Apologetics. Part III.

Part II here.

What can Mormons take away from Kierkegaard and Marion? I have been suggesting that Marion (a Catholic theologian) and Kierkegaard (a Protestant philosopher) are two distinct though not totally opposed poles within which to imaginatively consider the situation in which Mormon thought and apologetics operates. These are not one-to-one correspondences of course, and I hope the differences between Mormonism and Marion and Kierkegaard are obvious. In fact, Mormonism itself could charitably criticize both thinkers on various points. I want to suggest however, that there are some interesting readings of Mormonism that Marion and Kierkegaard might productively contribute to.

Any consideration of apologetics, philosophy, theology, etc. within the context of Mormonism is a consideration of teaching authority, where there are, properly speaking, teachers in the absence of traditional theologians and where philosophy is still often regarded as a worldly endeavor that is dangerously mingled with scripture. The authority to teach in Mormonism descends through multiple levels of delegation from the magisterium–the priesthood hierarchy led by prophets and apostles. Ultimately, though, the teachings that are most often considered authoritative in the Mormon world are derived from two principle sources: the teachings of the apostles and prophets themselves and the scriptures. As Kierkegaard has, I think, wisely illustrated, for a believer within the community the content of the apostles’ message must be subservient to who speaks it, not the other way around. An apostle is an apostle by virtue of his calling and his message, not by virtue of his persuasive or non-persuasive articulation of a given issue.  But this is exponentially complicated in Mormonism (assuming it is accepted) because Mormonism presents us (heretically, with regard to mainstream Christianity) with actual living apostles instead of an ideal type symbolized in St. Paul–officiators of the Gospel who are flesh and blood human beings. The traditional Christian has only to deal with the concept of “Apostle” typified through Paul in the scriptures. What Paul teaches is always already reinforced by canonical steel beams of authority because all of it is synonymous with the scriptures, and indeed what constitutes scripture in the first place. What to do, then, with the multiple sources of potentially authoritative teachings from living messengers?

Kierkegaard might respond, I think, by saying that we might profitably see this situation in Mormonism as a problem of degree rather than kind. We might be tempted to say that apostles and prophets in the Mormon context are simply too vastly different from the Pauls and the Isaiahs of the scriptures in order to make any serious comparisons, that they are different in kind from the prophets of the Text. However, Kierkegaard might respond that if this is truly to be the case, Mormonism must reveal, from its own sacred texts, how they are to be different. Is an apostle a divine messenger or not? It makes no difference if he attends basketball games, plays with his grandchildren, or pokes fun at Darwinism. Even Paul had some interesting and contestable (to say the least) notions about women and marriage, fought with Peter and others fairly regularly, and must be considered, for all intents and purposes otherwise, to be a human being. But as an apostle, Paul was a divine messenger. He may even be shown to be wrong in some way about the Law, or faith, or grace–but as an apostle Paul was a divine messenger, and if the Christian chooses to remain a Christian, Paul must be received as an apostle before all else. His responsibility is to God in such a way that the burden of his message for Paul the human being is one of personal despair, because the message is relentless, unyielding, and only removed by death.

Applied to a Mormon context, whether we agree or disagree with the content of divine messages, we must first be attentive to the fact of the messenger at the risk of A) assigning no value to the message at all if we disagree and consequently risk severing ourselves completely from the community, or, B) for the believer who enthusiastically and unthinkingly endorses every message, assigning too much value to the content of the message at the risk of confusing the aesthetic and the ethical with the religious. In other words, we can trivially and dangerously assume that, because the apostle or prophet spoke it, it has come ready made as a philosophically persuasive argument, when this is to miss the crucial importance of the message as wholly religious in nature if the apostle was truly speaking as a messenger from God, a message that cannot be simply judged according to rational logic or cultural predilection alone. That apostles and prophets themselves sometimes present their messages within these structures—that is, they’ll sometimes seek to present their message within the structure of logical argument–merits attention, but this will not invalidate the critical importance for the believer in hearing their message as apostles, not as theologians, ethicists, or cultural critics. (In any case, to say that this frequently happens would be to overstate the case. My experience has been to note the very confessional manner in which most Mormon apostles speak, where confession and didacticism are more prevalent than argumentation).

