GUEST HOST—‘Thinking Otherwise,’ with James E. Faulconer and Morgan Davis [MIPodcast #124]
James E. Faulconer has spent his career enriching the scripture study of Latter-day Saints, offering powerful tools to improve engagement with the word of God. His latest book continues that project. Thinking Otherwise: Theological Explorations of Joseph Smith’s Revelations. It’s the latest volume in the Maxwell Institute’s Living Faith book series.
Our guest host today is Dr. Morgan Davis, co-editor of the Living Faith series.
James E. Faulconer is a professor of philosophy at Brigham Young University and a senior research fellow at the Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. Faulconer’s area of expertise is twentieth-century and contemporary European philosophy, especially the philosophy of religion. In addition to writing scholarly books and articles, he is the author of the Made Harder series of scripture study questions and Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions.
BLAIR HODGES: Welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast, I’m Blair Hodges.
No Latter-day Saint has enriched my personal scripture study more than Dr. James E. Faulconer, a philosopher, theologian, and research fellow here at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute. From his old book simply called Scripture Study to his Scriptures Made Harder series, Dr. Faulconer has given Latter-day Saints powerful tools to improve our engagement with the word of God. And his latest book continues that project. It’s called Thinking Otherwise: Theological Explorations of Joseph Smith’s Revelations. It’s the latest volume in the Maxwell Institute’s Living Faith book series. And so our guest host today is Dr. Morgan Davis, co-editor of the Living Faith series. He’s more familiar with Dr. Faulconer’s latest book than most anyone could be. You can learn more about the new book at bit.ly/thinkingotherwise.
Questions and comments about this and other episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast can be sent to me at email@example.com. And now it’s Morgan Davis speaking with James E. Faulconer about his new book, Thinking Otherwise.
MORGAN DAVIS: Hello everyone and welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Morgan Davis. I’m a research fellow here at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute. And it’s my great pleasure today to have James Faulconer here, the author of Thinking Otherwise, the latest title in our Living Faith series that I’m privileged to be the co-editor of with Miranda Wilcox. Jim welcome.
JAMES E. FAULCONER: Thank you, glad to be here.
DAVIS: It’s exciting to talk about this book. It’s something that has a lot of ideas in it, a lot of things to explore, and let’s just dive right in with the subtitle. This book has an interesting subtitle, Theological Explorations of Joseph Smith’s Revelations. And right there we have the word “theology,” theological. What do you mean by the word theology? This can be a term that immediately makes people nervous sometimes.
FAULCONER: Well I understand the nervousness. In fact I share a good part of that nervousness I think, because theology can be a way of establishing “my truth is better than your truth,” or some kind of rock-solid base that nobody is supposed to think about or disagree with or whatever.
But when I think about theology I’m trying to use the word in its etymological meaning, “talk about God.” And so this is a matter of saying, How do I reflect thoughtfully about God and how God has revealed himself? And what can I say about that as I reflect on it? Not necessarily to establish what no one could disagree with but just to say, as much as anything else, here’s an interesting idea, perhaps it’s something we can follow up on, perhaps it’s something we can consider. Not, “here you go, now we’re all done.”
DAVIS: Right. It seems like we didn’t used to use the word theology at all, it’s starting to be a little more common, at least here at the Maxwell Institute. We now have the brief theological introductions to the Book of Mormon, and we’re using that word a little bit more, so maybe that’s a positive thing.
FAULCONER: I think it is, I’m the author of one of the offending tracts in this history, having written a piece which I argued—well, I gave it at a conference at Yale—I argued fairly strenuously that we ought not to have a theology. I still agree with what I said in that piece, but what I intended was that the church doesn’t need an official theology. And I still believe that really strongly. I think it would be a mistake for us to have some kind of officially curated and declared theology, I like it the way it is right now. I think it’s the best way to do it. But I don’t think that means we shouldn’t have theology and I never have thought that we shouldn’t do theology at all.
So I’m glad to see we’re able to talk about it in a way that relieves us from the burden of thinking “If I say this, and I say it’s theological, then somehow it’s as if I’m saying this is for the whole church and people have to accept what I’ve said.”
DAVIS: Right, right. Okay, so the main title of the book is Thinking Otherwise, and that’s a little provocative, thinking otherwise about what? It seems to kind of indicate that maybe we haven’t been thinking right about something.
FAULCONER: I should first confess that I stole the title from a French philosopher named Emmanuel Levinas. I was reading his book years ago and I came across a sentence in which he talks about his own work as “thinking otherwise,” and I thought “if I ever write a book about Latter-day Saint thinking that’s what I’m going to title it.”
