My Kind of Apologetics

May 23, 2007 | 28 comments
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I’ve been thinking of late about apologetics. I imagine that the word has lots of different meanings for different people. Some are likely to hear the word as referring to a kind of antithesis to serious or honest inquiry, a discussion that simply marshals arguments in support of a predetermined thesis. (I don’t know what to make of this myself, as it seems to me that all scholarship is about marshalling arguments in support of a thesis; the real question is whether or not the arguments are any good.) Others are likely to understand the word in more neutral terms as simply an argument offered in defense of the faith. I have in mind, however, those who wish to respond point-by-point to historical or doctrinal “issues” of the kind one might find in Grant Palmer’s work or Dan Vogel’s books. The point-by-point response might be an attempt at refutation or it might be more along the lines of the sort of free-lance pastoring that someone like John Dehlin does. I’ve been trying to figure out why exactly I can’t get excited about this kind of discussion, despite the fact that I realize that for many this is important stuff. Here is what I’ve come up with.

First, such work is inherently reactionary. It’s main concern is some sort of damage control, and it is always conceptualizing the discussion in terms of resolving or living with some “problem.” As I say, the damage control is important for some, but it is also rather narrow. The agenda of the discussion is always set by “The Critic” or “The Skeptic” or “What I Wasn’t Told By My Seminary Teacher” etc. and the discussion tends to be about establishing the truth of this or that particular claim and battling over the ultimately meaningless bragging rights to “honest history” or being a “real intellectual” (as opposed to a “so-called intellectual”). It makes little attempt to get at meanings or significance.

Second, intellectual discussion is generally set up as the antithesis of parochialism. “I may have grown up in a small town in Utah (a small town in Idaho, a sheltered suburb in Salt Lake or Phoenix, etc. etc.) but — dang it! — I’m an intellectual. I realize that there is a big wide world out there beyond the Sunday School lessons and I am ‘engaged.”‘” The problem with the narrowly focused cut and thrust of critic and respondent is that there is a sense in which these discussions are themselves parochial. On occasion they seem like the ritual enactment of tribal self-loathing met by tribal defensiveness or tribal breast pounding. I am a member of the tribe, so I care about such discussions, but they are not quite the same thing as being “engaged” with the intellectual discussions of our times; they certainly don’t do much in the way of articulating a Mormon voice on those issues.

Third, I doubt that such work is really the best kind of apologetic. I think that Mormonism is rendered most appealing not when it is duking it out with the critics, but when it is forging some sort of narrative or message of its own that is compelling. Put in intellectual terms, I think that the discussion of Mormonism is most valuable when we are trying to get at meaning rather than truth claims and when Mormonism is teaching us something about the world rather than providing an arena for intellectual Gladiators. I’ve heard Bushman’s biography criticized for failing to engage in the specifics of this or that historical argument put forward by Palmer or Vogel. This, however, strikes me as one of the book’s great strengths. It is not ultimately reactive, but rather it has its own story to tell about Joseph, a story that aims for honesty and forthrightness but is doing more than simply reacting against the arguments of others.

In a sense, this is simply my way of saying that in apologetics — as in so much else — the best defense is often a good offense. In my opinion, the best argument for Mormonism is to show that it has something meaningful and important to say.

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28 Responses to My Kind of Apologetics

  1. Razorfish on May 23, 2007 at 10:46 pm

    “In my opinion, the best argument for Mormonism is to show that it has something meaningful and important to say.”

    I agree this to be the case, but I find guys like John Dehlin incredibly valuable especially in a world of Google searches where the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon is revealed chapter and verse to you (at least someone’s version of it).

    In my opinion, John (and others like him) builds bridges of faith and understanding that helps reconcile facts, interpretations and perspectives that makes all the difference to some. The point of this learning is not to remove stumbling blocks, or a crisis of faith, or to remove a paradox, but rather to help the learner transcend that paradox. Then once they cross this bridge, they can as you say, move on to something more meaningful in terms of living, expressing, and exploring their belief system.

  2. Julie M. Smith on May 23, 2007 at 11:03 pm

    I feel about apologetics much as I feel about sausage: I personally want nothing to do with creating it, but I’m glad I can pick it up off the shelf when I want it. Yes, Mormonism should tell its own story, but I daresay that someone having a crisis of faith over, say, polyandry, will not have their qualms settled by an awareness of how rockin’ our three generations of Mormon legal history has been.

