Ambivalence as a Theological Virtue?

June 2, 2004 | 37 comments
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In her book, The Religious Imagination of American Women, Mary Farrell Bednarowski suggests that to understand the lived religious experience of American women one must appreciate the ambivalence they experience in their religious traditions. According to Bednarowski this ambivalence is not to be identified as a state of confusion, indecisiveness or vacillating equivocation. Rather, ambivalence is the reflective position of religious women who experience both a deep sense of belonging and an equally strong sense of alienation and distrust. Thoughtful American women, she argues, are committed and connected to their religious communities, but also critical of the religious traditions which define those communities. She explains that the virtue of ambivalence “stirs up love and hate, attraction and repulsion, devotion and impatience . . .” Bednarowski argues that such ambivalence is a virtue that ought to be cultivated since living in the unsettled tension of ambivalence has great potential for theological creativity.

Interestingly, Bednarowski points to Mormon women as among those who successfully cultivate this sort of willed ambivalence. Although I believe that learning to live gracefully with unresolved (and un-resolvable) paradox is one of the marks of mature adulthood, I wonder if Bednarowski’s suggestion of a piety of ambivalence can cohere with Mormon scripture and doctrine without painful cognitive dissonance.

Throughout the LDS canon we encounter few examples of ambivalence. Of course, there are the three famous J’s—Jonah, Jeremiah and Job, who all manifest their own sort of ambivalence. But their ambivalence is not heralded as something to emulate. In fact, sometimes I wonder if people have actually read the entire book of Job since his ambivalence is often denied or ignored. At any rate, these famous J’s are not most people’s scriptural heroes.

Most of people’s heroes are of a different stripe: Abraham, father of the faithful, who didn’t flinch to sacrifice his covenant son (whatever personal hell he lived through on their three day journey to Moriah); Joseph of Egypt who believed, even when left for dead at the bottom of a pit, that his brothers would yet bow before him; Nephi, who went and did what the Lord commanded him, Captain Moroni who was “a man of perfect understanding” a man whose example if followed by all would shake the very powers of hell, the sons of Mosiah who trembled even at the thought that any human soul should perish and Alma the younger who wished to be an angel to more effectively proclaim the Gospel so great was his zeal for missionary work.

Those few who may have female heroes from the scriptures still usually choose the most zealous to admire: Ruth who followed Naomi without hesitation, Anna the prophetess who served day and night in the Temple, Abish who ran (not walked) from house to house telling the people what had happened to King and Queen Lamoni and so forth.

Is the category of ambivalence coherent with LDS scripture? Is it possible to be ambivalent and still be “steadfast and immovable”? Can one “press forward with a perfect brightness of hope,” being distinguished for one’s “zeal towards God” and still live in ambivalence? Can ambivalence be more than a state of lukewarm devotion for which we will be spewed out? In other words, can one be zealously ambivalent? What would zealous ambivalence look like? Further, do you buy Bednarowski’s claim that ambivalence accurately describes Mormon women? Are Mormon men more or less ambivalent than Mormon women or is ambivalence unrelated to gender?

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37 Responses to Ambivalence as a Theological Virtue?

  1. Mike on June 2, 2004 at 2:48 pm

    Since this was posted a couple times, I guess I’ll reply to the one at the top.
    In terms of female heroes where does Eve fall? If she can be said to display ambivalence it doesn’t seem to last for long in the short accounts we have of her actions. I would definitely say that Eve is a scriptural hero.

    And I think Job is high on the hero list for a number of people (even those who have read the whole book of Job)
    One of my personal Book of Mormon heroes, Pahoran, seems to display ambivalence in a different manner but ambivalence none the less.

    I think that it is possible to stand “steadfast and immovable” while living in ambivalence. Being known for “zeal towards God” may be a bit harder but also possible. I immediately think of BH Roberts; of course that is followed by remembering that many don’t look at BH Roberts’s actions or belief set as the ideal path or look at his ambivalence as something to be emulated.

    But ambivalence can definitely be more than being lukewarm. That is one of many forms of ambivalence. I think if there were no ambivalence it means choices wouldn’t be hard, and they are supposed to be. To feel ambivalent and still be valiant means that you are doing the “right” things for the “right” reasons most of the time even when you don’t feel like you are. If that ambivalence were gone it would be either because of what you feel is a perfect understanding of a particular area or a lack of thought and just doing things out of habit or tradition. I think that to have no ambivalence at all would be to exhibit a shocking level of hubris. Even if it isn’t the kin of pride that leads to one’s fall or develops into a great damning sin- it can be damaging.

