Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: A Typology of Readers

PeekingIn the introduction to his Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (Neal A Maxwell Institute, 2010), Jim Faulconer gives us a kind of typology of religious subjects.

Imagining the different kinds of responses he might get to the difficulty of his philosophically inclined essays, he picks out four basic types.

I. Typology

1. Those who enjoy a kind of childish naivete.

Those with childish faith will find what I say difficult because it makes the obvious difficult. They are likely to be bored or, at best, indulgent of me, and their reaction is the right reaction. I have nothing to say to those who are naive in a childish way because anything I say would be superfluous. (xv)

2. Those who enjoy a kind of mature naivete.

Those with more mature, childlike faith have moved from their initial naivete to one that knows the obstacles to faith and has faith anyway – not necessarily in spite of those obstacles, but aware of them and able to cope with them. Often those who have a second naivete are aware of the problems but do not find them problematic, though perhaps once they did. It is as if they do not care because their faith has made them secure. I especially like to read the work of those in their second naivete, or listen to them speak, but what they say is not philosophical. It if were, it would not be naivete. The second kind of naivete is better than philosophy since philosophy is more like adolescence than childhood. (xv-xvi)

3. Those who suffer a dangerous naivete.

Another group of readers may find what I say difficult because it invokes difficult concepts and calls the ordinary way of thinking and speaking of things like faith and scripture into question, offering a different vocabulary, and they are afraid to have their ordinary concepts and vocabulary questioned. Those in this group have a dangerous naivete. In the face of the difficulties any child soon encounters, in the face of evil and indeterminacy, they have given up their childish faith and turned to “what everyone knows.” Sometimes what everyone knows is what everyone in the church knows. Sometimes it is what everyone in a particular culture knows. Sometimes it is what everyone in a particular profession knows. There are many ways to succumb to “what everyone knows.” Those with this kind of naivete assume the values and ideas of their history and culture without question . . . . Unaware, they mingle scripture and the philosophy of men – the ideas that most people in our time and culture take to be true. They are fish that do not know the water they swim in . . . .  I am sometimes one of them. (xvi)

4. Those who knowingly suffer their philosophical adolescence and just find Jim’s book to be poor philosophy.

[They] may find what I say difficult mostly because of my shortcomings. I may have made the simple unnecessarily difficult. I may not express myself as well as I should. (xvi-xvii)

II. Commentary

I don’t want to freight Jim’s comments here with an expectation of systematicity that’s probably not appropriate, but the frame is productive. A couple of notes follow.

1. There is a “developmental” quality to this typology. Jim uses language like childish, adolescent, and mature to describe the types of readers and there seems to be an implicit chronology: from childish to dangerous to self-aware to mature.

2. Notice, though, that Jim does not treat the childish naivete as something that needs to be fixed or overcome. If you lose it, then you’ll have to push through all these developmental phases. But if you’re not forced to suffer this particular detour, then perhaps all the better for you. This is not the only kind of development, nor the most important. Not everyone will tread this path.

3. To put the issue more starkly: can you become a god without ever having moved through these particular developmental phases, without ever being a “philosopher”? I suspect the answer is yes . . . but probably not if you’re reading this.

4. How much misunderstanding results from either (1) the assumption of those who retain their childish naivete that to have lost it is irreparably bad, or (2) the assumption of those who must travel this path that everyone ought to lose their childish naivete? I suspect these assumptions make for a lot of bad Sunday School lessons and a lot of bruised feelings.

5. Jim describes himself as fitting into more than one of these categories. Sometimes, he says, he finds himself exhibiting a dangerous naivete. Certainly he belongs to the category of self-aware philosopher. And, on his own account, he exhibits a mature naivete. Even if there is a developmental quality to these types, are they still also like roles, habits, dispositions that may vary depending on our focus and circumstance?

6. It appears that the developmental shift from being a problematized, self-aware philosopher to enjoying a mature naivete doesn’t have much to do with philosophy. That is, philosophy is not what accomplishes the transition. Perhaps it is, at best, a kind of lubricant. What does, then, accomplish the shift? What is its character?

7. Philosophy seems to be primarily good for helping us to move out of a dangerous naivete and into a position of greater self-awareness. It does this helpful thing not by giving us answers but by throwing “what everyone knows” into question.

Notice, though, that the shift to a mature naivete does not involve the overcoming of such questions. Rather, it involves a fundamental change in our relationship to these questions – which, perhaps, is why it deserves to still be called a kind of naivete.

