Monday, November 16, 2015

Apologetics or Mormon Studies?

I attended a panel discussion at Utah Valley University on November 6, 2015 entitled "Faith, Reason, and the Critical Study of Mormon Apologetics." My notes:

Moderator: Blair G. Van Dyke. PhD BYU 1997. Teaches philosophy & religious studies at UVU, is on the faculty of the Orem Institute of Religion. Co-editor of a forthcoming book on Mormon Apologetics (Kofford, 2016). Heads the Mormon Chapter, Foundation for Religious Diplomacy.

Brian D. Birch. PhD Claremont 1998. Director of Religious Studies Program & Director of the Center for the Study of Ethics at UVU. Co-editor Perspectives on Mormon Theology series (Kofford). Senior Research Fellow, Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. Author of a forthcoming book entitled Mormonism Among Christian Theologies (Oxford).

Ralph C. Hancock. PhD Harvard. J. Reuben Clark Fellow at BYU. American and French political history, the history of political thought. Editor, America, the West and Liberal Education (Rowman and Littlefield, 1999). Co-editor with Gary Lambert, The Legacy of the French Revolution. Author, Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics (Cornell, 1989). Director, John Adams Center for the Study of Faith, Philosophy and Public Affairs, BYU.

Brian M. Hauglid. Director, Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies. Senior Research Fellow, Maxwell Institute. Associate Professor, Ancient Scripture, BYU. Co-editor with Robin Scott Jensen, Abraham and Egyptian Papers (Joseph Smith Papers Project, vol. 4 in the Revelations and Translations Series, 2018). Co-author with Terryl Givens A Cultural History of the Pearl of Great Price (Oxford). Author, A Textual History of the Book of Abraham(2011).

Benjamin E. Park.  PhD Cambridge. American cultural and political history. 4 articles have won awards from the Mormon History Association. Post doctoral fellow, Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy, U of Missouri. Associate Editor, Mormon Studies Review.

Julie M. Smith.  MA Graduate Theological Union (Berkeley). Board member, Mormon Theology Seminar. Steering Committee, BYU New Testament Commentary. Author, Commentary on the Gospel of Mark in progress. Author, Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels. Book Review Editor and Blogger, Times and Seasons.
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Brian Hauglid. The shift from FARMS to the Maxwell Institute is part of a broad shift at BYU from apologetics to academics. Apologetics is the rational defense of faith. The persistence of questions and external attacks makes it imperative that faith must be defended rationally.  Hauglid based most of his presentation on the book Five Views on Apologetics edited by Steven B. Cowan (Zondervan, 2000). Apologetics, done well, can bolster faith, aid evangelism, refute objections, and defend against attacks. Defensive apologetics are reactionary. Offensive apologetics are positive – they offer evidence for the existence of God or the authenticity of a text. Cowan’s 5 types of apologetics are:
1)      Classical, a combination of natural philosophy and evidence
2)      Evidential, theism and Christ’s resurrection are common themes
3)      Cumulative case, this is neither inductive nor deductive, but a series of briefs supporting a theory as an explanation of selected data. C.S. Lewis used this method
4)      Pre-suppositional assumes the existence of certain truths and builds arguments based on that foundation
5)      Reformed epistemology assumes evidence is not required
No matter which apologetic form we are using, we should avoid humiliating our enemies, warring, using emotionally charged rhetoric, or castigating others no matter how opprobrious we find them. He advocated being empathetic and showing academic humility, in cooperation with other scholars, the majority of whom will not be of our faith. He painted a picture of the academy as an ideal bastion of civil discourse and mutual respect where everyone plays nice in the sandbox and where irony and satire have no place.  We should do relational apologetics – striving for mutual affirmation on both sides. We should do good work, but "we just feel like there needs to be a change in the way we do apologetics." We should be collegial with scholars outside of BYU. Apologists generally preach to the choir and publish in-house.

Ralph Hancock. Apologists defend beliefs using arguments. Modern scholars bifurcate the truth into secular and religious. They assume secular truth can be investigated and defended rationally. They relegate religious truth into a metaphysical world of mysticism and irrationality. By definition, most scholars assume religious truths and personal experiences with faith are indefensible. In reality, truth is unitary. Faith and reason are two sides of a single whole. Hancock referenced Arthur Henry King’s observation on Joseph Smith’s First Vision account in the Pearl of Great Price – it has the ring of truth. Most people on earth today believe faith and miracles are reasonable. Irony and satire do have a place in negative apologetics because the antagonists attacking our faith are so humorless. Tone and style vary greatly in effective apologetics. Humility is over-rated. The academy is not nearly as civil and tidy as idealists would have you believe. Straight forwardness is a better goal than humility in apologetics which by its very nature is advocacy literature.

Brian Birch. Examples of sea changes in modern Mormonism include the B.H. Roberts debates with Joseph Fielding Smith over evolution, the new history advocated by Leonard J. Arrington and Eugene England, and the Maxwell Institute shift away from apologetics to Mormon Studies which is generally concerned with history, including reception history, and theology. Birch applauds the shift because it tones down the debate over truth claims and makes it more comfortable for him to interact with scholars not of our faith. Mormonism has many more potentially contentious issues than mainstream Christianity. Mormonism is more thoroughly suffused with revelatory discourse. Satire and irony should be non-existent. Humility has been lacking over the years in Mormon apologetics and it is necessary in the academy. The ideal Mormon apologist would be humble, able to receive criticism, and willing to change based on that criticism.