Marion’s explanation of the relationship of the theologian to the bishop and the Eucharist is relatedly instructive here. What is the bishop as bishop for Marion? The administrator of the Eucharist. Not a sermonizer, not a pronouncer of doctrine. He may do these things as well (and usually does) but for authentic life-promoting and community-binding theology to take place, in which the theologian is tied directly to the bishop, he is no more or less the ritual revealer of the Word. His importance to the church community ultimately begins and ends here. Similarly, for Mormon theologians or teachers and the “Eucharistic” sites of their theology, which, apart from the sacrament itself we might include temple ritual, the priesthood as administrator of the ordinances becomes the theologian at large and par excellence. But the priesthood in this sense is not making doctrinal pronouncements or even strictly teaching, though again it may do that. Instead, through the constant administration of ordinances, its role is as the revealer of the Word and the founding events of early Mormonism against which Mormons find themselves in fidelity, or at least against which they might struggle in fidelity (First Vision, Book of Mormon, etc). Priesthood administers the ordinances, through which, as the Doctrine and Covenants states, the powers of godliness are manifest. The Mormon theologian who disconnects himself or herself from the ordinances in this way (not by not participating in them but by presenting Mormonism non-religiously) becomes instead a theologian, one with, by default, her own referent, ideology, and agenda, and therefore not a servant of the greater community, a community that is religiously bound together and connected to God through sacred ordinances. Theology as a thoroughly religious endeavor.  Consequently, simply to hold the priesthood is not to be a pronouncer of doctrine or even to authoritatively teach. To hold the priesthood is to simply be (potentially) enabled to play the role of revealer of the Word through ordinances. Having living apostles and prophets but no living theological magisterium in which to wrestle with and systematically nail down points of doctrine on every issue is, among other things, a particularly Mormon way of clearing a space for a multitude of teachers without authority. But not, consequently, to create all males as priesthood-holders-as-teachers, but for of all Mormons to potentially be teachers–who do not have authority. In other words, my having the priesthood (as a Mormon male) has nothing to do with my capacity nor any supposedly endowed authority, to teach. I am not an apostle or a prophet. Neither is my bishop nor my stake president (popular beliefs in some areas of the church that the bishop is the prophet of the ward notwithstanding). Being the recipient of the transfer of powers and authorities through keys does not make me an apostle either. The apostle must stand as a figure of universality, and in the Mormon church, there are only 15 that represent such a figure. As a consequence, if I choose to teach (to be a theologian, an apologist, an outspoken blogger) I can become a theologian by not severing myself from the authority of the ordinances and seeking to upbuild the community, or I can be a theologian by teaching according to my own lights alone, my own agenda, interpreting the word in ways that serve my own purposes and not those of the larger community. As a theologian I iconically build up, as a theologian, I idolatrously tear down, only to build up myself alone from the remnants. Both men and women can do this and become this. As teachers without authority, we live in the aesthetic and the ethical and are thus positioned and called to persuade, to criticize, to upbuild in this way. Priesthood, on my account (particularly at ground level) is scripturally most coherent as it is connected to ordinance and ritual.

