Scholars & Saints

Latter-day Saint Scriptural Theology (feat. James Faulconer)

February 18, 2023 Stephen Betts Episode 31
Scholars & Saints
Latter-day Saint Scriptural Theology (feat. James Faulconer)
Show Notes Transcript

Dr. James Faulconer, a Latter-day Saint philosopher and theologian now emeritus of Brigham Young University joins me to discuss "performative" or "scriptural" theology and how it helps illuminate Latter-day Saint scripture. In his recent book, Thinking Otherwise: Theological Explorations of Joseph Smith's Revelations, Faulconer argues that Joseph Smith's revelations addressed philosophical enigmas and dilemmas inherited from classical Christian theism, some of which dated back to the Presocratic philosopher Parmenides and his doctrine of the One. 


Scriptural Theology* and Latter-day Saint Scripture

 [*This episode uses the terminology of "performative theology" as used in Thinking Otherwise: Theological Explorations of Joseph Smith's Revelations (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2020) . However, in the time since this episode was recorded in 2022, the group of thinkers that practice this form of theological reflection—i.e. the Latter-day Saint Theology Seminar—have changed their preferred term from "performative theology" to "scriptural theology."]

Stephen Betts: Welcome back to Scholars and Saints. I'm your host Stephen Betts.

I'm joined today by Dr. James Faulconer, Latter-day Saint Philosopher and Theologian. During his long and distinguished career at Brigham Young University, Dr. Faulconer was a Senior Research Fellow at the Neil A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, the Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding, Academic Director of BYU’s London Center, Resident Senior Research Fellow and Associate Director at the Wheatley Institution, and he also served as the Dean of Undergraduate Education and the Chair of the Philosophy Department. 

His research in philosophy focuses on the work of Martin Heidegger and late 20th and early 21st century French thinkers, especially regarding religious experience. We're chatting today about his recent book, Thinking Otherwise: Theological Explorations of Joseph Smith's Revelations, published by the Maxwell Institute.

Thanks for joining me today, Jim. 

James Faulconer: Happy to do so. Thank you for asking me. 

Stephen Betts: So Jim, in my view, you're among the leading Latter-day Saint lay theologians working today. And for Latter-day Saints, that title of “theologian” can be somewhat complicated because The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no theological seminaries, doesn't encourage members ostensibly to engage with or practice theology in ways that other Christian denominations might recognize. Can you tell me a little bit about your journey to becoming a self-titled theologian and say something about what that means to navigate those kinds of institutional tensions?

James Faulconer: Well, first, being a “leading theologian” among Latter-day Saints, there's no high bar there, right, there may be three or four of us so we can all fight over the title “leading.” But the other thing is that I find it difficult or odd to think of myself as a theologian. I've always thought of myself as a philosopher with an interest in religion, and I probably still think of myself that way, though I recognize the degree to which what I'm doing is mostly now theological. So, I guess that even saying that's a kind of expression of the tension you're talking about. There's always been a religious component to my work.

My PhD dissertation on community was an investigation and a comparison of some phenomenological thinkers, and then an analysis of three stories from the Old Testament: the story of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac and Moses and Israel. So, you know, it started off that way. Trying to meet the demands of tenure and promotion, I did some things in philosophy of psychology for a number of years, but even then I was writing theological stuff on the side and gradually, once I got tenured and didn't care quite as much, the things I was writing gradually tended in the direction more and more of philosophy of religion and theology. So that's been, as I said, it's been a part of my thinking since I was an undergraduate.

I guess you can say I gradually morphed from someone doing philosophy with a philosophical and theological approach to doing much more theological stuff. But I've never felt any real tension between the institution of the Church and my professional institutions. And that's partly because by the Church not having its own theology—very particular theology—that's made it possible for me to feel free. I could kind of do what I wanted to. And since I was doing mostly continental philosophy and there has almost always been a connection or closer connection between the thinkers in the continental tradition and religion than there is between the thinkers in the analytic tradition and religion, I just, I felt pretty much at home. Though, I have to say, probably most of my colleagues in continental philosophy were atheists. I still never felt uncomfortable. 

