I work with FAIR from time to time. One of the popular features of the FAIR website is the ask the apologist form, where people send in questions that get answered. We get a tremendous amount of positive feedback. What fascinates me is that the most vocal proponents of the idea that apologetics is harmful are the critics of the church (and it doesn't matter if they are still on the membership roles). I have to wonder if part of this isn't a rather unorganized campaign to try and smear apologetics writers in rather the same sort of way that they are accused of hurting the church.
There is perhaps a useful comparison though to be made in a comment from Indiana Jones (the character) in the Movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Near the beginning Jones speaks to a class of his students: "Archaelogy is the search for fact, not truth. If you want truth, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is just down the hall." This line gets quoted quite a bit (I have even seen it referenced on RFM). Most of the time, those who quote it ignore the next part, where Jones continues: “We do not follow maps to buried treasure and X never, ever marks the spot”. The irony intended in the movie that gets lost by extracting the quote from its context (and so is ignored or missed by those who use it), is that the movie presents an Indiana Jones who is indeed searching for truth, who follows a map to the buried treasure, and over the course of the adventure discovers that X can indeed mark the spot. My point though here is that apologetics and polemics are (on some level) just as interested in truth. Generally speaking, we use these terms within the contexts of religion and politics, and rarely elsewhere. Some will try to tack on other things - that polemics are more of an emotional appeal and apologetics are more of an intellectual enterprise. Really, these are merely quibbles trying to deal with the problem that polemics has a decidedly negative connotation (far more so than apologetics). The discussion about what makes apologetics and what makes polemics has been of particular interest in the field of the study of religions. (This is at least somewhat relevant because of Bradford's vision of the NAMI apparently).
Nearly two decades ago, Terrence W. Tilley wrote a short (13 pages) review article of a book titled Explaining Religion: Criticism and Theory from Bodin to Freud by J. Samuel Preus. The book itself is interesting, but, as I often do, I really enjoyed the review of the book (which leads me to the books themselves) and the observations that it makes (of course, reviews are often like this, right?). Tilley lets us know in no uncertain terms that Preus's work is itself a polemic. And he describes quite well the conundrum faced by this field and its struggle to come to terms with itself as an academic endeavor. He writes:
Preus’s tradition is clearly a skeptical one. Indeed, he remarks that “it has been an ongoing concern of this book to note the extent to which the study of religion emerged out of criticism of religion” (p. 152). But is this not a bit odd? If one noted that the proper, academic study of the origins and persistence of science or philosophy or sport or war or poetry emerged almost exclusively out of the criticism of those practices, and consistently discounted or ignored the analyses of participants in those activities, would one not be suspected of a significant bias in constructing a history of the “tradition” of study in those areas? Why is it that “academic” scholars of religion can get away with constructing such undialectical and un-self-critical explanations of the origin and persistence of religion? In other fields, analogous constraints would preclude scientists or philosophers or athletes or coaches or soldiers or poets from contributing to explaining the roots and endurance of their fields. Such absurd limitations would not be countenanced. Why are they tolerated – even praised – when the field is religion?
Typically, this question receives three sorts of answers. First, in religion, unlike other fields, nonskeptical accounts are hidden apologetics, so skeptical accounts are to be preferred as more honest and fitting in the humanistic academy. Second, nonskeptical accounts treat religion as irreducible, as autonomous, as sui generis, thus protecting religious meaning from being explained, leaving religion inexplicable, and thus defeating the goal of explanation, so skeptical accounts are to be preferred as not self-defeating. Third, nonskeptical accounts posit a mysterious “supernatural” or “sacred” cause or ground for religious experience and meaning, thus thwarting the attempt to explain religion at the crucial point of its origins, so skeptical accounts are to be preferred as not obscurantist. Hence, the only legitimate approach to religion in the liberal academy is a skeptical one arising from the criticism of religion." (Journal of Religion, April, 1991, Vol. 71 No. 2, p. 244)
Some of you will agree with Preus. Tilley disagrees with him (which shouldn't be a surprise I suppose given the publication). This is the sort of thing that dogs Mormon apologetics. Our critics jump on this bandwagon (whether they recognize what it is or not). Apologetics as the voice of the nonskeptic is excluded from the academy. In a nutshell, this is the impetus in some ways behind the changes at the NAMI. Tilley, by the way, has some profound ideas for his perspective in this discussion. In June of 2009, he discussed some more of these concerns in his outgoing presidential address at the end of his term as the president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, titled "Three Impasses in Christology". There he made this observation (which I think is highly relevant to the work of polemics and apologetics within religion):
This presentation he made really rings home for me in this context. After all, we have a large group of people (well 'large' may be an exaggeration) that are dissenters. That have a particular agenda. Their objective is to repeatedly say that the church needs to be more honest about its history and its narrative, to be more open - this is of course quite similar to the situation I see with John Dehlin. Dehlin portrays himself as a shepherd of those disaffected from the church, of having had a faith crisis. But he doesn't offer any real solution to restore unity. And, it isn't benign as he suggests. In the present course, if it moves on to stalemate, then the option left is to splinter the community. Is this Dehlin's goal?
