Sunday, March 31, 2013

One Unique Gift: Thoughts on Easter


It has been an edifying and joyful Easter Sunday.  As I have been reflecting on the meaning of Easter, and it's meaning for me personally, my thoughts turned to a teaching of the Prophet Joseph Smith:

“The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it." (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 121)

In a week's time, the entire world has the opportunity to tune in and be instructed and edified by the testimony of living Apostles and Prophets, successors of those alluded to in Joseph Smith's penetrating statement.  That Jesus Christ died, was buried, and rose again the third day are incontrovertible historical facts that ought to command the attention and interest of sincere seekers of truth everywhere.  But why does this matter?

Joseph Smith also taught, in the Lectures on Faith, that "A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things, never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation."  The testimony of the Apostles and Prophets concerning Jesus Christ are the fundamental principles of our religion, and that religion requires the sacrifice of all things.

On this Easter Sunday, the life, Atoning sacrifice and Resurrection of Jesus Christ are significant to me because I understand that He sacrificed His life for me personally, and for all mankind, and that I too should be willing to sacrifice all things for Him.  In other words, because Christ gave His life that all might live, and have life more abundantly, I pledge to strive a little more each day to demonstrate my love for Jesus Christ by being willing to sacrifice all things for Him, even my own life if necessary.  In reality, all things, including my life, belong to Christ anyway, or, as Elder Maxwell explained: 

“The submission of one’s will is really the only uniquely personal thing we have to place on God’s altar. The many other things we ‘give,’ … are actually the things He has already given or loaned to us. However, when you and I finally submit ourselves, by letting our individual wills be swallowed up in God’s will, then we are really giving something to Him! It is the only possession which is truly ours to give!" (Conference Report, Sept.–Oct. 1995, 30; or Ensign, Nov. 1995, 24; emphasis added)

Happy Easter!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

What is Mormon Studies?

If you were hearing the phrase "Mormon Studies" for the first time, what would you think?  What is Mormon Studies?  What do professors of Mormon Studies teach?  What do students of Mormon Studies learn?  What is the purpose of Mormon Studies?

These are legitimate questions with a wide ranging variety of responses.  But let's go to the source to find some answers.  Oh alright, let's go to Wikipedia instead.  Wikipedia defines Mormon Studies as:
"the interdisciplinary academic study of the beliefs, practices, history and culture of those known by the term Mormon and denominations belonging to the Latter Day Saint movement whose members do not generally go by the term "Mormon".

The Wikipedia article on Mormon Studies goes on to explain that: "Although some scholars' studies of Mormonism are primarily apologetic, either pro- or counter- Latter Day Saint faith claims, those whose work best characterize the field stand apart from claims in either direction and, even if they analyze Latter Day Saint beliefs or theology from a personal standpoint of Mormon-belief, of another religious belief, or of no religious beliefs at all, they couch their views in terms of encouraging cross-faiths and Mormon–"secular" understanding."

 It appears from this description that there is a difference between "studies of Mormonism" and real "Mormon Studies".  What is this difference?  Some see it at the difference in "tone" or "approach", not a rejection of apologetics, but a new approach to apologetics:

"These younger scholars have a new attitude toward Mormon apologetics. They are no longer so interested in defending the faith in the old sense.  In the time of Nibley, the aim of scholarship was to prove Mormonism true.  In the new age, the aim of Mormon scholarship is to find the truth about Mormonism.  Among the scholars writing today are many who are as proud of the Church, as interested in its flourishing, and as committed to its mission as the previous age, but they follow a new maxim, voiced tellingly by James Faulconer: Richness is the new proof.  Rather than attempting scientific proofs of Mormonism as a previous age tried to do, they point to its cultural depth, its scope, its usefulness, in short, its richness.  The unspoken assumtion of this rising group is that Mormonism will flourish best if its true nature is uncovered and investigated, not if it is proven perfect and infallible." - Richard Bushman

Just what is this "apologetics of richness" and what does that mean?  Among others, Professor William Hamblin remains skeptical about this new approach:

"We need to begin with a couple of clarifications. No apologist I know tries to “prove Mormonism is true.” No apologist I know believes there are any “scientific proofs of Mormonism.” (There can be no “scientific” proof of history–which cannot be empirically investigated since the past no longer exists–nor of religious claims, which are inherently parahistorical.) No apologist I know claims the church is “perfect and infallible.” All Apologists I know reject the possibility of establishing such proof using any known scholarly method. Second, if Mormonism is indeed “true,” then understanding that fact is indeed “finding the truth about Mormonism.” In other words, the “truth about Mormonism” may well be that “Mormonism is true.” To me, Bushman’s description of “old” apologetics is a straw man caricature."

Professor Hamblin continues: "Let’s turn to Park’s claim (via Faulconer) that “richness is the new proof” of the new apologetics. First of all, richness is not a methodology, and there is no academic means by which one can discover richness. It is a quality–and a subjective quality at that–that one finds or fails to find in a text, or a religion, or a piece of music. There is simply no way to define “richness” or determine if a text is rich or not. It is really not at all uncommon for one person to discover richness where another finds only banality."

So which is the correct approach?  How should Mormonism be studied?  Why should Mormonism be studied?  Should it be studied?

