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Doing Religion Wrong: Fast Sundays

August 7, 2011

When I read the Doves & Serpents post on Fast (?) Sunday, I started thinking about my own experiences with fasting.

Even when I was growing up, I would hear things like: if you don’t start and end your fasts with prayer, then you are just starving yourself. I am amenable to the idea that there is definitely a mental aspect to doing fasting right, that if you don’t have, you’re just not getting what you should be out of it.

Today, partially because I’m an ex-Mormon and don’t keep track of this stuff anymore and partially because I’m just not that much of a person for “sacred” things, I can definitely say that I was not aware that it was a fast Sunday. (And so while I can say I haven’t eaten anything all day, I’m definitely just starving. I think the food abstention is more a reflection of my poor-college-student, pseudo-anorexic-trying-to-maintain-a-lithe-figure spirit than anything approaching “mindfulness.”)

…Anyway, I guess my issue is (was?) that the church didn’t really do a good job of teaching how to cultivate that aspect, and particularly the way I grew up, I wasn’t learning that on my own.

For me, Fast Sunday was just a Thing To Do. Or, even worse, a thing that Good Mormons Should Do. So, I was doing it because I knew I should do it, not because I wanted to do it.

Why I think I was doing religion wrong in this aspect was that there was no way for me at the time even to consider the idea that maybe I should do these things because I wanted to do them. My mindset was: I have to follow commandments whether I like them or not, because that’s what good Mormons do. In effect, how I felt didn’t even factor, because I had predetermined actions I should take.

Do I need to spell more explicitly how counter-intuitive or self-destructive this is..? I mean, if you are a person of genuine faith, you can say that I was doing it wrong. (OK, I accept that). But I feel that you should also be wondering how you can prevent this from befalling any Mormons growing up (or even yourself.) What I mean is that idea that good Mormons should do x.

I feel the “should do” or “should be” aspect perpetuates through so much of the church, but it’s…the wrong attitude. I mean, even now that I try to write alternatives like, “Good Mormons want to do” (to counter “should”), it just sounds foreign. As if I don’t really know how to deal with desire and want.

If I had to flesh it out, it would be something like: for all the talk of hearts and transformation, it needs to be central. Maybe you can “hypocrisy upwards” your way to different attitudes through sheer action, but my anecdata suggest that instead, what happens is that you cultivate and reinforce an attitude of, “I don’t want to do this (and maybe it doesn’t matter what I personally want), but I HAVE to do this.”

fast offering(Let’s not yet get started on the counter-intuitive attitudes that can develop around the fast offerings, but I will say that there were several lessons in my ward at least counseling us not simply to calculate the dollar cost of what the morning bowl of cereal would have been…did you ever have lessons like that in your ward? Does the repetition of these messages suggest that many people have exactly that kind of mindset when calculating their offerings?)

But to counter “should” vs. “want,” first I’ll counter an argument that I’ve heard in the past (and psychically anticipated as I was writing this post.) That is: “well, the natural man wants bad stuff. You can’t just go by what you want, because of course you aren’t going to want to sacrifice.”

Sure, I will concede what I feel to be noncontroversial: there are some things that are good for us (or that lead to good things) that we don’t initially or immediately recognize as desirable or good.

But, for what is a religion? (Wow, actually, let’s not try to answer that or else there will be thousands of different answers.) It seems to me that whatever you come up with, trying to transform your mind and heart should rank at least a little bit higher than merely trying to transform your behaviors. Something I hear more often from non-LDS Christians (evangelicals in particular) is how at some point, when they realized they were “fallen” and “sinners” and what not, they felt ashamed and wanted to please God. So, even if they continue to slip up, the difference between them now and then is that now they want to turn away (to repent), whereas before, they didn’t.

I can see another counter-argument bubbling up: “if, as a Mormon, I know what I should do, and I strive to do what Mormons should do, then how is that distinguishable from a transformation of the heart, albeit in a more agency/free will-focused way?”

To clarify this, I’ll make a scenario, which will doubtlessly be shortsighted (and you all will not be afraid to point that out).

Mary, at some point in her life, discovered that she wanted to change some behavior of hers. She feels guilty whenever she falls into that behavior because it counters her desires to change that behavior. When she strives to do other things, it is driven by her desire to change that behavior.

