Why Mormonism Matters: Pastoral Apologetics and the LDS Doubter
Several years ago I hosted a barbecue at my home and invited several LDS and non-LDS friends. After a few enjoyable hours and as the gathering came to a close I began cleaning up with the help of one of my non-‐‑LDS guests. His first comment to me was: “All you Mormons do is talk about Church! Don’t you ever talk about anything else?” I laughed, of course, because while my friends comment was hyperbolic and good-natured ribbing, there was a lot of truth behind his words.
For active Latter-day Saints the Church, its doctrines, leaders and people, serve as one of several important life anchors. Membership and belief in the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter–day Saints can be all encompassing — informing many aspects of an adherent’s career, academic pursuits, hobbies, and daily interactions. Mormons tend to form tight social bonds and it true that as a Latter-day Saint you can go to nearly any country, city, or town and find a family of Church members with open arms and a plate of cookies.
Because a relationship with Mormonism is so central to members’ lives, it is not surprising that when doubts arise they can cause considerable distress within the doubter. Doubt chips away at what has been the core of how a member understands their purpose and place in the world. Many members who doubt do so in silence — believing that they are alone in their struggle.
Often, by the time a member comes forward with their doubts, they have reached a zenith of hurt, anger, and frustration. For months, and perhaps years, they have been reading, listening, and learning in relative isolation left to formulate ideas, thoughts, and perspectives with little or no input from others who 1) are fully aware of difficult Church-related issues and 2) have discovered ways in which to harmonize faith and doubt.
What I will attempt today is to examine why moving from certainty to doubt — specifically within a Mormon context — can be incredibly painful. I will do so by examining the nature of an individual’s overarching truth narrative and the potential impact of doubt on that narrative for a Latter-day Saint. Based on this examination I will propose a framework for a pastoral approach to apologetics: apologetics specifically meant to address the social and spiritual aspects of doubt.
Ultimately, all Latter-day Saints must be able to express — at least to themselves, and hopefully to others — why Mormonism matters.
The Importance of Narrative
It is easy to take for granted the importance and significant role narratives play in nearly every aspect of our lives. It is through the creation and telling of stories that we are able to make sense of past, present and future as we weave all three into one cohesive whole. And it is this holistic and overarching narrative that provides us with cognitive meaning and purpose.
The way in which we frame and construct narratives communicates a very specific meaning. Indeed, this narrative construction is more vital to sharing a story’s “message” than the essential facts that comprise the basis of the story itself. Narratives are how human beings make sense of the world. They allow us to connect disparate events in causal relationships and place ourselves in the midst of the drama.
There is a specific type of narrative, however, which subsumes all others. It is overarching and all-encompassing. It is, what William James called, the truth narrative.
Truth narratives represent the synthesis of all life experience into a single cohesive whole. These life experiences lead the individual to form opinions, ideas, and conceptions about “how the world works.” Thus, an individual has within him or herself a varied collection of ideas, which together form a comprehensive worldview.
However, this collection of experiences and ideas is not static. It is constantly growing and changing based on new information.
The Plan of Salvation is a central component of a Latter-day Saint truth narrative. It allows an individual Mormon to understand past, present, and future but most importantly, recognize their individual role and place within God’s plan. The Plan of Salvation, of course, is itself made up of many individual doctrines that are often presented as narratives themselves.
It is not difficult to understand, then, why a challenge to the core of one’s truth narrative is so disruptive. The challenge throws our understanding of truth into complete disarray — eventually reaching some sort of tipping point.
In his essays on Pragmatism, William James explained that “the individual has a stock of opinions already, but he meets a new experience that puts them to a strain …somebody contradicts them; or in a reflective moment he discovers that [existing ideas] contradict each other; or he hears of facts with which they are incompatible; or desires arise in him which they cease to satisfy.” This new information “result[s] in an inward trouble to him which his mind until then had been a stranger, and from which he seeks to escape by modifying his previous mass of opinions.” James contends that we are all “extreme conservatives” and seek to “save as much of [the original stock of opinions] as [we] can.” Individuals struggle and negotiate between old and new information “until at last some new idea comes up which he can graft upon the ancient stock with a minimum of disturbance of the latter, some idea that mediates between the stock and the new experience and runs them into one another most felicitously and expediently.” At the conclusion of this process the “new idea is then adopted as the true one” as “it preserves the older stock of truths with a minimum of modification, stretching them just enough to make them admit the novelty, but conceiving that in ways as familiar as the case leaves possible.”
Every member responds differently to new, and perhaps surprising, information but it is clear that by the time a person decides to divorce themselves from the Church, either through official resignation or by simply dropping out of Church activity wholesale, they have gone through the narrative adjustment process over and over again. They have reached a point where the mind’s “extreme conservatism” in wanting to hold together old beliefs has given way to something new.
