This is the tenth installment of a series of interviews I am conducting with academic philosophers about their religious practices. In this series of interviews, I ask philosophers about their religious practices and the influence on their philosophical work. Follow the links for parts1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9. The contributors are in various stages of their career, tenured and untenured. Interviews were conducted through e-mail and responses are not edited.
This interview is with James Faulconer, professor of philosophy at Brigham Young University. His area specialization is on contemporary European philosophy, particularly Heidegger and French thought from approximately 1960 to the present.
Can you tell me something about your current religious affiliation/self-identification?
I am a practicing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—a Latter-day Saint or a Mormon. I’m happy with either of those terms. I was a teenage convert to Mormonism, but I am in my late 60s now, so I have probably become indistinguishable from someone born and raised in the Church. Though, of course, I have had questions and doubts about particulars surrounding my faith, I have never felt any serious conflict between doing philosophy and being a believer.
Can you say something more about the practices you concretely engage in as a Mormon, anything about attending Temple, the food restrictions, family gatherings etc?
I don’t know where to begin, but want to point out that as the official name of the Church says, Mormons are Christians. (The official name is “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”) Some dispute that, but they do so on what I consider to be arcane theological grounds, not on the ground that we do not recognize Jesus of Nazareth as God. I believe that most Mormons prefer to be called “Latter-day Saints,” or “LDS,” but I’m fine with either of those or “Mormon.”
1. Dietary practices. Talking about my practices as a Mormon, perhaps I should begin with food restrictions since that is one thing others notice readily: Mormons have a canonized document that prescribes our dietary practices, The Word of Wisdom.
There is considerable variation among Mormons as to how to practice the Word of Wisdom. Some will not cook with alcohol or eat anything that has alcohol in it. Others understand the proscription to be only of alcoholic drinks, so they cook with alcohol and will probably eat foods flavored with liqueurs. Most Mormons do not drink decaffeinated coffee, but some understand the prohibition of coffee and tea as a prohibition on caffeine, so they feel free to drink decaffeinated coffee or tea. A few who believe that the prohibition is of caffeine will also not eat chocolate. Many Mormons will not drink cola drinks because they are caffeinated, but the joke at the LDS-owned and operated Brigham Young University is that the favorite drink of BYU professors (95+% of whom are Mormons) is Diet Coke.
I take the Word of Wisdom’s proscription of alcohol, coffee, tea, and tobacco, and its admonition to eat little meat straightforwardly. I do not drink coffee of any kind, nor tea (Camellia sinensis). I drink herbal teas and ersatz kaffees. I also drink cola drinks. I don’t drink alcoholic beverages, though I do cook with them and eat foods flavored with them. I do not use tobacco products. And I try to limit eating meat to no more than once per day and in small amounts.
Generally Mormons understand the prohibitions of the Word of Wisdom and things that identify us rather than as designations of some foods as unclean. So for the most part we are not concerned with, for example, whether something forbidden has touched our food. Nor do we believe that those who do not follow the Word of Wisdom because they are not Mormons are committing a sin by not doing so. I don’t mind my friend at lunch have a beer with his sandwich.
2. Organization. Mormons have a lay priesthood that is exclusively male. Our congregations are organized geographically, as Catholic parishes have been. Mormons are expected to attend the congregation within whose boundaries they live.
The leader of each congregation, which we keep to about 100 families, splitting the congregation if it begins to be large, is chosen from the congregation and serves for approximately five years. His title is bishop. A congregation is called a ward. At any given moment there are likely to be two or three previous bishops in any congregation. The bishop has two counselors to assist him and has responsibility for running the congregation during his term of appointment. A woman in the congregation is appointed to oversee the women’s organization in the ward, the Relief Society. She is also the advisor to the bishop on welfare assistance for the needy in the ward and the liaison between him and those in need.
Another woman has responsibility for the children’s organization. A man has responsibility for the young men and a woman for the young women. These people meet weekly to discuss their duties and to coordinate what they are doing. In principle, there is discussion and equality of input in these meetings that are directed by the bishop, though there is considerable variation between wards on that principle.
3. My religious activities. I serve on the high council of the stake. The stake is roughly equivalent to a Catholic diocese and usually includes six to eight wards. The high council is an advisory group to the president of the stake and a liaison between the stake president and the bishops within that stake. I also serve in my ward as the leader of the high priests within the ward (a level of priesthood mostly held by older men) and as the advisor to the elders quorum (a level of priesthood mostly held by younger and early middle-aged men).
On Sundays I attend three worship meetings, for a total of three hours. Three different wards meet in our building, which is the norm. That is a way of serving a larger number of people with a smaller number of buildings. Because there are three wards in the building, we schedule our meetings to overlap, with some having the worship service while the others have other parts of our Sunday worship. My ward begins its meetings at 9:00 am. The next congregation begins at 9:20. The third begins at 1:00. It is common, however, for wards to begin their meetings at 9:00, 11:00, and 1:00.
