Friday, November 27, 2015

Turning This Mush Into Muscle

It's been about a month since my last post, despite my pledge to "blog early and often." I've been finishing up my last semester in my graduate program as well as blogging at Difficult Run, Worlds Without End, and Times & Seasons. I'd like to blog more, but I need to figure out what I want out of my blog. Right now, it is scatterbrained and directionless. There needs to be more focus and discipline.


So, I'm officially putting this blog on (indefinite?) hold. Perhaps I'll be able to come up with something that can turn this mush into muscle.


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Unholy Price Controls

I've been reading New Testament scholar David deSilva's book on Revelation titled Unholy Allegiances. In it, he discusses John's anti-imperial rhetoric within the Book of Revelation. But what jumped out at me recently was his discussion of Revelation 6:
We should remember that part of what Rome enjoyed came to her by way of trade, but another large part came by way of tribute—the enormous sums of money that each province collected and sent to Rome for the support of Rome’s army, Rome’s empire-wide building and military operations, and Rome’s lifestyle. The Roman economy included the provision of free grain and oil for the city of Rome’s 200,000 families on the “dole”—a perk of living in the capital of the empire. As John watches the cargoes of “wine and oil and fine flour and grain” streaming toward Rome (Rev 18: 13), he watches the prices of staples like barley and wheat rise in the provinces where the grains are grown. Rome purchased these grains inexpensively from the provinces in fixed minimum quantities and at fixed prices. This meant that the residents of the provinces often had to pay inflated prices for the insufficient amounts of grain that were left, and in times of shortage went without. The situation was made worse as local landowners used more and more of their land to produce crops that brought in a better financial yield per arable acre. Market demands made the production of oil and wine far more attractive, often leading to scarcity in the essentials of wheat and barley in the provinces. Revelation 6: 5–6 reflects a situation in which the prices of staples are grossly inflated, while production of oil and wine proceeds unabated. 

When [the Lamb] opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, "Come!" So I looked, and there was a black horse. Its rider held a balance for weighing in his hand. I heard what sounded like a voice from among the four living creatures. It said, "A quart of wheat for a denarion, and three quarts of barley for a denarion, but don't damage the olive oil and the wine." (Rev 6:5-6 CEB) 

John calls attention to the parasitic side of the Roman imperial economy, countering any feelings of gratitude toward Rome by drawing attention to the pervasive self-interest that underlies Roman rule.[1]

Price controls are not a thing of the past. "The political rationales for such laws," writes economist Thomas Sowell, "have varied from place to place and from time to time, but there is seldom a lack of rationales whenever it becomes politically expedient to hold down some people's prices in the interest of other people whose political support seems more important."[2] It is interesting how imperial price controls were condemned by ancient apostles because of their exploitation of the poor. Now, they are sold by politicians as benefiting the poor (or perhaps the "middle class").

Unfortunately, they are as unholy as they ever were.





NOTES
 
1. David A. deSilva, Unholy Allegiances: Heeding Revelation's Warning (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC, 2013), Kindle edition. Ch. 3, "Roman imperialism: The untold story."

2. Thomas Sowell, Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy, 4th ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 39.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

"Good For That Which Is Good"

I recently started listening to Wharton professor Adam Grant's book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success on Audible. I've had it on Kindle since it came out back in 2013, but I'm only now getting around to reading/listening (to) it (though I've kept up with Grant's work elsewhere). While I'm only in the second chapter, I was struck by the implications of the research presented by Grant. In short, Grant names three kinds of people in the workplace:
  1. Takers - people who seek to extract as much value as possible from interactions.
  2. Matchers - a median of give-and-take; quid pro quo.
  3. Givers - people who seek to contribute and add value to interactions.
Studies consistently find that givers end up at the bottom of the success ladder. For example, givers among professional engineers "had the worst objective scores in their firm for the number of tasks, technical reports, and drawings completed--not to mention errors made, deadlines missed, and money wasted. Going out of their way to help others prevented them from getting their own work done" (pg. 6). Similar results were found among medical students in Belgium and salespeople in North Carolina. Compared with takers, "on average, givers earn 14 percent less money, have twice the risk of becoming victims of crimes, and are judged as 22 percent less powerful and dominant" (pg. 7). Yet, when the researchers looked at the top of the ladder, they found givers dominating there as well. Among these same engineers, givers had the highest productivity and best objective scores for quantity and quality of results. The givers among the Belgian medical students had the highest grades, while those among the North Carolinian salespeople were the most productive.