Writing for Interpreter : A Journal of Mormon Scripture, professor John Gee answers some similar questions: "Is There any Discipline in Mormon Studies?", "Does a Specialist in Mormon Studies Necessarily Know What is Going on in the Church?", "What Will a Student Learn in a Mormon Studies Program?", "What Core Areas of Knowledge Should a Specialist in Mormon Studies Have?", "Will Students of a Specialist in Mormon Studies Necessarily Know Even the Basics about the Church?", "What is the Purpose of Mormon Studies?", "Are Scholars of Mormon Studies Necessarily the Best at Interpreting What is Going on in the Church?", "What Sort of Topics Should be Covered by Mormon Studies?", "Is Mormon Studies Reductionist?", "Is There a Political Program to Mormon Studies?", "What is the Student of a Program in Mormon Studies Supposed to Do with His or Her Education?", and "Are the Funds for Mormon Studies Chairs Wasted?"

Gee shares numerous insights from pioneers of Mormon Studies, including this gem from Arthur Henry King (see Abundance of the Heart): "For us [members of the Church], all learning is for God’s sake, not for its own sake. As soon as we speak of learning for its own sake, we set up learning as an idol independent of God. The Mormon tradition is supremely one of work, work for the Lord and others—service. Work is the second great virtue. Caring or love is the first; and work should spring from caring. The object of a Mormon university must be to build the kingdom of God, to serve in the Church in the full sense of what that implies. Because we believe in the Church, because we believe it to be the most important organization on this earth, because we believe it to be the instrument of God’s will, because we believe Christ is its head, we must therefore believe that any organization that the Church sets up must finally and ultimately serve the Church."

In a similar vein, as Gee has also pointed out on his blog, another pioneer of Mormon Studies imparted the following wisdom: "I hope you don't underestimate the significance of what you do as articulators of the faith. In praising C. S. Lewis Austin Farrar said the following (and when I think of this quote I think of FARMS), "Though argument does not create conviction, lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish." An excellent quote. . . . I mention also to you, in the spirit of appreciation, that I believe much of the vindication that will come to the Prophet and to this work of the Restoration, will come by scholars who are committed to the kingdom, who are unequivocally devoted to it. . . . I myself would be reluctant if you ever moved away from what had become your traditional role. Enterprises of scholarship may be like some businesses who fail at enlargement or lose the essence of what they have been successful at doing." (Elder Neal A. Maxwell, FARMS Annual Recognition Banquet, 27 September 1991)

In conclusion, it will be interesting to observe developments in the field of Mormon Studies.  If, as Bushman surmises, "Mormonism will flourish best if its true nature is uncovered and investigated", might not the same be true of Mormon Studies, that it will flourish best if its true nature is uncovered and investigated?  If, as the Wikipedia article asserts, "those whose work best characterize the field stand apart from [faith] claims in either direction", in which direction will Mormon Studies go?

Marriage Matters: Sorting out the Debate

"And he said unto me: Knowest thou the condescension of God?  And I said unto him: I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things." (2 Ne. 11:16-17)
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In my earnest and continual quest for all that is virtuous, lovely, of good report or praiseworthy, I have been wrestling with questions surrounding the debate over marriage.  To be clear, the definition of marriage is not really up for debate.  Some things are true whether we believe them or not.  But after engaging in conversations and listening carefully to the arguments that are being set forth, I feel impelled to articulate a response to a few of the questions that inform this debate.  I would also like to record a few examples of how the debate is playing out in the public square.  I offer these thoughts in the spirit of hope to build up, rather than tear down, and with a desire to follow the example of Jesus Christ, whose every word and deed was motivated by pure love.  

First and foremost, there appears to be a lot of confusion over the answer to what should be a very simple question, and that is, "What is love?"  The answer to this question, however, must first be informed by the answer to a more basic question that necessarily precedes it, namely, "What is truth?"  In a recent speech, Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf stated:

"We seek for truth wherever we may find it. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “Mormonism is truth. … The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or … being … prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men.”20   He later added:

"If you follow the Spirit, your personal search for the truth inevitably leads you to the Lord and Savior, even Jesus Christ, for He is “the way, the truth, and the life.”31 This may not be the most convenient way; it will probably also be the road less traveled, and it will be the path with mountains to climb, swift rivers to cross, but it will be His way—the Savior’s redeeming way."

On Good Friday, my search for truth led me to an article that was recently composed by one of the nation's most outspoken and articulate defenders of marriage, Robert P. George (see also What is Marriage: Man and Woman, a Defense).  In this article, professor George presents his answer to the questions, "Who is Christ?" and "Who killed Christ?".  His answer to the first of these two questions echoes the response given anciently by Peter: 

“Who do men say that I am?” They answered: “Some say John the Baptist; some Elijah; some the Prophet.” Jesus then said: “And who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Cf. Matt. 16:13–16.)

In response to his latter question, Professor George quotes St. Francis of Assisi: “It is you who have crucified him and crucify him still when you delight in your vices and sins,” thus emphasizing that each of us, as a sinner, is accountable to God for who we are, how we feel, what we think and say and do.  

In reality, no one could actually kill Jesus.  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, but the Lord also said: "Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father." (John 10:17-18)  In other words, the Lord willingly laid down his life in order that all might have the chance to repent, even his accusers and those who crucified him.

