Tuesday, July 12, 2016
Some Thoughts on Apologetics and Antiapologetics
You might think this topic has very little to do with my last post, but in my mind they are quite closely connected. Perhaps that will become more clear toward the end of this post. Let me begin by saying that for several years now I have not been a big fan of apologetics. I am also not a big fan of what I will here call antiapologetics. Most people probably refer to it is criticism, but criticism can have a lot of other applications that I find positive and useful, so I will stick with antiapologetics. What I’m talking about are those who defend Mormonism and those who attack it. I’ll try to explain why I don’t particularly care for either approach. Let me start with apologetics.
I don’t claim to be any sort of expert on apologetics. But I do see a fair sampling of it at work, and I read a bit more in various other venues. Especially since FARMS faded away and the Maxwell Institute has shifted gears into what some are calling the “new” apologetics, BYU Studies seems to be getting more submissions that could be classified as traditional apologetics. Some we reject. Some we accept, and it is then often my task to edit them. Which means I have to dig into the nitty-gritty and ask tough questions, and that’s probably where my opinions and preferences have been shaped.
The main problem I see in the apologetics enterprise is that it begins with some preset assumptions and then goes about trying to prove or at least support those assumptions. In a way, then, apologetics may be considered a classic example of begging the question.
I’m not going to give many specific examples in this post. I have friends and acquaintances who either are apologists or are devoted to those who are. I have also worked with authors who have a definite apologetic bent. I appreciate what these good folks are trying to do, but my experience has caused me to be wary of apologetics. To avoid getting personal, I want to keep things pretty theoretical here. But let me start by quoting Daniel Peterson, who described the general approach and limitations quite well. Referring to the Book of Mormon, one of the two targets Mormon apologists most frequently try to defend, he wrote:
Having argued for the antiquity of the Book of Mormon for decades and knowing many, if not most, of those who’ve been engaged in the same project over that period, I can say that I know of no serious writers on the subject who believe themselves able to “prove” it, let alone capable of proving it beyond a reasonable doubt, to the satisfaction of everyone.
Rather, we understand ourselves to be patiently engaged in amassing a cumulative case that will show the Book of Mormon is congruent with what mainstream scholarship is disclosing about the ancient Near Eastern environment from which the Jaredites, Lehites and Mulekites are said to have emerged and about the pre-Columbian American environment in which they lived out their histories. . . .
So, do believers see ancient evidence for the Book of Mormon only because they’re already committed to its antiquity on other grounds? In a sense, yes. Does that prove them guilty of pseudo-scholarship motivated solely by irrational (or, at least, nonrational) faith? No, it doesn’t.
It’s true that advocates of the Book of Mormon typically have spiritual convictions regarding it. I know none who don’t. But they also have nonarchaeological evidence for taking seriously its claim to antiquity.1
Generally, this is how Mormon apologetics works. First, the scholar has a spiritual conviction regarding the truth of a particular proposition. He or she then goes about “amassing” a body of evidence to support that conviction. I’m not saying this is bad, and I’m not saying it necessarily leads to inaccurate conclusions. Actually, it doesn’t lead to any conclusions at all, because the conclusion is where the scholar starts, not where he or she winds up. And that can cause problems, four in particular.
First, when a person begins with a conclusion, he or she tends to cherry-pick evidence, focusing on only that data that supports the conclusion. This often creates one-sided scholarship that is, in many ways, blind to data that may not support the conclusion. I see this in my work as an editor. When you ignore contrary evidence, you tend to develop a certain blindness to questions that would naturally arise from a more complete data set.
Second, and I see this all too often, a person trying to support a particular conclusion tends to make leaps of logic and to stretch evidence beyond where it will comfortably go. Sometimes this leads to producing an abstruse or arduous explanation while discarding the obvious or straightforward one. Most often this comes across as simply trying too hard. Rather than going with the most simple reading of the evidence, the scholar will employ some rather impressive mental or verbal gymnastics to make the evidence fit the already established conclusion, or to at least make it appear that the evidence suggests the conclusion. Proponents of pretty much every Book of Mormon geography model are guilty of this, to give a general example. I could tell some pretty good stories here, but I’ll refrain for the reasons given above.
