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The unenviable position of Mormon apologetics

This is a post that I wrote on another blog that is now defunct, but I liked it and I want to keep it. Here it is, reproduced in its entirety:

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.”


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