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The Glory of God is Intelligence Ignited in the Beauteous Majesty of Language


WilliamsDavid O. McKay Lecture Given at
Brigham Young University–Hawaii


January 26, 2010
Ned Williams
Professor of English

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My dear brothers and sisters, aloha. A warm aloha and thank you also goes to the members of the President's Council, the Faculty Advisory Committee, and to the former McKay lecturers seated in the audience. Like many here today, I have listened carefully to previous McKay lectures so generously presented by many of our beloved colleagues whose ideas and arguments continue to persuade me to pursue horizons of new knowledge. One glance through the list of titles of these previous addresses signals the rich variety of topics drawn from a wide-number of academic disciplines: science, history, art, mathematics, political science, music, anthropology, religion , business, language, and literature. In honor of previous lecturers and in memory of our beloved President David O. McKay, I have chosen today to speak about The Glory of God is Intelligence Ignited in the Beauteous Majesty of Language.

Linking the idea of intelligence with God's glory strikes me as a fitting and timely subject to address at a university sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Leaders of our Church, beginning with Joseph Smith to our present-day prophet, President Thomas S. Monson, have celebrated, analyzed, and advanced the pursuit of intelligence as a central doctrine of the restoration of the fullness of the gospel. Like many students, faculty members, administration, and staff here today gathered from over seventy nations around the globe, I often feel, as you do, a constant invitation of Our Father in Heaven to seek and receive knowledge and intelligence through as many sources as possible. From the humble library my mother collected in my childhood home to the countless texts required of me to examine during advanced graduate work and beyond, I gradually learned that it is truly the light of Christ that ignited the mind and spirit of a young boy in a rural Idaho town to search beyond the borders of my limited world. We often hear learning described as "line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, there a little" ( 2 Nephi 28:30): activities essential in grasping detailed understanding of concepts, skills, and principles required by each academic discipline here at the university. Memorizing formulas, collating data, examining evidence, and mastering new languages all require line by line discipline, patience, and guidance described here in Second Nephi. In addition, other ways of learning deliver knowledge and intelligence in less regimented steps. For example, Orson Pratt once stated: "Instead of thinking in one channel and following up one certain course of reasoning to find a certain truth, knowledge will rush in from all quarters; it will come in like the light which flows from the sun, penetrating every part informing the spirit, and giving understanding concerning ten thousand things at the same time. And the mind will be capable of receiving and retaining all" (JD: 2: 246).

In Kirtland, Ohio and later in Nauvoo, Illinois, before homes were constructed, roads surveyed, and provisions gathered in for the winter, men and women from diverse circumstances and exotic cultures were caught up in the spirit of the language of a young prophet. In December of 1832 he stated: "For intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence; wisdom receiveth wisdom; truth embraceth truth . . . light cleaveth until light" (D & C 88:40). In May of the following year he wrote: "Intelligence or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be. All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence" (D & C 93:29-30). And, just one year before the end of his life, Joseph Smith included these verses in the 130th section of the Doctrine and Covenants: " Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come" (D & C 130:18-19).

Few passages in latter-day scripture, regarding the value of intelligence, are clearer to me than this assurance that the portions of knowledge we gather and receive in this life are portable into the next, and they are valued. And, the value of that intelligence increases and expands in whichever sphere it might exist. The advantage mentioned by the prophet in these verses has little to do, I believe, with worldly signs of advantage—status, prominence, position, authority, gaining an edge or increasing in rank. Rather, I imagine the word has more to do with advantage of further pursuits of knowledge and intelligence so available in this world and on this campus and so treasured in the next. I wish to share the impressions created by the language of Parley P. Pratt when he said: "Once set free from the chains of incorrect tradition; and unfettered from the limited creeds and superstition of men, and associated with beings of unlimited intelligence, it(the human mind) may go freely on from truth to truth; enlarge itself like the rays of the morning; circumscribe the earth, and soar to the heavens; comprehend the mysteries of the past, and remove the veil from the future; till the wide expanse of eternity, with all its treasures of wisdom, is brought within the range of its comprehension."(Parley P. Pratt)

While university communities, like ours, are founded and financed for the pursuit of knowledge and intelligence, this search is often the subject of suspicion and satire. Take for example this scene from a novel by Joseph Heller who captures a conversation between a backsliding professor (Bruce Gold) and a bright university student (Mr. Epstein):

"Professor Gold . . . I hope you won't mind if I tell you I'm very disappointed in the course."

Gold sighed sympathetically. "So am I. What's your complaint?"

