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.