Apologetic Method

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?

Comments

  1. Your statement that apologists “seek to preserve contemporary understandings of Mormon orthodoxy at all costs and from all challengers.” is interesting, since others have argued that apologists are the tail wagging the doctrinal dog in the Church.

  2. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Nitsav, I’d note that you’re quoting a characterization that I proceed to reject!

  3. FAIR enough ;)

  4. I enjoy apologetics, but do have a pet peeve: Sometimes the established apologists (see FAIR schedule) go beyond what they really know. Without naming names, I’ll say that an apologist I really like recently tried his hand at the race issue. That’s my area. I’m certainly not the only one well-versed in it, but I know it pretty well. When I recognized false material and bad sources in this apologist’s work, I suddenly questioned everything else he had done. There is a small anti-Nibley movement now which is calling a lot of Brother Hugh’s scholarship into question. I believe in specialists. I believe specialists should stay with what they know. This doesn’t answer your very good questions, JNS, but it lets me vent.

  5. Greg Smith says:

    It also bears pointing out that “apologetics” is not just something that Mormons, or believers do. It is present whenever people attempt to rationally argue and defend their position against potentially viable alternatives. Thus, there are apologetics for Marxism, apologetics for anti-abortionism, and apologetics for anti-Mormonism: both secular and sectarian.

    As you rightly point out, the “teach the controversy” style presupposes an objectivity that is likely unattainable in anyone, and certainly won’t be present in anyone who cares enough about a religious issue to devote substantial time to it (e.g., racial issues, polygamy, textual issues in scripture, etc.) All too often, the secular apologist tries to hide his/her apologetic intent AGAINST the Church under a veneer of “objectivity” or “history” or “just letting the facts speak for themselves.”

  6. Greg Smith says:

    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?

    Speaking personally, I think the best option is a variant of #2: what we might call (cribbing from Kevin Barney) “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Or, perhaps, “Full disclosure apologetics.” In this approach, one gives as much background, context, and information as possible. One then explains how this has personally reassured us on this issue–but, with hopefully enough transparency that one can see the evidence (pro and con) upon which that conclusion is based.

    In my experience, the problems members may have with troublesome issues is NOT that they have learned too much. It is that they have learned too little, or received only a set of sound-bite attacks, shock tactics, or “facts” from some source(s) with an essentially hostile agenda. (And, their previous superficial understanding of the issue was likewose based on sound-bites, ‘my primary teacher once told me,’ which crumbles before the seemingly-more-sophisticated onslaught of the critic, who is going to tell you “how it really was.”)

    Thus, what is wanted is a more full, exhaustive examination of the relevant issues. More nuance and more texts virtually always help, rather than harm, the faith claims of the Church (in my opinion and experience).

    The problem is people have often made up their minds with the hostile view of the matter, and have decided (consciously or not) that anyone who concludes otherwise is merely a disingenuous or intellectually dishonest “apologist.”

    They avoid considering, of course, that those they have chosen to trust (often prematurely) may exhibit exactly those flaws, often to an even greater degree. And, they are just as much “apologists” for the negative view.

    ==
    This process is demanding, but it has several virtues:

    1) the apologist will hopefully not fall victim to Margaret’s scenario very often, since “Full Disclosure” by its nature avoids flip, ill-informed apologetic approaches, since scope and thoroughness is emphasized.

    2) it can model a method for problem solving which is not unique to the particular issue under consideration. When the audience sees, for example, recurrent anti-Mormon distortion of LDS texts through mis-citation or lack of contextualization (e.g., Jerald and Sandra Tanners’ ellipses) then they will be more wary next time, one hopes. And, it applies well beyond Church issues at all–this is essentially critical, rigorous thinking: not something at which most people excel, because it is hard work.

    3) it can provide a short-cut to people making an informed decision, even if it differs from that of the apologist–because the raw “rational” material upon which a decision must rest has been summarized. Later apologists can also improve on or add to such a treatment more easily, rather than having to re-invent the wheel every time.

    4) it tries to separate, as much as possible, the data from the interpretation and interpreter of the data (often a problem in ‘historical’ works that are heavily agenda-driven: compare the value, for example, of Dan Vogel’s excellent _Early Mormon Documents_ versus his USE of the documents in his biography of Joseph Smith–if one didn’t have the EMD series, teasing out the documentary truth from the flawed interpretation in Vogel’s book would be extremely laborious);

    5) it doesn’t insult or minimize what may be real, agonizing worries for the searcher. A flip answer, or a brief response that does not address the full gamut of evidence, may appear as if

    (a) the author does not really understand the issue that bothers the seeker,
    (b) the author is trying to hide harmful information,
    (c) the author is implying that the seeker is mistaken or foolish to be concerned.

