The progressive Mormon online discourse is now reacting on rumors (hmm, but what do you call a rumor that, while not explicitly confirmed, is still actually highly predictable?) that the church could be clamping down on Heavenly Mother, church leader fallibility, and the idea that God’s love is unconditional. While I think that all of these are worthy of discussion, I acknowledge that folks like Rachel Hunt Steenblik and Jacob continue to say far more insightful things regarding Heavenly Mother than I could ever, so I wanted to talk about unconditional love.
I think a lot about “love” in social and religious discourse, because as a gay man, I am acutely aware through personal life experience of how much the term is in dispute. (Most of the examples will be on LGBT issues, but I hope that you can do your own translation to replace with issues in your own life.) I have often thought that the term is so poorly defined that it frustrates our ability to speak between political or religious camps. In other words, by using this term but not unpacking what we mean by it, we talk past each other, as we assume a shared definition or shared context that increasingly and frustratingly doesn’t exist. Outside of ephemeral social media, I haven’t really set my thoughts on this yet, so I wanted to try with this post.
What is love?
Baby don’t hurt me, etc.,
In LDS discourse, the idea of God’s love as being conditional isn’t all that new anymore. (Am I dating everyone to say a talk from 2003 is not new? General Authorities have doubled down on this more recently, such as in 2016.) I say this to point out that it’s not really surprising to hear that the church may be trying to double down further on this. I’m surprised that progressive Mormons are surprised by this, but maybe this is just me being so much of an Exmo that I always internalize the worst messages from LDS leaders.
I remember reading a lot of responses to these talks, whether from folks just rejecting the message, or from folks trying to ameliorate it. (Now that I’m mostly paying attention to Twitter, I will note that Calvin’s tweet distinguish love from blessings feels like something that was already interrogated way back when.) To all these attempts to ameliorate the leaders’ messages, I agree with Elise Scott:
That being said, as an exmormon, I’m also a fan of noting that LDS leaders are not trained in religious domains (e.g., theology, history, etc.,) so it’s very possible they don’t realize the implications of what they say.
Instead, I want to think about other faith tradition’s interpretations, and then circle back on what we might make sense of the LDS leaders’ view. I’ll give vignettes from Catholic/Thomist, Orthodox, and Reformed/Calvinist traditions.
Catholicism on Love
A few years back, I got into reading Catholic/Thomist blogs. One thing I saw (and I apologize for any error in summarizing, since I know Thomistic thought is very technical, but I am still an outsider) is that to love is to will the good of another.
I know just enough about Thomism to understand that “good” has a teleological implication. That is, there is a “purpose” or “end” or “goal” to things, and so what is “good” is fulfilling that purpose.
But let’s assume that we take the basic definition as a working definition of love. The problem to me is that if we don’t agree on what the good for someone is, then we are still talking past one another to use this term. Quite simply, I think we obviously don’t agree on what the good is, and I think that this is more salient to any discussion about love than talking about what is “conditional” or “unconditional.”
For example, if we accept this definition of love, then it’s very easy to imagine that someone could wish the good of another unconditionally, but in a way that would appear to the recipient as missing the mark. Fortunately, I also know just enough about Thomism to understand that Thomists have lots of strong opinions about what the good is for humanity. To use a specific example, the Catholic/Thomistic opposition to same sex marriage comes from the belief that the “telos” of marriage is unity and procreation — so if you’re missing one or both of these things, then it’s not marriage. So, when Catholics speak of homosexuality as intrinsically disordered, they are getting at it’s an inclination to something that does not aim at that telos.
I have no doubt that people who believe LGBT relationships and lived experiences are sinful or intrinsically disordered would therefore sincerely believe that willing the good for their LGBT brothers and sisters is to counsel them on celibacy (or at the very least, not pursuing same sex relationships), not transitioning (for trans folks), etc., I also have no doubt that most people who believe this would be very good at doing this unconditionally. No matter if their family and friends and acquaintances find it annoying, are not interested, do not follow this counsel, etc., it’s very easy to imagine someone still unconditionally willing this for others.
So, in this case, even if we accept this definition of love, we can say that one person believes they are loving unconditionally, but the recipient of this “love” may not recognize it as such. If someone does not accept what the “goods” of marriage are as such, then the uncompromising insistence on that is not persuasive. In fact, they may find this “love” to be obnoxious as hell.
“Obnoxious as hell” – Orthodoxy on heaven and hell
I want to pivot for a moment on that phrase. “Obnoxious as hell.”
After learning how different the Catholic/Thomistic view on things were, I became more aware that maybe a Mormon and protestant-inspired understanding of Christianity might not be all there was. So, in exploring yet other traditions, I also read a few things about Orthodoxy. Again, I apologize for any butchering of nuanced religious concepts, but an idea I read about was that hell is not a separate place, and hell is not even physical separation from God. Rather, hell and heaven are different individual responses.
In this view, no one will escape God’s presence. God’s presence is like being within the presence of the sun. The only thing that differs is whether one can withstand the light and heat, or not.
I think this also can play into the discussion about conditional and unconditional love. If unconditional love means offering the same thing to someone no matter what (no matter whether they are ready or willing to receive it), then those who find that obnoxious are in hell. (This doesn’t really convince me that I actually want love or Heaven, but I guess that is what it means to be a reprobate…an idea from the Reformed/Calvinist tradition that I’ll get more to.)
