nephi. He is such a different person in his voice from Nephi that I’m surprised not to see more comments on it. Nephi, while he does have his burdens (see 2 Nephi 4:15-35), carries in himself in a quite bombastic, enthusiastic and determined way, to the extent that I have often joked that I don’t know I would have liked him if I had known him. Jacob however comes across as a very different individual.

Jacob, for one thing, is very sensitive to the feelings of those to whom he preaches. While Nephi, faced with his brothers comments, meets them with the truthful but blunt ‘the guilty taketh the truth to be hard’ (1 Nephi 15:2), Jacob is almost solicitous in his comment that “…behold, my brethren, is it expedient that I should awake you to an awful reality of these things? Would I harrow up souls if you were pure?’ (2 Nephi 9:47). Jacob’s sensitivity extends to concern that his necessary words may hurt the feelings of those of his audience who are the victims, rather than the commissioners of sin:

…it grieveth me that I must use so much boldness of speech concerning you, before your wives and your children… it supposeth me that they have come up hither to hear the pleasing word of God, yea the word which healeth the wounded soul. Wherefore it burdeneth my soul that I should be constrained… to admonish you according your crimes, to enlarge the wounds of those who are already wounded, instead of healing and consoling their wounds; and those who have been wounded, instead of feasting upon the pleasing word of God have daggers placed to pierce their souls and wound their delicate minds. (Jacob 2:7-10)

There is no other passage in the Book of Mormon quite like this.

However, what I find most striking about Jacob is what I see as his lack of self-assurance. Contrast his comments to Sherem with Alma’s confrontation with Korihor. Alma is typically robust: ‘This will I give unto thee for a sign, that thou shalt be struck dumb, according to my words; and I say, that in the name of God, ye shall be struck dumb, that ye shall no more have utterance.’ (Alma 30:49). Jacob however is keen to emphasise that the decision is not in his hands: ‘Nevertheless, not my will be done; but if God shall smite thee, let that be a sign unto thee that he has power, both in heaven and in earth; and also, that Christ shall come. And thy will, O Lord, be done, and not mine.’ (Jacob 7:14).

Yet perhaps the clearest expression of this comes in 2 Nephi 9, where Jacob is talking of the Final Judgement:

Wherefore, we shall have a perfect knowledge of all our guilt, and our uncleanness, and our nakedness; and the righteous shall have a perfect knowledge of their enjoyment, and their righteousness, being clothed with purity, yea, even with the robe of righteousness. (2 Nephi 9:14)

Perhaps unnoticed here amid the terror of the concept of a perfect memory is that Jacob includes himself (‘we’ and ‘our’) amongst the wicked. Yet there is nothing we know that would agree with that assessment – quite the opposite when one factors not only his teachings but his revelations and encounters with angels (2 Nephi 10:3, Jacob 4:6). Yet it seems he mentally cannot bring himself to class himself amongst the righteous. When one adds his closing words, the impression is of a man that – despite his undoubted righteousness – did not always feel happy and may well have felt quite insecure about himself:

…the time passed away with us, and also our lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days. (Jacob 7:26)

All this is built to some degree on some slender threads, but it does speak to a sometimes common dilemma. Jacob’s self perception appears to have been at odds with his actual standing as an individual and with God. And for some of us that can be an issue – that however much we know of God’s will, and however much we might actually be serving at that time, we still feel deeply inadequate: unsure of our standing before God or those we care about, and all too conscious of at least some of our mortal frailties, and perhaps deeply afraid that people will finally see us the way we see ourselves, or worse that we have whole other faults we’re completely unaware of but that everyone else really is. And while God is certainly capable of piercing those feelings – and on occasion does – many of the well-meaning suggestions people have for dealing with such feelings fall short.

If my reading is right, Jacob – like others – may have struggled with such feelings all his life. Yet what his example can teach us is that despite what he may have felt, he served courageously anyway. And despite what he may have felt, we know differently, and can be sure that God feels differently, and perhaps we can hope that he now knows differently, and knows as he is known (1 Corinthians 13:12). And for those of us who do struggle with such feelings, perhaps we can remember that some of God’s noblest children may have felt the same, yet were wrong. That our self perception is flawed, that despite our inadequacies and fears we can serve, and serve well, and that in the final accounting before God may see things quite differently, and far more kindly, than we can imagine.

Edit: Embarassing mind blip removed!

What are the humanities for?