    Is ambivalence possible along side valiance? Yes. But we need to remember that there are multiple types of ambivalence. Is some ambivalence desirable? Yes. Necessary? eh, maybe.

  2. Clark Goble on June 2, 2004 at 2:49 pm

    Didn’t Nephi face ambivalence though over the killing of Laban? While he was the one who “went and did what the Lord commanded him” he appears to have had some very human worries about it. The contrast with the story of Abraham as found within Genesis is rather striking. It makes one half wonder if the actual events with Abraham had a lot more too it. In terms of Nephi I’ve found a modern echo in Zina Huntington, one of my own heroes, and how she dealt with some rather troubling requests of her own.

    Even Alma and the Sons of Mosiah certainly had some level of ambivalence, although it was more akin to the story of Paul than the kind of ambivalence you discuss. Yet at one point in their life they are opponents of the church and then they are its greatest defenders and proponents.

    But you are right, ambivalence as a viritue, isn’t cultivated in the scriptures that often. If anything even ambivalent people are presented as anything but. One always wonders for the story behind the scriptures, just as LDS history presents us with the stories of early figures behind the faith promoting stories.

  3. Mike on June 2, 2004 at 2:57 pm

    I think the thing that is celebrated in the scriptures is the accounts of when people are valiant despite ambivalence. And as Clark points out- Nephi was definitely displaying ambivalence. The thing that was good wasn’t the Ambivalence, but teh choice made at the end.

    I think the scriptures rather than pointing to ambivalence as a good thing simply assume it is something that is there with every individual- and each individual has the choice to overcome that ambivalence and act in accordance with what the gospel.

    I think that there are times when a total lack of ambivalence is positive. And many other times that we don’t seem to talk about as much where it is negative. But the scriptures are critical of the times when it would be negative- because it is not the lack of ambivalnce that is sinful, it is the pridefulness that causes it.

    Ambivalence doesn’t seem to be so much a virtue, but it’s being displayed or not displayed, and the type of ambivalence seem to be symptoms of other characteristics.

  4. cooper on June 2, 2004 at 3:01 pm

    Ambivalence is a fact of life. Spiritual or any other. The fact that it exists in scriptural references of individuals makes them real. Would one really want ot try and emulate someone who always chose the correct path or never questioned which way to go? Even Abraham had his days.

    By far my personal female hero is Esther. And yes there is plenty of ambivalence there. However, she chooses her path wisely after seeking the support of others. Job is high on my list too.

    Ambivalence is a path on which we all trod. There are plenty of scriptural references to show the trait in both genders.

  5. Kaimi on June 2, 2004 at 3:26 pm

    Melissa,

    Good post. I think we all suffer from ambivalence. Abraham, for all his willingness to sacrifice his son, seemed very ambivalent about God destroying Sodom and Gomorrah.

    The particular kind of ambivalence that women feel may be qualitatively different, but I’m not sure. Most of us feel alienated from God because we just think differently than He does — which may be why everyone from epic poets to theologians spend time trying to “justify the ways of God to man” (and yes, woman as well).

    I think that great example of righteous ambivalence in LDS history can be found in both Eliza and Emma, though Emma is often downplayed because of her rift with Brigham.

  6. Daniel B. on June 2, 2004 at 3:26 pm

    Would Sariah in the beginning of the Book of Mormon be a proper example of this ambivalence? I’m thinking of how she had to be convinced that the Lord was with her sons and that her husband had been commanded by the Lord to take his family into the wilderness. She certainly seemed to experience some wavering of feelings between anger at having to leave, at having her sons endangered as well as feelings of faith and a desire to be obedient.

  7. Ben Huff on June 2, 2004 at 3:40 pm

    The scriptures seem a bit ambivalent about ambivalence : )
    Another couple of examples . . .
    James 1:6-7 says “Let not that man [who wavereth] think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord”
    Yet, when Christ tells the parable of the son who said “No”, but then obeyed in the end, he seems to view this son positively (Matt 21:28-31).

    I like the idea that ambivalence is *acceptable*, if not praised, since it is to be expected that, like the son who said “No”, most of us will be ambivalent quite often as we overcome our sinful tendencies, step by sometimes halting step.

