Non-Ideal Apologetic Ideals

By | November 7, 2013

This morning while doing my daily work, I listened to a podcast interview with Richard Bushman. The interviewer is Bill Reel, a volunteer with FAIRMormon, the rebranded successor to FAIR. Bill’s purpose in interviewing Richard, at least in part, is to discern how one can and should treat doubt, doubters, criticisms, and critics.

I enjoyed the podcast, as I admire Richard Bushman’s corpus of work and his take on faith and reason. I felt the need, however, to look at and analyze one interchange between interviewer and interviewee. At 18:30 into the interview, Bill asks for Richard’s elaboration on a statement of Richard’s that “rather than destroy the critics, we want to loosen their grip.” Here is the exchange that follows for about the next three minutes:

[Richard Bushman speaking]

Well, I think one of the problems is that you get dogmatism vs. dogmatism. So many of the people who have their faith shaken “knew for sure”; they had a certain testimony. So when they lose their testimony and then they “know for sure” that the Church is false. They are just as dogmatic after the change as before. Neither one of them is sound or based on a real search for understanding.

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.

So, I think the better way to say is “there is a way of looking that is favorable to the Church. You don’t have to interpret everything in a negative way.” So, all I aim when I talk to people is to keep the conversation open. Don’t close your mind. Don’t decide it’s now all over.

I’m trying to rehabilitate the word “investigator.” We make “investigators” a preliminary stage to full-fledged membership, but “investigator” is a wonderful description of a religious life. You’re always investigating It requires an open mind and a questing spirit, and out of that comes beautiful results, if we can tolerate it.

That’s my aim: to keep the conversation going and keep people looking at the possible meanings of all the things we turn over.

[Bill Reel speaking]

I think you hit on a beautiful point as you’re talking about that. If rather than we try to bury the critic and their argument, we simply say “hey, there’s other possible conclusions; other ways to look at this information,” then all of a sudden agency is back on the table. For those people who want to lead with faith, now they have two conclusions they can go to, and with faith being on the table, with both conclusions being reasonable and perhaps valid, it then puts the choice back in their own hands. Which I think, more times than not, can lead one to stay in the Church and make their way through it and figure it out.

[Richard Bushman speaking]

Yeah, I’m with you 100% on that.

RichardBushmanWhile I enjoyed the give and take between interviewer and interviewee, and I can “fill in the gaps” with my own experiences, I think what they agree to in this interchange is naive and simplistic. They are, in effect, creating a two-dimensional reflection of reality in order to express an ideal to which they think apologists (and apologetics) should aspire. They have, I fear, provided pablum to the listener that doesn’t hold up in real life.

Perhaps an example would help illustrate the point. First, let’s say that someone opposed to Joseph Smith’s claim of seeing the Father and Son (the First Vision) lays out a series of arguments that, in his view, cast a preponderance of doubt on a plain reading of the historical accounts.

In the ideal described by Bill Reel and agreed to by Richard Bushman, the apologist should say “hey, there’s other possible conclusions; other ways to look at this information.” Saying that (and perhaps providing a fact or two) should be enough to maintain faith in someone who “leads with faith.”

Forgetting for a moment that such an approach won’t satisfy a person who doesn’t “lead with faith” and therefore fails to meet the needs of at least a large segment of the potential audience, there is another problem as well. That problem is that the approach is entirely lopsided and weighted, from the start, in favor of the critic. The critic is able to put forward the best arguments that he can come up with, but the apologist isn’t able to put forward his best arguments (at least not all of them) because doing so runs the risk of “burying” the critic. And, in the ideal expressed in the interview, that is something that should not be done.

But as Richard Bushman was quick to point out several times in the interview, life is more complicated than that. Critics, in laying out their case, often utilize a plethora of arguments that they feel bolster their claims. In the example of countering the First Vision accounts, they typically bring in information about Joseph’s character, his family life, his legal troubles, and his “magic world view.” If the critic is a religious person, they turn to scriptural passages that support their assertions of “no more prophets” and “no more scripture.” They examine Joseph’s later statements and look for contradictions or logical inconsistencies between those statements and the theophany. The list could (and often does) go on and on.

In answering such arguments, the apologist cannot meet the ideal described in the interview because answering each of the arguments requires deftly navigating a myriad of historical documents, synthesizing that information, and presenting it to the doubter. The answers always (without fail) end up being longer than the original arguments. And, in the pattern to be eschewed by the ideal, the apologist is dismissed because he is trying “to bury the critic and their argument.”

