Nothing to Apologize For (Part I)

[Times & Seasons welcomes the first in a pair of posts from Ralph Hancock this week, who previously guested with us in 2010]

The recent unpleasantness at BYU’s Maxwell Institute has, the reader will have noticed, triggered much comment on the internet, including celebrations in some quarters over the supposed demise or at least eclipse of certain defenders of the faith at the Institute —characterized by some as apologists — who have been willing over the years to call out arguments they see as weakly reasoned and hold critics of the Church to account for their claims.   Although I do not know enough to assert that my friends at the Institute have always been right or have always succeeded in striking the most appropriate tone, it will surprise no one to learn that I appreciate a spirited defense, when it is judicious and well-founded, and that I expect that celebrations over developments at the Institute by critics are likely premature.

Happily, however, the upheaval has also sparked some genuinely thoughtful reflections on the past and future of “apologetics,” particularly in relation to the emerging academic field of “Mormon Studies.”  Here I attempt a small contribution to such reflections.

A persistent theme in a number of these online reflections has been the idea that, while an “apologetic” style associated with FARMS and owing much to the influence of the formidable Hugh Nibley may have had its uses in an earlier day, it is now, for a variety of reasons, time to move on to the more irenic and respectable discourse of Mormon Studies.   Let me confess at the outset that I am a licensed practitioner of neither form, but only, I hope, a moderately well-informed consumer of both.  Thus I have learned much of value from the interventions of those qualified scholars who have commented from the inside on the relation between the two forms and on their intersecting histories.  My intellectual experience and interests incline me more to attend to the intersection of religion and politics, the latter broadly understood to include the moral constitution of society, and it is with this concern in mind that I would venture a few observations on the Apologetics/Mormon Studies discussion.

Let me begin by agreeing with the sensible observation made by a number of writers already that there is obviously much that is good and intellectually interesting that can be done within both forms of discourse.  Still, I am struck by what appears to be a broad consensus among many younger scholars that there is now, and ought to be, a movement in the intellectual discussion of LDS beliefs and culture from a style that openly defends LDS commitments (“apologetics”) towards approaches that somehow bracket “truth claims” in order to enter into the more diverse and academically respectable conversation of “Mormon Studies”.

Of course a provisional bracketing of particular truth claims is just another way to say “thinking.”  I must be willing in a sense to bracket my particular beliefs in order to enter into and thus to understand any philosopher’s argument. Plato, for example, tries to make sense of our moral, political and metaphysical condition without any reference to a personal God or to a Savior, and I can learn much by forgiving him these oversights and following his arguments as far as I can, even when they seem to lead me away from my Christian beliefs. At the very least, Plato’s consuming interest in the Truth is admirable and instructive, and his very questions can inspire us, even if must find his answers incomplete.  But a different problem arises in engaging much modern scholarship, which tends to be based on the assumption that some regional “truth,” say “historical” or “psychological” can be examined by definitively bracketing the notion of a more existentially authoritative, higher Truth, religious or philosophical.  Such notions are relegated to the realm purely “personal,” that is, subjective and altogether optional.

This is not to say that there is never anything to be gained by engaging scholarship characterized more or less by this definitive bracketing of all authoritative truth claims.  Two admirable examples of faithful scholarship come to mind in this connection: Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling and Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon.  I will save a discussion of the latter (a book I believe cannot be praised highly enough) for another occasion and focus on the former. Richard Bushman’s justly celebrated biography of Joseph Smith presents itself as accepting the norms of professional historians that require the resolute bracketing (if not the simple dismissal) of questions of religious truth.  Bushman does not take it as his business in this book to be making the case for Joseph Smith’s Truth claims.  Indeed many controversial and problematic features of Smith’s life and work are set forth quite plainly, and without any pretension to disposing of all difficulties.  Bushman confesses his own standpoint as a believer early in the book, but he strives to do the work of an historian in a way that all good historians will be able to appreciate.

Was Professor Bushman’s “bracketing” successful?  Certainly it was from my standpoint, since he wrote an immensely engaging and informative book, one that left me with some troubling issues, but that overall strengthened my belief in the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith.  Was it successful from the other side of the brackets, so to speak — that is, for those secular historians whom Bushman was hoping to engage?  I have my doubts whether Professor Bushman’s work has received the professional credit it deserves.  My sense is that, precisely because the author was “provisional” in his bracketing, he did not succeed in overcoming suspicions of many of his professional peers that he was (still) an apologist for Mormonism, and therefore not a truly “objective” historian.  This is a case that seems to me to illustrate the difficulties involved in bracketing.

Thus I can understand and even, up to a point, endorse the attractions of a provisional bracketing of our religious beliefs for scholarly purposes, but I think it is important to be aware of the risks involved in catching what appears to be a powerful wave.

First, we see much of the current pleading against apologetics and for Mormon Studies as patently generational with a progressive accent.  A young generation may well stir itself to great intellectual exertions by imagining the opening up of new possibilities not realized by their predecessors.  The wielding of a theoretical “cutting edge” is a practically unavoidable trope in an intellectual world shaped so powerfully by modern technological science, an endeavor that progresses from one model or paradigm to the next as it produces tangible and materially productive advances.  Of course the evidence of progress is necessarily more elusive, to say the least, where questions of humanity and divinity are concerned, but the glamour and the incentives associated with what is new are no less compelling.  It would be unseemly for those of us who have lived long enough to have seen the passing of a number of new waves to deny to youth the incentives associated with innovation and the repudiation of the old ways.  Still, for any youth who might be interested, we elders ought to be ready to point up the distinction between the new and the true.  (This of course is by no means to identify the true with the old.)

