In Defense of Mormon Apologetics

David Bokovoy posted a careful and thoughtful analysis of the relationship between scholarship and apologetics in the wake of Greg Smith’s controversial piece on John Dehlin’s Mormon Stories. I really appreciate David’s approach and the care he takes in trying to offer a balanced perspective, but I still found myself disagreeing with David’s overall thesis. My hope is that by explicating my disagreement beyond a comment and into a post, it will help move the discussion forward beyond particular examples and into a broader discussion about the overlap between scholarship and faith.


The  best place to begin is with the classic text for apologetics that comes from 1st Peter Chapter 3 (NRSV):

(15) but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you (16) yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.

I always find it interesting that in typical Christian discourse on apologetics, almost everyone ignores the “in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord ” of verse 15 and goes straight to the occurrence of apologia, with its connotations of reasoned defense (Plato’s famous account of Socrates’ trial is called an apology as well) and what that must entail. The fact that the command to be ready to give a reasonable defense is sandwiched between a command of sanctifying Christ in your heart and giving your reasoned defense with gentleness and reverence, seems to be a 300 pound gorilla no one wants to talk about.

As an atheist, I understand that people of faith live their lives according to that faith and that means faithful scholars are going to engage in scholarship that meets the spirit of that faith. Some people see this as a conflict of interests, but I don’t think that must be necessarily so. It seems to me that apologetics is itself a kind of a demeanor, and one which we should expect from mature Christians in almost every aspect of their lives, including scholarship.

David states that scholarship and apologetics are two different fields, as if they were two different disciplines. I’m not sure I totally agree with this distinction; not all scholarship is apologetic in nature and not all apologetics is scholarly in nature, but surely some scholarship is apologetic. To give an example from my own training I’d offer Alvin Planting’s ‘Warranted Christian Belief’ (hereafter WCB) as an example of scholarship that also happens to serve the role of apologetics.

Plantinga satisfies the conditions for scholarship because WCB is rigorous in thought, transparent in motivation, and does a good deal of work in moving the discussion forward. While I certainly disagree with the bulk of the book, working through it was not only profitable in terms of sharpening my own philosophical ability, it exposed me to criticisms that have to be dealt with while framing them in such a way as to help make my own position better.

I think a necessary if not essential feature of scholarship is its ability to be edifying and useful for people who don’t share the author’s worldview. I would argue that this wasn’t achieved by striving for objectivity or by working from some kind of naturalistic assumptions, but by following a different set of criteria. What specifically is this criteria? I’m not sure.

My intuition tells me that the questions that I should be asking are to be found on the other side of the professional philosophy house, specifically the work of Hans Gadamer and his Philosophical Hermeneutics. It will take me some time to gather my thoughts, but I wanted to pose a few preliminary questions to my fellow contributors and our readers:

Is objectivity in scholarship worth striving for? To borrow a line from Catholic theologian David Tracy, “ We belong to history just as much as history belongs to us.” We all stand within our own traditions, is it worth the effort to try and move out of that context in pursuit of objectivity or are we just kidding ourselves by dressing our work up in terms and methods that just gives the mere appearance?

Is there a strong correlation between the virtues of good scholarship and the virtues of a faithful Christian, Muslim or Jew (or any other tradition)? An honest pursuit of the truth, charity towards your fellows and your “Others”? Temperance when it comes to behavior in scholarly and academic contexts? An honest and robust participation in dialectic?

I look forward to reading everyone’s thoughts.


In Defense of Mormon Apologetics — 12 Comments

  1. Patrick: Your invocation of Plantinga is a great example of scholarship that fulfills a great scholarly niche. There are numerous books like that in the philosophy of religion. One of the best is Swinburne’s work on the Coherence of Theism. It breaks ground in philosophical areas of epistemology and modal logic and makes really well thought out arguments that represent the best of scholarship. I also don’t agree with everything he says; but he makes totally informed arguments that must be dealt with in my view.

    It is scholarship like these works (and I could name literally thousands more) show that the dichotomy between apologetics and scholarship is a false dichotomy.

  2. Apologetics run the gamut from the scholarly to the pits. I think that articles such as that by David are helpful in that apologetics does not take on a herd mentality. We need people to honestly critique the quality of LDS apologetics, to ask probing questions to help keep all of us alert to possible fallacies and problems with LDS apologetics.

    But on some levels, as Robert F. Smith said in a thread on MADB, there is some very high quality apologetic material which meets all of the criteria for a scholarly work and it is a distinction without a difference.


  3. I think we have people talking pay each other here. Plantinga’s work and the philosophy of religion are a very different discipline than most other fields in Religious Studies. Because of the metaphysical claims and explorations often associated with philosophy on general, many topics, premises, and methodologies appropriate in discussions in the philosophy of religion would not be appropriate in most other religious studies disciplines.

  4. Thank you, Patrick for the very thoughtful response.

    The Narrator said:

    “I think we have people talking past each other here. Plantinga’s work and the philosophy of religion are a very different discipline than most other fields in Religious Studies.”

