Book Review: Perspectives on Mormon Theology – Apologetics

Book Review: Perspectives on Mormon Theology – Apologetics, edited by Blair G. Van Dyke and Loyd Isao Ericson, Greg Kofford Books

I am an apologist. Ever since joining the LDS Church at the age of 16, I’ve spent countless hours explaining, sharing and defending the gospel of Jesus Christ. After my mission, I used to weekly go to the Salt Lake Temple, where I would spend an hour talking gospel with the anti-Mormon protester that handed out pamphlets outside the Temple Square walls. Nibley’s works were amazing to me. I was a list member on William Hamblin’s Ant-Mormon email list 25 years ago. I am a former member of FAIRMormon, written articles for the More Good Foundation, spent many hours on LDS.Net, have several articles on my own webpage, gave a lecture on the Book off Mormon as an Ascension Text at Sunstone Kirtland, blogged on the Gospel Doctrine lessons at my own blog, and a permablogger here at Millennial Star.

That said, I went into this discussion on apologetics with an open mind, eager to see what several LDS scholars thought. The book is a series of essays on apologetics:

  • Critical Foundations of Mormon Apologetics – Blair G. Van Dyke
  • A Brief Defense of Apologetics – Daniel C. Peterson
  • Boundary Maintenance that Pushes the Boundaries: Scriptural and Theological Insights from Apologetics – Neal Rappleye
  • I Think, Therefore I Defend – Michael R. Ash
  • A Wall Between Church and Academy – Benjamin E. Park
  • Mormon Apologetics and Mormon Studies: Truth, History, and Love – Ralph C. Hancock
  • The Intellectual Cultures of Mormonism: Faith, Reason and the Apologetic Enterprise – Brian D. Birch
  • The Role of Women in Apologetics – Juliann Reynolds
  • Avoiding Collateral Damage: Creating a Woman-Friendly Mormon Apologetics – Julie M. Smith
  • “The Perfect Union of Man and Woman”: Reclamation and Collaboration in Joseph Smith’s Theology Making – Fiona Givens
  • Lamanites, Apologetics and Tensions in Mormon Anthropology – David Knowlton
  • Conceptually Confusion and the Building of Stumbling Blocks of Faith – Loyd Isao Ericson
  • Shifting Intellectual and Religious Paradigms: One Apologist’s Journey into Critical Study – David Bokovoy
  • Toward a New Vision of Apologetics – Joseph M. Spencer
  • Apologetics as Theological Praxis – Seth Payne

The articles discuss several important topics in regards to apologetics and LDS scholarship. The discussions focus primarily on the importance of apologetics, its pros and cons, and whether we should be doing apologetics. The articles include the issues of women in apologetics, whether we should instead focus on Mormon scholarly studies, the differences between good and bad apologetics, boundary maintenance, and where we should go in the future.

Van Dyke introduces us a brief history of apologetics in the Church. There was a time when scholarship under people like Eugene England was fresh and exciting. Unfortunately, there were some who were not eager to allow a free-for-all cause damage to the Church. For some, it was better to keep skeletons in the closet, and insist there was no closet. However, with the advent of the Internet, the skeletons burst out of the closet. Some still tried to protect the closet, even though it was essentially empty. This allowed for critics of the Church to get the upper hand for a time. However, over the past decade, there has been a new openness, which the Church is still grappling with. Van Dyke noted that there are still some issues, such as same-sex marriage, where the Church and many apologists are still slow to acknowledge that “research indicates that the children of lesbian and gay parents do not differ markedly from the children of heterosexual parents in their development, adjustment or overall well-being.”  He concludes by suggesting we may have to go forward with an “unpretentious openness to contemplate all possibilities – including the outside chance that maybe, just maybe, you might be wrong!”.

There are negative and positive forms of apologetics: Negative forms defend against the criticisms of critics, while positive forms add evidences that may increase one’s reasons to believe.

Peterson, Rappleye, and Ash explain the importance of apologetic work.

Peterson quotes the scriptures, as well as C.S Lewis on the importance of defending the faith. There are some scholars, who do not believe we should engage in apologetics of any kind, to which Peterson responds, “They seem to do so on the basis of something resembling fideism, the view that faith is independent of reason, and even that reason and faith are incompatible with each other.”

Rappleye gives examples where apologetics and scholarly research have expanded the boundaries of our knowledge. Prior to such work, for example, members believed in the hemispheric model of the Book of Mormon – where the Jaredites were in North America, Nephites in South America, and the narrow neck of land was in modern Panama. However, research shows that the Book of Mormon clearly defines a narrower view, covering perhaps 250 square miles, and hinting in several places that peoples were already here when Lehi showed up.

