Devotional Intellectualism

Daniel Peterson: Meet the Latter-day Saint Apologist

Apologetics should not become combative, let alone exclusive and hateful. The goal isn’t to defeat enemies, but to defend and commend truth.

Daniel Peterson is one of today’s most prominent Latter-day Saint apologists. As the President of the Interpreter Foundation, Peterson has overseen publications such as an 800-page volume of Hugh Nibley stories, and a weekly academic journal called Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship. In this interview, the prolific Patheos blogger gives readers a glimpse of his history, explains apologetics, and discusses Krister Stendahl’s concept of “holy envy.” Daniel Peterson also shares a list of some of today’s prominent Latter-day Saint apologists.

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Who is Daniel C. Peterson?

I was born in Pasadena, California, and raised in nearby San Gabriel.  I attended Brigham Young University as an undergraduate, taking time off to serve in the Switzerland, Zürich Mission.

After graduation, wanting to spend some time in the Middle East, I participated in a BYU Jerusalem study abroad program led by my friend. Then I briefly returned home in order to marry Deborah Stephens, of Lakewood, Colorado.

I enjoy speculating as much as anybody, and I’m happy to suggest and to hypothesize. But we should be aware of what we don’t actually know

Almost immediately thereafter — she was very brave and trusting! — we headed off to Egypt, where I studied at the American University in Cairo and she was fortunate enough to land a job teaching at Cairo American College.  Our eldest son was born there in Cairo.

After returning from Egypt — where we ended up staying for four years (punctuated by summer trips home) rather than the initial plan of merely one year — I completed a doctorate in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).

To my great good fortune, BYU was trying at that very time to strengthen and expand its faculty in Middle Eastern Studies — the University’s then quite controversial Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies was under construction — and I received an invitation to come to Provo.  (So I never had to endure the extremely competitive academic “meat market.”)

I joined the BYU faculty as a part-time instructor, working on my dissertation, in the fall of 1985.

While in graduate school, I had already become interested in a still-new organization, loosely affiliated with BYU, called the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS).  In 1988, I believe, Jack Welch (aka John W. Welch) invited me to become formally involved with it.

What led Dan Peterson to initially pursue college degrees in Greek and Philosophy?

I had a multitude of conflicting plans.  I still do.  I’m like the stereotypical kid in a toy store.  There are so many glittering things to look at and to try!

I arrived at BYU as a mathematics major, dreaming rather vaguely of being a cosmologist.  (I had a life-size poster on my dorm wall of Albert Einstein riding a bicycle.)  I soon decided, however, that mathematics and physics weren’t my real passion.  (I’ve never altogether lost my interest in them, though.  I don’t think it a coincidence that my doctoral dissertation focused on the cosmological theories of an eleventh-century Arabic Neoplatonist philosopher.)

In high school, I had begun reading Hugh Nibley, and I was fascinated with what I was learning from him about antiquity. And then I found that a dorm neighbor and good friend — still a good friend today—was taking a class in ancient Greek. That inspired me. And philosophy — the “Big Issues”—had always intrigued me.

Moreover, I had been captivated by a series of four public lectures by Truman Madsen at a regional “BYU Education Week” in southern California—on “existentialism,” “logical positivism,” “Marxism,” and some other “-ism” that I’ve since forgotten.

(My experience at that Education Week, which included not only Truman Madsen but Hugh Nibley, Robert Matthews, Daniel Ludlow, Lynn Mackinlay, and, rather amazingly, Bruce R. McConkie, was pivotal for me; I don’t know that I would have applied for admission to BYU without it.)

So, anyway, I eventually focused on classical Greek and philosophy at BYU.  I can’t imagine that my parents were precisely thrilled with my choice of such an impractical study program.

In retrospect, I realize how remarkably tolerant and supportive they were.

What does Daniel Peterson do in his role as an apologist?

The Greek word from which our English term apologetics derives means “defense.” The notion of saying that one is “sorry” is a much later linguistic development.  (In Plato’s Apology, his hero Socrates offers a vigorous and even rather cheeky defense of the philosophical activity for which he was soon to be put to death.  He doesn’t come within light years of expressing any regret for it.)

As apologetics has developed, though, it’s not only about defense.  It’s also about presenting affirmative arguments for the truth (or richness, or beauty, or goodness, or helpfulness) of a position or belief.

And, honestly, that’s my favorite kind.

I understand that it’s often necessary to try to refute or neutralize criticisms, but I find it a great deal more gratifying to be able to lay out positive reasons for belief.

My own current role in apologetics is both to be an apologist myself and to use whatever capabilities I have to support, publish, and distribute the apologetic work of others.

