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The crux of the pastoral Mormon testimony

November 1, 2014

My last post was a critique of Adam Miller’s thoughts in “Mormonism is not Mormonism” — but also a larger critique of something I’ve seen more and more often that has sometimes been called “pastoral apologetics.” Unfortunately, Adam’s last post got picked up in the disaffectosphere, so many disaffected Mormons also gave their criticism. Adam has written a post that I guess addresses the criticism, entitled “Mormon Weakness.”

There’s one part I want to discuss (emphasis added)

If my position on Mormonism takes its own weakness as a virtue, then it is only fair that my honest working assumption should be that this position is, plain and simple, an act of self-deception. I’m too scared or too comfortable or too privileged or too lazy or too invested to come clean and see the truth. Self-deceived, I adopt a slave morality and then rationalize like crazy from there.

Now, granted, this may well be true. Certainly, it’s the simplest explanation. And, certainly, it’s most soundly in keeping with what I know about myself: I am, myself, weak and afraid. I should have gotten off the bus with Nietzsche but didn’t because I was chicken. And now I’m tangled up in escalating feedback loops of dubious, pseudo-philosophical, paper-thin rationalization. The emperor has got no clothes.

This may well be true. Even likely.

In fact, it may well be true because it feels false (even to me) to think that, of the two options, my position is weak because that weakness is (surprise!) actually a virtue in disguise.

It’s too convenient by half. It smells like dead fish.

But still.

Still.

If I sit still and I’m really trying to be honest, I would also have to say that it would feel even more false to deny that something bigger than me, something truer than me, something better than me, is at work here in all this Mormon weakness: in all this Jello, all these manuals, all this hypocrisy, all this self-congratulation, all this politics, all this confusion, all these pews, all these meetings, all these visits, all these faith promoting rumors, all these bureaucracies, all these failures, all these scriptures.

At least in my case, denying this weakness, denying that this weakness is in fact exactly what Paul claims that it is — the power of God made manifest — smells even fishier. Denying it would be even less honest.

The smell of self-deception is, while pungent in the first case, even stronger in the second.

Some people are claiming that because Adam is only speaking about himself, that his latest post shouldn’t be criticized — after all, this is just how he feels. Perhaps. But I am not criticizing Adam’s position for himself — I am not living his life, and have no authority over him. However, I find Adam’s comments to be familiar because I have read them before, and I think the pastoral apologetic approach (to the extent it is an apologetic at all — to the extent that it is advising others to stay Mormon) relies on this assumption.

What I notice from Adam’s comments is the encapsulation of testimony. The reason the questions of history, of science, of x fact claim or y event claim, don’t seem to take precedence is because for Adam, the testimony drills down to that fact that to him, something bigger than him, something truer than him, something better than him, is at work in all this Mormon weakness.

I don’t doubt that that is probably the case for him and many others. But there’s a big problem:

Not everyone feels that way.

Some people are Mormon because we were born into it. Some people are Mormon because we heard the fact claims, thought they were true, and said, “Well, if this is the truth, I better live with it.” I have engaged with many people who said that they hated the lived Mormon experience — but what kept them in was a resignation that this was the truth (however ugly they found it to be.)

I buy that each person needs his own testimony, his own spiritual confirmation (independent of all the fact claims that are taught week in and week out.) But it doesn’t seem like everyone gets that. It doesn’t seem like studying your scriptures and praying and fasting and paying tithing for years and years will necessarily get that. Some people get it, and others don’t.

(And I’m sure that Adam or whoever would say that of course, those things aren’t necessarily. But whatever course they could prescribe, I don’t think it would have a good batting average.)

But ultimately, that is the crux of testimony here.

At least for me, everything made more sense when I stopped trying to force myself into believing there was a god — much less a god that was “at work in all this Mormon weakness”, because I don’t see or experience anything like that. To me, it actually seems more respectful not to attribute this universe to a deity, more respectful not to attribute Mormonism to a deity. So, even though I would like to understand what it is that folks like Adam see when they say they find something bigger in Mormon weakness, I don’t see what they see.

Perhaps not seeing that is the crux of a faith crisis as well?

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2 Comments
  1. Parker permalink

    Adam seems to have corralled this feeling of there being something bigger than himself within Mormons. If only Mormons had this feeling it would be pretty compelling. But I have encounter it in many people with diverse backgrounds and beliefs. I’m inclined to think think that the feeling of being small in a larger mysterious world is a near universal human trait, even among the most egocentric. Many do translate the feeling as a confirmation of an existing religious belief, or a sign that a divine being longs for their allegiance. For others, however, it is simply a human characteristic that doesn’t require multi-level marketing.

    And, by the way, given my interest in typologies, I like your treatment of pastoral apologetics. As much as I appreciated Dan’s comments to your earlier post (and appreciate Dan), I thought many of his comments confirmed you assessment of the pastoral apologetic position.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Parker. I feel like Adam and others are universalistic enough to accept that if “being small in a larger mysterious world” is a near universal human trait, then that proves their point. Because it would show (to them, I guess) that there is *something* out there, although what we call it and how we pursue it are different.

    This kinda ties in with my discussion with Dan on the previous post (and things he has occasionally said on the podcast) — like, even if one doesn’t ultimately find Mormonism to be compelling, he is “not overly stressed when anyone decides to leave Mormonism if they still are open to spiritual journeying and exploring themselves beyond just the sorts of things that our senses and rational minds can work with”.

    And I accept that even some atheists will point out that they have a sense of wonder and feel small in a larger mysterious world, etc.,

    But

    For me, that isn’t really the case. Sure, I’m *open* to spiritual journeying and exploring, and think that others can have authentically good experiences with such. But for me, I haven’t experienced anything I would consider to be momentous. I am skeptical of just the sorts of things rationality and sense data can get us, but ultimately, that’s all I have experienced so far.

    I definitely like what Dan, Adam, etc., are doing and saying. I just think there is a gap between where they are and where the rest of are that is not being communicated adequately.

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