The new possibilities of Mormon Studies, as these are expressed by aspiring practitioners of this emerging field, depend decisively on the deflection of the question of truth.  The question that should be obvious is this:  what does it mean to set aside the question of truth?  And is this finally beneficial, or even really possible?  Of course a certain bracketing of one’s own opinions or convictions is inherent in the intellectual enterprise itself.  For example, I believe that liberal democracy is the best possible regime for modern societies, but I can bracket that belief in order to understand and appreciate Plato’s critique of the democratic regime and the democratic character.  Perhaps this bracketing of my political convictions eventually affords me a more refined appreciation of constitutional liberal democracy insofar as it resists tendencies that worried Plato.  Similarly, I may be convinced that the traditional Trinitarian creeds represent apostasy from original, authentic Christianity, but I may bracket this conviction to get inside the Trinitarian discourse and learn to appreciate its enduring appeal.  If I can appreciate this appeal, then, without (presumably) becoming an orthodox Trinitarian, I will have learned something about theological discourse that ought to enrich my understanding of my own core beliefs.  Or, to move from theological to more historical questions, I might bracket my orthodox understanding of the historicity of the Book of Mormon longer enough to consider genuinely interesting comparisons between, say, Nephi’s concerns and the concerns of nineteenth-century post-Calvinist Americans.  I might well learn much from such comparisons (including, perhaps, something about the continuity of some central religious questions for the human spirit) by thus provisionally bracketing the ancient context of Nephi’s writing, but nothing that prevents me from removing the brackets and returning to my basic LDS beliefs. In both cases, then, the religious “answers” I believe in may be said to be the same as they were before my provisional “bracketing,” but they now appear in the light of questions that have been greatly enriched as a result of my being open to what were foreign possibilities.

If this provisional bracketing for the purpose of enriching exploration is what is involved in the new wave MS, then, I say, the more reflection and dialogue the better!   But of course there is always the risk that the bracketing turns out to be more than provisional, that, having pursued our inquiry some distance, we find ourselves unable to re-connect our unfolding questions with the authoritative answers the Church provides.  I do not know what to say about this risk, except that each seeker must assess it for himself, and be careful to strengthen his foundation in the answers (by study and obedient faith) at least as much as he develops his virtuosity in questioning.   (Such sensitivity to the inherent risks would also condition the way such a seeker exposed others to the opportunities of provisional bracketing.)  I am writing this — I can only write this — from the point of view of one who is grateful for the firm foundation in both plain evidence and spiritual guidance that the Lord has provided Latter-day Saints, and who has always been rewarded intellectually as well as spiritually (the distinction fades) by returning from his bracketing to the firm foundation of doctrines and covenants he shares with less philosophical (though often holier) saints.

I am not sure, however, that this kind of provisional bracketing is what many of the new and aspiring practitioners of MS have in mind.    I read much in their accounts that suggests a welcome relief from the embarrassment of distinctive and challenging truth-claims, a hunger for “respectability,” and an eagerness to be part of some academic “mainstream.”  Occasionally, a frank pragmatist among the up-and-coming avers that plain career incentives are an important factor in the adoption of an intellectual style.  I have no reason to condemn such clear-sighted pragmatism; we all make certain compromises in order to pull down a paycheck; the search for truth cannot be aligned perfectly with the necessity to pay the bills – in fact, truth is infinitely more at risk in the truth-business (see: Priestcraft) than in simpler occupations.   Thus I prefer a frank compromise with material necessity to the craving for respectability that is blind to its own material conditions.  The respect for what is respectable, mainstream, prestigious, is not very far removed, after all, from power-worship — from a submission to dominant forces, at once moral and material.

This is not at all to say that what is considered respectable is never worthy of respect.  On the contrary, what is “of good report” is often a good indication of what is indeed “praiseworthy” — but not infallibly so.  In particular, it would be a mistake to identify the models and methodologies that prevail in modern academic discourse with the simple pursuit of truth.  It would be naïve to assume a simple opposition between the “unfettered” pursuit of truth on the one (“secular”) hand and the non- or ir-rational cultivation of faith on the other.  As my friend and (emeritus) colleague, David Bohn, has nicely argued at T&S, there is no morally or religiously “neutral” standpoint from which truth may be approached (which is not to say, I hasten to add, that all approaches are equally valid or equally irrational).   An truly unfettered approach, that is, an approach that is authentically concerned with and open to Truth — to whole truth, to deep truth, to truth that includes the bearing of truth on the meaning of human existence, or the openness of human existence to truth — cannot afford to compartmentalize inquiry or to stipulate arbitrarily in advance what “methods” will be authorized.  But of course such compartmentalization and stipulation is the very organizing principle of our academic disciplines, a principle that, having proved its utility or productivity in the hard sciences, has extended its authority over the social sciences and humanities as well.  Whether this extension of the principle of methodical specialization to “disciplines” touching more directly on human existence has been “useful” or “productive” is debatable; certainly one might argue that inherently endless controversy and attendant troubles can be avoided by eliminating ultimate concerns from “scholarly” disciplines and relegating them to the realm of “religion” or other supposedly non-rational and thus purely private or “personal” commitments.  It is clear, in any case, that questions of Truth understood as touching on ultimate religious and philosophical concerns tend, in the modern university (with some happy exceptions), to be systematically excluded — even, or especially, from departments of philosophy and of religion, or “religious studies.”    (A university that aspires to be comprehensively religious, like BYU, is always tempted to oppose the compartmentalization of the secular university by giving religious conviction is own independent compartment.)

The risk is considerable, however, that all the prestige inherently and rightly associated with reason’s aspiration to Truth will attach itself to the specialized “secular” disciplines, despite the suppression of self-criticism concerning their own foundational assumptions.    It is much easier for them to claim this prestige by criticizing the indemonstrable affirmations of religion or the insight embedded imperfectly in tradition than by undertaking the much harder and riskier work of examining their own indemonstrable assumptions.  (Have we really come that far from the ambitions of those first BYU professors who, a century ago, returned from prestigious Eastern graduate programs with the ambition to show that “‘the fundamentals of religion could and must be investigated by extending the [empirical] method into the spiritual realm…”?)[1]

We may agree, then, that universities, and the scholarly enterprise more generally, are about, or ought in principle to be about, the rational, critical, and therefore self-critical pursuit of truth, and that Mormon Studies ought to be included within such a pursuit, but is by no means evident that the modern secular academy is generally faithful to this aspiration.   We tend to find there, not the provisional bracketing of particular Answers with a view to the further development of the most important Questions, but instead a resolute and definitive bracketing — a dismissal — of the Questions along with the Answers.  To return to my earlier examples:  comparative reflection on the Godhead is not pursued with a view to the truth concerning humanity and what transcends humanity, but only in order to fill out “objectively” the picture of varieties of the human religious imagination.   Likewise, it will simply be assumed that any overlap between Nephi’s concerns and those of 19th-century Americans results from the 19th-century origins of the Book of Mormon, and that we are all, like Joseph Smith, products of our age.  “Objectivity” here implies that the question “who/what is God?” which is bound up with the question “how should I live?” is permanently bracketed away.