The idea is that if we understand what Joseph Smith has revealed it gives us a way of thinking about the world, about God, about all kinds of things differently than the tradition has thought it. I think that we have often—especially when we’re doing theology, we have not taken advantage of that opening that Joseph Smith gives us to think about these questions other than the tradition thinks about them.
DAVIS: And it seems too that you’re advocating for a different way of thinking about theology itself perhaps. We’re calling it theology but it’s not a systematic, programmatic kind of theology.
FAULCONER: Certainly not. In fact the book moves away from something that’s more familiar to people I think, which is a kind of propositional statement of “Here are some beliefs,” toward what I think is a different kind of theology that is called “performative theology,” which is a matter of thinking about scripture and analyzing scripture and responding to scripture. And I think that is, at least from my point of view, perhaps the most important kind of theology we do.
DAVIS: Let’s dive into chapter one, “The One and The Many.” You waste no time, you charge right into the thorns and nettles where philosophy and theology intersect. You write on page 2, “Despite its seeming irrelevance to us most of the time the philosophical problem of the one and the many and philosophy’s answer to it is at the heart of Christian theology. Given what is at the heart of Christian theology, perhaps the best thing to do is to drive a stake through it. But even then it would be too late.” So those are strong words!
FAULCONER: Yeah they might be!
DAVIS: So what is this problem of the one and the many that you’re referring to?
FAULCONER: The one and the many—it’s a problem that begins in at least the 5th century BC. And the question is, the universe, the cosmos, the world, whichever term you want to use there, is it ultimately one thing or many things? And the traditional answer has been—and Parmenides, this early Greek philosopher has given his reasons for thinking so—but the traditional answer has been, “Well, there’s just one ultimate thing.”
And one reason for that is to say if there are two ultimate things, then you have to explain them and you’d refer to some anterior, ultimate thing and it would be the one. So there’s still just be one.
So that’s been the argument for thousands of years, and yet it seems to me that the revelations Joseph Smith gives us say that ultimately there is no “One.” There is no one thing that explains everything. There are multiple ones—intelligence, raw matter, God. At least those. And if you say, “Well then what’s behind them?” The answer is, “There’s nothing behind them, that’s what there is.”
DAVIS: There’s a really kind of radical difference there, isn’t there?
DAVIS: And it’s interesting to think about how humanity got to this notion of “The One” and you alluded to it there a minute ago about, you know, if there’s two things then there must be something prior to them. And I think in philosophy it’s referred to as “The Infinite Regress.” You know, the problem of an infinite regress.
FAULCONER: So, you have to stop, and when you stop you’re at the one.
DAVIS: Yeah, there has to be one ultimate cause that is itself without cause, right? And that’s the sort of Greek classical move.
FAULCONER: Yeah and it’s really, I think an incredible insight on Joseph Smith’s part that you don’t have to think that way. Now, you know, I have a granddaughter who came to me once and said, “Grandpa, I don’t understand how things could just go back forever and ever.” And my answer was, “Neither do I.” But I don’t understand if you go the other direction either. If you say, “There’s just one thing that goes back forever and ever,” I don’t think that is any more or less understandable.
DAVIS: Yeah it’s no more difficult to imagine an eternity of existing beings or stuff—
DAVIS: No more difficult to imagine that than to imagine an uncaused cause. Backs up to a mystery no matter what.
Okay so that’s the beginning of the problem of “The One” that you say sort of informs the rest of the history of philosophy coming down through the ages. But then the plot thickens in the religious world of Judaism and Christianity. We have people like Philo of Alexandria, who’s influenced by this notion of “The One.” Did it have to be so? Is there anything in the Hebrew scriptures that sort of portends this kind of thinking of God is “The One?”
FAULCONER: No, I think it’s a complicated question because Philo clearly has his influences from Greek thought where he’s trying to answer Greek thinkers and think about how to have these discussion with them, and he ends up falling down on the side of “The One.”
But, were there things in Hebrew scripture which portend that? Yes. The whole business about the one God and what that means. That’s complicated. There have been a number of studies in the last hundred years to show that that’s a very complicated question because Israel’s God was not as clearly a “One” as it then came to be later in the tradition.
DAVIS: Right. So they used the language of, “Hear O Israel, the LORD is one.” So they utter that number, but it might not mean—
FAULCONER: It might not mean what it comes to mean later on. But you can understand also—I tried to be sympathetic to people like Philo because he’s living in Alexandria, one of the most Greek of all cities, he’s trying to have these discussions with Greek thinkers and talk about Judaism and show that this is not just some kind of primitive wilderness belief. That it is, itself, a thoroughly sophisticated way of understanding the world and in trying to think about that, as he talks with them, they’re talking about “The One,” and he says, “Well, I believe in one God.” And so it’s not that difficult for these ideas to come together.