Professor George's commentary certainly gives cause for reflection and introspection, but what does any of this have to do with the marriage debate?  Simply put, any real conversation about the definition of marriage hinges upon the answers to the more basic questions "What is love?" and "What is truth?" (see also "Truth and Tolerance")  As Elder Uchtdorf indicated, our search for truth inevitably leads us to Jesus Christ, and as Professor George pointed out, there is no greater expression of love than that which was manifested by the Savior Himself in laying down his own life for the sins of the world.

But not everyone shares these convictions or these definitions, and our understanding of both truth and love, however precise and however deep, is also incomplete.  We see, as the Apostle Paul taught, "through a glass, darkly" (1 Cor. 13:13).  How, then, is one to respond to the various arguments over the definition of marriage?  

In the first place, the stance of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been clear on these matters.  In response to a petition by the Human Rights Campaign in October of 2010, church spokesman Michael Otterson stated unequivocally that:

"We join our voice with others in unreserved condemnation of acts of cruelty or attempts to belittle or mock any group or individual that is different – whether those differences arise from race, religion, mental challenges, social status, sexual orientation or for any other reason.  Such actions simply have no place in our society."

Otterson went on to explain that:

"As a church, our doctrinal position is clear: any sexual activity outside of marriage is wrong, and we define marriage as between a man and a woman. However, that should never, ever be used as justification for unkindness. Jesus Christ, whom we follow, was clear in His condemnation of sexual immorality, but never cruel.  His interest was always to lift the individual, never to tear down."

This statement brings immediately to mind a principle that the Prophet Joseph Smith exemplified so well in his life: 

"Nothing is so much calculated to lead people to forsake sin as to take them by the hand, and watch over them with tenderness. When persons manifest the least kindness and love to me, O what power it has over my mind, while the opposite course has a tendency to harrow up all the harsh feelings and depress the human mind." (History of the Church, 5:23-24)


The public relations branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints later reaffirmed it's firm position on marriage following the Supreme Court hearing on March 26 of this year.  I am not a spokesman for the Church, nor should my personal views be construed as representing the doctrine of the Church, but I do stand firmly behind these statements.

While my eternal purpose is inseparable from my faith in Christ and my identity as a spirit son of God, and while I ardently yearn to be united in marriage with a member of the opposite sex, I have empathy for those who struggle with feelings of same-gender attraction.  I do not claim to understand those feelings completely, but having associated with friends and family members who do experience those feelings, and having passed through trials of my own, I understand that it is not easy.  That someone would struggle with such feelings in no way diminishes my love or respect for him or her, but more importantly, nothing can diminish the love that God has for each individual (see Romans 8:38-39).   

As I was studying various articles, blog posts and internet conversations, I was struck by the fervor and plaintive disposition of one young man in particular who felt criticized, demeaned, and ostracized by his friends because of his decision to reveal his personal struggle with homosexuality.  I saw pain in his eyes, and my heart was pained, and I felt in that moment, how much Heavenly Father loves that young man and desires his eternal happiness.  I felt that perhaps the courage he had mustered to confess his feelings was met with what he perceived to be scorn, and that drove him further away.  I felt as if God were whispering to that young man so that I could hear, "I love you. I love you infinitely.  I will not ridicule you or ostracize you. I love you. Come unto me."  I then thought of others whom I have met who have expressed similar concerns, and it was clear to me in that moment that God has infinite and eternal love for all of His children, and a peculiarly bounteous love and concern for those of his children who are suffering in any way.  While initially my heart was beginning to sicken because of the decadence and permissiveness of a degenerate and sinful society, my heart then groaned within me further because of my own sins and because of the suffering of those who feel ostracized or persecuted.  

In relation to this last point, Elder Holland has written what is, in my opinion, one of the best pieces, at least of those that I have read, on helping those who struggle with same-gender attraction.  There are also many people of good will who are doing their utmost to reach out and bless those who struggle with same-gender attraction (see, for example, Voices of Hope)

Unsurprisingly however, there are also those who become militant in their views, denouncing those who disagree with them, piling on thoughtless ad hominem attacks, and labeling others with any number of creative epithets.  Unfortunately, this sort of bullying has gained increasing traction, especially in the media, and ironically with those who claim to be preeminently tolerant.  One example is Piers Morgan's puerile attempt to debate Ryan Anderson of the Heritage Foundation on CNN.  The bullying and mob mentality of Morgan, his guest Suze Orman, and the audience was as asinine as it was ineffective.

Of course, there are a multiplicity of voices on all sides of the marriage question.  For example, Doug Mainwaring, an openly gay man, expressed his opposition to same-sex marriage based on what he termed to be reason and experience, rather than on religion and tradition (see also here).  On the other end of the spectrum, there are numerous voices claiming that those who oppose same-sex marriage are simply misinformed, don't understand science, or are somehow on the wrong side of history (for a response to such thinking, see "Beware the Science of Same-Sex Marriage" and The Weekly Standard Podcast with Andrew Ferguson). 