Given the emotional and spiritual difficulty of dealing with doubt, it is not surprising that some who leave Mormonism compose narratives related to their exit. It is part of the larger process of trying to make sense of the world once a core component of an existing truth narrative has been ripped away.
When I began my study of the ex-Mormon narrative as part of my graduate school studies, I had expected to find that the narratives would describe problems of history, Mark Hoffman, plural marriage, or other similar issues as primary drivers for leaving the Church. That is, I expected to find that it was issues dealt with cerebrally which drove separation. This is not at all what I found, however, and what I did find, surprised me. But before exploring specific findings or observations, allow me to describe the sociological context in which these narratives were produced.
Sociologist David Bromley identifies three types of organizations and classifies them according to “the degree to which their interests coincide with other organization units in their respective environmental fields.”1 These include Allegiant, Contestant, and Subversive organizations.2
Allegiant organizations are those which are closely allied, or perceived to be closely allied, with society-at-large. Such groups generally have no social opponents. Contestant organizations have “a moderate level of tension with other organizations in their environments” and mostly include “profit-making economic organizations.”3 However, non-profit religious or other activist social organizations may also be seen as Contestant. Contestant groups have both strong social allies and dedicated social opponents.
Subversive organizations are perceived as enemies of society. These groups advocate values and actions that are opposed to social orthodoxy and may include racist or anarchist political or social movements. Radical religious organizations may also be seen as Subversive by society-at-large
An organization’s broad categorization changes throughout time. Armand Mauss, in The Angel and the Beehive, gives a thorough account of the LDS Church’s social positioning through time; societies’ reaction to this positioning; and the various levels of tension which have existed at various stages of LDS Church development.4 In general, the LDS Church has gone from being considered a highly subversive organization from 1830 to the early 1900s; to experiencing high levels of assimilation through the 1950s; and has more recently, through what Mauss calls a “retrenchment motif”, assumed a position “somewhere between Allegiant and Contestant, perhaps closer to the latter.”5 This analysis involves acknowledgment of historical progression and categorizes the LDS Church according to broad social perception. However, we must recognize that different societal segments perceive Mormonism uniquely — separate from any general social perception.
Given modern economic and social mobility it is not surprising that individuals will join and leave various organizations throughout their lifetime. Bromley notes that each organization type produces a unique exit based on social positioning.
Those who leave Allegiant organizations are know simply as defectors. Defectors leave an organization at a point where they feel their own interests do not properly align with the general group ethos or a specific organizational policy. Their exit is done quietly with little or no public acknowledgement that ties with the organization have been severed, be it formally or informally.
Contestant organizations produce whistleblowers. Whistleblowers generally seek to keep their membership with the organization in tact but work to promote organizational change or some type.
Subversive organizations produce apostates. I use the term apostates here in its strict sociological sense and not as a pejorative. Apostates make clear, public, and pronounced exits from Subversive organizations. Unlike defectors or whistleblowers, apostates assume an explicit position of antipathy towards their former organization. As such, they produce a very specific type of narrative explaining the reasons for leaving. Often, the narrative takes the form of what Bromley calls a “captivity narrative.”
… in which apostates assert that they were innocently or naively operating in what they had every reason to believe was a normal, secure social site; were subjected to overpowering subversive techniques; endured a period of subjugation during which they experienced tribulation and humiliation; ultimately effected escape or rescue from the organization; and subsequently renounced their former loyalties and issues a public warning of the dangers of the former organization as a matter of civic responsibility.
Because Mormonism is seen as Allegiant, Contestant, and Subversive by various societal segments, it produces defectors, whistleblowers, and apostates. We may consider inactive or otherwise disengaged members as Mormon defectors, or “leave-takers.”
Mormon whistleblowers are those who advocate or promote certain positions relative to the Church generally in an effort to help, at least in their view, the Church or its members. Whistleblowers may be liberal or conservative — advocating viewpoints across the broad spectrum of belief and social practice. These individuals may leave the Church, by choice or by excommunication, but we have seen several examples in recent years of whistleblowers returning to an organization they never really wanted to leave. LDS apostates fit Bromley’s model as well. The production of exit narratives is common as is extreme antipathy towards the Church amongst those who have come to see Mormonism as Subversive.
In general I have found that ex-Mormon narratives follow a simple but effective pattern represented by four core elements. First, is an effort to establish credibility by citing previous Church service or Pioneer ancestry. Second, the narratives generally include an apology of sorts. That is, the author explains why they once held beliefs they now both completely reject and view with contempt. Third, and I believe most interestingly, comes the recitation of specific issues that spurred doubt. Lastly, is an expression of satisfaction of now being “out of captivity.”