It’s been a long while since I’ve posted here, so I’m going to try and rectify that!

humanOne matter that has been on my mind has been the state of academia, and the humanities in particular. I doubt it is any surprise to those that know me that I am often highly sceptical of the academy in the general and the value of much of what is produced. Between a ‘publish and perish’ culture that encourages publication even of dross, the pursuit of esoteric subjects with little wider import and readerships that often factor in the single figures, much of what academia – especially the humanities – accomplishes appears irrelevant to anyone outside the ivory tower. That those inside the ivory tower sometimes have trouble grasping this point is part of the trouble. It’s one thing to believe that you are engaged in a disinterested search for knowledge, but when what is produced are conjectures about esoteric subjects few people care about, when you fail to communicate these things to virtually anyone else (and those who do read do so to disagree), and where the existence of absolute truth is commonly denied, it’s really hard to see that being the case. And since the humanities are under increasing pressure to justify their existence – both as courses for students to study, and departments to occupy university and government funding – I don’t think I’m the only one to wonder what good the humanities do.

So I was thinking about these things, and I guess about the wider purpose of the so-called humanities. There are many issues, such as over-specialisation, and the growth of arcane terminology intended to cloud rather than clarify meaning, but one issue is that so much of the humanities appears pointless, except for activities to do in humanities departments. One thing that seems clear to me is that the sciences (especially the harder sciences) retain some outside respect and relevance because much of their research and teaching has an effect on the wider world. Much of it has ultimately practical consequences that go far beyond the ivory tower.

However, it’s not like the humanities can easily offer that sort of thing. Studies of history, or theology, or literature  or so on do not at first sight appear to offer practical implications. And it is not enough to have some – in order to be consequential, there must always be something that can answer the ‘so what’ question. Okay, you have presented your theory, or your research or your conclusions – so what? Where there is consideration of it, it’s often at the service of the narrow identity politics so popular in academia, but so alien to life as actually lived. And to much of the rest of the humanities, the only answer to that question is polite applause and a few questions at a conference, and then everyone goes home to never think or remember about that topic again, let alone real consequences in the outside world – for the rest of humanity.

Yet I believe there is scope to answer that question. Part of the problem has been the conception of the humanities as a gaining of knowledge (even as the very concept of objective knowledge has been undermined). But the mere collection of abstract knowledge, sometimes of such narrow topics can never successfully answer the ‘so what’ question. But what if there was a different understanding of what study of these topics could offer us – a study of the collected record of humanity’s thoughts, writings and actions? What if rather than just seeking knowledge about how humans live and have lived, we see it as an opportunity to gain wisdom – to learn how human beings can live well. What if we seek to learn and teach not just to add to our knowledge, but to guide our actions, to learn from the follies and mistakes of mankind, to learn what works, to be inspired by its truest thoughts, and to be better than we otherwise are?

I don’t know if the academic humanities as presently constituted can make that step, consumed as it is by its own interests, content as it is in its own introversion and uncertain as it is to the nature of truth. But on a personal level I can certainly try to address that question in what I do, particularly when looking at things like the scriptures, lumped as they presently are in the humanities. For if they are inspired, if they are of God (and they are), the most important questions about them are not of history, but of their present implications for my behaviour and my actions. When I look at them, ‘so what’ should be the foremost question in my mind.

Wise Men from the East

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

(Matthew 2:1-2)

This obviously strikes a seasonal note, but it’s one I’ve been thinking about recently. The story itself has had a long influence, including on ideas of gift giving and more recently in things like Henry Van Dyke’s story of “The Other Wise Man”, which perhaps encapsulates best in fictional form much of the real point of the whole thing.

However, I’ve been thinking a bit about the actual wise men themselves. Generally biblical studies tends to disregard them as fictional, as part of an overall scepticism towards the gospel narratives, but as anyone following this this blog will be aware, that’s not an approach I share. More recently I’ve come across claims of the mythicists (that is those who take the position that there was no such historical person as Jesus of Nazareth, but that he was invented out of Egyptian and Classical myth – very much a minority position), that is is some reference to an ‘alignment’ between the three stars on Orion’s belt (claimed to be called “the three kings” in Egyptian mythology, although I can only find reference to that name in modern languages) and Sirius on December the 25th – however, aside from the astronomical issues, this clearly ignores the fact that the Gospel of Matthew does not refer to three visitors (the number coming into the tradition from adding up the gifts), nor refer to them as kings. Furthermore, the nativity account precedes the actual attaching of a festival to the 25th of December by several centuries – the date is a late addition essentially for ecclesiastical convenience, not the actual anniversary. So this latter position relies on some myth making of its own.

