Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Why I Fail To Write

I'm not an academic, but I play one on the Internet. A large number of my friends are professors and doctoral students. I try to write and read, mainly out of enjoyment. The other reason is a nagging feeling of obligation born out of a kind of intellectual "keeping up with the Joneses." It's stupid, it's probably unhealthy, and it makes no sense. But it is what it is. I sometimes tell myself that I'm more in the mold of management thinker Peter Drucker, who was described by one biographer as being "raised a thinker, not an academic."[1] That works for a few seconds until I remember that he was the Clarke Professor of Social Science and Management at Claremont Graduate School, lectured on Oriental art at Pomona College, sat on the Board of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, has a graduate school named after him, and is considered the father of modern management. My consistent sense of inadequacy and "falling behind" produces a fair amount of anxiety. This means that the things that inspire me also remind me of my shortcomings (and not in a humility-inducing way). It's a double-edged sword. Which is why I both hate and love the quote below from John Durham Peters' recent interview:

It would take a lot of thought to detail my research techniques but they include the following imperatives: write early in the morning, cultivate memory, reread core books, take detailed reading notes, work on several projects at once, maintain a thick archive, rotate crops, take a weekly Sabbath, go to bed at the same time, exercise so hard you can’t think during it, talk to different kinds of people including the very young and very old, take words and their histories seriously (i.e., read dictionaries), step outside of the empire of the English language regularly, look for vocabulary from other fields, love the basic, keep your antennae tuned, and seek out contexts of understanding quickly (i.e., use guides, encyclopedias, and Wikipedia without guilt)...I write on a desktop that is not connected to the internet, and generally do not go online (on a separate computer) before noon or later, if I can help it. I am still largely paper-dependent for any serious reading. I do not have a smartphone, and have an ancient TV set with the most minimal cable package.

Let's breakdown this incredible model to emphasize my utter failure as a wannabe academic:

  • Write early in the morning - I'm commuting around 6am and at work by 7am. On my days off, I set my alarm to 8 or 9am and end up waking up around 11am.
  • Cultivate memory - My wife tells me I have very good memory, though I find myself struggling to remember something I've just read. I've taken up a form of journal writing in hopes of improving memory. I say "a form of" because it's really half-assed.
  • Reread core books - I'm drowning in the unread books on my shelves and my Kindle. I feel guilty when I reread. That or I feel like I'm wasting time because I could be reading something new.
  • Take detailed reading notes - My journal writing was an attempt at this as well, but as I said before, "half-assed." It kills me to think how much I can't remember because I failed to take notes on the books I've read.
  • Work on several projects at once - Check (I think).
  • Maintain a thick archive - ...of books and journal articles? If so, definite check.
  • Rotate crops - Assuming he means this metaphorically (I have no idea if he literally grows vegetation) in connection with "work on several projects at once" above, I would say 'yes'. However, I sometimes spread myself thin to the point of stagnation.
  • Take a weekly Sabbath - Not really. I work every other weekend and the fact that I'm in graduate school typically means I'm working on homework after church (not always).
  • Go to bed at the same time - Ha. No.
When someone asks me if I go to bed the same time every night.
  • Exercise so hard you can't think during it - That's when I get a lot of thinking done, which is probably why both my ideas and workouts suffer...
  • Talk to different kinds of people... - I don't really talk to anyone.



  • Take words and their histories seriously (i.e., read dictionaries) - Kinda. I used to be into etymology more when I was delving into Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. I sometimes jot down words I'm not familiar with when I read. I often second guess my use of words and check their definitions just to be sure. I aspire to be a wordsmith like David Bentley Hart (impossible, I know).
  • Step outside of the empire of the English language regularly - See above, though I'm still trying to master English.
  • Look for vocabulary from other fields - Yes. 
  • Love the basic - Yes and no. If by "basic" he means "simplify," then I'm rather terrible at it. But if he means study the basics and be grounded in them, then I think I do a fair job.
  • Keep your antennae tuned - Definitely try to.
  • Seek out contexts of understanding quickly (i.e., use guides, encyclopedias, and Wikipedia without guilt) - I could really work on this. I definitely suffer from guilt when it comes to using guides. I feel like I have to read a book or journal article (i.e., something I can cite) in order have a proper understanding. 
  • Generally do not go online (on a separate computer) before noon or later - I'm writing this online...in the morning...after checking my Facebook and browsing the Internet for an hour. I numb myself for several hours on a regular basis via Facebook and YouTube.


