Sunday, June 24, 2012

Defending the Indefensible

Recently, there has been a shake-up at the Maxwell Institute, where I used to imagine myself working as late as 5-6 years ago (back when it was still FARMS, the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies).  LDS apologist Dan Peterson was fired as editor of the Mormon Studies Review.  Peterson retains his position as a BYU professor (for the present, as far as I know).

Peterson's experience inspires me to give voice to some thoughts I have had bumping around in my head for a while, struggling to get out coherently.

First, a little historical background.  From my perspective, the current debacle is an outgrowth of Hugh Nibley's aggressive apologetic position (especially vis-a-vis the character of Joseph Smith) becoming outworn, largely owing to the emergence of new evidence (e.g. the reappearance of court documents showing that the young Joseph Smith was convicted of disorderly conduct for his treasure-seeking activities). Richard Bushman pretty much cedes to every major argument against Smith that Nibley disdainfully dismisses (in The Myth Makers, for example), quietly admitting that Smith was a money-digger (without a pristine reputation), a folk magician, and an active polygamist where Nibley offered nothing but blustering denials ("if that were true, if the documents ever did turn up, then it would be curtains for Smith's character!"). Nibley's confidence proved overblown (the documents did turn up, and Smith was not soundly vindicated the way we hoped he would be), and his modern acolytes are stuck with a truculent posture that they can only maintain in the teeth of facts that cooler heads (like Bushman) have already admitted to be largely bulletproof.  Today, we can argue whether a polygamous folk magician might be prophetic (as Bushman does), but we can no longer pretend that Joseph Smith was not necessarily a polygamous folk magician (as Nibley did, before the evidence started coming in).  This puts the "old guard" of LDS Mormon apologists, the heirs of Nibley's position, in a tricky place.

Historically, apologetics is not a "nice" field.  Lacking any obvious facts to justify their positions, apologists often resort to character assassination (arguments ad hominem), attacking their opponents as wicked or absurd.  This was true in the pamphlet wars of the Reformation, when Protestants lambasted Catholic clergy and rival sectarians as devils incarnate, and it remains true today (in more arenas than just Mormon apologetics: often the only political argument offered for a given position is that the people opposing it are evil scumbags).  As something of a "founder" in modern LDS apologetics, Nibley embraced character assassination, e.g. in his dismissive evaluation of Fawn Brodie's work.  But he had more to offer than polemical attacks directed against "anti-Mormons" (who are often better ignored than "refuted" -- especially when their facts are actually correct): his best work articulates a unique personal vision of what Mormonism is (or at least, what it could be).  Today, when further research has vindicated Brodie over Nibley (as the more honest historian), Nibley's creative work (e.g. Approaching Zion, Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints, The Ancient State, and even Temple and Cosmos) still has value -- as cultural critique, satire, and poetry (not entirely without merit from a dispassionate historical perspective, though the "ancient truths" Nibley talks about are less unique to Mormonism than he makes out).  Unfortunately, none of Nibley's successors at FARMS (the Maxwell Institute) inherited his role as creative social critic (or philosopher): while they may make creative contributions outside of LDS apologetics (to history and/or literature), their defense of Mormonism is entirely passive, reactive, and (inevitably) reactionary.  They cultivate the argument ad hominem, e.g. attacking Grant Palmer as a heretic rather than admit that he might have any kind of useful contribution to make.  (They were a little nicer to Todd Compton, though their "critique" is really just a complaint that he is not faith-promoting -- a complaint to which he has self-published a very nice rebuttal that Peterson's FARMS refused to run.  Incidentally, I think that Compton is a much better apologist for Mormonism -- and more of an heir to whatever remains worth preserving in the legacy of Nibley -- than anyone at the Maxwell Institute.  He writes books that speak to scholars, Mormons, and non-Mormons alike.  He has a creative perspective on Mormonism, one that recognizes objective facts and adapts to them without rancor.  And he is a faithful Latter-day Saint.  Like Nibley's best work, his work makes Mormonism genuinely interesting, no matter who is reading it.)  

Contemporary LDS apologists increasingly fall into two camps, one characterized by denial or deconstruction of facts deemed "anti-Mormon" (e.g. the Maxwell Institute), and the other characterized by accommodation of these same facts (e.g. Richard Bushman, Todd Compton, Terryl Givens, and Grant Palmer).  As the facts have multiplied and become more generally known (among Mormons and non-Mormons), the first camp has become increasingly shrill and belligerent (toward "anti-Mormons" outside the fold of the LDS church and Mormons who disagree with them from within that fold), while the second has quietly shown that whatever good there is in Mormonism exists there regardless of historical facts (which are not always what we would wish them to be, to the chagrin of people like Boyd K. Packer).  While there are problems with both approaches, the second is ultimately preferable, I think.  It allows others to have truth, giving credence to non-Mormons and "heretical" Mormons by acknowledging that their reality is not utterly unfounded.  This makes Mormonism interesting and accessible to people who would otherwise have no use for it.  More importantly, it allows Mormons to admit serious flaws, in themselves and in their religious institutions.  It provides a place for continuing revelation, an obvious deficit that Mormons can work to alleviate.  Every culture needs a place to grow, a deficit to fill, a weakness from which to learn.  And, importantly, it needs an outlet for growth that is not entirely reactive, negative, or polemical.

