On being a woman in a universe ruled by the god of male supremacy

Photo for blog


The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old.
When he prepared the heavens, I was there.
I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him.
Blessed [ashre] is the man that heareth me.

                                              — Proverbs 8


I came across Joseph Campbell’s book of lectures on the goddesses at a time when I was in a faith crisis precipitated by the realization that my participation in a religious organization with an all-male priesthood had caused me to internalize misogyny that I had not previously been aware of.

How I discovered my internalized misogyny

One of the (many) moments that helped me discover that I had internalized misogyny was when I was sitting in Relief Society (RS) and our president was showing a video of an interview with Marjorie Hinckley, the late wife of one of our former ‘prophets,’ Gordon B Hinckley. The interview revealed her to be witty and clever, every bit as sharp as her beloved husband, and very much his equal. As I watched, I asked myself, how had this woman lived and died and I never knew how terrific she was?

The answer came to me almost as quickly as I asked it: because our religious culture does not regard women, especially women over 30, as having anything of value to offer (except, perhaps, their ability to bear children, take care of children, and cook for others). My first thought was curse the patriarchy! But then, as I continued to watch and I saw that she was a white-haired grandmother with pearl earrings, I realized that I, too, would have had the same thought. probably thought that she had nothing of value to offer. In that moment I dissolved into tears; that was the first time I realized that I had internalized ideas that diminished me. Someday, I too would be a grandmother with pearl earrings, a grandmother with nothing of value to offer.

How I had internalized misogyny to begin with

My understanding of this concept was enhanced later when my husband began to watch the series Law and Order: SVU on Netflix during his morning workouts. My husband loves crime shows, and this one had several seasons, so he was excited to have something entertaining to watch in the mornings when he was on the elliptical. I don’t much care for crime shows, so I didn’t watch it with him. I just continued to go about my morning dress and grooming routine each day in preparation for work. However, after a few weeks of this, I began to become conscious, every morning, that there was some woman’s dead body that was serving as the basis of my husband’s morning entertainment. (For those of you who don’t know, ‘SVU’ stands for ‘special victims unit,’ and the ‘special victims’ are the victims of sexual violence. More often than anything else, these victims are women or girls.)

After a while, I said something to my husband about how I didn’t really care for the show. He said he understood because, as a clinical social worker, he had taken a training on sexual violence against women, and he understood that there were arguments about this show, good arguments on both sides. On the one hand, yes there is a lot of sexual violence against women. But, on the other hand, the show’s narrative was about how our society abhors these crimes — that’s why the fictional detectives were so committed to finding the bad guys. And, in one sense, I knew that this latter argument is true. If I sat down with my husband and watched one show in isolation, I would see that, yes, sexual violence is regarded as a terrible thing, yes the victims are treated with compassion and humanity, and yes the good detectives are showing our culture’s abhorrence of such things. However, each morning I still had to encounter some dead woman’s brutal and violent murder, which did seem to normalize violence against women. It made violence against women seem, somehow, just background noise in our society.

As the weeks went on, and as my husband continued to work his way through the seasons, I finally figured out how I could help him to understand my complaint. I asked him to imagine that he lived on an island, and that every morning on that island a dead woman’s body washed up on the shore. (I chose this particular image because it did feel to me like a dead woman’s body was washing up on the shores of my consciousness every morning.) I said, imagine that every morning you have to make a decision about how you will deal with that reality. You might decide to drag the body to some burying ground every morning. You might decide to cook and eat the flesh. (I hope not!) You might decide to ignore the body and leave it there, letting bodies accumulate on the beach over time, and eventually avoiding that part of the island. You might make any of those choices, but every day you would have to make a conscious choice about what to do about the fact of the daily dead woman.

Then I asked him my key question: What would you begin to think that the universe was trying to tell you about women? His immediate reply was ‘that they aren’t very important.’ And, that’s when he began to understand what I was telling him. It’s also when I began to understand how I had unconsciously internalized beliefs about women that were demeaning to me. It may be true that an overt message we are receiving, based on the story’s narrative, is that we think that violence against women is bad. But the backbone of the show, week after week, is a new act of violence perpetrated against a new woman every week; This illustrates that the other message that you begin to receive is that violence against women seems normal, that it’s entertaining, and maybe even that’s what women are for. You most likely would not even be conscious of the fact that this is the message that you are internalizing, which probably makes it even more insidious.

I then applied the same logic to what had happened to me over the years in my religious practices. Year after year I had attended church meetings in which the leadership was all male and in which women weren’t even allowed to pray for many years. When our church had biannual conferences, the lineup of speakers was dominated by men. When there were sessions for women only, men spoke, but in the meetings dedicated to men, no women spoke. All of the decisions about the church were made by men. The calling of males to the highest leadership levels were life-long, while the callings of women to the highest leadership positions that women can occupy (leadership over the auxiliary organizations for women and children) were made for a comparatively short term (about 2 years). Males in the highest levels received six-figure ‘stipends,’ while women in the highest levels (to which women could be called) received no stipends at all. Every woman serving in any capacity in the church answers to a long line of men above her; for many years, no man answered to any woman. (Arguably, that may still be true.) While it’s true that, on the overt level, I was being told repeatedly that we care about women by men speaking over the pulpit, on most other levels I was being told repeatedly that women don’t matter.

