Home » Classical Theism » The unenviable position of Mormon apologetics.

The unenviable position of Mormon apologetics.

(this piece has been cross-posted from an older philosophy blog, Aristotle’s Revenge)

I have seen quite a bit of banter lately about Mormon apologetics lately and wanted to throw in my $0.02. Recently John Dehlin publicly stated:

I just want to go on record as saying that 20th and 21st century LDS apologetics (FAIR, FARMS, Maxwell institute) will go down as destroying more testimonies than any other single Mormon influence. That’s what happens when you blame the victim, or give very poor and evasive answers to credible issues.

Now I actually think this is unfair for a number of reasons. First, people don’t go to LDS apologetics unless they are a Mormon who is already struggling with their testimony (very few Mormons, ex-Mormons, or non-Mormons look to FAIR for casual, unbiased, light reading on a Sunday afternoon). So it’s hard to say that the apologists are really “destroying” these testimonies, as though they were completely whole beforehand and then the apologists strapped some plastic explosives to them and pushed the plunger. Second, I am not convinced that if there were no apologetic wing of the LDS church, we wouldn’t be seeing the same people exiting the LDS faith. It could be that the apologetic defense is ineffectual, or in John’s words, “poor and evasive,” but in this case they’re simply failing to stop a person from doing what they were already considering doing. Third, there is the implication that apologists bear the ultimate responsibility for other people’s testimonies. This is problematic to me because, if the LDS church is true in any sense, then ultimate responsibility for a person’s testimony rests with the person and God. To think that an apologist could somehow thwart the work of God (if that’s what it is) seems backwards.

However, it is the case that a modern LDS apologist does have a tough job to do if they really want to mount a case for Mormonism. In order to do so, they would have to do the following things:

1. They would have to show why the classical arguments for God’s existence fail. Christian philosophers from Tertullian to Augustine to Aquinas to modern-day defenders like William Lane Craig and Richard Swinburne have put forth a lot of arguments for a transcendent, immaterial God who is in some sense a “ground of all being.” They differ on the specifics, but I think even if these arguments are wrong they are at least strong enough to give a fair and proper hearing. In any case, they have set the philosophical stage for two thousand years, so it would seem at best ignorant to just pass them over as relics of the past. LDS doctrine teaches a corporeal God of flesh and bone, who may or may not be one member in an infinite chain of Gods, who is raising us as literal offspring. This God seems quite irreconcilable to the classical or modern monotheistic version of God. As such, LDS apologists would have to show why this classical God is either a) non-existent, b) unimportant or unworthy of worship, or c) somehow the same as the Mormon God. B seems almost laughable (if there is a transcendent being responsible for bringing the universe into existence and sustaining it continually, it is hard to argue that this being is not the God we should worship), C seems almost impossible to me, given that a corporeal God who is not the ultimate source of existence and consists of parts seems completely foreign to any traditional God I know of (from the neo-Platonists to the Thomists to the new “theistic personalists”). Thus I think A is the only one left, which means joining sides with the materialist atheists and refuting the existence – and even the coherence of the concept – of that God. But actually, I have not yet seen a strong atheist argument that this God certainly does not exist – only atheist refutations of common arguments for this God. So the result among most atheists I have seen is simply a weak atheism (a lack of a belief in this God due to not enough evidence). This seems like a shaky starting point for the Mormon apologist to move on to…

2. Building up a case for the particularly Mormon God. This would be even tougher than #1, I think, because rejecting the God of al-Ghazali and Aquinas and adopting materialism means that you really think the natural order has no beginning or cause, and it’s hard to insert God post-hoc into that world. It seems to me that if the universe does not need a simple, transcendent being of “Pure Actuality” in order to continue moment-by-moment, then it’s hard to argue that the universe does , however, need a material being to give it order. You would have to also insist that the way to discover this being is to take “Moroni’s challenge” and pray and ask this God if he is out there – and trust your feelings after that. So the Mormon apologist must completely tear down the classical arguments for God’s existence using rationality and logic, only to resort to a trust in an emotional experience afterwards.