    And yet . . . I think there is room to praise ambivalence! because sometimes the certainty of zeal is premature. I think certain important forms of faith may be species of ambivalence, since when knowledge comes, faith becomes dormant (according to Alma 32).

    Would we have received the 1978 revelation on the Priesthood if President Kimball had not been ambivalent?

    Particularly, ambivalence is to be praised as an alternative to the premature rejection of the divine message. I know lots of people whose perfectionistic zeal leads them to scornfully reject the true church, or the scriptures, or a servant of God because of its/their imperfections, or simply because it/they are a stumblingblock and a rock of offense to those who are wise after the manner of the world.

  8. Melissa on June 2, 2004 at 3:49 pm

    Clark,

    If we define ambivalence as reservation, doubt, hesitancy or your description of “human worries” then Nephi’s experience with Laban qualifies. Although Nephi exhibits this everyday sort of ambivalence, Nephi’s experience doesn’t respresent Bednarowski’s definition of ambivalence because Nephi doesn’t remain in his ambivalence long–he doesn’t live in that unsettled place. It takes several promptings from the Spirit, but Nephi finally resigns himself to the fact that it is better that one man perish than that a nation dwindle in unbelief.

    The sons of Mosiah do not fit Bednarowski’s category of ambivalence either. They are zealous about destroying the church of God until they receive an angelic visitation after which they are zealous to preach the Gospel. Although they change their position with respect to their allegiance they never simultaneously feel the “love and hate, attraction and repulsion” toward the church that Bednarowski describes.

  9. Melissa on June 2, 2004 at 4:07 pm

    Kaimi,

    I’m interested by your language. You write that “we all suffer from ambivalence.” Will you say more about why you use the word “suffer”?

    You also wrote about Emma and Eliza. Why do you think that they represent “righteous ambivalence”?

  10. Steve Evans on June 2, 2004 at 4:37 pm

    I was going to use the example of Eliza as well, because she seemed to show “both a deep sense of belonging and an equally strong sense of alienation and distrust.” She was tied to the heart of the church through the Prophet, yet was misunderstood and feared by many (and felt shut out from mainstream women in the church).

    I wouldn’t have used the word “suffer” to describe ambivalence, although it certainly could result in some pain, as our attempts to belong and our attempts to be thinking individuals come into conflict.

  11. Frank McIntyre on June 2, 2004 at 5:04 pm

    Melissa,

    In many of the comments, one could simply replace the word ambivalence with “doubt” and the reading would be much the same. I take it you mean more by ambivalence then simple doubt.

    Is the ambivalence you are interested in life-long distrust or hatred coupled with belief and love? And of what exactly? Surely not God. The scriptures? The doctrine? The church as an institution? Jello salad? The humans involved with running the Church?

    Or perhaps you have no specific object in mind.

  12. Grasshopper on June 2, 2004 at 5:17 pm

    Okay, how many here feel closely tied to the community of the Church, but sometimes feel alienated, like you’re the only Mormon like you, or one of a very few? Raise your hands. Come on, I’ve seen more of you than that express those kinds of feelings here at T&S. Keep ‘em up — that’s better.

    Okay, all of you with your hands in the air: you’re ambivalent in the sense Bednarowski was talking about.

    *puts hand down*

  13. Grasshopper on June 2, 2004 at 5:27 pm

    It seems to me that what Bednarowski is talking about is the individual reflection of orthodoxy and heterodoxy on an institutional level. I think Bednarowski is right about the theological potential in this tension, and Ben Huff’s example of the 1978 revelation is a good case in point. I think similar forces are in play at an individual level: my ties to the community keep my heterodoxy in check, and my impatience and dissatisfaction keep me from stagnating.

    Do the scriptures reflect the value of such ambivalence? I think the tension between Paul and Peter over the relevance of the Law of Moses is a productive example; I think Mormon’s criticisms of the Nephites while periodically returning to lead their armies may be another good example.

  14. Kingsley on June 2, 2004 at 5:29 pm

    Melissa asks: “Further, do you buy Bednarowski’s claim that ambivalence accurately describes Mormon women?”

    If “ambivalence” = “simultaneously feel[ing] … ‘love and hate, attraction and repulsion’ toward the church,” I would say no, that probably doesn’t accurately reflect the mindset of LDS women in general (of my acquaintance, at least). If ambivalence is simply a matter of occasional doubt, sorrow, boredom, etc., over this or that aspect of the Church (as is natural with this or that aspect of anything), rather than bipolar extremes, I would say yes, that probably does accurately reflect the mindset of LDS women in general (of my acquaintance, at least).