  • Largely paper-dependent for any serious reading - My Kindle is stuffed with plenty of books I haven't read yet, but so is my bookshelf. 
  • I do not have a smartphone, and have an ancient TV set with the most minimal cable package - Well, I had a Nokia until this last year. The thing was a tank. But now I'm looking at my phone just as much as everyone else. We don't have cable, but I do binge shows on Netflix. 

There is a lot of wisdom in Peters' brilliantly messy model. I hope to have mastered at least some of these in future.


NOTES

1. Jack Beatty, The World According to Peter Drucker (New York: Free Press, 1998), 7.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Materiality, Technology, and Seer Stones

John Durham Peters of the University of Iowa has a newly published book titled The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015). The work is meant to be a wide-ranging and interdisciplinary meditation on media theory (it's also on my never-ending to-read list). In a recent interview about the book, Peters made the following observation:

The philosophy of technology is often infected by a romanticism that sees technology as a loss of an elemental relation to the cosmos. One of the key stories in the modern world, told by very different figures in diverse accents, is technology as a fall from grace. One of William Wordsworth’s last poems complained in 1849 that illustrated books and newspapers were displacing the ability to speak, pushing us back to the retrograde stage of cave paintings! I understand why such stories continue to be told about fearsome novelties (though none of us would count illustrated books as such today); certainly we need to be on guard against having our lives hijacked by forces out of our control. We urgently need critical counterweights to the promises of technoliberation spewed forth from Silicon Valley and elsewhere. (The job of the media historian is to puncture hype.)
But I fear tossing the baby with the bathwater. Technical infrastructures are not limits on our humanity, but its conditions. We can debunk silicon salvation without resorting to deluded conceptions of original purity. It is a weird side effect of new media to produce florid opt-out fantasies — you could spend hours watching beautiful videos on YouTube showing life off the grid. The urge to unplug is a real one, but often the cure and the disease are in cahoots. If you let the technology tell how to get out of it, you get all the more embedded in it; this urge to check out from but via technology is like a con artist that lulls you into trust by telling you he is conning you. The promised cure of being free of technology is usually just another technology that isn’t recognized as such. The choice is always the much more difficult one of which technologies and techniques to engage, not whether to abandon them altogether. 
The book argues that media theory (like science fiction) is often theology by other means, and my insistence on deep technicity, like all basic visions of the human estate, inevitably has religious resonances. Theologically, I hold to a felix culpa, a fortunate fall. I do not place dolphins in Edenic bliss but somewhere between smart sea hippos and cyberspace surfers; they miss out on most of the powers that we technically inventive and immersive bipedals enjoy. Why would we want to go back to Eden? Living in a world rich with objects and subjects is a step forward, an opportunity, especially if we embrace the covenants that moor our sometimes errant ship. (Covenants are media that bind space and time.) Here my Mormonism, with its materialist metaphysics, media-friendly theology, affirmation of this-worldly embodiment as a step toward divinity, and rigorous sense of responsibility for choice, surely shines through my philosophy of technology.

