Over the last few days there has been a shakeup in the Mormon scholarly community. See here here here and several here for the details, of which I am uninterested in discussing in this post. (Maybe in some future post). I have since heard these current events likened to Trekkies arguing over Klingon verb conjugation–the reaction by some has been so intense because the stakes are so low. It actually wouldn’t surprise me in the least to learn that less than 1% of all Mormons even know of the existence of the Maxwell Institute, FARMS, and FAIR, and that even less than that have any genuine interest in any of them. However, I think it’s inaccurate to say that the stakes are abysmally low or astronomically high, largely because I think we often (all of us) misunderstand the potential purpose and place of religious apologetics. Here, then, I’d like to to explore in a more philosophical vein what Mormon/Christian apologetics is, could be, and should be. I know that there are many within Mormon and Christian intellectual communities who not only think that apologetics are worthless, but that any kind of apologetic discourse needs to be stamped out in the name of “real” scholarship and “genuine” dialogue with those inside and outside the faith. I have been somewhat sympathetic to this in the past–I’d never considered myself an “apologist” and have only ever had a causal interest in Mormon apologetic organizations. However, apologetic discourse is not only inevitable with regard to religious organizations, concepts, and practices, but there is a vital place for an authentic religious apologetic within a religious community, a kind of discourse that should be, in fact, much broader, more rigorous, more radical, and more religious than it has often been within our community. What, then, might such an apologetic look like? That’s all I’m interested in here. This discussion will range over 3 posts over the next few days. I’ll delete comments that have little to do with these parameters. I’m not interested in 150 threadjacks, sidebars, and apoplectic fits of rage or glee deployed in the annihilation or lionization of certain so-called Mormon apologists. There are plenty of other electronic venues in which to satiate oneself in that regard. It should go without explanation that I am not trying to exhaustively cover every aspect of this issue, but simply provide some interconnected thoughts from my own point of view and area of expertise.
In my own studies I have found that French Catholic philosopher and theologian Jean-Luc Marion and Danish philosopher and writer Soren Kierkegaard (especially as interpreted by my friend and colleague Keith Lane) are particularly fruitful thinkers for a serious and thoughtful consideration of religious apologetics. In this post I’ll discuss Kierkegaard’s thought; in the following post, Marion. Finally, in the 3rd and final post I’ll provide some of my own thoughts and conclusions, applying Kierkegaard and Marion to our contemporary Mormon context.
Kierkegaard points out that there is a vital difference between an apostle and a “genius” (he’s referring oh so humbly to himself, but more broadly to philosophers, theologians, teachers of religion, etc): “I am not to listen to Paul because he is matchlessly brilliant, but I am to submit to him because he has divine authority.”
To see Paul as a genius is to miss the point of Paul for the religious believer entirely. What apostles (or those given authority) actually say may be persuasive and elegant, even brilliant, but to recognize this is to miss the importance of the function of the authority they possess. There are three ways in which the apostle is qualitatively different from the religious teacher, apologist, philosopher, etc. 1) The apostle is paradoxically different from all other human beings and paradoxically brings something new to humanity. Paradoxically different because the apostle is a human being in every sense of the word and yet has become what no human being can become: a divine messenger. Thus he is something other than human (no matter how human he otherwise is in every other respect. Remember, it’s a paradox). The apostle is a paradox that divides with the intellectual and spiritual sword: he is either believed or not believed, but not examined strictly according to aesthetic or philosophical categories. Not that he is superior to these categories or that he has ascended step by step from immanent genius to transcendent messenger of the divine, but that it makes no sense to strictly judge the apostle according to these standards. 2) The apostle is what he is as a result of a calling, and therefore cannot be evaluated according to the same categories as the “genius.” In this sense the apostle is also, like Christ himself, offensive. Not because of the content of his speech (the righteous receiving the words gladly while the wicked are outraged) but because he stands in front of you and claims to be divinely favored and called and receives divine messages for others as a result, while you cannot make such a claim and must stand helpless before his message, to either obey or disobey. This leads to 3) that the apostle thus presents the ultimate inequity: he is stationed with a paradoxical telos, an “in order to” that the genius as a genius could never validly possess. The apostle as apostle stands in a state of demand: he has a mission or mandate from God that requires him to be positioned teleologically in relation to humanity in a way that the genius is not. In fact, the genius seeks to destroy all teleology, all “in order to’s” because his is the realm of persuasion, argumentation, and useful knowledge. The apostle, according to Kierkegaard, might say something like the following: “You must consider that what I say has been entrusted me by revelation; so it is God himself or the Lord Jesus Christ who is speaking, and you must not become involved presumptuously in criticizing the form. I cannot, I dare not compel you to obey, but through the relationship of your conscience to God, I make you eternally responsible for your relationship to this doctrine by my having proclaimed it as revealed to me and therefore by having proclaimed it with divine authority.”