  15. Grasshopper on June 2, 2004 at 5:31 pm

    (Time to fix the “Remember” feature, Kaimi…)

  16. Frank McIntyre on June 2, 2004 at 7:01 pm

    I am becoming convinced that this talk of ambivalence is not useful until one clearly defines the object of the ambivalence.

    Was President Kimball ambivalent towards the Church? No. He may have been ambivalent towards the policy on race and priesthood, but he may have just though it time for it to change.

    Paul was not at all ambivalent about the Law of Moses. Peter was, and I don’t think there is evidence that his ambivalence was to his credit.

    Mormon was definitely of mixed emotion about leading the army. He loved the people but hated their sins. But this is very different from any ambivalence about the Church or about doctrine. Further, he loved one thing (the people) and hated another (their sins), so that does not seem quite right for ambivalence. Or is it?

    So I don’t think this discussion can progress unless people specify the object of the ambivalence to which they are referring. Maybe everybody is clear on this but me. In which case I await correction.

    Doctrinally, I don’t see much going for ambivalence, except as something to be overcome in favor of loving the good and hating the bad. Put another way, any kind of good ambivalence about anything should be something that God could be seen as ambivalent about, since we are to be like Him. On what theological issues is God ambivalent? If anyone could answer that perhaps I could have a better sense of the defintion being used of ambivalence.

    Obviously there are many issues where we do not know God’s will, but that is a far different thing than saying he has mixed feelings.

  17. Melissa on June 2, 2004 at 7:19 pm

    Frank,

    Thanks for your clarifying question. By ambivalence, I think that Bednarowski means a reflective response to feelings of permanent alienation from one’s community despite one’s continued loyalty in the way that Grasshopper has suggested. She thinks that women feel this more acutely than men because women have been excluded from full participation in their religious communities. She suggests that feelings of alienation from one’s community need not lead to leaving the community. “It is an ambivalence that demands wariness that does not lapse into cynicism, loyalty that does not succumb to docility or resignation, creativity that flourishes on the margins without losing sight of the center.”

    Ben’s comment about the ambivalence that resulted in the 1978 revelation is insightful. But, I wonder if prophets and apostles are the only ones who can afford to be ambivalent in this way. Bednarowski points to Janice Allred’s work as the kind of theological creativity that ambivalence produces–but that kind of creativity isn’t acceptable to many leaders. This leads right back to my original question about whether ambivalence is consistent with faithfulness (call it orthodoxy if you will)

    Frank’s comment also raises another issue that Kaim raised indirectly: ambivalence (alienation from) towards God. While Bednarowski’s point is about ambivalence towards one’s tradition or church, we might also fruitfully discuss ambivalence towards God, which is a separate matter.

  18. Clark Goble on June 2, 2004 at 8:04 pm

    Melissa, then if ambivalence is a sense of alienation to a group one remains loyal to, rather than periods of doubt or uncertainty or even double-mindedness, then I think the Book of Mormon does have a lot of prophetic examples. My favorite would be the existential angst of Jacob. “…the time passed away with us, and also our lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days.”

  19. Clark Goble on June 2, 2004 at 8:06 pm

    Melissa, then if ambivalence is a sense of alienation to a group one remains loyal to, rather than periods of doubt or uncertainty or even double-mindedness, then I think the Book of Mormon does have a lot of prophetic examples. My favorite would be the existential angst of Jacob. “…the time passed away with us, and also our lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days.”

  20. Clark Goble on June 2, 2004 at 8:14 pm

    An other example would be Jeremiah. I like this translation of 20:7-8. “YHWH, you have seduced me, and I fell for it, you have overpowered me, and you have won. I have become a perpetual laughable clown, everybody mocks me. Whenever I speak up and cry out I feel compelled to should, ‘Bloody murder!'” There are lots of examples of alienation from ones culture and even God in the scriptures. (Many Psalms have that sense as well)

    While certainly most figures in the Book of Mormon seem to press on despite their feelings, I think your clarification of ambivalence (alienation combined with loyalty) is actually the typical state of the prophets. Perhaps not alienation from God, but certainly alienation from ones culture and even church. Look at Mormon or Moroni and their rather complex relationship with the Nephites. Indeed I think the pattern for this is set with Lehi who is a prophet after the mold of Jeremiah. While Nephi certainly trusts his father, I think that the narrative does present a lot of doubt along with the transcending of this alienation via faith.