Stephen Betts: Can you say more about some of your major influences and the kinds of work that you're doing today? Obviously your training and you know, you focused on Heidegger and some of the major phenomenological thinkers in the continental tradition. Can you say more about some of the people you're really engaging with today? 

James Faulconer: Well, yeah, probably saying something about the background is maybe helpful there. Probably in the nineties, a friend of mine, Dominique Janicaud at the University of Nice, wrote a book called [Phenomenology and the Theological Turn], and he attacked, criticized really heavily, a number of thinkers for this, what he called “the theological term” in this. The idea was they're bringing God into things and they ought not to be doing that. And at the time, I had been reading a lot of Levinas—Emmanuel Levinas—another French, French Lithuanian, thinker. And as I read what Dominique had to say, I wasn't convinced by his arguments. But at the same time, he was attacking several other people that I didn't know a lot about. I'd heard of the names, but didn’t know much. So, I started reading some of these other people, and in particular I started reading the work of Jean-Luc Marion. And Marion is a contemporary French thinker. He's the same age that I am, though much more famous. The bar for Catholic theologians is much higher than it is for Mormon theologians. And he stepped over his bar and has done quite well, but I started reading his work. What was interesting to me was the degree to which—and I had not thought about this a lot before, though I think I had recognized it—the degree to which thinkers like Marion and then also a thinker like Jean-Yves Lacoste who's at [The University of] Cambridge and the University of Paris.Thinkers like that were able to bring together their religious thought and their philosophical thought, and I really got very interested in reading those guys and trying to think about what can I do that's similar to that in my own tradition. And much of what I have done, I think, has been influenced by reading them, as I said. It's been interesting to me in reading them the degree to which Catholic theology has been helpful to me in reading and thinking about Latter-day Saint theology.

Stephen Betts: Yeah. So thinking about Marion and others, what specifically, maybe a couple of examples, what kinds of things do you find useful about the kinds of things that these Catholic theologians are doing? 

James Faulconer: Well, the thing that I guess for me has been the most useful has been—and this occurs in Levinas, Marion, Lacoste, [Emmanuel] Falque and others—for me, what's interesting is the degree to which they talk about what is often called “excess.” The way in which there's always something more in our experience than we can say or think or conceptualize, and that that “more,” even though it is on the one hand inaccessible, well it's not inaccessible, but not fully accessible to language is nevertheless a part of our experience. So we always experience more than we can say. And that I think has a lot to say about our experience of the world, about art, for example. It has a lot to say about what it means to be related to other people, but I also think that, you know, they've made the connection and I see a connection between that and our experience of God. And the idea then is that this is not some proof for God's existence, it's just the idea that since there is more in our experience than we can say, we ought not to eliminate out of hand those who try to talk about experiences of this “more,” and they can be expressed in things like poetry perhaps, or art, but philosophy and theology and not going to be able to capture them directly.

Stephen Betts: Yeah. You talk in the book about how these various modes of expressing, you know, non-conceptual knowing or non-conceptual experience poetry, but also love. You talk about love a lot and I think that this idea of the non-conceptual or the thing that's in excess of what we can describe seems to be, correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to be something that's really important to what you call “performative theology.”

James Faulconer: Yes, I think it is. That's a very nice point to make. I think performative theology is to a very large degree based on the idea that if I sit down and try to just say these are the things that can be said about God or about love, or about the obligations we have to others, I think that we will come up short. But nevertheless, there are ways of thinking and talking about those things. And performative theology tries to put us in touch with those ways of finding expression of these ideas or these experiences. 

Stephen Betts: Yeah. So let's unpack a little bit, if you will, what exactly is performative theology, which is really the subject of this book, and how to do it, and what does that have to do with Joseph Smith's revelations? Obviously, this is a book about theological explorations of Joseph Smith's revelations. 

