Humanities Center Blog

The Finitude of Winter

Posted by on Jan 22, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

The Finitude of Winter

I was lied to as a child. In my elementary school classroom, my teacher displayed on the wall a large wheel with twelve smaller circles orbiting the center, each representing a month of the year. They were separated in groups of three, each group comprising a season accordingly: • Summer: June, July, August • Autumn: September, October, November • Winter: December, January, February • Spring: March, April, May I blame this chart for my consistent detestation of March. By the end of February every year, I mistakenly believe that spring is just around the corner. I get up each morning, hoping for the chance that there might not be frost on my window, that I might not have to worry about sliding around on the ice in my light-as-Styrofoam car, and that my ears might not hurt as they slowly thaw when I enter the JSFB; yet day after day, I am always disappointed. Thankfully, in the past year or so, BYU’s semester schedule has finally mitigated my expectations to some degree. I now view the months laid out in the following manner: • Summer: May, June, July, August • Autumn: September, October, November, half of December • Winter: the happy half of December, and the brutal eternity that is January, February, March, March (I’m putting this one in twice since it seems twice as long), and April 1-28 • Spring: April 29-30 Okay, am I being a bit dramatic? I’ll acquiesce enough to say “maybe.” I really do not know what to do with this time of year. It’s not even that I simply dislike the cold; the cold months before January seem fine. In fact, since October, we’ve had three installments of this blog celebrating the festivals and holidays that we celebrate during the colder months and what they might mean (I myself discussed Halloween and creativity, Marie Orton remarked on Christmas and seeking in our vulnerability, and just two weeks ago, Garrett May spoke about New Years’ traditions and innovations). Yet once all of the holidays are over, the finitude of winter seems to set in and linger. How do and should we conceptualize it? And more importantly, how might we navigate our lives through it? I’m not the first one who has felt strongly about the drawn out feeling of winter. Plenty of writers have concentrated on the long haul of bitter cold rather than the comforting warmth of the hearth. Professor Orton brought up a T. S. Eliot poem in her December post that seems to represent one of these positions. Forgive me for repeating part of that poem, “Journey of the Magi”: All this was a long time ago, I remember, And I would do it again, but set down This set down This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death.1 After the pomp and circumstance, after the jovial familial gatherings, after the new beginnings and the setting of resolutions, what is there? According to Eliot: death and bitter agony. We know, after embarking upon a new beginning, that there is no returning to the old one. The year is dying, Tennyson might say, and it isn’t always so easy to let it...

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Drafting Tradition

Posted by on Jan 7, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Drafting Tradition

Greetings, 2019. I feel extremely lucky to be—by mere coincidence—the first addition to this platform in the new year. Accordingly, I’d like to talk about the opportunity that this changing of the calendar presents in the way of traditions, which seem to be the blueprints that structure the December and January months. Whatever the roots of these traditions may be, I find it significant that the closing and opening of the year is marked by acts of familial and societal rituals that are performed simply for the sake of doing so. However, the perpetuation of these ritualistic acts is not immune to the critical eye, and it isn’t difficult to question the value of such traditions. I for one find it easy to grumble about the meaningless nature of tradition when my wife’s family declares it time to dress in our matching Christmas eve onesie pajamas. Come Christmas morning though you won’t find me complaining about the abundance of gifts we’ve been given, let alone the attire we wear when tearing the presents open. I think my inconsistent attitude shows just how tricky it is to engage with tradition in a fair or unbiased mode, yet acknowledging this subjectivity doesn’t keep one from repeating the question: what is the value of such traditions? Ironically, the tradition of setting new year’s resolutions presents a chance to answer that question. Looking back on the past year, we can reexamine our routines, our habits, our traditions, and evaluate the function that they play in our lives. With that in mind, let’s talk about our university context, and as an undergraduate, I’d like to bring the student perspective to the table. For professors, I imagine it might be easiest to teach a course the same way you taught it last year. Obviously, you don’t have the time in between semesters to seriously reform course material, and that resolution might have to wait until summer or a leave of absence to be actionable. But what elements of your syllabus have become the subjects of tradition? What things might you change that could benefit your students? I’m told that my student evaluations “really do matter,”1 but do they really matter to you, the teacher? I won’t pretend to know what it’s like organizing a classroom, but having worked in the office of a department in the College of Humanities for two years, I do have a sense of the busy and unending workload of a professor. We undergrads have the fortune of leaving all our worries behind after finals week has passed; the same can’t be said for our instructors. For students, I wonder if the way we go about putting together our schedules has become, in its own way, a subject of tradition. Do we try to register for classes that seem safe, shooting for the easy A? Do we only enroll in courses taught by professors that we know and like? I’ve always been a bit leery of the “ratemyprofessors” exchange, where students can essentially advise each other of which professors to avoid or make judgement calls based on the experiences of a few. I mean, yes, I see the ability to communicate the success and failure of certain classes or teachers as productive, allowing students to engage in a rigorous college system. That’s what anyone does when asking a friend if they’ve ‘taken this’ or ‘that class’ and ‘how was it?’ It just feels like that added layer of information in our decision-making process creates a risk-averse mentality that could forego unseen opportunities. Who knows what awaits us in the difficult classes, with...

