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“Schologetics”: A Response


David Bokovoy, someone who has produced far more scholarship, and participated in more (and better) apologetics, than I have, has recently written a blog post trying to parse between scholarship and apologetics. If I were someone else, I would almost certainly give more weight to Bokovoy than myself. But, alas, I am I, and I have some of my own thoughts which I feel a need to express. Interestingly, the distinction is one that I have had on my mind recently, so Bokovoy’s comments proved timely for me, and responding to him is a good excuse to write out what I have been telling myself I need to write for a week or so now.

Please know that I have no ax to grind with Bokovoy. He is a fine scholar, and from everything I can tell, he is an upstanding individual and Saint. I have great respect and admiration for him. As a young student with aspirations of contributing to both the scholarship and the apologetic on Mormonism, and who also hopes to teach seminary and inspire kids to deepen their testimonies, Bokovoy (who is also a seminary teacher) serves as a great role model for me. I also understand that Bokovoy is not trying to be critical of apologetics, and that he sees both as valuable. But all of that does not change the fact that I find his remarks to be, well, off the mark. Perhaps I am just misunderstanding him, but I think that while there is a distinction, I also think there is some room for overlap in a gray area where that distinction can get blurry.

Bokovoy’s Distinction

As Bokovoy explains it, “the difference between apologetics and scholarship is that unlike apologetics, scholarship strives for objectivity… Yet this is the exact opposite objective of apologetics.” He further clarifies, “that the true essence of scholarship is critical thought… in terms of thinking ‘critically’ about arguments, including one’s own position!” In a comment on the blog post, Bokovoy further clarifies that by making clear that by “apologetics” he means “an intellectual defense of one’s faith,” not merely the more generic “systematic argumentative discourse defending one’s point of view.” According to Bokovoy, “this [defense of faith] is not what happens in the production of scholarship.”

I think this breaks down in a variety of ways. For starters, I have personally experienced the kind of critical thought and engagement of arguments Bokovoy describes as being characteristic of scholarship; but I have experienced it while reading and writing apologetics. I consider and evaluate the quality of the arguments and the evidence, find places of agreement and disagreement with various authors, and often write and create my own arguments. I’ve had to reevaluate and consider my own positions, and at times discarded old arguments for new, better ones, changed my point of view, etc. All part of my efforts to defend the faith. Bokovoy makes it sound like this does not happen in apologetics.

Second, it is unclear to me why it makes a difference as to weather the position being defended is secular or religious. In either case, objectivity is lost. Bokovoy has to make this distinction because, as he knows, scholars are taking positions and defending them all the time.

Blurring the Lines: “Schologetics”

It is somewhat interesting to me that Bokovoy is trying to draw lines in the sand when one of his criticisms of Greg Smith’s article – which is the occasion that brought about his blog post – is that he tries to force things, and people, into categories when such neat and tidy distinctions are not usually possible. Somewhere there exists a gray area, where the distinction gets fuzzy. I will call this zone “schologetics.” I think a classic example of this within Mormonism ironically comes from David Bokovoy himself. In a very professional and scholarly exchange between Bokovoy and Evangelical Michael Heiser, Bokovoy responded to Heiser’s critique of LDS uses of the divine council, defending the way Psalm 82 and John 10 have been applied to LDS doctrine, while at the same time thoughtfully, even critically, engaging Heiser’s work. I think the final two sentences embody this balancing of scholarship and apologetics: “Even in his critique of the LDS use of Psalm 82 and John 10, Heiser raises important issues worthy of careful consideration. Ultimately, no matter which opinions regarding the details surrounding these texts hold sway, clearly the Latter-day Saint position regarding humanity and the divine council of deities is much more biblical-like than many have supposed.” Readers should be able to easily detect the overtones of both thoughtful scholarship, and defense of faith in that conclusion.

The Rappleye Distinction

Now, while I have difficulties with Bokovoy’s distinction, I do think there is a difference between scholarship and apologetics. They are not mutually exclusive categories, but they are not identical categories either. To clarify, I am going to define both scholarship and apologetics, and also introduce two additional categories that help elucidate some of the ways the two often come together in the “schologetics zone”: scholarly apologetics, and apologetic scholarship. (Yes, I was one of those kids in elementary school who insisted that greenish-yellow and yellowish-green were two different colors.)