    I can’t help but think of Kierkegaard. I’ve been listening to some lectures on him I downloaded. There we have the two movements: the knight of faith and the knight of resignation. Probably in the context of the sacrifice of Isaac we can see this. Abraham is the paradigm of the knight of faith because the immediate devotion overcomes the ambivalence that mere ethics would produce. (For Kierkegaard now — I’m not sure I buy Kierkegaard) The Knight of Resignation only believes half. Given the recognition of the impossibility of the “contradiction” they do not believe everything will work out. They are resigned to a kind of devotion without joy. A kind of permanent despair.

    Anyone else think this view is apt?

  21. Ben Huff on June 3, 2004 at 12:45 am

    Melissa, yeah, I’ve had a taste of Janice Allred’s theological creativity, and I think the Church is just fine without it, but I think there may be more to recommend about ambivalence than her example would suggest.

    Frank, the logic that ambivalence should only be recommended if we see it in God I think is interesting, though I think there may be exceptions. I think there might be things that serve for us as advisable waypoints, even if they are to pass away when the fulness is come. But even so, I think there may be room to appeal to divine example in support of the merits of ambivalence. There is the example of Christ in Gethsemane; perhaps that should be dismissed as hesitation, though. There is God’s sorrow at the sins and destruction of those he was about to destroy in the flood, as witnessed by Enoch. There are his cagey statements of both approval and condemnation about the church and its members in D&C 1:30 and D&C 105:2.

    You’ve suggested that Mormon’s attitude toward his people was not really ambivalence, since he loved the people but hated their sins. If that’s not ambivalence, then perhaps the examples I just cited aren’t, either. But I think Mormon’s case is a case of ambivalence. Sure, when you break it down and draw the right distinctions, it doesn’t end up getting described as ambivalence; rather it’s positive feelings about one set of things and negative attitudes about another. But if those two sets of things are closely related, even intertwined in such a way that one must deal with them together, then I think the mixed feelings toward various parts of the conglomerate count as ambivalence toward the whole. I would guess lots of people who fit Bednarowski’s picture could say things like, “I love the Church, but I hate how often priesthood leaders fail to consult the sisters”

    If ambivalence is a way of not saying that all is well in Zion, and/or a way of not saying that “We have enough” of the word of God (as, e.g., President Kimball felt we had not received enough), then it would seem to be a good thing.

  22. Melissa on June 3, 2004 at 12:30 pm

    I want to move this conversation onto an issue I hinted at in my post last night.

    I think the most interesting issue that has been raised so far is about ambivalence towards God. In fact, it is this kind of ambivalence that is at play in the three famous J’s from scripture I mentioned originally.

    Paradox (read: ambivalence) is one way that many people have characterized the human response to the sacred. This ambivalence is NOT wishy-washy indecision or half-heartedness hesitation. This ambivalence comes from the fact that God is experienced as both tender and terrifying, life-giving and death-dealing the source of strength and solace but also of sorrow. Deity is at once infinitely near (immanent) to us but also impossibly far (transcendent). God is the One in whom to have unwavering faith, but also the One to most fear. In The Idea of the Holy Rudolph Otto defines the holy as mysterium tremendum et fascinans or the “awe-full and fascinating mystery” God is the wholly other and therefore is something that causes not only fear but even horror and dread. Of course, deity is simultaneously the cause of inexpressible joy. The “holy” causes deep feelings of ambivalence because the creature is struck by what Merold Westphal calls the sense of one’s “ontological inadequacy” in comparison.

    I’m glad that Clark brought up Kierkegaard because Kierkegaard, like Otto, experienced God with profound ambivalence (think Fear and Trembling, The Sickness Unto Death, The Concept of Anxiety). For both Otto and Kierkegaard this ambivalence is due to the fact that God is wholly other–entirely unlike us, an absolute mystery.

    In LDS theology, however, God is not *wholly* other. God the Father is an exalted man and “sits in yonder heavens.” Human being are not God’s creatures, but God’s children. We believe that God can actually speak to us and may even appear to us. Does this doctrine, which reduces (not eliminates) the otherness of God, leave us less ambivalent about God? Do we know less dread and more delight than Otto and Kierkegaard or do members of the Church experience God in this ambiguous, paradoxical, ambivalent way too?