Yet if one accepts the actual existence of the wise men, the question arises as to their identity. Where did they come from? There is little information in Matthew – that they were from the east and were ‘magi’ (Greek: μάγοι magoi, translated ‘wise men’ in the KJV). The latter term has suggested connections with Zoroastrianism, but the Greek use of the term had taken on a much wider definition many centuries before the Gospels. Some translations take this (along with the star connection) as referring to astrologers, but they are also subsequently warned by God in a dream to avoid Herod (Matt. 2:12), indicating there knowledge was not that obtained solely through stargazing. Even the timeframe is unclear – contrary to Nativities everywhere, that Hero’s killed all male children two years and younger may suggest a visit almost several years after Christ was born.

As a little thought for the season, I’d like to add one highly speculative possibility for Latter-day Saints: That at least some were connected with Book of Mormon peoples. We read in Helaman 16:14, a few short years before the birth of Christ:

And angels did appear unto men, wise men, and did declare unto them glad tidings of great joy; thus in this year the scriptures began to be fulfilled.

This verse has clear connection with the nativity accounts (with angels bringing ‘glad tidings of great joy’), and makes specific reference to ‘wise men’. However we also have some possible specific candidates. Samuel the Lamanite, after prophesying a specific time frame of 5 years for the birth of Christ and prophesying a ‘new star’ as one of signs of this (Hel. 14:2, 5), subsequently returns to his own people and then ‘he was never heard of more among the Nephites’ (Hel. 16:8). Likewise, Nephi son of Helaman, the year prior to the birth of Christ (and perhaps leaving time a little tight for any trips not involving supernatural assistance – though remember the extra timeframe!) passes the records to his son Nephi and then ‘he departed out of the land, and whither he went, no man knoweth’ (3 Nephi 1:2-3); unlike his great grandfather Alma, who pulled a similar trick over half a century earlier, there is no suggestion in the text here of possible translation.

Were Book of Mormon figures involved, this might also explain the facet of the story where the wise men turn up at the court of Herod in Jerusalem asking where the Messiah is born, a question Herod must ask the Chief Priests and Scribes who give the correct answer (Bethlehem) by referring to Micah 5:2 (Matt. 2:4-6). But since the only person to quote Micah in the Book of Mormon appears to be the risen Christ (3 Nephi 20-21), the people of the Book of Mormon may not have had Micah, leaving them without a vital clue. What they would have had is Alma 7:10, which prophesies Christ will be born ‘at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers’. This has been a frequent target for critics, who have failed to note that it specifies ‘land of our forefathers’. This is consistent both with the Book of Mormon’s habit of naming lands after their chief cities, and with Bethlehem being a village in walking distance of Jerusalem, but it would also have left travellers in need of an extra little information.

Thus, while extremely speculative, this idea does account for certain details of the story. However, I like to think that the strongest argument in its favour comes from a psychological angle. If the account be true, these men knew one of the greatest events in human history was about to occur. They knew when, and with a little uncertainty knew roughly where, and knew few others would be able to witness this. If you were in that position, wouldn’t you try to go?

The Myth of Progress

Very often – both in mainstream news commentary and in the undergrowth of internet comments – one hears remarks about the ‘right side of history’. Likewise there are frequent assumptions about ‘progress’ – that certain things will be utterly accepted a hundred years from now, or rejected or whatever. Underlying all this is an assumption that history is progressing in a linear direction towards some destination. This is not a new assumption – both the Whig and Marxist theories of history did the same thing, and both arguably took religious predecessors and stripped them of their theology. Yet the assumption is also false.

The idea of continuous and inevitable progress can’t even be sustained in the field of technology, where perhaps one could make the greatest case. It takes longer to get to New York from London than it did 30 years ago, and technological progress in aviation was far more startling in the 40 years from 1929 to 1969 than in the 40 from 1969 to 2009. Technological improvements have their sudden spurts, but also have their plateaus. They also have their regresses, as the loss of certain techniques following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire demonstrates.

The assumption of ‘progress’ in political or social fields is even more questionable. Something can be socially acceptable in ancient Greece, unacceptable in Medieval Europe, and accepted again centuries later. Which was the move in the ‘right’ direction? Democracy can appear in ancient Greece, be disdained as akin to anarchy for millennia, and then reappear again – is it on the ‘right side of history’? Empires rise, but they also always inevitably fall. The very assumption that one set of political or social standards is ‘right’ presupposes an absolute scale of values – but many of those who use such language reject the existence of any transcendental being or state that would necessarily have to underpin those values.

