[A guest post by Professor David Earl Bohn, retired professor of political philosophy at Brigham Young University]
Recently, the Maxwell Institute announced a significant change of course on its website—one that re-directs the Institute’s focus away from apologetics and Mormon-centered research and toward a more generic emphasis on religious scholarship. The “bloggernacle” had actually been abuzz about rumors of these developments since before they were officially confirmed. (For a non-exhaustive sample of related posts and articles see: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).
Cause for Concern
Many of us who care deeply about Mormon research and scholarship have witnessed these developments unfold with some concern. The character of these changes and the actual manner in which they have been carried out thus far have raised serious questions about whether the very raison d’être of the Maxwell Institute, including the significant achievements of the Mormon Studies Review (and its predecessor), are not being undermined or even abandoned.
Over time, all institutions necessarily undergo “a change of guard.” For organizations that have clear mandates such as the Maxwell Institute and the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (or “FARMS”)—which came under the Institute’s umbrella in 1997—this transition might be expected to bring differences of style and manner, along with some new ideas and approaches. However, the changes at the Institute seem to involve considerably more than this, including the unexpected and awkwardly handled removal of key Institute figures who played a central role in establishing FARMS and carrying on the thrust of the Institute’s academic and scholarly work—among them Professor Dan Peterson, then-Editor of the Mormon Studies Review and Director of Advancement at the Institute.
Attempts to Explain These Developments
To explain these developments, the media and others have focused on Peterson’s criticisms of John Dehlin (a Latter-day Saint involved in numerous Mormon-related projects) and a review critical of Dehlin’s work that was set to appear in an upcoming edition of the Mormon Studies Review but scrapped, reportedly due to an end-run Dehlin made to a General Authority.
I am not very familiar with Dehlin or his work nor have I read the critical review in question, but, from my own experience, I do not think they are the central issue here. As Professor Bill Hamblin has pointed out elsewhere, this is actually the latest flare up in a long-running debate between people who hold very different views about the mission of the Maxwell Institute and how it can most effectively be served. In pointing this out, I do not wish to depreciate any of the principals, who are no doubt good people pursuing what in their judgment represents the best interest of the Institute. Nevertheless, I suspect that the heart of this debate centers more specifically on the disregard some at the Institute have for scholarly apologetics. While this bias is not unusual among academics, it actually belongs to a philosophical position that has fallen on hard times.
The Larger Issue
It is important to understand that for some, scholarly apologetics is an oxymoron that violates their deepest epistemological convictions—convictions predicated on a near ideological adherence to the “fact/value distinction.” This view holds that in scholarly research, the maintenance of a posture of unwavering neutrality is imperative in order to achieve intellectual objectivity. It insists that, undistorted by human values or preferences, research is only then able to reveal relevant facts in their true nature, “as they are in themselves.” Not surprisingly, those who hold this view consider the business of apologetics as something of secondary importance, at best, to be carried on separately, lest it contaminate the larger process of discovering “objective truth.”
Arguments based on methodological claims that value free research, neutrality and objectivity, harbor an unjustified, and in some respects disabling, prejudice of their own. For well over a century, such claims have been under attack and, epistemologically speaking, all but abandoned as a philosophically defensible. In fairness some of these tenets continue to be popular on practical grounds, and the research protocols they authorize have no doubt proven useful. The bottom line, however, is that the most effective scholars realize that all research is preconditioned and necessarily led by key values and basic commitments.
Although I have only managed to provide a brief gloss here on what is a very complex issue, I think it can assist in better situating our understanding of the events underway at the Institute. It should be noted that a neutralist’s methodological stance offers a variety of possible positions:
- some might take a softer posture, recognizing that complete “neutrality” is never truly an option but a worthy ideal;
- others might hold that because the prejudice which enshrines neutrality is so wide spread among researchers, the work at the Institute will only gain currency if its framing language reflects such an objectivist bias—if only as an operating necessity; while
- most might argue that, without being disingenuous, adopting elements of the well-mannered idiom associated with the neutralist’s position has the advantage of reducing the edge of exchanges with those somewhat antagonistic to Mormonism, while still gaining the respect of fellow academics and the broader non-Mormon readership.
It is easy to see how those who see the primary task of the Maxwell Institute in general, and the Mormon Studies Review in particular, to be the spirited and rigorous defense of the Mormon faith would consider a retreat to a “value free,” or “neutral” form of research to be a disengagement from what is most central. Such a shift could leave many everyday members confused in the wake of unjustified claims made about the Church and its history by normal scholars and the far more lethal onslaught from anti-Mormon groups.
Peterson’s approach to scholarly apologetics may not be for everyone, particularly since his writing can occasionally have an edge to it. But Peterson, whom I know and respect, is an honest and dedicated academic who engages in high-quality scholarship focused on defending the foundations of the Church and its beliefs. I cannot help but believe that Peterson’s limitless energy and clear integrity will be sorely missed in his former capacities at the Institute. The same can be said of people like Jack Welch, Louis Midgley, Bill Hamblin, George Mitton and others who have either been dismissed or marginalized as a result of changes presently occurring at the Institute
Whatever eventually happens with the Institute, it is crucial that the issues covered under its mandate be dealt with by scholars who without embarrassment are fully engaged, spiritually and intellectually, in increasing both our knowledge and understanding of the Mormon faith and standing up in its defense. It would be a terrible loss if the Institute’s mission were reduced to only a “safe” and narrowly defined program involving the digitalization and study of ancient texts, however otherwise beneficial these efforts may be. Ironically, even such a limited agenda could not escape the shadow of apologia since there is no objectivist foundation on which to ground the exegetical method or establish an unconditioned hermeneutic from which to begin.
To be sure, the malevolent attacks made on the Church by some of its sectarian and secular detractors should not stand as a legitimate exemplar of apologetic posture. The work conducted by the Institute (and everywhere else) should be conducted in an inclusive, generous and kind manner—as an expression of the Gospel where service, not winning, is the real goal. The goal of an honest apologia should be to expose the failures in the dishonest, misguided, or simply mistaken efforts of others through a high-minded, intellectual and spiritually-guided response; one that is able to draw the honest reader to a more secure ground without neglecting consideration of areas where we too have progress to make. It is this aim that distinguishes the very best work done at the Institute from the work of those who would attack, either explicitly or implicitly, what we as a Church hold sacred. All of us who value this approach can hope that the present attempt to create an alternative mission for the Maxwell Institute, one that neglects the reason for its very existence, will be reconsidered.