Apologetics: Apologetics is the defense of one’s point of view and as Bokovoy points out, it is usually the defense of a religious point of view. It starts from the position that the point of view being defended is true, and marshals evidence, reasoned arguments, etc. to that end. It can, and often does, draw on scholarship which supports their arguments, but it does not always. I think a phenomenal example of basic apologetics is Terryl and Fiona Givens’s The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life. Though both have graduate degrees and Terryl is certainly a scholar of the highest order, in The God Who Weeps they make simple, common sense arguments for the existence of a loving, compassionate God and the eternal (pre)existence of man. While they do occasionally draw on scholarship, they utilize scripture and poets more often than empirical evidence.  In my view, The God Who Weeps is an example of simple apologetics at its finest!

Scholarly Apologetics: But there is also more scholarly apologetics. Work that seeks to respond to criticisms with more than just rational thought, but substantive evidence and scholarly analysis. Scholarly apologetics often takes into account the scholarship on the subject, seeks to account for all the data, addresses alternative readings of the evidence, and makes its case for the position of faith. The arguments are often rigorously tested to ensure that they are well-grounded in the evidence. It is still not scholarship, per se, because its aims are different (see below), but it is scholarly. It can sometimes even advance our knowledge or make breakthroughs. Take, for example, the stylometric analysis of G. Bruce Schaalje, Paul J. Fields, and Matthew Roper. In defending the Book of Mormon by responding to an earlier, flawed stylometric analysis on Book of Mormon authorship, Schaalje et al actually pioneered a new statistical technique, which now has some implications for cancer research. It started out as apologetics, but ended up making important, scholarly breakthroughs. Another good example of scholarly apologetics is the work of William Schryver on the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, something which unfortunately has yet to be published thanks to smear tactics. Schryver sought to respond to criticisms of the Book of Abraham which depend on the KEP, and in doing so he produced some groundbreaking work on an enigmatic aspect of Mormon history.

Scholarship: Now, to the distinction of scholarship. For me, what makes scholarship different from apologetics is that scholarship is hypothesis driven. Rather than starting with a position it intends to defend or prove, it starts with a question it seeks to answer, or a hypothesis it tries to test. It wants to determine if a position is valid. It does not seek to use the evidence, it seeks to find the evidence and see which side of the coin it lands on. I think a great example of this, coming from a faithful Mormon, is Brant A. Gardner’s The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon. Gardner does not set out to prove or defend the Book of Mormon as a translation (though Gardner grants that it is a translation as a foundational assumption to his research), nor does it set out to prove what kind of translation it is. Rather, Gardner examines all kinds of evidence to try and answer what kind of translation is it? and how did that translation happen? The results are a groundbreaking new theory on Book of Mormon translation that future scholars will no doubt examine, critique, and refine.

Apologetic Scholarship: So what is “apologetic scholarship” and how does differ from both standard scholarship, and from “scholarly apologetics”? Sometimes, the critics of our faith help us discover areas where further research needs to be done. We can’t defend what is being critiqued because we don’t have the research yet to back up any sort of claims – whether it be the claims of the critics, or apologists. But we can initiate hypothesis driven research wherein we hope to uncover new information that helps us formulate a response – not a pre-determined response, mind you, but a response that is custom fitted to the data and evidence we discover. The assumptions and conclusions of the critics become the hypotheses we seek to test and examine, to see what merit they hold, and what the implications are for the faith-maintaining position. I think the prime example of this is the work of Milton V. Backman Jr. and others on the First Vision, which was brought about by the criticisms of Wesley Walters. Bringing new information to the attention of Mormon historians, both the assumptions and conclusions of Walters became the hypotheses put to test by Mormon historians, resulting in a watershed of new light on the First Vision. The results of the new historical research were published in Spring 1969 issue of BYU Studies and have formed the basis of further scholarship on the vision.  Another example of this kind of research maybe the work on the Kinderhook plates by Mark Ashurst-McGee and Don Bradley. Critics have long insisted that Joseph was duped by the fake set of plates, but McGee and Bradley decided to treat that as a hypothesis to be tested, and as a result have produced a very interesting and elegant explanation for what really happened.