James Faulconer: Right. Well, performance theology is a way of reading that assumes that you can do theology well by reading scripture in such a way that the readings give theological life to the text so that the reading itself allows, or is an invitation to experience the excess of this text of how it says something more than just those straightforward sentences on the page. And more in fact, than someone can capture in a kind of rational description of its content. The assumption is basically that like almost all of the Old Testament, perhaps all I would say, and probably all of the New Testament as well, and the Book of Mormon and other scripture, the scriptures are what the Greeks called “wisdom literature” and the Jews called it “wisdom literature” as well. So, there's this, there's this idea that the standard for what counts as literature are things like the Proverbs and the Psalms more than the Law. The Law should be read as this Proverbs and Psalms rather than the other way around. So, when we read scripture, what we're trying to do is discover the wisdom at its heart.“Love your neighbor as yourself” is a commandment. But it's only a commandment that makes sense to us if when we read that commandment actually somehow draws on our experience of the world and connects us into the world in a such a way that we feel that obligation. And so performative theology is a kind of theology which says, look, let's try to read these scriptures in such a way that we see two things: we see what they're doing, so what do they perform. And we do it in a way that invites people to see that. So, we perform the act of being invited by scripture to see things in a certain way. So it's, I guess it's performative in two ways. I don’t know that I'm making any sense here, but…

Stephen Betts: No, I think that's really helpful. I mean, one of the things that I really resonated with in this book, you said you might call this in a certain kind of way and certainly in a qualified sense, a kind of mysticism. But I think what resonated for me was that this isn't the kind of mysticism where the goal is to be, you know, even the sense of what Marion would call something like “bedazzled.”

James Faulconer:  Right. 

Stephen Betts: What you're doing through performative theology is kind of trying to make transparent the way toward that excess, rather than just trying to say, this is kind of mystical paradox, we don't know what it means. And doing really sophisticated philosophical reflection on that. Instead, you're doing sophisticated philosophical reflection in a way that both performs what it means to be invited and performs an invitation. 

James Faulconer: Yeah, thank you. You said it much better than I did. I appreciate that. You’re right to call attention to what I said there about it being a kind of mysticism, and there are, as you say, there are mystics who say, look, what you should do is you get to the nub of things by finding these paradoxes. And when you get there, then the paradox itself—you find this in Buddhism and in Christianity, you find it in Hinduism, you find it all over the place— getting to the nub of this paradox, if you really focus on that will bring you to an insight into to God. And I guess performative theology doesn't deny that as a possibility, but says it's possible, it's quite possible to find let's use the word “enlightenment.” But now that I've talked about Buddhism, I wanna be careful, I don't mean Buddhist enlightenment, but to find, to find this enlightenment, to find this connection to what is more than the text and what is more than the world itself by reading these texts in a certain way. And that I think is, I guess you might say, a lower level of mysticism. So that yes, there is what can't be said, but it doesn't mean that we don't have relatively easy access to this. And in fact, I think we experience it all the time. And what performance theology tries to do is to bring that experience back to our reading of the scriptures. 

Stephen Betts: My background is in biblical studies and so my orientation towards texts is often very, you know, to treat them as an object, treat them as an artifact of, yes, definitely religious activity, human activity, but to say, okay, well what is this text doing within the text itself. And it seems like performative theology is saying, what if we treat the text as a person or almost as a person, as a somebody to have a conversation with, to learn from. And not just in terms of principles. You know, a lot of Latter-day Saints often think about scripture in terms of what can we distill out of this? In terms of actionable content, but almost just like Jesus says in the New Testament, “I am the way,” you point this out in the book, “I am the way, I'm the truth, the life.” Right. It's like saying that the narrative itself is the thing you're interacting with rather than, you know, just sort of distilling certain actionable principles out of it. 