This seems especially poignant given the photos of Joseph Smith's seer stone released by the LDS Church and the forthcoming Ensign article featuring one of them.[1] As Richard Bushman put it, "Seerstones don’t trouble me. I rather like them. They are part of Mormon materiality. They suggest there is a technology of revelation, somewhat resembling ipads, that assist us in getting divine intelligence. I don’t subscribe to Protestant stuffiness about proper ways for God to act and disreputable ones. I am willing to go along with the ways of God even if they are unconventional by enlightenment standards." Or, as another insightful article explained,

Seerstones spark a fire in my bones, a connection to an earlier, earthier, more tangible, and sacral-infused Mormonism. And that’s a Mormonism I need in my life right now. I gave my wife a blessing of healing tonight. I did not have a seerstone to guide my speech. But I did use a magic—sacred—oil, which I find to be directly analogous to Joseph’s stone. And I surely wouldn’t flinch should God grant me a white stone to use at such times—now or in a future heaven. I certainly hope that my whole soul can be attuned in the same manner, that I too can speak in the name of the Lord. Similarly, I feel a sense of holiness each time I dress in garments. I relish what the world can only sneer it—my magic underwear. Likewise, I cherish reading over and over the personal scripture of my Partriarchal Blessing. I’ll take Joseph’s “folk magic” right along with the enchanted world and goods it affords me over the stale, insipid world of constrained, condescending and self-congratulatory scientism—any day. But even if you don’t feel as I do—if you’re one of the many who have tamed and rationalized your experience with such artifacts of the Restoration—I hope you can appreciate and stand in an authentic relationship with our history. One need not be embarrassed by the “scandal” of the seerstone—whatever one’s epistemology—even if one can’t imagine our leaders using such things today. Instead, I hope we’re all grateful for these and the other “folk” elements of our religious tradition, and the goods—especially our experience of the sacred— that they (hopefully) continue to make available to all of us trying to build Zion today.

The divine and the mystical are far more tangible than we assume. And they can often be found in the ordinary technologies of our day-to-day lives.

 


NOTES

1. For one of the best treatments of the subject of Joseph Smith, magic, and seership, see Mark Ashurst-McGee, "A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet" (MA Thesis, Utah State University, 2000).

Grace In All Things

I've owned Adam Miller's book Speculative Grace for some time now.[1] I've been meaning to read it, along with the hundreds of other books on my never-ending, ever-growing to-read list. Yet, Adam's approach to Mormonism inspires me. It takes Mormonism's materialist metaphysics seriously. This affinity for the sacred in the mundane stands out in his other works, both published and forthcoming.[2] His book made its way closer to the top of my to-read list thanks to a recent review in BYU Studies Quarterly. The following stood out to me:

...[T]he materialistic universe envisioned by Latour and subtly proposed by Miller is in harmony with the restored gospel's ability to encompass "small-scale, localized" objects (3) that are both spiritual and material (D&C 131:7-8). For Latter-day Saints, spiritual and temporal things maintain a close interplay (Mosiah 2:41; D&C 29:32)...Miller presents an object-oriented force of grace that permeates all these equal things. This flat structure of the universe is the context in which Miller consistently animates the principle of grace. Miller's grace is pluralistic, immanent, dynamic, and even ordinary, thereby transforming its meaning to enliven it with heightened relevance. 

...Miller's grace could function in LDS and certain other theologies in the sense that an anthropomorphic God is able to have relationships, grant blessings, and make covenants with his children. As Miller explains, "God is an object among a multitude of objects" (47), or, to use a saying commonly attributed to Lorenzo Snow, "As man now is, God once was; as God is now man may be."[3]

This view of grace can and should shape our outlook of everyday tasks (including work). Not only does it infuse the ordinary with the divine, but it also may play a role in bridging classical and materialist metaphysics.



NOTES

1. Adam S. Miller, Speculative Grace: Bruno Latour and Object-Oriented Theology (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013).

2. See his Letters to a Young Mormon (Provo: BYU, Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2014); Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2012); and his forthcoming The Gospel According to David Foster Wallace: Boredom and Addiction in an Age of Distraction (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016).

