Simultaneously enjoyable and agonizing

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The Power by Naomi Alderman was a simultaneously enjoyable and agonizing bit of feminist literature. Alderman illustrates for readers what it is like to be a woman in today’s world by flipping it on its head and imagining a universe where women are becoming the dominant sex, thanks to the development of a new biological power that renders men’s greater average muscular strength to be irrelevant. Because of its graphic descriptions of some terrible human atrocities, this book is sure to terrify anyone with a reasonably developed sense of humanity. But it will be particularly terrifying to men’s rights activists (MRAs), who are likely to miss the point completely. The point is that all of the terrifying things that are happening to men in this book are things that are currently happening to women all over the world, and yet most of us are just going about our business as if it doesn’t matter. Maybe we should be tearing it all down, as the MRAs in this book try to do.

The bizarro Alderman mirror also introduces some interesting feminist concepts. For example, her story suggests that women are not actually the more innately gentle and kind sex, as has been posited by the ‘benevolent sexists’ who think it helps women to put them on a pedestal. This book takes the position that women have only committed fewer atrocities than men because they have lacked the power to commit as many. As for benevolent sexists, popularizing a narrative in which women are supposed to be better than the typical human actually hurts women. That’s because, once a woman is revealed to be an ordinary flawed human, we perceive it as depravity when we contrast it against our image of what women are supposed to be. We are prevented from having empathy for flawed women, and because they’re all flawed, we have difficulty seeing all women clearly. (This is why we can’t tolerate flawed women, and yet we bend over backwards to regard even the most morally-vacant men as heroes.)

Her story also suggests that the reluctance of people today to believe that there ever could have been a place and time in which there could have been a matriarchal order is more a result of our tendency to look at archeological evidence through the lens of our current culture than it is a fact of history. In truth, several authors have pointed to other evidence:

  • In When God Was a Woman, Stone gives the archeological evidence suggesting that early agricultural societies worshipped a supreme mother goddess and her husband, a male god, was secondary. (Interestingly enough, in some of these societies, the male god was killed for the sins of his people every year and then resurrected by the goddess 3 days later.)
  • In his lectures on myths about the goddesses, Joseph Campbell corroborates many of Stone’s conclusions and points out that the Old Testament is replete with stories about the tension between two societies: the goddess-worshiping agricultural societies and the god-worshiping herding societies. (For example, the myth about Adam and Eve is a story about the agricultural revolution, the adoption of farming, and the evilization of the goddess religion’s symbols and the demotion of their goddess.)
  • In Guns Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond points out how male-supremacist societies came to dominate the earth over the last 2-3 thousand years. The presence of domesticated milk-producing mammals enabled them to wean their children years earlier than societies without them. This resulted in a change in the birth interval that led to the herding societies’ ability to out-breed everyone else and, consequently, to spread their god around the world. (Knowing this, it’s interesting to re-read the Bible’s myth on the agricultural revolution and note the curse that the god will ‘multiply’ Eve’s conception.)

I gave The Power 5 stars on goodreads. It’s true I have a tendency to rate books higher than most of my more critical friends, but I love books and I give a high count of stars to any book that helps me develop a greater understanding of my experience. (That’s ‘education,’ as John Dewey and Tara Westover say.) This book certainly did that. That said, Alderman does a great job of keeping the action moving. She adds her opinions to our culture’s ongoing conversation about male-supremacy without once lapsing into a long and boring treatise about her philosophy (à la Ayn Rand).

One

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Native Son was a terrific book by Richard Wright that does an excellent job of artfully illustrating the ways that all humans are connected. One common criticism of this book is that it tackles racism by using, as its case study, a murderer and rapist. However, that is an unfair criticism of the book. There are plenty of books that combat racism by giving examples of exemplary people of color; that’s not what this book is trying to do. The goal of this book is to illustrate how everyone unwittingly contributes to the violence and hate for which the main character was condemned. The author does this deliberately by using a main character that is so repellingly ‘other’ to most law-abiding readers that we won’t be distracted by the character’s best qualities. Any good qualities that the character might have had are irrelevant to our shared humanity. In that way, this author has set out to accomplish a remarkable feat, and he has succeeded.

