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CES Letter Mormonism and Pastoral Apologetics

August 17, 2016

In 2013, Seth Payne presented at the FAIR Mormon conference on the rise of “pastoral apologetics.” A lot of people (including me, inevitably) have written about pastoral apologetics, but since I’m too lazy to link to great articles, I’ll just summarize the key points here: This pastoral apologetics is often contrasted against the traditional apologetics of defeating the claims of LDS church critics (showing that the criticisms are incorrect or inaccurate, or that the critics are untrustworthy), in that it usually accepts many of the claims that critics makes, but instead bases its defense of Mormonism on a recontextualization or reconstruction of the narrative that underpins Mormonism (and its relationship to history, scripture, translation, and so forth).

So, for example, to the extent that traditional apologetics and pastoral apologetics are coherent distinctions (which can’t be taken for granted…really), an example gloss of the differences might be to say that traditional apologetics might be most concerned with establishing that the Book of Mormon is historical (and identifying potential locations that it might have occurred, defeating arguments to anachronisms, and so forth), whereas pastoral apologetics is not as concerned with those points (even if the pastoral apologist does believe the Book of Mormon to be historical) and instead focuses on developing a model of scripture that would allow Mormons to view texts as scripture regardless of the debate of historicity (in other words, that God’s inspiration and communication to humanity need not work via secular methodologies of history, archeological findings, and so on.)

Even though Seth Payne ultimately announced his resignation from the church in November of 2015 (and the date alone should give you clues as to why), it was in, I think, a decidedly pastoral rather than traditional way. It wasn’t a crisis of history, but a crisis of the sort of community that the LDS church is or that the institution promotes.

Dealing with the messiness of LDS history is one thing…but what happens when one comes to think that the LDS church is simply a hostile community for oneself, one’s family, or one’s friends? It’s the latter that threatens the pastoral model — not just that the claims of the LDS church aren’t true, but that its way of life and community environment may not be good.

Still, I think pastoral apologetics is a welcome new trend in the LDS apologetic space, because it helps increase the likelihood that the LDS church experience will be good for more people, and there are certainly other writers and speakers who are taking this approach. Today’s article actually focuses on Patrick Mason’s remarks at the 2016 FAIRMormon Conference — The Courage of Our Convictions: Embracing Mormonism in a Secular Age.

51ye-an-evlPatrick Mason is author of the book Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt. I heard lots of friends online talk about how great it was, so I bought it for my Kindle and have been reading it on long plane flights.

This is not going to be a book review, since I don’t really do book reviews, but I will say that many of my friends commented that this was probably a book that was better for fellow ward members (especially traditionally believing ward members), rather than those who had hit a particular stage in their faith crisis…and I agree. Although this book does try to write for both the doubter and believer, it seems to me to be a better example of a book that would be safe for believers, and that could help improve interaction with doubters. However, if someone has already gone over a ledge in their faith, this probably won’t bring them back. I know for sure that I wasn’t really convinced.

Mason acknowledges this to some extent. And in the FAIRMormon Conference (which I do want to focus on, so please read that link), he states it like so:

Many of the people I’ve heard from haven’t yet left, and are holding on with their fingertips, trying to find a way to stay in the church with intellectual, spiritual, and emotional integrity. But many others have already left, and no amount of reclamation work is going to bring them back, because their feelings are so deep, and often their paradigms have shifted so profoundly.

For some who have transitioned out of the church, they may have had different outcomes if they had found satisfactory answers or a sympathetic community sooner.

I think there is something to be said for this. I think that recontextualization can be effective at a certain stage, but that past a certain point, it’s not going to work.

The issue I run into, however, (and maybe I only run into this issue because it’s “too late” for me?) is when I ask about who is doing the problematic contextualization in the first place that requires this recontextualization? And who is responsible for the recontextualization?

Mason gets at this when he discusses the CES Letter in his post:

The CES Letter [formally, “Letter to a CES Director,” which he cited as one of the online sources he had read] is emblematic of this all-or-nothing approach to religion. . . . The letter is nearly a perfect inverse of the version of Mormonism it is reacting to. Jeremy Runnels may have written the letter, but it was actually an inevitability—someone, sometime, somewhere was going to write that letter, because it was the obvious response to a certain style, tone, and mode of Mormonism that culminated in the highly doctrinaire, no-retreat-no-surrender positions taken by certain church leaders and members especially in the second half of the twentieth century. I would actually agree with the CES letter’s basic notion, that the Mormonism it is responding to is unsustainable. Where I disagree is that I don’t think the Mormonism it is responding to is actually the real, only, or inevitable Mormonism. Certainly, that was some people’s Mormonism, but it’s not my Mormonism, and I don’t think it’s the Mormonism that is going to endure in future decades and centuries.

