John Dehlin shared a post to the ExMormon Reddit forum. Here’s the link to the original post and the replies. He prefaced it:
As of late, I have been spending some time studying the core arguments of several Mormon neo-apologists including Richard Bushman, Terryl and Fiona Givens, Patrick Mason, Thomas McConkie, Spencer Fluhman, Adam Miller, and Phil Barlow.
In an attempt to understand their arguments better, and to distill their arguments into a single document, I have made the following notes. I have tried to convey their writings as accurately, fairly and charitably as possible.
I’d love your feedback.
This may get a bit tedious, but I’ll go through and answer this for myself. I consider myself a Neo-Apologist. My answers will likely be different than Bushman’s who will be different than Givens, etc. That’s one of the main problems with this exercise, is that my view might be logical. And Mason’s might be logical. And Bushman’s and Fluhman’s, and so on. But attempting to harmonize our views together creates an illogical, inconsistent mess. Which this list kind of feels like a little bit.
John’s post is regular font and my answers are bolded.
Why I Remain an Active Member of the Church:
- The LDS Church is imperfect, but all organizations are imperfect. If your standard is perfection, you will never be a member of any organization. Some people expect the church to be 99% divine and 1% human. In reality, the opposite is true. The church is 99% human/flawed. Mostly agree.
- In spite of the weaknesses, there is much good in the LDS Church, and consequently much value in remaining a member (e.g., profound scripture, solid morals, good people, strong community, opportunities to serve, a solid institutional structure) Strongly agree.
- Mormonism is fundamentally Christian, and Christianity (belief in Christ and His teachings) is a good thing. Mormonism connects me to Christ, and helps me be a better Christian. Agree
- Mormonism is a religion, and religions are generally good things to belong to. It is good to believe in God, and it is good to belong to an organization that encourages/nurtures deep spiritual practice. Mostly agree, though it seems empirically obvious that there are bad religions or there are bad implementations of religion.
- Even the bad/difficult/painful things about the LDS Church present opportunities for personal growth and development. hmm not sure I agree with this. I agree with the idea that interacting with people with different viewpoints is a good thing. For example, the person commenting in Sunday School might say something that frustrates me. That’s not necessarily a bad thing and can provide me opportunity for personal growth. But I don’t view all bad/difficult/painful things in the Church as things we are forced to accept. As a Body of Christ, it’s our collective responsibility to identify the bad things and improve them.
- Staying active in the LDS Church gives you power/ability/capital to make things better for those inside (e.g., protect children, support LGBTQ individuals, empower women, combat racism). Agree. That’s not the only reason I stay active, but I think this is a true statement. 100 years from now, there will be a Mormon Church. Will it be much, much better on these issues or a little better or not better at all? I personally think the best way I can affect positive change on this is by staying. But this is not the only or even primary reason I stay.
- Religious differences (exclusive truth claims) are far less important than the principles that unite all religions (e.g., love, kindness, charity, community). Those should be the focus. Agree
- Mormonism does not have a monopoly on truth. The core Mormon principle of “continuing revelation” is an acknowledgment that the church is imperfect, and will continue to change/improve. Things will keep getting better. Agree.
- There are some distinctive Mormon beliefs (e.g., we can become Gods some day) that differentiate us in important ways. Agree. Though I disagree that “we can become Gods (with capital G) some day” is one that is clearly taught and understood and agreed on. There are many distinctive Mormon beliefs and practices. Any one of them might not be super distinctive. But as a whole, they are certainly very unique and differentiates us in important ways.
- We have exclusive authority to perform saving priesthood ordinances. That is one of our most unique contributions to humanity. I personally don’t agree with this bullet point the way it’s presented or what is likely implied in it.
- All of the problems with the church are intentional (by God) – they provide opportunities for faith. If everything was easy and whole and logical and good – there would be no need for faith. Challenge to faith and cognitive dissonance lead to stronger, more mature faith. I strongly disagree with this. Especially in the implications that our historical problems are there for intentional reasons by a God who is testing the faith of members. I bristle at the very idea. It’s absurd to me. I only agree that problems in the Church and in Church history are intentional under the very broad concept that nothing in this world is unintentional.