As I’ve already mentioned,  I do not think apologetics is avoidable or should be wholly avoidable, though I do think that certain styles of apologetics do more harm than good and as a result, as Marion says, bring death instead of life. I also think that, for those of us who insist it is possible as a religious person to be wholly unapologetic in discoursing about our faith commitments, Kierkegaard invites us to see the messiness of the descriptive/prescriptive distinction. Not that description is not a worthy goal. I think what Kierkegaard can teach us here is the hopefully humble nature and manner of the apologist, of one who, without any authority or even the desire to become so rationally persuasive that the susceptible might accept the apologist as authoritative, merely seeks to clarify and remind, herself no less than others. The descriptive way of doing theology or philosophy, then, is a worthy method because it thinks so little of itself, as long as it realizes that the prescriptive will often bleed into his methods and does not arrogantly think that this is not possible, and even that to describe is sometimes to prescribe. If we are serious about our message, our faith commitments, and our growth as rational thinkers then we are seeking both the growth and continued immortality of every human being. Marion suggests that it is love that will finally do this work, never the persuasive presentation of evidence, and that the rational side of apologetics, instead of seeking to convince, might instead consider seeking to restrain the will, to give it good enough reasons (just so) in order to stop and consider the love that the apologist ideally has for his or her audience, and it is through this method that Christ is fully revealed—if in fact the revelation of Christ is the ultimate goal of the apologist. But apologetics is traditionally an extremely secular enterprise (as Joseph Spencer rightfully says in his recent post). Why? Because it uncompromisingly and almost unthinkingly uses the tools of modernity (scientific method, linguistic analysis, archaeology, etc) and, more importantly, because it so often takes the form of self-inflating argumentation that does not seek to create a space for the will to truly accept or reject the divine but merely confirms its priors for those who already believe, apologetics has rarely been religious.  (For my money, Salt Press is a beginning of a sophisticated apologetics–though it doesn’t refer to itself as such–that is more religious in nature). At the core, then, of love-driven apologetics? Repentance. Both the desire that the intended audience embrace repentant and transformative ways of life (intellectually as well as spiritually), and the desire for the apologist to see one’s own ideas, methods, and presuppositions as inherently revisable, producing an authentic and unending willingness to learn and grow, but more importantly, an enterprise that seeks to provide the will with a reason to stop and embrace the Master it claims to desire to reveal. With love and repentance as a recognized goal and impetus for apologetic work, the tone of our apologetics will also be more loving and peace-making, and our potential work as theologians within a prophetic church will be one of love and upbuilding.


  1. Bravo! I enjoyed that. One quick question, though. It seems to me that you emphasized the prophet or apostle as a single authoritative entity, in parallel with Paul’s authoritative status. However, don’t we usually say something to the effect that it is the prophet who holds all the keys (authority) as a single person, while the apostles hold them as a body? And doesn’t that likewise pass down to the Seventy?


  2. Mogs (good to see you, btw), Brigham Young made the argument that Seventies held the keys. But I’m not sure that the corporate holding of the keys is commonly held. I read church leaders claiming that individual apostles hold the keys, but only the president is authorized to use them.

  3. Mogs, that’s true, and what J. said as well. No argument here.

  4. Fascinating stuff, Jacob (though I confess this raises a whole host of questions for me — esp. about the nature, definition, and role of Apostles — but I’ll pose them to you in a different time and forum).

  5. Naturally, Robert :) Though I wouldn’t mind in the least discussing what you have in mind here.

  6. Kristine says:

    But, Jacob–if he discusses it here, then the folks in that other forum won’t be able to wax smug about how much more intelligent the discussion is there than on the blogs!

  7. Come now, Kristine. The folks in the other forum borrow their smugness-about-their-discussions’-intelligence precisely from the blogs.

  8. OK, fine, Kristine, you win (though don’t think you’ve done more than briefly interrupted my deeply entrenched habit and ability to find ways to be smug, condescending, pretentiously ironic, or a hundred other of the variations I’ve developed over the years…).

    Jacob: Thanks, first, for the Salt Press shout-out. That said, I’ll start my wind-up: You have set up a category for “prophets and apostles” that I suspect doesn’t hold much — if any — water.

    When you say that you “are not not an apostle or a prophet,” what are you claiming? It seems you are referring to some “supposedly endowed authority” to teach. But what do you mean by teach, if not to be an iconic vessel of God’s word, like any other “ritual revealer of the Word,” such as my set-apart Gospel Doctrine teacher? That is, does the authority that a prophet or apostle wield differ (in kind, not just “magnitude”) from the authority that any other teacher in the Church wields?

    That’s the heart of my question/concern. I’ll post a bit of lengthy and wordy elaboration of this issue in a separate, much more smug comment….

  9. As promised, here’s a lengthy P.S. to my above comment (which I actively encourage Jacob to delete as an inappropriately long attempt at a threadjack!):

    Consider, for example, if I heard a Gospel doctrine teacher say something important during a lesson that I didn’t believe was true, I’d be inclined to dismiss it — however, to the extent that I respect the authority of the teacher’s calling (an authority I would, in a Levinasian vein, be apt to grant to any other person), I would ponder, study and pray about the matter.

