I’m an Apologist
My most read posts in the past include a review of An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, a personal response to the Letter to a CES Director, and a series of posts exploring the science of stylometry as it applies to the Book of Mormon. In each of these I took a decidedly apologetic stance.
Because of these posts I have found a few people who really share my Mormonism. That is a true joy. Progressive believers are a numerically rare breed. Progressive, literal believers are even fewer, and I don’t live near any of them–at least not any who are out. I live in a loving community that welcomes my differences, but we all know that isn’t quite the same thing as feeling safe at home. But there have been others who have embraced my apologies to support much more conservative Mormonism. I want to warn you–you are inoculating with the live virus.
What I Defend
I love Mormonism. I hope that people will say of me, like Brigham Young said of my ancestor, Orson Pratt, that if I were cut up into 1 inch pieces, every one of them would cry out, “Mormonism is True! Mormonism is True! Mormonism is True!” It is far from guaranteed that this will be the case in my old age, but there are truths of Mormonism that I probably can’t help believing, and I use (or misuse) science, philosophy, and logic to justify these beliefs. Here are a few:
- God. I believe in God. I believe in a God who is a glorified man. I think this is a scientifically plausible, and perhaps likely, God. I believe that other conceptions of God (including His absence) are some subset of arbitrary, unscientific, improbable, pessimistic, or hopeless.
- Eternal Progression. God is not a static, all-powerful, unknowable being, but one who progressed to where he is, and one who continues to grow in glory eternally.
- Eternal Gender. My arguments support the ideas of Heavenly Parents, of God having a father and mother, and of our potential to become Gods. They give reason to expect increased specialization of roles as we move into Godhood, consistent with specialization of roles between men and women. It’s science and philosophy creating a decidedly Mormon picture of God.
- The Creation. I reconcile a semi-literal view of scriptural creation with some important science about creation and evolution. In fact, evolution is a fundamental component of my religious conception of the cosmos.
- Agency. Agency is a fundamental property of existence in the universe/multiverse that I argue for.
- The Fall. My picture of Godhood practically necessitates a stage of existence separated from God without sure knowledge of His existence. Is there no other way? Nope. Well, not that I’ve been able to imagine.
- Atonement. I believe the atonement of Christ is essential for our salvation. There is no way around it, and there is no other way. The alternatives lead to destruction or nihilism. We can’t become Gods without Christ.
- Covenant. Covenants are essential to salvation. We must show ourselves willing to enter relationships with one another and with God, and to work to build a Zion that we don’t know for certain will ever be realized, acting in hope, faith, and trust that others will do the same and that Zion may yet be built.
- Revelation. If the God my arguments arrive at is real, then revelation is extremely likely. The chance that God couldn’t or wouldn’t communicate with His children is small and nearly absurd.
- Charity. Charity truly never faileth in the cosmos I’ve generated through science and argumentation. It is the primary virtue in this life we lead. Without love, no other virtues benefit us in the end. Love is the purpose of this life.
- The Historical Book of Mormon. The stylometric characteristics of the text of the Book of Mormon appear more like a translation from a multiply authored source than like any other proposed alternative.
With this list I may not have provided a defense of all of Mormonism, but it’s a pretty substantial list of Mormon truth claims. I stand by it. While I have questions that remain, and I continue to examine particular details that I have reason to suspect are incomplete or incorrect, nothing in my ongoing readings or in the numerous responses I have had to my writings makes me expect major revisions. That’s a pretty comforting intellectual position, and I like sharing it. I’m glad when others find strength in it.
It’s true. I defend basic beliefs of Mormonism that many, many Mormons consider important, and I provide reasoning that is supported (you can decide if the support is sound or not) by philosophy, science, and logic. I give reasons for the hope that is in us, and that makes us feel good about the things we already believe–me included. Occasionally it gives unbelievers pause (or so a few have told me) to say, “I could see how someone believes like you do. I might even want to live in a cosmos like you describe . . . if I could believe.” Yet since we are all inclined to see what we want (and are prepared) to see, I want to explicitly point out some of the dangers to typical LDS beliefs that you are risking when you adopt my apologetic defenses of faith. The connections may not be clear, but fortunately or unfortunately, most of my beliefs come as an interconnected package. If you try to split one part out, there is a good chance the reasons for other parts will begin to unravel. I’d love to help you see these connections, but for now you get a list. Read the links and ask me specific questions, or just enjoy whatever thoughts and questions come to you as you review this web of thought:
- God. God is a glorified human, or transhuman, or posthuman. This God is limited in ways that affect our daily religious life. He is within the grasp of humanity, with time and cooperative work. He can be mimicked, with or without belief. This God is just one among many. He got where he is by being one of the fastest reproducers in the cosmos. God’s positive attributes are the result of evolution and the environmental forces.
