How Can We Be Sisters If We Are Not Yet Women?

Simone de Beauvoir

“How Can We Be Sisters If We Are Not Yet Women?”

By Simone de Beauvoir

Relief Society General President

Welcome one and all. As females we are gathered from all corners of the Earth to listen to what I hope will be a message of inspiration and wisdom. Though all of us are females, many of us have not yet become women. And still less can claim to be, in fact, sisters. My dear fellow vessels of the XX chromosome, one is not born a woman, and one does not take upon herself the title of “sister” without undertaking the requisite work that would legitimately grant such a title.

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When Religion Treats Its Adherents Like Children

In James Smith’s How (Not) to Be Secular–his interpretive summary of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age–he notes that, while the causes and reasons for a loss of faith or belief are numerous, most people who embrace scientific materialism over religion do so because of the story science tells more than because of scientific evidence per se. In other words, the form is what really matters, not the content. It’s not so much that scientific materialism is now true and religion has become false (where before it was the reverse). For many formerly religious people, the narrative that scientific materialism gives them feels mature, sophisticated, adult, and, most importantly, courageous. People that feel particularly infantilized by their religion will especially find this narrative appealing. Of course, religion needn’t be inherently infantilizing, but religions with rigid authoritarian structures that require high levels of loyalty and obedience are often experienced by their adherents as parental and controlling. Defenders of the status quo frequently respond that obedience is actually liberating because it helps one to avoid the pitfalls of freedom run amok, but the more obedience = liberty is insisted upon, the weaker the formulation feels, because it has to be repeated over and over again, as if it cannot stand on its own two rationally persuasive feet. Everywhere else obedience to authority is oppressive and stultifying, and freedom should be fought for and maintained; except, of course, here, on this one exceptional patch of ground, where paradoxically the more obedient and submissive you are to authority, the more liberated you supposedly become.

I mention this because I think there’s a good bit of truth to the notion that organized religion’s need to distinguish itself from non-religion often results in producing adults who come to realize that they feel like they never grew up, that they never became true citizens of the world. This isn’t because various forms of worldly abstinence are inherently childish or arbitrary, as if becoming an adult is synonymous with lasciviously experimenting with everything religion told you to shun as evil, but because they come to realize how simplistic and servile their faith has to be in order to maintain good standing in their communities. Instead of being an affirmative response to uncertainty and injustice, a fidelity to people and truths, faith becomes both a test of belief in supernatural things with no verifiable evidence and obedience to the words of fellow humans who by definition are prone to error and ignorance themselves.

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Unendurable and Unmournable Lives

During her testimony today a woman in my ward (I’ll call her Sarah) talked about her “smart and intellectual” sister who has been inactive for a while. They had a recent talk about her sister’s concerns and later that night Sarah couldn’t go to bed because she was wrestling with how to answer her sister’s questions. Finally she felt the Spirit testify to her that the church was true and God loved her and it wasn’t necessary that she be able to answer her sister’s questions, those things of most importance were still true. Her fears eased, she slept like a baby.

I thought about something Neal Maxwell said once about feeling like Nephi when Nephi said that he didn’t know the meaning of all things, nevertheless he knew God loves his children. There’s clearly something right about that; we shouldn’t have to feel like not knowing certain things automatically calls into question foundational things we believe in or have felt. But people so often apply this outwardly and not inwardly. Not knowing something doesn’t condemn me but it does appear to condemn her. The few things I do know save me, but the many things she claims to know do not save her. That’s all backwards. Her ignorance with regard to her sister’s questions should be confirmation of God’s love for her sister (of God’s “love for his children”) not of God’s love for herself. She felt at ease when she felt the Spirit because she was more afraid of what her sister’s questions might mean for herself, not what they could mean for her sister. When the questions were revealed not to matter, it wasn’t significant that her sister was still in a state of apostate ignorance, it was much more important that Sarah was protected from having to take her sister’s humanity too seriously. Her sister was really just a tool which allowed Sarah to maintain her “buffered self” (to use Charles Taylor’s term), a self that’s isolated and insulated in a privately constructed world with fragile facts and truths. 

But the primary struggle for religious communities in the modern age isn’t about specific questions, answers, and doubts, it’s about what communities are willing to bear on behalf of their members. More specifically, it is the struggle over what counts as that which “must be borne and endured.” Worse than making questioning and doubting unendurable, we’ve chosen to make those who question and doubt unendurable. We’ve chosen to consider certain lives unbearable and unmournable. We think little of the potentially unlimited strength of the love which is possible in genuine togetherness. Instead we see danger and threat everywhere, and the walls we are continually reinforcing are apparently always too brittle to withstand the coming onslaught and must be built higher and stronger. We love our self-reflecting images of ourselves as faithful and upright more than we love other people, so much so that we’ll do violence to anyone or anything that is perceived as a threat to that image. That’s understandable when the destruction of that image is equivalent to destroying everything recognizable about ourselves. But if that’s true, it means that the only solution will be to stop loving the images we’ve made of ourselves and instead love our real selves in all our immensely flawed vulnerability and shortsightedness. Then maybe we can actually learn to love others in theirs.