  3. DKL on May 23, 2007 at 11:46 pm

    It’s important to remember that you don’t have to love every last part of Mormonism or of Mormon History in order to be a decent Mormon. I think that the church’s over-strong emphasis on apologetics obscures that.

  4. NorthboundZax on May 24, 2007 at 12:05 am

    Is there really an “over-strong emphasis” on apologetics in the church? There’s certainly plenty on the web (where it is clearly necessary), but in church it seems to me that apologetics doesn’t rear its head all that often. Maybe my experience is different, but other than points on succession of the presidency which shows up every few years in the D&C/church history curriculum and is (I think) mostly a holdover from days of wrestling with RLDS over the issue, I don’t see much apologetics going on. Rather the ‘faith-promoting’ history and testimony bearing, without any necessary accompanying apologetics, seems pretty standard.

    OTOH – I have to agree with Julie, apologetics can be pretty important at times especially if Nate’s link to ‘something meaningful to say’ is really what he views as a positive offense – at least tout families or something!

  5. Clark on May 24, 2007 at 1:02 am

    Nate I completely agree that intellectualism is itself parochial. It gets so cut off from the pragmatic realities of life that I’m often shocked at how people take relatively minor issues and blow them up to unfathomable sizes.

    DKL, isn’t apologetics itself the epitome of not loving every part of Mormonism or Mormon history? That is, doesn’t apologetics usually start out by discounting a lot? It isn’t apologetics that claims to love every part of Mormonism but a certain dogmatic literalism that is usually opposed to apologetics. (Since apologetics grabs onto the negative, brings it out into the open in order to defend the whole from attackers) The dogmatists (for lack of a better term – I think neo-orthodoxy hopelessly misleading) in doing this end up repressing parts of Mormonism and its history in order appear to love it all. The best example is the defense of Brigham Young by saying he never taught certain things.

  6. mlu on May 24, 2007 at 1:12 am

    I rather think the first question to ask of religious claims is “are they true?” So I appreciate–a lot–those who labor at apologetics.

    Are they “meaningful?” is softer stuff, to my way of thinking. Someone’s love of goat ranching or coin collecting may be meaningful enough, but I have other fish to fry.

    However, reality is hierarchical, and what is not true on one level is sometimes true on another level, or vice versa and so sometimes the most powerful response to critics is to ignore them while bringing into view a vision that does not refute their claims so much as dissolve the context that makes them seem to matter.

    Sometimes I wonder what Joseph Smith really had to teach us about religion and sexuality and covenant relationships, and I suspect the question cannot be answered at the level most debate about polygamy and such is carried on. . .though maybe I am merely wrong.

  7. Dave on May 24, 2007 at 1:37 am

    There’s nothing that says there is a One True Apologetic. Maybe everyone has their own “my kind of apologetics”; maybe it’s just as well one can go online and find all different sorts of LDS speakers offering everything from scholarly defenses of Mormonism (FARMS) to practical defenses (FAIR) to all-over-the-map defenses (Bloggernacle) to whatever label you want to put on what Dehlin does. I think people are talented enough with search engines by now to find what they need online and it’s nice that it’s all here. For free.

  8. Matt Evans on May 24, 2007 at 2:47 am

    Nate, I find the reasoning of your final paragraph odd. Because none of the critical works I’ve read have argued that the church has nothing meaningful or important to say, and have instead been focused on disproving the church’s claims like the First Vision, the Book of Mormon being an ancient record, etc., it doesn’t seem to me that proving that the church is interesting would constitute a defense-remedying offense or otherwise neutralize our critics. The action revolves around our truth claims.

  9. john f. on May 24, 2007 at 7:36 am

    I’ve often said before on threads that deal with apologetics that the defensive type of apologetics that Nate is describing as less effective only make up a part of what FARMS and the Maxwell Institute do (for example in the FARMS review of books). Many of the scholars associated with FARMS put as much or more effort into what Nate is describing as the offensive side of apologetics (although I think that’s a misnomer). That is, these scholars are simply examining the doctrines, history, philosophy, etc. of Mormonism through the lense of their own training and expertise to discover what they can about it, and they are publishing these findings. They are not defensive or reactionary but merely open up a view of an aspect of Mormonism from that scholar’s field.

