A few days ago, as I attended a conference on women in the LDS Church, I realized something about my Mormon feminist community: many of these Mormon women in the audience have felt called to ministry. Many came to this conference because they feel their scope of service and spiritual authority is constricted in the contemporary institutional LDS Church, and they have so much more they want to give to it. Many came to the conference hoping to find strategies to expand the visibility and sphere of action in this church which has enriched their lives in so many ways.
These Mormon feminists display religious ambivalence, a concept religious scholar Mary Bednarowski explored in her book The Religious Imagination of the American Woman. She explains that ambivalence arises as a woman simultaneously feels both nurtured by a tradition which has helped shape her world view, and constrained by it as it denies her leadership opportunities or denies her full personhood in its sacred texts. Out of this place of tension arises an ambivalence which leads to innovation and creativity as she tries to resolve this conflict. Bednarowski writes:
Ambivalence emerges as a virtue to be cultivated … there is a vitalizing quality to its manifestations. It is a willed ambivalence, a sustained and cultivated ambivalence, an aware ambivalence. This is an ambivalence that requires women always to be vigilant, always to be critical of their communities’ inclinations toward exclusion and distortion and at the same time be open to new possibilities to hold up or reform or transform or dig up, from wherever they have been hiding, their traditions’ most liberating and healing insights.
I love Bednarowski’s description of religious ambivalence. I see it over and over again in the Mormon feminist community, as these women’s ambivalence gives birth to new forums, new projects, new prayers, new language, new organizations, new publications, new rituals and new scholarship. Innovation has indeed arisen from the divided identities these Mormon feminists negotiate.
I realize tonight, however, that while my own ambivalence has generated a creative drive to form communities, write papers, and envision new possibilities for my faith, it has also resulted in some degree of spiritual stagnation. Like many of the women in the audience this weekend, I too have felt called to ministry in a tradition that doesn’t fully want all that I have to offer. As a result, I find it difficult to develop personal devotional behavior that so many other Mormons cultivate. It’s hard for me to pray daily to God when I feel conflicted about the faith that has shaped my view of this God. It’s hard for me to read my scriptures daily when I don’t see myself in my sacred texts.
Tonight I wonder who I might have become if I had been raised in a tradition that had fully embraced me and all that I had to offer. A tradition that had nurtured a woman’s sense of a calling to priesthood. A tradition that would have held women and men up as equal spiritual authorities and church leaders. Would I be a minister or priest somewhere, blessing the Eucharist, praying with the sick, confidently feeling God’s direction and love in my life? Tonight I mourn for the woman I might have been.
Caroline is completing coursework for a Ph.D. in religion with a focus on women’s studies in religion. Her areas of interest revolve around the intersections of Mormon and feminist theology and the study of contemporary Mormon feminist communities. She is the co-founder of the Mormon feminist blog, The Exponent.