In a recent blog comment Ben Park describes “a different approach to apologetics,” apparently favored by some young scholars. He describes it by quoting Richard Bushman:
These younger scholars have a new attitude toward Mormon apologetics. They are no longer so interested in defending the faith in the old sense. In the time of Nibley, the aim of scholarship was to prove Mormonism true. In the new age, the aim of Mormon scholarship is to find the truth about Mormonism. Among the scholars writing today are many who are as proud of the Church, as interested in its flourishing, and as committed to its mission as the previous age, but they follow a new maxim, voiced tellingly by James Faulconer: Richness is the new proof. Rather than attempting scientific proofs of Mormonism as a previous age tried to do, they point to its cultural depth, its scope, its usefulness, in short, its richness. The unspoken assumption of this rising group is that Mormonism will flourish best if its true nature is uncovered and investigated, not if it is proven perfect and infallible. (http://www.juvenileinstructor.org/the-new-mormon-studies-review/, comment 26.)
We need to begin with a couple of clarifications. No apologist I know tries to “prove Mormonism is true.” No apologist I know believes there are any “scientific proofs of Mormonism.” (There can be no “scientific” proof of history–which cannot be empirically investigated since the past no longer exists–nor of religious claims, which are inherently parahistorical.) No apologist I know claims the church is “perfect and infallible.” All Apologists I know reject the possibility of establishing such proof using any known scholarly method. Second, if Mormonism is indeed “true,” then understanding that fact is indeed “finding the truth about Mormonism.” In other words, the “truth about Mormonism” may well be that “Mormonism is true.” To me, Bushman’s description of “old” apologetics is a straw man caricature.
Let’s turn to Park’s claim (via Faulconer) that “richness is the new proof” of the new apologetics. First of all, richness is not a methodology, and there is no academic by which one can discover richness. It is a quality–and a subjective quality at that–that one finds or fails to find in a text, or a religion, or a piece of music. There is simply no way to define “richness” or determine if a text is rich or not. It is really not at all uncommon for one person to discover richness where another finds only banality.
When I study the scriptures of other religions, I inevitably discover that believers maintain that their scriptures are “rich.” Indeed, one could argue that if a text does not possess richness, it will never succeed as scripture. Muslims find “richness” in the Qur’an. Hindus find “richness” in the Bhagavad-Gita. Buddhist find “richness” in the Dhammapada. And, when I read those books, I find great richness there too. Is my discovery of this richness in the Qur’an sufficient, or even a moderately valid reason to believe that Muhammad is prophet? For that matter, I find the works of Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton to be incredibly rich. So? Does it mean their works are scripture? Does it mean Milton was a prophet of God? Does that mean their works are even inspired by God? While one may be able to argue that if a text is not rich it can not be scripture, it does not follow that if a text is rich, it must be scripture.
Of course the discovery of the richness of the Book of Mormon and other LDS scripture is hardly something new. People have been doing this since 1829 when they first read the dictated manuscript. In a methodological sense, richness is a part of the broader argument from complexity, which has been used in Book of Mormon studies for decades. The problem here is that, even if a scholar believes he discovers richness in a text, it doesn’t “prove” anything except that the scholar believes that the text is “rich.” Park’s claim that “richness is the new proof,” is, upon reflection, a vacuous one. For richness, in and of itself, proves nothing.
So, let’s imagine that Park were able to demonstrate to everyone’s satisfaction that the Book of Mormon is indeed “rich.” What would that “prove”? That the book is ancient history? That it is authentic revelation? That Jesus is the Christ? That the book is “inspired fiction”? That Joseph Smith was a literary genius? That people who accept a text as scripture inevitably discover richness in that text? Or merely that an individual reader believes the text is rich based on a subjective evaluation?
Given its problematic nature, what exactly does the claim “richness is the new proof” really mean? And why would adopting an apologetics of richness require that we abandon all other apologetic endeavors?