    Seekers have often encountered message a,b, or c already as they’ve grappled with their area of concern, so one must establish and maintain a certain degree of audience trust–which can be fragile, is easily shattered, and almost impossible to restore once lost.

    6) While it risks endless minutia or overwhelming readers, it acknowledges that history and the like are complex, nuanced things. Some things cannot be made any simpler–if one wants to deal with Book of Abraham, one must be willing to deal with Egyptian. If it takes 5 years to master the relevant material, then you must master it if you want a rational, intellectual discussion about it. The history of polygamy is complex, with multiple needs, demands, and difficulties throughout. Cheap sloganeering is easy; understanding is hard.

    People often don’t realize this–there is no royal road to apologetics or LDS history, any more than there is to geometry. And, there are elements in both western and LDS culture (to say nothing of the polemics of critics) that incline people to short cuts. But, they are as ill-served by apologetic short cuts that keep them IN the faith as they are by the critics’ cheats that seek to take them OUT.

    GLS

  7. GLS, thanks very much for your thoughtful comments. I agree that there’s no royal road.

    Even though I find a great deal to agree with in what you’ve said, I’m not sure that I see a resolution of my dilemma here. For example, if I’m worried about the Book of Abraham, your answer is that I need to master Egyptian. If anything, your estimate that this will take 5 years seems low to me — not only must language mastery be achieved, but also familiarity with available written and material sources for Egyptian culture. So, years and years of full-time professional effort. And the whole time I go through this, I’m worried by my up-front knowledge that at the very least a large group of the set of people who have already mastered the material regard the case as closed against any sense that the Book of Abraham might correspond with an ancient text.

    That’s all a burden, but much less of one than if my central worry is that the Book of Mormon might not be an ancient text. I would suppose that several lifetimes are needed to develop the expertise to fully evaluate the various arguments relevant to this issue. And once again, the whole time I’ll bear the weight of worry due to the fact that most of the experts in most of the relevant fields have already closed the case against an ancient origin for the book.

    So short cuts may be a bad idea, but not having short cuts seems like an impossibility…

  8. JNS,
    I think the appeal-to-authority has a very strong use, if in a limited context. I think it functions best as a stop-gap measure. That is, if I can’t possibly figure out how to resolve evolution and faith, a very real answer is, Duane Jeffries is able to do that in his life. In a way, that buys me time to actually study the issue without prejudging that they are incompatible. In that case, the fact that you can counter with, “NDBF Gary” doesn’t isn’t really harmful, because (a) I already know that and (b) the appeal to authority is just helping me keep my faith as I try to look into the issue further.

    That said, I totally agree that, “Duane Jeffries believes it so it must be true” is not a valuable endpoint and has no argumentative power. But used to help people hang on as they learn more about the subject can, I believe, play a very valuable role.

  9. With this broader technical meaning in mind, the Mormon apologetic community can be seen as including not only the traditional alpha males…

    Umm. What? You mean the guys who write traditional apologetics are alpha males? I like apologetics and all, but I’m guessing that might not be accurate.

  10. There is a small anti-Nibley movement now which is calling a lot of Brother Hugh’s scholarship into question.

    ??? I think the problems of many of Nibley’s work has long been known by lots if not most. Go check out the FARMS reviews of The World of the Jaredites. I think most recognize that Nibley was a trailblazer but that many of his arguments are dated to say the least. Also realize that the Complete Works are just that, complete, with many of the works being highly flawed and never intended for publication. (i.e. firesides and the like)

    I think the problem is that we sometimes want apologetics to be something more than scholarship.

  11. The biggest problem with much of apologetics is that it is primarily defensive in stance. It spends all its time responding to criticisms fielded by our opponents. This allows the other side to define the agenda, and automatically starts the Mormon position off on a weak foot (the reader assumes that Mormons “got some explaining to do”).

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    Yeah, Seth, apologetics is by its very nature defensive (from Greek apologia “defense”). Good apologists aren’t interested in tearing down other people’s faith.

