After a few warm-up posts last month (here, here, and here), it’s time to get serious about apologetics. Greg Kofford Books just published Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics, edited by Blair G. Van Dyke and Loyd Isao Ericson. The book is a collection of essays by a variety of LDS scholars giving their informed view of the development and current state of Mormon apologetics. Some defend it, some critique it, others offer proposals for a new and improved approach. Three chapters at the center of the volume look at the neglected issue of the role of women in LDS apologetics and its impact on female readers — I hope to have a separate post on those essays next week. In this review I will look at six of the fifteen essays in the book that I find most interesting, then offer some general comments on the volume as a whole. [Note: At the publisher’s site, you can see the table of contents and preview a couple of the essays, as well as read a Q&A with the two editors.]
In the opening chapter, Blair G. Van Dyke reviews relevant terms and ideas in “Critical Foundations of Mormon Apologetics.” Negative apologetics offers “responses to criticism already levied against Mormonism”; positive apologetics provides “arguments that justify the faith and fortify her position ahead of disagreements and criticisms.” Evidentialism aims to present objective evidence supporting LDS claims; fideism stresses subjective faith over objective evidence, rejecting the adequacy of evidence and reason for attaining knowledge of divine things or faith sufficient for salvation. Van Dyke notes that “Mormons consistently manifest strains of fideism” and that the Church Education System “manifests strains of anti-intellectualism that rival ultra-conservative American Evangelicals and Pentecostals in their approach.”
But times are changing, and for the Church as a whole Van Dyke notes a distinct shift back to evidentialism, forced by the Internet. He offers the Church History Department and its Joseph Smith Papers Project, as well as the ongoing work of the Maxwell Institute, as manifestations of that shift. He also notes the 2007 publication of Massacre at Mountain Meadows by three LDS historians (who were granted full access to LDS archives to support the project) as evidence of the new approach, as well as Elder Ballard’s 2016 address to CES educators (“The Opportunities and Responsibilities of CES Teachers in the 21st Century“) in which he tells teachers to become very familiar with the Gospel Topics essays and to quit dodging serious questions by their students. Van Dyke sums up the present state of affairs as “the internet-spawned revival of the importance of scholarship in pursuit and acquisition of truth and faith.”
In Chapter 7, Brian D. Birch covers some of the same ground in “The Intellectual Cultures of Mormonism: Faith, Reason, and the Apologetic Enterprise.” He emphasizes two speeches by LDS General Authorities that set the tone for official approaches to scholarship and apologetics in the 20th century: J. Reuben Clark’s 1938 address to Church educators directing them to teach the gospel using just the scriptures and quotations from LDS leaders, and Boyd K. Packer’s 1981 address to Church educators warning against using “academic training” and “professional training” to evaluate or critique LDS beliefs or LDS history. But, like Van Dyke, Birch observes a recent shift toward scholarly engagement, noting the publication of the Gospel Topics essays and Elder Ballard’s injunction to study them carefully.
Speaking more directly to Mormon apologetics, Birch notes the strange fact that the large BYU Religion program (several departments) offers almost no courses or study in the broad field of religious studies. That’s not surprising in light of the earlier directives from Elders Clark and Packer. At BYU, only the newly reoriented Maxwell Institute is presently undertaking and publishing work in that field. Birch sees this new initiative as “an important test case in determining how the intellectual cultures of Mormonism will be negotiated as the Church moves forward in the Information Age.” He defines apologetics as “a reasoned defense of faith” that employs arguments that are “subject to rational scrutiny and evaluation.” My sense is that the tentative official support for the entry of LDS scholars into the field of religious studies, coupled with the advice of Elder Ballard to CES educators to broaden their discussions, seems to reflect a preference for confident dialogue akin to positive apologetics rather than defensive responses in line with negative apologetics. The Gospel Topics essays certainly take the approach of building a case for faith claims rather than responding directly to criticisms of LDS claims.
A New Mormon Apologetics?
With those two essays as a review of the development of Mormon apologetics, one might expect the following story to be told: A New Mormon Apologetics is emerging, modeled by Terryl Givens’ The Crucible of Doubt (Deseret Book, 2014) and Patrick Mason’s Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt (Deseret Book, 2015) and stressing positive apologetics, sound scholarship, and dialogue with the broader religious and scholarly community. However, none of the other essays in the volume argue for that straightforward claim. First, traditional Mormon apologetics of the defensive variety is still around and isn’t going away, as shown by several essays in the first third of the volume. Second, the authors who see promising new developments take a rather nuanced and varied view of what those new developments are. Let’s look at the last four essays.
In Chapter 12, “Conceptual Confusion and the Building of Stumbling Blocks of Faith,” Loyd Isao Ericson objects to the idea that evidence and reason can be used to defend religious claims. He argues that traditional apologists, in mounting such a reasoned defense, are unintentionally lending credibility to the stance of critics who use evidence and reason to attack Mormon religious claims. His definition of a religious claim is narrower than the average reader might expect. He distinguishes, for example, between the claim that the Book of Mormon is the Word of God (a religious claim) and the claim that the Book of Mormon is a translation of an authentically ancient text, and between the claim that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God (a religious claim) and any particular details of his biography. He asserts that “the religious claims that apologetics seeks to defend or prove using secular scholarship are conceptually different from that which scholarship can show.”
