Misrepresenting Church leaders for fun and profit

I have a guest post regarding a fairly egregious misrepresentation of Elder L. Whitney Clayton’s BYU Commencement address.

I’ve noticed the same false claims on other anti- and ex-Mormon sites, which suggests that either none of these folks are bright enough to check the original citation, or they are intentionally distorting the record for their own purposes. Or, perhaps some of both is going on.

http://blog.fairmormon.org/2016/04/29/9425/

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Self-justification and sin

John Gee quotes an author who describes ideologies as necessary for empires to justify their hegemony to themselves.

This isn’t limited to conquerors or dictators.

We all spend an enormous amount of emotional and cognitive energy constructing such rationalizations and justifications to ourselves.

This is why repentance is so liberating when it is done–we can discard the burden of so much work. There’s a folk etymology (that’s a nice way of saying “false claim that lots of people believe that doesn’t stand up to scholarly scrutiny”) for repent coming from the French repentir (which is true) linked to re-penser (to “think again”) which is false. (It’s actually from the Latin, an intensive prefix on the verb penitire, to regret).

But, there’s wisdom in the folkways, sometimes. To repent is to rethink things–or, to be able to stop thinking or insisting upon all our intellectual justifications for ourselves and our shoddy behavior. The truth makes us free (even the truth of our own sin) precisely because it is far easier to live with truth than to prop up the lies and comforting fictions that threaten to tumble down around our ears.

This is why suggesting someone should repent is generally greeted with anger–you’re threatening a lot of work. And an ideology.

And, it’s also why the same type of irrational anger is directed at those that might even tangentially threaten an ideology, even if it doesn’t seem to impact the individual at all–for, that ideology is a protection, shielding us from confronting our sin and inadequacy. And, when one really comes face to face with that and ceases to make excuses, behavior must change, or we must (in a sense) go mad.

CS Lewis has a character who illustrates the dilemma:

He wanted to be perfectly safe and yet also very nonchalant and daring –to be admired for manly honesty among the Dimbles and yet also for realism and knowingness at Belbury–to have two more large whiskies and also to think everything out very clearly and collectedly. And it was beginning to rain and his head had begun to ache again. Damn the whole thing. Damn, damn! Why had he such a rotten heredity? Why had his education been so ineffective? Why was the system of society so irrational? Why was his luck so bad?

That Hideous Strength, 221

Note that the speaker wants to be accepted in two worlds–the (“good guys”) Dimbles, and Lewis’ academic stand-in for cynicism, relativism, and worldliness, Belbury. He wants to have his cake and eat it too, to serve God without offending the Devil.

And, because he can’t (no one can), he blames everything or anything–heredity, society, his education, even luck or the Fates.

The one person he cannot bring himself to blame is himself–because then, the only option would be repentance, regardless of what role the other factors played.

Humanities, the counter-culture, and scientism–thoughts on Leon Wieseltier

I recently read the New Republic’s literary editor’s commencement address to Brandeis. Leon Wieseltier bemoans the current state of the humanities in American life and education:

Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more?

He complains that as a society we have inclined to a narrow, instrumentalist reason and intellectual effort—the reason of mere technology or cost/benefit analyses:

The technological mentality that has become the American worldview instructs us to prefer practical questions to questions of meaning – to ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work. Our reason has become an instrumental reason, and is no longer the reason of the philosophers, with its ancient magnitude of intellectual ambition, its belief that the proper subjects of human thought are the largest subjects, and that the mind, in one way or another, can penetrate to the very principles of natural life and human life.

Who’s to blame?

He is quite right, of course. On the other hand, I think he ignores that the humanities themselves (or at least some prominent voices within them) deserve the lion’s share of the blame for the current state of affairs.

For example, Wieseltier is displeased that reason and philosophy don’t care about larger questions of morality, good and evil, truth or falseness. Fair enough. And yet, the post-modernism that has gripped so much of the academy has declared such questions to be pointless, unanswerable, meaningless, and amusingly naïve.

