Apologetics: Place and Purposes
by Christian Y. Cardall
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.