"It's called ‘Monarchy and Monotheism in Literature from the Medieval to the Modern.'"

"Yes?"

"But it seems to be a course in Shakespeare's history plays," said Mr. Epstein.

"We'll be moving on to the major tragedies soon," Gold answered breezily. . . .

"The course description in the college catalogue isn't accurate," Epstein complained.

"I know," said Gold. "I wrote it."

"Was that fair?"

"No. But maybe it was intelligent. We feel that anyone interested in literature ought to study Shakespeare and we know that few students will do so unless we call it something else."

"But I'm not interested in literature. I am interested in God. I became an English major because the English Department seems to be offering so many courses in theology and religious visionary experiences."

"You were misled," said Gold. "If I were your adviser, I would have forewarned you."

"You are my adviser," said the boy, "and you're never in your office."

Gold averted his eyes. . . .

"Should I switch to the Department of Religion?" [asked Epstein]

"No, don't go there. You'll be reading Milton and Homer. Try Psychology if you're interested in God. I believe they've latched on to religion now. . . ." Gold was praying hard that Epstein would drop his course before he had to read his essay" (Heller 136-137).

Heller's satire of curriculums in flux, and professional neglect against the images of Epstein's enthusiasm toward learn should stand in sharp contrast to both students and faculty members on this campus who make up a community of scholars with a deep and abiding faith in God and the value He places on our learning together. According to John Taylor, "All the intelligence which men possess on the earth, whether religious, scientific or political—proceeds from God—every good and perfect gift proceeds from Him, the fountain of light and truth . . . ." (JD 10: 275).

In his recent biography of Joseph Smith by Richard Bushman writes: "Joseph's free intelligence had powers of mind. As the word ‘intelligence' implied, its great capacity was to grasp truth. . . . Joseph's revelations bound the free intelligence to God . . . . For God was the source of light and truth, and His light and truth were to be gained only by obedience" (Bushman 209) . Obedience bound with intelligence is also concept frequently repeated in the 52nd section of the Doctrine and Covenants where the Lord mentions and then explains "a pattern in all things, that ye may not be deceived" (D & C 52:19). Obedience to the practices and principles of prayer, and the virtues of contrition, meekness, and humility are not only essential in harvesting the "fruits of praise and wisdom" but by this pattern: "ye shall know the spirits in all cases under the whole heavens" (D & C 52:14-19). "The spirits in all cases under the whole heavens" (D & C 52:14-19). —now that sounds like a title of a foundations course I would like to take.

Speaking of foundations of education Brigham Young adds this view: "I long for the time that a joint of the finger, or motion of the hand, will express every idea without utterance when a man is full of the light of eternities. Then the eye is not the only medium through which he sees, his ear is not the only medium by which he hears, nor the brain the only means by which he understands. When the whole body is full of the Holy Ghost, he can see behind him with as much ease without turning his head, as he can see before him. If you have not that experience, you ought to have. It is not the optic nerve alone that gives the knowledge of surrounding objects to the mind, but it is that which God has placed in man a system of intelligence that attracts knowledge, as light cleaves to light, intelligence to intelligence, and truth to truth. It is this which lays in man a proper foundation for all education" (JD 1:70-71).

Knowing how taxing and sometimes grueling it often is to obtain even a small portion of robust knowledge and intelligence, some within our culture might wish to forgo or to minimize the exertion, the expense, the sacrifice, and the mechanics of learning using the following rationale: scriptural imagery regarding the acquisition of intelligence often emphasizes an opening up or the ability to receive rather than the imagery depicting hard work, rigor, and discipline. "Could you gaze into heaven five minutes" Joseph Smith said, "you would know more than you would by reading all that was ever written on the subject" (Ehat 254) . Such a claim, which incidentally, I fully believe, may however persuade some to reason this way about acquiring knowledge and intelligence: well, let me become a gazer into the heavens, let me align my spirit in such crafty ways as to receive at some arbitrary time or place glimpses into heaven and, if those glimpses occur, I will, like the Prophet Joseph, know more than all of the knowledge in books about the subject. Think of all that time I can save instead of complying with my professors who ask me to read, analyze, measure, revise, create, research, calculate, examine, and interpret each subject I study. An appealing dream, don't you agree? Correcting this style of learning, however, President Heber J. Grant adds this observation: "I rejoice to know that whatever degree of intelligence we attain unto in this life shall rise with us in the life to come, and we shall have just that much advantage of those who have not gained intelligence, because of their failure to study diligently." (CR, p. 24, October 1907).

