Apologetics: Vacuous Study of Minutiae and Other Thoughts

This is an amalgamation of a few posts written at Straight and Narrow blog on the current topic of the moment. It is not really an opposing viewpoint of other writings here, but I feel does stand as a type of counter expression. Time only will prove if these thoughts are generally what the MI had in mind, or if the whole project of Mormon academics from a faithful perspective becomes anemic.

For years I have been impressed by the well written and impassioned arguments for the truth of Mormonism by respected scholars. There are few things more thrilling than an insight or discovery that turns a critics question or accusation on its head. Regardless, my thoughts drift to an opinion I have had for some time. Apologetics (of the “Mormon” kind) has been very interesting and useful. My personal library contains a few of my favorites. Ultimately, however, they seem to often be lacking in spiritual benefits.

Some examples of blog sites that I go to and sometimes enjoy, but not consistantly include Mormanity, SHIELDS, and FARMS where apologetics are the main subject. Another example that doesn’t seem to fit my interest is No Death Before the Fall as a one note discussion even if more conservative in orthodoxy (I am not sure if I agree with it’s position). All of these touch more or less on the idea of refuting the critics and doubters of the LDS faith. Yet, I don’t feel an overwhelming need to read them beyond an occasional peek. Some others I do read more often, but again not because of their apologetics exclusively. They have become good reads.

With some soul searching I have concluded that much of what they say does not touch me at a root level. Sure, FARMS has been a lifelong obsession with me. What it doesn’t do is make me want to live my life any better or closer to God than before I read most of the material. The reason for this is hard to put down on paper. My guess is that they don’t study the actual teachings of the Scriptures or provide guidance for those looking for meaning behind doctrines and teachings. Such poor conditions of an otherwise robust and professional endeavor have given me concern. They are an important part of my faith development, but do not contribute much to the enlargement of my soul. I wish those in the apologetic business success and will continue to read them whenever they catch my interest. They have my deepest respect and gratitude. I would just like it to become more inspirational.

I am not sure exactly how to change the situation. What I do know is that apologists have become stuck on the signifier and don’t touch much on the signified. there are some exceptions, such as “Illuminating the Sermon at the Temple & Sermon on the Mount” by John W. Welch, “King Benjamin’s Speech: ‘That Ye May Learn Wisdom’” by John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks, and “Feasting on the Word: The Literary Testimony of the Book of Mormon” by Richard Dilworth Rust. I can think of two apologetic writers (other than Nibley) who might be good examples to follow. These would be B.H. Roberts and, although not LDS, C.S. Lewis. Both of them were as interested in defending what they believed as they were to help increase the spiritual lives of believers.

Many have asked how a Mormon can believe as they do when to them all history, science, and logic seems to go against its claims. One Mormon responds to an article What Mormons Believe when defending the Book of Mormon, or any other part of the religion. He said:

… on the other hand, if you are a mormon who believes that the [Book of Mormon] captures a genuine revolution the priors change. if you presuppose the the genuine core of mormon belief one could construct a scenario where such a contact could occur so that the extant remains would be difficult to discern. . . so depending on the parameters you can make a plausible case in the light of your priors.

In other words, there are assumptions that Mormons hold that others don’t. This makes it a closed system that no amount of arguing for or against will be sufficient to break through biases and expectations. There has to be a catalyst for or against stronger than the arguments themselves. I think this needs to be stated more than once. The answer to why Mormons believe as they do can be traced to what Tim Bulter in the response said, “When I read the Book of Mormon, I feel a palpable glow. I believe it’s the word of God.” This is an unadorned description of the spiritual witness, but a good example of the Mormon priority of religious understanding over apologetic. For Mormons, experience with God is the ultimate proof they have of Mormon claims. It is a personal and not an academic exercise. Many Mormon apologetic writers have started and ended their discussions with these very reminders. To quote Richard L. Bushman:

Mormonism has always been an embarrassment to Christianity. It goes back to the 1830s when, on their own left, Christians had to face the Deists, who said the Christian miracles were ridiculous. To defend themselves, Christians had to find some kind of rational support. William Paley, of course, is the archetypical character, but there were scores of books written trying to mobilize evidence that you could believe the resurrection, that those witnesses were authentic.

While they were fighting that battle, the Mormons on the right came up with these ridiculous stories of angels and gold plates and claimed the same right to believe in miracles, mobilizing the same kind of evidence that Christians used for the resurrection. This required Christians to repel Mormons to prevent the Deists from grouping them with the lunatic fringe.

Christian groups have been as forceful as any in trying to put down the Mormons, I think, partly to protect their position as respectable philosophically. I once in a meeting asked a group of evangelical Christians – a small group; Mark Noll was there, Richard Mouw, various other distinguished people – why don’t we join forces in making a case that there are grounds for believing in the existence of God simply because the spiritual life confirms it? People believe there is a God because it’s manifest to them spiritually.

They really didn’t want any of that. They wanted to maintain their philosophical, rational claims, defending their miracles on sort of a quasi-scientific basis. They did not want to get in bed with the Mormons and their strictly subjective view of things. So there is kind of a gap intellectually. Mormonism has never embraced philosophy; it is not particularly interested in philosophy. I would say our most natural ally among the philosophers, frankly, is William James whose view of God is very close to the Mormon view of God. . . Because the emphasis is on experience and belief in a God.

