The word “apologetic” comes from the Greek “apologia”, and means “defense.” Apologetics, defending faith, is a fascinating enterprise in Christianity that has been practiced for centuries upon centuries. Comparatively speaking, Mormon apologetics is a new to the scene but very engaging.
Questions naturally arise from the possibilities and practices of Mormon apologetics. For example, how should one defend Mormonism? When someone attacks Mormonism from the outside how should one respond to that attack? When some person or group on the inside of Mormonism interprets faith in ways that are troubling at least, repugnant at worst, how does one step forward to defend faith? Should one step forward at all? Does Mormonism really demand defense?
These questions press upon many Mormons. For example, is an academic approach that lays the exploration of Joseph Smith’s life open to scholarly peer reviews the best approach? If so, this path leaves open the question as to the divine mission of the prophet. And the answer could be “No, he was not divinely called.” Is opening the door to this possibility even desired? Or, is this approach not to be feared? Richard Bushman employed the tools of rigorous scholarship to Joseph Smith in his biography entitled “Rough Stone Rolling” (2005). He presented an unvarnished view of Joseph Smith. Was he right to do this? At the time of the publication many Mormons thought he was right. But arguably, more thought he was wrong. These sands continue to shift.
Apologetics, on the other hand, brings the vigor of faith merged with fact to the defense of Mormonism—frequently in that order. In other words, you often know an apologist’s conclusions before the conversation even starts. This is not an irrational approach but is it the best way to discuss Mormonism in the public or private square? Many think that it is. Is it possible that not leading with faith is, at some level, a sellout? An apologist does not check her convictions at the door in order to allow purely academic exploration to establish the arc of the discussion. Why tie the most significant personal and communal arguments for Mormonism behind your back? To do so may very well be irrational.
Mormons are far from agreement on the best answers to these questions. In recent months, they have been debated with particular vigor. What was the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) is now the Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship which broke from its earlier apologetic roots to conduct work primarily grounded in academics. However, the Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research (FAIR) has a broader platform and audience than ever before. Alternately, Mormon Studies programs have been established at universities from coast-to-coast where Mormonism is laid bare for research and inquiry independent of any Church oversight. These programs demand the standards of the academy including specialized academic degrees and training for professors. And their scholarly work is exposed to peer review by specialists in Mormon studies and religious studies. At the same time, these scholars enjoy a growing acknowledgment of the importance of their research and increased opportunities to publish with the most respected university presses like Oxford and Illinois. Finally, apologists from Mormonism’s rank and file now enjoy open access to the bloggernacle where they may present defenses of their faith with few limitations.
Arguably, there has never been a more dynamic moment for apologetic and academic exploration of Mormonism. How should these perspectives be fleshed out and where will Mormonism go from here relative to faith and intellect, apologetics and the academy? Only time will tell. But the questions are worth exploring now.