After quite some time (not to mention a considerable amount of drama), a very controversial critique of the popular podcast series “Mormon Studies” has finally seen the light of day. I’m really not too interested in commenting at length in this forum on either the critique itself, John Dehlin, or “Mormon Stories.” Speaking personally, I’m much more of a reader than I am a listener, and so it was only after I had read Greg Smith’s article on “Mormon Stories” that I listened to my first John Dehlin podcast. I knew that some of my friends questioning whether they wanted to continue participating in Mormonism had greatly benefited from listening to John’s interview with Dr. Philip Barlow, the Director of Mormon Studies at Utah State, and since I’ve always held Dr. Barlow’s work in high esteem, I began my own investigation into “Mormon Stories” with this podcast. Since then, I’ve listened to several interviews (including the one with my friend Terryl Givens) and suffice it to say that I have found them all quite enjoyable; even inspiring.
This is not to say that in his assessment of LDS history, theology, and scripture, John has not made some mistakes. In his review, Greg Smith does a helpful job drawing attention to some of these errors. Personally, I’m grateful for Smith’s passion and his efforts to correct what Greg perceives as wrongful assertions that have the potential to cause unnecessary spiritual challenges for believing Latter-day Saints.
So with that introduction, I’m going to move on to what I really want to share. I hope not to offend anyone on either side of these issues with these comments; alas too many bad feelings already exist, but this widely discussed affair has caused me to reflect upon what I see as the difference between “scholarship” versus “apologetics” and I sincerely hope that sharing these thoughts might lead to greater understanding and mutal respect (honestly, for both sides).
This issue became the focus of my own ponderings after I shared publicly what I found helpful in Smith’s article, and what I personally found problematic. I’m not going to rehash my comments here. But I will share the response given my observations by a well-meaning contributor to message board activities. These were his words:
“You are making me a little confused. On the one hand, you agree with Greg but on the other hand, you don’t. And both are stated rather forcefully. I have this feeling that maybe you were taken in by the hit piece rumor and now you don’t know what to make of the article.”
As I carefully considered this person’s response to my critique of Greg’s article, I was struck by how different my own world-view is from the one held by this individual. In sharing this thought, let me add that in my mind, this disparity is not a matter of “right” versus “wrong” view; this poster and I simply hold a very “different” world-view, and I believe that this divergence can and often does lead to misunderstandings in conversations. As I pondered this issue, for me personally, the variance comes down to “apologetics” versus “scholarship.”
And as I see it, one of the real problems in communicating on these types of issues in Mormon culture is that many are simply unaware of the distinction between these two fields. They see an article like Greg Smith’s that has been “peer-reviewed,” professionally formatted, includes technical arguments and/or language, and yes, even features footnotes, and then simply employ inductive reasoning, “Well, if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck!” And yet, even though an article may look like scholarship, act like scholarship, and even sound like scholarship, it may not actually be scholarship. Instead, it may simply be an example of apologetics.
Now, I know that this has recently become somewhat of a volatile issue in Mormonism, and before I offend anyone, please understand that this is not a value statement on my part. For those who esteem apologetics, a defense of the faith like the one Greg produced is a wonderful, praiseworthy effort. And I’m not going to question that assessment. Moreover, I am certainly not opposed to apologetics pertaining to any religious faith (let alone my own), and I fully recognize that many, many people throughout the centuries have greatly benefited from well-articulated, logical defenses of their respective faiths.
Fundamentally, the difference between apologetics and scholarship is that unlike apologetics, scholarship strives for objectivity. While it is certainly true that no one is truly objective, this does not mean that scholars do not strive to achieve objectivity, for that is in fact precisely what scholarship seeks to maintain. Yet this is the exact opposite objective of apologetics. The difference is that when scholarship is not objective it is bad scholarship.
In my mind, I suppose it comes down to the fact that the true essence of scholarship is critical thought; not in the sense of “criticizing,” but in terms of thinking “critically” about arguments, including one’s own position!
Allow me to provide an illustration from my own life. As I concluded my doctoral work in Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East and began thinking about writing a dissertation, I realized that I had stumbled upon a unique way of interpreting the opening chapters of the Bible. I concluded that if my reading was correct, that my analysis would hold exciting ramifications for an academic understanding of the development of Israelite/Judean religious views. Now, I wasn’t sure if my reading was correct, in fact, I initially thought that my assessment was most likely wrong, but I still felt that the argument itself was unique, well-reasoned, and therefore, needed to be made. When my dissertation committee agreed with my assessment, I began my research.
400 pages later, I had actually convinced myself that in terms of my basic thesis, I was wrong!! Instead of probably being incorrect, I came to believe that in reality, I probably got it right! You see, throughout the research and writing process, I tried diligently to critique and counter my own assumptions to the point that when I reached the end of the project, I was actually forced to change my assessment of the main idea presented in one of the chapters that interesting enough, I had initially felt was one of my strongest claims. And now, even though the chapter sustains my general thesis, I actually believe that the argument I made is most likely incorrect.
