The answer of course is, lack of substance:
But 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.
(1st Peter 3:15 KJV)
An online friend and fellow blogger Seth Payne recently wrote a blog post concerning Daniel Peterson and his role in Mormon apologetics, Seth writes:
I’ve never met Dan personally but have interacted with him online. We have had a couple of spirited debates but for the most part I simply observe the relationship between Mormon critics and apologists (too strict and a false dichotomy in many ways). In large part, substantive issues are raised but the conversation usually degenerates into contest to see who can dispense the most clever and biting rhetoric. Certainly entertaining, but disappointing as well.
Hesitantly, I must disagree with Seth on this, though it pains me (Ha!) to do so since he is a fellow religious studies nerd like myself. I think Seth is mistaking a mere symptom of the more pressing issue, general cultural and religious illiteracy.
Perhaps I’m under the influence of too much Allan Bloom and E. D. Hirsch, but I usually place the blame for all the ills of modern secondary and post-secondary education squarely on the slender shoulders of John Dewey and his reformer allies from the American progressive era. The educational disdain for the accumulation and integration of facts (be they scientific, historical, or whatever) and the emphasis on skill based strategy has been the past subject of my rants before, but it has bubbled up to the surface again.
Present day Mormons suffer from a double whammy, not only is American education failing them by making students religiously and culturally illiterate, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints systematically misinforms it’s own flock about historic Christianity too. To give the reader a good example, check out this short and wildly misinformed paragraph from chapter 16 of the Gospel Principles Manual (emphasis mine):
Soon pagan beliefs dominated the thinking of those called Christians. The Roman emperor adopted this false Christianity as the state religion. This church was very different from the church Jesus organized. It taught that God was a being without form or substance.
The emperor not being named but mentioned is Theodosius the First, who not only made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire in 381, but also called the First Council of Constantinople which modified the original creed from Nicea in 325 to give us the creed that historic Christianity affirms today, which just happens to say this (emphasis mine):
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father; only-begotten- that is, from the substance of the Father; God from God; light from light; true God from true God; begotten not made; of one substance with the Father [homoousion to patri]…
Of course, the secular side doesn’t have much of an upper-hand in in the literacy department either. Consider P. Z. Myers’ blog post, that was inspired by his reaction to a editorial by Richard Dawkins, P. Z. writes:
The Bible really is a great evangelical tool for atheists. It is such a wicked book of lies and bad advice that it handily discredits Christian claims of righteousness.
He goes a little too far, though, declaring it a great work of literature, and I have to disagree with that. Fragments of the book are excellent, but the bulk of it is simply awful, incoherent stuff, on a par with Twilight novels and fascist propaganda. It’s simply been hallowed by tradition and history, but really…we should be able to do better.
I guess Myers misses the irony of a committed secularist looking to evangelize his brand of village atheism in the institution of public education, but I’m more concerned how Myers completely misses some of the reasons why Dawkins considers the KJV as a great work of literature. While Dawkins enjoys the KJV’s turn of phrases, he also highlights the bible’s important role in Western history. It is impossible to understand American history without understanding Christianity and the bible. Whatever you may think of its moral value, how to properly exegete the text of the bible plays central and crucial role in the history of social reform in the United States. For example, you can’t understand the abolition movement and how both sides of the slavery issue used the bible to justify their positions. It’s not a great work because of some perceived aesthetic value, it’s a great work because Western and American history is incomprehensible without it.
So to answer Seth, the reason why the rhetoric goes back n forth but never digs into the substantive issues is because both sides engaging in the rhetoric rarely have anything substantive to add, and this is reason why a leading LDS Apologist like Daniel Peterson will never be like Terryl Givens or Richard Bushmen.
This is the motivation behind my image that juxtaposes Daniel with Chesterton, because I’m convinced that Daniel is honestly trying to channel Chesterton when he engages in apologetics in the public square. Their similarities are exhausted by physical posture however, Daniel has not nor will he ever be able to match the rhetorical skill of Chesterton (not that many can) and his attempts often get him into trouble.
I would like Seth to consider the prospect that the rhetoric of Mormon apologetics isn’t necessarily wrong, fiery invective is a well attested style in scripture as well as early church fathers engaging in apologetics against the Roman Empire, Pagans, and Jews. Rhetoric is justified by the substance of which it seeks to convey to the audience, and theoretically, such justification can be found by just about anyone. Naturally, I don’t think Dan has enough substance to justify his rhetoric, as evidenced else where on this blog.
This lack of substance should be troubling, and the reason why I included that passage from 1st Peter at the top of this entry, as it is the primary call for all believers to engage in reasoned defense (apologia) for their faith. The part of that passage that is often skipped is “Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts…” and this is a vital precondition before engaging in your reasoned defense. I can’t read Daniel’s heart, but if there is any truth to the LDS notion of judging based on fruits, I can tell you that I’m far from impressed.
Also unlike Chesterton, Daniel Peterson is a trained scholar and translator of Islamic texts. He knows the vital importance of context, the subtleties of philosophical and theological thought and how both need to be explained to any audience not steeped in the study of said text in question. Yet, Daniel did not do this when he bothered to invoke Camus to an audience at FAIR. Daniel stood up, in front a audience of Mormons looking for edification, and seriously misrepresented Camus to people who paid money to hear him speak. As a scholar, that should be a cardinal sin for Daniel, but he doesn’t seem to care and that is what bothers me the most about Mormon apologetics.
There is a level of just how bad the various examples I’ve provided are, The guys at the Church Office Building who edited that church manual were probably unaware just how religiously illiterate they are, merely products of Utah Mormon culture. Myers is at least dimly aware of how religiously illiterate he is, but he doesn’t want to interrupt the textual back rubs from his fans and the feel good vibes the drum circle at FreeThought blogs provides. Daniel is another order of magnitude above this, he is religiously literate, but misinforms his fellow Mormons for reasons that elude me to this day.
I’d like to point out to Seth that the disappointment he felt when he found out Nibley’s critique of Fawn Brodie was without merit was not because of the rhetoric itself, but because the rhetoric used was not justified by the substance of what Nibley wrote. That is the problem with Mormon apologetics, it is not the rhetoric that needs to be scaled back, it is that the substance is lacking. Honoring the Lord God in your heart demands that apologetics of the LDS Church be substantive, it does not demand a moderate tone.
To quote the mysterious Patrice Mersault from the comments section of Seth’s blog, “Mormonism deserves better” and it does, more now than ever.