I disagree with some important parts of Jim’s recent piece on intellectuals in the Church (please read what he said first). By the end, I hope it’s clear that it is (in part) for “Faulconerian” reasons that I disagree with him. To begin, I’m going to indulge in a bit of biographical narcissism in order to make a point about the nature of my disagreement.
The semester recently began, and as I do at the beginning of nearly every course, I told the students a story about Jim Faulconer, or rather about my undergraduate self in one of Jim’s classes. Philosophers believe deeply in the intrinsic and instrumental good of criticism, argument, candid evaluation – in the overall value of dialectic. As an outside observer recently put it, “philosophers honor each other by disagreeing with each other.” For new philosophy students, however, the transition can be a bit rough; and I was no exception. One of my formative educational experiences involved getting a paper back two weeks into my first course as a philosophy major. Jim had assigned us to respond to an essay by Paul Ricouer. I’d undergone a manic experience – despairingly trying to read what was initially an utterly opaque text, followed by the thrill of coming to grasp some of what it said, followed by the despair of trying to say something intelligent about it, followed by the thrill of thinking (after several revisions), that what I had to say was truly profound – even thinking that maybe I was a natural at this whole philosophy thing. Jim sent me back an electronic version of my paper that was completely covered with comments. I don’t exaggerate. The paper was a little shy of 5 double-spaced pages and, in addition to correcting my legion of typographical-ish errors Jim had appended 78 substantive comments. All in all, he had more to say about my paper than I had to say in my paper. I made it through perhaps a page of comments before desperately scrolling down to the bottom to see the large red “D” – my grade. Despite this initial nauseating experience, I very quickly learned what an amazing investment Jim was making in my education – something no other teacher had ever done. I’m still convinced that word for word, no professor of mine has ever spent as much time with my writing as Jim did on those undergraduate essays. And I’m not alone. One of my best friends, currently at Oxford, likewise attributes his academic success to classes with Jim Faulconer. I’m quite confident that thousands of former students would say the same.
At any rate, I hope it will be clear to everyone reading this that in disagreeing with Jim, I genuinely hope to honor him, constructively moving the discussion forward.
Getting to the specifics of Jim’s post, here’s what he has to say by way of summary at the end:
It is difficult to remember because we are human, but the responsibility of the Mormon intellectual is, first, not to allow our intellects to separate us from the other members of the Church and, second, to work at being intellectually useless and, thereby, good for the Church on its own terms. We should be good for nothing except what the Kingdom demands.
The first point is straightforward, really important, and as far as I’m concerned simply right. This has long been one of my mantras, and reading Jim now I suspect I picked it up from him.
It’s the second point I take issue with, but since it’s less straightforward it will take some getting into. Jim begins the piece in good Socratic fashion, a gadfly of wisdom, pointing out that education and intellectual acumen do not imply wisdom or moral goodness. While “Intellectuals are no more likely to ask ‘What effects will what I am doing have on others, on society as a whole?’ than anyone else” they nonetheless are “perhaps more likely to be arrogant about their relation to the rest of society than most.” But the simple reality is, “being an intellectual doesn’t make a person more morally insightful than others. Knowledge about the world does not imply virtue.”
Being a fan of Socrates myself, these points are hard to argue with. In a very different but similarly formative undergraduate classroom I once sat at a seminar table with a group of sycophants praising one another and the professor for being the nobly tragic intellectuals that they were – fighting the difficult and oh-so-important intellectual battles, persevering in “the know” and helping to make the Church safe for all of its naïve members. Revolting.
