On not Being a Rock Garden

Like many Mormons, I have a long and varied history with cognitive dissonance. We have a wonderfully boisterous, co-dependent, passive-aggressive kind of relationship, cognitive dissonance and I. My religious side wants to believe things based on faith, to see spiritual experiences, to feel connected to God. My analytical side wants to see proof, to analyze experiences dispassionately, and to call BS on things that just don’t add up. That’s pretty much the standard recipe for cognitive dissonance (double the almonds for some extra crunch, and don’t overcook).

Given the role of cognitive dissonance in my own life, I find it fascinating to see the exalted place of cognitive dissonance in the archetypical ex-Mormon narrative. My impression is that cognitive dissonance generally receives a seat of honor at the exmo table. I hope I’m not mischaracterizing; I say this based on discussions I’ve had with friends who have left the church, sometime visits to alternatives-to-Mormonism sites like View from the Foyer or Recovery from Mormonism, and visits to bloggernacle sites where the topic is discussed.

A popular image is the shelf. That analogy goes something like this: A person discovers tidbits about Mormon history or theology — polyandry or Elijah Abel or Joseph Smith’s coffee drinking or whatever else — and puts those facts onto a shelf, choosing to ignore them for awhile. A shelf, however, is a Very Bad Thing (TM), because shelves create cognitive dissonance. People have trouble remembering what is on which shelf; things start falling down and getting mixed in with the dirty laundry; finally, the shelf collapses altogether, and the storyteller leaves the church in disgust and disillusion. (For some bloggernacle discussion of the shelf, see, for example, the comments in this Flanders post).

I daresay that if I read only Recovery from Mormonism, I might come away with the idea that Mormons have a near-monopoly on cognitive dissonance. This would be silly. Mormons didn’t invent the term. If you crack open Webster’s dictionary and look up “cognitive dissonance,” there’s no angel Moroni picture there. Shh — here’s a secret: Many people manage to have some amount of cognitive dissonance in their lives without even being Mormon.

Cog-dis doesn’t always come from being Mormon, then, but the exmo narrative certainly ties in to reality — cognitive dissonance crops up in many Mormons. Why? It will vary from person to person, but I think there are some major contributing factors among members. First, Mormons tend to incorporate both faith and rationality into our lives; second, we tend to want to make it all fit into one Grand Unified Theory of Everything. Mormons see conflicting facts or ideas as problems which must be solved — we must restore balance to the force; we must harmonize all parts of our lives. Like our irrational desire to be happy all the time, Mormons feel a need to make it all fit. That quest is misguided; it doesn’t all fit all the time, and that’s really okay.

That’s right, it’s okay. Pieces that don’t all harmonize are just fine. Why is there a need to harmonize it all? Sure, without some efforts at grand harmonization, Part A may contradicts Part B. But, so what? There are lots of parts of my life — and yours too — where a Part A clashes with a Part B, and we don’t feel an overarching need to reconcile all of those. Why is religion any different?

For example, take a look at your rolodex, or your e-mail inbox. You’ll notice that you are friends with people who hate each other, and you’re in regular contact with folks who don’t get along at all. I’m friends with both Steve Evans and Adam Greenwood, for example, despite the fact that they don’t always get along so well. I’ve got cousins and in-laws and aunts and uncles engaged in all manner of strategic alliances and cold wars. We all do this with friends and relatives: Your mother can’t stand your wife; your brother doesn’t like your kids; your in-laws don’t really like you very much, and no one likes your cat. And yet you can have lunch with aunt number one and dinner with aunt number two, and life goes on. There is just no overriding need to harmonize your Rolodex.

There are no doubt other areas of life where Part A and Part B just don’t make sense together. You feel a desire to save the earth, yet you drive a slick-looking SUV. You contribute to PETA, but you wear leather shoes. You subscribe to both the Weekly Standard and the Nation, and you like articles from them both. You run three miles in the morning to stay in shape, but snack on Oreos late in the evening. Or maybe you’re a Red Sox fan who is unsure of who to hate when Clemens pitches against the Yankees.