James Faulconer: Yeah, no, I think that that’s actually my objection to most Latter-day Saint readings of scriptures is that it's only a matter of finding principles. And obviously I'm not opposed to principles, but I think there's more to be found there. And if someone says to me, you should read the Book of Mormon every day, there are not that many principles for me to find. And finding the same principles every day over and over again rapidly gets boring. And I think that's been the experience of too many Latter-day Saints. But I think if we say, look, in addition to whatever principles there are, there is the fact that the scriptures can be a kind of quasi-person. They really can teach us something. And the concern about establishing their historicity or all of those, those questions are interesting. They're valuable. I don't say, you know, we shouldn't be doing them, but in the end, the reason we have the scriptures that we do is that thousands of years in the case of the Bible, more than a hundred years in the case of the Book of Mormon, people who have sincere belief have gathered together and found these things to be valuable. They've said, look, these stories, these poems, these sets of laws, all of these things that we have before us have been valuable in giving us the wisdom of God. Helping us understand what it means to have a godly experience of the world, and that's what we should be trying to do with them in addition to whatever scholarly work we want to do.

Stephen Betts: You talk about Joseph Smith a lot in this book and contrary to what I think people would expect, particularly when you're talking about engaging with the narrative, engaging with the theology, is that you start with the ancient Greek philosophy, which is not a usual starting point for talking about Joseph Smith, right? Talking about not even just Plato and Aristotle, who most people would recognize, but Parmenides. And you say, look, Parmenides presents us with a legacy of a certain kind of thinking that Joseph Smith is implicitly, not probably consciously, but implicitly through his revelations, he's countering this and we'll get to Joseph Smith in a minute, but I wonder if you can just tell us a little bit about Parmenides and the kind of the problem he presents, namely, this idea of the One and the Many in terms of fundamental reality.

James Faulconer: Well, Parmenides, he's this fifth century [BCE] guy living in what's now southern Italy, then it was part of greater Greece. And he's probably the most important pre-Socratic philosopher. Before Socrates, there had been a number of thinkers, and the most important one of them all, I think is Parmenides. And the reason he is, is because earlier philosophers had been trying to think about what the basic substance of the world is. What is it that makes the world what it is? There have been all sorts of proposals. Maybe it's fire, maybe it's air, maybe it's, you know, soul, different things. And Parmenides basically says, I don't care what you want to call it, but whatever it is, there can only be one of them. Because some people had tried to have more than one and he said there can only be one thing that is ultimate.

And then he discussed what that one thing would have to be like. He said it would have to be outside of time and it would have to essentially be completely Other than our ordinary experience of the world, there were a lot of arguments among the Greeks about this and so on, but this idea that what is ultimate has to be One and outside of human experience became the sort of the standard idea in Greek philosophy for if you're trying to talk about the ultimate stuff of the world, that's the way you talk.

And the earliest Christians didn't seem to be much concerned about Greek philosophy, but it wasn't very long at all before they had to engage with it. They had to talk to thinkers who were Greeks, and the only philosophy that these Christians had to talk about it was Greek philosophy. They didn't have an alternative. So they rapidly and almost without thought, it seems, adopted the same view that everybody else had, and that is this Parmenidean view. And that gradually became the Christian way of trying to think about God. So, I don't think, as I said, I don't think it was conscious, but it was just what was in the philosophical air, was Parmenides. And so, when it came time to try to think about God, this was the metaphysical model that they had for trying to do that. And its outcome was, for example, they're trying to think about how can there be three persons related to one another who are ultimate? Well then the only one way they could is if they were one being, because that was just the logic of Greek thought. And so then the doctrine of the Trinity arises, not solely out of that. I'm not trying to make an extravagant claim here, but Parmendies’s influence is really quite heavy at junctures like that in the history of Christian thought.

