Apologetics at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute? No and Yes

11.11.2015 | The Maxwell Institute


If I can be pardoned for likening the Maxwell Institute unto a celebrity, I know a little of what it must feel like to be Justin Timberlake standing in a grocery checkout line, looking over the colorful magazines telling the world all about his private life, mostly all of them getting it wrong. Last week’s panel discussion on apologetics at Utah Valley University provided a welcome contrast to the speculation, innuendo, and tabloid reckoning of many blog conversations. This offers me a nice opportunity to provide further clarification about the Institute’s life story.

Since coming to the Maxwell Institute in 2013 I’ve grown to see the wisdom in resisting public engagement with arguments about the Institute, even when stories were told or charges leveled that deserved clarification. This effort was not without regrettable lapses, of course. But rather than repeatedly debating who we are, we hoped people would judge us according to our fruits. Numbers can be boring so I’ll put them in a footnote.[1] Suffice it to say, people have claimed the Maxwell Institute abandoned apologetics.

Is it true?

Like all great stories, it’s more complicated than that. The answer is yes and no. My saying “yes” provides a nice quote for people to cite as proof they were right all along—”the Institute will no longer defend the faith.” On the other hand, my saying “no” will prompt others to say “uh, oh. The Maxwell Institute isn’t so scholarly after all.”

Luckily those aren’t the only possible responses. Consider two middle-ground examples from the UVU apologetics panel, summaries of which are available here. Panelist Brian Birch put it like this:

“There has been a vigorous debate in play regarding Maxwell’s very decided shift away from an apologetic orientation and toward more active engagement with the broader religious studies community. For the record, this is a move that I firmly applaud and believe has been long overdue. So if we’re dividing up the universe into those on team Mormon Studies and those on team apologetics, I am decidedly on team Mormon Studies.” [2]

Compare that to the perspective of panelist Julie M. Smith:

“We also must ‘raise the bar’ on Mormon apologetics so that the most stringent standards of scholarship are employed because, ultimately, a poorly-argued apologetic becomes an anti-apologetic…The new focus of the Maxwell Institute shows a commitment to this kind of strong apologetic work. Neither ‘faithful scholarship’ nor ‘objective scholarship’ should be given total dominion; they must be yoked but perhaps not equally. This is complicated and messy; so be it.” [3]

For his part, Birch is right that the Institute is increasing its engagement with the broader religious studies community. But we believe the implication that this requires a “very decided shift away” from apologetics (full stop), or that there has been such a shift, doesn’t fit. Birch actually recognizes this, which you’ll see if you continue reading his comments and especially his article in the Mormon Studies Review.

For her part, Smith understands the Institute’s recent development as a raising of the bar. And I’m sure she would agree with me when I resist the implication that all “apologetics” from previous years were “poorly argued.” After all, I’ve personally spent countless hours (with more to come) revamping the Institute’s website in a way that provides greater access to more material than ever, especially from our past, not to mention all the new content.[4] The quality of our past publications is uneven, scholarly methods and approaches have evolved, the tone of some of the articles is more aggressive than what we currently strive for. But it is still valuable material—not merely for scholars who want to understand the history of Mormon research, but also for Mormons looking to learn more about our scriptures and religion.[5]

We hope such readers will develop critical thinking skills, to learn by study and also by faith to glean the best things, and to make corrections and revisions. We want students and scholars to learn from the imperfections of earlier days, following a pattern from the Book of Mormon—a record which preserves imperfections precisely in order to teach later generations to be more wise (Mormon 9:31). Importantly, we expect the same sort of developments in the future for our present work. We stand on the shoulders of giants but we hope not to cling to their necks. We seek to continue the process of seeking further light and knowledge by study (including academic scholarship) and also by faith.

Let’s return to the question: is it true that the Institute has abandoned apologetics?

No. Rather than asking whether apologetics could or should be done here, the Institute has been asking all along: what kind of apologetics shall we do? The word “apologetics” itself has come become associated with particular styles, approaches, and in some instances points of debate which the Institute tends to avoid. In addition, many LDS church members can be thrown off by the unfamiliar word which is borrowed from broader Christian and philosophic history. As we’ve continued to “commend and defend the faith” all along we’ve preferred to let the substance do the work while trying to avoid the cultural baggage carried by the word “apologetics.”