I recently had a conversation in which an associate told me about her ‘christian healthcare club,’ which she described as a way of sharing risk only with her christian friends who she “…knows will take care of themselves.” (It struck me as bizarre that she took it as a premise that christians are healthier than non-christians, but I’ve since learned that there are a lot of publications in christian periodicals about christian-funded research that shows that they are.) I told her that I hoped her christian friends wouldn’t let her down, but something about that conversation continued to bother me many months later. I was able to process part of it when I wrote my post on Fowler’s Stages of Faith, but this book helped to put it further into context.

The problem with the christians-only healthcare club is that it is based on the premise that we can shut out the suffering of others. She is trying to cordon-off her wallet from others’ ailments. She doesn’t want her premiums to go up because (as she sees it) they don’t have the light of truth to guide them on the path to greater health. So, by joining a christians-only healthcare club, she can meet the Affordable Care Act’s requirement to be insured, while not sharing risk with those who she perceives as ‘other.’

Here’s the problem: if we exclude people who are ‘other’ from our healthcare plans, then they have to go somewhere else. As that happens, those ‘somewhere elses’ become increasingly expensive, and soon we have a lot of unhealthy and uninsured people who are feeling disenfranchised. If we are lucky, then the government will step in and provide coverage for those individuals, but then it hits us in our tax budget. If we still insist on trying to shut out the suffering of others, then we might be grateful for partisan gerrymandering that enables the votes of the ‘other’ to count less than ours, so that their voices matter less, and then we can insist that those people don’t get government-sponsored healthcare coverage, further disenfranchising them. Of course, the next step is that disenfranchised people, people who don’t have a voice or a stake in our society, become increasingly angry, increasingly vocal, and ultimately (as we saw in the French revolution), violent. In that case, instead of spending that money on sharing in a risk pool with the ‘other’ or on contributing to a public solution to our healthcare crisis, we will be spending that money on steel bars for our windows, security systems for our houses, guns for our ‘self defense,’ and armed guards for our schools. And all of this because we couldn’t see the ways that we are all connected.

My associate can shut her door to the suffering of others, but then it will come in through her window. She can shut her window, but then it will rise up through the floor like an overflowing septic tank.

I think this is what Jesus was trying to tell us when he said that we should care for the orphan and the widow and that we should take care of the ‘other’ (as in the story of the Samaritan). I think most of us misunderstand it. The most common interpretation of those teachings is that caring for others should be voluntary, rather than a tax obligation. (This is the most common reply that my christian friends give me when I point to Jesus’ teachings as the reason why I vote with the Democrats on things like welfare: it should be voluntary. I can’t find where Jesus said that it in the New Testament. But, frankly, we all know it’s a cop out. These are people who just don’t want to be connected to the ‘other’ in any way.)

But, that’s the wrong interpretation of what Jesus was trying to say. He wasn’t saying ‘hey, it would be really nice if we were all one,’ he was saying that we are one. It is fact. It is a law as immutable as gravity. We might try to live as though we were not one, but if we do we will be ignoring the proverbial lighthouse and breaking ourselves against the rocky shore of our shared humanity.

We are one with the christians who sit next to us on the pews. We are one with the people in our community who mow their lawns on Sundays. We are one with the homeless in our city. We are one with the homeless on the other side of the world. We are one with the Muslims, the Jews, the Hindus, and the Buddhists. We are one with the atheists and agnostics. We are one even with the racists and the sexists. We are one.

Until we can realize that truth, that we are one, then we will continue to be unwitting creators of all the violent forces that we fear.

Thine own understanding

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“I believe finally, that education must be conceive as a continuing reconstruction of experience; that the process and the goal of education are one and the same thing.”

                                                           — John Dewey


One of the most interesting themes touched on in Educated, a memoir by Tara Westover, who was raised in rural Idaho by survivalist parents, is the question of how much we can trust our own memories, reasoning, and interpretation of ideas or events. In the story, the author recounts having been frequently injured by an abusive brother and neglectful parents who repeatedly put her in harm’s way and prevented her from having the types of experiences that nourish one’s sense of self. It seemed that the biggest obstacles that she encountered in her efforts to become an autonomous adult were the barriers to trusting her own interpretation of events, even in the face of rejection by her family.