It is not uncommon to hear people ask questions such as "How does ending discrimination cause Christians to suffer?" or "If interracial marriage used to be considered a sin, why isn't it possible that churches will eventually accept same-sex marriage as legitimate?" or "What were the real sins of Sodom and Gomorrah? Were they not pride, injustice and failure to care for the poor and needy among them?"  Other prevalent questions include: "Why do religions try to impose their beliefs on others?" or "Aren't religious people just superstitious and overly passionate about their views?" or "Aren't there people who get married just for love and not for having kids?"  Yet another question that is particularly popular among the youth is: "How does a gay or lesbian couple getting married infringe upon your rights or hurt you in any way?"  And the list goes on.    

Accurate and well-thought out responses to these kinds of questions are often rejected by those who perceive people of faith and defenders of traditional marriage to be "uneducated" or "fear-mongerers" or wielding an improper "tone".  There will most likely be a similar reaction to the new Pope Francis' frank and forthright statement:

“Let us not be naive: This is not simply a political struggle, but it is an attempt to destroy God’s plan... It is not just a bill (a mere instrument) but a ‘move’ of the father of lies who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”







  

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Contra Moral Relativism

The Book of Mormon, Another Testament of Christ, contains a brief account of a man named Korihor (Alma 30).  After thousands of Lamanites had been converted to Christ and his gospel, and after a period of war among the Nephites and the Lamanites, this man came into the land of Zarahemla and began to preach against Jesus Christ.  He ridiculed Christ, the Atonement, and the spirit of prophecy, teaching that there is no God, no fall, no penalty for sin, and no Christ.  

The Nephites had laws to help keep men on equal grounds, and there was no law against a man's belief, so Korihor continued to preach against Christ.  Not only was his message false, but his manner was cunning and condescending.  He mocked the faithful for their belief in Christ by claiming that they were "bound under a foolish and vain hope" and telling them that no one can know the future. (v.13) He mocked the people's belief in the prophets as following the "foolish traditions" of their fathers.  He taught that there could be no "atonement made for the sins of men" and that "every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature" and "every man prospered according to his genius" and "every man conquered according to his strength" and "whatsoever a man did was no crime" (v.17).

Korihor led away many women and men to commit sin by teaching that "when a man was dead, that was the end thereof" (v. 18)  But when he went into the land of Jershon among the converted Lamanites they bound him and he was carried out of the land.  In the land of Gideon he was bound again and taken before the high priest Giddonah.  Korihor blamed the people and the priests for attempting to "usurp power and authority over them, to keep them in ignorance" (v.23).  He accused the priests of trying to "glut" themselves "with the labors of their hands" (v. 27)  He then went on to deny the existence of God and to blaspheme, and to mock the "silly traditions of their fathers" (v. 31)

Needless to say, Alma was grieved, but Korihor was confounded, demanded a sign, was struck dumb, and was finally trampled to death (v.59)

Why did Mormon include this story in his abridgment of the records?  What does this story have to teach a modern audience?  Do any of Korihor's teachings sound familiar or have they found expression in any modern philosophies?  

In the April 2010 General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Elder Christofferson stated:

"God uses scripture to unmask erroneous thinking, false traditions, and sin with its devastating effects. He is a tender parent who would spare us needless suffering and grief and at the same time help us realize our divine potential. The scriptures, for example, discredit an ancient philosophy that has come back into vogue in our day—the philosophy of Korihor that there are no absolute moral standards, that “every man prosper[s] according to his genius, and that every man conquer[s] according to his strength; and whatsoever a man [does is] no crime” and “that when a man [is] dead, that [is] the end thereof” (Alma 30:17–18)."

No matter how popular the philosophies of moral relativism become, they will never be true.





 

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

video


This is a slide show of Israel / Palestine that a kind friend helped me put together.  It contains a few snapshots of choice memories, pictures of the wonderful people and the beautiful places of the Holy Land.  Just today I learned that there were more skirmishes on the temple mount in Jerusalem, and it breaks my heart, knowing that these people, Jews and Muslims, are in reality, brothers (see also A Latter-day Saint Perspective on Muhammad, and Muhammad, Prophet of God).  I am aware that the great Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in the Brothers Karamazov penned the profound truths: “I find to my amazement that the more I love mankind as a whole, the less I love man in particular” and “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams”.  Still, I think that President Gordon B. Hinckley best captured the truth of the situation through a story that he shared in a BYU devotional address:

"Mr. Shimon Peres called on us last Wednesday in the Church Administration Building. He is one of the elder statesmen of the world, the former prime minister of Israel. He has seen much of conflict and trouble in his time. He is a wise and able man who speaks with the spirit of a sage.

I asked him whether there was any solution to the great problems that constantly seem to divide the people of Israel and the Palestinians. He replied that of course there is. He said an interesting thing. As I recall, he said, "When we were Adam and Eve, we were all one. Is there any need for us to be divided into segments with hatred in our hearts one for another?"

He told a beautiful story that he said he got from a Muslim. The Muslim told of a Jewish rabbi who was conversing with two of his friends. The rabbi asked one of the men, "How do you know when the night is over and the day has begun?"

His friend replied, "When you look into the distance and can distinguish a sheep from a goat, then you know the night is over and the day has begun."

The second was asked the same question. He replied, "When you look into the distance and can distinguish an olive tree from a fig tree, that is how you know."