(Continued on in Part II)

[1] Ernest L. Wilkinson, ed., Brigham Young University: The First One Hundred Years, vol. 1 (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1975), 415.  Quoted in Boyd K. Packer, “Spiritual Orientation: Three Addresses, iii: The Snow White Birds,” available BYU website:


[ADMIN: Please keep comments on topic]

75 comments for “Nothing to Apologize For (Part I)

  1. It has been my experience that most secular scholars looking at religion-related questions (be they historical or doctrinal) will espouse the bracketing of which you speak but in truth are not bracketing truth claims but replacing them. Thus a scholar will “bracket” the truth claims of Daniel’s apocalyptic writing in the OT but will in truth be searching for a way to show that Daniel must have been written much later because prophecy simply doesn’t happen–not truly a bracketing of truth claims so much as a quick swap. I suppose that is all to say, I agree with your point but express it slightly differently.

    However, that being the case, I still wonder if current apologetics has outlived its usefulness. While I think very highly of Daniel Peterson and enjoy a lot of his work and also find him engaging and at times humorous, his rough style does some harm to those unacquainted with him or those who do not view truth seeking as a contact sport. The question then becomes whether his methods are doing more harm than good. I do not claim to be able to evaluate such a difficult question. But I do think it is a question worth asking and I do have a slight instinct that maybe it has. That should be contrasted with a robust Catholic body of scholarship by believing Catholic scholars engaged in mainstream religious studies. I think here of Raymond Brown. He is no apologist but it is clear he is faithful in his Catholic views and equally clear that he has aided both religious seekers and secular scholars. I suppose my question from all this is can’t we do both–participate in mainstream religious studies dialogues and keep our distinctive truth claims. From your post, it seems the answer would be yes but be careful. But perhaps I misread you.

  2. I like the distinction between provisional brackets and permanent brackets. I can see how some people who use provisional brackets as a methodological approach might, at some point down the road, discover that the brackets have become permanent and their methodological stance has morphed into a new worldview.

  3. In both cases, then, the religious “answers” I believe in may be said to be the same as they were before my provisional “bracketing,” but they now appear in the light of questions that have been greatly enriched as a result of my being open to what were foreign possibilities.

    This essentially reads as an assertion that you have all the truth you need, and said truth is only to be further appreciated when one studies other faiths and philosophies. There is nothing other than perhaps appreciation, in this view, that other religions or philosophies can apparently offer your faith or your politics. That, to me, sounds like a rigid adherence to creeds. You have your creed and you’re sticking to it. Other religions/beliefs are valuable only insofar as they either agree with your beliefs, or make you better understand your already-established beliefs. It views the Church less as a body of Christ, community of believers which operates to establish Zion, more as a repository of all truths already established and ready for mere assent and obedience. Where are the “many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God” that we are told to expect in our Articles of Faith? Apparently, they’re already here.

    This, among other points you make, doesn’t resonate with me.

  4. Bracketing is required because our belief is not logical. The church doesn’t need apologetics, it needs answers to the hard questions and explanations for the controversies from the brethern since they are prophets, seers and revelators for the church and even the world. There is more to be lost by apologetics than there is to be gained! Church critics make logic based attacks often rejecting (due to disbelief) faith based responses. The controversial issues they attack are vulnerable precisely because they lack logical explanations. Apologetics by definition makes no attempt to be intellectually honest, it begins with a conclusion and supports it with the best argument that can be fount or make up. “Successful apologetics” often amounts to little more than a logically plausible but likely improbable argument as viewed by the critics. So apologetics is rarely an argument critics accept or respect, instead it invites debunking and debunk they do! So apologetics is generally not for the critics themselves, instead apologetics is about preaching to the choir, they offer comfort to the orthodox base and almost no one else! To the extent that apologetics is intellectually dishonest and it often is, it endangers the faith and testimony of the less orthodox faithful members and investigators, something we see evidence of often on the internet. Bearing our testimonies is far more effective and far less less dangerous choice.

    There is another major problem with apologetics and that is without intellectual honesty and/or psychological sophistication on the part of the apologists, apologetics becomes by definition drama in the form of psychological games. Apologetics assumes there is a persecutor (the critics), a victim (the church or gospel) and a rescuer (the apologist). See Karpman Drama Triangle:

  5. I have my doubts whether Professor Bushman’s work has received the professional credit it deserves. My sense is that, precisely because the author was “provisional” in his bracketing, he did not succeed in overcoming suspicions of many of his professional peers that he was (still) an apologist for Mormonism, and therefore not a truly “objective” historian.

    can you point us to any evidence that informs this sense of yours?

    just curious.

  6. Building off of comment #7, I’d argue that the vast majority of historians have been fine with Bushman’s methodology–many religious scholars have heralded it as the ideal for the field’s direction–and it is only a distinct yet vocal few who oppose it. To argue otherwise, I’d venture to say, reveals a lack of knowledge of the historical field. In fact, it’s a tad galling to see people not engaged in mainstream Mormon studies consistently eager to tell us what Mormon studies should entail.

  7. first off, let me say this is a very impressive essay and the best defense of the ‘old’ approach that i’ve seen by a long, long way.

    apart from my previous request for details about Bushman’s academic reputation, i just have one question and it relates to this:

    If this provisional bracketing for the purpose of enriching exploration is what is involved in the new wave MS, then, I say, the more reflection and dialogue the better! […] I am not sure, however, that this kind of provisional bracketing is what many of the new and aspiring practitioners of MS have in mind. I read much in their accounts that suggests […] a hunger for “respectability,” and an eagerness to be part of some academic “mainstream.”

    but can these young aspirants ever be full participants in that dialog of ‘enriching exploration’ if they have not obtained mainstream respectability?