Stephen Betts: Yeah. So we're gonna skip over a, a fairly large chunk of recent human history, but you basically track in very general terms how this Parmenidean legacy comes to basically construct the world in which Joseph Smith is living. And you know, we know that Joseph Smith is living at a time of, you know, very intense, at least in, in the Western world. Very intense philosophical reflection. You know, people like Hegel, Schleiermacher, Feuerbach, the young Karl Marx are all near contemporaries or contemporaries with Joseph Smith. And you know, Nietzsche in fact is born in the very year that Joseph Smith dies. And of course, Nietzsche has this famous thesis that most people are vaguely aware of, right: “God is dead.” And that'll take some unpacking here in a second. But you say basically that Joseph Smith, in a certain kind of way, anticipates, Nietzsche's argument that God is dead. Namely that this Oneness that we've inherited—that the Western world inherited philosophically through the Parmenidean legacy—is no longer able to explain the world. And you say Joseph Smith's emphasis on multiplicity in his theology, in his metaphysics is trying to address that problem. So, there's a lot of stuff I just said, but can we unpack first, what is this claim that that Nietzsche is making, “God is dead”? And then what is Joseph Smith doing with the idea of multiplicity? 

James Faulconer: Nietzsche for me is one of the most influential figures in my own thought, not because I'm a Nietzschean by any sense, but because I think that he is the best diagnostician of the ills of Western culture that I know. And his diagnosis is that we have been Christians and the Western world has more or less been constructed and ruled by this Oneness version of Christianity, but that it just isn't working anymore. And we see all around us then the failure of this understanding of the world. And he says when he talks about that failure, he means the failure of this idea, this failure of this way of constructing things. And that is “God is dead.” and for Nietzsche, this is a really sad event. This is a bad thing that's happened. He's not celebrating it. He's not saying we should all love the idea. He's saying we should recognize the idea and we need to find an alternative to it. Nietzsche’s alternative is creativity, essentially. And I think that what Joseph Smith has done is Joseph Smith has said, what if we just didn't start with one? What if we started with many? What if God is the organizer of the world rather than the creator of the world ex nihilo? And if we do that, then we have a very different notion of God than we had before. God is helping us to become something that he is. Some of the problems that we have problem of theodicy— of the origin of evil—some of these change their character very much, and we have a different way of understanding who we are, what the world is and so on.

And I think that it's, well, I think it's revealed, but if it weren't revealed, it’s still a genius idea, right? I mean, evidence to me of Joseph's prophetic calling that he has this notion of the world. Now, the danger for me, the danger that that Latter-day Saints have is sometimes we go so far with this plurality and you know, the notion that God is helping us become who we are, that we turn God into nothing more than something like the highest level of a multi-level marketing scheme, right, and I think that that's really a dangerous thing. We no longer recognize his majesty. So, the Lord's prayer that Jesus says we should use as an example begins “hallowed be thy name.” May your name be holy, may we, you know, may we glorify you. There's not much reason to glorify a multi-level marketing guy. I hope I'm not offending a lot of MLM people out there. But listen, these are not people that we should be worshiping. And so, I think the danger we have as we push in that direction sometimes. Nevertheless, if we are cognizant of that danger and recognize that to think about the world as a world in which there is God and there is also the Son and there are other beings who are also divine. There are these divine beings and those divine beings have as their goal to help us to become like them, and there are lots of questions about what that means and all that that can be talked about and thought about in doing theology. But for me, the most important idea there is that there is a multiplicity in the world. Things have their own origin. They're not created by God ex nihilo. That this stuff around us has its own existence. Now it doesn't have his own existence as the things we see. They're the rocks and trees and so on, because God made them that way. He organized the world that way. But I think that the idea that there's more than one origin in the universe, or for the universe is an important way of undoing the Parmenidean version of the world.

Stephen Betts: So, Jim, can you unpack for us a little bit more, what is this God of Joseph Smith with this multiplicity in the background? What does God look like in theological terms that, you know, other Christian denominations would recognize? There are a lot of really interesting things like the fact that this plurality includes a gendered God. Like when you say “He,” that also includes a “She,” right? There's a Heavenly Mother in his cosmology, right? And not just that, but God has a physical body. God exists in time and space. 

