The number one phrase that makes me question whether someone has opened a Bible lately is “The God of the New Testament is loving and forgiving, but the God of the Old Testament is wrathful and demanding.” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard it and read it.
In fact, there’s a lot of love and forgiveness in the Old Testament. “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!”—which for the record doubles as an instance in the Bible where God is compared and described in traditionally feminine rather than masculine terms. God shows forbearance time and time again in the Old Testament despite the Israelites going astray. And after God has punished them for their transgressions, He is quick to forgive. The prophets of the Old Testament, who pronounce judgment upon Israel, always end on the note that God will restore His people. The last words of Amos are:
“…I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant them upon their land, and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land which I have given them,” says the Lord your God.
There’s also a good amount of wrath and demands in the New Testament. In Luke and Matthew, respectively, Jesus preaches the following:
“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear him!”
“Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy,that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
You’d almost think the OT and NT were written about the same God. On a related note, Jesus talks about hell a decent amount too. Yes, Gehenna is a reference to hell. No, Jesus is not literally talking about your soul going to a burning trash pit outside Jerusalem in the afterlife. Yes, Jesus uses imagery to help his listeners understand the gravity of the situation.
Sheol/Hades (in Hebrew/Greek) is more ambiguous, mostly because our understanding of the word hell, which is an English word, is much narrower than it used to be. Rather than referring exclusively to the realm of the eternally damned, hell was used generally to refer to the abode of the dead, both good and evil. The CCC gives a good summary:
Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell” – Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek – because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom”: “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.” Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.
I’ve blogged about occupational licensing before, citing its negative impact on upward mobility. Now Richard Reeves at the Brookings Institution adds his voice to the critics. In a brief post, he lists four ways in which occupational licensing can hinder upward economic mobility:
“Since state licensing laws vary widely, a license earned in one state may not be honored in another…This licensing patchwork might explain why those working in licensed professions are much less likely to move, especially across state lines…”
“Licensing requirements impose up-front costs. The actual licensing fees are often just the tip of the iceberg; many aspiring professionals must spend time and money attending the required trade school courses. These burdens fall disproportionately on people from lower-income backgrounds.”
“Licensing can act as a form of “opportunity hoarding,” allowing those with resources and connections to benefit from the higher incomes flowing from these occupations, in part by preventing others from competing with them.”
Economist Thomas Sowell was featured once again on the Hoover Institution’s Uncommon Knowledgeto promote his latest book Wealth, Poverty, and Politics: An International Perspective. The interview is a nice, if somewhat simplified overview of his main arguments. Poverty, he says, is the norm. Wealth is what needs to be explained. And wealth largely comes by means of productivity. Yet, why are some groups across the globe more productive than others? He delves into a number of factors, ranging from geography to culture (human capital) to politics. Both the conversation and book are enlightening.
I think it’s fairly common for people to wonder “Are my conservative friends insane?”, so I’ve set out to provide a short primer on factors that influence modern conservative thought. The following points will obviously be generalizations, both of conservative and liberal thought.
Outcome, not Intention
To a conservative, the intention of a law or government program is generally meaningless. At first, that might seem odd, but think about this way: Who in their right mind intends badly with legislation? Given that almost nobody intends badly when legislating, a conservative is instead focused on the outcome: Does the law or program do what we want it to do? If it doesn’t, the legislation can be the most well-meaning program in the world, and conservatives still won’t support it.
Federal Government is not the Only Tool
Even if a federal government program is effective to one degree or another, a conservative is next going to ask: Is the federal government the most effective tool for accomplishing this goal? Could this goal be better accomplished on a local or state government level? What about with private programs? In general, the burden of proof is on the a federal government program to prove it could not be accomplished effectively on a more local or private level.
No Solutions, Only Trade-Offs
If I could frame a youtube video and put in on my wall, I would frame this youtube video.
Thomas Sowell summarizes a philosophical cornerstone of conservative thought: There are no solutions, only trade-offs. I think Sowell fairly contrasts the different paradigms underpinning modern conservative and liberal thought. For the liberal, if we could only get our institutions right, all would be well. For the conservative, no amount of institutions can ever make man right because man is inherently flawed. We can only hope to mitigate man’s negative impulses, and any attempt to mitigate one negative impulse has the possibility of encouraging another. So we have to ask of any law or program: Are the positives of this legislation going to outweigh any negatives it might introduce? Or, as Sowell puts it, “At what cost?”
