Ambivalence as a Religious Virtue

(Influence by Chidi Okoye)

Ambivalence generally has a negative connotation, despite its neutral root definition of simultaneous conflicting feelings (ambi = both, valeo = feel strongly). Indecision, wishywashiness, lack of commitment is what generally comes to mind when you hear the term.However, in The Religious Imagination of the American Woman, Bednarowski argues that religious ambivalence – feelings of constraint and exclusion within a religious tradition, but at the same time feeling shaped, enriched and nourished by it – can be a religious virtue and a conscious choice that enriches and enlivens a person’s spirituality and community.

She argues that “ambivalence emerges much more as a virtue to be cultivated than as a vice to be avoided – that there is a vitalizing quality to its manifestations. It is a willed ambivalence, a sustained and cultivated ambivalence, an aware ambivalence. This is an ambivalence that requires women always to be vigilant, always to be critical of their communities’ inclination toward exclusion and distortion and at the same time to be open to new possibilities to hold up and reform or transform or dig up, from wherever they have been hiding, their traditions’ most liberating and healing insights.It is an ambivalence that demands wariness that does not lapse into cynicism, loyalty that does not succumb to docility or resignation, creativity that flourishes on the margins without losing sight of the center.”

This was beautiful and deeply exciting to me, since I have feelings of ambivalence towards the Church. Until recently, I often felt guilty and frightened by my hurt and anger at certain Church policies, feelings that coexist with my love for certain unique Mormon ideas. This new theory renewed my hope that there is indeed a nourishing, creative, and vital role that I, with all my ambivalence, can cultivate in my faith community.

Have you experienced this sort of religious ambivalence, and if so, has it ultimately been nourishing and creative?


Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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  1. skyeJ says:

    I have been struggling with feelings of conflict about church for a long time. I found a period in my life where I was actively questioning things led to a lot of growth. I think the growth scared me because it made me see that I was unwittingly putting a lot of my faith in the institution of the church, and not in the gospel of Jesus Christ. So now my questions are more about big concepts like faith in Christ and less about little things. These questions are so much harder to deal with because I don’t see the church as a safe place to be vulnerable most of the time. In my heart I know it is good and healthy to explore my faith. But I struggle with guilt that I have such anger and resentment towards things I am questioning. I struggle with the temple, and right now I feel unworthy to go because I can’t help being angry there. But I know that God exists and loves me. I know I used to feel peace in the temple. I hate that I feel this way now because I feel like I’ve lost something very precious. But I still have hope because I know that God still exists and I believe that there is still a way for me to feel that peace and closeness I once felt.

    I was asking myself if I really wanted to keep being Mormon, because it is always my choice to stay or go. And I know that even with the anger and frustration I have over so many things right now, ultimately my relationship with God and my belief in Jesus Christ and his teachings have been at the heart of every good thing I’ve ever done in my life. And I learned it all at church. I can’t deny the impact that my spirituality has had on my life. It isn’t just a source of angst, although lately it has felt that way.

    So, yeah. I live with ambivalence every day. I wouldn’t say that I seek it out. It is more a natural product of my spiritual wanderings. I have hope that I will grow closer to God by exploring, and I recognize that my ambivalence is a part of that act. If faith is hope, and hope is driving my exploration, and ambivalence is a part of that exploratory process- I welcome it. It is a useful tool.

  2. Caroline says:

    ‘I was unwittingly putting a lot of my faith in the institution of the church, and not in the gospel of Jesus Christ.’

    This is a distinction I often make as well. And for me, focusing on the gospel of Jesus Christ has opened up whole new worlds of insight and excitement. Visiting other churches’ services is one thing that has rejuvenated my dedication to Christ’s gospel. There are a lot of empowering and enriching ideas out there beyond what we typically hear during a 3 hour block.

    ‘If faith is hope, and hope is driving my exploration, and ambivalence is a part of that exploratory process- I welcome it.’

    I like that. Thank you.

  3. G says:

    yep, lots of ambivalence. TONS. but only recently has it become ambivalence… it used to be excruciating pain as my growing concerns and doubts tore me up horribly inside. Very bad stuff, almost didn’t think I would survive it. but that pain went away, and now I am left with a sort of ‘interested observer’ feeling toward the church. fascinated by so much of the culture and history and sunday school lessons, but no longer bound with those same ties I originally felt that almost killed me. It has been a REAL blessing… it has helped me to not be quite so angry or bitter.

    great post, caroline.

  4. EmilyCC says:

    I love The Religious Imagination of the American Woman. I’ve always thought it would be a great book club read.

    I don’t think I would have come very far in my spiritual progression if I hadn’t had to deal with my own ambivalence.