Do these clashes create existential angst? Is there a need to put Aunt One on a shelf while having dinner with Aunt Two? Should I feel that I’m cosmically out of balance if I’m chatting with both Adam and Steve on the same day? Must I assume that the leather-wearing vegetarian is a neurotic with serious unresolved issues? No. There is no need to harmonize every aspect of our lives. We don’t harmonize our rolodexes; we don’t harmonize our reading or our exercise habits; as my wife can attest, I certainly don’t harmonize my wardrobe. And we need not obsess about harmonizing our spirituality and our intellects.

Balance is unnecessary in many contexts. Oh, it’s necessary from time to time. Balance and harmony are very important for rock gardens and fine wines, for instance. The Zen garden carefully arranges rocks, sand, water, and whatever other elements, into a state of perfect harmony. Similarly, winemakers spend years learning how to achieve a perfect balance of elements in their wine. There are certainly times and places to worry about balance and harmony. But at the end of the day, Paul Simon’s suggestion notwithstanding, I am not a rock. And being Mormon, I can’t even drink wine. So why should I be worried about perfect harmonization and balance when it comes to my spirituality and intellect? I am not a rock garden, and my spirituality can exist in the same state of lovely imbalance as my rolodex or my wardrobe.

I expect that my on-again, off-again relationship with cognitive dissonance will continue. My life contains an imperfect balance of elements which don’t harmonize perfectly. I’m not going to get 100 points from wine uber-critic Robert Parker, and neither are you. We’re jug wines, all of us — too fruity, too unbalanced, and way too much time spent blogging. But that’s just fine. We’re out of balance, we’re out of harmony, and life goes on.

Join with me then, if you will, in a toast. Break out your best bandido voice, and say “Balance? We don’t need no stinking balance!” And then raise your bottle of Virgil’s root beer,* and let’s toast together: Here’s to cognitive dissonance; and to living life as something other than a rock garden.

*Virgils being about the most balanced thing that a Mormon can legally drink. It’s a microbrewed root beer flavored with anise and licorice, cinnamon and cloves, and it is very tasty chilled. It pairs well with a gorgonzola piccante and wonderfully with a nice strong valdeon or cabrales. It also goes smoothly with an aged pecorino toscano — though remember, I tend to be of the opinion that it’s pretty hard to go wrong with pecorino toscano.

36 comments for “On not Being a Rock Garden

  1. john fowles
    January 27, 2006 at 8:35 pm

    I’m no philosopher but as I understand it, and much to Bertrand Russell’s chagrin, Gödel’s contribution to logic was that a system cannot be both harmonious and complete in its description of itself. Joseph Smith doesn’t seem to have been to concerned with harmony, but rather with encompassing all truth, in other words, completeness. Perhaps Gödel’s second theorum can be informative as applied to the Restored Gospel and help us realize, as you have very nicely described, that there is no reason for it to pretend to be harmonious in its quest to circumscribe all truth. Perhaps the dissonance simply results from this state of mortality and its inherent ontological limitations. Certain constraints upon understanding or the possibility of understanding or perception simply will not exist in a higher state of (resurrected) being. Maybe even then Gödel’s theorum will hold true and we will have and enjoy a completeness that is not always harmonious if certain strings are played at the same time. After all, notes must be chosen carefully to create harmony, but it certainly never results from playing all notes at once.

  2. January 27, 2006 at 8:51 pm

    I don’t drive an SUV.

  3. Ben S.
    January 27, 2006 at 8:58 pm

    Bah! I spit on your Virgil’s. (How can you stand the anise and cloves?!)

    But, I heartily raise my bottle of Weinhard’s, Thomas Kemper, or Myer’s Avenue Red in salute to your post. (Swig.)

    You’ve clearly been hanging out on RFM, talking about cog-dis (though you did not invoke its patron saint on RFM). I think they exaggerate greatly.

