Mormon Intellectuals Part III: My Postscript

(See here for Jim’s original post, here for part I, and here for part II)

 In my original response to Jim, I wrote the following:

While I’ve tried to be fair and accurate, it may be that I’m misreading [Toscano or Faulconer], that I’m mistaken in my analysis of their position. Even if that turns out to be the case, I believe that explicitly laying out this Toscano-Faulconer spectrum is a very useful tool, one that helps us all to orient ourselves to the various possibilities that exist for intellectuals, and allows me to argue in favor of a third position.

In the wake of Jim’s comments it seems clear that I did misunderstand some of what he had to say, and that we’re closer together than I originally thought – if nothing else, I’m happy to help clarify and advertise his position.

I still think there’s a difference between what we’re advocating (as do a number of the commenters) – but it’s hard to get at that difference, and I’ll be happy if it turns out I’m wrong. Nevertheless, I’m going to take one more stab at it before ending.

It seems to me that the crux of the matter is in how we understand useless activities and agendas. They’re obviously related, but I’ll start with the notion of useless. Jim notes that “a painting by a Renaissance master is good in itself. But it can also be useful for illustrations, book covers, etc. But the thing in question isn’t good because of its further usefulness, even if it has that usefulness.” It seems to me that what’s important for Faulconer is that intellectuals in the church devote themselves to producing the best “works of art” they can within their respective areas of expertise. Additionally, they might “offer” these works as “gifts” to (i.e., make them available for use by) the church, though it’s important to offer them freely and not “in order to bring about some effect.” Whether the gifts are used and in what way is up to church authorities.

This still strikes me as conceptually vague and overly simplistic. Jim’s point seems tailored to examples like literal works of art, and may even work for his example of the Mormon Theology Seminar (so long as it performs only descriptive and speculative but not normative theology – though I have my doubts as to the practical integrity of those distinctions). It’s less helpful, however, when we muddy the waters with issues specific to intellectuals. Here are some difficulties involved:

  1. Things get tricky when the content involved is not of our own making, but some content specific to the domain of the church. This seems to be the common state of affairs with regard to the work of intellectuals (though it can still be the case for artists, such as Antoni Guadi’s designing and working to build the Sagrada Familia in Spain). Whether it’s Grant Hardy reformatting the Book of Mormon, Nate Oman’s legal analysis of 19th century polygamy cases, or Joanna Brooks analyzing gender norms within the contemporary church, lots of intellectuals – particularly those working in the nascent field of Mormon studies – are working specifically with materials that fall within the category of things that “belong” to the church. They do so as part of their professional work.
  2. Not always, but often our works have undeniable political meaning – whether or not we realize it. My primary, personal intention and motivation might be entirely purist – to merely produce the best [fill in the blank] that I can. I might also know, however, that the primary impact of my [fill in the blank] – regardless of my intention – will not be a bland contribution to the general intellectual collection, but rather a political or social landmine. Even if it’s not a landmine, our intellectual works contribute to public and political discourse and change the normative landscape. This is particularly true the higher the caliber of the work produced (e.g., no matter how purist Blake’s intentions, if he produces a higher caliber – more consistent, more eloquent, taking into account a broader swath of scriptural & prophetic statements, etc. – explication of God’s love than Elder Nelson, it’s going to have a significant, non-intrinsic impact; this is true whether or not he even references Elder Nelson’s comments). This is why I’m convinced that we never do merely descriptive or speculative theology.[1]
  3. On a related note, and perhaps most importantly, church authorities simply don’t have a monopoly on what the Church does and does not adopt or use. They might have a legal or divinely sanctioned right to oversee and regulate how the Church is structured and what it makes official use of, but it certainly doesn’t have practical control. (Nor do I think would it want to, though that’s a personal opinion and a tangent for another post.) Pres. Hinckley was fond of saying “The Church is no bigger than a ward.” I think much of the impact of intellectuals is going to be local and through unofficial networks (which may have cumulative impact on the overall church). One very significant example is the reality of an intellectual sphere of discourse that exists in the Church. The sort of influence an intellectual has in local and unofficial contexts is almost entirely orthogonal to official opinions and actions of Church authorities. I think we get distracted by the “big ticket” examples like policies on human sexuality; but the real impact of intellectuals and any potential gifts will mostly concern “smaller” items.
  4. Lots of times our intellectual work is multiply useful and very few of us are purists in our intent for that work. As much as I love philosophy and teaching, I’m more Aristotelian on that end. I have every intention of making money and providing for my family. I also think quite seriously on the various benefits to society that I believe this profession can bring about. And I have every intention of utilizing my future position at a university to promote humanitarian ends. I even take mild pleasure out of certain relatives’ befuddlement over my career choice. I’m not sure why I ought to be purist when my intellectual pursuits overlap with some area of the church. Instead we can be (and in reality, usually are) pluralists when it comes to how we value our gifts. As I said in the comments, I don’t think an intrinsic valuation of my garden means I can’t also plan to make use of the vegetables I grow.

