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Maintaining positive relationships through…wrestling

January 24, 2012

This post is the third in my series on my adventures with the Mormon Stories conference in Houston this year. See the introductory post here and the first Maintaining Positive Relationships post here.

Dan WotherspoonWhile the first speaker at the Genuine Mormon Conversations conference was John Dehlin, the keynote speaker for the conference was Dan Wotherspoon. As with John’s talk, Dan’s talk wasn’t formally named in the program (and remind me to talk one day about those programs — it was amazing how much the programs invoked the Mormon church counterpart, what with conductors,  invocation and musical numbers listed…and at the same time, it played a twist on those same LDS counterparts…I don’t think you’ll soon see a woman conducting in an LDS sacrament meeting. And maybe as a nod to the confusion over whether women can give the opening prayers in sacrament meetings, the Mormon Stories Conference had that too. The similarities continued all the way down to the “Story Sharing Meeting,” where someone took the standard testimony format on its head and literally said, “I know the Mormon church is not true.”) However, in my notes, the central subject I found for his talk was Wrestling with God, the church, one’s family, and the battle itself.”

Dan framed this talk around a Sunstone article by Rick Jepson: Godwrestling: Physicality, Conflict, and Redemption in Mormon Doctrine (PDF alert!).

I’m not a wrestler, so Rick’s article in Sunstone doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense, but getting away from the physical dimension of wrestling in building and re-evaluating various relationships, Dan focused on the more conceptual basis for wrestling as a key aspect to maintaining positive relationships.

Wrestling with God

One point that Dan brought up (and which was present in the Sunstone article as well) is that when we don’t wrestle with God, that’s more of a sign of estrangement rather than reverence. To an extent, I understand that you can only really have serious, heavy conversations — arguments, even — with people whom you seriously regard. The moment that you don’t take someone seriously, that you think they are a lost cause or feel that you aren’t close enough to wear you can let down your veneer of politeness, that’s the moment when you can’t have a deep discussion with them and your relationship will stagnate.

But personally, I don’t understand how this would apply to God, because, well, durh, I don’t really know of any such guy or girl.

What does make sense to me is that, given any sort of presentation of who God is (or who someone claims God to be), we probably should be grappling with whether those presentations make sense. Does the God of the Old Testament make sense? How do we make sense of it without trivializing, demonizing, or just throwing out the Old Testament? And so on.

Wrestling with the Church

A far more immediate (yet somewhat related) aspect is wrestling with the church. This is, as Dan mentioned in his talk, a process of finding the right relationship with respect to it.

For this section of his talk, Dan made sure to quote — either directly or indirectly — several ideas. For example, he noted that the best people in any tradition will recognize that said tradition is just a tool — I guess for Mormons, this relates to Elder Poelman’s famous 1984 General Conference talk: The Gospel and the Church (warning: another PDF!) To summarize, the church — or any church — is just a tool…it isn’t the moon, but the finger pointing to the moon.

Dan related the same point from a James Fowler/Stages of Faith perspective…he pointed out that while every religion points to Stage 6, every institution tries to keep people in stage 3. The trick is for us to center ourselves in a tradition — whatever tradition that may be — but then find a way to transcend it.

Overall, this section too doesn’t really resonate a whole lot with me. It seems to me that Dan is trying really hard to get people to find some way to stay within the church (although he certainly always claims to accept that for some people, maybe staying in the church isn’t the right answer…it just seems that even though he has these values as a legal disclaimer, his own personal position leans one way in particular…) when it’s really not that simple a process to manage being in the church when you don’t believe literally (or at all). I really would like to understand the nuanced approach that people like him or Joanna Brooks advocate, but every time, I find it really problematic.

But maybe that is the point? Because I haven’t “wrestled” with the church, I too easily concede the status quo way to interact with it as being the most “legitimate.”

Wrestling with family

I think the one idea that struck me from this one was a concept that I’ve actually heard many times before, but which only really clicked when I heard it this time. The concept I’ve heard before is this: anger is a secondary effect of fear.

But the idea that extended the first concept which really helped me to comprehend the first: when we meet someone who’s afraid, we instinctively respond by nurturing. But when we meet someone who’s angry, we generally don’t recognize that the anger is just a manifestation of a fear of pain, and so we lash out, when instead, we ought to nurture those who are angry just as we would those who are afraid.

Keeping this in mind, much of wrestling with family is about being the one who will nurture rather than the one who lashes out.

Wrestling with the battle itself

Particularly that last point — of taking the higher road and nurturing rather than lashing out — is a tough pill to swallow. It seems unfair that when we are hurting (after all, we are the ones having to renegotiate our identities when for the wholes of our lives, we have had a comfortable place in the church until this moment), we don’t get anyone to nurture us. We get people who love-bomb us (trying to get us back into the old way of things rather than recognizing and accepting our migration.) We get people who shun us (as if they are afraid that doubt or disaffection is catching.)

And after all of those reactions, we are the ones who should be gracious?!

That’s why all of the rest of the wrestles hinge upon our ability to wrestle with the battle itself. To come to terms that we have to meet with others halfway or more, because we aren’t the only ones who are undergoing tectonic shifts…our families and loved ones have to go through the shift of seeing their friend, their son, their husband — whatever the case may be — change in an aspect they thought would be fundamental to the identity.

In the end, Dan mentioned a way of framing a testimony that I had heard before, but hadn’t seriously considered. The TBM will say, “I know the church is true.” People who have shifted away from the TBM position may say, “I know the church is good.” But wherever we are on any part of the belief spectrum, perhaps we can say, “I know the church is home.”

UPDATE: An expanded version of this talk has been posted at Mormon Matters.

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