Wheat and Tares Apologetics: A Case Study

In a previous post I provided a general description of one kind of apologetics that, in my opinion, is not fit for an academic institution or even for discussions aiming to debate ideas or intellectual positions. In this post I would like to revisit the notion of Wheat and Tares Apologetics by looking at a specific case: Bill Hamblins’ (BH) exchange with David Bokovoy (DB).

My thesis is quite simple: Wheat and tares apologetics is not an appropriate form of discourse for intellectual debate because its primary purpose is to delegitimate some person or group as a reliable source of Mormonism (in this case) over and above engaging their ideas. In other words, wheat and tares apologetics is focused first and foremost on boundary maintenance—on establishing the authority of the apologist as a gatekeeper or protector of orthodoxy while dismantling the authority of those who disagree with the apologist. It is more an exercise in reframing the good guys and bad guys than an exercise in debating the merits and demerits of a position. It serves to poison the metaphorical well so that the intended audience does not trust some person again.

On that note, BH is a practitioner of wheat and tares apologetics.

For some background, you might want to read BH’s posts here, here, here, here, and here.

BH’s first post is a response to a comment DB made on DB’s blog when someone asked about struggling with the historical reality of Biblical figures such as Abraham.

DB commented: Thanks, XXXXX, I’m grateful for the extremely thoughtful comment. I wish I had a good answer. I suppose one possible response to your friend’s question would be this:

Rather than approach a scriptural text as a record of the way God has literally interacted with a human being, one might read the record as a tool that assists readers to feel connected to divinity by considering what other people (meaning the text’s original author) have felt about God(s) and his/their efforts to connect with humanity.

Read this way, a sacred text might serve as a springboard for spiritual self-reliance, so that the way deity is depicted as interacting with a person (either historical or fictitious) is not nearly as relevant as the way in which that account helps its reader experience her own personal connection with the divine. That connection could in fact be the exact opposite from what the actual text presents, so that even a false understanding of divinity could actually lead a reader to greater light and knowledge.

At least that’s one possible approach.

Best,

–DB

BH took this comment, not as DB suggesting this as one of many solutions to the issue, but rather as DB’s personal solution to the problem. BH explains that, “Over on his blog, [DB] continues to explain why he thinks scripture should be de-historicized.”

Now, I want to stop here and note that BH has not necessarily crossed into wheat and tares apologetics yet. Given DB’s comment, it is certainly plausible that DB takes this as his personal view (i.e., he does not say whether he personally subscribes or rejects the view). Further, there is nothing wrong with critiquing the view (I will call it the springboard view). It is notable, though, that critiquing the springboard view can occur independently of DB holding such a view. In other words, we can debate the merits and demerits of such a view whether or not DB personally holds the view.

But here’s the key: BH does not want to stop at simply critiquing the springboard view, he wants to know whether or not DB personally believes it. Why? The only answer he provides is “If Latter-day Saints prefer this type of vague religiosity… [they should] look into the Community of Christ.” So BH has drawn the lines: If you believe in the springboard view, you are better off leaving the LDS church.

Before continuing on, let me note two problems with BH’s statement about “looking into” another church:

1)   BH has no authority to determine who is in and out of the church. The church has its own procedures for making this distinction. What business does BH have in taking up this authority?

Now, BH might say that he’s making more of a friendly suggestion (he gestures in this direction in his post “Have I misunderstood?”). This might be more equivalent to suggesting that Sis. Smith looks better in blue than red. The problem, though, is that this still assumes a certain agency over another person—that you know what’s better for them than they do. These kinds of statements, IMO, aren’t out of bounds; rather they are most appropriate in developed relationships where people are close enough to make these kinds of recommendations. The debate in question is not such a relationship. The bottom line is that there is a significant distinction between the statement “You should leave the church” and “Why do you stay?” (assuming both are made sincerely.) The former is an attempted display of power, the latter is seeking understanding.

2)   Since DB is a church employee, the stakes of answering the question are beyond what is appropriate in an exchange of ideas. The implication of answering “yes” is that DB shouldn’t have a job. Now, BH might say that if he answers “no” then it’s not a problem, or that if he really believes in the springboard position he should be honest and risk his job. But my response is that I simply do not understand why anyone would want to put another person in such a position where they might even have to choose between their intellectual position and providing for their family. This is a violation of the norms of civil dialogue, IMO.

These two problems are exacerbated when ignored on the pretense of simply being interested in “scholarship”: “It is not bullying, insulting, nor demeaning to question and debate these matters.  It’s called scholarship.”

BH continues on to goad DB to answer to him by treating the springboard view as DB’s: “[DB] is advocating is that we reject and abandon claims regarding the historicity, authenticity, accuracy and authority of scripture.” “Scripture, for [DB], does not tell us anything about God, nor about God’s dealings with mankind, nor about God’s revelations.” “Note that all that matters here, for [DB], is an individual’s personal belief and religious experience.” I could go on.

When DB doesn’t respond to the question, BH resorts to making an argument from silence: “I’ve seen nothing he’s written where he affirms the historicity of the Abraham narratives, and he explicitly rejects the historicity of the LDS Book of Abraham.” But not before stating, “But it seems disingenuous to not answer my sincere and relevant questions and then complain that I have misunderstood him.”

So here we have the battle lines drawn: the sincere apologist with only relevant questions begging for nothing but an honest answer from the obvious heretic. DB is guilty until proven innocent, disingenuous for not answering, and obviously doesn’t believe in the core tenets of Mormonism.

While BH on the one hand recognizes that DB doesn’t have to answer the question of whether he personally believes in the springboard view to debate the merits of the position (“Whether David personally believes it, or just summarized a position he personally rejects is largely irrelevant”; and if BH is serious about this he can begin here), on the other hand he continues on to request an answer:  “[DB] didn’t answer the question of whether the original answer… represents his own view.” Finally stating in his most recent post, “If the [springboard view] does not represent [DB’s] views, all he has to do is say so, and the problem of my supposed ‘misrepresentation’ is solved.  I’m still waiting.”

It’s the “I’m still waiting” that reveals much of what wheat and tares apologetics is up to. The wheat and tares apologist waits at the (self-constructed) door of orthodoxy—checking in those deemed orthodox, and turning away the apostate. Even answering “no” to BH’s question still reinforces his authority as gatekeeper at the door of orthodoxy.

And this is the problem with wheat and tares apologetics. It treats people with less dignity than they deserve; and it borrows the garb of intellectual debate to hide a discourse of raw power. Wheat and tare apologists are not interested in defending a position, they are interested in defending a kingdom; and they are the self appointed militia-knights who are ready to impale their own for the sake of that kingdom.

Of course, giving BH the benefit of the doubt we might assume that he’s unaware that he’s engaging in wheat and tares apologetics. Perhaps he does not see the claims to authority he makes. This is likely the case. Yet intentionality does not absolve one from the results of good intentions gone wrong. The consequence is that his approach is an affront to those it is used on, and not because they disagree with him on intellectual matters; rather, because it compels them to subject themselves to the apologist’s judgment of their worth in communities they care about.


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