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My Journey as a Scholar of Faith

James Faulconer

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Dr. Faulconer's lecture given as part of the "My Journey as a Scholar of Faith" lecture series, presented by the Faculty Center and the Education in Zion Gallery. Click HERE for an abridged version of this address.

My parents left west-central Missouri via the U.S. Army for opportunity, and to my great benefit they found it. My father started work as a blacksmith when he quit school at the end of the eighth year in school. He needed to help his father to earn money for the family. When the United States entered World War II he volunteered, believing that he was going to learn to be a gunsmith—that’s what the recruiter had led him to believe—assigned instead to be a medic. That began his life in the Army, which he entered as a private and he left twenty-seven years later as a lieutenant colonel in the Regular Army.

My mother came from a similar background. She was from a large farm family a few miles down the road. Though she went to school longer than me father, she also didn’t finish high school. She married at 17 and gave birth to me at 18. She lives in Orem now, unable to leave her house easily because of her age. But I remember her as younger and prettier than anyone else’s mother at school, and as always adventuresome. As our family moved from place to place around the world following my father, she was always happy to live off of the local economy as much as we could, to get to know local culture and food, to see the sights of where we lived, and to try to pick up at least some of the language. To be in my mother’s family was to come to love whatever place we lived in.

Though my father didn’t go to high school, he did take some courses at the college in Warrensburg, Missouri, after the war. He also took a number of courses that were offered through the University of Maryland by the Army. But other than that no one in my family, immediate or otherwise, graduated from high school, much less been to college. That meant in my family that I was going to go to college. Me not going to college was absolutely unimaginable. And so, because it was unimaginable to my parents, it was equally unimaginable to me.

One of my first classes after returning to BYU was a history of philosophy class from David H. Yarn. I have to confess that I didn’t do very well—something that Brother Yarn remembered all too well when I returned as a professor. We were standing outside the mailboxes in the old JSB one day. I had just gotten to BYU and I had a mailbox—that was really impressive to me. And it had a little dialing lock on it—I was in heaven. I was a real professor now. And I was getting my mail out and Brother Yarn came up and said, “You’re Brother Faulconer, right?” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Didn’t you take Philosophy 201 from me?” And I said, “I did.” And he said, “And didn’t you get a B+?” And I could have just crawled underneath the tile in the floor, because yes, I got a B+, and it was probably his grace that gave that to me. So the class was not that good for me, and I was not that good for the class.

But I had a brief, very important experience in his class—one that changed my life. It was an experience that had almost nothing to do with the content of the course but had everything to do with character: I took the mid-term examination, knowing that I had not studied well enough, and so I knew ahead of time I was not going to do well on this examination. When I finished, I was feeling guilty, I was trying to hide my shame. I took my examination, walked to the front of the room where Brother Yarn was standing. And if you know him, you know he had this very gentle hunched looked about him—a wonderful person. And so, trying very hard not to look him in the eye, I handed my examination to him. He took it in both hands, he said “Thank you”—and Brother Yarn said “Thank you” so sincerely that it shocked me. He was thanking me for taking his examination, and he really was thanking me, not just being polite. Now I don’t remember—I have to confess—I don’t remember anything we did in that class, except since it was history of ancient philosophy, we must have done some Plate and Aristotle and a little Medieval or something, but that’s all I can tell you. But I remember that moment like it happened yesterday. I learned something about what it meant to be a genuine human being from Brother David Yarn.

It’s always difficult to do philosophy without thinking about what the ideas that one studies and what they have to do with one’s life, particularly with religious life. It’s difficult to do psychology without wondering what it has to do with things like agency and morality. So my teaching and writing had always had, at least in the background, those kind of questions about the connections between philosophy and my faith.
I had always been willing to raise or respond to such questions in my classes as well as with students over pizza or during office hours, but I have to confess that for a long time I felt somewhat nervous about doing so. I would ask myself, “What right do I have to do that? What if I’m wrong, as at some level I know am?” When I talked to students about such things, I wondered if perhaps I was abusing my authority as a professor—my forcing ideas on them I have no right to force. And I asked, “Aren’t students in my classed there to learn the topic advertised in the course catalogue rather than how I think that topic relates to faith?” Those questions didn’t keep me from thinking about the relationship between my work and my faith, but they made me somewhat nervous about bringing the two together in the classroom or in my writing. Nevertheless, the more I read, and the more I thought, and the more I tried to write about my ideas, the more I began to ask “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem—or Salt Lake City?”

