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Friday, June 24, 2011

The Scriptorian

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

[This is a pretty thoroughly Mormon-centric post, one which doesn't take the time to explain beliefs and language of my church which are well understood by members. You've been warned.]

My first encounter with Jim Faulconer came on my mission to South Korea. I'd been in the country about a year, and my companion at the time had an older brother who was studying philosophy back at BYU. He sent his younger brother a recent essay by Jim: "Self-Image, Self-Love, and Salvation", a masterpiece which has since been reprinted and celebrated and attacked many times. I don't know why this fellow thought his brother would like or need the essay: perhaps it just struck him as a great piece of writing, or perhaps he thought his brother would relate to Jim's own experiences as a missionary in South Korea more than 20 (now more than 40!) years before, or perhaps he thought his brother would value Jim's advice. If the last of these, he misjudged his brother greatly; my companion looked through the essay, turned to me and said (if my memory is accurate, which it probably isn't) "This guy just doesn't like people being successful and making money!", and threw it in the trash. I retrieved it, read through it, and realized several things, among them: 1) this man, James E. Faulconer, has put into better words than I ever could at least a portion of the many inchoate and confused thoughts I had about my situation as a missionary and a Christian, and 2) that I want to read everything he'd ever written, or every would write.

As it turned out, Jim's thoughts, profound as they were (and are) didn't do much to prevent me from being a pretty crappy missionary, but I have attempted diligently to read just about everything Jim has written in the years since, and I have been blessed by that determination. Let me take a few moments to attempt to explain why.

Earlier this year, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute released a collection of Jim's religious essays, Faith, Philosophy, and Scripture. I'm late to the party in talking about it; Blair Hodges reviewed it here, and Adam Miller has practically written his own book about the book here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. I won't review it myself, partly because there's too much to say about the profound ideas which Jim has packed into these essays on the nature of theology, the function of reasoning, the operation of memory, the meaning of idolatry, the historicity of scripture, and much more; partly because if I were to review it wouldn't be able to avoid some whiny complaining about it (why weren't some of Jim's very best and most important works--the aforementioned "Self-Love" essay, his essay on Walter Brueggemann's postmodern reading of the Bible, his essay on sexuality and community in the Adam and Eve story, his essay on the mystery of divine embodiment--included?); but mostly because reviewing the essays in the book--every single one of which is worth reading and pondering at length--would get in the way of reviewing the overall message of the book, and of the man.

Towards the end of what I think to be the most succinct and most insightful (but your mileage many very) essay in this collection, "The Writings of Zion", Jim writes:

Because we have continuing revelation, within mortality there can be no end to the work of interpretation that enacts the establishment of Zion. There can also be no end to work because we live together in an organic rather than a static whole. And there can be no end because we have not yet come to an end: as temporal, living beings, we are not always the same, unchanging from moment to moment; we live in that we continue to come to be, in that we continue to renew our life. We hopefully await the Apocalypse, the final revelation of the Son of God, his reign. Awaiting it, we must continue to renew our hope and expectation of that revelation, for ourselves and for others, by continuing to read, interpret, and reread. The medieval scriptorian's motto--lege, lege, lege, labore, ora, et relege; "read, read, read, work, pray, and reread"--must also be ours (p. 149)

There is a lot packed into those sentences. You see Jim's commitment to the Heideggerian and Levinasian concerns of continental philosophy, taking up our experience in the world as something best understood as something enacted, something coming-to-be, something which is always-already situating us in the presence of one another. You see his strongly Augustinian (or merely Pauline?) sense of our condition as one of abeyance, of waiting and attending upon that over which we can have no mastery or ownership. Most of all, you see his dedication to the texts before him, the revelations which we have received and accepted as canonical (which is a fascinating theoretical problem all its own). On the very first page of is short book, Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions, Jim repeats that scriptorian's motto: read, read, read, work, pray, reread. That is what we have to do, in a sense all that we have to do--for once one has received a gift (for that his what Jim ultimately considers scripture to be), a gift that calls out to one, what else is there to do but continuing open it, and receive its call, and interpret its judgment, again and again and again? Anything else--anything that would aim to boil the scriptures down to a set of correlated bullet points and theological propositions--is misunderstanding our situation in this world, as children of God that have been called to Zion, to respond to Zion, to build Zion, and have the resources to do so within us and on our nightstands and library shelves, if we would only stop trying to be finished with them ("Well, I guess I've mastered the Book of Mormon now!"), and instead recognize that we have to always get on with interpreting them. Not willy-nilly; we are and should be guided the community we are part of, and the authority which that community entails. But those are, nonetheless, only guides to reading, not the reading, the gifting, itself; substituting the guides--the lesson manuals, the received wisdom that "everybody knows"--for the reading itself is to miss the point of the call entirely.