    One of the articles I find useful for introducing family and others to the grey areas of life and the gospel is Elder Hafen’s “Dealing with Uncertainty.” Here

  4. john fowles
    January 27, 2006 at 9:06 pm

    I wonder what kind of cognitive dissonance mercedes marxists suffer from. . . .

  5. January 27, 2006 at 9:34 pm

    First, you’re absolutely right that cognitive dissonance occurs in many areas other than Mormonism. You’re right that it’s impossible to have a completely consistent, completely integrated worldview, it’s totally unnecessary (and more fun) not to bother trying for that.

    But I think this is a little bit off:

    “shelves create cognitive dissonance”

    Shelves don’t create cognitive dissonance; they are a way of dealing with it. They are a metaphor for the psychological defense mechanisms of repression and/or compartmentalization. Neither of those defense mechanisms is necessarily bad; in fact, they often work nicely in managing the general cog-dis people encounter in everyday life.

    And isn’t it ironic that only well-balanced people tend to be stable enough to gracefully handle their worldview being out of balance?

  6. Jonathan Green
    January 27, 2006 at 9:52 pm

    Kaimi, I once placed second in the lowest division of a climbing competition at the Rock Garden in Provo. I won a climbing harness that barely fit me at the time. When I consider how far I am from fitting into it now, I experience great cognitive dissonance. You’re absolutely right about the title of your post; as nice as it was, I would not like to be a Rock Garden at all. All of those people climbing and falling inside of me would tickle.

    John, I would be willing to to endure the trials of mercedes marxism firsthand, and then tell you all about it.

  7. Elisabeth
    January 27, 2006 at 10:29 pm

    Great post, Kaimi. I guess I would say that the reason why cog dis is so tough for me to deal with is that I hate feeling like a hypocrite. And, even more than hating to feel like a hypocrite, I hate feeling unsettled about important things in my life. Rejoicing in uncertainty can be difficult for me – I like to be in control. So, if I live my life according to a particular religion, I want to be pretty darn sure I know it is the “right� religion. But, coming to know that you are in the �right� religion can be a very uncertain (irrational?) process.

    However, I love the imagery in your post. As runner/eater of Oreos, a leather wearing contributor to PETA, and a member of both the ACLU and the Federalist Society (am I giving too much of myself away here?), I certainly can appreciate the value of embracing complexity.

    P.S. And, if I may be so presumptuous, I think a good alternative title to your post could be: “I never promised you a (Zen) rock garden.� :)

  8. January 27, 2006 at 10:34 pm

    Ben S. That link you posted is broken.
    I don’t think I have enough familiarity with the term “cognitive dissonance” to add much of anything to the discussion. I really liked the post though.
    As a bit of an aside, I think shelves mean different things to different people. I’m curious what putting an issue or doctrine ‘on the shelf’ means to other people. I’ll start. To me it means forgetting about it until it forces itself on you again through external influence. When you forget about it you forget the things you thought about it so when it rears its head again you are looking at it, as if for the first time.

  9. Tom
    January 27, 2006 at 10:36 pm

    I like my Virgils with Trader Joe’s chile lime pistachios. Stinky cheese? I don’t need no stinkin’ stinky cheese! (At least that’s what I’m guessing all those things you mention are).

  10. January 27, 2006 at 11:29 pm

    “I guess I would say that the reason why cog dis is so tough for me to deal with is that I hate feeling like a hypocrite. And, even more than hating to feel like a hypocrite, I hate feeling unsettled about important things in my life.”