What Thomas S. Kuhn has called a “paradigm shift” in science results from impasses in “normal science.” Paradigm shifts are not theoretical solutions to problems. Paradigm shifts involve fundamental changes in scientific practice and theory. The classic example is that when Newtonian mechanics failed to account for the motion of subatomic particles or light near stars, Newtonian mechanics was accounted as only a “special case” that works only for more medium-sized items. The “special case” strategy is a practical resolution to the impasse, not a purely theoretical one. Only retrospectively can we see if a resolution was a good one. Beyond impasses there can be stalemates. A stalemate is the result of playing a game to the point that neither side can win. Stalemates in chess, of course, simply mean that a game has resulted in a draw. The players simply go on to another chess match and change their tactics – or take up different games. Stalemates in academic fields are resolved more by attrition than intellection; theories are not refuted, but go out of style.
Academic stalemates may be rather benign, but stalemates in real life can be malignant. The nuclear terror of the policy of “mutual assured destruction,” for example, was not a benign stalemate, but one that scarred a generation. Electoral stalemates – the Florida presidential vote in 2000 and the Minnesota senatorial election in 2008 – have to be wrenched out of the electoral system into the courts, a tactic that resolves the impasse by external force and sometimes even political shenanigans. Real life stalemates can be quite vicious, even destructive. Impasses in the real life of the church can become and have become stalemates. Stalemates in the church have splintered the ecclesial community. The Great Western Schism was such a stalemate. The Protestant Reformation was such a stalemate – one that the strategies of the Catholic Reformation did not resolve, but exacerbated. These malignant stalemates destroyed the possibility of ecclesial unity – and will not be overcome as long as the shepherds of one flock demand that separated brethren repent of their errors to be accepted back into their sheepfold. Sadly, the nexus of impasses currently facing the Church in the U.S. suggests the possibility of a church in stalemate.
It is the beginning of the second paragraph I quote that highlights another problem. Academic views refuse to see the problems created by these impasses - the human problems that we as apologists have come face to face with regularly. Not too long ago, I engaged in a discussion with a member who was having a faith crisis. She was impacted by polemical and apologetic arguments - and one in particular that was mentioned was the material produced by John Dehlin. Notice that when John Dehlin is defending his approach to the gospel and what he does, he is an apologist. When Dehlin is critical of an idea or when he attacks the church and its leaders, he is a polemicist. It is true that FAIR and NAMI have engaged in both polemical and apologetic discourse (I have published both sorts myself). But the issue here for me is that in this sense, from an academic perspective Dehlin isn't terribly interesting. He hasn't really published anything in an academic venue. His influence though, and the real malignancy of what he is doing creates problems for the members of the church. And note the similarity to the situation described by Tilley - the impasse cannot be overcome as long as the church is being called to repentance (i.e. to come clean with the "truth"). The situation will not go away by simply ignoring it. This doesn't have much to do with changes at NAMI other than to point out that if NAMI stops engaging on this level or in the fashion that it did in the Review, the impasse isn't marginalized, it becomes more likely to move from impasse to stalemate. I should note, I am using Dehlin merely as an example (in part because he is a useful example and in part because so many - including John himself - have connected him to the events at NAMI).