How is this the case? Giving is obviously open to exploitation in any given instance, but overtime the practice becomes advantageous due to reputation and collaboration: "Research shows that people tend to envy successful takers and look for ways to knock them down a notch...Givers succeed in a way that creates a ripple effect, enhancing the success of people around them." A giver "creates value, instead of just claiming it" (pg. 10). It also creates a healthier network and/or organization because "[t]eams depend on givers to share information, volunteer for unpopular tasks, and provide help" (pg. 16).

The above reminded me of my last blog post regarding semiotic objections to business and markets. Just as distaste for monetary exchange is socially constructed, so too is the Western intellectual distaste for business. The research of Grant and others demonstrate that business is not inherently greedy or exploitative, but can be an entity of generosity, gratitude, and grace.

...but the meaning of the word restoration is to bring back again evil for evil, or carnal for carnal, or devilish for devilish—good for that which is good; righteous for that which is righteous; just for that which is just; merciful for that which is merciful - Alma 41:13

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Semiotic Objections to Business

Georgetown professors Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski have a book published through Routledge just this month titled Markets Without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests. So far, the book is excellent in its defense against critics of commodification. The first few chapters consist mainly of abstract philosophical arguments explaining both the position(s) of various anti-commodification theorists and why they fail. In the chapter I'm currently reading, Brennan and Jaworski are beginning to get into the empirical claims of these theorists using peer-reviewed social science. Anti-commodification theorists tend to lay out several objections to markets, including their potential to:
  • Violate human rights
  • Cause harm to others
  • Exploit the vulnerable
  • Misallocate of resources
  • Lead to self-destructive behavior
  • Develop unseemly tastes or character traits
However, there is the semiotic objection that participation "in markets can express or communicate certain negative attitudes, or is incompatible with holding certain positive attitudes...So, for instance, some hold that organ sales communicate the idea that the human body is a mere commodity--a piece of meat--and thus fail to show proper reverence for the body. Others say that markets in surrogacy services express the idea that women are mere incubation machines."[1] This semiotic objection carries over on to certain institutions within the market system, specifically businesses. Aside from both known and potential incidents of exploitation, asshole bosses, and the like (which should all be avoided or addressed), many critics implicitly and explicitly claim that the mere participation in business communicates a profit-driven corporate cosmology.


Yet, the view that monetary exchange--and, by extension, for-profit business--is an expression of the basest desires of human nature is largely a Western social construct. As Brennan and Jaworski write,

[Anti-commodification theorist Michael] Sandel complains that giving money instead of a non-monetary gift communicates a lack of concern. Yet there is evidence that this is merely a construct of current Western culture. For the Merina people of Madagascar, monetary gifts carry no such stigma of being impersonal or thoughtless. For the Merina, giving what Sandel calls "thoughtful" non-monetary gifts expresses no greater concern or thoughtfulness than giving cash of equal value...In Western cultures, we are now more likely to view gifts of money or gift certificates as impersonal or thoughtless, but even this is just a recent cultural development. For Americans, monetary gifts used to have a different meaning. Sociologist Viviana Zelizer says that in the 1870s-1930s United States, monetary gifts were seen as especially thoughtful...Zelizer's extensive work on the meaning of money and exchange, work spread out over multiple books, seems to show us that the supposed "profanity" of commodification or cash is not a deep fact about market economies as such, or about money as such, but a peculiarity of our own culture at this particular time...Like Zelizer, [sociologists Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry] conclude money and markets do not have the same meaning everywhere that they have here. Instead, the reason commodification seems so repugnant to us Westerners is because we Westerners tend to regard the sphere of exchange and money as a "separate and amoral domain." Bloch, Parry, and Zelizer say that we then mistakenly assume that this is just a "natural" or essential fact about money. We could think of money a different way...[2]

