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.