[Times & Seasons welcomes the second in a pair of posts from Ralph Hancock this week, who previously guested with us in 2010]
I argued in Part I that the move from “apologetics” to “Mormon Studies” requires a bracketing of truth claims that may serve legitimate scholarly purposes, but that carries with it certain significant risks. The New Mormon Studies presents orthodoxy as stifling and itself as intellectually liberating, but it risks purveying a more subtle and powerful conformism, the conformism of secular academic prestige and careerism. This is intended, not as a condemnation, but as an alert. We ought to embrace opportunities for rich and productive dialogue with those who do not share our Answers, but we ought not set aside our interest in Answers and thus in effect elevate human (especially professional) “dialogue” itself to the highest status. On with the bracketing, I say, but let us beware of the definitive brackets, those that will not allow themselves to be bracketed. The questions of Eternity should be the ultimate frame of reference to which we continually return to ponder the results of our bracketing, rather than succumbing to enticements to reduce our eternal concerns to the categories of professional scholarship. Of course thoughtless conformism is a danger inherent in our humanity, and one from which the pious are by no means exempt. But “traditional” believers have a certain advantage over professional bracketers in that they confess the existence of a truth higher than any human construction, including that of the most prestigious academics. In our modern world and our modern academy, believing one is in full possession of the Answers is a less subtle and powerful impediment to the pursuit of truth than stipulating in advance that there are no Answers — or perhaps simply embracing the convention that the really smart people are not concerned with such things, at least not in public.
At this point we can see a link between the question of the style or “tone” of Mormon apologetics, which critics have often raised, and often very reasonably, and the problem of the secular bracketing of fundamental questions. Judgments in this area are notoriously subjective, as I have learned from recent and hard experience. So much depends upon audience, context, expectations of genre, etc. Still, I am struck by the fact that a rhetorical posture (mine or a friend’s let’s say) that may seem to me very respectful, if sometimes, shall we say, straightforward and firm, appears to others as patently offensive, outrageously aggressive. Naturally those of us who have tried our hands at criticizing critics of the Church are often dismayed, if not surprised, at the aggressive responses to our perceived aggression. No doubt we can all be more careful about our tone, especially when addressing unfamiliar audiences. Still, I believe there is a real, substantive issue that often lies behind this stylistic question. Those who have accepted the definitive bracketing of fundamental questions, and the presumption of the primacy of personal authenticity that it protects, may find it immediately offensive that others, such as myself, do not respect such bracketing. Although we more traditional “apologists” strive to respect individuals, we do not respect the presumption that every individual is the infallible judge of the ultimate meaning of his or her own experience; we respect personal choice, but we do not regard it as the ultimate arbiter of all meaning. As I have had occasion to write elsewhere, if personal “authenticity” were the last word, then religious authority (or any moral authority, including reason) would have no purpose, no standing. Thus it seems likely to me that, whatever rhetorical improvements might be made in the practice of apologetics, those who have accepted the definitive bracketing and thus the dismissal of questions of moral and religious truth will inevitably find arguments that straightforwardly question that bracketing offensive.
Another common critique of traditional apologetics is that it sometimes claims too much for the role of reason, or, more particularly, of “evidence,” in the quest for religious truth. As far as I know, however, LDS apologists who deal with empirical, historical and textual evidence have taken every occasion to remind readers that there can be no question of providing a full and final rational demonstration of religious claims. Rather, the apologetic approach has seemed to me consonant with the aim, associated with C.S. Lewis and endorsed by Elder Maxwell, of cultivating a climate hospitable to faith by countering arguments that purport to demonstrate its incompatibility with reason. Apologetics defends the possibility of being simultaneously faithful and reasonable. Someone (help me remember) has recently proposed in one of the blog discussions of these questions that we distinguish a modest form of Mormon apologetics that merely attempts to hold open the possibility that core beliefs are not demonstrably irrational from a more ambitious form that aims to establish by rational evidence the probability of core beliefs. I would say that I might well be satisfied with the more modest conception of apologetics, as long as it is understood as fulfilling the purpose of maintaining a cultural and intellectual climate in which belief is respected. The problem with the dismissal of arguments for probability, though, is that such dismissal seems to be based on the assumption that there are universally accepted standards of “rational evidence” that can impartially arbitrate among ultimate spiritual or existential claims. But there is no way to demonstrate impartially that the commitment to some “secular” way of life is more “rational” than one guided by the possibility of divine guidance. If incontrovertible demonstration is to be our standard, then all our life choices are radically “improbable.”