Sam, at some point in his life, was taught that he should engage in certain behaviors that were counter to his current ones. He feels guilty whenever he falls into his current behaviors because it counters what he has been taught he should do. When he strives to do other things, it is driven by his desire to do what he has internalized he should do and be.

What’s the difference between Mary and Sam?

(If this blog were actually popular with Mormon readers, I’d probably get tons of comments saying I misconstrued the Mormon approach. That since I was doing religion wrong, I don’t know how to present true Mormon mindsets. Ah, well, I guess I’ll just have to take that.)

Anyway, the difference between Mary and Sam, even though practically, they are in the same boat, is still orientation. Sam has a transformation of heart/mind, but it’s to doing what he has been taught he should be doing (without necessarily touching his own desires). Mary has a transformation of heart/mind, and it’s also to what she feels she should be doing, but it also informs her own desires.

…maybe I didn’t clarify the difference at all.

I won’t belabor the point. But I think that relates to what I find admirable in some “nuanced” Mormons (and I know this is a really vague term.) They are aware that there are enough valid options in life, valid ways of living, etc., that there may not be a universal “should” for people…but they stick with the practices they have because they want to. (In before argument about that.)

What I find so freeing about disassociating with the church is how that “should” attitude has melted away. So I can really think about why (e.g.,) fasting is important…and the answer won’t be overrun by pat answers. I don’t want to be one of those “Gotcha!” “freethinking” Ex-Mormons who drones on and one that Mormons are brainwashed (or whatever). I think that if I were to re-associate, I’d be a far better Mormon now than I was before. I’m not precluding a change of heart or suggesting that there is only one answer when it comes to thinking things through.

Now, please excuse me, but I’m going to make a sandwich.

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8 Comments
  1. Seth R. permalink

    Well, it seems to me that you’re advocating for the ideal.

    But sometimes the best that people can do is be religious out of a sense of obligation. Maybe that’s the best they are capable of. And perhaps that obligation will eventually grow to something more.

    Sometimes the best is the enemy of “good enough.”

  2. Seth,

    It’s weird for me to be the idealistic person in a conversation, but…um…isn’t the point to advocate for the ideal? I mean, really, think about it.

    “I’m striving for the ideal. I may miss the mark, but I’m striving for the idea.”

    vs.

    “I’m striving to fulfill this obligation. I may miss the mark, but I’m striving to meet my obligations.”

    I see a world of difference in the two pronouncements. The former phrasing does not seem naive to me — as long as it accepts that people WILL miss the mark. But that’s the point: you have a mark to begin with and that mark is the bull’s eye.

    I think the more interesting point of discussion is our varying degrees of confidence that “perhaps that obligation will eventually grow to something more.” You believe it will (perhaps), but I find it unlikely.

    (the best is the enemy of good enough; no disagreements there. Why settle for good enough, I wonder?)

  3. I used to handle this dissonance by just lying to people. Although my religious views don’t require observing Lent, one year, I did a Lenten fast, secretly eliminating meat, and told people that I wasn’t observing Lent. The next year, I secretly eliminated a few other things, but told people that I was eliminating meat — in public, I wouldn’t eat meat, but in private I would eat meat, just to drive home the stupidity of fasting for other people’s approval. I liked the idea that I eliminated meat when nobody knew, but ate meat (and eliminated other things) when people thought I was eliminating meat.

    I still fast at least twice a year for an extended period of 30-90 days, but it’s almost always to prove to myself that I can do it, rather than for any religious reason. Self-control is a muscle.

  4. JSA,

    …but that leads to another question: how did you handle the dissonance of lying to people.

  5. The lying is even harder than the fasting, but you tell yourself it’s for a good reason — to break the bad habit of allowing your motives to be ambiguous between serving God and seeking approval of others. And, of course, if the people who you are lying to are the sort who would rather you seek their approval than serve God, you needn’t feel too bad about lying to them. Conversely, if they’re the sort who think you should serve God even in the face of approbation of others, then you can assume that they would approve.

  6. Seth R. permalink

    Or alternatively – it wasn’t lying in the first place.

    But now later in life, since you’ve come to different conclusions now than you held then – it SEEMS like lying to you now.

  7. Even then, it was a very calculated and deliberate deception. I even spent some time thinking about whether or not I would ever confess to the deception, and whether or not confessing it would then nullify any holiness benefit that might have accrued (just like bragging about a secret charity donation kind of defeats the purpose).

  8. Seth R. permalink

    Guess I’ll take you at your word on it then.

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