This is a nice section. For the most part, I agree with it — I agree that the CES Letter is a mirror of a particular type of Mormonism, and as someone who doesn’t really buy that type of Mormonism, doesn’t really buy that type of ex-Mormonism.

I find it heartening for believers to say that they there there are other “real” Mormonisms out there.

…but I am also skeptical.

I am skeptical because ultimately, the CES Letter is the “CES” Letter. It’s not “Letter to your random uncle who shares “deep doctrine” that he speculated on for 20 years.” If the Church Education System cannot be relied upon to promulgate the “real” Mormonism, I’m not sure if anything else can have the institutional imprimatur to suffuse through the entire church quickly enough to make a difference.

And I know that part of the recontextualization required is to re-assess one’s boundaries with authority, the institutional church, and prophets. It’s a fine line — because one doesn’t want to go so far as to say the institution is unnecessary, but one has to establish a case that the institution is helpful and vital even in its imperfections.

But I think that’s probably going to be one of the biggest roadblocks, because the church doesn’t officially or consistently teach that more nuanced relationship.

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16 Comments
  1. MTodd permalink

    Andrew, this is great commentary. Especially the part about it being the “CES” Letter not being the letter to my Uncle Oswald. I had never considered that, but thing it’s spot on. I think CES (and the Church) know they need to do better, but don’t know how. (Exhibit A: The recent attempt to revamp the Scripture Mastery program into Doctrinal Mastery.)

  2. MTodd,

    I think there are probably different groups within the church who have different ideas…for example, someone is obviously in favor of more transparency (via the essays), but someone else is not as much in favor (since the essays still “pull punches”, and they aren’t even advertised as they should be.

    I mean, I trust that there is disagreement among the ranks, and maybe this means there will be change for the better in the future.

    But it’s extremely disheartening that one of the few times the church presents a united front is, for example, the November exclusion policy.

  3. MTodd permalink

    The lack of essay advertisement is a little sad. The November policy debacle is downright depressing. I will say that even with the policy it’s only an alleged united front. The number of leaders who have spoken about it publicly is very small.

  4. Seth R. permalink

    Thing is – I don’t think Mason was saying anything that hasn’t been kind of old-hat on the Bloggernacle and even in FairMormon circles for years. Both have been saying for years that rigid fundamentalism is going to land the membership in a lot of trouble some day. I’ve been saying it for years.

    I’ve been saying it for years – but that doesn’t mean that I and many others who are exasperated at the self-destructiveness of Mormon fundamentalism are ready to suddenly embrace gay marriage (for example) or jump on the sexual revolution bandwagon and start clamoring that Kate Kelly and John Dehlin should be anywhere other than excommunicated.

    This was where John Dehlin and others misread Mason’s talk – they took it as a white flag of surrender coming from the FairMormon camp, and an acknowledgment that Dehlin and Mormon Stories were right all along. It was nothing of the sort, and I’m quite sure Mason had no intention of making such a statement. In context, it’s clear he still considers the CES Letter wrong in most of its conclusions – as does everyone at FairMormon. The fact that most FairMormon types don’t have much use for black-and-white fundamentalism doesn’t mean they’re moving closer to Mormon Stories. In fact, it’s precisely our rejection of fundamentalism that is causing us to move further away from Mormon Stories – which we regard as infested with stupid fundamentalist thinking among it’s ex-Mormon and exiting-Mormon crowd.

  5. Seth,

    Right, I agree that this is not really anything new to what has been said throughout the Bloggernacle. However, let’s keep in mind that the Bloggernacle has usually not been seen as apologetics by anyone other than exmormons. There are still bloggers who will call any bloggernacle blog part of the “Murmurnacle”.

    Although this is not the same as FAIR, it’s only been just a few years since FARMS Review became Mormon Studies Review (which most take as a basic way of recognizing the shift in focus for apologetics).

    And I agree that it’s incorrect to interpret pastoral apologetics as being necessarily pro-gay marriage, etc., (This is why I think pastoral apologetics probably still won’t work out).

    And I agree that pastoral apologetic statements continues to be reliably misinterpreted. (In addition to Mason’s talk, let’s consider as well the massive misinterpretation of Bushman’s statement that the dominant church history narrative is false…obviously, that is not a surrender, but many disaffected Mormons don’t read it as anything else.)

    But I think it’s altogether my point that pastoral apologetics represents a moving away from the black-and-white focus of CES Letter/Mormon Stories crowd, as well as the fundamentalism of old apologetics.