    I appreciate the way you put this, Elisabeth, becomes it helps me understand better how Kaimi’s post sheds some light on my own thinking. Your hatred of feeling unsettled, incomplete, or inconsistent is something I can definitely relate to. For years–no, for decades–I’ve struggled to understand my own pre-occupation with living a “graceful” life: one attended by God’s grace, obviously, but also, in my own thinking, one that would be a smooth whole, where I could move seamlessly from one facet of my life to another, making time for everything, always settling one stage before beginning the next, because of course it would all be of a piece. Perhaps part of the reason I defend, when I’m wearing my theologian’s cap, a much starker notion of grace and dependency than is common in the church today is because I can look at my own life, and see how messed up things have become when I’ve rationalized myself into some contrived pursuit of perfect order, all in the name thinking that such would be some sign of sanctification, of graceful balance.

    But I don’t think we should allow a mature acceptance of dissonance to give hypocrisy a free pass. Being unbalanced, and being hypocritical, are perhaps overlapping but nonetheless very different things. A hypocrite excuses their own inbalances without excusing them in others; they bind themselves tightly to some small article of clarity so as to judge the murkiness of everyone else’s arrangements. Perhaps we can’t help but be, in some fundamental way, broken up and dissonant; but we can, I think, not be hypocrites in how we acknowledge that. Probably my lived political or social or moral response(s) to the word won’t ever be perfectly harmonious, but that does not mean that when I seek to harmonize this or that aspect of the world I’m invariably hypocritical in doing so. (If we believed that, then no change, personal or political, would ever get off the ground.)

  11. Kevin Barney
    January 27, 2006 at 11:43 pm

    I don’t know whether she created the image or merely popularized it, but I’ve always associated the notion of “putting something on the shelf” with Camilla Kimball. And, much like Beijing, I think it is (or at least can be) a positive strategy. I think putting things on the shelf bespeaks a certain intellectual humility, an acknowledgment that you don’t understand everything now, but the failing may just be in your understanding, not in the issue itself.

    Very little about the church bothers me. But I remember being genuinely bothered by the Salamander Letter. I could have jumped to a quick and easy conclusion that Joseph Smith was obviously a fraud, but I didn’t; I “put it on the shelf” until I could learn more. And learn more I did. I began to learn about the early American practices of folk magic. I read a lengthy article by historian Jon Butler on the subject that had nothing to do with the Church. I read the BYU Studies issue that was completely devoted to the subject. (And in course of time the letter turned out to be fraudulent.) Now, money digging stuff doesn’t bother me in the least, nor does it today’s LDS historians (witness Bushman in RSR), whereas a generation ago NIbley was talking about how if it were true it would be the death knell of the Church.

    Time, perspective, context, patience, maturing, understanding, all have the potential to come by virtue of not jumping to quick and easy–and often wrong–conclusions, but letting things simmer a while. Horace said that when you write something you should stick it in a drawer for nine years and then reread it and see whether you really want to publish it to the world. To me that’s the same thing as sticking it on the shelf.

    (BTW, all of the wailing and gnashing of teeth about cog dis on exmo sites is truly ironic. RFM is a hotbed of cog dis. There’s plenty of the stuff to go around.)

  12. Jim F.
    January 28, 2006 at 12:18 am

    Is it okay if I nominate this for “The Best Blog Kaimi Has Ever Written”? Thanks; well done. Like Elisabeth (a woman who knows how to spell her name, dag-nab-it), I thought you handled the imagery especially well. Would you like to rewrite a couple of posts for me? (And your right about Pecorino Toscano: can’t go wrong with it, not even if drinking bilge water.)

  13. Tom
    January 28, 2006 at 1:35 am

    Oddly enough, one of the things that has helped me come to peace with all the dissonance in my life is watching the films of Ingmar Bergman. One of his major recurring themes is the silence of God. He can’t believe in God because of all the evidence that he sees that argues against Him, yet it seems like he envies believers and wishes he had the same kind of peace that he imagines they must have. I haven’t quite figured out exactly why watching these movies about people in crises of faith brings me peace. They never come to believe and Bergman usually emphasizes reasons to disbelieve. Maybe the films have helped me realize that cognitive dissonance is a fact of life for anyone who’s really paying attention.

