The Grace of Apologetics
by Roger Keller
It’s a privilege for me to have the opportunity to be here. Actually I am somewhat surprised to be here because when Scott called me and asked me if I would participate in an apologetics conference I said “I don’t believe in apologetics,” basically, so by the end of this talk I may be about as welcome as ants at a picnic. Be that as it may, you have to realize that I may not be the best person to be speaking in this context, but it also may be in part a matter of terminology.
I’m going to structure my talk around four areas: The first is apologetics, the second is dialog, the third is teaching and the fourth will be missionary work.
I guess my fundamental problem with apologetics as we too often practice it is that it tends to breed contention and if there is any text in the Book of Mormon that has profound meaning for me, especially as I hold this Richard L. Evans Chair of Religious Understanding, it’s 3 Nephi 11: 29-30:
For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the Spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.
Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away.
I was pleased to hear as I walked in this morning in that initial interchange one of the speakers saying that the Spirit could not be present where there was contention and from my standpoint any forum in which the Spirit can’t be present isn’t a place worth being. That underlines, to some degree, my concern about apologetics and it also underlines my interaction with many who are anti-Mormons-that the presence of the Spirit is of very little concern to them whatsoever, and I have a friend who used to say that you can’t win a spitting contest with a camel. All too often that’s what I think apologetics boils down to.
We used to have on the front of the Old Testament syllabus at Duke a cartoon and it showed a young man lying on the floor thumbing through his scriptures and his wife was standing over him and he’s saying to her “Go away, leave me alone. I’m looking for a biblical text to support my pre-conceived notion!”
That is my perception of most persons who are anti-Mormons. They’re not interested in the kind of rational discussion that Mike has just given us or that Brother Meldrum has just given us.
When we joined the Church, I had spent fifteen years in the Presbyterian ministry. I thought I was reasonably good at it and that my spirituality was more or less intact. And, for almost three months I didn’t hear from my brother or his wife, so I finally called them and the first thing that my brother’s wife said to me was “Well I guess we’re happy that you’re happy, but we’re really concerned that you would join a non-Christian cult.” The problem is that with persons who have that mindset they’re not interested in changing. Normally I would’ve thought that if, when Beth and I joined the Mormon community, that instead of just figuring that we’d gone off the deep end and gone screwy that my in-laws would have wondered if their pre-conceptions maybe were wrong. Those pre-conceptions have still not changed. We visit there and every now and then there’s an anti-Mormon book lying out on the coffee table. It stays there a couple of days, and then sort of disappears-things like that-there is no desire to find out what we really believe.
I’ve been in many contexts where somebody will stand up and it’s clear they just want to fight. I have absolutely no interest in doing that and usually what I will say is “If you want to fight, I’ll leave and you can fight yourself because I’m simply not interested in doing that. The Spirit cannot be present in that kind of context. If you wish to know what I believe and why I believe it I’ll share that with you, but I will not get in a spitting contest with a camel.”
I think my first contact with a real anti-Mormon was with John Smith in Oklahoma. When I was still a Presbyterian minister I had participated on the committee that examined The Godmakers-and I’ll come to that in a minute-and he called me accusing me of being a wolf in sheep’s clothing. You need to know that I have been a Latter-day Saint twice and just before I was ordained to the Presbyterian ministry I asked to have my name taken off the rolls of the Church and this was in 1971. Well in 1971 you didn’t just have your name removed, the only way you got out was to be excommunicated, so they figured that if I were becoming a minister in a Presbyterian Church that was probably apostasy and that maybe they could excommunicate me-which they did.
John Smith was claiming that I had never been excommunicated and that I was really still a closet Mormon and that I was just really leading people astray and pretending to be a Presbyterian. He demanded to see my excommunication letter, which I had, so basically I told him that if my word were not good enough for him that the letter wouldn’t change his mind or his attitude on anything. I just wasn’t going to play ball with him and I had a couple of contacts or confrontations with him, but he has no interest in learning anything about Mormonism, Again Mike’s and Brother Meldrum’s presentations would have simply been lost in that kind of world.
