Quantcast

Mormon apologists gather, but not to apologize

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

FAIR conference attendees take notes during a 2010 session. This year's conference opens today at the South Towne Exposition Center.

Deseret News Archives, Deseret News Archives

SANDY — When the Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research (FAIR) opens its 14th annual Apologetics Conference this morning at the South Towne Exposition Center, it will do so in front of its largest audience ever.

"Advance registration for the conference is at an all-time high — as of now, we are projecting attendance at the conference to be 44 percent higher than previous years," said Steve Densley Jr., FAIR public relations director. "There is more interest than ever in Mormon apologetics."

FAIR is a private, independent organization with the mission to "address the charges leveled at the doctrines, practices and leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with documented responses that are written in an easily understandable style." FAIR is not owned, operated or controlled by the LDS Church itself.

Densley attributes the increased interest in all things Mormon to presidential politics.

"It seems likely that much of the reason for the surge of interest in apologetics is the candidacy of Mitt Romney and the increased attention this has brought the LDS Church and its members," Densley said.

"Members of the church are facing a more pressing need to defend the church and to explain difficult issues. FAIR helps meet those needs."

And defending the church is really what Mormon apologetics are all about.

"A lot of people hear the word 'apologetics' and they think we're all about groveling and apologizing for the church," said Scott Gordon, FAIR president. "Some people are kind of offended by the notion. They're like, 'Why are you apologizing for the church?' "

What many people don't understand, said Bridget Jack Jeffries, an evangelical Christian who is currently a master's candidate at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, is the root word from which our current word "apology" descends.

"'Apologia' is a Greek word meaning 'defense,'" she said during a session on Mormon apologetics at last week's Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake City. "Today when we say 'apology,' it is usually an expression of regret: 'I'm sorry I stepped on your foot.' But in the classical Greek sense, an apologetic response to the same scenario would be, 'I stepped on your foot because you had it poking out in the middle of the aisle, you idiot!' — in other words, to make a reasonable, fact-based explanation."

Daniel Peterson, professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic at BYU and widely known as a leading Mormon apologist, said that in the ancient Greek legal system, the "apologia" was delivered in a formal speech as a way of giving a rational explanation in response to charges by way of rebuttal to those charges. Plato's "Apology," for example, is the philosopher's retelling of the speech Socrates gave as he defended himself against charges of corrupting the young and not worshipping the approved gods.

"Socrates was not apologizing for his actions," Peterson said. "He was defending and explaining them using reason and logic."

Which is precisely the objective of the religious apologist.

Kevin Barney, who has been involved in Mormon apologetic research for years, defines it as "that branch of theology defending religious faith in scholarly ways."

"The Christian apologist tries to provide a rational justification for the truth claims of the Christian faith," Jeffries said. "They do so in three ways: first, making a rational case for faith to unbelievers; second, defending the gospel against attacks; and third, strengthening the faithful. This is the three-fold nature of Christian apologetics."

Jeffries cited several New Testament examples of apologetics, such as on the day of Pentecost, when the apostle Peter "appealed to the case of the witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus Christ — he was making a reasoned case for the faith."

"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."

That's why he feels things like the FAIRWiki associated with the FAIR website (www.fairlds.org), which he calls "a repository of responses to any anti-Mormon thing you can think of," and the website's "Ask an apologist" feature are important.

And so does Gordon.

"As we defend the church we may find things in our history that may not be flattering," he said. "In my mind, that's reassuring. It means God can work with imperfect people to get his work done. He doesn't have to wait for perfect people to come along. But it also means that imperfect people occasionally do imperfect things, and so we have to be able to explain them and give people good, rational reasons, perspectives and contexts for those mistakes and errors."

But while apologetic research and study can fortify faith and strengthen belief, it shouldn't be considered a replacement for spiritual testimony and witness. John-Charles Duffy teaches American religious history and has studied and written about the practice of apologetics. He says that "people who are looking to apologetics for answers to their doubts are not shouldering the responsibility for going to God for their own answers."

"The ideal solution is for people to just be so strong in their belief that they don't even worry about what others think or say," he said during the recent Sunstone Symposium. "We need to have the strength of testimony that allows us to just blow off what others say."

Added Peterson: "If you want the spiritual certainty required to motivate you to go on a mission, to donate 10 percent of your income to tithing, to give precious hours of time to a church calling, you better have a spiritual witness.

"You can't wake up every day wondering, 'Oh, man, I wonder what the state of the evidence is today,'" Peterson continued. "You can't go from seminar to seminar hearing scholars examine the church from one perspective or another, all the while wondering if you're going to stay true to this or not. That isn't enough. You need to have a testimony that stands on its own, regardless of what anyone else says."

Mormon Apologetics Conference facts

When: Thursday, Aug. 2, and Friday, Aug. 3

Where: South Towne Exposition Center (9575 S. State, Sandy)

Times: Sessions begin at 9 a.m. each day and end at 5:45 p.m. Registration is available before the first session each day.

Topics: Topics on the agenda include:

"No Johnny-Come-Lately: The 182-Year-Long BLACK Mormon Moment"

"Book of Mormon Genetics: A Reappraisal"

"Forty-Five Years of Chiasmus Conversations, Criteria and Creativity: What Chiasmus Proves and Does Not Prove"

"From the East to the West: The Problem of Directions in the Book of Mormon"

"Piercing the Veil: Temple Worship in the Lost 116 Pages"

"Perception and Reality: Then and Now"

For more information on the conference, visit www.fairlds.org.

Mormon Apologetics Conference facts

When: Thursday, Aug. 2, and Friday, Aug. 3

Where: South Towne Exposition Center (9575 S. State, Sandy)

Times: Sessions begin at 9 a.m. each day and end at 5:45 p.m. Registration is available before the first session each day.

Topics: Topics on the agenda include:

"No Johnny-Come-Lately: The 182-Year-Long BLACK Mormon Moment"

"Book of Mormon Genetics: A Reappraisal"

"Forty-Five Years of Chiasmus Conversations, Criteria and Creativity: What Chiasmus Proves and Does Not Prove"

"From the East to the West: The Problem of Directions in the Book of Mormon"

"Piercing the Veil: Temple Worship in the Lost 116 Pages"

"Perception and Reality: Then and Now"

For more information on the conference, visit www.fairlds.org.

email: jwalker@desnews.com

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS