Of I and We

Photo by Ilona Frey on Unsplash

Perhaps you have been chary of letting other people speak for you.  I know that I have.  I tend to bristle when someone announces what “we” are going to do without consulting with the “I”s in the “we.”  I feel much the same when I hear someone declare what “we” think without caring to learn what I and the other components of “we” think. 

Sometimes it is necessary or unavoidable to have someone speak for me.  I think of representative government.  A Congress of 330 million people will either get nothing done, or it will devolve into rule by a dictator who has, as an effective demagogue, arranged for enough of all of us to cede to him their will.  The city states of ancient Greece experienced both failings of genuine democracy—mob rule and dictatorship—and displayed how it never worked for long.

The Romans, inhabiting a city state governed by a king, threw off their king and created a democratic republic that flourished for several hundred years.  They elected Senators to represent them.  The Romans did not like a king who spoke for them without asking, but they thrived under a system of Senators who spoke for them, but only after obtaining the Romans’ permission.  That worked for centuries until the process of gaining permission—elections—became corrupted.  The Senators concurrently became corrupted, unwilling to face blame for making decisions.  The democratic republic was replaced by a government of emperors and Caesars.  Rome afterwards oscillated between civil strife and dictatorship on the way to collapse and invasion.

In the years following 1776 we, as a people of free individuals, united to shake off our king who claimed the privilege of referring to himself as “We” when speaking.  In 1787 “We the People,” through our chosen representatives, also established a democratic republic.  That followed the formation of democratic republics in each State.  Both sides in the debate to ratify the new Constitution emphasized keeping representatives tied closely to the represented.  Skeptics wondered whether that would actually happen or long endure if it did.

Individual people, representatives and represented, are imperfect, as the Founders understood.  We each prize our individuality and the liberty to live it.  We each can also be tempted to exert our will over others.  Consider the occasional neighborhood “WE BELIEVE” yard signs.  Are these an expression of personal faith or a declaration that you and I ought to consider ourselves included in the “WE”?  I wonder about the latter when I see decrees by federal officials, state governors, and local mayors extending government force to the seemingly anodyne slogans ornamenting the signs.  The man who today sits in the oval office, who would not dare to call himself a czar, has appointed a man (previously rejected by a national election) to be the nation’s “Climate Czar.”

We are scheduled to reach 250 years of our democratic republic when the 17-year cicadas next return.  Will they emerge in a nation still governed by “We the People”?  Or might they come out of the ground where the voices of the I’s have been subsumed by other Czars who announce what We think, do, and say?  Creeping political correctness, which has been chastising free speech for decades, telling us what not to say, has lately become enforced by governments, workplaces, media, and schools.  As the prophet Isaiah warned, a man is made “an offender for a word” (Isaiah 29:21).

By the way, the titles “Czar” and “Kaiser” are derivatives of the Latin title “Caesar.”

Of Burgers-Fries and Excellence

Photo by Peter Dawn on Unsplash

My favorite local hamburger joint is the simply named “Burger Shack.”  The hamburgers are good, made to order, with an option for a gluten-free bun; prices are decent.  Where this joint completely outshines the crowded competition is that the fries are far and away the best around.

One might think that with a commonplace menu centered on burgers, fries, and milkshakes the fare could easily become mediocre.  There is plenty of that available in the surrounding culinary community.  The national mass-production chains cater to the market for mediocre.  They had occupied the so-so field for so long that it appeared that all the burger rivalry was solely among the giant mediocrities, working hard to find new ways to repackage and remarket the same thing, becoming more alike in their efforts to appear different.

Who knew that people—lots of people—could be attracted to excellence in burgers and fries?  A few daring souls made a go at the chance that there may be customer demand for more than mediocre.  The market allowed it and rewarded it.  Competition to rise above mediocre has become fierce, with customers benefitting from the choices offered.    

Not that I would forbid mediocrity.  Mediocrity is O.K., as far as it goes, but only O.K.  I am happy that there can be more.

Enjoying better burgers, pleased with better shoes, and glad for better dentists, I find the insistence on mediocrity and the outcry against excellence astonishing.  How frequently we encounter voices decrying competition, seeking to standardize everything by treating everything and everyone the same!  Is that what people really want?  We used to have a shelf full of trophies “won” by our children just for showing up.  We failed to convince the kids to take them to their own homes for display.