That, of course, is not true. The apologist is faced with a difficult educational challenge—he must not only inform the audience why what the critic has said is not true (and back it up with facts), but he must provide the alternative reading of those facts (that the interview’s ideal demands) and provide additional facts that support the alternative reading. It is a task that can be done—and has been done to counter most of the critics’ arguments—but it is difficult and, often, thankless. Why? Because those proposing a two-dimensional ideal dismiss the value of the work because it supposedly “buries” the critic and their arguments.

BillReelFurther, when does “not burying” become “burying?” When is the magical line crossed when the ideal is no longer met? The answer, of course, is subjective—which works against the attainment of the ideal. One person reads an apologetic response and says “he destroyed the critic,” while another says “he provided good food for thought.” The problem isn’t with the apologist, but with the interpretation of what the apologist has provided. The ideal, however, lays the unrealistic burden on the apologist to omnisciently know when the “burying line” is about to be crossed. (And it must not be crossed or the apologist’s work is to be dismissed out of hand.)

Remember, too, that the First Vision is often regarded as a non-difficult topic, even though books have been written about it (both pro and con). How is one, under the ideal, to approach more difficult topics, such as polygamy, polyandry, scriptural translation, and Book of Mormon geography? A treatment of each area requires not article-length treatment, but book-length (or multi-volume) approaches that can make a person’s eyes glaze over. Such “burying” must, of course, be disdained.

It is easy for critics to take pot-shots at history or to use a scatter-gun approach to seed doubt, but if the apologist is hampered in his work because he can’t “bury” the arguments presented, then the critic takes the day, by fiat. The ideal works to the benefit of the accuser, not the accused.

Hard questions require hard answers. Often hard questions require a multiplicity of hard answers. If people are willing to read the hard questions but not willing to do the work necessary to understand the questions and alternative answers—in their entirety—then what can one say about the one doubting? Do they really “lead with faith” if their faith will not carry them through the hard work of looking at the issues from all sides? Do they have “an open mind and a questing spirit” that Richard Bushman says is necessary? Can they successfully “lead with faith” if they dismiss apologists who have looked at the issues from all sides and are offering to lead the doubter through the hard process of analysis, synthesis, and ultimately finding faith?

I obviously find the ideal expressed in the interview lacking. It is naive and, more dangerously, hampers real discovery and growth. I agree whole-heartedly with Richard Bushman’s statement at 17:39 into the interview:

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.

How can someone look at everything squarely unless someone (such as an apologist) can show them where to look without being tarred with the brush of attempting to “bury” the critic and his arguments?

Perhaps the ideal isn’t, after all, ideal at all.

25 thoughts on “Non-Ideal Apologetic Ideals

  1. Michael Towns

    Great post. I think I am in substantial agreement with your thoughts on the topic.

    Just to make sure, though, am I correct in assuming that you think folks like Bushman have gone too far in the direction of accommodating “unorthodox” viewpoints?

    1. Awyatt Post author

      No, I don’t think he has gone “too far” in that; each of us, to one degree or another, would need to accommodate unorthodox viewpoints. (As long as there are two people on the planet, the collection of available opinions will necessarily differ from each other.)

      I do believe, however, that the ideal proffered by Reel and agreed to by Bushman is simplistic and doesn’t take into account real-world experience in dealing with criticisms and doubters who may be affected by those criticisms. (In honesty, I couldn’t tell from the interview if Bushman was being politely perfunctory in agreeing with Reel or if he truly does agree with him. Either way, I don’t think that Bushman has thought through all the ramifications of the ideal that Reel proposed.)

  2. Kent

    I understand the comments you’re responding to differently than you do. I don’t think they imply not giving as full a factual and logical response to criticism as possible. Rather they seem to refer to the attitude of the response, that it doesn’t pretend to settle (dogmatically bury) the issue, when it’s one of those complex issues that’s hard to settle factually.

    1. Awyatt Post author

      Did you listen to the podcast? I didn’t take away your understanding at all.

