The first thing I would like you to do is to fill out your little report thing here. While I have been sitting in the back, I have already filled out at least 20 or 30, marking a 10 by my name. So you can do at least five or six each of you so get at it and you can do while listening to me or not listening to me it doesn’t much matter.
I have to say that first of all I am not going to use any PowerPoint, I apologize for that and there is going to be nothing new in this. This is simply going to be my ruminations. Yes, you can actually have light, I mean that way I’ll see you when you fall asleep, but I am just going to be thinking about some things that it’s obvious that other people have been thinking about because some of what I am going to be saying has already been said in one form or another during this conference. So that may be significant. Who knows? Sort of like the brethren at General Conference: I am told there are very few assigned topics; when a theme emerges there is probably a reason for that.
My topic that I chose for this presentation I have called “Humble Apologetics” and basically I am offering myself as a model of that. I — no, really when I thought of the title of Humble Apologetics I thought of the apoplexy and cardiac arrest and indigestion that it would cause among many of my critics and I found that deeply gratifying so I went with the title, but as you will see I really am serious about the topic. I have chosen the title–the title is not original with me–it’s from a book that I think has already been referred to during this conference by John Stackhouse published by Oxford University Press under the title of Humble Apologetics and it really doesn’t draw on that book, although I have read the book. I read it some time ago and this is totally unrelated to that, at least, I think it is. Maybe if I go back to it I’ll find out that everything in it is plagiarized from that book, but I don’t think so.
So first a prologue: a verse that has struck me a lot recently (it always has really) for some reason 1 Nephi 11 has always caught my attention. I find a lot in it. I have written about it. I could write lot more about it, but this particular verse has always struck me or this particular passage: “And he said unto me: Knowest thou the condescension of God? And I said unto him: I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.”
What struck me about that is the humility, the modesty of Nephi’s claim, that here he is, he is a prophet. He is already by this point a prophet of some sort. He is receiving revelation and yet clearly he doesn’t understand everything. He doesn’t know everything and it seems to me that we need to remember always the constraints, the limitations of the knowledge that we have.
There have been illusions to this before and exhortations on this before in this conference about the idea of being modest in what we say and gentle in the way we say it. Again, this is going to seem odd coming from me, but I mean it. I think of an agonized colleague, a friend of mine that I had a conversation with just, oh, I don’t know, a couple of months ago, and I happen to know that he has gone through some really tough family situations with children and so on and yet he is a person who has been a really serious believer all his life and he has given a great deal of service as a bishop and in other callings in the church and he finally said to me, “You know, through it all,” he said, “I can only cling to one thing and that is the phrase, ‘the just shall live by faith’.” And he says, “That’s all I can go for, because there are times when the answers just don’t seem that obvious to me. I don’t understand why these things have happened. I don’t see always the evidence for the loving God, and so on, that I would like to see.”
And of course that’s an important theme in the scriptures. You will find that it originates in Habakkuk in the Old Testament, shows up also in Romans, “The just shall live by faith”. “The just shall live by his faith,” Habakkuk says. Clearly one of the lessons of the scriptures is that we walk by faith. We don’t necessarily know everything and there is a tendency on the part of lot of apologists, if we don’t know everything, to at least pretend that we do. So we always have an answer for every objection and we can nail down everything. We know the precise GPS coordinates of the Jaredite city of Lib and I think sometimes we just need to understand that we are not supposed to know everything and we may not have a clear answer for everything.
We may not know exactly what we are going to be doing. In 1st Nephi, you have the passage, another favorite of mine which is “I was led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do.” I remember when Harold B. Lee was called to the presidency of the Church he was asked what his plan was for the Church. He quoted that passage, “I don’t know. I don’t have a plan for the Church, but I will be led by the Spirit as Nephi was.”
Another phrase that’s often used in the description of the life of faith is that it’s a leap in the dark. Now I have sometimes thought that was too negative. It’s not all that dark, but it can be kind of dim sometimes. We don’t always know exactly what we are doing. We have to step out and trust. There is that the image in the Indiana Jones movie, which silly as it is, of stepping out. You know, you have to take the step and then it turns out, yeah, there is something to hold you up, but you have to take the step not knowing for sure where it is or what it’s going to be.
I think of Richard Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling. I think in some ways the part of that book that struck me the most was his depiction of Joseph in Missouri. We tend to think of Joseph Smith as this person who is in charge all the time. He always knows everything. He knows a lot more than he is giving out, which is probably true, but there are also areas where he didn’t know and Richard’s depiction of Joseph Smith in Missouri is that during the Missouri period, at least for a while, Joseph seems to be almost lost. He had received revelations, which he didn’t doubt, about what was going to happen in Missouri, but they didn’t happen, they didn’t come true the way he had pictured them, and so Joseph, for a while, seems to be almost passive. He is trying to figure out what’s going on. Richard says, if you read the accounts, (Joseph) there will be a group of horsemen going to visit someone, sure enough Joseph is in the group. We assume that he is the leader, but in fact he is not for some of those episodes. He is in the group riding along. He is not quite sure what’s going on here. He is genuinely perplexed.
If you read accounts of Joseph in Liberty Jail asking the Lord, “How long and what is going on?” That’s not play acting he is really, genuinely baffled, okay? So even the greatest prophet of this dispensation, maybe the greatest of all prophets, I don’t know, found himself lost and at sea because in this life we see through a glass darkly. Even prophets do. That anguished cry in Liberty Jail, I think is heartfelt and it’s not just literary pretense. If you have been to Liberty Jail, if you understand what the conditions were under which he was living there, that had to be absolutely agonizing, as the people outside on your account, in some ways, are being punished and mistreated and dying in the snow and being driven out of their homes, and you don’t understand why, because this was not the way it was supposed to go. So the cry of the agony is genuine.
When I write these notes sometimes I look at them now and I am mystified at the thought process that put one note after another. So you have to bear with me here. I have a note about a story that I wanted to tell. Here, I guess this is the point of it. Someone asked me for a copy of my speech. Believe me, I can’t understand it, so you know it would have been totally confusing to them.
