a hodge podge of ideas

by Amelia

i’ve been reading lately.  a lot.  audio books.  regular books.  books for myself.  books for my phd exams.  and i’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts.  so i have ideas churning in my mind.  lots of ideas.  so today you’re getting a hodgepodge.  i do hope that’s okay.

attention: i’m reading a book called rapt: attention and the focused life.  it’s a fascinating look at the different ways in which human beings pay attention to their world.  it’s main thesis (at least based on its first 70 pages) is that we shape not only our own identity but also our world by way of attention–by choosing where we focus top-down attention (the attention we can control, as opposed to bottom-up attention which is paid when an external stimulus [think siren] demands it).  winifred gallagher began her project on attention partially as a response to a bout of cancer, which shook her enough that she attempted to re-shape her life and world by paying attention to the good and beautiful in the here and now, rather than worrying about an uncontrollable future.  i like this idea–that when we focus on what is good and beautiful in our world, when we focus on the here and now, we can build a beautiful, happy life.  gallagher does acknowledge that darkness also demands attention, but she insists that it can be contextualized in such a way that we successfully minimize darkness.

i find myself struggling with this idea where the church is concerned, in spite of my appreciation for it more generally.  i’m currently in the mode of evaluating my membership in the church, trying to figure out my place in mormondom.  and i honestly do not know what that place is.  if i were to follow gallagher’s advice, i would focus on the positive, beautiful elements of the gospel and the church and allow them to become my mormon reality.  and i do this.  it’s the only reason there’s even a question of whether i have a place in mormondom in the first place.  if i didn’t follow this advice to some extent, i’d simply leave.  because there’s a lot of darkness in mormonism and mormondom.  at least for me.  part of me struggles with the advice to focus on the positive because it seems dishonest or lacking in integrity to not attend to the church’s hypocrisies and problems.  wouldn’t it be better to remove oneself from such a society? to eliminate as much as possible hypocrisy, dishonesty, and manipulation from one’s life? rather than to remain in a culture where such things seem prevalent in spite of the goodness that is also prevalent?  or perhaps that route is itself the less honest one because there is no such thing as a society without these problems.  i simply do not know.  thoughts?

likeness: i recently listened to a past episode of speaking of faith about revenge and forgiveness.  a truly interesting listen.  one of the things krista tippett’s guest said really caught my attention.  he said that we’re much more willing to allow for differences with people with whom we identify, while turning those with whom we do not identify into a single (and probably strawman) identity.  his point was that, because we recognize the nuances and differences between ourselves and others with whom we share an identity (think political identity, for instance), we are more willing to forgive or live with those people than with those with whom we do not identify.

i, of course, immediately thought about this in a mormon context.  my initial thought was that mormons do not allow for differences in their ranks.  not very well, anyway.  there’s a powerful drive to think and act alike in mormon culture that drives me *batty*.  but i also remembered a long ago conversation (argument?) i had with friends on caroline’s personal blog.  one of the points that came up had to do with what a suit connotes when a bishop wears it during an interview.  at the time, i tried to make the point that we have to get beyond the simple appearance of the suit and its connotation of power and tap into the suit-wearing bishop’s intentions and beliefs (to show respect for his calling; to show respect for the culture of which he is a part; to show respect to god; etc.).  it’s so easy to see only a simple sign of power; it’s much more difficult–and important–to recognize that behind the suit there’s a complex human being with weaknesses as well as strengths; someone who is just trying to do their best.  it’s so easy to think we understand the reality and then to dismiss someone as “powerful” or “wrong” when the reality is so much more complex than that.  and it’s only when we recognize the complexities of reality that we can forgive.

ordinary: the same guy who got me thinking about conformity and likeness in mormondom, also got me thinking about the ordinariness of forgiveness.  so often we think of forgiveness as something enormous and complicated and difficult to do.  and sometimes it is that.  but he pointed out that we forgive on an almost daily basis.  because the people we love do things that could possibly hurt us or annoy us or whatever.  but somehow we manage to easily overlook those things.  forgiveness, for him, is a biological imperative.  because human beings are inherently interdependent creatures.  i like this idea.  and i think that recognizing the ordinariness of forgiveness might even help make the big, complicated, difficult forgiveness a bit easier, too.