From Ash and Rappleye, we learn there are good and bad apologetics. Bad apologetics must be recognized and corrected as quickly as possible. This means many of our faith boundaries must be flexible enough to allow us to change and adapt certain views, while still maintaining our core beliefs. As a personal example, I recall sitting at a bus stop in the Altiplano (highlands) of the Bolivian Andes almost 40 years ago, and explaining to a new convert that the mountains we saw in front of us were created by the great earthquakes and destructions at Christ’s death 2000 years before. I now look back and realize just how important apologetics are for me, today. Without the scholarly work that moved the boundaries of faith to a solid foundation in science, I would definitely have met with a faith crisis on this and many other issues.

Ash notes that at one point, FairMormon had a message board (now LDS.net), which was often very contentious. “Not long after its inception, however, FairMormon distanced itself from the contentious message boards and focused on educational apologetics.”  It focused, for example, on developing a Wiki that gives scholarly explanations to the standard questions and issues brought up by critics of the Church.

Several of the articles slightly reference the big division that occurred just a few years ago, in apologetics and Mormon Studies. The head of the Maxwell Institute (formerly FARMS), argued with Daniel C. Peterson and others over the future of the Institute. Key to this discussion was whether defense of the gospel should continue as previously done, or whether it should go full steam ahead into Mormon Studies, bringing a new respect and dialogue with non-LDS scholars. While on vacation, Peterson received an email stating he, along with several colleagues, had been fired from the Institute. It took a few years for the Maxwell Institute to reestablish its publications and develop new on-line projects. However, as soon as Peterson returned from vacation, he organized a new on-line presence, the Mormon Interpreter, which has published an article every week for the last many years – much of it focused on apologetics.

This division gathered LDS scholars into two divided groups. With time, harsh feelings have abated somewhat, although there are still embers glowing that some still attempt to fan into a flame, attacking other LDS scholars’ methods and efforts.

The articles on women in apologetics are a hidden treasure in this volume. I’m rather conservative on some gospel issues, but the articles by Reynolds, Smith and Givens were thought provoking and clearly show us that we need to rethink some of our boundaries. One of the key points brought out is we need to not confuse policy with doctrine. Discussing the priesthood ban as an example, it was noted that while the ban may have been established by the Lord, the reasons for the ban created a hostile environment for many of our members.

Reynolds notes co-founding FairMormon back in 1997 against the attacks of anti-Mormons on AOL, “there were a few notable exceptions, but the average countercultist armed only with biblical proof texts and out-of-context quotes could not respond in kind to scholarship or successfully defend their own beliefs when held to the same standard of scrutiny.” Women only make up about 21% of LDS apologists online. But their efforts grow with new ways for women to make a difference. Mormon Women Stand, various women’s blogs, and I would definitely include the wonderful sister bloggers here at Millennial Star, make a big difference in how the world views Mormons.

Reynold’s article reminded me of a dear deceased friend of mine, Renee Olson. She was an African-American anti-Mormon, who through her studies and discussions with LDS apologists, ended up converting to the Church. She became a key member of FairMormon until her death.

In discussing policy versus doctrine boundaries, Julie Smith notes that we often defend the indefensible. This is often true with women’s issues in regards to the priesthood, leadership, etc. She notes, “…Mormon theology is a tapestry woven of paradoxical strands, which means an apologetics  which privileges certain threads will not do it justice.” She gives as an example that a -study on polygamy should not only focus on the happy wives, nor only the unhappy ones. Perhaps her best example of how LDS often deal with women’s issues is from a quote from Andrea Radke-Moss, sharing the views she’s heard:

“Women don’t have the Priesthood. Women have always had the Priesthood. Women have the Priesthood in the Temple. Women have the Priesthood through their husbands. Women will never have the Priesthood. Women don’t have the Priesthood because they are spiritually inferior to men. Women don’t have the Priesthood because they are spiritually superior to men. Women will have the Priesthood in the next life. Women don’t have the Priesthood because they have motherhood. Not all women are mothers (literally). All women are mothers (symbolically)….”

And this is only half the quote. We do no one favors by quoting policy as revelation, because policy changes, and the reasons men give for God’s revelations and commands are always inadequate.

