Thursday, May 19, 2005

Elder Oaks' Credential Touting

Seems like the Mother's Day talk could use an intermission.

Within the space of a week, I became aware of two recent talks by Elder Oaks---one at the Joseph Smith Conference at the Library of Congress, and the other to the J. Reuben Clark Law Society---in which he discussed his impressive legal credentials. Two things about this interested me. What purposes do such recitals serve? To what extent can such credentials really be considered a joint enterprise of husband and wife?

Elder Oaks' experience is impressive: after receiving a J.D. from the University of Chicago, he served as a clerk with Chief Justice Earl Warren of the U.S. Supreme Court, as a lawyer in a Chicago firm, as a professor at the University of Chicago law school, as the president of BYU, and as a justice of the Utah Supreme Court. (Did I miss anything?)

The phenomenon of recounting one's own history seems a little strange---at least, I imagine that in a talk, as the focus of attention, I would feel self-conscious. (I also wonder about this when I hear President Monson recount his own personal experiences of service. Inspiring, yes, but how do we know when we've crossed the line to doing what Jesus forbad in the Sermon on the Mount? Superficially, the Sermon on the Mount seems contradictory on this point: "Let your light so shine" (Matthew 5:16) and so forth, but also "Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth" (Matthew 6:3) and so on.) On the other hand, I suppose it's not so uncommon, as the topic arises in conversation, to discuss one's own experience and accomplishments---for example, me, this morning. But what purpose does it serve? Is it appropriate to recite one's own resume as a model to others, or would it be better to do so with other peoples' lives, to avoid any appearance of bragging? In the case of General Authorities, do mortal credentials serve to increase faith in spiritual authority?

Elder Oaks' description of his decision to leave law practice and accept a position at the University of Chicago was interesting, as he cast it in the first person plural. After pondering and prayer with his wife, `We decided it would be a valuable preparation for us,' or something along those lines. (I think he said he wrote this in his journal at the time.) The context of the remarks may suggest he was thinking of preparation for service in the Church. Was this really a preparation for "us," or for "me"? Sacrifices made by women are often framed as sacrifices for children, but what portion of these sacrifices is actually in the service of a husband's ambition, whether professional or ecclesiastical? (I'm not saying a desire to do well at one's chosen vocation, or a desire to be of service, are bad things.)


A couple of thoughts.

First, you missed "acting dean of Chicago's Law School" in the credential list ;)

Second, I think he was recognizing that it really was a sacrifice by his wife, and a benefit to her at the same time. Not to mention, he is remembering his dead wife when he discusses these things.

Third, D. Oaks has been, in the past, a special target of the "mormon intellectual" crowd who has basically stated "since we are such strong second rate intellectuals, you should listen to us on spiritual matters where our mighty intellects give us special powers to advise you."

Having walked and talked with him, I think the humility is real, as is his dismissal of the credentials, with the sub-text "if these things are really not that meaningful, and they aren't, then the twits who in overweening arrogance dictate to me need to rethink their positions."

Of course I only talked with him before he left for the Utah Supreme Court and he doesn't know me from Adam (to use the common phrase). Maybe becoming an Apostle has made him less earnestly humble and thoughtful and reflective and less honestly depreciating of worldly things and himself.

Well, I have even less time for my comment than you did for your post, but I hope the comments help your reflections.

Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) | 5/19/2005 11:17:00 PM  

You raise an interesting point. I think audience needs to be considered. If you and I are conversing and I bring up the fact that I did a masters bypass/Ph.D. in 4 years and have x publications it really isn't that big of a deal. Kind of like saying, I got up and run every morning. To a different group it might be percieved differently.

But to me and others like myself, there is a comprehension of history that comes with those letters after your name. I know it doesn't mean your a genius. Grad school definately lowered my estimation of those who have higher degrees (kind of like going on a mission and ones perspectives of missionaries). I does mean that I know in part what you did and the type of situations you were likely in.

What did you study by the way? 

Comment by J. Stapley | 5/20/2005 12:52:00 AM  

Elder Oaks was one of 11 nominees in 1975 for a US Supreme court position, and was apparently still among the short list for that court, should another opening appear, in 1984 when he was called as an apostle.  