Intellectual and spiritual shortcuts are not marked by latter-day prophets, nor do they reflect the habits of the Prophet Joseph Smith. For Joseph Smith became an eager student of secular and religious subjects including science, law, medicine, foreign language, military science, city planning, history, geography, banking, architecture, music, and politics. He once remarked "I have an old edition of the New Testament in the Latin, Hebrew, German and Greek languages. I have been reading the German, and find it to be the most nearly correct translation" (Smith 349). Granted, no biographer of Joseph Smith claims that the Prophet actually mastered any of these secular subjects or difficult-to-learn languages—certainly not a mastery that would meet professional or university standards today; however, most, if not all of his biographers, describe his genuine desire to know more, his curiosity about many subjects. Genuine spirituality, I believe, ignites our curiosity and leads us to draw more avidly from the fires of intellectual and spiritual life. Students wrestling with irregular verbs and complex vocabularies, those exasperated that their calculus problems remain unsolved, that their test batch spoiled or that their musical composition clashes with the conventions of counterpoint often feel the momentary weight of disappointment. However, in these struggles we are fulfilling the Lord's call to be instructed "in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel in all things that pertain unto the Kingdom of God . . . of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and kingdoms" (88:78-79).

Since the early 1980's I have divided my attention between the study of literature and the language of the marketplace. My role with each client was to assist professionals in improving their abilities to communicate more clearly in their writing and speaking. Often the learning table was turned. Instead of acting exclusively in the role as the visiting expert, I saw myself more often as the student. Consulting with scientists in the astronautics division of McDonnell Douglas in Huntington Beach, California, I watched with awe the genius of engineers and technicians using the Delta model to strip the weight of the exterior of rockets designed to lift the components of the present day space station. In Alaska I marveled at the care and precision biologists and geologists manage wildlife and our environment while consulting with professionals from the National Forest Service. In the sprawling oil fields near Bakersfield, petroleum engineers explained to me and demonstrated a unique steam injection system that allowed oil companies to claim crude oil by mixing it with water, pumping the mixed solution to the surface for separation. In Warminster, Pennsylvania experts who design and test military equipment refined the miles of wires and circuitry packed into the helmets worn by each pilot trained to fly F-15's. On the manufacturing floor in Wixom, Michigan inside an 80-acre building I watched parts from assembly lines arrive at the final completion point where every sixty seconds a new Lincoln Continental rolled off the line and through the doors. And in the 1990's, on leave from the university, I worked closely with teams of scientists from the US, Europe, and Asia to bring the first protease inhibitor against the HIV virus to market. Some in the audience today will likely remember after the HIV scare of the 1980's how a new "cocktail" of medicine began to preserve life when hope to do so had tragically dwindled. The spread of this disease declined dramatically after a bright scientist in northern England figured out a way to create a compound that would prevent strands of the HIV virus from receiving nourishment. His compound blocked the virus' entrance through the proteins in the blood each strand of virus needed in order to survive and later to replicate. I list these examples to credit the seemingly unlimited value of secular knowledge, intelligence, technology, and innovation that harmonizes at so many critical points with the desires for learning that many of our students and faculty share. Also, these examples complement the mission and purposes of universities, such as ours, whose priority is to pursue light and truth in every corner of the world where our curiosity, discipline, and creativity might reach.

Language
With these few comments about knowledge, intelligence, and God's glory in mind, let us now consider a brief look at a few characteristics of language. I have asked two students (Christina Sum and Erek Short) to help me. Neither Christina nor Erek has rehearsed this part with me so the three of us stand together on the brink of the unknown. I will ask both Christina and Erek the same question. Since the beginning of this talk today will you please share with me and the audience here which subjects, impressions, ideas, or images have come into your mind that have absolutely nothing to do with what I have been saying? In fact, I am most interested in hearing from you a short list of thoughts that are the most remote in content from the subject of this lecture, intelligence and language.

