Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Obligation to Apologize

I've been away for longer than normal - sorry about that. Wild adventures, amazing ones, really, that I'll share in the near future. Meanwhile, here's a brief thought as I struggle to get me back into the rhythm of blogging.

Daniel Peterson of BYU gave a talk in 2010 called "The Obligation to Do Apologetics" in which he expressed puzzlement over Latter-day Saints who look down on efforts to defend the faith. That's what apologetics is, by the way: intellectual defense of the faith, giving answers to questions and objections, not "apologizing" for having a loser religion. It comes from an old Greek work that means "to defend." If we accept the faith, we should seek to defend it, or at least be able to defend it without just relying on blind faith and tradition. That seems to be the obligation that Peter gives us in 1 Peter 3:15 when he tells us to "be ready always to give an answer" to anyone that asks the reasons for the hope our religion gives. Brother Peterson says:
I think that it is a duty incumbent upon all of us to "apologize" in the original sense for our faith. It’s simply a human duty to apologize in that sense for positions that you hold. We all have an obligation. It's an individual obligation, and it’s incumbent upon all of us.
The disdain some faithful LDS members show for apologetics may come from their misunderstanding of what apologists are trying to achieve. We don't expect our arguments to take the place of the Spirit in converting people. But without defense, there can be much greater damage from the offense of the adversary.

Peterson quotes Austin Farrer with with insightful nugget, offered in discussing the work of C.S. Lewis in his beautiful apologetics for Christianity:
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.
Exactly. I've seen that so many times. The inability of many Latter-day Saints to help others when challenged with common arguments and attacks has led to many souls falling away unnecessarily. Many wandered and struggled in despair not knowing that there were good answers and explanations to help them deal with challenges that shook them. We would do well to be a little better prepared to help those struggling in the faith.


Anonymous said...

I hope your adventures have been safe. Thanks for the nice explanation of apologetics. I really don't need most of your arguments as my faith and testimony are unshakable. My problems could never be answered in a column like this.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the research and writing and answers that LDS apologists come up with. What I don't appreciate -- what I disdain -- what is too often a part of LDS apologetics, including the work of Dan Peterson -- is the nasty, snarky, sarcastic, contemptuous, ridiculing, hurtful, hateful tone of the manner in which too much LDS apologetics is presented. It isn't the apologetics I dislike, it's the apologists.

And yes, I'm too cowardly to sign my name to this. LDS apologists can also be vindictive, turning their sneers against faithful Latter-day Saints who ask them to be a little more professional, a little more scholarly, a little kinder, in how they present their findings.

Kent Larsen said...

I tend to agree with Anonymous of 8:39 am.

I do agree with the goal of Apologists as you describe it. I've even wondered if we Mormons don't need the equivalent of an anti-defamation league (because its not quite the same thing as our apologist efforts, IMO).

But some of the shenanigans I've heard about (second hand, I admit) and the too-often less-than-reasonable arguments put forward have put me on the fence about the value of organizations like FARMS and FAIR.

I dearly wish for a more reasonable and more responsible group of apologists.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Humans all have lapses and moments of weakness, and sometimes those taking on critics become overly confident or pointed, especially when it seems that the opponent is being less than forthright. But I'd like to understand what the shenanigans are that FARMS, for example, engages in. It's almost a mantra for some folks that LDS apologists are nasty, mean-spirited people devoid of intellectual honesty, etc., etc., and that we are driving people away from the Church with our bad behavior. I've asked for examples of such nastiness before without receiving a convincing responses regarding the bad behavior of FARMS or FAIRLDS.org, for example.

One self-proclaimed LDS intellectual wrote me a while ago and pleaded with me to quit writing and just go away. He told me what a horrific embarrassment my writing was to the Church and accused me of petty, mean-spirited rantings that treated opponents with reckless contempt. I sincerely wanted to remove any such material from my past writings and asked several times for specific examples that I could expunge. He went silent, and then months later came back and sort of apologized.

From what I could infer, I think that he, like many others, relied on the "common knowledge" in some smug intellectual circles where "everybody knows" that LDS apologists are yokels and embarrassments who should just go away. But when pressed for details to support that position, the silence was awkward.

I think it's not just the apologists who need to be more humble and open-minded.

Kent Larsen said...