  8. i do not get how you can bracket i.e. suspend judgement on any aspect of a belief system when critics supply whatever judgement might come to their minds. you cannot very well write “Oh I am suspending judgement on that part”, when you are trying to be an apologetic for a certain criticism….maybe someone can enlighten me

  9. Comment #9 is right on point.

    I’d also say that the move toward bracketing among young scholars is partly a gut reaction to the negativity of earlier “unbracketed” approaches. Take, for instance, your singular footnote. Ernest Wilkinson was a sort of McCarthy figure who had students spying on their professors and reporting any professors who supported a welfare state so that they could be fired or disciplined by the university. If this is the model of unbracketed scholarship, then I daresay it has been singularly unfruitful in terms of both generating useful insights and modeling Gospel values.

  10. “I have no reason to condemn such clear-sighted pragmatism; we all make certain compromises in order to pull down a paycheck; the search for truth cannot be aligned perfectly with the necessity to pay the bills – in fact, truth is infinitely more at risk in the truth-business (see: Priestcraft) than in simpler occupations.”

    Well said. I agree. But sometimes it isn’t a matter of what you say but how you say it. I think that the Maxwell Institute could benefit greatly by being less militant in its tone, especially towards other LDS believers who simply believe differently than they do (i.e. John Dehlin and Rod Meldrum). Diplomacy doesn’t necessarily mean compromising one’s search for truth.

  11. After carefully rereading the OP I have another comment.

    I seems that bracketing and the suspension of judgment, be it permanent or provisional, is a means of survival against the forces of a questioning world. The LDS church leaders seem to suspend judgment on a whole host of issues from Book of Mormon geography, evolution, to the historicity of Old Testament stories (i.e. Jonah and the whale, Balaam and the talking donkey, etc.). Even the question of whether or not homosexuality is inborn or learned at a later life stage appears to have been bracketed. Some of these issues which have been bracketed, such as evolution, appear to be permanently so. But this is not to say that the LDS church will be embracing Charles Darwin any time soon.

    On the other hand, it is because of the nature of the membership and because of the predominant paradigm shifts in human thinking that have seeped into Mormon thinking that the church finds itself forced to bracket some issues. Imagine if the church made a policy change that people had to state their belief in Young Earth Creationism in order to obtain a temple recommend. I’m sure that such a change in policy would not have inflicted much damage to the membership in 1870. But such a move today would elicit an outcry from many of the core members arguably great enough to undermine the church’s stability and growth. Nowadays you are considered a member in good standing whether or not you believe in Young Earth Creationism.

    So why must a scholar of Mormon Studies feel compelled to take a stance with regard to many issues such as Book of Mormon historicity? The FARMS scholars certainly haven’t felt compelled to defend Joseph Fielding Smith’s passionate denouncement of evolution. Nor have they been particularly keen on defending the idea of a worldwide flood. At the same time they haven’t criticized their colleagues who do believe that, such as Donald Parry:

    So what is the hang-up with Book of Mormon historicity and Joseph Smith’s ability to translate? Why must that issue be such a core part of faith? Why can it not be permanently bracketed by Mormon Studies scholars like other topics where the status quo belief is shifting against the traditional belief? In other words, what is wrong with being more agnostic about that issue?

  12. Steve Smith,for the same reason it wouldn’t be such a good idea to bracket if Jesus Christ really is the Son of God and Savior of the World who was Resurrected so that some day we might be because of the Atonement. Sure, you could be a good moral Mormon in name, but you would be rejecting THE core theology of the religion. Mormonism as a religion would be made impotent. I believe that is the goal of the New Mormon Order to tie into a related post here.

    For most faithful and active Mormons, the historicity of the Book of Mormon is as much a cornerstone of the faith as Jesus Christ. If you think about it, this position is logical because most of what Mormonism believes about Jesus Christ comes from the Book of Mormon. Sure, the Bible with the New Testament are a valuable and distinct resource for beliefs, but its supplemented with Mormon scripture. You cannot claim Mormon scripture as “un-historical” without doing the same for the whole of the Bible. As a Mormon you must, if honest about the theology of Scripture, treat all holy works and words similarly.

    That doesn’t mean that there aren’t issues of historicity in the Book of Mormon that can’t be bracketed (much as some Bible stories mentioned above) such as where exactly the events took place. Maybe we are completely wrong and it happened in Africa if highly doubtful. What it does mean is that the fact that the Book of Mormon is historical in some meaningful sense of the word is of theological significances more important than the questions posed by historocity acceptance. To deny this is to destroy the very inner meaning it makes for itself in the process of preaching Christ.

    Claiming that the Book of Mormon is one huge allegory or “spiritual novel” is, to be blunt, raping its core message that Jesus Christ is literally the Savior of everyone and Redeemer of Israel. Mormonism can’t, regardless of those who insist otherwise, relegate the Book of Mormon to mere sophistry without doing immense damage to its spiritual Authority. Again, I think this is the goal of the New Mormon Order in order to secularize the faith. Lose its historicity and you lose its value, or corrupt it into something that its own words warn against; denial of saving miracles.

  13. Jettboy wrote: Claiming that the Book of Mormon is one huge allegory or “spiritual novel” is, to be blunt, raping its core message that Jesus Christ is literally the Savior of everyone and Redeemer of Israel. This is not self evident if the allegory was inspired by God so please explain how.

  14. There are all sorts of problems here but let me just point out one: your distinction between old and new. You seem to set up FARMS as the old that the new scholars are ignoring. But the scholarly attitudes being used by Mormons historians that you are critiquing predate FARMS; they go back to the rise of the New Mormon History promoted by Leonard Arrington in the 50s and 60s. FARMS (though it’s made valuable contributions) has always been a niche interest in the academic study of Mormonism. Thus for newer scholars to want to do things more like Arrington and Bushman rather than FARMS is in no way “disrespecting their elders” since Arrington’s and Bushman’s work predates FARMS. It’s just a huge misunderstanding to place FARMS at the center of the debate over Mormon scholarship.

    Now if you want to have a debate over the value of apologetics in Mormon scholarship, then FARMS is an important part of THAT debate. But again, apologetics is a niche aspect in a much larger field.

  15. @Steve Fleming,
    In IMO, apologetics have always been in Mormonism (back to JS times). I pick B.H. Roberts as a starting point for NOM thinking, (again IMO).

  16. Jettboy, “Claiming that the Book of Mormon is one huge allegory or “spiritual novel” is, to be blunt, raping its core message that Jesus Christ is literally the Savior of everyone and Redeemer of Israel.”