How These Principles Turn Out in Practice
With these general principles in hand, one can hopefully start to understand conservative thought. A great example to test this understanding is minimum wage laws. Walker and Nathaniel have written quite a few articles on how minimumwagelawsintendwell but in reality onlyhurt the people they are meant to help. Another great example is equal pay laws. We can all agree that women deserve to be paid as much as men, but any legislation addressing the issue is going to cross every one of these principles: Does the proposed equal pay law actually work? Is federal government intervention the only or most effective means of addressing this issue? Will these equal pay laws be worth any trade-off incurred?
These examples also represent topics where conservatives are often impugned for their intentions and conversation breaks down: Do you hate poor people? Do you hate women? Of course not. We’re deeply concerned about the welfare of others. But we want to know that what we’re supporting actually works, is done at the most effective level, and is worth the cost. If legislation cannot jump over those three hurdles, we’re not going to support a program simply for the sake of its good intention.
As a final thought, one can understand conservative thought and still disagree with it. I have no problems with that. My only goal is that people first understand before they disagree. Otherwise, conversations are unproductive at best and nasty at worst. And in keeping with this thought, if you think I’ve misrepresented either conservative or liberal thought anywhere, let me know! I’ll probably still debate the comment, but as my momma came to understand, just cus I’m debating doesn’t mean I’m not listening.
All of the talks in the Sunday morning session of the October 1971 General Conference were wonderful, but the one I’d like to write about today is Elder Paul H. Dunn’s What is a Teacher? In his talk, Elder Dunn focuses on the three parables of Luke 15: the lost sheep, the piece of silver, and the prodigal son.
Elder Dunn said the he often wondered why the Lord had repeated the same basic message using three different parables. I have never wondered that. I figured it was just for emphasis, or perhaps with the intention that different audiences would relate better to different stories. But, as this example shows, the scriptures often reward those who push a little harder to understand what is going on. Thus, Elder Dunn: “And then one day it dawned. People do get lost in various ways, and here in this great chapter of Luke we find the Savior counseling how to recover them.”
The message of the first story, of the lost sheep, is that some people get lost simply because they get confused. And for those, the solutions are “Family, service, [and] brotherhood… Feeding… brings them home.”
The message of the second story, of the lost coin, is that sometimes “responsible agents… let these priceless gems slip through their fingers.” I thought this was an especially poignant way of looking at the fate of some of those who wander astray. Elder Dunn says that we can’t recover these ones the way we recover a confused sheep. “Love, care, and attention would be the process used to recover lost coins.”
Finally, and most tragically, some are lost because “their free agency takes them down that path.” In this case, “we can’t do a lot… except open our arms and our church doors and let them know they are wanted.”
As part of writing this post, I looked up Elder Dunn on Wikipedia. It turns out that he is a controversial figure, and so I thought that was worth mentioning as well. He liked to embellish his General Conference talks with personal stories that were not true. Ultimately, in 1991, he wrote an open letter to all members (with permission of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve) in which he stated that “I have not always been accurate in my public talks and writings, [and] I have indulged in other activities inconsistent with the high and sacred officer which I have held.” He asked for forgiveness and even stated that the General Authorities, after an investigation, “have censured me and placed a heavy penalty upon me.”
I don’t know what the “other activities” were, nor what the “heavy penalty” was, but I thought it was worth pointing out to show that all of us can wonder and become lost. No one is immune, and that is worth keeping in mind so that we can exercise humility in our own lives and find compassion for those who stumble. (Which, at one time or another, is all of us.)
In the film Gravity, there is a scene that–for me–captures the message and essence of the film. Following the destruction of their space shuttle by orbital debris, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) are tethered together and making their way to the International Space Station via Kowalski’s propulsion unit. While en route, Kowalski comments on how beautiful the earth and sun are, accompanied by his ever-present country music. He begins asking Stone about her life back home and she eventually reveals that her 4-year-old daughter had died when she fell playing at school one day. Despite being in a fantastical context that was obviously capturing Kowalski’s attention, Stone’s experience suddenly becomes even more important in the moment. Her loss and her experience becomes just as deep and vast as the very space they are occupying. Instead of being left with the feeling of how small and insignificant we are in such a large universe, we leave realizing that the human experience is just as immense.