8. If you’re struggling with a dangerous naivete or floundering in self-aware ignorance, know that there is something more – a mature naivete. This mature position remains a naivete – you won’t solve the problem by finally getting all those answers that you want! – but even if you can’t go back, you can go forward.

And the essays in Jim’s book just may help.

18 comments for “Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: A Typology of Readers

  1. Not much to say here or in the similar discussion on LDS-Herm. I hope to order Jim’s book this week. It sounds quite interesting.

  2. I think in all the discussions about levels of faith, it is important to remember that at some level, faith is a decision.

  3. Eric, I totally agree that, in some ways, faith is a decision.

    Though I don’t at all – and I think that this goes for Jim too – want to give the impression that these different “types” or stages correspond to different levels of faith. In fact, part of what I wanted to do was to separate these two kinds of things out from one another.

  4. To the question posed in note 5 – I think one of the biggest factors is the subject at hand. I think its possible a person could simultaneously display dangerous naivete about the plural marriage, while displaying mature naivete about the “Problem of Evil”, and childish naivete about something like Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac.

    I think there are probably other factors as well such as mood and disposition, also environment – i.e. a person may feel different while in the temple than they do when they’re at work when thinking about different subjects.

  5. Thanks for the comments, Adam. Finally, something worth spending Christmas gift money on.

    I’m not sure I like the connotation of childish or naive — maybe a better term for that first category (that describes most faithful members of the Church) is those who have a pre-philosophical faith.

    But I like the idea that once you start asking fundamental questions, it’s best to tread that path until you get to a stable destination. Too many people read a book or two, Google a few keywords, then stop, embracing the skeptical perspective without feeling any need to press forward toward a new understanding (whatever that might be). Skepticism is comfortable in a certain way, but it’s an adolescent solution to the important questions, not a mature solution.

  6. I’m not familiar with Fowler, but what I find especially productive about Jim’s approach (via, I assume, Paul Ricoeur) is that it problematizes, de-universalizes, and even de-chronologizes these various types. That is, Jim’s approach works to un-privilege this one kind of spiritual development. It is just one among many, any given person might avoid it all together, and possibly to their benefit.

  7. 2 points:

    1. I can’t help but find it odd that Jim couches different types of faith within their assumed naivetes. If Jim’s aim really is to “un-privilege” one kind of spiritual development over the other, then wouldn’t worldview be a preferable word to naivete, since the latter has somewhat of a negative connotation?

    2. What of inherent cynicisms of the different types of worldviews? This is especially applicable of the third category of “dangerous naivete.” I agree that accepting a theory based on the notion that it is what others think (a priori assumptions) can be a form of naivete. But what of beliefs formulated a posteriori? Isn’t their an inherent cynicism among, say…the FARMS community, towards secular arguments that reject BOM historicity and vice-versa?

  8. The problem I have with Fowler’s stages, as I understand them, is that being a numbered system they give the appearance of attributing superiority to later stages; stating that they are more developed, and lower stages are necessarily inferior.
    My introduction to Fowler’s stages came from John Dehlin’s podcast, and I must admit, every time he references it, it gives me a shiver. You can almost hear the condecension in his voice.
    Jim’s Typology, as Adam has explained it here, also feels a little condescending, but not nearly as much so.

  9. I have some reservations about Fowler’s work because it seems to beg some of the most important questions. The developmental model he describes seems to favor “one true progression.” This is strange considering some of the people I know who find his work most valuable tend to feel uncomfortable with the claim of “one true church.” Fowler also frames things in terms of maturity, but it seems like his model allows for a looking-down-upon toward those on lower “stages.” I need to read Fowler’s main book on the topic though.

  10. ie, whereas faulconer tends to “problematize, de-universalize, and even de-chronologize these various types,” the stages as I currently understand them do pretty much the opposite.

  11. Adam, this is great. I’m very excited about Jim’s book, thrilled to have you posting on it here. I appreciate you’re insightful introduction. Since I’ve not yet read the book, I’m relying on your articulation for my comments here.

    Jim’s typology of potential readers seems to leave him without an audience (other than perhaps a (long-) suffering philosopher or a mature child willing to humor him).

    Note 3: I find the notion of our not having to become philosophical in our outlook in order to become a God highly implausible. I must be misreading the point; it sounds like the claim is that one will never have to adopt/move through/understand other worlds or horizons of meaning, and likewise never have to have the capacity to critically and rigorously evaluate one’s own perspective and its shortcomings vis-à-vis other possible horizons in order to achieve exaltation. This is what I find implausible.

