For those of you who may not already know, during the last few months there has been a bit of an intellectual brawl going on among a handful of influential Mormon academics. The most recent verbal scuffles have revolved around significant changes at BYU’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, formerly known as the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS).
I may make some observations about the Maxwell Institute controversies in a future post, but today I have some thoughts related to a specific essay by one of the contributors to the recent debates:
Brother David Bokovoy is a brilliant young professor of languages and literature with a speciality in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East. On December 26th, he published a blog post entitled “How to Save LDS Youth in a Secular Age“.
He begins his essay relating an experience in which he attended a presentation for those involved in teaching LDS youth.
According to Bokovoy’s account, drawing upon the 2nd epistle of Peter in the New Testament as his text, the presenter encouraged the teachers to help the students “avoid the cunningly devised fables that often appear online and instead rely upon the prophets of Jesus Christ, who like Peter himself, are witnesses of Christ’s divinity”. The presentation concluded by citing two LDS historians who had asserted that they had “never learned anything in their studies that had ever caused them to have doubts that Joseph Smith was a true prophet”.
At the end of the presentation, Brother Bokovoy engaged with the presenter to express an alternative, dissenting approach:
“I’m not convinced that when LDS youth face challenges due to information they’ve learned through the internet that in most instances they’re struggling with ‘fables.’ What they’re mostly struggling with are fact; facts like Joseph Smith really did marry very young women and other men’s wives, or that Brigham Young was married to as many as 55 women, or that biblical scholars universally recognize that the author of 2 Peter wasn’t, in fact, Peter, an eyewitness to Jesus’ life and teachings.”
“Instead of worrying about fables, I believe that we need to do a better job helping our students process challenging facts into their religious convictions. I believe we need to alter our approach and stop giving students the impression that there is never any good reason to doubt or question their faith. Instead, we need to help students incorporate questioning as a meaningful contribution to a spiritual journey. We need to stop creating the crisis.”
Now, I actually agree with some of what Brother Bokovoy is saying here. We do need to help youth and young adults incorporate challenging facts in ways that are consistent with faith. But there are some very troubling things about Bokovoy’s assertions that deserve more careful analysis and consideration by faithful members and scholars.
Brother Bokovoy invokes the word “facts” and dismisses the word “fables” with the confidence of a bull in a china shop. Careful consideration and experience show that fact and fable are far more complicated than his simple statements seem to suggest.
Facts are almost never encountered in a vacuum. Facts are presented from within a narrative that attempts to connect the data points into a coherent model that seeks to explain those facts.
C.S. Lewis discussed this process in his final book, The Discarded Mirror, which was published posthumously in 1963:
“In every age it will be apparent to accurate thinkers that scientific theories, being arrived at in the same way I have described, are never statements of fact. That the stars appear to move in such and such ways, or that substances behaved thus and thus in the laboratory– these are the statements of fact. The astronomical or chemical theory can never be more than provisional. It will have to be abandoned if a more ingenious person thinks of a supposal which would ‘save’ the observed phenomena with still fewer assumptions, or if we discover new phenomena which it cannot save at all.”
The whole effort of scientific inquiry is to expand the set of facts and then adjust the provisional narratives, or “supposals” as C.S. Lewis called them, to best account for what is known. In other words we are continuously revising both the set of facts that we know as well as the proposed explanations for those facts.
The facts that we know are always a limited subset of the sum of reality.
Nevertheless, popular media, books, and often academics themselves have an unfortunate habit of speaking of the current set of “facts” as if they were complete and comprehensive, and they evangelize their explanatory narratives as if they are the “truth” instead of conjectural narratives based on changing sets of data.
They conflate the narrative with the facts that it seeks to explain and then speak of the narrative as if it were itself the fact.
The Documentary Hypothesis, which I gather is one of the subjects of expertise for Brother Bokovoy, is an example of a supposal that is often presented in this unfortunate fashion.
The facts of the Documentary Hypothesis consist of things like the differences in writing style and word choice in different books of the Pentateuch, different names for deity or sacred locations, the inclusion or exclusion of ritual objects or religious ideas, different representations of how deity communicates, and apparent contradictions in the narratives, &c.
Biblical scholars construct a supposal that attempts to synthesize these facts into a coherent story. They suggest that the known facts can be explained by the idea of multiple authors with distinct motivations and beliefs whose writings were later compiled into a single, somewhat incoherent volume and attributed to Moses.
Over time, scholars spend their time analyzing the hypothesis, comparing it to the known facts, uncovering new facts about the text, and proposing amendments to the narrative or even suggesting competing alternative supposals.