Instead, we’re treated to the lit-crit theories of various French post-modernist philosophers. No text has any meaning save that which we impose upon it. In that kind of environment, figuring out whether something is true and good becomes a senseless enterprise. All discourse devolves into mere political maneuvering for power. And so, for example, if dead white men wrote the texts and thus controlled the discourse, now it is time to impose a feminist reading of the texts, or an anti-neo-colonialist reading, or a gay rights reading, even if such concerns were completely foreign to the time, place, and authorship of the texts. And, woe betide you if you suggest that such alternative readings might be every bit as much grabs for power as the ones they are attacking.

Even things as clear-cut as physics are declared by some to be nothing but a type of cultural hegemony, a socially-constructed narrative that privileges the western, white, male view of the world. (Science is affected by social factors, of course, but if you’re arguing that things like Newton’s laws or Maxwell’s equations are no more true in an absolute sense than anything else, is it any wonder that the humanities are not generally competent to address matters of Truth and the Good life?)

A pleasant counter-example

To be sure, there are beacons of hope. I took one class from Patricia Demers of University of Alberta, then chair of the English department—short poetry in the Renaissance. Here was a class where you actually had to support your views from the text and historical period of the poem, where “what this means to me” did decidedly not fly, and where a casual Freudian interpretation would get shot down as absurd nonsense.

That it happened was refreshing—but, you could tell from the expression on my humanities-major classmates’ faces that they were not used to this level of discourse. We were all expected (along with the professor) to nod sagely at such “reader response” or Freudian impositions.

That they were surprised and a bit disgruntled when called on such stuff was telling.

I was, ironically, better at it than they were because my background was in science, where the rejection or acceptance of hypotheses was (at least in principle) conditioned only upon the evidence, and a rigorous attempt to disprove an idea was a key part of the process.

Scientism

Weseltier’s jeremiad against scientism—a philosophical stance that reifies scientific thinking as the be-all and end-all, without the epistemological humility that characterizes true science—is also well-placed. (Scientism is characteristic of the philosophically inept New Atheists, for example.)

But again, what did he expect to happen? Physics and medicine and Google and technology simply work—and yet, the severe cultural relativists that have gripped much of the humanities seem oblivious to the implications. Unsurprisingly the culture (and even their students) have by and large rolled their eyes and texted, “Whatever.”

I would love to see a revival and increased respect accorded the humanities. But, to accomplish that, I think they need to go backward a bit to go forward—in the same sense (as CS Lewis was wont to put it) that going backward to start over on a mathematical sum that you’ve gotten wrong is the best way of making progress (rather than beavering onward with the mistake unacknowledged or uncorrected).

The humanities need, in a sense, to go back to Socrates—back to a serious, intellectually rigorous, fearless reflection on what makes the Good Life. They need a conviction that that is a question that reason can, if not definitively answer, at least cast reliable light upon. Some things can be clearly ruled out as part of the Good life—some things are, to be blunt, Evil.

Not just Evil “from a certain point of view,” not just Evil in cultural context, but honest-to-goodness, clear-cut, Evil. Yet that kind of conclusion is the sort that has been made exceedingly difficult to come to. Even to suggest that there is some type of constant, universal “human nature,” as opposed to a malleable social animal, is to court disaster.

And, for any such declarations or tentative conclusions about Evil to be convincing, such Evils need to be found not just (or even primarily) in the standard whipping boys of the contemporary academy—the well-worn targets of the patriarchy, or colonialism, or racism, or homophobia, and all the rest.

Such attitudes and cultural currents no doubt have their share of evil. But, those are easy evils to call out in the academy these days. Any bravery involved in raising such issues has long faded–rather like me patting myself on the back for making it to the top of Vimy Ridge.

The dangerous evils are the ones that cannot be named, or that you get shouted down for naming—the treason that none dare call treason. And, the humanities specifically and the academy in general is rife with those. Such a discussion would inevitably call personal choices and behavior into question, which is never popular.

