Q&A with Blair G. Van Dyke and Loyd Isao Ericson for Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics July 20 2017
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Q: Starting broadly with the scope of the Perspectives on Mormon Theology series, can you provide some insight into its background? How and when you decided to do this series and what you hope it will accomplish?
Loyd: The Perspectives on Mormon Theology series has been an idea floating around for a few years by my series co-editor, Brian Birch. Its inspiration is in the similarly-titled Discourses in Mormon Theology: Philosophical and Theological Possibilities, edited by Jim McLachlan and myself, which itself is the proceedings of the inaugural conference of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology (SMPT). As evidenced by that volume, the Society, the Society’s journal (Element), and other publications, Mormonism is a rich field for theological and philosophical exploration; and that exploration yields a wide variation of thought. While authors might be drawing from the same religious tradition and scriptural canon, they each have their own perspectives formed by their philosophical leanings, ecclesiastical commitments, experiences, ideologies, education, and interpretations of articles of faith. Because of the varying (and sometimes conflicting) conclusions that these differing perspectives may lead, it probably makes more sense to talk of Mormon theologies (plural) rather than a singular theology—though that itself is its own philosophical discussion.
The first volume of the Perspectives series was on scriptural theology, and it illustrates well how an author’s perspective shapes the way they read scripture and draw their theology out of (or into) the texts. This second volume, Apologetics, and future volumes will continue that theme as authors look to the same canon to explore, argue for, and delineate their perspective on Mormon theology. We currently have volumes on grace, revelation, and atonement in progress, and should be announcing several more forthcoming volumes before the end of the year.
Q: For readers who are unfamiliar with apologetics, can you offer a brief explanation of what apologetics are as well as their historical development?
Blair: The word “apologetic” comes from the Greek “apologia”, and in the Christian tradition has been used to describe defense by argument of Christian belief and of the Christian way of life. The Apostle Paul’s writings are largely apologetic in approach. He creates arguments to persuade Christians in the early church to argue against the paganism extant in the Greco-Roman world and prove that it was untenable in the face of Christ’s redeeming work. Christ and Christ alone, Paul argued is the sole source of hope and salvation. Similarly, Peter invited believers to “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15).
Mormon apologetics provide defense by argument for distinct views held by Latter-day Saints. The several accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision, the historicity of the Book of Mormon, and polygamy are just three examples. Even though he passed away in 2005, Hugh Nibley is still the most recognizable Mormon apologist. He produced volumes of apologetic works.
With the advent of the internet the state of Mormon apologetics has never been more dynamic. The church has responded to this new landscape by sponsoring the Joseph Smith Papers project and publishing a series of gospel topics essays intended to answer questions about difficult historical and doctrinal issues. Essays on the ban on blacks in the priesthood from 1852 to 1978 and violence in 19th century Mormonism are two examples.
The work and writings of apologists in the church has also swelled. Organizations dedicated to defending the church such as FairMormon (Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research) continue to grow. They sponsor symposia, lectures, maintain a very active presence in the blogosphere, and provide an outlet for apologetic publications.
Q: Can you summarize some of the current tensions among scholars with regards to apologetics?
Loyd: The most debated tensions at play with apologetics are those of quality, tone, utility, and its place (if any) in academia. The first (quality) is probably the one that gets the most attention, and deservedly so. This tension revolves around the question of whether apologetic efforts meet the basic standards of good scholarship. I think most can agree that the answer to this question is yes and no. Over the last few decades, LDS scholars trained in ancient Near-East history and language, philosophy, biblical studies, Mesoamerican anthropology, history, and other fields have produced top-notch scholarship for apologetic purposes. On the other hand, since the very beginnings of Mormonism, amateur “armchair” apologists without any real training have produced defenses and “proofs” of Mormonism that exhibit incredibly weak scholarship (if it could even be called that).
This tension has played out both between apologists and critics, as well as within apologetic circles. An example of the latter is the use of Izapa Stela 5--the so-called Lehi Tree of Life Stone--which for decades has been used as a proof of the Book of Mormon, despite the efforts of trained LDS apologists (such as FARMS) to counter the claim and show that it has nothing to do with the Nephite text.
The issue of “tone” is another tension that is frequently discussed. This deals with the civility of discourse in apologetic arguments, tactics, and writings. Like the tension of quality, tone is a mixed bag with a general agreement that apologetics will inevitably have moments of incivility because that is a fact of human nature. While bad tone can be frequent in online message boards, blogs, and other similar forums, the larger tension involves accusations of published, peer-reviewed works containing personal attacks, malicious innuendo, etc.