To those ends, I write regular newspaper columns (for Salt Lake City’s Deseret News) and other articles, maintain a blog, and work, when I can spare the moments to do so, on several large manuscripts that I hope to finish before I depart this vale of tears.

I also serve as president and chairman of the board of the Interpreter Foundation which publishes weekly articles in its online journal, records podcasts, publishes the occasional book and convenes the occasional conference, has now launched a regular Sunday evening radio program (at 7PM on Salt Lake City’s K-Talk, 1640 AM), and has begun to enter into film production.

Part of my role, alas, is fundraising.  While we’re overwhelmingly a volunteer operation, there are unavoidable expenses.

What kinds of benefits can religious believers derive from apologetics?

Although secular arguments can never replace internal spiritual conviction, having well-thought-out reasons for our beliefs can help us in advocating and defending those beliefs to non-believers. And having such reasons can also help believers themselves at moments when they may be feeling distant from the Spirit — as we all do, at points during our lives — or when they’re being challenged by critics or doubters.

Moreover, evidences for the claims of the Restoration are simply interesting, and gratifying.  Even for Saints with firm testimonies.

I grew up in a part-member family. My mother often attended sacrament meetings and was more or less active in other regards, but, for most of my youth and childhood, she was a fairly marginal Mormon. My father had been raised a Lutheran, but never attended either Lutheran or Latter-day Saint services after he left his home in North Dakota. 

As I grew up, though, and began to find the Gospel compelling, I wanted my father to be baptized.  So we began to talk about the claims of the Restoration. Later, after his baptism, he told me that it was his reading of Hugh Nibley that began to plant the notion in his mind that, in fact, Mormonism might actually be true.

Daniel Peterson tells stories about Hugh Nibley.

Who are some of today’s prominent Latter-day Saint apologists?

Oh, there are so many people doing interesting work that I hate to single any out in particular, because I’ll inescapably omit people that I should have mentioned.

Daniel Peterson’s list of prominent apologists

John Sorenson

John Sorenson’s work on the Book of Mormon’s comfortable fit with Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica has been a significant influence on my thinking.

John Gee

John Gee is the scholar most prominently working on the Book of Abraham.

John Welch

The incomparable John Welch has been active, with the energy of three or four extraordinary men, in a host of areas, including not only the Book of Mormon but the New Testament, the Doctrine and Covenants, Latter-day Saint history, and beyond.

Louis Midgley

I appreciate the work of Louis Midgley on the assumptions behind various ways of doing Mormon history, as well as his deep love for, and fascination with, the Maori people of New Zealand and their intriguing spiritual traditions.

Matthew Bowen

Matthew Bowen has been publishing arresting work on apparent Hebrew word plays in the Book of Mormon.

Jeff Bradshaw

Jeffrey Mark Bradshaw, often using a framework derived from Latter-day Saint temple worship, brings extraordinary fresh perspectives to the study of the scriptures.

Brian Stubbs

I’m fascinated with the research that Brian Stubbs has been pursuing on seeming ancient influence of Semitic and Egyptian languages on the Uto-Aztecan languages of the New World.

Royal Skousen and Stanford Carmack

Royal Skousen and Stanford Carmack have been demonstrating the (to me) humanly inexplicable presence of Early Modern English in the original text of the English Book of Mormon.

William Hamblin

William Hamblin has always brought surprising insights to his work on Mormonism.

Black Ostler and David Paulsen

Blake Ostler and David Paulsen have written brilliantly, both together and separately, on topics suggesting the largely-unexplored theological richness and depth of Mormonism.

Scott Gordon

Scott Gordon has served for many years now as the impresario of remarkable activity at FairMormon.

And many others

It’s an exciting time to be a believing Latter-day Saint, and I’m grateful to all of these people—and to many others whom I haven’t mentioned—for their contributions.

Do flawed apologetics ever repel both Latter-day Saints and those from other faiths?

Absolutely. And unfortunately. Religious claims are controversial, and it’s all too easy for discussions concerning them to become, in Book of Mormon language, contentious.

We who have been blessed with the Gospel should never think that that blessing, in itself, proves us better than others.  It certainly grants us no license to be unchristian or uncharitable.  We’ve been given a magnificent divine gift, and we should be humble about it.

Debates about religion can very quickly become ego-driven games of one-upmanship.  (It’s noteworthy, I think, that relatively few women are involved in apologetics.  While religious truth is surely at least as important to women as to men, I worry that discussions about where it is to be found are too often aggressively male-driven and competitive, perhaps because they’re too often testosterone-fueled.)