Another experience not too long ago that I hope never to repeat again, I was invited to participate in a debate in Salt Lake City by a minister who was the pastor of an Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The person that he wanted me to debate was James White, whom some of you may know and I said I won’t debate. Well he said, oh it wouldn’t really be a debate; it’s just a discussion of perspectives and we really want to know what Mormons believe. And finally with a great deal of reluctance I agreed to participate in that particular venue.
When I got there he had simply lied to me; it was a debate. James White was constantly on the attack from a Calvinistic standpoint. Having been a Presbyterian I know something about the Westminster Confession of Faith, and so at least had some foundation and ground upon which to comment on some of this. As I was talking they were actively selling copies of his anti-Mormon book at the back of the room.
It was frankly a terrible experience. Usually I like to hang around and interact with folks and talk and so on. I just couldn’t wait to get the heck out of there, frankly because the Spirit was so absolutely absent from that venue; it could not be there. One woman, a Latter-day Saint, afterwards came up and told me how much I had helped her testimony; maybe I was there just for her. I don’t know, but in terms of anything productive really happening in that venue it just couldn’t because the Spirit simply wasn’tÖit was impossible for the Spirit to bear witness to truth given that.
Now I think the best apologetics setting in which I have ever participated was in the context of serving on the committee that evaluated The Godmakers in 1984-85; whenever we did that in Mesa, Arizona.
The Godmakers arrived in Mesa and I went to see it with a Latter-day Saint friend and about 2,000 other Christians came to see that film wanting to find out what their Mormon neighbors believe and unfortunately they left thinking they knew. The day after the film I wrote an article that appeared in the newspaper in which I called the film religious pornography. Ed Decker called me the next day wanting to know what I meant. I told him that if he didn’t know I surely couldn’t explain it to him.
At any rate, the National Conference of Christians and Jews-which I think has been renamed now the National Conference of Community and Justice or for Community and Justice-became involved. I was on the regional board of the NCCJ there and we felt that was an issue that they needed to address because it was dealing with interfaith dialog, attack of one group upon another, and other sorts of things. A committee was appointed, headed by Eddie Basha, a Lebanese Catholic, and there were no Latter-day Saints on the committee. It was a committee made up of persons who were not LDS and we spent a year looking at the film, talking to people who made it, talking to people who sought to distribute it, inviting Truman Madsen to come down, (who was holding the Richard L. Evans Chair of Religious Understanding then-the one I hold now which strange the way things come around) got his input on it from an LDS perspective and in the end the NCCJ issued a statement about the film.
And I want to read you a few comments that they made in this report to the religious communities of Arizona:
The National Conference of Christians and Jews reaffirms its allegiance to the First Amendment of the Constitution and our American tradition of religious freedom in both faith and practice. At the same time, we strongly urge responsible use of that freedom. It must be exercised with self-restraint, fairness, good judgment and in a spirit of tolerance for the convictions of others.
Prolonged divisiveness based on religious differences can be detrimental to the business, social, political, educational and even the personal lives of the citizenry. We would not like that to happen to us.
Neither do we believe that it serves the best interest of community good will for any group to attack the central faith, beliefs, doctrines, or validity of any other religious group.
We recognize as a positive value the right of any religious group to assert their belief in the absolute truth of their own religious beliefs and practices. However, this basic right also suggests the necessity for tolerance toward others who may hold similar views about their own particular beliefs and customs.
And then the film itself:
The film does not-in our opinion-fairly portray the Mormon Church, Mormon history, or Mormon belief. It makes extensive use of “half-truth,” faulty generalizations, erroneous interpretations, and sensationalism. It is not reflective of the genuine Spirit of the Mormon faith.
