Knowledge, Community, and Relationships
Over at the faithful Mormon blog Faith-Promoting Rumor is a discussion enticingly titled “Do Relationships Make the Church True and False?”
This post is a short enough one that you should just go over there and read it, but I guess I will still highlight some points here…when I was reading it, I will say that one idea I was apprehensive about finding was the idea of trying to bottle ex-Mormons as those people who leave because “they’ve been offended.” Or maybe “the church is true but the people aren’t.”
I personally think that my apprehensions were unfounded…I didn’t get that vibe from reading the article. Instead, I got a much different vibe.
(First of all, I think that the paper about exit narratives to which TT refers is Seth Payne’s; it can be found here. The Mormon Expression podcast [to which you all should listen!] interviewed Seth over his study here.)
But getting back to vibes…the vibe I got was a tentative search into a new and drastically different understanding of truth than many of us might want to speak about (and which a commenter seems to introduce as well.)
Here is part of the final paragraph of the article, for example:
In this theory, knowledge has a sociology, a context which makes certain ways of knowing and understanding possible. Truth only appears to be such based on the understanding that is made possible within a given situation. The kinds of truths that one can accept (or not) is determined not by some objective set of facts, but by the conditions in ones life that make that truth possible (or not). In this view, knowledge and truth are historically contingent and socially determined, at least at the level of meaning (hopefully that satisfies the analytic philosophers).
This is in light of what TT had written before:
When people discover something and leave, it is more the feeling of lonliness and betrayal inside the church than the discovery itself. The shared experiences are often found with others whove felt similarly alone and betrayed. Finding a community with whom one can relate inside the church helps to reestablish the sense of trust for other members helps many who have been shaken. When people stay, it is often the community of the saints which makes the experience of testimony possible.
I think there are a few critiques that might be made of TT’s article. The first might be a criticism that tries to argue that truth is about facts, and so we oughtn’t escape the facts. Commenter Heather seems to evoke something of this kind of argument. To her, the betrayal of the church is not the betrayal of the ward community (and so people cannot be cajoled into being a part of something they feel has betrayed them simply because they have good rapport with the congregation.)
I may be getting Heather’s argument incorrect, but the idea here seems to be that the betrayal of the church is something that relates to objective facts (e.g., the church has lied about its history, about its truth claims, or whatever else), so this betrayal supersedes anything else.
The first response I could think about giving would come from my understanding of TT’s own words. I think that the language relating to knowledge that is currently popular (and that emphasizes objectivity) is historically contingent and socially determined. I think that writers such as Philip Kenneson have had their say on the idea of objective truth (namely, to point out that it doesn’t exist, and this is a good thing too.) While I think this is a good article to read as well (and can provide some insight into even the idea of objectivity being contingent on a certain zeitgeist), I note that this one is a bit longer, so perhaps you should get to it when you have some more time?
The heart of the response could accuse both ways. Why are we to believe that the reason to be a member is because it is objectively true? (Because if defending the objective truth of the church fails, then why shouldn’t someone like Heather leave?) In actuality, shouldn’t the church be trying to give reasons for non-members and doubting members to give (or continue to give) the church a hearing? Shouldn’t the church be striving to achieve moral authority (if they can) first, to show why we should care first? (In this way, it’s easy to see why the church has emphasized objective truth claims first. Most people have been shown to care about the authority of objective truth claims from things like science. But such can be a double-edged sword, obviously.)
A second argument, that I think Heather’s point also hints at, is that the community can be supporting, so it isn’t even true that those who leave only because of an unsupporting community.
I think, though, that this can be addressed by showing that most communities aren’t exactly supporting in the way they need to be. For example, support can’t just be having friendly faithful members who continue to remain nice and accepting. Support also must include trying to find a way to alleviate the loneliness and alienation that may come from finding out unsavory aspects of the church’s history and/or doctrine, and in working together to work with an individual through and past it. To mourn with those who mourn.
Perhaps this is implausible for much at the church at this time…because I suspect that one thing that would need to happen is for people to be able to feel comfortable being in the church even with unorthodox beliefs or practices. Can a ward support an unbelieving member who does not agree with church policies toward homosexuals? Can an unbelieving member ever be comfortable in airing these view out…or even in airing views that aren’t politically conservative (as many wards’ politically conservative members apparently are)? Should the church even strive for a community like this? (I could imagine there would be people who would say this isn’t a goal worth seeking…)
It seems to me that only when the question on disaffected members’ minds…the one that they desperately scramble for answers to…shifts away from “Why should I stay?” or “How could I stay?” to “Why should I leave?” or “How could I leave?” will we know that there is that kind of support.