    My further point is that this fundamentalism doesn’t just spring from anywhere. It continues to happen because it is still institutionally supported, and ultimately FAIR can’t change that on its own, because FAIR does not have institutional imprimatur.

  6. Seth R. permalink

    Late response – I think the influence of FairMormon is changing gradually, as it is being consulted more and more by official LDS Church sources – such as Public Affairs and the MTC (to cite two examples I know about personally). The new topical essays on common controversies were heavily influenced by the groundwork from FairMormon.

    But yes – volunteer unofficial organization is unofficial.

    And big change isn’t going to be driven by FairMormon.

    Kind of curious about your take on the newly announced collaboration between John Dehlin and Patrick Mason. I know plenty of people in my camp who think Dehlin is taking Mason for a ride and Dehlin will benefit far more from the association than Mason will (just like Dehlin benefited more than Givens did from his association with him).

  7. Seth,

    I’ve been reading each article on Dehlin and Mason’s new blog, and to me, it reads like the Mormon Matters podcast episode between Dan Wotherspoon and Brian Dalton/Mr. Deity on Book of Mormon racism sounded — in both cases, it’s two people on very different playing fields who are utterly speaking past each other.

    I think it’s fair to say that Dehlin will benefit more from the association, but I think that’s just because Dehlin is more strategic in marketing/promotion/etc., in general. (I’m pretty sure that Dehlin was the one behind the press release). And FWIW, I think Dehlin’s position is generally going to be more palatable to a lot of people (I think that disaffection is the entropic end state of Mormonism), so that’s to his advantage (if you check the comments section, they are mostly favorable to Dehlin).

    But I think that for a lot of well-informed people, it will be clear that Mason is operating on a different level than Dehlin is.

  8. Seth R. permalink

    I’m not too worried about the comments section on Mormon Stories. Dehlin is famous for blatantly censoring any contrary opinions. It’s not just me, Rusty Clifton from the old Nine Moons blog had the same thing happen to him. Nate Oman even came in for censoring, to say nothing of multiple well-known FairMormon personalities and other conservative blogging voices. All of them ended up on Dehlin’s black-list and can’t even comment there anymore.

    That Mormon Stories comments section is overwhelmingly in Dehlin’s favor demonstrates little to me.

    I have to say though, I wish we were half as effective at marketing as Dehlin is. Gotta hand that to him. Passion combined with action is a strength not everyone has.

  9. I’m not referring to the Mormon Stories comments’ section. I’m referring to the comments section on this new blog. I don’t know who’s moderating/determining what comments stay or go, but it definitely still seems that on this new blog, there are more supporters of Dehlin’s side.

    And I don’t think that having a comments section overwhelmingly in Dehlin’s favor only happens because Dehlin censors. To the contrary, I think that if you want a predominantly faithful comments section, you will need heavy moderation (see: Millennial Star). In the absence of formal moderation, you’ll just get disaffected folks dogpiling until everyone else leaves. That is what I mean by entropic end state — given nothing else, it’ll always get to that point.

    But I agree that Dehlin is very quick to cut comments, remove people, etc., etc., so he can make marketing work more effectively for him.

  10. Seth R. permalink

    Oh, I see what you mean.

    Yeah – forums, blogs, and Facebook groups will all naturally dissolve into unmoderated wastelands populated by only the most vicious trolls from both sides if things aren’t tended and moderated.

  11. So, for example, to the extent that traditional apologetics and pastoral apologetics are coherent distinctions (which can’t be taken for granted…really), an example gloss of the differences might be to say that traditional apologetics might be most concerned with establishing that the Book of Mormon is historical (and identifying potential locations that it might have occurred, defeating arguments to anachronisms, and so forth), whereas pastoral apologetics is not as concerned with those points (even if the pastoral apologist does believe the Book of Mormon to be historical) and instead focuses on developing a model of scripture that would allow Mormons to view texts as scripture regardless of the debate of historicity (in other words, that God’s inspiration and communication to humanity need not work via secular methodologies of history, archeological findings, and so on.)

    As a non-Mormon, I wonder how they possibly accomplish this and further how you would justify this shift? If the historical portion is not true then it simply doesn’t matter how they re-shape things to make it palatable. If the historical portion is not true then it is just deception to separate the historical from the narrative.

  12. Thomas,

    I think the basic idea is that a statement like “if the historical portion is not true then it simply doesn’t matter” is a contextually dependent statement. It depends on having a certain worldview (namely, that historicity matters to scripture).