- Eternal Progression. God evolved to where He is. He shares ancestry with Lucifer, and even with cosmic amoebas. He can cease to be relevant. He can cease to be good. He can’t stop learning and growing. There is no arriving at godhood. There is only a never ending journey to explore the even bigger infinity of what may be. God doesn’t know anywhere close to everything, and never will. Eternal rest just means God’s rest, not a stopping place.
- Eternal Gender. Heavenly Mother? Very real. Worth just as much as Heavenly Father. And it gets worse. There will be eternally lesbian and gay people. And bisexual people. For one thing, these aren’t scientifically speaking “gender”. For further discussion you will have to go elsewhere. Here’s a great talk on Mormonism and Gender from Rosalynde Welch at the 2016 Mormon Transhumanist Association conference that is a pretty faithful starting place for thinking about this gender mess we find in Mormon theology. It’s logically very difficult to embrace my apologetic reasoning and deny women the priesthood or do anything but welcome LGBTQ individuals who are seeking Christ–whether they are celibate or not. In fact, I find reasons to condemn their exclusion and to believe we are falling short of Zion as long as we continue these practices.
- The Creation. We most likely live in a universe created through evolutionary processes at the deepest levels. We reveal God as we learn science whether we believe in God or not. We learn to be like God as we increase our knowledge and our technological power. We are bound by the limits of our creation, and God is also bounded by his creation. If you want to think you can be morally good while ignoring the findings of science, or want an omnipotent and omniscient God (even simply effectively omni-), then my apologetics are not a good defense.
- Agency. While agency is fundamental to nature, most of the choices we like to call agency really aren’t choices at all. Agency cannot be defined as what we do now, but must be viewed as a state of being in which we have only the slightest influence over the course of the now. Mostly we are preprogrammed by previous choices, most of which were never part of our conscious control. Agency is real, but what you think it is is most likely an illusion.
- The Fall. While the Fall is most likely real, and this life is most likely a test. Consequently, we can only prove God’s existence by becoming Gods ourselves, and it isn’t necessary to hold any particular set of theological beliefs to be saved. We do have to show that we love. People will be saved without ever becoming Mormon, and lots of Mormons will not be saved. This is no new concept to Mormons, but my apologetics require believing it in ways that go beyond what most people are thinking when they share it in Sunday School.
- Atonement. I find no justification for magical atonement. No cosmic scales of justice to balance. No magical undoing of past wrongs. Simply the willingness of every being who would be a God to enter into the unavoidable pain of eternal relationships. Christ is essential, and so is everyone else.
- Covenant. Covenants are essential to godhood, with atonement as the greatest covenant. We will build Zion together despite our differences–or perhaps because of them. Yet ordinances are only a vehicle for covenant. They provide community connections that covenant can’t do without, but my apologies provide no grounds to privilege LDS ordinances over any others that accomplish the same covenant ends. While not denying a special LDS connection with God, I find no scientific, philosophical, or logical grounds for denying special connections with the divine to many other groups. And I find many reasons to equate LDS institutional structures and authority with other, entirely secular, institutions, or with the institutions of presumed false religions. LDS institutions behave too much like any other large organization to justify such privilege.
