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?