The Responsibility of (Mormon) Intellectuals
The usual skepticism—perhaps I am merely following a current intellectual fad; perhaps I trust my insight too much—is appropriate. Within the Church, add to it the skepticism that ought to come when I compare my thoughts to thoughts that, in principle, may have been inspired by God. In that comparison, I always come in second, at best. Intellectuals should all be humble; Mormon intellectuals should be doubly so.
The Book of Mormon describes the situation in which Mormon intellectuals find themselves:
O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish. But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God. (2 Nephi 9:28-29)
Thinking that our learning is sufficient to make us wise, we intellectuals have a tendency to set God's counsels aside, often because they come through human, fallible voices who are not as learned as we.
We suppose that we "know of ourselves," which I take to mean that we know because we have put forth the effort to learn, to study, to experiment, and to publish for peers. We may forget that, even if we are speaking in only human terms, we have not come to what we know alone, of ourselves. The cliché that we stand on the shoulders of giants is a cliché because it is true. Worse, however, is that we forget that wisdom requires not only our learning, but also the counsels of God.
In some churches there is a distinct place for intellectuals: they can be priests of certain sorts; they can teach in seminaries and schools for the ministry; they can take part in learned discussions among congregational leaders that will have an impact on the church or on individual congregations through them. There are no such venues of influence for Mormon intellectuals.
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.
Serve thoughtfully and faithfully where you are called to serve, not expecting special methods for intellectuals, special callings to suit our talents as we perceive them, or special classes to meet our "needs." Fast and pray often. Take part in the rites of the temple. Be thought of as Brother or Sister So-and-so rather than Mormon Intellectual So-and-so. In other words, we should do what everyone else does: stop thinking that we are special; be ordinary and learn to love ordinary life.
Learn to love the order of the ordinary and the divine influence that can manifest itself between the lines of that order, expecting neither that intellectuals will create the meaningfulness of the ordinary nor that they will significantly interrupt the course of the ordinary. God, not the intellectual, gives meaning to and disrupts the meaning of the ordinary. And he uses frail mortals to do so, sometimes intellectuals, more often not.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.