Postmodernism and Mormonism: Part 4

We’ve established that most apologists rightly see their work as being outside of academic science, though at least one commenter suggests that the work of apologists is legitimate science that is only excluded from the academy for its unpopularity: “Many correct notions in science have started out unpopular, as have many incorrect ones been eagerly embraced based on incomplete scholarship.” But as I’ve noted, the business of apologetics is not merely “evaluating the data and their interpretation”; rather, apologetics has its eye on a conclusion and thus evaluates and interprets data so as to support that conclusion.

I’m going to generalize here and necessarily gloss over a lot, but I suspect most of my readers (all five of them) are familiar enough with Mormon apologetics that I need not go into detail. That said, there have historically been two kinds of apologetics: one that looks for external evidence that supports Mormon truth claims and another that looks for internal evidence (such as in LDS scripture) that corresponds to what is known about the external record.

As I mentioned, from the beginning of the early LDS church, church members have pointed to external evidence, usually archaeology, to validate uniquely Mormon claims of truth. Particularly in the area of “Book of Mormon archaeology,” Mormons have a long history of trying to locate in the “real world” the cities and civilizations described in the Book of Mormon. Early Mormon newspapers pointed to Mexico and Guatemala as possible locations for Zarahemla and its residents. But serious attempts at archaeological support for the Book of Mormon came in the 1950s with the founding of the New World Archaeological Foundation, which as archaeologist Michael Coe tells us, “had been founded to find for the Mormon Church these relics, these ancient remains” of Nephite civilization. But no solid evidence has appeared. Coe explains:

The Book of Mormon is very explicit about what the Nephites brought with them to this land: domestic animals, domestic crops, all of Old World origin; metallurgy, the compass, things like that. Just take domestic animals, for example. I mentioned horses and cattle. Nobody has ever found the bones of horses and cattle in these archaeological sites. Horses were already in the New World, all right, but were wiped out about 7000 B.C. by people coming in from Asia. They never found horse bones in these early sites between the prime period, which is 500 B.C. to A.D. 200.; never found cattle bones there; never found wheat or rye and these other things that they grow in the Middle East. Plenty of evidence for all kinds of other things that are Native American, but nothing there. And that’s the problem: They simply haven’t shown up.

This kind of apologetics continues today, though not with the optimism the NWAF folks once had.

The second kind of apologetics attempts to find consistency between what is in LDS scripture with what is known about the external historical record. In short, these apologists try to draw as many lines between known points in the “real world” and the descriptions of Nephite culture in the scriptures. A good example of this approach is what Douglas Salmon describes as an “exegetical trend … to draw endless parallels to texts from the ancient Near East and beyond in an attempt to validate” LDS scripture. The leading figure in this movement was BYU professor Hugh Nibley, whom Evangelical scholar Paul Owen describes as a “top rate scholar.” Nibley put his scholarship to use in the attempt to situate Mormon scripture within an ancient setting by finding parallels between the two. Salmon continues, “The number of parallels that Nibley has been able to uncover from amazingly disparate and arcane sources is truly staggering. Unfortunately, there seems to be a neglect of any methodological reflection or articulation in this endeavor.” Of course, the problem with using such parallels is that one must, as Samuel Sandmel writes, “describe source and derivation [of the parallels] as if implying connection flowing in an inevitable or predetermined direction.”

This search for parallels has in many ways supplanted the earlier search for archaeological evidence among Mormon scholars. BYU anthropology professor John Clark explains this approach: “Confirmation of historic details of the Book of Mormon would substantiate Joseph Smith’s account of how it came to be and thus validate his seership and the divine origin of both the book and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Thus parallels are seen as “confirmation of historical details” in LDS scripture. Clark argues that “the lower the probability that Joseph Smith could have guessed a future fact, the stronger the likelihood he received the information from a divine source. Consequently, the most compelling evidence for authenticity is that which verifies unguessable things recorded in the Book of Mormon, the more outlandish the better. Confirmation of such items would eliminate any residual probability of human authorship and go a long way in demonstrating that Joseph could not have written the book.” I’ve written a response to Dr. Clark’s piece elsewhere on my blog, but his approach seems to be the most widely adopted approach by apologists from Brant Gardner to Kerry Shirts to John Sorensen. Michael Coe describes Sorensen’s approach, which I think is illustrative of current efforts:

To make Book of Mormon archaeology at all kind of believable, my friend John Sorenson has gone this route: He has compared, in a general way, the civilizations of Mexico and Mesoamerica with the civilizations of the western part of the Old World, and he has made a study of how diffusion happens, really very good diffusion studies. He’s tried to build a reasonable picture that these two civilizations weren’t all that different from each other. Well, this is true of all civilizations, actually; there’s nothing new under the sun.

So he has built up what he hopes is a convincing background in which you can put Book of Mormon archaeology, and he’s a very serious, bright guy. But I’m sorry to say that I don’t really buy more than a part of this. I don’t really think you can argue, no matter how bright you are, that what’s said in the Book of Mormon applies to the peoples that we study in Mexico and Central America. That’s one way of doing it — to build up a kind of convincing background, a kind of stage set to this — but there’s no actors. That’s the problem.