This example from my own life illustrates what I view as the essential relationship between “scholarship” and what might be termed “critical thought.” Throughout my graduate career, I received considerable training on Historical-Critical analysis, and if I’m being completely honest, this approach has unintentionally come to shape my entire world-view. When I read an article written by a scholar in my academic field, I assess the arguments critically. I try to assess where I believe that the scholar has made some sound arguments, and then pay close attention to the proposals that I believe are problematic. This process may lead to my own academic article, where other scholars will subject my arguments to the same procedure.
I have to admit that this mindset has become very much a fundamental part of who I am as a person. Critical thought is not simply a light-switch that can be turned on or off depending upon when or if I want to use it. Scholarship comes with a price, and it affects everything in my entire life, whether its direction I receive from an administrator at work, or even counsel from a person I sustain as a Church leader. Even though I support these people, honestly, learning to think critically in my academic field has changed every aspect of my life. Unfortunately, I’ve found that within my LDS culture, there are some who for whatever reason, simply do not understand and who interpret my comments and perspective as “criticism,” when in reality, they’re simply not the same thing.
To personalize the issue even further, I hope that this explains why a Latter-day Saint like me can turn to an apologetic review like Greg Smith’s and identify some portions of it that I like, while finding other aspects of the article highly problematic. After all, this is what I do with my own thoughts and research (not to mention everything else in my life). And yet, for a person like the commentator I cited above, who adheres to an apologetic world-view, my perspective no doubt seems disconcerting; perhaps, even dangerous. For an apologist who has a faith-based position to defend that can have eternal consequences, either an article is “good” because it sustains his religious position, or an article is “bad” because it counters her religious view. And by extension, either a person like John Dehlin is a “Saint” or John Dehlin is an “apostate.” There can be no middle ground.
I have come to believe that this difference in conceptualizing the world is one of the reasons that as of late, the concept of Mormon Studies and apologetics has produced so many emotional responses.
I’m going to share one last personal experience that I think will offer further clarity. I certainly hope that this does not come across as criticism of Greg Smith, a person who as I’ve shared, I admire for his strong religious devotion and sincere desire to help others retain spirituality. I feel comfortable sharing this experience, since these comments were made on my Facebook account in a thread I had set to open public access. These were therefore public comments on my own account, and in my mind help illustrate why sometimes those of us who think critically (even about our own religion) have a difficult time communicating with apologists (and of course vice versa).
I’ve simply chosen to share this experience in the hopes that it might provide some help in future communication. Since these were very much public comments (and Greg did, after all, repeatedly site John’s Facebook quotes in his article), I trust that my friend Greg Smith won’t mind me sharing. As a believer myself, I think that I understand how apologists see the world. And as I’ve explained, for what it’s worth, my approach is simply a bit different.
This was made clear to me when Greg chose to share his opinions on LDS historian Michael Quinn and his book on J. Reuben Clark on my Facebook account after I shared with my family and friends how much I love Quinn’s book (and I do, despite the fact that I find some of Quinn’s analysis problematic, it truly is from my perspective a wonderful book!!).
In a sincere effort to help others, Greg wanted to make sure that anyone reading my praise knew what a “poor” historian Quinn is and how despite my assessment, how problematic the book was in terms of its analysis. Amongst his comments, Greg wrote:
“Clark’s family didn’t see anything of the man they knew in Quinn’s portrait. Given Quinn’s manifest dishonesty in many other matters (Same Sex Dynamics, anyone), I would be cautious about giving it too much weight.”
Greg then went on to state:
“I’m just saying, i don’t trust Quinn without checking the sources, because I’ve been burned before. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
“I own the book; I can’t claim to have read it cover to cover, simply because I don’t have time to check every brick in Quinn’s edifice, which I’ve found I’ve had to do in other works. I also know members of the Twelve who felt it was a distortion of Pres. Clark’s character, and his family felt likewise. So I just haven’t taken the time to test every brick. If you have, power to you. Maybe it’s fabulous. There are many authors I trust to tell me the full truth. Quinn is, sadly, no longer one of them.”
My own response was simply:
“Personally, I don’t trust anyone without checking the sources. That’s actually the way I USE books. I’m always interested in someone else’s argument, but I’m going to come to my own conclusions by following up on their sources.”
Now, despite our differences in approach/opinion, I’m very grateful for Greg’s devotion to his strong religious convictions. Really, I am. For Greg, Quinn is dangerous and his work (much like Dehlin’s) is to be avoided, since it does not sustain Greg’s world-view. Moreover, a person like me who likes Quinn’s work (even when I disagree with some of his assessments) can in turn be defined as “dangerous,” or perhaps from an apologist’s perspective even on the verge of apostasy (something I’ve been accused of by well-meaning apologists more than once). And from my perspective, by not reading Quinn’s book, Greg is truly missing out on some wonderful insights into a fascinating individual in LDS Church history. I think that coming to understand these different world-views, and the ways in which some people even successfully move between them, could help to reduce much of the emotional friction we’ve witnessed in recent months in Mormonism, even if we continue to see the world differently.
To return to my original point, scholarship is not apologetics, nor is apologetics scholarship (despite it’s worth). Just because it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, doesn’t mean that it is a duck!” And some of us who “believe” (especially when we’ve devoted years and years of our life to academic studies) can’t help but look at everything in life, including our own religion, from a critical perspective.
This does not make us bad people (at least, I hope not).