A common apologetic response to questions about the church is to tell the questioner to lower his/her expectations. This didn’t use to be a common response. In the past, the church and apologists had taken a literal/fundamentalistic approach to historical issues, and the answer would be to defend the historical fact. Now, as historical challenges become more and more difficult, the answer is commonly to retreat to this “lowered expectations” defense.

Questioner: Joseph Smith said Adam and Eve lived and offered sacrifices at Spring Hill, Missouri, which he dedicated as Adam-Ondi-Ahman. How could that be?
1980’s Apologetics: Garden of Eden was in America. Adam and Eve and their posterity through Noah lived in Missouri and/or near abouts in America. The ark took Noah and his family to the old world at the time of the flood.
2016 Apologetics: Joseph probably wasn’t speaking as a prophet when he said that. Your expectations are too high. A prophet is not perfect. The only thing canonized is that Spring Hill is dedicated as a place for future events. Nothing about the past.

That’s fine. Not really a big deal. But something happens every time we pull the “lowered expectations card”.

My observation is that LDS apologists are using this defense more and more frequently over the past few decades. And rightfully so. It’s better to be direct and honest when faced with difficult historical challenges. I much prefer to acknowledge the difficult historical or scientific facts and search for an explanation, such as the “lowered expectations” defense than the hand waving, obfuscating method we sometimes see.

These thoughts are largely inspired by a post from Dan Peterson, recommending a blog post from Robert Boylan. The post is a letter to a doubter, with his advice on how to overcome his problems, with the primary issue being this doubter’s false foundations of his testimony on rigid, literal, fundamentalistic concepts.

I think that in many of these cases a lot of time it ultimately boils down to one’s presuppositions–as you told me [in person], you held to (still hold to?) a rather fundamentalist conception of faith and the Church, such as prophetic infallibility and impeccability, which are both simply false, as are things such as scriptural inerrancy and other related concepts.

Boylan referenced a great blog post from Kevin Barney back in 2008 titled “Lowered Expectations”. In this post, Kevin highlights the case of a friend who had lost his faith in the LDS church. This friend came to him with a list of issues he was having with the church. Kevin, thought, “ahh this should be easy, as none of these issues are a problem for me.” But though he tried to explain his nuanced view of the issues, his friend just couldn’t accept it and eventually left the church.

Quote from that article:

I’m involved in apologetics. I spend a lot of time trying to help members who freak out over some new thing they’ve learned about the Church. And the bane of apologists is what I call fundamentalist (small f) assumptions, by which I mean assumptions of prophetic infallibility and scriptural inerrancy. Even though the Church does not formally or officially accept those notions, as we all know they are informally held by many, many members. And while they may sound good in principle when expressed over a pulpit, they leave people who accept them in a bad position whenever they learn that such assumptions aren’t sustainable. And while some members go their entire lives and never have such a problem, anyone who is intellectually curious will eventually find out for herself that those assumptions aren’t true. And if she has held to those assumptions, breaking them is a serious problem.

I’m all for this brand of apologetics. But, it’s not as simple as some are explaining it. When I was introduced to this nuanced view, I was similar to Kevin Barney’s friend. The fundamentalistic, literal approach was meaningful to me, and this liberal, “lowered expectations” view seemed like a dumbed down, weak, powerless faith that I didn’t want anything to do with. Good LDS scholars like Terryl Givens and Adam Miller that are touting this nuanced view used to drive me crazy. I just couldn’t get it.

Let’s use this graphic and definitions to advance the discussion.

0: Atheism/Agnosticism. God may or may not exist, but humans can use the principles of religion such as service, sacrifice, virtue to enrich their lives.
5: Far end of Deism. God exists but has absolutely no involvement with man and religion. If religion exists, it is 100% creation by man. 
25: Overlap of Deism and Progressive Mormonism. This would be a model where God may intervene from time to time in religion but not in a huge way. There is likely no “one true” religion. All religions likely have some absolute truth in them but none have all the absolute truth. Most scripture should be viewed as metaphorical and not historical. 
60: Overlap of Progressive Mormonism and Traditional Mormonism. Jesus is the literal Son of God. God appeared to Joseph Smith and restored the gospel. Every aspect of Mormon scripture and teachings may not be directly from God, there may have been some mistakes by Joseph or other prophets, but this is God’s one true church. The prophet leads the church with some degree of revelation from God, but not in every matter. Many scriptures may be metaphorical and not historical, such as Noah and the Flood, Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, etc. 
85: Overlap of Traditional Mormonism and Fundamentalist Mormonism. Scriptures are almost always literal. The modern day prophets and apostles have likely seen Jesus Christ and the prophet has a very direct line of communication with God. There are very few mistakes in doctrine or policy. If there are, they would be very minor. The earth may not be 6,000 years old, but Adam and Eve are literal people and the Garden of Eden account should be taken as actual events. 
100: Fundamentalist Mormonism. Scriptures are always literal and perfect. The earth is 6,000 years old. Every policy, doctrine, and teaching from modern day prophets and apostles are perfect, as if God himself had spoken them.

Here are some examples of “lowered expectations” apologetics and the thought and analysis and questions that arise when faced with the “lowered expectations” alternative that might serve to push someone to the left on the scale.