- All problems with the church are the fault of imperfect men and women. This includes prophets, which have been deeply flawed since the very beginning (Old Testament). Moses killed a man. Noah got drunk. Abraham lied about his wife. Jonah ran away from God. Etc. Agree. But there is probably an implication that I disagree with, ie that prophets are imperfect morally but yet doctrinally they are being tightly managed by God.
- Testimonies should be rooted in Christ, not Joseph Smith. I agree, duh, I don’t think any Mormon wouldn’t agree. But there is an underlying concept here where I’m probably more conservative than other Neo-Apologists or Progressive Mormons. The doctrines and teachings of the LDS Church are the starting place and vocabulary for all LDS to understand God and truth about the universe. It’s clear we are taught that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and perfect example and that we should follow him and emulate him. We don’t talk about Joseph Smith that way. So clearly, we prioritize a testimony of Christ over a testimony of Joseph Smith. But much of what we understand about Jesus Christ comes through Joseph Smith (and other modern prophets), so I would not discount the importance of modern prophets in our base doctrine.
- In all our studies, we’ve never found a “smoking gun.” In fact, our studies have strengthened and deepened our faith. The imperfections are what makes the church rich and beautiful. I’d need to understand more about what is meant by “smoking gun”, but I think most likely “smoking gun” is meant to infer logic and history and science that suggests the Church is not what many Church members think it is. ie BOM is an actual ancient record, the Bible is mostly literally true, through the First Vision and Restoration God restored the ancient church and authority of Christ in a way that is exclusive. If that is meant by “smoking gun”, then I would say the “smoking gun” does exist. If by “smoking gun” it is meant that the Church is not beautiful and true and a valid religion, then I would say that “smoking gun” does not exist.
- Much of our problems with scriptural historicity or prophetic fallibility revolve more around our unrealistic expectations for scripture and prophets. We expect too much from both. Agree. But again, we’d have to have a long conversation about what that means for things like exclusivity, accuracy of absolute doctrine, what a prophet is or should be, etc.
- What it ultimately comes down to:
- I still feel inspired that the Church is good/true, and/or called to remain a part of it.
- The benefits of church membership far outweigh the costs/disadvantages.
- Mormonism has made me a better person, and has made others better too. These are good. I’ll add one more.
- I’m seeking meaning in my life in terms of seeking God and creating a Zion type Heaven on Earth, and the Mormon Church is perfect for me to facilitate this desire for meaning.
Book of Abraham:
- The Book of Abraham is not a translated text. It is a revealed/inspired text.
- This means that Joseph didn’t fully understand what he was doing when he produced the text, but this is ok too. Joseph wasn’t perfect.
- The papyrus was a catalyst for Joseph Smith to receive revelation.
- I see no evidence that Joseph Smith was trying to fool anyone with the Book of Abraham.
- The focus should be on the inspiration that the text brings to people’s lives, not on the text’s origins
I don’t know for sure if Joseph was trying to fool someone or not. I think it’s possible he wasn’t and that he truly thought he was translating Egyptian into English. I also think it’s possible he was participating in a pious fraud. For me it doesn’t matter a lot. Either way, I think Joseph’s revelations could be described better as “Joseph’s best attempt to understand God” than “God’s instructions to Joseph”. The fact that Joseph’s revelations deeply resonated with the early Saints and to this day still deeply resonate with millions of members is an important point. This is not “OK” in the sense that this is a normal process by which God gives specific instructions to man. But it is “OK” in the sense, that this is how religions generally are formed and put together doctrinal teachings that unite the members and give them tools and symbols to connect with God.
- This is an example of Joseph being overly exuberant after his experiences with the Book of Abraham. He got carried away. But it was not a conscious fraud.
- Joseph was fooled in this instance, but prophets are imperfect.
- The “translations” never went anywhere. They were never used in any meaningful way. So they don’t really matter.