Jim learned this lesson early. In a story that he has shared several times, he describes how as a graduate student at Pennsylvania State University he learned, slowly but surely, how to read through the example of Stephen Goldman, a professor of philosophy and lay leader in his Jewish congregation:

I asked if he would allow me to study part of the Old Testament with him. He agreed and asked me to propose a course of study for the next quarter. "Well, since I don't want to go too fast, why don't we just read the book of Genesis?" I said. He was amazed. Though I thought studying one book of scripture in eight weeks was a snail's pace, he thought it impossible to do that much reading in so short a time. He suggested that we read only chapter 1. Since that was equally amazing to me, we compromised on "as much as we can get through." He warned me that we might not get very far, and we didn't. We barely made it through chapter 3, and he obviously felt pushed.

The first day we met, I had read all of chapter 1 and at his request brought several questions with me. One of them was, How do you reconcile the account of creation in this chapter with what is taught in science class? He refused to discuss that question. He did not think it interesting; it was not worth the time. There were, he said, much more important things to discuss, things pertinent to our lives and salvation. Professor Goldman allowed me to ask my other questions, and he had no trouble answering them. In fact, he answered each so completely that at the end of the hour I still had questions that needed to be answered.

At our next meeting, he finished answering my list of questions and asked if I had more. "No," I said, "I'm ready to move to chapter 2." "Before we do so," he asked, "do you mind if I ask a few questions?" That was a trick question, for he began talking about and asking questions about the details of the scriptures, questions that, by focusing on those details, went on and on. He asked about words and patterns of words, pointing out things I had never seen or had thought inconsequential. In almost every case I had no answers for him or felt that the answers I had were shallow and inadequate. But he was patient with me. As I fumbled for answers, he began to explain what he thought some answers to his questions might be and how the things he noticed were important....

For me, that was a turning point in my scripture study. Though I thought I knew the importance of the scriptures, and though I had found them comforting and delightful and enlightening before, I had never experienced them like this. In Doctrine and Covenants 18:34–36, the Lord says, "These words are not of men nor of man, but of me; wherefore, you shall testify they are of me and not of man; For it is my voice which speaketh them unto you; for they are given by my Spirit unto you, and by my power you can read them one to another; and save it were by my power you could not have them; Wherefore, you can testify that you have heard my voice, and know my words." For the first time, I felt that I really knew what this scripture meant. I had experienced the voice of the Lord in the scriptures. Though I knew intellectually that the scriptures reveal all things, especially when coupled with direction from a living prophet, I had never before known this truth in my heart....

Before studying with Professor Goldman, I memorized doctrines and scanned scriptures for evidence that would support the doctrines I believed. After studying with him I realized that although that kind of scripture study is essential, our learning is vastly improved if it is done against the background of close reading I learned from Professor Goldman. The irony is that I learned this from someone outside the church, even though the prophets and the scriptures had already told me that it was possible
. [Scripture Study, pp. 3-6]

A close reading of the scriptures, for Jim, takes away from us the kind of proposition arrogance which he associates with much of the epistemology of modern philosophy, and perhaps even the kind of theological thinking that has been with the Western world since the ancient Greeks. It's the sort of arrogance that my mission companion actually summarized very well in his intitial reaction to Jim's essay: the belief that, actually, when one really gets down to business, that there are answers out there, answers that will solve problems and put money in your pocket and result in success (baptisms, promotions, whatever: aren't they all the same?) But of course, that's not true. Properly, the call to Zion which is conveyed through the scriptures is one that "allows us to question ourselves and our world" (p. 63); it is something which should lead us to feel "mastered by something" besides ourselves (p. 100); it grants us a feelings of "foolishness and humility" (which is not the same, he immediately adds, as feeling "dumbstruck" or having "no confidence in what we say"; Jim is no relativist) (p. 124, 145); most importantly, it is something that is much larger and more important than its actual content: it is the context, the calling, the covenant, the saying, which is absolutely crucial (p. 139):

We often speak of and use scripture as if it were a set of propositions that are poorly expressed or, at best, "merely" poetic. We then try to discover the propositional content (doctrine) that we assume is lurking behind or implicit in those poorly expressed or poetic expressions and to disentangle the relations of those propositions. But that approach misunderstand scripture....

