Skip to content

But can apologetics of care override the facts?

July 29, 2014

At Faith Promoting Rumor, smallaxe has written an article discussing the apologetics of care. This is not the first article to discuss a move away from the traditional sort of apologetics, as Seth Payne presented on pastoral apologetics at FAIR’s 2013 conference. (I thought I recalled some posts at By Common Consent or Times and Seasons with a similar emphasis, but I can’t find them now.)

The pastoral/care view reframes disaffection away from the intellectual issues (after all, there are plenty of people who know all the “problem spots” of Mormonism and yet stay) by situating it onto the social. Disaffection is not so much about finding out that the church isn’t true as it is finding out that the church doesn’t fit. From smallaxe’s post:

An apologetics of care seeks to reconfigure the context that induces feelings such as frustration, fear, and anger. It does not seek to remove these feelings since they serve important moral functions (frustration can signal, for instance, the fact that something valuable cannot be tended to); rather it seeks to validate these feelings through a process of sympathy (discussed below). An apologetics of care recognizes that people are relational beings seeking concern, comfort, and communion often before seeking an answer to a question. It recognizes that answers to intellectual concerns, provided without tending to the relationships they invoke, all too often fail to recognize the reasons for anger and frustration. The question of Joseph’s polyandry, for instance, isn’t simply a question about how a prophet could marry a woman who is already married to someone else and still be a prophet; rather it is also tied to our relationships with church leaders (why haven’t the leaders of the church discussed this more openly?) and/or our relationship with our spouse (will I have to share my spouse with someone else in the eternities?), among others. An apologetics of care seeks to recognize the fact of vulnerability—the things we care about most, our relationships with others, are by nature vulnerable to other forces in the world, but they are also vulnerable to our changing beliefs. Care apologetics is apologetic in the sense of decreasing the need for frustration and anger by eliminating the space of fear and loneliness. It provides reasons for people to stay by recognizing vulnerability as shared—that we care when someone else hurts, even if we cannot fully understand their pain.

I like this approach. Even though I understand that many disaffected folks would disagree with me, I think that many instances of disaffection ultimately are not about “the facts” as much as they are about more emotional or personal considerations. For example, with issues of gender equality, LGBT issues, racial issues, and so on, it seems clearer to me to understand that these are issues in terms of the church’s engagement with people. These aren’t intellectual concerns (although one can certain place them in an intellectual framework. Where I’d go one step further is to say that even an issue with translation methods or historical recollection isn’t so much an issue with the fact as to say, a sense of betrayal. A sense that an institution that was viewed as ultimately trustworthy just doesn’t seem trustworthy anymore. How can one have faith — in a sense of faith as loyalty, when one doesn’t find the thing the faith was placed in to be worth being loyal to?

So, I like how smallaxe frames the issue. The question of Joseph’s polyandry, for instance, isn’t simply a question about how a prophet could marry a woman who is already married to someone else and still be a prophet; rather it is also tied to our relationships with church leaders (why haven’t the leaders of the church discussed this more openly?) and/or our relationship with our spouse (will I have to share my spouse with someone else in the eternities?), among others.

However, my issue with this sort of approach — as it is with most apologetic approaches — is that I just don’t think it can square with the facts.

I don’t mean, say, the facts of polyandry.

I mean the facts of many wards, the facts of church culture, the facts of how the church presents itself.

smallaxe says:

In my opinion, the language of doubt should be replaced by language of wonder. So it’s not that “I doubt that Joseph Smith is a prophet because he practiced polyandry”; rather, it’s “I wonder how someone that participates in polyandry can still be a prophet.”

…but it’s not as if people got their ideas about what it means to be a prophet out of thin air. They were taught that, and the church did the teaching. Even if one can come up with some sort of reconceptualization of the prophetic concept to satisfy the wonder of how someone who participates in polyandry can still be a prophet, this concept may not be accepted in church.

Can smallaxe really relieve the frustration and loneliness when it is the institutional church that is creating the environment for such loneliness?

Maybe I’m just too much of a cynical person, but the thing that saddens me about people who are taking what I find to be a refreshing approach to Mormonism specifically or to religion in general is the idea that they work in spite of the institutional church. Their actions are in counter to the traps and pitfalls and stumbling blocks that the institutional church set up.

Advertisements

From → Uncategorized

9 Comments
  1. SmallAxe permalink

    Hi Andrew,

    Thank you for this thoughtful response.

    Let me do the best I can in addressing the issues you raise.

    I believe that institutions by nature are 1) impersonal and 2) less flexible than they need to be to meet the needs of its members.

    Institutions are impersonal because (among other things) they aim for stability that extends beyond the lifetime of any one person. So there will always be some degree of alienation/disenfranchisement/distance between an institution and its members.