Same answer as above. Point 3 is immaterial. It wouldn’t matter if the translations did go somewhere to me.
The Book of Mormon:
- No smoking gun condemning the Book of Mormon has ever been discovered. Smoking gun meaning not historical? Yes. Smoking gun meaning not good, true, beautiful, important, inspired scripture? No.
- The Book of Mormon is too powerful, complex/sophisticated, and beautiful for Joseph Smith to have written it on his own. Disagree. Though I do think it’s power, complexity, sophistication, etc is quite remarkable. And I think it’s a valuable point the LDS Church can use in how it markets itself.
- The Book of Mormon is a revelation, not a translation. The plates were not really used, other than as a catalyst for inspiration, much like the papyri with the Book of Abraham. Agree.
- The Book of Mormon contains 19th century content because Joseph’s revelatory process included his own thoughts/feelings/experiences placed into the mix. ALL prophesy is imperfect in this way, and includes the biases of the prophet (who acts as a medium). Agree (but I’m not trying to preserve a literal, ancient record here).
- Some of the flaws in the Book of Mormon can be attributed to errors made by the original authors and editors of the book. It was clearly a complex process to take Hebrew ideas, write them down in Reformed Egyptian, and then to have them abridged by Moroni, and then translated (or revealed) by Joseph. LOTS of human error would have been introduced throughout that process. I don’t take this view at all. I’m not sure how common this is among Neo-Apologists. It’s definitely a prevalent theme among traditional Mormon Apologists.
- As with the Book of Abraham, what’s most important about the Book of Mormon is the content, how it transforms the lives of those who study it, and how it brings people closer to Jesus Christ. Focusing on its origins and historicity completely misses the mark. Agree. However, let’s face it, the origins are important. If it’s literal, then it changes the perspective of how to approach Mormonism. If it’s not, Mormonism is still valid, but it might mean something different (ie exclusivity, etc).
- The book itself acknowledges that it has errors, and is as flawed as the people who brought it into being. Why would we expect it to be more than it claims to be? Disagree with this logic. Kind of a manipulative tactic, imho, if other Neo-Apologists are using this logic.
- Part of the reason the Book of Mormon remains a complex mystery is that God requires us to live by faith, and so the evidence proving the Book of Mormon as true will NEVER be provided, or God’s plan requiring faith will be thwarted. In addition, cognitive dissonance can be an engine for growth/progress/development if engaged. Disagree with this logic. However, if God exists, he certainly doesn’t want to be obvious about it, else why did he create the world in a way that looks just like naturalistic evolution. So, I think there is an important point to understand about God in this related to why he seems hands off in the world.
- Even if the Book of Mormon isn’t historical (or fully historical), beautiful/powerful scripture can be still non-historical (e.g., the Book of Job) Agree
- Polygamy is definitely unsettling. Especially in the way Joseph practiced it. Joseph definitely misled Emma, the Saints, and the general public in his practice of it. He also sometimes pressured women and their families to practice it, potentially abusing his authority, and employing spiritual coercion. Agree
- In some sense, God put Joseph in a difficult position. He was commanded to practice polygamy, but he rightly feared for his safety/life to be open/honest about it. Disagree. I don’t think God commanded Joseph to practice polygamy.
- God often gave Joseph commandments, but did not clarify how to carry out the commandments. This is how error was introduced. Disagree with this logic, but I do agree with a complimentary idea. I think Joseph might have hit on some ideas that felt strongly confirmed by the Holy Ghost, ie that families are eternal, that marriage relationships should be sealed for eternity, that the human family all needs to be sealed together, etc. And then the next logical extensions of how to implement this were disaster.
- Polygamy could have been a mistake. Polyandry was likely a mistake. But again, prophets are capable of mistakes, even really big ones. This is part of the miracle of the restoration (that God can work through imperfect people), vs. a condemnation of the restoration. Agree, sort of, depending how we define prophet and how tightly, perfectly, and clearly we assume God is working through them.