And then of course I think to change, to some degree, the way in which he and others saw their own past. But the same thing is true for the early Christians, all along the way. I’m not one who thinks—there may have been conniving priests who changed things, but I think for the most part, changes happen because that’s history. People trying to figure out how to survive in the world they live in and make sense of things given the tools they have, and things change.
DAVIS: Right, different ideas gain currency over time. And yet, I think it’s fair to say that the Hebrew scriptures do sort of describe or refer to a God that changes his mind, feels human emotions, has kind of anthropomorphic attributes, all of these things.
FAULCONER: Right, he moves from place to place. He gets angry. He argues with Abraham or Abraham argues with him, I’m not sure which way that argument went, but you know, Job confronts him and says, “Why did you do this?” These are all things where it’s fairly clear that there’s that element of Hebrew thinking that gets more or less covered over or metaphorized once you get to someone like Philo.
DAVIS: Yeah, creation itself is another example where there’s—Joseph Smith was fond of pointing out that creation ex nihilo, creation out of nothing, is not obvious in Genesis. So that’s sort of the Hebrew side of the scriptures.
And then in Christianity it gets even more complicated because now God shows up as a human being. And so how do you reconcile? This would have been the question that many Christians would have wrestled with. How do we now speak about “The One” when he’s a crucified man in Palestine?
FAULCONER: Yeah, Paul says that this is the scandal, right, is that now we have this God who has come to earth and he’s been crucified and resurrected. He came to earth as a human being, that’s a scandal to Judaism. He dies on a cross, that’s a scandal to Romans that a deity could be so ill-treated. And then he resurrected. This is just an unbelievable proposition for many on both sides of that discussion.
And so, once the Christians are trying to have discussions with the Romans and the Jews and others of the time, trying to have that discussion within a context where you’ve got Stoicism and other philosophies and you have Judaism and its way of thinking about things, trying to have that discussion gets extremely complicated.
DAVIS: And as we know, the history of Christianity is sort of littered with the examples of arguments and even wars fought over the nature of Christ and the nature of God resulting from this problem of a very specific manifestation of God in the world. It resists this really easy notion of “The One.”
That’s Jim Faulconer. He’s the author of Thinking Otherwise: Theological Explorations of Joseph Smith’s Revelations.
So let’s talk now a little bit about modernity. As time goes on, this thing called science comes along and it also introduces, I think, new wrinkles into the notion of “The One” or philosophy and theology that relies on this notion of “The One.” How does modern thinking come into play here?
FAULCONER: As you say, this gets more and more complicated as we go along. But perhaps the easiest of the ways to say it is science comes along, to some degree, as a response to questions raised by religion and positions taken by religion. And at first it says, “Yes, there’s a God. We’ll let the religious guys take care of that. And there’s a natural world, we’ll take care of that. But ultimately this is all just one thing and we may not be able to know exactly right now what that one thing is, but we’ll get that figured out.”
And once the scientists move in the direction of saying, “We don’t need to have God at all”—it doesn’t mean they’re atheists necessarily, but they just say, “In order to think about the world, we don’t have to have God, we’ll try thinking about the natural world.”
Once the make that move, then they retain the notion of a “One.” Whether that one is pure rationality, or for a long time there’s one science which is the queen of all of them, physics. And it will somehow explain everything else. So this notion that there’s one thing that explains everything continues to hold sway in the way that modern people think.
And let me just note here, I guess it’s important for me to say, by “moderns” I mean people from about the 17th century to the beginning of the 20th. So, I don’t necessarily mean people in the 21st century; those are “contemporary.”
DAVIS: Right. So the scientific method relies on a couple of assumptions or premises. You mention methodological materialism and objectivity. What are those two ideas and how are they related?
FAULCONER: Well methodological materialism is the idea that, methodologically, as you’re doing science, you don’t bring anything into your explanation that isn’t a material explanation. And so that means that metaphysical explanations that refer to God or something like that are irrelevant in the same way, and this is an example I take from Steven Peck, in the same way that I would be very surprised if I took my car to the mechanic and she said, “Oh well, the reason your car broke down is because an angel interfered.”
DAVIS: You’ve got bad spirits in there!
FAULCONER: Bad spirits. I would find myself another mechanic pretty quickly. I’m interested in one who gives me a material explanation for what happened and fixes it using material methods. Now she may very well be a believer, I would hope she is. But I don’t think as a person getting a mechanic, I don’t think I need her to believe in order to fix my car. So, that’s methodological materialism.
Objectivity is kind of a view within science that says, “What we’re going to do is focus on”—and this differs depending on the science—“we’re going to focus on a particular set of entities and we’re going to deal with them using the methods that we have developed for those entities.” And so objectivity gives me a look at this object as something that I could deal with in a particular way. It means that to which my attention is taken, literally, but objectivity is this—a slightly wider description is when we say, “Okay in the science of biology we’re going to look at the following kinds of entities and we will only use the following kinds of methods to examine those entities.”
