Mormon Discussion

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Mormon Culture v. Doctrine, Part 1: The Pressure for Marriage

Culture or doctrine?

How do we discern between the two?

There are things that I love about church doctrine. It makes sense to me in a way that other religious philosophies don't. There is a logic behind it, an order, that appeals greatly to my sense of...well, logic and order. There are places to turn to to find answers, be it scriptures, books, the Ensign, leaders, blogs, prayer, etc. I find that many of the "mysteries" of God aren't really that mysterious, since He is pretty good about making sure we understand things, especially important things. Church doctrine, in my opinion, makes a lot of sense as a religious philosophy.

The problem I see is that soooo many members confuse church culture and church tradition with church doctrine. There are things that Mormons are "supposed" to do and when members deviate from this ideal, they become something of a black sheep. Are they necessarily breaking any covenant? Violating any rule? No, not in most cases. But, they are treated as sinners of the worst sort when they are open about their deviations.

I speak from a personal experience point of view. Lately, there has been a lot of pressure on me to be married. It's usually unspoken, or if it is spoken, it's covert. Things like, "Oh, no ring? Don't worry, it'll happen someday." As if not being married or engaged at 22 is something to be concerned with. Constant probing into my dating life (or lack thereof) or statements like, "Well, once you have your kids..." set the cultural expectations of what Mormons are supposed to do. And, as a girl, I'm supposed to be focused on family and marriage.

Even women who are older than me, who are single and attend my single's ward, express a disappointment at not being married yet at the "old" age of 29. One woman, who I think has accomplished a lot, has her Master's degree, has traveled quite extensively, and owns her own business. But, when she speaks of her life, it's still not good enough because she isn't married yet and she speaks wistfully of how much better her life would be if she were, because she's getting so old. For me, however, 29 is NOT old whatsoever. Nor would I feel disappointment if I wasn't married by that age. There are things that I want to do that I wouldn't be able to do if I were married. Well, perhaps I would, but not in the same capacity.

After I graduate law school, I'd like to treat myself to a vacation in Europe for a month or so...just me and my best friend. While this may still be a possibility when married, it would be a bit more maneuvering. I'd like to enjoy just being single and living alone for awhile. I think that living alone is an important thing for people do to before they live with a spouse for forever. If only for the reason that you get to come to find out who you really are. I clean up a lot more than I normally would because I live with roommates. Living alone would give me a better sense of who I am in certain areas. I want to have no one to answer to for awhile. I want to establish who I really am before I commit to someone. Too many marriages end because the people that got married grew up and grew apart. I don't want that.

This attitude, however, of not making marriage my top priority, is somehow very dangerous and evil, according to my fellow counterparts. Now, don't get me wrong...I'm not opposed to marriage whatsoever. If it came along, fine. But, if not, I'm not worried about it. I'm not stressing myself out or wasting time feeling unfulfilled. I'm not obsessing over the fact that I haven't had a date in a year or so and I'm not concerned if I don't get married by a certain age. I have made plans for myself that don't include a husband because there is alwys the possibility that I won't have one...some people don't get married because the right person doesn't come along. Currently, I'm single with no prospects in sight, so why plan around something that is sooooo uncertain?

Mormon culture kicks in here. I should be sad and depressed, wasting my time catering to what I think will "get a man." I should plan for a marriage first and then, as a backup, live my life as I currently am. I should spend energy concerned with my lack of dating. This is the message I am given by my fellow church members. The women are the worst--they are constantly reminding me of how great it would be to be married. They talk in RS about the joys of marriage and they have extensive plans for themselves and their as-yet-unkown husband. Since I say things like, "If I get married," rather than "when," which is a valid thing to say since no one can predict the future, I get looks and eyeballs. When I discuss things I want to do with my life and don't mention marriage, I get reminded of that fact. If I say, "I want to graduate law school, work for a firm for awhile, buy a house, and then start a youth center," I am always asked, "Well, when will you have time to get married and be a mom?"