    Institutions are less flexible than they need to be in order to meet the needs of its members because the bureaucracy necessary to run a lasting institution will never be able to respond quickly or sufficiently to a diverse body of members.

    Institutions will try a number of strategies to persuade people that they are neither impersonal nor inflexible.

    I think this is true of the church as well. I believe accepting these premises allows for a number of things: It shifts the level of expectations someone might have for the church. No matter what the institution, there will always be the need for people to “work in spite of the institution.” This, in turn, allows for legitimating feelings such as frustration toward the institution.

    I’m a member of a number of institutions (I imagine we all are). I wouldn’t say that the “pitfalls” the church sets up for itself are necessarily worse than those of other institutions. I belong to and participate in these institutions inasmuch as I continue to find them meaningful. When people no longer find the church meaningful, I don’t blame them for leaving.

  2. SmallAxe,

    Thanks for commenting.

    A few thoughts…so your comment mostly focuses on re-evaluating how we look at institutions in general (of which the church is just one institution of many). You say that “accepting these premises…shifts the level of expectations someone might have for the church.”

    But I don’t know if this addresses my fundamental issue. My issue is that the heightened premises people had for the church in the first place and the higher level of expectations people had for the church in the first place did not come out of thin air — rather, they were taught and socialized into them by the church. The church does not as an institution present itself as being like any other institution. (And it does not accept when members want to treat it that way. If you want to publicly think and talk and act as if the church is like any other institution, then your faith will be called into question.)

    So, your answer seems to be, “Don’t listen to the church on what it says it is re: its exceptionality as an institution, and then you’ll be a lot more able to deal with some of the frustrations of the church.”

    Which is reasonable, except then the question is: if someone doesn’t listen to the church on this matter, then why should they listen on any other matter?

    In some ways, I understand that this is a naive sort of question. After all, as you point out, for the many other institutions of which we are parts, we typically don’t have this all or nothing approach. So at least theoretically, there are answers to the question of “if I don’t listen to an institution on issue X, why would I listen on issue Y.” But I think the issue is that we don’t relate to other institutions like we do to the church, and we’re not looking for the same things from other institutions as we are from the church. What we are looking for from the church (and what the church has socialized us to look for from it) is precisely the idea that it fills the gaps of inadequacies that other institutions have.

    To concede this point — that the church does not, in fact, fill those gaps — doesn’t actually resolve anything.

  3. SmallAxe permalink

    I get what you’re saying. I was responding more to your last point in the OP about your feelings regarding people taking a refreshing approach to religion.

    As far as what you’re calling your more fundamental question, let me break it into two parts: 1) The church doesn’t claim to be just another institution. 2) If we don’t listen to the church on X, why listen to it on Y?

    Regarding #1, I would say here that it depends on the kinds of resources and mechanisms the institution finds acceptable in coming to terms with this point. I believe that there are sufficient resources within the church, but insufficient mechanisms (although it doesn’t mean that more mechanisms cannot be developed). In other words, there are numerous admissions from those in authority in the church that there is a gap between the church and “the gospel”; that not everything said over the pulpit is doctrine; that human beings are always bound by culture; etc. These kinds of things can be said without making the church into just another institution.

    When I say that there are insufficient mechanisms, I mean that there are not very many permissible places/forums/ways that these ideas can be explored by members of the church. I think the biggest problem in LDS culture is its authoritarian dimensions; although this may vary by location. It seems that the church often times takes two steps forward, one step back, in this area. So it’s fine, for instance, for BYU to host a conference on “the Apostacy,” and have their faculty contribute to a book on the topic (published by Oxford), while many of the papers are actually quite critical of the traditional apostacy narrative. However, it is unacceptable to organize a movement to line up at priesthood session of conference asking that women be admited. So, in my opinion, there are some major problems, but there also reasons at least not to be pessimistic.

    Regarding #2, I think the church has been inconsistent on its all or nothing language. And further, if reasonable people stop and think about it, we’ve never looked to the church to answer all questions, and we’ve always picked and chose which aspects of our tradition to follow. People should follow their conscience; however, I don’t mean that in some random or simply relativistic way. We all have competing sources of determining what is right and what is wrong. People (and institutions) are complex things, so we can be right about one thing and wrong about another; and we have to navigate these tensions. I guess I just don’t see listening to the church (whatever that might mean) as an all or nothing affair.

    If your response to what I’ve laid out in #2 is that if I said these things to most members, they would find me unfaithful, then I would say that it depends. And, somewhat unfortunately, it depends on how, as well as where, it’s said. I say “unfortunately” because navigating these issues sometimes depends on one’s skill in diplomacy more than one’s intent, etc. And this means that well-intended people with poor skills of diplomacy will be the casualities.

