Advice for a Mormon Intellectual, Part 2

If we've had revelation ourselves, then we know that it is almost always given in response to current needs and issues, but that it doesn't come on command, when it would be useful by others' standards. Nor does it usually come accompanied by an explanation; the Lord seldom explains himself. Like the rest of us, even with revelation sometimes the Brethren have to teach and act with less than a complete story.

That isn't to say they are unclear or that decisions about church doctrine or practice is made on the fly and is mostly just interpretation. I believe that our leaders are called to get things right, and they do. But they almost always lack the kind of collateral rational support that a systematic theology might provide—and which we would sorely like to have if what they say doesn't coincide with our desires and expectations.

That is not to say that we ought not to look for reasons that explain the teachings of the LDS Church. It is only to say that we ought not to assume that the leaders of the Church can give us those explanations or that we will always be able to figure them out.

6) Don't begin studying Mormonism, and especially don't do Mormon theology, without having thought deeply and carefully about faith, law, grace, works, and other common religious terms. They may not mean the same within Mormonism as they do in other places. They may not mean the same thing in each instance when they are used within Mormonism. These terms are not unambiguous, either as experienced by Mormons, or as we find them in Mormon scripture and teaching. But understanding them is central to knowing how to think about your faith.

7) As much thoughtful study of Mormonism as is required, you need to do even more critical study of your own discipline. You need to understand its models, categories, assumptions, descriptive language, pre-suppositions, etc. What does each mean? What does each entail?

Are there assumptions in the discipline to which you will have to take exception? If you're going to run the risk of analyzing your faith critically, you must be sure you have not committed yourself to using as a measure something less true and less revealed and revealing than Mormonism itself.

Will you be able to explain your exception-taking? If you're going to take exception to assumptions of your discipline, you will need to be able to give good intellectual reasons for doing so.

8) Perhaps this is another way to say the same thing, but before you begin a study or critique of Mormonism, ask what kinds of fundamental commitments you have when it comes to questions like what it means to be human, how we come to know, what are the foundations of ethics and morals, and what it means to say that something is real. Though these sound like only abstruse philosophical questions, what you do in your discipline will involve having taken a position on these things and more. The positions you take on them, even unconsciously, will color not only the work you do in your discipline, but also your study and interpretation of Mormonism. It will also influence your faith.

9) Though much in Mormonism may be unique, it also has much in common with other faiths. We ought to recognize those with pleasure and joy, and we should celebrate them with those who are not LDS. We ought not to make more of our uniqueness than appropriate. At the same time, however, making these comparisons requires keen insight, great care, and good judgment so that important differences are neither leveled off nor overlooked. We owe that both to the integrity of our faith and to integrity of other faiths.

10) Keep in mind that Mormonism may have a greater tendency to morph more than other faiths. Considered diachronously, some accounts of Mormonism and Mormon belief may be contradictory, and there is perhaps no synchronous account without unexplained or nonintegrable gaps. There may be no one, satisfactory story of Mormon belief.

For example, we have many metaphors of how the atonement works, some inconsistent with others. Yet few Latter-day Saints are concerned about the incommensurability of those metaphors. Frankly, asking which metaphor is correct is probably a bad question. I suspect that offering a conceptual scheme that pretended to capture the atonement completely without remainder would be equally a mistake.

These points I've made about being a Mormon intellectual ought not to be given any particular authority. They are just my best try at saying some of the things I have been thinking about. But they are occasional thoughts, thoughts of the moment. Give me a week or even a day and I'm likely to think differently. I doubt, though, that any future rethinking will veer sharply in another direction. What will change will be details and, I hope, better ways of explaining myself. Consider them a tentative, revisable gift from a friend.

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.