Terryl Givens made some searching remarks on the problem of evidence in regards to religious faith in a BYU Forum address a few years ago.
“The call to faith is a summons to engage the heart, to attune it to resonate in sympathy with principles and values and ideals that we devoutly hope are true, and to have reasonable but not certain grounds for believing them to be true. I am convinced that there must be grounds for doubt as well as belief in order to render the choice more truly a choice—and, therefore, the more deliberate and laden with personal vulnerability and investment. The option to believe must appear on our personal horizon like the fruit of paradise, perched precariously between sets of demands held in dynamic tension. One is, it would seem, always provided with sufficient materials out of which to fashion a life of credible conviction or dismissive denial. We are acted upon, in other words, by appeals to our personal values, our yearnings, our fears, our appetites, and our egos. What we choose to embrace, to be responsive to, is the purest reflection of who we are and what we love. That is why faith, the choice to believe, is, in the final analysis, an action that is positively laden with moral significance.
“…There is, as with the ass of Buridan, nothing to compel an individual’s preference for one over the other. But in the case of us mortals, there is something to tip the scale. There is something to predispose us to a life of faith or a life of unbelief. There is a heart that in these conditions of equilibrium and balance—and only in these conditions of equilibrium and balance, equally “enticed by the one or the other” (2 Nephi 2:16)—is truly free to choose belief or cynicism, faith or faithlessness.
“Why, then, is there more merit—given this perfect balance—in believing in the Christ (and His gospel and prophets) than believing in a false deity or in nothing at all? Perhaps because there is nothing in the universe—or in any possible universe—more perfectly good, absolutely beautiful, and worthy of adoration and emulation than this Christ. A gesture of belief in that direction, a will manifesting itself as a desire to acknowledge His virtues as the paramount qualities of a divided universe, is a response to the best in us, the best and noblest of which the human soul is capable. For we do indeed create gods after our own image—or potential image. And that is an activity endowed with incalculable moral significance.”
Professor Givens suggests a tension between our LDS “culture of certainty” and this understanding of the ultimacy of moral choice. I would be inclined to say, rather, that the certainty we seek is not of the scientific kind, ostensibly detached from human meaning and morally neutral; it is rather the certainty that emerges, that progressively defines our very being, as we participate in the choice of eternal life by which we are attuned to what is best and most powerful in the cosmos. In any case, Givens has eloquently expressed the inherently moral dimension of all authentic truth seeking.
And this brings me back to reflections on the appeal of “Mormon Studies” as distinct from “Apologetics.” I have so far adumbrated certain social and professional enticements to the suppression of the question of ultimate truth, but this is to ignore a moral dimension of the problem that might be obvious, but that has been suppressed even more resolutely than the intellectual dimension I have been discussing. When, in The City of God Augustine was critiquing the pagan philosophers (along with the rest of the City of Man), he made a kind of exception for the Platonists, because (on his view), they considered moral purification and intellectual insight to be inseparable. Mormons are neither Platonists nor Augustinians (I think we can agree), but we share with Augustine’s Platonists the conviction that true knowledge is not attainable by the methods of study alone, by techniques available to persons regardless of moral character or spiritual desire, but only by obedient faith, by the investment of the whole soul, by a consecration that requires the sacrifice of many desires, the cleansing of the inner vessel. Seeking understanding is inseparable from seeking righteousness; to talk the talk concerning ultimate things it is necessary to walk the walk, a walk we do not ourselves prescribe. Of course we wisely leave to each person the responsibility for moral purity, (except where parental or ecclesiastical authority, or the privilege of counseling close friends, come into play), but we recognize that the cultivation of an uplifting moral environment, where greed and lust, for example, are held in check, if not overcome, is a necessary condition for the most important kind of learning.