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Fragile Beauty

Posted by on Dec 10, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 1 comment

Fragile Beauty

December to me means Christmas, and of all the elements of the Christmas story, the one that fascinates me most is the story of the magi. It astonishes me that learned individuals would set out and travel to another land guided only by a star, and that somehow that star would help them recognize a king who had no outward, worldly signs of his majesty. What was that “new star” and what did it mean to follow it? Learning more about what kind of astronomical event those Persian priest-kings saw only makes their quest more impressive to me. I know that some scholars have theorized the “star” was actually a comet,1a nova, an eclipse, or a planetary conjunction.2 The planetary conjunction theory is my favorite, since the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus that fits the timeline I like (spring of 2 B.C.E) occurred near Regulus (literally “little king”), and thus would have had the astrological implication of a king arising: “As the brightest star in the constellation Leo, Regulus has been almost universally associated in ancient cultures with the concept of royalty and kingly power.”3And if (though no one can be certain) the magi were familiar with the Hebrew texts, they may even have associated the Lion with Judah, an association that may have told them where to seek the king. I have frequent opportunities to look through telescopes, since there are four at my house currently (none of which is mine). I know I am supposed to be awed by the vastness of the universe and the beauty of the limitless stars, but my most frequent reaction is a deep awareness that I am far from understanding the tiny fuzzy tennis balls I see through the eyepiece. It humbles me to ponder on those wise individuals who felt compelled and guided by a light that even with magnification still can seem very faint to me. Of course, our line of sight, our perspective, is an important factor in deriving meaning from the observation. Whatever the Star of Bethlehem may have been, we assume it was visible to all, but only the magi were able to use it to find the new priest-king. As T. S. Eliot wrote at the end of “Journey of the Magi,” Were we led all that way for Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different; This Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods.4 The magi relied on starlight to seek the Christ, and found what they had been seeking, thanks to a mindfulness that allowed that starlight to lead them. These ideas were very much on my mind during the presentations of our recent speaker from Princeton Theological Seminary, Prof. Bo Karen Lee. Her presentations on “The Compassionate Christ” and “The Wisdom of Weakness” both emphasized the power of mindfulness in our scholarship, our teaching, our interactions with students and colleagues, and in our spiritual attempts to seek after Christ. She saw these all not as separate endeavors, nor ones with clear paths necessarily. Using as a metaphor the Japanese art/philosophy of kintsugi (the art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer mixed with gold or silver), Prof. Lee suggested that power of mindfulness more often—and most effectively—lies in its power to reveal our own fragility. To employ mindfulness in my professional life was a new idea for...

