Category: Liberal Arts

Economics – Law – Philosophy – etc.

Grant Hardy’s Subject Problem

Criticisms of the Book of Mormon generally fall into one of two categories: objections to its historical claims on the one hand, and on the other critiques of its literary style. The two prongs are often combined in a single attack, for instance in the suggestion that the awkward style of the book reflects the naïve voice of an unlettered youngster. For their part, the book’s defenders also tend to elide the two categories, arguing that passages of inelegant prose are better understood as latent Hebraisms laboring under English syntax. Most of the time, of course, devout readers of the Book of Mormon simply ignore the book’s style altogether. Grant Hardy, in his new book Understanding the Book of Mormon, wants to uncouple the problems of historicity and literary merit. He brackets the first, setting aside the apologetic debates that have dominated Book of Mormon studies over the past four decades. Instead, he turns his attention to the content of…

What If President Monson Endorsed Mitt Romney?

In his talk at the close of the April 2008 General Conference, President Monson talked about the blessing we had received, both as members of the Church and, specifically, over the course of the conference. He ended his talk with counsel: parents are to love and cherish their children, youth are to keep the commandments, those who can attend the temple should, and we should all be aware of each other’s needs. But what if, in closing his remarks,[fn1] President Monson had said, “My dear brothers and sisters, I feel strongly that Mitt Romney is the best person to lead our country. I encourage each of you to campaign on his behalf and to donate to his campaign. We have also established the Perpetual Mitt Fund, with an initial investment from tithing dollars for $1 million in order. This fund will go toward his election and, if any money is left over, it will be transferred to Harry Reid’s next…

The Tax Exemption and the Church’s Political Leanings

In light of the Church’s recent policy statement banning some Church authorities from endorsing candidates, and the speculation that the Church’s political neutrality derives from its desire to stay tax-exempt,[fn1] I thought I’d present a brief primer on the tax exemption.[fn2] The Revenue Act of 1894 probably represents the birth of the modern federal income tax. An inauspicious birth, to be sure–it was struck down as unconstitutional in 1895–but the birth, nonetheless. True, it was enacted 19 years before the 16th Amendment permitted direct taxation (whatever that is), but it set the stage for the income tax to come. Including, it turns out, in the world of exempting public charities from tax. It provided that the income tax would not apply to “corporations, companies, or associations organized and conducted solely for charitable, religious, or educational purposes.” [fn3] Although the list of entities that aren’t taxed has expanded (among other things, the exemption now includes groups that foster amateur sports competition–read…

The Parable of the Talented Endowment Tax

Governments impose taxes in order to raise revenue that, in turn, funds government function and services.[fn1] In designing a tax system, tax theorists generally try to create provisions that will raise revenue without significantly altering taxpayers’ economic choices. That is, ideally, taxpayers will act in approximately the same way as they would have in a world without tax.[fn2] But we can’t hit the ideal. The income tax alters people’s actions, because it alters the price calculus. One way is in our work-leisure decisions. Assume with me that I earn $10 an hour. That said, I enjoy not working, too–my leisure is worth $8/hour to me. In the absence of an income tax, if I have a choice between work and leisure, I’ll choose work. Even with a 10% tax, I’ll choose work, because I’ll bring home $9 after taxes, while my leisure is still worth only $8/hour. However, if the income tax is at a 25% rate, I’ll only bring…

Summer 2011 Syllabus

Part of my job as a law professor is to model to students what a transactional attorney does. As part of that, I include in my syllabus a list of things media that they ought to consume in order to understand the world a business lawyer functions in. The list is not exhaustive, by any means, nor should they necessarily read or listen to all of it, but it provides a slice of intelligent commentary on the world I’m teaching them how to enter. If you were preparing people to do what you do, what resources would you recommend? [fn1] And, if you do what I prepare my students to do, what necessary resources am I tragically leaving out? [fn2] Syllabus: Wall Street Journal.  Depending on your politics, you may detest or you may embrace the Opinions section, but the Journal’s business reporting is superb.  (Note that it has a paywall around most of its content; you either need to…

Times & Seasons Welcomes Sam Brunson

Times & Seasons is excited to introduce Sam Brunson as our latest guest blogger.  Sam grew up in the suburbs of San Diego and served a Brazilian mission what seems like a millennium ago.  He went to BYU as an undergrad and found that a freshman saxophone performance major made his eventual English major look like a practical choice.   After toying with teaching critical theory or becoming an author, he did what all good English majors do and chose law school.  At Columbia, he met his wife, got a degree, and got a job as a tax associate at a New York firm.   Several years later, he managed to escape the clutches of big law and landed a job teaching tax and business law at Loyola University Chicago.  While Sam, sadly, does not play much saxophone these days, he and his wife do have two beautiful girls with whom he loves to spend time when he’s not pondering…

Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: True Believer

It’s unlikely that I believe the right things about God, Jesus, the gospel, or the Church. It’s even less likely that I could express my beliefs in a coherent and justifiable way. I used to think that, because my ideas were clever, I was at least closer to being right than most. This I took as a consolation. But cleverness isn’t much to live on. God, I think, has been working to pry this cleverness from my cold, dead hands. I have felt God more than once pushing me to echo Meister Eckhart’s deeply orthodox prayer: “I pray to God to rid me of God.” In the midst of such a prayer, the wind stops howling and God bestows a terrifying calm. In this stillness, God gives a precise revelation that bypasses belief and instructs practice. Here, the gospel is given as a certain way of sitting in a chair, a certain way of meeting a child’s eyes, a certain way of kissing a…

Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: Secular Mormons

The irony of religious fundamentalism is that it is a profoundly modern and profoundly secular phenomenon. This is perhaps especially true of the scriptural literalism that often accompanies it. The result is that many of the most conservative Mormons are, in point of fact, also the most secular. Few Mormons are more secular than Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie. Why is fundamentalism so profoundly secular? Because it cedes the field of truth wholly and without contestation to secular models of truth – and then tries to combat, contest, and outdo the secularists at their own game. Is there a better example of this acquiescence to the secular paradigm than Joseph Fielding Smith’s Man, His Origin and Destiny? Jim Faulconer levels a similar (but subtler) charge against the Protestant theologian Langdon Gilkey in the fourth chapter of Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (Maxwell Institute, 2010): Ironically, when people argue for creation science or for what is usually called a literal reading…

Peace

Sometimes unintentional mistakes lead to interesting lines of thought. A few weeks ago I misheard a speaker in an LDS meeting. The speaker was quoting John 14:27, and either because of the speaker’s mispronunciation or my imperfect hearing, I heard the word “live” instead of the word “leave.” This lead me to think about what it means to live in peace.

Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: The Call

It is a commonplace in Zen that three things are necessary for liberation. If you want to wake up from the slumber of self-absorption, if you want to live your life outside the suffocating confines of that mason jar that is your own head, you need (1) great faith, (2) great doubt, and (3) great effort. As Mormons, we’re famous for valorizing the third. We’re also often good at promoting the first. But when was the last time you heard a talk extolling the need to cultivate great doubt? The Zen masters were likely right to see all three as essential. It is not enough to trust and build. Ground must also be cleared. In Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (Maxwell Institute, 2010), Jim Faulconer makes a similar point in relation to reading scripture: We often speak of and use scripture as if it were a set of propositions that are poorly expressed or, at best, “merely” poetic. We then try to…

Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: Pagan Faith

Mormons are metaphysical heretics, backward pagans, country bumpkins, who claim that the world, rather than being one, is fundamentally many. We’re metaphysical pluralists and so break with the creeds. Unity is a product, not a starting point. God the Son is not God the Father and (moreover!) all intelligences are uncreated and co-eternal with God. As a result, rather than being reassuringly antedated by the simplicity of a Divine Will or the uniformity of a Providential Reason, we’re preceded by the mystery of a material plurality that is always already given. In this scenario, faith is a different kind of thing. Unlike many versions of creedal faith, pagan faith is no temporary, stop-gap measure. Pagan faith is eternal and, in a pagan universe, even the Gods must have and keep faith. Faith is not the foil of a (lost or future) knowledge, but the ageless bedrock of any trusting, active, and moral engagement with an uncreated world. Pagan faith originates in response to…

Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: Memory

Say someone asks if you know the time. You say yes and then look at your watch. Did you really know the time? Say someone asks you how to get downtown to the museum. You say yes. They ask you to write down directions. You can’t, but you offer to drive them there instead. If you can see the landmarks, then you’ll know where to turn. Did you really know how to get there? Say that, walking past a bakery, you’re struck by the smell of a pastry and then vividly recall a time when, six years-old, you made those same rolls with your grandmother. You can feel again the weight of her hand on your shoulder as she helps you roll the dough. This is the only time you’ve thought of that event in the past thirty years. Did you remember this? Or did the pastry? Who is doing the knowing in these examples? Who is doing the remembering? You? The watch?…

Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: A Typology of Readers

In the introduction to his Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (Neal A Maxwell Institute, 2010), Jim Faulconer gives us a kind of typology of religious subjects. Imagining the different kinds of responses he might get to the difficulty of his philosophically inclined essays, he picks out four basic types. I. Typology 1. Those who enjoy a kind of childish naivete. Those with childish faith will find what I say difficult because it makes the obvious difficult. They are likely to be bored or, at best, indulgent of me, and their reaction is the right reaction. I have nothing to say to those who are naive in a childish way because anything I say would be superfluous. (xv) 2. Those who enjoy a kind of mature naivete. Those with more mature, childlike faith have moved from their initial naivete to one that knows the obstacles to faith and has faith anyway – not necessarily in spite of those obstacles, but aware of them and able to cope with…

Home Waters: Recompense

Of his awakening, Dogen says, “I came to realize clearly that mind is no other than mountains and rivers, the great wide earth, the sun, the moon, the stars.” Tinged with enlightenment, you see what Dogen saw: that life is borrowed and that mind itself is mooched. Every day you’ll need something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue. Mind borrows mountains and rivers, earth, sun, and sky. But you can’t just keep these things forever. Even if they weren’t quite what you wanted, they gave what they had and now some compensation is needed, some recompense is required. “Recompense is payback,” Handley says. “It means to weigh together, to bring back into balance” (xi). What was loaned must be returned or replaced. What was given must be given back. Nobody gets to start from scratch, not even God. To make a world is to borrow, recycle, and repurpose the matter that, even if disorganized, is already out there…

Home Waters: Gene/ecology

Earth is stratified time. Use some wind, water, and pressure. Sift it, layer it, and fold it. Add an inhuman number of years. Stack and buckle these planes of rock into mountains of frozen time. Use a river to cleave that mountain in two. Hide hundreds of millions of purloined years in plain, simultaneous sight as a single massive bluff. It’s a good trick. Bodies, made of earth, are just the same: in my face, unchosen, generations of people are stratified in plain, simultaneous sight. My father’s nose, my grandfather’s ears, my mother’s wink, the lines my kids have etched into my squint. My wife pats my cheek and says: “Dear, your genealogy is showing.” She’s right. The lines on my face and in the palms of hands are family lines. But these lines aren’t easy to follow because, counter to expectation, time’s line isn’t straight. Time piles up. It loops around, knots up, peters out, and jumps ahead. It…

Home Waters: Soul as Watershed

Spurred by Handley’s Home Waters, I’ve been reading Wallace Stegner. Like Handley, Stegner is interested in the tight twine of body, place, and genealogy that makes a life. On my account, Handley and Stegner share the same thesis: if the body is a river, then the soul is a watershed. Like a shirt pulled off over your head, this thesis leaves the soul inside-out and exposed. You thought your soul was a kernel of atomic interiority, your most secret secret – but shirt in hand, everyone can see your navel. Stegner’s novel, Angle of Repose, opens with the narrator’s own version of this thesis. An aging father, writing about his pioneer grandparents, names the distance between himself and his son: Right there, I might say to Rodman, who doesn’t believe in time, notice something: I started to establish the present and the present moved on. What I established is already buried under layers of tape. Before I can say I am, I…

Home Waters: Overview

George Handley’s Home Waters: A Year of Recompenses on the Provo River (University of Utah Press, 2010) practices theology like a doctor practices CPR: not as secondhand theory but as a chest-cracking, lung-inflating, life-saving intervention. Home Waters models what, on my account, good theology ought to do: it is experimental, it is grounded in the details of lived experience, and it takes charity – that pure love of Christ – as the only real justification for its having been written. It is not afraid to guess, it is not afraid to question, it is not afraid to cry repentance, and it is not afraid to speak in its own name. The book deserves some time and attention. It’s what you’ve been wanting to read. It may also be what you’ve been wanting to write. At the very least, it made me want to write about it. I’ve planned a few posts that will air some of my ideas about Handley’s ideas:…

Faith frames the pie, and other reasons to be grateful

Today I, with millions of other home cooks around the country, will be getting frisky in the kitchen with all manner of saturated fats and simple carbohydrates as I beget a table full of gorgeous harvest pies. I make pie once a year, the day before Thanksgiving; the rest of the year I prefer my saturated fats and simple carbohydrates in other forms. But at about 4:00 on Thanksgiving Day, surrounded by a riot of dirty dishes and family, there’s nothing in this world or out of it that tastes better. Social scientists would call my Thanksgiving palate a “framing effect”.  The framing effect is an important concept in economics and psychology, describing the way in which the presentation of an object or idea in different contexts will change people’s decision-making.  By swapping out one emotional frame for another—Thanksgiving Day for Easter, say—we change our perception of the object or opportunity at hand, even though it remains objectively constant. Pie…