Now, I still wasn’t sure—and I’m still not completely sure—how the criticism of modernity on the one hand and the Restoration’s implicit criticism of the contemporary world fit together, if they do at all.

In the beginning I spent a lot of time just trying to understand the philosophical criticisms of moderntiy. I had to learn more about the history of philosophy than I ever imagined I would need from Brother Yarn’s class. I think if he had seen what I learned he would finally have felt good about what I did. I had to try to understand not only what each of the thinkers I studied was saying, but how they differed from one another. And I was sure there were important implications for their work, but I really had a hard time thinking much further than asking what those implications meant for psychology. Getting hold of the ideas I was reading took energy and time. Though I continued to be interested in what they might help me understand about faith, I still couldn’t spend a lot of time working that out. Only within perhaps the last fifteen years has it been possible for me to try to bring these things together in some fashion to be able to find an opportunity so that I can say something about how they fit together in a public way.

Now, from my first philosophy class to yesterday—or this morning, or even an hour ago—it’s been common for people to either express shock that we teach philosophy at BYU or to express their admiration that I have been able to spiritually survive studying philosophy. My mission president’s wife literally broke into tears when she learned that I was going to graduate school in philosophy. She said to me, “You will leave the Church.” I’m happy to say she’s still alive and she knows that I didn’t. Now, others have been less demonstrative than she was, but they have held the same suspicion. Many fear philosophy. But I have to say, it has never created any difficulties for me. Sometimes it had nothing to do with my faith one way or the other. But when it had anything to do with my faith, it strengthened it.
Now, I’ve several times tried to think about why that would be, and I think—my guess is—it’s because when I joined the Church as a teenager, I had an experience with the Spirit that was so profound I could not deny it. Not then; not later. To deny that experience would be to deny my being. I can’t say it didn’t happen—that I didn’t know. And that’s been a touchstone for my life. When I have had issues or difficulties, it’s something to which I can return for strength and reassurance. But more often it’s been for me something that makes reassurance unnecessary. For question has seldom been for me, “Is the gospel true?” Instead, it’s almost always been “What does it mean?” Because of that experience through which I was converted, my lack of understanding of this or that doctrine, my surprise at discovering something unexpected in our history, a disappointment at some trusted leader’s moral failure, none of these kinds of things has been an occasion for doubt about the gospel itself. Sometimes those experiences have reminded me of my mortality and the limits of human intelligence. Sometimes they have served as disappointments in human character and reminders not to trust in any arm of flesh, not even if that arm belongs to a church leader. Sometimes they are something to which I can respond only “I don’t know.” But none of them has been an occasion for doubt about the revelation I received as a 14-year-old boy.

As my career has gone its way, these kinds of questions have moved from things I think or talk about, to things I also try write and teach. And though I’ve thought about them for years, and I’ve talked about them with some frequency, now they have become mostly what my thinking and writing is about. I have less confidence that I know what the answers to those questions are. But I have more confidence that we are in need of rethinking our world as a whole and that contemporary philosophy at least raises the right questions—the questions we need to ask. And I also have more confidence that to some degree it helps us think about alternatives. I also have more confidence than ever that the gospel of Jesus Christ is a genuine alternative to the way of being-in-the-world that is essential to modernity. In spite of ourselves, we are not Moderns. I also have more confidence that what the Restoration brings to the intellectual table can make a difference, though I have difficulty being confident that we know what that difference is.

Latter-day Saints seldom understand how different and unusual our beliefs really are. We know that we are Christians and, knowing that, nevertheless, we know relatively little about the beliefs of other peoples. So, when we look at ourselves, it seems to us that we look like they look—we look like other Christians look. We don’t recognize a huge chasm between ourselves and them. It’s that chasm that right now in the contemporary political sphere scandalizes them, and that we simply cannot see. We don’t get it. That chasm makes it possible for us to live in a world quite different from others, and it has important implications, but at least right now, I think, we don’t think much about those differences and about what they mean—not enough.