  14. Tatiana
    January 28, 2006 at 1:49 am

    In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, (which is a great book, not silly and flippant as the title suggests), the author talks a great deal about the scientific method, and the metaphysics of science. He discussed the confused and floundering feeling you get when you don’t understand your observations, when things are happening which don’t fit into your current understanding or your best theories. The interesting thing is, that confused and helpless state is very unpleasant, we nearly universally don’t like that feeling, and yet, as the book points out, it’s absolutely the place you need to be in order to learn stuff. It’s a feeling you should positively cultivate when you want to learn. Scientists know that of all the observations made, it’s the ones that don’t fit into our present view of the universe that are most useful. The ones that make us uncomfortable are the very ones we should seek in order to extend our knowledge.

    That’s why I try not to avoid cognitive dissonance in my ethics or philosophies. I think it is where the tire tread hits the pavement on our road of spiritual progress. :-)

  15. Mike
    January 28, 2006 at 8:33 am

    It seems to me that you underestimate the importance of seeking balance and consistency. A little imbalance and unpredictability helps bring spice to life, but too much is distressing. You are right that we see it in many different areas of life, religion being just one of them. Whatever the issue, if it is important enough, we have great motivation to find some sort of solution to the apparent conflict.

    Why do the people at RFM or View from the Foyer or other places rely on cognitive dissonance to explain their experiences? Perhaps there are many reasons, but one reason is that there is overwhelming scientific evidence that shows its importance in human thought and behavior. It helps explain their experiences, their psychological discomfort that they experienced as they tried to reconcile inconsistencies.

    An interesting article illustrating how cognitive dissonance can be applied to understanding LDS experience is found in the Review of Religious Research (vol. 36, #3), titled: Integrating religious and racial identities: An analysis of LDS African American explanations for the priesthood ban. It uses cognitive dissonance theory to try to help us understand how black LDS people integrated their racial and religious identities before the 1978 revelation. Fascinating stuff.

  16. Ben S.
    January 28, 2006 at 10:13 am

    Andermom/Starfoxy- The link works, but the UChicago server for student homepages has been undergoing maintenance or something in the last few days. It seemsto be up now.

  17. Ann
    January 28, 2006 at 10:28 am

    I always thought the shelf metaphor came from Emily Dickinson:

    It dropped so low – in my Regard-
    I heard it hit the Ground-
    And go to pieces on the Stones
    At bottom of my Mind-

    Yet blamed the Fate that fractured – less
    Than I reviled Myself,
    For entertaining Plated Wares
    Upon my silver Shelf-

  18. Pheo
    January 28, 2006 at 10:36 am

    Kevin Barney said: “BTW, all of the wailing and gnashing of teeth about cog dis on exmo sites is truly ironic. RFM is a hotbed of cog dis. There’s plenty of the stuff to go around.”

    Yeah, deep down, everyone who has ever had a testimony still really believes it’s true. Major cogdis for the exmos.

  19. Kevin Barney
    January 28, 2006 at 10:58 am

    That’s not what I think, Pheo. Lots of people leave the church with little intellectual or emotional difficulty. But the type that seems to feel the need for something like RFM *thinks* he has graduated to the land of pure rationality. But a quick tour of RFM shows how deluded that notion is. Ask a never-mo with no ax to grind and no stake in Mormonism either way to review the postings there and give you her opinion of how calmly rational many of those posts are.

    To name one example I happen to be familiar with, Steve Benson is an editorial cartoonist for a major newspaper. So, by definition, one would think he must be a fairly bright guy. He posted on RFM that Joseph stole the name “Nauvoo” from Nauvoo, Pennsylvania. Now, of course, that is absurd; the true influence goes the other way. There is abundant evidence for that fact, and we know exactly the source from which Joseph got the name (the Joshua Seixas Hebrew grammar, from the Kirtland Hebrew School).

    Now, there’s nothing wrong with getting something like this wrong. Fawn Brodie in the first edition of NMKMH said Joseph made it up. Someone pointed out to her that that was wrong, and she corrected herself in the second edition. Good for her.

