Much as I lament the gathering storms, there will be some usefulness in them. Events will help to draw fresh attention to God’s higher ways and His kingdom, which is to ‘become fair as the sun, and clear as the moon’ (D&C 105:31). Therefore, in this hastened ripening process, let us not be surprised that the tares are looking more like tares all the time. During this time when nations are in distress, with perplexity, there will actually be some redemptive turbulence…”
Recent “turbulence” surrounding BYU’s Maxwell Institute provides the occasion for some preliminary reflections on “apologetics” and, more broadly, on the purposes and responsibilities of the intellectual life for those committed to the Restored Gospel.
I am a longtime consumer of (and sometimes minor contributor to) the astute apologetics provided by F.A.R.M.S., later absorbed by BYU as the Maxwell Institute. I am also a friend of Dan Peterson’s (who is on the Board of Advisors of this John Adams Center), and a former student and friend of Dan’s associate at the Mormon Studies Review, Louis Midgley — make that former associate at the former MSR. And I should mention that I am a friendly acquaintance of Gerald Bradford’s and, I trust, of John Dehlin, who was once a teaching assistant of mine, not to mention an intramural basketball teammate at BYU. (I’m about twenty years older and 9 inches shorter, so I appreciated being included on his team.)
Regarding the turbulence, then, let us first be clear on some basics.
Dan Peterson, a prolific, faithful, learned and reasonable LDS apologist (=defender) has been dismissed, along with his whole team (Louis Midgley, George Mitton and others) rather abruptly by Director Gerald Bradford as editor of the Mormon Studies Review (formerly F.A.R.M.S. Review), published by the Maxwell Institute. It seems clear that Peterson and Bradford have long had different visions of the basic mission and direction of the Review. (See this excellent discussion of these differences by William Hamblin.) What brought these differences to a critical head seems to have been the question of the publication of a long article by Greg Smith assessing the activities of John Dehlin, founder of “Mormon Stories.” Dehlin and his friends have repeatedly described the article as a “hit piece” against Dehlin. The definition of a “hit piece,” it is fair to suppose, is quite subjective, and in Dehlin’s case it seems to designate an article critical of and damaging to Dehlin’s project. (See this pertinent commentary). Dehlin has claimed that a General Authority of the Church agreed with him that the article was unfair and unhelpful, and that this was the source of the decision to suppress its publication at MSR.
What are we to make of this conjunction of events? John Dehlin would have us take it as a validation of his efforts to address LDS who doubt core beliefs or who otherwise feel marginalized from the LDS community. (What it means to “address” is a key question, of course. See below.) And so he and his friends would have us interpret the sacking of the MSR crew as evidence of support in high places (at Church headquarters and at BYU) for John Dehlin and his activities.
But the existence of such support is implausible on its face and is by no means proven by the known facts, namely, that an article critical of Dehlin’s activities was suppressed, and that, shortly thereafter, the MSR crew was sacked.
There are many possible reasons, reasons having nothing to do with any sympathy for John Dehlin’s project, for which one or more general authorities might find it advisable not to have an official organ of BYU publish information at the present time that is true (it should be said) and very damaging to John Dehlin. I invite the reader to consider for himself/herself what some such reasons might be.
The re-founding of the MSR (and, arguably of the Maxwell Institute) is obviously another question. The suppression of the Dehlin exposé seems to have become the occasion for Gerry Bradford to move the Institute decisively in a direction that he desired and Dan Peterson did not. But it should be known that Peterson and his staff expressed full willingness to comply with the instruction from above, even though they would have welcomed a further explanation. So Dan Peterson was not fired for irreconcilable differences on the specific issue of the Dehlin article.
What must be frustrating for the former editors of MSR is that Gerald Bradford has not, at least to anyone’s knowledge, read the Greg Smith piece on Dehlin. It does not seem, in fact, that the General Authority in question had read the piece when he gave the instruction to have it suppressed. (It is amusing, moreover, to contemplate the fact that none of those reveling on the internet about the suppression of the “hit piece” have actually read it.) This would suggest, not that there was something specifically objectionable in the article, but rather that someone judged best for BYU not to be publicly associated at this time with any strong criticism of John Dehlin, however reasonable or justified by the facts. So the suppression of the article does not by any means exclude the possibility that the article’s criticism of Dehlin was well-founded, or that the General Authority and his colleagues would agree with it. For all we know, Gerry Bradford himself might well endorse Smith’s argument, were he familiar with it.
The main point to be clear on, then, is that nothing in the unhappy story of the demise of Dan Peterson’s leadership at the Maxwell Institute justifies the claim that John Dehlin has found favor in high places, either at BYU or in SLC.