Some years ago I accepted an invitation to a fathers and sons outing, where the participants spent an arduous but interesting day mounted on horses on a trip to Bloomington Lake in the mountains of Bear Lake County, Idaho. Late at night, after the campfires had all burned out and everyone had settled down under the open heavens, I lay on my back, gazing overhead. It was a moonless night, and I have never seen such a beautiful sight. The heavens were alive with the brightness of stars and planets. How small I felt in comparison to that vast universe! A sense of appreciation came over me as I thought of God’s glory, of his handiwork, the earth, the heavens, all created for one purpose—his children, mankind. That experience has remained with me. I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of it.
The section of the Book of Moses he goes on to quote is instructive. After witnessing “the world and the ends thereof, and all the children of men which are, and which were created,” Moses declares that “I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed” (Moses 1:8, 10). Yet, earlier the Lord told him, “And, behold, thou art my son…and thou art in the similitude of mine Only Begotten; and mine Only Begotten is and shall be the Savior, for he is full of grace and truth; but there is no God beside me, and all things are present with me, for I know them all” (Moses 1:4, 6). Moses draws on this knowledge later when Satan approaches and tempts him with, “Moses, son of man, worship me” (Moses 1:12; italics mine). In response, Moses declares, “Who art thou? For behold, I am a son of God, in the similitude of his Only Begotten; and where is thy glory, that I should worship thee?” (Moses 1:13; italics mine). Following the departure of Satan, God returns and presents Moses with another vision. Following this, he learns that God’s “work and…glory” is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). The cosmos are awe-inspiring, overwhelming, and frightening. The sheer magnitude of creation can and should be humbling. But as Vandenberg points out, “[T]he creation of the world, the plan of salvation—all this is for us.” Human life and progress is that important to God. It should be important to us as well.
One of the “requirements” according to his priest adviser as a young man was “to think a new thought every day.” Relevant for all classes and for Mormonism in general.
The teacher is a prophet. He lays the foundation of tomorrow. The teacher is an artist. He works with the precious clay of unfolding personality. The teacher is a friend. His heart responds to the faith and devotion of his students. The teacher is a citizen. He is selected and licensed for the improvement of society. The teacher is an interpreter. Out of his mature and wider life, he seeks to guide the young. The teacher is a builder. He works with the higher and finer values of civilization. The teacher is a culture-bearer. He leads the way toward worthier tastes, saner attitudes, more gracious manners, higher intelligence. The teacher is a planner. He sees the young lives before him as a part of a great system that shall grow stronger in the light of truth. The teacher is a pioneer. He is always interpreting and attempting the impossible, and usually winning out. The teacher is a reformer. He seeks to improve the handicaps that weaken and destroy life. The teacher is a believer. He has an abiding faith in God and in the improvability of the race. It was James Truslow Adams who said, “There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living, and the other how to live.” We are engaged in teaching people how to live.”
According to Dunn, the lost sheep in the Savior’s parable “are not basically sinners by nature or even choice,” but instead “get confused in what’s important. In other words, they have misplaced values.” In the parable of the lost coin, “there are those of us who are the responsible agents who, like the woman of this great teaching parable, let these priceless gems slip through our fingers.” Finally, there is “the great parable of the Prodigal Son, with the Savior saying that there are those who get lost by choice…There are those who get lost because their free agency takes them down that path. We can’t do a lot at some points to recover this kind of a person except open our arms and our church doors and let them know they are wanted”
Man is the sum result of what he thinks and does. Habit is the instrument that molds his character and makes of him essentially what he is. Habit can become a monster to tarnish and destroy, yet proper behavioral traits can bring lasting joy and achievement. To say no at the right time and then stand by it is the first element of success. The effect that both good and bad habits have on our lives is all too real to be ignored. Bad habits that violate the commandments of physical health (D&C 89) and of moral behavior (D&C 121), given by revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith many years ago, will threaten and destroy all opportunities for real happiness.”
“Choosing good over evil and right over wrong is the crowning achievement of life, and in so doing man becomes the masterpiece of the Creator and fulfills the basic purposes of his mortal probation. An ancient prophet speaks of it in this way: “… he that ruleth his spirit [is greater] than he that taketh a city.” (Prov. 16:32.)”
“The fusing of ritual and commandment with everyday living calls for the best that is in us, that by our agency we may feel the affected condition by choosing good rather than evil, thus not only glorifying ourselves but glorifying Him who has made all things possible.”
