Ambivalence v. Delight

June 3, 2004 | 18 comments
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In her fascinating post on ambivalence, Melissa suggests that ambivalence may be an endangered theological virtue among Mormons. “Endangered” because we tend to valorize those without religious ambivalence and lack examples of healthy and productive ambivalence. “A virtue” because Melissa suggests that it is theologically productive. By this, I take it that she means that ambivalence leads to questioning, analysis, synthesis, and revelation. I am doubtful.

As I mentioned in my comments to her post, I think that ambivalence among Mormons is a real phenomena and has even been productive from time to time. For now, I am not really interested in whether it is compatible with orthodoxy. I am interested in whether or not its claim to particular theological productiveness might be overblown.

Initially, the claim of ambivalence’s particular productivity seems plausible because we can contrast ambivalence with contentment and happiness. Both of these things tend to get imagined in rather static terms. We are content when no doubts or difficulties intrude upon our serenity. Our desires and needs are met, and we bask in the gospel glow (imagined as looking very much like the evening light favored by Church film makers). This happiness is the spiritual and intellectual equivalent of tryptophan. Alternatively, we imagine contentment in terms of busy activity. Happy saints are doing not wondering, pushing forward the Kingdom to be sure, but a bit barren when it comes to theology or the intellect. Ambivalence, in contrast, partakes of agitation and discontentment. The ambivalent – in contrast to their lolling brothers and sisters – are presumably awake and squirming in their seats, and in contrast to their bustling counterpart, their responses to the Church and the gospel are full of pregnant “Yes, but what about…”s.

My suspicion from the dichotomy comes from skepticism about how productive the squirming actually is. My point is not that ambivalence is not real, important, and even justified. Rather, I am wondering to what extent it really produces intellectual or theological substance. As Ben points out, President Kimball’s 1978 revelation may be a sterling example of productive ambivalence. I suppose that Joseph’s 1820 trip to the Sacred Grove might be another example. However, I think that historically Mormon theology and intellectual life has been more productive and interesting when driven by delight rather than anxiety.

Delight is the sort of emotion that my two-year old son gets when he discovers a colony of ants in the yard or chases fire flies in the evenings. Another word might be wonder, a kind of thrilled amazement at what the world has flung up for you to look at, play with, and try to understand. There are those that argue that wonder was the beginning of Greek philosophy. In other words, it was sheer delight in the mystery of the world that pushed the pre-Socratics into speculation, and got the life of the intellectual rolling in the West.

Looking to Mormonism, I can’t help but think that delight has been singularly more productive than has been anxiety. Joseph Smith was clearly having a lot of fun as he unfolded his theologies and revelations. When I read Brigham Young’s theological arias in the Journal of Discourses, I can’t help but feeling like he was thoroughly, breathlessly enjoying himself. He was a Mormon because it gave him so much ground to explore and build in. I get the same feeling from the writings of Orson Pratt, B.H. Roberts, or Neal A. Maxwell. I actually think that the same is true of Mormon Studies. Leonard Arrington clearly enjoyed the things that he found to study in Mormonism. One can feel his delight in telling the story. So much more fun than history as anxiety therapy.

Ultimately, I think it is this sense of the superior productivity of delight and wonder that makes me dissatisfied with all of the various anxiety-centric dichotomies that we create in Mormonism – iron rod saints v. liahona saints, black and white v. grey Mormons, the ambivalent v. contented. All of these typologies miss the productive possibilities of delight and wonder, which in my opinion is where the real action is.

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18 Responses to Ambivalence v. Delight

  1. Kingsley on June 3, 2004 at 6:08 pm

    I wonder if the focus on ambivalence-theology is akin to the focus on madness-art. The idea that creation comes from suffering, etc. The glorification of the “divine madness” that seems to have possessed so many movers & shakers in philosophy/art/etc. from time to time.

  2. clark on June 3, 2004 at 6:37 pm

    I think Nate that the real issue of ambivalence is over what we mean by church. There is a lot of equivocating going on. When Alma talks about the wickedness of the church in Alma 4:10, is that the same meaning of church that those who don’t like certain doctrines mean? We throw around the term church alot without really being clear what we mean.