3. All this must be done while fending off the accusations and criticisms of Mormonism that LDS apologists spend most of their current time on – such as criticisms of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, polygamy, the pre-1978 priesthood ban, Book of Mormon anachronisms, and so on. Refuting these accusations might weaken the arguments against Mormonism, but doesn’t do much to build up a positive case for it. While there may be some evidence that such-and-such place in the Americas might be a good candidate for Zarahemla, it is so tenuous at this point that not even Mormon scholars can agree on where Book of Mormon events even took place (and theories range from Western New York to Mesoamerica to the Malay Peninsula, which is not in America at all).

In fact, I think that Mormon culture tries to attempt #1 through simple ridicule (most Mormons simply laugh off the doctrine of the Trinity without ever understanding it), and LDS apologists generally try their hand at #3 (but it’s hard and eventually inconclusive to argue whether Joseph Smith was a “charlatan” or not because this is just a vague, subjective label). But the result is that Mormonism tears down classical conceptions of God (and the foundational philosophical reasons for a belief in this God) without building a very good positive case for their own God – and thus when Mormons “de-convert” a huge percentage of them lose faith in God altogether (there are other possible reasons for this, of course, but this may be one reason).

Now there have been Mormon attempts at #2 but none of them have really caught on. In fairness, these philosophers (Orson Pratt, B.H. Roberts, Blake Ostler, or whomever) have had to attempt building a whole metaphysical and theological world-view out of lots of bits and pieces of revelations given to Joseph Smith and his successors, some that are in tension with one another. And let’s face it – Christianity was not philosophically sophisticated at all 200 years after it was founded, so it may be unfair to expect Mormonism to be so now. But I think these are the reasons why modern Mormon apologists are in an “unenviable position.”


5 thoughts on “The unenviable position of Mormon apologetics.

  1. When assessing the influence apologetics has on in individual I find it helpful to consider or imagine which of four categories they might fall into.

    1. Are they a devout member of the respective faith, unwilling to leave for any reason?

    2. Are they a devout member who is open to the truth regardless of where it is to be found, or perhaps a struggling member of the respective faith that looks to apologetics for support and security?

    3. Are they completely on the fence, not concerned with whether the respective faith is true or false, but simply open to figuring it out?

    4. Are they simply looking for reasons to criticize a respective faith or strengthen their disbelief?

    I think that if apologetics are unsatisfying to individuals falling into the first three categories, then the apologetics can more reasonably be labeled as weak or even problematic. I have faithful LDS friends who have a very critical view of some LDS apologetic efforts. Many have at least one thinker they find reliable (I’ve found that Ostler is popular), but many other FAIR and Maxwell Institute pieces to be lacking.

    As for LDS criticisms of classical theism, I have been surprised to find that many LDS intellectuals identify more with the secular arguments against theism than they do the arguments for theism. I think this is because LDS cosmology as a Bertrand Russell-esque view of the universe, being that we need not ask about it’s origin. The universe exists, an anthropomorphic God or Gods have found a way in which to live eternally in this universe. This plays into ideas of transhumanism that gods as the next stage in human evolution, rather than a being that is infinitely beyond what it is to be human.

    Finally, I have noticed that a popular LDS strategy is not necessarily to argue against the reality of the unmoved mover of classical theism, but to argue that it is incompatible with the God of the Old and New Testament. To make their case they point to anthropomorphic descriptions of God that speak of his emotions or body parts.

  2. “Finally, I have noticed that a popular LDS strategy is not necessarily to argue against the reality of the unmoved mover of classical theism, but to argue that it is incompatible with the God of the Old and New Testament. To make their case they point to anthropomorphic descriptions of God that speak of his emotions or body parts.”

    Right, which is weird, considering it amounts to an argument based on a fundamentalist, rather literal interpretation of the Bible. But is that really the LDS approach to the Bible? I’ve found that many LDS pay lip-service to a non-literal, dynamic approach to the Bible, but in practice they’re just as literalistic as many Evangelicals.

    As to your first point, I still can’t find too much fault with LDS apologetics. It’s a bunch of volunteers (or near-volunteers, given the salaries of those involved) trying their best to make Mormonism make sense in a systematic way, in response to what they see as attacks. And I really don’t think LDS apologetics has really “turned” anyone who was not already leaning in that direction.