For those of us who do accept such a transcendental reference point, there’s nothing to imply that humanity is always moving in that direction. To take a more specific example, the scriptures show a humanity that drifts in every which direction – a humanity that fell from the presence of God, and then moves even further away as mankind becomes ‘carnal’ and ‘devilish’ (Alma 12 & Moses 5). A mankind that then engages in a cyclical pattern of history of pride and apostasy, on a national and I would argue an individual level. Neither the Deuteronomic History nor the Book of Mormon depict an ‘onward and upwards’ glorious pattern of progress, but rather an constant cycle that if anything trends downwards. Nor are the scriptures positive of our own period in history (D&C 1 & 45), and likewise the record of our own recent history should humble us: the record of totalitarian genocide in the 20th century and the world wars are a stumbling block to anyone who concludes we’re inevitably making ‘progress’.

Appeals to ‘progress’ or the ‘right side of history’ are founded on a myth, and attempt to short-cut any arguments of reason or morality by effectively arguing ‘this is inevitable, this is the way it’s going to be, why fight it?’ But history twists and turns on itself, and just because something is going to happen doesn’t make it right, or mean we should concede to it, or mean that ultimately there is no turning back. And – however long it takes (and it may take centuries or millenia), sometimes it takes turning back to make ‘progress’, if one has been moving in the wrong direction.

If men are faithful…

If men are faithful, the time will come when they will possess the power and knowledge to obtain, organize, bring into existence and own. “What, of themselves, independent of their creator?” No. But they and their creator will always be one, they will always be of one heart and one mind, working and operating together; for whatsoever the Father doeth so doeth the Son, and so they continue throughout all their operations to all eternity.

- Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 2:304

He hath given a law to all things

Which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space—

The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things. (Doctrine & Covenants 88:12-13)

He comprehendeth all things, and all things are before him, and all things are round about him; and he is above all things, and in all things, and is through all things, and is round about all things; and all things are by him, and of him, even God, forever and ever.

And again, verily I say unto you, he hath given a law unto all things, by which they move in their times and their seasons;

And their courses are fixed, even the courses of the heavens and the earth, which comprehend the earth and all the planets. (v.41-43)

The nature of miracles sometimes gets some discussion in LDS circles. Of course, most of the modern world has dismissed the possibility of such things, but the Book of Mormon strongly emphasises not just the existence of past miracles, but the reality and indeed the necessity of present day miracles (Moroni 7:37-38, compare Mormon 9:20), for faith works miracles, and an absence of miracles is due to unbelief.

The question is often raised as to how such miracles relate to physical ‘laws’ – after all, such miracles as raising the dead, transmuting water into wine or walking on water violate physical laws as we understand them. And some LDS folk have suggested that there is no such violation here – all that is happening is that God understands some ‘higher law’, and works within that.

I’ve never been entirely happy with this approach, which seems to subordinate God to physical laws, and reduce the supernatural to the natural (the very tendency the Book of Mormon, with its emphasis on the power of God, appears to argue against!). And, as verse 42 above indicates, it is God who gives law rather than the other way around. But upon rereading the above verses, I am struck that much much more seems to be offered here. Our very model of immutable physical laws, separate from God, is itself an artefact of many centuries of Western culture, as can be seen in notions of God as a ‘watch maker’, who sets up the universe and then lets it run itself, and later concepts that ditched the watch maker.

Yet that is not the perspective of Section 88. Notice here that the light of Christ, which is ‘the law by which all things are governed’ and the ‘power of God’ (v.13), and which amongst other things is the power by which the sun, moon and stars were made (v.7-9) and regulates their motions (v.42-43), is depicted as proceeding ‘forth from the presence of God’. It is not a one time thing, done in the past, but something in the present. The physical laws operate not because they were set down in the past, but because the power of God, which gives life, light and law to all things, acts upon them now. Any such physical laws by which the universe operates do so because of the continuing present will of God. Law is thus not something separate from God, let alone above him – it is the present operation of His will upon the physical universe.

If this is true (and the above verses suggest it is), then there are no such thing as immutable physical laws. Physical laws operate because God presently wills it, and if he ceased to do so they would not. Miracles are where God wills differently, and when he does the physical universe obeys (Helaman 12:7-8). And rather than everything being confined under rigid, naturalistic law, even the operation of supposedly ‘natural’, ‘physical’ laws are actually further examples of the supernatural and the power of God. Perhaps this is why Section 88 goes on to proclaim:

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. (v.47)