Jeff, the most damaging story being circulated is the "Metcalf is a Buthead" affair from the first printing of issue 6:1 of FARMS Review of Books.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Kent, if that is the most damaging story, and I suspect it is, then I have to congratulate the folks at FARMS for remarkably responsible behavior.

For those wondering what this is all about, the "Butthead" event refers to a 1994 essay in which one LDS writer secretly embedded an acrostic in his essay to refute the claim of Brent Metcalfe that complex literary devices in the Book of Mormon like chiasmus can easily be explained by chance. The first letter of a string of paragraphs in Bill Hamblin's essay spelled out "Metcalfe is Butthead". You can read about this unfortunate and rather isolated event at SHIELDS. This was a tongue-in-cheek method, admittedly inappropriate, of illustrating a subtle literary device that was clearly intentional, though theoretically could have been accidental. When the editors of FARMS understood what had occurred, the inappropriate literary device was removed and the printed edition that at least some people received was free of the unfortunate error. That was in 1994. 17 years ago. A hidden acrostic. Three words. Tongue-in cheek, but unkind, yes, and thus quickly removed.

So for that 1994 error of one writer, obviously contrary to FARMS standards since FARMS acted swiftly to correct it, today in 2011, almost 20 years later, we are supposed to hold FARMS in contempt as a nasty and irresponsible organization rife with abusive shenanigans? For one hidden and quickly removed acrostic in 1994, we are supposed to ignore volumes of scholarly work from dozens of writers? It's hard to feel a sense of shame for the shenanigans of FARMS when this is the most damaging thing the critics can throw out to condemn the generally quite good folks at the Maxwell Institute (formerly FARMS).

I apologize if my remarks here come across as too pointed. Perhaps twenty years from now, this comment will be remembered as an example of the nasty, ad hominem rantings typical of Jeff Lindsay. :) (If you don't fully appreciate how nasty this post is, take the acrostic formed by the third letter of each sentence, apply a single shift cipher, transliterate the result into Navajo, and then translate back to English. If the result seems too offensive, you may have missed a critical glottal stop in the transliteration.)

Jeff Lindsay said...

Please note that I didn't mean that Kent was arguing that we should hold FARMS in contempt, but that this argument he refers to, still waived around by some of our critics so long after it became irrelevant, is used by some of those critics as an argument for ignoring the genuinely important contributions of FARMS/the Maxwell Institute.

bkbsmiles said...

You made a good case for why it is important to have apologetics. I saw something recently on the BYU Channel that talked about the patterns of verse in the Book of Mormon that was following the pattern like the Old Testament. There were some ways that the Book of Mormon had Hebrew influence that was not even seen in the Bible. The person also said how it is important to have scholarship an information such as this. Of course, it is not the foundation of a testimony but it has its place.

Dallas, Dad, Big D & I said...

Most of these comments are either over my head or outside of my experience. As for me I appreciate your explanation and agree that we need to be defenders of the word as well as have groups that do that on a larger basis then we ourselves do in our daily lives. Thanks.

Translatah said...

If I'm not mistaken (my Navajo is rusty), I'm getting this as your hidden message: "Zombies hot cactus wig ZZTop my fearful whoosh." Is that about right?

Anonymous said...

"My fearful whoosh" - I'm highly offended. Such bitter shenanigans, exactly as I expected.

Anonymous said...

Who are these LDS "who look down on efforts to defend the faith"? And are they dissing apologetics generally, or just what they deem to be bad apologetics?

If they're the former, I would agree with Jeff (and Peterson). If the latter, I think they have a point. Poorly reasoned defenses can do more harm than good. I suspect that even some of the more sophisticated defenses can be counterproductive to the extent they lead doubters to focus overly much on topics such as Book of Mormon geography and Native American ancestry which raise questions that, let's face it, we really can't answer very well at this point. Even the best apologetics in these areas strikes me as overly speculative, as demonstrations not that something is true, merely that something COULD be true.

In a weird way, Jeff, this post complements your earlier one about the Book of Mormon musical. The musical trashes the very doctrines that the apologists set out to defend, yet (if we can believe what we here) it somehow manages to make Mormons look good in the end. And here I am arguing that the orthodox believers, despite their good intentions, can wind up making us look bad. The reason for this is that the apologists focus on the truth of the doctrine whereas the musical stresses the goodness of the people. Maybe Parker and Stone know something that FARMS does not.

ldsphilosopher said...