- Revelation. I personally believe God communicates at times with people, but my apologetic framework requires numerous cautions or caveats. Revelation can never be conclusively proven. Most of what people claim as revelation is easily explained as non-religious, psychological phenomena. What remains can always be explained without reference to God (I’m not commenting on how well). When revelation happens, it is limited in both its reception and interpretation by our limits, biases, and prejudices–no matter who gets it. Most revelation is mundane and quotidian, even for our inspired leaders. It is a rare mind that can even conceive of the questions that allow for truly new revelations. Our institutional structures resist revolutionary revelation. This perspective paints a picture of a church that is 99.9% human and maybe 0.1% divine. Other churches or groups may do a better job on the human part, even if they have less of the divine. Is it worth staying Mormon with those percentages? From my perspective, the answer is yes, but following my logic you may understand why others conclude differently. From my perspective, it’s a picture where the divine exists in all of humanity, not just 0.1%, but Mormonism is still worth it.
- Charity. Obedience is not the first principle of heaven–not even obedience to God. It is only virtuous in subordination to love. Obedience that does not foster love will damn us. Of course, this love is not simply an emotion. It includes deep empathy, but also includes the willingness to do what is needed to help others be exalted. So showing love is complex, but it is never subordinate to obedience.
- The Historical Book of Mormon. Nephi and Moroni were real people. Real people. So was Joseph. They messed up God’s word in the Book of Mormon just like they said they did. So we are morally obligated to wrestle with the scriptures and not simply accept their flawed and incomplete understanding of reality as the final word. We have to take seriously the scholarship that demonstrates prophetic limitations. We may have in our hands tangible evidence of God’s action in the world (for those who believe God might exist), but it is primarily a human work. Can it bring us to close to God? I hope so. I rely on it. Is it the most correct book on earth? Perhaps, but I’m not sure what that means. For my stylometric defense of a translated, historical Book of Mormon to stand, prophets have to be mostly human and a little bit prophet–even when they are writing inspired scripture. That’s the historical book stylometry supports. To use my defense of Joseph’s story requires letting go of many comforting divine certainties. It requires second guessing the plain words of the Book of Mormon, and using all the tools at our disposal to judge what is right and what is the weakness of men. We aren’t off the hook for anything–even if it’s written in plain English in the Book of Mormon.
I have defended LDS beliefs, but as you can see these defenses come at a cost. There is no rest, and little certainty, in this worldview that scientifically defends Mormonism. There are a lot of reasons to trust both God and others, including LDS leaders, and to persevere in the face of difficulty and doubt, but there is no room to relinquish personal moral responsibility–even to the servants of God. Apologetics are a dangerous road. If they preserve your previous Mormonism intact, your arguments are probably flawed or poorly informed. If they change you, there is no guarantee you will like the changes–or that your family or friends will. Yet the glory of God is intelligence, and while we are here to love, knowledge is required to choose the most loving actions.
I know there are defenses (and criticisms) of Mormonism that differ from mine. I even find some of them logical. I hope I have given you a glimpse of the interconnectedness of my apologetics. It’s easy to make mistakes in this endeavor, but mine is not the kind of approach that lets you pick and choose freely which arguments you adopt and which you discard. Our choices are constrained by deciding to give reasons for the faith that is in us, and claiming science, philosophy, and logic as the foundations of our reasons. You can’t show a multi-authored Book of Mormon without recognizing the tribalism, racism, and sexism of its prophets and the limitations of God. You can’t have a material, evolved God and claim sound reason in denying the priesthood to women or marriage to Lesbians and Gays. There may be other ways to have your cake and eat it, too, but I don’t have one for you. So take care in following me too closely. The results of inoculation with my vaccine may not be what you were after. But I think it helped me, and I do love good company.
Jonathan writes: “Apologetics are a dangerous road. If they preserve your previous Mormonism intact, your arguments are probably flawed or poorly informed.”
I feel I am fairly well acquainted with LDS scholarly apologetics in a variety of fields. Yet my understand of the gospel is (I feel) in unity and accordance with unanimous position of modern prophets and apostles. My previous “Mormonism” not only remains intact, but amplified and enriched. I guess my reasoning, though, is probably just flawed and poorly informed.
Jonathan writes: “I hope I have given you a glimpse of the interconnectedness of my apologetics. It’s easy to make mistakes in this endeavor, but mine is not the kind of approach that lets you pick and choose freely which arguments you adopt and which you discard.”