No, I remember a friend of mine who unfortunately is now out of the church. I’ll come back to him. He has been instructive to me over the years for a number of reasons. A couple of you here may actually know him, but I am not going to name him. But he had an experience, years ago, as a missionary in Paris which has taught me something, possibly, about the nature of revelation and of prophets, though he was not a prophet. He had an experience when he was a missionary serving in Paris of having a very distinct dream, and in this dream he saw a street in a certain neighborhood in Paris, which he had never seen before, but he saw it so distinctly. He saw the street name. He saw the street. He saw an apartment on the street. He saw a specific apartment number, the number on the door. He saw the person within the apartment. He saw that person joining the church. He wrote this in his journal. He went out with his companion and they found the place and they knocked on that door and that person did join the church and this was an incredibly powerful, predictive dream.
Now, I have not only his account of that. He told it to me personally. Some years later (and like an idiot I didn’t write this down or write down the name of the person) I ran into his companion, by sheer chance, who began telling this story and I said, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, I have heard this story. Were you the companion with so and so?” And he said, “Yes, I was.” And he told the story and I said, “Then it’s absolutely true?” and he said, “Yeah, that’s exactly how it happened. That is precisely how it happened.”
But I remember talking with my friend about that and he said, “You know one of the striking things to me about it was that even though the dream was true, the way I wrote it down in my journal turned out to be not quite accurate. When it actually happened I saw that the dream was accurate, but my account of it was not quite accurate.” And he said that “It was quite different from how I had expected it to turn out. I mean, the end result was the person joining the church, but it was not the way I had pictured it, not the way I wrote it down, and I thought, ‘Okay, that’s got to be the way it often is, even for a prophet, to receive a revelation, to know something is going to come, but to not be absolutely clear how it’s going to work out.’” And so we develop expectations that are unrealistic, and when it actually comes true we say, “Oh, yes, that’s what it was. That’s the way it was supposed to happen, but it’s not the way I imagined it.” We have these pictures in our mind, and so it’s like, you know, even there, prophets (I am not a prophet but I try to read them from time to time. I try to understand what they see and what goes on.) and I think that must be the way it is. That we all are walking within our human limitations, even those who know much more than I do about things, and so we are, to an extent, left to figure things out for ourselves.
Nephi’s comment, “I know that God loves his children, but I don’t know the meaning of all things”, is really important to me. We often assume that members of the 12, the first presidency, understand and know everything. That it’s just all absolutely clear to them. I think there’s no evidence for that. They are told certain things. They are not told everything. God doesn’t give everything to anybody in mortality.
Think of the answer given to Job, when Job is questioning the Lord. I have often been told that Job is a meditation on the problem of evil and supplies an answer to the problem of evil. I have never seen the answer. I don’t get that. I don’t read the book of Job as an answer to the problem of evil. It poses the problem, but when Job actually confronts the Lord, what does the Lord do? The Lord shows him a display of power and basically says, “Who are you?” And this is one of the questions: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.”
Now, we use that often as a proof text for preexistence. What the Lord is really saying there is, “Who are you to ask me these questions? Do you know who I am? I am much more powerful than you are, I am much wiser than you are and you are, relatively speaking, nothing. You just don’t understand, so don’t ask.” You know? It’s not that nice, neat answer that you might be expecting if you read the book of Job. And Job’s response is, abasing himself, “I uttered that I understood not, things too wonderful for me which I knew not.” Now the answer often from the Lord is, “Just submit.” You know. Now we may say, “We’ll understand it someday,” and I think we will, but we won’t necessarily understand it now.
Well, why would the Lord do this? I think it’s partly because of what the philosopher, the British philosopher, John Hick, calls ‘epistemic distance’, the idea that God deliberately withholds things from us to allow us freedom. It’s very much what Latter Day Saints call, “the veil”, okay? This veil is dropped. We don’t know everything. We have a sense of things. We have a kind of feel for the way things are and ought to be, but we don’t know very clearly and so we are left in this life to walk by faith.
There is a passage in Kierkegaard that I think is relevant. This is from something else I am writing, so let me just quote what I had written. “If God were to reveal himself directly that revelation would be so overwhelming that it would destroy our freedom. The Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard expresses this point memorably via a parable about a king and a maiden in his philosophical fragments: ‘Given the enormous gulf in ranks, status, and wealth between them, how can the king reveal his love to a maiden of humble parentage without coercing and crushing her? His dilemma is that not to reveal oneself is the death of love (this quoting Kierkegaard), but to reveal oneself is the death of the beloved. The only choice open to the king is to court the maiden indirectly by descending to her level by taking on the character of a servant. However, this is no mere costume change. In order to be convincing as a servant, and not reveal his royal status, he must really act as a servant,’ and again I think of verse Nephi 11: “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” What does condescension mean there? When we hear the word condescension, we think of something negative. If I say of someone “He is really condescending,” that’s not meant as a compliment. But the way the term condescension was used in early 19th century American English was quite different.”
Condescension was the action of a person of high status voluntarily relinquishing that high status to come down to a lower estate as in the example of a king who comes down to dwell among his subjects. That is obviously a reference in one degree or another to the incarnation of Christ who gives up his status as the second member of the Godhead and comes down to live life as a Palestinian peasant in a poor, oppressed, subjugated region of the planet on our behalf to do something for us and to live among us. So that being like us he would know how to succor us because he knows what it’s like to be in our condition.
Now, my argument would be that clear proofs would destroy the plan of salvation. There’s a necessity for the veil. We have to be left here to where we don’t know but we sense and feel certain things. And the crux of the judgment, it seems to me, is not our assent to certain specific theological propositions. What it is is the revelation of what it is we really want and what we want to be. Do we hunger and thirst for goodness? Do we seek God? People who seek God, I think, will be rewarded, in this life and the next. People who don’t, who may be members of the Church or may not be members of the Church, will not be rewarded, because they don’t hunger and thirst after righteousness.