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Aliens, Anchors, and How Words Still Matter

Posted by on Dec 3, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 1 comment

Aliens,  Anchors,  and How Words Still Matter

I was twelve years old and it was a school night. I was at the dining room table, carefully gluing together pieces of paper and cardboard as I tried to create a diorama on Beethoven for my social studies class the next morning. I had even made a miniature grand piano with stained music sheets scattered around the board. I smiled proudly to myself; this was going to be my greatest project yet. My mother was next to me, handing me each piece as I needed it. Her presence was warm and inviting. We had just eaten dinner, so the wafting smell of cooked onions and tomatoes still lingered through the house. My brother and sister were in the other room and I could hear them watching T.V. Then, a loud, abrupt knock sounded at the front door. We weren’t expecting anyone. My mother and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised, wondering who it could be. I went to the door. Through the window, I could instantly tell that there were two grown men, wearing dark colored jackets.  My blood ran cold and I hastily called out to my mother. She spoke with them as I ran to the other room where my siblings were. When my mother closed the door, her eyes were red with tears and her voice shaky as she told us the news. The men were immigration officers. They had taken Dad. Unbeknown to us, they had waited outside our house that day until Dad had gotten home. When he arrived, they placed handcuffs on him and arrested him for his illegal status. They were going to deport him back to Colombia. The news of that shook me. My father arrived in the United States as a minor. He hadn’t set foot in his home country for over twenty years. My mother was from Chile and arrived in the States on a student visa when she attended college. They met, were married, and had four American children. We had a house in central Florida. My mother was a school teacher and my dad a real estate agent. From all that I knew at the time, we were a normal American family. I had no idea what was going to happen to us. They were going to take my mother too but had mercy for our family that day. I didn’t know how I was supposed to act the next day at school. I didn’t know what to say to my friends. For my parents, this was the most shameful thing that could’ve ever happened to them. Within a month, we had to pack all our things, sell our house, and leave for a country that neither of us had ever known before. I didn’t even speak Spanish. This event racked my life, flipped it upside down, and twisted a stable family unit into living 10 years of intense financial struggle and profound psychological distress. I remember my fear as a seventh grader, knowing I could not tell my peers or teachers the real reason my family was moving way. No one could or would ever understand. They would think my dad was a “dirty beaner” as many of my middle school friends often joked about Hispanics. My father was a college graduate, spoke four languages, and was a leader in our church.  I could not bear the thought of anyone thinking any less of my dad. Even at such a young age, the words they used like “illegal” and “aliens” felt like spikes in my throat. So, I lied, and told them my dad...

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Learned Living

Posted by on Nov 26, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Learned Living

Regarding Hamlet, Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote that “knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion.”1 He was quick to outline that Hamlet’s knowledge did not consist of an overabundance of choices or possibilities, which then made it impossible to choose between them. Rather, Nietzsche surmised that “true knowledge, an insight into the horrible truth, outweighs any motive for action.”2 How disdainfully Nietzsche would have looked, then—if he had ever been given the chance—at BYU’s Office of Experiential Learning, or at the Humanities Center’s research group of the same name, or at the Humanities+ program. Many of these fairly recently developments at BYU have cited as their inspiration President Kevin J. Worthen’s 2016 University Conference call for experiential learning in a speech entitled, “Inspiring Learning.” In the speech, President Worthen offers various beneficial connections between learning and “experience” (a concept I think would fit nearly into Nietzsche’s criteria for “action”)—among them a connection between theory and application, which eventually “deepens our understanding of the truths we learn.”3 Experience is a kind of learning in and of itself, according to President Worthen, and lends to an attitude of learning that lasts throughout life and even beyond it. Contrary to Nietzsche’s claim that action exists disconnected from knowledge, President Worthen (and BYU more broadly) seems to take up the argument that action is a furtherance of knowledge, that understanding is bolstered by applying it through some sort of lived experience. Nietzsche might say that such a program would be specifically meant to remove students from knowledge, that grasping at experience is a way of buffering ourselves from the “horror or absurdity of existence.”4 However, BYU’s model hints that experience might actually connect us to reality in a way unattainable through thought or learning alone. Could action give us access to truth specifically without relying on illusory means—could it actually ground us in fact to a greater degree? But then if this is the case, then what role does study play in attaining knowledge? As I was considering these ideas for this blog post, I happened to listen to the “Last Lecture” of Father Michael Himes, a theologian from Boston College. I want to say that this was kismet—that the universe conspired to bring me this fitting resource as I was working my way through these ideas. However, I have to confess here that since the time I first listened to it a few years ago, I have returned to this particular lecture dozens of times, bringing it up whenever I feel that I need a little extra guidance in my life; accordingly, it isn’t quite as large of a cosmic convergence that it might seem. Nevertheless, this week’s viewing was particularly timely, as Father Himes does seem to offer some intricate connections between action/experience and knowledge/learning that bear on BYU’s predicament. As part of his overall argument, Father Himes embarks upon his own type of ars pedagogica—how he teaches theology.5 Within that framework, he explains how he teaches his students to study the tradition, but also to hold that tradition up to their own experience—which ultimately requires that they have experience in the first place. He explains: Plato famously maintains that Socrates said that the unreflective life is not worth living. William James remarked that, yes that was perfectly true, but it was also true that the unlived life wasn’t worth reflecting on. That one has to live life. One has to enter into commitments and relationships with others in order to have anything worth reflecting on. It’s not a matter of locking ourselves in some ivory towers . . . and thinking our way toward reality;...

