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Saturday, June 19, 2004

"Orthodox Intellectualism" and the "Anti-Contention" Tradition 

by Aaron B
The latest issue of Sunstone magazine contains the most interesting article to grace its pages in some time. Entitled "Defending the Kingdom, Rethinking the Faith: How Apologetics is Reshaping Mormon Orthodoxy," its author, John-Charles Duffy, argues that the "orthodox intellectuals" of Mormonism, while defending the faith and sparring with its critics, are simultaneously expanding the scope of Mormon orthodoxy in beneficial ways. Duffy contrasts "orthodox intellectuals" such as Stephen Robinson and the FARMS authors with "hard-liners" (orthodox non-intellectuals?) like Joseph Fielding McConkie. Orthodox intellectuals sometimes accommodate the wisdom of the world into their religious views and strive to square LDS understandings with secular knowledge, all the while maintaining certain boundaries so as not to become "liberal" Mormons or "revisionists." Hard-liners reject such a project, believing it to be misguided, and perhaps even harmful. Duffy concludes:

"I do not anticipate that orthodox intellectuals will persuade mainstream academics to take LDS faith claims seriously, nor do I anticiate that they will convince mainline Christians to stop challenging LDS claims to the Christian label. However, orthodox intellecuals have been remarkably successful at promoting their progressive orthodoxy within the Church."

How have they done this? Think of the debates about hemispheric vs. limited Book of Mormon geography, greater acceptance of evolutionary biology, modified LDS understandings of Biblical mistranscription ("it's really just about the canon"), etc. If this reminds anyone of Kaimi Wenger's "Elite Religion and Common Religion" thread at T&S, it should. Although the theses are different, many of the same themes and specific examples are present in both.

I really liked this article. It squared with many of my own observations about Mormon apologetics. Not that I wouldn't quibble with a few things: I don't share Duffy's a priori rejection of Book of Mormon historicity (not that this matters to his thesis). Also, I feel like overt psychoanalysis of academic motives belongs on Oprah Winfrey, rather than in a magazine article. Nevertheless, the broad claims of the article resonated with me. (Footnote 201 is one of my dead horses!)

This could serve as a springboard for a lot of issues, but here's the one for today: Duffy talks about the "anti-intellectual" tradition within Mormonism (which he rejects) and the "anti-contention" tradition (with which he sympathisizes). He thinks that on balance, the effect of orthodox intellectualism on Mormonism is positive, but in its vitriolic FARMS manifestation, it has had to "develop an apologia for apologetics itself." That is, the FARMS authors have needed to justify the scathing, sarcastic, polemical (insert lots of other adjectives here) quality of their rhetoric, in light of various scriptural, prophetic and apostolic admonitions ostensibly opposed to their project (but not universally so), and this hasn't been an easy row for them to how. Duffy thinks the scriptural grounds for jettisoning the anti-contention tradition in Mormonism are somewhat problematic, though perhaps not insurmountable.

I must confess that I personally am not as sympathetic to the anti-contention tradition as Duffy. I like rhetorical fireworks more than most people. I really enjoy reading the FARMS Review for this reason alone. I like to pick verbal fights. I don't necessarily wear that as a badge of honor; it is merely an empirical observation about myself (which other Bloggernaclites occasionally get to see on display). But at the same time, I think Duffy has a point; there is no denying the scriptural and prophetic injunction against "contention."

So what should we make of this? Is "contention" a bad thing that becomes a necessary evil only in certain contexts (be that a context of "defending the faith," or any other)? Or is "contention" sometimes bad, but sometimes an unqualified good? Or is the problem that "contention" lacks a precise definition, whose parameters haven't been thoroughly explored, and typical rhetoric about "avoiding contention" is therefore tired and simplistic?

You tell me.

Aaron B
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