Need I state that this is now an unpopular idea, and nowhere more unmentionable than in the modern, secular academy? For the secular bracketing of the intellectual question of “the Good” is also and inseparably a bracketing of the moral question “how should I live?” The great power and appeal of this modern bracketing lies precisely in its dismissal of vexing moral questions, which allows us to make collective progress in a kind of knowledge (technological science and its analogues) that has been methodically separated from such questions. The separation of scientific or scholarly questions from “personal” matters of “private” morality is not an accidental feature of our general cultural landscape, or of our secular academic culture in particular. And of course we are now beginning to reap the full harvest of this separation in the more and more aggressive assertion of the right to define one’s own morality, without any respect to the authority of religion or tradition, particularly where sexuality is concerned.
This moral question may seem to be an odd tangent to my discussion of Mormon Studies, but I think that, however awkward, it is central to the problem of the interface between Latter-day Saints and the broader culture, especially the secular vanguard of the academy. Our intellectual culture has in many precincts become fairly easy-going, in a kind of postmodern way, regarding speculative theological beliefs: we believe in as many or as few gods as we like without having our scholarly status questioned.. Historical claims may be a little more troublesome, especially if they involve more recent history, but even here considerable eccentricity may be indulged in the name of tolerance and diversity. But there is another kind of foundational commitment that may not be questioned, and where dissent from the academic mainstream is unlikely to be tolerated: that is, the absolute moral authority of lifestyle liberation, especially where sex is concerned. To question the moral principle of the equal right of all lifestyles (especially, of course, the most transgressive) is to set oneself against the most sacred truth of the dominant intellectual class, and one in which its members have more than an intellectual interest. Thus today it may cost a young and aspiring scholar little or nothing to believe in a corporeal God, and may be just a little embarrassing to believe in an angel delivering gold plates. But to pronounce publicly in favor of chastity and traditional marriage might be professionally suicidal. As the Church’s opposition to the secular culture on questions concerning the meaning and purpose of our sexuality becomes ever more apparent, sometimes to the point of direct political activism, academics and others seeking success within the mainstream will be more and more tempted to bracket fundamental teachings in this area.
Allow me then a question you may find strange and even (though I hope not) offensive, but that seems to be altogether pertinent to the question of the tenor of “Mormon Studies”: how many of the rising or established practitioners of Mormon Studies supported or were comfortable with Church’s support for Proposition 8 in California? How many, on the contrary, believe or hope that the Church will “progress” towards a full respect for the homosexual lifestyle, and support for homosexual marriage, even temple marriage? How many see the Family Proclamation as relative to a certain time that is rapidly passing, a quaint view to be indulged with patience while an older generation of leadership passes from the scene? If you are inclined to such hope or expectation, I simply invite you to consider, whether your expectation or hope arises from a consecrated pursuit of truth or whether it is conditioned, rather, by the enticements of the “mainstream” of professional and cultural respectability.
 It is relevant to notice, in this connection, that the venerable journal Dialogue, arguably a leading forum of “Mormon Studies” has recently honored as its “article of the year” Taylor Petrey’s venturesome and learned “Towards a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology.” The article manifestly deserves careful attention, which I hope eventually to give it, but for now I propose the question: why would we want to move “towards” such a vision? Does such a question simply emerge from the faithful exploration of our theological possibilities, or is it imposed upon us by the academic and cultural mainstream whose acceptance we crave? See this thoughtful response by Joe Spencer. As Spencer notes, a key premise of Petrey’s seems to be that “gender cannot be both inherent and taught.” Nothing, I dare say, could be less evident. Aristotle already thought that our very humanity is both natural and political – that is, a potentiality given by nature but dependent upon cultivation in a given political culture.
[ADMIN: Please keep comments on topic]