Historically, the Maxwell Institute has recognized the importance of balancing religious apologetics (defending the faith from anti-Mormons and heretics) with scholarship (the free pursuit of interesting truth).  Unfortunately, its idea of historical scholarship is to write books that treat the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham as genuine ancient texts.  Without denying that these books (and other pieces of Mormon culture) share some interesting features with really ancient artifacts, it is nevertheless drastically overstating the case to make them primary sources on a par with, e.g., the Pyramid Texts, the Iliad, or Herodotus.  To take one example I have heard invoked several times (by Dan Peterson among others): King Benjamin's gathering of the people in the opening chapters of Mosiah is like the ancient Israelite festival Sukkot in the same way that the camp-meetings of the Second Great Awakening are like that ancient festival.  The Maxwell Institute's inability to see truths like this (truths glaringly obvious outside the Institute) places its kind of thinking firmly outside the interest of many people (including even quite a few Mormons) -- the kind of people who have no problem recognizing genuine archaic folklore in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings but cannot see that work as a bona fide artifact from the "real" Middle-earth, as though such a place ever existed outside the realm of fantasy.  (Where did Tolkien acquire his remarkable knowledge of so many records of different nations?  Maybe he was digging in his garden one fine day and turned up a palantir?  If the outside world did scholarship the way the Maxwell Institute does, they would have to take this possibility very seriously.  It might be something about which there is no definite conclusion possible, unless one receives a personal witness from Legolas -- a personal witness that eludes the experience of most people, including most scholars.)  Alas, the creative expression of the Maxwell Institute strikes most educated people (not just scholars) as transparent fantasy: I am going to say that this is increasingly true even when the educated people in question happen to be Mormons.

All these factors create the conditions for a perfect storm -- a whirlwind of competing aims and opinions that inevitably smashes naive ideas about order and providence.  The Maxwell Institute sees Mormonism one way.  The Brethren sitting on the BYU Board of Trustees see it another way.  And the Maxwell Institute's audiences (Mormon and non-Mormon) have a different spectrum of expectations.  There is no way to validate everyone.  There is no position that someone somewhere does not disagree with, with good reason.  How do Mormons handle this kind of chaos?  Historically, we pretend that the Brethren are unified (fiction), and that they are never wrong (more fiction), and that we should always defer to them without question (a dangerous game, as I know from personal experience).  And, as of now, that seems to be what is happening: we are living a repeat of the scenario that always plays out when the Brethren are never wrong.  Instead of manning up and admitting that the truculent apologetic approach that they endorsed has proven ill-founded (for reasons I have glanced at here), the Brethren are quietly firing their attack dog, Dan Peterson.  While I cannot pretend I am not interested to see whether the "new" Maxwell Institute will be better than the old (perhaps less insular, angry, and anti-intellectual?), I am saddened that the Brethren have still not learned how to take responsibility for themselves.  Instead of doing everything via committees behind closed doors and pretending to the public that nothing is happening ("business as usual"), I wish they would come out and tell us what they are doing, and why.  I wish they would wash their own dirty laundry once in a while instead of passing the buck to people like John D. Lee and Dan Peterson -- convenient "human capital" that can be relegated to the waste bin after it ceases to be useful.  Hopefully, Peterson will continue to be more fortunate than Lee.  (Rough as the business of apologetics is, being a hitman with a mandate to slaughter a wagon train of people is definitely worse.)  If Peterson keeps his professorship at BYU, he will have more time to devote to his non-apologetic scholarly interests.  Since these are important -- and very interesting in a way that the Maxwell Institute was never going to be as long as it remained on the course from which it is currently being diverted -- he might still do very well for himself and for the communities to which he belongs.  For all that I find his apologetic position entirely untenable, I appreciate his good intentions and I wish him well in future.


  1. If I had to sum up my thoughts here in brief, I would say something like this:

    (1) I wish Dan Peterson well, even though I find his apologetic work unconvincing (and sometimes rather rude, though I do not think he means it that way, at least not all the time).

    (2) I wish the Brethren would take their own positions on doctrine, and make those positions clear. Pretending that they always agree and are infallible serves no one, and it can make life unnecessarily dangerous for people like Dan Peterson. (Demoting Dan does not really solve the root-problem of Mormon apologetics, which is that Mormonism is inherently many different things to many different people: correlation is impossible without killing the culture; the question is, what parts of that culture should die? In my view, the notion of infallibility represents a meme that we need to stamp out if Mormonism is going to survive as something useful to the world.)

    Maybe the Brethren aren't involved here, at all. It is possible, I suppose. But even then we are left with the unsavory reality that they claim a right to dictate unilaterally to other Mormons with no responsibility to admit their mistakes (leaving guys like Dan and Randy Bott to take the fall, playing John D. Lee to the Brethren's Brigham Young).

  2. If I were the Brethren, I would let Dan Peterson sink or swim on his own (as they may be doing). I would not try to keep people like him from having a voice in the church (even though that voice is one I don't personally agree with much).

    I would also let other scholars speak their piece, and sink or swim in church and the outside world without censure.

    The best leadership is the one that inspires followers such that they come after it on their own without having to be cajoled, corralled, and correlated. I might never have defected if I had felt safe "going my own way" inside the church, as I did until I went to BYU and started getting involved with church history (not just Mormon history: a lot of our issues come with the territory of being an institution that distributes broad authority without effective checks and balances). The "running scared" part of me looks at the sacking of Dan Peterson and says, "There but for the grace of God (or was that the devil), I might have gone!"