Finding enough important answers to function purposefully.

In the early days of my adult spiritual rebirth, I remember being quite stunned when I read Richard D. Poll’s address titled What the Church Means to People Like Me. Having struggled with a lot of doubt about the culture of the church and the uncalled for persecution of loved ones within it, I was relieved beyond measure to find such a sympathetic voice, and quite eagerly placed myself on the Liahona side of the divide. I even remember being quite incensed at members, online and off, who stridently shouted for the Iron Rod argument. “Who are they to pass judgment?” I muttered. “We all fall short of the mark and such rigidity is divisive when we are all trying our best”

I’ve since come to see how my own inflexibility and tendency to view issues as black or white has blocked my ability to extract the bountiful harvest from the tares. This is not to say that I don’t still get irritated by those who always talk/type and never listen, or string together long proofs of quotes or scriptures, or hold their righteous indignation aloft as if it were Moroni’s standard. Quite on the contrary, there are still times when I seethe. However, I’m learning to let others carry their own burdens, and learn the best lessons I can.

One thing that has helped has been recognizing that dichotomies are generally an illusion. For example, take this passage from Omnivore’s Dilemma where Michael Pollen discusses the complex interactions inherent in a farm that relies more on natural processes than chemicals. To set the stage, I’ll summarize that Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farm, grows mostly grass … that feeds the cattle, which are cleaned up after by the chickens, who nitrogenize the soil and eat the bugs so more grass can be grown. In the winter the cows also provide the manure that Salatin covers with the wood chips from the forest and corn, which the pigs root through before the compost is finished. The forest also provides wind breaks for the grass, moves water around the farm, and keeps the animals cooler and less stressed. Pollan realized that the traditional argument for grass (and against forest) breaks down when one looks at the larger picture.

I realized that Joel didn’t look at the land the same way I did … By any conventional accounting, the forests here represented waste of land that could be put to productive use. But if Joel were to cut down the trees to graze more cattle, as any conventional accounting would recommend, the system would no longer be quite as whole or healthy as it is. You can’t just do one thing.

For some reason the image that stuck with me from that day was that slender blade of grass in a too-big, wind-whipped pasture, burning all those calories just to stand up straight and keep its chloroplasts aimed at the sun. I’d always thought of the trees and grasses as antagonists – another zero-sum deal in which the gain of the one entails the loss of the other. To a point, this is true: More grass means less forest; more forest, less grass. But either-or is a construction more deeply woven into our culture than into nature, where even antagonists depend on one another and the liveliest places are the edges, the in-betweens or both-ands. So it is with the blade of grass and the adjacent forest as, indeed, with all the species sharing this more complicated farm. Relationships are what matter most, and the health of the cultivated turns on the health of the wild. Before I came to Polyface I’d read a sentence of Joel’s that in its diction had struck me as awkward hybrid of the economic and the spiritual. I could see now how characteristic that mixing is, and that perhaps the sentence isn’t so awkward after all: “One of the greatest assets of a farm is the sheer ecstasy of life.”

What was so amazing to me was seeing Pollan chart out the innumerable ways in which the inhabitants of the farm depended on each other to keep life in balance. Insects were not a nuisance, but feed for the chickens. Trees that seemed to inhibit grass growth actually helped increase health and productivity. Cow manure was not sludge to be mucked out, but a building block for natural fertilizer. It takes them all to make the farm work.

On a smaller scale, I see this same principle everyday at my job. I work as a nurse. And while I rely on the skills of the physicians to diagnose and prescribe treatments, they also rely on me to monitor critically ill patients, detect often subtle changes in status, and advocate for the patient. It doesn’t stop there. I also rely on many people to maintain a healthy working environment … managers, CEO’s, supervisors, respiratory therapists, physical therapists, house keeping staff, electricians, security guards, nutritionists, cafeteria workers, chaplains, volunteers, ad infinitum. It takes us all to make the hospital function.

And so it is in the church. Much as I hate to admit it, everyone there has the potential to teach me something, if only I make the effort. I can learn to be kind, accepting, charitable, loving, righteous, and more spiritual from both the good and bad examples of everyone I meet, and vice versa.