While we all – regardless of intellectual bent – need Jim’s reminder that we “are more like everyone else than [we] usually believe,” I believe Jim overextends the point. He begins with pointing out that “if I believe that the Church is, on the whole, led by revelation, then I must be doubly skeptical of my opinions” – skeptical because I’m human and just as subject to temporary fads and blindspots as anyone, and skeptical about the efficacy of pitting my own thoughts against revelation. Again, this sure seems like sound advice. The overextension comes in his drawing the conclusion that our intellectual endeavors are, therefore, “good for nothing.” He uses this provocative phrase to catch our attention, but his point is that our endeavors vis-à-vis the Church as intellectuals are useless in the technical sense of the term frequently employed by ancient Greek philosophers: intellectual endeavor in the Church may have personal or intrinsic value, but not instrumental value. It is not something to benefit the Church institution or its authorities, not something that can be appropriately used to further an agenda or used toward any (supra-personal) end.
This paragraph is illustrative:
What, then, ought Mormon intellectuals to do? The first answer is “What everyone else does.” Sit in the pews with your families and friends. When you find a speaker boring or inept, remember that others frequently find intellectuals boring and inept, and love the speaker through (rather than in spite of) the talk he gives. Clean the chapel, do your home teaching, set up chairs when needed.
Again, it’s hard to disagree with these sentiments – taken on their own. My disagreement comes with the rhetorical “period” he places on the advice he gives here. The error lies in the equivocation at play in that “period.” No one ought to deny that as Mormons Mormon intellectuals are like all other Mormons and ought to engage in all the mundane (and divine) activities of the laity. One can say the same of bishops, relief society presidents, and apostles. If we end the conversation here, however, we steamroll over the important contributions that we can all variously make, and indeed those contributions most of us have covenanted to make. Inasmuch as Jim is merely noting (as he explicitly does) that unlike other Churches, we have no specific institutional role for intellectuals, he’s on firm footing. But that surely doesn’t mean that intellectual endeavor is of no institutional or social value in the Church – which is exactly what his claims come to: “The place of the intellectual in the LDS Church is not to serve some purpose, to bring something about, or to change affairs any more than the place of any particular non-intellectual in the Church is to bring something about by means of their professions, personal passions, and interests.” But this comment strikes me as incredible. Jim and I and many of you have explicitly covenanted to utilize just those things – our professions, personal passions, interests, time, talents, efforts, etc. – to building up the Kingdom of God.
As written, it looks like Jim is making a number of unjustified assumptions that contribute to the overextension of his point. First, in claiming that intellectuals’ contributions need to be “good for the Church on its own terms,” Jim seems to prioritize institution over individual – but that get’s the priority relationship exactly backwards. Our work is meant to be good for the Church on its own terms, but only because those terms are the exaltation of families – which is where the priority lies. Second, Jim seems to be removing agency from the equation insofar as “good” intellectual gifts are concerned – that which makes the gift good is a matter of institutional approbation; how one’s agency is involved is irrelevant. I think that’s simply wrong (more on this below). Third, Jim assumes that criticism of the Church equates to criticism of those in authority (which obviously would be problematic given our belief in those authorities as prophets, seers, and revelators). This is simply not true. No one who’s had administrative responsibilities in an organization of any size or complexity can maintain the naïve belief that everything done in that organization is a manifestation of the will of the leaders. Prophets in scripture perhaps universally criticize the Church over which they preside – the two aren’t synonymous.
Finally, Jim begins his article acknowledging that intellectual’s fail society when they fail to lend their intellectual skills to the betterment of society – which importantly includes much needed criticism. Noting that the Church is not a democracy, however, Jim dismisses the notion that there is a similar obligation for intellectuals with regard to the Church. This is an oversimplification that covers over the issue and its attending stakes. Plausibly, the Church’s non-democratic institutional status means that the service potential of individuals – or the way in which it is appropriately rendered – is going to be different than it is in a democracy. That certainly doesn’t mean (at least not without a lot more argument) that there’s no role for it at all.