This isn’t to say there isn’t any “comprehensive defense/explanation” of Mormonism. There is a surprising amount of such if you will actually take the time to look. And these are not just from amateur (although there is that) writers trying to be persuasive, but Phd’s in fields from Law to Anthropology. Almost none of the articles they write will ever be in peer reviewed journals, but that is the nature of any religious apologist work. What is sad is that there is such a large volume of relatively good quality apologia that is virtually ignored. Even those who should engage it don’t as if it doesn’t exist.

And here is where Ross Douthat and others miss the boat entirely. They seem to argue against Mormonism without having at least a cursory understanding of Mormonism and its contemporary defenders. What is amazing is all this talk about Mormons as “literalists” is only partly true.

Unlike the most hardened Bible believers, Mormon theology about Prophets, Scriptures, History, and etc. is extremely flexible and nuanced. For instance, the whole talk about how “The Pearl of Great Price” doesn’t match with the current “Book of the Dead” we clearly have is not very troubling to Mormons who understand their own theology. It brings uncomfortable questions, but ultimately doesn’t put “The Pearl of Great Price” into question so much as the process and meaning of Revelation itself. Too many people (even LDS members themselves) try to shoehorn Mormonism into the same category as Scriptural Inerrantists, when that is actually not the case. This is one example of too many where outside perceptions of the way Mormons think and believe are thrust upon them out of caricature rather than reality. That is the real problem here. Arguments against Mormonism from the Right and the Left have been, from the point of view of Mormonism proper, mostly strawmen bolstered by centuries of tradition that Mormons half-heartedly care about participating in because of fashion.

Bringing us back to the lackluster spiritual impact of defenses of the faith, no matter how well argued and proven. There are some instances where apologetics goes beyond the mere esoteric, theoretical, and intellectual. Half of Hugh Nibley’s writings for me have more than the mere mosaic of evidence, and say things about humanity and our spiritual relation to God. His predecessors often don’t have that same grasp of the importance of what they are trying to defend. At least not in their writings. They list this discovery and talk about that similarity with the detached excitement of spectators.

Improving the dialogue in apologetics is a tricky proposition. On the one hand, they don’t exist to deliver sermons or moral lessons. It is a blunt instrument meant to block the blows of other blunt weapons against faith. In some ways the subject matter is determined by “the enemies” goals and arguments. Yet, they are dealing with faith and religion where morality and theology are what make the fight important. That should at least make those engaged in the business think of things better to say than what kind of swords people carried. Many people might be able to recognize instances of parallelism, but how many can explain the meaning of the teachings between the lines? It can be a vacuous study of minutiae in a world that needs the Holy Spirit of Prophecy more than ever.

3 thoughts on “Apologetics: Vacuous Study of Minutiae and Other Thoughts

  1. Perhaps God doesn’t want there to be a philosophical/rational/scholarly proof, and has so ordered things so that spiritual truth must be spiritually discerned, as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 2:14.

    The vast majority of the human race is and has never been scholarly or intellectual, nor very intelligent compared to the level of those whom we deem to be scholars. So how does the “average” person discern what is spiritual truth? How does the “average” person go about choosing which “smart” person to trust?

    Does it boil down to which scholars or which intellectuals or which “smart” people can make the best sales pitch? What does the average Joe do when, after making his choice, a better “salesman” comes along?

    That’s why I think scholarship and apologetics need to constantly include the disclaimer that they are working in the realm of plausibility, that is, creating space in which faith may be sought after and exercised.

    Philosophers and apologists can easily devolve into becoming mere “salesmen” if they are not careful.

  2. I think part of the problem is that we tend to say that apologetic works only have to do with “proving” the gospel true. Not so.

    There are groupings of articles and books that fit in different categories under the main category of apologetics. There are polemics that go directly at the statements and articles made by others. This is perhaps the most controversial group. Then there is the defense of LDS teachings from the things taught by others.

    But there are at least two or three other groupings that I can think of off hand.

    First, there are the researched articles that support LDS teaching without defending it against anyone. Sorenson’s Ancient American Setting, Ancient Voyages, etc., have given background to the Book of Mormon. Such has given us the ability to reconsider how LDS view and study the Book of Mormon. To not see it engulf the entire American continents, but instead just a small region, where they compete for space and land with others that they call “Lamanites” (whether literally connected to Laman or not) is important. Perhaps the best commentary on the book of Mormon is Brant Gardner’s 6 volume set, which will have you considering the BoM in an entirely new way, as well.

    Next, there is a lot of work being done right now on textual criticism by several great LDS philosophy scholars. SaltPress.org has several books available now that showcase studies done on just one or two chapters within the Book of Mormon. Want to understand Alma 32 in a whole new way? It is there. And, as one author/editor, Joseph Spencer notes, this is a form of apologetics, because when he teaches such things to his college students they are amazed that Joseph Smith could have come up with such complex and intricate issues.

    There are articles and books that help us think of gospel concepts in whole new ways. Blake Ostler’s volumes on the Attributes of God, break ground in understanding LDS beliefs from a philosophy background. While I may not agree with all his conclusions, they did expand my mind in regards to how I read the scriptures now.

    Each of these, in its own way, is a form of apologetics. Some are direct, others indirect. Some do not affect my testimony. Others have greatly expanded my testimony, by increasing my respect and love for the scriptures, the atonement, and the gospel.

    So, while some articles may offer little in regards to spiritual growth, others offer an immense opportunity to gain a greater testimony.

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