Third, apologists sometimes read meaning into texts that simply aren’t there. This is called eisegesis. It is the opposite of exegesis. Let me quote from that fount of knowledge, Wikipedia: “While exegesis is the process of drawing out the meaning from a text in accordance with the context and discoverable meaning of its author, eisegesis occurs when a reader imposes his or her interpretation into and onto the text. As a result, exegesis tends to be objective when employed effectively while eisegesis is regarded as highly subjective.” Let me use an example I wrote about in the long series on authority I posted last year. As Mormons, we tend to read our modern definition of “priesthood” into both the Bible and the Book of Mormon. We claim, for instance, that Alma received the priesthood by ordination (from someone) before he baptized his followers in the waters of Mormon. We read this into the account because, according to our modern understanding of priesthood, this is how is simply had to happen. But our modern definition of priesthood is entirely absent from the Book of Mormon. Priesthood in ancient scripture, including the Book of Mormon, signifies merely the condition of being a priest. It is not a form of authority you can give or receive or hold. So any notion of Alma “receiving the priesthood” is being read into the text. Apologetics tends to fall into this pattern because of the need to make a text conform to a preconceived idea.
Finally, the project of apologetics is to defend a proposition or a person. But what if defending a proposition or a person prevents you from finding and then defending the truth. Sometimes life is not so black and white as the apologist wishes it to be. In fact, both real life and real people are incredibly complex. Prophets are especially complicated. They are notoriously inconsistent and error-prone and sometimes don’t have perfectly pure motives. And that fact opens a can of worms. A major flaw I see in most Mormon apologetics is that it begins with the assumption that Joseph Smith was infallible. Now, of course, no apologist is going to admit that if you phrase it that way. We all believe that our prophets are fallible mortals. That is our unwritten fourteenth article of faith. But when it comes to Joseph Smith, the apologetics enterprise is devoted to amassing evidence that everything he did or said makes sense if you look at it through a particular lens. Seriously, have you ever seen an apologist take all the evidence available and come to the conclusion that Joseph Smith was simply way off base on a particular doctrine or claim? Of course not. They can’t allow that. Why? Because that may require us to make space for human frailty and inconsistency in any number of other areas. And that is a slippery slope they simply cannot start down. So they end up defending a person or a proposition in toto, even though the truth may at times be a casualty in that effort.
I don’t know exactly when I made this transition, but sometime during the past fifteen years, I found that my loyalty gradually shifted from Joseph Smith and the church he founded to the truth. I determined at some point that it wasn’t my job to defend Joseph or the Book of Mormon or the Church. It was my job to find the truth and defend that, let the chips fall where they may. That shift in thinking opened up some avenues that were previously closed. At that point, many more possibilities were available to my mind than before. It enabled me to start considering evidence I had previously closed my mind to. Quite often the evidence creates inner turmoil for me. But I am able to look at things more objectively (even though I realize that total objectivity is a myth). And it has reversed the process for me. Instead of beginning with a conclusion and amassing evidence to support it, I am looking at the evidence, even information that may be uncomfortable, and asking what conclusions the sum of that evidence points to. Sometimes the evidence merely points to incredible complexity and no easy answer. Such is life.
Now, let me briefly tackle antiapologetics. Obviously, those who are trying to prove Mormonism or Joseph Smith wrong are going to fall into some of the same traps that those who defend it are susceptible to. They tend to have predetermined conclusions and to focus only on evidence that supports these conclusions. They are especially resistant to considering any evidence that might be considered subjective, such as spiritual experiences or confirmations. It’s probably unheard of for an antiapologist to claim to have received a spiritual witness that Mormonism isn’t true. From my perspective, they don’t tend to stretch evidence and engage in verbal gymnastics to prove their point, but they are sometimes so myopically focused on proving Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon wrong that they ignore the complexity of people and motives, and sometimes the truth gets shortchanged. They are just as lopsided in their approach as the apologists, which likely blinds them to possibilities that would become apparent if they were able to fairly consider all the evidence.
So, how does my take on apologetics and its opposite intersect with my last post, about the difficulty of deciphering spiritual communication? Well, since a spiritual confirmation of an otherwise unprovable proposition, such as the historical accuracy of the Book of Mormon, is quite subjective and, I would suggest, not always easy to interpret, the question arises about how much we should trust a spiritual feeling about something and how much we should trust the observable evidence.