James Faulconer: So all of those things make God incredibly different for Latter-day Saints than God is for non-Latter-day Saints. The fact that God has gendered male and female, in fact, I'm hardly the first person to say this, but the notion it may very well be that the word God already includes male and female. The divine being is not one person, it's two people in a divine relationship. That whole way of thinking about God is radically different. I can understand how non-Latter-day Saints would accuse us of perhaps blasphemy, perhaps  atheism. At least why they would find it offensive because we just simply don't see God the way they do. But God has a body. God is all-powerful. I think that's very important for us to recognize on the one hand. On the other hand, I think reason requires that all-powerful means something different for us than it means in the tradition and we need to think about that. I don't know that we've really got it cashed out very well, but for me it means that he has all the power that is possible for a gendered physical being to have. But that's not the same as saying he has all the power that there is. Well, where I guess he has all the, there is right now or all the power there is, but he doesn't have all the power imaginable. So that means there are some kinds of limits to the powers that God has. To say that God is in time and space is to say that there's certain kinds of things he can't do, or even he has all knowledge. It means he knows everything that can be known, but that doesn't mean there are things that he can't know. I mean, I think that the doctrine of free agency requires that there be things he can't know, but at any given time, he knows everything that is knowable. So sometimes those are distinctions that don't make much difference to an average Latter-day Saint sitting in the pews and probably ought not to make much difference. But if you're doing theology, those are important distinctions, and they really make the God that we're talking about quite different than the traditional God. 

Stephen Betts: So to paraphrase you, and you can correct me if I'm wrong here, but to paraphrase you, in a somewhat provocative way, this would mean something like what we're describing is a God with contingency because he can make choices. As opposed to necessity where he just is the way things are. He exists necessarily in a particular way, and therefore choice doesn't come into that. 

James Faulconer: I think that's exactly right, that God can choose between alternatives. That he is a contingent being. He's the least contingent being there is, but it doesn't mean he is not contingent at all. So worrying about the danger I spoke of earlier, I want to make sure that I don't just reduce God to one more person like me. But I also think, again, if we're saying, what does this mean theologically if we say that God is in time and space, then we have to say that he's contingent. I don't see any way out of that. I know Saints who’ve said, well, he's in space because he has a body, but he's not in time. And I think that's just not possible. I think if you're in space, you're in time. I don't see any way out of that one. You might be in a different time. There can be various kinds of time, but you still have to be in time in some way. So yeah, I think that that way of putting it, God is a contingent being is a way to talk about the understanding that Latter-day Saints have. 

Stephen Betts: To get back to performative theology, you say that performative theology focuses more on practice than belief. We've been talking about beliefs here, theology, but you say that performative theology is more about practice. And to me this is a somewhat surprising claim because, you know, Latter-day Saints frequently have these heated debates among themselves about orthodoxy. And this is certainly not unique to Latter-day Saints, but they have these, you know, what can we believe? What is it okay to believe? And yet you say that it's more about practice, this performative theology. So unpack that for us. 

James Faulconer: First of all, I think that the heated debates about orthodoxy in a certain way, they're an inheritance from the very tradition that we want to take ourselves out of. The idea that there's only one God who has this Parmenidean unity and ultimacy. Also, it suggests that there is only one way of thinking about things, and we're all trying to figure out what that one way is. And if you say, wait a second. Of course there's right and wrong. We're not going to fall into some kind of simple relativism. Nevertheless, if things in the world have their own ultimately autonomous existence and so do persons, then trying to talk about the way those things are may have more than one expression, especially if we're not so much trying to talk about the way that things must necessarily be, but we're trying to talk to the wisdom of being those kinds of beings, the wisdom of being like God. So, the wisdom of being like God will have more than one expression, more than one way of being said. That means that the fights over orthodoxy, they're not pointless, but they're the to the side of the real point which is to learn what it means to live the life that God wants us to live. In that sense, the job of performative theology is to try to help get us away from those doctrinal thoughts and worries about the ideas I have. What are you thinking in your head? But what are you doing with your life? That's the real question.

