Thoughts on Planted: Apologetics in an Age of Doubt

PlantedPatrick Q. Mason’s Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt (2015) is the latest entry in the New Mormon Apologetics field. From the credits page: “This book is the result of a joint publishing effort by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and Deseret Book Company.” That is a promising partnership. The broad and inclusive message of the book is badly needed by the general membership of the Church and by local leadership. Having the book on the shelves at Deseret Book (or hopefully on a display table up front) is the best way to get there, short of an apostle mentioning the book by name in General Conference. I am going to give short comments on three topics of interest, then invite readers to post their own impressions of the book.

First, Mason is a historian, so there is helpful discussion on the use and abuse of Mormon history. Chapter 5, “A Principled Approach to Church History,” he offers five principles for thinking about Mormon history: (1) tell the truth, (2) do your homework (using more than the Internet), (3) the past is a foreign country (with norms and values that may differ from our own time and place), (4) there is none good but God, and (5) learn the lessons of history (issues are more complex than they appear and resist simple black-and-white analysis). He recommends these principles, culled from his experience as a historian, as a corrective to the overreaction that some Mormons have to the messier side of LDS history, particularly when packaged to debunk particular LDS doctrines or claims.

Mason also holds the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont. No doubt that brings him into regular contact and dialogue with scholars and students of religion from many different traditions and denominations. The expected result of such contact is a measure of humility with respect to the exaggerated claims of one’s own denomination (they all exaggerate) paired with a new appreciation of its particular strengths and virtues, the good things about one’s own faith that a person who grows up in a denomination takes for granted or doesn’t even notice. That is what seems to come through in the book: the idea that we certainly need to do a better job teaching our history and reforming LDS culture to match the Christian ideals of love and sincere fellowship, but that we should never lose sight of what is true and valuable and praiseworthy in our congregations and the Church as a whole. As Mason expresses his broader purpose in the Introduction, “I have written this less as a work of formal apologetics and more as a pastoral dialogue. I value honest and sincere conversation more than scoring points in debates that can probably never be decisively won” (p. 6). For most Mormons most of the time, that is the right approach to take.

Second, apart from the broad meta-apologetic points made in the first half of the book, Mason addresses what I would call pastoral issues in the second half of the book. “What does it mean to pursue a life of faith, with all of its challenges, in the context of a community?” Obviously, it means more than reading blogs and books on Mormonism or arguing with your Facebook frenemies. He draws on reflective essays by other LDS scholars to paint a richer picture of life in the Mormon community, with “both triumphs and difficulties in their relationship to the church.” Chapter 9, “When Church is Hard,” follows up with advice for how troubled Mormons might deal with the many imperfections at the local and general level: simplify, create spaces of inclusion, make a place for yourself, use the church to accomplish good things, and so forth. If he had adopted the popular metaphor, he might have said: Sure, the boat leaks, the pilot is plainly still learning his craft, and some of the other passengers are mildly obnoxious — but you are better off looking to fix a few leaks and making friendly if strained conversation with fellow passengers than jumping off the boat. It’s a long trip; no one swam to America.

At various points in the book, that pastoral theme emerges in advice given to both doubting Mormons and faithful Mormons. The bulk of the book is aimed at troubled or doubting Mormons who need a broader, more productive framework in which to ponder and resolve (or simply ponder and tolerate) difficult issues. But there are also passages aimed at faithful Mormons who likewise need a broader view of life in the Church: to tolerate more diversity than has previously been the rule and to handle doubt or disaffection by friends or family without going passive-aggressively ballistic. Remember the subtitle: belief and belonging. The book helps any reader get a deeper sense of belief and belonging, regardless of where she is on the spectrum. In fact, those two words can be used to frame the now stereotypical “spiritual but not religious” person (who claims belief but not belonging) as well as the rarer religious but not spiritual types (who belong but don’t so much believe).

Third, I like the New Apologetics better than the older apologetics pioneered by Hugh Nibley and run into the ground by Old FARMS. Yes, it is nice to have resources to deepen one’s understanding of tricky doctrinal and historical issues in order to fend off partisan attacks or counsel troubled friends. But the overconfidence of Old FARMS in its ability to produce definitive answers to difficult issues, coupled with pointed and even vicious rejection of anyone who disagreed with that approach and those supposedly definitive answers, whether LDS or not, sort of poisoned that well. Seeing Deseret Book embrace the New Apologetics is a very hopeful sign. Now if we can just get people to actually read these new books …

44 comments for “Thoughts on Planted: Apologetics in an Age of Doubt

  1. First, let me say, that I love the new book Planted, it is the best book I’ve found to help create a safe space where common understanding can be bridged between traditional orthodox members and those who are experiencing a faith transition. I’ve given away 5 copies of this book to close family, friends, and ward members, and I plan to continue to give more copies away as well. I met Patrick at a book signing and I’m so grateful for his very important work.

    I do want to mention one key level of critique where the book falls short in my opinion, and I wondered if the author wrote this by design or perhaps doesn’t realize it. He shares a mission story where an investigator asks a very important question about modern prophets and the priesthood ban. The investigator asks why, if the church has modern prophets, did they get things wrong for so many years on this important issue. The author gives us context and lowers our expectations for prophets by expressing their fallibility and how human and cultural bias influences all people including prophets. But that still didn’t answer the question that this insightful investigator asked.

    If Mormon church leaders have a special, unique ability to receiving divine revelation then this would be amazing and important for everyone to know about. But if they are the same as the rest of society, have nothing uniquely more capable and more in tune with divinity than the rest of the human race, then what is the proposition for Mormonism?

