When Worldviews Collide: The Unintended Consequences of Apologetics in the Gospel Topics Essays

By Seth Bryant

Seth Bryant is Director of the Kirtland Temple Historic Site and a former US Navy Chaplain. He has graduate degrees from the University of Florida and Vanderbilt University.

 

 

I AM A cultural Mormon and a convert to the Community of Christ. So if religions are languages, I speak Community of Christ with a Mormon accent. But, in this essay, I make no claims to speak for Community of Christ: the following is born out of my own unique situation and views as someone who cares deeply about the larger Restoration, and finds the Gospel Topic Essays both fascinating and problematic.

In this analysis, I will focus mostly on the “Book of Mormon and DAN Studies” essay, regarding which my adopted faith contains an instructive counterpoint: In 1894, the RLDS general conference appointed the Committee on American Archeology to look for ancient artifacts left by Book of Mormon peoples. The work of that committee represents the first time any members of the Restoration referenced scholarly studies on Mesoamerican archeology, their report’s extensive bibliography showing that they were working with the best resources of their day.1

Although RLDS efforts were optimistic, and produced what I might call false positives, in the final decades of the twentieth century the RLDS Church became disillusioned with the task of proving the Book of Mormon true through archeological digs. This sort of endeavor is still undertaken privately by some conservative members who make pilgrimages to Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru to connect sacred stories with places and ruins. But any appetite of church leadership to support the Book of Mormon archeologically has long since disappeared—as they came to realize that seeking to prove faith through science only brings up more problems than it solves, and it fails to add depth to our spiritual formation or understanding of the true value of scripture.

RLDS efforts to prove scripture archeologically illuminate a larger intellectual tension in our common Restoration ideology. This tension can be found in the idealization of worldly ignorance (D&C 35:13 LDS; D&C 34:4a CofC), while at the same time several sections of the Doctrine & Covenants also instruct us to “seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning even by study, and also by faith” (D&C 88:118 LDS; D&C 85:36a CofC). This tension also shows up in the Gospel Topics Essays, but with a new twist. As apologetics, the essays are not on an unbiased quest for scientific or historic truth. Rather, they have a dual mission: to create space for faith-based claims to be possibly reasonable, but also to remove them from any critical inquiry that is not faith affirming in its conclusions. But apologetics and unintended consequences often go hand-in-hand, frustrating the intent of apologetic authors wishing to promote faith.

Formerly, apologetics had serious detractors among Mormon leaders—Boyd K. Packer specifically—who felt that contending with critics only validated the critics and distracted the church.2 But now the LDS Church has officially entered into apologetics, and the results are interesting mainly because religious beliefs have different standards for truth than do scientific inquiries. Using historic or scientific lenses to either prove or disprove faith-based claims misses the point of both religion and science. And sometimes it creates monsters like the 27-million-dollar Creation Museum in Kentucky, frequented by unbending scriptural literalists, with state-of-the-art displays of humans riding dinosaurs.

I’m not saying that the faithful can’t employ scholarship, or that scholars can’t analyze religion (God forbid!). But everyone needs to understand two things: first, critical, academic inquiries may reveal things deemed heretical, embarrassing, or unnecessary by true believers, but that doesn’t necessarily undermine the scholarship.3 And second, its faith-based claims place Mormonism (and other religions) outside the realm of falsifiability. Fittingly, in a 2004 reflection titled “I Don’t Have a Testimony of the History of the Church,” Davis Bitton remarks that the First Vision, the translation of the Book of Mormon, the restoration of priesthood, and the spiritual manifestations at the Kirtland Temple dedication all “are ‘historical’ events, events that occurred in historical time. But not a single one of them is subject to proof or disproof by historians.”4 Or, as Wolfgang Pauli succinctly put it, “It is not only not right, it is not even wrong!”

Consider Karl Barth’s letter to his niece studying evolution, in which he asked, “Has no one explained to you in your seminar that one can as little compare the biblical creation story and a scientific theory like that of evolution as one can compare, shall we say, an organ and a vacuum-cleaner—that there can be as little question of harmony between as of contradiction?”5

The “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies” essay raises similar concerns as Barth had over his niece’s seminar on evolution. For example, although the essay states that “the primary purpose of the Book of Mormon is more spiritual than historical,” the essay still includes methodologies never designed to determine religious value or truth. Ironically, such apologetics privilege science even as they dismiss it. The essay affirms that the Book of Mormon cannot be disproven through DNA despite the claims of critics such as Simon Southerton; but also that the Book of Mormon cannot be proven true with DNA, either—that the claims of defenders like Rodney Meldrum are, at this point, “speculative.” “In short,” the essay states, “DNA studies cannot be used decisively to either affirm or reject the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon.”

A close reading reveals the apologetic driving the essay, that the Book of Mormon can never be disproven by DNA, but without closing the door that it someday could be proven thereby. It rejects any and all conclusive studies that invalidate the Book of Mormon, and all present studies that defend the Book—not because DNA and scientific inquiry falls outside of the realm of spiritual truth, but because migrations and population bottlenecks make it impossible to use DNA as critics and defenders have used it. Obscuring their claim that the primary truth of the Book is spiritual versus historic, the essay employs science to shut the door to any scientific conclusions that are not faith affirming, and cautiously protects itself against being burned by zealous but “premature” (rather than misguided) defenders.