Bloch and Parry explain that for Westerners, "money signifies a sphere of "economic" relationships which are inherently impersonal, transitory, amoral and calculating." Yet, when the economy is seen as "'embedded' in society and subject to its moral laws, monetary relations are rather unlikely to be represented as the antithesis of bonds of kinship and friendship, and there is consequently nothing inappropriate about making gifts of money to cement such bonds."[3]

Similarly, the claim that business is somehow anti-social or morally detached (aside from claims regarding harm, exploitation, etc.) is also culturally constructed. Deirdre McCloskey has argued that the change in rhetoric toward business and markets led to the modern world and the staggering rise in living standards. Economist Nimish Adhia has documented the shift in Bollywood portrayals of businessmen from villains to heroes, reflecting the transformation of cultural ideologies regarding commerce and business.

Understanding the underlying prejudices against commerce is a key component to both secular and theological theories of business. For-profit business need not be seen as an expression of greed, but perhaps an exercise in civic virtue or even an act of consecration.




NOTES

1. Jason Brennan, Peter M. Jaworski, Markets Without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests (New York: Routledge, 2015), 21.

2. Ibid., 63-65.

3. Quoted in Ibid., 64.


Tuesday, September 8, 2015

"This Stupid, Wonderful, Boring, Amazing Job"

Over at the blog for AEI's Values & Capitalism, there's a short post on the value of mundane work using the U.S. version of The Office:

When Jim reflects on his time at Dunder Mifflin at the end of the show, he’s not struck by nostalgia—he genuinely appreciates the twelve years he spent working for that company. His job as a paper salesman allowed him to save money, buy a home, start a family, and eventually become an entrepreneur who helps start a sports marketing companyWhen a job is not particularly exciting, it is so easy to miss the merit in the mundane. But there is merit. That seemingly mundane work Jim did for all of those years created a network and the opportunity for him to pursue work he was passionate about. Although Jim Halpert is just a fictional character, his struggle with a job he was not passionate about is relatable for so many. Just because a job does not offer glory does not mean it’s not important. 

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.

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.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

"Labor Is Worship": Building the Material and Spiritual Temple

My last post looked the possible Masonic influence on early Mormonism's view of work. I offer this post as Exhibit B: Albert Mackey's 1882 The Symbolism of Freemasonry. In the chapter titled "The Symbolism of Labor," Mackey argues that "the Masonic Institution...teaches not only the necessity, but the nobility, of labor." Noting that the Trestle Board is the "symbol of the Divine Law," Mackey declares that "to labor well and truly, to labor honestly and persistently, is the object and the chief end of all humanity." This decree "was originally instituted as the common lot of all," alluding (I take it) to Adam's original command in the Garden of Eden. "To work out well the task that is set before us is our highest duty," he writes, "and should constitute our greatest happiness." God is described as "the
Grand Architect, the Master Builder of the world, [who] has labored from eternity" and "inscribes his plans upon illimitable space, for the universe is his trestle board." The Creation follows the Creator's example:

Earth works with every coming spring, and within its prolific bosom designs the bursting seed, the tender plant, and the finished tree, upon its trestle board. Old ocean works forever--restless and murmuring--but still bravely working; and storms and tempests, the purifiers of stagnant nature, are inscribed upon its trestle board.

While embracing the Benedictine motto of laborare est orare--labor is worship [1]--Mackey was still quite critical of the "old ascetics" because they "went into the wilderness, and built cells, and occupied themselves in solitary meditation and profitless thought. They prayed much, but they did no work. And thus they passed their lives, giving no pity, aid, or consolation to their fellow-men, adding no mite to the treasury of human knowledge, and leaving the world, when their selfish pilgrimage was finished, without a single contribution, in labor of mind or body, to its welfare." While rather harsh and historically inaccurate,[2] the comment nonetheless demonstrates the Masonic commitment to labor and toil. Mackey followed up his criticisms with his most emphatic statement:

Now, this doctrine, that labor is worship, is the very doctrine that has been advanced and maintained, from time immemorial, as a leading dogma of the Order of Freemasonry. There is no other human institution under the sun which has set forth this great principle in such bold relief. We hear constantly of Freemasonry as an institution that inculcates morality, that fosters the social feeling, that teaches brotherly love; and all this is well, because it is true; but we must never forget that from its foundation-stone to its pinnacle, all over its vast temple, is inscribed, in symbols of living light, the great truth that labor is worship...Freemasonry is, it is true, a speculative science, but it is a speculative science based upon an operative art. All its symbols and allegories refer to this connection. Its very language is borrowed from the art, and it is singularly suggestive that the initiation of a candidate into its mysteries is called, in its peculiar phraseology, work.