"If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground—would be to throw down our weapons and to betray our uneducated brethren who have under God no defence but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist if for no other reason, because bad philosophy must be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against cool intellect on the other side, but against the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether." —C.S. Lewis

Darin said...

Hey Jeff. I find the irony of your situation quite hilarious actually. The fact that you have to apologize for your apologetics :-)

I personally love your posts and your articles. I first came across your material when I was confronted by a friend who happened to be a Baptist minister. He politely tried to crumble my faith and scare me away from my testimony in the
Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith. I didn't have the answers to some of his questions and I didn't even know about some of the issues he was bringing up.

Not knowing all the answers to his questions and his rebutting didn't shake my faith but I'm sure glad that there were resources that helped me find the answers. In fact, after a little research (most of it through your website) my faith and my testimony were strengthened significantly. In hindsight, I am very grateful for that experience.

Some people feel that all it takes is to read the Book of Mormon and to pray about it and the Spirit will tell you that it's true and that's all the evidence you should need for the rest of your life. What those people who feel that way need to realize is that for some people it may take additional studying, pondering, and discussing the gospel topics so that Spirit can CONFIRM the truthfulness of what was studied.

I for one am very grateful for LDS apologetics. Even if it is from a chemical engineer / photographer / blogger from Appleton, Wisconsin who often tries and sometimes succeeds at being witty and humorous. Keep up the good work!

Eric said...

Jeff -- I can't imagine how anyone could accuse you of petty, mean-spirited rantings. One reason I've appreciated your blog and many of your other writings is that you always (at least as far as I know) show great respect to other religions and their adherents. And, that, I believe is one mark of a good apologist -- you can't expect people to listen to you unless you do the same.

I haven't seen much mean-spiritedness among LDS apologists (although some). My main beef with some of them is that they are overly willing to see evidence that turns out not to be all that substantive on further examination. It's kind of the flip side of the problem I have with many evangelical apologists, who often don't hold themselves to the same standard that they hold us too.

In any case, keep up the good work. I almost always enjoy reading what you have to say.

Bruce Nielson said...

I have met some faithful LDS folk that disdain apologetics because they feel certain apologists are too snarky or what not. This point tends to be focused on how it 'used to be' and won't accept that things have improved from the past.

However, the single largest category of faithful LDS person that I have met that dislikes apologetics are the 'faithful doubters.' Some times called NOMs or Menu Mormons.

That is to say, they are faithful in practice but not belief. So in fact their disdain for apologetics is a self serving view point that favors their personal theological beliefs that run counter to the LDS Church's theology.

Quantumleap42 said...

If anyone has ever heard Hugh Nibley's talk "How to Write An Anti-Mormon Book" then they may understand why some people would think that Mormon apologists are "snarky, sarcastic" and "ridiculing", but when we consider the books and people that Hugh Nibley and others were responding to, then we can understand why the apologists responded in the way they did. They were responding with with ridicule to something that was ridiculous.

But from my own reading and observation most LDS apologetics is well researched and well done. It is still a young field and in some cases needs some "serious scholarship" but there are several people who recognize this and are actively working on improving it in that respect (by "serious scholarship" I mean, scholarship and writing that can be published and accepted outside of the normal LDS apologetics journals).

Bookslinger said...

False allegations in this subject are very common. The main false allegation in regards to this blog is when anti-mormons (usually ex-mormons) accuse Jeff of trying to "prove the church is true."

But the fair observer can see that Jeff's brand of apologetics is merely demonstrating _plausibility_, not proof. And the fact that he often specifically points out seems to fall on deaf ears of the ex-mo's.

Bookslinger said...

And the "mean" accusation is also another one, lobbed by the antis', when it in fact applies more (almost exclusively) to the anti's.

The "debate points" as far as logic, how each side paints the other, and factual debate topics, clearly belong on the pro-LDS side of this matter.

Anonymous said...

The "debate points" as far as logic, how each side paints the other, and factual debate topics, clearly belong on the pro-LDS side of this matter.

Well, I'm glad that's settled.

Seriously, "clearly" to whom? If the purpose of apologetics is not just to defend but to persuade, we've got a ways to go. I think it would be more accurate to admit that the antis have plenty of facts and logic on their side, and the apologists have plenty of plausible responses but no absolute clinchers. LDS apologetics is just not where many of us seem to think it is.

