“One afternoon in Amarillo”

May 3, 2006 | 13 comments
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If I ever to write a country-western song about religious epistemology, I will call it “One afternoon in Amarillo.” The story behind the (as yet unwritten) song goes like this:

One winter day about eight years ago I found myself driving across the Texas panhandle with a friend of mine from BYU. We stopped in Amarillo to have lunch with another BYU friend who lived there, and she brought “her boy” to have lunch with us. The boy in question was a very smart, pleasant guy, and I quite liked him. The drama in the story came from the fact that our BYU friend also liked him…a lot…in a kind of deep, aching, longing sort of way. The “issue,” as one might have guessed, was that he was not a Mormon, she was, and this caused some tension in the relationship. Our BYU friend wanted me to talk with him because like “her boy” I was studying philosophy, and she thought that I could put his concerns to rest. At the very least she seemed to hope that between the three of us we could show “her boy” that believing Mormons were not ludicrously stupid. As one might have predicted a train wreck of sorts ensued.

Our BYU friend brought up the topic of Mormonism, and the conversation was off at a dash. “Her boy” pointed out that it was pretty unlikely that God’s true church happened to be a medium-sized sect based in the intermountain west. A fair enough point, I conceded. However there was a sense in which any particular state of affairs in the universe was wildly improbable. What were the chances that a boy from Hope, Arkansas would end up as President? That a runty Englishman sitting in his orchard should get hit by an apple and figure out the laws of motion? (“Why not a pear?” I asked. “So much more believable.”) Shockingly, “her boy” looked unpersuaded. Am I supposed to believe that I have just been wildly fortunate to have happened to have met y’all (this was Texas after all), he asked. I suggested that perhaps this was just evidence that God loved him. (I tried to make this sound kind of facetious and light hearted. I don’t think that it quite worked. It is hard to know the tone one should strike when you are made part of a romantic-intellectual trap on the fly.) “Her boy” looked equally unpersuaded. Given the really remote possibility of Mormonism being right, he countered, why should I bother to take the time to investigate it? I suggested that the woman sitting next to him was a good reason to look into it, given that it was something that was clearly important to her. This hit far too close to the heart of the matter, and conversation moved on to other topics. We finished our BBQ, climbed back into the car and drove toward Oklahoma. In the end, of course, our friend married “her boy,” who as far as I know has never given Mormonism another look. He struck me as a very nice guy and a good man. As far as I know they are living happily ever after in Texas.

The experience hammered home for me in a way that Jim Faulconer’s lectures against Descartes never did that we always start our epistemology in the middle of things. I have lots of beliefs about the world, some of which are fairly ordinary (“The fastest way to get to the 14th street bridge from 15th and K during rush hour is to go up and over on L street”) and some of which are fairly bizarre (“From time to time angels appear to men and give them books inscribed on golden plates”). These are beliefs that I just have. Maybe I have picked them up from experience. Maybe I have picked them up by being told them as a child by those that I trusted. Maybe I have no idea of their source, and they are just things that I can’t help believing. (I think that my own belief in God is rather like this.) I might have even picked them up along the way of falling in love with someone. (All of my beliefs about Harry Connick Jr. fall into this category.)

It seems clear, however, that they are not things that I have deduced from some set of indubitable premises. In this sense epistemology is always either a plaything or a form of triage. It is something that I do when I am bored or when I am puzzled about my beliefs. It is not really something that I do when I am acquiring beliefs. I’ve been on a mission and seen some conversions. I have some sense of how they occur: People are attracted to the gospel by some pastiche of doctrines, friends, and longing for they know not what. They participate in various activities from scripture reading and prayer to ward picnics. The Spirit moves them in various ways, and they find themselves believing. This seldom involves a thorough understanding of Mormon doctrines, let alone some epistemological theory undergirding them. They just bumble into it. (C.S. Lewis called it being surprised by joy.) In a sense one acquires religious beliefs just like one acquires other beliefs, in an ad hoc, untheorized, a epistemological way. “Her boy,” of course, wanted to do the epistemology first, and as anyone who has read philosophy can tell you, if one doesn’t start bumbling toward belief until all the epistemological i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed, one never begins bumbling. That was the point of my final, tactless comment. If desire for this woman couldn’t get him interested in bumbling toward belief, then there was no way that I could come up with a philosophical argument that could. And at the end of the day, the epistemological point was mooted. Their love negotiated out a different solution to the problem, one that I am fairly certain had little or nothing to do with the objective merits (whatever that might mean) of the epistemological conversation we had in the BBQ in Amarillo. We live life first. Epistemology comes after. Especially in Amarillo.

Maybe that can be the chorus of the song…

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13 Responses to “One afternoon in Amarillo”

  1. Kaimi Wenger on May 3, 2006 at 6:10 pm

    (With apologies to George Strait) (and for that matter, to all of you as well):

    Lost my premises in Houston, broke my faith in Santa Fe.
    Lost my religious epistemology somewhere along the way.
    Well I’ll participate, in a moot debate
    And I’m hoping that judge ain’t blind.
    Amarillo by morning, Amarillo’s on my mind.

  2. Mark IV on May 3, 2006 at 6:45 pm

    Nate, while you were in Amarillo, you should have looked in on God, esq.

    You speculated once on this blog that God is probably a lawyer, and the day after reading your post, I was in Amarillo looking for an address. I saw a two story office building which housed a charity mission on the ground floor, and upstairs some law offices. The gold lettering on the door said:

    Law Offices

    God’s office
    Hours: 6:00am to 4:00pm

    It left an impression on me, and I wondered what sort of penumbras The Almighty might have been searching for at six in the morning.