Well, the other concept that Hick talks about a lot is what he calls “eschatological verification.” That’s not to be confused with scatological verification, which I encountered a lot growing up in California. Eschatological verification, which means, at the end of time things will be verified, you will finally know, you will finally see. We will come to understand, we will know things. There are lots of examples of this in the scriptures. They do not promise that we will understand everything now.
Here is a passage in Malachi that I am really fond of and, again, we misinterpret it sometime, because it refers to something called ‘the Book of Remembrance’ and this is not the nice little thing that we do, you know the long little book with the picture of the temple on it. This is the divine book. This is what the Muslims refer to when they talk about what they call the Umm Al-Kitāb, the mother of the book, the celestial record that’s kept of everything. Listen to Malachi. It’s a dialog between people who were trying to follow him, genuine disciples of God, who were puzzled by the fact that wicked triumph. “Your words have been stout against me, saith the LORD. Yet ye say, What have we spoken so much against thee? Ye have said, It is vain to serve God: and what profit is it that we have kept his ordinance, and that we have walked mournfully before the LORD of hosts and now we call the proud happy. Yea, they that work wickedness are set up, yea, they that tempt God are even delivered. Then they that feared the LORD, spake often one to another: and the LORD hearkened, and heard it, and the book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the LORD, and that thought upon his name. And they shall be mine, saith the LORD of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him. Then shall ye return, and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth him not.”
All he is saying there is that yes, you will eventually see that the righteous are rewarded and the wicked are punished, but it’s for some end time it’s not going to happen right away necessarily. You won’t see it right away. It’s not going to be that clear. The wicked will seem to triumph and the righteous will seem to suffer. In the end time, in the eschaton time, at the end of the times, it will all be made good, but you have to trust me in the meantime.
If you read near-death experiences one of the most common reactions of the people is that they say, well, they had the near-death experience, suddenly everything made sense. They understood absolutely everything. It was all clear, but now that they are back they can’t remember it. They know it made sense, there was an order and a pattern to this, but it’s lost. It’s eluded them. That may be the veil dropping down again.
Again, in the Book of Habakkuk which is probably not often cited in LDS talks. There are wonderful phrases in it, but again it’s predicting eschatological knowledge. Everybody will understand things someday, not yet, for “the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” Or Isaiah “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea”, but it’s in some future time, the millennial time at the least. At the very least testimony doesn’t always come on our schedule, understanding doesn’t always come when we want it. The proper response to things that happen to us often is simply to say, “I’ll trust in the Lord that’s all I can do. I’ll hang on there’s nothing more I can do.”
Here’s Moroni at the close of the Book of Ether “And now I, Moroni, would speak somewhat concerning these things. I would show onto the world that faith is things which are hoped for and not seen. Wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.” And it comes from the Spirit, it doesn’t come from FAIR arguments or from Maxwell Institute arguments or from anything like that, it comes from the Spirit.
I think of Hugh Nibley, sort of the archetypal figure for, you know, the patron saint of FARMS, if you will. Nibley was — he wasn’t playing games but he wasn’t desperately trying to prove to himself that the gospel was true either. He already knew that, he knew that on quite other grounds and there were people, as I got to know him, there were people who I realized thoroughly misunderstood him. They really thought that this was all intellectual for him. One of the things that struck me most about Nibley as I got to know him was how deeply, seriously, spiritual he was and how deep and sincere his faith was and how in some ways very simple and child like it was. He was an absolute believer. So when he was doing these things with multiple languages and arguing for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon this was not some desperate attempt as critics will often depict it, to reassure himself that it was true. He knew it was true.
There is a story early in his life that settled one of his problems for him. Some of you know this he had a near-death experience early on. He was having doubts about the concept of life after death as a young man. He had to be rushed to the hospital because of a problem and he, in the course of the medical procedure, he swallowed his tongue and had out of body near-death experience. One of the things that struck him — of course as being Hugh Nibley he said, he realized when he was out of his body he could do math really well. Most of us wouldn’t be thinking about that, you know, but he said math was not his strong suit. I could do all sorts of fabulous calculations and just all sorts of wonderful things and he said he realized then that in the next life will be able to learn much faster than we do here. Knowledge will come to us really quickly. That’s not what this life is about. It’s important to learn but “the really important thing is to learn to repent,” he said, “in this life.” And so for him experiences like that, and he really had quite a list of them, not all near-death experiences, but revelatory experiences, as he regarded them. Those experiences were the basis of his testimony, not his academic work. Testimony comes from the Spirit and it can come, it comes to us all in very different ways. There is no one royal road to a testimony, but they don’t come necessarily from academic argument. Testimonies don’t come that way. Argument can help, there’s no question about it.
I think of a lady in Switzerland, when I was serving my mission there and I probably told this story before. I have commented to several people that I only have about three stories and I simply recycle them endlessly and this is one of my favorites. I may have told it here before, but I’ll tell it again because, what the heck you know, I am up here and you are not and so you can’t stop me. But I remember going out to a town as it was be a lot in the west of Switzerland, it was not a place that I was assigned and there was a lady there who had been investigating the church for seven years. This was not unusual in Switzerland. The Swiss don’t exactly leap quickly into new things and so she had had all the lessons over and over again. I mean she knew about the church and all that sort of thing.
Well, we chatted for — I don’t believe more than two minutes. I don’t remember anything about it except that I was introduced to her; I think I said hello and something about the weather. She was baptized the following week and she said it was the conversation with me that had done it now. I don’t tell you this to boast because I have not the faintest idea what happened there. I didn’t say anything insightful or brilliant, didn’t make an argument, didn’t do anything and yet it was something in the course of that conversation that after seven years got her join the church. I tell that story always to illustrate the fact that it’s not the missionary, because there are a lot of times out there on my mission when I thought, “Man, I am eloquent; man, I am persuasive.” You know, “How can they possibly resist this?” Not one single person that I thought that about ever joined the church, not one, never.
