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.