    Note 4.2: this comes across as unintentionally patronizing, patting the child on the head and telling them that it’s ok for them to remain a child. Given the typology/framework we’re discussing, this assumes that the child will be able to remain securely in the nursery throughout their life. In a strongly dominate culture this might be possible (say, the overwhelmingly Christian outlook dominate in Europe in 1500). In today’s incredibly pluralistic culture I think this is “dangerously naïve;” today, no matter how snuggly ensconced in Mormon Utah (or some other faithfully homogenous culture) you are, you are bound to continually be challenged, if only by the various other cogent options out there.

    Note 6: The typology and this point appears to leave little hope of one becoming both philosophical and maturely naïve, unless one’s experience is compartmentalized (e.g., pt 7 gives us the possibility of using philosophy instrumentally to become maturely naïve). I at least hope there’s a better possibility – specifically that philosophy can actually be positive and edifying in my faithful development. In my opinion we often go over board in insisting the need for the Holy Ghost rather than our intellect, as if God cannot speak in a revelatory and intellectually articulate voice. Perhaps that’s because I’m still young and still philosophically idealistic and not yet a mature philosophical realist (i.e., I haven’t yet accepted Wittgenstein’s maxim that philosophical questions don’t really have answers).

  12. 12 – to your concern in your second paragraph, I think the intro paragraph:

    Imagining the different kinds of responses he might get to the difficulty of his philosophically inclined essays, he picks out four basic types.

    is the key. I think this is supposed to be a typology of those who will respond with difficulty to his philosophies. I imagine there are other typologies that don’t respond with difficulty. At least, thats how I read it.

  13. B. Russ: yes, that seems right. But it still leaves me wondering who the ideal or unproblematic audience(s) is.

  14. I really don’t like Fowler’s category and dislike even more how they’ve been (IMO) abused in discussions of Mormonism. I’m pretty confident that’s not what Jim is getting at.

  15. BHodges (11), I agree. My problem with Fowler’s categories is that there is an implicit assumption about what is true and real versus what ought be considered metaphorical. Maturity is in treating as metaphoric what lower levels treat as real with ultimately only certain liberal ethics being important for faith. (Yeah, overly simplified but the general gist) Jim’s mature naivete would call this into question. That is for him faith is aware of problems but doesn’t discount them the way a mature faith in Fowler’s system would. (As I understand it – and admittedly I’ve not paid attention since those posts by Dehlin years ago)

  16. Great comments. A couple of thoughts:

    1. The word naive has its disadvantages, but what I really like about its use here is that it applies to all the categories. What is at stake in each of these types is our ignorance, our naivete about how things actually are, and the nature of our relationship to this ignorance. None of these types involves an overcoming of ignorance – though the dangerous naivete, in particular, tries to suppress it. This dovetails with my understanding of Clark’s objection to Fowler: that those latter stages are just way to self-assured and confident about how things actually are.

    2. Regarding James’ third point:

    “I find the notion of our not having to become philosophical in our outlook in order to become a God highly implausible.I must be misreading the point; it sounds like the claim is that one will never have to adopt/move through/understand other worlds or horizons of meaning, and likewise never have to have the capacity to critically and rigorously evaluate one’s own perspective and its shortcomings vis-à-vis other possible horizons in order to achieve exaltation.”

    I suppose I deeply doubt that philosophy is the only – or even best – way to do this. (And I say this as a “professional” philosopher.)

    The seminal aspects of James’ description would all, I think, be better described in terms of “charity/agape” rather than philosophy. Philosophy can be deployed charitably (though it often – usually? – isn’t), but so can many, many other ways of engaging the world. The charity is the key, not the philosophy.

    The achilles heel of nearly all philosophy is its tendency to privilege its own critical, rigorous, reflective mode of engagement. Philosophy has its appeal and its use, but for my part I don’t think that being able to the approach the world in a philosophical way is a sine qua non for divinity. It’s the wrong kind of filter. Many I know who are most godlike aren’t very philosophical.

  17. Adam, I wonder if philosophy could come later, though, in a supportive way to charity. I suspect you would say it could. I like Jim’s call to avoid making philosophy an idol (he also calls on us to avoid making tradition an idol, etc., if I read him correctly). One problem is that some members are already looking at philosophy as the devil’s handtools, so his own call to philosophers could hit a different target.

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