Saturday, August 12, 2017

Every Argument is an Apology


As soon as I finished reading Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics, I was prepared to write an unapologetic apology for apologetics in response.  However, I decided to browse the internet first, just in case someone had already written such an article.  As luck would have it, Daniel Peterson wrote "An Unapologetic Apology for Apologetics" about seven years ago.  This serendipitous discovery reminded me of Abraham Lincoln's astute observation: "I feel the need of reading.  It is a loss to a man not to have grown up among books... books [or in this case articles] serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren’t very new, after all."

I suppose that I could write an unapologetic apology for Peterson's unapologetic apology for apologetics, but there are at least a few chapters in Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics that merit an apology as well.  These chapters include Daniel Peterson's "A Brief Defense of Apologetics," Neal Rappleye's "Boundary Maintenance that Pushes the Boundaries: Scriptural and Theological Insights from Apologetics," Michael R. Ash's "I Think, Therefore I Defend," and Ralph C. Hancock's "Mormon Apologetics and Mormon Studies: Truth, History, and Love."  Juliann Reynolds' "The Role of Women in Apologetics" and Fiona Givens' "'The Perfect Union of Man and Woman': Reclamation and Collaboration in Joseph Smith's Theology Making" are also praiseworthy.

Aside from the six chapters mentioned above, each of the other nine chapters contains material that is in one way or another antagonistic toward, or critical of, old fashioned Mormon apologetics.  (For those who might be interested, Mr. So-and-So's review of Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics presents a viewpoint that is somewhat more sympathetic to the arguments advanced in these chapters).  However, in order to understand the reasoning behind the arguments for and against FARMS style Mormon apologetics, it is necessary to grasp what is meant by "Mormon apologetics." Furthermore, in order to understand the meaning of "Mormon apologetics," it behooves us to appreciate what is meant by the word "apologetics."

In the introduction to his unapologetic apology for apologetics, Peterson traces the etymology of the word "apologetics" to its roots, namely the Greek word απολογία, meaning"speaking in defense." Throughout his apology, Peterson employs the word "apologetics" in relation to attempts to prove or defend religious claims, but he is careful to note that "every argument defending any position, even a criticism of Latter-day Saint apologetics, is an apology."  This last assertion bears repeating: "every argument defending any position... is an apology."

Much of the confusion surrounding Mormon apologetics appears to be directly attributable to a muddled understanding of the apologetic tradition and a hazy comprehension of the definition of the word "apologetics." Perhaps some ancient Greeks were incensed by Plato's Apology, or defense, of Socrates, but at least they would have understood that arguments against Socrates or his apologists would also require a defense, or an apology.  It is not a coincidence that students today study Plato's Apology and Xenophon's Apology and not the apologies of those who condemned Socrates.  With the exception of Aristophanes's The Cloudsapologies contra Socrates are rather hard to come by. Mormon apologetics, like Christian apologetics, has also withstood the test of time.  In 1954, Hugh Nibley delivered a series of weekly lectures called "Time Vindicates the Prophets."  Were he alive today, I suspect that Nibley would agree that time vindicates Mormon apologetics as well.  Simply put, Mormon apologetics withstands the test of time because the truth claims that Mormon apologists defend are true.

In both of his articles, Peterson highlights several of major philosophers and writers in the venerable tradition of apologetics, including a few notable Mormon apologists.  Objections to the writings of any one of the major figures in the history of apologetics would require a sturdy apologetics of its own.  Even a rebuttal to C.S. Lewis's oft quoted apology for apologetics would require a thorough defense, or an apology:

"To be ignorant and simple now - not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground - would be to throw down our weapons, and betray our uneducated brethren who have no defense but us against intellectual attacks of the heathen.

"Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against cool intellect on the other side, but against muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether.  Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. The learned life is then, for some, a duty.'"

Like good philosophy, good apologetics, including Lewis's apology and Peterson's more recent apology, is anchored in a sound understanding of the past.  It is rooted in good scholarship, properly understood.  Unfortunately, much of what passes for scholarship today is merely bad philosophy. Such scholarship flaunts its own perceived originality, but when set against the backdrop of intellectual history or the revealed word of God, such "scholarship" appears as so much nonsense.  C.S. Lewis explains:

"A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age."