    At this point, the church becomes a personal preference choice, like choosing which automobile you want to purchase. Each model has its pros and cons, and some can get you to a destination quicker than others, or using less gas, or with less chance of needing repairs, but at the end of the day it ultimately doesn’t matter which model you drive, its how you drive that matters most.

    To me, this is the big question that is left hanging by the book, and I’m not sure the author intended it that way or not, but its what I got out of it. If this question remains unanswered, then I think the church needs to change its entire approach to missionary work. It shouldn’t position itself as having exclusive authority, or qualitatively better access to the divine. It still can have other unique attributes, even unique ordinances, but the exclusivity arguments ought to be thrown overboard the old ship Zion in my opinion.

  2. Thank you for this review. I will make it a priority to purchase and read this book. I need it.

  3. Just got a copy for myself and another for a friend today. Looking forward to it. Thanks for the review Dave.

  4. The softer tone of the new apologetics is better, however, I don’t think it’ll work in the long run. In order to pay 10% of your income and devote all the time required one needs more assurity than the fuzzy new apologetics can offer. So I say nice try at trying to save a sinking ship of truth claims.

  5. “If this question remains unanswered…it shouldn’t position itself as having exclusive authority, or qualitatively better access to the divine.”

    Perhaps it doesn’t have “qualitatively better access to the divine” in every case. But even if this is true, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it doesn’t also have authority. I think one of the problems the church has, is that it has drawn a link between it’s authority and it’s perfection, so when we see the perfection come tumbling down, so does our regard for the church’s authority. A solution would be to fully separate the concept of authority from the concept of truth or goodness or perfection of any kind. The authority comes, not from any intrinsic quality within the church, but ONLY because it was given by revelation from the Lord. Likewise, our command to follow that authority comes not from any special ability to recognise the superior truth of the church, but because we too have been called by the Lord to follow it.

  6. My expectations were a bit high going into the book (based on reviews I’d seen from friends), so I think that caused problems. The great value of the book is in opening critical dialogue and creating common ground between those who are struggling and those who aren’t. I appreciated him pointing people towards useful resources, especially newer resources created by the church itself. His recommended reading list at the back seems quite comprehensive. That being said, I felt the apologetics were weak (what hope_for_things said). If I were having big struggles with the church, I don’t think I would have been strongly swayed by reading this. Then again, I’m not the type of person who’d stay in a church if I didn’t believe the claims, no matter how good the lifestyle (one of the arguments mentioned in the book). I felt like some of the ways he not-so-subtly drops controversial bombs would make religiously conservative members quite uncomfortable. It was a little shocking to me at times. I really value the topics and discussion he brought to the table, I just wasn’t always so wild about his techniques. His style might appeal better to others.

  7. “If Mormon church leaders have a special, unique ability to receiving divine revelation then this would be amazing and important for everyone to know about. But if they are the same as the rest of society, have nothing uniquely more capable and more in tune with divinity than the rest of the human race, then what is the proposition for Mormonism?”

    Speaking in terms of general principle, I think this is common but incorrect framing. Prophets aren’t granted a “special, unique ability” i.e. access at will to God’s omniscience. Rather, prophets are prophets because God chooses to communicate with them. Prophets can petition, but ultimately God is the one who must open the flow of information, which is then constrained by several things.

    This is in addition to the half a dozen other things that are relevant as well, like fallibility (I’ve got issues with that as well), human and cultural biases, which were mentioned.

  8. Dave,

    Thanks for your review. Patrick has written a valuable book.

    I take issue with your seemingly gratuitous put-down of “Old Farms”. Your caricature does not match my reading of the sources or my personal acquaintance with the major figures in “Old Farms”. Certainly some of the writings could be sharp put downs (particularly toward the more non-sensical attacks on the Church and the LDS community), but generally, the approach was scholarly and measured – with many cautions that the FARMS publications do not “prove”, but only set forth evidence, possibilities and probabilities. i miss the “Old Farms”, while also welcoming the “New Farms”.


  9. Thanks for the review of Mason’s book. Although I would argue that there is some similarity between the New Apologetics and the Nibley-type apologetics of the past. There is a difference in tone, but they are similar in argumentative approach (although the New Apologetics expresses less certainty about the past and about truth). The New Apologetics is good at challenging critics who believe that they have evidence of the falsehood of the LDS church’s truth claims. But it still falls short when trying to challenge critics who don’t believe for lack of evidence. It is different to say the church is false because of x, y, and z pieces of evidence and that the church is not worth one’s time because of insufficient evidence. I don’t think that apologetics will ever be able to satisfy the latter tendency.

  10. “If Mormon church leaders have a special, unique ability to receiving divine revelation then this would be amazing and important for everyone to know about. But if they are the same as the rest of society, have nothing uniquely more capable and more in tune with divinity than the rest of the human race, then what is the proposition for Mormonism?”

    In a word, repentance.

    That is, the gospel, and the restored gospel, is not primarily about teaching us correct, certain, unimpeachable doctrine on every question under the sun, though we have rhetorically talked about it that way; rather, it’s primarily a call to repentance.

    But aside from that I do think you’re setting up a false dichotomy between always getting everything right on one hand and having no unique calling or gift on the other hand. And unique access to truth is not the same as authority. You can have one without the other.

  11. Yes, the best FARMS stuff still was cautious. The bigger problem was more the attitude towards those they critiqued which was far from charitable. However typically on key points there was disagreement by different people at FARMS over what the correct answers are. That’s hard to reconcile with the claim of purported definitiveness. Personally I think a change of tone and a bit more love towards critiques would go a long way.