Thus both approaches in many ways are a dead end (it goes without saying that no apologists would agree with me here). The earth stubbornly refuses to yield any confirmatory archaeological evidence in favor of the Book of Mormon, except for evidence that only the believing find compelling. And the parallels drawn rarely do more than, as Douglas Salmon puts it, “demonstrate that humanity does share a great deal in common.”

These two more or less fruitless approaches have led to what I would call a “defensive” apologetics that, rather than argue positively for evidence, deflects contrary evidence. Basically, the approach is to reinterpret both LDS scripture and external knowledge as a way to maintain plausibility for Mormon claims and then dare critics to prove those claims implausible. This is basically the approach of one Internet poster I know who has consistently said that, because no one has adequately proven that Joseph Smith made everything up, we have no reasonable basis for rejecting Joseph’s claims. Similarly, BYU professor Bill Hamblin once mocked me because I told him I wasn’t interested in explaining “how Joseph did it,” again, arguing that, unless critics can explain exactly how the Book of Mormon came to be, we cannot know or even believe that it’s a fabrication.

Part of this endeavor, as I said, involves reinterpreting truth claims in light of current scientific knowledge. Thus were born notions of a limited flood and pre-Adamite evolution; early beliefs that all native Americans from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego were literal descendants of Lehi gave way to theories that suggested the absorption of a small Nephite group into a larger, pre-existing population located into a specific part of Central America. One friend of mine joked that the purpose of such defensive apologetics was to reduce the geographical area of Book of Mormon lands to the size of the book itself.

But this reinterpretation is not really negative but necessary and natural. The field of study, in this case Mormon truth claims, is always determined by those who study it; as the student learns more about that field of study, the field itself must adapt to the student’s changing perspective. Thus the tools, the methods, and even the text are subject to change and reinterpretation. Given the failure of traditional Mormon apologetics, it is not surprising that the field has shifted; just as fundamentalists clung to overconfidence in science until, as George Marsden puts it, it was “too late,” so too has the defensive strain of apologetics recognized that it must shift the field of study away from science and toward a more accommodating perspective. It is within this reinterpretation of Mormonism that the terminology of postmodernism has been appropriated.

Recognizing the constant shifting going on (we’ll talk about Kuhn and paradigms in the next installment), some apologists have attempted to define their approach as “liberal” or “postmodern” as contrasted to “fundamentalist” critics who are stuck in naive Enlightenment rationalism. “New religions” apologist Massimo Introvigne dismisses LDS critics as those who “are persuaded that, thanks to Enlightenment rationalism, an objective concept of ‘science and truth may allow them to reach factual, empirical, ‘scientific’ conclusions on the Book of Mormon and its origins. … On the other hand, the late modernist and postmodernist position that knowledge is by no means objective and that ‘true,’ universally valid historical conclusions could never be reached, is held by Latter-day Saint conservatives.”

Convinced, then, that they occupy the more solid and sophisticated scholarly ground, some apologists take Introvigne’s flawed dichotomy and run with it, mocking critics such as Brent Metcalfe and Michael Quinn–“fringe iconoclasts,” they are labeled derisively–as believing that “it is imperative that scripture be treated as inerrant and that Mormons accept targeted statements from religious leaders as infallible.” Conversely, “the average Mormon” has a more nuanced view of “truth” and holds “more theologically liberal positions.” Like the Grinch hearing the singing Whos on Christmas morning, we are told that truth does not come from study or research: “we have a simple promise that is not dependent on extrapolating truth from disputed facts by using current standards of science and logic. ” If ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost” (Moroni 10:4). This is where truth resides for believing LDS.”

But is this application of postmodernism appropriate? How does one define postmodernism, and what does it have to do with Mormon notions of truth? Does postmodernism really mean that we must subordinate science, reason, and logic to a subjective, spiritual experience that leads us to accept Mormonism not as “true” but as “an inspired program” that provides “certain definite spiritual and social opportunities and values”?

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6 Responses to Postmodernism and Mormonism: Part 4

  1. Chris says:

    Again, a very insightful article. Certainly, these methods and techniques can be seen in other religious apologists. I wonder if mormon apologists recognize this in other religious apologists (and vice versa).

  2. Odell Campbell says:

    I like the series very much. It would be interesting to have an LDS apologist critique a non-LDS apologist has Chris mentioned.

    However, I think Mormonism may be somewhat unique because its claims are recent (within the last 200 years) and very scientifically testable whereas some religious traditions are ancient or not founded on specific historical claims.

  3. Tim says:

    loving the time and effort you are putting into this. Hoping you talk about how postmodernism conflicts with a Prophet who is able to say “thus sayeth the Lord”.

  4. […] post that asked, “Is Mormonism a Postmodern Religion?” I’ve heard people make the claim before, and I feel there is a strange thing that happens to many Mormons as they try to maintain […]

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