Let it be said, then, despite the free characterizations that have been offered on the internet by so many who have never read the article, that Greg Smith’s portrayal of John Dehlin’s project simply gathers and organizes facts, facts that any attentive person would be able to find by spending a few hours on the internet, in order to clarify the nature of that project and to refute misleading characterizations that make Dehlin appear more benign from an LDS point of view than he really is. Any attentive person interested in the truth would be able to find clear evidence that Dehlin himself is at best skeptical of LDS truth claims and that he clearly endorses a skeptical position on such claims, that Dehlin takes positions on questions of sexuality and sexual morality that are plainly incompatible with Church teachings, and that Dehlin is seeking to help organize alternative communities of “uncorrelated” “Mormons” based upon an understanding and practice of “Mormonism” different from and opposed to the authoritative understanding. (Of course, if you, reader, believe there is no “authoritative understanding,” then you have already adopted the heart of Dehlin’s position on this question.) Thus, in a podcast (#245) Dehlin once described on Facebook as a personal favorite, he dismisses the “bias” of the law of chastity and promotes the recommendation that the use of masturbation and of erotica be used to enhance marital intimacy and considered normal for teens. To a young woman who announced she had decided not to bother with the law of chastity, Dehlin responded pithily on his public Facebook page, “Love it.” No wonder that on a list of “Worst Talks Ever” by Church leaders that Dehlin recommends firm counsel on chastity by President Kimball and Elder Packer figures prominently.
The crux of the matter is that John Dehlin presents himself as a caring person with no axe to grind who simply wants to help people “transition” to wherever they’re going to transition to. I have no reason or inclination to contest John’s self-presentation as a person who sincerely wants to help. But of course the way one cares for another person is inevitably shaped by what one believes is good for that person, and therefore by what one believes is good. Since I believe in the truth of the Restored Gospel, and believe that the best way to care for people is to help them to obey the commandments and accept the authority of scriptures and prophets as they (as we) come to a fuller understanding of the Truth, I am skeptical of John Dehlin’s approach to supporting people in their “transitions.” Dehlin has said that he finds it very improbable that basic church teachings are true, and so he is clearly unqualified to lead people who feel marginalized by their doubts and/or by their behaviors back into full fellowship in and full commitment to the Restored Gospel. He can only lead people in the direction he himself has taken, whether they remain nominally or cultural “Mormon” or not, and Greg Smith’s alleged “hit piece” would have served simply to clarify what that direction is. (In his interview with the Larsens, ex-Mormons and atheists, Dehlin in fact acknowledges that, unlike their candid approach, his strategy exploits a certain “confusion” in order to create a place where struggling Mormons feel “safe” and then can learn the “facts” and “information” to make “an informed decision.” And we already know that for Dehlin being “informed” is not consistent with accepting basic Church teachings.)
John Dehlin would like to enjoy the advantages of being considered a true “Mormon” (thus for some time — but no longer — he advertised his possession of a temple recommend and the support of his local church leaders) at the same time as the support (including financial) and adulation of those attracted by his confirmed skepticism, his unabashed undermining of Church authorities, and his contradiction of the Church’s moral standards. Dehlin is free to doubt whatever to him seems doubtful: the historicity of the Book of Mormon and even the efficacy of the atonement or the very existence of Jesus Christ. He is free, indeed, to announce (as he did in May 2011) that he no longer attends church or accepts the Church’s fundamental truth claims. But to claim at the same time to be a supportive, listening ear for struggling LDS, a “transition” facilitator with no particular agenda, simply does not pass the straight face test. Greg Smith’s article, which Lou Midgley and Dan Peterson had proposed to publish, would have attacked nothing but this contradiction.
The quality of John Dehlin’s “facts” or “information,” which in fact reflect a quite remarkable faith in the writings of a certain Grant Palmer, and a curiously uncritical appreciation of Fawn Brodie’s much-critiqued work, is a question for another day. (“I’m not a reader by nature,” Dehlin averred in the interview with the Larsens, and there is in fact much evidence in support of this self-description.)
Let this suffice for now on the question of John Dehlin. Perhaps Greg Smith’s more detailed examination of his activities will come to light in another venue and another season when it will be more likely to reach those who need it without troubling or distracting those unlikely to understand it. The deep contradiction inherent in his rhetorical position do not bode well, in any case, for the stability and longevity of his enterprise, and so perhaps it is just as well to let this contradiction work itself to the surface without the help of the former editors of MSR – though one does worry about the unsteady souls who may be drawn into Dehlin’s spiritual dead-end in the meantime.
John Dehlin aside, then, we are left with the question of the mission of the Maxwell Institute and, more generally, of the respective roles of “apologetics” as opposed to something called “mainstream scholarship” at BYU and for faithful LDS scholars and thinkers more generally. [To be continued]