- Joseph Smith’s Polygamy is not reducible to Joseph’s desire for sexual gratification. Firstly, there are much easier ways to be sexually gratified. Secondly, there was clearly a desire on Joseph’s part to seal families together in one unbroken chain. I think there’s an important reality expressed here. But I also think it’s a bit disingenuous to not acknowledge the sexual gratification aspect. When sex is involved, it’s always at least a little bit about sex.
- In modern times we have a distaste for polygamy, but that is a monogamy bias. Most historical civilizations have been polygamous, and to some extent we unfairly misjudge polygamy due to this monogamy bias. Meh. No.
- Much good came from polygamy, including many high-level church leaders, and many stalwart members. Disagree.
- Joseph’s practice of polygamy should not be “lumped in” with post-Nauvoo polygamy, since Joseph was not practicing domestic polygamy (i.e., living with the women who were his plural wives). Again, Joseph’s focus was on the sealings, not on the raising of families. Not an important distinction.
- In the case of Helen Mar Kimball (14 years old), we can’t place all the blame on Joseph Smith. In her case, it was Helen’s parents who requested that she be married to Joseph Smith. I think it’s difficult to look at these things 150 years ago and think we clearly understand any one case. That’s why Brian Hales and critics argue back and forth, and I don’t think Brian is ever technically wrong on any one given point. But I think the overall picture he seems to imply is completely and utterly wrong. I think many of Joseph’s actions related to polygamy were immoral and not something we should defend.
Joseph Smith’s Character:
- Joseph was flawed, but Biblical prophets were deeply flawed, and in some sense we are all flawed.
- Joseph’s failings/flaws are actually inspiring, because they teach us that God can work with deeply flawed people.
- Joseph Smith did not display the traits of a “con man.” Joseph was rarely (if ever) trying to intentionally fool people.
- In the church we worship Jesus, not Joseph. We celebrate Christmas, not Smithmas.
I think Joseph’s character and motivations is a very complex subject. I’m at peace with the possibility that he committed serious sins, or that he lied, or even that he conned. I do believe he felt called to start a new religion and felt led by God and did the best he could for the most part. But then I’m also fine acknowledging he was a scoundrel if that’s what the evidence suggests. The important thing is the fruit of what Joseph did, which is the Church today.
- Prophets and scripture are fallible.
- God allows us to make mistakes.
- We’re doing better. We fixed many of the problems, and will continue to improve.
- Have patience. This is another example of where the church is making mistakes, but we are improving, and we will “get it right” in time.
- Difficult options like celibacy and mixed-orientation marriages offer opportunities for deep spiritual growth.
- Have patience. This is another example of where the church is making mistakes, but we are improving, and we will “get it right” in time.
- Equality does not need to entail “sameness.” There can be equal status/worth with differing roles/responsibilities.
On racism, LGTBQ issues, and gender equality, I think we have been wrong and are wrong still on a lot of things. If we are, it’s our fault, not God’s fault. I believe in a God that doesn’t intervene actively on these sort of things, so it’s up to us a Body of Christ to evaluate things that are wrong and improve them. That’s a very serious responsibility. As we grow and progress and are led by the Holy Ghost to acknowledge are wrongs and what we need to do to make them right, this will “trickle up” and our leaders will know what to pray for and what to ask for, and they will receive the answers they need to lead the Church in the right way.
Thanks John, for starting this dialogue. I think the main issue you had in your list was in trying to combine too many of the Neo-Apologists into a holistic view that doesn’t really make sense. You’ve probably heard all of your bullet points stated or suggested by different Neo-Apologists in your list, but there is too much variance between them to try to define it in whole. There are liberal/metaphorical defenses of the Church which I would call Neo-Apologetic arguments, which I put forward. Then there are traditional Apologetic views that obfuscate or try to make the unlikely still possible in order to preserve the traditional and literal and exclusive model. Some of the Neo-Apologists on your list might not be pure Neo-Apologists and still hang on to some of the traditional Apologetics. You have a lot of those types of arguments in your list. I reject nearly all of these. But some wouldn’t. And therefore, you have a bullet point list that as a whole kind of seems incoherent and inconsistent.