I was going to present this paper at the Sugar Beet session at the Sunstone Symposium, but we were having a lot of fun and I didn’t want to offend whatever spirit had come to visit (it may have possibly been Sherwood Schwartz’s spirit).
The first article I wrote for the Sugar Beet was entitled 'Provo Temple Liftoff Successful.' It was an absurd story about an absurd event. The Provo Temple is anything but aerodynamic, and the MTC would doubtless have been obliterated by the fiery discharge of the launch, nevertheless, it turned out to be a great story, and one of Paul Browning's graphic masterpieces.
When the first issue of the Sugar Beet hit the web, I felt like I was one of the crew aboard the USS Provo Temple as it breached the troposphere. We were going somewhere; I just didn't know where it was.
A lot of other people seemed to, though. They all thought I was a hijacker and rocketing straight into Outer Darkness. As one of my critics said, not only was I corrupting my own soul, I was dragging the souls of others along with me.
It was a declaration I thought about at length, but the fact of the matter was, I HAD to write Sugar Beet articles. In retrospect, I think, as Gae Lyn Henderson pointed out in a presentation at the Association for Mormon Letters meeting a few years ago, that I was trying to put a bandage on some cognitive dissonance I was having. The Sugar Beet was a bit of Advil for the spiritual headaches I got at church. But, the relief was only temporary.
My approach to religion before and during my days with the Sugar Beet was much like the approach of the New Critic to a piece of literature. New Criticism grew out of a desire on some literary analysts' part to make literary criticism seem more scientific. There were specific elements, they contended, in a piece of literature that made it great. Thus, the literary critics had a set of real principles that they could use to ferret out truly great pieces of literature. Great literature could be recognized without error.
I thought that that 'true religion' could be found in the same way, and that 'true religion' possessed a recognizable set of elements. It seems to me that the Mormon Church enthusiastically espouses this idea. There is no shortage of testimonies, formal, informal, and authoritative, that insist that the Mormon Church is the ONLY true church, and that its truth can be found by applying its claims to a set of rules.
Writing for The Sugar Beet, however, presented an entirely new set of principles. The structure of humor, according to Sigmund Freud, is for a lesser value to temporarily supplant a greater value. As Henderson showed in her paper, many Sugar Beet articles supplant the value of obedience in favor of individual choice. Plenty of other values get switched around as well: Mandy in Ask A Beehive is notorious for using spiritual principles to forward her materialistic agenda, I'm Not Molly insists on turning church clich?É¬©s into double entendres, and Mahonri the Mormon Psychic relentlessly digs up the hushed up folk magic traditions in the Church.
As I continued to write, The Sugar Beet taught me value juggling. And it made a lot people understandably nervous. Many Mormons are quite fond of the Church's values and its attendant culture. The values, which many Mormons believe are eternal, give an anchor to their souls. They give the world and its happenings sense. They give the believer a sense of purpose, which is probably the thing most valuable to a human being. It probably seemed to them that I was juggling grandma's best china.
I need to be frank with you. I am a latter-day sinner. My biggest sin is doubt. I am riddled with it. And the colorful history of the Church is no help. And on top of that, the two main paths that have been presented the doubter are that I must either love the Church or leave it. Just a few weeks ago I was encouraged by a singularly frank Mormon that if I had found some error in the Church to leave and find the truth elsewhere. He encouraged me to have no truck whatsoever with falsehood.
I understand that point of view; in many ways I admire it, but it seems to me that there is another way to look at it.
Aristotle is reputed to have said that the mark of an intelligent person is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in one's mind at the same time. However, it seems to me that any idiot can perform this feat. Myself for example. I know that I need to exercise more and eat better in order to be healthier. But I fully plan to eat something rich and greasy during lunch today then sit on my duff and listen to some crazy Mormons all afternoon. After that I will sit in my car and drive home where I'll play video games with my kids and sit with my wife. I plan to do the same thing tomorrow.
With this in mind, perhaps the intelligent person (and I'm stealing this idea from someone I can't remember) is the person who KNOWS he or she is harboring two contradictory ideas in his or her head, and tries to get them both to come to dinner and have a talk.
Before the Sugar Beet, I was a New Critic; now, after the Sugar Beet, I am a deconstructionist. If you remember from your literary criticism class, deconstructionists identify the values of a text and then disconnect them from the system implicit in their structures in order to find a new interpretation. This is what I've been working on for the past five years: the ability to identify values and understand their relation to each other by learning to move them around the dinner table (this one at the head, this one at the foot, then switch)and listening to the discussion that ensues between them.