There are, unfortunately, some who lack adequate knowledge about the Mormon faith, who may unwarily be misled by this film. We recommend to all persons that they utilize every opportunity for face-to-face dialog with their neighbors in an atmosphere of mutual respect. This will help to provide authentic, firsthand information about the faith of our fellow citizens. Dialog will offer a palliative for controversy and a positive basis for continuing understanding, good will and friendship.
You need to know that immediately resulted in a $25 million suit against the National Conference of Christians and Jews with 150 John Doe and Jane Doe places left in the suit. The suit was based on the fact that we had infringed upon their right to make money; we had hurt their sales. Happily the judge in California threw out the suit because he said one, Californians can’t sue Arizonans; and, two, there’s such a thing as a First Amendment which says if you make a movie somebody else can say they don’t like it.
That is the most effective form of apologetics in which I’ve ever been involved because it wasn’t Latter-day Saints defending themselves-it was non-Latter-day Saints coming to the defense of another religious community that had been unfairly and unjustly attacked. Now if we believe in the basic premise of the NCCJ, we have the obligation to do the reverse, too, and that is to defend anybody who is unfairly attacked and unjustly criticized because if we do not, none of us have religious freedom.
I have a quote from John Stackhouse in a book called Humble Apologetics. He’s a professor of theology at Regent College, at Oxford I believe, and he says this: “Apologetics could easily become a form of intellectual browbeating. It is warfare, waged on behalf of a neighbor’s soul, by mowing down his resistance and presenting the gospel with the irresistible argument in hopes that he would relent and believe. Not terribly effective.”
Now, unfortunately, a lot of the anti-Mormon material that we find ourselves in need of addressing is often based on popular Mormonism or Mormon mythology. I’ve heard Bob Millet in several contexts recently remind various groups of people that he and I have been addressing that just because somebody in Church says something it doesn’t make it doctrine of the Church. Consequently a playground for so many anti-Mormons becomes the Journal of Discourses. Well Brigham Young said “such and such”; yeah, so Brigham Young said it, so what?
The real issue, when people say, “well what is the doctrine of the Church?” is the question of what is in the canon. What do you hear the prophet saying today across the pulpit, what are we hearing in General Conference and what are we finding in the official publications of the Church? That’s the doctrine of the Church and if we’re not finding what Brigham Young said back there about Adam-God or whatever, it isn’t doctrine of the Church and we don’t need to get caught up in trying to defend something that somebody once said.
Also again in this early morning context I think one of the best suggestions made was that there is a wonderful little phrase and it is “I don’t know.” Too often we hate to say that-we’re the restoration; we’re supposed to know everything. Well happily President Hinckley has been using that phrase with a certain degree of regularity, especially about things that were on the periphery of the doctrine of the Church where we just don’t know. And now we don’t have to defend ourselves against those things. What we need to do is to educate members of the Church to say “I don’t know” when they ought to and we might have fewer Mormon mythologies circulating.
So much for apologetics-I find it a very unfruitful realm in which to operate on a personal basis. Dialog, though, is an entirely different issue. Dialog presumes that I am sitting down with a person who really wants to understand my faith and in return I really want to understand his or her faith. It cannot be a one-way street, it must be two-way and there must be openness on both sides. I find that I learn as much about my own faith by sitting down with somebody whose faith is very different, be they a Muslim or a Hindu or whatever, because suddenly I begin to see things with new lenses and I see things that are indigenous to my own faith that I would never have seen if I hadn’t looked through somebody else’s glasses. That’s what makes dialog exciting.
I think there’s some rules for dialog, the first of which is don’t be so dad-gum thin skinned. So somebody doesn’t agree with us, big deal. We don’t have to get uptight about that-not if we’re in dialog. We get uptight if we’re in apologetics, but if we’re in dialog that’s okay because there is respect-should be respect-on both sides.
One of the things of which I’m convinced is that there can never be dialog if there is attack. I do not believe that I ever have to try to undercut another person’s position to make my position look good. If I have to do that, I don’t have a position. If I have to do that, I don’t have truth. If I have to do that, I’m not depending upon the Holy Spirit who validates what is true. And so, you know, I may tell somebody that I look at something differently than do they, but I can relax because I have never and I never will convert another human being; it is the Spirit that converts and only the Spirit.
