Apologetics Again—But This Time with Feeling

Violent, sudden, and calamitous revolutions are the ones that accomplish the least. While they may succeed at radically reordering societies, they usually cannot transform cultures. They may excel at destroying the past, but they are generally impotent to create a future. The revolutions that genuinely alter human reality at the deepest levels—the only real revolutions, that is to say—are those that first convert minds and wills, that reshape the imagination and reorient desire, that overthrow tyrannies within the soul. — David Bentley Hart

The conversation about apologetics in Mormonism, which was rather animated for a time there, has died down again. Unfortunately, I don’t think that conversation yielded nearly as much fruit as it ought to have done, and some recent events in what I might call my personal life have convinced me that the question of apologetics is far more important than I’d recognized myself. I return to the question, then, perhaps without any ready audience. (I’ll note in advance that I’m limiting my discussion here to the Mormonism of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, mostly because I’m just not knowledgeable enough about other Mormonisms to say anything not obviously ignorant about their situations.)

Mormonism, at least as it exists in the United States, can’t escape the fact that it needs to be explained—or even defended. There is still too much ignorance, too many misconceptions, too many misrepresentations, too much unwarranted prejudice (this last mixed with a fair bit of warranted prejudice, perhaps). All seem to recognize that, and this situation calls for a certain apologetic response. However much most folks in Mormon studies express disdain for what’s now being called “traditional apologetics,” there’s no mistaking that some form of apologetics is at work in most everything students of Mormonism have to say. And that’s something most are willing to admit, at least in candid moments. But that’s not the sort of apologetics I want to talk about. At least not yet. I’m interested here in something more emphatically defensive—perhaps even polemical. I’m interested here in the status and stakes of what too many seem ready to dismiss with a wave of the hand and the application of the label “traditional.” The word is meant to suggest a certain no-longer-necessary orientation to Mormonism’s enemies, a certain defensiveness born out of the now-inappropriate feeling that something more than tolerance or respect or even academic interest is worth fighting for. I don’t think there’s any denying that the terrain has changed in many ways. At the same time, I think there’s something decidedly one-sided about such hand-waving.

The fact is that the Mormon situation is heavily determined—over-determined, perhaps—by apologetic concerns. It’s not just that there are misunderstandings or even outright misrepresentations from without that need responding to. It’s also, and perhaps more importantly, that there’s a certain irrepressible demand from within that certain claims or positions be defended. It’s not enough, then, to say that the terrain has changed outside the Church, and so that apologetics is no longer needful; there’s something inside the Church that still makes apologetics crucial. This something might be understood in epistemic terms. Among the assumed criteria of justified true belief for most Latter-day Saints is a certain intellectual defendability. That, I think, is just a fact. The “-ability” of “defendability” is important here. It’s not that any one person actually has to defend Mormonism’s faith claims, but just that it must be possible for those faith claims to be defended. A kind of outsourcing results: there’s presumed to be, at any given moment, a group of inspired leaders and/or well-trained scholars out there who know the answers to difficult questions—and the sheer existence of those leaders and/or scholars (even if one doesn’t know their names) is enough to satisfy the criterion of intellectual defendability for most Latter-day Saints most of the time. But reminders of the existence of such leaders and/or scholars are extremely comforting to Latter-day Saints, and giving such reminders serves at the practical level as a way of marking one’s own trustworthiness. (One can raise all kinds of thorny questions in a Sunday School classroom so long as one has first made clear one’s awareness of and commitment to the answers that can be given to criticisms of the Church.)

There’s thus, I think, a deeply felt need for at least the presumed existence of an apologetic program within Mormonism. And making clear one’s own commitment to that existence is itself a matter of a certain orthopraxy. I don’t know that there’s any way around the apologetic imperative in Mormonism without a major epistemological transformation. The very nature of what we (unreflectively) regard as epistemic justification would have to change for apologetics in a strong sense simply to become irrelevant or unneeded. Apologetics is necessary to the life of the Church, at least for the foreseeable future. So what can we say about the shape apologetics ought to take?

The crisis into which Mormon apologetics has fallen in the past few years has been, I think, profoundly misunderstood in the Mormon academic community. (Let there be no mistake that there has been such a crisis. The fact that apologists have spent as much time as they have defending the apologetic enterprise and raising worries about non-apologetic forms of Mormon studies is evidence enough of a crisis.) The usual interpretation of the crisis is something like the following: “Apologetics (at least of a certain sort) has become more or less unnecessary. We’re no long an embattled minority, and there are scholars and laypersons interested in Mormonism for innocent—if not noble!—reasons. The task at present isn’t to defend, but simply to explain, or, more complexly, to begin to see the richness of Mormon history, beliefs, practices, and so on.” There’s some truth there, I think, but it’s greatly muddled, and it misses everything most essential. The crisis isn’t at all about changes external to the Church.