As a woman who was raised in the same religious tradition as the author, I am very familiar with the experience the author described of second-guessing herself and rewriting her story when others disagreed. In our religious tradition, one way that we are discouraged from thinking for ourselves is by frequent use of the Proverb that says “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). That scripture kept occurring to me as I read about how her parents repeatedly encouraged her to set aside her own narrative and embrace theirs. I too have repeatedly been told to do this. For example, I have often been told to trust in my parents with all my heart and lean not unto my own understanding, trust in my bishop with all my heart and lean not unto my own understanding, and to trust in the brethren with all my heart and lean not unto my own understanding. Each of these, I was told, were the mechanism by which ‘the Lord’ was talking to me. I was almost 50 years old when I began to realize that my ‘own understanding’ was really all I can lean on. The biblical statement seems to be one mechanism by which those who rule and run religious organizations reinforce their own power. (For more on this idea, see Chapter 3, “Of Canons and Cannons: The Use and Abuse of Scripture” in Givens and Givens The Crucible of Doubt.)

Many who belong to and participate in these large religious organizations may feel that their leaders have only the most benevolent intentions, and perhaps that is sometimes true. Nonetheless, the fact is that their leaders are only human beings who have their own biases and conflicts of interest. Consequently, even if you trust that your leader is acting in accordance with their own best intentions, you can’t tell when they are lying to themselves. On the other hand, each of us has an inkling when we are lying to ourselves, and with careful practice, we can learn to interrogate ourselves with brutal honesty. That is the pathway to discovering truth. It’s not by allowing others to tell us what to think and how to interpret scriptures, myths, those little moments of transcendence, our memories, history, and literature; it’s by deciding for ourselves how to interpret those things. That’s what it is to become an adult. The author calls it “education.”

On subjective realities

Sapiens

Sapiens was a terrific book; like Guns, Germs, and Steel, it’s a book every human should read. That said, I found Harari’s perspective on human history to be quite disorienting. The most troubling part was the realization that a lot of what we build our lives upon and take for granted as objectively true is actually only subjectively true: that is, true only because most people believe in it. For example, money, democracy, the free market, the United States government, human rights, justice, equality, and many other things would all simply disappear, would cease to have any power, if we all just quit believing in them.

This is an especially disorienting idea in this era where we are beginning to see such a divide in the subjective realities held as “true” by people in our population. I’m sure that the reality as seen by a Fox News viewer is quite different from the reality that I perceive. Regardless of who is “right” and who is “wrong,” complete fictions have incredible power if enough people believe in them. The suffering and murder of untold millions can be attributed to various shared “subjective realities.” Human belief in things is so powerful that we should be especially cautious about what we choose to believe in. We should probably be picky enough to only believe in the most benevolent of forces, irrespective of any presumption of “truth.” In fact, humans are probably not very reliable interpreters of objective phenomena, so belief is a very dangerous thing indeed.

That said, I think it’s impossible for humans to give up the desire to know what’s true. And, as I read about the “fictions” and “subjective realities” the author spoke of, I can’t help but think of the imaginal nature of science. John Snow “imagined” that cholera was caused by microscopic organisms that reproduced in the gut and caused a fatal diarrhea a whole decade before we could visualize microorganisms. That was a “fiction” that had tremendous power to explain observed phenomena and to stop a cholera epidemic. Similarly, we still can’t visualize the orbitals of atoms, but our model for them is a “fiction” that nicely explains the observed behavior of chemicals.

The question I’m left with after reading the book is this: Just how powerful is the human capacity for belief? Shared “subjective realities” seem to make things materialize in our world. Is that true only as long as the “subjective realities” are consistent with “natural laws?” (If that’s a thing.) Or does the power of the collective imagination of Homo sapiens actually CREATE what we call “natural laws?”

A faith taxonomy

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“But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

                                                                                           -Luke 18:8   


I picked up Fowler’s Stages of Faith when I was in the agonizing throes of what I can only describe as a “faith implosion,” a faith crisis in which my beliefs, one by one, all began to fall away, against my will, and against my better judgment. It was quite a painful process. It was completely unexpected. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure what was happening to me. I just began, unwittingly, to dump out the entire contents of my box of beliefs as I faced the trauma of watching the most recent presidential election unfold. My beliefs, in things like humanity, democracy, truth, justice, progress, and love, all of which had been tightly connected to my beliefs about the purpose of human existence and the arc of human history, began to become little more than detritus in the corners of my psyche, waiting to be swept up and thrown away.

When I finally began to realize that my struggle could be called a “faith crisis,” the first book I encountered was the slim and Mormon-centric Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis by McConkie. That book only told me that there was a developmental explanation for what I was going through; but, it didn’t contain a sufficient explanation of the theory of faith stages to help me. That’s why I picked up Fowler’s book, a more academic treatment of the subject. I was hoping to find something like a roadmap, something that could help me navigate the unfamiliar terrain.

