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?