    My worry with the new Maxwell Institute approach (and I should note I have friends at both Maxwell and Interpreter) is that it doesn’t go far enough towards the practical questions people have. That is it’s a tad too focused on the range of meanings possible in the text without sufficient pragmatism. As such while it avoids the failings FARMS had (and that the Interpreter still has albeit to a lower degree) it’s created it’s own weaknesses. As others note, there’s that question of what makes Mormonism different from other faith in significant ways. I suspect that’s why I’m glad both are there as both are doing things that are needed but that the other does less well.

  12. The problem with the old apologetics, aside from its tendency to make enemies, was that it was based on a methodology that inevitably produced one-sided, cherry-picked views of complex issues.

  13. That’s also a fair point Wally. I do wish the papers done from an apologetic stance were better about contextualizing things. That is providing a list of the main views, why people have them, and why certain ones are compatible with Mormonism. Part of the issue is that everyone has their view and tends to argue for it. That’s fine in a more narrow academic setting but is a bit misleading if you’re doing a popularization. I wish more apologetics was this “bird’s eye view” of issues, the way you find in say the better popular science press.

    Now to be fair some people do that reasonably well, but it’s not as common as I’d like.

  14. Since the main evidence has to be personal revelation, it’s pretty hard to do much when people demand evidence that just can’t be produced. At best you can show how some problems aren’t quite the problems they appear. However in terms of public evidence (versus private) then the inference to best explanation will always be against the believer. That’s simply because there’s not good public evidence for belief. Further if you throw in the “big claims require even stronger evidence” then things go worse.

    Now if you do allow private evidence then things are different. If someone has a strong spiritual experience then an apologist can show why it’s not irrational to believe given the critics criticisms. But that’s a very different situation.

  15. As far as I understand from what I have read from the words of the church leaders, the only evidence for LDS truth claims that is to be accepted as valid is private evidence (a witness from the holy ghost).

    The problem with New Apologetics is that in many ways it is almost postmodern in tone and tries to defend the church’s truth claims not with hard evidence (that would be reasonably be accepted as valid evidence by the larger body of modern scholarship) but by saying that x claim can’t be fully disproved or falsified and is therefore possible. However, they have no defense against someone saying that we should accept what is probable as knowledge and not just what is possible. Furthermore the church leaders express certainty in their claims to truth and encourage their followers to express similar certainty. Certain claims cannot be properly defended by invoking uncertainty about reality, which is what the New Apologists do.

  16. I confess I’m not quite sure what you are calling New Apologetics then.

  17. Old apologetics stemmed from Hugh Nibley’s approach which was to compile as many Old World parallels with the BoM and the BoA as possible with the purpose of rendering the idea that Joseph Smith could have composed these himself increasingly unlikely. The old apologetics was a very hands-on approach that was involved in deep archaeological research and even claimed hard evidence of the Book of Mormon’s historicity (such as the NHM inscription). The old apologetic approach is still around, but it has been increasingly eclipsed by the New Apologetic approach which focuses more on rhetoric and logic than finding more hard evidence and Old World parallels. While the New Apologetics welcomes hard evidence, it has heightened the bar as to what it accepts as evidence.

  18. Thanks for the comment, Russ. Warm feelings for Old FARMS are certainly welcome. If the editorial policy had been to uniformly require a scholarly and measured approach in the published articles, I would have a different view. There is a big difference between that and just generally requiring a scholarly and measured approach but sometimes engaging in personal attacks. Like I said, that poisoned the well.

    Nothing personal in that evaluation. I once attended a function at a stake center in Orange County that featured a number of local Muslim and Arab-American officials and local LDS officials. It was a wind-up presentation to some friendly meetings designed to emphasize common ground and form relationships for future joint discussions or projects. The keynote speaker was Daniel Peterson, who was working hard to build good relationships between the parties and improve the public image of the Church with that group of visitors. I think one can applaud such personal efforts while still regretting certain editorial decisions of Old FARMS.

  19. I’m about 80 pages in to Planted myself. I’m generally impressed so far, but also concerned about the over-generalized and unsupported by any specifics claims about the over 300 different authors that published in the FARMS Review, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Occasional Papers, a wide range of books and preliminary reports. I’ve read every single issue of the Review, and know that territory well, and am very much aware that popular dismissive memes don’t provide an accurate map of the territory. Even the metaphor of “poisoning the well” treats the contributions of a wide range of authors including Richard Bushman, Terryl Givens, Lavina Fielding Anderson, David Wright, Todd Compton (who, I notice, criticizes Nibley and Welch), and a significant handful of non-LDS authors as subject having their contributions tainted and overlooked. A much more apt metaphor, a more natural one, is of a library in which every contribution can be judged both individually and as part of a diverse resource. The whole library cannot be poisoned by an essay that a critic dislikes. The library can, however, be ignored, dismissed, and tagged with unseemly graffiti. Or treated as valuable resource containing a wide range of information from a range of contributors.

    In planted, for instance, I noticed his complaints in Planted about the timidity in the Brigham Young Priesthood manual, in discussing Brigham’s polygamy. He does not mention something about the Brigham Young manual that I personally consider for more important. It remains the most interesting, lively, and entertaining of the Priesthood manuals, and was a quantum leap in quality relative to the vapid set of four we had been recycling through for several years before. Sometimes people can be so focused on proving that they can face problems honestly that they overlook quality in hand.

