Reading is obviously where our scripture study must begin. We cannot study and come to understand what we are not already familiar with. We cannot study 1 Nephi thoroughly without knowing the rest of the Book of Mormon. The prophets have admonished us to go beyond reading to study, and though reading is different from careful study, it is an essential part of scripture study. It is not something that can be done once and then forgotten; it must be done over and over again. Thus the repetition of the advice: “Read, read, read.”James faulconer
My friend Marissa is going to Harvard Divinity School, studying the stories of holy women. She recently posted a meditation on female anointings, and in it, described her encounter with a prayer that LDS women used to say as they anointed and blessed their pregnant sisters. Here is the prayer she found:
I love this prayer. In her post, Marissa adds the following:
I love the parts of my religion it [the prayer] reminds me of. I love that, in our early church when things were so theologically creative, women laid their hands on each other and pronounced blessings, the way we still do in the temple. This prayer sounds a lot like those temple blessings. It uses some of the same words, it has the same tendency to dart back and forth between the spiritual and the physical, nearly scientific, with its talk of marrow and ligaments, its attention to the details of the body. I love that about my religion too—the insistent mixing of the mundane with the divine, the assurance that the body is permanent, is part of our soul, is a necessary part of salvation, and therefore worthy of our theological attention and love.
Terryl Givens has said that “One of the hallmarks of Mormonism, and of Joseph Smith in particular, is the collapse of sacred distance–the sense that there is an earthly and a heavenly, a bodily and a spiritual.” This prayer, with “its talk of marrow and ligament, its attention to the details of the body,” is a prime example of that. It’s also a testament to the enduring faith of Latter-day Saint women. I hope my children–should God grant me children–know about prayers like these.
We all use metaphors to describe our lives, things like: “Love is a battlefield.” “Life is a highway.” “All the world is a stage.” It turns out, though, that political philosophers get really dark about it. Here’s political philosopher Michael Oakeshott on why that is:
… it is characteristic of political philosophers that they take a sombre view of the human situation: they deal in darkness. Human life in their writings appears, generally, not as a feast or even as a journey, but as a predicament; and the link between politics and eternity is the contribution the political order is conceived as making to the deliverance of mankind. Even those whose thought is most remote from violent contrasts of dark and light (Aristotle, for example) do not altogether avoid this disposition of mind. And some political philosophers may even be suspected of spreading darkness in order to make their light more acceptable. Man, so the varied formula runs, is the dupe of error, the slave of sin, of passion, of fear, of care, the enemy of himself or of others or of both … and the civil order appears as the whole or a part of the scheme of his salvation.
The precise manner in which the predicament is conceived, the qualities of mind and imagination and the kinds of activity man can bring to the achievement of his own salvation, the exact nature and power of civil arrangements and institutions, the urgency, the method and the comprehensiveness of the deliverance — these are the singularities of each political philosophy. In them are reflected the intellectual achievements of the epoch or society, and the great and slowly mediated changes in intellectual habit and horizon that have overtaken our civilization. Every masterpiece of political philosophy springs from a new vision of the predicament; each is the glimpse of a deliverance or the suggestion of a remedy.Michael Oakeshott on thomas hobbes
After re-reading this a few times (it’s a hefty statement), it seems that Oakeshott is making a few points:
- To some, human life is not a feast or a journey, but a predicament
- Political philosophy is the study of the predicament, and how to find a way out
- Different philosophies pose the predicament in different ways: man “is the dupe of error, the slave of sin, of passion, of fear, of care, the enemy of himself or of others or of both…”
- How this predicament is described, and how the solution is achieved, is what distinguishes each great work of political philosophy
Now, let’s be clear: I’m no political philosopher. Nor will I ever be one. But I find these ideas incredibly interesting, especially the first point about the metaphors we use to describe our existence. Why? Because it matters so much. Think about it:
Is life a feast or a journey? A war or a test? Are we soldiers or students or pilgrims?
If it’s a feast, what are we feasting on? If we’re students, what is the lesson we’re supposed to learn? If we’re pilgrims, what is our journey–our starting point, our waystation, and our final destination? If life is a war, what are we fighting against, and who is on our side, and who is on theirs?