They then asked the rabbi how he could tell when the night is over and the day has begun. He thought for a time and then said, "When you look into the distance and see the face of a woman and you can say, 'She is my sister.' And when you look into the distance and see the face of a man and can say, "He is my brother.' Then you will know the light has come."

Think about that story for a minute. What a wonderful truth it tells."

The words of the hymn Hark, All Ye Nations, also come readily to mind:

"Searching in darkness, nations have wept;
Watching for dawn, their vigil they’ve kept.
All now rejoice; the long night is o’er.
Truth is on earth once more!"

This slide show concludes with a message which, if heeded, promises to transform our own lives, and more than that, promises to change the world.  In the words of Elder Holland concerning the good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ, "Ours is not a feeble message. It is not a fleeting task. It is not hapless; it is not hopeless; it is not to be consigned to the ash heap of history. It is the work of Almighty God, and it is to change the world."  Enjoy!

The Price for Peace


What is the price for peace? 
Wherever there is conflict, inevitably there is a breakdown in communication.  Simply put, the price for peace is understanding.
Perhaps nowhere is the need for understanding more pronounced or the cry for peace more desperate than in the Holy Land.  This cry ascends most fervently from the heart of Old Jerusalem, near the site of the ancient temple of Solomon and the Dome of the Rock.  To the west, Jews insert written prayers into rock crevices.  To the east, Muslims pray inside Al-Aqsa Mosque.  A massive and long-standing wall divides them. 
On the south side of the wall there is a bridge connecting the lower plaza to the temple mount.  Soon after I arrived in Israel, I had the opportunity to cross this bridge and to visit these sacred places.  On another occasion, my friends and I visited the town of Bethany in the West Bank.  Although it was encompassed by a large modern wall, we were able to enter the town by crawling through a hole in the cement. 
These walls, ancient and modern, are symbolic.  Stone upon stone, and drop by drop of cement, people were separated.  Barriers to communication are constructed in a similar manner.  Word upon word, and line by line, misunderstanding occurs.  Thus wrote the poet, “something there is that doesn’t love a wall”. (Robert Frost, Mending Wall)
Fortunately, many of the essential tools for building bridges of brotherhood and chiseling holes of hope work within the same medium: language.  Needless to say, language plays a crucial role in creating more peaceful associations between people, institutions, communities and nations.  One cannot come to a full appreciation of an individual, let alone a people, without a basic understanding of that person’s manner of thinking and speaking.  Conversely, an increased understanding of another’s language contributes immeasurably to the possibility of peace.
For example, my understanding of Israeli people grows in direct proportion to my diligence in studying the Hebrew language.  Likewise, my understanding of Arab people grows according to the effort I put forth in studying Arabic.  Moreover, immersion in a foreign language brings a deeper appreciation of one’s own language and heritage.       
The price for peace is understanding, and that is a price I cannot afford not to pay.

The Eye of Prayer


The Eye of Prayer (February 2004)

            It is one of the great ironies of philosophy that, as the mind extends heavenward, thoughts invariably plummet earthward.  Philosophical momentum propels the mind to the cerebral stratosphere and beyond, but without an additional thrust, the gravitational pull of logic will prevail.  Such is the case today, and such was the case with the great Jewish and Islamic luminaries of the middle ages.  As they reached for an understanding of God, they consistently reverted to descriptions of mankind.  Metaphysical might produced corporeal concepts.  Notwithstanding the apparent exercise in futility, reasoning plays an important role in the search for truth and meaning.
            In fact, the perpetual failure of reason points to truths that might otherwise be overlooked.  In book II of Metaphysics Aristotle wrote: “For as the eyes of bats are (to) the blaze of day, so is reason in our soul to the things which are by nature most evident of all.”[i]  Perhaps it is not the fault of bats that they are blind, but they don’t fly around in the daylight pretending to be eagles.  If reason in the soul is so blind, how will truth ever be obtained?  Fortunately Aristotle compared only one part of the soul, reason, to the eyes of bats.  Only a part of the soul is so utterly and helplessly blind.  Thus, something other that reason must dwell in the soul, something indispensable for understanding things that are “most evident of all”.  At least a bat acknowledges its own blindness, and delicate sonar instruments guide its flight.  What other recourse remains when sight is abolished?
            The science of vision permeated Medieval Jewish and Islamic philosophy to such a degree that the boundary between visual reality and visual metaphor was all but erased.  In other words, thinkers such as Al-Kindi, Ibn Sina, Isaac Israeli and Maimonides studied optics and visual theories with a view toward opening the door to the knowledge of God.  The study of the eye was just as much, if not more, a spiritual endeavor as it was a scientific practice.  Paradoxically, in light of the discoveries of the medieval philosophers, the symbol of the eye reveals man’s blindness and foolishness, while simultaneously leading the way to man’s potential clarity of vision and god-like intelligence.
            Of course, optical symbolism did not originate in medieval Spain or Persia.  Visual metaphors can be traced through the works of earlier philosophers such as Plato, and through scientists such as Euclid and Ptolemy.  By the time Greek texts were made available to Arab translators and interpreters, many developments had already occurred in the field of optics.  But the Arab translators did more than just translate – they transformed and perfected the metaphors that they inherited.  The works of Hunayn Ibn Ishaq, based on the science of Euclid and Ptolemy, as well as the anatomy and physiology of Galen, were particularly influential in later works.[ii] 
Qusta Ibn Luqa wrote one of the first books of Arabic optics, in which he praised the science:
The best demonstrative science is that in which physical science and geometrical science participate communally, because it takes from physical science the sensory perception and takes from geometrical science demonstrations with the help of lines.  I have found nothing where these two disciplines are united in a more beautiful or perfect way than in the science of rays, above all, those which are reflected onto mirrors.[iii]

