Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Apologetics: Place and Purposes

Encountering some concerns of mine about apologetics (here and here), David J is moved to ask if I think “there’s a place for apologetics at all”. At the risk of repeating myself, let me clarify: I do think there are uses for the engagement of Mormonism with secular evidence and styles of argumentation. But I think that from within a believing Mormon perspective, the places and purposes for it are rather circumscribed.

I think that almost always the appropriate place for such engagement is ‘unofficial discourse,’ which is conveniently defined as everything that falls outside of ‘official discourse.’ (This of course places the definitional onus on ‘official discourse,’ which for me includes that which occurs in formal Church meetings, and anything published under the Church’s name—today, that which is copyrighted by Intellectual Reserve, Inc.) I’m glad that FAIR and FARMS and alternative publications and blogs exist to populate this realm of unofficial discourse, since I believe that secular evidence and arguments can occasionally be useful probes of religious doctrine and claims of authority. (Only occasionally, because religious claims tend to be otherworldly, and the evidence for and fruits of these claims difficult to objectively assess—all of which tends to preclude secular approaches. Sometimes the rare opening for secular analysis is on foundational matters of great moment, however, such as the Book of Mormon.)

For someone working from within a believing and committed Mormon perspective, I think appropriate purposes for engaging secular evidence and styles of argumentation would be (1) to refute demonstrable falsehoods propagated by detractors, and battle skeptical arguments back towards neutral ground by offering possible alternative interpretations of inconvenient data, thereby providing room for faith for investigators, and serving as a safety net for those who waver for intellectual reasons; and (2) to improve one’s understanding of the meaning of scriptural texts through knowledge of their cultural background. I think it would be very rare for (1) to be a good idea in official discourse, since it unnecessarily exposes members spanning the complete ranges of experience and interest to potential difficulties they might never otherwise encounter. But (2) may sometimes be suitable for official discourse, if any differences from scholarly consensus can be honestly presented—rather than elided—without distracting from official discourse’s core aims (which, I suspect, will very often be a problem).

In either official or unofficial discourse, I think going beyond these valid purposes—with attempts at secularly accessible ‘proofs’ of the Restoration, or presentation of affirmative publicly assessable evidence to induce faith—would be misguided for two reasons.

First, the secular evidence is probably never sufficiently clear-cut, so that attempts to make strong affirmative arguments—especially with the degree of simple clarity required by the imperatives of official discourse—lead either to intellectual dishonesty (in the forms of shading arguments or omitting evidence) or eventual egg on the face, thereby undermining the cause in the long run.

Second, and more important, is what we might call ’the intellectual Tower of Babel problem.’ Use of secular evidence and argumentation is not the way the scriptures have outlined for acquiring faith. From a believing perspective, such would constitute an end run around the appointed means—means that are alleged to result in the acquisition of godly attributes, and not mere cognitive assent.

7 Comments:

Christian,

Very insightful, man. And your post here actually strikes a cord with me that I didn't remember until now.

Back in 2001, I remember hearing a talk in general conference that bugged me because it sounded like the guy was trying to prove the BofM was true with scientific means. Here it is , look in the middle, the paragraph that starts with "Evidences..." Lame, lame, lame.

The talk just sat with me weird, mostly because I envisioned investigators (who watch this with the missionaries the world over) scratching their heads at his apologetic.

I also dropped the word "chiasmus" into the lds.org search engine and saw all the hits -- tons of them. I agree, I don't think the Ensign is the best  place for it, but it is a better place for it, IMO, than general conference. 

Comment by David J | 2/02/2006 12:50:00 AM  

Thanks for the interesting conference talk example. I think Elder Packer once quoted Hugh Nibley's diamond in the field metaphor in a conference talk, but the example you give is much more explicit. I am now in the uncomfortable position of critiquing not just Ensign articles, but a General Conference talk...

I would be more comfortable with chiasmus being used in a purely interpretive mode. ('If we notice the inverted parallel structure of this passage, and assume that BoM prophet X intentionally used this ancient Hebrew poetic form, we see that X's main point was...') When insights follow, the compatibility with an ancient source would still receive implicit support.

For kicks I replicated your search and found that one of the articles was "Mounting Evidence for the Book of Mormon" by Daniel Peterson. I didn't read it, but just the title makes me queasy.

Am I going overboard on this? Any counter-arguments to what I'm saying? 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/02/2006 04:15:00 PM  

I don't see anything wrong with pointing out things, such as chiasmus, that enrich our understanding of the Book of Mormon and its origins. Knowing something about the cultural and educational background of those who wrote the Book of Mormon can help us understand how they viewed the Gospel. It doesn't hurt that something like chiasmus provides strong evidence of ancient origins. This helps because we realize that the people writing in the Book of Mormon were real people and not just fictional characters. Their struggles and sufferings, and triumphs, were real. This helps us in our pursuit of the Gospel.

Sorry to be the chiasmus Nazi, but studying classical literature at Oxford will do at least one thing for a guy: it will teach him that intricate literary forms that combine both substance and form into the structure of a passage so that because  of the substance the form conveys its meaning even more strongly simply do not happen unconsciously. They are intended, especially when they surface repeatedly in very strict forms, as well as in creatively varied forms that do not transgress the point of the form but rather magnify it through slight innovation. (My comment here  and on the rest of the referenced thread will remind you of my insistence that chiasmus is not only evidence of ancient origin, but it is also a good thing to know about. 

Comment by john f. | 2/02/2006 08:09:00 PM  

I believe I can top that GC talk with this one.  

Comment by Jared | 2/02/2006 09:50:00 PM  

john f.,  thanks for your thoughts. I don't have any problem with using chiasmus in an interpretive mode, as I hope this post and my previous comment make clear.

I haven't studied the matter in great detail, so I don't have a firm conviction either way. There seems to be some structure there, but I am not sure how tight it is or if it is inconceivable that it arise spontaneously and subconsciously. Who knows, for example, if there's isn't a latent capacity for it from our long oral prehistory, that is manifest as Joseph dictates? Didn't it show up in Greek epics and so on that have a long oral transmission?

I would be curious to hear what nonmember experts have to say about the matter. Is there consensus that the position Mormons take on it is correct? If not, does that mean the evidence is not so objectively strong after all? What is their explanation? I just subscribed to Dialogue (and BYU Studies, after your sister-in-law's recent advertisement) for the first time in my life, and the first issue to arrive has a critique of chiasmus (which I haven't read yet), so it seems not even all members are convinced. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/02/2006 11:05:00 PM  

Jared,  that is absolutely priceless, especially coming as late as 1995. Pole to pole,  in italics no less. The FARMS folks must've been clawing their eyes out. A good example of the hazards... 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/02/2006 11:11:00 PM  

Yeah, "pole to pole" is a bit much. Are there Israelites in the Far East then?

But Christian, I like your take on finding the right place  for apologetics a lot. Again, when Carmack gave that talk, it was only 5 years ago, and I hadn't really started down the path of Mormon studies in an academic way (before grad school), and yet it STILL stuck out to me as funky.

It's always illuminating to me when a person has had intimations of something but never put it down in words, and then someone comes along and solidifies the feeling in words. That's what this apologetic thing for me feels like. Again, I appreciate all the work they do, but I'm not so sure conference talks, or, by extension, the Ensign is the appropriate forum for it. 

Comment by David J | 2/03/2006 02:14:00 PM  

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