Thursday, February 28, 2008

On Tithing

Growing up, I had always planned on serving a mission. As part of the plan, I realized that based upon my family’s precarious financial situation, I would have to work for a year to finance my mission instead of going to college. After graduating from high school, I started looking for a job, but as a person with low skills and low productivity, the only avenues of employment that appeared open to me were door-to-door sales, telemarketing and fast food restaurant work. After two months of fruitless searching, I saw an advertisement for an office job working as an audit clerk. I wasn’t exactly sure what an audit clerk would do, but I felt that it couldn’t be that difficult a job. I applied and, surprisingly, I was called in for an interview.

Apparently, the job to which I applied had a high turn-over rate, so the company had turned to a temp agency to filter out the undesirables before interviewing people for the job. I passed the first interview and was set for another interview with the company the next day. At the interview, for whatever reason, I didn’t connect with the supervisor for the position. After the interview, I spoke with the lady from the temp agency who told me that she thought they had made a mistake and that she would arrange for me to have another interview with the other supervisor who had been away on vacation.

A few days later, I got another phone call from the temp agency. The lady had managed to snag me another interview with the other interviewer. This interview went much better and within a few days, I was sitting at a desk with a stack of old invoices, offer letters and other assorted documents. My supervisor and her assistant explained that I was to go through the invoices and make sure that we had been charged the right amount based on the offer letters that we had received. In addition to my lowly salary of $7.67 an hour with no paid lunch, I would also be paid 2% of whatever overpayments I found as an added incentive. Not exactly an edge-of-your-seat type of job, but I was happy to be working in an office than to have to work in the other fields of employment that were open to me.

After laboriously poring over the invoices for a day and a half, I had found a mistake or two and handed in the invoices and other papers to my supervisor’s assistant for her to check. Needless to say, I had done a horrible job and easily missed about 99.9% of the errors. I was crushed (and worried that I might find myself out of a job at the end of the day). The first few weeks were very precarious and not much fun.

Early on, I had decided that I would pay my tithing on whatever I would make. And I kept that promise. After getting paid, I would save 80% of the money I made, pay 10% as tithing and keep the other 10% as payment to myself. Even though I only took home about $500 every two weeks after taxes, in the mid-Nineties, it seemed like a lot.

In addition to my hourly wage, I was also paid the 2% bonus every quarter. Although when I first started the job, I was horribly unqualified for it, I ended up becoming one of the senior members of the department because of good job performance. I even had my own office before I left, which is pretty good considering many of my co-workers who had been there longer were stuck on out on the ‘floor’. Over the course of 15 months, I had saved the company almost a million dollars, and received 2% of that amount.

I was easily able to pay the whole cost of my mission and other attendant costs (clothing, dental work, etc.) Not only was I able to pay for my mission expense, I also was able to purchase several thousand dollars worth of guitar equipment, take a trip to Florida to visit relatives and amusement parks and generally have a really good time just going out with my friends and family. Living at home helped to minimize expenses, but I did contribute what I could to my family. Even after my mission, I had enough money saved to pay for the first year of college and to pay for a trip down to Australia to visit one of my companions.

The biggest reward for faithfully paying my tithing was that when I was out in the mission field, in my last area, I met a lady whom I will refer to as Minnie (not her real name). The other Elders in the area I was in were teaching the discussions, but she hadn’t been progressing for a couple of months. One night, one of the ward missionaries invited the four Elders and some of their investigators over to have a picnic outside. While at the picnic, I had an opportunity to sit and talk to Minnie.

I asked her how the discussions were going and how she felt about the church. She told me that she thought the church was good, but was unsure about God and the Atonement. I asked if there was anything else she was concerned about and she said tithing. For whatever reason, I felt that it was her main concern. I shared my experience with her and we spoke for about an hour about tithing, the Church, God and the Atonement. To this day, I can’t remember much of what I said, but I do remember that I spoke Japanese better that night then I had ever spoken it before (or probably since). I felt very good, very calm and very connected to Minnie. I truly felt as though she were my sister.

