January 21, 2011

Review: James E. Faulconer, "Faith, Philosophy, Scripture"

Title: Faith, Philosophy, Scripture 
Author: James E. Faulconer
Publisher: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship
Genre: Philosophy/Theology
Year: 2010
Pages: 254
ISBN13: 9780842527781
Binding: Paperback

In the 1983 film "A Christmas Story," little Ralphie wants nothing more than a Red Ryder carbine-action two hundred shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and "a thing which tells time." Parents, teachers, even Santa Claus himself respond to his pleading with the same refrain: "You'll shoot yer eye out!" LDS Church members who are interested in philosophy might encounter a similar refrain from other members who see philosophy as the Red Ryder of religion. 

Reticent to mingle the philosophies of men with scripture, Mormon thinkers haven't produced a wide offering of philosophical texts during the Church's first 180 years. Orson and Parley Pratt's early theological works are seldom read by contemporary church members. Today's General Authorities aren't likely to produce something like B.H. Roberts's Seventy's Course in Theology or John A. Widtsoe's A Rational Theology. More recent LDS philosophers have been likelier to publish devotional style books like Truman Madsen's Eternal Man or Dennis Rasmussen's The Lord's Question. Sterling McMurrin and Blake Ostler have produced a few academically-minded but seldom read volumes. David Paulsen, Erich Robert Paul and others have written various articles which make for great reading. The Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology holds annual conferences and publishes a journal, but few books on Mormonism have resulted thus far. BYU Professor of philosophy James E. Faulconer has undertaken to explain Mormonism's apparent lack of philosophical texts by adding his own to the short stack. 

Faith, Philosophy, Scripture is a collection of ten essays discussing how the author's faith has informed his philosophy and vice versa. Faulconer also hopes the book will stand as a witness that philosophy can be "a supplement to rather than a competitor with religion," and that he has managed to get through so far without shooting his eye out. Faulconer credits this success to "the confidence of my faith, a confidence that came by revelation" (viii). "I offer these essays," he adds, "so that others might see how these three—faith, philosophy, and scripture—can be a part of a whole life, each helping make sense of the others, with faith as the ground and center of them all" (iiiv-ix). The essays are likely to elicit as many (or more) questions than they answer, a few of which I'll mention while describing some of their themes.  

Faith and Philosophy
Faulconer relates a few fundamental experiences which encouraged his philosophical pursuits. One such experience came when he read Truman Madsen's Eternal Man. The book left him with many questions, even some objections, but at the same it time aided "in introspecting about the intellectual strengths of our belief." The book "gave its readers permission to think about these kinds of problems," it gave them "room to talk," which he believes has helped many Latter-day Saints better appreciate philosophy (20-21).

In a devotional essay he describes his conversion by the power of the Holy Ghost to the LDS Church, an experience which has allowed him to question with faith rather than fear (11-13). His heartfelt experience does not lead to further discussion of the veracity of such experiences. I would be interested in reading his thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of grounding one's philosophical pursuits on a spiritual experience. And what about philosophically-minded readers who lack a similar experience to give them such confidence?   

Perhaps above all, Faulconer sees in philosophy the opportunity to question our "common sense," to discuss unexamined ideas and concepts which lead us to hold unacknowledged and conflicting beliefs. The "natural and understandable reversion to common sense is my understanding of the phrase that speaks of mingling the philosophies of men—in other words, their common sense—with scripture" (27, see also 144-6). In the final essay Faulconer declares he is about to "mingle scripture with the philosophies of men—not because I am unaware of the danger, but precisely because I am aware." Such mingling, Faulconer observes, is inevitable if we try to speak reflectively of scripture but the "problem is our ignorance of that mingling, our assumption that we are not mingling scripture with philosophy when, in fact, we are. Much of what we say about the gospel is simply late nineteenth-century philosophies of men rather than contemporary philosophies of men" (225). Faulconer promotes negotiating our mingling while reading scripture and learning theology.  