Another consideration is that plausibility varies from person to person. Many people find Lewis's Liar, Lord, or Lunatic argument quite persuasive, but I don't find it convincing at all.

Anonymous said...

Is Peterson the guy who was just arrested for trafficking in Israeli antiquities?

Stan Beale said...

I have problems with a fair amount of Mormon apologetics, but my difficulties have little to do with what type of Mormon they or I am. The problems arise from my training as an historian.

While at Cal as a graduate student in American History, I had the good fortune to have Charlie Sellers, Kenneth Stampp and Robert Middlekauf as professors. They drove into you the need to read carefully and critically. Especiaaly question those who you agree with and do not dismiss those you do not.

I often think of those times when I read Mormon Apologetics. Sometimes I read people who are snarky and overly dismissive of others, I have to fight through that to see if there is something to what they say. Other times my instinct says that they are right, but careful reading shows their arguments to be weak.

If any of my wishes were ever to be granted in this area, it would be that every apologist have a proof reading fairy and a set of peer review elves that would improve the quality and effect of much of their good work

Chris said...

Apologetics could be described as building a wall behind which hopeful-believers can stay, while they do those things which will be condusive to gaining a testimony. And I don't mean that kind of testimony that we here the primary kids give on Sunday, but a testimony of knowledge born out of personal revelation. For some of us, it takes years before we figure out the questions to ask, as well as the behaviors to engage in, that will enable the Lord to open the windows of heavens and pour out personal revelation unto us.

Now that I have had such, I can stand with the Prophets of old or Modern day, and say in my own words of my own experience, that I have receievd a revelation, I know it, and I know that God knows it, and I can not deny it.

The walls of apologetics are infestmal in regard to the personal witness of the spirit. I'm not sure if I'm properly categorizing it as such either... because I've always been faithful, and active... perhaps I'm thinking of something approaching the more sure word of prophecy. But all I know, is as a result of my experiences, the only thing that could cause me to lose my testimony would be my own personal unworthiness and denial of the things the Holy Ghost have witnessed to me as true.

Cindy said...

I agree that we should all take on the responsibility of "giving an answer for our faith". And rather than relying on others to give us the apologetics we need, we should return to the scriptures for ourselves...and like the Bereans, "examine the Scriptures every day".

Sometimes it is the different beliefs of others that send us back to the scriptures asking (or re-asking) the basic questions such as "who is God?", "why are we here?". If we are honestly seeking the answers to those questions, and not just a defense for our own positions, we can find the truth that will set us free!

Anonymous said...

I'm not a fan of apologetics generally, Mormon or otherwise, because the methods are more akin to those used by defense attorneys than they are to those used by scientists and scholars. They have a form of scholarship but deny the power thereof. The oft bandied apologetic phrase, "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence," illustrates the gulf between apologists and scientists. I don't know who originated this saying, but it's been repeated by such luminaries as Hugh Nibley. It demonstrates ignorance or intellectual dishonesty. If I get a chest CT scan that shows no tumor, that's evidence that tumor is absent. If you look and can't find a burglar in your house, that's evidence that there isn't a burglar in your house. If pre-columbian Mesoamericans did not depict horses in their art, write about them in their literature, and have no word for horse, that's evidence that they did not have horses. Imagine the state of scholarship if only positive evidence were to count toward anything.

Another apologetic technique that may provide short term gains but long term losses is the facile reinterpretation of texts to mean whatever fits currently available evidence. Sorenson did a lot of that. North means west, a deer is a horse, and a club is a sword. That sort of thing. This argument often takes one of two forms: 1) The Nephites borrowed a Hebrew word which means Y when Hebrews use it, but it means X when Nephites use it, or 2) Joseph Smith was unfamiliar with the meaning of X, so he substituted a word for something with which he was familiar. The problem with argument 2 is that there are several examples of words in the Book of Mormon that Joseph Smith didn't translate into English (cureloms, cumoms, neas, ziff; notice that they're all nouns. Were there no verbs with which Joseph was unfamiliar?). Why would he leave some unfamiliar words untranslated but substitute inaccurate or misleading translations for others? The problem with argument 1 is that Joseph Smith wasn't translating Hebrew. He was translating Nephite. According to Mormon, "none other people knoweth our language." What language is that? Nephite. If the Hebrew word for Y is the Nephite word for X, and Joseph Smith was translating the Nephite language rather than the Hebrew language, then he should translate the word as X, not Y.