    If a Prophet or Apostle did the same thing as the teacher during General Conference, I would do the same thing, though I would do it more intensely. Is there, or should there be, any fundamental difference here? (It seems to me that George Albert Smith, at least, would argue no.) If so, what is it? If not, what are you really saying when you make the claim, “I am not an apostle or a prophet”?

    In other words, how would you define what it is to be an Apostle or Prophet in Mormonism, in the sense you are using the terms, and on what basis(/authority) are you drawing your definition?

    Since I worry I’m not being smug enough, wait, here’s more:

    If there’s one thing that dabbling in Derrida’s writings, and post-Derridean writings, has taught me, it’s to ask the ground of any claim. And in Mormonism, the more I wonder about the nature, role and calling of a member of the Quorum of the 12 or First Presidency, the more I feel the force of Derrida’s deconstructive criticism, that the argument becomes radically circular.

    So, I want someone to tell me what, as a “mainstream faithful member of the Church,” am I supposed to believe about the role and calling of Pres. Thomas S. Monson, his counselors, and our 12 apostles, and how does all of that relate to other sources of authority in Mormonism (esp. scripture)? If these sources all strictly and univocally speak the single Mind of God, as I think most if not all of us (at least raised) in the Church were originally acculturated to believe, there’s no problem. But if this isn’t the case, as I expect few if any reading this now believe, then what?

    My own repeated pondering of this turtles-all-the-way-down issue, with the help of what I’ll call existentially inflected writers (Continental philosophy, mostly) makes me think that ultimately we (with the help of the Holy Ghost) have to decide what we think of the issue, and then take responsibility for whatever we choose to believe. Usually, I think we tend to just continue the tradition of believing the traditions that we’ve inherited from our spiritual Mormon forebears, but–as I think Heidegger’s notion of taking responsibility for our beliefs nicely shows–I think there’s something spiritually immature about this approach, in the end.

    Now, in this moment of existential recognition, the Mormon seems as vulnerable as any other modern mortal–except that we have Moroni’s promise and Joseph Smith’s example held out as a kind of hope for us, giving extra meaning to the Christian idea that whosoever seeks shall find. But this existential moment of angst — basically, Joseph’s prayer on his knees in the Grove — seems to be a moment that no prophetic or apostolic claim of authority can really circumvent or mediate. And if the prophetic and apostolic mantle of authority doesn’t hold this water, what water does it hold?

    (It seems pretty much all of postmodern thought can be viewed as a kind of expression of this problem of authority, and it seems to me there are two basic ways to respond: first, in a nihilistic, postmodern way, since any response is ultimately just arbitrary; second, since the call within the experience or encounter is intensely personal, in the sense that it can’t be reasonably explained to others, one should respond with some notion of fidelity to the experience. Articulating this kind of fidelity, however, is rather challenging, but I think the Mormon idea of covenant or the Holy Ghost and personal revelation, or Marion’s idea of a lover’s oath, or Badiou’s idea of a truth procedure, or Ranciere’s idea of an axiom of equality, are all efforts to do just this. So, in an effort to map your idea of apologetics to these ideas it seems apologetics amounts to the following: a bearing witness, in love, to others that one is acting in fidelity to something that is “delicious to the taste,” and thus worth investigating more. Or something like that. Now, Jacob, if I’m making any sense, am I even in the ballpark??)

