Over the last couple of days I’ve seen a number of comments around the Bloggernacle and on Facebook that reflect some fundamental misunderstandings of Mormon apologetics in general and FAIR in particular. (Such as a confusion of material on the Mormon Dialogue Board with FAIR, and such as attributing material from the FARMS Review to FAIR.) I thought it might be worthwhile in light of this kind of persistent misunderstanding to share my comments on apologetics from this past summer’s Sunstone Symposium. Kaimi organized a session on the topic, featuring him, me, Bridget Jack Jeffries and John Charles-Duffy. Below I have attempted to produce a rough transcript of my comments. At the end I have reproduced the questions, followed only by my own comments (not those of the other panelists). (To hear the entire session, you may order a download from Sunstone for under $3.00.)
Hi. This is my vacation so I didn’t really prepare anything to say. I plan to just talk off the cuff a little bit. First of all, let me tell you a little bit about what apologetics is. As Kaimi said I’m involved with FAIR, which stands for the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research. I was not involved in the formation of the organization or the choice of the name, which name is somewhat unfortunate. For years we have gotten e-mails asking us “Why are you apologizing?” Because apologetics is a word that is not really native to the Mormon tradition. It is well known in other traditions, but not in ours. It comes from the Greek word apologia, which means “defense,” and refers to that branch of theology that has to do with defending religious faith by rational means. There are Mormon apologists, Evangelical apologists, Catholic apologists, Jewish apologists, and Muslim apologists. If you’re a religious group that seeks to interact with the wider world, you need apologists. So that’s the first thing.
Second, in Mormon discourse a lot of times the word apologist is thrown around as a slur. I personally don’t perceive it that way. Jack and I both have a background in classics at BYU, and I remember reading Plato’s Apology, in the original sense, not the modern English sense. So to me being an apologist is a perfectly honorable thing, not something one has to ashamed of.
Also, I think apologists often wear different hats at different times. I know I certainly do. I sometimes act in the role of an apologist and wear that hat. Sometimes I wear the hat of a scholar. (I’ve published some 30-odd articles in Mormon studies, some with an apologetic slant and some without.) I wear the hat of a regular member as well; I teach Sunday School in my home ward. I sometimes wear the hat of a social critic. Some of you are aware that I blog at By Common Consent, and in that forum I often have occasion to critique the Church and its policies. Among apologists there is a spectrum, and I think it’s fair to say that I’m very liberal in the world of apologetics; probably about as liberal as one can be and still wear that particular hat. Kaimi mentioned LGBT rights. I’m there with Joanna; Ralph Hancock is not, if you read his post on Times and Seasons. So there is a wide spectrum of belief and practice within the apologetic universe.
What I’d like to do now, in the wake of what happened at the Maxwell Institute, my friend Russell Arben Fox sent around an e-mail to about 15 of us, asking for our thoughts on apologetics. And I want to use my response to him as a framework for this address.
I think of apologetics as operating within three different spheres. First is what I call (these labels are just my own) “engagement apologetics.” What I mean by that is when you engage directly with the critic. That’s like debate, the aggressive style people think of. Rhetorical combat in the octagon; two people enter, one leaves, that kind of mentality. Today a lot of that takes place on message boards; that is the venue for this style of apologetics. Personally that’s not my style and I don’t do it. That is partly because I know myself well enough to know I wouldn’t be any good at it. A lot of that is just a personality issue; I’m a very empathetic person. Kaimi mentioned Dan Peterson and Lou Midgley; I know those guys, I’m friends with those guys, and I don’t view them as the Anti-Christ. But I know and am friends with everyone else, too. I really don’t want to roll around wrestling in the mud with someone; it’s just not my style. I don’t care much for message boards; I’m much more of a blog person. I’m a live and let live kind of guy.
There is also what I call scholarly apologetics. John Charles-Duffy in his lengthy Sunstone article was not only insightful but perhaps prescient in a way we wouldn’t have known in 2004. He talks about a number of tensions. There is an anti-contention tradition in the Church, and that style butts heads with that. There is also an anti-intellectual tradition in the Church, and apologetics by its nature uses scholarship, in a way that traditional Mormonism hasn’t, so in many ways apologetics has been a progressive influence in the Church. I agree with his conclusion there. I mention this article because he talks about “orthodox scholarship,” which is a good label, but I’m going to include this under the rubric of apologetics.
What I mean by scholarly apologetics is sort of classic FARMS. FARMS stands for the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, a foundation established by John Welch in 1979. It was eventually absorbed into BYU in the 90s at the request of GBH (hard to say no to him!). I’m not part of FARMS but I know those people, and I know there was a lot of concern at the time with going into BYU, and there was concern that what has happened would happen. Scholarly apologetics is applying the tools of scholarship assuming Mormon faith claims. It involves things like peer review and cite checking and footnotes and linguistic tools and dead tree publication. So FARMS would put on a conference on the Allegory of the Olive Tree, a two-day conference, and they would invite scholars and then publish a book with the proceedings. That was not directly engaging anyone but providing a scholarly apparatus around Mormon faith claims.