Most of the articles in Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics are interesting and thought provoking, but many of them reflect the "local errors" of the "native village" of the modern academy. Although there are certainly many excellent scholars who do excellent work for excellent colleges and universities, it is not unheard of for institutions of higher learning to generate cataracts of nonsense or to stir up muddy heathen mysticism.  These defects in modern academia are sometimes the result of inordinate pressure to publish and to produce something new, when academics ought to invest more time and effort in rediscovering the wisdom of Lincoln's maxim: "Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren’t very new, after all."

Besides, as C.S. Lewis's demonstrates in his reflections on Christianity and literature, originality is overrated:

"The basis of all critical theory [is] the maxim that an author should never conceive himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom."

G.K Chesterton describes a similar matter succinctly:

"Dickens showed himself to be an original man by always accepting old and established topics. There is no clearer sign of the absence of originality among modern poets than their disposition to find new themes."

Apologetics is an old topic, as old as philosophy itself.  It is almost as old as Mormonism, which is as old as God Himself.  One might even date Mormon apologetics back to Adam, the Ancient of Days, and his wife Eve, both of whom blessed the name of God and made all things known to their sons and daughters.  (Moses 5:12)  As Lewis and Chesterton show, eternal things, or old and established topics, are always fresh and new, especially when juxtaposed against intellectual fads and academic fashions.  "Homer is new this morning," writes Charles Peguy, "and perhaps nothing is as old as today's newspaper."

As Peterson also notes in both of his articles, the English theologian and philosopher Austin Farrer clearly understood the value of apologetics:

"Though argument does not create conviction, lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned.  Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish."

Peterson contends that Christians share an obligation to apologize, or "to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that is in you with meekness and fear." (1 Peter 3:15) Does this mean that every Mormon must engage in scholarly apologetics?  No.  Peterson explains:

"Not everybody has the capacity to do it, frankly, and most are not interested. But I think that every believer is obliged to use what he or she knows in order to defend the Church against its critics when the occasion arises, or to help struggling Saints - and that believers should be steadily improving their knowledge of Church doctrine, Mormon history, and the standard works so as to (among other things) meet obligations more effectively.  (If we are to do something, it seems to me obvious that we should try to do it well.)  Is every believer obligated to seek out opportunities to engage critics?  Again, no. Some may feel so inclined.  Most do not, will not, and should not." (p. 37)

In response to those who contend that Mormon apologetics is counterproductive or harmful to faith, Peterson points out that "even someone arguing that we ought not to do apologetics is, ironically, offering an apologetic for that position." (p. 39)  They are "arguing for their own vision of what discipleship ought to be." (p. 41)

In addition to the confusion caused by muddled understanding of the apologetic tradition and hazy comprehension of the word "apologetics," another source of the confusion surrounding Mormon apologetics is a misunderstanding of the relationship between faith and reason.  The age old debate
regarding reason and revelation is more relevant to Mormon apologetics than any contemporary progressivist, positivist, historicist, relativist, feminist, psychological or anthropological ideology. In Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics, those who defend Mormon apologetics demonstrate a solid grasp of the philosophical and scriptural foundations for understanding and articulating the relationship between reason and revelation.  In fact, it is likely that much of the the newfangled recalcitrance against Mormon apologetics arises from a misguided faith in unreflective, modern, academic affectation in the guise of rationalism.

In his chapter "Boundary Maintenance that Pushes the Boundaries: Scriptural and Theological Insights from Apologetics," Neal Rappleye correctly argues that "in many cases LDS apologetic approaches are actually pushing the boundaries of scriptural interpretation and theological understanding." (p. 62)  He provides several interesting examples in support of his thesis, and successfully demonstrates that "efforts to defend certain points of Latter-day Saint belief have often led to fresh perspectives on LDS scripture and theology." (p. 43)