3. Brent J. Schmidt, "Review of Adam S. Miller, Speculative Grace: Bruno Latour and Object-Oriented Theology," BYU Studies Quarterly 54:2 (2015): 203.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Markets in a Zion Society

Early this year I submitted a paper for an MTA-published volume that never materialized. The majority of the article was largely a reworking of my co-authored SquareTwo essay on global poverty and inequality. However, I added the following section on morality and markets:

**********************

One of the most prominent and consistent themes throughout the LDS canon is what we may refer to as economic and/or social justice. The revelations of Joseph Smith built a Mormon eschatology around the antediluvian City of Enoch: a just society of "one heart and one mind" with "no poor among them" that was "received…up into [God’s] own bosom" (Moses 7:18; 69). As historian Don Bradley explains, 

Joseph anticipated that when the Saints succeeded in establishing a Zion society, their Zion would be literally united with that of Enoch. The latter-day Zion established through the law of consecration was to rise from below while that established under the prophet Enoch descended from above (Moses 7:62–63; D&C 84:100). Another revelation similarly taught that when the Saints achieved "the union required by the law of the celestial kingdom," that of consecration, God would "receive her unto myself" (D&C 105:4–5).[1]

The people of Enoch’s ancient city are described as being "of one heart and one mind," dwelling "in righteousness," with "no poor among them" (Moses 7:18). This seems to suggest that the city’s prosperity was rooted in the values and civility of its citizens. The Zion society of the Nephite civilization is also described by Mormon as having "no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people. And there were no envyings, nor strifes, nor tumults, nor whoredoms, no lyings, nor murders, nor any manner of lasciviousness…There were no robbers, nor murderers, neither were there Lamanites, nor any manners of –ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God" (4 Ne. 1:15-17). Economist Lindon Robison proposes that the Book of Mormon as well as other restoration scriptures teach that caring is fundamental to economic prosperity and equality.[2] A wealth of evidence from a diverse range of fields supports Robison’s view that moral values underlie economic activity.[3] However, don’t markets undermine these foundational values? Doesn’t trade condition us to exploit each other, especially the most vulnerable? Recent evidence suggests quite the opposite. Researchers have developed a number of experimental bargaining "games" in order to study human behavior under various conditions. Among these games is one known as the Ultimatum Game. The game provides a certain amount of money to interacting participants. One is given the power to divide the sum between the two. If the other player accepts the division—whether it be 50:50 or 99:1—then both players keep their share. If the second party rejects the offer, both go home empty-handed. The results of previous experiments demonstrate that profit maximization is rarely, if ever, the dominant strategy.[4] Most second party players reject sharply unequal distributions, demonstrating that fairness takes precedence over economic self-interest. Experiments with 15 small-scale agrarian societies—consisting of hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, nomadic herders, and sedentary farmers—found that those whose groups were more heavily immersed in trade and exchange with outsiders were least likely to make inequitable offers.[5] Another study finds that countries with higher levels of globalization—interconnection and interdependence of nations via trade and economic integration—"are associated with greater propensities to favor cooperation with globally distal others compared with compatriots living in the same locality."[6] (This is at both the aggregate country and individual levels.) Behavioral economist Herbert Gintis speculates that "societies that use markets extensively develop a culture of cooperation, fairness, and respect for the individual…Extensive market interactions may accustom individuals to the idea that interactions with strangers may be mutually beneficial. By contrast, those who do not customarily deal with strangers in mutually advantageous ways may be more likely to treat anonymous interactions as hostile, threatening, or occasions for opportunistic pursuit of self-interest."[7] Data gathered by economist Arthur Brooks further confirm the implications of these findings: Americans in favor of free enterprise give more to both religious and secular causes than those who favor governmental redistribution, even when adjusted for age, religion, income, gender, marital status, race, political views and education. Anti-redistributionists are also more likely to give their time to charitable causes and activities, such as blood donations or giving money to a homeless person on the street.[8]