The faith taxonomy

Rather than a roadmap, Fowlers book initially seemed more like a narrative description of human faith libraries, a structure-and-function taxonomy naming all the universal and measurable aspects of all possible libraries: the various sizes of the shelves, the sizes and colors of the books’ spines, the languages represented in the works, the publishers, the years of publication. I learned that some faith libraries are like a row of picture books in a child’s nursery. Others are like the makeshift, cinderblock-and-pine libraries of college dorm-dwellers, shelves heaving under a load of overpriced textbooks with unbroken spines. Still other libraries are like the hand-crafted, deep oak, floor-to-ceiling shelves of a life-long book collector, filled with an eclectic mix of well-worn, first-edition, expository tomes in every genre and from every tradition.

While it was all very interesting, I wasn’t sure how it could help me find my way forward without addressing, in some way, the contents of those books, or the contents of faith. I even temporarily gave up on Fowler, midway through, to read The Crucible of Doubt by Givens and Givens, a book for people like me who are in faith crisis agony of the LDS variety. The Givens’ book is decidedly more dedicated to faith contents than Fowler’s, and while the Givens’ book did a great job addressing an array of common faith stumbling blocks, what I really needed was something else. Before I could pick up the detritus of my shattered faith and examine the components one-by-one, checking if they are worthy of their place in my box, I needed to know if and why faith contents matter. So I returned to Fowler and, finally, I encountered a small section, about 5% of the book, dedicated to how we can examine faith contents to ensure the adequacy of faith.

The contents of faith

Fowler classifies the “contents” of human faith in three categories: (1) “centers of value,” (2) “images of power,” and (3) “master stories.”

  • Centers of value are those things that claim our hearts and minds; they are the things we love, the things we devote ourselves to. We choose centers of value because they endow us with worth, they tell us we are important, they give our lives meaning. For example, an LDS person might choose components of their church as centers of value because the ideas of divine heritage, eternal nature, and personal growth as a raison d’être for humans, give meaning to the struggle of our lives. Non-religious centers of value might be equality (all humans have equal worth), democracy (all humans should share power equally), and justice (institutions should be founded on principles of fairness).
  • Images of power are those forces with which we align ourselves because of their ability to make us powerful. Fowler points out that humans are implicitly aware that the world we navigate is one of dangerous, destructive powers that threaten us with easy annihilation. We choose to align with images of power that we perceive as being capable of protecting us. For an LDS woman, this might be priesthood power, the “light of Christ” that is in each of us, and the blessings of being a full tithe-payer. Non-religious centers of power might be the institution that employs us,  the military that fights for our freedom, or the capitalist economic system that some say is responsible for our (relatively) robust economy.
  • Master stories are narratives about the ways that centers of value and images of power work in our lives. This is the stuff of “testimony.” For example, consider a master story about the “light of Christ:” someone who didn’t know something was given a gift of insight, inspiration, or revelation, and then they suddenly knew it, and it blessed their life. This is a story about the power of a belief in Christ to guide someone on a righteous life. Another master story might be about the importance of Christ’s 2 greatest commandments, loving God and loving others, as a measure for keeping one on track.

Where it got interesting was where Fowler talked about the ways that centers of value, images of power, and master stories work to guide us. He told of a Fortune magazine article in which a group of recent college graduates were interviewed as they began their careers in business. They talked about their hopes and aspirations for the future, from which Fowler gleaned information about some of their centers of value and images of power: belief in their own superiority relative to the generations that came before them, their good luck and capacity for hard work, and their faith in corporations to bring about a bright global future. These images of power worked with their master stories in the following ways: they can’t afford to share power or its rewards, marriage and family must be delayed if not explicitly avoided, leisure activities should be limited to activities that will help them acquire wealth and power, loyalty to one’s company is misguided, and there is little to learn on the way up the corporate ladder.

Fowler then told a story about a man named Albert Speer, a brilliant young architect and family man who worked in Hitler’s Third Reich. Albert was similar to these young people interviewed by Fortune; he had a vision of himself as a brilliant architect on his way to making a name for himself, and one whose work was worthy of personifying Hitler’s imperial aspirations. Speer’s work became so important to Hitler that Speer became Minister of Armaments in the latter part of the war. The architect’s contribution was so integral to Hitler’s ambitions that Speer, in that role as Minister of Armaments, has been credited with extending the fighting (and killing) by at least 2 years.