One of the things I often do in class is walk in and say “okay, how many of you have been on missions?” A lot of hands go up. “Okay, how many of you converted somebody?” A lot of hands go up. Trick question! They never converted anybody; they were simply tools in the hands of the Spirit to bring about an opportunity for spirit to meet Spirit and validate that which was true.
People in other religious traditions are not our competitors; they are co-travelers. In many instances they prepare the way for us proclaiming the fullness of the gospel (I will talk about that when I get to the mission side of this thing). But, if there is to be any kind of creative dialog it can never be based on “you’re wrong and I’m right and let me tell you why.” I can say “I don’t see it that way; let me share with you how I see it.” Now, how do you respond to that? How do you react to that? You know, there can be that kind of give and take.
Secondly, I think one has to work from a position of proclamation. In the end my job is to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ as I understand it and let the Holy Spirit do His job. If I do that nobody can get uptight.
I was meeting with a group of Lutherans the other day and the Bishop of Madagascar was there. He said, “Your missionaries teach my members. They don’t go out and look for non-Christians; they come and teach my members.” And I said, “Yeah, we do and it’s because we believe that there is a fullness to the gospel, that we have something that adds to and builds on the truths that you already have. If we didn’t love you we wouldn’t come to you. We come simply because you’re our brother or you’re our sister and we want to share with you something that we’ve found has given meaning to our lives. So we share and if you’re not interested in it, that’s fine.” Joseph Smith gave us the opportunity, or gave us the direction that we needed, to know what to do with that-if I can’t convince someone that my way is better then I will raise them up in their own way.
So, we have an obligation to proclaim the gospel knowing that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit will burn the truths that are in it on the hearts of the persons who are prepared for it but never would’ve happened without dialog.
If we are going to talk about what other people believe we have an absolute divine commission to be accurate in what we say about their faiths. I teach comparative world religions and I want anybody who walks out of my classroom to say, and if they were of the faith about which I was talking, I want them to be able to say, “Yeah, that was my faith and you’ve represented it correctly; you’ve represented it accurately. I might’ve said it a little differently or something but yes, that was my faith.”
If I want somebody to do that with mine I have the absolute obligation to do it with theirs. I think I do fairly well with Christianity, I’m still learning and growing in Islam, in Hinduism, in Buddhism and others that I teach, but that is something that I feel is absolutely incumbent upon me as I teach the faith of others.
Krister Stendahl, who is a well-known New Testament scholar in Matthean studies and who is also the Bishop of Stockholm, Sweden-a Lutheran Bishop-held a press conference in Stockholm in the stake center there when we were building our temple. He called the press conference because he wanted to talk about his Mormon neighbors and what they were doing and so on, and in the context of that talk he gave three criteria for interfaith dialog.
The first was if you want to know what your religiously diverse neighbor believes, ask an active knowledgeable participating member of that faith. Don’t ask somebody who belongs to Ex-Mormons for Jesus what the Latter-day Saints believe. You’re liable to get a biased opinion-but of course they tell you the truth where we don’t, right? I remember as pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Mesa I was asked to teach a class on Mormonism because I was an ex-Mormon. I said okay I’ll do that but let me first teach you what the reform tradition is about and then I’ll do the Mormon thing. Well I did the Mormon thing but I invited my Mormon neighbors to come in and tell them what they believe. That was the first time, living side by side with these people for years, that they had ever heard what a Mormon actually believed, and yet they’d had all sorts of social intercourse over time with them. So, consult an active knowledgeable believing member of that faith if you want to know what it believes.