What has apologetics been for the past several decades, during the height of its influence and—if it isn’t inappropriate to use this word—its power? Beginning in the early 1980s, apologetics has been first and foremost an effort to argue about what does and doesn’t exist, an effort to establish the actual presence in the world at determinate times of certain entities. That might sound a bit abstract, but all I’ve got in mind is the fact that apologists have dedicated themselves to defending things like the historicity of the Book of Mormon, where that historicity is taken to entail the existence in ancient America of certain peoples and events (Nephites, Lamanites, and all their doings), or the presence in nineteenth-century America of certain objects and encounters (gold plates, angelic visits, and the like). It’s too often said that such apologetic activity aimed at proof, but that’s not quite right—as apologists themselves are quick to point out. Apologetic demonstrations have followed the classically scientific model of confirmation by observation: “If the Book of Mormon is true (i.e., historical), the bare possibility of a certain determinate set of things happening in the ancient world should be showable, and the bare possibility of another determinate set of things happening in the nineteenth century should be showable. Such bare possibility can be shown. Therefore, it’s not unlikely—with every demonstration it’s more likely—that the hypothesis (namely, that the Book of Mormon is historical) is true.” That’s good logic, inductive though it might be, aimed at establishing probability rather than definite truth. Of course, there’s a certain sleight of hand—a brilliant sleight of hand, frankly—at work in this gesture. Because the hypothesis is a claim about actuality that is taken to entail claims about possibility (if the Book of Mormon is historical, the events it describes must be possible), the mere demonstration of possibility (undertaken as a kind of battle against impossibility) serves to lend greater and greater credence to actuality. That’s a bit strange, but it’s brilliant.

It’s brilliant, yes, but I think its time has passed. And in certain ways, it never should have happened in the first place. Its time has passed in that readers of apologetics have largely become suspicious. I don’t think too many readers have quite sorted out what bothers them about the apologetic gesture, but they’re bothered. Frankly, it’s entirely possible—likely even—that many of the apologists’ critics are more than a little obscenely self-satisfied, a little too sure about their own understanding, whether of the ancient world or of nineteenth-century history. And it’s not hard to see that a fair number of them begin from a commitment to pluralism that’s not without its own problems, and that it’s that that makes them skeptical about the entire apologetic enterprise. Such shortcomings on the part of the critics are lamentable, but they’re hardly to be overcome through the presentation of still more of the sort of apologetic work that’s been done. As I say, the time of that sort of apologetics has passed. But as I also say, in certain ways, that sort of apologetics never should have happened in the first place. That’s my more audacious claim, and it’s one that needs defending. What I want to suggest is that there’s a very serious problem with the project of arguing about what does and doesn’t exist, about attempting to establish the actual presence in the world at determinate times of certain entities—as I put it above. The problem is that Mormonism itself is misunderstood if it’s taken to imply simply that certain things exist or have existed, or that certain things take or have taken place. Mormonism is a great deal more audacious than that. It claims not (only) that certain things have existed or happened, but also and more importantly that we’ve entirely misunderstood the very order of things. That’s the point that needs defending.

Let me see if I can’t say this as simply and clearly as possible: The task of apologetics isn’t to establish the possibility (and therefore ever-increased probability of the actuality) of certain undemonstrable claims about the things that populate the universe; the task of apologetics is to make clearer and clearer that what’s to be defended calls for a radically transformed understanding of how the universe organizes itself. It’s not about what’s in the world, but about what the world is, that’s at stake. The danger, then, at work in so-called “traditional” Mormon apologetics is that it strains at gnats and swallows camels, conceding the basic framing of the world assumed in modernism and secularism while contesting just whether certain persons or events should be regarded as among the persons and events making up history. The cosmic war has been abandoned in order to focus all efforts on just a few battles—or perhaps a few mere skirmishes. To put it a bit provocatively: it’s too easy to demonstrate the possibility (and therefore, perhaps, the probability) that Lehi’s family as portrayed in First Nephi traveled through ancient Arabia; it’s much, much more difficult to clarify why the story that’s told in First Nephi radically contests all of our deepest convictions and presuppositions about the world. And that’s what deserves the most rigorous efforts of Latter-day Saints. A certain apologetic effort is necessary, but one dedicated less to quibbling over the existence of steel in the ancient world than to demonstrating the force of what the Book of Mormon claims about the nature of history. We’re ready—far too ready—to secure the historicity of the Book of Mormon in such a way that the world will remain more or less as it is, when our task is to get clear about and then to make as public as possible how the Book of Mormon questions our very conception of history. If we secure the historicity of the Book of Mormon entirely within the terms of a conception of history that the book itself contests, we’ll have gained the whole world but lost our souls.