When it was all over, Speer was sentenced to 20 years in prison at Nuremberg. While serving his sentence, Speer wrote in his memoirs that he had been so absorbed with the idea of being Hitler’s architect that he “chose not to know” about the death camps and failed to reflect on the ways that his activities contributed to suffering and death. In other words, his master story about himself as a brilliant architect was insufficient to prevent his becoming a contributor to a mass genocide. There is good reason to suspect that the master stories described by the American young people who were interviewed by Fortune are similarly insufficient.

A couple of nights after reading this, I had a dream that my husband killed someone. It wasn’t out of anger. It was a friend’s father, someone who was getting old, ill, or demented. My husband has expressed a belief in the right of people to choose how they will go when they get to the end of their lives. The problem was that, in my dream, he really didn’t know about the elderly man’s condition or wishes. He just took his friend’s word that he was being asked to assist a suicide for one of those potentially justifiable reasons and he didn’t ask for more information because he was living out a particular narrative that was a function of how he sees himself.

In the dream, I had dropped him off at the house where the old man was sleeping. We were going to meet up later, when he was done. I didn’t want him to do it, but I hadn’t had the forethought to ask him to think harder about the ethics or to ask more questions until I had no influence on his choice. I began to ask, what if this is the wrong thing to do? What if someone sees him? Will he go to jail? Will I lose him? These questions, and the sudden realization that my husband was on the precipice of doing something with irreversible moral consequences without sufficient guidance, caused me to wake up. Just before waking, in the dream, I had suddenly realized that it was Sunday and I was missing church. When I woke up, my heart heavy with anxiety for my husband, I had a distinct desire, at my very next opportunity, to see myself sitting in the pews among the elderly people in my community that I’ve attended church with for years.

The adequacy of faith

I think the dream was about the importance of faith in our lives and how easy it is to get lost if we don’t have faith in the right things, if we don’t have the right master stories. My dream was about my fears that, if I lose all of the contents of my faith, I will lack sufficient insight to know when I am veering off track, and I might find myself or my family on an irreversible course. Fowler says that one of the ways that we can judge the adequacy of faith is by asking whether our faith is

“…sufficiently inclusive so as to counter and transcend the destructive henotheistic idolatries of national, ethnic, racial and religious identifications and to bind us as a human community in covenantal trust and loyalty to each other and to the Ground of our Being…”

This is a definition that explains why the contents of our faith matter without getting into the particulars. Whether it’s a belief in Christ, Buddha, Elohim, or Allah, do your master stories promote a movement toward greater interconnectedness with others, toward greater love, or do they promote a sense of the relative inferiority of others? If the latter, Fowler would say, your faith is insufficient.

The inadequacy of some faiths

A major contributor to my faith crisis has been the observation that so many “good Christian people” seem to hold beliefs that are grounded in a master story about their own moral superiority relative to others, and the consequent justification for political movements that validate their wish to exercise political power over those others. This was confusing to me because I failed to see how people who, presumably, believed in the same master stories that I did could come to such different conclusions about what is “right” in the moral and political world. Fowler cleared that up by pointing out that our master stories consist, not only of the narratives that are written in our sacred texts, but also of the narratives that are written in our hearts. They include the moral lessons that we take away from sacred textual narratives.

One man that I know loves to talk about an idea that there are some of us who were more “valiant” than others in the pre-Earth life; those who were more valiant, he presumes, are entitled to greater “blessings” in this life. This is an old idea that emerged in Mormon theology around the middle of the last century as a justification for the Church’s exclusion of Blacks from full participation in priesthood and temple rites at that time (and until 1978). The LDS church has since disavowed the idea officially. However, this man, who I’ve loved as a neighbor for years, and who has a teaching position, returns repeatedly to this idea in nearly every lesson. When he talks, what I hear is that he thinks those of us who had the good fortune of being born white in the American southwest can claim great moral superiority relative to those who have not. This kind of rhetoric is one of the reasons that I’ve had to limit my exposure to church activity while in my vulnerable state of crisis.