We usually read the scripture as if it were naive philosophy and ontology, looking for the principle of principles, for the theos that stands behind what we are reading, asking constantly the question, "What is it?"--even when we want to ask the question, "What must be done?" We are taught to read scripture that way from our births, both inside and outside the church. That way of reading scripture is something we share with many....Like the image of good traditional philosophers, 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 he 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.
(pp. 63, 211)

Obviously, you can see why Jim, when he writes his wonderful guides to our weekly Sunday school curricula over at Times and Seasons and Feast Upon the Word, is always subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) bucking against the norms of the community he has committed himself to; he thinks we're mostly reading and teaching the scriptures all wrong, and we should be looking for questions, rather than answer. Jim doesn't much indulge in the role of a critic; he's not one to aspire to the classic prophet/truth-teller role, like Hugh Nibley. (I sometimes think that's unfortunate--but then again, someone who took the time to organize their insights and their questions into a strong challenge against their various church and civic communities might not always have the ability to do the kind of careful reading which Jim does, as a comparison of his footnotes with Nibley's will quickly make clear.) Mostly, and appropriately, if he criticizes anyone it is himself, which is perhaps what first made him so appealing to me: here is someone who knew he was a bad missionary, and who really didn't know which model of "missionary success" to follow, or even if such a thing is possible. 40 years later, Jim still isn't sparing himself; in a passage that I find beautiful in particular because of its lack of drama, he reflects upon a chance encounter with another couple, and how that encounter made it indisputably clear to him that "this man and woman loved their daughter more than I loved mine" (p. 24). That kind of judgment is important to Jim, as it should be important to us: he does not (or at least, so it appears on the basis of his writings, and more importantly so it appeared on the basis of the example he presented to me when I ended up studying philosophy in his classes at BYU as well) make these close readings a Pharisaical fetish: the constant interpretation that we are called into by the scriptures is not an invitation to Rortian relativism or elite, educated distance; it is about judgment and testimony. Not the kind of testimony which we should all hope for, and which he is grateful to possess (though he also recognizes that not everyone who seeks such spiritual blessings will receive them, and confesses ignorance as to why that may be--p. 13); but perhaps a "second-order testimony," one that through its encounter with the challenging and interpretation-demanding calls of scripture "testifies of the bedazzlement of the divine transcendence that reveals itself in religious life" (pp. 40, 85). That "second-order" is the best which Jim thinks his philosophy can offer; other than that, he just reminders his fans (of which I am one of many) to stop spending so much time thinking about such things, and get back to work, and most of all, get back to the scriptures.

There is more that I could say about Jim's overall intellectual contribution to Mormon thought and letters, and not all of it would be entirely positive. (There is in some of these essays, for example, as I think to be the case in a lot of contemporary Mormon intellectual writings, a vague pro-Catholicism and anti-Protestantism at work--see pp. 171-172.) But overall, I can't help but think that Jim is an absolute treasure to the Mormon community today. God, I suspect (and I suspect that Jim would agree with my suspicion--that is assuming he even ever reads this essay, which I suspect he won't; he's not that vain) doesn't really care if any of us end up being a "treasure" to anything besides the people we meet, the people we love, the people we serve, the people we can bring joy and solace and blessings to: that's God's community, right there, the one instantiated by the interpretive work, the waiting work, all Christians (and Mormons) are enjoined to by the revelations found in the scriptures. If it so happens that this community takes a particular ecclesiastical form, wonderful; and if it so happens someone's thinking can make that particular community a little bit better, a little bit more loving, a little more receptive to the call of Zion, all the better. But in the church or out of it, Jim's call--which was the scriptures call first--remains. Thank heavens for that.


Clark said...

Great post Russell. I think a large number of Mormon thinkers acknowledge some debt to Jim. Either due to encounters at BYU or via things Jim setup in his various leadership roles at BYU or via his mentoring by email, mailing lists or the like.

I wonder about your companion's reaction though. It seems one thing Jim does do is put an emphasis on action. That is thinking is tied more primarily to practice rather than theory. So in a sense I think your companion got the wrong message. I think there's a real sense in which so much religious theorizing is very much sterilized and divorced from contact with our real lives.

Jim would of course challenge some of the superficial and often blatantly incoherent attempts to make that move. (The weird attempt to merge Ayn Rand with Mormon thought being one obvious example and perhaps the one your companion took)

Abe Fox said...

I took Prof. Faulconer's Reasoning & Writing class my very first semester at BYU. That class kicked my butt.....and I absolutely loved it!! Easily one of the BEST classes I've ever taken.