  10. Hmm, I’m not exactly see where we are in serious disagreement, Robert. I was attempting to articulate a legitimate space within Mormon thought for *thought* not being dependent on Mormon authority, but for authority to nevertheless remain living and viable, as something that provides an intrinsic contour to Mormonism without which Mormonism doesn’t remain Mormonism but becomes something else. The Prophet or Apostle in Mormonism is in fact the same as your Gospel doctrine teacher *except with regard to* the Apostle’s authority which makes him an Apostolic divine messenger, and your gospel doctrine teacher not an Apostle (or maybe, at most, an apostle, small “a.”) A straightforward, unqualified appeal to a postmodern thought on this issue doesn’t insert itself unproblematically into Mormonism, precisely because of the issue of authority. An Apostle in Mormonism is one who bears keys of authority. Keys of authority are most explicitly connected, it seems to me, to sacred ordinances/rituals, not to teaching per se. So, when I say that before all else the believer must receive the Apostle as Apostle I mean, the Apostle must be recognized (I’m including the Prophet in this category for purposes of brevity and clarity, recognizing that properly speaking the Prophet holds keys most directly and Apostles hold keys as a body, delegated to them by the Prophet) as one in whom the authority to enact ordinances is vested. So, being an Apostle does not mean speaking univocally speaking the Mind of God. Being an Apostle means to be one called by God to be the one in whom authority is vested to perform ordinances (that these are delegated all over the world is true, but the point is to recognize in what living bodies keys symbolically reside). This is all meant to clear a space for representing average Mormons as the thinkers of Mormonism, and precisely not in collision with Apostolic authority. Apostles teach yes, but because of the divine investiture of ritual authority, they occupy the religious in a way that other teachers do not. This actually means, as you say, that we ponder, pray, comb the text more rigorously, etc, so as to receive their messages religiously instead of merely aesthetically or ethically. They are also bearers of divine keys *and* that, because of this and because of their visible position in church administration and governance, their teachings are potentially universally polarizing in a way that your gospel doctrine teacher is not. As I say in the post, because of this, many Mormons fall into habit of receiving their messages in a certain way, in a way that precludes actual thought, in such a way, in fact, that obscures the primary connection of the Apostolic body to ordinances/rituals. I was trying (perhaps unsuccessfully) to point out how authority could legitimately function in Mormonism in such a way as not to inhibit thought but to insist on it, thus to produce more Mormons (especially women, frankly, because teaching and priesthood are traditionally connected to one another in ways I do not think are accurate and inhibit thought) who think of themselves as teachers, who persist in thinking and re-thinking Mormonism in fidelity to Mormonism’s “Eucharistic” sites.

    And I agree wholeheartedly with your interpretation of my take on apologetics proper.

  11. Jacob #10, thank you for these clarifications — very helpful, and very insightful. I think I understand much better now, and I think you are right that we are in basic agreement. (And I really like the insights of your post and comment/s that I’ve never thought about before.)

    I should leave it at that, but since I find this all so fascinating, and I’m still in reacting mode to Kristine’s smug comment, I’ll venture a recap of our discussion in my own words, followed by an attempt to extend the idea along one particular trajectory, in a kind of reformulation of my original question.

    My original concern(/accusation) was that you are not preserving any real space for Apostolic authority. With the help of your response, it seems I was right that you are in fact stripping Apostles of a particular kind of authority, namely authority over thinking. However, you are preserving the ritualistic/administrative aspect of Apostolic authority.

    So, recasting my earlier concern in light of this new-found understanding, I was basically arguing that the authority that a set-apart Gospel Doctrine teacher wields when teaching seems to be the same kind of authority that an Apostle has when teaching, basically because both the GD teacher and the Apostle were called to their calling (i.e., both are apostles, little A) and this means that both enjoy “divine investiture of ritual authority” (very nice phrase, BTW!).

    I think you would agree to this (or am I misunderstanding?), but your response highlights the sense in which an Apostle simply has more of this kind of ritualistic/administrative authority (I used the term “magnitude” to hint at this before, and your response explained this in terms of the Apostle’s “visible position in church administration and governance” so that “their teachings are potentially universally polarizing”).

    This is all good. However, with an eye toward what I think are deeply Levinasian roots to Marion’s thought, it seems that the “done unto me” idea (and “Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief” pride of place in Mormonism) forces us to think about the same kind of ritualistic authority of the Other in any of our encounters with other people. That is, if I have covenanted and consecrated myself to love my neighbor, aren’t I obligated to relate to my neighbor in the same iconic way that I relate to my GD teacher or an Apostle? Is the difference, again (now between my neighbor and an Apostle), just a difference of magnitude and scope — that I listen to more frequently, and regularly, and in concert with fellow Church members to Apostles conveying God’s words (and countenance), whereas I relate in fundamentally the same way to my neighbor, but in a less frequent, regular and communalized way? Or is there some other key kind of difference that I’m overlooking??

