Perspectives on Mormon Theology Review

Dave managed to finish his review of Perspectives on Mormon Theology before I did. To cut to the chase let me just summarize my judgment of the book first. If you’re at all interested in the implications of scholarly considerations of Mormon history, exegesis, or theology then this is a must read book. Blair Van Dyke and Loyd Ericson did a fantastic job selecting the people to contribute. It has so many disparate viewpoints that nearly every position is considered and discussed. Among some, apologetics has come to have a rather bad reputation. While I doubt this book will change many views, I think it does make one think both about the weaknesses and strengths of traditional approaches along with other approaches we should consider. If I have one complaint, it’s a minor one. I do wish there were formal responses to some of the essays. Other books such as Discourses in Mormon Theology have done that to one degree or an other. As is the essays tend to stand alone even though they do address sometimes common arguments. Still that’s an extremely minor complaint and doesn’t undermine the strength of what is here. 

Going in more depth, let me pick out a few particular chapters to complement. My favorite parts of the book were the editors considering neglected aspects of Mormon apologetics. Julie Smith’s consideration of the role of women in apologetics and Juliann Reynold’s discussion of the practical way women have engaged in apologetics are must reads. There’s a perception that apologetics is primarily about power plays done by men. I think both essays show that first off that’s simply not true but secondly offers some critiques of how apologetics affect others. As Julie notes apologetics does not always prioritize people over politics. This leads to a critique that many essays in the book bring out. Apologetics is primarily about helping people through faith trials or potential faith trials. As such the focus really should be on the range of assumptions different members might bring to the issues. It shouldn’t be solely about “winning” an argument. Often one can win the battle but lose the war by forgetting apologetics shouldn’t be about arguments only the particular apologist finds convincing.

One place a focus on people rather than politics matters is precisely with the place politics plays in faith crises. In particular LGBT issues are a huge place where many struggle with the policies of the Church. I’d lay good odds that more people are troubled by that than say deutero-Isaiah or horses in the Book of Mormon. Further those political issues can then lead to a change in how members view these other historical issues. To defend Mormon practice or theology only from a particular political view ultimately is futile precisely because it doesn’t reach those who don’t already share that political view. What we need to see are a wide range of apologetics. What we sometimes instead see are attempts to narrow down what acceptable apologetics should be.[1]

At the same time as recognizing a need for this diversity there is a tension with apologetics that don’t defend Church doctrine that the authors disagree with. Ralph Hancock’s essay gets at this element where we see examples of broadly apologetic works that simply reject major teachings. Even among traditional more “orthodox” apologetics authors are quite willing to throw out traditional views such as hemispheric interpretations of the Book of Mormon. An interesting aspect of apologetics is how works originally designed as apologetics such as Nibley’s or Sorenson’s writings end up significantly transforming Mormon thought and theology. Given that reality, it is probably not surprising that apologists who differ with the Church over teachings the apologists find wrong will refuse to defend such teachings. Indeed they’ll take the position that these are false traditions likely to be overthrown in the future.

In a certain sense this tension is unavoidable. However it also means that there never will be an unitary apologetic in the Church. Further a practical implication of this is that among apologists disagreements will lead to defenses of doctrine not just against critics of the Church but against other apologists.[3] This is not new. There have always been controversial apologetic writings. For instance I was rather aghast when several essays adopting Intelligent Design against evolution were published by FARMS/Maxwell Institute. 

An other tension that this book brings out well is the one between “acceptable” academic writings within Mormon Studies and more traditional apologetics that frequently embrace positions with less likely interpretations based upon evidence. That is the distinction between Mormonism independent of its truth claims and and apologetics designed to defend truth claims by showing possible ways of considering evidence. Possible after all isn’t necessarily what’s likely given the public evidence. You see that in traditional apologetics as authors grapple with elements of the Book of Mormon that contradict scholarly consensus such as the issue of horses or metal in the Book of Mormon. Mormon Studies typically avoid these issues by simply avoiding questions of historicity for unique Mormon beliefs. What counts isn’t the truth but simply engaging in ways the beliefs of Mormons can throw light on broader questions of religious believers behaviors. This tension culminated in the blow up at the Maxwell Institute several years ago leading to the formation of the Interpreter Foundation. Those at the Interpreter continued more traditional apologetics whereas the works from the Maxwell Institute often bracketed questions of truth from more general questions of meaning.

