I’ve gotten immersed in the Outlander books by Diana Gabaldon. It’s the story of a combat nurse from World War II transported back in time 200 years while visiting the Scottish highlands. Although she’s English, and therefore an enemy in the conflicts underway in Scotland in the mid-1700s, these are not her personal conflicts. Her own alliances and assumptions haven’t yet happened. She is truly an outlander, a foreigner, a stranger.
I have sometimes wondered what life would be like if I had amnesia–a cultural blank slate like Claire experiences in the Outlander series, not just a partial memory loss. How would that affect my political opinions? How would I feel about things that today are assumptions to me? Would I make the same arguments I do? Would I like and dislike the same things? Probably not. It’s a great creative writing prompt, although the exercise is futile. Disentangling our cultural and otherwise learned biases from who we are is nearly impossible. We don’t know who we are out of context because we are swimming in context.
On some level, this is the same as the nature vs. nurture argument. Which of our preferences are innate vs. learned? Do I find balut repulsive because I was not raised on it? Undoubtedly. Those who like it ate it from a young age. A colleague of mine who enjoyed vegamite found peanut butter and jelly repulsive. Preferences are formed from what’s available to us.
Our alliances are formed through the time we spend within our culture and the lives that intersect with ours. We hear those people’s stories from their perspective, their difficulties and joys, and we learn to empathize with them. In the novels, Claire is an Englishwoman transported back in time to Scotland when they were rebelling from England. Her alliances are out of date initially, but she soon begins to understand the Scottish perspectives in a way that she might not have if she had been taken in by English officers instead. Her alliances are unique to her circumstances within this time frame. And yet she has the ability to view the greater struggles with the attachment of the future, knowing how things turn out.
Although Claire is a very smart woman, both through education and life experience, she continually misreads situations and doesn’t understand the political situation surrounding her. She doesn’t understand why people react to the things she does the way they do, and she often doesn’t grasp how to make things “right” again because of her cultural ignorance. She walks through history like a visitor from another planet whose briefing was missing a few pages.
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” L.P. Hartley
When people say they are Mormon to the core, this is part of what they are talking about. Even if they left the church, they believe they would continue to behave “Mormonly.” It’s one reason that groups of former Mormons often do things that seem uniquely Mormon: bearing their new untestimony (sharing their deconversion stories), creating alternate equivalent gatherings like Feminist girls’ camp and other programs, and so forth. It’s been observed that some who were zealous black & white missionaries within the church are equally zealous black & white thinkers outside the church, although I don’t think this generality holds up well to much scrutiny. It may be true for some, but it doesn’t seem like a majority.
Adopting and reimagining the programs and cultural markers of one’s Mormon upbringing isn’t quite the same as being Mormon to the core. That, to me anyway, implies that one’s personality naturally gravitates toward Mormon traits. What would those traits be? Based on Hollywood and other outside perspectives, Mormon traits would include friendliness, credibility, and fake swearing. But even these are learned behaviors, not necessarily innate qualities.
Ultimately, we can’t remove ourselves from our context and we can’t remove our context from ourselves. Even examining the core of who we are, we are using language to describe ourselves, and language itself contributes to our context. For those who speak a second (or more) language well enough to think in that language, you may have become aware that the hallmarks of that language alter your self-perception in some ways, your ability to articulate your thoughts to yourself, and how those ideas that rise up are expressed. Throughout a lifetime, these word and thought patterns become familiar and create habits of thought, reinforcing certain ideas and expressions that become familiar enough to feel a part of who we are.
Living abroad or just moving to a place with different cultural norms and expectations exposes our cultural biases to us. The term Third Culture Kid refers to those who grow up aware that they are not in their “native” culture, and therefore are more intentional in choosing their culture, and also more of an outsider, not truly having a “home” culturally speaking. The world becomes their home. Their compatriots are others like them who also travel, who question their national cultural allegiances.
We fail to comprehend history. Even more, we fail to comprehend the present. It’s no wonder that generation gaps are often the biggest divider in the church. Jesus specifically said that the gospel would divide members of household along these gaps.
34 Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. 35 For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law 36 And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.
Why does the gospel divide us generationally? Because we comprehend it in the context of the cultural norms in which we were raised, whether those are Victorian, post-war, post-modern, or millenial. And that’s how our values and beliefs work. As Adam Miller put it in Future Mormon:
Every generation must work out its own salvation. Every generation must live its own lives and think its own thoughts and receive its own revelations. And, if Mormonism continues to matter, it will be because they, rather than leaving, were willing to be Mormon all over again.
Successive generations can’t be Mormon for the same reasons or in the same contexts as prior generations. We all must reinterpret the gospel, likening it unto ourselves, making it contemporary and relevant to our lives and world, and it is to that understood gospel we must commit. I cannot comprehend nor commit to an interpretation of the gospel that doesn’t fit my worldview and values any more than anyone else can.
Maybe this is what it means to work out one’s salvation with fear and trembling.