wonder: last (but certainly not least) is the idea of wonder.  because michael pollan got me thinking about it while reading the omnivore’s dilemma.  he argues that it’s a mistake to believe that what we know about something complex, like soil science, is all there is to know and therefore to operate on that premise.  the idea immediately set me thinking.  i love wonder.  i don’t understand what the point of life is if there’s no wonder in it.  i think emily dickinson captured the essence of wonder perfectly when she wrote:

Wonder–is not precisely Knowing

And not precisely Knowing not —

A beautiful but bleak condition

He has not lived who has not felt —

i approach the gospel of christ with so much wonder.  it’s a beautiful thing.  but for me, dickinson’s formula for wonder captures our relationship to the gospel perfectly.  neither knowing nor not knowing.  i think we do ourselves an enormous disservice when we declare knowledge, especially of god’s will.  i would much rather wonder than know.


Amelia has recently relocated to Salt Lake City for her new job selling college textbooks (a job she loves). She's a 9th generation Mormon redefining her relationship with the church (the church she both loves and hates). She's passionate about books, travel, beauty, and all things cheese.

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10 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Amy, I love your hodgepodge of ideas and the way you relate them all to Mormonism.

    I’m particularly compelled by the idea of attention. I too am trying to figure out how to lead my life in a Mormon context, and it does seem to me to be a very good thing to try to see the good and the beautiful in the system, since I’m relatively determined to stay.

    But like you said, I also think it’s important to acknowledge the problems. I suppose the ideal balance is to love and appreciate the goodness within the people and within the best of Mormonism’s ideas, while at the same time refusing to ignore Mormon ideas or systems that degrade or exclude. How to do that gracefully and compassionately? I guess that’s what we’re all trying to figure out.

  2. EmilyCC says:

    Such neat food for thought, Amy! I’ve been thinking that I need to think of the Gospel in terms of wonder. I think I get so bogged down in how to make the day-to-day operations (or Sunday-to-Sunday) of a ward work that I tend to forget to see the beautiful mysteries.

  3. Andrea says:

    “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” they say. I feel like so many of my feminist friends take the all-or-nothing approach. The church won’t improve if we all leave. The church/gospel offers so much good and is full of really good people. This is not a Pollyanna post, I know the downside too. Sometimes it’s a struggle to continue activity while breaking the mold, but let’s persevere together.

    I love your thoughts on attention, forgiveness and wonder. I feel my attention is bogged down by day-to-day logistics of kids and household. I want to raise my awareness — not a rose colored glasses view, but maybe a big-picture view. Your post was a good way to start my day. Thanks.

  4. amelia says:

    andrea: what about taking the baby with you while leaving the dirty bathwater behind? because for me, the good things in the church are portable and exist in many, many places. the church’s exclusivity and authority claims carry very little weight with me. the only exclusively mormon good i see is in the temple, and that’s such a mixed bag for me that i’m not sure i could continue attending even were i to remain actively mormon.

    on attention: as i’ve read further in the book, the author suggests that it’s big-picture attention that allows ultimately for happiness in the here and now. i think, caroline, that this is actually part of the answer to how we gracefully and compassionately acknowledge the good while trying to change the bad. by remembering the whole picture, not just part of it when we interact with others and when we make decisions about our own sphere of influence.

    emily and andrea i understand the way life gets caught up in the day-to-day. today is, after all, where we live. but i do think it’s so important to maintain an attitude of openness and wonder about life and truth and the gospel. i mostly mean by that refusing to categorically declare knowledge about anything. even things most mormons would claim to know. including such controversial issues as women and the priesthood and gay marriage. and including the idea that mormonism is the only way back to god. i simply do not think anyone can know, categorically, anything. we may know something, but i think it’s time bound and bound by our position as beings with an incomplete view of things. and i, for one, am completely unwilling to declare god’s will for him, no matter how much i think i know that will. i’d much rather look at the world through the wonder and beauty of the gospel and allow for possibility than close possibility off based on incomplete knowledge.

