Monday, February 18, 2013

More Reflections on Apologetics

To me it seems that the apologetics business is inherently thuggish. "Defending the faith" naturally turns into attacking "deviant" versions of it that appear threatening (rightly or wrongly), the same way defending the structural integrity of a biological organism involves killing cells deemed dangerous (rightly or wrongly). I see the "old guard" of Mormon apologists from FARMS as something of a bad allergic reaction, these days. They fight most viciously against Mormons who agree most with them, people like John Dehlin. This is in some degree inevitable, since there are precious few enemies left that are worth contending with. Old-school anti-Mormonism is pretty much dead. The new face of the mainstream Mormon faith and the evolution of American society have killed it. Nobody seriously listens to the Ed Deckers of the world any more. If they do, you don't need a doctorate to dismiss them. ("Excuse me, Westboro Baptist! My degree in theology shows that your position on homosexuality is hermeutically disputable!") In today's world, the problems that religion faces are problems that don't respect the old battlelines drawn up in the past (Mormons vs. Protestants in the ninteenth century, Protestants vs. Catholics since before that).

Mormons are more like their old enemies than they are unlike them. But old habits die hard. I remember my own experience in an introductory anthropology course at a state university. When it came time to discuss world religions, our instructor, an atheist, asked all of us to share something about our religious faith (or lack thereof). I was still a really fanatical Mormon at that point, so I bore my testimony (that Jesus was a physical being of flesh and bone who lived, died for our sins, rose from the dead, and appeared to Joseph Smith to restore his gospel in preparation for the kingdom of God that he would establish any day now, when he returned to overturn the temporal order of the earth). The person who sounded the most like me was an evangelical Christian, who spoke before I did and brought up (before he knew I was Mormon) that he rejected Mormons as Christians and would never pray with one. The rest of the class were liberal Christians (including a Catholic whom the evangelical barely managed to accept as Christian), cultural believers (who attended church or synagogue with family), agnostics, and a few avowed atheists. The evangelical and I were the only zealots. We were both radically attached to Jesus, radically convinced that he was crucial to a good human life and that we understood him correctly where others did not. The rest of the class thought we were crazy weirdos, and nice as we might try to be to one another (as people who approached life pretty much the same way), the same fanaticism that brought us together (as Jesus freaks) also drove us apart ("Your Jesus is not mine, i.e. not the real Jesus!"). The gap between us was largely cosmetic and rhetorical (we spoke the same language with a slightly different accent), whereas the gap between us and the rest of the class was fundamental and profound (they had no clue what the heck we were talking about when we bore witness to them, and we understood their visions of faith even less than they grasped ours). When I went on an LDS mission, later, I continued to have experiences like this one. The people who understood my language of faith best were those who already spoke it, and these people were most often fluent in Christian fanaticism because they were closely attached to their own version of it. They were more likely to hate me (as a Mormon missionary) than the agnostics and atheists (who viewed me either with shock, as something completely odd and foreign, or with a kind of detached condescension, as though I were a little child who just couldn't get past the fact that Santa is a story, not a real person). The people who attacked me verbally, as a Mormon missionary, were mostly evangelical Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses, and fanatical Catholics (I served my mission in a very Catholic country). The people who listened to me kindly were liberal believers (e.g. charismatic Christians who didn't care about historical creeds, liberal Catholics who embraced Vatican II, even some liberal Muslims) and agnostics (who were often atheists). Talking with these people left me feeling like there was a giant disconnect with the rhetoric I spoke and the reality I lived. Rhetorically, I was closest to people whom I didn't really like (because they didn't like me: all we ever did was argue unproductively about the incontrovertible, absolute truth that we each professed differently). Realistically, I was closer to the people who didn't feel threatened by my fanaticism (because they didn't share it, at all). I couldn't contribute anything useful to my fellow fanatics, since our mutual fanaticism constituted an insuperable barrier to any kind of understanding. The people I could have constructive conversations with were those who didn't see me as any kind of threat, the people who existed outside the realm(s) of conflict where my fanaticism was born (the old, historical dichotomies between "heretical" Christianities and "orthodox" Christianity). I was never going to convert them (baptize them into Mormonism), but I could learn from them (and even teach them things that they found enlightening, things that enriched their perspective on humanity in ways that they appreciated). By the time I finished my mission, I didn't bother talking much to fanatics any more. I had proven over and over how pointless it was (it just made people mad; no fanatic loved Jesus better for hearing me bawl about how I loved him differently).

