Fifty Years as a Mormon
Because of my conversion, these questions have been part of my intellectual life for much of the past fifty years. They've not always been at the center of my work. In fact, only within the last 10 or 15 years have they begun to be my primary interest. But at some level they have always been there.
Nevertheless I have less confidence that I know what the answers to such questions are than I had when I was a graduate student. Yet I have more confidence that we are in need of rethinking our world as a whole and that contemporary philosophy at least raises the questions we need to take up and may suggest alternatives. It may help us see the need for something new.
I also have more confidence that the gospel of Jesus Christ as understood through Mormonism is a genuine alternative to the way of being-in-the-world that is essential to modernity. I have more confidence that what Mormonism brings to the intellectual table can make a difference, though I have difficulty being confident that we know what that difference is.
As Latter-day Saints we seldom understand how different our beliefs really are. We know that we are Christians. In many ways we look much like other Christians. As a consequence we don't recognize the huge chasm between some of their beliefs and some of ours. It is a chasm that may scandalize them, but that we rarely see.
That chasm means that in spite of appearances we may live in the world quite differently than others. The chasm has important implications, but we seldom see them. For example, because Mormons are ultimately materialists, though certainly not simple materialists, we find it much easier than some other religious people to take science seriously. A surprising number of Mormons go into and flourish in the sciences, including evolutionary sciences. Because Mormons are communal beings, in principle we have the intellectual resources for thinking about alternatives to contemporary individuality. Understanding human beings as essentially relational, we seem to be amenable to much contemporary social science.
Of course, one danger of thinking about the implications of Mormonism is that we will rush too quickly to our conclusions, sure that we know what it means and sure that we know how what it means impinges on contemporary questions. That is the danger I often see in student papers: reading something by Heidegger or Levinas or someone else, they think "That philosopher says X and the gospel says X' or Y. Here's how those two are related." The student barely understands the philosopher and assumes, without critical reflection, that he or she knows what the Mormon belief is or implies about the topic. Students aren't the only ones who make that mistake.
The other, equal danger is that we will not enter into that discussion of the gospel's implications at all. We will cordon our lives into regions that remain unrelated to each other, placing faith in one region, our daily affairs in another, and our university studies in yet another, allowing each to continue without affecting the others. That may be the more common mistake.
To do that, however, is to fail to be converted or to fail to remain converted: the convert is the one who comes to new life as a whole, not just to a new view of religion and the same old views of everything else. Christian conversion requires that change of our being as a whole, not just a change of this or that part of our being.
Conversion to Mormonism has had more than only its effects on my intellectual and professorial life. It has also had deep and abiding personal effects: I experience my marriage as something eternal; my children and grandchildren are related to me as brothers and sisters in an eternal web that reaches out to include every human being; no matter where I go, I am already part of a community, a village as it were, to which I have obligations and from which I receive sustenance; I have come to have an appreciation for an attitude toward the world that is something like what Paul Ricoeur describes as a second naiveté (one that changes the first naiveté without making it merely symbolic); scripture and scripture study grow in their importance to my life as a whole.
The list could go on, but at the center of all the effects of my conversion has been a growing understanding and appreciation of what it means to confess Jesus of Nazareth as my Savior. The more I come to recognize the grace he offers me, the more I see the world I inhabit differently, as a place filled with grace and requiring my graceful response.
The last fifty years have been good to me in many ways, but all of those ways are given meaning by the brief spiritual experience I had as a 14-year-old, a revelation of God's grace that has unfolded in many ways, few of which anyone could have anticipated, all of them blessings.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.