            Qusta Ibn Luqa was not alone in his enthusiasm for optics.  A contemporary of Qusta Ibn Luqa, Al-Kindi, wrote the Liber de causis diversitatum aspectus (De aspectibus), in which he defined a ray as: “an impression of the luminous body on an opaque body…”[iv]  Al-Kindi modified some earlier theories of vision to assert that the eye emitted rays of light in all directions from the surface of the eye.  In this way, the eye could actually work as an extension of the body, “touching”, as it were, visible objects.  With great respect and gratitude for past philosophers, Al-Kindi nevertheless corrected and improved upon their theories.  One important characteristic of Al-Kindi’s own theory of vision was that God created the eye in a spherical shape and gave it mobility in order to move around and choose the direction in which to send out light rays.[v] 
            Al-Kindi wrote on a variety of subjects, but his theories on vision closely parallel his more philosophic works.  As it was his goal to discover “the knowledge of the true nature of things”[vi], the “knowledge of divinity”, and to assist truth and support veracity, the study of vision occupied much of his thought.  Al-Kindi’s work on vision demonstrates a concern both for attaining the truth and for discovering how truth is obtained.  His search for lofty truths, beyond physical vision, ironically brought him back to the study of something very physical and close at hand, that is, the eye.  Thus, while striving for spiritual knowledge, a physical reality commanded his utmost attention. 
            Approximately one century after elaborating upon the extromissive theories of vision, Al-Kindi's work met considerable opposition.  The Persian philosopher Avicenna (980-1037) refuted Al-Kindi's explanation of vision in favor of a more Aristotelian view:
As to the seeing power, philosophers have differed on the question of how they perceive.  Thus one set among them asserts that they perceive wholly and solely through a ray that shoots out beyond the eye, and so encounters the sensible objects that are seen.  This is Plato's way.  Others assert that the perceiving power itself encounters the sensible objects that are seen, and so perceives them.  Still others say that visual perception consists in this: - when an intervening transparent body becomes effectively transparent by light shining upon it, then an impression of the outspread [flattened] individual of such sensible objects as are seen is effected in the crystalline lens of the eye, just such a pictorial impression as is effected in looking-glasses [mirrors]; indeed the two effects are so similar that were mirrors possessed of a seeing power they would perceive the form imprinted in them.  This is Aristotle's way; and it is the sound reliable opinion.[vii]

If opinions differ so greatly on the nature of physical vision, how can one hope for a philosophical consensus concerning the nature of spiritual vision or knowledge of the truth?  That is, if human beings fail to comprehend even simple physical objects, how can they expect to grasp lofty spiritual ideals?  How can truth be known?  Avicenna's refutation of Al-Kindi's theories on vision, and his deeply spiritual works On Prophecy and On Prayer, provide insights for responding to such questions.
            First of all, Avicenna's theory of vision seems much more passive than that of Al-Kindi or the Platonists.  Sight is a result of light coming into, not flowing out of, the eye.  Although such passivity may seem to limit the potential of the eye, Avicenna's writings affirm that the opposite is true.  The purpose of the soul, like the purpose of the eye, is to receive light:
The function of the human, rational soul is the noblest function of all, for it is itself the noblest of spirits.  Its function consists of reflecting upon things of art and meditating upon things of beauty; its gaze being turned toward the higher world, it loves not this lower abode and meaner station.  Belonging as it does to the higher side of life and to the primal substances, it is not its business to eat and drink, neither does it require luxury and coition; rather its function is to wait for the revelation of truths, and to reflect with perfect intuition and unclouded wit upon the perception of subtle ideas, reading with the eye of inner vision the tablet of Divine Mystery and opposing with strenuous devices the causes of vain fancy.[viii]           

Here Avicenna has rocketed deep into religious space, amongst the stars of beauty, revelation and divinity, yet his speech is locked into orbit around quite corporeal notions, such as the eye.  This orbit, rather than restricting knowledge of how truth is obtained, actually directs the mind in a better direction.  Something other than reason must inhabit the soul.  The inner, spiritual eye, of which the outer eye is the physical manifestation, must be the key to receiving and understanding truth.    
            Of course, Avicenna equated the inner eye with reason, and not something apart from reason.  But his definition of reason departs from conventional definitions, and it even differs from Aristotle's definition of blind reason.  In sum, Avicenna's idea of reason is not necessarily Reason in the strictly rational sense.  Avicenna's reason moves away from blind reason, portrayed as bats in Aristotle, to a seeing reason, an inner eye.  But what is the difference between these two reasons?  Why is the one reason blind, and the other endowed with sight?
            Answers to these questions can be gleaned from Avicenna's treatise On Prayer.  Avicenna rates prayer as the pinnacle of worship and the ultimate expression of reason.  It is through prayer that man connects with God.  To extend the analogy, the physical eye is to light as the inner, spiritual eye is to prayer:
The Prophet's words, "The man at prayer is in secret converse with his Lord," are therefore only to be predicated of that inward knowledge which belongs solely to pure souls that are abstracted and free from events in time and directions in space: they contemplate God intellectually, and behold Him with spiritual, not corporeal vision.  It is thus evident that true prayer is spiritual contemplation, and that pure worship is spiritual Divine love.[ix]

