Sunday, August 15, 2010

Post script to my last post

A good friend of mine posted recently at Segullah about an experience she had at an interview at BYU, where the interviewer asked her how she balanced feminism with being a Mormon woman. She responded that, while she enjoyed reading feminist theory, her first identity was as a Mormon woman, and she tried to see everything--including feminism, through that lens.

Her comment was a useful reminder, for me, that when I experience those moments of dissonance, it's important that I remind myself which of many identities carved out for me is the identity that I choose--and then to see myself through that identity. To borrow the example my friend used, it's more important that I use the lens of my faith to view outsiders, than to use outsiders' views to view my faith.

Friday, August 13, 2010


I should note that I'm somewhat uneasy about borrowing my title from W. E. B. DuBois--certainly my own experience with a sense of dual vision was nowhere near as difficult as the racial issues he tackled in his work. Having said that, I find his concept-- “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” ("Of Our Spiritual Strivings," p. 2)--a useful way of describing how I've felt on occasion.

I think that, on some level, many of us feel this conflict--whether it's as a country dweller temporarily seeing himself or herself through the condescending eyes of some urbanite (or vice versa), those of us who are a little more self-aware can't help but experience that unsettling moment of double vision, when we see ourselves both through the self-affirming vision of our own world-view and through the devaluing lens of someone else.

I've struggled with this dual vision on multiple occasions--as a religiously faithful woman in academia, recognizing the skepticism that most of my peers held for my religious views (and once even sitting silent in a seminar where one of my colleagues, a former member of my faith, held out for a good fifteen or twenty-minutes on the doctrinal and cultural failings of my church); but also as an academic in an audience of devout religious folks, fighting my own skepticism.

I am a woman, and I happen to be Mormon, two overlapping identities that make this sense of double-consciousness particularly acute for me. As a Mormon woman, I've never felt particularly oppressed by my faith (in fact, I'm more often liberated by the religious sensitivity it has wrought in me), but I can't help being aware that most people, looking at the male-dominated hierarchy of our church, believe that it denies "equality" to women. (However, I also can't help feeling that it takes a certain kind of annoying sense of cultural superiority to tell people that their own culture "oppresses" them, when they are far from feeling that kind of oppression.) And while I admit I do wonder why God designated the priesthood for men, I have enough faith in my faith to let it rest at that for now (after all, God doesn't often explain his reasoning until after the fact--witness Abraham and Isaac, for one). Nor do I feel any less loved, or any less capable because of the organizational structure of my faith. Nothing in this organizational structure changes my essential relationship with God.

Having said all this, I have to admit it's still hard when I'm confronted with the reality that many people would think me delusional, weak, ignorant--any variation of a cooperative victim--for believing as I do. There was an interesting article in the SLTribune recently on the resurgence of Mormon feminism. I enjoyed the article (I know some of the women interviewed) and then I made the mistake of reading some of the comments. These comments don't change my faith, but they do serve as a (useful?) reminder that not everyone in my community agrees with me. And while disagreements have a fundamental part in the classical invitation to rhetoric (our differences create the problems that rhetoric seeks to resolve), that doesn't make them comfortable. Nor do I necessarily enjoy that moment of double-vision--although I do appreciate the clarity it forces on me afterward as I evaluate (inevitably) which of these visions is truer to my sense of self.

As another example, on occasion I've found myself struggling with my sense that I need to be home with my children and a personal desire (admittedly selfish and probably vain) for academic glories and more public recognition. Within my faith, women are encouraged to provide for the primary nurture of their children--often this means staying home, particularly while children are young (to be fair, both mothers and fathers are encouraged to make children their priority). But it also means that sometimes--and in my view, unfortunately--women are judged (sometimes severely) for *not* staying home with their children, unless the situation is clearly one of dire necessity--and even then some less generous souls seem to think that the direness of the situation may be a result of too little faith. (Let me make it clear that I do not think such uncharitable attitudes have anything to do with the spirit of true religion--but they have everything to do with our human failures). Sometimes, then, in trying to find my own balancing act between caring for my children and making some time for my own interests, I find myself caught in a kind of triple vision: my own vision (which tells me I'm doing the best I can with the resources I have), the vision of less charitable members of my faith who think I shouldn't be working outside the home at all, and the vision of those outside (and, admittedly, sometimes even in my faith) who believe that a woman's career should take precedence to other interests (and again, I admit that this spectrum is more polarizing than the reality probably is).

I think such dissonance can sometimes be a good thing--it keeps me from becoming too complacent, it reminds me that others have that "equivalent centre of self," and it forces me to continually articulate for myself what it is I believe in and why. That doesn't always mean that I like it (or accept it gracefully). But this kind of cognitive dissonance also gives me a great deal of hope in one of my interpretations of Paul: "now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known" (1 Cor. 13:12)--that is, if now my image of myself is fractured, one day I will see myself clearly, as God sees me. In the meantime, I strive mostly for imperfect glimpses of that self.

What about you? What kind of cultural dissonances bring that sense of double-consciousness for you? How do you resolve (or live with, or otherwise harmonize with) that sense of dissonance?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Paradoxes of faith

An acquaintance recently posed an interesting question about the paradoxes we encounter in our faith. I'm sure that paradoxes are a common part of most faiths--but they seem to be an intrinsic part of Mormon faith, in particular. (Terryl Givens, a professor of English at the University of Richmond and a faithful member of the LDS church, has even written a book on this, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture.)

One paradox: Balancing faith with submission. For instance, we're encouraged to have faith to move a mountain (or to exercise faith sufficient for healing), but we're also told that we should submit to God's will. How can we at once exercise faith in healing, for example, while submitting to God's will that an individual not be healed? (Personally, I think we negotiate this particular paradox by trying to listen carefully to the Spirit--we need to have faith, yes, but we need to also try to be sensitive as to how we should exercise that faith. Not, of course, that this makes it easy).

Another paradox--and one that I've been thinking of quite a bit recently, is the tension between standing up for your own values and still allowing others agency. One of our articles of faith maintains that we believe in the right of worshipping God according to the dictates of our own consciences--and that we allow others that same privilege. And as members of our faith, we are encouraged to stand up for the values (particularly moral ones) that we believe in--but how do we both uphold a particular value (for instance, the sanctity of life, or moral purity outside of marriage) and still allow others to act according to their own belief systems, which might include behaviors that violate our beliefs? How can we be both accepting of others and still maintain firm moral standards? This is one that I'm still working out for myself.

What about you--what are some paradoxes you find yourself confronted with in your own (or others') practices of faith?