On Kristine’s “testimony” thread, Nate’s post and Steve’s reply raised a question about the relation of one’s religion to one’s intellectual life. My question is related to Kristine’s question about how to bear testimony, but I think it is slightly different. I’d like to pursue it in a meandering way.
As a philosophy professor at BYU, I find myself often asked something like “Do they let you really teach philosophy at BYU?” The answer is yes, and I’m not surprised by the question, given the reputation that philosophy has (mostly among those who don’t know much about it) and the reputation that BYU has (a reputation that ought to be more complicated than it often is). What I’m surprised by is the fact that most of those asking the question are LDS. Philosophy professors at other universities just assume, perhaps naively though for the most part correctly, that if we have a philosophy department, we teach philosophy like everyone else does. Members of the Church assume, also naively and for the most part incorrectly, that if we teach philosophy at BYU, then we must be subjected to censorship.
I have to confess that there is certainly an element of self-censorship among us. Each member of our department is a faithful Latter-day Saint, so it is unlikely that we would advocate something that undermines LDS faith. Nevertheless, we teach those things, and we teach them in much the same way that they are taught anywhere else. In almost thirty years of teaching at BYU no one has every told me that I couldn’t teach a particular thinker or topic nor that I had to teach some topic or other. Self-censorship is the only kind I’ve encountered so far.
I teach 19th and 20th century German and French philosophy, including Nietzsche, one of my favorites and someone for whom I have considerable sympathy, both intellectual and religious. I think one must read Nietzsche’s criticisms of Christianity carefully because it isn’t obvious how they relate to the beliefs and practices of faithful Christians. In fact, it isn’t obvious how to read Nietzsche at all. He is not only a careful stylist, he also takes great care not to make himself the model for others. As a result, I see Nietzsche as less threatening to believers than many do. But I don’t try to “baptize” Nietzsche, and I think my interpretation of his work is a legitimate, justifiable, philosophical interpretation. When I teach Nietzsche, I don’t just offer students a sanitized or a “pro-Mormon” version of him. The same is true of Heidegger and Gadamer, and of the French philosophers I’ve been teaching lately.
On the one hand, I don’t have any difficulty reconciling my faith with my philosophical interests, sometimes because I don’t see any relation between them. Of course I also understand that there are positions within the area of philosophy that I teach which many Latter-day Saints would find difficult to agree with. I also recognize that my philosophical understanding of LDS beliefs may well be idiosyncratic. Perhaps that is part of the reason I don’t think that belief is central to LDS religion: it is important only as part of the practice of religion, not in itself.
On the other hand, given the kinds of things I teach, I often see connections between what I’m doing philosophically and what I believe. Sometimes those connections are questions. For example, I have been reading the work of Jean-Luc Marion for the past several years. He is a contemporary French philosopher who is also a practicing Catholic. He argues that traditional Christian thinking about the relation of God to the world provides a model for how we can think about the relation of the mind to the world. (I won’t try to lay out his position here. For an overview, see “The Saturated Phenomenon,” in Phenomenology and the “Theological Turn”: The French Debate, and “The Event, the Phenomenon, and the Revealed,” in Transcendence in Philosophy and Religion. The latter is somewhat more accessible than the former.) Marion’s discussion raises questions about our access to the world and about transcendence that I think are intellectually provocative precisely because they not only question the main stream of modern philosophy, at the same time, they question the unreflective view that I think LDS tend to have about such matters. For me Marion raises questions that I think LDS intellectuals need to think about, particularly in light of our very different understanding of the nature of God.
Thus, though I’ve taught the philosophy of religion only twice, I often see connections between what I’m doing philosophically and my religious beliefs, and I’ve moved more in the direction of writing about those connections within the last several years. However, I can’t always say that I see those connections—nor that I should—nor can I say that everyone in BYU’s philosophy department does or ought to. It isn’t clear what the connections are between Dan Graham’s work in ancient philosophy and LDS thought. The same can be said about Cody Carter’s work in the philosophy of medicine and, indeed, the work of most of the rest of the department. I assume their experience is much like mine. Work in the philosophy of language, contemporary metaphysics, the philosophy of mind, etc. is not likely to have obvious connections with LDS beliefs, and often the connections one sees aren’t directly relevant to teaching the material at hand. The only person in the department who thinks explicitly about the connections between philosophy and religion consistently and who often teaches about those connections is David Paulsen—whose specialty is the philosophy of religion.
So, if we are intellectuals of one kind or another—whether philosophers, poets, biblical scholars, economists, botanists, artists, musicians, or even lawyers of the sort that we find here at Times and Seasons—how do we integrate our intellectual lives and our religious lives? If we merely compartmentalize the various interests and pursuits in which we are engaged, we betray our religion as well as those interests and pursuits. But the connection between those things is often less than obvious and seldom easy to make sense of, and we run the danger of a falsifying each of them in our attempts at integration.