Mackey interestingly distinguishes Masonry from the philosophies of old, drawing attention to the fact that the institution's phraseology does not draw on the language of the university: "There would have been the sophists and the philosophers; the grammatists and the grammarians; the scholars, the masters, and the doctors. [Masonry] would have had its trivial and its quadrivial schools; its occupation would have been research, experiment, or investigation; in a word, its whole features would have been colored by a grammatical, a rhetorical, or a mathematical cast, accordingly as it should have been derived from a sect in which any one of these three characteristics was the predominating influence." Instead, the highest grade of Masonry is Master of the Work. "Its places of meeting are not schools, but lodges, places where the workmen formerly lodged, in the neighborhood of the building on whose construction they were engaged. It does not form theories, but builds temples." God is not "a divine power" or "a controller of all things...but a Grand Architect of the Universe. The masonic idea of God refers to Him as the Mighty Builder of this terrestrial globe, and all the countless worlds that surround it...[A]nd hence our labor is his worship." According to Mackey, a Mason's duty "as such, in his lodge, is to work."

The question arises as to the kind of work. Mackey is emphatic in his belief that "temple building was the original occupation of our ancient brethren. And to this is added the fact, that after a long lapse of centuries, a body of men is found in the middle ages who were universally recognized as Freemasons, and who directed their attention and their skill to the same pursuit, and were engaged in the construction of cathedrals, abbeys, and other sacred edifices, these being the Christian substitute for the heathen or the Jewish temple. And therefore, when we view the history of the Order as thus developed in its origin and its design, we are justified in saying that, in all times past, its members have been recognized as men of labor, and that their labor has been temple building." Mackey then compares the tasks of modern Masons with those of ancient times, explaining that the modern work of Masonry is largely abstract: "But our ancient brethren wrought in both operative and speculative Masonry, while we work only in speculative. They worked with the hand; we work with the brain. They dealt in the material; we in the spiritual. They used in their labor wood and stones; we use thoughts, and feelings, and affections." It is here that Joseph Smith seems to differ, instead fusing the material and the spiritual together. The building of temples and the building of a moral society (a "moral temple" according to the German masons Mackey quotes) became intertwined. Joseph's Zion  and the German Masons' "mystical Solomonic temple" could be said to share the same utopian description: "the high ideal or archetype of humanity in the best possible condition of social improvement, wherein every evil inclination is overcome, every passion is resolved into the spirit of love, and wherein each for all, and all for each, kindly strive to work." And thus the German Masons call this striving for an almost millennial result labor in the temple."

This return to a more ancient form of Masonry fits with Smith's notion of restoring a more ancient form of Christianity and, ultimately, Judaism.



NOTES

1. This may actually be a mistranslation.

2. See Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005); Thomas E. Woods, Jr., How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2012), Ch. 3: "How the Monks Saved Civilization."

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

"Masonry Stands Up For the Nobility of Labor": Masonry and Mormonism

I'm extremely excited for the forthcoming book by Cheryl Bruno and Joe Swick III titled Method Infinite: Freemasonry and the Mormon Restoration. Having seen the outline and summary of the arguments, I can say that this will truly help readers understand just how important and intertwined Masonry was to early Mormonism. Granted, I still need to read Michael Homer's Joseph's Temples: The Dynamic Relationship between Freemasonry and Mormonism (which I actually have), but I think Cheryl and Joe's is going to be on a much grander scale than Homer's book. I think these books will be influential in my own work on a Mormon theology of work.