As an adult, I’ve had generally negative perceptions of the Iron Rod(s). The words inflexible, dogmatic, steely and cold most often come to mind. And I’ve wondered how this fits in with the idea of a personal savior and advocate with the Father. And yet, if I exchange the idea of the Iron Rod as the Gospel (which makes it seem so set in stone), and use the concept of Faith as the Iron Rod, it makes much more sense. A strong and dedicated faith will surely guide me back to the presence of my Heavenly parents. A sure faith will help me not only NOT do the things I shouldn’t, but motivate me to do the things I know I should. So it is that when I consider the Liahona vs Iron Rod debate, I find that my interpretation has changed. Not only does my faith need to be as disciplined and independent as the Liahona, my faith also needs to be as strong and formed as the Iron Rod.

These past few years, I have been accustomed to hearing a wise and patient friend reiterate that, “Learning to live with ambiguity is a sign of spiritual maturity.” And while there is still that portion of me that likes neat answers that assign the world into compact black and white categories, I’ve been learning to appreciate the shades of gray on both sides of the divide. A passage from a letter Juanita Brooks sent to Dialogue: A journal of Mormon Thought in its early days strongly resonates. She wrote,

My father early recognized my tendency to question, to disagree, to refuse to take many of the Old Testament stories at face value. I could not admire Jacob’s ethics in stealing his brother’s birthright; I did not believe that the wind from tin horns would blow down the walls of Jericho, but insisted that they “fell” figuratively when the guards panicked and ran; if bears came out and devoured the children who called Elijah “old bald-pate,” I didn’t think God sent them, etc.

One day Dad said to me, “My girl, if you follow this tendency to
criticize, I’m afraid you will talk yourself out of the Church. I’d
hate to see you do that. I’m a cowboy, and I’ve learned that if I ride
in the herd, I am lost—totally helpless. One who rides counter to it is trampled and killed. One who only trails behind means little,
because he leaves all responsibility to others. It is the cowboy who
rides the edge of the herd, who sings and calls and makes himself
heard who helps direct the course. Happy sounds
are generally better than cursing, but there are times when he must maybe swear a little and swing a whip or lariat to round in a stray or turn the leaders. So don’t lose yourself, and don’t ride away and desert the outfit. Ride the edge of the herd and be alert, but know your directions, and call out loud and clear. Chances are, you won’t make any difference, but on the other hand, you just might.”

Lately, I find that I’m not in the mainstream of Mormonism proper. Does this make me improper? I just know that I love the gospel. The doctrines of eternal families, progression, and atonement are especially dear to my heart. Of course there are things (and people) who grate on me, but I take great comfort in the Articles of Faith, especially the concepts of continuing revelation (No 9), freedom of worship (No 11, which I understand to mean both outside and within the LDS church) and being good and seeking goodness (No 13). Like Poll, I have many doubts, but I find, “answers to enough important questions so that [I] can function purposefully without answers to the rest.” I find that the liveliest and best lived place for me is on the edge.

How about you? Do you have religious doubts? If yes, how do you deal with it? How much do you think is essential, and how much do you think is harmful? How do you interact with those whose faith journey is different from yours? What have your experiences been? What has helped you along your faith journey?

Jana

Jana is university administrator and History professor. Her soloblog is http://janaremy.com/pilgrimsteps/

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  1. Deborah says:

    This is a thoughtful essay, Dora. I particularly like that letter from Juanita Brooks — I had not seen it before, but the imagery is delightfully stirring.

    I am skeptical of overly simplistic divides: iron rod vs. liahona, red state vs. blue state — even pro-choice vs. prolife. My own views are complicated. I don’t fall neatly into many categories, so I try (not enough but I’m trying there too) to resist simplistic reduction in the people who cross my path and sit in my pew. It’s a private battle worth fighting.

    I find the distinction between values and virtues helpful. We are often caught up with values — deeply-held preferences — clinging to those who share ours and distrusting those who think differently. But if we can recognize in our neighbors the common virtues of respect for the other, integrity, courage . . . well, isn’t that getting toward zion? A place without -ites, but clearly not a place of conformity.

  2. madhousewife says:

    I have doubts. There was a time in my life when I was uncomfortable with doubt, and also with dissonance and contradiction. That was in my youth (i.e. teenagerhood). As I got older I learned that in order to function, not just in church but in life, I had to stop expecting everything to make sense. That, I think, is a very difficult thing for a Mormon to do. I don’t know how many other people have this experience, or observation, but I have always perceived a lot of pressure from the church to understand everything. Not that seeking understanding is a bad thing, but when you have a culture that despises mystery in other religions, it is very difficult to accept mystery within your own faith. Hence a lot of people say they “know” when in fact they hope, and that they understand when in fact they accept. Nothing wrong with hope and/or acceptance, but they are not knowledge and understanding. I don’t doubt, of course, that some people really do know and understand, but I doubt that such people constitute a large percentage of believers.