Another group of friends, who hail from an evangelical religious tradition in the south, came to visit recently and told us about a “health care club” that they participate in. It’s not insurance exactly, because if it was it would probably be illegal. It’s a group of Christians from their particular denomination who have decided to pay into a health care system that excludes those who are not a member of their denomination. They presume that those who are like them will take better care of themselves compared to the mix of people who are in “secular” health care plans. This choice to cordon themselves off from others who do not share in their religious tradition is based on the idea that others are less worthy of sharing the risks that come as part of our human condition. They may be right that they are lowering their healthcare costs, but they are also failing to see how their own fates are intimately tied with the fates of others.

To me, Christ’s teachings tell a master story about how we are all connected, about how people born in the darkest hovel share a fate with those who are born in the highest tower of the most elaborate palace. To me, Christ’s teachings tell me that, if I can’t see how our fates are shared, then I haven’t talked to enough people yet. To me, Christ’s teachings tell me that, if my master stories tell me that I am morally superior to others, if I see myself as worthy of the trappings of a good life while others are not, then I’m basically one of the pharisees.

I’m certainly not perfect. One of the ways I know that is because every time I point to those who share the “Christian” label with me without seeming to be living by what I would deem as truly Christian master stories, I see 3 fingers pointing right back at myself. I have a similar struggle. In me, it manifests as an inability to see how those who feel self-justified in their racism, sexism, bigotry, and hate are not my moral inferiors. It’s very hard for me right now to love those whose interpretation of Christ’s teachings are antithetical to my own. That’s because I’m still reeling from the realization that such beliefs have real, electoral, consequences. I might struggle with it for as long as we have our current president. (Please let it end in 2020!)

I’m working to eliminate that flaw. Just as Christ said, if our eye offends us, we should get rid of it. It’s not easy. But, the first step is to recognize that it’s there. If my master stories are adequate, Fowler would say, then they are capable of helping me see when I’m on the wrong track and that I need to make a change. If not, it’s easier for me to get stuck in wrong thinking for the rest of my life.

Will He find faith on Earth?

This is what I think Fowler means when he quotes the scripture from Luke at the beginning of this entry. Luke’s question isn’t just about whether Christ, when he returns, will find people professing to be Christians; it’s a question about whether they will be “true” followers in his message. This requires them to have faith that is adequate to keep them from veering too far off-track, into ethnocentrism, white supremacy, bigotry, and xenophobia, and to help them self-correct when they do.

In my church, we have often talked about prophesies that have said that, in the “last days,” the followers Christ will be few. Of course, this is always followed by a self-congratulating pat on the back in which we tell ourselves that the Mormons will be among them. This always makes me think of the Zoramites who (wickedly or cluelessly) loved to congratulate themselves in their Sunday worship while shunning the truly humble seekers of Christ. I fear that my congregation, at least, seems to be dominated by people whose faith is insufficient to allow real self-examination and growth.

 

A whole new range of possibilities

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For most of my life, I had believed that male supremacy was always the order of things, from the very beginning of time, and that everything we women would ever have would be because all the men got together and said “Okay. We agree that you can have birth control and that 70-cents-on-the-dollar job.” (Or whatever.) Of course, the idea that male supremacy was the only way things had ever been was most likely the result of a Christian education that taught me that the story of Adam and Eve, which gives a divine mandate for male supremacy, was a true story about the first two humans on earth. It’s only recently that I began to realize that, if Adam and Eve were the first two humans on earth, it sure is remarkable that they invented both language AND food production, all before they ever even had any children! (That’s a pretty productive first few years of life.) Of course, we have to ignore loads of archeological evidence to swallow that one whole. It was fun to read When God Was a Woman by Stone because it helped me imagine the possibility that there could have been a different, non-patriarchal order for humans.

OxyMormons

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I was pleasantly surprised to discover Mormon Feminism, a collection of essays, poems, and scholarly articles written by Mormon feminists over the last 40+ years. (Mormon feminists, you might ask? Isn’t that an oxymoron? No. We are actually OxyMormons.)

Having grown up in a culture that taught me that women don’t have anything of value to say, I was pleased to find that, actually, women do.

These essays provided much of the historical context I needed to understand my feelings about the church “auxiliary” for women, the Relief Society (RS). When the RS was an independent organization, LDS women did things that most of us cannot even imagine now. By comparison, the current version of the RS is a hollow shell of what it once was. Although much of this history is documented in the church-published “50-years of Relief Society” tome, the synthesis this book provides enabled me to discover just how much LDS women have lost over the last 100 years without searching through 1,000 pages of meeting minutes. (Unfortunately, what I discovered has completely obliterated what was left of the shattered hope I once had that progress mostly moves forward.)