    But, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary (much of which was pointed out to him), Steve absolutely refused to reconsider his ridiculous assertion. AFAIK he would claim it to this day.

    A mature ex-mo has the capacity to recognize that there is at least *some* good in Mormonism. But there are some at RFM that are incapable of acknowledging *anything* whatsoever of value in the “Morg.”

    I don’t think that deep down someone like Steve believes the church is true. But his actions and persistent irrationality on the subject make it look like deep down he may *fear* there is something to it. He suffers from cog dis WRT Mormonism at least as much as the most deluded TBM (to use ex-mo terminology).

  20. Julie M. Smith
    January 28, 2006 at 11:06 am

    Ann, I’m not sure if the shelf metaphor comes from that poem, or not, but I’ve always been intrigued by that piece in relation to the shelf metaphor. I also think it could work the other way: How many portions of our testimony are plated wares that will crumble the first time they are tested?

  21. Rosalynde Welch
    January 28, 2006 at 11:06 am

    When psychologists call it “cognitive dissonance,” it’s a craven coping mechanism. When self-help books call it “compartmentalization,” it’s an emotional pathology. But when poets call it “negative capability,” it’s the hallmark of imaginative genius.

    Here’s Keats on negative capability:

    “I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”

    I don’t know who’s got it right, nor am I sure that I completely understand what’s meant by any of the various designations. I do know that without some version of cognitive compartmentalization I never could have finished grad school while having my kids—and I’m mightily grateful to have done both. So I’ll raise a Virgil’s with you, Kaimi.

  22. Mark IV
    January 28, 2006 at 11:17 am

    Kaimi, I’ve been have thoughts along the same lines. As much as I like to think that my life makes sense, I am forced to admit that I am a vast, yawning black hole of irrationality. Consider the evidence. In the last two weeks, I have:

    1. Participated in the sacrament on Sunday, then engaged in petty and vindictive behavior against a co-worker on Monday morning.
    2. Eaten half a pizza, then washed it down with diet coke.
    3. Lost my temper and yelled at my kids in the middle of a family home evening lesson on the topic of love at home.

    What right does a man like me have to demand that the universe explain itself to him?

  23. Ann
    January 28, 2006 at 11:22 am

    Julie, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s essay “Lusterware” is a wonderful take on the pieces that break. She talks about a Lusterware Joseph Smith that is forever young but mature, uneducated but wise, handsome but not vain, dynamic but humble. The problems come when we buy into the Lusterware version of any aspect of the gospel when there’s something real and valuable that we miss entirely.

    That Lusterware clutters up a shelf pretty quickly, and gets pretty darned heavy. When the shelf breaks, and all that’s left are shards of pottery “at bottom of my mind,” it’s hard to start over again.

  24. Pheo
    January 28, 2006 at 11:31 am


    I agree with most of what you say. But I think that your definition of cogdis differs from most everyone else’s. Cogdis is not the same as being wrong about something. It is the distress one feels when trying to reconcile a belief to a set of what an individual feels are contradictory facts. For an exmo to have cogdis about the church, he/she would have to have some doubts reconciling his belief (the church isn’t true) to the convincing evidence of the opposite conclusion (uh, having a hard time with this example).

    Trust me: exmos may be wrong about some stuff, but they do not have as much cogdis regarding the church as they did before they left. This may be the most significant benefit of leaving the church, and that is why you hear a lot about it at RfM.

  25. Pheo
    January 28, 2006 at 11:39 am

    Another thought: I agree with your characterization of irrationality at RfM, but I do not think that equates to cognitive dissonance. Dissonance is an unsettled feeling, and I don’t think that Steve Benson feels it when he refuses to acknowledge an obvious mistake. He may be stubborn, or in denial, but this doesn’t seem to be equivalent to cog dis to me.

    Maybe I’m projecting from my own experience: All of my cog dis regarding the church melted away when I decided that it wasn’t what it claimed to be.