In a recent working paper, law professor Nathan Oman points out, "Nineteenth-century Mormon efforts at Zion building illustrate the dangers of demonizing trade…During the Utah War of 1857, Mormon xenophobia reached a fever pitch, resulting most tragically in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, where fear of outsiders led Latter-day Saints to murder an entire wagon train of men, women, and children."[9] It appears that it is anti-market views that breed intolerance, tribalism, and ultimately violence. A 2003 study found that anti-capitalist sentiments were strongly correlated with nationalism and ethnic intolerance among a number of formerly communist countries.[10] Other studies indicate that pro-trade attitudes are negatively related to nationalism, ethnocentrism, prejudice, and a high attachment to one’s own neighborhood.[11] This is probably why the governments of more globalized countries are less likely to violate human rights, including torture, extrajudicial killing, political imprisonment, and disappearances.[12] As one pair of researchers put it, "Our results are clear: globalization seems to liberate, not suffocate…"[13] This expansion of rights embraces the most vulnerable, including women.[14] The increased cooperation and tolerance created by globalized markets leads to a decrease in conflict, both within countries[15] and between them:[16] a point too often overlooked by Mormon intellectuals.[17] 

The prophet Isaiah spoke of a future period in which "the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the tops of the mounts...and all nations shall flow unto it...for out of Zion shall go
forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more" (Isaiah 2:2-4). As The Jewish Study Bible elaborates, "The prophet does not imagine a future without borders or distinct nationalities. International conflicts will still occur, but nation will no longer resolve them through warfare. Instead, nations will submit to arbitration at Mount Zion."[18] New Testament scholar Ben Witherington notes, "When Isaiah envisions the eschatological age, or the last days, he does not envision a massive work stoppage. What he envisions is a massive war stoppage, if we may put it that way. The point of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks is so that the weapons of war may be turned into the tools of work. When Isaiah envisages the final or eschatological state of affairs, his vision of shalom, well-being, peace, is not of a workless paradise, but of a world at peace worshiping the one true God and working together rather than warring with each other."[19] In other words, what we call the Millennium will consist of prosperity and peace by means of productivity, innovation, and trade.

In an overview of Adam Smith’s "invisible hand," historian Peter Harrison finds that the phrase’s most common use in the 17th and 18th centuries referred "to the manner in which God exercised providential control over the course of history by subtly influencing human actions in order to bring about his ends...The second pattern of usage also refers to God’s providential action, but in the context of his superintendence of the natural world."[20] Just as the laws of nature were originally seen as "exemplif[ying] design, so too...did the laws of morality." For Smith and his contemporaries, “the general laws of the moral, as well as of the material world, are wisely and beneficently ordered for the welfare of our species."[21] The pro-social, poverty-reducing aspects of the market system are almost virtually ignored in discussions about Zion. Yet, as the world continues to become more interconnected through globalized markets—perhaps evidence of the providential invisible hand—the closer it will move toward a Zion society. 

*******************************


The word limit kept me from going into much detail about some of these studies, but I thought it was worth reproducing here.



NOTES


1. Don Bradley, ""The Grand Fundamental Principles of Mormonism": Joseph Smith’s Unfinished Restoration," Sunstone (April 2006): 39.

2. See Lindon J. Robison, "Economic Insights from the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1:1 (1992): 35-53; Robison, "‘No Poor Among Them’," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14:1 (2005): 86-97, 130.

3. Paul J. Zak, "Moral Markets," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 77 (2011): 212-233; Moral Markets: The Critical Role of Values in the Economy, ed. Paul J. Zak (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

4. See Joseph Henrich, "Does Culture Matter in Economic Behavior? The Ultimatum Game Bargaining among the Machiguenga of the Peruvian Amazon," American Economic Review 90:4 (2000): 973-979.