The “Schologetics” Zone

In sum, what sets apart apologetics and scholarship are the aims and goals. The one sets out to defend a position, while the other aims to test a position. But the two aims are not always at odds with each other, and sometimes come together in various ways. In scholarly apologetics, we use tested arguments to defend our position, while in apologetic scholarship, we create tests in hopes being able to provide for a more rigorous defense. The categories I have created should in no way be taken as rigidly and clearly defined, especially the scholarly apologetics and apologetic scholarship. Just as most of us would struggle to draw a distinct line between greenish-yellow and yellowish-green (and some of us may not even make that distinction at all!), so the line between categorizes in the “schologetics zone” is unclear. Shryver’s work could perhaps be categorized as apologetic scholarship, while the work of Ashurst-McGee and Bradley might rightly be called scholarly apologetics. My purpose is not to create well-defined categories, but quite the opposite: I wish to show that the distinction between categories can be pretty fuzzy. Not only to people move between the two spheres, as Bokovoy points out, but the two spheres themselves tend to collide at times. Research itself can seem to occupy both spheres in various ways.

The Case of Greg Smith

This leads me to the case of Greg Smith’s paper on John Dehlin’s Mormon Stories. The common complaint, and one which Bokovoy echo’s, is that Smith does not provide a “fair and balanced” view of John Dehlin or Mormon Stories, and thus is not “scholarship.” But the aim was never meant to do that. The as the subtitle of the paper makes clear, this is “a twenty-first century construction of exit narratives.”

Smith is focused on a specific role that John Dehlin and the Mormon Stories community has filled in creating and facilitating exit narratives for “leave-takers,” with John Dehlin’s own story serving as a “case study” in leave-taking, simply because he is a particularly public figure. Smith is of course not saying that Dehlin is only a leave-taker or exit counselor, but he is personally focused on that aspect. In that analysis, I am of the opinion that Smith was both fair and balanced, and as such has produced something that could be a contribution to scholarship. An analysis of a very open and public leave-taking process could hold value to the field of sociology of religion. Likewise the follow-up is again not meant as a balanced portrait of Dehlin, but rather it aims to demonstrate how the events that unfolded in the wake of the suppression of the original paper could be examined within the framework of “moral panics,” with its very own “folk devils.” As such, it again marks a potential contribution to scholarship.

Intertwined within that (in both papers) is an apologetic aim to show that Dehlin is neither as neutral or as friendly to faith as he claims, to show that he has, at least at times, had an agenda hostile toward the truth claims of the Church, and that Dehlin has been deceptive in attempts to attract believing but vulnerable member of the Church into trusting him. To the extent that Dehlin’s agenda and tactics are a threat to faith and the Church’s truth claims, bringing all of this to light serves certain apologetic aims.

These two aspects (the scholarly and the apologetic) of Smith’s work on Dehlin’s efforts with Mormon Stories and other public venues are so woven together that perhaps untangling them is not possible. This interweaving in some ways is problematic. Assessing what value and contribution to scholarship Smith makes in his analysis related to exit narratives, leave taking, moral panics, or folk devils will be a challenging task thanks to the way it is wed to his more apologetic purposes. So Smith’s papers, like many others, occupy this middle-ground somewhere within the realm of “schologetics.” 

But that does not discount the quality of argument Smith makes. As of yet I’ve seen no one try to grapple with his arguments or make a fair assessment of their quality. Until that is done, the value of this work as either scholarship or apologetics cannot be determined.

Conclusion

The above is my attempt to lay out certain thoughts I’ve had regarding scholarship and apologetics, most of which I’ve had for a while but tried to articulate now in response to Bokovoy. I realize that within my own thoughts there exists certain tensions that need to be worked. On the one hand I am hoping to create clarity, but I seem to be doing so by arguing for ambiguity. But I think I can summarize by saying this: apologetics and scholarship are distinct forms of argument, but they also overlap and come together in various ways. Recognizing the ways in which they are distinct can help us identify the ways in which they interact. In neither case should arguments be ignored, but understanding where they fall can help us know how to judge and evaluate them.

Then again, I won’t blame anybody for thinking I don’t make any sense at all. I am more or less thinking out aloud (or in print) here. As I already said, if I were not me, I probably would give more credence to Bokovoy than myself.

So, take it for what it is worth. 

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