Zelophehad’s Daughters

“What is God really like?”

Posted by Galdralag

When Beatrice and I were serving together as missionaries, we were lucky enough to be in a district that included the mission offices.  The APs and office Elders were in our district, so more often than not we held district meetings in a cozy conference room in the main mission office building, giving us frequent occasion to see the Mission President and his wife.

Throughout our companionship, Beatrice mentioned to me that she had questions about the role of women as depicted in the temple endowment. We discussed it a few times in companionship study, and then – taking advantage of our proximity to the mission leaders – one day we decided to take the issue to the wife of the MP. To be clear, we didn’t openly dissect elements of the endowment that are considered private or sacred. We talked about the sorts of things that are commonly parsed on fMh, Exponent II, and here at ZD: the hearken covenant; women veiling their faces; the almost complete silence of Eve and lack of other female characters in the pre-mortal realm; and other, similar issues.

The MP’s wife responded to our questions with more candor than I would have expected from a woman serving in her position. (This was before fMh, back before the bloggernacle even existed, so neither Beatrice nor I was accustomed to hearing doubt or confusion expressed by the devout.)  The MP’s wife said that for years as a young mother she couldn’t bear to go to the temple because of its depiction of women. It had been too upsetting. But, after time and reflection, her view changed and she went back.

And then she said: “You have to ask yourself, what is God really like?”

For her, the answer was that God does not intentionally hurt his daughters. Yet, somehow, there is an incongruity between LDS teachings about sharply demarcated gender and sex roles and the doctrine that all human beings are children of God – a just God – with infinite potential. The only way she could put the two together was by believing that the “real” God was not behind the things that continue to cause faithful women in the Church such anxiety and despair.

It was a rationale that speaks to the cognitive dissonance that so many LDS women feel, of the mental legerdemain necessary for so many women (not all, I know) to find and keep their moorings in the church. I wonder how common it is. How often, in the face of things that appear wrong or uneven or contradictory, do women and men of faith appeal to a God that sits just beyond the doctrine in a place of equanimity, a real God?

9 Responses to ““What is God really like?””

  1. 1.

    Pretty often.

    Though I wouldn’t say I appeal to God. With me it’s more like this:

    I look at God with an exaggerated expression of annoyance and frustration. We roll our eyes and shake our heads with a mutually understanding smile or grimace. I review the principles of patience, gentleness, charity, forgiveness and fortitude for my own benefit, as well as Jesus’ words about casting first stones. And we then discuss what’s being so woefully misunderstood and misinterpreted and then carry on together in our efforts to establish better understanding of truth.

    God IS real.

  2. 2.

    And someone’s going to ask why I don’t get angry.

    It’s because the real God, though he is extremely full of love can also get REALLY angry about oppression and exploitation and hard-hearted behavior particularly by those who claim to be disciples. God can get angry enough for the two of us and then some. And God is powerfully effective with his anger, while mine just reduces my effectiveness.

    So I let God carry that part of the puzzle.

  3. 3.

    I absolutely look to the “real” God. All the time, although I’ve never called it that. It’s the reason I choose not to participate or believe in parts of the church that seem wrong or hurtful. I haven’t been able to return to the temple largely because it doesn’t feel to me like something the “real” god would have inspired. Sometimes I think I should go back and look for the kernels of truth, but the memories of leaving the temple feeling sad keep me out.

  4. 4.

    What else would you look to if not the real God?

  5. 5.

    Seeing posts like this are balm to me. I came home from my mission spiritually, emotionally, and mentally battered from the experiences I had there (to be fair, I loved my mission. It was both the best and worst thing I’ve ever done). I was a feminist before my mission and seemed to have no trouble being a Mormon and a feminist, but I came home with so many questions and too few answers and no one to talk to.

    After months of being barely “in” the church, because I had an all or nothing approach to my testimony, I realized that I could live WITH my cognitive dissonance. And part of that was because I realized that I felt a connection to my Heavenly Father that didn’t necessarily derive from the doctrine I no longer believed in. To me, he was the “real” God who knew me and loved me and would never condone unfair and unequal treatment.

    So to answer the question of the original post, I think many, many people look to the “real” God. How else do we live with the sometimes overwhelming cognitive dissonance?

  6. 6.