  10. SmallAxe on May 24, 2007 at 9:45 am

    We had a brief discussion about this over at FPR about two months ago:
    http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com/2007/03/05/apologetics-dont-we-have-anything-else-to-talk-about/

    This discussion centered around a passage from Paul Griffths’ “An Apology for Apologetics”, where he claims–
    “If representative intellectuals belonging to some specific religious community come to judge at a particular time that some or all of their own doctrine-expressing sentences are incompatible with some alien religious claim(s), then they should feel obliged to engage in both positive and negative apologetics vis-a-vas these alien religious claim(s) and their promulgators.” (pp. 3)

  11. Kevin Barney on May 24, 2007 at 10:08 am

    For me the line between Mormon scholarship and apologertics isn’t always clear, but that doesn’t particularly bother me. I know many people see “apologist” as a term of opprobrium, but I do not; in my view, it is an honorable and necessary undertaking. I have no interest in the kinds of intellectual gladiatorial combats Nate mentions that are common on message boards, and in that sense I have but little interest in apologetics. My interest and focus in apologetics is on those who are adversely affected and spiritually wounded by the argument. I call this *educative* apologetics (a label I stole from Roger Keller).

    Most participants in the Bloggernacle are very well informed about Mormon things and don’t have a personal need for apologetics. Good for them. But what about the average ward member who stumbles upon some disturbing accusastion, and has nowhere to turn to help her through it? You can go to your bishop and be told to pray about it until you’re blue in the face, but prayer does not resolve all such issues. Sometimes what is needed is actual I-N-F-O-R-M-A-T-I-O-N.

    In general I’m not bothered by anti-Mormon argument. So when I respond to a question (and I respond to a lot through the FAIR website), I try to ask myself “Why is it that this particular issue doesn’t damage my faith?” and then I try to communicate that to the person who is experiencing the challenge. Usually it is a matter of challenging assumptions, providing context, countering fundamentalist thought and opening new vistas of ways to think about things.

    People have a conception of apologists as conservative, but by most Mormon standards I am quite liberal, and I personally feel that the most effective apologetic is fundamentally liberal in nature. Often what I am doing is giving someone a little shot of liberality on an issue.

  12. Randy B. on May 24, 2007 at 10:36 am

    So much of this, I think, boils down to temperment (to harken back to a prior Nate post). We all want and get different things out of our history and doctrine. I’m all in favor of a wide variety of apologetics. However, it is the sort that Nate identifies that I personally find most interesting.

    Thanks for the link to your paper, Nate.

  13. Nick Literski on May 24, 2007 at 10:36 am

    I have friends who are very much caught up in LDS apologetics. They’re fine people, when they aren’t playing the apologetics game. We generally avoid discussion of their apologist activities. Why? Because they frankly scare me. The apologetics game seems to bring out a rather bizarre paranoia. These people speak in military terms, and proudly see themselves as engaged in a true war between the LDS church and “the enemy.” I pointed this out to one such friend, and he became angry with me, insisting that he really WAS fighting a “war.”

    In addition, many self-appointed LDS apologists simply are not very well read in church history and doctrine. I’ve seen these folks make adamant denials of well-established historical facts. I’ve seen them forcefully deny that LDS leaders have “ever taught” things that are readily available in print. They tend to fully demonize anyone who criticizes the LDS church, making ad-hominem arguments which don’t answer the criticism, but rather seem intent on convincing LDS members not to read certain books or listen to certain arguments at all. The behavior fosters an “us vs. them” mentality, and a rather legendary persecution complex.

  14. Nate Oman on May 24, 2007 at 10:50 am

    I agree with a lot of what y’all say, but I do think that ultimately faith is about more than particular arguments or more information. I think that these things are important and on the occasions when people have come to me with particular problems I suspect that I have responded in very much the same way that Kevin does. On the other hand, I think that much of what undergirds faith is affection, hope, and a sense that the faith is valuable. I think that by and large Mormonism does a good job of eliciting social and cultural affection. This is not quite the same thing as intellectual affection, however. I think that getting folks intellectually committed to Mormonism is about more than laying to rest this or that intellectual problem. It is also about showing Mormonism as something of intellectual value.

  15. greenfrog on May 24, 2007 at 10:52 am

    …the discussion of Mormonism is most valuable when we are trying to get at meaning rather than truth claims and when Mormonism is teaching us something about the world rather than providing an arena for intellectual Gladiators.