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Imago Dei and the Elections

Posted by on Nov 12, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 1 comment

Imago Dei and the Elections

Never in my life have I been so joyous to see the return of a CGI lizard selling car insurance or numerous ads selling unhealthy carbonated and caffeinated beverages than on Wednesday, November 7th2018 after the mid-term elections. The onslaught of ads for and against candidates seemed particularly onerous this year both online and on the television. However, I was touched by one story, which became the impetus for this blog post. I stumbled across a story about two Vermont politicians running for the Vermont House of Representatives in rural Lamoille County.  Lucy Rogers, a Democrat, and Zac Mayo, a Republican, both were vigorously campaigning to win the seat, with both of these candidates visiting almost all of the 2000+ homes in this small district. They both had significantly different views on the issues that they debated one evening in a small library in front of dozens of interested citizens. At the end of this vigorous debate, they both unexpectedly asked the moderator and audience for a few more minutes and quickly cleared out the tables to set up for something quite unexpected. Lucy on the cello and Zac on the acoustic guitar performed a duet together singing to the words of a song called “Society.” As their duet ended, the audience (and me at my computer after the event) were moved to tears by this act of civility in what has become an ever more contentious political world. This led me to reflect on one of the talks that I attended in September at the BYU Humanities Center’s Annual Symposium, “On Being Vulnerable: ‘Crisis’ & Transformation.” The speaker at one of the talks, Kevin Hart, mentioned the concept of the Imago Dei. As with most things with which I am not familiar, I quickly went on Google to see what this meant in the context in which he was talking. Imago Dei (Image of God) refers to the realization that we are created in the image of God and that our recognition of ourselves as being created in His image allows God’s plans and purposes to be actualized through us as humans. Moreover, since we are created in His image, this endows us with the freedom and ability to make choices both good and bad. I would add one element to this as well and it is that as we realize that we are created in the image of God and that we have been endowed with certain divine attributes, we are also capable of realizing that every other human is also created in His image and possess these same attributes. What would the political world be like if more people saw their rivals as not only political enemies to be destroyed but as beings who reflect the Imago Dei? Would how they treat each other change? Would politics take on a more civil tone? What would television commercials look like? Could people have differing opinions, debate those ideas, and yet at the end of the day go out together to buy one of the unhealthy carbonated and caffeinated beverages now available on the BYU campus? Would more touching duets be performed by candidates who looked into the faces of their competitors and saw the image of God? I would like to think this is possible as demonstrated by these two candidates from Vermont. Now, returning to these candidates, what was the impact of this sign of civility on the election? Throughout the region where they campaigned, lawn signs could be found supporting both candidates in front of the same house. During the elections, there was over a 60%...

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