      Of course, I could also be basing my understanding on having listened to quite a bit of Bill Reel’s feelings on this matter in the past. He is not alone in his desire to establish a apolgetic utopia where all interactions are demonstrably polite, kind, and (for lack of a better term) “nice.” That such is not possible in the real world when there are a minimum of three people involved in the interactions—the apologist, the doubter, and the critic who seeded the doubt—is never addressed by the advocates of the utopia. It is impossible to establish a polite, kind, and “nice” field of discourse when none of the participants can agree on exactly what constitutes polite, kind, and nice.

      1. Kent

        That’s a matter of attitude, again, rather than how thorough the response is. Your post above assumes Reel and Bushman are suggesting briefer, less complete responses, but nothing they said implies that. Bushman explicitly puts his remarks in the context of dogmatism. His writings aren’t dogmatic. But they are thorough. He wants apologetics to be less dogmatic, at least when the issues don’t factually support dogmatism.

        This is related to but not the same as the issue of niceness. You’re probably right that Reel, and Bushman for that matter, also favor what I would call a more charitable approach to apologetics. But that’s not implied in what you quote above.

        To address the point I think you’ve wrongly read into their remarks, is being charitable realistic? I think it is in the context of well-considered responses that stand on their own. In the give and take of actual conversation, and maybe some other circumstances, some edginess, snarkiness, and so on might have a place, but it brings the risk that it will distract from the point, as people are drawn to focus more on manner than substance. Personal attack is probably usually not a good idea for the latter reason as well. The focus should generally be on ideas.

        But you’re a little vague about what you have in mind, so I may have missed it.

        1. Awyatt Post author

          I’m not sure that snarkiness, rudeness, or personal attack ever have a place in civil discourse. The problem is, though, that such statements are easier to make than to objectify. I may do my darndest to be kind in expressing my ideas and I may do everything I can to make sure that any apologetic response targets issues and not personalities, but that doesn’t mean that it will be perceived as such by another.

          I say this as one who has been almost consistently and perpetually misrepresented and demonized in what began as polite discourse. (Not here, so far, thank goodness. But there are enough other places where it has happened that I have no illusions that this will remain a safe haven for long.)

          This situation is magnified by the fact that “niceness” is most charitably imputed to an author based on how closely the author’s views mirror our own. If the author is diametrically opposed to our views, then charity is typically out the window and the other person is the scum of the earth. (Human nature is a wonderful thing, is it not?)

          So, who judges “niceness?” The author? The reader who agrees with the author? The reader who disagrees with the author? This happens in apologetics all the time; there is a long, long track record of it. If enough critics (those who disagree) say that an author is “mean” and that he “destroys others,” that meme takes on a life of its own even though it may have very little basis in fact.

          It is, in reality, as a reaction to the meme that Reel and Bushman have proffered their ideal. And, as I tried to point out, the naivete of the ideal is that it all depends on subjective values in a hotly contested area where the only victors are those who get their meme to stick through enough repetition. There is even a term for this well-known rhetorical device: Poisoning the well. It is that device that is the fly in the utopian ointment proposed by Reel et. al.

          1. Kent

            The same problems apply to the ideal of telling the truth. Who judges whether you’ve done that? Well, most importantly for you, you do. We can sometimes learn from the judgments of others as well. But regardless of who judges, it’s an important ideal.

            Similarly, being charitable is an important ideal, no matter who judges it. It may be a squishy ideal in some ways, but it’s easy enough to spot at least some departures from it in our own speech, and perhaps even more with the assistance of others.

            But I don’t think that’s what the portion of the interview you quoted is about, in any case. It’s about dogmatism where it isn’t warranted, as far as I can tell.

            Seems like I’ve walked into an ongoing struggle about how apologetics should be carried out that I don’t know the backstory to. Hope FAIR is schisming the way the Maxwell Institute did.

          2. Kent

            Hah, just occurred to me that I said the opposite of what I intended: Hope FAIR is *not* schisming!

  3. Bill Reel

    Bro. Wyatt,
    First thank you for listening and glad that overall you enjoyed the episode. I wanted to clarify what I was saying just to be sure you are not disagreeing on a misunderstanding. If in the end I clarify and you still disagree then ok, as I completely recognize good people can disagree.

    In my faith crisis, Bro. Wyatt, I felt like in terms of the Apologist and the Critic, that they were miles apart. Both sides seemed to be in complete disagreement. One side could never acknowledge the strengths of the others sides position. In the midst of this divide, I, the doubter did not know who to trust and on many occasions felt the critic was being more honest with me.

