Thursday, October 20, 2005

Young Men in Libraries

In "The American Scholar," Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books." He goes on to explain that, while genius is often the enemy of genius--meaning that if we spend all our time reading the brilliant words of dead people we'll never write brilliant words of our own--we should not completely ignore the words of those who have gone before us:
Undoubtedly there is a right way of reading, so it be sternly subordinated. Man Thinking must not be subdued by his instruments. Books are for the scholar's idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men's transcripts of their readings. But when the intervals of darkness come, as come they must, — when the sun is hid, and the stars withdraw their shining, — we repair to the lamps which were kindled by their ray, to guide our steps to the East again, where the dawn is. We hear, that we may speak. The Arabian proverb says, "A fig tree, looking on a fig tree, becometh fruitful."
As I've been reading the Bible this week--Matthew with Foxy J and Timothy on my own--I can't help but see it this way. Paul, no doubt, was a great man. He was inspired to write a lot of wonderful things. One scripture that I have been thinking about a lot is from 2 Timothy 1.7: "For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind." God doesn't intend for us to live our lives based on fear of consequences. He wants us to be courageous and loving and wise. He wants us to think for ourselves.

[Musical Interlude]
"Brain Washers" by Blackalicious:
Brain washers
It's when you think how they wanna think
Speak how they wanna speak
Livin' in defeat
When you don't wanna question what they teach
As the truth
With no proof
With the fear of burnin' in eternal heat.
[/Musical Interlude]

At any rate, that was a digression. The point I was getting to is that, besides these wonderful, inspired things Paul said, he also says a lot of really stupid things. The man is a sexist and a homophobe. Sure, that was probably the norm for his time; I'm not trying to say he's a horrible person, but that he's a human being. Not every word he wrote came straight (or even indirectly) from the mouth of God (who, I might add, cannot possibly be a sexist and a homophobe and still be the God I pray to).

This being the case, I have to wonder what then is the point of holy scripture? Or prophets, for that matter? If we can't trust the Bible to be the literal word of God, why bother reading it? Why would God call people to teach his children if he understands that these people he calls are imperfect and bound to say some pretty stupid things? Which is where Emerson comes in. Prophets and scriptures don't replace our ability to "read God directly," but remind us where to look when we forget how to read God. They point us in the right direction, but after that it's up to us to figure out what God is telling us, rather than rely on the words of "young men in libraries."

I can believe that Matthew and Paul were good men who were inspired by God, despite their failings. For that matter, I can believe that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and Gordon B. Hinckley were/are good men inspired by God. What I'm unsure of is, once they've reminded us that we can talk to God and get personal direction directly from him--a principle Joseph Smith's story demonstrates beautifully--what then is their purpose? Once a prophet has successfully turned my attention to God, what then can he tell me that God can't tell me himself?


Th. said...


I guess the question is, how much time do we really communicate with God, percentagewise? And what about everyone else? And can we trust everyone to know when they're communicating with God and when they're not?

Chaos and anarchy are lovely thoughts, but there is a reason they have the pejorative connotations that they do.

Christian said...

I agree with you about the purpose of the Bible. I look at it as a history book. But it's a special history book about people trying to understand and draw closer to God, and that's where it gets its greatest value. The same can be said for the prophets; they remind us that we need to draw closer to God and, in trying to do this, say things to put us on the path.

ambrosia ananas said...

I like what you've said here. In reading the scriptures, we're supposed to listen to the spirit, so that we can understand what *God* wants us to get out of the scriptures instead of getting bogged down in the writers' flaws or the flaws introduced by scribes or translators.

I think the purpose of the prophet is not only to turn our attention to God, but also to keep us in some sort of stability, to keep us more or consistent. It's really easy for us to get hung up on small doctrines or obsessed about tangents. I think the prophets are there to help us focus and remind us of the general direction we're supposed to be heading. And, of course, to testify of Christ.

Anonymous said...

You bring up several excellent thoughts and questions! The comments also offered some excellent answers! Thank you everyone, for sharing.

I guess my question would be, how could there ever NOT be a prophet, unless everyone was on the same page as you? And that's assuming that "once a prophet [had] successfully turned [your] attention to God", you never regressed or diverted, a situation which seems contrary to human nature.

My other question: I'm curious - which verses indicate that Paul was a homophobe or sexist?

FYI: Do you recall that 2 Timothy 1:7 was framed and hanging over the counter in our Aipo St. house. It was actually a greeting card that Jenny had made and I framed it, because I, too, particularly like that scripture.

Tolkien Boy said...

I must, as you know, agree with th. (does that need an additional period?). The whole point of God is to order our existence somewhat...if he cannot do that, what is he doing?

They are good thoughts, though, thoughts I myself am having right now as well.

B.G. Christensen said...

Unfortunately, Th. is right--I'm not communicating with God 100% of the time. Probably not even 100% of the time I think I am. Here's the thing, though: President Hinckley doesn't claim to go about the process of receiving revelation any differently than I do. He said in response to Larry King's question about how he receives revelation, "It isn't necessarily a voice heard. Impressions come." Believe me, I'm sure he's doing his best just like anyone else (and probably better than most), but, to put it in your words, TH., how can I trust him to know when he's communicating with God and when he's not?

While I would never push for governmental anarchy, religious anarchy--the lack of religious government--is what the U.S. was founded on and it works very well. The fact that large groups of people choose to believe what individual men tell them to does nothing to affect that "anarchy." If you believe that God communicates to individuals, democracy--each individual voting to make laws based on what he or she feels God wants--seems to be the most logical way for God to create order.

I suppose a better way to put my question is: Once I have been taught to fish, why do I need people fishing for me? Which is not to say, as many of you have suggested, that we can't use constant reminders of how to fish effectively. Whether it's Gordon B. Hinckley, Pope Benedict XVI, Mahatma Ghandi, or Ralph Waldo Emerson doing that reminding, it serves its purpose.

B.G. Christensen said...

Mom, I'd forgotten about that frame but now that you mention it I remember it. I'll respond to your question about Paul when I have more time. Until then you're welcome to take it as the unfounded claim of a madman.

Anonymous said...

I do hope I'm not irritating by getting in on your conversations, but I really enjoy the thinking that's going on here!

"... how can I trust him to know when he's communicating ... and when he's not?"

I don't think you have to. If you question something, ask for yourself. Isn't that what you deduced from 2 Timothy - that God expects us to think for ourselves? You already brought out the fact that 1- all of God's prophets are human (i.e.: imperfect) and 2- they're there to LEAD us to God. They give us basic principles and guidelines, but we still have to do the work of thinking and praying to confirm what is truth - or, if we question something - what might be a result of human frailty, or even individual taste or opinion.

You may have prayed about certain things and not gotten an answer. There could be many explanations for that, one of which could be: If you had, a. prayed, b. received a clear answer, c. end of discussion, then perhaps a lot of people here would not be doing the thinking that's represented by these questions and comments. And who knows how many other people may have read the post and the comments, and learned something they needed to know.