The next week at church, she came to me and told me that she was grateful that we had had our talk. She told me that she had been feeling like a ship in a storm and that she was conflicted about what she had been taught, but that after our conversation, she felt as though the waters had calmed and that she was ready to change her life and join the Church.

Several months after I came home from Japan, I got a postcard from Sister Minnie informing me that she was going on a mission to Temple Square. After her mission, she married a returned Japanese missionary in the Tokyo temple. I believe that they have one child. I not sure because her email address doesn't work anymore and I have otherwise lost contact with her and her husband.

This is not usually the type of story that I would post, but for some reason, the last few days I have felt that I should put it on my blog.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

On John Locke, Natural Law and Reading

In law school, I presented a paper on jurisprudence, fundamental rights and the Supreme Court of the United States to my seminar on law, history and philosophy. As part of my research into such intellectually-stimulating realms of natural law and legal positivism, I would often come across writers who had examined the natural law espoused by John Locke in his Two Treatises of Government and compared it to his arguments in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding against innate ideas. Most of these writers were puzzled by the apparent contradiction between the two concepts.

As opposed to the rationalists who thought that humankind was born with certain innate ideas, Locke thought that humans were born with no ideas at all and that only through sensory experience could they gain ideas and structure them into increasing mixed and complex ideas. Many have probably heard this referred to as the tabla rasa. Natural law is a theory of jurisprudence that holds that law is a body of rules found in nature that are independent from the customs and mores of mankind. To the extent that man-made laws conflict with this natural set of laws, the man-made laws were unjust. In recent memory, the most famous declaration of natural law was when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously quoted Augustine in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and stated that one had a moral responsibility to disobey an unjust law, albeit nonviolently.

Returning to the apparent Lockean contradiction of tabla rasa and natural law, it appears that Locke is saying on the one hand, that all ideas and knowledge come from experience, and are not innately existent in humans, but on the other hand, to be arguing that there is a system of laws that are self-evident to all humankind. It quickly became apparent to me that there was no contradiction and that those who thought otherwise had not bothered to read what Locke had actually wrote. (Although to be fair, I must admit that Locke’s Essay is a difficult read. It’s not because it is abstruse, but because it is so dense and wordy.)

Further adding to the apparent contradiction was that Locke was dismissive of the earlier philosophical work of the Scholastics, chief of whom was St. Thomas Aquinas who championed natural law. Locke was especially dismissive of their work as it related to their attempts to posit real essences in objects. Locke felt that objects only had real essences in our ideas, not within the object itself. Locke argued that universal terms such as ‘man’ or ‘dog’ only applied to groups of objects and not to any one specific man or any one specific dog. The human mind ordered objects and combined simple ideas into complex ones. But this did not mean that he thought that natural law was somehow a real essence of the world.

To properly frame Locke’s arguments, however, you have to look at the intellectual climate of his time. Instead of calling branches of knowledge by their modern names, philosophers of the time referred to natural philosophy, which later became science, and natural religion, which later become teleological theology. It is no surprise, therefore, that a theory of jurisprudence would be labeled ‘natural’ law. Philosophers looked to the general success of natural philosophy in uncovering laws about the physical nature of the universe and optimistically extended those methods and conclusions to other scholarly endeavors.

In this light, it is easy to see that Locke thought that people were not born with an innate notion of gravity or planetary movement, that through experience (and application of reason, viz., the scientific method) they would come to understand the law of gravity or the law of planetary movement. These laws of physics existed outside of the human mind, yet they were discoverable by it. Applying this rationale to the law and human rights, Locke felt that through experience and the use of reason, people could arrive at an undisputed notion of what the natural law was. If there was any disagreement over what the law should be, it was because of flaws within human’s minds and the general complexity involving 'complex ideas' (as he defined it), not because law was a man-made creation.

Moral of this post: Before you discourse on a writer’s ideas, make sure that you have actually read what the writer had written before commenting on those ideas. Otherwise you come across as a lazy scholar.