  20. As some have said in the above comments, that the ultimate proof is a private spiritual witness, how then does one explain the “spiritual witness” some get in Catholicism or in Evangelical Churches or as a Muslim? Also, in all these religions, one needs to assume the truth of the claims first, prior to receiving the emotional or spiritual confirmation afterward. The method is the same but the results are different depending on the spiritual handlers or guides one has. Why is this so? Doesn’t this fact lend more to the conclusion that religion has it all wrong? Perhaps God doesn’t manifest himself for a reason? Maybe the plan is to have us act without parental shackles?

  21. hope_for_things: Thanks for he comment and for the pressing question. I can’t speak directly for Patrick, but I have a little bit of insight into the general thrust of it and I have my own personal way of thinking about the issue you identify. I think Nate is on to something when he says: “I think one of the problems the church has, is that it has drawn a link between its authority and its perfection, so when we see the perfection come tumbling down, so does our regard for the church’s authority.” I also like JKC’s thoughts on repentance, something everyone requires in life regardless of calling. When you mention authority and ordinances in particular (i.e., keys), I think you are close to how Patrick might respond.

  22. Clark Goble: “”As others note, there’s that question of what makes Mormonism different from other faith in significant ways.”

    Other Living Faith books speak directly to this question, especially Steven Peck’s “Evolving Faith” and even more-so Sam Brown’s “First Principles and Ordinances.” We’re only three or so years into these new projects. It takes time. The Maxwell Institute Podcast is also loaded with interesting points of comparison, though they are usually left implicit for those with ears to hear. The purpose there is less about proselytizing than it is about increasing religious literacy in an uplifting and critical ways, helping people notice new things about their faith, buoying them up on a broader level than is possible when focusing only on surface discussions. To a lesser extent, that is what the Mormon Studies Review can do, although it is aimed more directly at the academy than at everyday members of the Church. (I should add my own faith has been positively impacted by the MSR, but not everyone will be on the same wavelength as me.) The Journal of Book of Mormon Studies continues to be an outlet of Book of Mormon scholarship that is even more accessible to members, but we’ve continued to try to raise the bar, to produce more rigorous scholarship, and those who come after us should do the same. FWIW.

  23. Brad L: “However, they have no defense against someone saying that we should accept what is probable as knowledge and not just what is possible.”

    What interests me most is that probability and possibility are themselves moving targets, varying depending on one’s own temperament, background, and “social imaginary,” to borrow Charles Taylor’s phrase, etc. The latest Maxwell Institute Podcast interview with James K. A. Smith covers this a bit and you might be interested to check it out. Google it, it’s easy to find.

  24. Kevin: I’m glad you’re enjoying Planted so far. I think Patrick’s discussion of the BY manual was slightly more nuanced than that. To begin with, when you say the BY manual exhibited “timidity in discussing Brigham’s polygamy” you’re glossing over what the manual did. It systematically and carefully edited out reference to polygamy, going as far as to change quotes and ignore contexts. That’s not timidity, it’s erasure.

    At the same time as acknowledging the manual’s faults, Patrick also defends the manual against criticism, from pp. 77-78:

    I am sympathetic to the probable reasons why the book was prepared the way it was. Given that the general public still associates Mormonism and polygamy, the church naturally wants to make clear that its members no longer practice plural marriage. The manual was compiled as a collection of teachings meant to be relevant to the daily lives of modern Mormons, not as a history textbook. Arguably, certain information, even if factually true, is simply not germane for lesson materials designed for a worldwide ministry to a membership made up mostly of converts.

    These reasonable arguments notwithstanding, expunging formative elements of our past from our curricular materials is largely unnecessary. Fortunately we have already begun to improve on this score. More recent editions in the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church series have at least acknowledged the practice of plural marriage.

    [Patrick then lauds the church’s improved efforts since then with things like the Gospel Topics essays, etc., then continues…]

    In their effort to put the church’s best foot forward and offer inspiration, hope, and guidance to the Saints, church leaders and teachers have usually steered clear of the more controversial aspects of our past. I am convinced this is not, as some have accused, part of a massive conspiratorial cover-up campaign. It has more often been undertaken as an act of ministry. There is enough trouble and strife in this world, and many people come to church simply to get a bit of peace, inspiration, and strength to carry on. When they attend a sacrament meeting or a Sunday School class, most are not looking for an academic history lecture, with its intricate arguments and counterarguments. Those who are disappointed that church meetings are not as intellectually stimulating or historically nuanced as university classes suffer from category confusion; they would surely not expect or appreciate a sermon from their college professor. We can and should expect that when the church and its leaders do talk about history, they do so responsibly and accurately.

    At the same time, we must remember that the church is primarily concerned with preaching the gospel of Christ, not adult history education. Of course, the church does sponsor many educational classes, and we should expect the materials presented therein to be rigorously accurate as well as inspirational. Fortunately, the church’s seminary and institute program has recently initiated updates to its curriculum, including better coverage of some of these challenging issues.

    I’m not sure if Patrick would have wanted to say “the BY manual had some pretty significant mistakes, but it was way better than the vapid manuals before it.” In fact, his apologetic responds to the charge of vapidity in general, perhaps because some people still struggle with the strength of the current manuals.