How does the apologetic technique of shifting interpretations do long term harm to the church? It destroys confidence in our ability to ever know what the revelations mean. We can easily reinterpret doctrinal statements to fit whatever suits us. Apologetics are ultimately the path to epistemological nihilism.

Pops said...

"I think it would be more accurate to admit that the antis have plenty of facts and logic on their side, and the apologists have plenty of plausible responses but no absolute clinchers."

Ugh. This is one reason why there are apologists - to point out the obvious.

Let me propose a few random facts. (Take a look at Kid History \Episode 4 on BoredShorts.tv, then say "faaaaccctttt" after each one.)

1. The Book of Mormon exists.
2. The Book of Mormon contains Hebraisms.
3. Word print analysis of the Book of Mormon shows evidence of multiple authors.
4. Old world candidates for the land Bountiful exist where the Book of Mormon predicts.
5. A number of ancient civilizations existed in pre-Columbian America.
6. One pre-Columbian civilization disappeared precisely when the Book of Mormon states the Jaredites were wiped out by civil war.
7. Joseph and Hyrum never recanted, even though they paid for it with their lives.
8. The three witnesses to the Book of Mormon never recanted.
9. The other witnesses to the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated never recanted.
10. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has flourished.

These are simple and obvious facts. The dispute arises when discussing motivations, not so much the facts.

Anonymous said...

The dispute arises when discussing motivations, not so much the facts.

Quick question, Pops: Did you mean "interpretations" rather than "motivations"?

Cindy said...

I think it is important to remember that we are to apologize for our faith...that in which we put our faith for eternal life with God. Our response then, if we are Christian, would be to defend why we have a faith in Christ, not necessarily why we attend a certain church.

CD-Host said...

Just to throw a quick comment in here from an outside observer. The issue with apologetics may be the lack of clear cut doctrinal statements. Apologists are being forced to confront areas on which teachings are ambiguous. As reputable apologists begin to standardize counter arguments they are in practice forming public doctrinal statements.

For example take the whole dispute about Brigham Young Adam God doctrine issue. There are a bunch of responses that are possible in theory:

1) Brigham Young was not speaking prophetically to speak prophetically you need to do A, B, C. (thereby created a formal doctrine of prophetic speech)

2) Brigham Young intended to speak prophetically but other prophets rejected the message ... (thereby created a council that has authority over the president)

3) You (the anti Mormon) aren't properly interpreting this. (thereby created a formal hermeneutical doctrine)

4) Brigham Young intended to speak prophetically and the mistake was caught (thereby asserting a doctrine that prophets can err and a means of correction).

5) This was doctrine but was rejected later as shown by ... (thereby created a doctrine of how prophecy is rejected)

6) Adam/God is true in the sense of the divinity of Adam but not the tie with Elohim (thereby creating a notion of who the final interpreter is)

7) Adam/God is absolutely true in the naive sense (creating a doctrine)

8) Brigham Young was a false prophet


Apologists are always on the front lines in having to formulate doctrines. But in the absence of clear statements on issues of doctrine apologists are taking too great a role in creedal construction.

But it goes even deeper. Because Mormons are just entering their early phases of liberals vs. conservatives apologists are being asked to determine what are acceptable deviations within Mormonism and what are attacks on the faith (i.e. unacceptable deviations). In essence they are being asked to create public definitions of heresy.

That's a pretty tall order.

Loni said...

I've seen too many friends and family fall away from the LDS church beginning with a simple lack of argument in defense of it. There have been times when their doubts and questions have spilled over into my life and affected me. The primary difference has been that I have always given the LDS church the benefit of the doubt. Over time all my doubts and questions have been resolved satisfactorily and not just ignored. Part of that is thanks to you and your apologetics. I have been so grateful for your work and efforts for a very long time. Sometimes the efforts of the adversary are overwhelming and it's nice to have a way to calm the storm that he stirs up. So despite what anyone else says to you about your apologetics, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. I could not be more grateful for the body of work you have posted online.

Cindy said...


You illuminate the idea that we all have doubts at times, but if our doubts are about Christ, they will never go without acceptable answers...as a matter of fact, Christ encourages questions! He was always asking questions, and He encouraged people to ask questions of Him.

Other things might fall away in the meantime...our reliance on relationships, churches...but never Christ and His gospel of grace...He truly does endure forever!