And this lady I go out and say, “Beautiful day isn’t it? Look at those clouds, sun is shining, really is nice,” boom, she is in to the font. I mean, I have no idea what happened there, but to me it’s a clear illustration that we will not argue people into the church. They will not come into the church certainly not solely because of our eloquence or the evidence, we can amass or something. That may help them to eliminate objections, it may help them to feel that it’s plausible, but the real way for people to come into the Church is to get that spiritual witness. And that can come, you know, “The spirit bloweth where it listeth” and we can’t control that. We can try to set up the conditions where it might happen, but it comes and it’s received according to someone else’s schedule, not ours.
Okay. So I have been suggesting that apologetics is not the be all and the end all. Should it be rejected? Should we do apologetics at all? Some for mysterious reasons to me think there is no value in it. They even see it as risible and objectionable to defend the faith. They simply have no intention of doing it. Maybe they object to apologetics because they themselves have abandoned their faith. I have seen people like that. Some seem to think, this is much the same thing, that apologetics is wrong because their faith can’t be defended. There simply isn’t defense possible. Some say that if it’s true it doesn’t need a defense. I hear that from critics, I have heard it a few times from believers, seems to me positively absurd. Innocent defendants, as in the case of FAIR, still need a defense, you know. You can’t just say, well, the truth rollout will out, because the truth in this world doesn’t always out. Sometimes the truth loses if the truth isn’t advocated, defended, argued for. Lots of true scientific theories have gone unaccepted for years until science was forced to accept them. Think of the ‘Theory of Continental Drift’ or for that matter the ‘Germ Theory of Disease’. There are other theories like that we now see as fundamental bedrock matters in the history of science, but they weren’t accepted initially even though the evidence for them was good. You have to argue for truth sometimes. The truth isn’t always obvious. Some seem to think their faith doesn’t need to be defended because there are no attacks on it. I trust the people who are here don’t suffer from that illusion.
But I have for years been told by people, you know, “You are wasting your time. Who attacks Mormonism? You know, come on, you can’t be serious.” There isn’t, whoever writes anti-Mormon stuff, no one ever reads it. It was really kind of nice in the “I told you so” sort of way to see the Mitt Romney campaign. There were people out there, including some very prominent people, who were just stunned at the vitriol that was directed against the Church and I just wanted to say, “Ha, ha, told you so.”
It reminds me of Robert Conquest. Some of you may have seen his book, the classic book on the great Ukrainian Terror-Famine. For years he was arguing about the millions of people had died under Stalin in the Ukraine. People said he was an anti-communist loon. He was a nutcase, and so on. When the Soviet archives were finally opened it turned out that he was a very, very close to the precise figure. He had put the story together just about right and so he was asked to write an introduction for this the new edition of his book called Harvest of Sorrow and I unfortunately can’t quote you the introduction that he wanted to suggest for it. It was, the sole text that he wrote for it was, ‘I Told You So, You *****’. I thought it was very eloquent, right to the point. But he had been marked for a long time, but he was right.
Well, in the case of anti-Mormonism, people here I think had a realistic sense for that, but a lot of members of the Church were shocked to find out there are actually people out there who don’t like us very much. They don’t. They will not elect a Mormon president, you know. They will not vote for somebody because, hey, you know, you’ve got be an evangelical to be President of The United States, you know. Like, well, anyway, I won’t go further on that one, a positively ludicrous sentiment, but anyway… but there are some that were critical of apologetics because they are concerned about the tone and method of apologetics and, hard as this is for me to say, I think we need to listen to them.
Now, I will be the first one to say that I think many of the accusations they make against apologists are simply flat out false. In many cases people say things about apologetics who have read nothing. They don’t know anything about the subject. They have heard something. There is a kind of ad hominem story going on out there about what apologetics is and how apologists behave and they are simply wrong.
Some years ago a colleague of mine wrote me — quite actually we were friends, we are still friends amazingly enough, but she wrote me a really strong message about something that has been published in the FARMS Review that she said was just vicious and it was an attack on someone and it was just uncalled for and I asked her if she had read it. Well, she hadn’t and so I wrote back to her and I am actually surprised our friendship survived this, when I just wrote back and I said, “Look I kind of suspect that when you were in Graduate School of University of Chicago they probably expected you to read text before you commented on them, am I wrong?” Anyway, long silence for a few months and since then we have gotten to be friendly again, but there is a lot of that. There is unfair criticism; I have to say there is.
Nevertheless, it’s never wrong to listen to your critics and try to learn from them and to the extent that tone has gotten in the way of what we have wanted to say we need to watch it. So my answer is simply “No, apologetics should not be rejected.” I mean I think of Elder Ballard’s talk that’s been quoted here about the need for people to get on to the internet and advocate the gospel in a venue that we have here-to-fore largely left to our critics, to a greater extent than we should have. Or I think of Elder Maxwell’s comment a number of years ago which I love, which is sort of my unofficial motto, I suppose. He said that the time had passed for the Church to simply passively sit back and accept certain criticisms and he said, “No more uncontested slam dunks. We just will not let that happen anymore. If people make a false charge against the Church we will in some way or other respond to it.”
It’s a scriptural mandates to respond to these things. First Peter, King James Version: “Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.” And the word that is translated there in the King James Bible is “Apologia” – “Apologian.” It’s the word that apologetics or apologist derives from. It’s an answer, it’s a response, it’s a defense. Now, of course, this is not an apology in the sense of saying we are sorry. We are apologizing in the modern sense of the word which is only a modern sense, and I would say too in response to the critics of apologetics many of whom have no intention of lifting a finger to help out in the defense of the kingdom. You know if you have a better way of doing it show us how it’s done. You get in and do it. I mean, the more the merrier. We need help here. But I have to admit that I sometimes think of this famous, famous quote from Teddy Roosevelt delivered at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1910. You all will be familiar with it I think. “It is not the critic who counts,” he said, “not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory, nor defeat.” That’s a pretty strong statement but the fact is this job needs to be done. If other people can do it better I would gladly turn it over to them.