    What finally helped me to come out of my crisis was when on several issues, apologists I trusted, let me know that both positions had merit and that it wasn’t as simple as taking an all or nothing stance on this issue or that issue. But telling me the strengths of their enemy’s position, they built trust. When the Ford guy tells you the Chevy Cavalier has a great transmission but then also tells you why his vehicle is still the better buy, it is more likely to build trust and earn your business then to simply run the other guy into the ground. This approach that won me back works for others as well and I think it is this approach that Bro. Bushman is speaking about when he says “Secondly, we try to avoid dogmatic answers. Rather than replace the dogmatic negative attacks of the critics with our own dogmatic answers, we attempt to show that a more positive interpretation is possible. Critics often claim that Joseph’s sins were so egregious as to utterly disqualify him as a prophet. We can understand their viewpoint, but we think there is another side to the story. Rather than destroy the critics, we want to loosen their grip. In the long run, we believe this approach will persuade questioners more effectively than claims to certainty where none is possible. We believe in stating our own strong convictions about the church as a whole, but we do not to pretend to perfect knowledge about complex historical questions.”

    The restored gospel is sometimes already behind the 8-ball in that people have gotten to this point of their faith crisis over a loss of trust and feelings of betrayal. To win that trust back, One has to show that they are willing to be “honest” and acknowledge the flaws in their position and the strengths of their opponent while also decalaring why the LDS position is the one you have chosen to believe. When one does this tactfully, the doubter sees the choice to believe belongs to them as there is no smoking gun. Those who wish to find faith again will and those who don’t won’t see your conclusion as right anyway regardless of whether you admit to your opponents strengths or not.

    Again tis may not be the case for all, but it worked this way for me and it seems to work this way for many who have sought help from Bro. Bushman.
    Thanks again for listening,
    Bill Reel &

    1. Awyatt Post author

      Welcome, Bill. I appreciate you being willing to come here and share your thoughts. I understand what you are saying in your comment, but I disagree.

      I believe that you and Richard spoke to an ideal, but I think it is a misplaced ideal. I used the example of the First Vision and arguments against it. In speaking to a doubter who never doubted before reading the arguments from the critic, how would you go about saying that there were strengths in the critic’s arguments? What would you say to the doubter that would let him or her see “the strengths of their enemy’s position?” You said this worked for you, but how would you do it with another? Rather than speak in generalities—which sound warm and fuzzy—can you provide specifics?

      It almost seems (from your clarification) that all you are saying is that the apologist should start his discussions with the doubter by saying “I understand how the data could look that way, but let me show you how I understand the record.”

      Is that what you are saying? Or are you saying that the apologist should provide concrete examples of the strengths of the critic’s position? If concrete examples are not provided, then how does the approach you propose narrow the gulf you saw between apologists and critics during your faith crisis?

      See, these are the unanswered sticking points (among many) that I don’t feel are answered in the ideal that you and Richard seemed to agree upon. And I remain unconvinced that the ideal you espouse actually worked in your individual case.

      (Please don’t read that wrong. By that statement I mean that you may be attributing the wrong thing in your salvation from doubt. You say it was the approach of the apologist—the same approach you try to encapsulate in your ideal—but I suspect you were able to listen to the apologist because, as you say, you trusted him or her. In other words, you started from a position of trust—a position which has absolutely nothing to do with the approach of the apologist and everything to do with what you brought to the table. One should not attribute to style what can more rightly be explained by mitigating factors external to style.)

  4. Bill Reel

    It almost seems (from your clarification) that all you are saying is that the apologist should start his discussions with the doubter by saying “I understand how the data could look that way, but let me show you how I understand the record.”

    For the most part yes. On the first vision for instance, I would not hesitate to talk about how only the Lord is mentioned in the 1832 account and that it would be easy to assume that Joseph changed his story, and then proceed to show how I understand it and why I feel my view is valid and credible.

    Hope that clarifies.

    1. Awyatt Post author

      Interesting. I fear that such an approach could almost be seen as patronizing.

    2. Greg Smith

      Actually, just for the record, both the Father’s witness of Christ’s divine Sonship to Joseph and Christ’s appearance are described in the 1832 account. It simply isn’t true to say that “only the Lord is mentioned.” Jesus himself also mentions the Father directly later on.

