I’ve written the story of my conversion in several places, but it bears repeating here because it is at the heart of what it means for me to be who I am.
When I was a teenager living in San Antonio, Texas, my parents came into contact with Mormon missionaries through someone who worked with my father, an officer in the Medical Services Corps of the U. S. Army. At first I wasn’t interested. I already knew what I wanted to be in life (either a medical doctor or a Disciples of Christ minister). But my mother got me to attend a “cottage meeting” with the missionaries (and a pretty LDS girl, of course), and I became interested in talking with them. What began as an interest in talking with two nice young men about a topic I was interested in gradually turned into something else, until after many months I agreed to be baptized, as did my mother, father, and brother, and my maternal aunt who was living with us. But I can’t say that the something-else into which my interest had turned was conversion. (I speak, of course, only for myself.) I was ready to be baptized. It seemed like the right thing to do. But I had no particular conviction that Mormonism was true. I’d not prayed about that. I’d not read any more than the few pages from the Book of Mormon that the missionaries had marked, and I’d certainly not taken the admonition of Moroni 10:4 to heart. I was going along, and baptism seemed to be where we were headed.
Though my family had been studying with the missionaries for about a year and though we had finally agreed to be baptized, none of us had ever been to an LDS meeting. I’d been to a youth dance, but that is as much contact as we had with the Church except through the missionaries. Quite reasonably, the missionaries insisted that if we were going to be baptized, we needed to go to church at least once. So the Sunday before we were scheduled for baptism, the last Sunday in January 1962, we went to sacrament meeting in the San Antonio Second Ward.
I was surprised at the informality of the worship service. I was particularly surprised that those who officiated over the blessing and passing of the sacrament were so young. At the behest of our minister, I had once or twice taken part in distributing communion in our Disciples of Christ congregation, but that was unusual. Here everyone seemed to take that participation by young men, many several years younger than I, to be normal. I assumed (incorrectly I later learned) that it had something to do with the fact that Joseph Smith’s vision had occurred when he was young, fourteen. But apart from the informality of the meeting and the age of those officiating for the sacrament, I didn’t see much difference between my Protestant worship and Mormon worship.
That changed when the sacrament was passed to the congregation. In the Disciples of Christ, it was important that the Lord’s Supper was for all. In contrast, the missionaries had told my parents that for Latter-day Saints the sacrament is a token of baptismal covenants, so those not yet baptized don’t normally partake. But no one had told me. So when the bread reached me, I took a piece and ate it.
Immediately I was no longer an observer noting the strangeness of using ordinary bread rather than a wafer. As the bread touched my tongue I was overcome with a fulness of feeling that I had never had before. My chest swelled and burned. I felt incredible joy. I couldn’t help crying. The chapel we were in seemed filled with light. And, though I’d never before had that experience, without needing to think about it or analyze I knew what it was. It was a revelation that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is what it claims to be, a restoration of the gospel and authority of Jesus Christ. I knew that Joseph Smith was a prophet called of God. Because of that I also knew that the Book of Mormon (which I had yet to read) was the word of God. Most of all I knew that I was to join myself to this church and to remain faithful to it.
That experience has been the touchstone of my religious life for almost fifty years. When I have had questions about our history or doctrine, or quibbles with my leaders, or frustrations with church programs, I have recalled that experience and it has brought me back to the truth: there are many things I do not understand; I make mistakes; others make mistakes; those who lead me are equally as human and at least as sincere as I am—and it remains true that I had that experience in San Antonio and that it defines my life. Whatever else is true, I must not deny that truth, neither by what I say nor by the life I live. I did not see a vision, but I understood what Joseph Smith meant when he said:
I have thought since, that I felt much like Paul, when he made his defense before King Agrippa, and related the account of the vision he had when he saw a light, and heard a voice; but still there were but few who believed him . . . . He had seen a vision, he knew he had, and all the persecution under heaven could not make it otherwise; and though they should persecute him unto death, yet he knew, and would know to his latest breath, that he had both seen a light and heard a voice speaking unto him, and all the world could not make him think or believe otherwise. (Joseph Smith-History 1:24)
My experience was not nearly as dramatic as that of Paul or of Joseph Smith, and I can’t recall ever being persecuted for my belief. But I share with them the fact that, though many things might be or become an issue, that founding experience is not.