Scripture
Faulconer spends a good deal of time discussing approaches to scriptural texts. Latter-day Saints, he believes, may be tempted to read scripture as though it was "naive philosophy":  
Those who read the scriptures in this way take the gospel to be a set of doctrinal propositions that one is to learn, and they take the scriptures to be a record of those principles and propositions behind which the ‘theological’ gospel hides. When we read scripture this way, it is as if we assume that God is simply a poor writer–or that he chooses poor mouthpieces–and finds himself unable to lay out clearly and distinctly, in an ordered fashion, the principles he wants to teach us. With amazing hubris, we assume it is our job to do the work he was unable to do, the work of making everything clear, distinct, and orderly (211).
Faulconer favors a “disruptive reading,” one in which readers seek questions in scripture, questions which call them to repentance and to new perspectives (215). To Faulconer, scripture is scripture because it can be "likened" a la 2 Nephi 11:2, even apart from its original context in history. Thus, scripture is "a call to consider another way of being than that we currently inhabit, in other words, a call to repentance" (143). That isn't to say historicity is unimportant. Rather, "Historical understanding of the scriptures can challenge us to question the overlay of interpretation that has accrued to the text and become 'obvious,' a tradition of our fathers" (144).

This is a brief snapshot of some of Faulconer's discussion of scripture and already it is apparent he is dealing with questions that could multiply in many directions—questions of canon, authority, change, contradiction, etc. For instance, how does 1 Chronicles chapter 3 fit his view of what constitutes scripture? Couldn't any text, upon acceptance, be read as scripture in this way? (Faulconer later explains that he finds scripture "more appealing and more accessible than contemporary philosophy, and more morally compelling [and] genuinely revelatory," but still does not account for whether other  writings could be read scripturally, see 210-11). How can one properly weave between scripture as myth and non-historical and scripture as historical but mythic? Faulconer sees scriptural interpretation as an ongoing negotiation in the community of Zion where the "tension between the need to renew our interpretations and the requirement that we recognize the legitimacy of what we share" is worked out (147). Obviously this is the beginning, not end, of discussion.   


Theology
Philosophy and theology often blur together throughout Faulconer's essays but systematic theology is definitely singled out as the Red Ryder rifle. Faulconer repeatedly warns against shooting our eyes out through strictly rational approaches to religion (see, for instance, 98, 100, 112-3, 118, 129-30, 136, 190). The point of religion is to be mastered by something greater, Faulconer argues, but efforts to systematize religion are actually attempts to master religion, putting the cart before the horse so to speak (100). This is one reason Faulconer does not regret the dearth of formal theology within Mormonism, and even defends it. Three reasons (continuing revelation, the nature of scripture, and Mormonism's favoring of practice over belief) are discussed in turn, but it isn't clear to me that a systematic theology could not be constructed without taking these points into account (61, 114).     

***

This collection gave me so very much to think about and I hope to see more from Faulconer and  other LDS philosophers in the future. Overall, the volume can be a little jarring as the essays alternate between devotional and academic tones, but the variety should offer readers of different levels something to chew on. One particular downside is quite common to the genre: as a collection of essays it lacks a clearly unifying thread throughout and various themes are disconnectedly repeated. It includes a few earlier essays (1991, 1998) while the majority were composed during the last decade. Several essays will require multiple readings and I didn't always grasp what Faulconer was explaining. Strangely, my desire for Faulconer to better systematize his views on these interesting topics (faith, philosophy, reason, theology) may be directly contrary to Faulconer's intended philosophical and theological approach, which sees direct systematizing as ossifying what ought to be vibrant and dynamic. If we try to capture the whole we'll fail, if our goal is to make everything clear we will be discouraged (190-1, 209).

Faulconer would switch the question from "What is it" to "What must be done," advocating ethical over ontological priorities (210). His exemplified readings of scripture passages (the stories of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, and Romans 8) enact the sort of philosophical, faithful, theological approach to scripture, encouraging readers to go and do thou likewise. To Faulconer's question "what remains for us to do?" (209) his book will hopefully encourage readers as it has encouraged me to answer: in addition to some Christian living I will do a little philosophy. Hopefully I don't shoot my eye out. 

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There is so much in this volume to talk about, I barely scratched the surface in this review. A few conversations have already been sparked by the book (see here and here) and I hope to see more.  

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