  3. queuno on May 3, 2006 at 7:44 pm

    I just hope you pronounced the town name with the correct Texan pronounciation: a-ma-RILL-o (not the Spanish version).

    And, I hope you learned that your weak attempts at philosophizing just won’t crack the Texas mind. With apologies to my boy Lyle:

    You say you’re not from Texas
    Man as if I couldn’t tell
    You think you pull your boots on right
    And wear your hat so well

    So pardon me my laughter
    ‘Cause I sure do understand
    Even Moses got excited
    When he saw the promised land

    That’s right you’re not from Texas
    That’s right you’re not from Texas
    That’s right you’re not from Texas
    But Texas wants you anyway

    That’s right you’re not from Texas
    That’s right you’re not from Texas
    That’s right you’re not from Texas
    But Texas wants you anyway

    So won’t you let me help you Mister
    Just pull your hat down the way I do
    And buy your pants just a little longer
    And next time somebody laughs at you

    You just tell ‘em you’re not from Texas
    That’s right you’re not from Texas
    That’s right you’re not from Texas
    But Texas wants you anyway

    That’s right you’re not from Texas
    That’s right you’re not from Texas
    That’s right you’re not from Texas
    But Texas wants you anyway

  4. queuno on May 3, 2006 at 7:47 pm

    Gotta ask, though — when you were in Amarillo, were you eating at the Big Texan? Did you take a stab at the 72-oz steak? If you can eat the steak, the potato, the salad, the shrimp cocktail, and the roll in an hour, it’s free…

    They limit you to one attempt a month, and the urban legend is that the rule was instituted because two Samoan elders used to go there every P-day and beat the challenge.

    And if you’re driving through Amarillo on I-40, you’ve *got* to stop and see the Cadillac Ranch.

  5. James M on May 3, 2006 at 10:03 pm

    Although it’s not really a country-western song, Aaron Neville and Linda Ronstadt sing a song about your topic called Don’t Know Much. You probably heard it on your last trip to the dentist office. Although I hate the song, it’s the first thing that popped into my head when I read your post.

    Look at this face
    I know the years are showin’
    Look at this life
    I still don’t know where it’s goin’

    I don’t know much
    But I know I love you
    And that may be
    All I need to know

    Look at these eyes
    They never seen what mattered
    Look at these dreams
    So beaten and so battered

    I don’t know much
    But I know I love you
    And that may be
    All I need to know

    So many questions
    Still left unanswered
    So much
    I’ve never broken through

    And when I feel you near me
    Sometimes I see so clearly
    The only truth I’ve ever known
    Is me and you

    Look at this man
    So blessed with inspiration
    Look at this soul
    Still searching for salvation

    I don’t know much
    But I know I love you
    And that may be
    All I need to know

    I don’t know much
    But I know I love you
    That may be
    All I need to know

    I don’t know much
    But I know I love you
    That may be
    All there is to know,

  6. Kimball L. Hunt on May 3, 2006 at 10:47 pm

    The reason I like your stories, Nate, is caus of their polyphonies of faith – with reason.

  7. Aaron Brown on May 4, 2006 at 11:03 am

    Nate —

    I’m having deja vu. Your “BYU friend” from Texas was out visiting some of her HLS friends in L.A. about two years ago, and she happened to relate this same story. (I can’t remember why it came up). For what it’s worth, I didn’t come away with the impression that a “train wreck” had necessarily ensued, from her perspective.

    And I didn’t realize she lived in Amarillo. Yuck.

    Aaron B

  8. Edje on May 4, 2006 at 11:05 am

    I have nothing to add except (1) that I second queuno in the necessity of swinging by the cadillac ranch if one is in Amarillo and (2) that this post reminds me of Hegel’s introduction to his Philosophy of Right (2nd to last paragraph; this is, as I reckon, a cliché quote, but google only shows one reference to it in T&S (last July), so I’m using it anyway):

    Only one word more concerning the desire to teach the world what it ought to be. For such a purpose philosophy at least always comes too late. Philosophy, as the thought of the world, does not appear until reality has completed its formative process, and made itself ready. History thus corroborates the teaching of the conception that only in the maturity of reality does the ideal appear as counterpart to the real, apprehends the real world in its substance, and shapes it into an intellectual kingdom. When philosophy paints its grey in grey, one form of life has become old, and by means of grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known. The owl of Minerva, takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.

  9. Nate Oman on May 4, 2006 at 11:28 am

    Aaron: Actually just out side of Amarillo. I would love to get from you her impressions of the afternoon. Email me. I’ve lost touch with her, unfortunately.

  10. Jim F. on May 4, 2006 at 11:37 am

    Edje: That is, perhaps, a cliche quotation, but it a cliche because it is so good, or at least almost-good. It would have been a lot better had Hegel not included the part about conception and reality being the same when reality is mature, for that means that when reality is mature, then conception “apprehends the real world in its substance, and shapes it into an intellectual kingdom.” Lots of those who followed Hegel were to willing to assume that we are now in a position where philosophy can now shape the world into an intellectual kingdom, whether that philosophy is Marxist or neo-conservative or something in-between.

  11. StealthBomber on May 4, 2006 at 11:45 am

    Nate,

    If I didn’t know better I would think that you have lifted this post from my fledgling blog: http://stealthbomber.wordpress.com/2006/04/29/epistemology-in-faith-ironic-isnt/

    [didn’t mean to plug, the timing is uncanny].

  12. StealthBomber on May 5, 2006 at 8:56 am

    Nate,

    Geeze. I didn’t mean to be a thread killer.

  13. Nate Oman on May 5, 2006 at 8:59 am

    Stealth: I think that the death of this thread has far more to do with the low quality of my post than with your comment. Please don’t take it personally. I liked your post, BTW.