Secondly, if you’re going to compare-and we always do-compare your best with their best. So often we want to show what’s good about ours and what’s lousy about theirs. We can find all sorts of things that are lousy about other people’s faiths because there are human beings involved in it. Well, I have news for you, as a bishop now a second time around I know there are lousy things about Mormons, too, that we could point to. That’s not what I want to be judged on; I want to be judged on the things that are best in my faith and I want to look at the best that other people have to offer to the world.
Thirdly, Stendahl said leave room for holy envy. To show what he meant he said, “Isn’t it wonderful that there is a group of people among us who believe that God’s grace is so all encompassing, that extends not only to the living, but also to the dead.” Lutherans don’t have anything like that. He was willing to recognize the good and beautiful and not try to one-up it. Leave room for holy envy.
So dialog can be tremendously useful. I’ve been involved for 4-5 years now in an Evangelical-Mormon dialog group. We’ve been meeting about twice a year and talking about various aspects of our faiths and looking to see where there are points of commonality and points of difference. And we’ve finally come to the realization that there are really two differences: The First Vision and authority. That’s about what we boil it down to; we can get along on most other theological points.
By the way, Mike quoted Richard Mouw of Fuller Theological Seminary, where that film was made, or that tape of Mouw was made a couple of years ago. Richard has said that were he to be asked today what he would say about the Book of Abraham, his statement would be very different as a product of that dialog.
In a very real sense I suppose that was apologetics, that dialog we did for four years. We’ve come to trust each other, we’ve come to the point where we can talk about virtually anything and we know that we are in good company. There are friendships that have grown and we pray together and worship together and that’s really what should be there.
Just last week I met with a group of Lutherans that I mentioned, that was probably the most fruitful, enjoyable time I’ve had in any kind of interfaith dialog because they really came to learn. They really came to find out what the Mormons were all about and what they believe and we reached the point where somebody could say, “I’ve heard that Mormons believe ‘such and so’.” And we could say, yeah, some Mormons do believe that but it is not the doctrine of the Church.
And there were several points where that came up and I think they left feeling good about the interchange, feeling that they had really heard from Latter-day Saints what they believed on some of these issues that they had been poorly informed upon by persons who claimed to be the authoritative interpreters of the Latter-day Saints (i.e., anti-Mormons).
Teaching is for Church members and I really believe that that’s what both Mike and Brother Meldrum have done today. As I said, I don’t think what either of them said will change any anti-Mormons perspective on either the Book of Abraham or the DNA question, but what happens when these things come out is that a lot of questions are created in the minds of Church members, of Latter-day Saints, wondering “where does the Church really stand on that?” How do we answer it? To me that’s where the best of our scholarship should be aimed: at Church members.
The non-Church community I have little concern for, but I do have concern for those members whose membership could be in question because of some of this stuff. So we have a community that’s hungry to learn, and I think the kind of presentation that Mike has given is the kind that should be fireside material across the Church because inevitably these kinds of attacks create concerns in the hearts of members and those concerns need to be answered.
The book that I wrote called Mormon Authors was a ‘piggyback’ for kind of going beyond what Noel did in Book of Mormon Authorship where he did…where we had the wordprints. It is not good enough, I think, to simply say to people, “I have a testimony of the Book of Mormon” when the Book of Mormon is challenged and so on; it just isn’t good enough for us to say that. We have tools that should be used in coming to an answer to some of these questions that are raised. That book of Noel’s does that on the basis of wordprints, it shows the things about the authorship, about the ability to segregate authors and so on that we needed.
The book I wrote said “Okay, it’s nice to do that on wordprint where you do it on little words, but if this book really is the representation of a thousand years of authors and prophets and so on, not only should you be able to do it on the little words you ought to be able to do it on the big words because people use language differently and often word the same words used to mean something different by various and sundry authors.” I had no idea what was going to come out of it.
I just started using the computer, John Hilton and a few other things and we had the Book of Mormon segregated into banks and so, for example, I took the word ‘command.’ Every Book of Mormon author uses that to mean ‘to give an order’ except for Mormon who uses it to mean ‘to take leadership.’ Now it doesn’t matter whether he uses it within the context of Alma somewhere in one of his commentaries or in his own writings somewhere where it’s identified; it always means that.