Loyd quotes some serious scholarship to support this idea. Would additional biographical details about the life of Jesus — empirical data — lend any additional insight to definitively resolving doubts about the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation? No, not really. Perhaps the language games we use to express and compare empirical data and claims are not commensurable with the language game used to discuss religious claims. And at the level of human psychology, he notes that a “believer’s view of the divine translation of the Book of Mormon is informed by her belief of it being the word of God, not the other way around.” All of this sounds vaguely like fideism, but Loyd claims he is “not proposing a religious fideism whereby religious claims are outside the realm of reason or immune from criticism altogether.” Whatever it is, this line of thinking is rather counterintuitive. It suggests both critics and traditional apologetic defenders of religious claims, Mormon or otherwise, don’t really understand the nature of what they are doing. If, following Loyd’s argument, religious claims are that insulated from empirical inquiry or historical critique, it’s not really clear to me how one would go about defending or critiquing religious claims.
In Chapter 14, “Toward a New Vision of Apologetics,” Joseph M. Spencer looks at two different types of apologetics, one done by “minimalists” who defend against faulty criticisms and clear the ground for a later discussion about the possibility of Mormon claims, and a deeper approach that works by “constructing positive rational arguments for the truth of the Restoration,” thereby establishing the plausibility of Mormon claims. But, rather like Loyd in the preceding discussion, Spencer thinks this whole apologetic project is misguided. He thinks (and I’m rather freely paraphrasing his argument here) that salvific faith is like a belief hurdle we have to clear. Traditional apologetics wants to lower the hurdle. Spencer thinks God’s plan is to strengthen the runner to be able to clear the existing hurdle. The faith hurdle itself is part of God’s plan of salvation. Better that we not tamper with it.
Again, this is rather counterintuitive. Chew on this sentence, for example: “The point of constructing rational arguments for the truth of Mormonism’s faith claims is to reveal the coherence and richness of faith in the Restoration, not to predispose people to actual conviction regarding its truth.” I suspect a wide variety of Mormons think the whole point of the Mormon apologetic enterprise is to predispose people to actual conviction regarding its truth.
In Chapter 13, David Bokovoy tackles “Shifting Intellectual and Religious Paradigms: One Apologist’s Journey into Critical Study.” Every religious scholar has an interesting story to tell, starting from their childhood formation of traditional beliefs, then moving through a decision to undertake advanced study in a religious field, the slap in the face delivered by the cold hard facts of the matter, and finally whatever religious beliefs the completed scholar still maintains, from reasserting the traditional views to complete rejection of any religious belief. Bokovoy defends historical cricitism (the scholarly approach to the study of scripture) and argues that approach is compatible with properly formatted Mormon faith claims. I’ll post just just one quote from the essay: “Scripture is not a manual. It is a springboard to enlightenment.”
The last essay, Chapter 15, is Seth Payne’s “Apologetics as Theological Praxis.” He provides an alternative context for apologetic discussions and articles. Seth holds that “religious apologetics must be approached as a devotional act” and argues for more awareness of “the pastoral theology which motivates all Christian ideals of friendship, empathy, and compassion.” He cites the foundational text at 1 Peter 3:15: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” He stresses the tone (gentleness and reverence) rather than the substance of an apologetic defense, but not simply as a more effective way of doing apologetics. It’s not as if a gentle approach is recommended because it is more persuasive to listeners. He is suggesting gentleness and reverence is called for even if it is less effective. It’s just the right way for a Christian to go about explaining and defending one’s Christian beliefs, doing so “as an expression of our inner convictions and commitments.” To do otherwise is, in a sense, to betray the gospel one is trying to defend.
Seth acknowledges that “a well-researched, humbly presented, and rigorous defense of specific doctrinal or historical truth claims” is worthwhile, and that such information “can be enlightening, inspiring, and uplifting.” The pastoral imperative here is that it is better to serve than to get “bogged down by dogma, policy, tradition, or authority.” That view is certainly reflected in the LDS approach to religion at the local level. Your bishop is familiar with LDS norms and practices and is very willing to serve, but it’s a coin toss whether he knows more about LDS history and theology than you do. I’d even argue that a man who knows his LDS history and theology is less likely to be called as a local leader than one who doesn’t. LDS apologists may not, on the whole, generally embrace Seth’s version of pastoral apologetics, but local leaders and members do a fair job of unknowingly but sincerely practicing what Seth calls pastoral theology. And that is an encouraging thought.
Here’s one observation that I take from my reading the essays in this volume. A generation or two ago, the term “Mormon apologetics” referred to a fairly well defined set of arguments and defenses, “traditional apologetics” defending standard Mormon faith claims. Now, there is not simply a new and improved version of Mormon apologetics to succeed or complement traditional Mormon apologetics. There is a wide array of discussions that continue or have branched off from that initial field: traditional apologetics, new positive apologetics as typified by Givens and Mason, a form of official apologetics as with the Gospel Topics essays, pastoral apologetics as outlined by Seth Payne, religious studies scholarship examining and discussing the same LDS doctrines and practices that apologists often discuss, and so forth.
The Fellowship of the Apologists is broken. In its place, new voices and new approaches have arisen. This is, I think, for the best.