Mormon Intellectuals Part II: Jim’s Comments

I had previously intended to post some of Jim’s comments from an email. Instead, I’m re-posting his response to Part I here in order to further highlight what he has to sayI’ll follow this up with one more post tomorrow.

Jim’s comments are as follows:

I cannot tell you how touched and flattered I am by your piece, both by the kind things you say in the beginning and by the very fact that you’ve thought something I wrote worthy of such a careful, thoughtful response.

My response to your essay is that I disagree with almost nothing. I think there is perhaps a minor difference between us, but most of the difference is occasioned by the difference between a column of restricted length that, therefore, requires a rhetorical stance as much as a philosophical one. I deliberately took a rhetorical stance that I knew would be bothersome because I wanted to raise an issue that I had been thinking about a bit in response to some of what had been going on in the bloggernacle and other media.

Our difference comes in how you and I understand what I was up to. You say that I undermine my argument by endorsing the Mormon Theology Seminar for offering only gifts without an agenda because the relevant question is not the agenda but whether the gifts are good. I agree with you that, as an intellectual my question should be whether what I do is good. I would say that is the central question for an intellectual. But my column was about agendas. With regard to the Church, I ought not to have an agenda. That’s what I meant by saying that intellectuals should be useless.

As I said in the column, a good is good because it has no need to be explained by a further good. That defines uselessness, being good for nothing further. But there is an equivocation that I played on without pointing it out. Something can be good for nothing further in every sense, or it can be good for nothing further in itself, even if useful for other purposes. That something is good for nothing further in itself doesn’t mean that there can be no further use of it. For example, a painting by a Renaissance master is good in itself. But it can also be useful for illustrations, book covers, etc. But the thing in question isn’t good because of its further usefulness, even if it has that usefulness. The question of the further good is a question about agendas, the question I was addressing.

The Steve Young example is useful: My point would be that he did not determine the instrumental value of what he did for the Church. He played football as well as he could and did whatever that demanded. As I understand it (and I may well be wrong) he followed his conscious and publicly did not support the Church’s work for Proposition 8 in California. In each case, he did what he needed to do as best he could, but he didn’t do what he did in order to bring about some effect, in order to make himself useful, as either a missionary for the Church (in the first case) or as a critic of the Church (in the second). That’s quite different, in my eyes from performers and athletes and intellectuals who are at great pains to benefit or correct the Church, at great pains to see to it that what they do brings about some effect in the Church. They are not satisfied to do their work well and to leave the question of further usefulness to circumstance and history.

I used the Mormon Theology Seminars as my example precisely to undermine the interpretation of my essay that you offer. I hoped, probably unsuccessfully, that using that example would show that I was talking about agendas.

Of course, I may not have made myself as clear as I ought to have, even given the limitations I was working with. I’ve often said to students that they didn’t say what they meant to say. That may well describe what happened with my column. There may also remain ways in which you still disagree with my view. If so, then as you say in your piece, I’m honored by that disagreement.

1 comment for “Mormon Intellectuals Part II: Jim’s Comments

  1. February 27, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    As I understand it (and I may well be wrong) he followed his conscious


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