    But I could be wrong. Maybe I’m biased because of the way I always approached apologetics. I always felt it was *my* responsibility to make sense of the historical and scriptural data – falling away from the church and blaming some history PhD at BYU for writing a bad response to some scripture question just seemed like the ultimate stupid cop-out, to me. I just don’t have any sympathy for that (even now that I am not a “true believing Mormon” anymore). I was always taught by my father that if I wanted some answer, I should figure it out myself.

  3. I would be an example of an individual who turned to LDS apologetic works hoping to find resources that would help me maintain my faith. After considering the arguments offered by various LDS apologists from Dan Peterson to Blake Ostler I found that I believed even less, a sort of “if this is the best they can do, then I am packing my bags” moment. Perhaps I was already out in the sense that I couldn’t help but stop believing, but I certainly didn’t desire my crisis of faith.

  4. Right, so you’d be an example of someone who were already troubled by this or that issue and apologetics failed to help. But I think that should be the job of apologetics – to mount the best case for a religion possible. If the religion still comes up short, then we can move on, knowing that the best arguments for the religion didn’t pass muster. I don’t think the persuasive power of apologetics should be stronger than the actual arguments, or should be able to keep people in a false religion just through the power of rhetoric or whatever.

    In other words, we should only be disappointed in LDS apologetics IF the church is true, and apologists fail to mount the best case for it. If the church is not true, do we really want apologetics to be so persuasive that people stay in the LDS church? We should want apologetics to be as persuasive as that religion is true. No more, no less.

    But a second issue is highlighted by your sentence, “if this is the best they can do, then I am packing my bags” is quite telling, because it shows that you were already placing yourself on the other side of a divide as the apologists, and you were expecting them to provide the answers for you. Otherwise you would have said, “If this is the best WE can do…” Why expect a bunch of guys who really don’t have any more priesthood authority to provide answers than you do, to answer questions about your religion? I would find that approach incredibly unempowering. Why let Dan Peterson or Blake Ostler tell me what my religion teaches? I’m just as much a member as them.

  5. Interesting thoughts.

    As someone interested in Eastern Orthodoxy, have you heard of the writings of Margaret Barker? Her works focus on “temple theology”, viewing Christianity and its development in light of the First Temple, Solomon’s Temple. She has written many articles and books (check out her website here: http://www.margaretbarker.com/. Pdfs of her articles are there) on things like Jesus Christ as the great High Priest, the temple roots of Christian liturgy, anointing oil, atonement, etc. Very interesting stuff! Also interesting is that LDS apologists have taken an interest in her writings, viewing it as supporting some LDS claims, including the LDS temple. The funny thing is, I was talking to a former LDS that converted to the Orthodox Church, and we both agree that Barker’s work convinced us not of Mormonism, but of Catholic/Orthodox Christianity, since that’s what she’s talking about! Her temple book convinced me of the Jewish roots of the Catholic and Orthodox liturgies, specifically how they relate to the ancient First Temple. I was far less convinced of any relevance to LDS topics.

    Which brings me to my main point: LDS apologetics, when they are really studied, aren’t really convincing to anyone other than active, believing LDS. For me, I certainly appreciate some points that LDS apologists make, like on the “adieu” argument against the Book of Mormon. However, on issues specific to the restoration of true doctrines and practices, I am far less convinced, which is what led me to reconsider the Catholic Church, and very recently revert back to Catholicism. I’d be interested in your thoughts on LDS apologetics focused on the restoration of the Church, with the restoration of specifically LDS beliefs, such as pre-mortal existence, exaltation, temples/esoteric rites, degrees of glory, etc. The way I’ve said it on a forum is this: LDS apologists seem to be pulling from here a little, there a little, from this individual and that individual, attempting to show the ancient Christian presence of LDS beliefs. The problem with that is that, while these same apologists will refer to restoring “the ancient Church” (I believe that’s the title of one such book, by Barry Bickmore), doctrines found in “the primitive Church”, etc, they really cannot point to a “Church of Jesus Christ of Former-day Saints”, if you will. There really was no ancient/primitive LDS Church that held these beliefs they point to as being found anciently, yet they reference an “ancient Church”. That is when I personally began to be interested in really understanding the implications of LDS apologetics on that specific issue, and found that many of their conclusions and premises are untenable.

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