  25. I tend to think such people are in a place where God’s purposes are still being carried out in their lives, and that there are “holy men [and women] that ye know not of” in the world, borrowing Terryl Givens’s gloss on D&C 49. I like Apostle Orson F. Whitney’s thoughts on it:

    Perhaps the Lord needs such men [and women] on the outside of his Church, to help it along. They are among its auxiliaries, and can do more good for the cause where the Lord has placed them, than anywhere else. And the same is true of the priesthood and its auxiliaries inside the Church. Hence, some are drawn into the fold and receive a testimony of the Truth; while others remain unconverted—for the present; the beauties and glories of the gospel being veiled temporarily from their view, for a wise purpose. The Lord will open their eyes in his own due time.

    God is using more than one people for the accomplishment of his great and marvelous work. The Latter-day Saints cannot do it all. It is too vast, too arduous, for any one people. Our part in it is the greatest. We have the gospel and the priesthood, with a mission to gather Israel, build the New Jerusalem, and prepare the way for the advent of the King of kings. And this duty has been laid upon us because we belong to the house of Israel. It is the God of Israel who is coming to reign and we are the right people to prepare the way before him.

  26. I wonder if we’ll start seeing better manuals in the future. I think the BY, JT and WW manuals in particular missed some golden opportunities for inoculating the members against being shocked by history.

    While I love the idea of learning from each prophet, in practice the manuals are pretty hard to teach from. Are you teaching the topic or the person? I kind of wish we went back to topic focused manuals for RS/PH.

  27. Kevin, overgeneralization usually on the basis of a fairly small number of papers really annoys me about the response to FARMS. Even ignoring the stuff that usually gets quoted by critics of apologetics I can think of some papers that outright outraged me that FARMS would publish them. (Here thinking of some embarrassing Intelligent Design papers in them or the infamous stuff on Kabbalah and Joseph Smith back in the early 90s) However by any stretch of the imagination those are in the minority. There’s a tendency by some to dismiss apologetics in general on the basis of the weakest writings rather than in terms of the strongest writings.

    That said, I do think good faith and charity towards our critics could still be better done within the broad apologetics movement.

  28. Blair, I went ahead and listened to the podcast. Smith doesn’t touch on the topic of probability vs. possibility at all. Nor does he in How (Not) to Be Secular. Your interview with Smith (who is an avowed postmodernist) and repeated agreement with his points throughout suggest just how much you have embraced postmodernism. Also, by saying that the meaning of probable and possible vary according to one’s temperament, etc. is reminiscent of postmodern thinking. I don’t know, do you consider yourself a postmodernist? Many Mormon apologists I have talked to are loath to own that label, even though much of their narratives would fit squarely within postmodernist trends. This is ironic given the fact that Joseph Smith and other LDS church leaders have made truth claims with what appear to be high degrees of certainty, and yet postmodernism is all about emphasizing the uncertain nature of truth and knowledge. What appears to be the trend of New Apologetics is the veiled attempt at upholding the certainty of truth claims by emphasizing the uncertainty of truth. It is contradictory. While this seeming ruse may work to an extent when someone either takes it upon themselves or is put in a position (tricked) to bear the burden of proving traditional LDS propositions about truth to be false, it falls flat once the defenders of LDS truth claims bear the burden of proof themselves (as any good and honest defender of any proposition should bear).

    As to the meaning of the concepts of ‘possibility’ and ‘probability,’ what’s at question is not whether the meanings of words vary according to different factors (they do, of course), but the extent to which this variance occurs. Just because variance in how people understand the meanings of words occurs doesn’t mean that consistent trends in the understanding of a concept across time and space are not identifiable. Intellectual communities have given meaning to the concepts of possibility and probability through their narratives for centuries. While we are free to choose what we want some word to mean (I can choose to use the word ‘probability’ to mean what most English-speakers would call a ‘lizard’) you’re not free to choose how that’s understood by others. Which brings me back to my point. New Apologetics generally fails to build a narrative that would appear to convince doubting LDS, doubting former LDS, skeptical non-LDS people, and the wider educated and intellectual communities that the truthfulness of the traditional LDS truth claims are probable (in a meaning that is consistent with common trends of understanding the concept of probability). Why? Because in order to establish such, you actually have to use the word ‘probable’ in a way that falls outside the ways in which educated English-speakers use and understand the concept.

  29. Postmodernism is pretty much a dead term and doesn’t have much explanatory power outside of polemics anymore. I actually think that’s true of “positivism” too for various reasons – although I’ll admittedly sometimes use both terms at times.

    I’m not sure what you mean by postmodernism but if it’s epistemological relativism then there are good reasons why most apologists would be uncomfortable with the term. If it just means that facts are theory laden (which can be found in classical positivism too and certainly in the groups who shifted out of positivism like Quine) then that’s not a terribly controversial claim anymore. Foundationalism is a pretty rare position to take anymore. Honestly the only ones I find taking it typically are evangelical apologists. (grin – OK, a bit unfair, but still I think most see it as problematic)

    Your terms “new” and “old” apologetics I’m not sure I agree with, but I don’t have much time to say anything on that right now. Maybe later. I don’t think things are quite as clear as you think. Of course apologetics by its very nature works better with people who have some testimony left and are looking for reasons to believe rather than disbelieve. If we’re at the stage of having to convince against someone’s will it’s kind of pointless. Even when you can provide facts where the preponderance of evidence fits your conclusions. Look at all the things people disbelieve when there’s huge weight of evidence for it: global warming, evolution, lack of success of robust socialism, biological innateness of many human structures (in preference to the blank slate), etc.

  30. Brad, thanks for listening to the episode! You say: “Your interview with Smith (who is an avowed postmodernist) and repeated agreement with his points throughout suggest just how much you have embraced postmodernism.