Both Christina and Erek are teaching me at this moment something about the relationship between language and intelligence. One point comes through very clearly: it would not be very intelligent of me to believe that my students are actually listening to my language, well perhaps not in the way that I imagine them to do so. Do they listen differently? Do they listen at all? Since my tender ego is at stake, I will try interpret this moment in a way that might sound favorable to the three of us. Could I not say that the minor crisis with language I am now experiencing is brought on NOT because you fail to listen but because you may be listening faster than I am speaking and you need to do something with that extra time, which is to fill in the empty spaces in you imaginations around these words. And, in many cases, I must concede, those fragments of thought each of us, presumably, is authoring at this very moment, may, regrettably but honestly, be more pleasurable to listen to than the single line of discourse. We often find language to be unruly, unstable, and arbitrary; and yet it is the common substance and system that ignites, extends, and preserves our knowledge. To further illustrate additional subtleties in language, I wish to show a brief video clip from Shakespeare's play Hamlet. We will see and hear from an actress playing Ophelia who asks a single question. This scene takes place late in the play, Act Four, Scene V. Ophelia's father Polonius is dead, Hamlet is exiled, and rumors circulate that the once submissive young woman has suddenly become mad, severely insane. However, the King and Queen of Denmark—also appearing in this episode-- have not yet witnessed Ophelia's madness. Ophelia, played by Helen Bonham Carter, will ask one question three times to Gertrude, played by Glenn Close: "where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?" Gertrude's husband, King Claudius, played by actor Alan Bates, enters and speaks at the end the scene. Let's watch:

Staring at Gertrude, Ophelia asks: "where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?" Hearing this question, Gertrude suddenly retreats expressing intense fear and pity. The effect she expresses would be akin to an adult child looking into the eyes of its mother and asking "where's mother?" a sure sign that the failure to recognize the familiar indicates that a once stable mind has now collapsed. Gertrude knows now most certainly that Ophelia is profoundly insane: failure to recognize the very queen of Denmark, confirms Gertrude's sad discovery. Horrified, Gertrude flees from the sight of Ophelia. But could we, unlike Gertrude, interpret Ophelia's appearance and question as something else, something very opposite to Gertrude's conclusion, a reading that confirms not her insanity but a moment of her brilliance? Let us imagine that this brief episode permits us to say that Ophelia is in fact not insane at all but over-sane—she sees and knows perhaps too much. Could Ophelia, in her question, be in fact asking Gertrude and Claudius something more literal: where is the civil and moral decency in Denmark? Where is the dignity of our nation and of our leaders? Where is the beauteous majesty of our king and queen given their scandalous conduct well known within the halls of Elsinore? Language operating in ambiguity, functioning often in indecisiveness, and resisting absolute clarity and interpretation may be some of the reasons the Prophet Joseph Smith once lamented: "Oh Lord God deliver us in thy due time from the little narrow prison [of] . . . a crooked broken, scattered, and imperfect language" (Smith). Although language is imperfect, often unreliable, decentered, and usually very slippery, it remains with us as the substance that delights, preserves, and reconstructs our knowledge and intelligence.

Let's look at another short scene from a recent film that also depicts a modern nation in crisis, this film entitled Thirteen Days. Thirteen Days is based upon events in the fall of 1962, known today as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Prior to this scene tension mounts as Russian ships loaded with rockets with nuclear warheads sail toward Cuba, threatening the security of the US. With little sleep, the United States President, John F. Kennedy is orchestrating meetings with members of his cabinet, security advisors, the military, the diplomatic corps, and his inner circle. Scenes shift rapidly; debate becomes furious; time is running out. When these events reach a deepening climax, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff representing each branch of the US military verbally attacks the Secretary of Defense (Robert McNamara) for not firing on Russian ships jeopardizing the safety of a nation. McNamara refuses to order a military attack against Russian ships despite blistering and persuasive arguments. Featured in this brief clip is an actor, Dylan Baker, playing the Secretary of Defense whose reply describes his interpretation of the immediate significance of these events. Please listen and watch with me:

Granted, this speech is from a movie and a good deal of creative license forms the scene; however, the instance conveys a suggestion that we can now speak of the movements of destroyers, submarines, aircraft carriers on the high seas ordered to enforce a naval blockade against oncoming ships as a "language," a powerful language, a powerful language the world has never before seen with its own systems and rules of grammar, vocabulary, and mechanics. What else in size and substance, I wonder, then might language contain? Just about anything between the syllable and the outer reaches of the celestial worlds might now be constituted as language. Two features of the beauteous majesty of language will draw this talk toward closure: its arbitrariness and the notion that language, containing all, might be complete in its instability at every moment. To continue thinking about these matters of intelligence and language let me conclude with the following statement by Brigham Young: "The spirit of revelation is the best grammar you ever studied. As I was telling you this morning, let the power of God come upon this congregation and open the vision of your minds, and an angel of God appear here, and you would be in the light of eternity and in vision in a moment without a word being spoken, and volumes would be revealed to this people. What do we care about words? Chiefly to speak and to hear others speak so as to be understood. We have our language: but if a man speaks by the power of God, it is little matter to me what his words are, or the language he uses. If I understand the spirit of it, that is the way I find "Mormonism" to be true. Brigham Young, July 28, 1861 JD 9: 141. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.