  26. Kevin Barney
    January 28, 2006 at 11:41 am

    Thanks for the explanation, Pheo. Cog dis is a rather slippery concept, and perhaps I’ve been misusing it. Maybe what I’ve seen at RFM is not cog dis, but simple immaturity and irrationality.

  27. John H
    January 28, 2006 at 3:09 pm

    Awesome post, Kaimi. I’m glad a visited Times and Seasons today.

    Kevin Barney,

    Your approach to “the shelf” seems different than most Mormons I’ve spoken with. When they speak of “the shelf” they talk about how something “isn’t pertinent to their salvation” (worst phrase in the history of the church, IMO) and put something on the shelf for all of mortality until they die and get the answer straight from the Big Man himself.

    But you put something on the shelf, read a great deal about it, learned more, then took it off the shelf and became comfortable with it. That seems like a far healthier approach than just junking up the shelf until it finally collapses under the weight of all the issues bogging it down.

  28. B. Bowen
    January 28, 2006 at 9:36 pm

    Of course, there is much pretense in Mormonism that it is, indeed, a Grand Theory of Everything, and that it is that perfect, harmonious rock garden. The Church as an institution leans heavily in that direction (it (to the extent it is a homogeneous entity, which in most manifestations it is) would encourage you to toast this toast, but it, by and large, would not raise its glass), as do the faithful, more often than not. It seems a lot of the commentary on this thread shades towards the oddly dissonant view that Mormonism/the Church does not claim to be, and is not supposed to be, a provider of the Grand Theory—as if we all have thrust this obligation to provide harmony and balance upon the Church and/or its theology. We are well trained in all things Grand-Theory-esque. It’s not like we all randomly stumble into our states of dissonance.

    That we are out of balance is both fine and not fine. The danger lies when we choose one over the other.

  29. Julie M. Smith
    January 28, 2006 at 11:23 pm

    ““isn’t pertinent to their salvationâ€? (worst phrase in the history of the church, IMO)”

    Why? I think it is important to distinguish between The Big Issues and all the rest. But I also understood The Shelf as not something that waits for after death, but something that you look at from time to time, as that’s how Camilla Kimball used the metaphor.

  30. solistics
    January 28, 2006 at 11:50 pm

    Great post, Kaimi.

    I’m reminded of Fowler’s Stages of Faith, where Stage 5 is where paradox is embraced, as opposed to Stage 3 where everything has to be explained and make sense. I think most Mormons (as well as most of the population, as Fowler says) are in Stage 3. The ability to look at one’s belief system and recognize paradoxes and mutually inconsistent facts and yet “be okay with that” is, I think, an important step in this spiritual journey called life.

  31. Kaimi Wenger
    January 29, 2006 at 1:16 am

    I’ve really liked all of the comments in response. I’ll try to respond here, though this is an area where my own thoughts are sufficiently, um, out-of-balance that I hope I make some sense. :)


    I like the idea of completeness and harmony being incompatible. I’m still thinking over how to apply that idea.


    I hope we can still be friends. :P


    Good point about shelves. I guess I don’t think I’ve ever seen shelves spoken of in a good way at an exmo site (though I don’t frequent them a whole lot, and perhaps I’ve just missed out).


    That is a great title. I ought to run my post titles past you before posting. As to the images, I’m glad that they make sense to you. They’re mostly drawn from my own life and from the lives of close friends. (Fun parlor game: guess which ones are which).

    The whole idea for the post occurred to me as I was reading Jim’s post and wondering for the upteenth time about reconciling faith and intellect. And it suddenly occurred to me that many other areas of my life are in major disharmony. I’ve got friends who severely dislike each other, and I don’t fret about that. If none of the rest of my life makes much sense taken as a whole, then why should I expect my reconciliation of faith and reason to work perfectly?

    Jim, Russell, Elisabeth,

    I really like the gloss that your discussion puts here, and I’ll handle that as a group.