Givens shares the concept of Heavenly Mother from its earliest beginnings in the First Temple and before, to how Joseph Smith restored the concept. She reasons out how the Holy Ghost is the divine feminine, or Mother in Heaven. I’m not fully convinced by her examples that the divine goddess is the Holy Ghost, as it leaves unexplained issues of Father and Son having physical bodies, but not the Holy Ghost. Do we not believe Heavenly Mother to be a resurrected being? Instead, I see the Godhead as being more than just Father, Son and Holy Ghost. I believe it also includes their eternal partners. That said, Givens does give us much reason to search out all we can about our Heavenly Mother and her roles as Wisdom and co-Creator with God.

Of all the articles, perhaps the weakest argument is Bokovoy’s discussion against apologetics. He explains that he once was an apologist, but sees from his Bible studies that scripture is both divine and human. Being divine, it is inspired. Being written by frail mortals, it is bound to have mistakes and errors. I think we all agree that the scriptures are true to the level they are translated correctly. However, that does not help a person rebuild a testimony, by telling them we must only have faith, that no amount of scholarship with restore us from a shaken faith. As I noted with my friend Renee Olson, without apologists, she would have remained an anti-Mormon. Even in traditional realms, fundamentalist Christians that insist on a 6000 year old earth and dinosaurs dying in the Flood, would not be swayed by a fideist statement. Changing hearts often begins by changing minds, which cannot easily happen without using reason.

The last articles discuss future direction for apologetics. Spencer questions the questions we are attempting to answer. He suggests there are better ways, by using a greater context for our answers. Is an issue worth answering? If yes, then how can we best use it, not just to defend a single point, but to bring the greater gospel into the matter.

My view? We need to defend the Church. However, bad apologetics is worse than no apologetics at all. We need to do great scholarship. There is room aplenty for Mormon Studies AND apologetics, even if done in different forums. I know my efforts have helped several people with shaken faith to be restored to full belief in the LDS Church, and I know there is definitely room for such. As Daniel Peterson noted,

The word may be offputting, but I contend that apologetics is an essential part of Christian discipleship. Moreover, I insist, we all engage in it. Even those who argue against apologetics are arguing for their own vision of what discipleship ought to be.

The question isn’t whether we’ll do apologetics, but how we’ll do it. Will we be honest? Competent? Civil? Will be be effective or not?

This was a great series of articles that will expand our understanding of what it is to defend the Church, and the various ways to do so. Current and future issues must be explored and boundaries maintained. Greg Kofford Books hits another home run with this volume.

 

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Perspectives on Mormon Theology – Apologetics

  1. Bravo dear brother long to read you yourself are a masterpiece! Yes indeed they would have eternal partners for marriage is an eternal law

  2. “My view? We need to defend the Church. However, bad apologetics is worse than no apologetics at all. We need to do great scholarship. There is room aplenty for Mormon Studies AND apologetics, even if done in different forums. I know my efforts have helped several people with shaken faith to be restored to full belief in the LDS Church, and I know there is definitely room for such.”

    My view is that we need to defend the concept that the LDS Church has divine authorization. Beyond that we get into men and the mistakes they may, may not, have made.

    Overall I appreciated reading this review. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

  3. Why does this post only have two comments? This is exactly the kind of thing M* used to do, and I wish would do more of again. This post deserves more appreciation. The newer direction of the last couple years here is OK–all fine and good–but I miss the deeper and more frequent social/political/apologetic posts, too.

    Anyway, great review, R. I may have to check this book out.

  4. “We do no one favors by quoting policy as revelation, because policy changes …”

    Bit of a sidetrack here but I do find this comment interesting. Is it your view that policy is never, or can’t ever be, given by revelation, i.e. the Lord saying, given the existing conditions this is the way I want things done, but later, with changing conditions, modifying the policy?

  5. Ojisan,
    Yes policy can come via revelation. However, that does not make it core doctrine that cannot be adjusted or changed or replaced.

  6. Thank you for the review and the fun insight into some of your personal contributions to the larger apologetic effort.

    “Apologist” is often used as a synonym for “unthinking person defending the undefensible,” and when it is used in that sense, I resent being dismissed as an apologist. However when apologist is used as a synonym for “I have experienced God and know He directs me that this work is true, so let us reason together regarding why it is possible that His work is correct,” I don’t mind the label at all.

  7. I, like many, am most often a lurker. I do appreciate what is offered here and the effort put in by so many to bring to my attention what I likely would not have encountered on my own given my divergent interests.
    Thank you Rameumptom. And all the others here at M*.

  8. I just read a post at Mormanity about Elder Holland attending a gathering celebrating the 50th anniversary of the discovery of chiasmus in the BoM. He gave the apologists a pretty big “attaboy”. His remarks are posted at the LDS newsroom.

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