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.

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