Thursday, August 15, 2013

Of Fundamentalism and Paradoxes

"What the fundamental ambiguity of being human points to is that as much as we want to, we can never say, 'This is the only true way. This is how it is. End of discussion.' ... As individuals, we have plenty of fundamentalist tendencies. We use them to comfort ourselves. We grab onto a position or belief as a way of neatly expressing reality, unwilling to tolerate the uncertainty and discomfort of staying open to other possibilities. We cling to that position as our personal platform and become very dogmatic about it."
~ Pema Chodron

When I read the above passage the other day, I became very excited about it because of the window of understanding it gave me about why I joined the Mormon Church 30 years ago at age 24. I had already been thinking about that period of life because of what one of my daughters is going through right now. She is trying to find a jumping off point into life and has said a number of times recently, in an anxious tone, that she "needs to get on with her life." Similarly, I had said this 31 years ago after my dad's oilfield equipment company (where I worked) went into bankruptcy and I suddenly found myself looking for a new job in a new location in a difficult economy.

As the months had worn on back in late 1982 and early 1983, I became more anxious. I had to do something! Similarly to Rachel, however, my direction in life had already been somewhat muddled by circumstances. I didn't have a good sense (at all) of who I was or what I wanted to do in life. But the uncertainty and the sense that I wasn't getting any younger pushed me to say, "I've got to figure out what I'm going to do with my life!!" Then I moved to New Orleans (from Ohio), then back to Ohio, where I suffered a serious blow when the deal to buy my dad's company (and provide me a job) fell through.

In the midst of this great uncertainty, I watched The Thorn Birds - a mini-series about the life of a priest in the Australian outback. Doing so inspired me, in a very juvenile way, to shift my question. Instead of asking or saying, "I've" got to figure out what I want to do with my life, I asked "I've got to figure out what God wants me to do with my life."

This shift in thinking caused me to think about my strengths and weaknesses, and I came up with the idea that I should be a priest. I should return to the faith of my childhood - not because I wanted to live in that faith as a part of my life, but because I wanted that to be my life. I sought for certainty, a life that was all laid out for me. I sought certainty in dogma and vocation because I simply couldn't stand the discomfort and uncertainty of less concrete options. I was so out of touch with myself that I couldn't conceive of creating a life. I was much more comfortable with the concept of having a life imposed (voluntarily) upon me - sort of life an off-the-rack suit.

Enter, stage left, the Mormon Church. Mormonism, among other things, offered me certainty - not only in terms of theology abut also in terms of my existential angst about what to do with my life. So, instead of embracing the "certainty" of life in a seminary and then as a priest, I embraced a future that looked in many ways like a better deal. I could see my life unfolding: mission, marriage, law school (other "certainty" in terms of a career, in that it was a ready-made profession), children, living the "Plan of Happiness," being led and guided by the Spirit and by leaders and inspired prophets and apostles. Couldn't get much more certain than that.

And so I jumped in head first. And, just as Pema Chodron comments, I became dogmatic about it. I finally understand why I was so fundamentalist and dogmatic in a number of ways, both in terms of Mormon dogma (the more conservative the better) and how I applied that dogma to my life and was guided by it: it was the Certainty that first attracted me to Mormonism, and I could not tolerate uncertainty.

(Parenthetically, it is this very Certainty that is the evil genius of Mormonism. A primary tenet of Buddhist thought is that the world is constantly, inevitably changing, and that resistance to that change and uncertainty causes suffering. Nevertheless, change and the resulting uncertainty makes people feel uncomfortable. Thus they seek for certainty. Mormonism gives them that.)

This insight somehow makes me feel better about my life. It helps explain the paradox that existed between this certainty and the intellectual curiosity I have always had as well as my innate rebellious streak. It explains why I could be dogmatic, while at the same time cherish Thomas Jefferson's saying that he had "sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

When one has experienced as many paradoxes in one's life as have I, it provides comfort to come to understand and resolve one of them - like finally dropping a missing piece of a puzzle into place. It also helps me forgive myself for what I did - both to myself and to others.

* Posts I have written about why I joined the Mormon Church can be found here and here.


  1. This is SO insightful I have become antsy in my chair. I was 31, a graduate student in a totally foreign city to me and totally confused as to how to proceed with life. Meet Mormon missionaries - get baptized 24 days later. Feel great about all the uncertainties that were swirling about - for now I had a direction, even a blueprint! Only to find out about 15-20 years later, that, for me, local leaders did not get me AT ALL and were "making it up as they go along". And suddenly, it hit me like a ton of bricks that I was the one who was responsible to figure out my life - no matter how uncertain. Thanks for a hugely important post. Time to make a copy.

  2. Thanks, Martin. I am glad it resonated with you; I can readily see how it might, given the parallels between our situations. And speaking of parallels, as I read your comment and paused at the word "blueprint" and contemplated all that word implies, I was reminded of the expression - often used by church leaders - about climbing the ladder of success, only to discover once you reach the top that the ladder was set against the wrong building. In all our misguided attempts at certainty, we both came to realize much later in life that our ladders had been set - in some important ways - against the wrong building.