One of the pivotal experiences of my life came when a couple in my ward invited me to attend a regional BYU Education Week in West Covina, Calif., in the late 1960s.
My aging memory may be confused, but I recall a stellar lineup of speakers. We heard from Elder Bruce R. McConkie (not yet a member of the Twelve) as well as Daniel Ludlow and Hugh Nibley, and were entertained by Mormon stories, humor and folk songs from “The Three D’s.”
For a mid-teen with intellectual aspirations who had been raised by a semi-active mother and a non-member father and who lacked much awareness of Mormon thought beyond Sunday School and seminary, it was pretty heady stuff. And nothing in those pivotal days was more heady or more exciting for me than Truman Madsen’s evening lectures. For three or maybe even four nights, he held me (and seemingly quite a few others) spellbound with eloquent presentations entitled “Existentialism,” “Logical Positivism” and ... well, I’ve forgotten the other titles.
But I was captivated. I was thrilled as Madsen discussed the views of leading thinkers on the biggest possible issues — and by Mormonism’s depth, as he placed it in conversation with them. His speeches opened my eyes to an exciting new world. I had never imagined that the restored gospel offered such a wealth of profound ideas; I’ve never been the same since.
I bought and devoured his transcribed lecture “Joseph Smith Among the Prophets” and his fascinating book “Eternal Man.” I subscribed to “BYU Studies.” I decided to apply to Brigham Young University when the time came.
There’s an aphorism currently circulating in some Mormon intellectual circles to the effect that “richness is the new proof” — suggesting that what will convince people of the truth of Mormonism is the quality of its content, with the subtext often being that old-style argumentation for the factuality of Mormon claims is obsolete.
I have at least two problems with the statement. First, I’m uncomfortable with the term “proof.” I don’t think that empirical and publicly available “proof” of religious doctrine exists, or is even intended to exist. And I’m aware of no “old style” apologists who ever imagined themselves to be supplying such proof. Second, I can’t agree that defenses of the coherence and historical claims of Mormonism are obsolete. I don’t believe that the sheer beauty of the Christian idea can sustain faith in the absence of conviction, or at least reasonable hope, that core events of Christianity (e.g., the incarnation of Christ and his resurrection from the dead) are factually true. The gospel, the good news of Christ, must be more than merely “spilled poetry.”
That said, however, I agree that “richness” can be, and has been, a powerful invitation to faith and a supporting reason for it. This was certainly so for me, and still is.
That’s why I passionately believe that we need more philosophers, novelists, composers and artists to articulate the richness of the Restoration in ways that will touch the hearts and minds of people open to its truth. Madsen and Nibley had a decisive impact on me — Nibley’s work eventually helped in my father’s conversion, as well — and I want others to have similar experiences.
I want others to continue to profit from the words of Madsen and Nibley — and, for that matter, those of C.S. Lewis and many others — but there must continually be new voices, fresh ways of articulating the message of the Restoration. No single formulation will touch or reach everybody; many different ways of conveying the beautiful news of the gospel are needed.
The Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology, or SMPT, will hold its 2013 annual meeting Oct. 31-Nov. 2 on the campus of Utah Valley University in Orem. It’s an organization made up of believers and non-believers, Mormons and non-Mormons, and it has no apologetic or proselytizing purposes. Full-disclosure, though: My involvement with SMPT (I’m currently serving as its very ineffectual president) isn’t motivated solely by purely intellectual interest; my personal dream for this tiny and still relatively new organization is that out of its meetings and papers, and from the pages of its journal and the interactions between its members, will arise some of those new articulations of the gospel, expressions that will capture the attention, hearts and minds of others, as Truman Madsen’s lectures caught mine.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs http://www.mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.