Tuesday, February 10, 2015

What we didn't get to talk about on Sunday

I've been thinking a lot about agency, lately, and so when I saw what the topic of the Relief Society lesson was going to be, and later when we were having that guilt-ridden Sunday morning conversation about how bad does a runny nose have to be to keep my kid out of nursery (he went), I insisted that I would be the parent who got to attend her meetings alone.  This was a lesson I needed to hear, a discussion I wanted to be part of.

And it was good.  It was a good lesson and we discussed and I expect women learned important things.  But we didn't get to that part, you know?  That part of the lesson that really spoke to me, and that I was just starting to try to understand, and that I would have loved to have heard input on from my sisters.  We just kind of recited platitudes to each other and kept our soft parts hidden and coasted back and forth along the highway of ingrained, acceptable answers and appropriate recent experiences without ever really looking deeper.  And I was frustrated and I wanted to raise my hand and pull the switch to completely derail the discussion in my direction but something in between lack of time and acknowledgement of my own selfishness stopped me.

The lesson was on agency.  What we talked about was obedience.  I've spent the last several years of my life trying to understand the intersection of these two, and although they're commonly conflated in church culture, I'm fairly certain they're not at all the same thing.  In the church we talk a lot about how this life is a test, and I think that contributes to the confusion.  It may well be a fitting analogy, but I think it's a really limiting analogy, without proper elaboration.

Saying life is a test implies correct answers.  So if life is a test, what kind of test is it?  True or false?  I doubt it.  True or False tests have always been a pretend sort of test, the celebration of high-schoolers--sometimes the truth can be disguised but it's always pretty easy to guess right.  If not that, then what?  Word problems?  I think that, up until recently, this is the paradigm I was functioning under.  We believe in the existence of absolute truth, truth that applies to everyone and doesn't change.  It seems to follow then, that if you learn the truth, learn the proper formulas, all you have to do is just figure out how to apply them in real world situations, and you'll find The Right Answer.  If Jack is 17 and Mary is 15, how long will it be until they can go on a date?  Easy.  But if Henry has 3 potential majors he's interested in, which one should he pick?  Or, for example, if Maria is going to go on a mission but is simultaneously falling in love with her boyfriend, what should she do?  It was on that question, in college, that my worldview started to fall apart.  I prayed the most helpless and pathetic prayers of my life over this question (and I'm so grateful for a loving Father in Heaven who was--and is--everlastingly patient with me, because I was a mess).  For months, I cried and agonized and yelled at God to tell me what to do, because I was sure He knew and just wasn't telling me, and that this not-telling-me was just a test and I was supposed to learn something.  I just wanted to do God's will! Why wouldn't He tell me what it was?  I was so mind-numbingly afraid of choosing wrong that I refused to choose at all.  Because there had to be a right answer, right?

No.  Well, yes.  But no.

So five years later, I think it's an essay test.  Well, maybe true-or-false followed by an essay test.  There are some right answers, some super basic things you absolutely need to include or it doesn't even get passed.  Then there are other right things that contain and streamline your choices, like, a 5-paragraph structure is good.  But you can't just gather your evidence and present a sound thesis and expect to win a Pulitzer.  The artistry is just beginning.  Go write something personal and true and beautiful that delights and expands you.

I married him.  I didn't go on a mission and I married the boyfriend, and God, in the end, didn't tell me what to do.  He didn't reveal The Right Decision.  What He did do was reassure me that the choice I was making was A Good Decision, once I realized what I wanted.

We believe in universal truth.  But we don't believe in universal homogeneity.  I actually think that extrapolating universality out to an inappropriate point is almost as damaging as embracing moral relativism.  As with so many things in the Gospel, there's a delicate balance.

So, does God have a plan for my life?  I absolutely believe He does.  I just don't think it is necessarily as detailed as I once believed.  Sometimes God is specific in his guidance, and sometimes He is vague.  Sometimes "His Will" for me can embrace several different "correct" options I might choose.  That was the case with my mission papers.  From my experience, He can be specific in one person's life and vague in another, even on the very same question.  But fearful paralysis in the face of vague guidance is not the answer.  Free agency, free response.  I still absolutely need to pray about decisions, because unless I do I won't know if God has an opinion on that particular subject.  If he does, I already know what I want to choose.  And if He doesn't, how hopeful!  How fortifying!  God believes in my ability to choose for myself, to wield my agency with strength and power to make us both happy.

I came home on Sunday night and happened to read this interview.  I think it was a little gift from Heaven, because it was just what I wanted to talk about in Relief Society, only she said it better than I would have.  Integrity!  We each have an obligation to make choices that are in line with God's will.  But once we choose to obey, are we done talking about agency?  Is that all that our agency was meant for?  Of course not.  We also have an obligation to make choices that are in line with our will, the deepest desires and beliefs of our own best selves.

"I understand why we value obedience, but I think we can hyper-value it at the expense of our moral development. I don’t believe in a god who would let us obey our way into godhood. Instead, God gives us a world in which we may borrow wisdom from others, but we also must learn through the exercise of free will, through mistake-making, through the earnest seeking of truth based in our own thinking, discerning, and seeking. As moral agents, we have to assert imperfect choices amid imperfect realities. That process is fundamental to our personal and spiritual development, but we often don’t want the responsibility that comes with that imperfect process. And because of our fear of responsibility, I think we take comfort in the idea of obedience. We can act but have it be on an authority’s shoulders—we can escape some of the anxiety of figuring out what is really right. But this pseudo escape from responsibility is to our own detriment" (Dr. Jennifer Finalyson-Fife)

So can I suggest another analogy?  Apprenticeship.  We are apprenticed to become gods.  There are rules, and we can still flunk out, if you will, and lose our chance at godhood, like a carpenter's apprentice might lose his chance at mastering the trade by repeated failure (is that how it works?  I'm making the analogy work because it's the best thing I can think of).  But we are expected to create.  We are expected to work, and not to be commanded in all things, but to demonstrate that we are capable of doing the work the master does.  Otherwise how could we ever be certified?  I believe in Parents in Heaven who make their own decisions.  They do not take commandment from another, They are perfect and make consistently perfect choices.  If I am going to become like Them, I need to learn to make perfect choices on my own, and that takes a little help, for now, and a lot of practice.  They are also infinitely creative.  I presume that They created the world based on their own design, based on what they wished and found most delightful and good.  I believe I am expected to do the same--create a life that is pleasing to Them but that is also beautiful and delightful, and good, to the very best me I can become.  We are here "that we might have joy," not so that we could be "compelled in all things."

Navigating the white space under the free response prompts is what I wanted to talk about on Sunday.  Because I think this points to integrity as one of the most elemental virtues of the Gospel, and to "know thyself" as right up there with Love God and Love One Another.  So where does that fit?  How does it reconcile with the ideal of selflessness?  Anyone?

No comments:

Post a Comment