Case in point: the following comes from Albert Pike's 1871 book Morals and Dogma. It describes the 22nd degree: the Knight of the Royal Axe, Prince of Libanus. The excerpt is very long, but I thought it was worth posting. The Masonic view of labor is very similar to what you find in Mormonism (or what was said about Mormonism) and was likely a major influence on its view of work:

SYMPATHY with the great laboring classes, respect for labor itself, and resolution to do some good work in our day and generation, these are the lessons of this Degree, and they are purely Masonic. Masonry has made a working-man and his associates the Heroes of her principal legend, and himself the companion of Kings. The idea is as simple and true as it is sublime. From first to last, Masonry is work. It venerates the Grand Architect of the Universe. It commemorates the building of a Temple. Its principal emblems are the working tools of Masons and Artisans. It preserves the name of the first worker in brass and iron as one of its pass-words. When the Brethren meet together, they are at labor. The Master is the overseer who sets the craft to work and gives them proper instruction. Masonry is the apotheosis of WORK.


It is the hands of brave, forgotten men that have made this great, populous, cultivated world a world for us. It is all work, and forgotten work. The real conquerors, creators, and eternal proprietors of every great and civilized land are all the heroic souls that ever were in it, each in his degree: all the men that ever felled a forest-tree or drained a marsh, or contrived a wise scheme, or did or said a true or valiant thing therein. Genuine work alone, done faithfully, is eternal, even as the Almighty Founder and World-builder Himself. All work is noble: a life of ease is not for any man, nor for any God. The Almighty Maker is not like one who, in old immemorial ages, having made his machine of a Universe, sits ever since, and sees it go. Out of that belief comes Atheism. The faith in an Invisible, Unnamable, Directing Deity, present everywhere in all that we see, and work, and suffer, is the essence of all faith whatsoever.

...[Man's] only true unhappiness should be that he cannot work, and get his destiny as a man fulfilled. The day passes swiftly over, our life passes swiftly over, and the night cometh, wherein no man can work. That night once come, our happiness and unhappiness are vanished, and become as things that never were. But our work is not abolished, and has not vanished. It remains, or the want of it remains, for endless Times and Eternities.

...To work is to try himself against Nature and her unerring, everlasting laws: and they will return true verdict as to him. The noblest Epic is a mighty Empire slowly built together, a mighty series of heroic deeds, a mighty conquest over chaos. Deeds are greater than words. They have a life, mute, but undeniable; and grow. They people the vacuity of Time, and make it green and worthy.

Labor is the truest emblem of God, the Architect and Eternal Maker; noble Labor, which is yet to be the King of this Earth, and sit on the highest Throne. Men without duties to do, are like trees planted on precipices; from the roots of which all the earth has crumbled. Nature owns no man who is not also a Martyr. She scorns the man who sits screened from all work, from want, danger, hardship, the victory over which is work; and has all his work and battling done by other men; and yet there are men who pride themselves that they and theirs have done no work time out of mind.

...There is a perennial nobleness and even sacredness in work. Be he never so benighted and forgetful of his high calling, there is always hope in a man who actually and earnestly works: in Idleness alone is there perpetual Despair. Man perfects himself by working. Jungles are cleared away. Fair seed-fields rise instead, and stately cities; and withal, the man himself first ceases to be a foul
unwholesome jungle and desert thereby. Even in the meanest sort of labor, the whole soul of man is composed into a kind of real harmony, the moment he begins to work. Doubt, Desire, Sorrow, Remorse, Indignation, and even Despair shrink murmuring far off into their caves, whenever the man bends himself resolutely against his task. Labor is life. From the inmost heart of the worker rises his God-given Force, the Sacred Celestial Life-essence, breathed into him by Almighty God; and awakens him to all nobleness, as soon as work fitly begins. By it man learns Patience, Courage, Perseverance, Openness to light, readiness to own himself mistaken, resolution to do better and improve. Only by labor will man continually learn the virtues. There is no Religion in stagnation and inaction; but only in activity and exertion. There was the deepest truth in that saying of the old monks, "laborare est orare." "He prayeth best who loveth best all things both great and small;" and can man love except by working earnestly to benefit that being whom he loves?

"Work; and therein have well-being," is the oldest of Gospels; unpreached, inarticulate, but ineradicable, and enduring forever. To make Disorder, wherever found, an eternal enemy; to attack and subdue him, and make order of him, the subject not of Chaos, but of Intelligence and Divinity...Let the weary cease to think that labor is a curse and doom pronounced by Deity, Without it there could be no true excellence in human nature. Without it, and pain, and sorrow, where would be the human virtues?