    I think this is such a difficult problem because the Church isn’t neutral on this question — we’re told, in various contexts, that God is the kind of being who would consign his daughters to eternal polygamist marriages, that God is the kind of being who sets up little hierarchies with women at the bottom of them, that God is the kind of being who plays favorites among humans, and is sometimes okay with genocide.

    It’s easy enough for me to take all my own deeply-held beliefs about what constitutes goodness, fairness, justice, rightness, mercy, and love, and decide that all that is what God really is, and reject everything the Church tells me about the nature of God that I don’t like. But at a certain point, if this is my strategy, I have to ask myself, What am I even doing in the Church, if I’m going to just choose to believe whether I want about God anyway? And on the flip side, how much can I rely on my own very 21st-century liberal humanistic ideas about what God should be to tell me what God is? I mean, the point of having scriptures and prophets should be, at least in part, to reveal the nature of God; if I’m going to pick and choose from those kinds of sources what to believe about God, based on what I already believe about God, then do I actually need scriptures and prophets, or would I just believe the same things anyhow?

    Nonetheless, this is pretty much what I do. When I could handle the temple (and I had a long period before, during, and for a while after my mission, when I really liked the temple, in a way I find mysterious and inaccessible now), I was more or less successful at managing the cognitive dissonance of it all in exactly the way described above. I figured, I had faith that God wasn’t a jerk, my experience of him was not as the dismissive, condemnatory patriarch represented in the Temple, so I felt safe to overlook the particularly jerk-y parts of the ceremony, or reinterpret them however I wanted, or just be mad it about in a tidy compartmentalized way.

    I can keep doing this, and keep trying to believe in both a God that’s loving in the way I want, and the truth-claims of the Church, but I’m increasingly afraid it’s just not sustainable. Part of the Church’s claim to exclusive salvific power is that God licenses the things it does, particularly in the realm of ordinances and liturgy. If I’m willing to cast off that truth-claim by saying that the God I’m committed to wouldn’t subordinate me in this way, then to what extent do I believe at all the Church’s claim to be God’s true church? If I don’t think God is behind our most solemn liturgy, than do I think he’s anywhere else in the Church?

    Anyway, sorry for the comment that’s as long as the post! Obviously you got me thinking. :)

  7. 7.

    If I’m willing to cast off that truth-claim by saying that the God I’m committed to wouldn’t subordinate me in this way, then to what extent do I believe at all the Church’s claim to be God’s true church? If I don’t think God is behind our most solemn liturgy, than do I think he’s anywhere else in the Church?

    I am guilty in this post of commenting on someone else’s faith journey, and not on my own. What you describe here is far closer to my own process. (I too found great solace in the temple once; your words resonate with me. The temple, and my experience of it, are mysterious and remote for me now.) Your line of reasoning here – where should we draw our boundaries? – is one that led me in circles. On the one hand, there were things that I could not – could not! – accept; on the other hand, who was I to pick and choose? And how was I to do so, especially when so often where doctrine ends and folk tradition begins is blurry and indistinguishable.

    I have come to believe very strongly in peoplehood, and in the need of a sense of people, of belonging and purpose. I believe we are each Jacob, locked in our private, personal battles; wrestling our angels until dawn when we can demand our blessing. And perhaps it is better for us to just sit and help and be for each other through it all, instead of insisting that other journeys be like our own, or that others understand their God like we do. But in many ways that situates me far afield from Mormondom.

  8. 8.

    I believe we are each Jacob, locked in our private, personal battles; wrestling our angels until dawn when we can demand our blessing. And perhaps it is better for us to just sit and help and be for each other through it all, instead of insisting that other journeys be like our own, or that others understand their God like we do.

    I love this, Galdralag! Beautifully put!

  9. 9.

    I learned more about God when I was going to AA than I ever did in church. I’m being entirely serious. One description that has stuck with me is a guy describing his God as a “kick back kinda guy.” Then he added “He’s let me know he doesn’t like being called an SOB in no uncertain terms, but mostly, He’s pretty cool.”

    I wonder, do we only find that God in our personal Gethsemanes? Maybe if we’re just going along, doing our visiting teaching, going to the temple and living a mostly quiet Mormon life, we don’t have to know the real God. Then when our guts are pouring out of our still breathing body, reality kicks in and we learn that God is, well….nice.

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