Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Mormon Miracles and Mormon Heart Break

This weekend something beautiful occurred that might just reshape the Mormon world for a new generation, and yet I find myself incapable of expressing how I feel. Because this weekend something else happened that broke my heart.

As a blogger, I find myself in a loop. I say I want to write about issues that affect religious feminists, and sometimes I do, sometimes I address current, contemporary issues. But more recently, I find that I am caught in the place of laying foundations for a deeper discussion: let me tell you how hard it is to be caught in two worlds, I say, and then I'll tell you more. But then something happens, before I get to the more, that drags me back to the start.

Last week, for instance, I wrote about the struggle many Mormon feminists face in trying to find a place for themselves in the church. I ended on a question, hoping that my post would double as a longer, more contemplative one and as a question of the week. As a teacher (and perhaps by nature), I am always posing questions. You could say I do it to play devil's advocate, but even that isn't quite right, because my questions always come from the heart, even if I'm more interested in them for the generative power they might have than I am for any immediate application in my own life.

That question I asked was a simple: What can we do better?

I intended to follow up this week, with a Part 2 that would lay out some of my own ideas and answers to that question. I was going to list off ways that feminist Mormons and non-feminist Mormons could each make a difference in helping feminist Mormons to feel like an accepted, valued, and respected part of the ward community. My feeling has long been that many who leave the church would have stayed if they had felt more accepted by the general congregation. Not just invited, but welcome and accepted and valued.

One friend responded to my question, but most others read and held their peace, which I was perfectly content with.

Meanwhile, I made some remarks on facebook last week. I posed a question for other Mormon academics about the use of "slippery slope" logic (often identified as a logical fallacy) in church classes. Friends responded thoughtfully, offering thoughts on cases when that form of logic was helpful and other times when it could, in fact, turn into a fallacy. I also posed a (mostly) tongue-in-cheek question about temperatures in church buildings, with got much more of a reaction than I'd have expected.

Perhaps most provocatively, I decided I was sick of hearing stereotypes about what sorts of people support Obama, and broke my own rule about stating over facebook which politician I support. Yes, most people can guess from my liberal leanings how I feel, but until now I had not stated on fb which politician I would vote for. I still have not and will not publicly express on facebook my reasons for supporting Obama. So it was immense for me to state that I am a Mormon (active and temple-going), who paid income tax last year, who did not have health insurance for the greater part of the year, and who would have supported Romney four years ago - but who nevertheless would be voting for Obama this time around. I ended with, "stereotypes don't hold up," because that was my only purpose in posting that status - establishing that the stereotype that only those who receive more gov't money than they pay in taxes support Obama simply doesn't hold up.

A long-time friend of mine (whom I will refer to as Sarah to avoid sharing her real name) asked why I supported Obama. I said I was happy to explain, but only in private, to which she replied that Obama supporters never describe why they support him. Still, true to my word, I gave her my answer in a private message.

All of what I have told you is background and context for what happened this weekend. (I know, I know, I'm long-winded!)

This weekend the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held a semi-annual conference. This conference is divided into 6 sessions, most of which are 2 hours long. During the first session on Saturday, we received amazing news: women will now be eligible to serve missions when they turn 19, instead of waiting until they are 21. When I heard this news, my heart lifted. When I think about this news, my heart lifts.

To describe what this news means for me, for my toddler niece, for the children I will some day have takes more than words. Before this Saturday, the policy was that eligible men could (and were strongly, strongly encouraged to) serve 2-year missions. Women could serve 18-month missions when they reached 21. The catch? These young missionaries cannot be married, and they cannot date for the duration of their missions. As you might imagine, that earlier age of 19 made it much more feasible for willing men to serve missions. Some took a year off after high school to earn money and then began college when they returned. Others spent a year at college, then served a mission, then returned to school. As difficult as many men have found it to return to school after a couple years away, most have returned to freshman or sophomore courses.

For women, it has been more difficult, though many have still happily served. By 21, many women find that 18 months out of the dating and academic world would (or does) disrupt their plans in bigger ways. For those unfamiliar with that position, imagine taking as much as two years off from school, between preparing and serving, at the end of your junior year of college. That's right, as you're accelerating from advanced coursework into professional level coursework, you take off for a minimum of 1-1/2 years and return rusty, most of your pre-mission friends and classmates already having graduated. Of course, the common-ness of missions at CES schools facilitates those transitions as well as it can, but for LDS women at other universities, that challenge must be even worse. Of course, all of these obstacles only increase my respect for women who have served missions. Still, this age change will dramatically increase the number of women who serve missions over the next year and in the future, and over time that change will transform cultural gender dynamics in the church.