...Duty is with us ever; and evermore forbids us to be idle. To work with the hands or brain, according to our requirements and our capacities, to do that which lies before us to do, is more honorable than rank and title. Ploughers, spinners and builders, inventors, and men of science, poets, advocates, and writers, all stand upon one common level, and form one grand, innumerable host, marching ever onward since the beginning of the world: each entitled to our sympathy and respect, each a man and our brother.

...Masonry stands up for the nobility of labor. It is Heaven's great ordinance for human improvement. It has been broken down for ages; and Masonry desires to build it up again. It has been broken down, because men toil only because they must, submitting to it as, in some sort, a degrading necessity; and desiring nothing so much on earth as to escape from it. They fulfill the great law of labor in the letter, but break it in the spirit,: they fulfill it with the muscles, but break it with the mind...Even when [the labor's] end is hidden from him, it is not mere blind drudgery. It is all a training, a discipline, a development of energies, a nurse of virtues, a school of improvement.

...The great law of human industry is this: that industry, working either with the hand or the mind, the application of our powers to some task, to the achievement of some result, lies at the foundation of all human improvement. We are not sent into the world like animals, to crop the spontaneous herbage of the field, and then to lie down in indolent repose: but we are sent to dig the soil and plough the sea; to do the business of cities and the work of manufactories. The world is the great and appointed school of industry. In an artificial state of society, mankind is divided into the idle and the laboring classes; but such was not the design of Providence. Labor is man's great function, his peculiar distinction and his privilege.

...What is there glorious in the world, that is not the product of labor, either of the body or of the mind? What is history, but its record? What are the treasures of genius and art, but its work? What are cultivated fields, but its toil? The busy marts, the rising cities, the enriched empires of the world are but the great treasure-houses of labor. The pyramids of Egypt, the castles and towers and temples of Europe, the buried cities of Italy and Mexico, the canals and railroads of Christendom, are but tracks, all round the world, of the mighty footsteps of labor. Without it antiquity would not have been. Without it, there would be no memory of the past, and no hope for the future...It honors the Worker, the Toiler; him who produces and not alone consumes; him who puts forth his hand to add to the treasury of human comforts, and not alone to take away.

...God has not made a world of rich men; but rather a world of poor men; or of men, at least, who must toil for a subsistence. That is, then, the best condition for man, and the grand sphere of human improvement.

...If wealth were employed in promoting mental culture at home and works of philanthropy abroad; if it were multiplying studies of art, and building up institutions of learning around us; if it were in every way raising the intellectual character of the world, there could scarcely be too much of it. But if the utmost aim, effort, and ambition of wealth be, to procure rich furniture, and provide costly entertainments, and build luxurious houses, and minister to vanity, extravagance, and ostentation, there could scarcely be too little of it. To a certain extent it may laudably be the minister of elegancies and luxuries, and the servitor of hospitality and physical enjoyment: but just in proportion as its tendencies, divested of all higher aims and tastes, are running that way, they are running to peril and evil.

...To aid in securing to all labor permanent employment and its just reward: to help to hasten the coming of that time when no one shall stiffer from hunger or destitution, because, though willing and able to work, he can find no employment, or because he has been overtaken by sickness in the midst of his labor, are part of your duties as a Knight of the Royal Axe. And if we can succeed in making some small nook of God's creation a little more fruitful and cheerful, a little better and more worthy of Him,--or in making some one or two human hearts a little wiser, and more manful and hopeful and happy, we shall have done work, worthy of Masons, and acceptable to our Father in Heaven.