I agree that we can get a big head and start viewing our particular talent or passion as disproportionately important, that we are in “the know,” that our education or intellect gives us special moral insight or wisdom concerning needed reforms, or the like. This fact, however, is not in tension with the notion that our personal talents and skills can be of significant benefit, even without there being a specific institutional role that recognizes and utilizes these talents. This is just as true of intellectuals as it is of basket weavers. Steve Young does not have superior moral worth or capital on account of his athletic talent; there is no institutional position to be filled by prodigious Mormon athletes. But to claim that his profession and skill is therefore useless – that it has no potential instrumental value – is to dismiss the potential that he (and by extension all of us) has to invest his talents in building the Kingdom of God. Just as athletes can contribute – not exploitatively, but by the manner in which they conduct and “make use” of themselves – so too can intellectuals contribute, and in ways specific to intellectual endeavor.
The proper conclusion for individuals (intellectual or otherwise) seeking to be of use to the Church is humility, not inaction or burying of talents. Treating my gifts as useless for the Church is not a virtue, it’s a vice; it is an act of withholding what God has given us from those we might have helped if we were more actively and agentfully engaged.
Jim undermines his own argument concerning the “good for nothing” nature of intellectual endeavor when he endorses the efforts of the Mormon Theology Seminar and the resulting publications by the Salt Press. He speaks of these publications as mere “gifts” to the Church without any specific agenda. It seems to me that the relevant question does not concern agendas but whether the gift is a good one (and hence categorized by Moroni as one of those things we ought to seek after) or a bad one. Critically, it can’t be a good gift if it’s not to some degree mindful of itself and has at least some notion of itself as valuable. Imagine someone giving you an immensely helpful gift (as a gift) and when you try to sincerely thank them they merely shrug their shoulders with genuine indifference and claim that they see no value whatsoever in the gift they’ve given. You might appreciate what you were given nonetheless, but the nature of the “gift” at this point is very different. As D&C 58:27-28 reminds us, our agency, especially in the absence of specific institutional direction, is critical. Who we are and our individual talents matter in building the Kingdom, whether we’re serving as prophet or sacrament greeter.
I see Jim’s claims as an oppositional response to what we might call the Margaret Toscano doctrine of intellectual engagement. In a wonderful piece that uses our doctrine of Heavenly Mother to highlight the nature of power structures in the Church, Toscano sees within Mormonism both a “demand for official authorization” and a “theological need for rigorous philosophical analysis.” While the former demand is necessarily provided for by Church authorities, the latter need corresponds to the work of intellectuals. Granting a theological need for “rigorous philosophical analysis” probably entails a moral imperative for those capable of fulfilling that need (i.e., intellectuals). Satisfying such a need seems to be paradigmatically “useful.” Furthermore, if theology and norms reduce to power structures inhering in (mutable) organization, then there can certainly be no prohibition against intellectuals making use of whatever power the current structure grants them to vie for any changes they deem appropriate. Such power struggles are natural and inevitable rather than more or less appropriate.
To review and contrast, the relevant implications of Toscano’s position are as follows:
- There is no inherent, moral difference between the contributions of Church authorities and scholars; rather, there are only those (mutable) distinctions currently demanded by the Church population or those that arise out of current (again, mutable) Church structure
- Philosophical analysis of Church theology and practice is needed and cannot be provided (at least sufficiently) by Church authorities; scholars are instrumentally useful and needed
- Scholars capable of analyzing, critiquing, and vying for reform have at least a right to do so, and perhaps a moral obligation
On the other hand, the relevant implications of Faulconer’s position are as follows:
- There are both structural differences between scholars and Church authorities (i.e., the Church is not a democracy), and moral differences (scholars lack the divine sanction or revelatory stewardship of Church leaders)
- Lacking both structural and moral authority, scholars ought to recognize that any contribution they can make is non-instrumental (i.e., “useless” or “good for nothing”) and subject to the desires and discretion of Church authorities
- Consequently, scholars ought to humbly recognize their accorded position, unite with fellow members, and not concern themselves with whether their indifferently proffered “gifts” are accepted or ignored
Note: while I’ve tried to be fair and accurate, it may be that I’m misreading one or both of them, 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.
