Is It Really Style?

By | November 8, 2013

In a different post I addressed what I see as limitations (failings, if you will) in a proposal for apologetics put forward by Bill Reel and ostensibly agreed to by Richard Bushman. In this post I thought it productive to address a related issue which has to do more with how apologists address the doubts of doubters.

First, though, it is important to realize that there is a strain of thought within the Church, from some either marginally interested in apologetics and others fully invested in apologetics, that proposes that the “traditional” way of doing apologetics is “bad” and somehow destructive. They seek for a new way to defend the Church, one that they imagine to be kinder, gentler, and therefore more acceptable to the tender feelings of those going through crisis.

These people, however, miss the point. While they no doubt have good intentions, they are on a quixotic quest that, unfortunately, will only end in disappointment and distract other apologists from the real work in which they should be engaged.

What point are they missing? That it isn’t, by and large, the “style” of how the apologists deliver their messages, it is the “substance” of what they have to say. This is what is rejected by a good number of doubters.

apologist2Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that apologists should engage in any and every rhetorical evil that may cross their minds. Participants in civil discourse should be kind, gentle, charitable, and empathetic. And, I believe, most apologists have been such. (There are notable exceptions of apologists who do not exhibit these virtues. Their existence is to be expected in the panoply of human nature. Those critical of apologists tend to paint all with the putrid colors of a few while saying that we should not tar all critics with the vitriol exhibited by the most vocal of that class. Double standards are an interesting thing. Side note: You typically won’t find good examples of civil apologists on message boards.)

So where does the rejection of “substance” come into play? Over the years I’ve read a lot of comments from doubters who, at the crisis point of their faith, decided to leave the Church and eventually became critics of their abandoned Church. One of the constant refrains that I noticed is the claim that apologists routinely “confuse the situation” by presenting “so many options” that no answer is possible. These doubters-turned-critics could not deal with the ambiguities and possible permutations of analysis that exist in the real world. In other words, they came to apologists (or their websites) and looked for exactly what Bill Reel described in his ideal for apologists—two choices, A and B, with A being the critic’s conclusions about a set of given facts and B being the apologist’s alternative explanation.

Life isn’t that simple; it just isn’t. There are, in reality, many possible reasonable conclusions for any given set of data. And when new data is interjected into the mix, then the set of possible conclusions might be adjusted. There is no simple A or B, regardless of what Bill suggests or what the doubters-turned-critics were looking for. Both are destined for disillusionment because they are proposing or looking for something that is not possible.

Instead, there is only a process that is actually described by Richard Bushman while being interviewed by Bill:

These things are just immensely complicated and there is no way that through picking through and looking at everything you can arrive at certain conclusions. That’s easy for me as a scholar to say because that’s the nature of historical knowledge. Every historian knows that the biggest questions are all unanswerable or you have very restrictive answers to most of the big questions.

Bill, though, goes on to present an apologetic ideal that suggests the A or B—negative vs. positive—approach to dealing with doubt.

How, exactly, does one provide the simple, single alternative that the doubter seeks when (as Richard says) issues are “immensely complicated” and the “biggest questions are all unanswerable?”

What typically happens in this situation is that the doubter—looking for a simple, single alternative answer and not finding one—determines that the apologists are obfuscating the truth that the doubter feels must be there. In fact, though, the apologists are doing no such thing. Unless there is a pre-existing foundation of trust with the apologists (as Bill indicated he had in working through his personal faith crisis), the doubter concludes that there is no truth, only smoke and mirrors, and exits the Church. They then credit the apologists with hastening their exit and spread that misinformation to others.

As this meme grows, those who are not intimately familiar with apologetics (and yes, that includes scholars like Richard Bushman) conclude that where there is smoke there must be fire. In this case, they come to the mistaken conclusion that it must be the “approach” used with those who doubt—if apologists were just nicer, kinder, spoke softer, or were more empathetic, then the doubters would stop and listen. (John Dehlin has achieved almost demigod status in fostering this train of thought.)

The problem is, they won’t stop and listen. Why? Because the apologists still cannot deliver what the doubters were looking for in the first place—a simple, single answer that will assuage their doubt.

So, to stop “burying” the critics or their arguments by pointing out that there may be dozens of ways of looking at a particular data set is not possible nor, in my opinion, desirable. That approach doesn’t deal with the root problem; it doesn’t address the bigger question.

The bigger question (which Bill and Richard never address in their interview) is how do we (apologists, the Church, or members in general) educate doubters—especially in the midst of their faith crisis—to the fact that there are no black-and-white answers in the real world? How do we get them to understand that faith and ambiguity can co-exist? How do we get them to answer, as Nephi, that “I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things” and to really, really be OK with that?

I close this post, again, with the same Richard Bushman quote I used to close the other post. I think it bears repeating and should, no doubt, play into whatever answers are developed for the real problems instead of the diversionary problem of delivery style.

So long as you have a feeling that if you really look at everything, that if you turned over every rock, you might be shocked with what you found, you don’t have a secure testimony. Until you can look at everything squarely you really are on shaky ground.

Changing delivery style won’t calm shaky ground.


4 thoughts on “Is It Really Style?

  1. anon

    “The bigger question (which Bill and Richard never address in their interview) is how do we (apologists, the Church, or members in general) educate doubters—especially in the midst of their faith crisis—to the fact that there are no black-and-white answers in the real world? How do we get them to understand that faith and ambiguity can co-exist?”