Friday, April 24, 2015

"I Don't Want to Go": Or, Having an Existential Crisis in Barnes & Nobles

I recently finished journalist Christine Kenneally's The Invisible History of the Human Race for a kind of unofficial book club I accidentally started at work (I was joking when I suggested it...). I enjoyed it for the most part, especially since it was the first book on genealogy I'd ever read. In the very first chapter, Kenneally describes an experience her husband had years ago:

When my husband was a graduate student, he had to physically brace himself every time he walked into the university library, as the sight of all those books, written by all those people, about so many more people, with references to even more people who had written many more books about other people, was too much to contemplate. Or rather, what was too much was the multiplicity of the books plus the intrusive realization that he would never in his lifetime be able to read them all. Hundreds of people blithely stepped over the library's threshold all day long, but for [my husband], to catch a glimpse of the library's immense holdings was to come face to face with his own mortality.[1]

I had a similar experience about a month or so ago in Barnes & Nobles. It started out small. I walked by a section of Best-Selling or Classic Literature (can't remember which), pausing to note how few I had actually read. This caused a slight increase in my breathing tempo, but I calmed down as I made my way to one of the store's comfy chairs. After reading an article on performance compensation in the latest issue of Harvard Business Review, I began my serious browse. Before I upgraded to an iPhone, I would write down book titles on small scraps of paper as I perused the numerous sections in the store. Now I snap a picture of the cover of any book I find interesting for future reference and serious consideration. Having gone back through my photos from that day, I count 9 book covers. Nine. And I only browsed the new books tables,
Nope
the business section, and the rather small psychology section. But what really hit me was when I started riding the escalator down to the lower level. As descended, I had a somewhat aerial view of the bottom floor. The shelves of books expanded further and further out the more I came down. It was only when I had a full view of the lower floor that I realized I would never read all of the books in view. Panic set in. How many wrong ideas were rattling around in my head solely because I hadn't gotten to one of these books? What if those ideas stayed there all my life? It was a reminder of how little I know. An uncomfortable uncertainty set in. If I were Belle, the Beast's gift would've freaked me the hell out.


Furthermore, it got me thinking about why I wouldn't get to all the books: I'm going to die. As the quote above put it, I came face to face with my own mortality. Do I believe in an afterlife and eternal progression? Sure. But the chance of being wrong still looms, especially when you're looking at a wealth of knowledge you know you don't possess. It made me feel stuck. I didn't want to leave the store. And I didn't want to leave this life. I've been trying to turn this realization into a regenerative process; an embrace of epistemic humility. Some would experience this situation in just such a way: the realized ignorance and amount of unread books would be exciting. Boredom could never set in because there would always be something new to read or learn. Life is an incredible adventure, with the universe and its mysteries waiting to be explored.

Unfortunately, that is not my experience. All I keep thinking is "I don't want to go."





NOTES

1. Christine Kenneally, The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures (New York: Viking, 2014), Kindle edition. Chapter 1: "Do Not Ask What Gets Passed Down."

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

2015 Mormon Scholars in the Humanities Conference



I recently had a paper presented at the 2015 Mormon Scholars in the Humanities Conference at the LDS Institute of Religion and Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. Unfortunately, I was unable to personally attend, but my friend Adam Miller was kind enough to read the paper on my behalf. The title is "'At This Time, A Friend Shall Lose His Friend's Hammer': An Eschatological View of Work." This paper has a lot in common with the one I presented at the Faith & Knowledge Conference in February and the Mormon Transhumanist Association Conference last year. However, there is a new emphasis on eschatology:


Abstract: Despite the Platonic ideal, people do not spend the majority of their time in the act of deep contemplation. Instead, they are performing the seemingly menial tasks of daily life. This largely consists of one’s form of employment. Similarly, implicit within the dramatics of apocalyptic prophecies and eschatological visions is the continuity of the mundane. In building the Kingdom of God, Church leaders from Brigham Young to John Widtsoe continued along the path set by Joseph Smith whose theology collapsed the traditional distance between the sacred and the secular. Furthermore, they argued that continual progression gave meaning to the eternity. Finding meaning in the lone and dreary world of day-to-day work has been a point of increasing interest among management experts and organizational theorists. Their findings yield fruitful insights into human well-being and consequently Mormonism’s doctrine of eternal progression. This paper discusses how the positive psychology underlying concepts of flow, mastery, engagement, and progress provides a powerful lens through which to realistically view human progression towards Zion, life in the age to come, and eventual divinization.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Magical World of Miyazaki