We have to be meek but we have to know what that term meek means. Moses is described in the Old Testament as being meek, above all other men on the earth. Think of Moses as a model of meekness, okay, it’s not Caspar Milquetoast. It’s not spinelessness. It’s something else. He is teachable. He is humble before the Lord, but he is not without strength, okay? We are not backing away from apologetics, but we have to understand the principle audience for apologetic efforts is the people on the edge. The people who are on the edge of leaving the church, the people who are on the edge of coming into the church, not the anti-Mormons, not the embittered ex-Mormons, one of them might be converted sometimes now and again, its possible, but it is, as has been said today, the lurkers for the most part that we are trying to reach. The people who are watching the battles between critics and defenders of the gospel and are not quite sure which way they lean; they are not quite sure which way they want to go.
A passage from Austin Farrer which has become kind of an unofficial motto and has been for years for FARMS, it was a favorite of Elder Maxwell’s. “Though argument does not create conviction,” he said, “lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced, but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish.” So our job really in many cases is to clear the ground of impediments to the growth of faith so the seed of faith can be planted and grow and survive, or to prepare the ground so that the faith can be planted.
I know in my own personal case which I may have already eluded to here, I was able to baptize my father the night I was set apart as a missionary. And one of the things that brought him into the church was the work of Hugh Nibley. For years we had been arguing about the gospel, he has been reading. Finally, reading Nibley began to let him think that “You know there is a possibility this thing might actually be true.” The spiritual witness came later, but that did provide some of the preparation of the ground. And we get testimonials that it has been mentioned that FAIR gets testimonials of people who have been helped by what FAIR does. I guarantee you that Maxwell Institute does as well and that is the real compensation for being engaged in this.
But we have to do apologetics. We have to do it properly. We can always improve. The first rule ought to be, in the phrase that circulates that is often attributed to the Hippocratic Oath (it’s not, but it’s a medieval medical phrase): “First, do no harm.” Don’t do any damage if you can avoid it. If you can do some good that’s great. It’s kind of the way I behave as a bishop, you know, if I can do no harm through the three years I am going to be bishop, probably, of this student ward I’ll be delighted. If I do some good, that’s icing on the cake.
Let me read, First Peter again, that same passage I already quoted but in a different translation from the NIV this time: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have, but do this with gentleness and respect.” And that kind of language has already been cited here today. Now, I think there’s something we have to understand about apologetics, especially on the message boards. You saw the image that Scott Gordon showed of prize fighters up there duking it out. That’s all from the way its conducted and I think it’s probably not surprising that a lot of the people engaged in this kind of thing happen to be men. There is lot of, dare I say, a lot of testosterone involved in this kind of apologetics. That’s not necessarily good.
I heard Ron Esplin today talk about the difference between apologists who attack and scholars who want to take the enemy to lunch. I have some problems with that formulation. I think — you know of course what I would really like to do is to have the enemy for lunch but I don’t see the distinction between scholars and apologists quite so distinctly. I don’t see apologetics as mostly involved in attack. It’s often said to me, well, you know you are an anti-Christian just as I am an anti-Mormon. I have never written anything critical of other Christian denominations or any other religion. Heck, my career is basically trying to be a sympathetic writer about Islam. I am not out there to attack other people’s faith, but I do spend a lot of time defending my own and trying to justify the rationality of believing in it.
The fact is though that people can look at the same facts and come up with different views. There are lots of stories that occurred to me about this. I remember years ago when FARMS published an article which — it was one of our earliest reprints by someone named Reed Putnam where he was arguing that the golden plates of Joseph Smith were actually possibly made of an alloy called tumbaga, which is not pure gold and it seemed plausible to me. It results in a set of place that come out to about the right weight and there is some attestation of this substance in pre-Columbian America and so on and so forth but then my copy of the Utah Evangel came and they had read the same article. Now the Utah Evangel is, bar none, my favorite all time tabloid. I used to love that thing. You know for sheer logic and so on it was a treasure trove. I once toyed with the idea of writing a textbook on ‘practical logical fallacies’ illustrated entirely from the Utah Evangel. I could have done it. It would have been easy to do, but their response to this article was not what I thought was faith-promoting and it demonstrates that there is a plausible candidate for a substance that could make the plates that would have the right physical qualities and right weight and everything. Their headline was “FARMS Admits Joseph Smith Lied, Golden Plates Were Not Gold.” Well, you know the fact is tumbaga apparently to all but a metallurgist would look like gold. No one would know and you know there’s still gold in them — I mean there is gold in them. Lots of gold in them under those circumstances, but you know all they could see was Joseph Smith lied and I thought, well, at least, you just granted, didn’t you, that there were plates, and Joseph Smith lied about them. I mean, that’s major progress. But they would never have granted that, I mean consistency, a foolish or even a sensible consistency, would be the hobgoblin of their mind.
Or I think of how people can look at the same situation very differently. I think I have another experience of mine in Cairo. I was taken off once to visit with a chemistry professor at the University of Cairo and we got to talking about my studies of Islam. This is when I was first starting and he said, “So are you a Muslim?” and I said, “No.” And he said “Why not?” This is the question I have always hated when Muslims ask me this. So I try to be affirmative and say, “Well, I am a Christian. Not that ‘I reject your doctrine, you know, I spit upon your face,’ I don’t do that. So, well, I am a Christian. I am a believing convinced Christian.” And he said, “Well, how can you believe that? I mean do you believe, you really believe,” –he was a nice guy– do you really believe that God sent his son, (first of all God had a son– everybody knows that’s crazy, God can’t have a son)” but he said, “that God has a son, he sends his son down and he kills his son to buy himself off, is that what you believe?” and I said, “Well, yeah, kind of. I mean, I wouldn’t have put it quite that way but, that’s sort of like what I believe.” And he said, “That’s the stupidest thing I have ever heard in my life. It doesn’t make any sense.” And I have thought about that conversation ever since because, in fact, lots and lots of intelligent people through the centuries have believed precisely that, not just Latter Day Saints, by any means.
Thomas Aquinas, Saint Augustine you know the great names in Western civilization believed that, but the fact is that the same set of facts will look perfectly reasonable to one person and perfectly insane to another. We have to understand that. So it seems to me that one of the things we have to work on as part of apologetics is simply we need to understand that people have to, in some sense, want the gospel to be true. If they don’t want it to be true the evidence is not so overwhelming, by design I think, that it is going force itself upon them. Now, obviously that opens you to the charge that we are just engaged in wishful thinking. We want it to be true so much, the evidence be damned, we are going to buy the most outlandish claims. That’s not what I am getting at, but what I am suggesting is that your desires make a lot of difference.