    I think millions of non-LDS Christians would beg to differ.

    On the question of Jesus Christ, though, many LDS simply believe Jesus to be a good teacher and are agnostic as to the claims of his supernatural powers. Oddly enough it seems that this sort of agnosticism is more palatable in a church environment than agnosticism in relation to the historicity of the Book of Mormon.

  17. Re: Steve (# 18)


    My first read of your comment was that you are asserting that it is acceptable to mainstream LDS thought to deny the divinity and divine power of Jesus Christ. On a second reading, I do not believe my first conclusion as to your point is accurate. “Many” does not mean most. While I do not doubt that some Latter-day Saints disbelieve the scriptural witness of Christ, I hope that only a tiny fraction of members of the Church of Jesus Christ actually believe that “Jesus [is/was] a good teacher and are agnostic as to his supernatural powers.” Certainly this is not a position that is taught or winked at by Church leadership.

    Jesus is the center of the gospel taught by His church. LDS who are agnostic as to Him stand in the same relation to their God as Evangelicals, Catholics, Presbyterians or any other self-identifying christian who denies the divinity of Jesus.

  18. Interesting enough, Steve’s response to agnosticism of Jesus Christ for many Mormons is at the heart of the Book of Mormon historicity. It is to teach that Jesus Christ is the God and Savior of the Jews and the Gentiles. Basically, it is to prove that the Bible is true because God is NOT dead. How anyone can come away from reading the Book of Mormon as an agnostic is beyond hopeless. Are you even Mormon Steve? And if you are, how in the world can you justify your membership?

  19. Jettboy,
    Historicity is not required, the BoM as divinely inspired allegory can easily fulfill it’s role as another Testament of Jesus Christ.

    Have we reached a level of LDS McCarthyism that those with different beliefs than yours must justify their membership?

  20. “Historicity is not required, the BoM as divinely inspired allegory can easily fulfill it’s role as another Testament of Jesus Christ.”

    Actually it can’t, given the goals it sets for itself on title page.

    But, as with Elder Holland, I welcome to the pews those who don’t believe in the Book of Mormon as an ancient “history” (scare quotes to remind that ancient conceptions of history do not match up with our own.)

  21. Ben S.
    The title page explains by what power the Book of Mormon was written: by way of commandment, and also by the spirit of prophecy and of revelation. Commandment, prophecy and revelation can all be allegory. It speaks of a record of a people which means an account in pemanent form, this does not exclude allegory it could be an allegorical account of a fictional pepple. What in the title page actually requires historicity?

  22. Howard, to be honest I feel YES. This is especially the case when fundamental beliefs that make up the reason for Mormonism’s existence are rejected.

  23. Not rejected Jettboy, broadened to allow more people to embrace the gospel! And if I were you I would read up on McCarthyism.

  24. The title page sets up the Book of Mormon as witness to various things, such as

    1) “show[ing] unto the remnant of the house of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers.” Now, if there are no Nephites, then God didn’t actually do anything for the remnant of the house of Israel, as described therein.

    2) “that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever.” Those covenants are described, remade, and modeled several times in the Book of Mormon. But again, if there were no Nephites at all, this is nonsensical, and God never did so.

    3) “convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations”. But again, if there were no Nephites and no Christ-visit to them, than God has not manifested himself to all nations.

    So the Book of Mormon is nonsensical as a divinely-inspired allegory, because the genre of allegory cannot sustain the historical goals it sets for itself in witnessing to these things. If you bring in a legal witness who says “yes, so and so actually came to my house, was present. Well ok, that never actually happened at all, I’m just making an allegory about his character”, it’s not a valid witness.

  25. Also, how can commandment be allegory? Or are you using the term in an overly-broad way?

    I’m more-than-usually aware that many things can be non-historical (see here or my #1 here, for example). I just don’t think the Book of Mormon can function successfully as allegory, (or qualifies for the genre, really) given its own stated parameters.

    Edit: And you will recall my comments to you on this post on the Book of Mormon as pseudepigrapha, starting with #32.

  26. Howard, I read up on McCarthy and frankly agree with him. He has been vilified for doing the right thing. History the way I see it hasn’t proven him wrong, but all too correct.

  27. Ben S.,
    You are being too literal. So the Book of Mormon is nonsensical as a divinely-inspired allegory… No it isn’t. Fiction can make more sense than fact and it’s a much better teaching medium. What is the historicity of your membership in the tribe of Israel spoken of in your patriarchal blessing? How is this not non-sense? What value is there to this non-sense? What is an angel with a sword commanding Joseph if it wasn’t allegory?

    Sorry to hear that! Few would agree with you today.

  28. “Fiction can make more sense than fact and it’s a much better teaching medium.” Sure. There are some things it can’t do, and it claims to do some of those. The Book of Mormon is not a patriarchal blessing, which is not a good analogy.

  29. ben 26 are you using the nephites potential non existence as a sample of what it means if none of the book of mormon is true?
    even if the Book of Mormon were not true the Nephites could still have existed by the way. If Christ did not come to the Nephites he could still have existed. and he could have come to some other people like the Lamanites provided they existed. which we cannot prove or disprove. If tomorrow another Joseph Smith finds texts of an ancient language and translates them by divine guidance and the content is a total contradiction of the BoM then what will we do ? Historicity is obviously not required since the Mormon Faith goes on and on but it is a nice to have. So far we can still have an expectation that Joseph Smith’s plates will be the only ones to surface and his is the only story about the Nephites and the other tribes, the one that God wants us to know. The bible texts by the way do not have this luxury. the oldest parts of the bible are believed to have been cobbled together by using different authors’ accounts and mixing and matching them in an ancient version of mash up . We have four separate accounts of Jesus’ life in Israel by 4 different authors which are not always consistent.

  30. “Howard, I read up on McCarthy and frankly agree with him. He has been vilified for doing the right thing. History the way I see it hasn’t proven him wrong, but all too correct.”

    Howard, sometimes feeding trolls is fun, but too often it is utterly undignified.

  31. On the divergence from the OP (which was fun, in these comments and in reply essays elsewheres), it is interesting to read the reaction early scholars had to evidence and narratives that suggested that Christ had come to the Americas — and how they reinterpreted those (my favorite is the conclusion that Mark had come here and done the things that came down in native histories).