Within this book we see defenders and critics of both sides of this “Mormon Studies” break engaging with how this reflects broader apologetics. Defenders of those bracketing truth claims can note that for people with doubts about Book of Mormon historicity finding other ways to value the text can keep them in the Church. Critics of these approaches often note that once the historicity of the Book of Mormon is lost, most people simply leave the Church. Again it’s a difficult issue that ultimately can’t be resolved. My own view is that we should make room for both sides, if only from a practical consideration of the people apologetics ought help. Yet I also think that means also leaving room for criticizing anti-historicity positions.

Overall Van Dyke/Ericson’s book is much welcome. Even for people who may have read some of the essays before in earlier forms, the book is extremely valuable.[4] I hope over the next few months to engage more closely with some of the chapters in the book, as there really are some excellent essays here.[5] More importantly by presenting such a wide range of views of what theology even is (or in the case of Joe Spenser’s chapter, what it should become) I think Van Dyke/Ericson is pushing an important discourse we should be having. While I clearly don’t agree with everyone’s views within the book, it’s that dialog that I think is so important.

 

[1] A great recent example of this is the controversy over Duane Boyce’s “A Lengthening Shadow” which critiques many apologetic writings from a perspective of a narrower orthodoxy. Although some fellow apologists dispute how fair he is representing those he critiques.

[2] Hancock gives many examples of those from a more feminist perspective like Zina Petersen and Joanna Brooks. 

[3] Again Boyce’s attacks on other apologists who have published or presented at FAIR or the Interpreter is a great example although one that is more recent than the essays in this book.

[4] Several of the essays such as Dan Peterson’s, had appeared in other publications prior to appearing in this book. However by collecting them all in a single place Van Dyke/Ericson is making it more likely they’ll be read. Especially by people who may otherwise not engage with the authors or “school of apologetics” that the author represents.

[5] I say that after being unable to finish this review not to mention being quite behind in my reading club of Adam Miller’s book on theology. So we’ll see how well I manage.

4 comments for “Perspectives on Mormon Theology Review

  1. Jerry Schmidt
    September 28, 2017 at 3:11 pm

    Only speaking for myself, I have not relied on formal apologetics much in my personal faith wrestle. The only “apologist” I read with amy seriousmess was Hugh Nibley, and when I read his texts I was getting further insight from a believer with intellectual chops, not even thinking about apologetics (in other words, I may have been intuitively grasping the purpose of aplogetics without formal identification).

    My research via the internet has come from varied sources, though more from work outside LDS framework than inside. The Book of Mormon itself has been my primary guide, as I realized, as I interpreted Nibley’s work to do for him, the affirmations arose from the natrative symbology and doctrinal discourse itself, not what I would call “externalities” like historicity.

    Historicity had already been a personal issue for me with Old and New Testament, but it didn’t ultimately make a difference to my belief in God the Father or his Christ. Personal testimony is exactly that, personal, so what makes up my faith is necessarily not what makes up your faith. That doesn’t mean the details can’t align at some point, but, referencing Mr. Goble, we can’t know the details without dialogue, without discussion.

  2. Franklin
    September 29, 2017 at 10:59 am

    Gosh, Clark, I do like your thinking. I just wish you would now and then use commas and other punctuation so that your sentences would stop behaving like a pile-up on the freeway. Sometimes your words just run into each other, and I have to sort out which clause they belong in. That said, your critique makes me want to read this book.

  3. Dave B.
    October 5, 2017 at 1:47 pm

    Clark, I agree one of the strengths of the book is the wide spectrum of views represented. In a sense, the spectrum is broad enough that the topic is no longer apologetics per se but simply informed and enlightening discussion of LDS issues. That’s part of what Old FARMS objects to about the new MI approach, which endorses profitable discussion of LDS issues without always leading off with a defense of traditional LDS positions and sometimes not ever getting around to defending traditional LDS positions.

    Maybe this book does for Mormon apologetics what Faithful History (Signature, 1992) did for Mormon history.

  4. Clark Goble
    October 5, 2017 at 4:16 pm

    I don’t think that’s what the FARMS crowd necessarily objects to. But I think that’s a bit more complex, and surprisingly not really engaged with in the book too much. (Which I take as a plus – it’s too inside baseball) I do think that to a certain extent what I’d term classical Mormon apologetics breaks from traditional 20th century theology by raising the value of science yet breaks from aspects of Mormon Studies by emphasizing the same thing. That is it’s taking seriously truth claims and using the tools of scholarship to engage with them. Mormon Studies more broadly speaking is interested in meaning rather than truth. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, unless it’s done to the exclusion of truth. (Which is why I think the historicity question matters a great deal) But that said, I think that in practice people are a blend of both rather than picking a single side. Which is why I’m glad it didn’t get emphasized too much.

Charitable Comments Welcome