Sunday, September 23, 2012

What is Beauty?

What is beauty?

This is certainly not a new question, nor a question to which I aspire to offer any new answers, but to me, at least, it is an important question.  Perhaps my conception of beauty was purest when I was a child, and now I only catch glimpses of the beauty and wonder of the world that once continually flooded my experience.  Since my youth I have often yearned to travel in order to experience the beauty of other peoples and places, and I have been blessed with ample opportunities to do so. Nevertheless, my heart resonates with Marcel Proust's keen observation that, "
Le véritable voyage de découverte ne consiste pas à chercher de nouveaux paysages, mais à avoir de nouveaux yeux."- "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes."  

How does one obtain new eyes?  If eyes can change, then the oft repeated dictum that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" would suggest that beauty is ever changing with our changing perceptions.  I find this definition of beauty to be unsatisfactory.  In his poem Ode on a Grecian Urn, Keats wrote: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. (lines 46–50)" If Keats was right, then beauty, like truth, is unchanging, fixed like images on the urn.  But that Keats employs different words suggests that he is describing two different, though related, phenomena. 

One dictionary defines beauty as follows:


  1. A combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, esp. the sight.
  2. A combination of qualities that pleases the intellect or moral sense.

I recently stumbled upon an article about a woman named Lizzie Velasquez.  Lizzie has a rare undiagnosed condition: she was born with no body fat or cells to support fat storage.  In high school she was ridiculed for being ugly, and she was terribly mocked in a youtube video.  But rather than respond with revenge, this beautiful and courageous young lady decided to transform her challenge into a victory.  I was deeply moved by Lizzie's courage, and the beautiful way in which she responded to adversity and to her accusers.  I could not help but trace her story to the fountain of both truth and beauty, namely Jesus Christ, of whom it was written:

"For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.
He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not." (Isaiah 53:2-3; Mosiah 14:2)

Paradoxically, this same tender plant with no beauty is praised as Beautiful Savior:

"Beautiful Savior!
Lord of the nations!
Son of God and Son of Man!
Thee will I honor, praise, and give glory,
Give praise and glory evermore!"

What then is beauty?  Perhaps we have hid our faces from it.  Perhaps we have closed our eyes to it, and the real voyage of discovery consists in having new eyes.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Theology of the Book of Mormon, Part 3

Today was the last day of the annual meeting of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology.  Peter Huff, a convert to Catholicism with a Baptist background, gave an excellent presentation on a Catholic view of grace in the Book of Mormon.  Linda Soderquist gave an edifying presentation on the principle of meekness.  After these presentations, Blake Ostler, Adam Miller and others took the audience on a creative tour of theological experimentation, and Randall Paul provided some concluding remarks on the Book of Mormon.

All in all, the conference was a success.  In addition to encountering a variety of interesting ideas, I met some very bright and talented people. I do not claim to grasp all of the theological ideas that were expressed.  I feel only to say, like Nephi of old, that "I know that God loveth his children, nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things." (1 Ne. 11:17)

Friday, September 21, 2012

Theology of the Book of Mormon, Part 2

Today was a busy day for the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology.  Professor Dan Graham spoke on the Early Christian Fathers' conceptions of free will, Jordan Barrett spoke on the eternality of God, Charles Harrel on foreordination in Alma 13, Robert Smith on Book of Mormon theology, and Benjamin Huff spoke on the book of the weeping God. The plenary session featured a panel discussion consisting of Terryl Givens, Daniel Peterson, and Ralph Hancock, who each addressed the topic of secular norms and the scholarship of faith. In the evening session, Grant Hardy spoke on the promise of Book of Mormon theology.  I took copious notes, and have even more copious questions.

I could liken this experience of being initiated into the world of Mormon theological interpretation to a person's attempt to drink from a fire hose, but it was more like a flea trying to drink from Niagra Falls.  I did manage to imbibe perhaps a few droplets of theological H20, but nothing has quenched my thirst quite like drinking directly from the living waters, nor left me quite as refreshed as moments in which pure doctrine has distilled upon my soul as the dews from heaven.