  16. KLC on May 24, 2007 at 11:23 am

    Nate, the kind of apologetics Kevin and Julie describe is like emergency medicine, clamp the bleeding artery, resuscitate the heart, get some oxygen back into the lungs. Your #14 sounds more like therapy, longer term, probing, defining meaning.

    Both are vital when needed, both are useless or even dangerous when misapplied.

  17. Clark on May 24, 2007 at 12:49 pm

    Nick, I don’t think that characteristic of apologetics in general though. Heaven knows I’ve met people like that though. They seem to go trolling in various forums for debates. (I’m very glad FAIR finally divested themselves of their forum) However until I got too busy a few months ago I was on the FAIR internal mailing list and most people really aren’t as you describe.

  18. Randy B. on May 24, 2007 at 1:10 pm

    Within any group of any size, there will be some folks like Nick describes, whether it be Chicago Cub fans, Apple diehards, Whole Foods shoppers, etc., etc. Nick is railing against a small but inevitable component of the human condition.

    Not that there is anything wrong with that . . . ;)

  19. ronito on May 24, 2007 at 1:45 pm

    I too think there’s a very distinct line between mormon scholars and apologetics. The former I have no problem with the latter I do.

    Most apologetics set out to prove something and get the evidence to support their view. Scholars instead get something and research it and come to their own conclusions, if any, afterwards. It’s all about sense of purpose. One is about going on a journey and the other is about arriving at a destination.

    You can really set out to prove nigh anything if wanted. Look at the slavery apologetics in the Race and LDS church.

  20. onelowerlight on May 24, 2007 at 3:05 pm

    While I don’t think that the ultimate goal of apologetics should be to win the argument with the critics, I do believe that there is a place and a need for the gritty, line by line analysis of attacks on Mormonism’s truth claims. People are going to say ridiculous things against the church, and even though they aren’t true, there will be people within and without the church will believe it if they don’t see somebody respond. We can only afford to get rid of truth claim apologetics if that is irrelevant to us. And many times, people who rely on these kinds of apologetics to keep from losing their faith and joining the mocking crowds in the great and spacious building end up growing and changing to the point where they no longer rely on intellectual gladiator matches to feel confident in what they believe.

    I agree with you, however, that we need to keep from becoming too reactionary, even in truth claim apologetics. The best way to win a fight is to break your opponent’s rhythm, which you can’t do if you’re only reacting to him. You can win a war by attrition, but that’s brutal and costly. I don’t think we should abandon the line by line anti-Mormon analysis apologetics, but when we do do that, we should do more than just respond to the anti-Mormon’s claims. We should use the response as an opportunity to point out something that does show that Mormonism is important and meaningful, not abandon the nitty gritty line by line apologetics altogether.

  21. Blake on May 25, 2007 at 3:58 pm

    Nate: I believe that there is an epistemic duty to do apologetics of a sort — of that sort that adopts humility that recognizes that we may not fully grasp the gospel and that there are challenges to some important tenants of the faith and we could just be mistaken. Thus, apologetics will also involve a journey of exploration and learning and re-assessment. Apologetics, by definition, are done by those who are already members of the community of faith. Here is the dialectic as I see it and experience it. I come to an initial somewhat naive and unchallenged faith and testimony. However, I learn that what I believe is questioned by evidence or arguments. Perhaps I learn that my belief in the fundamentalist view of Genesis is untenable or there is no way that I can make sense of the Book of Mormon using the usual continental paradigm. I have a duty to assess my beliefs in light of the best information and whole-hearted honesty of which I am capable. If the evidence and/or arguemnts are compelling, I am justified in assessing whether my faith must be abandoned or it can be modified to fit the best information I have — or perhaps I conclude that the initial arguments are bogus or that the evidence can be reinterpreted or viewed in different ways. I also have a duty to assess the evidence and arguments that support that “original position” (with apologies to John Rawls) of faith — and that is a cuty that critics almost always shirk. So I see apologetics as simply the journey of being interested in one’s faith sufficiently to explore it and test it.

    Apologetics arises, at least for me, when I realize that the examination of my faith and tentative conlusions I have reached could assist others in their journey of looking for their own answers to these challenges. I believe I am motivated to apologetics when I see good people being taken in by what I regard as weak or bogus arguments and I believe I can demonstrate that weakness. I see faith, families and marriages threatened by bad evidence and arguments. I believe I have a duty, if I have the capacity, to assist others to sort through the issues I have taken time to assess and reason through as best I can. What is a decisive or compelling response for me may not be the same for another, but at least I can share why in light of the same evidence that others believe is counter to the basic claims of the gospel, I am not dissuaded. Often, a part of the response is showing that the argument has pull only because of false assumptions even if these assumptions are widely shared among the Mormon populace. That will undoubtedly be seen as revisionary (like my expansion of the Book of Mormon thesis or a limited geography for example), but often a different perspective is just what works best.

    A part of the problem is also that I lack the expertise to assess the arguments and evidence and it will just take me too darn long to do the study necessary to really become proficient in such an assessment. In such cases I look to see how others who share my faith who are experts have assessed the evidence and claims. I know that many assert that faith ought to be independent of evidence, and in some respects that is true, but we cannot simply say that we have faith and that is enough when our beliefs are challenged by competent and good faith critics (and admittedly there are scads of incompetent and bad-faith critics). It seems to me to be a shirking of epistemic and duties of love to remain ignorant or silent in the face of such challenges.

    I believe that I also have a duty in such a dialogic dialectic to both be aware of and, where I am competent, to produce evidence and arguments showing that the the faith claims are at least plausible. I believe that there is quite impressive evidence for the historicity of the Book of Mormon for example — though most people want some conclusive proof via archaeology or something like that which we simply do not possess at this point. The evidence that exists, for example, shows that the Church’s claims for the Book of Mormon are quite plausible and that it contains genuine evidence of ancient derivation from a pre-second temple era jewish culture. However, because I have looked at such evidence closely it is likely more impressive to me than it will be to others who have not done the same.

    Apologetics also requires us, where appropriate, to be ready to modify faith and admit that we were just wrong or too pig-headed to get it (like refusing the priesthood to blacks in my view). Apologetics entails the possiblity that one’s faith is fundamentally in error — but that conclusion should not be reached by a member of the community of faith unless and until there are arguments or evidence that simply render maintaining faith and concommitant beliefs implausible and therefore irresponsible. My journey of faith has led me to see the strength of the gospel that I loved — but my faith is a transformed faith from the original position in which I first learned to have faith.

  22. Mike Parker on May 25, 2007 at 4:03 pm

    Ronito #19: “Most apologetics set out to prove something and get the evidence to support their view. Scholars instead get something and research it and come to their own conclusions, if any, afterwards.”

    I’m sorry to break this to you, Ronito, but your view of “scholars” simply isn’t true. We all have biases and presumptions that we bring to everything we read, and the world of scholarship is largely made up of researchers holding to a certain view and trying to prove it correct to those who don’t accept it.

    (On this subject, I highly recommend Peter Novick’s book That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession.)

    There are scholars who engage in apologetics, and apologists who are scholarly in their methods. What sets apart a true scholar, IMO, is that s/he is willing to confront all the evidence, even when it goes against the thesis s/he for which is arguing. Unfortunately, scholars on both sides of the LDS question (believers and non-believers) have been willing to bury uncomfortable facts in pursuit of an agenda.

  23. danithew on May 25, 2007 at 4:16 pm

    “I feel about apologetics much as I feel about sausage: I personally want nothing to do with creating it, but I’m glad I can pick it up off the shelf when I want it.”

    I liked that analogy Julie. Works for me too.

  24. Chino Blanco on May 25, 2007 at 4:39 pm

    my fave so far:

    a vision that does not refute their claims so much as dissolve the context that makes them seem to matter.

  25. Alison Moore Smith on May 25, 2007 at 4:49 pm

    Thanks, Julie. And Mike, I think you’re spot on.

  26. Ben Duarte on July 2, 2007 at 4:59 am

    LDS theology can be refuted by the Word of God-The Bible:)

    The real Jesus can save:)

  27. Ben Duarte on October 23, 2007 at 4:12 am

    I live in Idaho and witness to the LDS on a regular basis. I love Mormons and love sharing the true gospel with them, and will continue to do so? however, what is the true gospel? anyone want to know?????

  28. Seth R. on October 23, 2007 at 12:47 pm

    If you can manage to be civil about it Ben, go ahead, knock yourself out.

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