Now, over time, what entities we look at and what methods we use may change as we figure certain things out, but at least we have this framing mechanism by which we decide what it is we are going to look at. And that’s objectivity.
DAVIS: And it strikes me that that’s an important way to think about complex things. We sort of mortals are limited in how many factors we can account for at any given moment in time. How many things our brains can sort of grasp at any one moment. And so, drawing a fairly narrow focus allows us to zero in on a particular issue or a particular aspect of reality.
And so, I think sometimes we think of objectivity as a kind of high-level way of thinking, a very sophisticated way of thinking, but in another way of thinking about it, it’s also acknowledging our human limitations and it’s the only way we have of approaching a really complex problem. It’s by zeroing in on the individual elements of it.
FAULCONER: Yeah, I think that’s right. And it’s a way of recognizing our limitations. It’s also a way of setting aside a lot of the complications. Maybe this is saying the same thing, but it sets aside a lot of the complications by saying– again, I use biology– but if I’m trying to do biology, if I have to think of everything while I’m doing that from the physicists explanations of things and the chemists and the religious person and…and I just keep adding those on, it just becomes too complicated for me to actually get anything done.
So it’s a way of saying, I’m going to recognize I can’t do all of that. I’m a limited human being and so what I’m going to do is set up a certain framework for what I will consider and how I will consider it.” And then I will look at it using that framework.
DAVIS: I love that, because I feel like a lot of times science gets, especially in our current political moment, it’s feels like science is the enemy or these high fallutin’ folks want to come in and dictate everything and say what is and what isn’t with such absolute authority that no one can question them.
And yet it seems like science actually begins from very humble premises that we are limited and we’re not able to handle more than one data set at a time. We’ve got to take things incrementally and go carefully and just recognize our limitations and that’s a very humble posture to adopt.
FAULCONER: Yeah, but the irony is that that humble posture has actually generated a really arrogant posture. So we start by saying, using our humility let’s make these objective decisions and these objective ways at looking at the world, and those turn out to be highly successful. They work really well.
And they work so well that then we say, “Dang it. I really know something. I’m so smart. You should just listen to me about everything I have to say.” And we do then end up idolizing science or on the flip side of that, just recognizing that arrogance, rejecting it completely. And it turns into a political football which seems to me completely unnecessary.
DAVIS: Yeah, it’s the story of humanity I guess. We get a little progress and it goes to our heads and then all kinds of problems come up and we get the difference between science and scientism. Where scientism is this sort of idolization that you mention of the method itself. It’s been successful, but it might not yet be the answer to everything.
DAVIS: Okay, so you say modernism doesn’t end up being a rejection of the One so much, but there are still cracks in that foundation. There are questions coming up, the thought that metaphysical answers aren’t necessary for explaining certain phenomena that we experience in the world, where it used to be that the metaphysical explanation was the explanation, and now we have alternatives.
And so those cracks in the foundation of that doctrine of the One are forming and I guess it was maybe inevitable that someone, eventually, would come along to exploit those cracks in that foundation. And the person you attribute that role to is Friedrich Nietzsche. Am I saying his name right?
FAULCONER: Close enough.
DAVIS: Close enough. So tell us a little bit about Friedrich Nietzsche and about his contribution, if it should be called that, toward thinking about “The One.”
FAULCONER: Much of the 19th century in philosophy had been a kind of response to the failure of the Enlightenment. So Enlightenment thinkers had thought, “Well we really are going to achieve the perfection of human being.” And at the same time, this difference between science and religion had been growing, so this is one of those big cracks. And within the sciences, this issue arose of how many sciences are there? Is there really just one, and it’s physics or chemistry or whatever one is your favorite? And everything else is explained in those terms? Or are there multiple sciences? That’s another issue that has arisen.
Friedrich Nietzsche is a philologist, a really brilliant man, but plagued by all kinds of illness and difficulty. He’s a tragic figure in my estimation because he sees the problem of Western culture, Western philosophy, and he diagnoses it really well and he writes about it incredibly well, but he doesn’t have a clue what the answer is.
What he says is, “Look, we are at a point where God is dead.” And by “God” he doesn’t mean the being that Latter-day Saints would recognize. He means “The One.” He means the idea that there is one thing that explains everything and it’s behind everything that there is and so on. The notion that there is such a thing is just no longer a viable notion. It won’t work.
But when he writes about that, he also says, “We have to find a solution to this.” Not necessarily a new “One Thing,” but just, we’ve got to solve the problem. Because otherwise we’re just adrift in a sea that has no horizon. There’s no—life is unbearable and he doesn’t think there is no solution, but he doesn’t have any idea what it is. As I said, I feel quite sorry for him. Now he finally does think he has an answer, but he’s wrong enough that it’s not worth talking about.
