Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Note on the Vatican Obelisk

Last week, after my meetings in the Vatican, I had the chance to wander around St. Peter's Square. In the middle of that plaza stands an Egyptian obelisk. Of all the inscriptions on the obelisk I was most struck by three. The first is this Egyptian inscription, on the south side:
The south face of the Vatican Obelisk
This needs to be read in conjunction with the Latin inscription on the base of the north side:
The inscription on the base of the north side of the obelisk
This inscription from 1586 explains the Egyptian one on the other side. To understand the rest of the Latin inscription, you need to consider this view of the obelisk, which explains the second line:
The Vatican obelisk from the northeast
All of this is fairly discouraging, and about makes one want to weep. Fortunately, there is an another inscription on the west side of the base:
The inscription on the west end of the base of the obelisk

That inscription is the only encouraging inscription on the obelisk.

(Now, before you complain that you cannot read any of the inscriptions, I will point out that competence in Latin used to be required in order to get into college. As far as the Egyptian inscription, if you can't read it, I can't help you there.)


Monday, February 6, 2017

Today's Maxwell Quote

From Things As They Really Are:
Satan is very apt at using any momentum he has in order to make it look as though he has already prevailed. No wonder obvious exceptions irritate him so! Though he postures as a nonconformist, my, how the adversary likes his lemmings to line up and march—toward self-destruction—to the most conforming cadence caller of them all!

In the classic confrontation with Korihor, the agnostic, both Satan and his arguments finally collapsed. He admitted that he taught certain falsehoods because they were "pleasing unto the carnal mind." (Alma 30:53.) Korihor also said, by playing to the galleries, that he received so much reinforcement that he finally deceived himself. He was neither the first nor the last individual to be taken in by himself while being cheered on by a manipulated majority.

The truths of the gospel, or things as they really are, confront not just the Korihors, but all of us. The lazy individual meets, head on, truths about the essentialness of work. The selfish and idle rich meet, head on, the truths about our need to share: they must also ponder the need to accept, one day, the law of consecration. The selfish and idle poor collide with the harsh truths about covetousness and envy. The salacious must come to grips with the truths about the need to avoid both actual and mental sexual immorality. The "eat, drink, and be merry" crowd is confronted with the truths about personal accountability and the inevitable judgment.

Those who are addicted to the honors and praise of the world meet up with the gospel truths about how hearts so set upon the things of the world must be broken. Ungrateful children bump into the truths about their obligations to parents. Abortionists meet the truths about our individual identity as spirits and the nearness of the imposing sixth commandment.

None of these confrontive truths is "pleasing unto the carnal mind." Instead, each is jarring, disconcerting, and irritating to the carnal mind.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Today's Maxwell Quote

From Wherefore Ye Must Press Forward:
Being steadfast includes relentless resistance to such vices as pride; it also includes resisting the growing indifference to integrity in the world.

The road and path of integrity has infinite intersections each requiring decisions, each requiring the manifestation of our integrity. Integrity is more easily maintained when the tradition of following proper counsel and directions is strong enough within the person that it draws upon the power of habit.

President Joseph F. Smith has called on us to educate our very desires. This is wise counsel, for nothing interrupts steadfastness like catering to our selfish desires.

William Law said, "Now all trouble and uneasiness is founded in the want of something or other; would we therefore know the true cause of our troubles and disquiet, we must find out the cause of our wants; because that which creates, and increases our wants, does in the same degree create, and increase our trouble and disquiets. . . . The man of pride has a thousand wants, which only his pride has created; and these render him as full of trouble, as if God had created him with a thousand appetites, without creating anything that was proper to satisfy them."

Charles Wagner warned, "Let your needs rule you; pamper them, and you will see them multiply like insects in the sun. The more you give them, the more they demand."

The justice of God permits no special deal for disciples. We must subdue our selfishness; we must endure the pain of prioritizing. We must cope with the variables of the second estate. There can be no later outcry by the nonbelievers that they were ultimately deprived of an equal chance to believe and to follow. For disciples there is no spiritual equivalent to the "prime rate" or the "most-favored nation" clause. Blessings come the same way to all—by obedience to the laws on which these blessings are predicated, and in no other way. (D&C 130:20.)

The disciple must, therefore, be careful about confusing announcements of intentions with accomplishments as far as his progress on the path is concerned.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Today's Maxwell Quote

From Wherefore Ye Must Press Forward:
There is another clue to maintaining our steadfastness: We should judge the warnings given to us by their accuracy and relevancy, not by the finesse or the diplomacy by which the warnings are given. The disciple's commitment to truth must be to truth, without an inordinate concern for the method of delivery. Of course, it takes real humility to listen under some circumstances. The Paul Reveres in our lives may have voices too shrill, use bad grammar, ride a poor horse, and may pick the oddest hours to warn us. But the test of warnings is their accuracy, not their diplomacy.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Tamen Usque Recurret

In a just released book review, Emanuel Pfoh, laments that twenty years after he thought that the idea of a historical bible had been so "deconstructed and transformed" that he hoped "it would never recover," he instead finds to his chagrin it "to be as vital as it was more than twenty years ago."

Welcome to mortality Professor Pfoh. The real issues never go away and every generation gets to answer them again for themselves.

Professor Pfoh finds it so abhorrent that anyone would take the historicity of ancient Israel seriously that he must provide "some critical comments" against anyone who would dare take it seriously. After all "nowadays it [the existence of an “Israelite people” before the Iron Age and outsidePalestine] would hardly be considered a historical fact supported by archaeology and epigraphy". But, according to Pfoh, "one should not attack so much the genre as the very procedures of history writing typical in a genre like the aforementioned." Apparently taking an ancient historical account seriously as history is a crime that deserves to be attacked at all costs.