    That was followed by the entire topic seemingly dropped.

    So we have religious historians rewriting it and newer secular historians just dropping it out of the histories altogether and relegating it to a myth that just happens to occur in historical time.

    That, all in all brings us full circle to bracketing in action.

  32. What is funny is that in real life Mormonism, I am the serious Mormon and Howard and Steve are the trolls. I defy either of you to say that isn’t true.

  33. Ugly Mahana, the LDS officials encourage to believe a whole host of things. But you don’t have to believe all of them to be a member. To be an agnostic is not to deny. It is merely to not have a strongly rooted belief in something. For instance I don’t have a strong conviction that Jesus was born of a virgin. I’m not saying that it couldn’t happen through some miraculous process, but my faith isn’t rooted in that question, and I’m sympathetic, if not empathetic, to the one who is skeptical or even denies that that is a possibility. If I were subjected to an inquisition on that question, I would say I don’t know. That is an agnostic position.

    Jettboy, yes I am a member who attends every week. In fact there are many who are like me. To find out about them I refer you to Jared Anderson is a good example of someone is a faithful member, but has a different set of beliefs. In his interview on Mormon Stories he says that he doesn’t necessarily believe in the atonement. You should listen to his story. Jared has also began conducting Mormon Stories Sunday School. He generates a lot of good discussion.

  34. Tom Wolfe (no relation) said it best: “Radosh and Weinstein make it pretty clear that while Joe McCarthy was the despicable liar we always knew he was, Soviet agents really did penetrate the U.S. government.”

    But comparisons to McCarthyism are pointless and somewhat beside the point. Howard’s jumping to McCarthyism makes him just as much of a troll as anyone who might defend McCarthy.

    But then, what we consider a troll often depends on whose side we’re on. I find McCarthyism to be a more overused phrase than Nazis. We need another Godwin’s law.

  35. Ivan,
    McCarthyism was an overreaction to what the Soviets were doing. I used the term as a descriptive anylogy questioning the mindset of the personal challenges advanced in # 20 and that mindset was confirmed.

  36. To be fair to Howard, it was me who first brought up McCarthyism as a description of Ernest L. Wilkinson’s student spy ring targeting pro-welfare professors at BYU. And I think the analogy is apt, at least in his case. He, in fact, directly compared what he was doing with the FBI’s tactics in rooting out Communist dissidents.

  37. OK Brad Kramer was right. Jettboy is a troll. Another apt description of him is a Danite or inquisition Mormon. Thank God people like Jettboy aren’t running the church.

  38. I appreciate Hancock’s post, and I think it adds a lot to the conversation, but I think some of his underlying facts are wrong. I don’t see the NMS as driven by young, up-and-coming scholars that are seeking respectability and tenure by being bracketing Mormon truth claims. When you look at the leading Mormon scholars of Mormon Studies scholars today–Bushman and Hardy, but also Terryl Givens, Kathleen Flake, Patrick Mason, Laura Thatcher Ulrich, Samuel Brown, Paul Reeve, Phillip Barlow, etc., etc.–most of them are senior level scholars with tenure. There are certainly junior level scholars in the field, but this “old vs. new” paradigm just does not seem to fit the facts.

    Plus, the idea that the current version of Mormon Studies scholars are trying to be hip to gain respectability ignores the reality that to do Mormon Studies in any form is a career risk for young scholars. If they wanted respectability, most advisors would suggest setting the topic aside altogether.

    These points would be minor if Hancock wasn’t using them to tell a particular narrative about Mormon apologetics and Mormon studies. If he thinks his account of the trends in Mormon Studies is still accurate, perhaps he better be more specific and, ahem, “name names.”

  39. With Wilkinson, I can see the comparison. Jettboy is what he is, and frankly his bringing Jerry Anderson into this is somewhat bizarre. Calm down, dude.

    But what he is doing is hardly McCarthyism, though his rhetoric is hardly helpful. But then, neither is Howard’s. When accusations of McCarthyism get brought in, unless it really is something like a true blacklist or a spy ring, the discussion is pretty much pointless at that point.

  40. I admit that what I said above about excommunication is pretty trollish, but I am not the one who brought up McCarthyism or Jerry Anderson. At the same time I’m not going to sit back and let those who I have serious disagreements with just slide without some response.

  41. Ivan,
    Well calling for someone’s excommunication is calling for them to be blacklisted and my comments are being censored by deletion on his current M* thread so I guess that blacklisting too.

  42. I’m agnostic on the post, since I don’t think Bro. Hancock has gotten around to actually saying anything yet. As to the comments, in no way, shape, or form does Jettboy represent mainstream Mormonism. Of course, neither does Howard (or Jared Anderson). Jerry Anderson is a friend of mine and, although we don’t agree about anything politically, he’s a good Mormon so far as I can tell. Ya’ll have a nice day.

  43. Jared Anderson = Jerry Anderson! Got it. That clears a few things up for me.

    I though Jettboy was referring to Jerry Anderson, a very libertarian but also very conservative/orthodox member who was a bishop of mine when I was a kid (some of his family still live in my hometown of Homer, Alaska). I didn’t realize they were referring to the Jared Anderson above.

    Makes a little more sense. Still, jettboy, you need to calm down. You can disagree without being disagreeable. I tend to agree with most (but not all) of your points, but would only phrase them the way you have if I was in a very, very bad mood.

  44. Bro. Hancock, I appreciate your remarks. I think that the distinctions and trends you’re highlighting are very exigent to the contemporary discussion and movement. These are questions I’m seriously interested in. Having enjoyed the context you set forth here, I look forward to the second half.

  45. #42 DLewis basically nailed this post where it lacks the most: in specifics, in Hancock’s overlooking any and all countervailing evidence of whatever it is Hancock is trying to assert, and as a post over at the JI suggests, I feel that Hancock isn’t particularly familiar with Mormon studies as historically or currently constituted.

  46. I have appreciated many thoughtful responses, both the positive and less so. I won’t try to respond to every comment, and indeed will respectfully pass over many substantial ones that I found helpful and essentially agreed with. (I will also pass over in silence those that completely lost me, such as the detour that somehow concerned McCarthy, Wilkinson, and a certain Jared/Jerry Anderson ???). Those I am addressing I will indicate by response number.