    When a member comes to me troubled about some issue, my basic thought process is to ask myself why I’m not troubled by that particular issue, and then to try to communicate as best I can that difference in point of view to the troubled member. This often involves giving the member a little shot of information or context or liberality of perspective. So much of what troubles members is grounded in unrealistic expectations of people, texts and history. Correcting those expectations can be a difficult tightwire to walk across. But it’s worth at least trying to do.

  13. Personalize it, make it a source of connection between apologist and audience. That’s what I vote for. And recognize the multiplicity of audiences.
    Nice post.

  14. avisitor says:

    Greg,

    “In my experience, the problems members may have with troublesome issues is NOT that they have learned too much. It is that they have learned too little, or received only a set of sound-bite attacks, shock tactics, or “facts” from some source(s) with an essentially hostile agenda. (And, their previous superficial understanding of the issue was likewose based on sound-bites, ‘my primary teacher once told me,’ which crumbles before the seemingly-more-sophisticated onslaught of the critic, who is going to tell you “how it really was.”)”

    Perfectly said. I agree with your response enthusiastically. This is the chief reason why obtaining solid, enduring testimonies for ourselves whenever possible is SO essential to…well…everything. God has never asked us to rely on expert witnesses for our faith, nor did He make them responsible for our salvation. We must find the truth and obtain His seal for ourselves.

    J.-

    From the examples that you gave in your last response, it seems that a great deal of your dilemma lies in how many experts have already spoken or may later concur with any particular conclusion. To some that might be burdensome, to others it might be the challenge that serves to motivate them. Many times what the “experts” have declared to be “truth” is proven wrong by someone who has no desire to be viewed as one. How many truths have been revealed by someone acting upon nothing more than a “gut feeling” or a divine inspiration? Consensus can be highly overrated.

    Surely a righteous person working for a righteous purpose with the companionship of the Holy Ghost has a distinct advantage over those who work without it. One example would be Joseph Smith’s ability to learn and understand foreign languages in a manner that was completely out of proportion with both his education level and the amount of time he actually devoted to their study.

    When searching for truth, in particular eternal/spiritual/faith based truth, I think we too often forget that some things simply will not be proven evidentially during mortality. Not because they are not true, but because God demands pure faith on many issues for now. The “proof” will come later and nothing in our finite, human, natural-man arsenal of abilities can change that.

    I personally believe that a life devoted to finding eternal truth for the sake of truth alone will be rewarded as fully as God can reward it and as fast as we are able to embrace it. On the other hand, I believe that a life devoted to “proving something” in order to gain recognition among experts or because we erroneously think that evidence has the power to truly convert others when it comes to eternal truths, is a sad and yes burdensome, waste of precious mortality.

    Just my thoughts…

  15. I don’t see these two apologetic methods to be trying to achieve the same thing. They have two different purposes.

    If someone just wants to be assured that intelligent people also believe like them, then offering examples of people who do solves the problem. In fact, I’m not really sure to what extent that qualifies as an appeal to authority argument. If the method is offering an example of a scholar or expert who can hold a particular kind of theological position, that seems somewhat different from an appeal to authority argument in which the merit of the argument is based upon not upon its internal logic but upon the status of the person making it. One is, this is true because X said it is true. The other is, because X believes this and X is an expert, you are in good company.

    Some people aren’t bothered that experts or scholars don’t think the way they do. They already know that. What some people want to know is if any expert or scholar believes like they do. If some do, then they feel at ease.

    However, offering an example of an expert or scholar who holds similar theological views doesn’t give any details about the reasoning behind those views or the reasoning that the expert disagrees with other views or whether the expert has reasoned arguments against other views. If a person wants that information, then teaching the controversy is extremely useful. I agree that if the instructor teaches the controversy in such a biased manner that it really doesn’t take seriously the best and most sophisticated articulations presented of the issues, that this will not be very valuable. It might offer a kind of assurance as long as one doesn’t talk to anyone else, but one that definitely won’t hold up if the audience member tries afterward to engage in discussion outside their faith community. They may discover that the issue is actually more serious than they were led to believe and that the proposed solutions don’t actually do what they were led to imagine. That being said, I think there are individuals who can and do present charitable and informed presentations of problem issues who seek out the best arguments on both sides. It can be done and it should be done with more frequency where applicable. Again, depending on your goals.

  16. Greg Smith says:

    “So short cuts may be a bad idea, but not having short cuts seems like an impossibility”
    ===
    Yes, but that is the nature of all knowledge, of any sort, in any field.

