Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Letters to a Doubter: On Gender and Sexuality

Hello, everyone! Terryl Givens recently wrote an essay called "Letter to a Doubter", in which he addressed common doubts that occur to Latter-Day Saint youth about the Gospel. I thought that his piece was such a good idea that I felt compelled to write one of my own. So, in this post I will write a letter to a fictional friend of approximately same age about his doubts and worries. In the imagined letter he wrote to me first, this friend asked about the ever-present issues having to do with gender and sexuality in the Church. So in what follows, I will give my perspective on these controversial topics, ones that seem much more relevant now then ever before.

As a side note, I am very aware that I am a straight male and of all the privilege that comes with that status. In what follows I will talk about issues proper to women and LGBT individuals, but know that I don't have firsthand experience of the issues they commonly face. In the case that your experience goes against what I say here, I defer to your judgment and experience. 


My dear friend,

It's so good to hear from you! How long has it been since we last met? Ages, undoubtedly.... In any case, I'm both flattered and a little embarrassed that you sent me this letter. You ask some tough questions (some that I have asked many times myself), but in many ways I don't feel qualified to give you an answer. I'm not much older than you, and I suspect I don't have nearly as much knowledge about gospel questions as you think. But I will try to give you my best answers...solutions that have occurred to me when I've pondered these toughest of questions

Your first question is interesting, and I can't say it's something I haven't wondered myself: "Why does the Church distinguish between men and women in roles and responsibilities?". Here's my crack at it; tell me what you think:

While I don't deign to understand all the mysteries of God, I've done my fair share of reading with religious texts. As such, I've begun to notice a pattern. Wherever they talk about two complementary opposites, they usually will have something of the following in mind: one of the opposites is active, and has more to do with doing than with being what it is. On the other hand, the other opposite is more subsistent, and has more to do with being than doing. If I were to continue this pattern in a list of attributes, it would look like this:
  • Opposite 1
    • Activity
    • Doing
    • Categorization and distinction 
    • Form 
    • Contingency 
    • Transcendence 
    • Externality
  • Opposite 2
    • Existence
    • Being
    • Unity and reconciliation
    • Substance
    • Necessity
    • Immanence
    • Internality
Knowing all this, I'm about to say something that you could very easily take the wrong way. You see, the masculine and the feminine as symbols or archetypes correspond to Opposite 1 and Opposite 2, respectively. By that I do not mean that women can't be active or do things. Likewise, I don't mean that men can't work toward unity and reconciliation. All I intend to say is this:

The masculine and the feminine, as archetypes that manifest themselves in human bodies, are symbols of higher spiritual realities.

This will take some explaining. Many great spiritual teachers (like Swedenborg and Ibn Arabi, for instance) have taught that the physical world is nothing more than a collection of symbols that represent higher spiritual realities. You've heard of allegories, right? Like how the Chronicles of Narnia supposedly symbolize Christian teachings? Well, these teachers say that the entire world is like that--that every little thing you see is a symbolic correspondence of something that exists in the eternities. That might be a little hard to believe, but my experience has told me that they're onto something. Many coincidences in my life have been too meaningful to ascribe to mere chance, and they make it seem like my life is the plot of a story. You know about literary techniques like foreshadowing, motifs, and recurrent metaphors? Well, my life has those, and I bet yours does, too. You just need to look for them.

Along those lines, even you are a symbol. That's how I interpret the idea of the relation between my spirit and my body--my body is a symbolic image in the physical world of an existing being in the world of spirit. Now, there's nothing that stops you from being a symbol of multiple things at once--you're the image of God, aren't you? I interpret that to mean that both God and that spiritual "you" express themselves symbolically as your physical body. 

So too with the masculine and the feminine. If you know your anatomy, you'll see the principles listed above written in each sex's bodily attributes: men are usually physically stronger, and multiple male bodily functions evoke the ideas of directness and force toward the outside world. The woman's body, on the other hand, is far more internal--not only are the reproductive organs more hidden, but the woman's internal body temperature is higher than the man's (just as the man's external body temperature is higher). The idea, then, is that the masculine as an archetype manifests itself in the bodies of men, and the feminine as an archetype manifests itself in the bodies of women.

But again, you are not identical with either the masculine or the feminine--one of them just expresses itself in your body. While it is true that these archetypes can and do express themselves in our personalities, these are inconsistent and have many exceptions. The feminine, after all, can express itself just as fully in a man's mind as in the mind of a woman (and vice versa). Before you are a man or a woman, you are human, and your humanity is the most important symbol making upon your being. Because your mind is not identical with either the masculine or the feminine, there is nothing that stops you from going after your own path. Women should definitely pursue careers. Likewise, I see nothing wrong with a stay-at-home dad. Do whatever you want to do with your life, and don't let stereotypical gender roles determine your destiny.

But while you are identical with neither the masculine or the feminine, it is an unalterable fact that your body expresses one of them far more fully than the other. While this says nothing about your inner nature, it is not an accident that you are the gender that you are.  For a purpose only God can know, He gave you both your body and all the spiritual expectations that come with it. Gender, you see, is a compass. If you do what God tells you to do with respect to your gender, it will open up a window by which the light of heaven can come in and infuse your everyday life.

