Apologetics in the Academy

In line with Daniel Peterson’s recent comments, I see significant points of congruence between apologetics and religious studies. I also see no reason why the same institution cannot pursue both endeavors—particularly a private religious institution such as BYU. I do think, however, that much of the apologetics advocated by Peterson is better off done at another venue (congratulations to those involved with the new Interpreter project). At the same time, a more appropriate kind of apologetics can (and should) remain at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute.

In this post I’d like to articulate a significant overlap between religious studies and apologetics. This overlap creates a shared space where apologetic efforts can be seen as appropriate or inappropriate for academic institutions such as NAMI.

 

Religious Studies and Apologetics on “The Bracket”

The notion of bracketing in religious studies can be explained a number of ways. Many scholars that advocate such an approach argue that the scholar of religious studies should set aside those issues that lay beyond his or her ability to clearly answer. If someone studies Buddhism, for instance, he or she might bracket the question of whether or not reincarnation is real. This approach to the study of religion came about, in many respects, as a reaction to earlier attempts that approached religion in purely naturalistic terms (think of scholars such as E.B. Tylor). As such, bracketing can be a more sympathetic approach to religion because it preserves the possibility of a religious tradition’s ultimate claims of truth. Of course, this is not as simple as it sounds. Bracketing can lead to a staunch agnosticism rather than a sympathetic openness.

Taking the notion of bracketing in these general terms allows us to see that apologetics also advocates a similar bracket. Look at the Austin Farrer quote, the unofficial motto of FARMS, for instance:

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.

Farrer is a bracketer (and so is Peterson). Rational argument does not create belief; or, following Peterson, “it is impossible, using empirical methods, to prove the divine.” In his comments at the recent FAIR conference, Peterson goes on to explain that apologetic arguments create space for the exercise of faith: “It’s the duty of the apologist, in that sense, to clear the ground in order to make it possible for the seed to grow.”

In these views, the act of apologetics is to defend the possible truthfulness of one’s beliefs in the divine. It is not to prove the existence of the divine or to prove those truth claims that require faith. Apologetics and religious studies can be seen as both bracketing those truth claims that cannot be proven by empirical methods.

Appropriate and Inappropriate Apologetics in the Academy (with an eye toward NAMI)

Apologetics remains appropriate for religious studies (and for places such as NAMI looking to participate in religious studies) in as much as it defends the possibility of truth claims that lay beyond empirical methods to verify. This might include exploring various theories of the Buddhist doctrine of “no-self,” Hindu notions of reincarnation, and explanations of the atonement of Christ.

Apologetics inappropriate for religious studies are those attempts to defend truth claims clearly within the range of reason. Coincidentally, many of the examples Peterson cites in his recent presentation fall within this category. These include rebuttals to claims such as “Oliver Cowdery denied his testimony or Joseph Smith’s introduction of polygamy shows him to be a man of poor character or Mormonism is racist.” Assuming that interlocutors could come to agreement on terms such as “deny,” “poor character,” and “racist” there is no reason why these claims could not be answered in the context of their conversation.

Apologetics that begin with a preconceived answer to a question that clearly lies within our ability to answer is not an appropriate part of religious studies. This isn’t to say that questions such as “Is Mormonism racist?” or “Did Oliver Cowdery deny his testimony?” do not belong in the academy; or that accusations such as “Mormonism is racist” should not be responded to in the academy. They should be explored and responded to. However, scholars of religious studies should not guarantee an answer before looking at the evidence; and this, in my opinion, is where some advocates of apologetics go wrong in arguing for the place of apologetics in religious studies and at institutions such as NAMI.

  • meekmildmagnificent

    I believe that the view expressed is naive and ultimately self-defeating. Here is why: take the kind of work that FARMS and FAIR has regularly done to shore up the historicity of the Book of Mormon. The argument departs from the view that it is just possible that angels delivered ancient plates to Joseph Smith which he translated by the gift and power of God. The beginning assumption is contrary to the broad naturalism assumed in the academy as a necessary starting point of discussion. To bracket this assumption won’t work because what must be bracketed logically leads to the conclusion — if angels cannot deliver plates to anyone, then even attempting to show that the Book of Mormon is ancient cannot be taken seriously. That is why non-Mormon scholars never begin from that assumption and never make arguments to show that it could be true. They may tell a tale from the perspective of the one who believed while never addressing the veridicality of the beliefs but that isn’t to discuss the beliefs and whether they could be true as a defense of faith must. It is just to ignore the issue altogether.

    Take the view that Jesus could resurrect from from the dead. One cannot accept this possibility in a bracketed discussion. Thus, what the disciples are said to have experienced in the text (putting aside issues of historical reliability of the text) must be ignored in favor an explanation that doesn’t require the rejection of the very naturalism that underlies the bracketing. What you mean by “defend the truth claims … within the range of reason” excludes the very faith it seeks to defend because “the range of reason” means that one cannot accept such contra-naturalistic possibilities to begin with.