As an academic, perhaps the most important consequence of my conversion has been confidence. I have not worried that pursuing this or that question would upset my world, somehow showing me that my membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a mistake or that the Book of Mormon is a fake or that Joseph Smith was a fraud. I can pursue my interest in twentieth-century and contemporary European philosophy without worrying that reading the work of Heidegger or Foucault or Derrida will expose me to something that will undermine my faith. And I can teach that work without worrying that my students’ faith will be undermined.
I sometimes do not know how to bring together what I believe to be true in philosophy and what I believe as a Mormon, but I don’t worry about that inability. I may discover that what I have found and believed in philosophy is wrong. Something I learn from a philosopher may cause me to change my mind about how to explain my Mormon beliefs. I may even change my mind about what my religious beliefs are. Or I may remain in a state of not knowing how the two relate. But I am comfortable with any of those possible outcomes, for my confidence remains firm that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is what it claims to be, presently the only church on the earth organized by Jesus Christ and given his authority (which is not to say that it is the only church that receives his inspiration or the only place in which one can find true Christians or truth). Because of my experience in San Antonio many years ago—the revelation that Joseph Smith was indeed a prophet of God—my work in philosophy is free to go wherever it may without fear or restraint.
Born in Missouri to a military family, James E. Faulconer graduated from high school in Korea. He later returned to Korea as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Today, Professor Faulconer (Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University) is a professor of philosophy at Brigham Young University, where, since 2008, he has also served as Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding. At BYU, he has chaired the Department of Philosophy and served as the dean of undergraduate studies. In addition, he has been a visiting professor at the Institute of Philosophy of the Catholic University of Leuven (“Louvain”) in Belgium, and spent a year on research leave at the Bibliothèque d’École Normale Supérieure, in Paris.
Dr. Faulconer is the author of Romans 1: Notes and Reflections (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999) and Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, in press); the editor of Transcendence in Religion and Philosophy (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2003); and the co-editor (with R. N. Williams) of Reconsidering Psychology: Perspectives from Contemporary Continental Philosophy (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1990) and (with Mark W. Wrathall) of Appropriating Heidegger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). Recent articles include “Knowledge of the Other,” European Journal of Psychotherapy, Counseling, and Health 7/1-2 (March-June 2005): 49-63; “The Concept of Apostasy in the New Testament,” in Early Christians in Disarray: Contemporary LDS Perspectives on the Christian Apostasy, ed. Noel Reynolds (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2005), 133-162; “La perte de l’espoir,” in Expériences de la perte, ed. Michel Juffé (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2005), 355-381; “On Scripture, or Idolatry versus True Religion,” in Discourses in Mormon Theology, ed. James M. McLachlan and Loyd Erickson (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 247-264; “Myth and Religion: Theology as a Hermeneutic of Religious Experience” and “A Mormon View of Theology: Revelation and Reason,” in Mormonism in Dialogue with Contemporary Theologies, ed. David Paulsen (Atlanta: Mercer University Press, 2007). 423-435, 468-478; “Rethinking Theology: The Shadow of the Apocalypse,” FARMS Review 19/1 (2007): 175-199; “Why a Mormon Won’t Drink Coffee but Might Have a Coke: The Atheological Character of the LDS Church,” Element: A Journal of Mormon Philosophy and Theology 2/2 (Fall 2007): 21-37; “Remembrance,” FARMS Review 19/2 (2008): 71-87; “The Myth of the Modern; the Anti-myth of the Postmodern,” FARMS Review 2/1 (2008): 219-236; “The Past and Future Community: Abraham and Isaac; Sarah and Rebekah, . . . .” Levinas Studies 3 (2008): 79-100; “Theological and Philosophical Transcendence: Bodily Excess and the Word Made Flesh,” in Philosophical Concepts and Religious Metaphors: New Perspectives on Phenomenology and Theology, ed. Cristian Ciocan (Bucharest: Zeta Books, 2009), 223-235; “Truman Madsen, Architect,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 42/4 (Winter, 2009): 133-136; and “The Covenant of Community,” Levinas: On the Ruins of Totality (Vilnius, in press).
Posted January 2010