  5. Dr. Tump says:

    what beautiful ideas, thanks for sharing. I can relate to your feelings about your current status in Mormonism, I am at a similar place. I keep undulating back and forth. For now, I think that as frustrating as Mormonism is for me currently, its good for me to be exposed to people who look at the world from a perspective vastly different from myself; particularly people who’s journey is similar to mine, in many ways I have traveled the stages of faith they are now navigating. It reminds me that its so easy to become addicted to other people’s “wrongness” and feel self superior. Plus, I relish any place where I can make a small difference, like helping a poor Laurel girl feel okay about wanting a career or validating a young mother who needs to feel okay about taking some time for herself. When I am feeling overwhelmed by Mormonisms darkness, I give my self a break for a Sunday and try to remember that religion is messy, its never fits into the tidy little boxes we would like it too, thanks again for sharing

  6. Susan says:

    Mormondom is not that different from any other group of which we can choose to belong. Group members are brought together by common interests, ideas, hopes, aspirations, take your pick. This group is no exception either. Yes, just like in any other group, not everyone marches, or wants to march to the same beat of the same drum, but many do.

    Groups, by their very nature, over time develop distinct ways of doing things, distinct philosophies, distinct cultures. Me, I’ve never particularly liked belonging to any group, I’ve always liked to beat my own drum. Again, I separate the Church from its culture and the Gospel from the Church. They are not the same thing at all. The Gospel is true, and life is all about learning how the theory – the principles – apply in the reality of my every day life. I have nothing to do with Church culture, and must say that it is different all over the world, although there are commonalities. I also don’t have a great deal to do with the Church as an organization, although I attend my Sunday meetings and the temple, but skip Relief Society outside of Sundays as it rarely represents my experience as a woman at all.

    Beat your own drum. Work out how to live the Gospel (not the Church or its culture) in your world. Figure out how the Gospel’s principles apply to you. Make an effort to know the Saviour – through him can understanding and peace be obtained.

  7. amelia says:

    and if the best way i find to live out the gospel is outside of the church? what then?

    i ask because mormonism is a group which maintains that even if a member does not want to belong, denies many of the attributes that make the group cohesive, that member should continue participating anyway. most mormons would argue that the absence of “common interests, ideas, hopes, aspirations” is not sufficient grounds for dissociating with the group.

    i understand the desire to distinguish between church/culture and gospel, but i’m not entirely sold on the idea. one must be a platonist to make that distinction, believing that somewhere there’s a pure gospel that stands alone, distinct from those who purport to live it. i’m not sure i believe that. i’m not sure it’s possible to distinguish the gospel from its adherents.

  8. mb says:

    Good question, Amelia. Before we attempt to answer it, however, we should define “the gospel”. It’s a phrase used in many different ways in the church conversation and in the scriptures. What meaning does it have when you use it here?

  9. Kelly Ann says:

    Amelia, I agree with you that doctrine (which I’ll use as my definition of the gospel) and people are so intertwined that they can’t be separated. To become like God after all involves human beings.

  10. mb says:

    Kelly Ann,
    All doctrine? What is doctrine? Everything said by a prophet? Everything said over the pulpit? Everything in Sunday School manuals? Everything in scripture? Every interpretation of what those scriptures mean? Some of each of those has changed over the decades as church members and their leaders have had different understandings and insights. That leads us, if we think about it, to avoid the pitfall of declaring that we now or ever have fully comprehended and known God’s will at any one time as Amelia noted when she mentioned wonder. Rather,we realize that we, as well as every one of our fellow travellers, see it “through a glass darkly”, looking forward to the time when all things shall know and be known and doing the best we can with what we do see at the moment.

    So, Amelia’s question about living the gospel outside of the church probably excludes some of the things in the categories I listed from being “the gospel” (I’m sure “attend your meetings” is definitely in some of those.)

    The question for me is, what is essential gospel? What are the parts that are most essential to God? What are the parts that I feel most instructed by him personally (not by my particular passions) to devote my soul to? Can I maintain that devotion in spite of the silliness around me that sometimes or often occurs as my fellow saints and leaders go about with their dark glasses on too? Personally I am determined to, and to do so in the midst of them, not withdrawing myself because we do not see eye to eye and they seem, some of them, so blind.

    It is important that I admit, honestly, that I, in my own way, am blind. Whenever I am sure that I am right and someone else is wrong, or misguided or way off base, I need to remember that ultimately in some way I am as well. If we abandon each other because we cannot bear each other’s blindness, we both lose the chance, even simply by associating with each other, to help each other see.

    Amelia, I like your essay, by the way.

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