Clarifying “How the CES Letter Works”

One purpose of my previous post was to highlight the way in which the intent we ascribe to others impacts our ability to trust them. If we believe that that someone is out to get us, we ought not trust them. On the other hand, if we believe that someone has our best interest in mind, we can trust him or her provided that other conditions are met (e.g., they are capable of carrying out the task for which they are trusted, etc.).

In the case of the “Letter to a CES Director,” Jeremy Runnells attributes malintent to the leadership of the Church. This has the effect of foreclosing the possibility of rebuilding trust in the leadership. I argued that instead of seeing the Church’s construction of its history as unprincipled, we should see it as unskilled.

I fear that I may have obscured a significant issue in using the language of “unskilled” and saying, “When a historian unintentionally [neglects relevant facts or organizes and explains them in unreasonable ways], we might say that the historian is unskilled.” This was not meant to suggest that every aspect of “bad history” the Church has produced is a product of innocent mistakes made by leaders that lacked any kind of intentionality. My hope was rather to create a distinction that stressed the effects of viewing the Church (and its production of its history) with malintent.

I would like to elaborate a bit more on the distinction between being unskilled and unprincipled in order to clarify how I see the Church’s role in constructing its history (defining the terms in the context of the previous post).

Broadly speaking, an unprincipled person is one who acts with ill intentions—he or she seeks to cause others harm for the sake of pleasing him or her self. Stated succinctly, he desires bad things to happen to others.

An unskilled person, on the other hand, does not act with malintent. He or she may harm others, but does not desire to harm them. He may even purposefully harm others, but does so with reluctance. An unskilled person might harm others because he lacks the ability to perform appropriately. He may also need to update his skills, or even stop engaging in a particular task. He may even be self-deceived; thinking that he can perform appropriately when in fact he cannot. Importantly, an unskilled person may also have misguided intent—failing to recognize that his actions harm others in ways that ought to be avoided.

A father, for instance, may want to be a good father, but may also lack certain skills needed to be a good father. He may not be a very good listener, thereby impeding his relationship with his children. He may even think he’s a good listener; and may even make poor decisions for his children presuming to know what’s best for them. (Coincidentally, I think that the example of the father resonates with the paternalism sometimes seen in the way Church leaders interact with members with regard to the issues under discussion.) Such a father would not be trustworthy in certain ways, but the ways in which this father would cultivate trust is different from someone acting with malintent.

Here’s an extended example relevant to the broader issue: My friend borrows my car, and gets into a car accident that totals the car. I would think differently about him if: a) he swerved to avoid a squirrel, which caused the accident; b) he was speeding because he was late in picking up his grandmother for her dialysis appointment; c) he did not want to crash the car, but genuinely thought I’d prefer to have a new car; or d) he wanted to crash the car because he thought it would be fun. In each case this friend is responsible for the damage; but in each case he’s culpable in different ways. I’m not sure I could (nor ought I) trust this friend with another car in scenario d; whereas in scenarios a-c, it’s reasonable to think that trust could be restored or at least some kind of relationship with this friend could be preserved. Scenario a is what we might call an honest mistake. Scenario b is a case where my friend broke a rule because he had good intentions. Scenario c is a case where my friend intentionally crashed the car, but out of misguided (rather than bad) intentions.

The Letter pushes a d-like scenario, which forecloses the possibility of rebuilding trust in the Church. My view is that something more like a-c occurred. Now, a-c are each complicated in their own ways. In scenario c, for instance, it would be pretty hard to trust this friend again with my car. I would also question how well this friend actually understood me. However, a significant distinction between a-c and d is that I could imagine preserving a relationship with such a friend, and trusting him in at least other aspects of life. When someone acts with malintent, however, it poisons our entire bank of trust with a person (or institution) rather than impacting just that account. In scenario c, I can imagine not allowing my friend to borrow my car again, but still trusting him with other aspects of my wellbeing. Scenario d does not allow for that.

The matter of the Church is obviously much more complicated; yet I hope this clarifies what I think the Letter is up to. (For a more nuanced look at the specifics of Church history, see this post.)

This does not mean that I believe that Church leaders could never act with malice. But terms such as “dishonest,” “liar,” “deceitful,” “brain washed,” etc., are terms that tend to flatten out the complexity of moral reasoning, and are terms that run contrary to most of my experiences with other human beings.

If a student approached me, and wanted to study religious community X; to return and report that the leaders of community X are liars and charlatans, I would question the bias of the student. Not because we aren’t all biased in certain ways, but because the hermeneutics of suspicion ought to be balanced by the principles of charity and humanity. If the object of my analysis comes out looking less than human, it’s more likely because of my misunderstanding than his or her ill intent. At the same time, we ought to recognize that humans are capable of all kinds of shortcomings.

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