Let me tell you a couple of very quick stories. Years ago, we got a call at FARMS because there was a situation in Northern Germany where a certain former believer, whom I happened to know, unfortunately, was taking people out of the church and he was very bright, he was very effective and he had done a lot of damage to the testimonies of people in leadership positions in this particular city in Northern Germany and the question from the mission present there was could we help out.
Well, to be perfectly honest I of little faith was not sure that we could. I have been involved in too many of these circumstances as Scott Gordon said, quite often people are already on their way out when the questions reach us, but we did a conference call with them several of us and it was amazing to me. The questions turned out to be soft ball, slow pitch questions that were really easy to deal with and everybody there in the room, we could hear them saying, “Oh, well, okay, I am satisfied with that. Okay, that answers my question, I am fine,” and the only person who was left angry was the agitator who was trying to get them out of the church, which was fine with me. But we handled it very well as these were people who really loved the gospel and they just had hit some speed bumps and they needed some help.
Okay, but in another case, shortly, thereafter, we were asked to meet with somebody in the south as I recall, whose wife was very concerned. We got on the phone with him and I thought, well, maybe this will work too. It was total disaster. This person said, “Look, the Brethren are lying. They are all liars.” So, okay, “Could you give us a case that they are lying?” He gave us one. I don’t remember what it was. It was, again, really easy to deal with. It simply wasn’t a case of lying. He said “Okay, okay, well, they are not lying there. They are lying in this one,” and he brought up another and it was another really easy one to deal with. We went through four or five, I think, and finally he just said, “Well, they are still all liars,” and that was it. There was nothing you could do. It was clear there were other things going on that you could knock them down all the day long I think. Fact was — he was already gone. He had decided the Church is false. He was out and that was it.
A lot of times it’s a matter of asking “Do you want this to be true? I mean if you are not interested, if you are going to resist everything then it’s probably a waste of your time and mine. If you still have love for the gospel and you just have a problem then maybe we can talk about this.”
One of the things we can do as apologists try to find ways to broaden the definition of apologetics, find ways to make the gospel attractive to people. To find ways to convince them not only is it true, there’s good reason to believe it is true, but that it would be a wonderful thing to have it be true. It’s good news. The gospel is really good news! And you can’t delude yourself into believing something simply because it’s good but if you can make it attractive to them, if you can get it even to 50 to 50, as William James is supposed to have said, then it’s good to err on the side of light, on the side of the happy side of life if you will. James used an image at one point that I have always liked. He says, “Is it rational to believe in something you don’t have certain proof for?” He’s responding to a critic, a guy named Clifford back in the early 1900s who said, “It’s always wrong. It is intellectually unethical to believe in something you cannot absolutely prove and James said “That’s ridiculous. We do that all time.” You know, “You are always believing things you can’t prove.”
He said, “Here’s the case. Imagine you are in a carriage on the top of the hill and the carriage, you know, your driver has gone in to get a drink at the tavern and this is pre-automobile days and the carriage begins to roll down the hill. It’s going faster and faster and faster down the hill. You are in the carriage. You have a question: would it be safer to jump or stay in the carriage? You don’t know what’s at the base of the hill. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You know, as long as you can get that decision to about 50:50 it’s rational do either of those things. You might prove to be wrong, but it’s rational to make either decision. So if you can get religion to 50:50 even, it’s rational to commit your life to some belief like that. You can get even close to 50:50. It just makes sense to you, this could be true, then choose the sunny side of life,” he said, “go with that,” and I think that’s a very powerful image. I actually think we can do better than 50:50 on lots of things. But 50:50 will do.
Not everyone wants the gospel to be true. People will fight against everything. They don’t have to know anything to fight against it. I have been involved just recently, like within the past few days, to my shame, I keep getting sucked in like this. The drunk passes the tavern door, swears it off. These wretched internet discussions. The book Massacre at Mountain Meadows has come out and I have been involved in discussion on a certain board which shall remain nameless with people who have not even so much as seen the book. They aren’t even pretending to have seen the book, but they know its lame and it’s dishonest and the authors are lying and the authors are hacks hired by the “Morg” to lie and one of them says, “Look, I don’t need to read it because I know Brigham Young ordered the massacre,” and so I said, “Don’t you feel kind of funny saying stupid things like that.” No they don’t feel funny about that at all. I mean in a case like that rational discussion is simply I think impossible with people like that. I mean, simply impossible. They are dismissing the book as biased and worthless without reading it or so much even seeing the cover of the book, I am not making this up.
I think of my friend who had the experience in Paris. Years after that he gave a speech in a certain symposium which shall not be named, which runs roughly at the same time as this one and they used to have a section, I don’t know if they still do, called Pillars of My Faith. It sometimes turn into certain pillars of my unbelief and in this case I wasn’t there but a friend of mine was there and he reported that he told the story of the experience of the convert in Paris, which I already knew. He told another story. Well, then I should say his response to that was since he now at this point left the Church he said, “What does that mean? It means nothing. It means nothing.” He then told another story, where he said and I only — his words on this were his mother-in-law had come to him after she passed away of cancer. She said, “Listen to me, you know, you made my last year miserable with all your doubts about the Church. Well, I am over here now. The Church is true and you stop it, but you if are not going to stop, you can take yourself to hell, but don’t take my daughter and my grandchildren to hell with you.” And he is like, “I woke up in cold sweat and I thought about this. What does it mean? Nothing, it means nothing.” Oh, man, I don’t know what it takes to be a son of perdition, but I would not be playing along the edges.