In other words, the only way that God hasn’t evolved according to the manner of reasoning that you have adopted, or that God isn’t limited in the way you understand, or that prophets aren’t racist, sexist, and tribalistic in the ways you understand, or that women shouldn’t be denied the priesthood, or that gay and lesbian marriages shouldn’t be ecclesiastically prohibited or seen as immoral–the only way that all of these things can’t be the way that you think they should be is if one is eclectically arbitrary or biased in their reasoning.
I think that for me, the types of issues and positions that you feel you have been compelled by reason or logic to take certain stances on, are hardly the types of issues where one should feel logically compelled at all. That seems to be the great gulf and divide between our worldviews.
Personal revelation informs me to trust modern prophets and apostles on these issues–issues that my best logic and reasoning tell me are rife with epistemological uncertainty. God calls prophets and apostles to be moral leaders. A major component of their calling is to help God’s children identify and avoid sin. That is the predominate narrative in the scriptures that you and I believe are sent from God and are historically authentic.
To me it seems quite logical to trust personal impressions and spiritual experiences that confirm the unanimous teachings and position of modern prophets and apostles–especially when it involves moral issues that logic alone is hardly equipped to navigate with any degree of certainty whatsoever?
Thanks for taking the time to come read this. I can see how you take offense at the way you interpreted the conjunction of statements. I think there is another way to interpret them that was the intended message.
First off, I have reason to believe that your studies have changed your beliefs. They have not changed them in the same ways mine have changed me, but I apologize for implying that the change should be to believing exactly what I believe. I do not think that. I only think that accepting the sum of my apologetics leads to belief like mine. There are numerous apologetic threads that vary from subtly to significantly different from mine that lead to different logical states of belief (within the limits of evidence, including personal experience).
As to the rest of your comment, I hope that with this clarification we would be able to resolve other disagreements amicably.
I was certainly not offended by your remarks. I simply disagreed with the perceived implications of some of your ideas.
After rereading your post, I recognize I probably did read too much into your comment about how apologetics will change us. However, your phrasing was a little strong. Everything fundamental about my Mormonism (which is a fundamental and comprehensive summary of my faith) has remained intact. But, yes, certainly exposure to apologetics has changed me in some ways–which was your point.
My intent was simply to demonstrate, to a small degree, that there are approaches to these issues that utilize sound logic and reasoning without making some of the compromises that you imply are unavoidable.
It’s interesting. I’ve been coming to many of these same understandings as I try to understand religion, the universe, and my place within all of it. One of the things I appreciate the most about Mormonism that it gives us the framework to proceed scientifically through all kinds of existential questions.
Also, as an adult with a degree in history and another in law, I’m even more convinced when reading the Book of Mormon that it is an actual translation of an historical work. You can see Mormon’s fingerprints and bias over all sorts of things in the parts that he is condensing. It makes me want to get my hands all over his primary sources because I just know that there is so much that got left out.
I’m not super-connected with the Mormon community-at-large so I didn’t know that I wasn’t alone in having a more, shall we say, avant garde and evolving understanding of Mormon doctrine. Looks like I’m a Mormon Apologist. Good to know.
I embrace the name apologist, knowing that it comes with all sorts of messy connotations. It is by no means a homogeneous group, and our intentions and desires vary greatly. But I do love Mormonism. I’m glad to hear that others see translation in the Book of Mormon, too, for many different reasons. It gives me more confidence in my beliefs.
Hi Jonathan, this is a little tangential but I wondered if in considering BoM translation theories you have given much thought to the Moroni-as-translator theory? I think it could potentially work well with your view if Mormonism.
I have seen a brief reference to this. Please expand on this theory. Mormon handed some plates over to Moroni around 400 AD. Then what?
Is this the theory that Moroni translated the records into English and Joseph wrote down the English? My only comment is that the Book of Mormon looks like a translation, to me. Who the translator was is not clearly defined by the evidence I have examined, but it looks an awful lot like the language used is consistent with a 19th century translator relying on 16th-19th century phrases (mostly 19th century pseudobiblical).