Apologetics should not become combative, let alone exclusive and hateful. The goal isn’t to defeat enemies, but to defend and commend truth.

What is the role of saying, “We don’t know,” in apologetics? Are there benefits associated with openly identifying the limits of research? Dangers?

I enjoy speculating as much as anybody, and I’m happy to suggest and to hypothesize. But we should be aware of what we don’t actually know — which is considerable; in this life, we “see through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12) — and, where appropriate, we should candidly acknowledge it.

That’s not only the right thing to do, but prudent policy:  If we’re open and straightforward, we build credibility.

Here’s an analogy:  Two or three generations ago, many Latter-day Saints were upset with Juanita Brooks for her willingness to pursue the evidence where it led with regard to the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre. Unfortunately, it led to the fact that a number of Church members bore responsibility for that horrific mass murder. And Sister Brooks, a believing member herself, said so.

But her integrity in that regard also gave her credibility when she denied accusations that Brigham Young had ordered the killings. People knew that she was committed to the truth, and, therefore, that she wasn’t simply trying to protect Brigham.

Are there dangers to acknowledging that, sometimes, we just don’t know?  To admitting that there remain questions for which we have no definitive answer? Almost certainly yes.

Some will conclude that no answer is to be had, or that there is an answer and that it’s lethal to the claims of the Restoration.

At the best of times, even when we’re quite confident of what we’re saying, some will find our arguments unconvincing.  (We rarely claim a “slam dunk,” but there are some positions and arguments of which I’m very, very confident.)

Some will fail to be converted or, even more sadly, will lose their confidence in the Gospel and the Church. That’s the way life is, though. Even in the Savior’s case — and his was a much more persuasive voice than any of us can ever expect to have — the majority of his audience in Jerusalem and the Galilee rejected his claims. And some of those who had once accepted those claims eventually abandoned them.  (See John 6:66-68.)

Will Daniel Peterson publish a new book about Latter-day Saints and Islam?

I’m working on a substantial revision of Abraham Divided, which went through two editions with Aspen Books, but which hasn’t been revisited for roughly two decades or so.  (The leaders of that now-defunct press requested the book from me.)

It will be so substantial a revision, in fact — both bringing it up to date and extending it beyond the Arabs to treat such Muslim but non-Arab countries as Turkey, Afghanistan, Indonesia, and Iran, which have become much more urgently important to an American audience since I first wrote the book — that I regard it as new enough to merit a different title.

It won’t be merely a third edition.

Certain folks at Deseret Book requested for years that I prepare a revised and updated version for them.  I’ve taken a long time to get to it, but I’m assuming that it will still be picked up by Deseret Book when I’m finally finished with it.

What are some common misperceptions Latter-day Saints have about Muslims?

Mormons are no different, probably, than many others in their misperceptions or misunderstandings of Islam. Many are surprised to learn that Islam is a cousin faith to Christianity and Judaism.

The word Allah, for example, is simply the Arabic equivalent of the English God, not the name of a distinctly Islamic “false god.”  It isn’t a name for a different deity, like Zeus or Apollo or Vishnu.  Instead, it’s the term that’s used in Arabic translations of the Bible (and of the uniquely Latter-day Saint scriptures).  It is, in fact, closely related to the familiar Hebrew word Elohim.  (Remove the masculine plural ending of that word, -im, and you’re left with Eloh-, which should make the similarity unmistakably obvious.)

 Another widespread misconception — it’s all too easy, unfortunately, to see how it has arisen — is that all Muslims, at least the devout and serious ones—are violent, intolerant, and hate Christians.

The fact is, though, that only a relatively small minority of the world’s Muslims are violent or violence-supporting extremists. Islam has something on the order of 1.5 billion adherents; if all of them, or even a sizeable proportion of them, were really out to kill us, we would be in a much more grievous situation than, in fact, we are.

Moreover, Islam’s historical record of tolerance for Jews, Christians, and even Hindus is at least comparable to (and arguably, for many periods, considerably better than) that of Christendom.

How do you respond to reports of Latter-day Saints feeling the Spirit in mosques?

I’m not at all surprised at the idea of a Latter-day Saint feeling the Spirit in a mosque or during a khutba sermon.  I have, myself. We all resonate to truth, and there’s a very great deal in Islam that Mormons would recognize as true.

They believe in a God who created the Earth purposefully, in order to test us.  He placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, where they succumbed to the temptations of Satan.  A series of prophets followed, calling to repentance and, when apostasy distorted authentic teachings, restoring the truth.  These prophets include such familiar figures as Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus.