But setting aside all philosophy and theology, I would like to mention three highlights of this day. First, dinner at a Korean restaurant that served one of my favorite drinks, grape Sac Sac. Second, an evening conversation with some of the participants in the conference about some of the strange phenomena of Mormonism, and third, a joke that Professor Peterson told that he borrowed from Emo Philips (voted the 44th funniest joke of all time in "The 75 Funniest Jokes of All Time" in GQ Magazine, June 1999):

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, "Don't do it!"
He said, "Nobody loves me."
I said, "God loves you. Do you believe in God?"
He said, "Yes."
I said, "Are you a Christian or a Jew?"
He said, "A Christian."
I said, "Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?"
He said, "Protestant."
I said, "Me, too! What franchise?"
He said, "Baptist."
I said, "Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?"
He said, "Northern Baptist."
I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?"
He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist."
I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region."
I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?"
He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912."
I said, "Die, heretic!" And I pushed him over."

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Theology of the Book of Mormon, Part I

Since BYU has turned the ball over five times to Boise State already, perhaps now would be a good time to record a few thoughts about the proceedings of today's meeting of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology at Utah State University in Logan, Utah.

The theme of the conference is "Theology of the Book of Mormon".  The plenary session this afternoon included an interesting discussion on Book of Mormon typology, based on a recent publication by Joseph Spencer.  I have not yet read the book, but from what I understand, the basic premise stems from a study of what sort of reading the Book of Mormon text itself calls for.  Much of the discussion hinged upon the difference between "the book" and "the words of the book" mentioned in 2 Nephi 27.  Whatever your personal sensibilities are toward Mormon apologetics and Mormon Studies, it is clear that the Book of Mormon is a work that merits close and careful reading, not to mention consistent application of its principles.  The Prophet Joseph Smith declared that "the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.”  If Spencer's new book represents a careful theological analysis, much like Grant Hardy's Understanding the Book of Mormon represents are careful literary analysis, then such efforts may serve to inspire others to delve more deeply into the marvelous work and a wonder that is the Book of Mormon.

After the plenary session, a large audience gathered at the Logan Tabernacle to listen to Professor Terryl Givens expound upon the topic "The Prophecy of Enoch as Restoration Blueprint".  Givens endeavored to prove the centrality of the prophecy of Enoch to Joseph Smith's work, specifically in the time period after the publication of the Book of Mormon and the organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Givens argued that the most distinctive and vibrant doctrines of Mormonism can be found in the prophecy of Enoch (Moses 6-8) and Joseph Smith's own prophetic role as a modern type of Enoch, builder of Zion.  More specifically, while much of the Christian world continued to worship a God without "body, parts or passion", Mormonism revealed not only an embodied God with parts, but a passionate and compassionate God.

Givens wove together the concepts of premortality and theosis (becoming like God), and he drew parallels between Enoch and the Prophet Joseph Smith.  Both Enoch and Joseph Smith were godlike particularly in their capacity to love, a capacity that found expression in weeping.  In similitude of God himself, Joseph Smith wept for Zion, and Enoch wept over the residue of the people.  Givens argued that Joseph Smith saw himself as an Enoch figure even more than as a Moses figure, in part because Joseph Smith envisioned that he would be successful in establishing Zion whereas other prophets had failed to do so. 