      People often ignore that the first part mentions the Father because they’re focused on Jesus (as the account is intended to be) but both personages are present. So, this is a common mistake that occurs in part because new readers are often “primed,” I suspect, by the criticism or the critical voice to see it in this way. Also, they do not catch the textual allusions that don’t follow the pattern that they’ve come to expect from the canonized account.

      Perhaps I’m violating Bushman’s precept by saying this. 🙂 But, i still think it worth pointing out, even if that counts as “knock down” apologetics. (It isn’t entirely clear to me what that is, or how one would identify it, so I apologize if I’ve inadvertently committed it) I would be inclined to see it–and intend it–simply as good textual analysis.

  5. Bill Reel

    Bro Wyatt,
    I used to know the gospel was true. Then I knew it wasn’t true. And Finally I have arrived at where I am today, which is I have hope and believe. I no longer know, but for me that is ok. I am comfortable with uncertainity and I no longer feel the anxiety of cognitive dissonance. I choose to believe in spite of what I see as incongruities and complexity. I am one of the revived LDS that Bushman speaks of in this article –

    Many revived mormons approach the gospel the way I do and they tend to focus more on the good that comes from gospel. The fruits of the gospel are their testimony as the historical truth claims have evidence and reason to disbelieve. Knock down apologetics do not appeal to this group and they don’t appeal to some in crisis either.

    This comes off as my putting down apologetics, but actually only a specific kind of apologetics that seeks to win the argument over win souls.


    1. Awyatt Post author

      Honestly, it really does come across that way.

      I have read the article you cite and understand why you would find that compelling. I, too, find it compelling. But it only works for a segment of the intended audience, not all. I fear that you want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, which only cedes the field to the critics.

      I find it interesting that in the same introduction you cite, Richard said that the members of the seminar had “often fallen short in our answers” to those with confusion and doubt. Since none of the members of the seminar (of whom and to whom he spoke) were “knock-down” apologists and he never once mentions apologists in that introduction, why would you see his comments as a repudiation of something he never intended?

  6. Bill Reel

    I agree Bro. Wyatt that it may be only a segment. I also want you to know that I, unlike some, do not see this simplisticly in that there are only two styles and one is evil and one is good. For example some might take my comments as speaking down on Fair for instance which some do at every chance. But just the opposite. As you well know FairMormon, contrary to the views of some, takes great effort to speak to both the doubter/questioner as well as to their issue/question. The concern for the one is there as well as a desire to provide answers and frameworks that faith can thrive in. I am not trying to come across as one style fits all and I certainly am not trying to say one style hurts all. I simply wanted to clarify what I was saying so that if you disagreed, you did so knowing my position. I sometimes feel like these conversations have us speaking past each other. I see value in multiple methods of addressing issues and questions. I also realize some people simply need an answer and others need to be walked through their entire framework. I see The methods of people like Bushman and Givens having a profoundly positive effect and yet realize that their approach would likely be a turnoff to some. Anyway, again thanks for listening please know you are free to contact me anytime. Thank you for all you have done to defend the faith and I welcome feedback that helps me or my work to improve.
    Bill Reel

  7. SmallAxe

    I’ve found this a very productive conversation.

    It seems that (at least in the OP) the major point of disagreement centers on the issue of “burying the critic.” IMO (and I say this not having listened to the entire podcast), “bury” shouldn’t be understood as “discussing the myriad of facts that support an alternative position”; so that one would in essence not articulate an alternative position. Instead, “bury” in this sense seems to be about unloading on the critic in a way that reaffirms the black and white paradigm that, I imagine in Bill’s opinion, sets up the possibility of a “faith crisis” in the first place. So instead of acknowledging the merits of the critic’s views, we retrench into our position and refuse to cede anything.

    Now, this can play out in a variety of ways, but in parts of LDS apologetics it plays out in what I’ve called wheat and tares apologetics. I’ve written about it here:

    I’m not sure it necessarily represents Bill’s view, but I think it’s relavent to the discussion.

    1. Awyatt Post author

      Thanks for contributing, SmallAxe.

      I see how you could come to the opinion that “burying the critic” (which Bill and Richard eschew) wouldn’t be synonymous with “discussing the myriad of facts.” I considered that conclusion, but dismissed it because Bill’s words don’t seem to support it, nor has his clarifications that he provided yesterday.