    Skyej, I second Caroline’s admiration for your quote about hope. It’s lovely.

  5. AmyB says:

    It seems to me that ambivalence is a necessary part of a spiritual journey and part of being in a religious community. The alternative is turning a blind eye to the parts that go awry. It means compartmentalizing and insisting that the world is black and white when it’s in full color mingled with every shade of gray.

    Part of mature adult development is the ability to hold paradox. I know for myself that when I began to develop a more nuanced view and embraced some of the irreconcilable opposites, I began to have a lot more compassion for others at every stage of the journey and for myself.

  6. skyeJ says:

    Yeah. I like what AmyB said about seeing shades of gray and how it heightens one’s ability for compassion. I am amazed at the strength of a being like Christ or God who can feel such infinite compassion for us crazy messed-up humans. It is frankly HARD to feel that much love for someone else. It is hard to expand one’s mind to see the infinite perspectives necessary to feel compassion for others. It is almost as if Christ isn’t just a magical being who only sees the good, and that is how he can love us so much. He actually is able to see the good, bad, and all the intricate shades of gray that link the two extremes. And that is how the love is possible, he sees the reality that we are all shades of gray and doesn’t hold us to a black and white standard.

  7. Caroline says:

    G, I too sometimes take the ‘interested observer’ route. I try to switch into tha mode whenever I feel myself getting upset over some current policy.

  8. G says:

    caroline, I wrote that too soon!…
    just last night I found myself getting extrememly agitated over something I read in a church magazine. almost livid!
    so, I guess I am not so ambivalent as I thought… oh well! 🙂

  9. Kiki says:

    I had been inactive from 1985 until about 3 yrs ago. I had come to dislike the “Molly” mentality of the women around me and the lack of self-awareness these women had. It was almost as if they had been brain-washed into a specific role in life and couldn’t even think about deviating from it. It came pretty close to “Stepford”. I couldn’t relate in any way. I am 57, never been married and not gay. I never wanted children but that is NOT something you say within the confines of the LDS Church. There were other things I couldn’t say either so I felt it best just to leave rather than fight what I considered a battle that I couldn’t win. I have since reactivated but still have “moments” when I just rankle at something I’ve read or heard one of the “Molly”‘s say something really out there. I have decided that I’d rather be “in” than “out”. That doesn’t mean I am in complete agreement. What I am learning is that I am an Imposter within the Gospel-I can’t really be me. I must decide whether that is reconcilable or not. I will never be a “Molly” but I also don’t want to be on the fringe either. Ambivalence, conflict, angst, YES. Irreconcilable differences, MAYBE. Persistence, patience, self-realization, ALWAYS.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Caroline, I love this post, and the comments have made me feel like much less of an anomaly. As I am new to the struggle, I have not yet come to a place of ambivalence. I’ve been told I need nuance and to grow into an adult testimony. I’m finding that spending so many years seeing the world in black and white, us and them, right and wrong, it is very hard to embrace a nuanced, paradoxical view.

    Experience has taught me to love people not because they “deserve” to be loved because they are righteous or worthy, but because they are human, they make mistakes, and they need to be loved as much as I do. As an example, I have great love and respect for a gay couple who exemplify a deeply committed and loving relationship. I feel guilty for wanting to be a democrat and vote for gay marriage. Do I trust that things will all shake out in the next life and ignore their right to chose in this one?

    Have you found that ambivalence is a place of peace? Do you simply accept both views? How does that affect the choices you make and how you live your life? I suppose what it really comes down to for me, is that I’m trying to work toward that balance that will allow me to stay.

  11. Caroline says:

    I am finding some peace. More than I’ve had in my last five years of angst, when I expected everything to add up and make sense.

    Now I don’t have those expectations. I expect mistakes. I expect human fallibility to intrude into every aspect of Church organization and even into the scriptures.

    And I also expect human fallibility to enter into my decisions and actions. I guess I’ve ultimately decided that I’m going to need to forgive the Church and Church leaders, just like I need God to forgive me when I screw up.

    How do I make decisions? i look at the life of Jesus Christ. I look at how he welcomed those who were considered dirty, unholy, untouchable, beyond redemption. How he always considered the oppressed, the poor, the forgotten. And then I vote / act accordingly. (You can probably tell where I am on the gay marriage issue.)

    While it was initially painful and disorienting to realize that I had fundamental disagreements with the way certain things are taught in the Church, I have in the end felt empowered by this journey. By allowing myself to carefully reject the stances/policies that I find unChristlike in our Church, I am now at liberty to fully embrace those things that I love about the Church and Christ. This has been liberating. My faith and hope in Christ is stronger than ever before.

    Hope that helps 🙂

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