  23. clark on June 3, 2004 at 12:42 pm

    I think that’s a great point Melissa. The conception of God that we often find in Catholicism and Protestantism is, in a fundamental way, alien to the Mormon conception – and not just on a few esoteric doctrinal matters. Rather I think what it means for God to be wholly other is very, very different for us. A lot of the folks at LDS-Phil often bring up Levinas and the move of relating God as absolute Other to the problem of Other minds. In a sense not only is God absolute other, but so is every other human.

    It reminds me of when you are a teenager or young adult. You have these strong feelings of alienation, like no one understands you. Yet you simultaneously want to fit in, to be a part. It is, in a way, directly related to the discussion of ambivalence you bring up. However at some point you realize that your feelings aren’t unique – that most others feel them as well. Eventually that feeling of alienation dissappears and you look back at your youth and wonder what you were thinking. In a similar way I note the progression of personal pronouns in the revelations given to Joseph Smith in the D&C. God moves from being this Other, strange and mysterious, to becoming almost a friend. It too parallels this moving beyond alienation. If ambivalence is so tied to alienation, then presumably at-one-ment is the move from alienation and thus ambivalence into the embrace of the father so central to our imagery of God in both scripture and ritual.

    Perhaps that’s also why I am so ambivalent about Kierkegaard. He just seems alien to the relationship with find in Mormonism.

  24. Nate Oman on June 3, 2004 at 4:25 pm

    Thinking about my own life, I think that I have gone through phases of genuine ambivalence, which can be contrasted with periods of simple doubt. My problem with ambivalence comes less from the fact that I worry about its compatability with Mormon orthodoxy per se, and rather from two other sources.

    First, I am skeptical about how sustainable it is. To be honest, periods of ambivalence in my life (if I have correctly identified them) have genuinely expired from exhaustion rather than resolution. I find that I frequently lack the energy or the patience to be angst ridden for very long.

    This leads me to my second objection. I question Bednarowski’s claim that ambivalence is particularlly productive theologically. To be sure, it may be productive in certain contexts (perhaps Ben’s 1978 revelation is a good example), but I wonder if the anxiety underlying this discussion of anxiety (“Oh no! Are we going to lose the creative theological benefits of anxiety?!”) may be misplaced.

    When I look at periods of Mormon history that are marked by theological innovation, two periods stand out in my mind. First, the ministry of Joseph Smith, particularlly in his final years in Nauvoo, and second, the early Utah period when Brigham et al speculated and pontificated with wild abandon. While there may have been some anxiety behind these bursts of productivity (Joseph seems to have had some sense of running out of time), my dominate impression from reading these guys is the sheer delight that they took in the Gospel. Joseph and Brigham were having a tremendous amount of fun. Broad vistas had been opened up, and my impression is that they were excitedly poking around the new found real estate.

    My own thinking is that delight — not happiness, contentment, OR anxiety, but sheer fun-filled delight — is a more laudable and productive spiritual state. B.H. Roberts as anxiety haunted apologist may appeal to some. The B.H. Roberts who wrote _The Truth, The Way, The Life_, however, was not writing out of angst. He was writing out of delight, excitement, and (I suspect) the sheer fun of the rush that he got out of attempting encompass all of the possibilities that Mormonism opened up before him.

  25. Melissa on June 3, 2004 at 11:55 pm

    Nate,

    I certainly prefer delight to ambivalence. I also don’t think that the examples of theological creativity born of LDS ambivalence that Bednarowski offers are compelling.

    However, there is something in me that responds to Kierkegaardian ambivalence. It seems inevitable that the God who commanded plural marriage of a people with Victorian sexual ethics would produce ambivalence for some. Further, the very same Saints who delight in the Lord may also be among those who live with the most ambivalence. Remember that ambivalence doesn’t preclude loyalty and devotion. Ambivalence may be different from ecstatic ebullience, however.

    I can’t help pointing out that all the LDS theologians whose work you suggest was born of delight are male. Is it possible that Mormon women, who have much to delight in, also have more to be ambivalent about? Some of my favorite essays (Lusterware by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich comes jumping to mind) by Mormon women, although not technically theological do seem to born from and even directly speak to ambivalence.