For my congregation, the first meeting is our worship service proper and is called Sacrament meeting. It looks very much like a low-church Protestant meeting. We sing a hymn and have a prayer, then we attend to any business of the ward, such as announcing and sustaining those called to new positions in the ward structure (Sunday School teacher, Relief Society president, etc.). After that we have Communion, which we call “the Sacrament.” It is blessed by those who have been ordained priests, usually young men of 16-18 years of age. It is usually passed to the congregation by other young men, from 12-15.
After the Sacrament, we have preaching. Since we do not have a full-time clergy, preaching is almost always done by members of the congregation who have previously been asked to do so by the bishop or one of his counselors. The bishop does not preach often. We close the meeting with a hymn and prayer.
The second meeting I attend is Sunday School. It is exactly what one would expect: a class of adults in which we are led in a discussion of scriptural texts. Our scriptures, however, include more than those of other Christian churches. We accept the Bible as canonized scripture, though we recognize that there may be questions about its translation and transmission. In addition to the Bible, we accept three other scriptures, all given through the founding LDS prophet, Joseph Smith: the Book of Mormon (Smith’s translation of an ancient record of people in Central America), the Doctrine and Covenants (a collection of some of Smith’s revelations as well as a few revelations through later prophets), and the Pearl of Great Price (several ancient scriptural texts revealed through Smith and his account of his calling to be a prophet).
The third hour of meetings we divide into groups by gender: men attend priesthood meeting and women attend Relief Society. The classes there study different materials than those studied in Sunday School, but they look very much like Sunday School classes.
Since my wife works in the family history center that we have in our chapel and her shift doesn’t end until 2:00 pm on Sundays, I sometimes during that time meet with some of the individuals I’ve been asked to visit regularly in our ward. Or I read while I wait.
In addition to those three meetings, there are other meetings during the week. At least twice a month I attend a meeting before Sacrament. In that meeting the bishop meets with his counselors, the Relief Society president, the elders quorum president, and the other leaders to discuss how to help those in the ward in need, spiritual or physical.
At least once a month I meet with the high council to liaise with the stake president about the ward for which I have responsibility (right now, my own ward).
Since I’ve been assigned five families to visit with on a monthly basis in order to check on their welfare, I often spend part of an evening a week making those visits.
When we had children had home we tried to do as we were asked and to meet each Monday night with our children. That’s an ideal toward which Mormons strive. Many get to that ideal, but we did not and I think there are also many like us who do not. The older one’s children are, the more difficult it is to do that. The idea is that during that time we socialize as a family, talk about family matters, and have instruction in the gospel. We did it often, but never got to an average of once a week.
In addition to whatever time I take for personal prayer and study, adding the time spent in worship, planning and welfare meetings, etc. I spend five to six hours per week doing something in church. That’s at the low end of what one would expect of a Mormon. The bishop is at the high end and may spend as much as forty hours per week, which he works in around whatever employment responsibilities he has and his duties for his own family.
4. The temple. Though temple worship is also a religious activity, I’ve separated it out because it is so different. We are expected to attend Sacrament services each Sunday and to participate in the other activities in the ward as they occur, most on a weekly basis. But temple attendance is strictly up to us. We are encouraged to take part in temple worship as often as we can. For some that may be daily. For others it may be monthly or less. Though the LDS Church has been building more and more temples around the world (there are a total now of 144 temples), some LDS have to travel distances to take part in temple worship. In such cases, wards often arrange group trips to the temple for a day or more of temple worship. I live in London and though the London Temple is not, geographically, far away, it is difficult to get to if you don’t have a car. So my wife and I rely on such group trips.
Whereas our Sacrament services are very low-church liturgically, our temple worship is high-church plus. We wear ritual clothing as we participate. We take part in liturgical rituals that we are asked not to speak about outside the temple because of their sacred character. In these rituals, we receive instruction in the meaning of our lives, and we make covenants with God and each other.
The high point of temple worship is marriage “for time and eternity.” Our belief is that a couple that has been married in the temple will continue to be married in the hereafter if they remain true to their temple covenants, including their covenant to each other.
Initially one does temple worship and makes covenants on behalf of oneself. We speak of that as receiving “an endowment.” After the initial experience of temple worship, the participant does so on behalf of someone who is deceased, preferably one of his or her own ancestors.
How do your religious practices impact my work as a philosopher (directly as possible subject matters, or more indirectly, in how you approach things)?
This is a difficult question to answer. I’ve not previously thought about my religion and my philosophical work in that way, particularly not about the relationship between my religious practices and my work.