Julie Smith. Apologetics are necessary as long as there are missionaries teaching investigators, 14 year olds going to Seminary for the first time, and members doing Google searches. Regardless of personal desire to retreat from the messiness and clamor, apologetics will never go away. The only question is whether they will be done well. Apologetics are like fire – necessary but dangerous. Some of the risks of apologetics done poorly are:
·         Fossilized mindsets
·         Women victimized as collateral damage in the debates
·         People alienating themselves from the church as they discover defects in previously-held apologetic arguments
·         Cultural truth being substituted for doctrine
Smith advocates inclusive, high-quality apologetics. Not everything can be rationally explained. Faith allows for awe and wonder. We should avoid incivility. Weak apologetics injure Church doctrine. Smith likes lists with multiple explanatory options. “We don’t know” is OK as one of the options. The Bible is the new frontier in Mormon apologetics.  We have a lot to say about the Bible. We should not abandon apologetics. Rather, we should raise the bar and hasten the work in Mormon apologetics. FARMS did top-notch work. The Maxwell Institute is still doing apologetics at some level, although the word itself and the idea behind it have fallen out of favor. Smith then gave 3 examples of what she considers high quality Mormon apologetics:
1)      Lynne Hilton Wilson, “The Confusing Case of Zacharias”
2)      Mark Wright and Brant Gardner, “The Cultural Context of Nephite Apostasy”
3)      Jonathan Stapley and Kristine Wright, “Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism”
Faith and reason are and always have been yoked. We should strive for civility and non-Mormon peer review. Good apologetics inoculates against the betrayal narrative “I was never taught that.” Apologetics should be multi-layered, letting the reader decide which arguments have more explanatory power. The Gospel of Mark is a good example of apologetics done well. Mark shows Jesus Christ with mortal limitations. If even the Savior of mankind was limited by his mortality, how much more should we cut Joseph Smith some slack? The scriptures are not mystical, divine objects to be venerated for their own sakes. They are texts to be analyzed and understood.  We should do pre-emptive apologetics so young Mormons reverence the awe but do not grow up with unrealistic expectations.  

Ben Park. Apologetics, done right, is good for both the academy and religious institutions as long as a wall separates them. Park likes the Jeffersonian concept of a wall separating church and state. The new Mormon history is a good example. Mormon Studies is emerging as a viable field of inquiry. We see Mormon Studies programs at Claremont and the University of Virginia in addition to the Utah schools. Programs are emerging at USC and the Graduate Theological Union (Berkeley). This is a wonderful development because it provides employment for scholars of Mormonism. Mormon Studies is now integrated in academics. In the long run, this will be good for Mormon apologetics. There are virtually no jobs for Mormon apologists while there are many options for Mormon Studies scholars. Graduate students cannot advance in academic careers doing apologetics.  These practical reasons alone explain the FARMS to Maxwell Institute shift.  Continuing with the wall metaphor, there should be a wall between Mormon Studies and apologetics.  We should exude positivism as we tell the great story of Mormonism.

My observations:
Utah State, the University of Utah, and now UVU are all doing Mormon Studies. The Maxwell Institute is moving rapidly in that direction, trying to relegate its apologetic FARMS' roots into an object of historical curiosity rather than a living, breathing current enterprise. I asked Brian Hauglid after the formal presentation "Is there a place on BYU campus for the kind of work FARMS used to do?" He replied that FAIR Mormon and Interpreter Foundation are both doing that kind of work. I reminded him that both of these are independent, off-campus entities and repeated my question, "Is there a place at BYU for an organization like FARMS in its heyday?" "Well," he replied, "We're doing what we can." I took that for a no.

I find it pathetically ironic that my tithing dollars support an institution where the kind of swash-buckling defender of the faith tradition practiced by the Pratt brothers, B.H. Roberts, Hugh W. Nibley, John L. Sorenson, John W. Welch, and Daniel C. Peterson is no longer welcome. It should come as no surprise, though, to anyone familiar with contemporary academic trends. Since WWII, ideas of universal truth, Judeo-Christian values, and even right and wrong have been supplanted on most college campuses with vague notions that diversity and tolerance are the highest virtues. Most academics worship at the altar of pluralism and decry exceptionalism whether Western European - American or Christian - Mormon. Joseph Smith's testimony that the Book of Mormon is a revelation from God and the most correct of any book on earth is a tough sell in today's climate of moral relativism. Why can't we just all get along and play nice in the sandbox? Being Unitarian or B'nai B'rith is much less stressful than knocking on doors or street contacting.

The publish or perish incentives at most universities today, including BYU, practically guarantee that young LDS scholars will treat the Book of Mormon in a watered-down, non-controversial way if they deal with it at all. Traditional defender of the faith approaches are academic suicide in most departments if one's career goal is a coveted tenure-track faculty position in a mainstream institution.

Straight-up Book of Mormon Studies of the apologetic FARMS variety will continue, although much of the leadership and institutional support will come from independent organizations such as FAIR Mormon, Interpreter Foundation, and the newly-created Book of Mormon Central.

Many have asked why FARMS, which began in 1979 as a private non-profit in southern California, allowed itself to be acquired by BYU. Some key reasons included:
  • By the late 1990's, over 100 BYU faculty members were participating in FARMS projects in some way. The FARMS/BYU connection ran deep. FARMS was increasingly being drawn into the sometimes byzantine world of BYU departmental politics.
  • FARMS was raising quite a bit of money. LDS Philanthropies was anxious that those donations channel through them.
  • FARMS owned property adjacent to campus that figured in BYU's master plan. The BYU Life Sciences Building, completed in 2014, sits where the FARMS office used to be.
  • Merrill J. Bateman was inaugurated President of BYU in 1996. One year later Pres. Gordon B. Hinckley invited FARMS to become part of the university and voila, several of Pres. Bateman's problems were solved with a phone call.
An excellent treatise extolling apologetics is Dan Peterson's classic "An Unapologetic Apology for Apologetics."