If this is true, then what does conditional love look like? Conditional love would look instead as to stop willing the good for another.
Please note that even this must be unpacked — what does it mean to stop willing the good for another? If a parent believes in “tough love” and requires that an LGBT child not bring home a partner in order to be allowed home (or to require them to sleep in separate rooms), is that conditional love?
But there was something that struck me in that second article:
Though Mindy continues to live this lifestyle, we hope that someday the gospel teachings she knows will help her remember that God loves her and wants so much more for her. Although Mindy is not currently involved in the Church—she told us, “I cannot go to a church that will not support my lifestyle”—she has said that she still believes many of its teachings. In the meantime, our hope is strong.“A Mother’s Story”, Name Withheld, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/topics/same-gender-attraction/a-mothers-story?lang=eng
From the unnamed mother’s perspective, she continues to believe she is willing for Mindy’s good. She hopes that Mindy will eventually return to the church and abandon “the lesbian lifestyle.”
Instead, “conditional” love would look different…more callous and uncaring. It might mean wishing ill. Wishing that because a child is following something they disagree with that they experience pain and suffering because of it.
In the eternal scheme of things, I see a lot of people complain about a God who would send his children to hell. But of course, there are alternative interpretations that hell is a place that people choose to go through their rejection of God’s love, and of course, the Orthodox idea that hell is the mentality of not being able to bear the omnipresence of God.
But what might it look like when God or anyone actually starts will ill for people?
Reprobate vessels of wrath – Calvinism on limited atonement
Unfortunately, as much as I hate to say this, this idea readily brought to mind other scriptures…consider Pharaoh in the Exodus story (and commentary about God’s actions for the Pharaoh in other locations like Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Consider Exodus 4:21…
The LORD said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.Exodus 4:21, New International Version translation
And follow up with the commentary in Romans 9:18
Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.Romans 9:18, New International Version translation
To an LDS audience, these may not make sense. After all, the Joseph Smith Translation explicitly re-addresses this scenario to suggest instead that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. However, there are distinctions between how LDS view God and how, say, a reformed Calvinist might view God that make these different interpretations plausible.
The reformed Christian views God’s sovereignty as absolute — so the presence of evil must require God’s allowance in a way that the weeping God of Mormonism doesn’t necessarily have to take credit for. Evil can’t just “slip in” as if God just overlooked it. Further, in Calvinism, God’s will is irresistible, so if God wants you, you won’t ultimately say no. So, this leads to the issue of why there apparently are those who reject God’s message. Oversimplifying, it’s because God has predestined this (usually as an example for the elect.) The previous passage I quoted from Romans continues, for example:
What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? 23What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— 24even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?Romans 1:22-24
Please note that in Calvinism, this wouldn’t be taken to mean that God’s love is conditional. Rather, there is specifically a point that election is unconditional because there is no condition that we can have that can “justify” whether God picks us or not. God might play favorites, but it’s not because of anything we did or can do.
Back to LDS thinking
And outside of the context of an omnipotent God, we don’t have the power to force other people’s attitudes and minds to change. Still, I would say that in our limited ability, conditional love might look like willing for bad things to happen to someone if they don’t meet our conditions. So, if someone truly believed same-sex relationships to be sinful (to keep with this example), the unconditionally loving parent may still hope for the child to avoid whatever dangers they associate with “the lesbian lifestyle” as they hope that the child returns to faith.
However, the conditionally loving parent may give up on the child and wish the worst to happen to them as a result of their waywardness. It sounds very petty, but another set of scriptures comes to mind…
18The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
21For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
24Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
26Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
28Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.Romans 1:18-32
If I go back to President Nelson’s comments on his examples of the conditional nature of God’s love and blessings, there is a bit of the Romans 1 language here, but it is not quite as harsh or stark. The difference is that although in Calvinism a sovereign God establishes and controls the outcomes of actions, in Mormonism there is more of a sense that these are just brute consequences of the universe. God may not want bad things to happen to those who fail to keep the commandments (and may cry at these things happening), but it’s just the way that things are that if people don’t follow the commandments, then they have no promise.
Does any of this make you think differently about the discussion between conditional and unconditional love.
What does love mean to you, and how does it differ from how I’ve described it here?
If love is to will the good of another, then it seems to me there’s a big question on what that good is, and whether or not we can disagree. In the LGBT space, this is also why there are fierce debates about acceptance vs tolerance. Someone who merely tolerates an LGBT child’s relationship or gender identity still may disagree about what is good for them. When LGBT folks want acceptance, it’s that we want our identity and relationships to be viewed as we see them — as good for us.
The split between unconditional and conditional love instead becomes a question on whether or not someone can compromise on what they believe to be the good for another.
In reviewing this post, a coblogger raised Matthew 7:9 as well as the golden rule as other concepts to think about:
“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!Matthew 7:9-11, NIV translation
But this scripture expects us to unambiguously agree that bread is good and stones are bad — that even “evil” people would recognize good gifts. The golden rule expects that the way I want to be treated is similar to the way others want to be treated. My thought experiment is…what if the child and parent fundamentally disagree on what a good gift is?