Given's rich and thought-provoking presentation convinced me that a closer reading of the Enoch Prophecy in connection with Joseph Smith's labor in Zion is in order, and that one of the most distinctive and vibrant teachings of Mormonism is that God, our Heavenly Father, is not only a personal God, with body and parts, but also a passionate and compassionate God.  I am not convinced, however, that the Book of Mormon is lacking in doctrinal distinctiveness, even when compared with the Enoch Prophecy.  In other words, while much of the Book of Mormon may have been neglected, or is still neglected, and while Joseph Smith may have drawn more inspiration from the Prophecy of Enoch in his later years, there is still much within the pages of the Book of Mormon and in the life of Joseph Smith to distinguish Mormonism from other forms of Christianity, and from other religions in general.  Not only this, but the depiction of a weeping God in the Enoch Prophecy, while certainly providing a greater understanding of our Father in Heaven, is incomplete without evidences of his other complementary and perfected attributes such as justice, omniscience, and omnipotence.  This is to say that the weeping God of the Enoch Prophecy is the same God that brought forth the Book of Mormon through the instrumentality of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and that the Book of Mormon contains doctrinal diamonds that have yet to be excavated...

... but I suppose that is one of the reasons why the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology is holding a conference on the topic of "Theology of the Book of Mormon".  To be continued...      

Monday, September 17, 2012

Act Well Your Part: A Constitution Day Celebration

Today marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, as well as Constitution Day, when the constitutional convention participants signed the U.S. Constitution in 1787.  According to the Jewish Calendar, today is the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, a time to commemorate the relationship between God and humanity.  The shofar sounds as a call to repentance and in memory of the Akedah, or the binding of Isaac.  The celebration of the new year also anticipates Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

This day represents both the birth of the United States of America, and rebirth in a new year.  To celebrate the signing of the U.S. Constitution, a large crowd gathered at the McKay Events Center at Utah Valley University to take part in a program that included patriotic music and a speech by author David McCullough.  The music and the speeches contained much worth remembering, but what follows is only a sample of the proceedings.

President Matt Holland recalled the words of William Gladstone who described the U.S. Constitution as "the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man", but Holland was careful to remind the audience of the relationship between the Declaration of Independence and the  Constitution, a relationship that Abraham Lincoln best articulated:

"All this is not the result of accident. It has a philosophical cause. Without the Constitution and the Union, we could not have attained the result; but even these, are not the primary cause of our great prosperity. There is something back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart. That something, is the principle of 'Liberty to all'--the principle that clears the path for all--gives hope to all--and, by consequence, enterprize, and industry to all.
The expression of that principle, in our Declaration of Independence, was most happy, and fortunate. Without this, as well as with it, we could have declared our independence of Great Britain; but without it, we could not, I think, have secured our free government, and consequent prosperity. No oppressed, people will fight, and endure, as our fathers did, without the promise of something better, than a mere change of masters.
The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, 'fitly spoken' which has proved an 'apple of gold' to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple--not the apple for the picture.
So let us act, that neither picture, or apple shall ever be blurred, or bruised or broken." 

President Holland also drew upon Alexander Hamilton's introduction to the Federalist:

"AFTER an unequivocal experience of the inefficacy of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the UNION, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world. It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force."

McCullough, a masterful historian and story-teller, provided many insights into the founding of the United States of America and the importance of the U.S. Constitution.  Before beginning the brief tour of early American History, he reminded the audience that the founding fathers were not gods, but real human beings with real weaknesses and real challenges.  In spite of the personal failings and the adversities that they faced, McCullough admonished that we should develop and teach a deep respect and gratitude for the miracle that was accomplished by these men and women.

McCullough called upon the audience to become more than a "nation of spectators".  When compared to the difficulties that these pioneers of our nation faced, McCullough remarked that we are a generation of "softies".  Ignorance and Freedom are mutually exclusive.  "We are accountable," he said, recounting the courage that was required to face the British armies.

After calling upon members of the audience to "act well your part"(Alexander Pope, Essay on Man), he quoted John Adams:

“Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislators and magistrates in all future periods of this commonwealth to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them, especially the university at Cambridge, public schools, and grammar schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings, sincerity, good humor, and all social affections, and generous sentiments among the people. ”

According to McCullough, such wisdom and knowledge are integral to our individual and collective "pursuit of happiness". 

The evening came to a close with the university symphony orchestra playing a stirring rendition of Stars and Stripes Forever.  I could not help but think that while we sat comfortably in our chairs listening to the music, elsewhere, American flags were being torn down, desecrated, shredded and burned.   

