The man whom critics of the LDS Church love to hate chose his topic at last week's FAIR conference carefully to give those critics "apoplexy, cardiac arrest and indigestion."

Dan Peterson, borrowing the title of a book by John Gordon Stackhouse, spoke on "Humble Apologetics."

"And basically I am offering myself as the model of that," Peterson said, eliciting laughter from the crowd.

Peterson, a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University, was the concluding speaker at the 10th annual Mormon Apologetics Conference presented by the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research.

In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Nephi said that he knew God loved his children but "I do not know the meaning of all things."

"What struck me about that is the humility, the modesty of Nephi's claim," Peterson said, "that here he is a prophet ... and yet clearly doesn't understand everything, doesn't know everything. And it seems to me that we need to remember always the constraints, the limitations of the knowledge that we have."

Peterson proposed that apologists must be modest in what they say and gentle in the way they say it. "This is going to seem odd coming from me," he said, "but I mean it."

All individuals, even prophets, are to some extent left to figure things out for themselves. According to Peterson, clear proofs of the reality of God's plan of salvation would destroy the plan. People are to walk by faith.

"The crux of the (final) judgment, it seems to me, is not our assent to certain specific theological propositions, (but) a revelation of what it is we really want — what we want to be," Peterson said. "Do we hunger and thirst for goodness? Do we seek God?"

He said that people have to want the gospel to be true. If they don't want the gospel to be true, the evidence is not designed to be so overwhelming that they have no choice. A person who has a love of the gospel, but may have some problems with some things, is reachable. But not everybody wants the gospel to be true.

The goal is to present things so that people will want it to be true, so they will be willing to take the experiment on the word. If they take the first steps, Peterson said, their testimony will grow.

"We will not argue people into the church," he said. "They will not come into the church ... because of our eloquence or the evidence that we can amass in something."

Peterson worries about the tone of discussions on Internet message boards. They are like boxing rings and are dominated too much by men. "There's a lot of, dare I say, a lot of testosterone involved with this kind of apologetics," he said.

"We are winning souls, we hope — not so much arguments. Winning an argument can lose you a soul," he said.

On his mission, Peterson developed a reputation as a Jehovah's Witness basher, using scriptures and arguments to prove them wrong. But it wasn't effective and made him feel terrible.

"We cannot beat people over the head with some sort of evidentiary baseball bat and make (critics) admit that the church is true," Peterson said. "And the Lord doesn't want that."

In the question-and-answer portion of his presentation, Peterson was asked why anti-Mormon message boards on the Internet kept banning him. "Because I'm a slime. 'Why do you keep going back?' Because I'm an addict. I really don't know what to say — I see myself as sweetness and light."


E-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com


An expanded version of this story is available at MormonTimes.com

More online

For additional stories from last weekend's FAIR conference, go online to MormonTimes.com and click on the Doctrine and Beliefs section. Stories include:

• Book of Mormon uses ancient directions

• Early Christian rituals came from temple

• DNA shows Joseph Smith was Irish

• Joseph Smith translation was education in temple concepts

• Shaken faith a syndrome, not a sin, author says

• Theology suggests Book of Mormon setting in Central America, scholar says