    I am a believer and favor defenses of faith (I prefer that term to “apologetics” which is a significant pejorative for a lot of folks). However, I don’t believe that bracketing is reasonable. I think that stating one’s faith commitments up front and one’s biases and assumptions to the extent one is aware of them is the best way to address these issues.

    You seem to assert that the distinction between apologetics and RS is that “apologetics” is based on faith without regard to evidence because the issue is decided regardless of the evidence (because logically prior to evidence and decided “with a preconceived answer” before the evidence is considered — and when is the evidence ever all in?). You seem to believe (or assume without arguement) that RS is based on the evidence alone and decided based on evidence rather than some prior faith commitment. However, that shows the very bias that is the problem. Those who provide a defense of faith likely always have come to a position that is based on interaction with all kinds of evidence. They are simply arguing for the view that they arrive at based on the evidence from the perspective of one viewing the evidence while already a member of a faith community. Everyone who belongs to a school of thought or has a world view does the same — and that is everyone. Everyone brings themselves to the evidence based on prior beliefs and experiences; not just “apologists”. The distinction that you want to make between RS and “apologetics” therefore collpases in my view.

  • mogget

    Take the view that Jesus could resurrect from from the dead. One cannot accept this possibility in a bracketed discussion.

    Give me some examples from your experience with the secondary literature in this matter. Author and title will be fine, as I can pull them up here.

    Mogs

  • meekmildmagnificent

    moggett: Exactly why I should have to do a research paper for you is beyond me. Your request is beyond unreasonable. However, this link and related blogposts gives all kinds of links to books, articles and one opinion as a NT scholar for starters saying why belief in resurrection is verboten: http://forbiddengospels.blogspot.com/2009/09/never-ending-confusion-about.html

    or this one: http://www.bibleinterp.com/opeds/mad357927.shtml

    or this one: http://www.bibleinterp.com/opeds/mad357927.shtml

    or here: http://forbiddengospels.blogspot.com/2009/04/creating-jesus-3-we-must-say-no-to.html

  • smallaxe

    Hi meekmildmagnificent,
    I’m afraid you don’t really understand how bracketing might work in the case of the BoM. Bracketing a divine origin of the text doesn’t mean excluding claims of divine origin, or even begining from a naturalistic position. It means remaining open to the possibility that the book could in fact be divine, or not excluding a divine origin. Grant Hardy’s recent book is a good example this. While people can quibble the degree to which his bracketing is successful, it’s certainly successful enough to be published by a large non-Mormon press (Oxford), vetted by its non-Mormon editor, and accepted by the external readers of the manuscript. There’s no reason why non-Mormons couldn’t produce similar work. Non-Hindus having been doing so for years with texts such as the Bhagavad Gita.

    What you mean by “defend the truth claims … within the range of reason” excludes the very faith it seeks to defend because “the range of reason” means that one cannot accept such contra-naturalistic possibilities to begin with.

    The “range of reason” means recognizing the limits of reason. Reason cannot prove or disprove the existence of God, or the ressurection of Jesus. Are you advocating a kind of defense of faith that somehow can?

    You seem to assert that the distinction between apologetics and RS is that “apologetics” is based on faith without regard to evidence because the issue is decided regardless of the evidence

    Not quite. I believe that an apologetics inappropriate for an academic institution such as NAMI is one that presumes a position it must defend before the evidence is examined. It may be appropriate, however, for other venues.

    You seem to believe (or assume without arguement) that RS is based on the evidence alone and decided based on evidence rather than some prior faith commitment.

    Not at all. I’m with you on this as far as I can tell.

    Everyone who belongs to a school of thought or has a world view does the same — and that is everyone. Everyone brings themselves to the evidence based on prior beliefs and experiences; not just “apologists”. The distinction that you want to make between RS and “apologetics” therefore collpases in my view.

    I was with you until the last sentence. The distinction between appropriate and inappropriate apologetics as far as religious studies is concerned, is that appropriate apologetics, as you say, involves recognizing one’s biases and assumptions, and (I add) is open to being proven otherwise when the evidence is persuasive. If the very issue under discussion is “Mormonism is racist,” and I begin from the premise that Mormonism is not racist, then I fail to meet the second criteria. If this is too much to ask of some defenders of the faith, that’s fine. It’s just that that kind of apologetics belongs somewhere else.

  • meekmildmagnificent

    smallaxe: I think that I understand your position better. Thank you. However, I’m pretty sure that your example of bracketing fails (unless this is just what you mean by bracketing). Hardy does not bracket but often treats the BofM text specifically from the believer’s standpoint assuming historicity and then from the viewpoint that it is just a 19th century document. He leaves open both possibilities to address the faith assumptions of two distinct audiences. Contrast that with Brant Gardner’s treatment which argues for historicity and assumes the possibility of the supra-natural. However, both of these are not bracketing but expressly non-bracketing by expressly addressing the text from the perspective of the historical-critical assumptions that control reading the text given the historico-critical method. It is also how Givens did it, who expressly addressed the flap over historicity and weighed in on his view of it. I have no objection to this approach.

    However, that is not how I see others doing RS. They just ignore the question altogether and address it by saying something like — “well, this is how I think those who experienced it saw it,” (as Bushman does) or “the issue of the truth of what was experienced must remain neutral and always unaddressed (as the Ostlings and Jan Shipps addressed it). However, I believe that he much more common approach is precisely the one outline by April DeConick here: http://forbiddengospels.blogspot.com/2009/04/creating-jesus-2-ground-rules.html The question is whether DeConick is correct.

  • mogget

    Exactly why I should have to do a research paper for you is beyond me. Your request is beyond unreasonable.

    If I had indeed asked you for a research paper, that would be unreasonable. However, I did not. I merely asked you a question to try to determine what experience you have had with the way discussion of the resurrection is handled — bracketed or otherwise.

    If the limit of your experience is those web sites or similar sources, you might, at some point, want to take a look at E. P. Sanders, The Quest for Historical Jesus and some of the work of John Meiers in the Marginal Jews series. In the latter case, the first volume contains the fullest explanation of methodology. However, in both books you can find explicit methodological processes and assumptions which will help fill in your understanding of the diversity of approaches to these questions.

    Mogs

  • meekmildmagnificent

    mogget: You are indeed presumptuous — at least in this particular blog post. First, to provide books and sources is not something I have a duty to do. However, if I had to I would have preferred Geza Vermes and his studies of the the Jewish Jesus, Witherington and his series on Jesus, Jacob Kremer, an Austrian specialist in the resurrection, Die Osterevangelien–Geschichten um Geschichte (Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1977); though I also like Sanders who I have read not only on Jesus but his marvelous work in connection with New Perspective on Paul

  • smallaxe

    meekmildmagnificent,

    I don’t know Gardner’s book well enough to speak about it, but as for Hardy, I think this may come down to “quibbling over how successful he is.” Here’s what he has to say on page xvi:

    “Someone, somewhere, made choices about how the narrative of the Book of Mormon was to be constructed. We can look closely at the text–how it is arranged, how it uses language, how it portrays itself, how it conveys its main points–without worrying too much about whether the mind ultimately responsible for such decisions was that of Mormon or Joseph Smith. So I propose backeting, at least temporarily, questions of historicity in favor of a detailed examination of what the Book of Mormon is and how it operates. In the chapters that follow I will outline the major features of the book and illustrate some of the literary strategies employed by the narrators. It does not matter much to my approach whether these narrators were actual historical figures or whether they were fictional characters created by Joseph Smith; their role in the narrative is the same in either case.”

    This doesn’t sound like playing both sides of the argument; although he does do that to a certain degree, and, like you, I don’t have a problem with it.

    As far as other approaches to RS, this idea of a bracket can become a kind of firm agnosticism; and certain phenomenological approaches tend in this direction. My larger point is that religious studies is a broad field; and it’s broad enough to overlap with certain apologetic efforts. Some will cry “foul” when Hardy or even Bushman write as they do, but the fact that their work is published in venues vetted by non-Mormon scholars in religious studies at least means that there are (I would say rather large) portions of the field that see a more sympathetic approach to the material as appropriate for the field. Lastly, a private religious institution such as BYU is rather free to approach religion as it sees fit. If, however, it wants to be part of the field of religious studies, it must play by (some of) the rules of the game. If apologetics is to be done there, my point is simply that there are ways of doing apologetics that are also seen as a legitimate part of the field of religious studies.

  • Clark

    Some will cry “foul” when Hardy or even Bushman write as they do, but the fact that their work is published in venues vetted by non-Mormon scholars in religious studies at least means that there are (I would say rather large) portions of the field that see a more sympathetic approach to the material as appropriate for the field.

    I think this is an important point. While Bushman got some notable bad reviews which I think ended up being about his bracketing methods rather than adopting a naturalistic position the fact is that the very publication was a hugely important point of acceptance.

    I also think that many Mormons have an unfortunate view of how the outside world does religious studies presuming that everything comes from a skeptical naturalistic point of view. My experience is that while there are definitely people in that camp I’m not even sure they are the majority. (Which isn’t to say they necessarily accept the religious claims – just that they write without engaging such issues)

  • Clark

    BTW – SmallAxe, you should check out Brant’s book on the BoM translation. I think it takes a very defensible middle ground between the various positions.

  • SmallAxe

    Thanks, Clark. I’ve been meaning to get to it for a while. I’ll have to bump it up in my reading list.

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