I also appreciated the thoughtful analysis of the symbolism in our rituals, which did much to explain the dissonance I’ve always felt as I’ve tried to reconcile our doctrines with our practices.

I’d hate to give the impression that Mormon feminists have no optimism; so, if you read it you may be as pleased as I was to discover, hidden in the middle like the precious salt of the earth, a beautifully-affirming essay called “Lusterware” by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, an essay that showed me a way to move forward in a faith that may have less divinity than its members like to think. Remember, she says, the Savior taught that the kingdom of God is in our hearts — not in earthly institutions.

Thoughts on “The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life”

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The book presents core Mormon beliefs: a profoundly loving Father in Heaven, a vision of the Fall as an opportunity to become more like God, rejection of original sin, and a view of mortality as one part of God’s larger plan for us to become like Him. These straightforward tenets of Mormonism are no surprise to adherents, though this book may be surprising in the insights offered into the implications of these beliefs, or “how Mormonism makes sense of life.” There is a God whose heart is so set upon us that he weeps when we suffer and there is purpose to the suffering. This belief, this experience of God as a tender parent and our mortal experience as a place to learn, where mistakes are not only inevitable but necessary for us to be pulled towards the light of truth, reveals the true nature of our (and others’) intrinsic worth, our relationship with God, our understanding of sin and doubt, and our perspective on the challenges of life. Mormonism makes sense of life because it reveals the meaning of all our mortal experiences—the mundane, the beautiful, and the agonizing. Others may find, as I did, that this book provides a course correction, moving me towards faith, love, and acceptance of myself and others irrespective of where we are on our journey or the direction we’re headed.

A tale of two futures

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This dystopian novel takes place in an alternative historical timeline in the United States (US). When the novel begins, members of the US government have been executed, including the president and all of congress. A new theocracy has taken power and eliminated women’s rights to own property, work for pay, read, fall in love, choose whom they will marry, choose when or if they will have a family, and for many, choose whether or not they will raise the children they give birth to. The main character, formerly a mother, wife, and librarian, is now a reproductive slave. She has been assigned to be a surrogate mother for a childless couple. The husband is a highly placed government official. The wife was formerly a religious conservative activist who preached in support of a return to traditional roles for women. When she got what she thought she wanted, she discovered it also meant that she no longer had a voice or power of any kind.

In the context of current events, the story was terrifying. Ever since election night on November 8th, 2016, we have begun to peer deeper into the hearts of those who seek to take away women’s reproductive rights and those who fight women’s equality. I have begun to suspect that a much more insidious agenda is at play. I no longer believe that those who pursue these policies are motivated by religious fervor about morality. (Though, I suspect that many common citizens have been tricked into championing these policies because of a belief in sexual purity.) I have begun to suspect that there is a movement afoot that is founded on racism and misogyny and the idea that the only people who matter are white men.

Hear me out:

A few years ago, I was flying home from a trip abroad, and I sat next to a gentleman who expressed concern about the anti-immigration sentiment that we had begun to see in many western countries. He believed it is a policy error to place draconian restrictions on immigration; that’s because our economy depends on having a thriving population of able-bodied workers. He pointed out that, given the current declines in birth rates in western societies, immigration is the only solution for maintaining sufficient population growth to continue having a robust economy. I had never looked at it that way before, but since that conversation I have watched the simultaneous assaults on both women’s rights and immigration from a new perspective.

In Guns Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond talks about how food-producing societies were able to conquer non-food-producing societies because food production resulted in several advantages, including for one, greater population densities. In part, this was attributable to the fact that hunter-gatherer societies had to carry their young as they migrated, which meant that their lifestyle could not support a birth interval much shorter than every 4 years. (He says they achieved this birth interval by way of things like lactational amenorrhea, infanticide, and abortion. He also included abstinence on the list, but I am personally skeptical for reasons I will point out in a minute.) Nonetheless, he shows that food-producing societies were able to shorten the birth interval to every 2 years. The resultant increase in population densities for food-producing societies led to many advantages, including military might and economic strength. Western societies were the beneficiaries of these advantages until about the 1960’s.

