Apologetics in Mormonism is sometimes given an overly narrow definition. Many in our community would regard as apologetic only the set of discourses that (in a tone that is vigorous, sometimes vicious, and rarely scholarly, civil, or notably charitable) seek to preserve contemporary understandings of Mormon orthodoxy at all costs and from all challengers. However, apologetics in its technical sense is a much broader endeavor, involving efforts to relate faith and reason in ways that are in some sense true to both values. With this broader technical meaning in mind, the Mormon apologetic community can be seen as including not only the traditional alpha males but also the more even-keeled authors associated with groups like FARMS and FAIR, as well as a clear majority of authors whose work is published in venues such as BYU Studies, Dialogue, and Sunstone. Many or perhaps most bloggers at the well-known Mormon-themed sites would qualify as well.To some extent, apologetics differs from a lot of other basically intellectual discourses in that its intended audience is very often a mixture of other intellectuals and some envisioned group of non-intellectuals who need to be “won over” or reassured in some way via rational argumentation. In this post, I want to quickly consider the strengths and weaknesses of two methods for approaching this aspect of apologetic communication. The first method we might call the appeal to authority, while the second is usefully characterized as the teach-the-controversy method.
The appeal to authority is well known as a logical fallacy; an argument is not to be accepted because so-and-so believes it, but rather because of inferential logic in combination with evidence. Yet it is a simple and obvious fact that nobody can be an expert in everything. Hence, people cannot possibly exercise independent judgment regarding the quality of evidence and argumentation behind every conclusion that they accept in their lives — indeed, it is not even possible to reach such a level of understanding for each of the most important issues we face. Really understanding just a few important arguments is typically the work of a lifetime, and there are more than a few important arguments. So appeals to authority can be a useful heuristic.
The basic structure of the appeal-to-authority approach in apologetics is as follows: very smart person X knows all about troubling issue Y; very smart person X maintains a faith commitment to some orthodoxy; therefore, it is okay for the audience to disregard troubling issue Y. Examples of this approach are widespread. For an interesting example from outside the Mormon sphere, I’d refer you to this debate between Bart Ehrman and James White about whether we have the original text of the New Testament, which I was referred to by the Faith-Promoting Rumor sideblog. In the debate, White repeatedly invokes what he takes to be the position of Kurt and Barbara Aland that the New Testament textual tradition displays tenacity, such that it is safe to assume that, among existing variant readings, one must represent the original text. White does not really reproduce the reasoning that supports the Alands’ position on this point, but instead offers the argument as a way of assuring the audience that real professionals can believe that the textual problems of the Bible are manageable.
I see two real strengths to this apologetic method. First, it logically demonstrates something relevant. Specifically, it proves that it is possible for a very smart and informed person to accept the orthodoxy in question. Such a proof of existence cannot be the end of debate, and indeed it can be difficult to determine exactly how important this conclusion should be for a given topic, but it is nonetheless at least somewhat meaningful. Second, this method can be very effective for audiences that are primarily seeking reassurance in their religious status quo, rather than information. I am not one to unconditionally sneer at the option of giving people what they want.
Nonetheless, this apologetic method has very real weaknesses. One of these seems to me to be evident in the Ehrman/White debate: the technique can easily be reversed. So, the critic says, you can identify very smart person X who knows about this issue but maintains orthodox belief. Good for you! I can offer you persons A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, and J who know about this issue in depth and have found it incompatible with orthodox belief. Not only is it possible, then, to really understand the issue without losing orthodox faith — it is also demonstrably possible to lose orthodox faith because of in-depth understanding of the issue. Suddenly, the orthodox expert’s existence might seem like cold comfort.
A deeper concern for me is the evident intention of this approach. Usually, when I see the appeal-to-authority method used in apologetics, the appeal comes with a superficial explanation of one argument for why the difficult issue should not trouble orthodox belief. The argument in question is generally presented in such faint outline that it alone would be unpersuasive — which is why it is coupled with the appeal to authority. I think that, often, presenting a clearer version of the argument would require a great deal more: more time, more text, more effort, more demands on the audience. So I understand why a simpler approach is attractive. That simple sketch combined with the appeal to authority is often enough to silence questions and concerns in the minds of at least some audience members.
That’s the problem. It strikes me as fundamentally in tension with Mormon value systems to squelch investigation into religious issues. Such investigation can certainly be uncomfortable. Until resolution is reached, people may feel uncertainty and the psychological discomfort of simultaneously believing and worrying about that belief. Yet short-circuiting the investigation deprives us of our chance to draw closer to God. Where would we be if Joseph Smith, Jr., had been satisfied with an explanation that a lot of very smart religious leaders were completely untroubled by possible discrepancies between contemporary religious practice and the Bible?
The second method I want to discuss is the teach-the-controversy approach, involving the idea that providing a clear and careful explanation of all sides of a difficult issue without trying to argue for any particular resolution to that issue will enable people to, well, rejoice in the complexity and diversity of life. Or something.
Before I continue to develop the implicit critique of the previous paragraph, let me say a word or two about its strengths. By avoiding premature foreclosure of alternatives, the teach-the-controversy approach does not attempt to prevent people from seeking truth. Furthermore, because it advances no preferred alternative, this mode of apologetics is rarely subject to damaging attacks by critics. These are not meaningless advantages.
Yet, as with appeals to authority, weaknesses abound. First, this approach seems to assume that indecision is a state of affirmative value. I am simply unsure how such a conclusion can be defended. Second, it is hard to imagine that any person is capable of an even-handed presentation of all relevant positions. It seems that biases in favor of one position (or set of positions) or another are inevitable, calling the very nature of the endeavor into question. Third, it seems at least possible that all positions are not, in fact, created equal. If some arguments are just better than others, is it not worthwhile to show how this is the case and move along?
These reflections leave me in a muddled state. I think apologetics is an activity of positive value, yet a solid method for pursuing it seems out of reach. We can’t hope to make experts of our audience in each and every question of interest, yet most approaches that don’t attempt to convey at least some degree of expertice seem misguided. Is there a way to carry out an apologetics that invites the audience to the very Mormon process of finding its own answers its own questions without making impossible demands or encouraging endless indecision?