    I really don’t give a lot of thought to other people’s faith journeys. I get irritated when people claim that our religion is more reasonable than other people’s religion(s) because a) that’s insulting and b) it doesn’t give the Holy Ghost enough credit. Most of my irritation is due to my knowing how damaging it can be to faith when you expect it to make sense. I know how close I came to leaving the church and leaving religion altogether because I couldn’t reconcile faith and reason. Pretty much the only times I speak up in church are to point out that it’s okay to struggle with doctrine and also with God himself, if that be the case. If someone doesn’t struggle in that respect, God bless them. Well, I guess He already has. But they should realize how blessed they are.

  3. Deborah says:

    madhousewife:

    I really appreciate hearing testimonies over the pulpit that use the language “I believe” instead of “I know” . . . (and even the occasional “I hope”). Faith, as I read it in the scriptures, about things “hoped for and not seen.” And in any case, they are beautiful verbs.

  4. Caroline says:

    Dora, I love this. I love the idea that all of us – ALL of us – have a place in the Church and important things to contribute.

    I liked your discussion of faith. I certainly count myself more on the Liahona side of things, but I appreciate the idea that faith needs to be strong as well as independent.

    As for doubts, I have many. But I survive by focusing on those Christian principles that inspire me. And by trying more and more to appreciate people, wherever they might be on their spiritual journeys.

  5. Liz says:

    I have struggled with the faith/doubt conundrum for as long as I can remember. And still do, actually. There was a period in my life where doubt won, and I left the church for about 2 years. It was one of the hardest times in my life.

    When people ask me why I came back, I think they always expect me to say that some miraculous thing occurred, or I saw the error of my ways, etc. But, really, the answer is much simpler—I still wanted to believe! And that desire to believe grew.

    Really, once I realized that I wanted to see truth in the church, (even though 80% of me still thought that everyone was duped), my heart began to open. Little by little I began doing gospel related things again. And over time, those things began to hold meaning for me, and I began to change.

    I still have issues with some things, and I feel that doubt will always be a part of my spiritual life, but I believe enough to keep going.

    And when I feel myself being swallowed in doubt, I have a few people I turn to, and I few anchor scriptures I read. And then I stumble about, stubbing my toe on things I just don’t get, but I keep trying to stay on my path.

    It’s still a very sensitive thing to me, so I don’t know if I’ve explained myself well enough. But, I just wanted to add my two-cents.

  6. Deborah says:

    Liz: Beautiful comment. Thank you.

  7. Anonymous says:

    My whole life I have struggled with doubt, but rested my testimony on Jesus and a few favorite doctrines that I couldn’t find anywhere else. I don’t feel much of the Spirit generally–I wonder if I am spiritually tone deaf, meaning that I don’t deny that others hear the music, but my experience with it is much more limited despite decades of obedience.

    After recently suffering a frightening fall into depression, discovery of an immoral secret DH had kept for years, and recent statements in GC and RS about the type of women who are needed/appreciated/expected in the Church, I’ve decided I can’t live in doubt and ambiguity right now and I need a break. It’s nice to see, though, that many of you have worked through it, and I appreciate your thoughts.

  8. AmyB says:

    Anon, you should check out Deborah’s excellent post on taking a sabbatical. And one from
    Caroline as well.

    I’m taking a break as well, and some much needed healing has come. However, I still love the community here and find much support and solace in it. Best wishes wherever your journey takes you.

  9. G says:

    Dora, this has been on my mind so much recently… I am right approaching the question of my participation in the church (and, serendipitously, I am also finding lots of posts dealing with the topic).

    My upbringing in an ‘iron rod’ home made my doubts and concerns excruciating. It seemed you could only be 100% true believing… or leave, and become one of those ‘fallen ones.’

    it has been such a comfort to read accounts of people who have found a middle road.
    thank you

    (do you mind if I link to this post?)

  10. Dora says:

    Thanks to everyone for sharing your thoughts.