What we talk about when we talk about God

Bruce Feiler’s daughter was just five when she pitched him a question right to the gut of religious experience:  “Daddy, if I speak to God, will he listen?” Feiler writes books on the Bible and God for a living, so he’d presumably given the question some thought. Nevertheless he had no good answer ready for his daughter. So he did what any loving parent would do:  answered the question with an inartful dodge, and then wrote about it in the New York Times style section. How do we answer our children’s questions about God, he asked, when we are ourselves doubtful, confused, or otherwise conflicted? Feiler solicited comments on the matter from a formerly-Catholic agnostic playwright, a formerly-Episcopalian agnostic New Testament scholar, and a popular Conservative rabbi in Los Angeles.  It’s not hard to guess the direction their responses took.  Among the educated elite readership of the NYT, a kind of ritualistic doubt partners with a set of tolerant gestures…

Once upon a time on earth: the Church in a changing world

In debates over controversial religious issues, one often encounters a certain kind of argument from history, a sort of “once upon a time” argument. Once upon a time, it’s argued, the Church considered a given practice or belief, from witchcraft to usury to the heliocentric cosmos, to be immoral, unbiblical or otherwise forbidden.  The particular practice or belief in question varies, but the structure of the argument and its implication are nearly always the same: the Church once considered such-and-such to be evil, but now it doesn’t; thus by means of a progressive trope of enlightenment, the argument proceeds, the Church should also de-stigmatize and embrace the controversial topic at hand. (Often, it should be noted, these arguments are made with a great deal of care and nuance and insight.) In one sense, I’m sympathetic to this argument. I share the view that knowledge of and from God is a profoundly historical and historicized knowledge—and it that sense, it is…

An Apostle on Muslims

Yesterday, I read the following comments on Muslims by an LDS Apostle: I am aware it is not without a great deal of prejudice that we as Europeans, and Americans, and Christians in religion and in our education, so called, have looked down upon the history of Muhammad, or even the name; and even now we may think that Islam, compared with Christianity as it exists in the world, is a kind of heathenism, or something dreadful…

Ripples in History

I recently finished Victor Davis Hanson’s Ripples of Battle (Doubleday, 2003), with the give-it-all-away subtitle How wars of the past still determine how we fight, how we live, and how we think. Generalizing a bit, not just wars but many major events and some small, unnoticed ones send ripples into the future, silently influencing future generations. Could the present, our present, have turned out differently?

How to write a revelation

I have been working on a paper looking at the Doctrine and Covenants, and my research has me thinking about how the texts of modern revelation were produced.  I think that there are a lot of Mormons who assume that the words of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants were dictated word for word to Joseph.  On this model, the Doctrine and Covenants is rather like the Qua’ran, which also consists of a series of revelations given to a prophet over a period of years in response to concrete historial circumstances.  Pious Muslims affirm that the Qua’ran was dictated word for word in classical Arabic to the Prophet Muhammed and transmitted without error to the present.  Some Islamic theologians have gone farther, declaring that the Qua’ran is uncreated in time.  Rather, it is an eternal emanation of the Divine mind, the Word that was in the beginning with God incarnate in the world.  (There are problems with this story of the…

Zion and the Limits of Intellectual Agrarianism

There is a strand of progressive Mormon thinking that associates Zion with an exaltation of agrarian virtues.  I am thinking here of folks like Hugh Nibley or Arthur Henry King or my friend Russell Arben Fox who argue that small scale, local economies, ideally based in large part on agriculture provide the best possible model for building Zion.  At least one way of understanding this line of thinking is to see it as a kind of Mormonization of agrarian thinkers like Wendell Berry.  It is striking in this regard that Leonard Arrington, whose works on nineteenth-century Mormon communitarianism provide the historical ur-texts for much of this thinking, was trained at North Carolina in a progressive economics department then much under the influence of an earlier generation of Southern agrarian thinkers. I am skeptical.

Beliefs and Causes

Beliefs are complicated and sometimes strangely resistant to facts. I don’t mean religious beliefs in particular, but everyday beliefs about how the world works and how it is that we come to hold them. That’s what I took away from a recent reading of Lewis Wolpert’s Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief (W. W. Norton, 2006). Here’s an example from the chapter on paranormal beliefs. A stage magician performed fake psychic phenomena in front of two groups of university students. One group was told that he was a magician, while the other group was told he was a genuine psychic. When asked afterwards whether or not they believed he had genuine psychic powers, about two thirds of the students in both groups thought that he did. Even when the groups who were initially told that he was psychic were told that he was a fake, half still believed he had special psychic powers. (p. 157.) What’s…