There are many valuable insights that can be gained from this process. But the explanatory narrative is still always provisional. It is simply the most widely accepted narrative that attempts to explain the currently known set of facts. It is always subject to revision or replacement as more information and better analysis become available.
To conflate that provisional explanation with “Truth” is questionable to say the least. And yet, we regularly see proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis speak confidently about the motivations of King Josiah and the Deuteronomists as if what they were saying is itself fact and not simply a widely-accepted, but provisional supposal.
At least that is how they often come across to non-scholars. Scholars often speak confidently about the minds and hearts of individuals who lived hundreds or even thousands of years in the past, even though few of us can manage to consistently discern the minds and hearts of the people with whom we actually interact every day.
In 1974, the late Nobel-prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman, told the graduating students at the California Institute of Technology to cultivate “a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty.”
“For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it […] In summary, the idea is to try to give all the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.”
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.”
“I would like to add something that’s not essential to the science, but something I kind of believe, which is that you should not fool the laymen when you’re talking as a scientist….I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is [more than] not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.”
Dr. Feynman’s principle of not fooling yourself and making an extra effort not to fool laymen might be termed a kind of scholarly humility; or scientific integrity.
Scholars and scientists claim a certain assumed authority in modern society, and therefore it should be their moral obligation not to abuse that authority when they present their ideas to non-scholars.
But experience suggests that Dr. Feynman’s exhortation is widely disregarded.
Perhaps they do a better job in their own scholarly, peer reviewed publications, but those are not really accessible to the masses. When speaking to non-academics, it is rare to see any serious effort to “bend over backwards” to show how the scholarly narrative might be wrong or to underscore the provisional and conjectural nature of their statements.
Instead the focus is often more on wielding their social authority and presumed superiority to disabuse the lowly layman of his or her naive beliefs.
The act of interpreting facts is obviously still an human endeavor, and therefore subject to all of the flaws, errors, limitations, and biased motivations that are inescapably part of being human. And so the narratives that seek to explain facts are always influenced by the beliefs and presumptions of those who articulate them.
The Academy is full of intellectual fads, trends, peer pressure, factions, controversies, scandals, personality conflicts, and even personal vendettas. In other words, belief is often antecedent to the explanatory narrative, and the facts are marshaled in support of a narrative that is often already believed.
And there is nothing inherently wrong with that as long as that antecedent belief is forthrightly acknowledged.
Few narratives can successfully assimilate all of the known data, which, as I have mentioned, is always only a subset of reality anyway. And not everything presented as fact is actually factual. More often than not narrators conveniently ignore or minimize a few data points that might contradict their preferred narrative or over-emphasize or misrepresent facts that seem to uphold it, though, to be charitable, it is often more because of blindness to their own bias rather than a calculated dishonesty– they fool themselves, exactly as Dr. Feynman warned.
So, returning to Brother Bokovoy’s essay (at last!), I think that his oversimplified assertion that what LDS youth are most struggling with is “fact” not “fable,” is completely and dangerously wrong.
It is not the facts themselves that challenge the youth, but the narratives through which the facts are presented and contextualized that challenge them. And some of those narratives are indeed cunningly devised fables presented as fact by calculating individuals and groups.
Nobody simply “finds” a set of facts sitting around on the internet. They are given a purposefully selected subset of facts, complete with explanatory framework and narrative. Their interaction with the facts is always an interaction with a person who is presenting a point of view (whether they mean to or not).
It is, frankly, irresponsible and immoral for a believing Latter-day Saint to throw “fact” bombs that are largely out of context and which subtly presume a certain critical narrative meant to undermine faith, as Brother Bokovoy does in his essay.
Scholarly humility and integrity should lead them to present a more careful picture that, while recognizing the current set of facts, also acknowledges the possible limitations and incompleteness of the facts, and recognizes that there are likely more than one explanatory narrative that can “save appearances.” This is especially true when communicating with non-academic laymen.
One of the strengths of Richard Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling, is that in general he did a fair job of employing this kind of approach.
But what we see more often is reminiscent of the proverbial yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater– and the theater is filled with believing Latter-day Saint youth. Is it reasonable to expect them to stay seated in the building while you are inciting panic? Of course not.
The more fundamental problem is that often our youth, not to mention many adults, lack the kind of nuanced approach to information that they require to be able to evaluate the facts in distinction to the narratives about the facts. They have been conditioned by mass media, public schools, and often academics themselves to accept uncritically any narrative that carries the label “scholarly consensus” or “science” at face value. For them, “science” is functionally little more than an appeal to a culturally acceptable authority which they are expected to accept largely on blind faith.