Pfoh asks, "Is there a “people of Israel” as a coherent, self-conscious, homogeneous group in Iron Age Palestine?" Fair enough. Was there a coherent, self-conscious, homogeneous group of Luwians in the Iron Age Levant? I have read books about them that treat them as historical, but there is less historical evidence for them than there is for ancient Israel, and the historical evidence for them shows them to be much less homogeneous than ancient Israel. After looking at his publications, it is not surprising to find out that Professor Pfoh does not indicate that he has ever tried to reconstruct any ancient history of any place. It might be an informative exercise for those who doubt the historicity of ancient Israel to pick a large tell in the ancient Near East and try to write a history of the site. Until they do, they will, like the graduate school professors they studied under, just keep trying to drive out nature with a pitch-fork.


Today's Maxwell Quote

From Deposition of a Disciple:
The individual interface with the institution of the Church constantly gives us a chance to be separated from our selfish concerns. In the kingdom, we are also shown people who have heavier crosses to bear than we do, and we are given chances to help them. Life in the Church helps to put our own personal problems in perspective, and that is very, very healthy. Bearing one's testimony and expressing gratitude are like periodic inventories; counting our blessings is both healthy and invigorating. Counting is better than commiserating.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Today's Maxwell Quote

From That My Family Should Partake:
Those who are grossly selfish are also the same people who, cavalierly, use ends to justify means. For the grossly selfish, once an object or desire has been fastened on, it is very easy for the selfish person to ignore the harm and injury done to others (and to institutions) when he reaches for that object. Conversely, the person who sees other men as brothers will be concerned, not alone with ends, but with means; he will understand our interdependency, and he will see others and their interests with honest concern.

Once men make of their selfish interests a religion, they tend to become very orthodox. In fact, if one reflects on the real link between selfishness and sensations, it is even easier to understand the indictment by the Savior of those who sought a sign as a condition for their belief. He describes such demands as coming from an "evil and an adulterous generation" in that they sought for a sign that they "consume it upon" their lusts. Such individuals even want theological titillation, when real religion requires us to love others, to have faith, to endure, and to be patient in affliction. Selfish individuals think of love as being only erotic and will not know the highest form of love, charity, in either the partnerships of the bedroom or in the boardrooms of the business world.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Niceness is Not a Virtue

Here is an interesting argument by Peter Augustine Lawler about niceness. And here is the cliff notes version. While I do not necessarily agree with Lawler's political views, he makes some interesting arguments:
The key objection to niceness amounts to the fact that it's not really a virtue. You can't rely upon it as the foundation for the duties required of friends, family members, or fellow citizens. A nice person won't fight for you; a nice person wouldn't even lie for you, unless there's something in it for him. A nice person wouldn't be a Good Samaritan, if it required genuine risk or an undue deployment of time and treasure. A nice person isn't animated by love or honor or God. Niceness, if you think about it, is the most selfish of virtues, one, as Tocqueville noticed, rooted in a deep indifference to the well-being of others. It's more selfish than open selfishness, because the latter accords people the respect of letting them know where you stand. I let you do — and even affirm — whatever you do, because I don't care what you do as long as it doesn't bother me. Niceness, as Allan Bloom noticed, is the quality connected with flatness of soul, with being unmoved by the relational imperatives grounded in love and death.
One of the interesting things about this argument is that I have seen some support for it in the sociological literature. Nice people are tolerant because they are apathetic. "Tolerance" is simply another way to say that one does not care.

For the purposes of argument, Lawler sees brutal as the opposite of nice. Lawler also argues that
making work less "brutal" in one way makes it, in a more subtle sense, more brutal in another, or more suited to what C.S. Lewis called "men without chests." Many employees, after all, now are required to be nicer than ever. They can't say, for example, the edgy "no problem" when confronted with an unreasonable request of a client or customer; they're scripted to say the more masochistic "my pleasure." And it just might be that one reason most Trump voters are men is that men suffer disproportionally in a world where the faking of pleasure is a condition of employment.
Niceness can be a form of brutality. I have witnessed that first-hand. But in the end, Lawler argues that the choice between niceness and brutality is a false choice:
Neither being nice nor being brutal is being virtuous. And moral virtue is, after all, the foundation of the common life shared by all political beings inhabiting a particular part of the world. Both niceness and brutality are forms of domination and control. Both work against the consent of the governed who rule and are ruled in turn.
Seen in this light, we ought to promote virtue rather than niceness. The scriptures nowhere ask us to be nice because the word never appears in the scriptures.

Gayle Clegg relates the story of Agnes Caldwell (fuller version here) who ran into the meanest man alive, Heber William Henry Kimball.
They [the Willie Handcart Company] were caught in heavy storms and suffered terrible hunger and cold. Relief wagons came to deliver food and blankets, but there were not enough wagons to carry all the people. Even after rescue, the majority of the people still had to trudge on many more miles to the safety of the valley.

Little nine-year-old Agnes was too weary to walk any farther. The driver took notice of her determination to keep up with the wagon and asked if she would like a ride. She tells in her own words what happened next:

“At this he reached over, taking my hand, clucking to his horses to make me run, with legs that … could run no farther. On we went, to what to me seemed miles. What went through my head at that time was that he was the meanest man that ever lived or that I had ever heard of. … Just at what seemed the breaking point, he stopped [and pulled me into the wagon]. Taking a blanket, he wrapped me up … warm and comfortable. Here I had time to change my mind, as I surely did, knowing full well by doing this he saved me from freezing when taken into the wagon” (in I Walked to Zion [1994], 59).

The driver of that relief wagon made the little girl run as far and as fast as she could to push blood back into her frozen feet and legs. He saved her legs, possibly her life, by letting her help herself.
Imagine what might have happened to little Agnes if the Heber Kimball had been nice.