Why is god’s order patriarchal?

My journey to understand that led me, first, to ask why a benevolent god who regards me as having as much worth as any of his other children would ordain a social order that diminishes women. I turned first to the scriptures, but I quickly realized that there was very little in them about women. Most of the women in the lives of the men in our church’s canon are invisible, or they are the victims of violence, or they are mentioned (along with animals) as the belongings of men. Consequently, I had always read the scriptures as if I could look through the eyes of the protagonist and internalize the protagonist’s experiences as if they applied to me. But then I began to realize that this may have been the wrong way to approach the scriptures. Maybe some of the stories applied to me, but maybe others were meant only for men, and I had somehow failed to get the secret decoder ring that told me which ones.

I then looked in other places in our ‘approved’ church repertoire: church magazines, the teachings of church leaders, and manuals for teaching. The answer was not in there. That’s when I started looking outside of the church’s ‘approved’ information sources, such as Mormon Feminism, When God was a Woman, Women Who Run With the Wolves, The Feminine Mystique, and this book by Campbell. I also began interrogating myself about my own experience with the ‘divine,’ and I was able to come to the following answer to the question ‘Why would god ordain a social order that diminishes women?

The short answer is that he wouldn’t. Only man would demand such a social order. The longer answer comes from a careful reading of history, theology, mythology, sociology, and psychology. Organized religions have always reinforced somebody’s power. In the case of the Judeo-Christian religions, that that power has often been patriarchal. This is evident when we discover how our cultural myths, particularly the Judeo-Christian myths, were built upon prior myths. For example, the story of Cain and Abel is about the tension between the agricultural and herding societies, which were encountering each other in the historical era during which the bible was written. Campbell said that Cain, a farmer, represented the agricultural society and Abel, a herder, represented the herding society. They each brought their offering to the male god, and that god preferred the meat to the grains. Cain then killed Abel out of jealousy. Campbell said that this was basically a rewrite of an older myth in which the two offerings were presented to the goddess, and she chose the grains over the meat. The biblical rewrite was about setting supreme the male god of the herding society and erasing the goddess altogether. Campbell gives many more examples of the ways that the bible erases, demotes, or evilizes the goddess, reinforcing the power of the herding society over the agricultural society and reinforcing the power of men over women.

What’s true about the feminine divine?

The other question I asked on my journey to process the misogyny I had internalized during my participation in a patriarchal religion, was this: If god were a goddess, what would that look like? I asked that question because of the unsatisfying answer that I’d heard bandied about in Mormon lore every time that the question of why we don’t know our heavenly mother came up. The typical Mormon answer was that god loves his wife so much that he wanted to protect her from the pain his children would cause her if they knew about her existence. After all, you see how they take his name in vain? This is an unsatisfying answer that simply doesn’t make sense. Where in nature is there anything like that? In nature, most living beings are much more likely to be cut off from their fathers than they are to be cut off from their mothers. What mother hasn’t been hurt by her children? It’s simply an implausible explanations. (Not to mention that it’s infantilizing to women.)

One thing that I came across in my search was this fascinating article by a Dan Peterson, a well-respected Mormon apologist. In that article, Peterson explains that a story in our very own Book of Mormon suggests (if you believe the Book of Mormon to be a ‘true’ historical account) that Nephi understood more about the divine feminine than do modern Mormons. His statements that Jews in 600 BC, Nephi’s era, were still highly likely to be practicing the old goddess religions, in addition to the new father-god religion, corroborated statements made in When God Was a Woman and in this book, Joseph Campbell’s Goddesses. Peterson also explained that Asherah and the feminine divine were personifications of the divine attribute wisdom (see Proverbs 8:22-34).

Joseph Campbell’s lectures were very helpful to me in answering this question about the feminine divine. At first I was a little put off by the idea that the only thing that seems to be divine about women is their life-giving capacity, but then Campbell pointed out that the ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ constructs are man-made, and the gods and goddesses are ways that we make sense of powers that are in ourselves and in the world. Women are not meant to be wholly defined by our understanding of the goddess. The truth is that these stories are meant to be understood as metaphors about the powers that are in ourselves and in the world. To interpret them literally is death.

Most of the answers

Presentation5

The Crucible of Doubt by Givens and Givens is a terrific book for anyone who is struggling with doubts about the LDS faith. It covers a lot of areas where questions commonly arise, such as how a benevolent and omnipotent God could allow so much suffering, how a person can continue to participate in a religion despite the flawed leadership and despite the frustratingly dogmatic and uncritical ways that members often express belief, and how belief is a choice that we can make even if we don’t experience the transcendent affirmations that are the hallmark of ‘testimony’ in the LDS church. Everything they say is terrific, but where they lose me is in failing to recognize that continued participation means having to swallow — and financially ‘sustain’ — a whole lot of stuff that is rather unpalatable, especially the idea of a divine mandate for male supremacy.

Maybe they’ll cover that in the next book.

Simultaneously enjoyable and agonizing

Presentation5

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

Presentation5

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

Screen Shot 2018-12-12 at 6.06.30 PM.png


“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

Presentation4


 

“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

Presentation5

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

Presentation5

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.