I mentioned in my last post my essay that Dialogue published several years ago. It detailed a very powerful spiritual experience regarding Joseph Smith that I had as a missionary. At the time it occurred and at the time I wrote the essay many years later, I interpreted the experience very broadly. But in the past few years I’ve become acquainted with a truckload of evidence that makes a broad interpretation highly unlikely, if not impossible. The inevitable conclusion after looking at all the evidence I have so far accumulated, including the spiritual feeling I had all those years ago, is that the truth is a lot more complicated than either an acceptance of everything (meaning Joseph was infallible) or a rejection of everything (meaning Joseph was a fraud) will permit. But such a complex and uncertain conclusion is unacceptable in the world of subjective certainty that drives most traditional apologetics. It is also unacceptable to the antiapologists, who are certain that Joseph was deluded, or worse.
And this brings me to my actual dilemma: the Book of Mormon. Now, I don’t claim to be a Book of Mormon scholar. I have published a bit about certain textual elements in the Book of Mormon and what they might mean. And as part of my job I also proofread the entire 1,281 pages of Royal Skousen’s recently published analysis of grammatical variation in the Book of Mormon. Royal claimed that made me one of three people in the world to have accomplished that feat. I am currently reading the Book of Mormon for the umpteenth time, but with a much more careful eye than in the past. I’m finding some interesting and unexpected things. I’ve also read a few books by others who have tried to figure out what’s going on with both the contents of the book and the translation. I agree with some of their conclusions and disagree with others. So far, I can only say that the Book of Mormon is a very complicated book, probably more complicated than either the apologists or the antiapologists are willing to admit.
My own relationship with the Book of Mormon is somewhat unusual and, as you might expect, complicated. I’ve always liked the book, although parts of it have raised questions in my mind, but despite Moroni’s famous promise, I have never received a spiritual witness of its truthfulness. This is certainly not for lack of effort. I have been praying about the Book of Mormon for over forty years. Not constantly, mind you, but repeatedly. And what has been the result? Nothing. Not even a warm feeling, which I wouldn’t give much credence to anyway at this point. So in the past couple of years, I have changed my prayers. I no longer ask if the book is true. I don’t even ask “if these things are not true” (Moro. 10:4). True is such a loaded word. It can mean all sorts of things. I’ve read fiction that is definitely “true.” So I have made my petitions much more specific. I now ask if the Book of Mormon is an accurate record of real people. Still no answer. Complete and perfect silence. No heavenly manifestation. No spiritual feeling of confirmation.
I don’t have the convenience of “knowing” by a feeling in my heart that the book is “true,” so I am left with other forms of evidence. In the coming months, I will be talking about some of that evidence. And I am open to looking at both sides of every question. Let me just say at this point that I have no reason to doubt either the firsthand historical accounts by Joseph Smith and his associates who claim to have received or viewed gold plates or the secondhand accounts of those who observed the translation process. But I also have no reason to doubt that there are things in the Book of Mormon that, frankly, have no business being in the book if it is what it claims to be. That has led me to describe the Book of Mormon as a million-piece jigsaw puzzle, and we don’t seem to have very many of the pieces in the right place yet. And that’s part of the fun—unless you’re either so convinced that it’s a hoax that you can’t entertain any evidence that supports it or you’re so persuaded it is an ancient record that you have to spend your time trying to explain away fairly obvious trouble spots rather than seeking to understand what those inconsistencies may be telling us. Personally, I hope to remain open to all the evidence and then draw conclusions. Just as I see no reason to discard the accounts of Joseph Smith and his early associates, I also see no reason to simply dismiss valid points raised by Book of Mormon critics, or to explain them away with convoluted arguments.
The question I’m trying to answer is, What is this book? There is so much evidence to look at—and so much that seems contradictory—that I am certain I won’t be able to answer this question anytime soon. But that won’t stop me from presenting some of the evidence and trying to deal with it fairly. More to come.
__________________1. Daniel Peterson, “Book of Mormon Apologetics and Scholarship,” Deseret News, June 16, 2015, http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865632671/Book-of-Mormon-apologetics-and-scholarship.html?pg=all.