  4. SmallAxe,

    Regarding your answer to 1, I can agree that there are plenty of quotations people can find where people in authority in the church express and acknowledge the gap between church and gospel…however, I don’t think these quotations or expressions are anywhere near as widespread enough to create a workable narrative for many members of the church (if only because it doesn’t seem to me that many or most Mormons actually do adopt such a view). The traps and pitfalls and stumblingblocks that I allude to in my last paragraph (that you try to address in your first comment) still are a reflection that, over all, people more often internalize the church institution with a rosier picture, rather than a less rosy one.

    The exceptions to this don’t paint a picture to me of a “two steps forward, one step back”, sort of thing…but maybe that’s where mileage may vary and there’s no moving forward on this.

    Regarding your answer to 2, I absolutely agree that the church has been inconsistent on its all or nothing language, but I think the important thing is that many members don’t view it that way (and this connects to my response in one…even if we could point to a lot of quotations, it just doesn’t ring authentic to many). Your talk of “reasonable people” risks disqualifying these many members (and the many disaffected members who *come from that stock*) who aren’t going to openly accept a cafeteria approach (even if it’s indisputable that they covertly take such an approach because it’s impossible not to.)

    So, it’s not just that if you said these things to most members, they would find you unfaithful, but more importantly, they wouldn’t find it credibly Mormon — which is utterly at odds with an apologetic approach.

    How can I put it in another way? Let’s say that the stream of disaffected and disaffecting folks (people who doubt or “wonder” or whatever) has a non-negligible portion of people who have an overinflated understanding of the church. The source of their disaffection is that the church — which they were more socialized to view as being above the problems of most institutions — now seems to not reach those lofty ideals.

    If your approach is to say, “Well, we shouldn’t have had those lofty views anyway, and if you really think about it, you didn’t rely on it for everything anyway. Everyone has to take a cafeteria approach,” this doesn’t address the fact that the reason there is this steady stream of people with such lofty views is because of the church itself. And they don’t really have a whole lot of reasons to believe *you* on how they should view, engage, conceptualize, and approach the church over the *church*.

  5. SmallAxe permalink

    Andrew,

    It seems that part of the issue boils down to whether or not one can utilize the resources of Mormonism to find an institutionally acceptable way to say, “Well, we shouldn’t have had those lofty views anyway, and if you really think about it, you didn’t rely on it for everything anyway. Everyone has to take a cafeteria approach.” This would be saying it in a credibly Mormon way, and wouldn’t entail putting people in a situation where they would have to choose to trust *me* or the church. I don’t mean to suggest dishonesty here, which is why I said in my previous comment that one significant misfortune in the situation is that skill in presentation (what I called “diplomacy”) becomes key.

    I think we agree that at least some of the resources are available, and that what I called “mechanisms” in the previous comment are quite lacking. Further, I imagine that we would agree that (for good or for bad) some people will never need these resources because they will stay or leave with or without them, so I’m not claiming to be advocating some kind of silver bullet approach to the situation.

    If I can take a stab at our point of disagreement, it would be whether feelings like anger, frustration, and betrayal created by the institution can at least be legitimated by the institution (if not eliminated altogether). I mentioned earlier that institutions by nature disenfranchise their membership, which suggests that it cannot fully stop producing these feelings nor fully legitimate them. To some degree this is true; and it’s here where I believe Mormon culture extends beyond the institution to provide a means of coping with this; and the lines between the institution and culture are not clear such that people could see these means of coping as part of the institution itself. At the same time, institutions have other means of legitimating these feelings. Institutions can change (often disguising change as constancy), and can apologize (admittedly this is difficult). But even saying the equivalent of “I can see that you’re angry” actually goes a long way in legitimating feelings such as anger. This doesn’t admit culpability, but it does recognize the existence of the feelings, and it does send a message that “I’m here to listen,” or alternatively, “You are someone of value within the community even if I may not agree with why you’re angry.” Further, people are part of institutions, and I (perhaps over optimistically) believe that people are capable of compassion.

  6. SmallAxe,

    I agree that the issue does boil down to whether one can utilize the resources of Mormonism to find an institutionally acceptable way to say, “Well, we shouldn’t have had those lofty views anyway, and if you really think about it, you didn’t rely on it for everything anyway. Everyone has to take a cafeteria approach.”

    I don’t dispute the following:

    1a) Several individuals have used the resources of Mormonism to find a *personally acceptable* way to say that.

    1b) Despite the existence of the individuals in 1a, there are several other individuals who don’t seem to be able to find a *personally acceptable* view of that. (One of my main criticisms of many exmos, for example, is the sense of all-or-nothingness that persists. My view is something like, “If you no longer buy that the church is what it claims to be, why are you so fixated on such a rigid idea of what the church has to be or should be?”)

    2a) Several individuals have used the resources of Mormonism and are fortunately enough situated that they can find an *institutionally* acceptable way to say that.