In his chapter "I Think, Therefore I Defend," Michael Ash argues that Mormon apologists are not anti-intellectual, and that in fact the opposite is true.  He exposes the pretense of those who claim to operate on a plane of pure objectivity: "While it is certainly commendable and worthwhile to pursue assumption-free scholarship, unfortunately it's not something we humans are capable of doing very well." (p. 69)  "Study after study demonstrates," Ash writes, "that we are all apologists for our personal worldviews and that holding worldviews doesn't vitiate scholarly discourse." (p. 81) "Ironically," Ash concludes, "the very act of demarcating apologetics outside the scholarly arena is based on assumptions about the perceived boundaries between apologetics and scholarship and is, in itself, an exercise in apologetics." (p. 81)

In his chapter "Mormon Apologetics and Mormon Studies: Truth, History, and Love," Ralph C. Hancock reiterates what Peterson, Rappeleye, and Ash articulate so clearly: "So no one - or at least no one involved in the business of reasoning - can avoid being an apologist for something." (p. 91) With Socratic precision, Hancock sifts through a variety of specious arguments against Mormon apologetics.  He brings to light the problems inherent in the alternative frameworks of the academic disciplines, namely, that these disciplines "tend to hide their distinctive frames of reference behind a façade of neutral 'methodology.'" (p. 93) (see also, here)  One such façade is the false dichotomy of "Fact vs. Faith," which feeds into illusory claims of objectivity, or as Hancock explains: "It is impossible to approach the study of religion or of any fundamental dimension of human existence (politics, the family, literature, history) from a simply objective standpoint, since the object of research (humanity) cannot be divorced from the very being of the human researcher." (p. 95)  "Any pretense," Hancock observes, "of some inhuman, scientific objectivity can be nothing but a mask serving to evade Socrates's imperative to 'know thyself,' a device for hiding the scholar's point of view (even from herself) and to intimidate readers who might be tempted to contest this point of view." (p. 95)

Hancock also addresses the question of "tone," a complaint that some critics of Mormon apologetics attempt to levy against those with whom they disagree.  In essence, Hancock argues that objections to "tone" or exhortations to humility are distractions from clear reasoning and civil debate: "There is considerable risk of brandishing one's supposed humility in order to gain advantage over another in argument. 'More humble than thou' is not a promising posture in an intellectual discussion.  The classic warning about motes and beams ought to be kept in mind when the sublime virtue of humility becomes a stake in a debate." (p. 98)  In rigorous intellectual debates there is a place for bold correction or lively critique.  In short, Hancock concludes, "Some virtues are better taught by silent practice than by public brandishing." (p. 100)

Hancock's premise is "the fruitful complementarity, in principle, between the deepening of understanding and defense of Mormon beliefs with the exploration of ideas from other intellectual sources." (p. 100)  In other words, his premise is the age old fruitful complementarity between revelation and reason.  With this premise in mind, he continues his Socratic engagement with other interlocutors.  In the process he questions the cogency of his interlocutors' appeals to history or the viability of their adherence to contemporary conceptions of diversity, sexuality and love.

Juliann Reynolds and Fiona Givens present persuasive arguments on behalf of female Mormon apologists.  These excellent chapters reminded me of Elder D. Todd Christofferson's recent General Conference address "The Moral Force of Women."

Of the nine chapters in Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics that argue against traditional Mormon apologetics, Joseph Spencer's "Toward a New Vision of Apologetics" is the most coherent. He laments the "acrimony" between "conservatives" and "liberals" in debates concerning Mormon apologetics: "The latter accuse the former of a kind of intellectual backwardness, of using shoddy intellectual tools to protect the borders around an ill-defined orthodoxy in an unnecessarily reactionary way.  The former accuse the latter of a kind of intellectual shallowness, of following flighty but fashionable intellectual movements to erase the tried and true boundaries established by divinely called prophets." (p. 235)  Spencer correctly discerns that the primary question to consider is "What is apologetics?"  However, Spencer isn't just interested in what apologetics is, but in what apologetics ought to be.  In other words, his chapter is an apology for his idea of what Mormon apologetics ought to be.  To make his case, Spencer hones in on the relationship between reason and revelation, but he also falls prey to the false dichotomy that separates heart from mind.

Mormon apologetics, like the truth claims it defends, will outlast its critics.  Nevertheless, LDS scholars would do well to remember Elder Maxwell's counsel: "The LDS scholar has his citizenship in the Kingdom, but carries his passport into the professional world—not the other way around."  

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