Although Muslims deny the divinity of Christ, they do regard him as a sinless prophet, born of a virgin, who will return at the end of time as part of the Last Judgment.  We will all be resurrected and will stand before God for judgment, with some of us going to Paradise and others . . . not.

I could go on and on, but I think my point is reasonably clear.

Moreover, as to feeling the Spirit in a mosque (or a cathedral or a synagogue), I think that genuine devotion sanctifies a place.  The Lord is no respecter of persons, and he honors those who genuinely, sincerely seek him — as many Muslims plainly do.

What does Daniel Peterson admire about Islam?

There are several things that I might mention, but, in keeping with your request, I’ll limit my answer to one:

I admire the willingness of many Muslims to make their faith not only a regular daily component of their lives but one that punctuates each day.

They are helped in this by the fact that many — particularly, but not only, Muslim women — dress in an outward way that leaves others in no doubt as to their spiritual commitment and that reminds them of it, as well. Their dietary requirements (e.g., no pork and no alcohol) also remind them and others of their faith.

Additionally, the five daily Islamic prayers, if performed as they’re supposed to be, mean that much of a Muslim’s day is structured around prayer itself, as well as getting ready for prayer or returning to the secular world from prayer.

I actually think that Latter-day Saints do rather well in terms of making their faith a part of daily life rather than merely something taken care of during a few hours on Sunday.

We too have restrictions, in the Word of Wisdom, that prohibit us from smoking, drinking, alcohol, and even partaking of coffee and tea.  Such rules regularly remind us (and others) of who we are. We too wear particular (though less obvious) clothing designed, among other things, to remind us of our commitments and promises.

But the Muslim community offers us a good challenge to see where we might be able to do even better. We’re supposed to “pray always,” for example.  How are we doing on this?

I love Qur’an 5:48, which I’ll quote in my own quick translation.  God is speaking, and the reference is to different religions (especially Islam, Christianity, and Judaism):

To each of you, We prescribed a law and a path.  Had God willed, he could have made you one community.  But [He didn’t], so that he might test you in what He has given to you.  So vie with one another in good works.  To God all of you will return, and He will inform you then regarding the matters about which you once differed.

What did Krister Stendahl teach about holy envy?

There’s a story about Krister Stendahl, a great New Testament scholar who was serving, at the time, as the Lutheran bishop of Stockholm, Sweden. (He had previously served as dean of Harvard Divinity School.)

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had announced the construction of a temple near Stockholm and, as always happens, there was opposition.  Many in Sweden wanted to know the position of the Swedish Lutheran Church on the controversy, so Rev. Dr. Stendahl was bombarded with questions concerning it.

What many didn’t know was that he had lectured at Brigham Young University, had several good Mormon friends (including Truman and Ann Madsen), and had even once or twice published articles about Mormonism.  (He passed away some years ago, but you can still see portions of an interview with him in a film that’s shown at temple open houses; he’s talking, approvingly, of the Latter-day Saint practice of vicarious baptism for the dead.)

Anyway, Dr. Stendahl called a press conference.  And if, as I’ve heard, he called it for a Mormon chapel near the temple site, he was already tipping his hand.

Let the Mormons build their temple, he said.  Why on earth should Lutherans oppose it? But then, more interestingly, he went on to lay out three principles for dealing with religions or worldviews different than our own.

1. Ask the religion, not its enemies.

First, he said, don’t go immediately to its enemies to learn about another religion or philosophy.  You can always do that later, if you wish.  But you should first go to its adherents, to those who love it, to try to understand what they love about it.  What in it do they find attractive, compelling, worthy of devotion?  If you don’t know that — and his principle doesn’t require that you agree or accept their view — you don’t really understand the philosophy or religion in question.

2. Don’t compare your best with their worst

Second, Stendahl told his audience, don’t compare your best with the other person’s worst.  (Apples and oranges, right?)  It isn’t fair to say “You guys have Osama bin Laden, and we have Mother Teresa of Calcutta.”  Christendom has its villains, after all, and Islam has its saints.

3. Leave room for holy envy

Third — and, to me, most interestingly—he advised everybody to always leave room for what he called “holy envy.”  What do people in this other tradition do well?  What can we learn from them?  Even if we don’t want to switch religions or change ideologies, is it possible that others might have something to teach us?

I love this principle. It goes far beyond mere tolerance, according to which I hold my nose and graciously allow you to exist. Tolerance is essential, of course.  But it’s not good enough. We should be seeking to benefit from the existence of others unlike ourselves, to learn from differences.

The world is full of songs and foods that I didn’t grow up with, landscapes and views that I haven’t seen, books that I haven’t read, and ideas that I haven’t yet heard.  The world’s variety provides us, again, an unspeakably rich menu of choices.