    I try to be fairly respectful of each guest, viewing my job as interviewer to facilitate their perspectives reasonably in order to help people understand where the guest is coming from. There are areas of overlap in my own perspectives and that of many of the guests, there are areas of disagreement, and depending on the episode different areas are emphasized. As far as me embracing postmodernism, I would say this. Given all the various ways “postmodernist” can be understood, it’s not a label I would apply to myself. (Does that make me a postmodernist according to your apparently unique definition?)

    Also, by saying that the meaning of probable and possible vary according to one’s temperament, etc. is reminiscent of postmodern thinking.

    To be more clear, I am speaking of the “conditions of belief” as being a moving target. For example, and speaking broadly, it was more of a “given” in the past than in the present that there is a God. When I mention temperament, I am referring to my sense that some people find it much easier to believe in God than others seem to, but that is only one factor in many, and identifying the cause of temperament, be it genetic, cultural, whatever, was beyond the scope of my comment.

    As for the rest of your comment, I’m not on board with the way you’re describing “New Apologetics,” as I think it glosses over the different approaches we’re seeing in a variety of publications these days. I’d just echo Clark’s follow-up comment rather than adding more to it. Take care!

  31. Clark, postmodernism is not a dead term, and neither is positivism. There is no way to aptly understand approaches to history, literature, and art without these categories. They are often used incorrectly and pejoratively, sure. There are also nuanced approaches that have sprung from these trends that we can cogently place in a number of subcategories as well. But to dismiss postmodernism as a valid category altogether is to toss the baby of understanding intellectual history out with the bathwater of miscategorization. And to deny the existence of trends in intellectual approaches to different topics from which we can construct categories to help us better understand the world is madness. The fact of the matter is that the approaches that believing LDS intellectuals have used to defend LDS church, in spite of the fact that they are varied and diverse, do exhibit identifiable trends, some of which are more predominant and widely accepted than others. The predominant older apologetic trends were far more invested in making old-world parallels in order to make the case that Joseph Smith couldn’t have written the Book of Mormon. Predominant trends in newer apologetics tend not to make ontological questions the focal point (as in older approaches), but epistemological questions. They focus more on the how than the what of knowledge. They tend not to be as concerned about making old-world parallels or defending the ones that have already been made. As I said before, this may be effective at undermining more assertive claims that the LDS truth claims are false. But it fails against postmodern worldviews. For at the end of the day, the apologists are defending the claims of the LDS church leaders about truth, which are ontologically assertive. They claim to actually know certain things about reality and apologists, whether they fully preface their narratives with this or not, are defending such bold assertions of knowledge. By asking where the evidence is and how it supports the truth claims, both new and old apologetic approached are effectively undermined, at least by the predominant standards of modern scholarship.

  32. Blair, I was just curious if you identified yourself as a postmodernist since James KA Smith clearly does. I’ll concede that haven’t heard enough of your thoughts to fully establish that you would fit in that trend, but by noting the variance of the meanings of probability and possibility according to people’s understandings and moods (a point that I fully agree on) made me think that you are at least partial to trends in postmodernism. While postmodern has become a broad category, it is no doubt an identifiable trend. I’m not sure about what definition you think that I gave of postmodernism or how it is unique. At any rate, I am personally partial to postmodernism (but not enough to deny the validity of categorization itself), so welcome to the club if you think you are.

    By all predominant modern standards of determining what is probably true, the LDS church’s truth claims are highly improbable. It isn’t even about the existence of God that is the issue. It is all of the other very bold seemingly unsubstantiated truth claims (again, unsubstantiated according to modern methods of substantiation). These claims can only be true if the standards for determining truth are altered significantly from the standards of what have become predominant in modern educated circles. So my gripe is with arguments that the LDS church’s truth claims can somehow be proven true with predominant modern methods of establishing truth and probability. Not in the least. The predominant trends in modern scholarship would have to change drastically for that to happen. Evidence for this is the fact that hardly anyone appears to be accepting LDS truth claims according to predominant modern standards of inquiry. People accept them because of groupthink, private evidence, or public evidence that wouldn’t be accepted as valid in most outside circles. I commend apologetic explanations for LDS truth claims that reject modern scholarship. But those that say that they are compatible are trying to fit a square peg into a circular hole. Either the peg or the hole has to change shape for there to be compatibility.

  33. I say it’s dead because you won’t find many serious philosophers self-identifying as a postmodernist. (And a lot of people put under the rubric didn’t identify with it even during the heyday of postmodernism – say Derrida) Especially since Sokal it’s primarily been used pejoratively to dismiss a certain strain of relativist thinking common in English departments, descriptive anthropology departments and the like. Usually students not terribly well versed in the main figures. Contrast this with its heyday in the 80’s and early 90’s when it was pretty common to find books with “postmodern” in its title from prominent presses. Now, as often as not it’s just used pejoratively and often with poor readings of the figures in question.

    Positivism, when used correctly, refers either to the 19th century movement or the Vienna circle. There certainly is serious study of those figures – especially the Vienna circle. I think they get dismissed too quickly by those who typically don’t grapple with them well. (In an LDS context, Dennis Potter did a lot of study on them and still writes about them seriously) So I don’t want to say they’re dead in terms of scholarship. However the majority of the writing is more either grappling with their ideas to illuminate some problem without buying into their approach, using them in a strawman way, or simply dismissing them out of hand. You don’t really have positivism as a continuing movement the way you do say Kantianism, pragmatism, existentialism or phenomenology to give some other examples. So if you search most resources you won’t really find major contemporary philosophers self-identifying themselves as positivists.