    I think that the gospel and the church are intertwined in such a way that to speak of one and exclude the other is always mistaken. However the church meaning all us flawed mortals who belong is something else indeed. With respect to flawed mortals I think we ought to feel uncomfortable and “alien.” Further that alienness ought to direct us to action. If we are content, chances are we aren’t progressing. That’s not to say we can’t be “content” in our progressing. But that is a different kind of contentment.

  3. diogenes on June 3, 2004 at 8:19 pm

    “I wonder if the focus on ambivalence-theology is akin to the focus on madness-art. The idea that creation comes from suffering, etc. The glorification of the ‘divine madness’ that seems to have possessed so many movers & shakers in philosophy/art/etc. from time to time.”

    This has come up from time to time in discussions about LDS art, or more properly, about the dearth of LDS art — starting perhaps with Wayne Booth’s observations at BYU in 1981, or even earlier — that if great art arises out of suffering and maladjustment, and if the purpose of the gospel is to make one happy and well-adjusted, then there may be little hope of faithful Latter-Day Saints ever producing world-class art.

  4. Kristine on June 3, 2004 at 9:27 pm

    Nate, your Swedish blood must run pretty thin ;>)

  5. Jack on June 3, 2004 at 10:54 pm

    “superior productivity of delight and wonder”

    Nibley.

  6. Kingsley on June 4, 2004 at 11:49 am

    Diogenes: I know plenty of suffering, maladjusted LDS–they just don’t happen to be artists. If you tacked (say) literary genius onto their sufferings, what seemed to be a very depressing setback would suddenly take on a noble & glorious hue. I think Booth’s analysis was a little glib.

  7. D. Fletcher on June 4, 2004 at 2:34 pm

    There are plenty of suffering, maladjusted LDS artists. I can think of one immediately… and he certainly holds tenaciously to his ambivalence.

  8. Jack on June 4, 2004 at 4:09 pm

    “There are plenty of suffering, maladjusted LDS artists” – world class?

  9. D. Fletcher on June 4, 2004 at 5:08 pm

    “There are plenty of suffering, maladjusted LDS artists” – world class?

    Well, one would like to think so. Of course, one doesn’t try to compare one’s self to Mozart, but still…

  10. Kingsley on June 4, 2004 at 6:09 pm

    I think by “world class” Jack meant the sort of artist Prof. Booth was referring to–one who’s made it into the Western Canon of music, literature, art.

  11. Kristine on June 4, 2004 at 11:57 pm

    Where do they keep the Western Canon, I wonder? And when did they start capitalizing it?

  12. cooper on June 5, 2004 at 12:59 am

    I think Kingsley is referring to the Western Canon by Bloom. Paperback, published by Paperback in 1996

  13. Kristine on June 5, 2004 at 10:31 am

    cooper, somehow I doubt it, since Kingsley also mentions art & music. (Not to mention the other difficulties with Bloom as the ultimate arbiter of truth, beauty, etc. ….)

  14. cooper on June 5, 2004 at 1:18 pm

    now where’s Kingsley?

  15. Kingsley on June 7, 2004 at 1:33 pm

    Prof. Booth was definitely referring to the sort of literary artists that Bloom has placed in his “Canon.” The idea of a Western Canon has popped up in plenty of other places besides Bloom. Come on, Kristine.

  16. Kingsley on June 7, 2004 at 1:36 pm

    Cooper: I don’t have access to a p.c. on the weekends.

  17. Kristine on June 7, 2004 at 11:20 pm

    Kingsley, I was just ever-so-gently poking fun at the idea that there is some established Canon-with-a-capital-C that would unproblematically tell us whether Mormons have produced great art. “hmmm–Bach, Milton, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Dickens, O’Connor, Copland–nope, no Mormons; they must be too well adjusted.” There’s plenty of world-class art out there that hasn’t yet made it to canonical status.

    For less gentle, but significantly more eloquent, poking of fun (at Bloom), see http://www.hudsonreview.com/epsteinSu02.html

  18. Kingsley on June 8, 2004 at 8:44 am

    Kristine: Thanks. Good stuff.