I mean, when I think about my temple recommend interview, very little of it is about what I believe. Most of it's about what I'm doing. Again, beliefs are not irrelevant because they're part of what I'm doing, but what I'm doing is really what's most important there. How do I behave? How do I live my life? And so, the point of doing theology ought to be to say, let's look at scripture and try to find what it says about how to live the life that God is calling us to live. And showing other people how that happens in scripture. 

Stephen Betts: Yeah. I mean, I think this brings us to an interesting question, which is, you know, to this point again, we've been kind of getting theologically speculative about what's the nature of God, what's this and that in Latter-day Saint tradition and, you know, theology used to be called “the queen of the sciences,” right? It had this privileged position as a sort of human knowledge in the Western tradition. Over time, that got divided in a way that was intended to protect theology from contamination by human thought like philosophy, like, you know, like the natural sciences in particular. Because it was thought that you had to have a certain kind of training to talk about these things, to think about these things. And ultimately that kind of resulted in this division between a formal kind of division in the sciences between theology and natural science, which I think we often gloss as something like faith versus reason. So, what is the role in your mind of philosophy or rational thought, scientific thought, in theological reflection for Latter-day Saints?

James Faulconer: Well, I think that it's what I was saying earlier, I think the goal of theology ought not to be to resolve orthodoxy disputes. I think the goal of theology ought to be to help us to understand better what do the scriptures and the prophets, what do they have to say to us about how to live the lives that God wants us to live? That I think, is, that's the real role. Now, it may require sometimes that we settle certain doctrinal disputes for whatever reason. But in the long run, the commandment is to love God and to love my neighbor and my reading of scripture, and my theology ought to be, those things ought to be such that they draw me to love God and to love my neighbor and to the degree that they don't do that, I think I'm not really, I'm not even doing theology. If theology is to say what it is that God has to say, I'm not doing theology if what I'm doing doesn't draw me to those two things: to fulfill those commandments. 

Stephen Betts: So we've talked about the sort of the shape of performative theology, what it looks like to describe performative theology, but can you give us an example, run us through an example of kinds of actual thinking when you're looking at a, at a scriptural text, Latter-day Saint scriptural text, what does this look like to do performative theology?

James Faulconer: Let me use the example, well, one of the examples that's in the book and then it's Doctrine & Covenants section 121. That chapter came out of my experience of reading that section, and I noticed that in the beginning of the section, Joseph has this really harsh demand for revenge, and in the later part of the section it says, you know that what we should do, we should be asking, we should do things without compulsion and only by persuasion, gentleness, love unfeigned. And I just, it struck me that there was something odd about these being so close together in a particular section. Now, people who know the history of these things much better than I do pointed out to me that this was a construction made out various parts of the same letter and so on. But my response was that history doesn't matter. Nevertheless, there is a, we now have a canonized piece of scripture, and in the beginning the prophet says, would you please take care of my enemies in harsh ways? And then later on is told, “Don't do anything by compulsion or without love.” And so I tried to think, well, what? What's going on here? And as I began to read, I noticed he says, “where's the pavilion that covers thy hiding place?” And I thought, well, let me just look up where does “pavilion” occur? And I looked up pavilion and the Hebrew variations that occur in the translations in Old Testament. And what I noticed is in every other occurrence of “pavilion” in scripture, or its cognate, the pavilion is where God hides his children from their enemies. And yet in this case, God is hiding in the pavilion from Joseph. And that really struck me. I just, I thought, this is really odd. So, then the goal would be to begin reading from verse one, reading, thinking, how do these verses help me think about this question?