A personal example

When I was in university, I was sitting in a humanities class on the literature of science fiction, taught by a scholar of eastern European literature. One day, he was ill, and so we had a substitute. This woman was an incisive teacher, and in the context of a discussion about one particular work, pointed out in passing that children raised by single parents had higher rates of social dysfunction, poverty, etc.

Now, it would be hard to find a more robustly-supported claim from sociology than that. She made it in an off-hand way, and not in a polemical one, but simply as an invitation to consider the implications for the dystopian view of family with which a certain work presented us (Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel Wea book with the distinction of being the first work banned by the Soviet censorship board).

Well, you’d have thought that she had defended rape or something. One woman stormed angrily out of the classroom. Others protested her claim—the instructor noted she wasn’t making the claim in a judgmental sense of single parents or divorced families, but simply as a factual observation that might have relevance.

As it turned out, this did no good. Letters of protest were written to the department. The regular professor returned and had to apologize for his substitute saying something so “insensitive.” (It was so far from insensitive that I confess I didn’t even realize what all the stomping out in high dudgeon was about until later.)

So much for the quest for the Truth—and, thus, for Good or Evil. So much for “academic freedom”—such an idea couldn’t even be entertained without students having a melt-down, and the academic department caving in. If this can happen in something as robustly supported as the fact that children do better, on average, with a married set of biologic parents, then one must abandon hope all ye who enter here if anything even slightly open to debate should be raised.

Now, I suppose that that kind of experience could be an aberration. But, from what I have heard from others, and read, and given what I see in the media and now on-line, I suspect that it is not. I was ultimately destined for the science departments, and so my exposure to such matters was limited—but, given that I encountered it as I did, I cannot think that it was or is uncommon.

In fact, it was this dynamic that redirected me, after one term, from aspirations in the academic humanities into the sciences, because so much of it seemed to be an intellectual game that never went anywhere. And, I wasn’t interested in playing.

I do not think that it always is that way—I have many friends who are academics in the humanities, and they don’t partake of that approach. But, I think they often must swim against the tide. And, you need tenure before you can be really daring, if you want a job.

Down with bad things….

Down with scientism and its arrogant, unwarranted certainties. Agreed!

But, down too with the pervasive relativism and the shibboleths of the academic Left. (You know there’s a problem when a phrase like ‘shibboleth of the academic Left’ has become cliché.) At least science can, with some justification, point to triumphs like the moon landing, integrated circuits, and AIDS medication as an excuse for its philosophic hubris. New Age dilithium crystals did not land us on the Sea of Tranquility.

What, one might ask, has the extreme post-modernism of much of the humanities brought us in the last century in the quest for Truth that is even remotely comparable? If anything, its leading lights have squandered the moral and intellectual inheritance of the West, and now play games among the ruins, sneering at any who don’t automatically acknowledge the value of what they’re doing.

Small wonder that many walk away and fire up their iPad.

Omnipotent moral busybodies

My last post talked about the persecution of some believers by others.

This need not involve violence or physical suffering, and it happily rarely does (in the west, at least).

Persecution as power

Instead, that persecution usually involves the imposition of one’s will upon others:

Religious persecution does not consist in thumbscrews or fires of Smithfield; the essence of religious persecution is this: that the man who happens to have material power in the State, either by wealth or by official position, should govern his fellow-citizens not according to their religion or philosophy, but according to his own.

–       G.K. Chesterton, All Things Considered, 5.

And, this need not happen just in the nation state. It can occur whenever someone with power can co-opt or seize resources of time, prestige, or money that is not theirs, and use it to press their own agenda.

The State can seize some of my assets in the form of taxation and the like—and so not ought to be able to dictate to me in matters of religion and philosophy, especially by using my own earnings against me, which I cannot withhold from them.