Yet, admidst all the joy this weekend occasioned for the Mormon and feminist in me, something happened that leaves me wondering again how much work it will take for Mormon feminists to no longer be seen as an oxymoron. While watching one of the sessions, I heard a story from a speaker who described her delight when she saw a girl in a grocery store who wore a t-shirt that proclaimed herself a Mormon. When this speaker described a hypothetical t-shirt she would be happy to wear and how this t-shirt would proclaim that she is a Mormon and proud of it because she is not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, it raised some questions for me that I wanted to consider more. I thought about the overlap (and difference) between the gospel and the church and wrote as a facebook status:

Question for my Mormon friends: is there a difference between ashamed of the Gospel and being ashamed of the Church? In other words, can you be ashamed of one and not the other?

To avoid the assumption that I was indirectly claiming to be ashamed of the church, I added (just a question I thought of when she mentioned the T-shirt). Most of my friends responded thoughtfully, but one friend (remember "Sarah"?) wrote the following:

Sustain your leaders. The questions you have seem scary to have since you have a temple recommend. You don't seem like you have a testimony of Christ or of Our Prophet and the principles. You need to read the church literature and ponder and figure things out for yourself. More than always turning to others for answers pray to God.

When I told her that I believe in the power of asking questions in order to learn and strengthen faith, she then steamrolled me with multiple lengthy messages, as well as finding NAW and posting comments that I have since removed, in order to protect her identity. In her expanded comments, she proceeded to tell me

And I sincerely do not think you are actually seeking answers. I do not think you are going to act on the advice of others. Your questions show you have pride. You need to ask pray for humility. 

and

You know the answers you just do not want to do the work. You post all things publicly so I will post back publicly the truth.

Also pro gay is against families. Anything against families is against Christ.

and

Keep pretending, keep justifying and keep making excuses. But I know what Truth is. I know where the church and gospel and leaders stand on issues....and I agree with them, because I have studied the gospel, church materials, conference talks, scriptures and lots of time pondering,

You agree with world on issues that are against the church and yet you think you understand the gospel??

The questions you write clearly state that you do not understand a lot of things about the gospel.

Instead of listening and being humble..you refuse to listen to anyone that says stop turning to the world and start looking within

among many other gems. On the blog she even insinuated that my experience with abuse had driven me from the church, a claim so outrageous and offensive that I couldn't imagine why blogger, The Mormon Child Bride, included it in her list of the top 5 things not to say to friends and family who are questioning or have left the faith. When I asked Sarah to stop saying these things, she did not, and I ultimately blocked her on facebook for my own mental and emotional health.

But while I could laugh off this reaction - after all, I am not planning on leaving the church or even doubting its truthfulness, and it's likely that Sarah's reaction is merely coming out of her own problems - while I could laugh this all off, I find myself wondering how many other Mormon friends, acquaintances, and family see the questions I pose as signs of coming apostasy but have the good sense not to pick a fight.

It wouldn't be the first time that an unorthodox Mormon gained a reputation as not believing or as "apostate," despite regularly attending church, fulfilling callings (unpaid positions, such as Sunday school teachers), and even holding a temple recommend (meaning a Bishop has agreed to the member's worthiness and strong testimony). Several years ago, for instance, rumours spread throughout the mission that covered my home ward that the Relief Society in my ward was apostate. These rumors came down to the questions that feminist sisters posed in lessons, questions with made missionaries and recent move-ins from western states uncomfortable.

More recently, a rumor spread through the family that one of our family members did not have a testimony. When I asked her what she had actually said, she explained that it was a hypothetical question, meant to inspire thoughtful discussion. As a class was discussing the importance of developing and nurturing a testimony of the Gospel of Christ and of the Church, she said, "Why is it important to have a testimony? If I didn't have a testimony but still kept the commandments, why wouldn't that be enough?" Rather than considering the question, younger members of the class answered, "having a testimony is everything," while older members reassured her that she, personally, would gain a testimony in time.

These reactions to thoughtful questions - whether it's casual dismissal of the question or outright rejection of the seeker - these reactions are dangerous. These reactions reinforce the stereotype of our church being filled with brainwashed sheep. These reactions circumvent our progress as thinking, believing, developing, children of God with divine potential.

So, to those (few, I hope) fellow Mormons who are frightened of questions about the church, I have some questions for you:

Do you think that General Authorities ask no hard questions as part of their service? That changes like the missionary age requirements from the weekend, or revised temple policies of the 1990s, or extending the Priesthood without regard to race of the 70s all came without ever asking difficult questions?

And if those men asked difficult questions as General Authorities, do you think that they never asked or contemplated similar questions before their callings? That they mysteriously learned skills of reasoning with the Lord when they were sustained?

And if they asked questions before they were sustained, why not you? 

And if you can and should consider difficult questions, why not feminists?







6 comments:

  1. Emily, another very eloquent and thought-provoking post. Thank you. I've often wondered if some members of the Church fear "questioners" because of certain examples from early Church history. The most obvious example: Joseph Smith questioned, and the result was the Restoration. As a people, we tend to derive a certain pride in our prophet's early objections to established dogma of the age. Perhaps some members of the Church today feel that questioning is synonymous with dissenting for that reason.