More astonishing is the assertion that celebration of mediocrity and condemnation of competition promote diversity.  The theory is that diversity cannot compete in a system that rewards excellence.  What is the alternative prescription for diversity from these levelers?  They demand removal of standards that applaud excellence in achievement or that recognize merit in performance.

Reality reveals opposite results.  This leveler ethic promotes either or both of two outcomes.  First, things tend toward the same as differences are discouraged; efforts that improve performance are placed at risk of suppression.  Second—alternatively or concomitantly—the levelers who rise above to be in charge of administering this doctrine decide recognition and advancement, and they do so based on whatever standard suits their fancy or is then in vogue.  Such standards tend to be unmeasurable, subject to whim, suiting the arbitrary caprice of the chief levelers.

In short, diversity is always in danger in the tyranny of mediocrity.  No one must be more beautiful, according to the day’s definition of beauty.

For a time the big burger chains, which initially arose by offering a better, excellent idea (until the idea became standardized) put the local mom and pop joints out of business.  Markets, though, have allowed competition to work its magic, tolerating room for some intrepid innovators to test customer interest in burger excellence.  Some succeed.

There comes the levelers’ claim that competition is inhuman, or at least unkind.  It supposedly disadvantages those who are not excellent, who are only mediocre.  Since not everyone can excel, this competition must be stopped.

That claim is inhuman and unkind.  People everywhere are mediocre or less than mediocre at some things, but each can do something better than someone else can.  The variety of talents and gifts is constantly amazing (and sometimes amusing).

If mediocrity standards are imposed, however will we discern the excellence that each has to offer?  Each person may be stymied from discovering what he or she is best at doing.  How does one find the divinity in his or her humanity, embedded in the unique gifts from God awaiting to be developed?  How many advances will be lost? We will be poorer for the loss.

I do not know how long it took the owners of Burger Shack to find out that they could offer an excellent product.  Perhaps they are still finding out.  While the year’s virus restrictions play to the advantages of the big, national firms, the last time I was at Burger Shack it was booming, even under the restrictions.  If allowed, people find a way.

Of Platitudes and Political Attitudes

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

I am naturally optimistic.  So you will understand that I rejoiced to see several of my friendly neighbors, who sometimes disagree with me politically, place signs in their yards supporting positions consistent with the views of free market liberty-loving constitutionalists like myself.  That would appear to bode well for candidates in this election who also tend to trust markets, liberty, and constitutional rights.

I will confess that to some the signs might read like a public creed of platitudes.  Perhaps they are intended to present an impressionist attitude of some kind.  Here are the phrases, written in bumper sticker style.  See what you think.

To begin with, who could argue with the obvious truth that “Black Lives Matter”?  I personally know no one who does not naturally embrace the idea.  I do notice that those who in published media lionize the eponymous organization laying claim to the title reveal little material interest in the lives of black police officers, black small business owners, or unborn black children.  That may be why the lady running for Congress in Baltimore’s 7th Congressional District emphasizes that “all black lives matter.”

Next on the signs is the phrase, “No Human Is Illegal.”  That is surely the case in the United States as long as it remains a nation of law and order.  Things that some people do are illegal, but enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is the concept of individual worth.  The notion that people themselves can be illegal is reserved for socialist governments and monarchies, where large portions of the population can find themselves illegal.  That is a crucial reason why the American founders broke from the monarchy and why applying socialism here terrorizes lovers of liberty.

Third on the signs is the bromide, “Love Is Love.”  Surely it is.  Perhaps it appears because love is the core principle of many religions, such as Christianity, which rests on two commandments (also taught in the Old Testament):  Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.  As Jesus taught, on these rest “all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:40)  Jesus also taught that with the breakdown of law and order, “the love of many shall wax cold.” (Matthew 24:12)  I am thrilled that churches are being allowed to open again so that they might continue to teach their doctrine of love.

The phrase, “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights,” is given fourth billing on the signs.  That is absolutely true, even if it is violated in many parts of the world.  I am reminded, by my neighbors who have come to the United States from such nations where women’s rights are routinely violated, why I am grateful that my daughters and granddaughters live in a country where their rights are real and protected.