      Primary reason for dismissal: Bill talks about telling about “other possible conclusions” and then immediately limits those conclusions by presenting the doubter with only two. He says “they [the doubters] now have two conclusions they can go to” with “both conclusions being reasonable and perhaps valid.”

      The limitations, explicit in his stated ideal, is why I came to the conclusion that we can’t tell the doubter everything—that would be “burying” the critic.

      I will address some related issues in a different post.

      1. SmallAxe

        Hi Allen,

        I can see how you’re arriving at your interpretation, but let me suggest an alternative way of addressing the issue. These thoughts are largely triggered by things you mention, so feel free to correct me where I’m wrong.

        The view Bushman (and perhaps Bill) seem to advocate understands “faith” as “choice.” So, in this view, we have the facts, different ways of organizing the facts (via interpretation), and then we have our choice of which interpretation to believe. I think you’re right to probe into the issue of whether or not faith (even if we agree it is a kind of choice) is simply about choosing one interpretation over another. Their view seems to make an assumption that all interpretations are equal, and what’s of ultimate significance is simply our will to believe. This may have the effect of eschewing the facts altogether since it seems to say that interpretation is subjective therefore all interpretations are equal. Some apologists, however, want to hang on to the notion that not all interpretations are equal. One is better than the rest, and we should choose to believe the best interpretation.

        The difference, therefore, is about the way in which faith as a choice functions, and the nature of interpretation. The strength of the faith-as-a-choice model is that it allows LDSs to recognize and accept dissonant evidence. If the preponderance of evidence pushes away from a core tenent of our faith, we can still choose to believe. The downside, which I suspect makes people nervous, is that it makes “truth” a matter of choice. The upside to the one-correct-interpretation model is that it’s rooted in traditional models of truth that may create a more firm kind of religious commitment. The downside is that it’s rooted in a paradigm that brings the whole house of cards down (so to speak) when the scale of interpretation gets tipped in another direction.

        Of course these two views are not mutually exclusive (and from what I know of Bushman his view is more subtle than I’ve described it); and perhaps it would be healthy to explore ways of bridging them, but I thought this might be a helpful way of reconceptualizing the discussion.

        1. anon

          Smallaxe, I like this restatement of the points at issue, but I’m unsure that any party here would put much weight on faith as an act of volition. But I might just being saying that for the personal reason that I think faith-as-choice has no legs philosophically, and it also does not reflect my own subjective experience. That’s not to say that desire to believe has no part in faith (it can be a major part), and desire can be cultivated, but I think that stands at a critical remove from directly choosing to believe.

          I think it’s more likely that Bushman and others are just trying to model a faith that is rooted in complex (and sometimes ambiguous) spiritual experiences and community discourses, rather than in dogmatic certitude about certain theological or historical propositions. On this model, even proving beyond any reasonable doubt that a given criticism is false—burying it—is counter-productive, because it reinforces the contrary perspective that dogmatic certitude is important or even foundational to faith.

          There has long been pushback against this latter model of faith by LDS historians and philosophers, but also by some apologists themselves. For example, I think Dan Peterson would essentially agree with Bushman that “dogmatism vs. dogmatism” is wrongheaded (understanding “dogmatism” here as an affirmation of rational/historical certitude), because dogmatism is not compelling in matters of faith. Peterson has always been very careful to say that effective apologetics can no more compel belief that effective criticism can compel disbelief. I think he would see apologetics, at its best, as maintaining a certain equilibrium of rational ambiguity.

          “I’m aware of the danger in “wanting something to be true,” and I do believe in truth. I think my point may have been missed, somewhat, and, since it’s rather subtle, I’m not surprised. I expected it.

          I simply believe that the publicly agreed-upon facts are not decisive in either direction, theistic or atheistic, Mormon or “anti”-Mormon. There’s enough to justify belief, but also enough to justify unbelief. I’m convinced that this is so by divine design. So we are left in a situation where purely rational argumentation is insufficient to settle the important issues—which means that other factors (including desires) necessarily and inevitably come into play.

          I was not saying that all unbelievers want to be unbelievers, and I was certainly not saying that believers believe simply because they want things to be so. But when the scales are just about evenly balanced—as, for some, they are—it doesn’t take much to tip them one way or the other.”