    Many responses turn essentially on the question of confidence in present beliefs vs. bracketing these in favor of openness to more light and knowledge. I will just say that confidence/openness frames a fruitful dialectic that can be destroyed by excesses in either direction: claiming to know to much or having no firm foundation at all. Absolute openness is an oxymoron, precisely because without some beliefs we would have no basis and no motivation for seeking further.

    This is essentially my response to 1,4,13,36. Why not bracket everything, including the historicity of the Book of Mormon and even the Atonement? (see good reply 14.) Exactly what is left to talk about, or to care about for that matter? Perhaps serving others? But even to know what this means, what good we can do for others, depends upon some substantive beliefs. Typically, the progressive argument for openness must remain closed as far as its own assumptions are involved.

    12. Maxwell Institute too militant towards those who believe differently? I have no reason to claim that this was never the case. But from your examples I gather that you would regard as “militant” any effort to point out the dangers and incoherence and corrosiveness of limitless “bracketing.” For example, John Dehlin, as anyone knows who has followed him consistently online, has expressed skepticism, not only regarding the historicity of the Book of Mormon, but even regarding the existence of Jesus, not to mention the efficacy of the atonement. If it is “militant” to point out that this is not a promising way of being Mormon, then count me as militant.

    5. Apologetics = dishonest? I don’t see it.

    7. See Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith. For example: “…candor [re my beliefs] is the best policy. why didn’t I see that earlier? Live and learn… I need not be embarrassed about my Mormonism; it is a fact of my life…”

    8. I must confess in all candor that I have little respect for the turf-claims of academic professionals. Just address the arguments, don’t tell me I’m not officially certified to make them.

    16, 42. Yes, I am quite aware that the narrative “old Apologetics / new Mormon Studies” is quite inadequate. I am responding to a persistent theme I found in recent discussions on the bloggernacle stemming from the Maxwell Institute troubles. Many youth were in fact saying: Apologetics: been there, done that, now moving on to “Mormon Studies,” more academically respectable, not divisive, etc. I could have quoted & footnoted, but I couldn’t invest that much time and space on this problem. So, if the shoe does not fit — please don’t wear it.

  47. candor is the best policy, sounds GOOD. We know Dr. Peterson is back in the country so lets see. “Devisive” is what I call the way the Maxwell Institute seems to have “cleansed” itself from its current apologetics. obviously they were not liked by everyone but sadly no one has included quotes of their output to show how it is academically “less respectable” than one would want to wish for.

  48. 8. I must confess in all candor that I have little respect for the turf-claims of academic professionals. Just address the arguments, don’t tell me I’m not officially certified to make them.

    I’m no academic professional, certified or otherwise, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what the author of #8 was getting at.

  49. Peter, I believe Ralph was referring to a post by one of Ben P.’s co-bloggers.

  50. If only the writer could assume a bit more of a high-minded, academic approach. Then maybe I could condescend….

    Seriously, could someone get me the Cliff’s notes on this so I could maybe have a clue on what is being discussed? Us turnip- eating, illiterate,filthy serfs just can’t keep up with the vast, imminent and raw brain-power to be found on this post. We can’t make heads nor tails of your literary pontification and whatnot

  51. UM i was going to say the exact same thing, citing instances where people use HUGE words whose spelling they mangle. So even when I google it I cannot find it. this could be another move against us turnip eaters so we hopefully won’t be able to figure it out. But then I decided I was not going to say anything about those pseudo elegant but meaningless latinisms and greekisms (you do not have to google it, i made it up, it probably really means “stealing money from the germans” not “using words of greek etymology”) being thrown about in the blog and conveniently ignoring any posts from anyone who asks to rephrase this in 10 words or less. pretty please. I was not going to say anything since it is potentially off topic and will most likely be deleted for being such. (your post too is doomed UM) that being said UM, I THINK what is being discussed here is the value which FARMS while it existed had added (or not added) to the general quality of scholarly LDS PONTIFICATIONS……( I had been asking for concrete examples,quotes or citations that show quality or otherwise…but to no avail..) and we are also discussing the fact that some of us would enjoy similar (some of us want better) pontifications in the future even if we all know they will not be authored by FARMS but by an entirely new body of research knowledge and, (as long as it does not get too much in the way) devotion, said body being called Mormon Studies and the manpower behind it to be determined.

    their purpose in life being the issuing of pontifications which may or may not be apologetic (FARMS was apologetic, i.e. the starting point would be a typical public criticism of our belief system and FARMS would systematically find arguments that would show the criticism was far fetched, not true, entirely dead in the water)

    Said Pontifications are, self-evidently, going to be anti-turnip eating, supersaturated with latinisms and other words with at least 4 syllables, extremely complex syntax, definitely “highest brow” academic in nature and regular in their appearance, (every three months or so)

    And they will all be, one way or another, regarding our belief system. someone correct me if I am wrong …. (does this help?)

  52. Dr. Hancock,

    “Maxwell Institute too militant towards those who believe differently? I have no reason to claim that this was never the case. But from your examples I gather that you would regard as “militant” any effort to point out the dangers and incoherence and corrosiveness of limitless “bracketing.” For example, John Dehlin, as anyone knows who has followed him consistently online, has expressed skepticism, not only regarding the historicity of the Book of Mormon, but even regarding the existence of Jesus, not to mention the efficacy of the atonement. If it is “militant” to point out that this is not a promising way of being Mormon, then count me as militant.”

    Was it ever the Maxwell Institute’s mission to define what one must believe to be a legitimate Mormon? The LDS church has disciplinary councils to determine whether or not one’s pronounced beliefs are apostasy or not.

    As for “limitless bracketing,” certainly there are beliefs and practices that cannot be accommodated and warrant discipline. But one’s Mormon identity is not contingent upon one’s belief in a particular doctrine, or even in one’s behavior necessarily, but one’s decision to belong. Throughout history Mormons have always had differences of belief on a whole host of issues. Eliza R. Snow thought glossolalia was an effective way of communicating with God. Brigham Young entertained the idea that Adam was God. B.H. Roberts entertained the idea that the Book of Mormon was a construction of Joseph Smith. What one has to believe or not believe to be a legitimate Mormon has never been as well-defined as you may like to think. Cannot one be a Mormon primarily through cultural attachment or desire to belong? I’ve never gotten the sense that toeing some doctrinal line takes precedence over belonging (and maybe even behaving to an extent). Membership has long emphasized orthopraxy over orthodoxy. Furthermore, the church isn’t designed to be an inquisitional institution. It has no mechanisms to discipline me for supporting gay marriage or having doubts about the BOM’s historicity provided I don’t create a scene or openly criticize its leaders.

