August 8, 2008

Daniel C. Peterson: Humble Apologetics

Peterson began by asking the audience to fill out our comment papers, he has already filled out about 30 of them for himself, of course. He apologizes for using no Powerpoint. The lights will be on, thus Peterson will be able to see the crowd fall asleep. He feels that nothing that he wanted to say went without saying already, and when a theme emerges in that manner, as often happens at the LDS General Conference, there is probably a reason for that.

"Basically I am offering myself as a model of that," Peterson said on the title of his paper Humble Apologetics. The phrase is from the title of book by Stackhouse on humble apologetics.

A verse that has been striking Peterson over the years is in 1 Nephi 11 when the angel asks Nephi "Knowest thou the condescension of God?" Nephi responds "I know he loves his children, but I don't know the meaning of all things." An awareness and acknowledgment of our own limits is important; being modest in what we say and gentle in the way we say it. "This is going to seem odd coming from me."

Peterson remembered a conversation with a man who has been through many struggles with his children, and has served much in the Church. Through it all, the man said, he can live by the phrase "the just shall live by faith." He doesn't always see the evidence for the loving God he'd like to see. (The theme shows up especially in Habakkuk and Romans.)

We walk by faith.
There is a tendency on the part of some apologists to pretend that we have an answer for all things. We must know the GPS coordinates of the Jaredite city of Lib. Actually, we aren't supposed to know everything.

As the scripture in 1 Nephi says, "I was led by the spirit not knowing beforehand the things I should do."

Faith as a leap in the dark actually isn't that negative; Peterson believes there is some dim light there. But still, there is a first step, not knowing for sure what it will be. Peterson thinks of Bushman's bio of Joseph Smith, and what struck him the most was the accounts of Joseph in Missouri. LDS today tend to see JS as knowing everything, but in Bushman's depiction of JS in Missouri, JS seems almost lost. He had received revelations about Missouri, the promised land, etc. and he is trying to figure out what is going on when things seem to be falling apart. There are instances of men on horses going to visit people and Joseph is just riding along, not leading the way. His plea in Liberty Jail asking where God is, or why he is staying his hand; those aren't just terse statements. We see though a glass darkly. Even prophets. That cry was sincere. In that jail JS knew things weren't supposed to be that way, his cry of agony was genuine (see D&C 122).

As Peterson began looking at his note cards again he said "I am mystified about the thought process that put these things together," [laughter].

A man Peterson knows who has since lost faith had an experience as a missionary in Paris. He had a distinct dream of a street and a neighborhood in Paris. He saw the name, the apartment number, the person in the apartment, he wrote it in the journal. They found the place, they knocked, the person joined the church. Peterson later met the man's companion who verified the account. He remembers talking to the man about that dream; even though the dream was true the account was not quite accurate as written in the journal. It didn't happen as written. Peterson believes that must be how it is with revelation, not always being absolutely clear how things work out. We can develop expectations that are unrealistic. We have these ideas. So with prophets, he believes that is how it works. We are walking in our limitations. To an extent we are left much to figure things out, such as in Nephi's comment not knowing the meaning of all things. The members of the 12 don't know it all, etc. God doesn't give everything to anyone in mortality.

Think of the answer Job gave to God. The Lord shows Job a display of power and says "who are you? Where wast thou when I lay the foundation of the earth?" We use that as a proof-text for premortality, but in reality this verse is saying that God has power, man doesn't understand, can't understand. Job responds by abasing self. The answer from the Lord is often "just submit." We won't always or often understand it now.

Why would the Lord do this?
Epistemic distance, the idea that God deliberately withholds things from us to allow agency. LDS refer to it as the veil. We don't know very clearly, and we must walk by faith. Kierkegaard talks about it, too. If God were to reveal himself directly it would be so powerful it would destroy our agency. Also, in order to work with us, God must condescend, he must serve, that is the life of our great God and Father. Think of the King who comes down to dwell among his subjects, just as Christ comes down to live with His people on our behalf. Being like us he would know how to succor us. Clear proofs would destroy the plan of salvation. We don't know, but we sense and feel certain things. What results from it is a revelation of what we really want and who we really want to be. Hunger and thirst.

Eschatological verification (Hick calls it) The scriptures don't promise we'll understand now. Take Malachi's book of remembrance. People are troubled about the blessed state of those not serving God. "It is vain to serve God. We call the proud happy! They that fear the Lord were heard, though, and a book was written for them that feared the Lord, and they will be spared. Then shall they return and discern between the righteous and the wicked." [I also believe this is when we will see some surprises in who is wicked and who is not.] At the end of times it will be made right, but you must trust in the meantime.

People who experienced near-death say often when they come back they seem to have forgotten much though they have a general answer or understanding. Isaiah: The earth shall be fll of the knowledge of the Lord," but this is not yet.

Testimony doesn't come on our schedule. The proper response is trust in the Lord. I'll hang on, there isn't much more I can do. Faith is things hoped for and not seen. Dispute not because you see not, you receive no witness until after the trial of your faith. This doesn't come from FAIR or FARMS answers etc. it comes from the Spirit.