    That’s not to say verificationalist approaches to truth or meaning don’t have it’s place. As a Peircean I think verification is very important but think the positivists made it too narrow. One of the books I’m working through at the moment is actually Misak’s Verificationonism: Its History and Prospects which takes quite seriously the questions of the positivists. Of course she comes down on a more pragmatist position.

    Regarding apologetics I have some things half written responding to that in more depth. I just don’t think that really gets at what Nibley was doing in the 50’s through 70’s nor what the later apologetics (with the rise of FARMS) was doing in the 80’s and 90’s (in my mind highly influenced both by the New Mormon History, a strong appreciation of science, and also largely people with PhDs in their own respective fields they took quite seriously) It certainly doesn’t get at (to my mind) how apologetics changed in the late 90’s through today which appreciates theory and brings in many disparate fields. (Much as Mormon history in general has done the last 15 years or so) Again these trends don’t have absolute historical breaks and despite the tendencies it’s not hard to simply find bad arguments at any time.

    Relative to apologetics the issues of postmodernism tended to pop up due to (in my view) some pretty confused views of both apologetics and postmodernism. But it also confused why there were objections to what was called positivist history (again a more technical terms relative to the field of history more loosely connected to the Vienna circle). More or less it was just objecting to naive approaches to theory laden “facts.” It’s more analogous to how we might object to “literalism” in scriptural hermeneutics and actually have a fairly similar problem.

  34. Clark, if we were discussing the categorization of renowned philosophers, I would agree with your assessment of postmodernism and positivism completely. However, our discussion is about the categorization of Mormon apologetics, which is a different discussion. While the trends of postmodernism and positivism may be dead in philosophy departments, they are alive and well in popular discourse as well as broader scholarship (at least fields that are not related to philosophy). Sokal’s critique was valid for this very reason. The ideas of Comte, Derrida, Foucault, and others had a huge impact while they were alive and continue to deeply influence scholarly as well as public thought and discourse.
    I should mention again, that there is a group of Christian philosophers who do self-identify as postmodernists (citing influence from Derrida, Foucault, Nietzsche and other postmodernists), James KA Smith being among them. Maybe this group is not what you might consider serious in larger academic circles (and neither are any Mormon apologists or philosophers), but they are considered serious in Christian as well as Mormon circles (Blair’s interview with and praise of Smith being evidence of this). And in some ways, Christian and Mormon circles are larger and more influential than many academic circles. Trends in new Mormon apologetics appear to be sympathetic towards this group, if not directly influenced by it.
    As for there not being any clear historical breaks between old and new Mormon apologetics, we shouldn’t necessarily expect there to be. When categorizing any intellectual movement, you can identify certain predominant thought trends in a particular time frame, but it isn’t like we can say that such and such a movement began in a specific year. Besides, sometimes two competing trends overlap to a good degree. The prevailing apologetic trends simply have a much different emphasis (choose to believe) than apologetics of the past (Joseph Smith couldn’t have possibly written it because of all of these old-world parallels). Not all apologetic narratives, old or new, are created equal, of course. Yet no matter how well-stated the LDS apologetic narrative is and no matter is old or new emphasis, it is a near impossible sell to really any audience outside an already believing LDS one.

  35. Brad, earnest question, which apologists do you see as self-identifying as postmodern?

    I think Sokal hit something that was very active at the time. I just don’t see it as active anymore. Like many intellectual fads it had its day in the sun.

    Regarding general Christian philosophers or theologians I’ll fully confess my ignorance. Outside of a few, like Kevin Hart (who spoke at SMPT a few years ago) I can’t think of many under the postmodern rubric. I don’t know if Hart self-identified as such anymore (if he ever did – although he did write on the topic in the late 90’s. But I’ve not read most of his works)

    Regarding postmodernism I should note that what I outline is very much an ending of the use of the term and not necessarily the ideas that once went by the name. The name has come to have baggage. I’ll fully admit unashamedly that so called postmodern figures like Derrida, Caputo and others are very influential on my thought. I just refuse the term. However doing a bit more searching, perhaps you’re right that I’ve over exaggerated the death of the term. For instance I found an interview from 6 years ago where Caputo is still using the term. Admittedly to my surprise.

    While it probably establishes nothing, it’s interesting looking at the Google ngram analysis of postmodernism.

    But to the degree I’m simply reflecting my biases on the term, I apologize. I suppose I simply need to read more general Christian theology.

  36. Just to be clear with that question – apologists currently calling themselves postmodern.

    The weird postmodern critique of the New Mormon History begins with David Bohn in the 80’s as I recall. While I’m a bit dubious of a lot of these critiques, to my eyes they dried up the last 10 years for the most part. (But I don’t read nearly as much apologetics as I used to – so this may be my ignorance speaking) So I’m not asking to make a rhetorical point. I really am curious who makes such critiques still. Alan Goff attacks positivism in history, but after several productive discussions with him, I think he means something more narrow in history, albeit loosely connected to the broader positivist movement in the mid 20th century. Since I’ll fully admit my ignorance of the theory behind history as a contemporary discipline I can’t say much there. He has called himself postmodern at times, but he’s the only person I can think of off the top of my head. And I’m not sure I’d call him a postmodernist.

  37. Not knowing what the nature of their experiences how can I say? But I certainly have no trouble with the idea some might follow some religion by being led to it. In the next life they’ll get a chance to accept the gospel and be vicariously baptized. I don’t see how that affects what I can know from my experiences.