  26. Frank McIntyre on June 4, 2004 at 9:47 am

    A reasonable interpretation of the ambivalence you cite (polygamy) is that God takes our traditions and asks us to reject them in favor of Him. This is traditions broadly construed, since in the end we are to put Him before anything. Thus God creates ambivalence as the person works to walk by faith. But that ambivalence is not a good; it is the byproduct of moving to perfection as we give up our desires in favor of God’s.

    Certainly this is a very Kierkegaardian thing. I forget his terminology, but its something along the lines of rejecting the Universal (traditions) in favor of the Absolute (God). This process entails mixed emotions, but those mixed emotions are the result of us clinging to the Universal when we should dump it freely in favor of the Absolute.

  27. lyle on June 4, 2004 at 10:58 am

    while i’m not sure if “delight” is encompassing enough, i always think of Nephi. There is someone who when the “ambivalence” hit the fan…he _did_ something about it.

    He asked about the Tree of Life vision…and look what he got: a personal visit from the Holy Ghost & a tour of just about everything from an angel.

    that wasn’t born of ambivalence.

  28. Melissa on June 4, 2004 at 12:13 pm

    Frank writes:

    “but those mixed emotions are the result of us clinging to the Universal when we should dump it freely in favor of the Absolute.”

    Mixed emotions are sometimes more difficult to “dump” then your post suggests and perhaps should not be so easily discarded.

    As Ben pointed out–I’m really glad that President Hinckley didn’t dump his ambivalence about the priesthood restriction or that people didn’t just dump their mixed emotions about the fact that women weren’t allowed to pray in Sacrament Meeting or speak in General Conference until twenty years ago.

    Are we supposed to throw out our moral intuitions, our carefully reasoned ethical reflections, and our personal experiential knowledge in favor of the Absolute? Yes, ultimately we are when we know it is the Absolute we are throwing it all out for. But, I think it is intellectually irresponsible to do so without making real efforts to understand. Even if we acknowledge and accept that God’s ways and thoughts are not like ours, I think we fail to make ourselves worthy of receiving more light and knowledge, fail to merit learning the mysteries of godliness that we are promised we can know if we resign ourselves too easily.

  29. Nate Oman on June 4, 2004 at 12:16 pm

    Melissa: Perhaps you are correct about the gendered nature of delight. As I said in my comments (and my longer post), I agree that ambivalence can be productive, and we ought to give it a couple of cheers from time to time. As you point out, it is a rarely celebrated virtue in our church meetings and our church teaching. On the other hand, I dare say that ambivalence, anxiety, angst, inner conflict, inner turmoil, etc. are the MOST valorized spiritual states within the Mormon intelligensia. To the extent that these are real and justified responses for people to have, then I don’t see anything wrong with affirming them. On the other hand, I would like to suggest a third way that doesn’t force upon us the choice of intellectually stagnant contentment or intellectually productive ambivalence.

    I also am uncomfortable with the frequent subtext of many of these discussions. Essentially the suggestion that wonder and delight are simply manifestations of niavete and ignorance, while angst and anxiety are marks of understanding, profundity, and insight. I have read Kierkegaard, and I find much in him to think about, and there is something undeniably attractive about his divine anxiety. But our choices are not limited to Kierkegaard or the Republic’s City of the Pigs.

  30. Nate Oman on June 4, 2004 at 12:21 pm

    Melissa: Another way of framing the issue is to ask why it is that you love scholarship and graduate school. Are you driven by gnawing, inner ambivalence about the world, religion, and your relationship to it? Is this the fierce drive that you felt compelled to shelter the pretty young things at church from? Or do you keep going to school because you enjoy (in the richest sense) the puzzles, questions, and even the games of intellectual inquiry?

  31. Melissa on June 4, 2004 at 12:45 pm

    Nate,

    I couldn’t agree more with your comment about the subtext of these kind of discussions. Reflecting on it, I think that is why I posted “barriers to sisterhood” right after posting on ambivalence. I reject the reification of ambivalence as the only “enlightened” or “informed” position to have and think that besides resulting in unkind and unfair judgments of each other, serious spiritual stagnation sets in with such a view.

    Personally I do deliriously delight in my work—to the point of feeling guilty sometimes when I think about others who do not like what they do. I seem to have done a good job of ignoring the Mormon mother’s malady that Kristine described so well, however, (which, by the way, reminded me of Valerie Saiving’s article on the difference between female sin as self-abnegation and male sin as self-promotion. Do you know V. Saiving, Kris?) that would suggest I must sacrifice and suffer to be a worthy Saint.