          I think Bushman and Givens are going in the same general direction as Peterson, theoretically, in terms of critically devaluing the epistemological weight given to rational and historical arguments. But past that point of theory, they generally go very separate ways. I think many apologists would agree with Peterson in principle, but in fact, the basic project of apologetics is to tip the balance of the historical/rational scales in the direction of your own cause. I think few apologists are concerned about making too strong a case for the reasonableness of Mormonism, and thus unbalancing the scales, because like Peterson they do not believe, by “divine design,” that such is even possible. And perhaps for the same reason, many do not perceive any real threat in rational belief per se. They do not believe it can be sufficient for faith, but as the materiel of apology, apologists seem to me less conflicted about the place of rational and historical certitude in the context of faith.

          However, I think Bushman et al. see rational/historical belief per se as always complicated and often problematic. They see validating criticism as, indeed, reasonable or historically possible (when it is) to be positively affective, not necessarily for the critic, but for the believer. It liberates faith from the need for historical/rational proof, which we recognize as a shifting and unsure foundation. The effect of, e.g., trying to harmonize the first vision accounts for “apologetic” purposes (i.e., as species a rational proof for faith) is in fact necessarily negative to faith because it makes the matter important to faith. Whether the apologetic arguments themselves are critically successful does nothing to mitigate that damage.

          At this point I’m embarrassed, because I think most people clearly see all this. And here I am saying it anyway. Sorry for that. But in the end, I think most of this disagreement is really over the relationship of reason to faith. And that’s where the conversation starts getting really complicated, and really interesting.

          1. Kent

            No cause for embarrassment on my account, at least, as I’m not familiar with a lot of this.

            Some of what you attribute to these scholars seems off to me. You say, representing their view,

            “On this model, even proving beyond any reasonable doubt that a given criticism is false—burying it—is counter-productive, because it reinforces the contrary perspective that dogmatic certitude is important or even foundational to faith.”

            As a matter of psychology, that doesn’t seem generally true. Proving something false to be false is taken by most people to be an entirely natural response to a falsehood, and not to have any peculiar implications about dogmatism. Dan Peterson, at least, seems to have no reservations about proving a falsehood to be wrong when the facts allow it. When he says something to the effect that apologetics maintains rational ambiguity, he’s apparently talking about the enterprise as a whole, not every part of it. For example, in the last couple days he has been reposting links to his responses to critics who argue Jesus never existed. He considers that view harebrained; his response is quite dogmatic. That’s presumably because in that case he believes the evidence allows for that. He seems entirely unworried about reinforcing the view that dogmatic certitude is important to faith. He’s just calling a spade a spade.

            If any of the other scholars you name are reluctant to do that for fear of reinforcing the notion that faith rests on dogmatic certainty, it seems to me they’ve gotten carried away.

            On the other hand, if apologetics as a whole is taken as a matter of establishing certainty, I can see how that might be a problem. But I don’t think Allen or others in the mainstream of apologetics take it that way.

          2. SmallAxe

            My apologies, I intended to respond sooner, but got distracted by a few other things.

            Anon, you may be right about the primary distinction being about dogmatism vs. complex faith, rather than choice vs. the best interpretation. The problem, as far as I know, is that no one has really laid out a systematic description of their position. That said, I do not think these two kinds of distinctions are necessarily that far apart. At the same time, I’d say that the language of dogmatism isn’t entirely helpful in this discussion since (as you actually point out) no one is going to see their position as dogmatic; yet I think we’d agree that there are significant differences between the approaches of Peterson and Bushman (although they of course approach things differently in different contexts) . The differences you go on to lay out, I actually agree with; and, again, I’m not sure that they’re that different from what I had in mind (I’m not wed to the language of choice).

    2. Awyatt Post author


      I should have mentioned that I went back and re-read your March post about “Wheat and Tares Apologetics.” I read it back when it first came out—along with all the followup comments—and found it a very interesting perspective.

      At the time I first read it, I didn’t have much of an inclination to respond (life sometimes foils our best desires), but my re-reading rekindled an interest in doing so. It may take me some time, but I would like to add to the conversation that you started.

      In the meantime, have you done any followup posts or articles on the same topic? I searched for others on Faith Promoting Rumor, but could find none there. Perhaps elsewhere?

      1. SmallAxe

        Sorry Allen, for not responding sooner.

        Here are some posts I’ve written on apologetics at Faith Promoting Rumor: (I actually think this is the most interesting of the list)

        I’m working my way through your other post on apologetics right now.

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