I am grateful that the signs include what is in danger of becoming a meaningless cliché, “Science Is Real.”  Our nation was midwifed by the enlightenment, a rejection of the medieval notion that scientific verities were determined by government or ecclesiastical agencies and votes of councils.  We are all indebted to courageous scientists who stood alone and refused to accept any scientific debate as “final,” who asked more questions that often led to better answers that have made mankind healthier, wealthier, and more flourishing.  May our nation of freedom encourage the continuation of that story.

The penultimate phrase on the signs is the prosaic declaration, “Water Is Life.”  I remember Barry Goldwater, Senator from Arizona, explaining to a skeptical Senate the importance of water rights.  There would appear to be a longtime tug of war in our government agencies about the importance of water management.  As with many important issues, relying upon our federal system of state and national interaction is most likely to give us the best management answers.  National mandates are likely to leave local communities dry.

The final phrase on the signs is the catchall, “Injustice Anywhere Is a Threat to Justice Everywhere.”  An unlimited aspiration, mankind has wrestled with it from the earliest times.  As this is to be an ongoing struggle of which we should not tire, the question is how best to proceed?  Our founders asked that question.  They recognized that arbitrary governments were the worst offenders.  The structure of liberty they established has fostered the multitudinous avenues for virtue that have not ceased to make progress in combating injustice.

I cheer such display of worthy attitudes of support for our nation’s growth in liberty.

By the way, there is a website where you may go to purchase these signs, $10 each.  Free enterprise is wonderful.

Of Dead Family Members and Getting to Know Them

Some years ago a radio commentator expressed revulsion toward the popular fascination with genealogy. To make his argument short, he did not see the point. In his view all of those people are dead and gone. What do they matter?

Inasmuch as the comment was made before recent notable advances in research on gene-based hereditary diseases, we can excuse the radioman’s ignorance of how important genealogy can be to tracing the roots of many things that make us ill. At the time, however, I would have liked to relieve his ignorance of other points perhaps even more relevant and important.

In all fairness, I agree with a narrow part of his argument, his objection to the democratization of the old aristocratic practice of using genealogy to prove yourself better than someone else. Such a pitiful exercise in arrogance and pride is pointless. Given how family trees intertwine in just a few generations, there is probably nary a person of western European background who is not a descendent of Charlemagne. The story is similar for people from other parts of the world. And we are all descendants of Noah and Adam, so where are the bragging rights?

It is on his central point where the radioman’s rejection of genealogy falls to the ground. What a woeful and lonely view of man’s condition is embodied in the view that once someone dies he is forever gone! Genealogy, or more broadly speaking, family history, is founded on the belief that the dead in profound respects live on, that they do matter to us. Let me suggest three ways among many, ranked in a generally progressing order of importance.

  • The members of our family who have passed on are in many aspects part of us, beyond the shared DNA. Much in our habits, practices, language, beliefs, and our culture in general has deep roots in those who raised and taught those who raised and taught us. Most of that is probably worth retaining and cherishing, some of it in need of overcoming, but there is a rich heritage there to be discovered. Significant personal meaning can be found in the recognition that the current generation is only the leading edge of something very big that has been going on a long time.
  • As I mentioned, you do not have to do much family history research to discover that we are linked together, more connected than separate. Few genealogists can avoid the powerful realization of being part of the family of man. Our respect for humanity and for each other deepens.
  • Most important, the dead are not gone. They have merely passed from this brief state of mortality, brief for all of us, to the next state on the journey that makes up eternity. Each of us will soon be joining those who once walked where we walk. Family history is the effort to get to know them now, whom we have the privilege of knowing better for a much longer time than mortality has to offer.

Explaining the resurrection to the Sadducees, Jesus Christ reminded them that our Father is God of the living, not of the dead (Mark 12:26, 27). The mission of Jesus Christ is to provide life to all, to carry out the “work and the glory” of God, “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39)

Jesus Christ speaks more than symbolically and beyond His own relationship when He refers to God the Father. The family relationships and ties, so precious to us now, are eternal. That means that they not only are intended to last forever, but they reach across the generations, beyond death—to generations past and future. They can be among those few precious things we take with us to the grave and beyond. That is not a vain wish of every loving husband and wife and father and mother. It is an inheritance from our Divine Father.