This is partly tied up with doctrine, I understand, because there is that commandment that says we are supposed to multiply and replenish the earth. The Proclomation asserts that family is the most important. Yes, I understand that. I even will take it at face value. But, in my opinion, there is nothing wrong with not making marriage a top priority because it's something that you can't conrol at all! How am I supposed to plan on meeting my future husband? I can't say, "Well, I will do X and Y and then Z will result, hence marriage." I can do that with things like law school...if I go in the fall, I will graduate in 3 years, and then I will be able to work as a lawyer. Those are things I can control. Since I am not opposed to marriage, and if I have the chance, I would get married, then why is it so weird that I don't care to stress myself out about it right now? Is it a sin to not be married by 25? I don't think so. That's a silly notion. Is it a sin to plan to do things by yourself? I don't think so, either. Is it wrong not to be upset at 22, 25, or even (gasp!) 29 that I'm not married yet? I highly doubt it.

So why do so many people get caught up in the culture? Why do they focus so strongly on how things are "normally" done and refuse to see that there are alternative (and not wrong!) routes? Why is it such a disappointment to be comfortable not being married? How do we, as individuals, seperate the culture of being Mormon from the religious doctrine and be sure we are using that as our guide in life? The last thing I want to do is rush into something because of social cues and pressures, only to find out that I did the wrong thing or that there was something better for me just around the corner if I'd just waited a bit. And why is it that people are sooo uncomfortable with the idea that there are other routes to life that it can't even be discussed? I can't tell you how many feathers I've ruffled without even meaning to, simply by saying, "Well, I'm not too concerned if I don't get married. I could live a happy life without it."

Is it so unbelievable that a person, a woman, could be happy with her life if the right marriage partner never came along? Must we always look at these people with a sort of sadness because they are somehow less blessed? Perhaps there are blessings that come from being single that married people don't get. Perhaps the freedom and autonomy of being single is a blessing all on their own. Perhaps their partner in the afterworld is SMOKINGLY good looking and can cook a mean fat-free fettucini alfredo. Who knows what blessings come from being single that aren't there for married people and the same for married to single. But is it so unfathomable that someone can be content with his/her life without a husband or wife? Is it so shocking that a person could be okay with being single and trust that the Lord has a plan for them that may or may not include marriage?

Rather than express sympathy or pity for unmarried members, perhaps we should applaud their ability to be happy and be content, expecially when faced with enormous social pressure. Perhaps we should find ways to encourage single members who aren't happy to find what makes them happy in their lives and celebrate that, rather than wasting time and emotions on being sad about something they lack. Perhaps we should all just realize that because that's "how it's done" doesn't mean that's how is has to be done.

15 Comments:

  • Try it at 28, dear.

    No, IMO, not wrong. I wasn't ready for a long time. My only regret is that the dating/marriage pool is really dry if you skip those eager 21-year-olds.

    As for culture v. doctrine? Well, as you and I know, a lot of people don't like to think. And it makes me crazy, too.

    I say, get on with your plans. God knows you. He'll help you figure it all out in the end.

    By Blogger Glo, at 11:33 PM  

  • The problem I see is that soooo many members confuse church culture and church tradition with church doctrine.

    I've heard this argument posited before, but I just don't buy it.

    If you think of 'the church' as an entity that exists in an objective reality, then I would say that you're thinking too idealistically and not contextually. Really, 'the church' is just a body of individuals, where a powerful individual creates policies that are adopted by the less powerful individuals. So, 'the church' is merely a construct that exists in your mind, much like 'america' or 'bolivia'. It doesn't exist anywhere outside of your mind and in the minds of other individuals, so it may be dangerous to think of it as anything other than what it is.

    In reality, the culture is the defacto church. The church only exists as far as your bishop and ward members, perhaps stake members. But beyond that, it gets to be merely an artificial construct that we place too much power and mythic understanding in.