Seizure and redirection of resources

Likewise, persecution becomes inevitable when time, money, or other resources are redirected to ends which the givers have not approved. Their own donations and efforts are turned against them, or against the philosophical or religious views of which they approve.

The other goals may be worthy in their way, and if asked perhaps givers would have chosen to support them as well. But, that is a decision for them to make, not one to be made by those who consider themselves their betters.

Thus, persecution need not involve cases of right vs. wrong or good vs. evil (though it may).

At times, it simply about the naked exercise of power, which is always oppressive, and which virtually always leads to trouble (see D&C 121:39).

Signs and symptoms

In such cases, watch for centralization of decision making in a few persons (or one). Watch for those who differ to be forced out or intimidated into silence. Note how those in charge over-react to  questions. Observe how such folk try to lock down information, carefully package and control its release, and spin-doctor everything. Any dissent is seen as a mean-spirited personal assault.

Challenges to the narrative being offered will be met with anger and petulance, and will lead to efforts to tighten control even further. Cosmetic changes take precedence over true, system-wide reformation.

Look for a lack of council work (which fosters a broad perspective with a chance to hear all voices) and little accountability. Those who provided the resources being co-opted are the first to lose a seat at the table. If such mechanisms remain in place, they will be ignored, stripped of real power, or treated as purely ceremonial or courtesies.

Watch for a paternalistic attitude, in which those in charge assure the masses that what is being done is for “the greater good,” or (more ominously) “your own good.”

My contention is that good men (not bad men) consistently acting upon that position would act as cruelly and unjustly as the greatest tyrants. They might in some respects act even worse. Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. Their very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be ‘cured’ against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level with those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.

–        C.S. Lewis, “The humanitarian theory of punishment,” The Twentieth Century: An Australian Quarterly Review 3/3 (1949): 5-12.

At least robber barons do not attempt to make their victims grateful for their depredations. But, heaven preserve us from “moral” busybodies, especially those who help themselves to that which was given by their victims.

Was Jesus ‘unchristian’?

I hope they, our children, will not be eccentric. Please, my beloved brethren, teach our children and youth to be humble even in their righteousness. May they never become “holier than thou” or speak their own goodness or outstanding qualities. We remember the two who went up into the temple to pray.

–      Spencer W. Kimball, “What I Hope You Will Teach My Grandchildren and All Others of the Youth of Zion,” (July 1966).

Beware the person who tells you how humble they are, how Christian, or how virtuous.

And, watch out for those who tell people with whom they disagree that they aren’t “doing what Jesus would do.” To be sure, this may well be true, after all.

Then again, who can ever be said to wholly do what Jesus would do? Everyone fails that test and standard. And, to reply by arguing that one really is doing what Jesus would do—even if true—is a losing proposition from the start, since Jesus never felt the need to insist upon his own righteousness.

This is something of a rhetorical nuclear option—when faced with it, one either:

a)      Becomes angry at the charge one is not behaving as a Christian—clearly an unchristian act, and an ironic self-fulfilling prophecy; or

b)      Becomes side-tracked in an effort to calmly demonstrate that the charge is false—again, almost certainly an unchristian response, always a losing battle because of our perpetual inadequacy in the face of Jesus’ perfection, and certainly a distraction from the real issue; or

c)       Refuses to be baited, and presses on with the important truth at issue.

Such a charge is, at any rate, hypocritical. If the one making it is a Christian (or has pretensions to be so) he or she ought to be exceedingly cautious, lest this blade cut him as he wields it.

If he or she is not a Christian, then this makes the critic particularly ill-suited to judge precisely what Jesus would do or require in the situation. Most people—especially most moderns, and particularly most modern non-Christians—have a gentled, somewhat anemic view of Jesus.

Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft put it this way:

Why have we reduced him to “meek and gentle Jesus”? Because we have reduced all the virtues to one, being kind; and we measure Jesus by our standards instead of measuring our standards by him. But why have we reduced all the virtues to being kind? Because we have reduced all the goods to one, the one that kindness ministers to: pleasure, comfort, contentment. We have reduced ourselves to pleasure-seeking animals. But why have we reduced ourselves to pleasure-seeking animals? Because we are implicit materialists. Our ethics are always rooted in our metaphysics, and modern ethics is rooted in modern metaphysics, the modern world view, which is the superstition that all that is objectively real is nature, which in turn we have reduced to matter.[1]

And, more often than not, the charge of being “unchristian” will turn around making someone uncomfortable—declaring an act to be wrong, declaring an opinion to be literal and absolute truth (rather than “one perspective among many”), or insisting that someone is mistaken. Such things are just not done in polite company.

Still, rather than this “gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” Jesus the Messiah in the Bible and Book of Mormon is both a rebuke and a terror to the complacent and self-satisfied—and so ought to be to us, most of the time. Jesus and his way of life—The Way, as the early old world Christians called it—can really only be understood in the living of it, or trying to do so.

To put the matter more personally: on the one hand, however loyal one judges oneself to be to Jesus, it is difficult to see how such loyalty is a mark of Christian thought if the Jesus so invoked is so domesticated and selectively constructed that he bears little relation to the Bible.[2]

Jesus’ is not a system of philosophy or a set of axioms that we can somehow simply assent to, and therefore grasp in the abstract. “The sweetly-attractive-human-Jesus is a product of 19th century skepticism,” noted C.S. Lewis, “produced by people who were ceasing to believe in His divinity but wanted to keep as much Christianity as they could.”[3] Instead,

…only discipleship—”follow me”—connects beliefs and behavior, focusing on what we are becoming as well as what we are thinking and doing. Thus, discipleship cannot be merely intellectual. Did not Jesus prescribe and describe this convergence by saying, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me?” (Matthew 11:29). Moreover, the deepest development of discipleship occurs only in this particular manner, small though our yokes may be compared to His.[4]

No one, then, who has not sought and borne that yoke can truly speak of what Jesus requires—because, quite frankly, he often requires things we would much rather not, and have hardly dared think. Small wonder we don’t always measure up fully.

And, none who have borne that yoke for even a few paces would then presume to use someone’s inadequacy as a verbal killing stroke.

Besides, Jesus himself was rarely appreciated for what he said. Just because someone does not violently disagree with us does not make us right or Christian—but, if no one is violently disagreeing, we are almost certainly failing to measure up. And, those who disagree are always most likely to be those most concerned with publicly demonstrating and publicly broadcasting their own rectitude, while quick to marginalize those who do not toe “the party line” to their satisfaction. They care what others think, especially those the world regards as important, impressive, or necessary to placate.

As a crowing irony in a life filled with ironies, I suspect that if Jesus were here today, many people would label him as “unchristian.”


[1] Peter Kreeft, Back to Virtue: Traditional Moral Wisdom for Modern Moral Confusion (Ignatius Press, 1992), 32.

[2] D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), kindle location 799-804.

[3] C.S. Lewis to Mary Neylan, 26 March 1940; cited in Yours, Jack: Spiritual Direction from C.S. Lewis (HarperOne, 2008), 67; also in Neal A. Maxwell, Men and Women of Christ (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1991), 35; citing Letters of C. S. Lewis (London: Geoffrey Bles, Ltd., 1966), 181.

[4] Neal A. Maxwell, Promise of Discipleship (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 2001), preamble.

Charity and its vices (with apologies to John Gee)

At BYU, John Gee has some interesting thoughts on charity, which like humility is perhaps among the most difficult virtues to work on directly.