Miyazaki

I recently watched the documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness about famed Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. I was both inspired and saddened by the mesmerizing, yet cynical Miyazaki in the throes of his last film The Wind Rises. But one scene in particular that stood out to me took place in a seemingly small hotel room as Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki awaited a press conference following the release of the film. Looking out the hotel window, Miyazaki beckons the camera over. Peering over the rooftops, Miyazaki's imagination begins to take hold. Pointing to a building, he says,

From that rooftop, what if you leapt onto the next rooftop, dashed over to that blue and green wall, jumped up and climbed up the pipe and ran across the roof and jumped to the next? You can, in animation. If you can walk the cable, you could see the other side. When you look from above, so many things reveal themselves to you. Maybe race along the concrete wall. Suddenly, there in your humdrum town is a magical movie. Isn't it fun to see things that way? Feels like you could go somewhere far beyond. Maybe you can.

The conversation was spliced with various clips from Miyazaki's films, often matching the very actions he was describing. It was thrilling to see Miyazaki take the mundane and make it magical. Enchanting the ordinary strikes me as very close to--if not the same as--sacralizing the mundane. Perhaps we are our moral and creative best when we do so.


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Finding Meaning Within Chinese Factories


We, the beneficiaries of globalization, seem to exploit these victims with every purchase we make, and the injustice feels embedded in the products themselves. After all, what's wrong with a world in which a worker on an iPhone assembly line can't even afford to buy one? It's taken for granted that Chinese factories are oppressive, and that it's our desire for cheap goods that makes them so.


So, this simple narrative equating Western demand and Chinese suffering is appealing, especially at a time when many of us already feel guilty about our impact on the world, but it's also inaccurate and disrespectful. We must be peculiarly self-obsessed to imagine that we have the power to drive tens of millions of people on the other side of the world to migrate and suffer in such terrible ways. In fact, China makes goods for markets all over the world, including its own, thanks to a combination of factors: its low costs, its large and educated workforce, and a flexible manufacturing system that responds quickly to market demands. By focusing so much on ourselves and our gadgets, we have rendered the individuals on the other end into invisibility, as tiny and interchangeable as the parts of a mobile phone.

Chinese workers are not forced into factories because of our insatiable desire for iPods. They choose to leave their homes in order to earn money, to learn new skills, and to see the world. In the ongoing debate about globalization, what's been missing is the voices of the workers themselves.

This is how journalist Leslie T. Chang begins her enlightening TED talk (based on her book Factory Girls) on Chinese factory workers. The talk as a whole looks at how these workers construct meaning in their employment. See the whole talk below.



Sunday, March 8, 2015

Being Co-Creators With God

During my flight to the University of Virginia for the Faith & Knowledge Conference this past weekend, I finished a small AEI-published book entitled Entrepreneurship for Human Flourishing.[1] Human flourishing is one of the major lenses through which I make sense of my religion. One of the most well-known scriptural passages in the LDS canon is God's declaration to Moses: "For behold, this is my work and my glory -- to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man" (Moses 1:39). To me, "the immortality and eternal life of man" is the ultimate example of human flourishing. According to authors Chris Horst and Peter Greer, entrepreneurship can play an important role in bringing about this flourishing:

Made in the image of God, the imago dei, humankind still bears the Creator's fingerprints. When a mother gives birth or we create something with our hands, we mirror the wonder of creation. In some small but significant way, we have the privilege of being cocreators with God. If we look closely enough, we see this ability to cocreate all around us as: an artist transforms a blank canvas into a masterpiece; a builder assembles planks and raw materials into the structure of a home; a pharmacist synthesizes substances that heal; or a farmer reaches down into the dirt, plants seeds, and watches life spring forth.[2]

This is because "entrepreneurs are in the business of solving problems, not creating them. Their initiatives and inventions--and the businesses that sustain them---meet human needs...When entrepreneurs fulfill their mandate to serve others and solve problems, humans flourish. And to solve these problems, entrepreneurs recruit workers, who can also then experience the dignity of work. At its best, entrepreneurship aims to encourage human flourishing."[3]

This is why I'm interested in the theology of work. When we recognize that economies and organizations are networks of relationships, their place in the larger picture becomes a bit more clear.



2. Chris Horst, Peter Greer, Entrepreneurship for Human Flourishing (Washington, D.C.: AEI Press, 2014), 78.

3. Ibid., 8-9.