Nibley wasn't playing games, but he also wasn't trying to desperately trying to prove things in the gospel were true. Peterson was struck by the simple and childlike nature of his faith. When he was arguing about the Book of Mormon, etc. he was not desperately trying to know things. He had a near-death experience. He almost died in the hospital. He said he realized he could do math really well when he was out of his body! Most of us wouldn't be thinking about that [laughter] we will learn much faster there. That isn't just what this life is about. The important thing, for him, was to learn to repent.

Testimony comes at different times in different ways.
Testimonies don't come strictly from pure intellectual inquiry, though. Peterson now relates again the story of the woman in Switzerland who had been investigating for seven years. He chatted with her for about 2 minutes and she was baptized the next week. He doesn't say this to boast because he didn't say anything brilliant or insightful, but something happened there that he couldn't do. We will not argue people into the church, they won't come solely by evidence, etc. It can help them get the plausibility, etc. but the Spirit goes where it listeth and that is what makes the difference.

So should apologetics be rejected?
Some see it as risible and objectionable to defend the faith. Maybe they have abandoned their faith, and thus oppose apologetics. Some believe it is wrong because it cannot be defended. Some say if it is true it should not have to be defended. Innocent defendants still need a defense, however. The truth can lose if not advocated. Many true science has gone opposed for years until forced to belief, etc. Some may feel there are no attacks on it, though Peterson feels that the crowd here likely doesn't suffer from that. The Mitt Romney campaign made some people surprised at the vitriol thrown at the church. "I told you so, you blank-blank blankety-blanks." There are actually people out there that don't like us very much.

Some are critical because they are concerned with the tone and method. Hard as it is to say we need to listen to them, though many of their accusations can be flat-out false. There is an ad hominem story about how apologists behave and they are wrong in many cases. Many people haven't even read the stuff. Still, it is never wrong to listen to your critics. And to the extent that tone has gotten into what we wanted to say, we need to improve in that area. Still, there is a great need to advocate the gospel especially in venues we may have been leaving to our critics. Elder Maxwell said the Church won't just passively sit back and accept criticisms, no more uncontested slam-dunks. We will respond. It is a scriptural mandate, 1 Peter "be ready always to give an answer with meekness and fear. " Apologia, apology, an answer, a defense, not "I'm sorry." Some who even criticize what is being done aren't doing much to pitch in. Teddy Roosevelt said "it's not the critic who counts; the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena. If he fails, he fails with those who tried" [paraphrased.] This job needs to be done.

Moses is described as being meek above all other men on the earth. It's not spinelessness. He is teachable, humble before the Lord, but not without strengths. We are not backing away from apologetics. We need to help those on the edge; those on the edge of leaving or joining. The lurkers, the people watching the battles are usually the souls won or lost to the kingdom. Austin Farrar's statement about argument not creating conviction, the lack of it destroys belief.A climate is maintained where belief may flourish.

Must be done properly.
The first rule must be: "First do no harm." If we do good it is icing on the cake, Peterson says. Always be prepared to give a reason for the hope, but do it with gentleness and respect. Message boards can be pretty strong, pretty argumentative. There is a lot of testosterone involved in that area.

The difference between apologists and historians is that the first attack the opponent and the latter want to take them to lunch. "What I like to do is to have the enemy for lunch," Peterson said. He doesn't see the distinction so distinctly.

The Utah Evangel was a production Peterson loved, it was rife with fallacies, etc. After an article on Joseph Smith's plates being made of tumbaga, their article was "FARMS Admits that Joseph Smith Lies: Plates Not Made of Gold."

People can look at situations differently, of course. A Muslim asked Peterson "Are you a Muslim?" "No." "Why not?" When this happens he responds that he is a Christian. The man asked "do you really believe God had a son, and that he sent him down and killed him to buy himself off?" Peterson said, kind of, I wouldn't put it that way. The man told him how stupid it was. However, many brilliant people have believed something so nutty over time. The same set of facts can look reasonable to one and perfectly insane to another. We need to understand that people in some sense need to want the gospel to be true. That opens us to charge of wishful thinking. That isn't what he means; he suggests that desires do make a lot of difference.

Peterson has had phone conversations with those who raise various objections. They usually get through them and demonstrate that there is another side to the story; but the listener was already done. "Do you want this to be true?" Otherwise, perhaps this is a waste of time. Maybe we can find ways to broaden apologetics to make the gospel attractive to people. Not that there is good reason, but that it actually is good news. Making it attractive is a great way to begin. It is good to eer on the happy side, on the light side. Is it rational to believe something you don't have unequivocal proof to? James responded that we do that all the time. Imagine you are in a carriage at the top of a hill. Your driver went in to get a drink. The carriage begins trolling. You wonder, would it be safer to stay in or to jump. It can be rational to make a decision either way. If it makes sense, you can choose the sunny side. Peterson believes we can do better than 50/50.

Not everyone wants the gospel to be true. They don't need to know everything to know it is false, ironically.

"Wretched Internet discussions" on a certain board which shall remain nameless there has been a discussion on the Mountain Meadows book. There are people who know it is lame and dishonest, and full of lies, hacks hired by the "Morg." One said he didn't need to read it because he knows BY ordered the massacre. It is impossible to have rational discussion at that point; they haven't seen the book but know it is flawed.