I find both Toscano and Faulconer compelling but excessive. Mormon experience and theology both attest to the fact that one can appropriately or inappropriately utilize their gifts with regard to the Church. At the same time, need plus capacity does not always equal a good marriage. On the other hand, Mormon experience and theology likewise both attest to the use-ful nature of intellectual acumen to the Kingdom of God; and there are more and less appropriate ways of being anxiously engaged to bring about many things of our own free will – that is, outside the official sanction and calling of the Church.
Over dinner and other occasions of interaction when I was a missionary Stanley Kimball taught me in word and deed about what he called mind service. I’ll never forget him saying, “We all quote the various scriptures commanding us to love and serve God with all our heart, might, mind and strength, and we’re all fairly conversant with what it means to love and serve God with our heart, might and strength. But we rarely mention, let alone elaborate on what it might mean to love and serve God with our minds. Well, I’ve tried to devote my energies to mind service.” We’re commanded to seek after all truth, and specifically given the injunction to obtain “secular knowledge.” This is both individually and collectively true (much like our command to take seriously the Book of Mormon). Mind service is needed if we are to obtain this end.
The critical qualifier to genuine mind service is, of course, that it must be performed as an act of love. Loving God through intellectual service is the appropriate resolution of the Toscano-Faulconer conflict. This is includes the intellectual principle of charity with regard to how we take up the church’s history, practice, and doctrine in constructive intellectual engagement, but goes well beyond it. Genuine, selfless love of God and all humanity ought to be our chief and overwhelming motivation.
Working out the specifics of what mind service entails requires a lot more than what I’m contributing here. Nevertheless, simply identifying it as an alternative to the positions outlined above is, I think, an important corrective to the overreach of Jim’s position. In brief, I believe that loving mind service includes at least the following:
- A recognition of the structural and moral differences between intellectuals and Church authorities, and the appropriate humility vis-à-vis one’s service that this recognition calls for
- An agentful election to devote intellectual service, to be use-ful to the Kingdom of God – (again) humbly recognizing that those involved in such service are not the arbiter of what is and is not ultimately useful (i.e., performing your service in love). This of course includes an unflinching willingness to offer constructive criticism or candid evaluation, particularly when such evaluations are made on the basis of one’s specific field of expertise
- A recognition of the eternal virtue of intellectual proficiency and a commitment to promoting and improving the Church’s (individual and collective) intellectual caliber according to the skill and opportunities one is afforded
Ironically, Jim more than anyone else I know has devoted his life to mind service in the Kingdom of God. Beyond electing and magnifying a career as an educator at BYU and contributing a constant stream of intellectually edifying and enriching materials to the Church membership at large, Jim has initiated and supported numerous organizations devoted to the intellectual pursuits and contributions of the LDS community – including Times & Seasons!
While I feel very much like I’m just getting started, I know I’ve already long since transgressed bloggernacle norms and attention spans. I’ll conclude with a slightly modified version of Jim’s conclusion quoted above:
It is difficult to remember because we are human, but the responsibility of the Mormon intellectual is, first, not to allow our intellects to separate us from the other members of the Church and, second, to work at being intellectually use-ful and, thereby, good for the Church on its own terms. If we are to love God with all of our minds, we should be good for nothing except for that which the Kingdom demands—our very best intellectual contributions.
 I hope that the inclusion of “professions” on that list is allowed its obvious meaning and that the discussion isn’t derailed by arguments concerning the ways in which one can inappropriately exploit their professions in order to “promote” Mormonism.
 Obviously, this doesn’t grant us all the same critiquing privileges of prophets.
 Pg 21. Toscano paints a Foucaultian picture wherein Mormon theology is constrained largely by the social norms arising out of the power structures inherent in how we organize ourselves as a Church. Much of what we believe and how we practice arises naturally out of the “authority structures [that] predetermine who and what gets included in Mormon theological discourse (15).” Overall, I find it an important and provocative essay – one we ought to be reading and discussing.
 Obviously this isn’t an exact quote – but it is exactly how I remember him saying it.