Although I might find the DNA essay highly problematic for not demonstrating a proper demarcation between science and religion, some might see the Essays overall as progressive—an apologetic shift that is willing to expand the dialogue, admit difficult issues, and release historic texts. Certainly, elements of the new LDS historical climate are refreshing, like the Joseph Smith Papers Project. The Essays, however, can also be interpreted as an attempt at co-opting once-fringe debates. And that co-option can create less room for reasoned, intellectual dialogue in the Restoration, not more.

The Essays intend to do away with wrestling with difficult issues—which don’t even need to be “put on the shelf” because the questions have now been officially addressed and resolved. While this might be seen as pastoral, I have witnessed many who were instantly exasperated that historically problematic issues had been correlated and unconvincingly sanitized as perfectly normal or explainable.

The Essays are not an effort to reach out to those on the fences, but to gain institutional control over nebulous territory and reinforce boundaries.

The result may be a greater openness to formerly taboo subjects and the bringing of more data to light, but the Essays are aimed directly at the choir—completely unlike traditional apologetics which seeks to make religious claims reasonable to outsiders (and borderlanders), and to create harmony between scripture and science or natural philosophy. Instead, the Essays are reactionary, the possible beginnings of an anti-intellectual retrenchment—a less inclusive approach to Mormonism. They will likely lead to more disaffection on the fringes and a more rigid Mormonism at the center.

 

The Gospel Topics Essays illustrate that change is occurring within Mormonism. One might argue that the Essays involve the greatest bottom-up impact—or fringe impact­—ever experienced in the LDS Church: it seems that borderlanders and critics are finally being heard in the top echelons. Scholar of religion Manuel A. Vásquez notes that religions are revitalized by and in response to actors at the margins. Ironically, this is especially true when controlling elites seek to “normalize grassroots practices and beliefs and to impose orthodoxy” through co-option of those practices and discipline of the actors.6

Discipline and co-option, even if done to reinforce the institution, introduces innovations into mainstream discourse. Vásquez’s conclusion is informative: “Thus, unintended effects of disciplinary practices are often the vehicle through which institutions generate change.”7 In our specific instance, discipline might include (but is not limited to) literal church discipline, but involves all efforts to shape and control the narrative in response to institutionally unauthorized innovations. And although Mormonism projects itself as keeper of eternal truths, and as being unmoved by cultural trends or the voices at the fringe, the Essays and recent policy shifts reveal that even Mormonism responds and innovates fast enough for people to notice.

To be fair, all religions, Mormonism included, have the very difficult job of being both relevant and ancient. They are often faced with contemporary realities and sacred texts that do not always match. The task of keeping the faith has only become more difficult today when alternative—if not counter—narratives abound. As some in the Reorganization have joked (and cried!), “We have all the answers to the questions no one asks anymore.”

One way of looking at the Restoration is that it began as a retrofit of a biblical worldview to the American frontier and its questions.8 But today, few people seem concerned with “Where all did these Indians come from?,” and the answers the Book of Mormon provided to frontier Americans actually become liabilities as our knowledge of DNA and migration studies expands. New realities might encourage either apologetics, or serious reassessment of the role and value scripture has provided historically (rather than its historical origins). Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, honest, faithful dwelling with a difficult text or belief can produce new names, new meanings, new life. Indeed, the RLDS Church has a new name, Community of Christ, because of such wrestling.

An apologetic is certainly a way of wrestling. The new approach by the institution gives up a long-standing belief that dispersion by Book of Mormon peoples was hemispheric. In its place is a limited-geography model that has Lehi’s family arriving on a continent already populated with hundreds of thousands if not millions (straining the text in the process to support the new setting).

With this new approach, the LDS Church maintains the possibility of the Book of Mormon being historic. But, what does it sacrifice in the process? For example, what of all the Mormon Polynesians and Indigenous Peoples of the Americas who have had Lamanite as a central concept in their identity, as affirmed by presidents of the LDS Church since 1831? The limited-geography model, affirmed by the “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies” essay strips this identity from them, moving them a step away from the Mormon narrative and removing a foundational piece of their self-concept. It would seem that this approach is willing to lose a battle for the sake of winning a war, but there are faithful Saints who had no idea they were going to be sacrificed on the apologetic altar for more fundamental and defensible faith claims.

As if losing all the Lamanites wasn’t bad enough, here’s where conflating scientific and religious approaches to truth becomes really problematic for a tradition built off of new scripture. Current scientific standards of historicity would be completely foreign to scripture writers as a test of their scripture’s truth, Joseph Smith included. Scripture writers weren’t trying to meet today’s standards—they were working with their own, removed from us in time period, culture, and religious worldview. By conflating these incompatible approaches to truth, the “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies” essay insists that the Book of Mormon has to be historically true in order to be spiritually true—and defenses of that truth are all based on the criteria of current-day, Western, post-Enlightenment, scientific standards.

