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The many uses of 'apologetics'

For decades, a remark by Austin Farrer about C. S. Lewis — a passage often cited by the late LDS Church apostle Elder Neal A. Maxwell — functioned as something of an unofficial motto for Brigham Young University’s Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, more commonly known as FARMS, and its successor organization, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship: “Though argument does not create conviction,” Farrer wrote, “the lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish” (see Farrer, “Grete Clerk,” in "Light on C. S. Lewis" compiled by Jocelyn Gibb, Harcourt and Brace, 1965).

Lately, several books have appeared that are designed to counsel troubled members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on how to manage their doubts, how to endure “faith crises.” There’s no question these books can be helpful. Often, they provide excellent advice and encouragement.

Moreover, some regard such writing as a more acceptable way to help threatened testimonies than overt defense and advocacy, preferring it to explicitly apologetic scholarship that seeks to parry attacks, neutralize criticisms and affirm truth claims.

Latter-day Saints don’t, in fact, use the word “apologetics” very often. Many worry, mistakenly, that it suggests embarrassment or discomfort over the gospel and not confident faith. But the Greek word “apologia” originally meant “defense"; only relatively recently has the English verb “to apologize” taken on the sense of saying that one is “sorry.”

For most people, though, it’s not enough merely to manage doubts, any more than it’s sufficient, where a real alternative exists, simply to manage pain or to just stand back and watch a disease run its course. The better alternative, continuing the medical metaphor, is to cure the disease, repair the injury, or, even better, prevent such illnesses and injuries in the first place.

There’s an urgent need, accordingly, for both “negative” apologetics — evidence and arguments to defend against faith-injuring criticisms of the Restoration — and “positive” apologetic arguments that furnish affirmative reasons to believe. Latter-day Saints whose “resistance” has been strengthened by sound and persuasive arguments will be far less susceptible to the disease of doubt, far less likely to suffer crises of faith.

For some, in a sense, the most effective answer to questions about early Mormon plural marriage might be information about Arabian Nahom and Lehi’s trail. The most reassuring response to the Mountain Meadows Massacre could be the Book of Mormon witnesses. And evidence of the Book of Mormon roots in the ancient Middle East may, in certain cases, offer the most convincing defense of the LDS Church’s stance on same-sex marriage.

But, important though defending the faith can be for troubled Saints and even, sometimes, for still-undecided investigators, apologetics isn’t only about defense.

The gospel is true, and there’s a strong positive case to be made for it. While the witness of the Spirit is essential, different people come to that witness differently. By their use of scriptural arguments, Latter-day Saint missionary teaching methods illustrate the important role that reason and reasons can assume in the gaining of a testimony. And, for some people, evidence and argument can play — sometimes must play — a part, as well.

I baptized my father on the same night that I was set apart as a missionary. All my life, he had been a friendly unbeliever, standing just outside the walls of the church. What changed his mind after so long? Several factors contributed but among them was reading the works of the late Hugh Nibley. Dad was impressed, and it surprised him. For the first time ever, he later told me, he began to ask himself “Could Mormonism actually be true?” That question opened his mind to the life-altering spiritual conversion that followed.

Apologetics can serve the kingdom in unique and irreplaceable ways. For some, it can be a lifeline. It can create doubts about their doubts. It can also strengthen a spiritual foundation, making such doubts less likely and less potent in the first place. And, as in my father’s case, it can lead some to consider the gospel more seriously, and perhaps even to gain a testimony.

Excellent resources are already available. See, for example, my list of basic “books that can help to build or reinforce testimonies” (online at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson/2015/10/books-that-can-help-to-build-or-reinforce-testimonies.html), as well as FairMormon (online at fairmormon.org) and its “FairWiki” (at en.fairmormon.org/Main_Page), “Joseph Smith’s Polygamy” (see josephsmithspolygamy.org), “LDS Perspectives Podcasts” (at ldsperspectives.com), “Joseph Smith’s DNA” (at josephsmithdna.com), Book of Mormon Central (at bookofmormoncentral.org), and the Interpreter Foundation (mormoninterpreter.com). And, we hope, there’s much more to come.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.