Apologetics has obviously been on my mind recently. In previous posts I discussed how certain kinds of apologetics might be pursued at places such as BYU. Indeed, I believe that religious institutions such as BYU should produce apologetics in the sense of scholarship that explains, explores, and defends the truth claims of Mormonism. I also believe that this scholarship should be fit for a university, meaning that it should largely meet the criteria of scholarship within the broader academic community.
In this post, I’d like to discuss one kind of apologetics. An apologetics represented in pieces such as Greg Smith’s review of Mormon Stories. This kind of apologetics is one part of the classic FARMS approach to apologetics. And unlike other parts of the classic FARMS approach, this approach is inappropriate for places such as BYU. I might even go so far as to venture that a determination to pursue this approach, despite its shortcomings, is largely responsible for the desire to replace some of the leadership at the Maxwell Institute.
The kind of apologetics I want to discuss is what I call Wheat and Tares Apologetics. Wheat and Tares Apologetics is aimed at sifting the good guys from the bad guys. It aims to answer the basic question–is This Person/Organization a trusted source for learning about Mormonism? Or, more broadly, should LDSs trust This Person/Organization? Since apologetics tends to be done in defense of a perceived threat, most of Wheat and Tares Apologetics is geared toward showing why some individual or organization is a “tare” rather than a “wheat.”
Wheat and Tares Apologetics is a legitimate academic exercise in the sense that authors who employ this approach take up a thesis and provide reasons for the thesis. There are, however, a number of drawbacks, limitations, or dangers of this approach as it tends to be practiced. And I believe as it’s currently practiced, these downsides render it not only inappropriate for a place such as BYU, but also a less than effective approach to apologetics in the long run. At the same time, I believe that it is possible to reform it.
The drawbacks, limitations, or dangers of Wheat and Tares Apologetics are as follows:
- Because its primary purpose is to deligitimate someone as an authority on Mormonism, it does not provide a nuanced account of the person or movement under observation. It is not a study or an exercise in understanding. While evidence gathering and organizing is always a selective process where our own biases come into play, Wheat and Tares Apologetics tends to neglect evidence that might complicate the thesis the author is attempting to argue.
- Wheat and Tares Apologetics employs a kind of consequentialist methodology where the ends justify the means. It does not need to aim for a holistic description of an individual or organization because its goal is to get its readers to no longer view the individual or organization as a legitimate authority on Mormonism. Because this is its goal, things such as study, nuanced description, and all other methodologies are subject to this end. For more on consequentialism in this sense see my previous post here. (As a tenuously related example, notice how The Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture goes beyond its stated aim in publishing things not about Mormon Scripture. What we see here, I believe, is a commitment to a consequentialist methodology aimed at strengthening faith which exceeds a commitment to the less consequentialist goal of interpreting scripture. Although I may certainly be wrong.)
- Wheat and Tares Apologetics tends to draw too clear of a line in terms of how one is a wheat or tare.
- Because of number 3, it creates the opportunity to demonize the tares. The tares are anti-Mormons, a regime, the junta, etc. Because many of those engaged in Wheat and Tares Apologetics also employ a “war” motif, the tares are the enemy, those we are at war with, and in some sense these Tares become less than human.
- It sets up those who employ Wheat and Tares Apologetics as the gatekeepers of orthodoxy. They determine who is in and who is out. This gives them a de facto status in the LDS community, not simply as distributors of faithful information, but more as guardians at the door. The community can look to them to find out who is safe and who is not safe. This is given the further air of authority when this kind of apologetics is attached to BYU since BYU is so closely affiliated with the Church. IMO, this is one reason why appeals to authority have been so prevalent in the whole John Dehlin debacle–Wheat and Tares Apologists have set themselves up as the gatekeepers, so the only solution for the other side is to appeal to the authority above the gatekeepers; in this case, the General Authorities of the Church.
- Wheat and Tares Apologetics can foster feelings of distrust when people realize that issues are more complicated than they have been portrayed by Wheat and Tares Apologists. When people come to realize that a Tare is not all bad, and even has some relevant things to say, it might end up undermining the credibility of Wheat and Tare Apologists; but since their status as gatekeeper defines orthodoxy, people who make this discovery are then put into a position of becoming a Tare themselves since to disagree with the gatekeepers is to be heterodox and opposed to the Church.
- Wheat and Tares Apologetics neglects or obscures the larger issues at play by focusing on a person or organization. So in the case of John Dehlin, issues such as why many LDSs have found Mormon Stories appealing and how we deal with faith crises are neglected, or at least put on the back-burner, for the sake of discrediting Dehlin.
Now, several of these issues are reformable; and not all are equally serious; but I’ll stop here and open it up for discussion.