This bar, which the writer(s) of the Book of Mormon never took into consideration, is an unnecessary position to take for any and all scripture, which only further alienates honest, intelligent Latter-day Saints who have sincere questions, and who might find themselves without any breathing room. Trying to tighten the reins, and sanitizing or explaining away thorny issues through incompatible approaches to truth, is among the key drivers of disaffection, and can result in a religion that is increasingly inaccessible for many outsiders and even insiders as time and knowledge march on.

But, this kind of retrenchment at the top can have unintended consequences further down. For example, a former member of farms (once the quasi-official apologetic arm of the Church) now refers to the Maxwell Institute (the new iteration of farms) as “Sunstone South.”9 With LDS leaders and departments at the apologetic helm (rather than farming it out to farms), scholars at byu are freer to examine Mormonism without the responsibility of defending it or making facts conform to faith—they get to explore.

An RLDS credo was “All Truth.” It was this intellectual priority, combined with honest scholarship, that led to a reassessment of the Book of Mormon, and a reassessment of the true faithfulness and value of scripture overall.10

Albeit in different ways, the terrain in the LDS Church is changing, too. The LDS Church of today is vastly different from that of the 1850s—even the 1950s. Although the Essays are performing a conservative function, this new concentration of apologetics at the top may also be providing more room for innovation elsewhere—unintended consequences resulting in evolution. Are we watching one of Mormonism’s pivotal moments occur? What will LDS Church discourse look like in 2050? I highly suspect that the answer will be rooted in the dynamics that grow from this new apologetic climate embodied in the Gospel Topics Essays; and rooted in responses by grassroots actors over scientific and historical standards being appropriated to defend religious truths.

 

NOTES

 

  1. Report of the Committee on American Archaeology Appointed by the General Conference of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 1894 (Lamoni, IA: Herald Publishing House, 1910), https://books.google.com/books?id=PXYoAAAAYAAJ (accessed 18 August 2015).
  2. John-Charles Duffy, “Defending the Kingdom, Rethinking the Faith: How Apologetics is Reshaping Mormon Orthodoxy,” Sunstone (May, 2004), 24, https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/pdf/132%2022-55.pdf (accessed 18 August 2015).
  3. In 1981, Boyd Packer gave an often-demonized talk to members of the LDS Church Education System entitled “The Mantle is Far, Far Greater than the Intellect,” https://si.lds.org/bc/seminary/content/library/talks/ces-symposium-addresses/the-mantle-is-far-far-greater-than-the-intellect_eng.pdf (accessed 26 August 2015). In it, he gives the famous line: “Some things that are true are not very useful.” It is clear that Packer intends for Church employees and their teachings to first and foremost promote faith. The inference is that historical facts should be vetted and shaped around this standard, or discarded. I hardly fault him for his understanding of sacred history, although I note the anti-intellectualism: faith is placed first as the object of study, not the pursuit of knowledge as an end unto itself, without any other considerations. On the other end of the spectrum, for an academic approach, see Bruce Lincoln’s “Theses on Method,” in Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 8 (1996): 225–27, available online at http://religion.ua.edu/thesesonmethod.html (accessed 26 August 2015).
  4. Davis Bitton, “I Don’t Have a Testimony of the History of the Church”, farms Review 16 no. 2 (2004), 337–64, http://publications.maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/fullscreen/?pub=1459&index=17 (accessed 26 August 2015).
  5. Robert A. Cathey, “Three Christian ‘Cosmologists’: Karl Barth, Langdon Gilkey, and Kathryn Tanner,” Festschrift in Honor of Charles Speel, ed. Thomas J. Sienkewicz and James E. Betts (Monmouth, IL: Monmouth College, 1997) http://department.monm.edu/classics/Speel_Festschrift/cathey.htm (accessed 26 August 2015).
  6. Manuel A. Vásquez, “Historicizing and Materializing the Study of Religion: The Contribution of Migration Studies,” Immigrant Faiths: Transforming Religious Life in America, eds. Karen I. Leonard, et al. (New York: Altamira Press, 2006), 222.
  7. Ibid.
  8. The same could be said of Christianity at large. Dana L. Robert points out that Christianity adapted from a “Hebrew to a Greco-Roman milieu, and then from a Mediterranean to a European framework,” and is now shifting “below the equator.” Dana L. Robert, “Shifting Southward: Global Christianity since 1945,” The Study of Evangelism: Exploring a Missional Practice of the Church, eds. Paul W. Chilcote and Laceye C. Warner, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008), 130.
  9. William Hamblin, “This in from Sunstone South,” Enigmatic Mirror, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/enigmaticmirror/2014/10/27/this-in-from-sunstone-south/ (accessed 26 August 2015).
  10. See “Scripture in Community of Christ,” https://www.cofchrist.org/scripture-in-community-of-christ and D&C 163:7, http://www.cofchrist.org/doctrine-and-covenants-section-163 (both accessed 26 August 2015).