I think the idea is that Moroni worked out an English translation on the other side of the veil (I’ve no idea what physical form that took – perhaps a manuscript as he apparently has a physical body). Moroni then uses the translation he worked out on his side of the veil to dictate to Joseph via the seer stone for his scribe (typically Oliver) to create a version on our side of the veil. The seer stone in essence acts as a portal through the veil to allow Moroni to spiritually communicate with Joseph.
I know that sounds wild. But we really have no idea what work angels are doing/can do on the other side of the veil.
We know from Joseph Smith-History that the post-mortal Moroni learned English, perhaps simply so that he could communicate with Joseph, but perhaps also so that he could translate the gold plates himself. I suppose when he learned English and what books he studied (KJV Bible?) would influence what the translation looked like. It may seem strange to think of Moroni sat at a desk studying the Bible and learning English and then working out an English translation of the gold plates. But I think that’s just because maybe we don’t imagine that’s what angels do. Perhaps we think angels receive knowledge by some divine endowment. But I prefer the idea of angels having to study and learn rather than God waving a wand and now Moroni knows English.
Intriguingly, the D&C say that Moroni was given the keys of the Book of Mormon (see D&C 27:5). Perhaps these keys also entailed the responsibility of creating the English-language translation of the gold plates, which he then communicated to Joseph via the Urim and Thummim/seer stone.
I first read this idea by Roger Terry who discusses it briefly at the end of his review of Gardner’s book on translation for the Maxwell Institute.
I suppose my short answer is this: the Moroni as translator theory is inherently untestable. I believe that every translation model (divine or not) involves at least one miraculous occurrence, but some are bigger than others. I like Joseph as translator better because it feels more natural to me. The language and stories fit comfortably with a picture of Joseph translating from a different language into his own attempt at a pseoudo-biblical idiom. It should be possible to further test if the human translator model is plausible, even though it will never be provable, but there are no grounds for even testing what characteristics an angelic translation would be expected to have. It could be true, but it increases the amount of the story that is outside of the realm of scientific testing, and I’m interested in decreasing that amount. I want to see God in everything, not just in the unexplained.
That is a not so nutshell description of my bias.
Well, it’s wild. I’ll give you that. Not ridiculous, but verification of this theory is going to be difficult. Moroni’s post-mortal understanding in 19th Century English of Reformed Egyptian and Hebrew? Good luck with that. And I’m not sure what this solves, exactly. Joseph Smith uses the Urim and Thummim/seer stone to produce an English translation of the Book of Mormon. What difference does it make whether Moroni is feeding Joseph an English translation or that “something else” is spurring the English translation? Makes it more interesting, maybe, but then what?
Terry mentions this theory in his review because Gardner cites and dismisses it in his book. Gardner got it from a Carl Cox. Terry thinks there might be something to it. Here is Terry’s footnote: “Carl T. Cox, “The Mission of Moroni,” in three parts on Cox’s website. The relevant text is primarily in part 3, found at http://www.oscox.org/stuff/bom3.html.”
While we’re at it, here’s a pet peeve of mine. On his website, Cox beefs up his argument by adducing the 1897 recollections of an 88-year woman concerning her girlhood at the Whitmer’s and what she says she saw 70 years earlier. I wish I had a buck for every source I’ve seen for early Mormon history or doctrine that’s the recollection of someone who waited until the 1880’s plus to became so forthcoming. Something in the water? I wish some enterprising scholar would do a study of every source for early LDS history that comes solely from the reminiscences from the 1880’s or after.
Sorry. Here’s a better link: http://www.oscox.org/stuff/bom3.html
I appreciate your ability to explain so much in a lovingly patient way. My approach is more like, to say gay people can’t get married is insanelying abusive. Not sure I understand what it means still to be an apologist. Is it to say ‘yea, we’re clearly screwing things up’ ? If that’s the case, count me in.
Jonathan, here’s a movie I recommend for you. It’s called Midnight Special, and it’s science fiction but more geared toward character. It’s about a young boy who needs to get back to where he’s from, which turns out to be a world that lies on top of this one. People live there and watch us, but the two don’t interact directly. The movie pays off in the end because that parallel world becomes visible. I’m not saying the spirit world looks like this, but the film does produce a sense of wonder at another world concentric with this one even though we don’t “bump into” anything associated with it. Anyway, I think you’d enjoy it.