I found specific issue recitation so interesting because in many cases these issues were spoken of almost as an afterthought. The social and spiritual aspects of doubt drove the narrative. The narratives expressed the pain of doubt — often in silence with feelings of isolation. They did not include lengthy discussion of specific issues. As I mentioned previously, narratives are generally unreliable in establishing actual fact. That is, simply because a narrative gives an account of an event X we cannot, with any confidence, conclude that event X actually occurred. However, when we examine the narrative holistically, we can get a reliable sense of the author’s general views relative to the narrative’s subject at the time of composition.
With this in mind, what do we learn by examining the narratives of former Mormons? First, we are reminded that doubt can be very painful and that the decision to leave the LDS Church is not one taken lightly. Second, we see that the anger and frustration experienced by these former members has led them to view the LDS Church as a Subversive organization. Third, we can see that many LDS doubters suffer and struggle in silence — believing they have a binary choice in front of them. Either leave Mormonism or find a way to put doubt aside. For many, doubt is a genie that cannot be placed back into its bottle and so we, as Latter-day Saints seeking to lift the burdens of our doubting brothers and sisters, must find ways to engage doubt thoughtfully, humbly, and effectively.
The “About” and the “Of”
The philosopher and mystic Alan Watts once wrote that Christianity had become a religion about Jesus rather than a religion of Jesus. To Watts, the simple and straightforward message of Jesus was unnecessarily muddied by questions of the Logos, transubstantiation, and other dogmas which emerged in Christianity’s first 1000 years.
I fear that members of the LDS Church — especially members with a keen interest in apologetics or the academic study of religion — speak a lot about Mormonism but not much of Mormonism. Were I to ask some of you why Mormonism is important I would likely receive answers expressing the importance of family and community and not an explanation of why the LGT is your preferred Book of Mormon geography model.
Over the past few years as I have written and spoken openly about my own questions, concerns, and relationship to the Church, I have received many emails — some anonymous and some from long-time LDS friends — expressing their own doubts, questions, and struggles. These members are often looking for reasons to stay — to retain their LDS heritage and the Mormonism as their spiritual home despite their doubts or struggles. A common refrain is: “How can I remain LDS if X, Y, or Z are not true?”
Our responses to these expressions of doubt make up the core of pastoral apologetics.
Before delving more deeply into the nature and practice of pastoral apologetics I want to make it very clear that pastoral and traditional apologetics are not at odds. Rather, they can be complementary. Traditional apologetics has generally been focused on answering the objections, questions, and criticisms posed by outsiders whereas pastoral apologetics is focused, almost exclusively, on our brothers and sisters within the Church.
Pastoral apologetics may be succinctly defined as a response to doubt that focuses primarily on the spiritual, social, and psychological desire for meaning, purpose, and mysticism. It is an awareness of, and effort to support individuals as they process new information and adjust existing truth narratives.
According to Peter, when we provide a defense to those who inquire, what is it exactly, we are defending? We are, of course, defending the hope that is in us because of our Christian faith. Peter is not advocating a defense of every last aspect of Christian metaphysics or history, although he isn’t precluding it either. And how are we to provide this defense? With gentleness and reverence as a sign of our inward Christian hope. Pastoral apologetics, then, based on providing the reasons for our faith when done with kindness and gentleness, becomes an outward sign of our inner hope; a manifestation of the love characteristic of Christian discipleship. Thus, in order to be a pastoral apologist, we must first understand, and be able to articulate as best we can, why we are Latter-day Saints. Again, I am not speaking of academic answers. None of us are Mormon because of chiasmus or Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon. We are Latter-day Saints because Mormonism means something to us. It matters.
When we interact with those who doubt we can speak of Mormonism is pragmatic terms — explaining why the Book of Mormon, temple worship, or the story of the First Vision inspire, comfort, or encourage us. I do not mean to suggest that studying and seeking answers to questions of history or metaphysics is not important.
However, for those looking for reasons to stay as opposed to rock solid solutions to very difficult questions, such issues may be less important.
Understanding how an individual views the Church, in a sociological sense, may also help guide our pastoral approach to Mormon apologetics. If, for example, a doubter has reached a point where they view the LDS Church as socially subversive they likely have little-to-no interest in maintaining a positive relationship with Mormonism.
I expect that those who see the Church as Contestant are more likely to have a positive response to a pastoral approach to apologetics. However, pastoral apologetics is an end in itself: an expression of Christian faith, hope, and love. As such, pastoral apologetics are not to be judged on their “effectiveness” in retaining members. Rather, the act of expressing empathy and extending an unconditional hand of fellowship is a good in itself regardless of how a doubter may respond to such expression.