How does this, you know what's going on here? And that means looking for these forms of rhetoric that show how pieces of the language are related to each other, trying to see what various words mean, just going through very carefully, reading slowly. And finally, what occurred to me, and I'm not claiming this as the definitive answer to this question but the answer that I came to was, this looks to me like the Lord is giving a mild rebuke to Joseph. Joseph says, “I want revenge.” And the Lord starts out by saying, “okay, I'll give you revenge. People will eventually get what they deserve. Everyone does, including you. And then goes on to say, but let's talk about the way things ought to be and how I deal with my children” and ends up with this marvelous promise about the fact that your confidence will wax strong before God where you had been out of God's pavilion in the beginning, in the end, you're standing before God in confidence. So, I just, I really, you know, as I say, reading there in this section with that question in mind, a question that the text gave me, it isn’t that I came saying to the text, “okay, what's the answer to the question of how we behave?”

As I was reading, I saw this problem, this idea, this difficulty, and then I started trying to think about that difficulty as I read through it and see is there something going on here? And I really do think when I was done that I had learned something and writing that chapter was a way of sharing what I think I had learned. Now, part of the claim of performative theology is that theology is local. And by that I mean it's confined to a certain time and place and group of people and so you know, 10 years from now, a group of Saints may be reading this section. They might read it very carefully and come to very different conclusions that I come to. And I think that's because this is God's wisdom and not God's doctrine, right? God's not giving us a set of ideas we all have to know. He could have done that in a very short pamphlet, but he's rather, he's giving us something that invites us to find how to live the life that he lives. And we may find that in different ways, at different times. 

Stephen Betts: Yeah. I like what you said about the locality of performative theology. It reminds me of something you said earlier, which was that what you're saying is not about relativism a kind of vulgar relativism. And what that reminds me of is this is more like relativity in this sort of, you know, spacetime sense of relativity where things may occur differently in different places, things may be affected differently and have apparently different appearances and whatnot in relations to other things. But ultimately, what matters to that person doing performative theology in that place at that time is trying to access the invitation in scripture and make that invitation to other people. 

James Faulconer: Yeah. 

Stephen Betts: So Jim, what, what does the future look like for Latter-day Saints practicing this kind of theology that you've outlined today or other kinds of theology? 

James Faulconer: Well, if we're talking professional, uh, futures, the answer is it's bleak. It's even bleaker than it is for non-Latter-day Saints.

They're not a lot of jobs out there for theologians period. Much less LDS theologians. But I think the Church has always, you know, it, it seems to me it's always had a very healthy, non-professional, amateur—amateur in the best sense as a person who loves something—it's always had a very healthy amateur theology going on with people doing this in the background, talking to each other, sharing things.

And if that's the kind of theology we're talking about, I think it has a very good future. I think that whether you're doing performative theology or systematic theology or some other kind, I think there's a lot of work to be done and I think it's very interesting stuff and I think that there are many Saints who are interested in, in having the discussion and sharing what they think. At least, you know, my limited experience is that that's the case. 

Stephen Betts: Jim, before we go here, I hear through the grapevine that you have another book coming out or you're working on another book. Can you tell us about that a little bit? 

James Faulconer: Yeah, I'm, right now I've got two book projects going. One of them that's I think, I hope nearing completion on faith, hope, and charity, and it will be more like systematic theology than others. And then I also wanted to do a book on Incarnation. That is barely in the beginning stages though, so we'll see what happens. 

Stephen Betts: That's James Faulconer talking about his recent book, Thinking Otherwise: Theological Explorations of Joseph Smith's Revelations. Thanks for joining me today on the show, Jim.

James Faulconer: Thank you very much. Appreciate it. 

Stephen Betts: Thanks for listening to Scholars and Saints. This podcast is made possible by the Mormon Studies Program at the University of Virginia. To learn more, visit mormonstudies.as.virginia.edu.

Music for this episode is used by permission of the artist Ben Howington. The track name is “Wayfaring Stranger.” To hear more, visit mormonguitar.com.

 

*Transcript edited for clarity.