2 Nephi 27-28

There’s so much in here, but I have time to pick out only a couple of verses:

Wherefore, when thou hast read the words which I have commanded thee, and obtained the witnesses which I have promised unto thee, then shalt thou seal up the book again, and hide it up unto me, that I may preserve the words which thou hast not read, until I shall see fit in mine own wisdom to reveal all things unto the children of men.

(2 Nephi 27:22)

This one’s interesting because I suddenly realised it addresses a question I hadn’t thought about all that much (one of those “was this always in there?” moments). The question being why Joseph Smith had to give the plate back. The reason is given here :”that I may preserve the words which thou hast not read” (my emphasis). Never mind people attempting to retranslate the Book of Mormon itself: the concern given here is over the sealed portion, which the Lord has kept back at this time.

And they shall contend one with another; and their priests shall contend one with another, and they shall teach with their learning, and deny the Holy Ghost, which giveth utterance.

(2 Nephi 28:4)

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the themes of 2 Nephi 25-30 is the way a contrast is built up between human learning and the knowledge from God, and this is an example, where contending priests are condemned for teaching by their learning while denying the Holy Ghost and true inspiration. I find it cautionary: in my approach to the scriptures, and when I discuss them with other people, how often do I rely on what I think I know rather than being open to the spirit to teach me things I don’t?

For behold, at that day shall he rage in the hearts of the children of men, and stir them up to anger against that which is good.

(2 Nephi 28:20)

2 Nephi 28 also spends quite a bit of time talking about the different tactics of the devil, including flattery, complacency and in this case rage. A lot of present political developments are currently predicated on rage, of course, with people being “angry” and demanding that their anger be validated. And I’ve found in turn that there’s a strong temptation to be angry in turn with certain movements. Such unbridled anger, however, is a tool of the devil, and we/I have to be careful not to let him use such tools against us.

2 Nephi 21-22

Chapter 22 was so short I decided to include that in today’s reading as well.

They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

(2 Nephi 21:9//Isaiah 11:9)

2 Nephi 25-30 have a lot more to say about this topic before recapitulating parts of Isaiah 11 in 2 Nephi 30, but just reading this verse today brought this to mind again. One of the keys to the future millennial state described in Isaiah 11 is knowledge. I guess one doesn’t typically thing of peace, including between the different parts of creation (v.6-8) as a result of knowledge, but that is what is described here. Of course, this is not simply academic knowledge, but “the knowledge of the Lord”, and 2 Nephi 25-30 have a lot more to say about that.

And in that day thou shalt say: O Lord, I will praise thee; though thou wast angry with me thine anger is turned away, and thou comfortedst me.

(2 Nephi 22:1//Isaiah 12:1)

I’ve mentioned before that I tend to worry about messing things up. It’s comforting to know that – while we may well do things that displease the Lord – He is merciful and forgiving, and always prepared to receive and comfort us if we repent.

 

The learning of men and the knowledge from God

2 Nephi 25-30 is a fascinating passage of scripture (there’s a reason it’s going to be my final case study for my thesis), and one of the most fascinating things in it is the tension it develops though the whole passage between two different sorts of knowledge. On one hand is the learning of men, and on the other knowledge from God. Thus the meaning of Isaiah is “plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy” (2 Nephi 25:4), and the restoration of Israel will happen in part because of God revealing his words to them (2 Nephi 25:18). When it comes to the sealed book the learned man cannot read them, while by the power of God the unlearned man will, for:

…The learned shall not read them, for they have rejected them, and I am able to do mine own work; wherefore thou shalt read the words which I shall give unto thee.
(2 Nephi 27:20)

The Book of Mormon then warns against those who will contend against each other, which

…shall teach with their learning, and deny the Holy Ghost, which giveth utterance.
(2 Nephi 28:4)

and warns those who are

…the wise, and the learned, and the rich, that are puffed up in the pride of their hearts, and all those who preach false doctrines…
(2 Nephi 28:15)

and that

Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man, or maketh flesh his arm, or shall hearken unto the precepts of men, save their precepts shall be given by the power of the Holy Ghost.
(2 Nephi 28:31)

Yet for those who humble themselves, and seek knowledge from God, knowledge becomes of saving importance, and it is such knowledge that leads to the paradisiacal conditions of the Millennium:

They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Wherefore, the things of all nations shall be made known; yea, all things shall be made known unto the children of men.
There is nothing which is secret save it shall be revealed; there is no work of darkness save it shall be made manifest in the light; and there is nothing which is sealed upon earth save it shall be loosed.
Wherefore, all things which have been revealed unto the children of men shall at that day be revealed; and Satan shall have power over the hearts of the children of men no more, for a long time. And now, my beloved brethren, I make an end of my sayings.
(2 Nephi 30:15–18)

Knowledge, then, saves us… if we have sought it from the right source. Now I do not believe the Book of Mormon condemns other learning (see 2 Nephi 9:28-29), but it warns against pride and against uninspired approaches, and particularly attempts to discern sacred things without using sacred means.

I believe this has many implications for how we approach a lot of things, and at this time am particularly thinking about how this should affect how we approach the scriptures. I’ve certainly expressed my concern before at approaches to the scriptures that I feel are overly academic, which apply study but do not apply faith as we are commanded to do. But with all such things we should of course worry most about what we are doing, and so in this case how we personally are seeking to understand God’s words. There’s a lot of well-meant advice out there on how to read the scriptures, but as I’ve suggested before, I believe studying the scriptures is not just an intellectual exercise, but a spiritual discipline to which we must apply our whole souls. And this may mean the most important question when it comes to reading the scriptures is not how much we engage the mind (though I’m never opposed to that!), but how much we seek the spirit. Rather than just seeing the words, how often do we seek and find revelation to help us understand the words? For the promise is there, as Nephi said:

Do ye not remember the things which the Lord hath said?—If ye will not harden your hearts, and ask me in faith, believing that ye shall receive, with diligence in keeping my commandments, surely these things shall be made known unto you.
(1 Nephi 15:11)

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.