    My belief is that church leaders began to see FARMS as causing damage to the institution by criticizing fellow LDS. Rod Meldrum was criticized for putting forth a hypothesis of a North American setting for the BOM. The dismissal of Dan Peterson appeared to coincide with a GA’s knowledge of a hit piece being prepared for publication about John Dehlin. And as for Dehlin, as far as I can tell, he is still an LDS member in good standing, same thing with Joanna Brooks, your other nemesis. And I don’t think that it is very productive for high-profile LDS such as yourself and other scholars at FARMS, who want the help the LDS church grow, to be publicly attacking others who desire to belong (and who have not been formally disciplined), but who are simply open about some of their doubts and difficulties of believing certain doctrines. I find it remarkable just how many LDS people relate to Joanna Brooks and John Dehlin. I think that they have done a great service in helping many LDS who experience cognitive dissonance and confusion with regard to identity and belief orient themselves in the LDS church.

  53. k steven smith. which exactly are the beliefs that “cannot be accomodated and warrant discipline” because as a new mormon I am completely and utterly confused as to what those would be. maybe those of the abductor of Elisabeth Smart ???? before i became an investigator i asked if people speak in tongues and was told no but realized later that if someone feels the need they are free to do so.I am going to give them freedom to do so although I would not personally entertain the notion. that is the freedom I have been looking for in a belief system and feel I found it in LDS…your idea that church leaders saw FARMS as damaging and therefore it was dismissed is completely hypothetical since no one has as yet made a statement. and as an aside I personally resent the fact that no statement has been made….if john dehlin and J. Brooks can be acceptable why can FARMS not be acceptable.

  54. if (and this is a big IF) devlin and brooks were “cognitively dissonant” which could in some ways equate to being critics of LDS= and IF FARMS were doing a counter -attack on them would FARMS not be doing their jobs and how would it be logical to dismiss FARMS for doing their jobs.

  55. “if john dehlin and J. Brooks can be acceptable why can FARMS not be acceptable”

    Dehlin and Brooks don’t receive tithing money in any direct or indirect way to support their endeavors unlike FARMS.

  56. On the historicity of scriptural texts, there are multiple ways to think of scripture as “true.” One, obviously, is historically true (i.e. historically accurate), and I think most members probably think that both the Bible and Book of Mormon are historically true. However, not all members do, nor do they need to, in my opinion. Just to give one other way of thinking about how scripture can be true: being true to the meaning of the event that the text points to.

    To use a modern example, think of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech must have meant to those fully engaged in the Civil Rights movement. It is one of the most important moments in the entire movement. It was also given in August in the middle of Washington D.C. Having experienced the usual weather conditions of a D.C. August, I can tell you that they’re less than favorable. Also, the speech was delivered to 200,000 people, so I imagine it was incredibly hot, sticky, muggy, loud, and who knows what else. However, if someone describing the event talked about it that way, would you really get a sense of the meaningfulness of it to the listeners? I don’t think I would. I think I would get a much better sense of how important it was if the author said something like, “A hush came over the crowd” (which is incredibly doubtful). And there are yet others ways to think about how scripture can be “true.”

    On the OP, I’m not sure that I agree with your understanding of the “Mormon Studies” approach. My personal understanding of “Mormon Studies” (and I think the understanding of many others) is not that it is more heavily influenced by the hard sciences, but rather the opposite: it is more heavily influenced by the humanities and arts. My understanding of “Apologetics” is that it attempts to disprove arguments against faith using those arguments’ own tactics (bracketing, logic, experimentation, etc.). “Mormon Studies,” on the other hand, seeks to reframe the discussion/debate around a more narrative approach. I think what they’re doing may seem like taking the whole bracketing idea one step further, but I’m not sure that’s the best way to describe it. Rather, I think what they’re trying to do is create a kind of tapestry of narratives–not only of those inside the Church, but those outside of it–with the idea that this narrative approach is a better way of not only engaging those outside the Church but also of tackling the questions that “Apologetics” also tries to tackle (e.g. Is the Church/Gospel/Book of Mormon true? Is Jesus the Christ? Was/is Joseph Smith a prophet? etc.). At least, that’s my understanding.

  57. And don’t get me wrong. The OP may have great substance; but in its current form it makes The Book of Isaiah look like “Dick and Jane.”

    Was it intentional?

  58. @ Steve Smith (62) If FARMS are paid in tithing money and FARMS find arguments against Brooks and Dehlin’s skepticism about the church, is that wrong and punishable by unceremonious instant dismissal? unless, as my husband who is not LDS keeps whispering in my ear, FARMS misappropriated funds. which then has NOTHING to do with what FARMS did or was planning to do (according to Dr. Peterson he was not going to write about what he knows about the death of that missionary) in academia and/or to DEhlin and Brooks. Seriously the idea cannot be that Brooks and Dehlin went to Bradford to ask if he cannot kick the bad guys out because they are fixing to hurt them and Bradford DOES THAt ?????
    @ UM but surely every now and again such doozies of OPs show up at Times and Seasons and because we are nice people we do not usually complain about it ?????? the next installment is getting a lot of flak too….

  59. um I know quit while you are ahead. still…as soon as one person calls a spade a spade, this seems to be permission for all other spade callers to join in. after all it is only a blog post what is the worst thing that can happen

  60. um yes I see exactly where you are headed with this. and just before the meteor hits. just in the dead center between your and my location on earth(if you are in Salt Lake City like most of those turnip eaters r’us, this location is somewhere in Northern Idaho, maybe we should have Flight Services issue some kind of notam), earthlings will hear a deep echoey voice, shouting: Christine and UM this is because of your blogging ……….

  61. All the office officialdom in the OP done gone and intimidated me a smidge, evidently.

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