Brother Bokovoy declares “Since secularism is the greatest cause for LDS youth abandoning their faith, the last thing we should do is force them into a corner where they have to decide between their Mormonism and the moral convictions they’ve gained through secular studies…”
He continues, “Granted, through academic inquiry that brackets traditional assumptions, some LDS youth will come to some non-traditional conclusions concerning LDS history, scripture, or moral practices. But the problem is that in the past, we have too often given them the impression that if they hold non-traditional views, they must either abandon those beliefs or deny their religious faith. No wonder we’re losing so many youth to the battle of ‘secularism.’ “
But who is really forcing them into the corner? I submit that it is the lack of scholarly humility that creates a sort of intellectual brinkmanship. It is the false conflation of the facts with the narratives employed by critics. It is this abuse of scholarly authority to fool laymen which tries to force believers into a corner.
“Non-traditional views” is a slippery phrase. It is too broad to be really useful. Some non-traditional views can easily fit within the church’s narrative, but there are real, hard limits. A good number of the “non-traditional views” that progressive Mormons want to make space for in the church are not simply slight revisions that can be accommodated while still maintaining the church’s own explanatory framework about itself. They are, instead, a completely different framework that seeks to undermine and replace the church’s existing framework with something more palatable to the world.
We don’t do our youth any favors by pretending that they can accept the frameworks of the world, and reject the frameworks of the church, and still be considered “faithful” or that doing so will somehow “save” them. Yes, there is always some space within the church for disagreements over church history, scripture, and moral practices. But, as I have previously argued at length, at some point appeals to prophetic fallibility to justify defying the prophets is simply a declaration that they are not prophets at all.
So, Brother Bokovoy’s declarations about “fact” and ”fable,” making space for “non-traditional views,” and not “forcing people into a corner” in order to save LDS youth appear to be little more than liberal slogans and platitudes. I’m not questioning his sincerity or that his motivations are not good. I have no doubt that they are good. But his proposed approach lacks the nuance and the substance of a serious attempt to help LDS youth incorporate challenging facts into their faith.
Members who share Brother Bokovoy’s approach are the last people we would ever want teaching LDS youth. If his approach were to ever gain traction among a majority of the membership, it would be an unmitigated disaster for the church and those members. With their faith in the prophets and apostles as authentic spokesmen for God undermined, there would be very little to keep them in the church– and even if they do not leave, the subsequent generations, raised under their tutelage will be even less bound to stay.
Meanwhile, there is an ongoing, concerted effort to silence those LDS scholars and apologists who do attempt to provide supposals that can explain the known facts within the church’s existing framework and who attempt to expose the biases that inform the narratives of critics.
Interestingly, one of the more salient criticisms of apologetics that I have seen is that if members rely on apologetic explanations for their belief, when new information arises that undermines or invalidates the apologetic explanation, the members abandon their belief. In this fashion, say the critics, apologetics ends up hurting belief more than helping.
I question how widespread this anecdotal effect really is. But, even if we presume that it is correct, this is not a flaw in apologetics. It is a flaw in the way people have been conditioned to conflate fact with its provisional explanation. And the same flaw exists in the explanatory narratives offered by critics just as much as apologists.
Apologists offer explanations that attempt to fit the known facts into narratives that create rational space for belief in the core claims of the church. Critics, on the other hand, offer explanations that attempt to explain the facts in ways that are incompatible with belief in the core claims of the church.
As new information surfaces, and new arguments are articulated, both apologetic and critical explanations are revised or replaced. Both are moving targets, because both are merely provisional explanations meant to “save appearances” of the facts in the service of an antecedent belief.
And, as I said before, there is nothing wrong with that as long as one is upfront and forthright about his or her beliefs and biases.
Critics like to accuse apologists of engaging in “polemics”. But, polemical writing is simply a form of argument that affirms a certain understanding (or narrative framework for explaining the facts) by attacking the contrary understanding (or competing narrative framework). Ironically, the attacks on apologists by progressives and dissidents are themselves often a form of polemic. Certainly the accusation of engaging in polemics is itself a polemical argument.
And much of the scholarship that progressive Mormons marshal to support their dissent is also clearly polemical. And I don’t think there is anything wrong with that as long as it doesn’t pretend to be otherwise. But often it does pretend to be otherwise, and that is what is wrong with it.
So, here are some suggestions for a more effective effort to save LDS youth and young adults in a secular age:
- Help them to have real, personal experiences with the divine that will lead to a spiritual confirmation from the Holy Ghost about Joseph Smith, the church, and the living prophets and apostles. If they follow the prophets and apostles they will learn through their own experiences that they can trust them as God’s spokesmen. The Holy Ghost is real and will confirm to them of the truths of the gospel and the church if we are willing to stand up and testify of them.
- Teach them an Ent-like aversion to hastiness in accepting or rejecting the the facts and narratives which are presented to them, while holding fast to the knowledge they have received through personal spiritual experience. Teach them wisdom and not just knowledge.