Despite these difficulties for making or appreciating our intellectual endeavors as merely “useless,” it might nevertheless be a good rule of thumb. At least for certain of our endeavors – and perhaps the Mormon Theology Seminar is a good example. However, what about the difficulty involved when we see and are motivated in our work by a problem in the church (even if it’s only the problem that a significant number of folks see it as problematic, when in reality it’s not)? What if the “problem” is one specific to our area of expertise? This brings us to the related issue of agendas.

There is no domain of expertise for “church reform and improvement” and consequently no body of or positions for experts. Even General Authorities can’t claim expertise here, which is why they rely on revelation. The issue of reform is complicated, however, since a) God seems content to let us make collective mistakes; b) revelation usually only comes as sought; c) lots of changes in the church don’t require official revelation, they merely require administrative or personal action; d) some problems are largely a matter of rhetoric – literally the kind of language we use when talking; e) our history is littered with examples of significant changes that come in response to the “anxious engagement” of good members; f) sometimes those good members were “anxiously engaged” by drawing upon their professional expertise. In short, it seems that explicit agenda’s for change are sometimes both needed and good.

Jim & I clearly agree that in the wake of our gift, we need to be humble and recognize that church authorities are free to make use of our gifts as they see fit – and that intellectuals ought not get bent out of shape if our gifts are rejected. As Blake put it, ” the most any non-apostle can (and ought to) hope for in the Church is to give the fruits of one’s careful thoughts and labors as a sheer gift and allow others to freely choose whether to accept the gift. . . . we cannot make demands on the Church or its members to fit our Procustean bed.”

It’s hard to tell if or exactly how Jim and I might be in disagreement here. In the end, I’m going to just repeat my position – which seems to be at least slightly out of sync with Jim. I’m not allergic to attempts at being useful or having an agenda – that is, to undertaking some intellectual endeavor expressly for a reason beyond merely producing the intellectual product (i.e., producing some work in the hopes that it will change X, Y, or Z in the church). Having some specific agenda – the desire to bring about some specific result on account of one’s work – doesn’t strike me as inherently pernicious within the context of the church. Another way of repeating myself is that I’m both in favor of value pluralism and against the compartmentalization of our intellectual talents. I think that as intellectuals, so long as we endeavor to produce the best works we can, and so long as our primary motivation is love (which means that the manner in which we serve will be one of service), we’ll be on firm footing. Mind service is both needed and useful.

In the end, Jim Faulconer has made me a better philosopher, a better human, and certainly a better Mormon. This has probably come about indirectly, largely through his dedicated efforts to simply be a good philosopher and teacher. But I don’t mind if he also had an explicit agenda to benefit me. Nor would it strike me as inappropriate if Jim had a similar agenda vis-à-vis the church.

[1] This doesn’t mean that there can’t be better and worse ways of doing theology within a Mormon context – and part of the criterion might still be how explicit our attempts are to normatively alter things.

12 comments for “Mormon Intellectuals Part III: My Postscript

  1. A thing can be pernicious in almost every instantiation, or at least in most here-and-now instantiations, without being “inherently pernicious.”

    May God bless the agenda-driven intellectual, and keep him far away from us.

  2. From Jim’s article:

    “In some churches there is a distinct place for intellectuals: they can be priests of certain sorts; they can teach in seminaries and schools for the ministry; they can take part in learned discussions among congregational leaders that will have an impact on the church or on individual congregations through them. There are no such venues of influence for Mormon intellectuals.”

    What is BYU? What is Mormon Studies? What is the bloggernacle or Times & Seasons? Are not these venues? Do these venues not influence individuals, and thus have an impact on the Church?

    If Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant came up to me and told me that they really have no influence on the NBA or on how people view basketball, I would be inclined to disbelieve them. Ok… not Jordan or Kobe… maybe Larry Bird and Julius Erving.

  3. I think, James, that there is even less to disagree with here. It’s nicely argued. Though I can’t help thinking as I reflect on my own work (and this could be a personal problem ;) that though most of it could be useful, most of it just plain never is.

    This point may be driven home more clearly if you ever have the experience of spending years of your life writing (and even publishing!) books that only a handful of people will ever glance at. As far as I can tell, this is just a very, very real part of what it means to do philosophy/theology.

    And – at least on a good day – I think that uselessness is fine :)

  4. Dr. J and Larry Bird left a legacy. Kobe just passed Jordan in all-time All-Star game points. Perhaps I would equate Nibley with Danny Ainge, but is there a philosophical Jimmer? None of these guys was James Naismith, but they did a lot for the game of basketball, and influenced a lot of players along the way.

