These days, I have been thinking a lot about paradoxes and other things that subvert expectations. I was thinking about my marriage — which to the most orthodox, faithful Mormons must be either lamented or rebuked as sin because it is to another man — and I came to the conclusion, as I have many times, that I still feel that being married is the most Mormon thing I can do.
I had an essay about this featured in Holly Welker’s Revising Eternity: How 27 Latter-day Saint Men Reflect on Modern Relationships, so I will not restate the essay itself because you can get the book to find out that story and many more, but I will start out by teasing out the paradox:
How could it be that engaging in something that most faithful Mormons would regard as one of the greatest contemporary sins could be seen as authentically Mormon? Is Andrew S just a delusional liberal Mormon apostate? (well, ok, yes, but…)
In short, my argument is that it reaches at a deeper truth of Mormonism that is at tension with the current doctrinal and practical understandings.
“OK, Andrew S, now we know you’re delusional. What can be deeper than the truth that marriage is between a man and a woman?”
Well, my argument would be that marriage has been many things in Mormon history. While this might seem problematic to people who want clean, eternal divine truths, I think we can explain this by positing that there is an underlying truth that Mormons throughout history have been trying to understand and interpret in different ways at different times: that community matters, and binding people together is critical to salvation and exaltation. So, the LDS tradition’s emphasis on family and community as conduits to exaltation (to such an extent that LDS practice has no institutional telos for lifelong celibacy — as contrasted to, say, Catholicism, which hews closer to Paul’s sentiment that it would probably be better for people to be spiritual eunuchs for the Kingdom of God if they will not burn with passion in the attempt) means that the religion cannot abide the vacuum of people lacking hope for such relationships.
If humans are saved in community (an innovation to LDS thinking from other Christian thought), the church claims to be universal for all people, and marriage is the most primary of community, then categorically excluding certain people from marriage cannot stand as a persisting design trait.
Mormons just need some time to really figure it out. Polygamy didn’t quite work out for the community, but the 50s style heteronormative nuclear family also cannot be the end-all, be-all.
That is just one example of a subversion that has been on my mind for a long time.
Dr. Mette Ivie Harrison’s blog post “The Bitter, Post-Mormon Life” has me thinking that she has captured another.
In her blog post, the insight she brings that I love in particular is that in the same way that post-Mormons have an opportunity to acquire a taste for bitter flavors that Mormonism primes us to avoid (and even to lament or rebuke as sinful), post-Mormon life need not pretend that life must always be happy to be good. One’s life must not always be happy to indicate that one’s choices are right, and right choices may involve experience a variety of emotions beyond positive, sweet ones.
We can acquire the taste for a complex, multi-flavored life in the same way as we can acquire the taste for complex, multi-faceted flavors of food and drink.
But the thing that strikes me, the subversion at play, is that I don’t think this is a particularly post-Mormon thing to think. Rather, I think that it still gets at a core element of Mormonism that is not practiced as it should be because of current doctrinal and practical understandings.
Bitterness and Joy as Quintessentially Mormon
Is it not said that “it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things”? Yes, as 2 Nephi 2:11 continues, if not so, then:
…righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.2 Nephi 2:11
It seems that the way a lot of folks interpret how life on earth should go is that we should try to avoid any sin, at all. Yes, the Atonement is there just in case we slip up, but sometimes, I get the vibe that many Mormons believe we should try to live in a way to try to never need the Atonement at all. Hence, far more virtuous than having coffee and then chosen to forgo it is the idea of having never had coffee and to have not had to quit from anything. To not ever have experienced the bitter taste, much less acquired the taste.
I am not saying everyone should try to engage in sin rampantly. There is something to be said that to the extent sin has consequences, some of those consequences are severe enough and dire enough that they are not easily reversed. For example, avoiding addictive substances to avoid dependency and addiction makes sense.
However, there is also an ignorance that comes from this extreme way of looking at things. A complete abstinence or teetolalism prevents the development of moderation or temperance.
When previewing this article with the Wheat & Tares coblogger, esteemed colleague Mary Ann commented that “Experiencing “bitterness” is unavoidable with the mortality bit, so we don’t need to purposefully seek out the “bitterness” associated with voluntary infractions.“
…I was thinking about this response and thought — why did it seem so familiar to me? And what I realized was that it was ultimately my justification for leaving the church. I had reasoned for a time that participation in a church of imperfect people is beneficial to have a laboratory of experiencing homophobia, sexism, racism, and so on in a controlled environment (meaning: it probably won’t lead to personal injury or death). But at some point, I said to myself: I will experience all of those things and more out in the world, so why would I subject myself to more of it in a “voluntary” organization?
