Doing “apologetics,” which means to “speak in defense,” has been a longstanding tradition within Christianity, including Mormonism. Some forms of apologetics are often labeled “negative,” meaning the attempt by those writing is foremost to take on the arguments of critics. “Positive” apologetics, on the other hand, is characterized as efforts to shore up some aspect of the gospel or church by means of sharing different angles on that issue or practice, or new, possibly larger, perspectives that frame that problem in a way that makes it more understandable as an action or teaching that comes from human foibles rather than a knock-down criticism of the Mormon enterprise as a whole. In this latter emphasis, apologists are acknowledging that an issue exists or a problem is brewing while seeking to show that Mormonism has within it resources for addressing the issue, and that these need only to be brought forward to meet the challenge.
For many Latter-day Saints, apologetics has been a wonderful boon. They crave to know that scholars and others are actively working to provide framings for those things that have begun to trouble them. For many others, however, apologetics carries a negative connotation. Some say that truth “needs no defense,” or they point out that things of the Spirit are not going to yield well to questions and issues raised because of the findings of secular disciplines, hence on over emphasis on historical or rational inquiry is to make a category mistake. But more than anything else, the criticism labeled against apologetics focuses on the claim that an apologist works the question backwards: she or he knows the truth already, and then constructs arguments designed to shore that up; they are not conducting genuine inquiry.
In this episode, which is being co-released by both the Mormon Matters and Mormon Stories podcasts, Dan Wotherspoon and John Dehlin speak with Brian Birch and Patrick Mason about the history and development of Mormon Apologetics. Where has it been, and where is it headed now. In particular, John proposes a new term, “neo-apologist,” to describe a group of Latter-day Saint writers, including Mason, who, while not ignoring problems, seem to shift the meaning of various terms or truth claims, or in some other way change the definitions of Mormon doctrines. A vigorous discussion ensues!
Blair G. Van Dyke and Loyd Isao Ericson, eds, Perspectives in Mormon Theology: Apologetics (Greg Kofford Books, 2017)