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The End of an Age: Remembering September 11, 2001

"Are these perilous times? They are. But there is no need to fear. We can have peace in our hearts and peace in our homes. We can be an influence for good in this world, every one of us." 

- President Gordon B. Hinckley (October 2001 General Conference).

On Sept. 11, 2001 I was at work cleaning and polishing the bowling alleys at Brigham Young University when my manager arrived and reported that a plane had just crashed into a building in New York.  Before long a crowd had gathered in the common's area outside the recreation room to watch the news reports.  The crowd was getting larger, and the commotion was considerable enough that we stopped what we were doing for a moment.  We watched the horrific scenes, and soon the university president had called for students to gather in several different places on campus for a moment of silence and prayer.

At the same time, my dad was composing a letter from his office in Indiana to one of my little brothers who was serving a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in San Diego:

"I'm writing this as I listen to the horrible news of terrorist
attacks in NY and DC. Needless to say, this changes everything, the end
of an age, I have a feeling. Everything will be seen in a new light- or
darkness. The illusion that we mortals have perfect control of our fate
and are entitled to ease, comfort, and every right we can invent, is
presumably shattered...

...It is natural and healthy to hope to live out our lives in
peace, comfort, normalcy - but this is not the Peace we are promised.
I'm just listening to the report that one of the towers
collapsed completely. Massive casualties; panic on the streets.
Now there is a report of car bomb outside the State Dept in DC.
Now the second tower of the Trade Center has collapsed. This is war; a
new kind of war, or something in a way worse than war.
God bless us.      --Dad"

Eleven years later, a lot has changed. Counter-terrorism efforts have increased, Osama Bin Laden has been killed and his body disposed of into the ocean, and new buildings are being erected where the World Trade Center Towers once stood.  

But in some ways, things remain the same. Many Americans are as complacent as ever, if not more so.  On one extreme, there are those who are forgetful or remain indifferent to the tragedy because it didn't directly affect them or their families.  On another extreme, there are those who recall the events of 9/11 in order to justify violence or a distorted sense of retribution in the name of a narrowly defined form of patriotism.  In the wake of such a tragedy, and during a politically charged presidential election season, media pundits call for more unity, but there seems to be little, if any, discussion of what unity means or how it is created.  Real unity cannot be created ex-nihilo, but necessarily a depends upon shared principles and common beliefs, such as those expressed so eloquently in The Declaration of Independence.

September 11, 2001 is a day in history to be remembered.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Severe Compassion: The Influence of Righteous Women

There have been many women throughout history who have inspired me and stirred in me a desire to improve, women such as Eve, Hannah, Esther and Mary.  Some time ago I read McCullough's biography of John Adams and was inspired the character, intelligence and resilience of his wife Abigail.  Although I know relatively little about her life, I am convinced that she was instrumental in the creation and the preservation of the nation whose liberties we now enjoy.  In 1774 in a letter to her husband, Abigail delivered a rebuke that is applicable to any era of political change:

"We have too many high-sounding words, and not enough actions that correspond with them."

...but she was only warming up...

Later she wrote: "I am more and more convinced that man is a dangerous creature; and that power, whether vested in many or a few, is ever grasping, and, like the grave, cries, “Give, give!” 

If her chastisement of politicians and of men in general did not sting enough, certainly her later rebuke of husbands hit the mark:

"Whilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to men, emancipating all nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over wives. But you must remember that arbitrary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken — and notwithstanding all your wise laws and maxims we have it in our power not only to free ourselves but to subdue our masters, and without violence throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet."

Lest we suppose her reproof was aimed only at men, she produced this pearl for women in a letter to Elizabeth Shaw in 1791:

"Knowledge is a fine thing, and mother Eve thought so; but she smarted so severly for hers, that most of her daughters have been afraid of it since."