Therefore, the inner eye is blessed with sight inasmuch as it focuses on God in prayer.  Prayer is the missing piece for the blind reason described by Aristotle.  Truth is obtained when the inner eye is opened through prayer, willing to receive light.
            Fascination with the physical and the spiritual eye was not unique to the Arab philosophers.  Isaac Israeli, a Jewish contemporary of Al-Kindi, worked as an oculist in Egypt.  Israeli was later promoted to the position of court physician, but evidences of his training in optics surface in later works, such as the Book on the Elements.  In this work, Israeli describes the teaching methods of the great doctors.  Corporeal forms are presented because of their proximity and accessibility to the brain.  Like Avicenna, Israeli believed that reason played a fundamental role in communication with God:
For when the Creator wishes to reveal to the soul what He intends to innovate in this world, He makes intellect the intermediary between Himself and the soul, even as the prophet is an intermediary between the Creator, blessed be He, and the rest of His creatures.  It is only the corporeal and imaginative form which will be impressed upon the sensus communis, thanks to the prevalence of the corporeal sense upon it.  This is due to the proximity of the sensus communis to the corporeal sense, seeing that it [the sensus communis] is intermediate between the corporeal sense of sight and the imaginative faculty, which resides in the anterior ventricle of the brain and is called fantasiya.  It is for this reason that it is called 'common sense', for it receives from the corporeal sense, i.e. that of sight, the corporeal aspects of things and transmits them to the spiritual sense mentioned before, i.e. the imaginative faculty.[x]

Israeli confirms the importance of physical vision in the learning process, but he also recognizes the superiority of spiritual vision or vision with the inner eye:
For some are animal-like and foolish, who will never allow anything to enter their minds and to occupy their thoughts except what they have perceived with their senses and seen with their own eyes.  Others are intelligent, of an inquiring mind, keep their eyes open to the truth of words, and distinguish between their spiritual and corporeal meaning.[xi]   

Once again, the philosopher speaks of the eye both literally and metaphorically.  Israeli agrees that the physical eye by itself is blind, but he also accents the relationship between it and the spiritual or inner eye.  Similar to Avicenna, this inner eye is the intellect.  Furthermore, this inner eye receives truth through prayer, first by contemplating the physical manifestations of truth, and later embracing the essence of the truth itself. 
            Thus far the philosophers have begun to respond to the question: why is the inner eye necessary for apprehending the truth?  But none of these philosophers epitomizes the paradoxes of knowledge and vision as much as Moses Ben Maimon.  Ironically, Maimonides' perplexities and entanglements of thought unravel the beautiful simplicity of the knowledge of God.  Through seemingly complex and convoluted optical symbolism, a simple and predictable pattern emerges, guiding the mind like the delicate sonar instruments guide bats.  This pattern, hinted at by Al-Kindi, Avicenna and Israeli, is a witnesses of the power needed to escape the stubborn gravitational pull of logic.
            Maimonides is quick to admit that the acquisition of truth is not an easy process.  At the beginning of The Guide of the Perplexed he confesses:
You should not think that these great secrets are fully and completely known to anyone among us.  They are not.  But sometimes truth flashes out to us so that we think that it is day, and then matter and habit in their various forms conceal it so that we find ourselves again in an obscure night, almost as we were at first.  We are like someone in a very dark night over whom lightning flashes time and time again.  Among us there is one for whom the lightning flashes time and time again, so that he is always, as it were, in unceasing light.[xii]

These flashes of light are only caught by prayer or the open inner eye.  When explaining the use of parables, Maimonides introduces optical metaphor to his great work: "My remarking that it is a parable will be like someone's removing a screen from between the eye and a visible thing."[xiii]  He even professes that the eyes of those who study his guide will be delighted!
            In the fourth chapter of the Guide, Maimonides expounds upon different verbs that apply to the eye: to see, to look at, and to vision.  According to Maimonides:
Every mention of seeing, when referring to God, may He be exalted, has this figurative meaning – as when Scripture says: I saw the Lord; And the Lord became seen to him; And God saw that it was good; I beseech Thee, let me see Thy glory; And they saw the God of Israel.  All this refers to intellectual apprehension and in no way to the eye's seeing, as the eye can only apprehend a body, one that is placed in some direction and, in addition, with some of the accidents of the body, I mean the body's coloring, shape and so forth.  Similarly God, may He be exalted, does not apprehend by means of an instrument, as will be explained later.[xiv]