I can only think of one thing in my religious practices that has been directly relevant to my work, though it has been very important. My experience with Mormonism, a very communal religion, made me interested in the notion of community early on. The Mormon emphasis on creating covenant relationships between individuals (as well as with God) has been part of that influence. I wrote my dissertation on community and have, off and on, continued to try to think about it, and there’s no question that I rely on my religious experience as a phenomenological touchstone when thinking about community.
It may be that my phenomenological philosophical background and my interest in community have been behind my aversion to theology. Mormonism doesn’t have an official theology (or, if it has one, it is very slim). I’ve argued in Mormon publications that we don’t have one because we don’t need one, that theology can be dangerous to religious life by taking it away from the practical toward the theoretical, away from lived religion toward intellectual religion.
For most of my career I have been interested in thinkers like Heidegger and the French thinkers who have been influenced by him, as well as in Gadamer. I don’t know whether that interest was influenced by my religious practices, but the focus of my philosophical work was two-fold: first to understand those thinkers and to explain them to others in a way that makes them accessible without making them into philosophical Pablum. That attempt to understand and explain was the consequence of the fact that the university where I teach is primarily an undergraduate institution, and I needed to find ways of teaching those thinkers to undergraduate students just starting out in philosophy.
But the attempt to explain without simplifying was also directly relevant to the second part of my focus. I was writing in the philosophy of psychology, arguing for new theoretical foundations in Anglo-American psychology. To do that I had not only to make the criticisms of existing theoretical frameworks and the arguments for an alternative, I had first to explain the relevant thinkers—Heidegger, Gadamer, etc.
Perhaps the next most important thing about my religion that may have been relevant to my work was that Mormon metaphysics is materialistic. That’s a matter of belief rather than practice, but it has been important to my thinking. For Mormons there is only one metaphysical realm, that of material. As a result I didn’t have any trouble considering materialistic explanations of events, though my background in phenomenology made me leery of the standard materialistic explanations. There may not be some extra-material, transcendent metaphysical realm, but it does not follow that merely mechanical explanations of events are sufficient. I have also been interested in thinking about the body and human sexuality, probably at least partly because of the Mormon insistence that everything is material.
How does your work in philosophy of religion engage with the aspects of lived religion? Do you think your tradition might have an advantage in that respect compared to other traditions that do have a very fine-grained and developed theology (such as Roman Catholicism)?
I would be curious for an observer to tell me how my work in the philosophy of religion engages with the aspects of lived religion. I’d like to know what she or he saw. My own attitude to much of what I do in the philosophy of religion is that it is interesting, and perhaps helpful to a few who’ve become entangled in the quandaries of theology, but it is ultimately not particularly important. To borrow an image from a good friend, theology is a Rube Goldberg machine, an interesting and often fun but complicated way of doing something that can be done in a quite ordinary way. So I have written about the problem of evil, but my discussion of that problem (a discussion founded on Ricoeur’s thought) was part of a longer essay arguing that theology is important only if it aims to lead people to repentance in its original sense: change.
As to the second half of your question, yes I think Mormons have an advantage: lacking an official theology, Mormon thinkers have relatively more room to think about the philosophy of religion. Mormon thinking about questions concerning the nature of God, for example, crosses a broad expanse.
But I must be careful about asserting that advantage since it is truer in principle than in practice. As with anyone, there are political realities that impinge on Mormon philosophers. Many Mormons might find some views objectionable, even if there is no theological reason for their feeling. A Mormon thinker arguing for such a view might find himself angering many fellow Mormons. Local officials might even inquire into the thinker’s orthodoxy, though that is unusual. As a general rule, hearings for orthodoxy are held only if the person in question has done something that can reasonably be construed as undermining the Church.
That said, though, it is very rare for a Mormon philosopher to have problems with the LDS Church because of his or her theological views. For the most part the Church takes a laissez faire attitude toward theology. Perhaps its even a “Who cares?” attitude. Here is a summary of a paper I presented in Brussels that explains Mormonism’s attitude more fully:
- Mormonism is relatively atheological. There are a few beliefs that are binding, such as the belief that Jesus is Christ, but there are not many—and there is little or no theological explanation of those beliefs
- We have had many competing theologies, but none of them, including those written by high leaders in the Church are binding.
- Most of what Mormons believe at any given time is determined historically: over time this or that belief has gained a consensus among believers. This is a notion of theology as tradition, though few Mormons would explicitly describe it in that way.
- Mormons also believe in continuing revelation; we believe that the leader of our church is a prophet, namely someone who receives revelation, and we also believe that any person is entitled to divine revelation for those things over which they have responsibility.
- Continuing revelation (I take it that historical development is one way in which that revelation occurs) and creeds or canonical theologies are at odds with one another.
- The LDS Church’s antipathy toward official theology has not also been an antipathy to theology itself. In fact, there is and has been considerable theological discussion among Mormons since Mormonism’s beginning.