    So, I'd argue that the real power is the culture/church. It has the power to make decisions that you live by, decisions that are important to you because they are important to your peers. It is this culture/church that we give so much credence and power to; we surrender our lives to it (think ward temple night every Wednesday). So really, I think you are fighting a battle that doesn't exist, because culture=church.

    By Blogger Jason King, at 1:57 AM  

  • Jason--interesting points, but I would disagree.

    "Church" is supposed to conotate somewhere people go to further their relationship with Christ. If this gets muddled up with the culture of the church (and not just mormon churches, but whatever church in general), then it is entirely possible (and probable) that there will be ideas and habits that are eventually viewed as doctrine, rather than habits and ideas.

    Although the church is a construct, as you say, to a certain extent, I'd argue that it's more than that. The Church is an entity with substantial power. If Pres. Hinckely said, "Go buy a red shirt." tons of Mormons would flock to get a red shirt. So, it's more powerful than simply a socially constructed entity.

    The problem I see is that it DOES weild so much power over people's lives and there is too much of an emphasis on the cultural and habitual things and they get passed off as doctrine to those who aren't familiar with church doctrine.

    An example of this is the idea that all women are supposed to be mothers. Scipturally, there isn't anything to back up the idea that ALL WOMEN should be mothers and that those who don't are failing at their role in life. There are scriptures exalting motherhood and honoring it, but none that says a woman is failing in her life if she isn't one. However, listening to church culture would lead one to believe that there is a scriptural reference, something other than cultural habits, that requires all women to be mothers.

    If one believes that all women are supposed to be mothers, then a woman who can't or chooses not to have children is no longer shirking the culture of the church, but somehow now becomes a sinner and rebelling against the lord.

    The same for this marriage idea. One would be lead to believe from the culture and habits of church members that to be unmarried is a waste of a life and that you are completely unfulfilled, and that you should spend eveyr waking moment trying to find a mate and being unhappy if you can't. However, I don't think there is scripture to back this up, nor do I believe that HF wants us to waste the time He's given us complaining over how we don't have a spouse and then ignore the amazing things we are doing in the time before marriage.

    I agree with your points that church is a construct and is limited mainly to each individual ward, but I'd still argue that the culture is not the same as the church, nor should it be.

    By Blogger mellancollyeyes, at 12:45 AM  

  • The Church is an entity with substantial power. If Pres. Hinckely said, "Go buy a red shirt." tons of Mormons would flock to get a red shirt. So, it's more powerful than simply a socially constructed entity.

    I think that is a contradiction: The church is an entity, and then one, single man gives the ethic to the rest of the individuals. You see, it came from one man, not some mythical construct, but a man.

    I actually had argued your position many, many times. In fact, that was the way that I was able to try to be sane with some of the insanity (culture) but on closer examination, I think the idea of 'the church' is a psychological archetype, much like the father. You are correct that it has power, but only power in your mind. What is the reality? The reality is that the policies of the church come from 12 men or more specifically, one man.

    If that doesn't convince you, perhaps you can tell me where 'the church' exists? If it is a reality, then where is it? If it only exists in your mind, how can you say that it is real? And then how can you make distinctions about what it is and what it is not if it exists only in a pseudo-reality?

    So, it's more powerful than simply a socially constructed entity.

    The power of the psychological entity is beside the point. The power of a construct does not negate the reality of the construct.

    but I'd still argue that the culture is not the same as the church, nor should it be.

    Believe me, I wish it wasn't the same. But what about the reality that wherever the church goes, it creates a monoculture. Regardless of the native vestments, traditions, or understandings, all members are expected to wear the same American business attire, all chapels have the same lds art and mostly the same architecture. How is this not a culture? Perhaps this is a different argument, but the idea that the doctrine exists beyond that of any culture the church establishes, albeit either by the extension of church thought or by explicit policies of the church, the effect is the same: culture=church.

    But, I can see how you would want to separate the two. And perhaps in some ideal world they are separate, but I don't know how you can look at the reality of the church and not find the culture and church to be synonymous.

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