It’s not true that life is one damn thing after another; it’s one damn thing over and over.
—Edna St. Vincent Millay
Late this afternoon I sat down to feed my seven-month-old daughter dinner. She quickly tires of solid food; she’ll accept a few spoonfuls, but then she wants to bang her fists on her tray and throw Cheerios on the floor, so I keep my laptop on the table to entertain myself in between offering bites of cereal or strained peas. In my browsing I came across a presentation on Mormonism and feminism I gave sixteen years ago, the summer I was twenty-one. I clicked on the file with trepidation, sure I’d be dismayed at how young and naïve and foolish I sounded. But what I found was far worse: I was dismayed at how familiar I sounded. Sixteen years ago I was dealing with almost exactly the same issues in Mormonism that I am now.
A lot has happened in my life in the last sixteen years. Shortly after I gave that presentation, I graduated from college, went through the temple, and went on a mission. Then I got married and started graduate school at BYU. Since then I’ve lived in several different states, held (and demanded to be released from) various callings, nearly completed the coursework for my Ph.D., and had a baby. In the trivial sense that a resume or list of externally verifiable achievements measures, I have “gotten somewhere”: I have family, a husband and a child, and I’ve made substantial progress toward my educational goals. I’ve had a varied set of church experiences: I’ve been a full-time missionary, taught Relief Society and gospel doctrine and nursery, served in Relief Society and Young Women’s presidencies and as a Young Women’s president, and as branch and primary pianist.
But in other, more important senses I’ve gotten nowhere at all. If someone had asked me, when I was twenty-one, where I would be with Mormonism when I was thirty-seven, I don’t know how I would have answered, but I never would have expected to be more or less in exactly the same place. In the course of sixteen years I would have expected a conclusive arrival, a resolution, a revelation, something. I guess I’ve always implicitly expected one of two outcomes: either I would leave the church, informally or formally, or I would come to some kind of peace within the church.
What I can’t decide is to what extent my expectation is an artifact of our stories about religious crisis, which tend to culminate in either embrace or abandonment of the institution. We narrate from beyond the moment of resolution. There are, broadly speaking, two stories: the crisis over [obedience and authoritarianism/Mormon history/Mormon culture/science/ race/feminism/homosexuality/boring meetings] becomes insurmountable, the person leaves the church, and at long last she finds peace and happiness. Or: the crisis over [ibid.] is resolved through [fasting and prayer/judicious use of the shelf/the patient, loving attention of visiting teachers/a direct revelation from God], the person stays in the church, and at long last she finds peace and happiness.
I guess I just want to find peace and happiness, too. But although I long for closure, even my hardest-won moments of resolution keep unraveling. Lately—yet again—I’ve found both personal sins and vexing trials I’d thought long since resolved have come raining back down on me from wherever I shoved them away. Someone I thought I’d forgiven years ago, I’m finding I have to forgive all over again. Temptations I thought I had long since surmounted have returned to haunt me. I console myself in my backsliding with the image of the spiral; I’m circling back to my sins, but each time I face them in lesser forms and at greater depths, with greater experience of resistance and repentance and greater powers of grace.
But when it comes to my issues with the institution I can’t decide if the spiral applies. Over the past ten or twelve years, my crises have waxed, waned during a period of great acceptance by the church community, and then in the withdrawal of that acceptance, waxed again. I’m more comfortable with my issues than I used to be, more courageous and honest about expressing my views, more willing to disagree publicly and risk censure, but as a result of arguing I’m also more arrogant about the rightness of my position, more cynical about the institution, and generally less open to persuasion.
There are, broadly speaking, two ways for me to think about my ongoing doctrinal issues: (1) I need to fast and pray harder and cultivate a more mature spirituality in order to resolve my concerns; (2) I need to make peace with the fact that in this life I will not be able to make peace. And although I do undoubtedly need to fast and pray harder and cultivate a more mature spirituality, I tend to think that doing so in order to resolve concerns eviscerates the very point of the process; I need to cultivate these things for their own sake, not for any answers that may come. It’s the familiar God-as-vending-machine problem; D&C 82:10 and various exuberant missionary programs notwithstanding, I find it blasphemous to speak of binding God. (And anyway, in my case, God has never been very forthcoming with doctrinal resolutions. To some these may be given. To me they don’t seem to be.)
Do I have to accept where I am as, in all likelihood, more or less where I’ll be for the rest of my life—keeping a difficult faith with the church in the same way one keeps faith in a difficult marriage, committed even though the same issues come up over and over and over again?
Do we ever really get anywhere in this life?