5. Foundations of Human Sociality: Economic Experiments and Ethnographic Evidence from Fifteen Small-Scale Societies, eds. Joseph Henrich, Robert Boyd, Samuel Bowles, Colin Camerer, Ernst Fehr, Herbert Gintis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); Joseph Henrich, Robert Boyd, Samuel Bowles, Colin Camerer, Ernst Fehr, Herbert Gintis, Richard McElreath, Michael Alvard, Abigail Barr, Jean Ensminger, Natalie Smith Henrich, Kim Hill, Francisco Gil-White, Michael Gurven, Frank W. Marlowe, John Q. Patton, David Tracer, "‘Economic Man’ in Cross-Cultural Perspective: Behavioral Experiments in 15 Small-Scale Societies," Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28 (2005): 795-855; Joseph Henrich, Robert Boyd, Samuel Bowles, Colin Camerer, Ernst Fehr, Herbert Gintis, Richard McElreath, "In Search of Homo Economicus: Behavioral Experiments in 15 Small-Scale Societies," American Economic Review 91:2 (May 2001): 73-78.

6. Nancy R. Buchan, Gianluca Grimalda, Rick Wilson, Marilynn Brewer, Enrique Fatas, Margaret Foddy, "Globalization and Human Cooperation," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106:11 (2009): 4141.

7. Quoted in Ronald Bailey, "Do Markets Make People More Generous?" Reason (Feb. 27, 2002).

8. Arthur C. Brooks, Who Really Cares: America’s Charity Divide – Who Gives, Who Doesn’t, and Why It Matters (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 56-57.

9. Nathan B. Oman, "Doux Commerce in the City of God: Trade and the Mormon Ideal of Zion," William & Mary Law School Research Paper No. 09-289 (2014): 25.

10. Hilde Weiss, "A Cross-National Comparison of Nationalism in Austria, the Czech and Slovac Republics, Hungary, and Poland," Political Psychology 24:2 (2003): 377-401.

11. See Kent L. Granzin, Jeffrey D. Brazell, John J. Painter, "An Examination of Influences Leading to Americans’ Endorsement of the Policy of Free Trade," Journal of Public Policy & Marketing 16:1 (1997): 93-109; Anna Maria Mayda, Dani Rodrik, "Why Are Some People (and Countries) More Protectionist Than Others?" European Economic Review 49 (2005): 1393-1430.

12. See Indra de Soysa, Krishna Chaitanya Vadlamannati, "Does Being Bound Together Suffocate, or Liberate? The Effects of Economic, Social, and Political Globalization on Human Rights, 1981-2005," Kyklos 64:1 (2011): 20-53; Indra de Soysa, Krishna Chaitanya Vadlamannati, "Do Pro-Market Economic Reforms Drive Human Rights Violations? An Empirical Assessment, 1981-2006," Public Choice 155:1 (2013): 163-187.

13. de Soysa, Vadlamannati, 2011: 44.

14. See Eric Neumayer, Indra de Soysa, "Globalization and the Empowerment of Women: An Analysis of Spatial Dependence via Trade and Foreign Direct Investment," World Development 39:7 (2011): 1065-1075; Michael D. Stroup, "Separating the Influence of Capitalism and Democracy on Women’s Well-Being," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 67:3-4 (2008): 560-572; Stroup, "Does Economic Freedom Promote Women’s Well-Being?" in Economic Freedom of the World: 2011 Annual Report, ed. James D. Gwartney, Joshua C. Hall, Robert Lawson (Fraser Institute, 2011).

15. See Edward Peter Stringham, John Levendis, "The Relationship Between Economic Freedom and Homicide," Economic Freedom of the World: 2010 Annual Report, ed. James D. Gwartney, Joshua C. Hall, Robert Lawson (Fraser Institute, 2010); Indra de Soysa, "The Hidden Hand Wrestles Rebellion: Theory and Evidence on How Economic Freedom Prevents Civil Violence," Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 11:2 (2011): 285-297; Indra de Soysa, Ranveig Drolsum Flaten, "Globalization and Political Violence, 1970-2008," International Interactions 38 (2012): 622-646.