    Orson Scott Card wrote a great article a few years ago about feeling a bit ostracized as a youth because his inquisitive nature was often perceived as aggressive and disrespectful. I'll have to poke around and see if I can find it.

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  2. Emily, I don't agree with what "Sarah" said, but I can empathize with some of her underlying motivation. In the last few years, a small steady stream of my friends has been trickling out of the Church after starting to ask "difficult" questions and identifying as "unorthodox Mormons." And I'll be honest, that's a scary and discouraging thing to watch. And sometimes I want to react to it by preaching some tactless fire and brimstone, although I don't (I hope).

    The difference between "good asking of hard questions" and "when they are learned, they think they are wise; looking beyond the mark" is, as far as I can tell, the underlying desires and whether someone is making their faith totally take a back seat to their reason (rather than using both). And these are, of course, very hard things to gauge from the outside.

    I hope it doesn't hurt your feelings to tell you that I suspected for a while, based on your Facebook posts, that you might have been one of those that was neglecting faith in the interest of reason. I'm pleased to say that, as I've continued to read thoughtfully the things you write, I've stopped thinking that; even though I disagree with you (or at least feel ambivalent) often, I've also sensed good underlying faith. Hopefully the other Mormon friends whose opinions you're worried about have mostly noticed the same thing.

    You're definitely right that we need to not be blindly-led sheep. IMO, you're right that we should fight even the reputation of being blindly-led sheep. You're also right that important changes in the Church might not be revealed to the leadership (or at least might be delayed) unless the members are asking the right questions.

    As more of my thoughtful, intelligent friends have trickled into dangerous ways, I've been more and more grateful to communicate with people like you (and Carl!) who make me feel like I'm not alone in wanting to ask "hard questions" without being in danger of losing testimony. So, thank you for walking with me on this narrow path I'm trying to walk.

    P.S. Hopefully the "sheeplike" people in your relative's Sunday School class noticed the General Conference talk that explicitly contradicted "having a testimony is everything". :)

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  3. McKay, I think you're right in pointing to that balance with faith and reason, which brings me back to the airplane analogy from conference. You're also right that it's really, really difficult to know from the outside what someone is feeling and thinking.

    One thing to consider too is what premises a person holds to when they appeal to reason. For me, there are basic premises that always remain. I cannot fathom of an existence without God - I see his hand in my life every day. I also cannot release the premise of Joseph Smith having been a true prophet who was called of God and who restored Christ's church - between study and prayer and visiting the sacred grove, I also have those beliefs cemented in me, as well as beliefs about The Plan of Salvation. So if I, with even those basic premises (and I have more, about The First Presidency, etc. I'm just listing the most foundational) If I set out to ask questions with even those basic premises - what a difference that makes in where the use of reasoning takes me.

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  4. I think that one of the saddest things that could happen (and is starting to happen, honestly), is that the church creates an environment that discourages the asking of questions by labeling them as the harbingers of losing your testimony.

    A) If asking good questions were to lead you away from the church, then obviously the church isn't as great as it thinks it is.

    B) For a church which has based itself off of the questionings of a 14 year-old boy, that's a bit hypocritical.

    C) If the church truly values, fully committed, faithful members, than personal revelation and an active engagement with difficult topics and questions must happen.

    Creating an environment where we discourage questions and make those who are questioning feel unwelcome only drives more people from the church.

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  5. I enjoyed this, Emily. It gave me a lot to think about. I actually feel like the Church is moving in a positive direction with encouraging questioning. I've spent much of the past three years working with the young women, and the recent revamp of their curriculum (to be instituted very soon, I hope!) is phenomenal. No more stories from the seventies, no more awkward analogies, just a topic, a list of scriptures and talks, and a few optional activity ideas. It encourages teachers to follow the interests and questions of their students (literally, it says "Let the questions and interests of the young women guide you as you decide what to emphasize in this unit and how long to spend on a topic." Awesome, right?)

    I'm hoping that this will begin with the youth, and then move to the adult classes.

    I also think there isn't as much of a divide between those who are very up-front about their feminism and those aren't. We recently had a mom of one of our girls talk with the YW leaders about her concerns about the YW curriculum (the early emphasis of marriage, a strict focus on modesty, the guilt-inducing lessons we all experienced) and I think she was surprised that none of us disagreed with her in the slightest. In reality, we were grateful she took the time to explain her worries to us and happy to inform her that we had no intention of encouraging her 12-year-old to get married in 6 years or rebuking her for daring to show her knees or shoulders in public.

    I'm not sure that last point addressed your post at all, but I guess it's just to say that when you are brave enough to ask questions aloud, there are some people who are quietly agreeing with you and cheering you on :)

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