But for me, his real importance is that he was the diagnostician of the ills of Western culture. He just sees right through and even if someone has seen right through before, he makes the point so clearly that I think it just catches. When people start to read him, which takes awhile—during his lifetime, very few people read him. When people start to read him, finally, they say, “Wow, I see the point.”
DAVIS: He crystallizes the problem in a way that makes it unavoidable. And it seems like—I kind of grew up thinking Nietzsche was the first atheist. He was the grandfather of atheism. Is that a fair assessment or do you think he had more—?
FAULCONER: No, I don’t think it’s fair. I think it would be dishonest for me to say that he wasn’t an atheist. He’s a kind of sad atheist. He’s the atheist who says, “There is no God,” and again, by that he means there is no “One” that holds everything together out there, on the one hand, “But I wish there were and I want to find something that can fill that function. That can do what it used to do.”
So he’s not the kind of atheist who says, “There is no God and I’m really glad and I’m liberated by this idea.” He found it a depressing idea and it was difficult.
DAVIS: So, in Nietzsche, the plot that has been thickening over all these centuries with Judaism and Christianity and now science, it comes to a crisis. Now it’s at a crisis point. And I think it’s so fascinating, and you mention in the book, by the time Nietzsche wrote in the late 1800’s, Joseph Smith had already been at work bringing forth revelations and announcing a new kind of a relationship to God that he himself was experiencing and it’s already underway. The Restoration is already underway. And as you say, it’s a way to make sense of God morally, and cultural values, without relying on the metaphysics of “The One.” And I almost wish that we could have somehow introduced Nietzsche to Joseph Smith!
FAULCONER: That he could have met the missionaries. [laughter]
DAVIS: Right, and so, what is this new way of thinking about God and do we appreciate what we have? What is it that we have in Joseph Smith’s restoration that might answer some of the trouble that has been brewing for all of those centuries?
FAULCONER: Well, I think the fundamental thing is Joseph Smith’s revelation that God is an embodied Being among other embodied entities, both human being-like things—intelligences—and other beings with him in the council in heaven and other entities, stuff, whatever there is. And this is the nature of the universe. The universe is relations among things that we recognize as the stuff there is, whatever that might be.
That doesn’t mean that things like ideas don’t exist, or that the only measure for existence is physicality. But it does mean that ideas are not the only measure for existence, which is something that I think had been, prior to Joseph Smith, the way in which we thought about the universe.
And so, the question then becomes, how is it that God is related to human beings? How is it that human beings should be related to one another? How is it that human beings should be related to the earth and other entities? So it’s a question about how we are related. And we don’t really have to answer the question of how these things come into being. The answer is just, they are.
DAVIS: It’s a stunning and beautiful solution even if it still leaves us with questions about the ultimate nature of some of that. But, I think you make the point that we haven’t fully appreciated this shift that the Restoration brings about. What are some of the ways that you see Latter-day Saints still sort of thinking in terms of “The One” that might not be beneficial?
FAULCONER: Well, I think that it isn’t at all uncommon for us to really mix, in an odd way, traditional theological ideas about God and the way that he is perfect or the way that he is in time or not in time or all kinds of things like that.
With the revelations of Joseph Smith we end up with this odd mishmash of things, so that if you say to someone, “Well, let’s talk about God” they will say things like, “Well, he obviously can’t be in time.” And yet, he does have a body so it’s hard to think of how he couldn’t be in time. Or they will say, “Well, he has a body and since it’s not like ours,” and they end up talking about it very much in the same kinds of terms that one might talk about “The One.”
We think about our relationship to God in terms of somehow we are going to become like him, but when we think about what it means to be like him, we think in traditional terms rather than in the terms of Joseph Smith. We think somehow, his perfection means knowing every minutia about the whole world, never changing in any way whatsoever. I mean, we’ve set for ourselves an impossible ideal, not just because it’s unachievable, but because it doesn’t make any sense.
DAVIS: It doesn’t exist.
FAULCONER: It doesn’t exist! But we make up this fantasy, as it were. We accept this fantasy idea of God and then say, “Well, that is what I should be like.” And are just distraught when we can’t be like what doesn’t exist.
DAVIS: It seems like perfectionism is really one of those things where if the command is “Be ye therefore perfect,” and we think perfect means this sort of platonic ideal or whatever or a God that is incomparably other than us, how can we ever get there? It’s just an overwhelming command and it breaks us down sometimes.
So is the God of classical theism, The One, which most mainstream Christians might still subscribe to and the God of Latter-day Saint belief—are we talking about completely different beings? Can we not have a conversation with other Christians that believe in “The One?” It gets thorny.