    My professional field is medicine. In theory, any treatment or practice which I engage in should be based in rigorous evidence, which ties into randomized controlled trials, basic physiology, which is grounded in basic chemistry and physics.

    In practical terms, there is simply no way for me to master all that material, and be intimately familiar with all the details and “reasons” behind the “facts” that I know. Much of medical knowledge or teaching is taken on “faith,” so to speak–one trusts an assembled body of knowledge.

    This is not to say the “tradition” is perfect–indeed, practice advances as we challenge what has gone before. All this stuff is challengable and should be provable from the basics–but that is the theory. In reality, I must focus my interest on the cases that really matter.

    Really, how else _is_ there to do Book of Abraham? Otherwise, the best I can do is pick which expert(s) I find most convincing, and follow their lead. Acting as if I can independently evaluate the evidence (as I could for a medical matter) is just self-deceptive if I don’t have the background.

    Now, anything that really bugs me in medicine, I can “return to first principles” and prove it or work it out. But, realistically, that must be carefully chosen, simply because of the amount of time it takes, the complexity of the field, and the sheer volume of information that I’d need to assimilate. (The half life of medical knowledge is estimated to be 5 years–that is, 5 years after graduation, 50% of what I knew about treatment was no longer true. Thus, medical education is less about learning treatments as it is learning the ground upon which all treatments must be based, and how to evaluate new data and practice as it becomes available.)

    I trust that other fields of knowledge are the same. Yet, people seem to think they know enough to debunk the Church because they have read Grant Palmer. :-) This is only true because they had relatively little ground for Palmer to assault, and they mistake him for a reliable and comprehensive guide.

    Either one trusts authorities, or one evaluates all the data for oneself. We all have to take some mix of both, in every field.

    Revelation can help solve the problem. But the command to “study it out in your mind” suggests that it cannot entirely short-circuit it either.

  17. Sam B., I agree that the appeal to authority serves exactly the purpose you describe. In your example, I’d suggest that the stronger counter-appeal wouldn’t be to NBDF Gary but rather to the very large number of cutting-edge biologists and evolutionary researchers, who know as much or more about the field as Duane Jeffries and who find the topic to directly undermine religious belief. This kind of counter-appeal unsettles when it demonstrates that, conditional on the requisite knowledge, faithful Mormonism is not necessarily a common outcome — implying that full understanding of the information in question is a greater challenge even than the partial understanding I myself possess.

    Clark #9, I don’t think “traditional apologetics” is a genre; apologetics in the traditional sense includes tons of stuff. Rather, I’m talking about the core group of people traditionally seen as “apologists” in the Mormon context. I’m pretty sure that “alpha males” is an accurate description of at least a preponderance of that set of people.

    Seth and Kevin, I disagree that apologetics is by nature defensive, although I agree that the much narrower (and to my mind substantially less interesting) task of responding to specific troubling issues raised by outsiders is. Apologetics often takes the lead in exploring new issues, developing new intellectual ground, and proposing new answers to faith questions — often not in response to any outside challenge but driven instead by the individual believer’s desire for discovery or innovation.

    avisitor, I know experts can often be wrong. So, for that matter, are non-experts who are guided by the Spirit. To take one of your examples, Joseph Smith was shaky in terms of his language ability as evidenced by his reliance on other Mormons’ substantially problematic translations in late speeches and sermons such as his 1844 “Appeal to the Green Mountain Boys.” On the broader issue, please see my response to Sam B. I’d also note that the concern about experts’ states of belief isn’t mine personally; I am for my part basically not moved by appeals to authority in any direction regarding Mormonism.

    Greg Smith, I’d point out that the comparison with the religious world is a bit inexact in some compelling ways. Medical knowledge is essentially a gigantic array of loosely-interconnected pieces of knowledge. Thus, whether or not one believes that EC/IC arterial bypass surgery reduces the risk of ischemic stroke, one may nonetheless retain substantial certainty that antibiotics are a good treatment for ear infections or that clean drinking water is essential to prevent the spread of cholera. These questions are not logically interrelated.

    By contrast, most Mormons’ belief structures seem to be such that a wide array of topics are intricately interrelated in such a way that the failure of any one of them would undermine the conviction of authenticity attached to the whole. This interlaced structure makes it difficult to detach pieces of the puzzle while disregarding the rest.

