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…