16. See Indra de Soysa, Hanne Fjelde, "Is the Hidden Hand an Iron Fist? Capitalism & Civil Peace, 1970-2005," Journal of Peace Research 47:3 (2010): 287-298; Erik Gartzke, "The Capitalist Peace," American Journal of Political Science 51:1 (2007): 166-191; Michael Strong, "Peace Through Access to Entrepreneurial Capitalism for All," Journal of Business Ethics 89 (2009): 529-538; Jong-Wha Lee, Ju Hyun Pyun, "Does Trade Integration Contribute to Peace?" Asian Development Bank Working Paper Series on Regional Economic Integration, No. 24 (Jan. 2009); Lee, Pyun, "Globalisation Promotes Peace," VoxEU.org (March 21, 2009).

17. For example, economic development and trade receive only brief mention in the volume War & Peace in Our Time: Mormon Perspectives, eds. Patrick Q. Mason, J. David Pulsipher, Richard L. Bushman (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2012).


18. “Isaiah,” The Jewish Study Bible: Tanakh Translation, eds. Adele Berlin, Marc Zvi Brettler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 788.


19. Ben Witherington III, Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), xiii-xiv.     

20. Peter Harrison, "Adam Smith and the History of the Invisible Hand," Journal of the History of Ideas 72:1 (2007): 33.

21. Ibid: 46.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Work's Covenantal Relation to the Sabbath

I've been reading through Jewish theologian and Civil Rights activist Abraham Heschel's The Sabbath in preparation for a church talk on the same subject. During my reading I came across this gem:
 
Abraham Joshua Heschel
Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden “to dress it and to keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Labor is not only the destiny of man; it is endowed with divine dignity. However, after he ate of the tree of knowledge he was condemned to toil, not only to labor “In toil shall thou eat … all the days of thy life” (Genesis 3:17). Labor is a blessing, toil is the misery of man. The Sabbath as a day of abstaining from work is not a depreciation but an affirmation of labor, a divine exaltation of its dignity. Thou shalt abstain from labor on the seventh day is a sequel to the command: Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work [Ex. 20:9]...The duty to work for six days is just as much a part of God’s covenant with man as the duty to abstain from work on the seventh day.[1]

Placing work and labor in a covenantal context fits very well with my developing theology of work.

NOTES

1. Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning For Modern Man (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005 [1951]), Kindle edition, 15-16.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Groundhog Day: Salvation in the Mundane

I recently finished political scientist Charles Murray's short book The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead. The book contains a lot of practical advice, but I read it more out of curiosity than anything (given Murray's often controversial academic work). Perhaps the most satisfying element of the book was his ending tip: Watch Groundhog Day Repeatedly. Murray describes the film as "a profound moral fable that deals with the most fundamental issues of virtue and happiness."[1] For him, it acts as an excellent substitute for Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.[2] And I can't really argue with his reasoning:

Director and cowriter Harold Ramis estimates that the movie has to represent at least thirty or forty years’ worth of days. We see only a few dozen of them, ending when Bill Murray’s character has discovered the secrets of human happiness. Without the slightest bit of preaching, Ramis shows the bumpy, unplanned evolution of his protagonist from a jerk to a fully realized human being—a person who has learned to experience deep and lasting satisfaction with life as a whole even though he has only one day to work with.

Ramis’s own understanding of the story he is telling is sophisticated and subtle. That’s why you need to watch the film more than once. You are sure to pick up subtexts the second time that you didn’t get the first time. And you’ll see even more when, after giving yourself a rest, you watch it a third time. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched Groundhog Day, but I’ve always seen something new.