But the point is that you have decided you know that you don’t want to accept it. The Lord will not force us into it. You can turn your back. Laman and Lemuel turned their back on the angel of the Lord not once but several times, you know, and that’s the way it is. The fact is we will never have evidence to compel people into the Church. True religion always involves something of a Kierkegaardian ‘Leap of Faith’. “If we must not act save on a certainty,” French philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal said, “we ought not to act on religion, for it is not certain. But how many things we do on an uncertainty, sea voyages, battles. I would say then we must do nothing at all, for nothing is certain.” But “After all,” wrote Tertullian, “you will not be wise unless you become a fool to the world by believing the foolish things of God.” Such a view, of course, is easy to characterize as sheer gullibility. It can obviously become that. But genuine religion inevitably must include an element of faith beyond and even against seeing the evidence. Otherwise, we have a situation of C. S. Lewis’ dwarfs in the last book of the Chronicles of Narnia imprisoned in the captivity of their own making and “so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.” “Why do you stay in prison,” the 12th century Persian mystic poet Jalaluddin Rumi asked, “when the door is so wide open?” Well, but we do and it’s ultimately a matter of the will.
Accordingly, as I said, one important aspect of apologetics seems to me ought to be something we don’t normally think of, that’s to make the gospel attractive, desirable. Writers, artists, composers, they can make it attractive, tell the story. Not necessarily, I am not calling for didactic art, but there are ways of doing it. Ordinary people should enact it. The only sermon some people will ever see, as the old saying goes, may be your life. Sermon on the Mount says, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your father which is in the heaven.” We want them to make an experiment upon the word. To develop that faith, which is really trust, that’s what the word means, trust in God; they have to try it, we want them to try it, to make that experiment. Pascal again suggested one way to develop faith is simply start acting as if you are a faithful person. “You will find,” he said, “that your life becomes better and belief becomes easier.” I think there’s a lot of truth in that. If we can get people to take the first steps, testimony will grow. It comes, Brigham Young often said “more on your feet than on your knees.”
Aristotle said the way you become a good person is not by the occasional agonizing decision to do a good thing, but by developing the habit of acting in a virtuous way. That makes you a virtuous person. It is a very different view of virtue than we tend to have. Well, I think again of how we have to treat people than when we are doing apologetics. Don’t worry. I think I will end almost precisely on time. I won’t have a lot of time for questions. Hugh Nibley used to do that and he would always say, “Good! Since, there are no questions, good bye.” He would be right out of the door. I think of an old speech that Vaughn Featherstone gave in General Conference many years ago; I think that it was Elder Featherstone, who told the story of his father and a neighbor. He grew up in Idaho, I think. The neighbor next door says, you know, “you have your boys do all this work out here. They are so bad at it, you know. You should do it yourself. They are not that good.” And his response to the neighbor, Elder Featherstone’s father’s response was, “I am not raising wheat. I am raising boys.” Okay, and I thought that’s an actually very profound thing and so we should remember and it’s a very easy thing to forget when you get into this, the heated battle of combat and the egos begun to come up and we want to destroy the enemy, you know? Like in this famous question, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them friends?” Okay, that’s one good response, but we are winning souls, we hope, not so much arguments. Winning an argument can lose you a soul. Winning a soul is a very different thing. I will tell you a quick mission story on this. I have I told all these stories many times before, what the heck you know, so I repeat myself. It’s a good story.
I remember being asked, to go down in Zurich. I was in the mission home. Somebody had set up a battle with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I had the reputation, much to my shame now, I think, of being J the Basher of the Swiss Mission. You know I could be guaranteed to come in and duke it out with them and so these people set this thing up and to their shock and horror, one of the leading Jehovah’s Witnesses in Switzerland was going to come to this apartment, so they were desperate for help and they called me and asked if I would come down. Well, I came down and to be perfectly honest we just mopped the floor with this guy. I mean it was humiliating. I was embarrassed. He wasn’t very good and things just annihilated him, but the longer the evening went on the worse I felt. I did not enjoy this. He didn’t join the church and of course he didn’t join the church. We didn’t do any good. We just humiliated the guy and afterwards I remember saying to these two elders who set this up, “Don’t ever ask me to come to one of these again. I don’t want to do it. I hated it. It was unpleasant. It was useless. Don’t set these up. I don’t want to come. If you set them up you are on your own. I am not going to help you out, you know, don’t call on me. We are trying to win souls, not win arguments, what good did that do? We smashed the guy. It didn’t do any good at all.”
Modesty and apologetics, we have to be modest about what we can do. We are not the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost will bring conviction to people, not us. We need to understand, we can’t prove most things. The best we can do — we will be criticized for it –is suggest that something is consistent with or it can be read in this light or this makes sense. We are not offering decisive proofs. I like the difference in German between Beweis and Hinweis. Beweise are proofs; Hinweise are indications and I think we are in the business usually of offering indications, pointers. This makes sense, the gospel makes sense, this claim of the Church makes sense. We can point to things that point in the direction of the plausibility of that claim. We cannot beat you over the head with some sort of evidentiary baseball bat and make you admit that the Church is true and the Lord doesn’t want that, okay?
For an epilogue and then I will close, 1 Corinthians 13, which we always keep in mind in any kind of thing that we engage in: We know in part — the famous hymn on charity, love. This is what he says about the uncertainty of our knowledge and this is Paul, one of the great prophets of the New Testament, great apostle and prophet– We know in part and we prophesize in part, but when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now, I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. Thank you.
Okay questions. Why do I keep getting banned from anti-Mormon list of bullet boards?
Because I am a slime.
Why do you keep going back?
Because I am an addict. I really don’t know what to say. I see myself as sweetness and light, but I am widely regarded, some of you know, as some of you know, as one of the most vicious people on the face of the globe and I would like to think that they don’t get my sense of humor, and not really that I am so morally depraved that I just can’t recognize it, but who knows, that’s possible. I keep going back because like that tavern door again, I keep seeing things said that simply are so untrue I feel like I have to, I have to come in and say, “That’s not true. You know, it is simply not true,” and then someone responds, well, one response and then pretty soon it’s 50 responses and I am sucked in and I can’t get out.
So I really like when I go out of the country, which I think, “maybe this will help me to break the habit.” It’s kind of like being away from cigarettes long enough and maybe you won’t come back, but I always do. I work on a computer all day and it’s just a click and suddenly you are on a message board, and there you go. So I am trying.