There will always be a leap of faith. If we must act on a certainty we should not act on religion. But then we must act on nothing at all, not war, not quest, nothing. True religion must go on despite evidence, etc. Otherwise you become like the dwarfs that you are so afraid of being taken in that you cannot ever be taken out.

Make the Gospel attractive and desirable
Not just didactic art, etc. but we must let the light shine before men that they may see our good works. We want them to make an experiment on the word. We want them to try it. It comes as Brigham said, more on your feet than on your knees. It comes by developing the habit of acting in a virtuous way.

How we treat people in apologetics
Vaughn J. Featherstone's neighbor had a conversation with his father on how he lets them do the yardwork though they were bad at it. His father answered that he was not raising wheat, but was raising boys.

Do we not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?
Even in winning an argument can lose you a soul?

He explained the night he had a bash with a Jehovah's Witness. They destroyed the man's arguments and the better they did the worse Peterson felt. But what good did that do? Nothing.

Modesty in apologetics
We are not the Holy Ghost and also we are not going to beat truth into people. We can suggest that various things make sense, etc. we are offering evidences or indications, pointers, rather than proofs.
1 Cor. 13: We know in part, prophesy in part. When that which is perfect shall come, we shall know...even as I am known. Faith, hope, and charity these three. But the greatest of these is Charity.

Question and answers

Q- Why do you get banned from boards?
Because I'm a swine

Q- Why do you jeep going back?
Because I am an addict. Really though, he keeps seeing things said that are so untrue he must respond and it becomes a huge ask and answer. He always ends up coming back. It's just a click and suddenly he's on a message board and there he goes.

Q- What do you think of the Millett discussions with other faiths
I'm not in favor of negotiating away the distinctive elements of the faith, but I really like building the amicable relations, and also help us learn much of our faith. We learn from speaking with Catholics, etc. He learned a lot about exaltation and the trinity by reading things from other religions. It isn't just a toleration, it is a place to learn. That is an affirmative reason to have conversations. We don't always do it well, we tend to give a little more away than we should, which is always a danger in having those conversations. We may downplay certain elements but wind up looking down that road of apostasy. This is what happened when people attempted to make their religion palatable, but distorted. We are making some progress, though it doesn't affect the Evangelical in the pew for the most part; there is still a great deal of misinformation; though they are worth doing, and doing carefully.

Q- What of the rebuttal to God is not Great by Hitchens
Bill had to head off to Oxford doing nothing now, though he wants to get the project back on line. It won't be a response simply to him, but broaden it to the new atheism in general.

Q- What are symptoms of people who want to come back?
Some come in tears and say they miss their faith. They seem ripe to share the goodness. Others are out there who literally hate the church, they are not promising candidates. Those who say they just struggle, they may be helped, they are to be loved either way. We shouldn't really waste time on the more belligerent ones, and Peterson says he is something of a hypocrite on that.We are not to cast pearls before swine. If you are spinning your wheels with someone uninterested you are neglecting someone else. There are people out there who would love to talk. Don't waste time spending time with folks who simply want to fight.

Wed. August 13, 2008, on MADB Peterson clarified his comments as follows: 
I'm aware of the danger in "wanting something to be true," and I do believe in truth. I think my point may have been missed, somewhat, and, since it's rather subtle, I'm not surprised. I expected it.

I simply believe that the publicly agreed-upon facts are not decisive in either direction, theistic or atheistic, Mormon or "anti"-Mormon. There's enough to justify belief, but also enough to justify unbelief. I'm convinced that this is so by divine design. So we are left in a situation where purely rational argumentation is insufficient to settle the important issues -- which means that other factors (including desires) necessarily and inevitably come into play.

I was not saying that all unbelievers want to be unbelievers, and I was certainly not saying that believers believe simply because they want things to be so. But when the scales are just about evenly balanced -- as, for some, they are -- it doesn't take much to tip them one way or the other.


Ardis Parshall said...

Thank you for this detailed summary, and thanks to DCP for saying it. This, together with what John Lynch wrote in a comment to a fairly recent T&S thread, make me hope that I might someday be able to have civil discussions with at least some apologists -- we have everything in common, after all, except our ideas of the best way to express our loyalty to the Kingdom of God. I say that with the same sincerity apparently expressed by DCP, and hope that my writing this, and signing my name to it, aren't the signals for another pileup.

LifeOnaPlate said...

Call the Danites!


Technically, Ardis, you are an apologist if you ever defend a position, right? ;)

Bridges will be built and crossed!

Ardis Parshall said...

Technically? But connotation matters as much as denotation. "Apologist" has accumulated so much baggage that I reject the label even when what I do fits your dictionary definition.

Bridges may be built; they won't be crossed until my Danites check yours for rhetorical mustard gas. ;)

LifeOnaPlate said...

Yeah, I know the label has baggage but I'm taking it back!

C Jones said...

I love Daniel Peterson, cranky moments and all. I kinda think of him as a Mormon Indiana Jones.

LifeOnaPlate said...

Because of the whip?

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