In terms of a “sociology of knowledge,” I think it’s pretty much an axiom that all cultures change and therefore the shared truths within them also change. Mormonism is a “living faith tradition.”
In terms of making space for unbelievers/outsiders, this is a curious question. Church settings are for fellowship with other Mormons, not humanity. =p For those who have gotten burnt, whom the faith lost its appeal or was discovered to never really have an appeal, good fellowship (and by extension, good policy) would employ an ideal speech situation, IMO. Ultimately, the Church does not employ this because of how it concentrates ecclesiastical power and has a rather monolithic theology.
Now, this doesn’t mean that I can’t go talk to my local bishop on the topic of homosexuality and feel some kind of closeness with him as he grapples with the Church’s inconsistencies, but I’m not sure what the point of this would be.
I think that relationships do make a difference for some people. But ultimately, I think many former mormons have wanted the church’s truth claims to be true to maintain their relationships. They’ve wanted to find a framework where they can live with integrity and maintain their relationships (with faithful mormons inside the church). Some people can do this, and others cannot for various individual reasons.
Because it is very common for one spouse to become disaffected from mormonism, and for the marriage to end. Or for parents and children (or siblings) to have strained relationships because one person is no longer mormon. Why can’t the converse of FPR be true, so many people try to stay mormon for their relationships, and why ultimately do they end up leaving (despite negative consequences for those relationships)?
I also personally believe that mormon culture does not allow people to be fully authentic, to say no without fear of consequences. Perhaps when some of those things change, when people can start setting simple boundaries with other ward members and the leadership without fear of consequences – can unorthodox members remain in the church.
Some mormons can and do set these boundaries now. But not all (in my experience) and it is a slow process to change a culture (who believes that if you are invited to clean your church building, you had better be there).
I don’t think the objective facts (regarding the church’s truth claims) should be dismissed as irrelevant. That said, I think personal experience is a huge factor in whether or not someone thinks critically about the church and leaves.
The LDS church culture rewards a certain random set of personality traits; some people will absolutely thrive and succeed in LDS culture, others won’t. The less the church fits, the more likely you are to ask yourself whether you really ought to be a part of it. OTOH, if you’re one of the people it works for, the question of whether or not it’s true is less pressing.
I can agree that “Church settings are for fellowships with other Mormons, not humanity,” but I would say two things: 1) we can be Mormon without having faith in the truth claims of the church and 2) Mormonism should (and does) still have a community outside the three-hour block.
I agree though that the church’s power structure at current is not very conducive to an open public discourse *officially*.
I think you hit a big point right in the middle. To the extent that people can’t say “no” without consequences, I think that even for people who want to stay via relationships will have problems. And it seems that asking, “Well, can’t the consequences change or lessen?” would be a good starting place, but many members would probably answer, “No, these consequences are important.” (even if they end up causing more harm).
Well, my thing is…I think that a person’s beliefs about objective facts is hugely affected by a person’s experience. After all, when confronted with evidence for or against a claim, you have to be persuaded by such evidence. To this extent, most of us are far more persuaded by things like modern archeology, modern science, etc., than the church answers and explanations.
But I get what you’re saying about using experience in a different way.
I guess the question would be…if there is a certain “personality type” or set of traits that help a person thrive in the church, then why don’t we see all the people who *don’t* fit those traits meeting together or clinging together (even if it’s in an outside-of-the-chapel situation)? I mean, one of the issues is not, “I had a community of doubters along with me, but then I left.” but more, “I felt utterly and completely alone, so I had little reason to stay.”
I have two answers for this:
1. We do, to some degree: Sunstone, the Bloggernacle, NOMs.
2. The CoJCoL-dS strongly discourages people from organizing any kind of church-based-but-not-priesthood-hierarchy-correlated groups or activities. It does so actively (by ex’ing people, denouncing symposia, etc.) and passively (by filling people’s weeks with so much church-based busywork that they can hardly fit or stand another hour of church anything).
Ultimately, I think this rigidity — officially hindering any leadership and change from arising in the church but outside the official hierarchy — is hindering the LDS church’s growth and vitality.
IOW, the 3-hour block is where it’s at. If you don’t go to church, aren’t you considered “inactive,” even if you aren’t really spiritually inactive at all?
I guess the issue I see is just that, things like Sunstone, Bloggernacle, etc., are not available to all. But then, I guess the reason why not is covered in your second point.
Ultimately, as Alan says (7), if you’re not at the three-hour block, then no amount of other activity really can compare.
I guess this is a little “late” to the discussion, but reading through Dane Laverty’s distinction between “programs” and “lifestyles” confirmed the thoughts about the three-hour block vs. other things.
Thanks so much for such a fascinating and thoughtful discussion!
Thanks for the compliment, Therese!