If it is a predicament, what is the predicament? Are we ancient humans stuck in a modern world, waylaid by our biological drives and evolved habits of mind? Are we sinners saddled with depraved souls, with grace as the only way out? Are we, as the Hebrew Bible envisions it, the creation of God inclined toward idolatry–to the worship of anything but God? Are we students in a classroom, sent here to learn? Are we, as Socrates taught, rational creatures beset by ignorance? Are we, as Terryl Givens like to point out, children of God wounded by the world and by each other, requiring the grace and healing that comes in the arms of Christ? Or are some kind of all of these?
Or is all of these an exercise in climbing the wrong ladder? If we are not, in fact, in a “predicament,” is some other framing device better?
Journeys, feasts, predicaments–these are the metaphors we use, and I think they matter a lot because they shape our approach to the world. But I wonder why we all use different metaphors? And I wonder if one metaphor is objectively more right than another? Or if all of these metaphors get at some aspect of life?
A few thoughts.
First, Oakeshott suggests that political philosophers think in terms of predicaments. This requires they take a “sombre view” of the human situation. Are we, as Latter-day Saints, required to take a “sombre view” of the human situation? I’m inclined to say… yeah. Yes we are.
As Latter-day Saints, we’re generally sunny in our outlook. We believe everyone will get a shot at heaven. (I’m thinking of the book title, “Odds Are You’re Going to Be Exalted.”) But we also have a pretty dark and tragic book at the heart of the Restoration: the Book of Mormon, which for all its optimism, ends with the godless Nephites being wiped out by the godless Lamanites.
I’m reminded of Bible scholar Gordon Wenham’s statement: when talking about the first part of Genesis, he said that the book “declares that mankind is without hope if individuals are without God. Human society will disintegrate where divine law is not respected and divine mercy not implored. Yet Genesis, so pessimistic about mankind without God, is fundamentally optimistic…” Why? Because, in short, God has made covenants to Abraham to save the human race. This could describe the Book of Moses equally well. (Think of the scene where Enoch sees the wickedness and suffering of mankind, and weeps with God–but then leads a whole city into God’s rest and loving arms. He sees mankind without God; and works to turn mankind to God.)
Second, journeys and predicaments both suggest a storyline, a narrative. All of these narratives invite us to act, to move, to launch ourselves forward. And perhaps that’s enough? Without a conflict requiring resolution; without a journey needing completing; without a “what-is” requiring a “should-be”; we would be static, frozen in place.
Third, Adam Miller has talked about the questions being asked today, while both Terryl Givens and Nathan Oman have talked about finding new language to celebrate the restoration–new ways to answer today’s new questions. Perhaps to find the “right” metaphor and image, we need to know–what questions are being asked? What metaphors best make sense to this generation, and to the questions they’re asking, and draw from the Restoration?
What happened then: they became a team, a family of two. There had been times before they ran away when when they had acted like a team, but those were very different from feeling like a team. Becoming a team didn’t mean the end of their arguments. But it did mean that the arguments became a part of the adventure, became discussions not threats. To an outsider the arguments would appear to be the same because feeling like part of a team is something that happens invisibly. You might call it caring. You could even call it love. And it is very rarely, indeed, that it happens to two people at the same time–especially a brother and a sister who had always spent more time with activities than they had with each other.from the mixed up files of Mrs. BasiL E. Frankweiler, p. 39
I remember reading, some time ago, a tweet from a journalist I follow. He was about to turn thirty, and another journalist had given him this counsel: “Before you turn thirty, you’re full of promise. After you turn thirty, you are who you are.” William James, the eminent psychologist, said it another way: “In most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.” I remember sitting back at the time, a bit stunned–I was 28 at the time–wondering: is this true? Am I set, doomed to live what what I’ve got–a decent personality mixed with some pretty big character defects?
Another memory. On my mission, a prominent Seventy came to our mission. In a talk on agency and responsibility, he made an offhand comment that a missionary will never rise above the level of commitment and dedication they show on their missions, after their missions. The “never” really stunned me, as I didn’t consider myself the best missionary. But could I change? And would I ever change, if I didn’t now?