- Preemptively, but judiciously, present them with the facts, including complicated or difficult facts, within a faithful explanatory framework and narrative, that is also honest about the limitations of what we can know. Most of the effectiveness of those who seek to undermine faith resides in throwing “Gotcha” bombs. “Did you know that [some supposedly scandalous fact here]?!”. If the youth have already been exposed to the facts within a faithful contextual explanation, these “Gotcha” bombs are mostly diffused and ineffective.
- Educate our youth with a realistic understanding of science and scholarship, so that they can evaluate information for themselves instead of simply accepting the provisional narratives they are given at face value. Teach them to expect bias and to evaluate new information critically and carefully. They should feel free to take a cafeteria approach to the secular and scholarly information they are given instead of accepting anything labeled “science” on blind faith.
- On the other side of the coin, youth should also learn to be discerning and cautious about information they are given by believers in the church and apologists as well as critics. As I argued at length in my recent two-part podcast for FAIR Mormon, which I hope you will take the time to listen to, too often youth are encouraged to base their testimonies on folklore or incorrect cultural information which then proves to be a sandy foundation. They should build their testimonies on the official doctrines of the church and what the prophets and apostles actually teach in unity.
- Provide them with a framework that accounts for the individual fallibility of church leaders while still upholding the authority and legitimacy of the prophets and apostles as trustworthy spokesmen for God (as I have attempted to do here).
- Teach them that questions are good, and that periodic struggle with doubt is normal and expected, but that doubt is something to be resolved and overcome, not cultivated and indulged.
- Love them unconditionally, recognizing that real love means being willing to stand up for what is right, even if it is not what they want to hear.
There are, of course, many, many more additional points that could be added to this brief list. But the last point I want to make is that we aren’t going to be able to save anyone from apostasy unless we ourselves have firm testimonies of Jesus Christ, His Restored Church and the living prophets and apostles, and are living worthily of the guidance of the Holy Ghost by striving to live the teachings of the church, including strict Sabbath Day observance, and careful media consumption.
Progressive Mormons love to talk about “keeping people in the church” and “saving the youth.” But the goal of keeping people in the church must always be in the service of the work of salvation as defined by God through his servants.
Some people will read Dr. Feynman’s exhortation to “bend over backwards” to show how you might be wrong, and ask, “Well, what about the church? Shouldn’t the church also bend over backwards to show how it might be wrong?”
That is a fair question.
Feynman’s injunction is the logical extension of the fact that the the process of science is always based on an incomplete set of facts and consists of provisional supposals to explain those facts; therefore it is prudent for scientists and scholars to “bend over backward” to show how they might be wrong in recognition of the inherent fallibility of the process and the insufficiency of the data– so that they do not fool either themselves or laymen.
The truth claims of the church, on the other hand, were not arrived at by gathering facts and proposing supposals to explain those facts. They are assertions of truth received by Revelation from God. They are confirmed through a personal, spiritual experience with the Holy Ghost. The church asserts that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and that through him Jesus Christ restored His church, that the Book of Mormon is an ancient scriptural record that Joseph Smith translated by the power of God, and the He guides the church now through living prophets, &c. And it asks people to confirm the truth of these claims by asking God the Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, if these assertions are true.
Millions of people have received that personal confirmation from the Holy Spirit. I am one of them.
Knowledge gained in this fashion becomes the foundation for the explanatory framework. But that kind of personal evidence is non-transferable. It must be experienced individually.
Admittedly, some things that have been taught in the church have been derived through process more similar to the scientific process. For example, sometimes speculative explanations for various practices, such as attempts to explain the priesthood ban or to identify the specific chemicals in coffee that make it against the Word of Wisdom, have been taught in the church. And in those cases, it might be prudent to emphasize the speculative nature of such things and make an effort to show how they might be wrong, in the same way that Feynman suggests for scientific claims.
And the church does make a concerted effort to acknowledge established facts, even when those facts seem to complicate faithful narratives. The recent Gospel Topics essays on the official church website are an example of this. But it takes time for “facts” to settle. It makes perfect sense that the church would exhibit the kind of Ent-like aversion to hastiness that I would like members to develop. Given the inherent nature of the scientific process I have discussed, it is prudent for the church to wait as new information is analyzed and debated until such a time when the facts can be distinguished from the narratives of the various interested parties. That process can take many decades.
So, because the truths of the church are arrived at through Revelation, not scholarly supposal, Feynman’s exhortation applies in a more limited fashion.
God is guiding his church through his official spokesmen. They are fallible, but He is not. If we trust in Him and follow the instructions we receive through them, He will not let them lead us astray.