Humble Apologetics and a Desire to Believe

I’ve written about apologist par excellence Dan Peterson before, but this morning’s MormonTimes reports on a presentation he gave at the FAIR conference last week. The talk was about “humble apologetics” and the proper tone of apologists, particularly in online forums. I am frankly quite pleased to hear what he said.

First he says that it’s OK to admit when we don’t know something. He cites one of my favorite scriptures, when Nephi, in response to a question from an angel, said, “I know that [God] loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things” (1 Nephi 11:17). Admitting that you don’t know everything is an act of humility, and humility is required of disciples.

Rather than insisting on finding answers to all the details of the LDS church’s theological and historical claims, he says, we should be seeking greater things:

The crux of the (final) judgment, it seems to me, is not our assent to certain specific theological propositions, (but) a revelation of what it is we really want — what we want to be. Do we hunger and thirst for goodness? Do we seek God?

My earlier, believing self could have written that, but even an agnostic like me understands the truth of this statement. What we know is far less important than who we are and how we act. As Marcus Aurelius said, “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” I think that’s what Dan is getting at.

Of course, Dan recognizes that he hasn’t always lived up to this ideal, but then none of us does. But, as I’ve said before, I think much of the venom directed at him is the result of a misunderstanding on both sides. Dan generally tries to inject humor into the argument, and his particular brand of humor strikes some people as caustic and arrogant, though I don’t think it’s meant to be.

And of course, Dan repeats something I’ve often said: the discussion between critics and apologists is unlikely to affect anyone but those “on the edge,” meaning those who aren’t sure whether they believe or not. In other words, the real importance of the discussion is with the “lurkers,” who don’t generally engage in the discussion but who are looking for answers.

With that audience in mind, we have a responsibility to present the truth, not a distorted or polemical version of “our” truth. That’s what I have tried to do since the days when I was a rather ineffective apologist. Now I suppose I’m just an ineffective critic. Obviously, some detractors will question my commitment to truth, but, to quote Dan, in saying that my object is the truth, “I mean it.”

He does come up with something that I find interesting. These people on the edge, he says, can be reached if they “want the gospel to be true.” Indeed, the Book of Mormon tells us that wanting to believe is the first step in gaining a testimony:

But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words. (Alma 32:27.)

Critics, on the other hand, he says, are those who don’t want the gospel to be true (and I would disagree with that, obviously). But this is really the wrong approach. Truth should stand on its own. You shouldn’t have to want something to be true; you should seek truth, even if the truth is painful and uncomfortable. Surely, not everyone who has a testimony of Mormonism truly wanted it to be true; more than a few had to have approached it with an open mind, asking God in faith if it really was true.

If a testimony depends on really, really wanting it to be true, the game is over before it started. You’ll get the truth you want rather than the truth that is. And of course, if you really don’t want Mormonism to be true, you’ll probably confirm that particular truth to yourself. An open mind is good enough.

Finally, Dan reminds us that his goal is winning souls, and heated arguments rarely win souls: “Winning an argument can lose you a soul.” He shares an experience when he “annihilated” a Jehovah’s Witness in debate, but he recognizes that he “just humiliated the guy.” And there’s a difference between humility and humiliation, and I’m glad to see Dan point it out.

Dan considers himself an Internet board addict, and I have to admit I’m the same. I don’t know what keeps me coming back for more abuse. But like Dan, “I see myself as sweetness and light,” so why would anyone ever object to someone like me?

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2 Responses to Humble Apologetics and a Desire to Believe

  1. GBSmith says:

    Faith or belief, I think, always begins with an inclination to believe. A willingness to give something the benefit of the doubt or more likely an emotional response to something will start a person thinking and then things go from there. I think it is rare that a person looks at the facts involved, weighs them, and then makes a dispassionate decision. Matters of faith are never that cut and dried to allow that sort of decision making. Witness people who know all the things that make a person not believe but chose to believe anyway. Loss of faith is another matter and often does begin with “facts” that can’t be reconciled with what has been a belief structure. If there’s not enough of an emotional attachment to the belief, then it can’t be supported and fails.

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