It just so happens that the area of most dissonance in my life, and therefore hosting the bulk of my mental dinner appointments, is the area of religion. My religion doesn't make me happy. It does not bring me peace. It is a source of frustration. Yet, it is deeply a part of me, so I find it impossible to cast it aside. Thus, I continue to juggle the values of Mormonism, trying to understand their relationships with each other, with the world, and with me.
In other words, I have given up my claim on truth. I am not at the Tree of Life. I do not know what is true. For example, people say the Church is true. I am in no position to dispute that. I'm just joining in with a host of other people in wondering just what “true” means. However, the fact that some values have fallen in question doesn't mean that they should automatically be rejected. If I doubt anything, then I must also doubt myself.
Some people may pity me and say that I have fallen into mere relativism. But to me, the world is bigger now, possibilities are more numerous, and life is much more interesting. It's not easy to stay here though. It takes work. Quite often I find myself wanting certitude again; wanting a course to be programmed into the USS Provo Temple navigation system.
But for now, I'm hosting a lot of dinner parties.
As usual, you articulate MY thoughts relative to faith/belief/Church better than I could myself.
I missed out on The Sugar Beet the first time around. Besides what I’ve seen in Sunstone, the Symposium Session a couple of days ago was really my first introduction to TSB. I left that session with five issues. Many of the articles provided good fodder for laughs around my family’s dinner table later that night. (The article about the Three Nephites masquerading as the Bee Gees comes to mind… I can’t believe I never made the “Stayin Alive” connection before… it now seems so obvious!)
I’m looking forward to the TSB book later this year. Could you remind us when the approx publication date will be?
Finally, is there a Sugar Beet website, and could you point us to the URL?
P.S. I *HAVE* to get a copy of that “Priesthood” or “Authority” (can’t remember?) cologne fake advertisement. Is that available on the Internet? If not, can it be e-mailed to me? That was a scream, and I know 4-5 people whose lives will not be complete until they see it for themselves.
You covered the Provo Temple liftoff? My respect for you has just increased by an order of magnitude (I could say that my esteem for you is “soaring” or “out of this world,” but I’ll restrain myself).
I like the idea of inviting contradictions to dinner. The more I experience life and wash it down with Sunstone,the more I find value in the tension between contradictions. This is where a lot of great human stories, art, poetry, religion is found–revelation and creation.
I was trying to put a bandage on some cognitive dissonance I was having. The Sugar Beet was a bit of Advilfor the spiritual headaches I got at church. But, the relief was only temporary.
Oh, I can relate.
Here’s my question: do those of us who experience this cognitive dissonance
need to view that as a negative? Or can we learn to, I don’t know, embrace
it as part of ourselves? Can we get to the point where we don’t need
spiritual Advil for it and accept it? I’m asking this as much for me as for
anyone else. F’rinstance: I often remind myself, whilst the Relief Society
ladies tut-tut over the loathsome state of the world and the pristine state
of Us during RS lessons, that much of what I hear in the church has very
little, if anything, to do with the actual gospel. That helps. But is that
another spiritual bandaid? Denial? Am I kidding myself that I can function
happily as a Mormon when I am saddled with a testimony that is riddled with
holes–more holes than fabric?
There is no shortage of testimonies, formal, informal, and authoritative, that insist that the Mormon Church is the ONLY true church, and that its truth can be found by applying its claims to a set of rules.
Abso-damn-lutely. Hence the cognitive dissonance. It seems to me, the older
I get, that “true religion” (whatever that is) is conducted, or found, or
experienced, on a much more private level than “at church.” In other words,
I feel that my relationship with God is established or strengthened or
whatever within the private sphere, and that much of what “The Church”
espouses about rules or formulas for gaining a testimony has no personal
bearing whatsoever to how _I_ gain religious experience, or knowledge, or
whatever–such as it is. Does that make sense?
That’s not to say that The Church, as formal institute, has no function for
me–it’s just that I don’t see it as vital, or even very helpful, in matters
of personal spiritual knowledge. My ward’s “flavor” is very punishment- and
rule-oriented: Are we doing enough of this? Are we COMPLETELY honest? Are we taking commandment [x] seriously? Oooh–look what horrible thing will happen to us if we don’t obey [y]! I can be receptive to this kind of school
ma’arm-ish approach for about, oh, two minutes. But that’s it. Then I pull
out my Sudoku.