…another way that post-Mormon thought and faithful LDS thought can paradoxically mirror each other…
While I have mostly given up on dreams of Godhood, it seems that if we want to progress to be more like God, to be more like Christ, then don’t we also need to know what was the cup that Jesus warned his disciplines about in Matthew 20:22, that Jesus himself asked his Father in Matthew 26 to let pass from him before saying “but not my will, but thy will?” What’s up with that cup?
,,,I was struck to find out from checking the topical guide for cup that in the Old and New Testament, the cup is not described further. Only in LDS revealed scriptures — the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine of Covenants — is the adjective bitter added in front.
Part of the scandal and heresy of Mormonism is our daring to claim that we can do the things that Christ did, because we are his younger siblings. And if this is so, then if we know Christ drunk from the bitter cup, then I would say, our contemporary all-or-nothing approach doesn’t mesh well with what the project of mortality is trying to prepare us for. We are preparing and training for a kind of living. We are learning lessons. We cannot engage in this without taking on risk. Without making mistakes. Without, in some cases, taking on suffering to be able to endure it. And how do we know this? Because 2 Nephi tells us this was also the state for our progenitors, Adam and Eve:
22 And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end.
23 And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.
24 But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things.
25 Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.2 Nephi 2: 22-25
This is an innovation of Mormon heritage. Unlike in traditional Christianity with the ultimately sovereign God of creatio ex nihilo, Mormonsim inherits a co-eternal universe where some intelligences progress, form communities of greater complexity, and up forth rises divinity. Divinity encourages other intelligences to do the same. But this process takes time, is messy, requires learning and practice.
In the former, who can dispute that the sovereign creator of the universe may be displeased when his creations do not do what they were created to do?
But this is not the Mormon heritage.
In the latter, the innovation that Mormonism provides is that God does not have wrath when we stumble, but God weeps. God weeps because Mother and Father want us to live up to our potential, know that we have to stumble to do so, we have to cry because we’ve scraped our knees, but the kindest thing that they can do is let us get back up on our own.
And so it is. The bitter must be something to be appreciated along with the sweet. That is a crucial lesson for anyone who also would aspire to become a God who weeps.
I so connect with this idea of the core ideal of Mormonism: “that community matters, and binding people together is critical to salvation and exaltation.” That’s what I miss most about the Church – this network of visiting and home teachers (or whatever they are called now). I loved that my family could offer or receive help without weird accounting, just because we were members of the community. I’ve seen attempts to build that deliberately, but not attempts that work.
Thank you for that post. (And for your essay in Holly’s book. That was moving)
“OK, Andrew S, now we know you’re delusional.”
That’s all that really needs to be said.
@dastolfo, that’s a rhetorical comment used to avoid the exact reading and reaction you provide. Not sure how you’ve misread it, but it’s difficult not to completely dismiss your comment with the same gusto as you can so cavalierly dismiss an entire post because of your elementary reading of it.
“If humans are saved in community…, the church claims to be universal for all people, and marriage is the most primary of community, then categorically excluding certain people from marriage cannot stand as a persisting design trait.”
So well said! Such a good post.
I love how you lay out the parallel thought processes on either side of activity in the church. I’m coming to terms with the fact that, in spite of no longer believing or participating in the church, I’m probably way more Mormon deep down than I’m even aware of. And I’ll probably never fully unpack the way growing up Mormon shaped the way I think and my core assumptions compared to people of other faiths and backgrounds. And that’s ok.
Blaire Ostlers Queer Mormon Theology really resonates for me. God is expansive. Jesus is queer. Our theology can and should be big enough to encompass so much more than it currently does, including various forms of marriages. And the thing is they back up these claims with scriptural proof. A great read and this message reminded me of their work.
The only question that remains is if our membership is mature enough to accept it.
Not all delusion is bad. 🙂
The only way I know to develop your empathy muscles is to experience the bitter parts of life and not shrink from it. If you can. And not hide, dissociate, be in denial, equivocate, refuse to do your work to process, or otherwise misunderstand your own life. Then perhaps you are prepared to receive the gift of empathy, which is most valuable when you apply it to another person. But it can be a healing balm you apply to yourself too.
At least I think this is true. In the name, etc., amen.