Let me give you a couple examples from philosophy. And there are other examples from other areas as well, I’m sure. But because we are ultimately materialists, though certainly not simple materialists, we find it much easier than many other religious people to take science seriously. Because we are fundamentally communal beings, rather than merely individuals, are relationship to God is an individual one but also one that comes through family, and through priesthood. Because of that, we have the intellectual resources, I believe, for thinking about alternatives to contemporary individuality. Because we believe there have been dispensations and apostasies over the generations of time, in principle it should be easier for us to imagine that modernism is flawed, that the history of civilization is not just one wonderful scene of progress, and that there are ancient and medieval ideas that might help us understand ourselves and the world, if we re-think them in a new context. Philosophy has helped me think much about our own understanding and in ways we may not yet be able to explicate. It’s also helped me think that we ought to think about what philosophy has to say that is different than what others say and what the gospel has to say that is different than what others say.

Now of course, one danger of thinking about the implications of Mormonism is that we will rush too quickly to our conclusions, sure that we know what the Restoration means and sure that we know how what it means impinges on contemporary questions. It’s a danger I often see in student essays: reading something by Heidegger or Levinas or someone else, they think, “Hey, he says X. The gospel says Y. I know how to put those together.” Now, sometimes they actually understand Levinas or Heidegger better than they understand the gospel. They think they know because they can repeat something they learned in primary. But they haven’t really given it a lot of thought. So they put these things together, and it doesn’t work very well. Students aren’t the only ones who I think make that mistake.

But the other, equal danger is that we will not enter into that discussion of the gospel’s implications at all. We will cordon off our lives into regions that remain unrelated to each other, placing faith in one region, our daily affairs in another region, our university studies in another, and so on—allowing each to continue with as little effect on the other as possible. To do that is to fail to be converted or is to fail to remain converted: for the convert is the one who comes to new life as a whole, not just to a new view of religion or faith and the same old views of everything else. When we are converted, everything should be different.

So, the task of faithful scholarship is to find some balance between unjustified surety on one hand and unjustified reticence on the other. Now, I search for that balance. I don’t know whether I found it or not. And I think the answer to whether or not I have is something that only time will tell.

Probably nothing has contributed more to my thinking about philosophy and my faith than my teaching. That’s been central to everything else that I do. For it’s in the classroom, and it’s face-to-face with students where this question of their relationship to me and to each other is unavoidable. It usually remains unspoken, but it can’t be avoided. Teaching means thinking about the truth of what I teach. It means asking myself what matters. It means asking myself how to help students know what matters. And I’ve come to realize, however, that more than anything else, it means remembering that in my experience character has always mattered more than content. The question for me, then, is how to bring character into class as an essential element.

Now, as with any other philosophical question, I don’t know the answer to that question. I don’t have a definitive answer. But wrestling with it has resulted in what has been, for me, the most important class that I’ve taught at BYU, a class in which we ask “What is the good life?” And in that course I’ve tried to bring reading philosophy texts and asking philosophical questions together with course policies that encourage us to think about the questions of the class and the class itself in terms of character. Students grade themselves. I insist that the Honor Code means honor in university work, and has less to do with dress—which is not to say that it doesn’t have to do with dress—but it has less to do with dress than with how we learn. I try to insist that learning is their responsibility—that we do this together. I work very hard to make character central to that course. And part of what we’re studying as we study is what do philosophers have to say about character—about the good, the true, the beautiful—and what it means to an individual. It’s been perhaps the most satisfying experience of my career, to finally figure out what I would like to have been teaching 36 years ago.

So it is with much wandering, I end up where I began, with David Yarn’s “Thank you.” I cannot thank him enough for that “Thank you.” I don’t know that I thank my students for their examinations and papers every time. I doubt that when I do I can do so as sincerely as Brother Yarn did. I do know that his simple gesture continues to define the way that I think about what I must do at BYU. It may not be what has defined my wandering, but it has certainly been a constant influence on that wandering. Thank you very much.