After describing many loving, familial, yet mundane situations, he states,
Heaven is a place, but also a condition; it is home and family. It is understanding and kindness. It is interdependence and selfless activity. It is quiet, sane living; personal sacrifice, genuine hospitality, wholesome concern for others. It is living the commandments of God without ostentation or hypocrisy. It is selflessness. It is all about us. We need only to be able to recognize it as we find it and enjoy it. Yes, my dear brother, I’ve had many glimpses of heaven.”
This opinion piece from the New York Times popped up in my feed a couple of weeks ago: Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts by Justin P. McBrayer. It’s a pretty common sub-topic within the “kids these days” genre and it goes something like this. First, kids these days are taught that morality is subjective (often as a side-effect of misguided tolerance or non-judgmentalism efforts):
What would you say if you found out that our public schools were teaching children that it is not true that it’s wrong to kill people for fun or cheat on tests? Would you be surprised?
Second, this moral relativism leads to high rates of immoral behavior among students (e.g. cheating):
It should not be a surprise that there is rampant cheating on college campuses: If we’ve taught our students for 12 years that there is no fact of the matter as to whether cheating is wrong, we can’t very well blame them for doing so later on.
I don’t know that there’s any direct evidence of this. For example, I don’t know of any survey that specifically asks about cheating behavior and asks about moral relativism, which would be interesting. But the link seems plausible.
McBrayer then points out that, among philosophers, moral relativism is rare:
There are historical examples of philosophers who endorse a kind of moral relativism, dating back at least to Protagoras who declared that “man is the measure of all things,” and several who deny that there are any moral facts whatsoever. But such creatures are rare.
I was interested, so I dug around and found a survey that asked philosophers about that explicitly. Here are the results:
Accept or lean toward: moral realism 525 / 931 (56.4%)
Accept or lean toward: moral anti-realism 258 / 931 (27.7%)
Other 148 / 931 (15.9%)
I’m not sure that almost a quarter of philosophers accepting moral relativism makes it “rare,” but it is certainly the case that they are outnumbered more than 2:1 by philosophers who accept moral realism. That’s really interesting me for a couple of reasons. First, conservatives often blame liberal trends among college kids on the overwhelmingly liberal atmosphere of college campuses, but at least in this regard the students are clearly way out in front of the professors (and heading in the opposite direction). Second, in popular discussion I usually see moral objectivism / moral realism associated with simplistic religious beliefs and therefore looked down on by the cool kids of the Internet who are all convinced that evolution explains morality and therefore morality is socially constructed and relative. Newsflash: moral realism is not just for Young Earth Creationists.
McBrayer also points out that indoctrinating our kids to believe moral relativism starts early:
When I went to visit my son’s second grade open house, I found a troubling pair of signs hanging over the bulletin board. They read:
Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.
Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.
As McBrayer points out, this is a total train wreck that conflates three distinct concepts: true vs. false, objective vs. subjective, and knowable vs. unknowable. Ontology, epistemology, and relativism are all mashed together. What about things that a person thinks that are factual and can be proven? What about statements that are objectively false but also unprovable?
Coincidentally, within day or two of reading this, my son came home with the following homework:
It’s not quite as bad as McBrayer’s example, but it’s not good either.
I’m not really sure who to blame on this one, but it’s just another reason I try to keep a fairly close eye on what my kids get taught at school. Teaching is hard, and my kids have great teachers this year, but it’s important to let ’em know from time to time that the stuff they are taught in school has to be taken with a grain of salt.
The merits of the social democratic Nordic countries have once again become popular in American political discourse due to their praise by presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. This revival of the “U.S. vs. Sweden” debate reminds me of the following interview with Swedish economist Andreas Bergh:
A team of scientists announced on Thursday that they had heard and recorded the sound of two black holes colliding a billion light-years away, a fleeting chirp that fulfilled the last prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
That faint rising tone, physicists say, is the first direct evidence of gravitational waves, the ripples in the fabric of space-time that Einstein predicted a century ago. (Listen to it here.) It completes his vision of a universe in which space and time are interwoven and dynamic, able to stretch, shrink and jiggle. And it is a ringing confirmation of the nature of black holes, the bottomless gravitational pits from which not even light can escape, which were the most foreboding (and unwelcome) part of his theory.