FAULCONER: Yeah that’s a really hard question because in one sense, yes. We’re just talking about completely different beings. I think sometimes we need to recognize that. I don’t think that that means we can’t have a conversation and I think it’s important to understand that a person can be wrong about what they say about God theologically and still be related to God. And so, even if the person I’m talking to says, “I believe that God is outside of all time and space and is impassable, can’t be touched by any other thing and so on and so forth”—what I should think, I should say to myself, “This person and I disagree about how to talk about God theologically, but she may very well have a genuine relationship with God in her prayer life, in her worship life.” And I would hope that she would give me the same kind of benefit of the doubt. That she might say, “Jim might be completely wrong in this weird Latter-day Saint view that he has, but nevertheless, he might have a genuine prayer relationship with our Heavenly Father.”
So, that’s why I say it’s complicated. I wouldn’t want to say that it’s impossible to have these conversations, but I do think we should be honest with ourselves, as well as with our interlocutors. That our idea of God is really quite different than theirs and we should be understanding when people say, “You don’t believe in the God I believe in.” The answer is probably, “You’re right I don’t.”
When I was a graduate student, they actually had graduate schools in those days, but when I was a graduate student, I was sitting in the student union with a couple of friends one day between classes. And one was a lapsed Catholic atheist and the other was a practicing Catholic. We were having a conversation about the nature of God, a theological discussion just out of, I don’t know, just somehow it got going over lunch the way things do.
And so I tried to explain the LDS view of what we think about God, and the more we talked, the more my friends just were kind of shocked. And finally, the lapsed Catholic atheist said, prefacing it with some words that I won’t repeat, “It turns out Jim that you and I are more alike than he and you are.” He felt like I was more like him, the atheist, than I was like the Catholic. And that has really stuck with me because I was a believer at the time, still am obviously, and I believed in God and yet, my atheist friend could say, “I think that we might be more alike.”
So, there was a lot of room in these discussions for difference and agreement, but also I think a requirement that I be honest about the ways that I might differ from people that I was trying to have a conversation with.
DAVIS: Do you think that the Latter-day Saint understanding of God gives us a different perspective on the problem of evil? I should state what the problem of evil is, I suppose, that has plagued theologians for centuries. That if an omnipotent God who is all good and all wise and all knowing still allows horrible things to happen to innocent people, that’s a problem. How do we reconcile that? Does Joseph Smith’s God give us a different perspective on that problem?
FAULCONER: I think he does. David Paulson who recently passed away gave a very good forum or devotional at BYU some time ago and I think that he was really quite right in saying that Joseph Smith’s answer differs. And the reason that it’s different is that the God that he teaches us knows everything and has all the power that there is, but all the power there is does not mean the ability to do anything whatsoever. It means the ability to do anything that can be done.
Knowing everything means knowing everything that can be known, right? Being all loving means being all loving, but one could be all loving and have all the power that there is and still be unable to do some kind of things to stop some evils. To be unable to interfere in agency for example. It’s a choice, but it also isn’t just a choice, it’s also part of the structure of the universe.
DAVIS: A universe that God did not originate from nothing.
FAULCONER: Yes, he didn’t create it from nothing, and so the physical world can have accidents that occur just because that’s the way things are as much as because God made it happen that way.
DAVIS: And it’s not just matter, it’s other beings.
FAULCONER: Yeah, oh yeah.
DAVIS: Other agents are in the mix with God.
FAULCONER: There’s so many other things. There’s matter in the mix, there are other agents in the mix. God is not in a universe that he created from nothing and has absolute control over. And we don’t want to live in a universe that he has absolute control over.
DAVIS: It seems to me that many people who call themselves atheists are atheists precisely because of this problem of evil. It drives them right out. They just can’t abide the notion of a God who would be so cruel. And so there’s this lovely pivot in Restoration thought that allows us to conceive of a loving being who is fully in the problem with us.
FAULCONER: Yeah. I think that if I believed that God is a being like the tradition describes who has all power and all knowledge and who still lets these bad things happen, then I would have to stop believing in God as well. I don’t think I could be a believer. If I was a believer I would have to be a really cynical believer.
DAVIS: Let’s talk about the truth. You have a whole section on truth. And let me draw you out on this. You mention John 14:6 where Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” So, rather than truth being this abstract concept of “The One,” you now have a living dynamic person in the presence of Jesus. And so, that’s a really powerful notion of truth.
And yet, we also have statements in other parts of our canon, our standard works, where we have, for example, in Jacob 4:13: “The spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not. Wherefore it speaketh of things are they really are and of things as they really will be.”
Or D&C 93:24, where we have, “Truth is knowledge of things as they are and as they were and as they are to come.”
So, are we dealing with different definitions of truth across the scriptures?
