The scandal of particularity

This morning, I read a compelling analogy used by Elder Renlund and his wife in an address to seminar and institute teachers entitled “Doubt not, but be believing.” They use this analogy to address the concepts of doubt and faith in young students. Pardon the extended quote, but I think it worth including in full:

Elder Renlund: Imagine having capsized in a boat while sailing in the middle of the ocean. You are wearing a life preserver and have been swimming for hours toward what you believe is the nearest shore, but you can’t be sure. You have become extremely dehydrated, so that every time you start swimming, you become light-headed. By your best estimates, the shore is 30 kilometers, or 18 miles, away. You fear for your life. In the distance you hear a small engine. The sound seems to be coming toward you; your hope of rescue soars. As you look, you see a fishing boat approaching.

Sister Renlund: “Oh, thank heavens,” you think, the captain sees you! The boat stops, and a kindly, weather-beaten fisherman helps you on board. Gratefully you crawl to a seat in the boat, breathing a sigh of relief. The fisherman gives you a canteen of water and some soda crackers. The water and soda crackers provide the necessary nourishment for you to recover. You are so relieved and so happy. You are on your way home.

As you begin to revive and start feeling better, you start paying attention to some things you hadn’t really noticed before. The water from the canteen is a bit stale and not what you would have preferred—Evian or Perrier. The nourishment you really wanted was some delicatessen meat followed by a chocolate croissant. You also notice that the kindly fisherman is old, wears worn boots and blue jeans. The sweatband on his hat is stained, and he seems to be hard of hearing.

Elder Renlund: You also note that the boat is well-used and that there are dents in the right side of the bow. Some of the paint is chipped, worn, and peeling. You also notice that when the fisherman relaxes his grip on the rudder, the boat pulls to the right. You begin to worry that this boat and this captain cannot provide the rescue you need. You ask the old fisherman about the dents and the rudder. He says he hasn’t worried much about those things because he has steered the boat to and from fishing grounds, over the same route, day in and day out for decades. The boat has always gotten him safely and reliably where he wanted to go.

You are stunned! How could he not worry about the dents and the steering? And why could the nourishment have not been more to your liking? The more you focus on the boat and the fisherman, the more concerned you become. You question your decision to get on board in the first place. Your anxiety begins to grow. Finally, you demand that the fisherman stop the boat and let you back into the water. Even though you are now still more than 20 kilometers, or 12 miles, away from shore, you can’t stand the idea of being in the boat. With a little sadness, the fisherman helps you back into the ocean.

Sister Renlund: In this parable, the boat represents the Church and the fisherman represents those who serve in the Church. The sole purpose of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is to help Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ in Their work to bring to pass the eternal life of Heavenly Father’s children.3 What do the boat and the fisherman teach us about the Church? Do dents and peeling paint on the Church change its ability to provide authorized saving and exalting ordinances to help us become like our Father in Heaven? If the fisherman must hold on to the rudder with both hands to keep it on course, does that negate his and the boat’s ability to get us safely and reliably where we want to go? You do not have to be an ordained seer like my husband to know that slipping back into the water instead of staying in the boat is risky.

Every member of the Church needs his or her own witness of the truthfulness of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Without that conversion, including a mighty change of heart, people may begin to focus on the metaphorical soda crackers and chipped paint.

What are the “metaphorical soda crackers and chipped paint” they are addressing? I am sure most members can think of a few off the top of their heads, as they tend to become media headlines these days. The Church asks way too much of their LGBT members, and historically they have even been cruel and have contributed to LGBT youth suicides. Blacks and the priesthood was and is still a difficult subject to broach. We still have to deal with the legacy of polygamy from the early days of the Church. Other recent ones include the contribution of the BYU honor code to rape culture, the sexual abuse committed by a mission president, and the appropriateness of questions related to chastity in bishop’s youth interviews. When all you hear about the Church are these hot topic issues, it is understandable that faith would wane. But are Elder and Sister Renlund offering up a blanket excuse, trying to sweep such issues under the rug?

I would argue not. The accumulation of misdeeds and harmful acts are inherent due to both the passage of time and human frailty. No institution, no matter how noble the principles on which it is based, is safe from the build-up and tarnish of history. The Catholic church has their own accumulated misdeeds over time, for instance. But non-religious institutions aren’t safe either. The United States, long considered a beacon of hope, has also received a lot of negative press in recent years. Once you enshrine a creed or ideal in an organization, it is only a matter of time before the blemishes come through.

This concept is illustrated beautifully in Fowler’s Stages of Faith, where he calls it “the scandal of the particular”:

The particular is time-bound, the concrete, the local. The particular means this relatively undistinguished group, and not another. The particular has warts, and dust from the road; it has body odors and holes in its sandals. The scandal of particularity arises from the fact that over and over again disclosures of ultimate moment find expression to and among very finite, undistinguished, local and particular peoples. Cryptic phrases and questions express our sense of the scandal of the particular: “How odd of God to choose the Jews.” “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”… These particulars are scandalous precisely because something of transcendent and universal moment comes to expression in them or through them.

I just finished a book on philosophy entitled At the Existentialist Cafe, and this was a problem much on the mind of the 20th century existentialists as well. They weren’t under the illusion that the modern man is at “the end of history” where we have overcome the flaws of the brutish past, and can form a rationalist utopia. Merleau-Ponty, one such philosophy, summarized his thoughts in his master work “The Phenomenology of Perception”:

I am a psychological and historical structure. Along with existence, I received a way of existing, or a style. All of my actions and thoughts are related to this structure, and even a philosopher’s thought is merely a way of making explicit his hold upon the world, which is all he is. And yet, I am free, not in spite of or beneath these motivations, but rather by their means. For that meaningful life, that particular signification of nature and history that I am, does not restrict my access to the world; it is rather my means of communication with it.

This bears reading twice. The aspects of our existence that limit us, Merleau-Ponty says, are the very same ones that bind us to the world and give us scope for action and perception. They make us what we are. Sartre acknowledged the need for this trade-off, but he found it more painful to accept. Everything in him longed to be free of bonds, of impediments and limitations and viscous clinging things. Heidegger recognised limitation too, but then sought something like divinity in his mythologising of Being. Merleau-Ponty instead saw quite calmly that we exist only through compromise with the world — and that this is fine. The point is not to fight that fact, or to inflate it into too great a significance, but to observe and understand exactly how that compromise works.



Unless you want to reject any project that seeks to improve the human situation, you have to accept imperfection. The Republican or Democratic party are flawed– but so are the Libertarian and Green Parties, and others proposing change. Churches are imperfect too. This isn’t offered up as an excuse, or a reason not to ask for change, but rather a reason not to lose faith in institutions altogether. We should always expect more from our institutions, and seek to better them from our own spheres of influence.

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