Mormon apologists gather, but not to apologize

Published: Thursday, Aug. 2 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

"Paul used reason, proving from the scriptures that Jesus was the Christ," she continued. "John said he wrote his gospel 'that ye may believe,' and the writer of the book of Luke explained why he was presenting this evidence."

Peterson likes to cite 1 Peter 3:15, in which Peter says believers should "be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you."

"That's exactly what the good apologist does," Peterson said. "You provide thoughtful, factual answers that give a rational reason for your faith."

Although a strong statement of belief — what Latter-day Saints call a "testimony" — can be a kind of apologetic defense ("I know these things to be true because …"), Peterson said good scholarship is critical to apologetic efforts.

Gordon agreed.

"An apologist argues a position from the strength of scholarship and research," he said. "It's not just an opinion — it is an informed, educated opinion."

In a way, Gordon said, apologetics is like science.

"You know it's a good scientific experiment if others can perform the same experiment and replicate the results," he said. "In the same way, you know it's good apologetics if others can look at the same information and draw the same conclusions — or at least understand why you draw those conclusions."

Even so, Jeffries sees a natural tension between apologetics and scholarship.

"In scholarship, you look at the evidence and come up with a thesis," she said. "In apologetics, you start with a position and look for evidence to support it."

Peterson doesn't see quite so much difference.

"A scientist starts out with a hypothesis and then looks for evidence to see if the hypothesis is accurate," he said. "That's not all that much different from what we do as apologists."

Only an apologist doesn't think in terms of "if."

"For the Mormon apologist, the starting point has to be that the church is true," said Kaimi Wenger, who teaches at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego and who moderated the Sunstone session on apologetics. "We have to start at that baseline, and for some that may lead to a fundamental disconnect."

There may also be some stylistic differences in how apologetics should be approached. Barney identified three different approaches:

Engagement apologetics: This is where "you engage directly with the critic or whoever you're talking to," Barney said. "This is active, aggressive debate, rhetorical combat, two people battling on personal beliefs."

Scholarly apologetics: Despite what Barney called the "anti-intellectual tradition of the LDS Church, apologetics by its nature uses scholarship." He said he believes this is what BYU's Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship is trying to do — "applying the tools of scholarship by making certain assumptions about the Mormon faith."

Educated apologetics: In Barney's view, this is what FAIR tries to be: a place where ordinary members of the LDS Church can go to receive educated responses to criticism of the LDS Church and its teachings and policies. Gordon agrees with Barney's assessment of FAIR.

"I like to call what we do 'informational apologetics,' " Gordon said. "We say, 'Here's the criticism, here's the information, here's the background and here are some conclusions that we draw from all of it.' We understand that someone else might draw a different conclusion, but we feel comfortable with the research that we've done as an affirmation of our faith."

But Barney pointed out that there is also true and accurate information that is not exactly faith-affirming. Mormon apologists have to be aware of that information as well because "it's out there on the Internet. People will find it. We have to be prepared with a good, educated, historically accurate response."

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