When I arrived at BYU, I was still a fanatic (but a questioning one: I was trying to understand why I felt drawn toward non-fanatics, what there was in fanaticism that made its devotees obnoxious to each other). When I left, with an undergraduate degree in the humanities, I was much less of a fanatic. In grad school, I ceased to be fanatic (or turned the dial way down: my wife still thinks I am fanatical, but I see myself as much less crazy than I used to be). I realized that I didn't have access to secrets of reality that other people don't possess. The more I looked at my zealous Mormon fanaticism, the more similar it appeared to the other zealous fanaticisms I encountered in the outside world (e.g. in evangelical Christianity or the Watchtower or Opus Dei). Even worse, I realized that my apologetic bent (which I adopted as a youthful zealot) pushed me towards an even more polarized verson of Mormon fanaticism than that expressed by your average Mormon.  Apologists create this island within their tradition, an island that embraces just enough of outside influences to dismiss them (enough Judaism to dismiss the Hebrews as insufficiently Mormon, enough Christianity to dismiss the Christians as insufficiently Mormon, enough Islam to dismiss the Muslims as insufficiently Mormon, enough Buddhism to dismiss Buddhists as insufficiently Mormon, enough rational skepticism to dismiss agnostics, atheists, and skeptics as insufficiently Mormon). Inevitably, the apologetic island cuts some "orthodox" insiders off (because they aren't "hip" enough to be rational the way apologists are: they don't see any Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, or rational skepticism in their religion; they just blindly do whatever they think the prophet says instead of using the right apologetic Urim and Thummim to get at true Mormonism, which is nothing less than universal human reality). In grad school, I realized that there was no reason a person couldn't get at the deepest human truths accessible through an ideology that wasn't Mormon. There is no language that is absolutely superior to all others in every respect. (Spanish is not qualitatively better or worse than Chinese. Each one may be better or worse for individual people, but neither is universally superior to the other.) There is no religion that is absolutely superior to all others in every respect. (Mormonism is not qualitatively better or worse than Buddhism. Each one may be better or worse for individual people, but neither is universally superior to the other.) I realized that I could not be the kind of apologist who argued for the universal superiority of one particular brand of fanaticism (my own Mormonism). Unfortunately, I had invested much of my identity as a religious person on the existence of a singular, universal fanaticism (that I had to proclaim to the world). That was my personal mistake. When I learned how great a mistake it was, my religious identity collapsed entirely. I don't blame apologists for this.  I destroyed my own faith when I based it on something inherently unstable (a youthful attachment to the romantic ideal of one true fanaticism to rule them all and in the Celestial Kingdom bind them).

Religion works best when it draws different people together so that they can learn from each other, embracing their differences and accepting that these need not destroy the possibility for peaceful coexistence. The strongest religions are those that don't need much careful defense from individuals who practice them. Apologetics historically works best by subverting this process, teaching people to overvalue their differences (mine are "true" where yours are "false") and employ them against one another gratuitously ("We shouldn't have to learn about your crappy faith in school: you represent a danger to civilized life and must be shut out through argument if not by recourse to the lawcourt or the battlefield!"). The strongest apologists are those who weaken their religion (by making it depend too much on the apologist's personal idiosyncrasies, such that it falls apart when someone who isn't an initiate attempts to use it: "My spiritual witness confirms that religion is rational my way, not yours, you evil heretic!"). The strong apologist needs a weak religion (so that he has something to defend: the really strong religions don't need apologists; they can stand on their own). I realized this in grad school. I realized that as an apologist, I was undermining the foundation of everything I loved most about religion. It was devastating. (Imagine waking up one morning and realizing that you inadvertently supported the Nazi party or some Islamic terrorist cell in the name of doing something really good: I wasn't trying to hurt anyone, but I became aware that my actions and character were very hurtful, needlessly so.)

As a result of my experiences, I think apologists mean well. I don't think many of them understand their work very well, though.  They want to make religion better, much of the time, because they love it. Unfortunately, their good intentions often lead them to make things worse (for themselves and others, including those inside and outside the religious traditions where they participate). Life as an apologist is always tough.  People "misunderstand" you constantly, when your work--that some people embrace eagerly and with joy--inexplicably causes great pain to others (who feel their faith attacked and undermined by yours, not always irrationally or incorrectly). The contemporary Mormon apologist is often a "nice" guy, I think, caught in a web bigger than he is, doing his level best to live up to his own expectations for himself and the (conflicting) expectations others have of him. I wish him well. There but for the grace of Zeus go I.

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