Now tell me that Joseph Smith, as he was writing the Book of Mormon, suddenly would stop and say “Whoops, I’m Mormon now and now I’m going to change the way I use the word ‘command’, I’m going to change the meaning of this while I’m being Mormon.” Baloney!
There were a number of other things that I think I was able to show there, and so the kinds of things that use good solid LDS scholarship should be primarily for teaching within the Church, I think, because that’s where it will find a fertile field.
In saying that, we better be sure we’re teaching the doctrine of the Church and not Mormon mythology, not popular Mormonism and so on, because there is a difference and I’ll never forgetÖI think it wasÖthere was an article in Time on the Mormon Church. After it appeared there were a lot of Latter-day Saints screaming that it didn’t represent the faith of the Church, and the author said, “Well, I didn’t go to the General Authorities to find out what you believe, I just went to Mormons out in the street and I told you what they believe and unfortunately there is a disparity between the doctrine of the Church and what some of the membership believes.” We need to correct that if we’re doing our jobs.
For me missionary work is the ultimate apologetic. Why do we go out and do missions? I remember I was invited to do zone conferences in the London Mission, and I asked the missionaries, “What are you doing here?” Hands went up.
I said “Okay what?”
He says “Baptize!”
“Yeah, right. How many baptisms do you get in this mission a month?”
I turned to the President and said, “President, how many missionaries do you have?”
“Two-hundred and twenty.”
“Wow a lot of them are failures aren’t they?” And they are if the only reason for being out there is to commit baptisms. However, if we are there to bless human lives, then no missionary is a failure. It may be no more than a handshake and a smile or it may be a couple of lessons and then people move on with their lives. We are not out there solely for the purpose of baptism. That is the greatest blessing we can give anybody else, but it may not be where they are in their own personal spiritual pilgrimage at any given point in time.
My son did his mission in Brazil and we got one of those tear-stained missionary letters. He’d been teaching a family, had gotten close to them, he had taught a couple of lessons and they finally said “You know, we just don’t want to be Latter-day Saints.” And so we got this moaning and groaning letter. I wrote him back and said “You know better than that. Did you ask them if they were going to go back and be better Catholics than the day you met them? Did you ask them if they were going to continue to try and keep the Word of Wisdom the way you challenged them to? Did you ask them if they were going to become more involved in human life than they were the day you met them?”
That’s the real challenge of missionary work: To move people a little bit along the spiritual spectrum, a little bit further, a little closer to Christ than they were when we encountered them.
I participated in a baptism a few years ago out in Duchesne, a missionary-on his mission twenty years prior-had tracted out a young man and taught him the lessons and so on and he didn’t want to become a Latter-day Saint. And he never got a baptism on his entire mission. Twenty years later this man called him and said “Would you like to baptize me?” And so, he came from Norway, we went out to Duchesne and we baptized him-twenty years later.
Missionary work is a process and it is the best apologetics that we can perform because we are proclaiming Christ, we are proclaiming the fullness of the gospel and we are changing lives-not simply at the intellectual level, but at the spiritual level where it really matters. Despite the passage in the Doctrine and Covenants that says we will take out of this life intelligence that we gain in it (D&C130:18), I do not believe that it is here that it is talking about. I believe that it is talking about our relationship and our spiritual knowledge about Jesus Christ. If we do not have that, no matter how much we may know intellectually we are not doing what the Lord has called us to do.
Let me read another quote from John Stackhouse:
The fundamental problem of religious allegiance then is not about what we think but what or whom we love and if we see that we will see again that Christian apologetics cannot convince anyone to become a Christian. Apologetics cannot do so in this case because argument cannot produce affection.
In the end, I want people to know Jesus Christ. I have far less concern the older I get for theology and a much greater concern for my mystical relationship with my Heavenly Father and my Savior Jesus Christ.