Like the philosophers that preceded him, Maimonides focused on the spirituality or incorporeality of deity, and his insistence on this teaching found expression in optical metaphors.  This expression, contrasting the physical and the spiritual eye, actually contradicts his teachings about the incorporeal nature of God.  Of course, Maimonides claimed to teach by deliberate contradictions, but this is perhaps one contradiction that was not deliberate.  By insisting on the exclusively spiritual vision of God, or "seeing" God through contemplation, Maimonides' argument recoils upon itself.  A pattern emerges in which prayer, spiritual vision, is inextricably bound to physical vision.  The more Maimonides persists in proving God's physical invisibility, the more his argument relies upon physical realities, such as the eye.
For example, Maimonides claims that:
The purpose of everyone endowed with intellect should be wholly directed to rejecting corporeality with respect to God, may He be exalted, and to considering all these apprehensions as intellectual, not sensory.[xv]

This invitation, however noble and well intentioned, raises unavoidable suspicions.  The more the philosophers fight against corporeality, the more their discourse is physically bound.  This is not, as it would seem, a failure on their part, but simply a reminder that if even the physical world exceeds human comprehension, then the spiritual world is light years away.  In other words, if philosophers fail to understand even the physical eye, how can they expect to understand the spiritual eye?  If philosophers cannot admit that reason is blind, how will they ever see by means of prayer?
            In the Mishneh Torah: The Book of Knowledge, Maimonides at least acknowledges his own blindness by quoting the prophet Isaiah:
'Eye hath not seen beside Thee, O God, what He prepareth for him that waiteth for Him.' (Is. 64:3); that is, the bliss which neither the eye of the prophet nor any one else but God, hath seen, He hath prepared for the man who waits for Him.  The sages say, 'All the prophets prophesied concerning the days of the Messiah.  But the world to come, 'no eye hath seen but Thine, O God'.[xvi]

Thus Maimonides' confesses that the acquisition of truth depends upon the opening of the spiritual eye, and receiving that which the closed spiritual eye or the weak physical eye cannot receive.  The opening and focusing of the spiritual eye is both strenuous and rewarding:
Man needs to subordinate all his soul's powers to thought, in the way we set forth in the previous chapter, and to set his sight on a single goal: the perception of God (may He be glorified and magnified), I mean, knowledge of Him, in so far as that lies within man's power.  He should direct all his actions, both when in motion and at rest, and all his conversation toward this goal so that none of his actions is in any way frivolous, I mean an action not leading to this goal.  For example, he should make his aim only the health of his body when he eats, drinks, sleeps, has sexual intercourse, is awake, and is in motion or at rest.  The purpose of his body's health is that the soul find its instruments healthy and sound in order that it can be directed toward the sciences and toward acquiring the moral and rational virtues, so that he might arrive at that goal.[xvii]

Maimonides teaches that the only way to know the truth is to direct all powers and faculties toward the source of the truth.  Only the man who "directs all the powers of his soul solely toward God"[xviii]  will obtain the truth. 
As with preceding philosophers, Maimonides includes physical appetites and passions among the parts of the soul that must be channeled.  This arduous work includes all of the rational soul, but is not limited to it, blind as it is.  It includes the physical and the whole body, but neither is it limited by these.  This work, the opening of the spiritual eye, which may be called prayer, lifts the veil that obscures our view of the things which are most evident of all.  The philosophers of medieval Judaism and Islam, implementing the ostensibly complex symbolism of the eye, actually demonstrate the plainness and simplicity required for receiving and understanding truth.  Just as the physical eye cannot see without light, neither can the spiritual eye see without prayer.

Works Cited and Consulted

Lindberg, David C. Studies in the History of Medieval Optics. London: Variorum
Reprints, 1983.

Macy, Dr. Jeffrey. Jewish and Islamic Theology and Philosophy in the Middle Ages.
Reader, Volume 1. Hebrew University School for Overseas Students.

Mahdi, Mushin and Ralph Lerner. Medieval Political Philosophy. Itahaca, NY:
Cornell University Press, 1963.

Moses Maimonides. The Guide of the Perplexed. Volume 1. Trans. Shlomo Pines.
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1963.

Plotinus. On Beauty. Daedalus Boston: Fall 2002. Vol. 131, Iss. 4, pp. 27-34.

Rasheed, Roshdi. Encyclopedia of The History of Arabic Science. Vol. 2. London:
Routledge, 1996.

Smith, A. Mark. "What is the History of Medieval Optics Really About?" Proceedings
of the American Philosophical Society. Philadelphia: Jun 2004. Vol. 148, Iss. 2, pp. 180-194.

Strauss, Leo. "Persecution and the Art of Writing." Westport Connecticut: Greenwood
Press, 1988, pp. 7-21.



[i] Macy, pp. 17
[ii] Rashed, pp. 660
[iii] Ibid, pp. 646
[iv] Ibid, pp. 651
[v] Lindberg, pp. 427
[vi] Macy, pp. 15
[vii] Lindberg, pp. 142
[viii] Macy, pp. 58
[ix] Ibid, pp. 61
[x] Ibid, pp.19
[xi] Ibid, pp.20
[xii] Maimonides, Guide, pp. 7
[xiii] Ibid,  pp. 14
[xiv] Ibid,  pp. 28
[xv] Ibid,  pp. 61
[xvi] Macy, pp. 107
[xvii] Ibid, pp. 113
[xviii] Ibid, pp. 114