    I hadn’t ever thought concretely about recognizing similar virtues as opposed to values. Certainly there’s enough confusing rhetoric about value these days. I love the idea of finding virtue in our neighbors.

    I also prefer the language of believing and hoping. I tend to think that the word “know” is overused, perhaps in an overenthusiastic desire to follow in the footsteps of our leaders. I know that sounds really judgemental. I’m not condemning the desire to follow those with righteous lives. I just think that we should say what we mean, not what we’re accustomed to hearing. Hmmm … that sill sounds very judgemental. Well, let me just say that I try to glean the best lessons and impressions that I can from everyone who talks about faith.

    I’m also glad for those who speak up and acknowledge that having doubt doesn’t make one less-than or unworthy.

    Yes, I really do believe that we all have a place in the church. I think that our singular and collective responsibility is to welcome all of God’s children to come unto Him. I think that everyone has a desire to believe in something, and we should do our best to help them believe in their relationship with deity.

    Even when someone decides to break, or take a break, from the church, we still need to keep those doors open. This often requires an adjustment of our own expectations. We just need to treat each other with as much love and kindess as we able to muster.

    I think there is no such thing as 100%. I’ve really come to love the color gray lately, hence the image accompanying the post. Not just because I think it’s “The New Black,” but because it symbolizes the mixture of different elements in my life. I don’t believe that we need to be 100% in … I’m not even sure it’s possible. That’s why we have a savior and the atonement.

    And lastly … link away. We love links!

  11. stacer says:

    This is an interesting post to me, especially AmyB’s comment that the community is one of the things that she loves about the Church. For me, I’m kind of on the other side of the spectrum. My doubts have run more toward the community side of things rather than my belief in doctrines (though I must admit that I struggle with some “basics” simply because of a busy life).

    I’ve had experiences that I can’t deny that have testified to me so strongly of the truth of the gospel that for me, it’s been a gift to believe. But over the course of my life, it’s always been a greater or lesser struggle to feel a part of the community. As a teen, it was really strong. In a singles’ ward, it was as strong as the welcoming nature of my roommates and/or ward. (For example, when I first moved into one particular new ward, I made a habit of inviting people over to my house to get to know them. Several months in a row, not one person showed up. Not a big thing, but it just shows how little I connected with those people.)

    Integrating into the community in a family ward has been about as hard as it ever was in my teens, but now that I’m past the (horrible) transition phase, I feel more at home than ever.

    That feeling of at-homeness really makes a difference in whether I want to go to church or not. And that can have an effect not on my faith, but on my regular practice of the little things that show my faith, if that makes sense. I go into a spiritual depression, as it were, which opens the door to doubts I usually don’t have.

    I wish I weren’t so tied to that feeling of community. It’s one of my goals for that not to matter. But I think also, though, that community is one of the reasons we have a church. If we didn’t need community, we wouldn’t be organized in such a way.

  12. M&M says:

    I have appreciated the bloggernacle, which has helped me understand others’ journeys more. I appreciate essays like this that make me feel that perhaps there is some willingness to try to understand and be patient with those who don’t struggle as much.

    I feel that in the end, we all deserve love and compassion — not just those who struggle. Those who don’t struggle often try to reach out, but end up offending when no offense is needed. Either that, or they don’t quite know HOW to reach out simply from lack of experience and empathy (through no fault of their own). I believe the body of Christ will be more whole when we all allow the atonement to help us accept others’ best efforts and seek for the gift of charity. I think you have captured what some of that means in a beautiful way.

    I have found that the Lord is anxious to help change our hearts and help us not be judgmental and approach people — especially those who appear ‘different’ from us — with compassion, charity, and kindness. I have felt Him change my heart in this way through the past few years. It may not always be evident, and I sometimes still fall short in my part of the process, but I know — yes, I do know — that His help is there and the love He can fill our hearts with is sweet and real and healing and wonderful.

    As to doubt, I think we all have it. To me, it’s what we choose to do with it. I believe anything we experience like this, be it doubt or fear or pain or loneliness or whatever, is there to help us turn to Christ. If we focus only on doubt or any of those other things, we miss opportunities to discover more what faith is and what the Atonement means. These things to me are becoming triggers to ‘always remember Him.’ As such, I am also trying not to despise the “negative “things in my life, but see them as stepping stones to come to Christ.

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