Folks, please give a warm welcome to RJohn, for his inaugural guest post here at pilgrimgirl…
Notes Toward a General Theory of Mormon Isostacy
From the beginning, a confession: I am not qualified to speak on the question of how to avoid anxiety. I have often felt it. I do not enjoy it (even in Heidegger’s sense that anxiety opens your mind to a truer sense of “being”–I still don’t like it). And I still sometimes feel it, emptying out my chest in panic-filled breathing. This may come as a surprise to some people who know me, and perhaps old news to others. For those who have never had anxiety, you have to understand, there is not always a “cause.” Sometimes it just comes to you, disconnected from whatever is happening, and its sudden appearance is strange and terrifying (and in occasional rare moments, I have even felt this terror as something “beautiful,” as though I were approaching a deep and breathtaking chasm). I say this because I am convinced that my anxieties are not “caused” by my ambiguous relationship with god/church, or “caused” by the stressful exigencies of my chosen career, or even “caused” by the existentialist and post-structuralist theories I have learned to negotiate. They just are.
And in this sense, I am probably not the person to turn to for advice on finding an emotional balance in life. Most of what I can offer here on “religious isostacy” is a path that is difficult and fraught with dangers. But I do it because I have found that there are many people like me for whom the idea of leaving a religious community seems painful and unnecessary, even though they go on being exposed to unconscionable discourse (in the sense that their “conscience” is damaged in failing to either speak against certain policies or resoundingly renounce one’s attachment to certain ideas).
But let me try to get at what I mean by “religious isostacy.” The term “isostacy” is one I have borrowed from geology (and I’m not a geologist–yet another reason not to trust you, John! ). It’s definition has to do with seismic equilibrium in the earth’s crust: “a condition in which the forces tending to elevate balance those tending to depress; a state in which pressures from every side are equal.” You’ll find “isos” in other words conveying “balance” or “equilibrium,” such as in an isosceles triangle. If you write “isostacy” and try to spell check it, you get the suggestion “apostasy,” but of course they are not the same words at all, and this is really why I like it. Everyone knows what religious apostasy means. It means leaving the community, physically, but retaining a kind of fetishistic fascination for it (hating it almost as passionately as one might have loved it earlier in life). It means cutting off one’s self in terms of community, devotion ( i.e. not paying tithing or wearing the garment), and feelings, but not in mission. The apostate still wants to be in the church, but demands (or writes manifestos demanding) that the organization change in fundamental ways before s/he will return.
This is, of course, the path that John and Jana are on now. And it is not one that I condemn (even though I do regret not seeing them around more often). In fact, I can even see the path of apostasy as a courageous act. My point, however, in introducing this idea of religious isostacy is that apostasy need not be the only response to the kinds of feelings and experiences people have in the church when confronted with doctrinal or cultural dissonance. As with many things, I get very suspicious when people tell me that there are only two possible options for things (apostasy or orthodoxy, war or appeasement, etc.)
So let me try to be more specific about what I mean by religious “isostacy” as opposed to “apostasy.” In Billy Wilder’s 1960 movie “The Apartment” Jack Lemmon is a mid-level corporate manager with a number of quirky looks and sayings. One of his little catch-phrases is “That’s the way it crumbles . . . cookie-wise.” It’s corny, but sort of endearing too. After watching the film, I found myself riffing on the phrase in little ways (“that’s the way it bounces…ball-wise”–keeping these to myself, of course. I’d never be so corny in real life!). One day, as I was thinking about my complex relationship with Mormonism, I said something to myself like “Well, that’s just the way I’m thinking, other-wise”). And it struck me that “thinking otherwise” encapsulated nearly everything going on in my weird head at the moment: my doubts about doctrine, my love for Mormon friends and family, my search for the Truth of Mormon history–all of it in this one phrase. Thinking otherwise and thinking “other”-wise. The former is to begin thinking outside of orthodoxy, to be conscious that there are broader possibilities in the world, to have doubts (for me) about things like golden plates, seer stones, priesthood, and polygamy (that would be “other wives” rather than “otherwise” ha ha). But the latter is to be acutely aware that there are there important “others” in your life, “others” that you did not choose– wise to the “others” in the sense that you can sense how much you need them, how much those relationships make you who you are (and maybe even offer wisdom to some of them when they too begin sensing otherwise). Sometimes these “others” understand and even share your thinking otherwise, and sometimes they do not.
For Mormon “isostates,” then, I recommend the following:
1) Acknowledge, freely, at appropriate moments, that you have doubts, and that you believe very little about the finer points of Mormon dogma (and perhaps even that you find certain dogmas unhealthy or dangerous).
2) Do not feel compelled to shout your version of Truth about the universe from the rooftops (or, if you like, your conviction that there is a lack of Truth about the universe).
3) Reaffirm your commitment to the Mormon community by doing the sorts of things that connect you to that community (not drinking, paying tithing, going to church, etc).
4) Remember that many Mormons and non-Mormons will not understand your isostacy. It may even seem crazy to them, so be willing to live with that.
5) Remember that if you did leave (i.e. move from isostacy to apostasy), it would be tumultuous and difficult, but life would go on. It is possible that you may eventually find something outside of Mormonism that provides you with a greater “seismic equilibrium” (I say this because knowing that you CAN leave and be okay is crucial to knowing that you are choosing to stay, and not being forced to stay).
6) Get involved in Sunstone, Dialogue, and other communities where you will find other souls in a similar isostatic state (and I could point here to Levi Peterson’s sense of being a “Christian by yearning,” or Wayne Booth’s notion of “hypocrisy upwards”–but there are many).
Whether or not this will bring anyone relief or happiness, I do not know. But I am convinced that thinking otherwise/other-wise is a possible road, one that I’ve been on for some time now, and it has been good to me.