Trouble at the Maxwell Institute

I’ve avoided commenting on the recent changing of the guard at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, mostly because just about everyone has already chimed in. For the record, as mentioned in the comments of Peggy Stack’s article, the story broke on the MormonDiscussions message board, when an email was posted that informed Daniel Peterson that he was being replaced as director of the institute. Dr. Peterson’s response can be seen here.

For those who aren’t familiar with the institute (I’ll refer to it as NAMIRS for short), it was founded in 1979 as the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) to use current scholarship to defend the LDS church from its critics. In 1997, President Gordon B. Hinckley invited (Bill Hamblin says “forced”) FARMS to become a part of Brigham Young University, thus giving the foundation a more official status as an apologetic arm of the LDS church. Later the foundation was combined with two BYU groups involved in preserving and translating Middle Eastern texts as the Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts (ISPART), which was renamed as the Maxwell Institute in 2006 to honor late apostle Neal Maxwell.

That’s the general history of the institute, but my description doesn’t get at the purpose and tactics of its apologetic efforts. According to Dr. Peterson, Elder Maxwell had expressed appreciation for the institute because its scholarship meant there would be “no more uncontested slam dunks” by critics of the church. Steve Benson has noted that “Maxwell also told [him] that one of the purposes of FARMS was to prevent the General Authorities from being outflanked by the Church’s critics.” Accordingly, FARMS published, among other things, some aggressive apologetic works, notably the FARMS Review of Books (since renamed Mormon Studies Review). For example, a single issue of the review contained five separate “reviews” of Grant Palmer’s An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, including Louis Midgley’s “Prying into Palmer,” which has much less to do with Palmer’s book than with describing Palmer as a dishonest wolf in sheep’s clothing bent on fashioning “a stunning revisionist history that would pull the Church of Jesus Christ from its historical foundations.”

I have a long history with Dan Peterson and the folks at NAMIRS, some of whom have been friendly with me over the years. I like Dan, and he has generally treated me cordially and kindly, and as I’ve said before, when I was struggling with my faith, he was the only “apologist” who reached out to me and offered to help. It’s clear to me that Dan believes in what he is doing, and he has poured his heart and soul into the Maxwell institute and apologetics. Yes, we’ve had our disagreements, most recently over a fairly innocuous photo essay at Time magazine. But, as far as I’m concerned, we’re still on good terms with each other. Frankly, I think the way he was relieved of his duties by email was pretty shameful. Couldn’t they have waited until he returned and the institute had a proposed replacement before dropping this on him? I don’t know Gerald Bradford, but I think he could have handled this better.

That said, I have never liked the aggressive attack style of apologetics that the “old guard” of FARMS seems to enjoy. I prefer to let ideas stand on their own, without involving personalities and personal animus to get in the way. Some have called me hypocritical because I have written and said very sarcastic and pointed things about the LDS church, some of which I regret. But I do strive to keep my snottiness focused on issues, not personalities, and I try very hard not to attack people personally, though I’ve failed on occasion.

Too often, some apologists see their interaction with unbelievers as a battle for the souls of men, and they take no prisoners. I have never seen things in such stark terms, and I reject the idea that critics are out to destroy the true church just as vehemently as I reject the belief among some critics that apologetics is an inherently dishonest endeavor. I don’t find the apologetic answers compelling; obviously, I wouldn’t be an unbeliever if I did. But I do not believe apologists are being dishonest in presenting their defenses of the LDS church, though there are exceptions. In the end, we are all just people doing what we think is right. I may not agree with apologists, but I don’t see anything good coming from attacking their character.

The danger in the “us vs. them” approach to Mormonism is that it leads to a lot of resentment and hostility, and needlessly so. Some apologists are always ranting about Fifth Columnists who are trying to destroy the church while maintaining a “reasonable and kind” facade. I’ve had several people accuse me of that, and that’s fine as far as it goes. I don’t care because I know better. But the attacks on me have sometimes crossed a line into suggestions of violence, including anonymous, threatening emails that were sent to my wife. I’m sure other people could tell similar stories.

There is a lot of acrimony between apologists and critics, and it’s precisely because of the aggressive and hostile way both sides have approached the subject of Mormonism. Yes, there are some nasty pieces of work on the critics’ side (Ed Decker, anyone?), but in my view, FARMS has merely added fuel to the fire. Many people have said that they went to FARMS for answers to difficult issues they had discovered, and rather than resolve the problems, FARMS confirmed the issues, which ironically reinforced their unbelief. And FARMS hasn’t done much in the way of preventing slam dunks, either; whenever I read an apologetic piece claiming new insight and evidence for Mormonism, I am almost always disappointed because it never really pans out. There just aren’t many good arguments or evidence in favor of Mormon truth claims. Perhaps FARMS has managed to turn slam dunks into layups, but it’s still two points.

I don’t know what to make of the new direction the Maxwell institute is taking, though some message boards are abuzz with the belief that the Maxwell institute has been infiltrated by anti-Mormons. My suspicion is that people at BYU and in the church hierarchy have come to believe that what has been done at FARMS is not working. But it’s not like the apologists are going away; we will still have SHIELDS and the ironically named FAIR, among others. Dan Peterson will be back.

I find myself paying little attention to apologetics these days (heck, I wrote this piece only because someone asked for my comments), preferring to focus more on how Mormonism is being portrayed in the broader culture these days. For me, apologetics just isn’t that interesting anymore.

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One Response to Trouble at the Maxwell Institute

  1. […] the Bloggernacle is abuzz with analysis of Daniel Peterson’s recent fall from grace. Was the shake-up a good thing or a bad thing? What does it mean for the future (and history) of […]

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