Since the 1960’s we have had cultural changes that have lengthened the birth interval in spite of the fact that we are a food-producing society. One important cultural change was the discovery of the birth control pill, which enabled women to begin to have control over whether and when they would reproduce, even while also being sexually active. (Although Jared Diamond cites sexual abstinence as a birth control method in hunter-gatherer societies, I find it difficult to believe that women ever had so much social power that they could choose when and if they would have sex. In my mind, that’s why women in western societies did not begin to have longer birth intervals until they had the capacity to do so without restricting sexual activity.)

It’s possible that other cultural factors also contributed to the lengthened birth interval, including that there was also an increased emphasis on educating women beyond secondary school and a greater recognition that women had the capacity to perform well in the workplace and make important contributions to the economy. However, this leads to a chicken-egg conundrum, as we can’t know whether the longer birth interval contributed to these things or whether these things contributed to a longer birth interval. Regardless, these forces were cyclically reinforcing one another, and this was the course of history.

Of course, women’s entry into the workplace led to a short-lived economic boom, which we saw over a few subsequent decades, including the 1980’s and 1990’s. The 50% of the population that had previously been shut out of the economy could now work for pay, contributing to greater productivity and increased demand. However, that boom was necessarily limited because, while women were seeking educations and pursuing careers, they were also delaying childbirth and choosing to have smaller families. Consequently, there has been insufficient population growth to sustain a robust economy.

Of course, as a result of these cultural changes, we have now begun to see the economy decline in some parts of the country. We have also seen increasing numbers of men’s rights activists blaming women (especially feminists) for all their problems. Because after all, if women were not free to enjoy the same range of life choice options that men have always enjoyed, or if women would only have chosen to remain exclusively in the traditional childbearing-housewife role, we would not have seen a declining birth rate and America would still be great.

Two sets of policies to address this problem have since emerged:

One set of policies seeks to reverse the trends that led to declining birthrates. For example, passing laws that limit women’s reproductive freedom will result in a return to the days when women had no control over their reproductive lives, shortening the birth interval, and bringing us a bunch of new babies. Refusing to pass laws in support of equal pay will result in wage stagnation for women, and a resulting decrease in economic incentives for women to work outside the home. With fewer incentives to work for pay, women will focus more on their role inside the home, bringing us a bunch of new babies.

If you can get past the idea that taking women’s choices away so that they will have more babies is essentially making them into reproductive slaves, then you might favor this set of policies. If you believe that women somehow don’t deserve to have the freedom to make those choices for themselves, then you might favor this set of policies. If you believe that reproductive capacity is a gift from God while birth control is a tool of Satan, then you might favor this set of policies. If you can convince yourself that women are less intelligent, weaker, less resilient, less reliable, less capable, less deserving of autonomy and independence, that birth control makes them fat and ugly, that they don’t have good brains for math and science, then this all goes down a lot smoother. You might even be able to convince yourself that it isn’t evil.

A different sent of policies, rather than seeking to reverse the trend, seeks to ride the waves of disruption that result from allowing people the freedom to choose their own paths. For example, progressive tax policies; universal pre-K; high-quality, government-subsidized childcare; family-leave policies; increasing years of public education; and increasing the minimum wage are all policies that would minimize the burden of children on families. These could enable families to space their children closer together. Similarly, accepting increased numbers of immigrants also increases the number of able-bodied contributing members of the workforce. Taken together, these types of policies may grow the population sufficient to maintain a robust economy. And certainly, to anyone who values human rights, these solutions are preferred over taking away the choices of others.

It is a solution that embraces our humanity, instead of our depravity.

I am someone who comes from a religious tradition that teaches that the US is a “promised land” to which nobody comes except by the hand of God. Over the last decade of knowing and working with refugees and immigrants, what I have observed about them only reaffirms that belief. They are some of the strongest and most resilient people on the planet. They are people who have faced the worst conditions and who tenaciously persevered, pressing forward in hope toward a new future far away from the places they have known their whole lives. They have succeeded against odds that would have killed me.

Current political forces are pushing hard to take away women’s reproductive rights and to limit immigration so we can grow a population of, presumably, white babies. We hear fear-based rhetoric about how all these nonwhites are coming to take over our country and how, in just a few years, whites will be a minority. Personally, I wonder what difference it makes what color we are in 50 years, so long as we are still governed by an inspired constitution that champions a belief in the equality of all humans, so long as we still embrace principles of democracy, truth, justice, and the right of all people to pursue happiness. If we keep our country white but lose our humanity, what good is it?

One set of policies embraces our humanity. The other set of policies brings hate, fear, and a loss of liberty. What set of policies do you want to support?