  1. The gold plates said tapir and Joseph wrote horse. Why wouldn’t God just tell him “tapir”? Does God have no power to tell his prophets directly what something should say in scripture? If Joseph was using his own language in the translation, are other similar translation word choices in the Book of Mormon that resulted in mistakes?
  2. Multiple First Vision Accounts, no big deal, everyone remembers things differently. If it’s so important, why wouldn’t Joseph be more consistent about it? Or why wouldn’t God be more insistent he wrote it consistently? Does God not intervene to make sure his prophets do it the way he wants? Are there are other parts of the gospel I should worry about is not related perfectly? Can I trust scripture?
  3. Adam and Eve story is metaphorical, don’t worry about evolution. Why is it taught literally if it’s metaphorical? Are there other things I should wonder about that are taught literally that should be taken metaphorically?

There is nothing wrong with these apologetics. And likewise nothing wrong with the natural responses. A “lowered expectations” defense will prompt thought and analysis, opening up questions that apply to the gospel that ultimately will push someone down the scale to the left, little by little.

As an 80’s kid, growing up as the son of a conservative BYU professor in the heart of Utah County Mormon suburbia, I was raised with a very fundamentalistic view of the gospel. I was probably in the 90 area in the scale above. With every piece of historical information that I learned that challenged this fundamentalist view, I moved further to the left.

Challenged by evolution. Retain belief in literal Adam and Eve but not in 6,000 year old Earth. Move 5 spots to the left.

Challenged by evolution. Retain belief that God was involved somehow in the creation of the world but that Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve does not depict literal people and events. Move 20 spots to the left.

Confused by an experience you had with the Holy Ghost that left you doubting your ability to interpret messages from God. Lower expectations, move 5 spots to the left.

Offended by bishop or stake president. Lower expectations, move 5 spots to left.

Challenged by BOM historicity. Lower expectations, move 10 spots to the left.

Challenged by First Vision historical issues. Lower expectations, move 5-10 spots to the left.

Challenged by former racism in the church. Lower expectations, move 5-10 spots to left.

Challenged by New Testament Bart Ehrman type material, questioning divinity of Jesus Christ. Lower expectations, move 40 spots to the left.

You get the idea.

So, no big deal, just lower your expectations. That’s fine. But we need to understand how to make sense of the gospel and the church when we move to the left on this continuum from one category to the next. There are big issues that we need to reevaluate and redefine as we make these jumps, ie from Fundamentalistic Mormonism to Traditional Mormonism to Progressive Mormonism, etc.
If I tell you all you need to do to accept issue XYZ is to lower your expectations, then I also need to explain to you how to make sense of the new paradigm you create as you lower your expectations.

These are some important issues to address as we lower expectations and move to the left on this continuum:

  1. Authenticity  As we lower expectations and let go of previous paradigms, our definition of absolute truth changes. When we hear others testify and teach things we no longer believe, do we feel excluded? Can we feel authentic? Can we make sense of the truth we believe in, compared to our LDS brothers and sisters and feel like it’s “close enough” that we feel authentic worshipping together?
  2. Commandments  Motivation for obedience is very clear for those on the right side of the spectrum. Obedience is tied to salvation. As we move to the middle, obedience (for salvation sake) might be considered optional, and at the far left, salvation is not a motivation at all. Engagement with the church requires obedience to the commandments, so motivation for obedience must be approached in a new way. The “why” of a commandment becomes much more important than the “what.”
  3. Following the Prophet  Obviously, it’s a very different experience to be committed to following the prophet when looking at the following range of beliefs about a prophet a) talks to God directly and everything they do and say is the same as if God himself had done it b) is led by God but not on every issue and can make mistakes from time to time c) likely doesn’t receive direct revelation from God on a regular basis but does on occasion d) is more of a steward that doesn’t receive direct revelation but does the best he can. There are LDS in good standing in each of these categories and all must come to terms with what it means to sustain the prophet. It’s not an easy thing to do to move from one paradigm to the next and reexamine what that means in terms of following the prophet. This is why Kevin Barney can say “no big deal, just lower your expectations.” But then also he can say that historical issues will never cause him to leave the church but social issues might. To someone on the far right, social issues are not a challenge at all. God said it. Let it be done. To someone on the far left, the moral compass comes largely from within, and major disagreements with the brethren on social and moral issues now become the major threats to one’s faith.
  4. Relationship to God  This is perhaps the biggest issue.  With a fundamentalistic view of religion and scripture, it’s easy to see God’s hand in everything.  God is directing and controlling things very intimately.  He’s talking to prophets.  He’s interacting with man.  As you move a little to the left, you see that God is not micromanaging things.  Then as you move very far to the left, it becomes difficult to see God’s hand in anything.  Does God love me?  Does he care?  Is he really there?  These are the tough questions to answer for yourself concerning your relationship with God as you come to a more liberal view of religion.

I think what’s happening is that as an apologist, I want to both help you retain your faith in the church and keep you as far right on the spectrum as possible. This is why Terryl Givens talks a lot about prophet infallibility when it comes to past history but not a lot in terms of following the prophet today. Sometimes an apologist knowing the implications of the “lowered expectations” defense will use it, but in a subtle way, seemingly in an attempt to satisfy the questioner but in a vague enough way that it doesn’t spur the additional thought and analysis. This comes across as confusing and disingenuous and is the reason I think many LDS apologists are getting a bad reputation.

Is there a way to help people “lower expectations” while minimizing the move down to the left on this scale?

Is further left on the scale necessary an inferior position? Can we make room for it in the church?

Do we leave members exposed when we use the lowered expectations defense without filling in the details about what it means in the different categories of issues I outline above (ie authenticity, commandments, etc)?

Can we or should we be more direct on the issues related to moving to the left on this scale while we defend the church with the “lowered expectations” defense?

The “lowered expectations” defense is the new preferred choice for many LDS apologists, but I hope we are grappling with these questions as we use this method.