Should I Stay or Should I Go?
I have a long history of struggling with the church, but recently I have felt much more peace in my relationship with it. Until the last couple of Sundays. The last two weeks I have gone to church and sat at the beginning of sacrament meeting in a state of simple happiness to be there, recognizing some of the good and beautiful things about the church. And then had my happiness wrecked. Mostly by things to do with gender inequity. But also to do with the kind of unthinking acceptance and rote recitation of beliefs that happens there. Both Sundays, I left church upset.
Sometimes I want nothing more than to just walk away. I’ve been very close to doing just that in the last couple of years. But I’ve hung on, even during my hiatus (six months without church, except for Christmas and Easter). I’m not always sure exactly why. There are the belief issues. I do believe the vast majority of the church’s doctrinal teachings. But I mostly don’t believe its exclusivity claims. And I sort of think God is beside the point. I could see myself, as a detached individual, much happier in another faith community. Quakerism. or Reformed Judaism. But I think the thing that keeps me coming back to the Mormon church more than anything else is that I’m not a detached individual. I have a family I care about and considering them is at least part of the equation. And I have a history and identity that has been very much shaped by the church. I don’t think it would be an easy thing to simply change that—emotionally, spiritually, psychologically. There’s just too much involved. (This leaves me wondering about the psychological well-being of people who convert to Mormonism; I’ve never really thought about that before.)
So. Here I am. I go to church pretty much every week. I sit with a friend who shares my ideas about gender and other issues and who has similar problems with the church. When something ridiculous comes out across the pulpit (like the idea that it’s inappropriate and perhaps even destructive to use logic in order to understand life), we roll our eyes at each other and/or snicker and/or dissect it later. And that makes it tolerable. Sometimes I find things of value at church–of value in terms of my spiritual well-being. Mostly I don’t. The bad days are the days when I can’t wrap my head around being a part of a culture with which I so very deeply disagree and which I sometimes find not only hypocritical but horribly damaging, especially to girls and women. Yesterday I sat and listened to two women go on about “women of faith” in terms of women’s ability to bear children and feed people and how doing so fosters the spiritual health of others; and I got angry that we reduce women to their sex organs and their ability to nurture. We’d never do that to men, not in the same way. And the thing that hurt the most was looking at my friend’s dear sweet little baby girl and thinking about how devastating these ideas could be to her.
I came home from church sad. Just deeply sad. I felt better after a nap (napping is a good thing). And then I thought about it all some more. Tthe talks on “women of faith” did reduce women to their roles as mothers/wives and nurturers, but they did so at least partially in an effort to praise the work of love done in those roles. It wasn’t just a simple reduction of women to vaginas and uteruses (uteri?). And while I don’t think I’ll ever hear a talk at church about “men of faith” that focuses exclusively on their capacity to father children and bring home the bacon in quite the same way as the talks I heard yesterday did to women, I know that men are reduced to inadequate concepts and symbols, too. Often in destructive ways. And my friend and her wonderful husband will do what they can to raise their daughter as an individual with great contributions to make, not just a body to bear children and comfort others.
Mostly I thought about the fact that I’m not sure these problems are avoidable. If it weren’t the Mormon church’s particular form of potentially destructive identity formation, it would be another. Changing organizations and communities wouldn’t necessarily solve that problem. On some level, the problems I have with the church are problems I would have with any organized religious community. Or with any non-religious community. I think they are problems of human nature. And therefore they are unavoidable. So I think it’s probably an exercise in futility to run around looking for the “perfect” community in which I would fit and would not find such problems. I imagine I could find such a community–until I got to know it well enough to see its own problems. I suppose I could try to find a community in which my beliefs and ideas were the norm, rather than “edgy” and questionable. But some part of me (maybe a long-dead Calvinist ancestor?) resists such ease, thinks that it is a cop-out. And there’s the fact that some of the people I know who think very much like me and are part of those other traditions are as deeply bigoted and narrow-minded as some of the Mormons I know with whom I do not share beliefs and ideas.
So that leaves me with the question of my conscience. There are ways in which Mormonism and the church and its culture deeply violate my conscience. And I find myself wondering what it means about me that I would let myself remain a part of a community that does so. Wouldn’t it be better, more honest and a demonstration of integrity, to remove myself from such an organization and community? I mean, I wouldn’t maintain a relationship with an organization that participated in the sex slave industry, no matter how much good it did or how deeply enmeshed I was. (I know that sounds an extreme comparison and in some ways it very much is. But I think the kind of damage that more ordinary organizations can do is sometimes more insidious and every bit as devastating.) I’m not really sure how to answer the question of conscience, in all honesty. Sometimes it seems that the only way to answer it is to do a cost-benefit analysis and stay if the benefits outweigh the costs (which, for me, they mostly do). Other times that seems disgusting in its moral pragmatism. But then I remember that any relationship, either with individuals or with organizations, is going to require some degree of moral pragmatism, so why balk at it in my relationship with the church?
It’s a complicated mind mess I’ve gotten myself into. I can get lost in it for hours and hours. Sometimes with the consequence of days spent swinging between anger and devastation. But then sometimes I realize it’s really very simple. Change what I can. Love people. Find the beauty in the world. Recognize that the world is a deeply flawed place and that no matter how much the church claims access to divine guidance and an elevated “truth” status, it is part of the deeply flawed world.
And I try to remember the seagull I saw flying down High Street, to hang a left onto Congress, one gray afternoon in Boston. It was a totally ordinary thing, a seagull flying in the streets of Boston. But it struck me as strange–a bird seeming to follow the confines of human structures, flying between high rises and complying with the dictates of streets. Strange and simultaneously beautiful. Because there, in the middle of human imposed order, that bird couldn’t help being beautiful and unexpected in spite of its conforming to man-made limits.