The third kind of apologetics is what I call educative apologetics. And that is what I see as the role of FAIR today. Now FAIR originated almost exclusively as an engagement apologetics organization. FAIR originated as an internet-based group in the late 90s (I wasn’t around then). What happened was that there were religious discussions on the old AOL message boards, and the Mormons were getting pushed around. They were the 98 pound weaklings because they didn’t control the venue. The people that did limited their access and things like that. So FAIR originated as a group of people banding together electronically for self defense. And so FAIR created its own message board. And in those early days it was very much this engagement style, let’s arm wrestle over this stuff. Then after a few years it changed its focus and gave up its message board. Some people still refer to that board as the “FAIR boards,” but FAIR has had no control over those boards for about a decade now. FAIR’s mission became one of educative apologetics. Its focus is inward, on members of the Church.
So a Primary teacher goes to prepare a talk, opens up google and enters some innocuous search term. Somehow she goes down a rabbit hole and she finds out some weird thing about the church she’s never heard before and is freaked out. So what does she do? Well in the Mormon tradition you go talk to the bishop. But the bishop has a degree in engineering from BYU; he’s never heard of this thing and is of no help. Probably no one in her ward knows anything about it. So where does she turn? That’s where FAIR tries to help. FAIR has a wiki it has developed over time, using wiki software and collaborative editing, crowd sourcing, that sort of thing. It has become a repository of every anti-Mormon argument there is. Some people think that’s a bad thing, because we’ve cataloged all of these arguments against the Church, and it is in effect a smorgasbord of anti-Mormonism. But you gotta do it, because people are going to find this stuff. We live in the internet age. When I was a missionary you would only encounter these things if you specifically went looking for them or if your crazy Aunt Sally sent you a tract in the mail. That’s not the case anymore; you’ve got the internet, baby. You’re one search away from finding this stuff. And we’ve got a lot of skeletons in the closet, a lot of bodies buried in the backyard. And we haven’t been very forthcoming as a Church about all that stuff. The Church kind of hopes people won’t find it and we won’t have to talk about it. That doesn’t work anymore; someone has to be able to talk about it
FAIR also has a feature called Ask the Apologist. If you can’t find what you want on the wiki, you can write in and it will go to a private e-mail list with over 100 volunteers, and someone on that list will respond to your question. I’ve probably answered over a thousand of those questions over the years. I love doing that, helping someone who is troubled by something. A lot of times it’s just a matter of putting something in context. People come to these things with fundamentalist, black and white thinking, very presentist, so sometimes you just need to inculcate a little historical consciousness in them. And when you practice that kind of apologetics it’s a virtue to be conversant with the literature. I’ve been reading Dialogue and Sunstone and JMH and everything else for decades. So I’ll remember that there was an article about that, and I’ll suggest they read that.
So those are the kinds of apologetics as I conceive of them. I do think there is a role for engagement apologetics. Whether it has to be under the umbrella of a university, I don’t know; I’m a little ambivalent about that. I can understand NAMI wanting to go a different direction. If this takes place I imagine that FARMS will reform under a different name and continue doing what it did before. [Since then the appearance of The Interpreter has confirmed this.] I don’t know, that’s just a guess.
Anyway, those are my thoughts on the subject, so I’ll sit down.
To what extent does the Church countenance FARM or FAIR? I want to add something on the FAIR aspect of that. FAIR has always been clear it is completely independent of the Church. We have to be. For some people that’s a problem; they won’t listen to us without an explicit endorsement. If so, so be it. Some of the brethren are more supportive of apologetics than others.
Lutheran pastor; doesn’t understand the controversy. As Kaimi mentioned, Dan Peterson was the long time editor of the FARMS Review (the name has changed over time). That organ is the most explicitly apologetic of NAMI. He was on a lengthy trip to Europe, and received an e-mail from Gerald Bradford that he was being removed as editor. Universities remove editors all the time; it didn’t have to be this controversial. I don’t know Bradford personally, but I respect his scholarship. I suspect he thought it would be easier to do this way. Dan Peterson is a very controversial figure. I talked about different styles of apologetics, but they bleed into each other at the margins, and Dan has been active on the message boards, and that style has bled into the Review to some extent.
Can a career be made in apologetics? To what extent should an organization maintain its original mandate v. adapting to changing times? I’m going to answer your first question: “No.” Although some of the people involved are university professors and use those skill sets tangentially in apologetics.
Different parties are asserting institutional support or not. How do we define apologetics when there is no specific institutional backing? Mentioned Joanna Brooks. I think I see where you’re going with this now. I love Joanna, and in many ways what she does is apologetics. She’s making the case that you don’t have to check your brain at the door to be a Mormon. A lot of people would say that some of what Richard did in RSR is a kind of apologetic. Much of the Bloggernacle is apologetic in some sense. Apologetics is much broader than what people usually think of under that rubric.
[More on the controversy.] I don’t know that there was any GA impetus behind this move. Someone wrote a paper critiquing John Dehlin’s work, he got wind of it, and contacted a GA about that. That may have given Gerald an opening to do something. There has long been an anti-apologetic wing of FARMS, which sounds weird to people, because they assume FARMS is monolithic. There is academic politics involved. I’m not convinced this was a GA driven thing, but rather a matter of academic politics. Attitude of GAs towards apologetics remains a mixed bag; some favor it, others don’t.
Questioner talked about an independent objective reality. How does apologetics cope with that? Don’t you have to throw up your hands and say it’s ridiculous to defend a God who drowns all those people? I don’t know that there is an objective reality. We think we see things as they are, but instead we see things as we are. This is actually a big issue in apologetic discourse and involves postmodernism. (From audience member to questioner: “Study philosophy.”)