How it must have been to read those letters fresh from the pen!  Perhaps Adams felt a bit like Dante the Pilgrim in purgatory, who, soon after Virgil's departure, encountered the piercing gaze and timely rebuke of Beatrice:

«Guardaci ben! Ben son, ben son Beatrice.
    Come degnasti d'accedere al monte?
      non sapei tu che qui è l'uom felice?»

 "Look at me well; in sooth I'm Beatrice!
How didst thou deign to come unto the Mountain?
 Didst thou not know that man is happy here?"

To this censure, Dante the Pilgrim had no reply, except to gaze downward like a little boy blistering at his mother's scolding:

«Li occhi mi cadder giù nel chiaro fonte; 
ma veggendomi in esso, i trassi a l'erba,
tanta vergogna mi gravò la fronte.
Così la madre al figlio par superba,
com' ella parve a me; perché d'amaro
sente il sapor de la pietade acerba.»

"Mine eyes fell downward into the clear fountain,
But, seeing myself therein, I sought the grass,
So great a shame did weigh my forehead down.
As to the son the mother seems superb,
So she appeared to me; for somewhat bitter
Tasteth the savor of severe compassion." (La Divina Commedia, Purgatorio XXX)

Severe compassion. Thank heavens for it, because only such compassion can produce men who can bare the beatific vision, or men like Adams, or the former farm boy turned wounded warrior - Westley in William Goldman's classic The Princess Bride, who defied the six-fingered man with the now immortal refrain: "We are men of action.  Lies do not become us."

Friday, September 7, 2012

Golden Calf Water

Many centuries ago, in Arabia, Mohammed attracted a lot of criticism for preaching against the polytheists of his day.  Islam was a monotheistic religion.  According to Muslims, one of the gravest sins was, and still is, to worship anything other than Allah, the one true God.  In modern Islamic countries, many people consider the West to be morally decadent, and the United States to be a particularly idolatrous nation.  Although I certainly oppose any form of terrorism and radical Jihad, I think that Mohammed may have been on to something.  In other words, as much as I dislike Al-Quaeda, the Taliban, and Hamas, perhaps the Qur'an has something to teach Americans in general, and especially the youth.

Of course, Americans are not necessarily polytheists in the way that early Arabians were polytheists.  I believe that, on the whole, Americans and people of all nations are good.  Nevertheless, as Spencer W. Kimball once taught, there are many false gods that we worship, and people seek after the wrong things:

"They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own God, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall.” (D&C 1:16; italics added.)

Then this stirring statement:

"In spite of our delight in defining ourselves as modern, and our tendency to think we possess a sophistication that no people in the past ever had—in spite of these things, we are, on the whole, an idolatrous people—a condition most repugnant to the Lord."

There is a pattern in history with so many unique variants - the Egyptians, the Israelites, the Greeks, the Romans, the Jaredites, the Nephites, etc. - good people who prospered, forgot God, and began to worship idols of their own making.  Moses was not in Horeb for very long before the Israelites had produced a golden calf.  When he returned from the mountain (in spite of his prayers that God would spare his people), he was so incensed that he threw down the tablets, burned the golden calf in a fire, mixed the powder that remained of the idol with water, and made the children of Israel drink.   

Many years later, Isaiah opposed idolatry among his own people. After that, Mohammed faced similar problems with his people, and not long ago President Kimball warned of modern idols.  The idols may vary among times, among nations, and among individuals, but the solution has always been the same: repent, and turn to God.  We may not be forced to drink l'eau de veau d'or (golden calf water), but I can hardly imagine that an alternative modern mixture would taste any better.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Who Invented the Alphabet?

Have you ever wondered where language comes from? Where did the alphabet come from? How did people first learn how to read and write?  Hugh Nibley has pondered this question, and written a delightful and thought provoking article on the topic, called The Genesis of the Written Word.  Sumerians, Canaanites, Semites, Phoenicians, Chinese, Indus Valley dwellers, Greeks, Latins... where did they get all those little markings we now call letters?  Where do words come from?