While both apologetics and polemics tend to claim that they are portraying truth (and "truth" here is somewhat malleable - it is more about perspective and position and really any sense of unalterable or absolute truth), polemics in particular tends to use a specific kind of language. One of those elements is comparison - and the pushing or dividing into two groups. About a decade ago now, David Rozema did a piece in the Journal of Philosophy of Education (Vol. 35, No. 2, 2001), titled "The Polemics of Education". And he describes this function (pp. 237- :
In his marvelously lucid and notably passionate essay, 'Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community' Wendell Berry writes,
There are two kinds of human economy. There is the kind of economy that exists to protect the 'right' of profit, as does our present public economy; this sort of economy will inevitably gravitate toward the protection of the 'rights' of those who profit most. Our present public economy is really a political system that safeguards the private exploitation of the public wealth and health. The other kind of economy exists for the protection of gifts, beginning with the 'giving in marriage,' and this is the economy of community, which now has been nearly destroyed by the public economy. (Berry, 1993, p. 138)
What Berry describes in this passage are two poles of how one understands 'economy'. The effect of the description is to expose which pole a person is drawn to and to thereby align the opposing forces for battle, just as a magnet will expose and align the opposing forces in a collection of iron filings. Any given individual may have some attraction to both poles, but the effect of being placed within the magnetic field is to show which pole the individual is most attracted to, and therfore which pole he will eventually get to. Thus, even for a person who finds himself in sympathy with both of the economies described, the polemical description serves to expose the strongest force within him; the one that will, when faced with a situation that demands a show of allegiance to one side or the other, expose his true bent.
In this paper, I want to describe a similar polemic, a polemic of education that shadows - or perhaps foreshadows - Berry's polemic of economy. I will investigate the idea that, corresponding to these two kinds of human economy, there are two kinds of education. ...
You can see here that Rozema is embracing this polemical approach, he wants and expects his readers to figure out which of these two possibilities they are most drawn to (and where he envisions they will inevitably end up) and thus draws the battle lines accordingly. Here we see the inherent polemic in things like the "Chapel Mormon" and "Internet Mormon" dichotomy. Why do we see this division into two? It is to create battle lines between them. To force them into conflict. This is the core of polemic arguments. It is pushing one thing against another. John Dehlin has done the exact same thing - although the labels are (of course) different. For him, the battle is between the "correlated" and the "uncorrelated" Mormons. Once he starts speaking about us on these terms, we can know immediately that he is in polemical mode. He is no less of an apologist and a polemicist than anyone who has written for FARMS/NAMI, and is probably more deserving of the title of polemicist than most of them. Unlike Shades with his chapel/internet Mormons where he largely wants to create friction from the sidelines, Dehlin has taken a seat on the uncorrelated side, and the battle is a bit more personal - although it is still polemical dialogue. Anytime we introduce the us versus them mentality we have immediately stepped into a polemical environment. (This is why, of course, it crops up most often in religion and politics).
This is getting long, but I think I want to include one more example. In the Fall of 1996, Christoper Leighton published an article titled "Contending with a Polemical Tradition" The Rhetorical Art of Christian Self-Definition" in Religious Education, v. 91, no. 4. In it he attempted to define polemics more along the lines of the popular usage and less so the technical definition:
The article is interesting - and it is part of the beginning of that interest (I could bring dozens of other authors to the table here - not the least of which is Johnathon Z. Smith). But, what do we notice here (and by comparison, what do we as FAIR members try to avoid)? In the recent comments by Dehlin on his facebook site (which I think he removed), he said this: "It's clear to me that the LDS church leadership is uncomfortable with your (and Dr. Peterson's) brand of apologetics. To blame Bradford for this seems like scapegoating. Unfortunately you can't critize LDS church leadership and remain an apologist (ouch!) ..."
The term polemics generally denotes the art of controversy and disputation. Polemical discourse is more often than not speech animated by anger and fear. It deploys explosive language that compels the listener to take a stand. Religious polemics are frequently used to combat opposing interpretations of the truth. Polemics serve to demarcate and fortify the boundaries between "insiders" and "outsiders," offering protection from contact with the carriers of "sin and unbelief." This indelicate art of theological self-defense may be an indispensable rhetorical strategy in threatening circumstances, but this verbal habit is loaded with toxic possibilities that can be released over a long period of time. Therefore, Christians need to attend to the polemical practices that were certainly instrumental in the shaping of Christian identity, for these linguistic habits continue to exert a powerful influence.
In the wake of (1) the assassination of Yitzak Rabin, the late Prime Minister of Israel, (2) the rhetorical debates that erupted with the announcement of the Million Man March, and (3) the 1996 presidential campaigns in the United States, the importance of deciphering the uses and abuses of religious polemics needs little justification. Students who learn to identify polemical discourse and decipher its function will not only gain critical insights into the formative dynamics of Christian self-definition; they will also acquire the tools to analyze much of the political and religious discourse that swirls around them. In what follows, I will direct the reader's attention to three examples of religious polemic as a way of entering into the larger task of reconceptualizing Christianity's understanding of Judaism.