    Elisabeth raises the question of hypocrisy, and Russell discusses it further. I think that’s the danger. We certainly should _not_ be so complacent with our ilves that we shrug off hypocrisy, bad habits, or things that make us unhappy. My toast to disharmony is not meant as a blanket mandate to succomb to chaos or to venality. Rather, it’s meant as an acknowledgement that disharmonies will exist, and that if we embrace these complexities that our lives can be okay.

    Eliasbeth writes “if I live my life according to a particular religion, I want to be pretty darn sure I know it is the ‘right’ religion.” Me too, Elisabeth. I guess what I’m saying is that I think that “it all fits together like clockwork” is not necessarily a required criteria (or perhaps even an indicia) of rightness.


    Thanks for the kind words. I’m pleased as punch that you liked this post. And punch would definitely go better with pecorino toscano than bilge water. :) (You had Mardell laughing out loud with that comment).

    Sheesh, you three wear me out — I’ll tackle the next set of comments in a follow up.

  32. annegb
    January 29, 2006 at 10:16 am

    Very good post.

  33. Jesse
    January 30, 2006 at 1:02 pm

    The thing that interests me about cog-dis is that the basis for it differs from person to person. I suppose there are certain issues that most people have to grapple with, but the fact is that the content of our personal shelves varies, and sometimes quite a bit. What’s on my shelf is, I know, very different than that which is on the shelves of various friends and family members.

    Taking a step back, it seems to me that this is purposeful. It’s not necessarily about the particular issues I scratch my head about, so much as it is that I learn how to scratch my head effectively and understand that an itch in a hard-to-reach spot does not mean I have a bad case of the Black Death.

    I also suspect that our common situation, the struggle to believe until we gain real, solid spiritually infused knowledge/light/intelligence/altered state of truth, has a very great deal to do with God’s respect for our agency. He certainly doesn’t seem to be in the business of coercing belief. The people who have been knocked off their horse on the road to Damascus, chewed out by an angel while engaging in mischief with the Chief Judge’s sons, or had their frames shaken by their younger brother after they tried to help him into the next life seem to be relatively few in number compared to those of us who work things out line upon line, here a little and there a little. I don’t think it’s an accident that we get told to we’re going to have to ask, seek, and even knock, not just waltz into our answers.

    I don’t understand why there are those exceptions but suspect that they’re not all that effective (think about those who saw the armies of Pharaoh drowned in the Red Sea, and then a few days later accused Moses of dragging them off to the middle of nowhere to die of thirst and hunger, or all those folks who went through the day/night/day without darkness, but eventually ended up planning the execution of their believing neighbors).

    I’m also convinced that going through the process of working things out, grace for grace, teaches us about our own ignorance and limitations, about the necessity of humility, and, to our great surprise and delight, about the goodness, the mercy, and the exquisitely personal attention of a Heavenly Father, whose timing and methods for teaching us are far better and more effective than what we could dream up for ourselves.

  34. Ana
    January 30, 2006 at 6:24 pm

    Thanks, Kaimi. I too am learning to love the messiness of Mormonism. It can be glorious and fun!

  35. January 30, 2006 at 7:37 pm

    Manual trackback: psychologists armed with brain scans say cognitive dissonance is akin to drug addiction.

  36. John H
    January 31, 2006 at 2:07 pm

    “Why? I think it is important to distinguish between The Big Issues and all the rest.”

    Julie, because all too often, one person’s pet issue is self-labeled “The Big Issue” while they dismiss someone else’s concern as “not pertinent to their salvation.”

    If someone has a concern, no matter how silly it may seem, it’s very real. Their salvation is between them and the Lord, and they need to work that out. If something is interferring with that, then it is pertinent. If people used the phrase in a meaningful way, I wouldn’t feel the way I do about it. But it’s used as nothing more than a way to force people into silence and to get them to drop an issue that makes others uncomfortable; it’s all too often an excuse to not thinking critically.

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