OK, I don’t know anymore if what I’ve said has any relevance to your comment
above, Stephen, so I’ll move on. Oh, wait. One more comment: it’s as though
“The Church” is a bit fearful of trusting people to gain testimonies on
their own, isn’t it? So they have to espouse these formulas, which may very
well work for some people, but leave the rest of us feeling, well, separate?
Detached? Not good enough?
I am a latter-day sinner. My biggest sin is doubt. I am riddled with it. And the colorful history of the Church is no help. And on top of that, the two main paths that have been presented the doubter are that I must either love the Church or leave it.
That may be what The Church says (or maybe not–maybe just a self-important few) but is that what the gospel says? Or am I making an irrelevant
distinction? I have to hope that when I get to whatever afterlife there may
be, and stand in front of whatever judge will take me, I can say, “Well, I
didn’t exactly have a rock-solid testimony, did I, but at least I kept at
it.” And I’ll have to hope that counts for something.
So why keep at it? Because, for me, I do believe in the CORE values of the
gospel: service. Kindness. Sacrifice. The stuff that Christ taught. And I
can focus on making me a better person in these ways. That’s enough to
occupy me for the rest of my life. And so I can let the stuff that I hear in
church that doesn’t help me go in one ear and out the other. Sort of.
Sometimes. That’s my goal, anyway.
Or am I just copping out? Is this the equivalent of picking and choosing at
a buffet line, which is the metaphor that some Church people sternly invoke
when people like me get started? I mean, who do I think I am, to say that I
have worked out my own personal path to truth (or at least to a measure of
peace)? I dunno.
But, I’m sorry, I just can’t imagine that Jesus Christ will look at you, or
me, or anyone, and say “You were full of doubts? You sinner. Get yourself to
hell.” That’s not a deity I can worship.
Some people may pity me and say that I have fallen into mere relativism.
I think I’m right there with you. Someone from my ward asked me what I was
listening to (when I ran into her at the gym) and I told her: a book about
Buddhism. Her face soured. “Why?” she asked. I told her I wanted to know
what truths can be mined from that particular religion, and she said, “But
we HAVE all the truth.”
Now, that can’t be a healthy or desirable way to think, can it? Or can it?
The “Church” seems to think so. Or does it? Not even the surliest GA-types
have ever avowed that Mormons have ALL truth. Because we don’t. We’ve also
been invoked to keep learning; I have to assume that includes exploring
other religions. I personally love the promise that all truth will
eventually be circumscribed into one great whole. Meaning that not even the
smuggest Mormons have it all.
I freaking LOVE that promise. Mormons DON’T have a monopoly on truth. I
think that maybe a testimony is more like a framework to help us make
intelligent life decisions rather than a rock-solid “I KNOW” series of
statements–no matter what anyone else says on Fast Sundays at the pulpit.
At least, I hope so.
Amy – excellent commments.
Here?¢Ç¨Ñ¢s my question: do those of us who experience this cognitive dissonance need to view that as a negative? Or can we learn to, I don?¢Ç¨Ñ¢t know, embrace it as part of ourselves? Can we get to the point where we don?¢Ç¨Ñ¢t need spiritual Advil for it and accept it?
It’s a negative insofar as it causes pain and frustration, but at the same time I think it is an opportunity for real personal growth. I wish there were a short, easy answer, but I don’t think there is.
As far as accepting it, I’m not sure this is the proper response. Accepting it implies to me that we have resigned. Perhaps we could say that we move through it and beyond it, learning from it as we progress along our own spiritual journey.
Fowler’s Stages of Faith is a good resource here. It provided me with context and a purpose for my own cognitive dissonance. There’s hope!
It seems to me, the older I get, that ?¢Ç¨?ìtrue religion?¢Ç¨¬ù (whatever that is) is conducted, or found, or experienced, on a much more private level than ?¢Ç¨?ìat church.?¢Ç¨¬ù
To borrow your words: Abso-damn-lutely! That said, there is still a need (and responsibility!) for the fellowship and associations from church. While we are each on an individual path and our real growth is private, our associations on Sunday can be supportive, challenging, motivating, and in some respects modeling.
For example, the member whose face soured at the thought of you listening to a book on Buddhism (sigh) – maybe one day she will recall your openness, your quest, and be amenable to the lessons she might take from other sources. If that happens, you’ve been a good model of faith development for her. Likewise, you may benefit in unknown ways from others, as they model their journey. But this modeling – both what we give and what we receive – can only happen if we are engaged.