This reminded me a bit of a piece written many years ago (which in and of itself is a kind of contradiction of Dehlin's thoughts there) by Bill McKeever (of CRI fame), who in short essay titled "LDS Apologetics and the Battle for Mormon History" noted: "Mormon apologists admittedly speak with no authoritative capacity within the Mormon community; nevertheless, they often contradict the authoritative positions of the very men they should be defending. Even biblical interpretations by LDS authorities are subject to criticism when they do not square with the apologist’s point of view.
One example of this is how Daniel Peterson of FARMS and Ben McGuire of the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR) contradict LDS apostle JamesE.Talmage’s explanation, in his book Jesus the Christ, that John10:34 refers merely to human judges. Many Mormons may not realize that this disagreement must extend to the Mormon First Presidency itself, since Jesus the Christ was one of two books written by Talmage “to have been commissioned by the First Presidency, reviewed by committees consisting of general authorities and published under the president of the church’s official imprimatur.” Peterson and McGuire’s criticisms have not received such LDS notoriety. The fact that these apologists are not reprimanded for contradicting LDS authority lends credence to Priddis’s claim that apologists who are faithful to the church on certain issues are given a “free ticket” despite their criticisms on other issues."
Two very different statements in terms of conclusions and contents (apparently I can "criticize" church leaders - assuming that's what I was doing and remain an apologist). Both dealing with Mormon apologetics. Both coming from individuals I view as critics of the faith. Both using highly polemical language to divide, to draw battle lines, and so on. It's not the facts that matter - its the emotional appeal to the idea that apologists are contradicting their leaders (and so cannot be trusted), its the idea expressed all over the place right now, that apologetics is somehow filled with bitter, ad hominem attacks (not just an occasional piece, but filled with it). It is fear mongering. The odd thing, is that everywhere I see the critical discussions, I see the same things only amplified from our critics - this appeal to emotion (and not to some kind of facts), the labels (which is nothing more than name calling), the suggestion that it is disagreement with leaders that is the source of the conflict - all of these things are concerted efforts to create division, to put the "faithful" members of the church with their leaders on the one side, with apologists on the other. It is fascinating to me to recognize that Analytics (in the other thread) brings up his example of what he calls "An example of a FARMS Review that Peterson edited which is below the dignity of BYU ..." This article is now more than two decades old. It wasn't published under the auspices of BYU. And yet it is his poster child? Again, this isn't so much evidence as it is a polemical argument - being used to create division (FARMS and Peterson versus BYU and ostensibly the church and its leadership). What you don't see from them is the praise given to the work of apologetics by then President Hinkley when he invited FARMS to become a part of BYU - the recognition of the necessity of their work. Of course, these kinds of recommendations don't fit the agenda of the apologists and polemicists for the other side, do they?
In my opinion, there is a place and role for apologetics and the scholarship that it presents. There is also a place for polemic. It is quite possible that the change from the perspective of BYU as an institution was appropriate (even if the way in which it was handled was unconscionably inappropriate). But one thing is certain - it has guaranteed the eventual widespread dissemination of the article Dehlin tried to suppress. And we all know how he tried to suppress it right? Anger, and fear.
In his comments on this message board, John Dehlin wrote this:
Mostly, of course, to John Dehlin. Why was this article being published? Probably because people believed in their hearts that the old school, disingenous, ad hominem-style apologetics a la John Dehlin are very, very damaging: to the church, to its members, to its former members, amd mostly to his targets.
So why did I fight the article? I did it because I believe in my heart that the old school, disingenuous, ad hominem-style apologetics a la Daniel Peterson and Louis Midgley are very, very damaging: to the church, to its members, to its former members, and mostly to its targets.
But, as far as I can tell, what is most important right now is the campaign to make the labels (like apologist) stick only with those who defend the church, and deflect such criticisms from its critics (who are also apologists - just working from a different side of the coin). FAIR and FARMS doo good work, try to be responsible, try to limit the emotional appeals that come in their polemics, try not to engage in the fear mongering of their opponents - and they try to be intellectually responsible. They help members of the church far more than any harm that comes from them. But this is not the potrayal that any critic wants to hear (or to present).
Edited by Benjamin McGuire, 26 June 2012 - 07:04 AM.