Comment by Ben S. | 5/20/2005 02:05:00 PM  

Guys, thanks for your comments. I tend to think that Elder Oaks is not  bragging, certainly not purposefully; I suppose this means I am guilty of using an inflammatory title, and framing this in an unnecessarily provocative way.

So I should now give a more charitable take: I think audience is the key, as J.  points out. For the legal society, of course they expected to be regaled with high-level insider stories from the legal profession. At the Joseph Smith conference, with a substantial non-member audience, one's worldly credentials are clearly a way to establish some credibility and common ground, which might open up some willingness to consider religious ideas (revelation, in this case) that might sound ridiculous coming from some random person.

But still, I'm interested in this apparent tension in this Sermon on the Mount I mentioned in the post. (It was parenthetical at the time, but upon reflection I get more curious about it.) And when I pointed out what I had said about myself, I thought of how easy it might be to develop blind spots, and not realize how what one says might come across sometimes.

Stephen and Ben, thanks for pointing out additional information about Elder Oaks.

Stephen, I haven't been a reader of Sunstone and Dialogue, or other places where Elder Oaks might be a "target" as you describe. Do you have any specific examples?

J., I studied physics. The subspecialty I work in is astrophysics. How about you?  

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 5/21/2005 04:25:00 PM  

I think that Christ really clarifies the referred to Sermon on the Mount issue in 3 Ne 18:16 and 24 in which He identifies Himself as the "light which [we] should hold up" and that we do this by emulating Him.

As far as how that relates to not letting the right hand know what the left hand does, I believe the main point to be our motives. Do we serve in the kingdom to impress our friends or ourselves, or do we do it because it is 1) the right thing, and 2) that we want to do it? Both scriptures that are referenced in the initial post have to do with having an eye single to the glory of God. I don't know if this is too simplistic or "sunday school" an answer or if it deals with the questions being asked.


Comment by Mike Wilson | 5/23/2005 12:25:00 AM  

Mike, I guess my question is about the recital of one's own service. For example, when President Monson tells about his own good works in a conference talk, is this a way of fulfilling Matthew 5:16, or a violation of Matthew 6:3?

I imagine he has so many good works piled up, that even if he "loses credit" for the good works he tells the world about (and thereby "already hath his reward"), it won't make much difference on his eternal balance sheet! ;-> 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 5/23/2005 10:35:00 AM  

Synthetic carbohydrate chemistry. Astrophysics? Cheers! 

Comment by J. Stapley | 5/23/2005 01:53:00 PM  

I'm not sure that there is tension between Matt. 5:16 and 6:3, since 6:3 is very specifically in terms of almsgiving. The KJV obscures this a little by breaking the phrase before going into the next verse, where the purpose clause clearly continues the thought.
"But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, (4) so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees {what is done} in secret will reward you."

I think the appropriateness of anouncing one's degrees depends on the context. In this case, it establishes E. Oaks bona fides as somewhat of a legal authority.

"In the case of General Authorities, do mortal credentials serve to increase faith in spiritual authority?" I think this goes both ways. If the President of the Church were a farmer, JS-style, we'd say "How amazing that the Lord can work through someone with so little worldly education, etc." With someone like Elder Oaks (and most of hte other current apostles), we're inclined to say, "Wow, the Lord's anointed sure are spiritually in tune AND smart." Personally, I'm glad to see the Church in the hands of some Harvard business grads and lawyers. One of Joseph's failings was management, and we can't afford that in a church of 12 million...


Comment by Ben S. | 5/26/2005 09:05:00 AM  

Ben, good thoughts on the main subject of the post. I confess I'm bothered by things that "go both ways," as you put it, that can be turned to evidential advantage either way. If something good happens, it's a blessing from the Lord; if something bad happens, it's a trial that's also a blessing from the Lord. Because there's no falsifiability, it's difficult to actually discern the Lord's hand against unrelated background events; it must simply be assumed.  (And indeed this seems to be the command in D&C 59:21 . I find that frustrating.)

On the Sermon on the Mount, I'm still puzzled, because Matthew 6 talks not only about alms but goes on to discuss prayer and fasting, and I don't see why the same principle wouldn't imply to all kinds of "good works" (the phrase in Matthew 5:16).  

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 5/26/2005 09:42:00 AM  



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