Many ex-Mormons tell stories of being ostracized from their families, LDS friends, and others after the eventual expression of doubt or non-belief. While some of these stories are likely embellished, I find the accounts to be mostly reliable for two reasons. First, I have witnessed the phenomenon and while I have been extremely fortunate to be supported by empathetic family and Church members, others have not been as fortunate. Second, the expression of non-belief by a person whom a member has long known as a staunch believer presents a challenge to the member’s own truth narrative. Seeing others struggle, especially when we have known them to be staunch and strong, reminds us that we too are subject to doubt and disbelief. Again, this is why I believe it so vitally important to understand and articulate our individual truth narratives relative to Mormonism. This articulation creates confident testimonies and spirituality independent of what others may think or say about any given metaphysical or historical position.
We must never make a doubter feel stupid, unwelcome, unworthy, or unwanted because of their doubts or disbelief. Such behavior is anathema to Christian love and is an attempt at social shaming and coercion. The redemptive value of the Gospel of Jesus Christ rests on the ability of an individual to choose for him or herself. Therefore, even if these attempts at shaming and coercion were effective, they would create reluctant disciples following the rules with an unconverted and defiant heart. Take doubters at their word. Respect their views as you would have them respect yours.
Church members and families who react negatively to the doubts and disbelief of those who once believed, are, in most cases, not acting out of malice. Rather, they are responding to an extremely shocking and disconcerting event — an event which challenges them and requires an adjustment of some kind to the pre-existing relationship which had previously been anchored, or at least strongly supported, by a shared worldview.
Now, we do have the unfortunate situation of those who leave the Church and become extremely hostile towards Mormonism as a result. Such people are not interested in the question of why Mormonism matters because they have concluded, frankly, that it doesn’t matter at all and in fact, represents a social danger. To them, and to those who may accept their views, let us gently correct blatant misrepresentations or misinformation and counter overwhelmingly negative interpretations with historically or theologically accurate alternate interpretations — not in an attempt to persuade and convert but rather, to ensure that others understand the reason for our Christian hope.
To conclude, allow me to share a few examples of how I have been the beneficiary of pastoral apologetics and how this pastoral approach helped me recognize why Mormonism matters to me. In 2007 I had the opportunity to meet both David Bokovoy and Mark Wright at the inaugural Faith and Knowledge Conference series held at Yale Divinity School. David and I discussed the Book of Mormon and its relationship to Hebrew Bible scholarship over lunch or during an extended break in the program. I walked away from that conversation with a deeper appreciation for the Book of Mormon because it was apparent just how much David loved the Book of Mormon and its message while being fully aware of the arguments made against it. His example encouraged me to reengage the Book of Mormon and I can say that since that time my love and appreciation for the book has grown substantially.
At the conclusion of the conference a group of us decided to check out one of the fantastic pizza places in New Haven. I shared a table with Mark Wright. We talked about a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon and Mark answered questions as only an expert in the field could. He acknowledged the difficulty of some specific challenges to placing the Book of Mormon in Central Americaa and then shared his views on how these questions may be resolved. Throughout the conversation it was readily apparent how important the Book of Mormon was to Mark. At the end of the evening Mark, in a playful and friendly way, stated that it was now his life’s goal to convince me of the historicity of the Book of Mormon. And, while Mark may still have work to do on that front, his willingness to engage difficult issues head on and maintain faith continues to inspire me.
When I returned to activity within in the Church after an 18-month hiatus, I met with my Bishop and was very open an honest about where I stood in relation to certain Church truth-claims. He told me that he hoped that at some point belief would return but made it clear that he was very glad to have me in his ward.
I could offer many more examples but let me end with a simple expression of hope that we may all discover and articulate why Mormonism matters to us, reach out to those in the crucible of doubt with understanding and compassion, and most importantly, put our faith into action as an example of our Christian hope.
1 David G. Bromley, “The Social Construction of Contested Exit Roles: Defectors, Whistleblowers and Apostates,” in The Politics of Religious Apostasy: The Role of Apostates in the Transformation of Religious Movements (London: Praeger, 1998), 21.
2 It is essential to note that these classifications constitute a continuum and therefore, a single organization maybe classified as allegiant, contestant or subversive organization simultaneously. Ibid.
3 Ibid., 22.
4 Armand L. Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive, the Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994).
5 ———, “Apostasy and the Management of Spoiled Identity,” in The Politics of Religious Apostasy, ed. David G. Bromley (Westport, London: Praeger, 1998), 53.