  12. No, the Apostle does not simply have “more” of the same “stuff” of authority (so much metaphysical nonsense), and you are right on this point. But I think magnitude and scope work well. I affirm a rather radical egalitarianism in Mormonism, Robert, but not one which posits absolutely no difference whatever between Apostle and non-Apostle, or that everyone is an Apostle. The Apostle is both Apostle and apostle within the discourse of the Believer. He is only Apostle in the very narrow sense of the Origination of divine investiture of ritual authority. An apostle (the faithful believer) is called to her calling, can potentially as a priesthood holder officiate in ritual, can do, and be, in classic egalitarian fashion, anything the Apostle can do and be, including teach snd serve–except be the site of Origination of the investiture of ritual authority. In that sense and that sense alone the Apostle is Apostle. In that particular procedure do we recognize the Apostle as divine messenger set apart in singular way. In that sense does the Apostle symbolically represent God to the community in way that the non-Apostle cannot. And this clears the space for the rise of the Teacher-without-Authority, a type that requires no direct investiture in order to be occupied potentially by anyone, but which must be symbolically connected to the universal figure of the Apostle. Apart from this, all authority and covenantal obligation possessed by the apostle who is also an Apostle is theoretically the same, and all are teachers, all are recipients of teaching, all must repent, all must relate iconically to all. But qua Apostle, the Apostle stands apart. Or so it seems to me.

  13. Which is also to say, I really like what you say about Levinas here, and how it applies to the Mormon context. I agree with essentially everything, with a particular emphasis on the site of Origination.

  14. Ah, Origination as the unique Apostolic difference — very nice, Jacob.

    I think this is a particularly nice way to tackle several problems of authority that I’ve been chewing on for quite some time now, so thanks for all these extra thoughts and comments to help me make the connections (esp. since this question of authority is only indirectly related to your topic of apologetics, though related in a crucial way I think…).

  15. It is, I think, this kind of authority that enables Mormonism, potentially, to escape the “liberal Protestant” death by dilution that has denominationally occurred in American religious history, to inhabit an anti-modern but also anti-postmodern space, as Joe nicely lays out at Square Two.

  16. You mean his response to John-Charles Duffy article, right? I’d forgotten about that one. I’ll definitely have to reread with this idea of authority in mind….

  17. Yes, that one, where he identified Mormonism as a strain at a second modernity. Something else I didn’t explore in these posts, but in which Mormon apologetics is thoroughly entangled.

  18. Jacob, your excellent response in #10 helps me figure out why I think this post is only peripherally about the typically-understood necessity and method of apologetics. In Mormonism, authority is a factor, but not merely for apologists but also for philosophers, scholars, and sunday school teachers and members generally. You are trying to negotiate a space for the Apostle in Mormonism and the individual’s responsibility to search, ponder, and pray. Your analysis itself, then, is dealing more directly with a question about particular approaches to a Mormon problem, and in this way, sort of plays the role of apologetics itself rather than being a mere description of apologetics which looks closely at definitions and various methods, including historical precedent and present diversity. So it’s a powerful and I think important discussion, but I still look for a more meta approach to the question of apologetics.

    All in all, though, cool series. It seems a lot of folks are directly interested in K’s thoughts on apostles and how they play out in Mormonism. Maybe more on that point deserves posting.

  19. Previously I pointed out that we believe in the perfection of the individual. This makes individual revelation extremely important. We do not believe that the rate and magnitude of revelation to the GAs place a limit to the revelation and insight for the individual. (We do believe that this Church is governed by them, however, and as such their opinions and revelations take precedence in Church governance for better or worse.)

    When the putative Sunday school teacher stands up and teaches, we have every bit the possibility of insight and understanding as from any other member of Christ’s Kingdom.

    You talk about apologists. I understand you mean trained, (semi)professional apologists. The Church is full of amateur apologists called missionaries (which include every member). I perceive, likewise, because of the above argument of personal perfection, that the world of apology is open for all to participate. In view of the need to find perfection, apologetics may be a necessary step on the path.

    The result is that spiritual and apologetic perfection may find a place in the souls of single individuals. The dichotomy of theologian and theologian may be valid only in certain cases, as likely represented by the Catholic Church, were the huddled masses only care about mass on Easter, leaving the larger playing field to the professional priesthood and apologists. (It may, unfortunately, apply to the Mormon Church, but shouldn’t.)

  20. Not sure the dig at Catholics is entirely warranted…

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