When people leave the church over intellectual issues, I believe that part of what this means is that people leave the church because of the feelings associated with confronting these issues. In other words, when a LDS learns that Joseph Smith engaged in polyandry, for instance, it usually occurs in a context that induces fear and loneliness, which eventually leads to frustration and anger. Such a person may not be literally alone when he or she discovers Joseph’s polyandry (although he may be; finding the information online, for instance), but he or she likely feels alone in the sense of not knowing anyone with whom he can relate. Hiding such loneliness can give way to not only frustration, but also detachment from fellow LDSs as one seeks to render oneself invulnerable to the pain associated with loneliness. After a while, frustration enables anger, and the distance one has created between oneself and other LDSs via detachment makes “flight” (rather than “fight”) the easiest response to a difficult situation. In other words, some people leave the church because of frustration, fear, and anger. I think we can do better at creating a context where these feelings are coped with in healthy ways. Much of this can be done by means of what I will call “an apologetics of care.”
An apologetics of care seeks to reconfigure the context that induces feelings such as frustration, fear, and anger. It does not seek to remove these feelings since they serve important moral functions (frustration can signal, for instance, the fact that something valuable cannot be tended to); rather it seeks to validate these feelings through a process of sympathy (discussed below). An apologetics of care recognizes that people are relational beings seeking concern, comfort, and communion often before seeking an answer to a question. It recognizes that answers to intellectual concerns, provided without tending to the relationships they invoke, all too often fail to recognize the reasons for anger and frustration. The question of Joseph’s polyandry, for instance, isn’t simply a question about how a prophet could marry a woman who is already married to someone else and still be a prophet; rather it is also tied to our relationships with church leaders (why haven’t the leaders of the church discussed this more openly?) and/or our relationship with our spouse (will I have to share my spouse with someone else in the eternities?), among others. An apologetics of care seeks to recognize the fact of vulnerability—the things we care about most, our relationships with others, are by nature vulnerable to other forces in the world, but they are also vulnerable to our changing beliefs.
Care apologetics is apologetic in the sense of decreasing the need for frustration and anger by eliminating the space of fear and loneliness. It provides reasons for people to stay by recognizing vulnerability as shared—that we care when someone else hurts, even if we cannot fully understand their pain. Care apologetics does not decrease the need for other apologetic efforts. Explaining how one might believe Joseph Smith is a prophet while he still participated in polyandry, for instance, can compliment care apologetics. The often-discussed “inoculation” as a form of apologetics also dovetails nicely with care apologetics because it creates a context where emotions such as fear and loneliness are largely relieved. Further, care apologetics is something we can practice without lots of study; it’s something we can for the most part do immediately.
Now that I’ve briefly explained the notion of care apologetics (I hope to elaborate more in the future), here are some practical recommendations:
2. Validate negative feelings. Feelings like anger are natural reactions to pain. Discounting anger is asking someone to pretend that they don’t hurt. Simply recognizing someone’s suffering (“I see that this frustrates you”) can go a long way. Further, if we are serious about conceptualizing our relationship with God as a parent-child relationship, we must allow feelings such as anger, betrayal, or frustration to be permissible feelings we might take into this relationship. We are all involved in a number of significant relationships, think about it this way: would you love your child, spouse, brother, or sister less if he or she were mad at you?
3. Listen and don’t rush to resolve concerns.
4. Don’t police the boundaries of orthodoxy. The church has its own procedure for establishing its boundaries. Let those involved manage this process.
5. Stop using terms like “doubt” and “faith crisis.” In my opinion there are too many negative connotations associated with these terms. They create labels that are hard to break free from in Mormon culture. Once someone is labeled a doubter, the social consequences tend to include marginalizing them from leadership positions in the ward, expecting them to leave at any moment, and otherwise treating them as fragile, all of which serve to further isolate the individual from the community and add to feelings of fear and loneliness. Once someone is labeled a “doubter,” there can, unfortunately, always be skepticism about any return to spiritual health the individual might claim. In my opinion, the language of doubt should be replaced by language of wonder. So it’s not that “I doubt that Joseph Smith is a prophet because he practiced polyandry”; rather, it’s “I wonder how someone that participates in polyandry can still be a prophet.” When doubt is replaced by wonder the question shifts to one of mutual exploration rather than one of saving someone from drowning in doubt.
6. Recognize that for some people, staying in the church will lead to nearly insurmountable problems. There are serious issues of mental health that come from long term anger and frustration (such as depression), for instance. As such, people are sometimes better off (i.e., more happy) out of the Church. This is a hard, but true, pill to swallow; and I recognize that it may cut against the traditional notion of “apologetic” in terms of providing reasons to stay. However, I believe this is a necessary part of care.
Since these are more or less my thoughts in progress, I welcome all feedback.