    And this is precisely correct. Like so much in life, it all depends upon how we are using the words and from what vantage point. While terms such as “Gospel Scholarship” are certainly valid and carry their own meaning, modern academia defines its efforts in Religious Studies as “scholarship” i.e. the method of working with religion as a scholar.

    In terms of modern academia, the scholarly pursuit of Religious Studies refers to the secular inquiry regarding religious beliefs, behaviors, and institutions. Hence, Religious Studies constitutes an important part of the Humanities. It is the scholarly pursuit of interpreting religious behavior and belief from outside (or in other words, independent) of any particular religious viewpoint.

    For those of us engaged in Religious Studies, “apologetics” refers to a defense of a theology or religious perspective. It is religious rather than secular in nature and therefore antithetical to our understanding of what constitutes “scholarship” in our field.

    That having been said, I agree with Loyd and Seth who on other occasions have noted that when done right, Religious Studies can be used as an apologetic, but please note, that is not its intent.

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  6. Narrator: Do you have any examples for your claims regarding “many topics, premises, and methodologies appropriate in discussions in the philosophy of religion [that] would not be appropriate in most other religious studies disciplines”? Since philosophy of religion is a very important part of any religious studies program, it seems really strange to me to parse matters this way. If you could give examples of what is appropriate in philosophy of religion that is not appropriate in religious studies in general I think it would be clearer for me.

    David: I doubt that asserting that just any defense of religious beliefs constitutes non-scholarly apologia is going to give the desired demarcation either. For example, I have defended the Anselmian view against attacks that i believe are not successful. I believe that there are well-taken arguments against the Anselmian view and those that are not. So if I defend Anselm against bad arguments (because I think that they are logically fallacious) am I somehow no longer doing scholarship but doing apologia?

  7. Thanks everyone for taking the time to read my post. I definitely agree with The Narrator that there is some deal of talking past one another, but I think we can get away from assessing the quality of a particular person’s work and take a bit of the burden off David having to respond in 4 or 5 different venues to the same questions/objections.

    Where I would have to disagree is that Plantinga not being an appropriate example for a analogy with what goes on under the umbrella of Religious Studies. Philosophers of Religion trying to formulate, explain, and defend necessary and sufficient conditions for justified religious belief is project closely related to Anthropologists of Religion trying to formulate, explain, and defend necessary and sufficient conditions for what even constitutes a religion, what is spiritual, or supernatural. Sociologists of Religion have a similar task for the idea of secularism. I’d like to point out that there is nothing approaching a consensus for a definition of any of those critical terms.

    So I think it would be helpful for David to spell out what exactly he means by the term secular when he says, “In terms of modern academia, the scholarly pursuit of Religious Studies refers to the secular inquiry regarding religious beliefs, behaviors, and institutions.”

  8. “It is religious rather than secular in nature and therefore antithetical to our understanding of what constitutes “scholarship” in our field.”

    To my ear, that’s a very radical statement, perhaps you meant it that way. But I’ve always bristled at the modern “secular/religious” divide. Knowledge is knowledge and the more you know, the more you know. I think one can do a scholarly apologetic, even in the modern world.

  9. Blake, I just wrote a much lengthier reply, but it seemed to disappear. Here is the shorter version: Virtually all other subset disciplines in religious studies (for example, sociology of religion, history of religion, Biblical criticism) are secular in nature. This is partly because of the scientific nature of their research and partly because appeals to religious claims as ontological realities necessary exclude all non-believers from the discussion.

    Because philosophy of religion is dominated by analytic philosophy, it is not attempting to make any new claims about reality, but is just engaging in input-out games, not entirely different from sudoko or long-division. This not-really-saying-anything (see Wittgenstein) makes what they are doing very different from the more “scientific” work of others in religious studies and makes it possible for non-believers to entertain various theological claims (without affirming them) to join into the games.

  10. Narrator: The notion that philosophy of religion is on the whole analytic is, as you yourself have asserted many times, not quite accurate. Moreover, it is hardly focused on merely the a priori or merely logical questions. The very question that Plantinga addresses, does a world-view where we claim some kind of reliable cognitive mechanism fit to give us access to reality-paring systems even sensible on a merely naturalistic world-view? It is a position that is apologetic, very scientifically oriented in cognitive sciences and neuro-sciences, and and an incredibly important over-arching question. Moreover, it isn’t remotely analytic in nature in the sense that it is mere garbage in-garbage out kind of computation or alogrithm. It seems to me to be a very convincing counter-example to your claim — especially the rather ill-begotten claim that neither analytic philosophy nor philosophy of religion make “claims about reality”. In this case, the claim made about reality is that if we are merely the result of blind chance formed by merely whatever is fittest to survive, then we cannot trust our cognitive faculties to give access to reality — and that is the reality of the matter.

    The entire endeavor to divorce secular from religious, and scholarship from apologia seems to be a rather antiquated form of enlightenment modernism that has been exposed as assuming way too much at least since Kant. I think that David’s position that he is free of theological influences, as if he could escape his own skin, is rather philosophically naive.

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