On Being a Woman in a Universe Ruled by the God of Male Supremacy

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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

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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.

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.”

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.

 

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?