Stendahl himself expressed envy for the Latter-day Saint idea of vicarious work for the dead, remarking that, while Mormons do this out of love for their ancestors and for others long gone, in his own tradition even great-grandparents are essentially forgotten, as if they never existed.

I’ve experienced feelings of “holy envy”—they come to me as, in a sense, gentle rebukes for my own failings—with regard to such things as the Orthodox Jewish love of the Sabbath, so very different from the cold and unreasonable legalism that I had grown up imagining it to be, and Roman Catholic respect for the priesthood, which sharply reminds me that I too often take my own ordination for granted.

There are many practices and attitudes in the world of Islam, too, that, in my judgment, can teach Latter-day Saints to better live the principles of the Restoration.

Did you enjoy this interview?

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Further reading

Daniel Peterson BYU resources

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

5 replies on “Daniel Peterson: Meet the Latter-day Saint Apologist”

Great quick synopsis about a great man. Dan is right in league with such notables as Hugh Nibley and Robert J. Matthews, in my estimation.

I’ve read Daniel Peterson for years, listened to him speak and even had a few brief visits. I’ve found him to be wise and thought-provoking. He loves people and stimulating discussion. He is one of the great treasures of contemporary Latter-day Saint thought.

The thing is, the evidence is what it is.

And the reality is, that without burning bosom — and with or without Dan Peterson or BYU-NMI or the Interpreter or FAIR or the church essays or the high-powered Mormon intellectuals — the evidence just doesn’t seem to be all that persuasive.

And with the burning bosom, the evidence really doesn’t even matter.

But there’s only so much that Dan Peterson can do. Or BYU-NMI. Or FAIR. Or John Sorenson.

The reality is, the evidence really does justify honest and careful, fully informed and legitimate negative conclusions about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon and Mormonism. And even about the burning bosom itself. (And also about the Bible and Jesus and Christianity.)

Even if some Mormon intellectuals like to pretend that those Mormon burning bosom feelings (or whatever your religious or “spiritual” experience) are really more than just “feelings.”

Even if they like to pretend that ‘tastes really good and vibrates really deeply’ is some sort of unique and specific test for the “Holy Ghost” way beyond just “feelings.” And that somehow doesn’t even require a prior assumption that the Holy Ghost even exists as a real thing… it’s just a “test” and it confirms the Holy Ghost.

But the really good things is, if Mormonism makes you happy and improves the quality of your life and death and family — and as long as you don’t hurt anybody else with it — does it really make much difference that it’s false? Or whether or not it’s false? Or whether Jesus died for your sins? Or whether there really was an “empty tomb”?

As long as Mormonism can adapt to a Jesus who never comes back, it’ll do just fine. It’s not going anywhere.

The declining activity rate within the Mormon church may finally level off at 20-25%, but that’s enough. Plus, even with the steadily declining growth rate of Mormon membership, even that will produce real “growth” and require new chapels and new mini-temples.

Eventually, active Mormons may well comprise even less than the 0.000658 of the world’s population they now do, but that’s fine, too. Mormonism will compete just fine with other proselytizing churches, especially in black Africa. All is well in Zion.

Indeed — and however ironic it might be — black Africa is the very future of Mormonism. The future for Mormonism is bright, especially in the developing world.

With or without Dan Peterson or Mormon apologetic or the church “Gospel Topic Essays,” the Mormon church will do just fine. It’s hard not to admire the genius of Joseph Smith.

You are welcome to your opinion of what the evidence indicates and if it doesn’t convince you, and you prefer not to believe in a supreme being, you will not find yourself forced to do so and you can live your life as you choose, and hopefully, as you say, without hurting anybody.
But for those who have felt the “burning in the bosom” that you discount, and that know it is real and that such wording is simply an expression from scripture used to convey some meaning of the feeling of the power of the Holy Spirit within a person’s soul, it conveys truth and certainty better than any science or philosophizing by a million times. When the power of God is on one, they know. Those who haven’t experienced it don’t. It is as simple as that. You are in the “haven’t” category and are welcome to it. I am in the “have” (many times) category, and won’t give it up for all the unenlightened and uninspired reasoning in the world.
External evidence supports faith and spiritual knowledge that is obtained first, not the other way around.
If you can exercise no faith, you can never know what Dan Peterson knows or what I know or what millions of Mormons know. It is beyond your ability to obtain without humility and faith. And since that is how you like it, again, you are welcome to it.

Doctor Peterson,
I listened to a podcast with John Bytheway and Hank Smith and you mentioned a translation of the bible that is easier to understand. Which translation is it?

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