Why is it a good thing to understand this movie so well? Because it will help you live a good life. Absorbing the deep meaning of the Nicomachean Ethics will also help you live a good life, but Groundhog Day will do it with a lot less effort.[3]



This recognized genius of Groundhog Day reminded me an essay by Adam Miller in his book Rube Goldberg Machines. In it, he makes an incredible insight particular to Mormonism:

In general, the complaint about Mormonism is that it is all too mundane.[4] God, for Mormons is not supra-mundane. God has a body? Fingers and toes? He's married? He must, everyday, tie the sash on his white robe? His immortal lungs perpetually expand and contract? Heaven, too, for Mormons, is not supra-mundane. Heaven? Where people are still married, still work, still have children, still change diapers, still share casseroles? Heaven, for Mormons, is what seals our union with the mundane rather than terminates it. Leave it to Mormonism to see the nihilistic claim that there is nothing but the aching specificity of this repetition and raise it to the power of infinity. Leave it to Mormonism to claim that even in heaven we'll have to button and unbutton our shirts, show all our work, suffer papers cuts, and--of course, forever and ever again--breathe.

In the end, Phil Connor turns out to be the Mormon hero par excellence. Let it snow, Phil finally says. Let the weather rain down. Shucked bare of hope for something else, he is able to invert the nihilism of life's repetition into compassion only after its rough-edged iteration has worn his heart smooth. Deprived of reward and consequence--of any hope that his works could save (or damn) him--he, in the end, comes back to the work for its own sake. He attends. And by the time February 3rd arrives, it is clear that Phil has not been saved from the mundane but for it.

"If we go to hell," Joseph Smith claimed, "we will turn the devils out of doors and make a heaven of it." If life is repetition, I am claiming, then we must turn our daydreams out of doors and fashion a heaven from it...No one is coming to save you from the grace of the mundane. Jesus came to give this grace not take it away.[5]

Finding salvation in the mundane (and ultimately being saved for it) should change the way we look at both it and the nature of the Divine.




NOTES

1. Charles Murray, The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don'ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 141.

2. As he says to the reader, "But let's be realistic: You won't [read] it" (Ibid.).

3. Ibid., 141-142.

4. "Only taken in the collective do the assaults on Mormonism's heresies reveal their common theme: the disintegration of that distance that separates the sacred and the profane, that defines religious experience as unfathomable mystery, that constitutes religious feeling int he presence of the ineffable, that renders such terms as holiness, worshipfulness, and reverence as constituting the very essence of religion. Such distance comes close to being the sine qua none of all Western religious faith and practice" (Terryl L. Givens, The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, 82).

5. Adam S. Miller, Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2012), Kindle edition, "Groundhog Day."

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Mowing the Lawn of Eden

I'm always excited to see people recognizing the profound notion of happiness, fulfillment, and purpose being found in the mundane. From The New York Times:

Life is a succession of tasks rather than a cascade of inspiration, an experience that is more repetitive than revelatory, at least on a day-to-day basis. The thing is to perform the task well and find reward even in the mundane...I’ve grown suspicious of the inspirational. It’s overrated. I suspect duty — that half-forgotten word — may be more related to happiness than we think. Want to be happy? Mow the lawn. Collect the dead leaves. Paint the room. Do the dishes. Get a job. Labor until fatigue is in your very bones. Persist day after day. Be stoical. Never whine. Think less about the why of what you do than getting it done. Get the column written. Start pondering the next.

...I am less interested in the inspirational hero than I am in the myriad doers of everyday good who would shun the description heroic; less interested in the exhortation to “live your dream” than in the obligation to make a living wage.

...In Camus’ book, “The Plague,” the doctor at the center of the novel, Bernard Rieux, battles pestilence day after day. It is a Sisyphean task. At one point he says, “I have to tell you this: This whole thing is not about heroism. It’s about decency. It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.”
 
Asked what decency is, he responds: “In general, I can’t say, but in my case I know that it consists of doing my job.” Later, he adds, “I don’t think I have any taste for heroism and sainthood. What interests me is to be a man.”
 
In the everyday task at hand, for woman or man, happiness lurks.

The more I look at it, the more I'm convinced that Joseph Smith's elevation of the mundane--and consequently the everyday tasks that come along with it--was one of his most inspired doctrines and deepest insights into the human condition. It is within the boring that we discover, as the article puts it, our "personal sliver of the divine."

I suppose even Eden will need its lawn mowed.