    A second, compounding major difference is the apparent eternal consequences of individual decisions related to Mormon beliefs but (probably usually) not to medical knowledge. This means that the stakes for being wrong, either because of trusting the wrong experts, or choosing what turns out to be the wrong area to focus on yourself, or whatever, appear to be essentially infinite. Not a usual thing for most areas of knowledge, I think.

  18. JNS,
    Good point on the stronger counterargument. But in the situation I’m thinking of, the person would already be aware of both NDBF Gary and cutting-edge biologists who reject a belief in God. The appeal to Duane Jeffries isn’t intended to be the end-all be-all (and I just chose him because he was my dad’s advisor at BYU years and I know his name–if I were more into the field, I could have chosen somebody newer and more up-to-date); instead, it’s meant to reassure a person that she doesn’t have to leave her brain at the door of the Church by reassuring her that others with specialized knowledge still can believe. If evolution isn’t really an important topic to her, maybe that’s enough–she can say to herself, Someone smart who knows the subject can stay faithful, so I can too.

    Someone else may really care about the subject, or may be sincerely troubled by it. In that case, the appeal to authority isn’t sufficient. But nonetheless, it can buy that person some time to either do her own research and thinking or to ask the person (like Kevin said) to explain how he or she has personally resolved the conflict.

  19. Left Field says:

    Just wanted to say that the man’s name is Duane Jeffery, not Duane Jefferies. As I recall, the name was misspelled as “Jeffrey” in his famous Dialogue article, so it does seem to be an easy name to mutate.

    Carry on.

  20. Left Field, good call. Apologies about the error above! Correction noted.

  21. Left Field says:

    Actually now that I look at it, I can’t seem to help mutating the name myself. Sam called him “Jeffries,” and you correctly transcribed the name as Sam wrote it, while I further mutated it to “Jefferies.”

  22. smallaxe says:

    I think the appeal to authority method, while logically flawed, does and should carry some weight. For me at least, when an intelligent person can closely investigate a particular issue and still remain faithful, its signifies to me that so doing is an actual possibility. Not that all intelligent/knowledgeable people agree on whatever issue we’re talking about, but what I’m looking for (at least sometimes) is that the possibility of being knowledgeable and faithful does in fact exist. Oftentimes this possibility is enough for me. Now, if I keep bumping up against the issue in as much as people around me ask my thoughts on it, or if I just can’t get it out of my head, then I might pursue it further in terms of looking at the material myself in a more in depth manner.

    Apologetics often takes the lead in exploring new issues, developing new intellectual ground, and proposing new answers to faith questions — often not in response to any outside challenge but driven instead by the individual believer’s desire for discovery or innovation.

    Could you toss out a few examples here?

  23. smallaxe, I think your statement regarding what the appeal-to-authority method accomplishes is just right. It’s what I was trying to express above. The counter-argument likewise carries weight by diminishing the (very informal subjective) probability attached to the possibility of being intelligent, informed, and faithful. Both of these moves accomplish something meaningful, but probably neither does as much as we’d like.

    Regarding your request for examples, I think they’re numerous. One set of relevant instances involve the ideas developed by Bushman, Quinn, and others regarding treasure digging. These ideas start from an outside critique, but seem to go far past simply offering an answer. Deeper instances are also available; Blaise Pascal’s Pensees seems to me an instance of a theologically innovative text that clearly engages in apologetics but not in a constructive more than defensive vein. One might also mention Augustine’s Confessions. Etc., etc.

  24. #22 and 23 sound to me remarkably like something FARMS and FAIR toss around a lot.

    “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.”- Austin Farrar, “Grete Clerk,” in Jocelyn Gibb, comp., Light on C. S. Lewis, p. 26.

  25. Greg Smith says:

    ==quote==
    I’d point out that the comparison with the religious world is a bit inexact in some compelling ways. Medical knowledge is essentially a gigantic array of loosely-interconnected pieces of knowledge.
    ==end quote==

    Yes. My point was more on the lines that even medicine– where we pour vast amounts of resources, and attract candidates that are very well rewarded in both monetary and social prestige terms, this dichotomy–authority vs. self-convinced knowledge–still prevails. We all take most things we believe on faith in authorities of various kinds.