We can begin to build and extend and preserve those relationships here and now. Why wait?

(First published January 6, 2013)

Of the Meaning of Life and the Purpose of Love

Does life have meaning? If so, what is that meaning? The answer, to be valid, must discover meaning for lives lived 70 years and longer as well as those lived for 70 minutes or fewer. That is to say, that it must reveal meaning for all members of the family of Adam and Eve. I have to admit that I cannot fathom an answer that life offers meaning only for some people but not for others, that the others are just stage props for those fortunate humans for whom life really matters.

I would also posit that in order for life to have meaning for man, then man’s existence cannot end with the end of mortality, that life must have an eternal character for there to be meaning to it. Temporary meaning is no meaning in the end. If there is an end, then in the end what does it matter?

I will add that, if there is eternal existence, that whispers to me a strong intuition of the existence of God, the existence of a being who has it all figured out, who has used eternity well. I do not offer this point as a proof at this moment, but rather as a likelihood. There are other proofs that I know and could offer for the existence of God, for God has not hidden Himself from His children who want to know Him. He sent us here to find out which of His children really want to know Him: that is one of the purposes of this life, closely related to the central purpose of life. The process of coming to know God is an individual work that necessitates the personal development of what is also God’s defining characteristic. That development involves the process of living in this life on earth.

That is to say that one way of describing the central purpose and meaning of life is this: for each individual to develop an ever greater capacity to love. That may sound sentimental and trite, but it is nonetheless true. Good fiction draws its vitality from important themes of reality. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series climaxes with the discovery that the most powerful “magic” in the world is love, belittled and scorned by the arch villain of the series even as he is destroyed by its strength.

Love, particularly the love of God, is the central theme of scripture. The scriptures taken altogether are an unfolding exposition of God’s love operating among His children and either embraced or rejected by them. The scriptures describe the deepest and most complete form of love as charity, “the pure love of Christ” (Moroni 7:47), the greatest of all the gifts of God (see 1 Corinthians 13:13).

Elsewhere the scriptures name “eternal life” as “the greatest of all the gifts of God” (Doctrine and Covenants 14:7). This is not a contradiction, as eternal life and charity are coincidental. To possess one is to possess the other. Consider these passages of scripture together. The first is how God describes His work, what He does, which must therefore be very closely related to His meaning, His purpose:

For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. (Moses 1:39)

The second is how the ancient Israelite prophet Lehi described man’s purpose to his family:

men are that they might have joy. (2 Nephi 2:25)

This means that immortality, eternal life, and joy are all connected. Jesus taught that they are united in the personal development of the divine trait of love. During the Savior’s preaching in Jerusalem in the last week of His mortality, the legalistic Pharisees sought to trip the Savior up with a question that to them must have been a real poser, undoubtedly a favorite debate topic:

Master, which is the great commandment in the law?

Conceptually this is just another way to introduce our topic about the meaning of life, for surely the commandments of God and the meaning of life are closely related, God’s commandments designed to lead His children through a life of meaning and fulfillment. The answer of Christ, who before His birth had given the commandments to the prophets, silenced for a time His tempters; at least, no rejoinder is mentioned in the record, perhaps because Jesus was referencing what He had given in the laws He revealed to Moses (see Deuteronomy 6:4,5, and Leviticus 19:18).

Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:36-40)

All the rest of the gospel is elaboration of these two commandments. That is the purpose of life, to develop charity, the pure love of Christ, the complete soul-filled love of God, which manifests itself in loving our neighbors as ourselves. How do we do that? As Jesus said, that is the purpose of the law and the prophets. “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)

As the ancient American prophet Mormon taught,

Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified as he is pure. Amen. (Moroni 7:48)

Mormon’s people nearly all rejected his counsel and descended into a hatred that devoured their civilization in pointless dissolution.

Life has meaning because it has choices with real consequences. We feel and see and live them everyday. Amidst the easy-to-see evils of the world, there are plenty who choose to do good, to love their fellows and increase in their love of God. There are and have been those who live life to its fullest, growing in the greatest of all gifts and the mightiest of all powers by being true followers of Jesus Christ, increasing in the love by which they become like Him and by which they will know Him.

Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and everyone that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. (1 John 4:7,8)

Let us love, that when at last we see God, as we all will, we will recognize Him, because we will have become like Him in the most meaningful way.

Of Jesus Christ and Revolutionary Doctrines

There are several key doctrines of the gospel of Christ revolutionary to the general world. I do not include the existence of God, since belief in God is as old as human thought. The first man and woman believed in God, and that belief has continued—with much variation—among their children to our present day. Belief in God is not exceptional. It comes easily to the human mind. Disbelief seems to be more artificial.

Without an attempt to list the revolutionary doctrines of Christ by order of importance, I nevertheless will begin with the fact that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and in His divinity He walked among mankind for some 34 years. Through word and deed Jesus proclaimed His relationship to the Father. That being true, and it is, all non-Christian religions are human inventions, however well-meaning they might be. Christ being a God, what He said was true, what He taught was true, what He did had divine approval and purpose. There is peril of the highest order in disregarding any of that.

Next I would turn to the revolutionary import of the resurrection, beginning with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Savior’s resurrection was as sure as His death. Jesus made significant effort to demonstrate the physical nature of the resurrection. When He appeared to His disciples in their shut up room on the evening of that first new day He had them touch the wounds in His hands and feet and the wound in His side inflicted by the executioners to make certain of His death, assuring the disciples that, “a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.” (Luke 24:39) When the disciples for joy yet doubted their own senses, Jesus emphasized the reality by eating some broiled fish and honeycomb to demonstrate the tangible nature of it all (Luke 24:41-43). The disciples even felt His breath on them (see John 20:22). In the Americas, shortly afterwards, thousands more beheld the resurrected Christ and personally felt the wounds of His execution (see 3 Nephi 11).

In this mortal world, death is as common as birth. The resurrection, already begun, will become as common as death, and will overcome death, making death as temporary as mortal life. Hence the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians that, because of the resurrection, “Death is swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:54) That very physical resurrection rescues from oblivion all done in this very physical world, endowing it all with lasting meaning, nothing of value lost.

The fact that we each and all existed before we were born, in another sphere and in the presence of God, our Father, is another revolutionary doctrine of Christ. Jesus taught that His Father was also our Father, the literal Father of our spirits. On the morning of His resurrection, Jesus commanded Mary Magdalene to tell His disciples, “I ascend unto my Father, and your Father” (John 20:17). The Apostle Paul, who taught that we should obey “the Father of spirits, and live” (Hebrews 12:9), wrote to the Romans, “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:16, 17).

As His spirit children, we lived in the presence of our Eternal Father before this creation. The earth was purposely made for us, designed for our growth and development in our brief mortality. Not only did Christ’s resurrection preserve meaning and purpose for this mortal existence, but that purpose preceded the beginning of mortality. Among the many consequences of that revolutionary truth is the reality that all members of the human race are more than figuratively brothers and sisters. The children born to mortal parents existed before their birth, and they come from the same eternal home as did their parents. There is a deep-rooted respect that is due in both directions between parent and child.

In that context it is appropriate to recognize the revolutionary import of the Christian doctrine of the eternal nature of the marriage relationship. If we come from an eternal family that was formed before the earth was, then it becomes natural to recognize that life’s closest relationship, between husband and wife, is not a temporary arrangement. Love is the highest virtue of the highest heaven. Love finds its deepest manifestation in the marriage union. God, who preserves all good things, could not mean for that relationship to end with death. As Christ paved the way for us to live on through the eternities, so He prepared the way for a loving marriage to last forever for those who desire it enough.

Perhaps on another day I will more than touch upon other Christian doctrines that revolutionize the world and human relations. Among these would be the opportunity to talk with God and receive direct, personal revelation; the ability to change human nature, for better or for worse; the reality of individual freedom, such that God is not responsible for our personal decisions, we own them; and the continuing, unfinished canon of divine scripture, from ancient time into the modern era (scriptures were always revealed in a modern era to those who first received them).

These revolutionary doctrines of Christ are eternal, connecting us to an eternal universe, which makes them revolutionary to a mortal world where endings seem to prevail. They are rejuvenating to mind and spirit. When Christ taught them to the people of the ancient Americas, He declared that “all things have become new.” (3 Nephi 12:47) They make things new today.

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