    Yes, so close but so far apart. I think the problem is one of community. Bill and Richard consider themselves doubters who have faith, and who therefore belong to the community of doubters. Many or most apologists see themselves as people of faith who belong to the community of the faithful, which has a ministry to doubters. The challenge, then, is that many apologists, leaders, and members in general see doubters as the not-them, the sick to whom they minister. I’ll just call these members conservatives. This otherizing converts doubters into progressive not-thems. Conservatives lose doubters’ trust, and then their moral foundations (a la Jonathan Haidt) shift in a progressive direction. At which point conservative apologists stop making sense and progressives like Bill and Richard start making sense.

    The attitudinal differences become more important than the content. I’d offer these examples, from my point of view as progressive: I think most conservatives believe that in the face of so much uncertainty, we must walk by faith, not doubt. I think most progressives believe that in the face of so much uncertainty, we must accept that doubt is a part of faith. Most conservatives oppose belief to doubt, and equate belief with faith. Most progressives oppose both belief and doubt (certitude) to openness, and see faith as something rooted in the latter but reaching into both of the former. Many conservatives see faith as something we are anchored in, or not. Many progressives see faith as journey; where one anchors is less important than the route one travels. Etc., etc.

    Community will always win over argument. Apologists can never compete with (esp.) a Fiona Givens or a Bill Reel or a John Dehlin, who can honestly say to them, “You and I, we’re no different at all. We’re just at a different place on our journey.”

    1. Allen Post author

      I enjoyed your reasoned replay, Anon. Good thoughts.

      I would make a couple of changes, though. You say that conservatives (again, for lack of a better term) “equate belief with faith.” I think that belief and faith are not synonyms, but that belief is a key element of faith. As the apostle says, “faith without works is dead.” Faith is active and requires acting upon belief. If faith and belief are synonymous, then faith is little more than wishing.

      Again, good thoughts. Thanks.

  2. Kent

    I may not entirely follow your point, but it seems to be that any approach to apologetics that doesn’t somehow persuade doubters not to want simple unambiguous solutions, or that caters to that desire, isn’t helpful. That seems wrong to me. (I also think you’ve again read things into what Reel said that aren’t there–I don’t think he suggested only one alternative to a criticism be presented. But your point can be addressed on its own.)

    For one thing, lots of people don’t have the time or background for more than something fairly simple. Demanding they change to receive assistance from apologetics is likely to change no one but only limit the usefulness of apologetics. Will allowing people to rely on simple answers potentially leave them with ongoing problems? Sure. But thinking apologetics can fix those problems before helping isn’t practical. Often you have to help other problems before you get to deeper ones.

    I haven’t run into any apologists who argue only one view should be offered even if other views are just as likely, but some smart apologists do present the view they think most likely or most easy to follow first, and then offer other ideas afterwards for those who want more ideas. I don’t suppose you object to that.

    There can also be articles directed to to different levels of sophistication and interest. I don’t suppose you object to that either.

    You seem to be worried that apologetics, or FAIR, is headed in the wrong direction. Do you have some specific examples that illustrate what you’re worried about?

    1. Allen Post author

      I disagree, Kent, for reasons already stated multiple times. But, to start, let me answer (again) something you said that is critical to understanding what I am addressing. You said: “I also think you’ve again read things into what Reel said that aren’t there–I don’t think he suggested only one alternative to a criticism be presented.” Actually, he did. Granted, he may not have intended that, but we can only go by his words, right? I addressed this point in the thread on my earlier post, which you can find here.

      To any given issue that may cause a person doubt there may not be simple answers. I understand that people “don’t have the time or the background for more than something fairly simple,” but you can’t get simple answers from a complex situation—you just can’t. If someone is having a crisis of faith, for instance, about where events in the Book of Mormon took place, which of the 6 dozen+ geographical hypotheses should be provided to them to give the desired simple answer? How about the half-dozen possible analyses of how the Atonement works? How about the half-dozen solid theories about the mechanics of translating the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham?

      The list could go on and on. If an apologist picks an alternative explanation of the data—just one, to keep it simple—and then gives it to the doubter, it is true that the doubter then has an A/B choice and the benefit that Bill Reel mentions (a condition under which agency can function) is achieved. However, the B choice, while persuasive to the apologist, may not be persuasive to the doubter. So, the apologist has either lost the doubter or has to go back to the doubter and say “forget that B choice; here’s another one you may find persuasive.” After a few iterations of presenting multiple offers, the doubter tires and says “the apologist has nothing that can help me,” and faith is lost.

      A differing approach is to go to the doubter and say, “You’ve run across a difficult issue to which there are multiple possible answers. You’ve only looked at one of the answers; let me show you a bunch more.” This style goes against Bill’s suggested style; it provides a much more complex “arena” for the exercise of agency. It also requires a LOT more work on the part of the doubter to make a reasonable choice.

      This approach introduces the doubter to the complexity of the real world. It takes some hand-holding to get the person through all of it, but it is possible to do if the doubter is willing. If the doubter is not willing (which, I believe, is the case with the doubters-turned-critics that I sited in the post above), then the style of approaching doubt matters little because the substance cannot be made to fit their desires.

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