Anyway, absolutely great comments, and welcome to the SunstoneBlog! I hope you will stick around and share more.
Amy said: “Because, for me, I do believe in the CORE values of the gospel: service. Kindness. Sacrifice. The stuff that Christ taught.”
Matt’s response: I agree 100%, but I’ve found most religious traditions teach these same things (as you’ve no doubt found in your study of Buddhism), though some do it better than others. Not to put you on the spot, but I’m curious if you find anything unique to the “Mormon” gospel that you would consider a CORE part of your faith/belief?
Amy said: “Not even the surliest GA-types have ever avowed that Mormons have ALL truth. Because we don?¢Ç¨Ñ¢t. We?¢Ç¨Ñ¢ve also been invoked to keep learning; I have to assume that includes exploring other religions. I personally love the promise that all truth will eventually be circumscribed into one great whole. Meaning that not even the smuggest Mormons have it all.”
Matt’s response: I enjoy that idea as well, and I grab onto and lovingly fondle such GA quotes whenever I hear them promoted. But I don’t think the quotes reflect everyday reality. Wouldn’t you agree? As you pointed out yourself, I think the Church (by which I mean everyone: leaders and members) are far more interested in controlling and correlating the way (and the place) we find and experience “truth”.
In any case, I enjoyed your post! BTW, are you Ask A Beehive Amy?
Since you quoted me here Stephen I thought I’d better say something. I just returned from watching my son graduate from BYU. The talks seemed to me to be out of another era–almost regressive (especially after attending Sunstone last week). It surprises me that the same (church or BYU?) discourse is going on and on–especially since I’m living in another interpretive community in which what used to make sense just doesn’t any more.
You talk about holding contrary ideas in tension and not abandoning anything. I’m still in the same place. Why? Because I live with and love people that think so differently from how I think. It feels like I’m becoming more split rather than becoming more integrated. Not only can’t I pretend that I’m not Mormon (it doesn’t wash out in the rinse cycle), I can’t for _____’s sake CUT PEOPLE out of my life! Faces, human faces, that are important to me!
A faculty member on my dissertation committee said that she thought all my scholarship would be fatally flawed by my Mormonism. Now this is not because I’m a traditional Mormon, but because I’m in constant dissonance, because I’m in conflict, because that makes me FIGHT against things.
At least at Sunstone I heard and watched people, especially in a session called Tell Your Story (or something like that), talk about leading this double-life thing. When I was a little girl I was fascinated by a spy show called “I led Three Lives”. Do I like being a spy? A dissident? A secret-keeper?
But those of us trying to do stuff like leading double lives, or triple lives, really need people to talk to to figure out how to manage it. Otherwise we might jump off the cliff as Dan Wotherspoon said he is trying to help people NOT do.
Amy said: ?¢Ç¨?ìBecause, for me, I do believe in the CORE values of the gospel: service. Kindness. Sacrifice. The stuff that Christ taught.?¢Ç¨¬ù
Amy, it seems to me that the core value of the LDS gospel is exaltation. That principle seems to me to drive everything else. I believe this is what (in response to Matt) separates Mormonism from other faiths that espouse service, kindness and sacrifice. For LDS, those virtues are rooted in a completely different world view. See my article about this at http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3803/is_200604/ai_n16430997
In response to Stephen’s original article, I believe I remember reading a quote from GK Chesterton to the effect that the purpose of having an open mind is to be able to close it firmly upon the truth at some point.
I believe that for some people, the process of challenge, studying, questioning, etc. is as necessary to their happiness and their nature as painting is to an artist. No one questions that an artist “has” to paint in order to be happy, they have to express those feelings in themselves. In the same light, those that are not artistic do not have to paint to be happy.
But we can’t seem to convince the importance of this to those that do not have this requirement in their life to examine to the ‘nth’ degree things that are important like religion. Some people are perfectly content to read the scriptures, listen to conference talks, listen to talks in church and they even smile through karaoke Sunday, aka Fast and Testimony meeting. I don’t consider them stupid or wrong any more than I consider a non-artist any less worthy.
I know that I could never stop challenging and questioning my religion, I’ll never be done. It is an ingrained part of my personality, probably why I became a scientist. There are some people that are content to never know how to change the oil in their car, to not know how to take a computer apart, etc. and their are some people who as soon as they buy a piece of electronics, their fingers literally itch to take it apart.
One type of person is not better than another but there needs to be an understanding between both types of the inherent nature that drives both types to do what they do.
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