    ==begin quote==
    A second, compounding major difference is the apparent eternal consequences of individual decisions related to Mormon beliefs but (probably usually) not to medical knowledge. This means that the stakes for being wrong, either because of trusting the wrong experts, or choosing what turns out to be the wrong area to focus on yourself, or whatever, appear to be essentially infinite. Not a usual thing for most areas of knowledge, I think.
    ==end quote==

    Yes, but medical knowledge is probably the secular realm where people confront a similar situation of grave consequences. You have cancer. Most people have neither the time, training, or aptitude to interpret the cancer literature. They are also emotionally involved, which can bias interpretation. They must ultimately either trust their oncologist, or someone else. I have surprisingly often seem them trust someone else, who will charge them thousands of dollars for irrational therapies, even when “conventional” cure rates were good (95%). Death results.

    But again, this is my point–we have to rely on expert opinion for most of this type of thing: it should not surprise us that either experts or dedicated, prolonged study would be needed in the case of religious issues: absent, of course, the saving grace of revelation.

    ==begin quote==
    By contrast, most Mormons’ belief structures seem to be such that a wide array of topics are intricately interrelated in such a way that the failure of any one of them would undermine the conviction of authenticity attached to the whole. This interlaced structure makes it difficult to detach pieces of the puzzle while disregarding the rest.
    ==end quote==

    This is a _very_ important point, I think. Part of the secret to successfully solving it may be to actually “uncouple” some things quite so tightly. Many/most of the things that trouble people in the Church that are not essentially trivial to respond to (I would put most sectarian criticisms in this category, since they usually involve some form of double standard or begging the question, when not involved in out-and-out misrepresetation) hinge on this problem.

    I say “trivial” in the sense that the error made by the critic is usually fairly transparent, and fairly easy to demonstrate briefly. Not “trivial” in its potential impact on the soul of one troubled by it.

    The bigger problems often hinge on an overly-coupled issue, of which most could be distilled down to: “A REAL prophet wouldn’t do or say that.”

    People confront polygamy, for example, and learn about polyandry (the most difficult, least understood, and least-available data area) and finally decide to chuck Joseph Smith and everything else.

    Joseph did not, however, simply walk out of the desert and start preaching plural marriage. He had a certain “track record” already–the Book of Mormon, the Vision of 76 shared by Sidney, 3 witnesses, 8 witnesses, Oliver Cowdery and the priesthoods restoration, swaths of the D&C, etc. Critics try to distract our attention from all these, and use polyandry (for example) as the “easy solution” whereby one concludes that there’s no way anyone who did that could be a prophet. No need, then, to deal with all that pesky Book of Mormon data, etc. It is an intellectual and spiritual short-cut to certainty. Like many shortcuts, it may not get you to where you think you’re going.

    Another related problem is an (often unstated or perhaps unconscious) conviction that prophets must be essentially perfect in all significant matters. If asked whether prophets make mistakes or express merely their own opinions, LDS people generally say, “Of course”: in theory! But, they are loathe to concede, sometimes, that any historical event may have represented less-than-perfect choices. This places them in a difficult bind.

    Thus, rather than being agonized by the fact that some general authorities have been of the view that there was “no death before the fall” for any biologic creature, the secret may be in not finding a countervailing authority (“my general authority can trump your general authority”) but in decoupling the idea that it makes much difference either way, and that such matters are peripheral and of relatively little consequence (unless we let them take us out of the Church).

    The Church seems to implicitly adopt this stance when they wrote:

    “The doctrinal tenets of any religion are best understood within a broad context and thoughtful analysis is required to understand them. … Some doctrines are more important than others and might be considered core doctrines. … A common mistake is taking an obscure teaching that is peripheral to the Church’s purpose and placing it at the very center. For example, the precise location of the Garden of Eden is far less important than doctrine about Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice.” – “Approaching Mormon Doctrine,” from Newsroom: The Official Resource for News Media, Opinion Leaders, and the Public (4 May 2007) at lds.org

    Thus, the “web” model which many people rely on (and which if you pull one strand the whole thing unravels) might be better served with a pyramidal or hierarchical model–with things like the Book of Mormon firmly at the base. Critics know this, and so either go to great lengths to attack the Book of Mormon, or try to divert their marks’ attention away from it in discussing anything else.

