Advice for a Mormon Intellectual, Part 1

Note: This is part 1 of a two-part series.

The entries for the word "intellectual" in the Oxford English Dictionary suggest that, as we use it, namely to refer to a person who has academic and cultural interests, the word is relatively young, perhaps not two hundred years old. But in spite of the fact that the etymological meaning of the word is relatively neutral, since the last half of the 19th century, it has had primarily a negative meaning. People often preface the word "intellectual" with "so-called."

As a result, even people who are interested in academic learning and in cultivating cultural matters are nervous about referring to themselves as intellectuals. Few are willing to come off as snobs.

But if those interested in ideas and culture didn't often take themselves to be superior to others, I doubt that the word "intellectual" would have that connotation. Presumably the history of its use by intellectuals themselves is responsible for the problem, but in spite of that we ought not to let the devil have all of the good words. "Intellectual" describes a perfectly legitimate mode of life, one that was strongly encouraged in early Mormonism and that continues to be an important part of the LDS tradition.

Intellectuals are quick to recognize that being a fine athlete and being interested in athletic pursuits doesn't make a person superior in other matters. Athletes' superiority doesn't necessarily give them additional cultural or moral authority, though it sometimes seems to, especially in the case of professional athletes. In any case, most adults recognize that athletic superiority ought not to confer broader authority.

Surely the same thing is true for those with interests and talents in things intellectual. Intellectual gifts aren't always accompanied by other gifts. Even if some intellectuals are particularly good at what they do, that doesn't mean they have moral, political, religious, or any other additional authority. They ought not to ask for it, and we ought not to give it.

If intellectuals didn't expect to have additional moral and cultural authority because of their interests or intelligence, then for a person to say "I am an intellectual" ought to be no more problematic than saying "I am an athlete." The claim ought to do no more than identify an area of interest and, perhaps, ability.

If we use the word"intellectual" in that way, then I have no problem saying that I am an intellectual. I like books and the arts. I like to talk about ideas and read. I know a number of other intellectuals. I encourage many I know to become or to continue to be intellectuals. I hope that we will have a good number of intellectuals in the LDS Church. But"intellectual" is merely one group among many often overlapping groups within the Church, including athletes, architects, cooks, mechanics, and bottle washers.

That said, I want to give some probably presumptuous advice to Mormon intellectuals, advice that I hope will help us keep "Mormon intellectual" from being a term of contempt.

The only authority I have for giving this advice is age and interest: I've spent a lot of time engaged in intellectual pursuits, particularly philosophy and the close reading of scripture. In philosophy I've said, written, and done things that I later regretted. I've done the same with regard to religion. I hope I learned from all those mistakes. While making and, I hope, correcting those mistakes I've talked with colleagues about what it means to be an intellectual. I've talked about what it might mean to be a Mormon intellectual with friends who have similar interests. This particular list, for example, comes partly as a response to an email exchange with my friend Richard Williams that began several weeks ago. Perhaps those discussions have given me something worth sharing.

What I advise, therefore, in this column and the next is offered in the interest of cultivating those closer to the beginning of their intellectual path than I. I offer it in friendship, but only as arguable advice. Some are likely to see ways of saying what I say better than I did. Others may have different advice, perhaps even entirely different advice, perhaps different to the point of being contradictory. I hope those who read what I suggest will read with those possibilities in mind. The points I make here are not exclusive nor are they part of any agonistic argument.

Additionally, the points I offer aren't ordered according to some logical relationship between them. I had a difficult enough time thinking about the individual points. It was too much for me to try to decide the optimal order among them.

1) As you think about religious questions, ask how well the cultural and disciplinary categories commonly used to think about religion, churches, and religious phenomena fit Mormonism. Consider whether in some respects Mormonism may be different enough that the categories have to be rethought if they are to be useful. In other word, be cautious about simply assuming that Mormonism can be straightforwardly assimilated to the language and concepts of your discipline or culture.

12/2/2022 9:09:19 PM
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  • James Faulconer
    About James Faulconer
    James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.