I have been asked by a number of students what role I played in Sherlock’s conversion. I thought it worth addressing. (For those who do not know, Sherlock is leaving Mormonism and converting to Catholicism. He will be presenting his story tonight, March 2, at 4pm in Main 121).
Sherlock and I are friends, and we talk philosophy and theology quite frequently. Still, the reality is that I did not play much of a role at all in his conversion. To start, I am not much of an evangelizer. I know that other friends of Sherlock played a much larger role in his conversion.
Looking back, I don’t think I ever changed his mind about anything. From the moment I came here, Sherlock never believed that the standard mormon metaphysics (physical god, a god that develops over time after starting off like us) made sense. I don’t know if he has ever believed that standard party line, and in fact I don’t think he has ever believed it. Sherlock has always said that the business about physical gods is incoherent, he has always been seriously critical of “McConkie Mormonism.” What is interesting is that he does not think that any of those views are really in the Book of Mormon. Rather, he says (I take his word for it, he knows better than I) that it all comes from later writings and other later theological developments (Doctrine and Covenants, King Follett Discourse, etc). Sherlock, for whatever reason, always felt that he could be a believing Mormon in good stead while rejecting all that stuff. I never quite saw it myself.
One of the few motivating philosophical reasons that Sherlock had, over the years, for being Mormon was his commitment to metaphysical pluralism. Sherlock has long been committed to a libertarian conception of freedom. And I think he is right, true libertarian freedom requires absolute autonomy on the part of the subject, and absolute autonomy of the subject requires that the subject not be created and hence dependent on something else (God). So Sherlock was attracted to the metaphysical pluralism of Mormonism. Its view that man is uncreated and somehow "eternal" gave him a metaphysical ground for his view of freedom.
Why did he shift gears on this? I really don’t know. Over the last few years, Sherlock has been returning to Aristotle through his work in the new natural law. Aristotle does not have a libertarian conception of freedom. Aristotle denies that you can always choose otherwise (rather, every act and every choice aim at the good). Aristotle denies that you can knowingly choose the bad, rather he thinks everyone always chooses the apparently good (whether it is actually good being another question). Anyway, perhaps Sherlock’s rather robust commitment to libertarian freedom was weakened some, and that eroded really the only decent philosophical reason he had for being a Mormon. Given his conversion to Catholicism, he has to have abandoned metaphysical pluralism (you have to reject that to be in line with Catholic creeds), so I am guessing he has also stepped back from a libertarian conception of freedom (it is not that you can’t have a more libertarian conception of freedom and be Catholic, but that view of freedom and subjectivity does not fit well at all with Catholic moral and social theology).
I don’t find Sherlock’s conversion much of a surprise. He has never been a very "mormon Mormon". You sort of get the feeling that Sherlock was the last to know that he was much more Catholic than Mormon. Sherlock taught moral theology at a Catholic university (Fordham) before coming here. He’s always been involved in Catholic thought and "perennial philosophy" like Aristotle and Aquinas. His late wife was raised in Catholic schools (though I think she was of notable lds heritage). Some years ago when we held an LDS-Catholic debate, all the students got on Sherlock for "giving too much up" in the debate with me. This was 4 years ago, and he essentially ceded the entire argument to me (I was presenting a Thomistic position) and made his case on the fact that Mormons "really shouldn’t believe" all of the business about physical gods and humans becoming gods.
To me, the question is this: After years of thinking he could reject the "party line" while still being a member of the party, what made him finally decide or see that if you reject the party line you are not in the party?
It will be interesting to hear his story tonight, and I do hope he sheds some light on that question. I think there are a great number of educated Mormons who set aside or don’t really believe certain claims. Since the question of orthodoxy is so difficult to sort out in Mormonism, it is difficult to sort out which beliefs are essential and which can be discarded while remaining in the fold.
I would also like to know what kind of an impact Sherlock’s conversion has (if any) on LDS students here at USU.