The School of Mormon Theology, or The Lure of Fame
A week ago the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology had its annual meetings at Brigham Young University. (Yes, there really is such a society, though like many academic societies, we aren't always organized as well as we should be. But we are working on that. SMPT has a website, a journal, a board and constitution, and — most crucial — members. If you're interested, join up.)
With a couple of friends who are doing related work, I spoke on the evening of the last day of the conference. Introducing the three of us, someone described us as a school. Had I not bristled for a moment, I would have snickered longer. I don't think the person who used the term did so with any particular intent. But that word is often used either with some derision ("these guys all think alike because they are under the same spell") or it is used pretentiously, which is why it is so often used derisively ("We are such important thinkers that what we are doing is a school of thought"). Hence my mild rejection of the word that night.
Since then I've returned to reread Jean-Yves Lacoste's From Theology to Theological Thinking. I'm writing a longer piece about prayer, and I find that reading his work gives me ideas. In the middle of the book Lacoste has a discussion of ancient and medieval philosophical schools in a chapter titled "Philosophy, Theology, and the Academy," and he makes the point that originally philosophical and theological schools weren't identified by the fact that they held to a certain theory or group of theories. Rather, they were distinguished by the way of life present in those who gathered in the schools.
One of Lacoste's examples is the students at the monastic school of Bec (where Anselm was a student): "they first belong to a community for which scholarly work is not the privileged end: the students work collectively to understand what they believe only by being engaged together in the opus Dei" (37-38), and of course for monks the opus Dei, "the work of God," is the entire work of the monastery, from prayer to basket weaving to cleaning the latrine.
That struck me as imminently relevant: many of us want to understand what we believe, not by setting ourselves apart from the work of God so that we can take up scholarly and intellectual work, but by taking part in his work in a way that makes our intellectual life part of the broader work. In that sense, I hope my friends and I are a school. And given the difference between being part of a school and thinking alike, I hope that those Mormons who think quite differently than my friends and I do about philosophy and theology are part of the same school. If thinking about our religion is part of the work we are doing together as Saints, then we are a school. But it would be a disaster if there were to be an Ostler, Paulsen, Miller, Spencer, Faulconer, or other school of theology in Mormonism.
Given what it means to be human, that disaster is difficult to avoid. For most of those with an academic bent, the desire to "have students" and to be well-known (on Facebook, in the blogosphere, on "Rate My Professor," in Deseret Book, among other LDS intellectuals, among those who have left the Church, among those who are defending the Church, etc.) can be more tempting than the desire for money. I think the temptation is harder to resist because it is harder to recognize that I'm succumbing. I can always notice that, relative to someone or other, I am not yet rich. It's hard to know whether I'm famous. The problem with the desire for fame and following is that it is difficult for that desire not to push us toward factionalism — in New Testament terms, apostasy whether or not we leave the Church.
The desire for a faction or party within a larger whole, a sect in the literal sense, is tempting. It gives us an identity within that whole. Or it offers a counter-identity if we are not pleased with the aspects of the identity of the larger whole. (That, as much as anything else, may explain why I'm a Democrat in Utah County.) So one reason factions arise easily is because some find it tempting to have followers who agree about our identity, and some like to have someone to follow with whom they agree, and the two groups often overlap.
Pray to God that we resist the temptation to have more than one school of Mormon thought, whether as those who write theology or as those who read it. May 1,000 flowers of Mormon theology bloom, but may we all bloom in the same garden.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.