Now, to be clear, apologetics as it’s been done for the past several decades isn’t entirely averse to the sort of thing I’m trying to talk about here. Indeed, the most charitable reading is to assume that a strategy like the following has been behind the world of the apologists: If we can just get people to take the Book of Mormon seriously enough on their own (fundamentally secular) grounds, then they’ll read it seriously and therefore begin to see its message concerning the nature of the world. If that’s the strategy, I’ll confess that I’m sympathetic, but I’m also deeply skeptical that such a strategy could work. Because the “traditional” apologetic approach is to establish probability, its work will never come to an end, and I suspect we’ll merely have postponed the task of getting the Book of Mormon’s message out into the open indefinitely.

The crisis into which Mormon apologetics has fallen should thus be understood in a radically different way than we’ve understood it. It’s not just that it’s not being regarded charitably enough, nor is it just that a younger generation of secular sell-outs have given up on demonstrating the truth of Mormonism. Those things are probably true, but they’re small potatoes. It’s much more crucial to see that a kind of general sense of the inadequacy of a certain approach to apologetics has developed. It’s come to be recognized that what apologetics has for far too long taken to be the “truth” of Mormonism isn’t nearly robust enough. It’s come to be recognized that what apologetics has defended as its insistence on transcendence and the supernatural remains just as trapped within the secular as any other intellectual program. It’s come to be recognized that the apologists, for all their study of history and scripture, aren’t giving us to see the real richness and force of what’s on offer in history and scripture. Now note: This isn’t to claim that “richness is the new proof”; frankly, it’s to claim just that there’s something anemic about the Mormonism that “traditional” apologetics has attempted to outline. The sort of Mormonism that can be defended on entirely secular grounds (even if what’s thereby established as possible might harbor within itself something extra-secular) is a Mormonism that just doesn’t say much. If the Book of Mormon only gives us a secularly traceable history of the ancient Americas (derivatively lending credence to Joseph Smith as a prophet); if the Book of Abraham only gives us a secularly correct interpretation of a few Egyptian documents (derivatively lending credence to Joseph Smith’s wildly speculative Nauvoo theology); if the history of the Church only gives us a secularly defensible picture of institutional doings (derivatively lending credence to the idea that God could support such an institution)—if that’s all we’re to get from the things that need defending in Mormonism, I’m not sure what we’re fighting for. What if the Book of Mormon also outlines a radical revision of Christianity in light of ancient covenants? What if the Book of Abraham also contests the rigidity of our interpretations of biblical texts by giving license to speculative theology? What if the history of the Church also gives us to understand the constant struggle of God with incredibly fallible human beings? I suspect that these sorts of things are the whole point, and one we’ve too often entirely overlooked.

Jim Faulconer often asks why we insist on letting the devil have all the good words. Latter-day Saints would do well not to let the devil have this word: apologetics. When it’s done well, it serves as a radical gesture, a bit of militant revolutionary work. Latter-day Saints, if they’re to believe their founding prophet, are invested and involved in a revolution. Joseph Smith claimed to lay a foundation that would revolutionize the world. Apologetics must become a tool in that work of revolution, if it’s to survive.

And I hope it does survive.

  • Abu_Casey

    I love this idea, but I have no idea what to do with it–as least partially because I’m not comfortable (yet?) with an apologetics whose purpose is to discomfit us. I actually just finished reading your essay in “Reading Nephi Reading Isaiah”, which strikes me as connected to your idea of apologetics (please correct me if I’m wrong). You argue there for a Nephi who has seen the Europeans as Gentiles and their entanglement with Jews; Nephi sees his book and the gospel as collapsing their conflict into irrelevance. If that’s so, it’s both a radical reading of Nephi and Isaiah, even as it’s really familiar.

    On one hand, that kind of reading reminds me of the kind of stuff you’ll find in “Mormon Doctrine”‘s section on “Signs of the Times” as well as Mark E. Petersen’s reading of Nephi’s vision in his book “The Great Prologue”–an approach to scripture which I’ve become skeptical of. On the other hand, for them, the gospel is crucial, but they aren’t doing it to show how radical the gospel is. Their visions is concerned with eschatology and covenant, but it lacks, I think, the radicalism you’re espousing, although I can’t quite specify how.