What do I think about the Millet and Johnson interfaith dialogues, the Blomberg and Robinson dialogues, etcetera?
I am all for them. I mean, despite my image of being all in favor of smash them up polemics, I spent lot of my time doing interfaith dialogue with Muslims and with others and I think it’s a really important thing to do. I am not in favor of negotiating way the unique distinctives of the faith. I have no desire to be an evangelical Protestant. Sorry. I am happily LDS, but I think sometimes this kind of dialog is not only good for building amicable relations, but it is good for helping us understand our own faith, too. I have learned a lot about Mormonism by talking with Catholics, for example, and understanding where we agree and where we don’t agree. I learned a lot. I have got an article that is going to be coming out in the Society of Mormon Philosophy and Theology Journal Element shortly, I think, on the social trinity. I learned a lot about LDS doctrine of the Godhead and, I think, about the LDS notion of exaltation by reading, believe it or not, Protestant and Catholic theologians. Not that we agree on everything, but that I pick up things that I realize were in my own tradition I had not noticed before and so I think there is lot of benefit. It’s not just that I should tolerate the other guy’s religion. That’s kind of bloodless, and not very satisfying. I can actually learn some things from the other person. That gives me an affirmative reason for wanting to do dialogue with other people. Not just because I want to learn to tolerate your existence, well, because I think I can learn something from interacting with you.
I don’t think we always do this well. I am little worried in some cases. I won’t be more specific than that, but we sometimes do tend to give a little more way than we should. I think there is a danger in dialoging with others. I have felt myself trying to do it. Sometimes we think, well, having been asked this question, I’ll kind of downplay this little element of my faith, because it would possibly irritate my new friend here, and then I think to myself, “Oh, no, no, wait a minute. That’s the path of the apostasy.” I really believe the early apologists, Lucius, Felix, and people like this, from the second and third century of Christianity. I really think that’s one thing they did with the best will in the world. They were trying to make Christianity palatable to the elite, sophisticated, pagan, philosophical audience of their day and in doing it they distorted their own beliefs. I think that’s a real danger. So we’ve always had to be careful about that.
So here’s another one: can I comment on the recent interfaith dialogue on how Mormon theology is being received by non- Mormons who are dialoguing with faith. That’s pretty much the same question. I think we are making some progress in certain circles. It’s not affecting the Evangelical anti-Mormon in the pew though. They are still, as the Romney campaign showed, there’s still a like huge amount of hostility out there towards Latter-day Saints, and a great deal of misinformation. Whether these dialogs can actually eventually have trickle down impact or not, I don’t know. I hope so. I think they are worth doing, but that should be done carefully and we shouldn’t have unrealistic expectations what will come from them.
Last year, you told us you were writing a rebuttal of Christopher Hitchens’ book, The God Delusion. Actually, he wrote, it’s not God Delusion—god Is Not Great, it had a lower case ‘g’. Yeah, Bill Hamblin and I were working on that. We finished about 60%-70% of it. Then we ran into a snag. Bill has been goofing off at Oxford doing nothing, let me tell you, and so — but I have actually conceived of a way of getting the project back on line, maybe broadened out to a response not just to Christopher Hitchens, whom I met a couple of weeks ago, by the way. I won’t comment further on that. It was a funny experience. But anyway, I think we may broaden it out and respond to Sam Harris and so on. And then we have got some publishers online, I think, for that.
[Q] What are the symptoms if someone wants to come back?
Very quickly I think one of the things you notice, I run into people who come to me and some do. They come in tears and say, “You know I miss my belief. I really wish I could believe. I just can’t.” Well, a person like that seems to me is ripe for good work. There is a lot you can do with someone like that. There are people out there who claim, and some of them sincerely I think, to simply hate the Church. They hate Mormonism and they are not promising candidates right now. You have to wait until something changes with them, but the ones who say, “Gee, you know I wish I could. I can’t. I have a hard time.” You know, work with them and they are worth all the effort. The most important thing you can do if you labor your entire life and you save one soul, that’s a life well spent. So if you find people like that, those are the clearest extremes, I suppose. But there are people who will write to you with sincere questions. You can often tell pretty quickly. Is this a belligerent person who just wants to fight or is this is someone who really has a question. The belligerent ones, I am convinced, we shouldn’t waste time on them. I mean I say that as someone who has wasted endless amounts of time I think like that.
I may have told the story before, too [sorry, almost done], but I remember a lesson I learned from a senior companion when I was first in Switzerland, we tracted out a fellow and we never got in doors in Switzerland, so this fellow let us in, big thrill, he let us in! And we started telling him about the gospel and he was sarcastic and rude as could be, everything is about money for him, he really thought the Church was a scam and so on and so forth, and finally my companion stood up and said, “Well, thank you very much. It’s been very nice chatting with you. We need to move on.”
I said afterward, “Why did we leave? We were having a talk with somebody. This is the first door we have been in in days!”
He said, “Look, we have got tens of thousands of people in our little area alone that we need to reach, and spending time with him is a waste. We are told not to cast pearls before swine.”
And that’s really harsh language, but the fact is every time you chose to spend time with one person you are not spending time with someone else, okay? And if someone else is out there you could help, and you are spinning your wheels arguing with someone who isn’t interested in help, who doesn’t want to know the truth, who has no intention of listening to you even if you could present him with a stela that says, you know, “I, Nephi was here,” okay, verified by non-Mormon archeologists. And still, like a mechanic said once, “Well, if we found something like that, we found all we could begin to talk about it.” Well then, okay. This is not a very open mind.
But there are other people out there you can help and I keep telling myself this. There are invisible people out there you haven’t met yet. You know, keep looking for them, you can help them, don’t spend the time on people who just want to fight and just get your adrenaline going, so you fight too. You just, you can waste days doing that sort of thing. I have wasted weeks doing that sort of thing and it does no good. Meanwhile, who knows there is someone else out there I should have reached and I didn’t. So a lesson can be learned from that. Thank you.