Both of these memories suggest that there may be a time in our lives when our character is somewhat cemented. (“Cemented”–what a word to use when describing our own nature.) And both memories have stuck with me, cemented in my mind. I’ve mostly refused to believe the latter quote I heard on my mission–after all, for the last decade I’ve been home from my mission, and I’ve refused to believe I can’t change! But now that I’m about to turn thirty (next month), the former quote has been weighing on me. Am I set in my ways? Am I fundamentally no longer “full of promise”? And what does that say, if anything, about the project of self-improvement–and the hold the Atonement ought to have over me?
Perhaps this last question is the scariest source of my anxiety: not only is there a concrete sense of anxiety that comes from an awareness of still deep flaws, flaws I’d really like to eliminate; but there’s the more-abstract-but-no-less-real question of, am I too set in my ways for the Atonement to have a fundamental hold on my character?
The answer to these questions are, I think, yes and no. And as thirty looms, this has been really important for me to come to terms with as I think about who I want to be in a decade. I want to make three points explaining my feelings.
First, agency is circumscribed. This is something I’ve become more and more convinced of: we have agency, but we cannot choose to change everything about ourselves, and what we can choose to change about ourselves.
First, what limits us? Think about all the things:
- Habits. For better and for worse, they’re difficult to break. This can be anything from mental habits (every time it’s crowded in the subway, I get frustrated) to physical habits (going to brush my teeth first thing in the morning), and much else besides.
- Genetics. There are genetic things that influence us (some would say determine us), like how the lipostat in our brain governs our weight. Weight’s easy to grasp, but things like happiness, our openness to new things, and even our political dispositions might be inheritable.
- Environment. We tend to “follow the scripts” set for us by the family we grew up with, our “family of origin.” For example, I’ve noticed that when I drive, I tend to mirror my dad in wanting to make comments about how bad drivers are. But knowing about our environment growing up can predict whether we believe in God, what our political party likely is, and how vulnerable we’re willing to be. And of course, our peers growing up, and our peers and environment now, can all influence us.
- Deep-set beliefs coupled with biases. What do we believe? How much do I believe that I control my own fate? (This is something scientists call the “locus of control.”) What do I think is involved in self-change? What do I believe about learning, about society, about religion, about people? Along with our basic beliefs, there are dozens upon dozens of cognitive biases–shortcuts that our brains make, that can trip us up if we’re not careful.
- Culture & Norms. Closely related to our environment, our society’s culture and norms can impact what we believe, and how we act. It’s difficult to act agains the norms, even if it’s healthy. For example, if our family has a culture of eating out indiscriminately and often, it can be difficult to break bad habits of eating.
The above list isn’t comprehensive, just suggestive. And the points overlap. But I think the overall point is clear: mortality is a mess. Some people are “luckier” in this constellation of environment, culture, beliefs, genetics, and habits than others. Some aspects of ourselves are probably more amenable to change than others. (For example, we might be able to change some habits, but not our entire personality.) And I think that warrants care when we set out to change ourselves and others.
I know a man who my family helped for a long time. This man–I’ll call him Rob–did not win the birth lottery. He was raised in a poor home; he did drugs for a long time; he had a criminal record that limited his employment; he had had several girlfriends; and was raising his son in joint-custody with his wife. His trailer was a mess, a fact I knew from spending time over there, helping clean it up. He always worked odd jobs. And he had been baptized a few years ago. We tried to help him change, and the church supported him for a while. But he kept making self-destructive decisions, no matter how much we tried to help him. I remember, as one of his home teachers, trying to explain the “Be Proactive” principle from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: the idea that he could change, that he just had to focus on what was within his influence. But he ended up, after all this help, back on the streets. Something fundamental about him could not, would not change. By thirty (or perhasp sooner), he was no longer full of promise; he just was who he was, seemingly fixed.
At the time, I couldn’t fathom why he wouldn’t change. Now, older and maybe a little wiser, I think–“there but for the grace of God go I.” Rob was born into a constellation of factors that severely limited his agency and–though it’s not my place to say–he may never be able to fundamentally change. Me? My mind has not been addled by drugs; I haven’t been saddled by a criminal past; I have a strong belief that my own actions, not my fate, determine my future; I have an introspective nature; and I believe in a God of grace. Perhaps I’m lucky: perhaps I possess a constellation of these same factors more capable of allowing change. Maybe I’m not so static as I seem. Perhaps this suggests a second point: some people are more capable of change than others. The fact that I’m sitting here, writing a blog post about it, might suggest I’m more capable of change than others. (Then again, maybe not.)