    To come back to my initial point: if we’re going to show how radical Mormonism is, how are we going to do it if the whole enterprise makes us uncomfortable? (Which I think is inherent in what you’re saying).

    An easy question to wrap up: You state that there are authors you think are already doing this kind of work. Would you care to name names? I’d love to add them to my reading list.

  • William Hamblin

    For some reason I always thought the purpose of the Book of Mormon was to convince “the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations” not to provide a new epistemic conception of the cosmos. If the resurrected Jesus did not appear to real Nephites in the New World, it seems to me that the substantive value of the Book of Mormon is at about the same level as Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur. A wonderful moving story, but not one that can provide an epistemic revolution. In other words, only an authentic, historical Book of Mormon could possibly provide the epistemic transformation you discuss. (I’ll pass over your misconceptions of the purpose of apologetics.)

    • Herkermer

      I think you misunderstand the point. He’s not saying we should abandon the historicity of the Book of Mormon in favor of defending more generalized values and philosophies. Instead, he’s saying that we should stop quibbling over the location of the narrow neck of land and whether there were horses (or llamas or tapirs?) and steel (or is it “iron” mistranslated?) and so forth, and instead start defending the version of reality that the Book of Mormon (and Mormonism more broadly) portrays.

      For instance, as you’ve pointed out, the Book of Mormon declares that Jesus manifests himself to all nations. That has some radical implications that would shake the foundations of nearly every world religion if taken seriously.

      Or consider that the Book of Mormon declares that God’s divine power would immediately dissipate if God were to violate eternal principles of righteousness (Alma 42:13). That has some profound implications for the meaning of God’s omnipotence. The ontological argument for God’s existence doesn’t help demonstrate the existence of a God like that. On the other hand, it’s potentially the key to the problem of suffering.

      Mormonism has some bold things to say about the big questions about who God is and who we are and how God and the universe and reality work. I think the point was that we’re missing the forest for the trees.

      • Pelligrino

        First, nothing in traditional apologetics prevents anyone from engaging these issues. But more importantly, these claims can be taken seriously as anything other than mere philosophical speculation only if the Book of Mormon is authentic history. Bill Hamblin

        • Herkermer

          Right. Which is why we shouldn’t abandon the idea that the Book of Mormon is authentic history. I think the author of the article is proposing we simply reverse the order of our priorities–fight the war first, over the big, universe-shaking realities, and then we can get around to the little quibbles over horses and linguistics and glass and DNA.

          • Pelligrino

            There is absolutely no reason to pose this as an either or issue. Or a first and second. If someone is interested in studying the animals of the Book of Mormon, how does that possibly prevent someone else from studying the “universe-shaking realties”? How does analyzing Book of Mormon geography prevent someone else from looking at Book of Mormon theology? This point of view makes no sense whatsoever to me. Just as there was absolutely no justification for abandoning traditional apologetics at the Maxwell Institute and exiling Dan in order to do secular-style Mormon studies. Bill

          • Herkermer

            I think that’s a good point, but at the same time, the venture of Mormon apologetics as a whole seems to have a focus and to trend in certain directions, as do most fields of inquiry. This article is arguing that the current focus is not the best one.

  • William Hamblin

    Let’s face it, if the Book of Mormon is not authentic history, then Mormonism has all the epistemic value of Jedi religion. http://www.jedichurch.org/

    • AlanHurst

      Bill, I’m not sure Joe disagrees with you on this, but what do you make of his claim that by engaging in that inquiry, we’re fighting battles but surrendering the war? Better said, do you share his worry that by engaging the critics on their own terms, we’re conceding that their assumptions are correct and likely redefining our own faith in terms of their flawed assumptions?

      Apologetic defenses of faith unavoidably end up influencing the content of faith, pushing it in the direction of what’s most apologetically defensible. Sometimes I think that’s a good thing, like the way apologetic scholarship is leading to the abandonment of the theory that the BoM story covers the whole of North and South America. But there’s no reason to assume that it will always be a good thing. “Most defensible” does not necessarily mean “most accurate.”

  • Patrick Staples

    I’d like to see how this assumptive approach could work in practice.

    Consider, for example, that Mormonism requires a literal first human Couple, complete with GPS coordinates for their whereabouts. How could an apologetic path be cut that implies this were not taken either strictly literally or strictly symbolically? And, if one were to ignore the literalness of the doctrine, critics of the church would forever have an edge in a debate for pointing it out.

    The acceptance or denial of the empirical is important to establish when discussing truth. With doctrine so full of testable claims, flying too far from that angle will always leave it vulnerable to a rather straight-forward attack.

    • Clark Goble

      Why couldn’t they be real figures with an a-historic overlay that was highly symbolic? We do that all the time. Heck we even do that with modern figures. (Seriously, George Washington didn’t tell the truth about the tree he cut down because the story isn’t true but it’s a great story about a historic figure) I can think of dozens of different middle grounds.

      • Patrick Staples

        It CAN be done, but it wouldn’t be apologetics anymore, it’d be hagiography. Furthermore, this already exists in Mormonism, for example: Joseph’s denial of alcohol for his leg surgery; Thomas B. Marsh’s milk stripping’s story; the importance of the First Vision in the eyes of early Mormons. They aren’t problems per se, but they are irrelevant when dealing with church critics.

        • AlanHurst

          Patrick, I think you’re missing Clark’s point. What he’s saying is that there are all sorts of things in the scriptures (e.g. creation in seven days) that are not literally true, that were never meant to be taken as literally true, and whose literal truth we have absolutely no duty to defend. Instead, we should be figuring out their symbolic meaning and defending that.

          To what extent are we committed to believing in a literal Adam and Eve who are literally the single pair of ancestors from whom every human is descended and who literally lived in Jackson County, Missouri? I’m not sure. It would take some real work to figure out, and the answer will inevitably depend on a lot of theological assumptions about Joseph Smith’s role as prophet and the nature of his prophetic teachings. But you shouldn’t glibly assume that being a good Mormon means believing in a literal Adam and Eve in Missouri (or believing that Moses actually wrote the Books of Moses, or…). It’s a position that takes some serious arguing for.

          • Patrick Staples

            I’m not arguing what the doctrine or interpretation should be, I’m arguing what apologetics must be to keep that name. Whether LDS take such issues to be literal or symbolic is their own decision, but there’s nothing glib about pointing out that the specific, empirical prophetic statements are there, and apologetics must find a way to defend them, however they are taken to mean.

            If that is not the work of apologetics, joespencer must be talking about something else.

          • Clark Goble

            That’s not really what I was saying and neither am I pushing hagiography. Rather I’m saying we can have historic figures with a-historic things said about them like the tale of George Washington’s apple tree. It’s a great metaphor and symbol for George Washington that everyone knows. But it’s not historic. Yet we’d be fools to say there wasn’t a real honest George Washington because of that.

            Likewise there may be lots of historic errors in various texts with there being some historic grounding for the texts. i.e. most our tales of Adam and Eve could be wrong whereas there is a real Adam.

          • AlanHurst

            Ah. Well, I think you should have been saying that. :) But you’re right about this, too.

  • Clark Goble

    Hey Joe, posted this last week to LDS-Herm. But since you aren’t there anymore (hey, we miss you) I figured I’d put it here. (I’d put it on my blog but I’m starting a new server with a new blog and figured I’d wait for that) Robert made some interesting points over there about your post as well.


    While I obviously love what Joe does most of the time, I really can’t agree with him here. That’s not to say I want that element of apologetics eliminated. Far from it. I want diversity. (I think everyone, including the old FARMS folks say that) But I worry too much that there’s a false battle between the two types of apologetics which pushes us to pick one or the other. I find that a false dichotomy.

    That said some of the analysis Joe makes I agree with. I think the claim that there’s no need for apologetics is problematic. I think the problem is much more that bad apologetics (i.e. bad argument) not only don’t help but they may actually help drive people out.

    Joe’s approach to apologetics (and once again let me reiterate I *want* that type of apologetics to continue) reminds me of ordinary language philosophy. It attempts to make problems clear by analyzing through close appreciation of language the meaning of stories. Much as I have a complex relationship with ordinary language philosophy I have a complex relationship with this sort of apologetic. Ultimately my problem with ordinary language philosophy is that I think it misses too much the empirical and scientific. That’s not to say we should become positivist. Just that we shouldn’t just look at ordinary language. (And in saying that I recognize that ordinary language philosophers view language within the sciences as part of that “ordinary.”) Where ordinary language philosophy goes right is to ground our discussion in terms of how language is actually used rather than focusing just on propositions and verification of true/false. Ultimately it’s a way of grounding philosophy in lived experience. (Perhaps less successfully than pragmatism but that’s a different topic)

    If I can draw that analogy to apologetics I think Joe is right that too much apologetics is abstract and cut off from the way we read texts and more importantly the way we live our life. That is important. Where I think Joe is wrong is that basic empirical questions matter and matter a lot.

    • Patrick Staples

      If I’m reading you right, I think we’re saying similar things. Even if not, great post.