On the One Hand

The Institute is part of the academic branch of a religious institution. BYU is the LDS Church’s flagship university, and as such we affirm it is possible to produce solid academic work which more directly commends and defends the faith by analyzing criticisms, misunderstandings, and other aspects of LDS history and belief. Church members typically pay more attention to this sort of work than do scholars outside in the wider academy. Many answers to many criticisms are already available on our website and through organizations like FairMormon and the Interpreter Foundation. Newer answers can be found in articles, books, podcast episodes, and blog posts currently being published at the Institute, although these answers are more often found along the journey’s path rather than being offered as the final destination.

On the Other Hand

Not all of our work, however, directly commends and defends the faith, and this has been the case since the day the Institute was opened and dedicated. We house the Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts, and we expect its continued growth and contributions to the scholarly world to prove beneficial for years to come. Our Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, co-founded by Daniel C. Peterson, is a top-of-the-line series of translations which scholars and believers of other religious traditions—or no religious tradition for that matter—can benefit from in better understanding the past. Of course, LDS Church members don’t need to study the Dead Sea Scrolls, Syriac Christianity, the medical works of Moses Maimonides, or the philosophical ruminations of al-Ghazali in order to be disciples of Christ—Elder Maxwell’s overriding hope and chief desire for all women and men. But such projects are critical to the Institute’s mission. Thus, while not all of our work pertains directly to Mormonism, all of it commends and defends the faith and kingdom in a wider sense by manifesting core LDS values like these:

—Our scholarship is an outgrowth of the expansive vision of our founding prophet, Joseph Smith, whose revelations instruct us to seek learning by study and also by faith, to seek words of wisdom out of the best books. (D&C 88:118) Our thirteenth Article of Faith includes Paul’s admonition to seek things that are lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy. Or, As Elder Maxwell put it: “For a disciple of Jesus Christ, academic scholarship is a form of worship.”[6]

So what about that book we published, On Hemorrhoids? This takes us to the second point.

—Through our scholarship we teach by example that faithful believers can engage in the rigors of the academy without diminishing faith in the gospel while also increasing our understanding of the world and its history more broadly. By paying scrupulous attention to the best scholarly methods, we demonstrate the honesty and capability of church members in their fields of study. And in instances where we fall short of our ideals, we want to model the process of repentance and redemption, to pick ourselves up and try again.

—Above all, whether being directed more toward church members or toward the wider academy, we want all our work to embody what the Apostle Paul said he would be nothing without: Charity.

“Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away” (1 Corinthians 13:8).

Some apologists and scholars (and apologist-scholars) employ metaphors of war or sports to describe defending the faith or producing scholarship (or both). The metaphor of a basketball game is especially illustrative, not least because of the gender implications. I’ve written elsewhere on the imbalance of authors, women to men, in apologetics. as in the famous quote often attributed to Elder Maxwell that there should be no more “uncontested slam dunks” by critics of the church. We acknowledge the rich LDS history of vigorous defenses, sometimes witty, snarky, or even contentious, from the days of Joseph Smith to the present, and we expect to see it continue. At the same time, crafting a mission statement and institutional perspective always requires selection. Elder Maxwell left a rich repository from which to draw. Without having reached perfection, we are especially drawn to his direct counsel for scholars at BYU to recognize that they are under the same obligation as anyone else to “develop the attributes of patience and meekness.”[7]

Elder Maxwell’s counsel echoes 1 Peter 3:15, the most direct biblical verse pertaining to defending one’s faith:

“But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.” (Or, in the NRSV, “with gentleness and reverence.”)

This more than sports metaphors guides the Institute’s current approach.

In addition to more recent instruction from Brigham Young University administration about elevating our tone, we also look to the wise counsel offered in 1994 to one of our grandfather organizations, FARMS, by then-church commissioner of education Henry B. Eyring:

“Because you know that the value of your work lies less in convincing and more in inviting people to seek truth by prayer, you have exemplified another virtue. You have tried to be models of kindness in your dialogue with others, especially with those with whom you disagree. You know that a spirit of contention will drive away the very influence by which they can know truth. That has led you to shun ridicule. It has led you to avoid the temptation of playing to the already converted, seeking their applause by trying to make your adversary appear the fool. It is easy to gain the laughter of an appreciative crowd who delight to see the truth defended with boldness and strength, but you have remembered that the heart you wish to touch may hear derision in that laughter and so turn away. Your civility and gentleness could bless all associations of scholars, whatever they may be studying together.”

If smashmouth apologetics has a place, it isn’t at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute. We want civility and gentleness to infuse all of the work we produce for Latter-day Saints, as well as the scholarship we produce for the benefit of the wider academy and other religious traditions. We hope all of our work commends and defends the faith in the most appropriate way at the most appropriate time. This does not mean our work can’t include “sharpness,” or exactness in disagreement, but we believe “an increase of love” should inform our entire endeavor (see D&C 121:43).

One More Hand

As you can see by now, the Institute’s scholarship rejects “either/or” categorization (“faithful/scholarly” or “religious/secular”). In truth, there are porous borders all around. The Mormon Studies Review is directed unabashedly to the academy. Its contributors come from a variety of backgrounds not limited to Mormonism. It isn’t the place now for explicit testimony bearing. However, Latter-day Saints can gain much insight about their faith’s history, belief, and practice, even from scholars who do not hold the same faith commitments. The same is increasingly true of Studies in the Bible and Antiquity and the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. Our Living Faith book series, James Faulconer’s scripture study guides, and various articles and other works are directed to Latter-day Saints, but we subject them to the highest possible standards of academic responsibility and we try to infuse them with humility, as President Eyring directed.

You can see the boundaries blur a bit each summer when we host the Summer Seminar on Mormon Culture led by Richard Bushman and Terryl Givens. Young scholars, whether Mormon or not, can apply. there’s also the Mormon Theology Seminar, which focuses intensely on LDS scripture and produces new insights that can benefit church members and also scripture readers of many traditions and to scholars who study contemporary exegesis.

This overlap isn’t unusual in academic scholarship about religion, which is produced for a variety of reasons using a variety of assumption by a variety of believers, agnostics, and all sorts of people, all negotiating proper disciplinary methods. This is how scholarship works. The Institute recognizes itself in this description much more than those supermarket checkout stories that may entertain, but that fail to inform.

Does the Maxwell Institute still produce apologetics? Yes, especially in the senses just described.

All of the Maxwell Institute’s work should be analyzed and judged according to its own merits and by comparison to good scholarship everywhere, whether it was written by Latter-day Saints or not. We enjoy engagement and dialogue, we hope to foster disagreement and debate—especially when it is infused with the values of honesty, civility, meekness, and above all, charity. We’ll have more to say on this subject in the future. We didn’t invent these values, nor are we the only ones who strive to adhere to them. We claim no monopoly on the enterprise of commending and defending the faith or writing broader scholarship about religion. We encourage scholars everywhere to adhere to the highest canons of academic scholarship and above all to the ideal of charity. After the curtains come down and the lights go out and the scholars have all gone home for the night, we’ll either be left with charity, or we’ll be left with nothing.

Where apologetics crumble, where scholarship falters, charity abides.


1. After two and a half years we’ve created five journal issues (with two more coming at the end of the month), three new book series and about a dozen books, thirty-plus full-length podcast episodes, hundreds of blog posts, a re-created website, and an active social media presence. Not leaving out the books and digital publications from CPART and METI besides, which are no less important to us. Their work is as central as anything else we do.

2. Brian Birch is a professor of philosophy and religious studies at Utah Valley University. He defended apologetics as being one of many appropriate academic approaches for Mormon studies scholars in volume one of the re-launched Mormon Studies Review.

3. Julie M. Smith is an independent biblical scholar who has published in our Studies in the Bible and Antiquity, the Interpreter, and is working on a BYU New Testament Commentary volume.

4. Sneak preview: the next issue of Studies in the Bible and Antiquity includes a never-before-seen article by Hugh Nibley on the early Christian church, along with some analysis and commentary on Nibley’s work and legacy.

5. For instance, see Terryl Givens’s By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

6. Elder Neal A. Maxwell, “The Disciple-Scholar,” in On Becoming a Disciple-Scholar, ed. Henry B. Eyring (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1995), 7, emphasis added.

7. Elder Neal A. Maxwell, “Discipleship and Scholarship,” Annual Brigham Young University Conference, August 1975.

8. Henry B. Eyring, “The Marketplace of Ideas,” An address delivered at the annual FARMS banquet, 13 October, 1994. Another powerful address from an LDS authority was delivered by Robert D. Hales, “Christian Courage: The Price of Discipleship,” October 2008 General Conference.