Friday, August 26, 2011

living on the boundary, part one: the feminist/Mormon paradox

I've been thinking about boundaries a lot in the last several years: interstitial spaces where meaning is suspended, liminal spaces where meaning is not yet realized, broken and fragmented spaces where meaning is renegotiated.  Because boundaries are so much on my mind, I'm expecting I'll be blogging about them more in the future as I try to sort certain ideas out in my brain.  That's why I'm calling this post "part one".  There's more to come.

I'm currently reading a rather radical feminist theology by Mary Daly called Beyond God the Father, and while I'm not entirely convinced of all of her ideas, I do appreciate the point she makes of living on the boundary.  She's referring to feminism and patriarchal, hierarchical, and sexist religious traditions, and about the choices we have as feminists to continue practicing these religions.  She suggests the possibility of living on the boundary of a patriarchal organization by "weighing such factors as the positive merits that the institution may have in spite of its sexism, and judging how strong are the possibilities of changing and/or using it without losing a disproportionate amount of creative energy in the effort."  I believe this is what most Mormon feminists are doing, or what we must do in the end.  Some decide it costs too much creative energy and give up looking for the positive merits of the institution.  Some decide to live perpetually on the border "transferring the center of activity to our new space on the edge of such patriarchal space."  I like the visual image this offers.  The center of our activity is on the edge, and so we move around that center, in and out of the patriarchal institution.

My plan is to build a little house and settle in on the edge.  I like interstitial living; there are few dull moments when you're living on a border.  I've always lived on the boundaries of Mormonism.  I did not come from an actively participating family in the church and was never particularly pressured into conforming to the teachings or the culture of the church.  I went to church when I felt like it, not when my parents dragged me.  I often sat in the foyer during services because I was quiet and shy and didn't have a family to sit with in the chapel.  Nevertheless I felt content sitting on the soft couches and listening to the talks over the speakers. (A lovely feature, I thought.)  I had few friends growing up, so even though it was a predominantly Mormon community, I was never fully conditioned to behave as proper Mormon children behave (which is actually rather judgmental and cruel, I always thought).  In Primary I was always making exceptions to teachings and songs (which I still do): "Families can be together forever" never really meant much to me.  My family wouldn't be.  I wasn't broken up by this fact; the phrase just didn't apply to me. I did my best to earn my CTR rings, to memorize the Articles of Faith and participate in songs, but again, no one expected me to do so.  I did it for me, and even though I made it to church on a fairly irregular basis, I felt proud of myself for making the effort.  

I went to seminary because I felt like it, and because I really enjoyed it.  I learned some basic doctrines there that inspired me, that gave me hope for a future beyond this life.  One year because of a timid teacher and rowdy class I didn't feel like it was necessary for me to get up at 5am so I could sit and color pictures of the Old Testament prophets, so I stopped going. No one cared, and I went back and finished the last two years, again because I wanted to.  I went to BYU because it felt right.  No one wanted me to go.  I continued to live on the boundaries even in Provo, where I lived for eight years, as I chose friends who also lived on the boundaries.   My faith grew there because of those like-minded people.

I'm trying to figure out now what it means to live on the boundary.  I've always criticized the structure and culture of the church, which I feel is entirely right and proper to do, but I have also always been drawn to it both spiritually and as a means of self-discipline and personal growth.  I am drawn to its radical doctrines and its radical history, and my place within that history.  My younger sister chose to stop attending church because of the scripture warning us that we can't serve both "God and mammon".  There's not one way to serve God. I believe she does serve God even though she's no longer part of the church.  My intention is to serve God, even if I am a fence-sitter, even if I live on the boundary and constantly move in and out.  I can do that; I've been doing it all my life.  What that might look like in my future is hard to tell.  I don't intend to change my lifestyle in anyway.  I will continue to not drink or smoke, I will continue going to church on Sunday, I will continue to read the scriptures and pray to God, and I'll probably continue to struggle for answers, to figure out my place in the universe, and to ask the hardest questions I can think to ask.  So far the only difference is my intention to be more vocal.  Mary Daly warns that there are risks living on the boundary of a church, and those who do so must have courage, courage to speak up and not be complicit in sexist practices.  Very tricky indeed.


  1. I like this post a lot. i was talking to a friend about this a few weeks ago. basically for me, I realized that even when i have questions, doubts, and sometimes come up with weird ideas about the church, I feel fine about it all as long as I continue keeping my covenants. so even when I don't necessarily understand everything, nor agree with everything, I love the church because of how it makes me feel. and I am fine with that.

  2. Yeah for you! The church needs more faithful gadflies who don't swallow whole every assumption voiced in Sunday School.

    The older I get (and the more I read) the easier it is to separate out what is the gospel, what is the church, and what are various cultural traditions that have grown up.

    Most of the cultural oddities don't bother me I guess as I grew up in a fairly conservative mainstream mormon family and have continued to be mostly "normal" but I can definitely see how they can offend and exclude many people who don't fit the Mormon "fold" quite perfectly.

    I especially started to notice this when I went on my mission in the Philippines as most of the Utah mormon cultural assumptions are left behind in the leap over the ocean. That started the trimming down of my conception of what it meant to be Mormon, which trimming I've vigorously pursued since.

    The gospel is true because it is the means of my salvation. The church is true because it is the means of my salvation. The cultural baggage is a small thorn in the flesh to help us love our fellow members in spite of their flaws :)

    Something else that's been very helpful to me in sorting through these issues is this essay by Eugene England titled "Why the Church is as True as the Gospel" -