    2b) I suspect that the way the individuals in 2a can get away with such are more because of leadership/priesthood/geographic roulette, relative invisibility, and so on (is this a correct interpretation of what you describe as “insufficient mechanisms”?). Or, as you yourself say, skill in diplomacy, things like that.

    2c) If 2b is true, then as a result, several other individuals would not be able to find an *institutionally* acceptable way to say that.

    My conclusion is that the interplay between 2b and 2c put you at odds with the institution in a way that cannot be easily shrugged off by saying, “Well, we’ll all be at odds with any institution.”

    With respect to your statement of the disagreement in the final paragraph, I don’t think I question whether feelings of anger, frustration, and betrayal can be legitimated by the institution (if not eliminated). Rather, I think my disagreement is that I think that *only* the institution can do such a think, so if the institution is not doing such things, then an apologist that works outside of the institution cannot do it.

    Going back to the comparison with other institutions, I think that even if other institutions disenfranchise their memberships, there is still a sort of legitimacy in the sense that we are socialized to engage with those institutions at more of an arm’s length in the first place. Those other institutions do not demand that we engage with them with complete loyalty and trust (although they may be just as harsh against perceived disloyalty or distrust). And I think that is a crucial factor that particularly illegitimizes the feelings in this case.

    Let me try to go through a few things you have said in your last section…

    To some degree this is true; and it’s here where I believe Mormon culture extends beyond the institution to provide a means of coping with this; and the lines between the institution and culture are not clear such that people could see these means of coping as part of the institution itself.

    I think this probably is a good answer to my statement of the disagreement. If I think that only the institution can legitimate the feelings, then it probably is a good counter that there is a fuzzy enough border between culture and institution. However, I think this goes in both directions. (A lot of the unrealistic expectations in the first place are probably also culture masquerading as institution.)

    At the same time, institutions have other means of legitimating these feelings. Institutions can change (often disguising change as constancy), and can apologize (admittedly this is difficult). But even saying the equivalent of “I can see that you’re angry” actually goes a long way in legitimating feelings such as anger. This doesn’t admit culpability, but it does recognize the existence of the feelings, and it does send a message that “I’m here to listen,” or alternatively, “You are someone of value within the community even if I may not agree with why you’re angry.” Further, people are part of institutions, and I (perhaps over optimistically) believe that people are capable of compassion.

    I think that change would legitimize the feelings, but the disguising of change would hinder that effect. I also think that apologizing would legitimize the feelings, and also that it is difficult. (Where the church has particular difficulty is that in many aspects, *apologizing* risks to disrupt the image it has created of itself, which risks more disaffection.)

    But I think that just saying “I can see that you’re angry” won’t help much, unless it comes with an understanding (or willingness to understand) why someone is angry. “I can see that you’re angry” will only send a message of “I’m here to listen” if there is any inkling that that is the true. But if folks say culturally, “I can see that you’re angry, but it’s because you’re offended/wanting to sin/etc.,” then that’s not really going to send the message that people are listening.

    The issue is that I think the institution sets itself up in that it can buy that people are angry because they are offended or that they wanted to sin, but can’t buy that people are angry for more substantive issues…why? Because again, it goes against the church’s own narrative about itself. It presents itself as too trustworthy, too ideal, too essential to concede that some people may find legitimate faults with it (even if culturally, someone might do such.)

  7. SmallAxe permalink

    Hi Andrew,

    I haven’t forgot about this conversation, but I’ve been pulled away by a few other commitments.

    My short response to your last comment is that I think you’re right. Until the institution finds a way of saying “I’m wrong” (or at lesat “I’m sorry”) it will not be able to sufficiently legitimate feelings such as betrayal, anger, and frustation. The issue becomes one of the church coming to say “I’m wrong” while maintaining its core commitments to its “truthfulness.” This is complicated by some of the narratives it has made, and continues to make, about itself. Until the church is able to do this, it will largely fall to those extra-instutional (or perhaps quasi-institutional) mechanisms to help people cope; which, as you point out, will not be as effective. I personally think that there’s a lot the church can do without giving up its core commitments in this regard. On the other hand, old habits die hard. At the same time, I think there are more simple things that can be done (either within LDS culture or by the institution) that mitigate feelings of disenfranchisment (such as those I lay out in the original post), as not everyone’s hurt or pain is entangled with the narrative of the church as a perfect institution (there are also other narratives people might hold, as well as people who might be able to latch on to another narrative; the issue of narrative-construction is an interesting one in terms of who and how they are constructed). Perhaps these kinds of things will best happen locally.

    There are a couple of other points I should probably clarify (regarding what I meant by “disgusing change as constancy” for instance), but I think the previous paragraph gets to the heart of the matter.

    In any event, thank you for giving me lots to think about.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Sunday in Outer Blogness: I’m back edition!! » Main Street Plaza
  2. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtains~! Lived and Living Mormonism | Irresistible (Dis)Grace

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: