Adam Miller on “future tense apologetics”

12.05.2017 | The Maxwell Institute

Adam Miller introduces the next book of Proceedings of the Mormon Theology Seminar. Order your copy of A Dream, a Rock, and a Pillar of Fire: Reading 1 Nephi 1 here.
This new volume of Proceedings of the Mormon Theology Seminar marks an important turning point in the seminar’s history. A Dream, a Rock, and a Pillar of Fire: Reading 1 Nephi 1 collects the papers from the first live and in-person seminar co-sponsored by the Mormon Theology Seminar, the Maxwell Institute, and the Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies. The seminar was held in London in June, 2014. This edited volume is, in my estimation, good evidence of what the Seminar’s partnership with the Maxwell Institute is all about. The Maxwell Institute sits at the crossroads of Christian discipleship and rigorous scholarship and is dedicated to facilitating the work of “disciple-scholars.” For the disciple-scholar, academic research is itself a mode of discipleship, as Elder Neal A. Maxwell has said. This is especially true when the subject is religion. For Mormons, part of the work of a disciple-scholar is to actively defend the gospel of Jesus Christ and the broad principles that undergird it. But part of the work of the disciple-scholar is also to model Christian values in public discourse: to practice humility in the face of our limitations, to speak honestly and objectively about difficult topics, and to respond with charity and sensitivity to opposing points of view. In this respect, a disciple-scholar is as deeply defined by what they say as how they say it. An excellent example of disciple-scholarship at the Maxwell Institute is the Mormon Studies Review. By its own account, the Mormon Studies Review “tracks the vibrant, varied, and international academic engagement with Mormon institutions, lives, ideas, texts, and stories.” This kind of outward-facing and polyphonic scholarship that actively solicits and respectfully engages with non-Mormon points of view on topics in Mormon studies is valuable work in its own right. But this kind of work is also valuable—in fact, I would argue that it may be crucial, and increasingly so—when it comes to a disciple-scholar’s responsibility to actively defend the faith. This last claim may appear to be, on its face, unlikely. After all, the kind of scholarly work done in venues like the Mormon Studies Review engages, solicits, and encourages the participation of non-Mormons whose views on “Mormon institutions, lives, ideas, texts, and stories” will nearly always diverge, to one degree or another, from those taken for granted by many Mormons. More, it engages with these divergent points of view on straightforwardly academic terrain, guided by the norms of scholarship and academic freedom, and it conducts many of its discussions in technical, academic language. This is all true. But there is more than one way to defend the gospel. And, in fact, when it comes to a disciple-scholar’s responsibility to defend their faith, it seems to me that this apologetic work can—and needs to be—conducted in more than just one tense. Traditionally, apologetic work is conducted primarily in the present tense. Present tense apologetics is geared toward meeting immediate challenges that require strong and clear responses. As an act love for both friends and enemies, this often-combative style of present tense apologetics can be valuable. But a present tense apologetics is, by itself, not enough. Disciple-scholars, as scholars, can also contribute to a wider, deeper, and farther-reaching defense of their faith by practicing what I would describe as a future tense apologetics. A future tense form of apologetics isn’t primarily concerned with rebutting immediate challenges to a Mormon point of view. Rather, a future tense apologetics is primarily concerned with generating the kinds of raw scholarly materials, stockpiling the kinds of intellectual resources, and building the kinds of professional, interfaith relationships that will serve our children and grandchildren when they find themselves in need of allies and confronted with challenges that we couldn’t foresee. If the present tense apologist is a warrior, the future tense apologist is a farmer. There is a time and place for warriors. But, generally, it seems obvious to me that the principal work of a disciple-scholar is the less dramatic work of slowly and carefully cultivating ground, seeding furrows, and irrigating land. The work of the disciple-scholar is to plant trees that may only bear fruit long after we’re gone. The work done in venues like the Mormon Studies Review is a form of future tense apologetics. Generally, this kind of scholarship does not respond combatively to immediate challenges. Rather, this kind of scholarship is a long-term investment in Mormonism’s future. It’s an investment in our children and grandchildren. And, as with all such investments, it will likely require patience and forbearance while, in the short term, it may only feel like an expense. A future tense apologetics needs room to grow and decades to mature. It takes time to forge meaningful relationships, build shared vocabularies, discover if our differences with others are real or only apparent, and sift productive approaches from those that won’t bear fruit. This work isn’t easy. But it is, I think, worth our time and dedication. From the very beginning, I’ve conceived of the work done by the Mormon Theology Seminar along these same lines: we’re making a long term investment in a decades long project. The papers collected in this new volume, A Dream, a Rock, and a Pillar of Fire: Reading 1 Nephi 1, are beautiful and valuable in themselves. But I also strongly suspect that their value will increase dramatically over time as the work done in this seminar is tested and amplified by the work done in dozens more.