    But we know that there are other models. We know that other scriptures (including the Bible) contain a multitude of genres, many of which are not meant to be taken as historical…

    Whether you believe that Adam and Eve were historical beings or not is dependent on your own particular theological structure — but it’s not *necessarily* for Judaism, Christianity, etc., to believe that Adam and Eve were historical to still be able to use that story as an overall narrative for human imperfection.

  13. Yes, Andrew I understand what you are saying generally, but with Mormonism that same distinction cannot apply — its very existence hinges on the history.

    Joseph Smith establishes a new faith based on claims that he was restoring the truth that had been lost and that he is a prophet. He was told the true history by God and he is setting everyone else straight.

    If any part of that narrative falls apart then the basis for the faith falls apart. He is either a prophet setting everyone else straight or not. It is the reason why the CES letter is so damning.

    Applying Adam and Eve it would be like me claiming that God chose me as prophet and gave me the ability to decipher an Egyptian scroll and I wrote an elaborate history of them before the Garden saying they originally lived in Peekskill, NY and built skyscrapers there.

    If any part of that falls apart, regardless of what you believe about Adam and Eve it is clear that I am not a prophet and should not be listened to as such….which I would agree with BTW.

    Or saying that it really does not matter if the Apostle Paul ever existed or actually met Jesus cause his words give me comfort. It is not actually following the faith involved.

  14. Thomas,

    This is what I was getting at a little bit at the end of the post, but I’ll go a little bit further into how this would happen.

    You say: “with Mormonism the same distinction cannot apply — its very existence hinges on the history.

    But again, I don’t think this is necessarily true. *Certain* narratives of Mormonism hinge on the history, while other narratives need not.

    So, you say:

    Joseph Smith establishes a new faith based on claims that he was restoring the truth that had been lost and that he is a prophet. He was told the true history by God and he is setting everyone else straight.

    I think the first sentence is essential, yes.

    But there’s a lot of possibility to the word “prophet” or to the word “restoring”. Currently, many people view it as you would say: “He was told the true history by God” but this makes things depend on history.

    This is not so. “Prophecy” need not be about history, and truth restoration need not be about promulgating a different historical narrative.

    Instead, what one could do instead is to promote the narrative that God’s messages are not confined to our traditional notions of history and historicity and that he can communicate outside via other genres. We could then also promote that people (including prophets) do not receive messages from God, and so they can be mistaken in some forms of the revelation/prophecy while still absolutely having received revelation or prophecy. Thus, Joseph could have been misinformed on the nature of the inspiration he was getting for the Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham, etc., (and thus, he did not provide a correct interpretation of what those things were) while still actually getting those messages via divine inspiration.

    I think that the reason the CES Letter is so damning is not because there aren’t other ways to think about prophecy, revelation, etc., but because the church as an institution continues to promote narratives that quite simply won’t work.

    In other words, Mormonism doesn’t *have* to be obsessed with history and historicity. But since the church (through CES) continues to make that a big deal, Mormons think it’s a big deal, and thus there are a lot of issues because that narrative doesn’t work.

    Like, I just want to address your last line here:

    Or saying that it really does not matter if the Apostle Paul ever existed or actually met Jesus cause his words give me comfort. It is not actually following the faith involved.

    One *could* make an argument for Christianity based on the first sentence quoted (regardless of what actually happened in history). The thing I’d point out is that your second sentence here implies that someone has already defined the faith otherwise, which is begging the question when we’re discussing the possibility for that same someone to change how they define the faith.

  15. Thanks Andrew — I hear what you are saying but things like prophecy and revelation have been defined by the Scripture already and it is on this basis that it was presented. God told me this therefore I am a prophet, listen to me.

    You cannot go back now and change that narrative because the “God told me stuff” is untrue and say well, God told him something that he thought was true but he was wrong about what God meant. If a prophet is wrong about something God says then he is not a prophet according to the framework Smith was presenting himself in and the church then built itself on.

    You can adapt as a church and change the narrative to “what he meant was”, but that is pretty pointless. You might as well go L. Ron Hubbard then and just make up a new religion and create all new rules for yourself.

  16. Thomas,

    I think the main idea of continuing revelation and fallible prophets is the recognition that having an incorrect or incomplete understanding in the past doesn’t completely discount the role of a prophet.

    We literally know that the LDS church has taught things as doctrinal and then done a 180 on those things. Certainly, for some people, these things were dealbreakers and they left the church, but the church is still around — so changing policies, doctrines and developing new narratives isn’t by itself a deal breaker for everyone.

    I’m not trying to convince *you* or any particular individual that this is something you should believe in. I’m just saying it *could* work for Mormonism, there are the tools to do it, and that new narrative is ready for the church to develop it.

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