In contrast to the apostle stands the genius, the philosopher, the apologist, all of which are reducible to the teacher without authority. The teacher is not situated paradoxically in relation to humanity; she is one of them. As teacher she ultimately speaks for herself and not for God. More importantly, her role is to clarify and remind, or to describe. She may say things in a new way but her message is not a teleological paradox, like the message of the apostle. The teacher as a teacher doesn’t, in fact, exist at all without the apostle or the prophet. The teacher must wait for the apostle to speak before teaching. The teacher, then, welcomes criticism in a way that the apostle cannot (again, the apostle can technically listen to criticism all day every day, but because he dwells in the realm of the religious as divine messenger, he cannot, as an apostle, respond in kind, not without becoming something other than an apostle). The apostle as apostle simply delivers the message. The teacher, on the other hand, wants to get things right grammatically, philologically, philosophically, theologically,. She welcomes criticism, then, as a means through which to do this sort of work. Beyond clarification and reminding, the teacher has no right to make authoritative assertions. The teacher is to be judged and weighed aesthetically and philosophically in a way that it makes no sense to judge the apostle (as opposed to being immoral to judge an apostle in this way, which would be besides the point).
When one accepts the religious on religious grounds, one receives or judges the religious based on the authority of its origination. Teachers without authority have no business making demands of their listeners, of setting up the stakes of Us vs. Them; the apostle, by contrast, makes nothing but demands, not by virtue of the content of his teaching, but by his authority alone. The teacher must constantly and unremittingly acknowledge her lack of authority, consistently qualifying her teaching, repenting and revising at all times as necessary. The teacher broadcasts that she or he speaks for herself or himself and not for God; the inverse is true of the apostle.
Kierkegaard, is cautious about apologetics. He advocates a mild sort of apology for Christianity, one that seeks to clarify what Christianity really is and to indirectly persuade the Christian of this, to help the Christian come to an authentic judgment for himself or herself about Christianity. The teacher without authority seeks, as one with no authority, to persuade the already convinced of Christianity clarified, helping the truly religious to actually appear. Outside of that which is genuinely religious however, apologetics is self-serving and even non-sensical. In other words, outside a religious context, apologetics becomes prescriptive and not descriptive and this erroneously places apologetics alongside the apostles.
Kierkegaard’s central problematic is that the Christians of his time had confused the aesthetic (which includes culture, politics, and philosophy) and even that which is ethical with religious modes of thinking and living. He sought in nearly all of his writings to reveal the authentically Christian and authentically religious. His contention was that Christians confused the categories of the aesthetic and the ethical with the religious and therefore lived their lives, in the end, as false Christians. In other words, the genuinely religious is not something that is synonymous with the aesthetic (culture, politics, etc) or with the ethical (moral norms). The religious is that which directly leads to a relationship with and an understanding of the divine.
Kierkegaard’s goal was to make Christians aware of the categories, to wake them from their deep sleep. What they did with their newfound consciousness was of course up to them. He was the Christian Socratic midwife attempting to deliver religion from the irreligious (and most Christians were, in his eyes, ultimately irreligious because they consistently treated the aesthetic and the ethical as the religious). Obviously, then, Kierkegaard’s form of apologetics was a good deal milder than the traditional Christian apologist (who might very well argue that clarification alone is hardly apologetic at all). Kierkegaard sought to persuade indirectly (as a clarifier and as multiple pseudonymous voices) in assisting his audience in coming to a real decision about Christianity through seeing the truth for the first time by revealing real differences. Kierkegaard hoped that those so persuaded would then become authentic single individuals before God.