FAULCONER: Yeah, I think the first thing I would say is I don’t think the word “truth” always means exactly the same thing. There are probably very few words in the scriptures that always mean exactly the same thing. Words mean what they mean in their context, and in usages, and when they have histories, and so on.
But I do think that if we do think about truth, what I find interesting about scripture is that there are statements like those in Jacob that you mention, but the one from the Doctrine and Covenants is especially interesting to me because it there defines truth as knowledge.
So, in that case, truth is the knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they will be. Now that is radically different than any definition of truth that I know of in the history of thought, Western thought. There, truth is defined in a variety of ways, but usually we talk about a knowledge of truth rather than knowledge being the truth.
So if that’s the case, truth is a kind of state of one’s being, and I think that matches with the idea that Christ is the Truth. Christ exemplifies a particular way of being in the world and truth is a knowledge of that way of being in the world. So for me that’s really an important insight given to us in Latter-day scripture.
I think it’s also important to recognize, as I said, that it doesn’t always mean the same thing. Truth in the Jacob scripture means something like “propositional truth.” And so, there’s nothing wrong with using the word in that way, but I think it’s important to recognize that probably the most fundamental meaning for us is this way of being in the world. Truth is a way of being related to other beings, things as well as persons, in the world.
DAVIS: You know, people get nervous at the statement that truth is relative. They say, “You’re relativizing everything, and there have to be eternal truths that are immutable, unmovable, unchangeable.” So how do you think about that?
FAULCONER: Well usually when we think about truth being relative we ultimately mean something like, “It means whatever I want it to. Whatever is convenient for me.” And I think that is an obviously ridiculous way to understand the truth. But I do think it makes sense to say that even propositional truth is relative to the circumstances and contexts in which a person thinks it or says it or understands it or whatever. And that that’s probably why for me the most important definition is that truth is not a proposition but a way of being.
If I say to myself, “Jesus Christ is the Truth,” then what I’m saying is living in the world in the way that he would or that he does, is living truthfully. Now, that does relativize it to a certain extent, but it doesn’t relativize it to my desires or my convenience or something like that. It sets a pretty high bar if I were to decide to do something other than what’s commanded, for example. The bar for doing that is not just my particular pleasure.
So, I think that the relativized version of this is relativized to a being who has perfected his way of being relative to other beings.
DAVIS: And I think maybe the scriptures themselves contain this understanding, because truth is almost always accompanied by “living” or some notion of life right? Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. The Church has said in Section 1 to be the “only true and living church.”
And so, I think those two are kind of welded together and the notion is that life is dynamic, things change, circumstances evolve. And there will always be this need to adapt to whatever the current situation is. And statements that were appropriate and true in one phase of whatever circumstance it is will have to change in order to be true later on.
FAULCONER: Another way to put that is this shows the need for continuing revelation, both at the official level and at the personal level. We are enjoined to “live by the spirit,” and that means living by that which the spirit teaches us to do. That’s living in a certain way, but if I live by the Spirit then it must not be true that there’s a handbook that I could memorize and just by acting according to the rules in the handbook would be able to live successfully. If there’s no such handbook then living by the Spirit makes sense. So if I have to live by the Spirit then there must not be such a handbook.
DAVIS: That’s James E. Faulconer. He’s the author of Thinking Otherwise: Theological Explorations of Joseph Smith’s Revelations.
Let’s get into the consequences of all this new way of thinking about truth and God. So let’s talk now a little bit about how we as Latter-day Saints can actually become practitioners of this different way of thinking, of “thinking otherwise.” You talk about something you called “performative theology” at the beginning of this discussion. What do you mean by performative theology?
FAULCONER: In performative theology, the theologian recognizes that the job is to explain to others what one finds in the text, the scriptural text. And in performative theology in particular, the goal is to do that in such a way that the reader can experience the call—the call to repentance or the call to come to Jesus Christ. These kinds of calls occur in scripture.
So, it goes beyond just giving a kind of list of doctrines that one would find, though that might very well be part of doing the theology. But trying to show that theology in such a way that a reader would feel compelled by what one read.
For me, one of the best examples is not a Latter-day Saint, but is Kierkegaard, who writes Fear and Trembling. Fear and Trembling is a book about Abraham. It’s not a really close analysis of the Genesis story in particular. Nevertheless, people who read Fear and Trembling have gone back to Genesis 22 and reread that story over and over again.
Someone like Jacque Derrida who couldn’t figure out whether he was a believer or not. He spent his life just wavering on this question. But even later in his life went to that chapter because of Kierkegaard and tries to think about what’s going on here. What’s happening?
So what Kirkegaard did was perform the act of invitation or demand that one finds in chapter 22 of Genesis. He wasn’t just explaining it, he made it alive, he made it live for them. That would be the goal of a performative theologian.
DAVIS: So, it involves reading carefully. Is that fair to say?