The tension of utility is whether apologetics does more harm than good. This is explored by a few of our authors, and the answers differ depending on how one views the goals of apologetics, the mandate for believers to engage in it, and what is being defended. While it is usually agreed that poor quality and incivility can be more harmful than good, it becomes a more interesting question when one contends that apologetics is harmful even when it is civil and an example of quality scholarship.
The place of apologetics in academia is generally an insider debate that most outside of the growing field of Mormon Studies are not privy to. While tone and quality play a part in this debate, the larger tension involves whether faith claims should be defended, critiqued, or even considered in academic discourse. For our volume, we have three chapters focused specifically on this question, with each author having different answers.
A tension that has almost no discussion, but am glad to have in this volume, involves the role of women. Apologetics is incredibly male-oriented, with the majority of apologists being men—especially in published apologetics. There are multiple reasons for this, including centuries of male-dominated academia, traditional gender roles within Mormonism, and the often hostile and sexist nature of online religious debate. Despite these imbalances, there are still many Mormon women actively engaged in apologetics, and we are lucky to have a few authors addressing the positive role Mormon women have in apologetics, why more women’s perspectives are need, and exemplifying unique contributions they can bring.
Finally, there are other tensions that I wish we could have explored in this volume, but could not because of time, space, and contributors. These include the tensions of whether apologetics is changing Mormon doctrines, Book of Mormon apologetics and the self-identity of Latin-American and Pacific-Islander saints, and the relationship between apologetics and the institutional Church.
Q: Can you talk about what went into the curation of this volume? What were your thoughts behind selecting its contributing authors, and what areas of focus did you want to make sure were emphasized?
Blair: Mormonism is chockfull of apologetics intramurals that frequently orbit around questions like the following: How should Mormons defend Mormonism? When someone attacks the Church from the outside, what is the most effective way to respond? Should Mormons go on the offensive, anticipate questions, and respond to them before they are actually posed? When a Mormon interprets faith in ways that are perceived to be not doctrinally sound how should other Mormons reply? Is an intellectual or scholarly defense of Mormonism preferable or should apologetics be devotional in approach? Should apologetics be couched in the teachings of contemporary members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles or should defenses account for evidences from history and current secular sources that may not precisely align with contemporary Mormon narratives? When scholarly findings disagree with interpretations of scripture should reason yield to faith or should faith bend to reason? Finally, is it errant to defend Mormonism? If the movement can stand on its own in the light of the noonday sun then might defenses hinder more than advance Mormonism? These primary questions, and many others, constitute launching points for this volume.
In recent years, these questions have been debated with particular vigor. What was FARMS (Foundation for Apologetics and Mormon Studies) was dissolved, certain aspects of which were absorbed by BYU’s Maxwell Institute. FAIR (Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research), a private organization dedicated to apologetics, has a broader platform and audience than ever before. Mormon Studies programs have been established at universities from coast-to-coast including peer reviewed journals and a growing attraction by publishers like Oxford and Illinois. Finally, apologists from the so-called rank-and-file now enjoy open access to the blogosphere from which they may present their defenses of Mormonism at their leisure. Arguably, there has never been a more dynamic moment for apologetics in the history of Mormonism.
As editors, we wanted to capture this unique time. We sought out authors whose voices represent a spectrum of responses to the above questions and the role apologetics play in the Church. We determined that four groups were essential to include in order to create a well-rounded treatment of Mormon apologetics: academics, lay apologists, women, and critics—both positive and negative—of current approaches to defense. Together, they explore issues related to authority, ecclesiastical unity, civility, gender, and doctrine. It is important to know up front that the contributing authors maintain sharp disagreements with one another on certain key points and approaches. However, disagreements are not front and center in this volume—dialogue is. Therefore, reading this book brings the reader to close proximity to discussions that are not new but are ongoing in various circles of Mormonism. The nature and tone of this ongoing exchange has very real implications for how conversations on simple and complex issues are carried out by Mormon communities globally. Awareness and understanding of these exchanges is, we think, essential. Thus, the significance of the book.
Q: What do you hope this volume will contribute to future discourse between scholars and readers who are divided on the subject of the utility of apologetics?
Loyd: My hope is that it will contribute to all—whatever their views on apologetics may be—stepping back and exemplifying more charity, concern, and understanding in their work. For those involved in apologetics, I hope that this volume encourages them to think deeply about how their arguments and style affect readers in the long run and how inclusive their efforts are in appreciating multiple voices and perspectives. For critics of apologetics, I hope that they will exemplify the same virtues in how they view the sincerity and devotion in apologetic efforts. For those in academia, I hope that all can recognize and be more honest about the biases and limitations of their methodologies and the complexity of working together—or at least in conversation—when ideologies, beliefs, and values collide. And finally, for readers who engage or observe this from the sidelines, I hope that they see how lively, complex, and important these issues are beyond the typical tit-for-tat accusations that are too often in public display when arguing over apologetics.