“The Responsibility of (Mormon) Intellectuals,” A Review

James Faulconer, the Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, recently wrote the following on patheos.com:

Whereas an intellectual is duty-bound to criticize those in political power as needed and to use his or her learning to do so, intellectual members of the [LDS] Church don’t have that same responsibility. That doesn’t mean that the Church never makes a mistake or that it is beyond criticism. It means that if I believe that the Church is, on the whole, led by revelation, then I must be doubly skeptical of my opinions.

I’m not sure I know where to start:

  • First, he doesn’t define the term “intellectual.”  So, I’m not sure what audience he is addressing;
  • Second, I agree with him that intellectuals, whoever they are, should be humble; and
  • Third, skepticism is a healthy human trait and should not be dismissed or downplayed, even as it relates to the LDS Church.

I’m not sure that I would qualify as an intellectual.  I do have too many graduate degrees, but I work more as a generalist than as a specialist.  I don’t work for a university, I work for the Federal government.  I’m not a scientist or a social scientist, I’m a planning engineer.  Most of my writing doesn’t have footnotes and I haven’t written a book.  But for the sake of argument, I will call myself an “intellectual.”

As such, Faulconer says that I need to be humble.  That is a wonderful idea.  My wife, my kids, my grandkids, my Mother, my colleagues, and my friends frequently tell me that I need to be more humble.  And I sincerely appreciate their suggestions.

Faulconer lists many ways that I can be humble in a LDS Church setting:

  • Sit in the pews with my family and friends, and enjoy the church service,
  • Serve faithfully when called to serve, not expecting special treatment,
  • Clean the chapel, do my home teaching, set up chairs,
  • etc.

Not once does he mention that I should help my neighbor, that I should assist the poor, or that I should help protect the Earth.  I would remind Faulconer that “To whom much is given, much is expected.”  But I do agree that I should “learn to love ordinary life.”

On the issue of what I should do with my opinions, Faulconer’s position is very troubling.  Members can have a positive impact on the LDS senior leadership.  It is my understanding that years ago, the GAs asked the membership to fast and contribute money toward relief in Ethiopia.  The Church collected so much money, that they were forced to consider what their role should be in worldwide relief efforts.  And that helped bring about the birth of the modern LDS Humanitarian Services efforts.

While many members can claim that giving Black’s the priesthood was done through revelation, pressure from the membership didn’t hurt.  And by the same token, we can always hope that pressure from the membership can bring about a change in the Church’s attitude towards gays.

I suspect that strong opinions from some quarters helped shorten the lives of “Mormon” books like Man, His Origin and Destiny and more recently Mormon Doctrine.  The former was just plain silly and the latter espoused some questionable information concerning doctrine.

Our individual opinions do count, they are important, and they should not be hidden.  To imply that the membership should follow blindly, makes us look like a cult.  And we are not a cult.

Faulconer ends his essay on an interesting note.  He brags about his involvement with the Mormon Theology Seminars and Salt Press, and their projects that don’t “bring about anything at all.”  Setting himself up as a wonderful example, doesn’t seem like humility to me.

On 25 Feb 2012, timesandseasons.org had a lengthy discussion on Faulconer’s essay.

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6 Responses to “The Responsibility of (Mormon) Intellectuals,” A Review

  1. Joseph West says:

    Nice post. To be fair to Faulconer, he wouldn’t be in the position he is in at BYU if he didn’t toe the line like this. So I’m not sure why I expect anything different. But it’s still disappointing. What a cop-out. To me, cowardice dressed in the robes of humility is still cowardice.

  2. roger hansen says:

    The more I thought about Faulconer’s essay, the more disappointed I became. In is my “humble” opinion, the LDS Church has too many “make work” jobs. To take an incredibly educated membership and waste a large part of its “talents” seems like a crime. Let’s keep the “intellectual” members humble, but let’s not waste their talents. The LDS Church could do so much more to improve neighborhood, state, country, and world conditions than it is currently doing. Let’s chuck some of the paper work and “make work” projects and get on with real projects. Part of being an “inspired” organization is getting the right people in the right jobs.

    An example of a LDS Church “intellectual” and educator who held a high church position and was still able to contribute mightly to improving things in Utah and the world beyond was Elder John A. Widtsoe. He was a world-famous soil scientist and irrigation engineer, and an apostle. While in the Quorum, he continued his efforts to bridge the gap betweeb science and religion (and more specifically between Mormonism and science) and to expound the benefits of improving farm operations and irrigation systems. And I have no doubts that he was humble. He was an “intellectual” that we could all emulate.

  3. Nate Curtis says:

    I have to be missing something here. What is the argument in support of “useless good”?
    Secondly, classic example of cherry-picking scripture for argument (something I love to do). What about the dozens of scriptures that instruct us to do good, multiply talents…

    I expect much more articulate and refined arguments from someone who has a Ph.D. in philosophy.

  4. Pingback: “Losing Faith” | Tired Road Warrior

  5. rogerdhansen says:

    The following are short quotes from comments to Faulconer’s blog on patheos.com:

    According to Apron Appeal: “I agree with it because I think it’s important for us to “be one” under Christ but to say we are good for nothing is more that I can embrace. Especially since we are asked to give everything we can to the church. It’s not a matter of mulling along and doing what everyone else does, it’s using our gifts and talents to build up the kingdom of God. There is more to it than warming the bench.”

    According to James Woods: “Surely this level of grovelling isn’t necessary to keep a job at BYU.”

    According to Ordinary Guest: ” . . . you have been living in the Utah bubble too long.”

    According to Perronoe: “As a graduate student, it can be way to easy to consider yourself smarter, more informed or simply more sophisticated than other members and believers. But you are 100 percent correct that our duty to the kingdom does not change even if our intellectual capacity does.”

  6. roger hansen says:

    James Olsen discussing Faulconer’s piece for timesandseasons.org (25 February 2012) writes: “The proper conclusion for individuals (intellectual or otherwise) seeking to be of use to the Church is humility, not inaction or burying of talents. Treating my gifts as useless for the Church is not a virtue, it’s a vice; it is an act of withholding what God has given us from those we might have helped if we were more actively and agentfully engaged.”

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