  38. Clark, I don’t know of any widely published LDS apologists who openly identify as postmodern. I’ve had discussions with a number of LDS believers who have defended LDS truth claims (whom I would also consider to be apologists) who identify as postmodernists. I don’t know their names. There is of course a lot of baggage that comes with the identification as postmodernist. For that reason, I imagine, many avoid the label. Of course, Foucault and Derrida also rejected the label as well, yet few academics in the business of categorizing intellectual history appear to have any qualms with placing their scholarship under the postmodern category. But the trend is there. John Charles Duffy wrote a good article on this showing the postmodern trend in faithful LDS scholarship a few years ago:

    I too am influenced by Foucault and Derrida and am happy to accept the label of postmodernist. I think that truth and morality are largely in the eyes of the beholder. I don’t subscribe to the fact-value distinction either. There are no facts without values. That said, however, I favor particular trends in narratives about truth and morality that I would like to see extinguish others.

    Also, when I see this sort of logic employed by defenders of LDS truth claims, it seems completely contradictory.

  39. I should note that Duffy is a good example against my view that pomo is largely dead. He wrote that originally in ’06. I still think it’s largely dead in significance, but I guess I’ll have to walk back the claim it’s dead in terms of people still talking about the term given Duffy, Caputo and a few others.

  40. I too have been unwilling to follow Clark in his total dismissal of “postmodern” and “positivism” as valid categories. (Of course, he has far more respect for the lingo of professional philosophy than I do.) To be sure, these words can refer to a lot of different things when used by a lot of different people, but there is still a strong family resemblance, if not genealogical root which unifies these different usages.

    Postmodernism – I think at its core – basically holds that we can never have access to anything beyond an interest-laden, non-neutral interpretation of the world.

    Positivism – I think at its core – basically holds that we can and should describe the world in disinterested, if not neutral terms. In other words, the world is able to, in some sense, speak for itself.

    While I suspect the first term is still used within the humanities (although I am far from sure about this), I am quite certain that the latter is still used within the social sciences – social theorists in particular. Critical theorists think that anybody who does not build into their methodologies and theories a critical edge aimed at human emancipation is a “positivist” while Popperians (who are positivists by the first definition) dismiss anybody who thinks we can have positive knowledge of the world under the same, pejorative label. The latter group says that the world can’t posit or affirm anything for us, while the former says that it can’t deny or falsify anything for us either.

    While I disagree with a great deal of what other post-moderns say, I still consider myself to be part of the group. Indeed, there is no sense in assuming a homogeneity within pre-, pro- or post-moderns.

  41. While I don’t like the terminology of postmodernism because I think it’s typically pretty misleading, I have no trouble with the term postivism especially as it relates to the Vienna circle. I don’t like how it often becomes a dismissive way of discounting certain positions such as naturalism in history. But that seems somewhat different.

    Regarding postmodernism back when I think its pejorative senses of “relativist sloppy thinking” more or less just mean distrust of master narratives. (Caputo in that link I gave above still uses it in that sense) That I fully agree with. Had the term not become so appropriated by sloppy thinking I’d probably still use it.

    Put an other way, some of the ideas that were important in postmodernism in the 80’s and 90’s are quite correct. It’s more the social play of the term that I find problematic and why I still think most people avoid it.

  42. Clark, thanks for linking Spencer’s response. I had never heard of it, but I took the time to read through it. I referenced Duffy’s article because he points to patterns of postmodern thought infused in Mormon apologetics as of recent, and very convincingly. I don’t Spencer’s response took down his argument in that regard at all. The problem with Spencer’s response is that he, like you, claims that postmodern is an invalid label since postmodernism is part of a bygone era in philosophy departments. While that may be the case, most intellectuals don’t appear to be aware of that and invoke postmodern thought in their discourse. And such is the case with a popular relatively recent trend in Mormon apologetics. As I said before, postmodernism is dead in philosophy departments but alive in intellectual discourse outside the philosophy department. Furthermore, Spencer fully acknowledges that Duffy is generally historically right, but philosophically and theologically wrong.

    There is a distinct trend in Mormon apologetics as of recent and postmodernism is the best term we have to describe it.

    The only way to save Mormon apologetics is for the apologists to let go of the idea that Mormon truth claims are compatible with the predominant trends in modern thought. Mormon truth claims can only be made valid by developing a completely different model of determining the probability of truthfulness and the validity of evidence to substantiate said claims. They can’t borrow modern secular models. I find it misleading on the part of apologists to reference influential secular thinkers as if their ideas somehow confirm the validity of Mormon beliefs. Spencer’s reference of Alain Badiou (and I’ve heard Badiou referenced by other apologists as well) in the link you posted is a prime example of this. Badiou is an atheist. We have every reason to believe that if directly confronted that Badiou would readily dismiss Mormon truth claims without much thought on the matter. The use of Badiou in subtle defense of the validity of Mormon apologist claims is nothing more than a improper cooptation. In fact, Badiou is well aware that his ideas are being coopted by many conservative religious apologists and he is none to pleased with this. See this interview here: The same goes for Kuhn, Popper, Jung, Derrida and other influential thinkers of the 20th century. Their ideas, when taken in totality, do nothing to validate Mormon truth claims. Quite the opposite. They tear them down, in fact, in some ways more ruthlessly than positivistic trends in thinking. What we’re seeing in Mormon apologetic trends as of recent is a desperate attempt of apologists (whose deep attachment to Mormon truth claims can likely be attributed to major social factors but who nonetheless appreciate secular wisdom) to try to have their cake (or their Mormonism) and eat it too. This is persuasive only to the small circle of people who already think just like them and whose social experiences are just like theirs.

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