Which leads me to my third point: agency is circumscribed, but grace can transform, heal, and conquer. This is less empirical than a priori: I’m not basing this on empirical evidence as much as I’m deducing this from the theory of my own faith. But my religion counts for something, I think: I firmly believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ preaches that we can change. Maybe all the change I want and hope for will not happen in this life; maybe progress will happen in the world of spirits, and perhaps–just perhaps–we can even progress through kingdoms of glory, eternally. (There’s enough diversity of opinion among LDS leaders over time to warrant the belief.) But to whatever extent change can happen, eternal progression (and so eternal change) characterizes this life.
Is grace available to all? Well, in theory, yes: anyone can demonstrate faith and allegiance to our Lord Jesus Christ. Anyone can pledge their lives to God through covenant, and open up those wellsprings and channels of grace. But in practice, of course, there may be people–like Rob–who has been injured by mortality to such an extent that, at least in this life, they may never be able to fully reach out in faith. (Can I make that judgment call? Perhaps, perhaps not: I don’t think we should easily give up on anyone, although I’m sure there are cases where it’s for the best if we do.)
Terryl Givens likes to quote the original translation of 1 Nephi 13:32, which originally read “Neither will the Lord God suffer that the Gentiles shall forever remain in that awful state of woundedness [now blindness], which thou beholdest they are in…” Rob–and many others, including myself–are wounded. Perhaps it is our wicked environment, our injured culture, our wrong acquired habits, our genetics, and our false beliefs that inflict these very wounds. I think that, in some part, it is. And so Christ is our Healer, reaching out to heal our broken hearts and minds.
To summarize my own conclusions: our agency is circumscribed by things like genetics, environment, and culture; some people are more set in their ways than others; and yet for all of us (maybe), transformative grace and healing is within reach.
I suspect some lessons that emerge from this might be: we can change, but not all at once. We can change, but not all in this life. We can change, but not everything about us (personality–as defined by a psychologist–seems to be largely set, for example). We can change, but it takes effort and prioritizing. And we can change, but perhaps–as it was for Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”–we can’t always change what we wish we could, and some changes aren’t “meant to be” in this life.
Maybe the main lesson from all this is that we’re kind to others and to ourselves. Maybe that, and to recognize that deep and fundamental change is difficult, especially after thirty–and that any single change may require sustained attention, prayer, and thought. As I sit on the eve of my thirtieth birthday, and prepare to enter my fourth decade, I wonder what transformative leaps I can make. I want to have a better relationship with food. I want to write more. I want to learn to concentrate on my work better, and not give in to distractions. I want to learn some languages. All of these things will challenge me. But fundamentally, I believe–because of Christ, and because of His promises–that change is possible. And for that, I am grateful.
Here are some interesting quotes on the imagination, and what it means to convert the imagination.
To create a future, we need better imaginations, and for better imaginations, we need to feed them better ideas and better images.Austin Kleon, January 31, 2019; “Images in the Head”
[What Paul is doing] is a difficult double task. It involves nothing short of that hardest conversion of all, the conversion of the imagination. But that is what is required if people are to understand where they are and who they are as the family of God.Wright, N. T.. Paul: A Biography (p. 219). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.
Paul rereads Scripture with an imagination converted by the death and resurrection of Jesus. An imagination so converted will necessarily see the moral world in which we live and move through new eyes.Richard B. Hays. The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scripture (Kindle Locations 111-112). Kindle Edition.
Formative Christian worship paints a picture of the beauty of the Lord—and a vision of the shalom he desires for creation—in a way that captures our imagination. If we act toward what we long for, and if we long for what has captured our imagination, then re-formative Christian worship needs to capture our imagination. That means Christian worship needs to meet us as aesthetic creatures who are moved more than we are convinced. Our imaginations are aesthetic organs. Our hearts are like stringed instruments that are plucked by story, poetry, metaphor, images. We tap our existential feet to the rhythm of imaginative drums. As we noted in chapter 1, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry captures this well: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”Smith, James K. A.. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit . Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
And he shall be led in paths where the poisonous serpent cannot lay hold upon his heel, and he shall mount up in the imagination of his thoughts as upon eagles’ wings.Revelation through Joseph Smith, Doctrine & Covenants, 124:99