It made me think of C.S. Lewis’ description of those who function day in and day out in an environment mainly bereft of charity. That lack stunts Mark’s (his protagonist) sense of what charity is, but it also leaves him unable to understand other equally spiritual reactions: righteous anger at evil, or a prophet-like indictment of something against which charity ought to bestir him:

It may seem strange to say that Mark, having long lived in a world without charity, had nevertheless very seldom met real anger. Malice in plenty he had encountered, but it all operated by snubs and sneers and stabbing in the back. The forehead and eyes and voice of this elderly man had an effect on him which was stifling and unnerving. At Belbury [Mark’s academic department] one used the words ‘whining’ and ‘yapping’ to describe any opposition which the actions of Belbury aroused in the outer world. And Mark had never had enough imagination to realise what the ‘whining’ would really be like if you met it face to face.

– C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 218.

Lacking the requisite virtues, or even a proper understanding of them, Mark cannot even understand the corresponding vices. Nor can he understand charity’s fruits.

Belbury and Mark may use the same names for their mental states and emotional reactions as the outside world uses for the virtues, but that does not mean that they or he intends or understands the same things thereby.

His sudden confrontation with the real thing, however, is shattering.

Propaganda and public relations in Lewis’ That Hideous Strength

Lewis was a merciless satirist of both the academy of which he was a part, and the propaganda which he perceived in “scientific” efforts to remake society.

In Lewis’ That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups, Mark, a young and somewhat hapless academic who longs for prestige and the flattery of inclusion, is offered a job with the Orwellian NICE agency (NICE = National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments).[1]

‘You don’t mean you want me to write up all this?’

‘No. We want you to write it down–to camouflage it. Only for the present, of course. Once the thing gets going we shan’t have to bother about the great heart of the British public. We’ll make the great heart what we want it to be. But in the meantime, it does make a difference how things are put. For instance, if it were even whispered that the NICE wanted powers to experiment on criminals, you’d have all the old women of both sexes up in arms and yapping about humanity. Call it re-education of the mal-adjusted, and you have them all slobbering with delight that the brutal era of retributive punishment has at last come to an end. Odd thing it is–the word “experiment” is unpopular, but not the word “experimental”. You musn’t experiment on children; but offer the dear little kiddies free education in an experimental school attached to the NICE and it’s all correct!’

–          C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 41.

Having been invited “into the club” to perform NICE’s propaganda functions, Mark later objects that educated people won’t fall for such things.

‘Why you fool, it’s the educated reader who can be gulled. All our difficulty comes with the others. When did you meet a workman who believes the papers? He takes it for granted that they’re all propaganda and skips the leading articles. He buys his paper for the football results and the little paragraphs about girls falling out of windows and corpses found in Mayfair flats. He is our problem. We have to recondition him. But the educated public, the people who read the highbrow weeklies, don’t need reconditioning. They’re all right already. They’ll believe anything.’

–          C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 97.

Lewis understood very well the contempt for the non-specialist or non-“scientists” (as Mark and the other sociologists at NICE regard themselves) that too often plagues the learned. Such rank-and-file folk are to be either ignored or manipulated. They certainly aren’t to be engaged, save on terms decided upon by their betters.

Unsurprisingly, Lewis realized that this was ultimately about the naked exercise of power, and not really out of the noble motives which the experts invoke in propaganda or even among themselves.

‘They [those who oppose NICE] can’t win,’ said Mark.

‘We’ll hope not,’ said Lord Feverstone. ‘I think they can’t. That is why it is of such immense importance to each of us to choose the right side. If you try to be neutral you become simply a pawn.’

‘Oh, I haven’t any doubt which is my side,’ said Mark. ‘Hang it all–the preservation of the human race–it’s a pretty rock-bottom obligation.’

‘Well, personally,’ said Feverstone, ‘I’m not indulging in any Busbyisms about that. It’s a little fantastic to base one’s actions on a supposed concern for what’s going to happen millions of years hence; and you must remember that the other side would claim to be preserving humanity, too. Both can be explained psycho-analytically if they take that line. The practical point is that you and I don’t like being pawns, and we do rather like fighting–specially on the winning side.’

–          C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 39.

Perhaps this is why a friend always warns me of what he calls the Eleventh Commandment: “Thou shalt not commit sociology, or anything like unto it.” 🙂