    For all my delirious delight, however, I actually have known my share of “gnawing inner ambivalence about the world, religion and [my] relationship to it.” It was living through painful personal paradox that led me to philosophy. I love the puzzles and questions of intellectual inquiry but they are not merely games to solve for me. I tend to think that there’s a lot more at stake than that. But, that may just be an overdeveloped sense of the dramatic that I will eventually outgrow ;)

  32. Nate Oman on June 4, 2004 at 12:58 pm

    “I tend to think that there’s a lot more at stake than that. But, that may just be an overdeveloped sense of the dramatic that I will eventually outgrow ;)”

    For what it is worth, I get the same way about law. I remember haranguing a friend of mine who is a bio chemist about the social importance of lien priorities. I am not sure that he was persauded. ;-> I can still get pound on the table passionate from time to time about constitutional interpretation or the role of economic analysis in private law, although I often have difficulty remembering why I was pounding the table a week or two later.

    On the other hand, I have been giddy (giddy! I tell you!) about the long awaited arrival of Steven A. Smith’s _Contract Theory_ from OUP (the latest in the Clarendon Law Series, which includes such classics as Hart’s _The Concept of Law_ or Gordley’s _The Philosophical Origins of Modern Contract Doctrine_). Life is fun and worth living because of, among other things, precious gifts like the philosophy of private law! I have to confess that this, rather than my occasional angst about social welfare functions or the concept of voluntariness in the theory of expressed preferences, is what makes me into an irredeemable law geek.

  33. Frank McIntyre on June 4, 2004 at 1:04 pm

    “Are we supposed to throw out our moral intuitions, our carefully reasoned ethical reflections, and our personal experiential knowledge in favor of the Absolute? Yes, ultimately we are when we know it is the Absolute we are throwing it all out for. ”

    So we should be ambivalent about earthly things when their divine status is unclear. That is fine with me.

    President Kimball’s pleading for guidance gets raised as an example of ambivalence. He loved God and the Church and knew it to be true. What exactly did he hate and distrust? The Church policy? The racial inequality? I don’t know. Does anyone else? Maybe he simply received a prompting to pray about the matter. In which csae, is that ambivalence? Why do we know this to be an example of ambivalence?

  34. Grasshopper on June 4, 2004 at 4:25 pm

    Frank,

    Perhaps “hate” and “distrust” are too emotionally-laden and exaggerated to be useful for many people. I think “dissatisfaction” is sufficient for the kind of ambivalence Bednarowski is talking about and that is evident in the example of Pres. Kimball.

  35. Frank McIntyre on June 4, 2004 at 4:49 pm

    I thought ambivalence was more than dissatisfaction. Certainly I think dissatisfaction can be a theological virtue, as it causes one to ask questions and get answers. Even more so when coupled with a love and faith of God. Is this really what Bednarowski is saying though? I have only the snippet Melissa gave us but it says ambivalence:

    “stirs up love and hate, attraction and repulsion, devotion and impatience . . .”

    which seems to be about much stronger bipolarism than what perhaps President Kimball felt.

  36. John David Payne on June 4, 2004 at 8:14 pm

    “Do we know less dread and more delight than Otto and Kierkegaard or do members of the Church experience God in this ambiguous, paradoxical, ambivalent way too?”

    Man, I sure hope so. As for me, I feel dread when I am wicked and delight when I am righteous. Maybe I am not a deep enough thinker to feel both at once.

  37. Mark Butler on June 5, 2004 at 2:34 am

    Ambivalence is indeed a virtue, it just needs to be properly directed. Emerson said that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Bi-valent thinking combined with ignorance nearly always leads to unpleasant results by leading one to commit too early and too hard, leading to inevitable mental instability (e.g. complete inversions) when a position turns out not to be as tenable as originally expected.

    I suggest that ambivalence is a proper concomitant of humility. There is absolutely no reason to be bivalent (read: prejudicial) about topics where there is not sufficient evidence or other moral or spiritual imperatives requiring one to take a stand one way or the other.

    It seems to me that such humility is the beginning of wisdom. We may have a moral imperative to take action now, but the precedent we establish of necessity should not close off future inspiration born of experience. Bivalent thinking has an extraordinary tendency to produce theological “lock-in” – a gratuitous hardening of positions far beyond what faith requires. The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.