DAVIS: One of the challenges it seems to me in doing this kind of reading, close reading, is we have to be kind of deliberate about overcoming—at least when we first began to read like this—the need we seem to have to come out quick resolution and answer all the questions right away and tie everything up with a bow.
So questions come up for us, how do we resist that sort of—and sometimes I think we don’t even allow ourselves to slow down enough to even experience the question. We’re so intent on getting to the end of the chapter or we think we already know what it says that we don’t even pause anymore to experience the question or sense the tension between what we’re reading here and what we may have read somewhere else.
FAULCONER: The most important thing to do in closer reading is to allow questions to happen. And that often requires a really intentional focus on questions. Just creating questions and not stopping to answer them. And the question, sometimes at least for me, the best way to start questions is with the most trivial kinds of things: “why this word?” Or even before that maybe, “what does this word mean? I’ve always thought it meant x, y, or z, but I haven’t ever looked it up before.” And sometimes, not infrequently, when I look it up, I discover the meaning is not quite what I thought it was or sometimes it’s even radically different from what I thought it was.
So, I start with questions like that. In some ways, very simple, but just questions about this text. Why this word? Why this word order? Why is this particular scriptural story before that one rather than after it? Those kinds of things.
And again, not because I can answer them, but because as I ask that question I have to start thinking about, “What’s going on here?” And it’s that thought process that will help me begin to have ideas, ideas that I might not have had before.
And I have to be careful not to think, “Well, now I’ve had an idea, I’m done.” But so say, “I’ve had an idea. I think writing them down is the best thing to do,” or I guess typing them out now that we’re all computer whizzes. But getting them on some sort of way of recording them and then looking for another one. “Well, that was an interesting idea, is there another one?” Just, in a way, playing with the text imaginatively is the way to start.
DAVIS: I love that. I think that’s—The idea of loosening up, slowing down, and just letting the surprise, acknowledging surprise or questions, I think that’s where the magic begins to happen. But we have to be willing to sit with unresolved readings for a while. And I wonder if it would be fair to say that performative theology seems to be a kind of process, it’s a practice, almost in the same way that we would speak of meditation or contemplation, as a practice.
FAULCONER: I think that’s fair. I mean, for example in this book I have given a reading of Moses and a reading from the Doctrine and Covenants. I just went back and reread D&C 121, and there’s a reading for that, and I had new ideas.
Now, one thing I could have thought is, “Boy, now I have to go back and rewrite that chapter.” But the nice thing is to say, “No, actually I don’t have to. That was one experience; I’ve made a record of one particular experience reading section 121, but I will continue to have the experience of reading section 121 or Moses or Genesis or Jacob or whatever I’m reading.” I can have that experience and each time, it should be something new and fresh. When I feel like I have to rewrite the previous chapter, then I feel like I have to produce the final answer, and that’s the mistake.
DAVIS: And that’s getting back into, that’s being pulled back into this thinking of “The One.” There’s this one reading.
You have a lovely example in the book of the Mormon theology seminar that you hosted in London where Adam Miller has one reading of 1st Nephi chapter 1 and then Miranda Wilcox has her reading of 1st Nephi chapter 1—the very same scripture, two different readings, and they’re both beautiful.
FAULCONER: And there were six or eight other people in the room at that time who had very different readings of the same verses. And as a group, we really felt that we were enriched by hearing every one of those.
DAVIS: Yeah. And it feels like that is the magic of this approach. That’s it’s focused on process, it’s focused on becoming, it’s focused on the doing, so that scripture study, as you call it, can become a form of worship and a form of coming to Christ. And I think that’s the thing I find compelling about this, where you lead us in this book is to the idea that studying your scriptures is a kind of service that you render yourself, but also the people that you’re going to be interacting with differently as a result of what you’re drawing from the text.
FAULCONER: Well, thank you. I’m glad—
DAVIS: I’m a better person for having read this book, Jim. And it’s been a joy to be on this journey, speaking of journeys, of putting this book together with you. Thank you so much for spending the time with us today to talk about this Thinking Otherwise. And we should say, if people want a little more inspiration for what this actually looks like when you start doing it, Jim has authored an entire series called the Made Harder series that we’ve published a few years ago, which are books that are focused on each of the standard works and all they are is a series of questions, right? That’s all they contain.
FAULCONER: Hundreds of pages of questions.
DAVIS: It’s just questions after questions that I have to assume arise exactly from this process of slowing down and letting the text raise the questions.
FAULCONER: Yes, well, thank you very much. This was a great opportunity for me.
DAVIS: Thank you, Jim.
HODGES: Thanks for listening to another episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. That was Morgan Davis talking to James E. Faulconer about his new book, Thinking Otherwise. To learn more about the book, go to bit.ly/thinkingotherwise.
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