  5. This entire discussion made my experieence last Sunday more intereting. I was approached by the substitute for my son’s Sunday school class. She told me of her experience. She read 1 Corinthians 15:40-41…to which my son replies, “technically (that is NEVER good), the sun is also a star, and some other starts would be brighter if they were the same distance from the earth as the sun”. Then another child adds, “and the moon doesn’t shine at all by itself it reflects light”. After a few more comments, the poor teachers says…it’s just an analogy, and tries to collect some sort of lesson . Perhaps my son needs a little discussion about what exactly is useless and when.

  6. (Sorry if this gets posted twice — the spam filter didn’t like the link I included the first time.)

    James, thank you for these posts, and for you thoughtful replies (including your esp. nice point in response to my previous comment: taking something instrumental, like money, as intrinsically valuable, is a form of idolatry).

    Forgive this overly long comment as I think this through aloud a bit more below.


    I agree that we can (and should) hope our best intellectual efforts will be put to use in a positive way that will build the kingdom, improve the world, etc. Although I don’t expect you’ll disagree, I continue to worry that the social imaginaries of our modern age (to invoke the language of Charles Taylor, since I just noticed your Dialogue article…) make it difficult to think about desire for change in ways that are not deeply intertwined with some notion of a struggle for power.

    The challenge, then, is to desire and strive for change in a way that is adequately . . . well, kenotic. To “suppose we know of ourselves” (a la Jim’s invocation of 2 Ne 9:28) what change needs to be made is prideful, but to offer our unique insights and talents with hopes for the betterment of the Kingdom is laudable. But this is just to reemphasize Jim’s point about the gift-nature of any efforts to effect change — on my reading, Jim’s conception of having an agenda amounts to forsaking this kind of humility (to cease deferring to the Other?).

    But if we follow the root meaning of this term agenda, and ask “what is to be done?” in a genuine spirit of inquiry, then surely it is not wrong to hope our intellectual efforts will be useful/instrumental (esp. in the scriptural sense of being an instrument in God’s hands). But, as the sad history of modern politics suggests, this question too easily slips into an ideological agenda….

    Put differently, it seems the challenge is to hope to be an intellectually profitable servant, but to do so without forgetting: “if [we] should serve him with all our whole souls yet [we] would be un-profitable servants” (Mosiah 2:21).

    Thanks again for the posts.

  7. My response to the original post by Jim Olsen should also be posted here. It seems to me that examples taken from the literary world are inapposite because they do not include the kind of explicit addressing of scriptural, philosophical and theological issues which explicitly interface with positions and doctrine of the Church. The Steve Young metaphor shows why. At first I was taken with the Steve Young example. How beautiful that we just do the best that we can and let the benefit flow wherever it may to benefit the kingdom. But the more I thought about it, the more it highlighted precisely what makes me uncomfortable.

    When Steve Young throws (threw) a beautiful spiral pass, it doesn’t have any implications for the teachings of the gospel in terms of substantive content. For example, it doesn’t have any implications for whether a particular discourse given by an apostle may fail to capture or even mislead on a particular issue. However, most “intellectual” or academic pursuits are inherently issue driven. If I write about foreknowledge, I am at the very least implicitly disagreeing with several apostles and prophets and at the very least calling into question the revealed status of their pronouncements. It could never be the same with Steve Young’s touch down pass — and to compare them is to miss something essential about the activity in which we engage. Engaging in “intellectual” pursuits seems to inherently imply that I have an expertise or knowledge that is not generally available and that I offer it up in service of the kingdom. Yet it is precisely because I lack any credentials that what I do inherently suggests an alternative path to knowledge and truth that differs from the authority of revelation. I am implicitly asserting that I have something valuable to offer (I hope others freely choose to see it that way too) and that what is offered couldn’t be offered better by just staying out of it.

    Further, it isn’t that I just choose to be charitable and the issues that interest me just fall out from being charitable per se. Rather, there is an inextricable interplay between what I love and what I pursue, but often my pursuit is directed to unanticipated paths and issues that I feel passionate to address. For example, I write because I see a beauty and strength in the philosophical and theological vision of Joseph Smith and the scriptures that I want to cast into the bright light of discourse and consideration. I choose to write about the things I do because of a love I have for the subject matter — but in doing so I also call into question opposing visions. I don’t mind saying that I find Calvinism and, to a lesser extent, Thomism rather detestable. I know others find great beauty in them. So I do my best to ask what it is that they love and why it is beautiful to them, and then if I have grasped that I can argue that it leads to a view of god that is, nevertheless, rather morally reprehensible and why another view works better. If that is not an agenda, what is? And yet I believe I am driven by love for the Church and the subject matter — and so it is much more than philosophy and theology to me. Is is more like water and air and good food. So how is that not agenda driven?

    It seems that there are agendas driven by love, and then there are agendas that grow out of love, and distinguishing between them in a way that makes sense has yet to be done for me.

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