CES Letter Mormonism and Pastoral Apologetics
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.
Patrick 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.