    The problem, though, is that sometimes well-meaning but naive teachers (esp. Seminary and youth classes) often graft unnecessary or frankly wrong stuff into the web. Ticking bombs. :-)

  26. Greg, again, good thoughts. I personally would certainly not be inclined to trust an oncologist; I would certainly read the research literature before accepting any non-emergency surgery or other major medical intervention. But I certainly understand that this is beyond the training of a lot of people. There are good reasons to have divisions of labor and experts, and there are likewise good reasons for practitioners like doctors to rely on simple syntheses rather than a full understanding of the underlying, relevant evidence. I don’t agree that medicine is uniquely similar to religion in terms of the importance of the decisions involved; other domains where at least equally important choices are made would seem to include civil engineering, military leadership, economic management, police leadership, and epidemiology, to start a list. For some of these domains, such as civil engineering, appeals to authority are actually not as routine; my engineering friends in college seemed to spend a lot of time doing physics calculations and not that much time citing the work of famous engineers of the past…

    I also agree that there are a lot of issues that are less important than people sometimes think. That said, we can set those aside and focus only on what for most Mormons are the tightly integrated core issues, and we’re still facing a many-lifetimes curriculum…

  27. smallaxe says:

    Both of these moves accomplish something meaningful, but probably neither does as much as we’d like.

    I guess I’m a little confused in terms of what you’d like to see accomplished. What do you want your method to do?

    Regarding your request for examples, I think they’re numerous. One set of relevant instances involve the ideas developed by Bushman, Quinn, and others regarding treasure digging. These ideas start from an outside critique, but seem to go far past simply offering an answer.

    Part of this may hang on an overly broad definition of apologetics (Is anything that a “believer” does by definition apologetic? And how does Quinn count?); but I think there are better sources of creativity than apologetics. (Assuming that we can define creativity as you’ve laid it out in terms of “exploring new issues, developing new intellectual ground, and proposing new answers to faith questions”.) I’m thinking here of something more along the lines of John Berthrong’s Expanding Process , which is a Process Theology reading of Chinese philosophical texts. Not that apologetics lacks creativity, but I wouldn’t turn to it first.

    Nitsav, thanks for bringing up the quote. I had seen it a while ago, but had long since forgot about it.

  28. smallaxe, my goodness, no. A lot of things believers do don’t involve attempts to reconcile faith and reason, so not apologetics. Quinn counts, of course; he’s often defined himself as an apologist, and his books have a consistent project of reconciling belief in Mormon fundamental claims with historical data. I certainly do agree that there are other, more creative domains, as well; my point is just that apologetics needn’t be regarded as simply consisting of people screaming at each other and bashing each other with prooftexts and the dogmatic opinions of carefully selected intellectual cranks…

    Regarding what I’d like apologetics to do, I suppose a key answer would be: enhance understanding…

  29. smallaxe says:

    A lot of things believers do don’t involve attempts to reconcile faith and reason, so not apologetics.

    Is there a difference, in your opinion, between apologetics and theology? The latter of which I tend to see as “faith seeking understanding”?

  30. Greg Smith says:

    ==begin quote==
    For some of these domains, such as civil engineering, appeals to authority are actually not as routine; my engineering friends in college seemed to spend a lot of time doing physics calculations and not that much time citing the work of famous engineers of the past…
    ==end quote==

    In such cases, though, we rely on the physics ability of the engineers, which is an appeal to authority or expertise. I have to assume he can do the math properly, and that the math is properly chosen so my building won’t fall down. It is probably easier to interpret cancer RCT’s with no formal training than it is to do multi-variate calculus.

    I certainly don’t mean medicine is unique in this area, just probably the most universal experience that most people will have–virtually everyone will face a life-threatening illlness in self or family, where time often does not allow us to get up to scratch in the relevant literature. (You may not even get to pick or research your doctor–you just hope the guy on shift in ER knows what he’s doing.)

    Few of us build skyscrapers or suspensions bridges. Many of us will have little to do directly with military, police leadership, or economics models. (And, recent events might argued that any confidence in economic experts was ill-founded….:->) And, such things are rarely time-pressured: we don’t have to break ground until we’re satisfied. But, as you rightly point out, religious issues have more of an urgency about them. To do nothing is, in a sense, to make a choice. To defer is to have chosen.

  31. smallaxe, I think there are certainly parts of, or perhaps kinds of, theology that aren’t apologetic at all. But I would argue that huge domains of theology are apologetic in both the narrow and the broader senses of the word: they respond to specific intellectual challenges from outside the faith and try to rearticulate faith in ways that seem plausible to people with a specific and often new broader philosophical position.

    Greg, regarding the engineering, I don’t know. I think there are usually lots of engineers and computers which all check each others’ work. I’d characterize this more as trust in an institutional arrangement than as trust in an expert — a different sort of thing, I think. But regardless of the details, I guess we probably agree about most of what we’re discussing here.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,675 other followers