Sunday, November 30, 2008

Peter, Social Capital and Understanding Agency

Peter and Social Capital

Two and a half months ago, I (briefly) told the story of Peter, a young man who moved from BYU, Utah and a predominantly Mormon culture to NC State, Raleigh and his non-member girl-friend Chelsea (again, all names have been changed). I explained that my job as a ward missionary is to provide Peter with social capital that is supportive of his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Social capital is important, because it is the number one predictor of religious belief or conversion. To use a secular example, I'm much more likely to believe that the world is round if I'm around lots of other people who believe the world is round, regardless of whether or not that belief is accurate. So too, are we much more likely to believe specific religious doctrines and churches if we are around other people who believe in the truthfulness of those doctrines and churches.

Since my initial observations on the importance of providing Peter with social contacts supportive of belief in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Alana and I have met with him and Chelsea once (and we will meet with them again next week). I feel cautiously optimistic that we are developing a good relationship, and I hope that our relationship will eventually provide both Peter and Chelsea with the social capital that will make her baptism in the church and his reactivation seem like natural and logical steps (the assumption is that social capital normalizes behavior that might otherwise seem strange--like paying 10% of your income to the Church, for instance).

Now, I recently received an anonymous comment on the post that originally described Peter and Chelsea's situation asking of social capital, "but isn't this afterall just what one might call 'peer pressure'?" The answer, to be blunt, is no. The relationships which make up our social capital may occasionally be used to exert peer pressure, but social capital exists regardless of whether it is used to influence an individual in one direction or another. Let me illustrate this point with a personal example:

I have a brother Rich who graduated from Princeton. My relationship with Rich made it seem natural and desirable to go to Princeton even though he never encouraged me to do so. The social capital of our relationship made Princeton seem like a desirable option for my own education simply because Rich had gone there--for no other reason. Now, I also have a mother who loves me and who wanted me to go to Princeton (or some other Ivy League college) because she thought that I would never achieve my potential otherwise. My mother used her relationship with me to try and persuade me to apply for and attend one or another of these colleges. She took me on campus visits. She hounded me about application deadlines. She exerted pressure. (Ultimately, I never completed a college application for any institution other than Brigham Young University, a decision which I am very pleased with but one which my mother still bemoans. I love you Mom!)

I have social capital (good relationships) invested both in my brother Rich and in my mother, but only one of those individuals tried to use their social capital as a means of influencing my decision as to where I should apply for college. Developing a good relationship with someone generally means that you will view the behaviors and beliefs of that person with more respect, regardless of whether or not you try to pressure that individual into changing their behavior or beliefs. Peter is very well educated and has more than enough information; I'm not trying to provide new information or persuade him of anything--I'm only trying to develop a good relationship with him, in the hope that he will have one more reason to come to church each Sunday.

Understanding Agency

The same anonymous commenter (thanks for reading, by the way!) also had this to say:

"if we as mormons are truley persons of "free agency" then we should let peter find his own way back to the church. we should not lean on him, make him feel pressured, or overtly encourage him to stregthen his testomony. we should not question his motives, his peers, or his doubts. we should not undermine his conceptual maturity by reducing it to social interaction. peter may be at a crossroads in his life. we should treat him with the same love, respect, and adoration that was offered during his most pious state. if he indeed is a true believer, he will find his way back to the gospel."

Let me make a few comments on the concept of agency (notice I didn't use the word "free"--my wife gave an excellent talk on the subject of agency in church today, and she addresses that point here). We typically think of ourselves as agents, beings with agency, or "the power or authority to act" (from the American Heritage definition of "agent"). But there is another definition of agency that is, perhaps, even more applicable to our status as agents. Agency is also "the office or function of an agent or factor" (Oxford English Dictionary definition), where agent means "one that acts for or as the representative of another" (American Heritage).

When an individual becomes a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, they exercise their agency as individuals, and they agree that in the future they will act as an agent or representative of the Lord Jesus Christ. When we are baptized, we exercise our agency for the last time--we contractually obligate ourselves to act for and in behalf of Jesus Christ at all times and in all places. Doctrine and Covenants 64:29 teaches us that "Wherefore, as ye are agents, ye are on the Lord's errand; and whatever ye do according to the will of the Lord is the Lord's business." The word agents here clearly does not refer to our ability to make whatever choice we want; it refers to our status as agents of Jesus Christ who should be on his errand at all times and in all places, so that whatever we do is "according to the will of the Lord" and is therefore "the Lord's business." Until individuals have been baptized, "they are agents unto themselves" (Moses 6:56), but after they have made covenants, they become the Lord's servants, and "he that doeth not anything until he is commanded, and receiveth a commandment with doubtful heart, and keepeth it with slothfulness, the same is damned" (D&C 58:29; see also verses 27-28).

Let me apply this understanding of our agency to Peter's case with a secular example:

Let's pretend that Peter is really Pedro, an Hispanic immigrant who applies for citizenship in the United States. Pedro's application is approved, and he shows up at the courthouse on a Saturday morning to take the oath of citizenship, which requires him to obey, honor and sustain the laws of the land. Pedro takes the oath, and everyone cheers. Sadly, however, after becoming a citizen of the United States, Pedro starts to spend time with and invest social capital in people who do not believe in obeying, honoring and sustaining the laws of the land. Pedro begins to break laws. Now, as Pedro's friend, should you "overtly encourage" him to strengthen his testimony of the laws of the land, or should you allow him to continue breaking them without questioning his motives, peers and doubts about the law? Is it wrong to attribute Pedro's "conceptual maturity" to his interactions with a group of people that don't respect the law? Do I love Pedro any less because I want him to stop breaking the law before he has to suffer the consequences?

Peter has made covenants: in the premortal existence, at baptism and in the temple. He can choose to break those covenants, but he will have to suffer the penalty affixed in the law. Because I don't think Peter would appreciate my concern for him if I tried to remind him of those covenants and the consequences of breaking them, I'm not trying to pressure him--not because I think that pressuring is inherently wrong, but because I don't think it would work. Instead, I'm trying to develop a good relationship with him and hoping that he will choose, of his own will and volition, to act once more as an agent of Jesus Christ at all times and in all places.


Becky said...

I think you are correct, continue to be the shining light in his life. Hopefully through your example and others, he will return to full activity.

Schenewarks said...

You make me laugh. Have you considered running a weekly editorial comment in your paper? You always have some sage advice/counsel to offer