I speak, of course, of eternal marriage. In God's plan, men and women (regardless of sexual orientation) are expected to cleave together for eternity. And it is this that lets heaven come down to earth. Am I saying that the man and the woman need each other to be complete? Not really, though this often does happen. Instead, I mean something far more spiritual than psychological:

Eternal marriage, and the sexual union it permits, are a sacrament that symbolizes the union of Opposite 1 and Opposite 2 in the eternities.

In this respect, marriage and sex are powerful in the same respect that the sacrament is powerful--they act as symbols that represent spiritual realities and processes. But here's the key point: by approaching this ritual prayerfully, you can use it to discern the nature of eternity and the things of God. Again, you are not identical with Opposite 1 or 2 any more than the bread in the sacrament is literally Christ's flesh--your body is just a living symbol of it. But your sacred duty is to use your body to represent the mysteries of eternity, for by doing so you can find yourself in heaven while still on earth.

This observation is conceptually close to the reason why women can't be ordained to the priesthood in the Church. As far as I can tell...

The reason only men can have the authority of the priesthood is because men, as a symbol of Opposite 1, represent the active aspect of divinity. On the other hand, women represent divinity's subsistent and self-existent aspect.

In a sense, you can think of these differences as you would with ballroom dancing. While it is true that one partner in the dance leads far more than the other, it is only because of this seeming imbalance that the dance is beautiful (i.e. it is the reason that it conveys the aesthetic reality that manifests through it). And there is a beauty in the dance, don't you think? To see the masculine and the feminine so play off of and complement each other is a joy to my heart. And just like with the aforementioned dance of divinity, the fact that the woman acts receptively while dancing says nothing about who she is as a person. She might very well be an athlete or even a soldier, but she chooses to participate in the dance in order to convey beauty that cannot come any other way. Likewise, the fact that a woman doesn't have the priesthood says nothing about her inherent worth, her spiritual power, or her closeness to God.

Before I move onto your next question, let me offer a brief aside. While no one is wholly identical with the masculine or the feminine, it has become clear to me that the feminine is closer to the essence of divinity than the masculine is. It is true that the masculine is associated with the priesthood, or the "power of God"; however, the feminine is associated with something far closer to divinity than power. You see,

The feminine represents the being of God, and as such conveys divinity even more than the masculine priesthood.

I think that this is why we don't speak of the Heavenly Mother. Speaking is an action, an act of conceptualization and categorization, but the feminine in God transcends all of that. To use Wittgensteinian language, we cannot say things of the Mother--we can only show them. The feminine in the divine lies closer to divinity (and to us) than any theory, idea, or unit of speech, and it would be nothing less than idolatry to so convey it. But the Mother is very present in the Church--she shows herself through the unspoken mysteries of our faith, those that all the faithful know but cannot put into words. In that sense, she is the foundation upon which all divinity rests, for without her all action and power would be empty.

Now to your second (and last) question: "Why do you think that God sends some people to the world with same-sex attraction? Isn't that unfair?" This, my friend, is a doozie of a question. If all that I said above is true, it would seem to go against the divine plan to make people sexually desire what is inherently sinful. Some have taken this dilemma to suggest that same-sex attraction is a choice, that we all come straight, but that some of us somehow mess up and become gay. This is a cruel lie, one bred of ignorance, one that has caused far more pain than good. I declare in opposition that just as you did not choose your gender, you did not choose your orientation. But I will go further: no matter who you are or who you desire sexually, that desire was not given to you as a curse, but as a blessing. 

You may think me crazy, but let me explain myself. Sexual desire comes in two core aspects: there are the physical sensations proper to the sexual hunger, and there are the mental fantasies that stoke the fire of those sensations. Both are blessings, and both are there to teach you. Let me treat them one by one:

The physical sensations that come with sexual desire may be the most pressing and urgent drive you've ever felt. You may have fallen prey to these urges at times, finding yourself submerged beneath their rising currents. You may also have learned to forcefully subdue these feelings. As the Mormon thinker Adam S. Miller pointed out in this book Letters to a Young Mormon (link), both of these strategies will leave you lifeless. You were not given your hunger in order either to carelessly succumb to it or to mentally force it down, but to use it for higher purposes. What I'm about to describe is difficult, and may take years of practice, but the time will come when you learn to channel your hunger to something ambitious and constructive.

C. S. Lewis wrote an allegory that explains this point. He says that a man arrives at the gates of heaven with a lizard on his shoulder, one that constantly whacks his face with its tail. An angel at the gate says that he could not enter heaven with the lizard, and offers to destroy it. The man eventually accepts the offer and lets the angel use a wave of fire to kill the reptile. Though it painfully scalds the man in the process, when he looks down at the lizard's corpse, he watches it grow and transform into a magnificent stallion. He then mounts the horse and charges energetically into the wonders of heaven.

The lizard is your sexual hunger, and the horse is the courage, vitality, and energy that will come when you choose not to succumb to it. This will take a great deal of pain and discouragement, but you will eventually realize that the sexual hunger you experience is heaven's boundless energy lying dormant in you. When you bridle your hunger, you will discover more capacity than you would have ever known.

In this respect, straight people are no different from gay people. We both have an incessant sexual drive, and though it may be directed at different objects, we must both learn to master it and redirect it constructively. Thus, the energy and sensations of that hunger are a blessing for all.

But what about the fantasies that stoke the hunger? They are blessings, too, but this will take some more explaining. I own a book (link) that makes a most unusual claim, one that I'll here quote word for word:

"As a rule of thumb, it can be said that what we yearn for sexually is a symbolic representation of what we need in order to become whole."

This is a principle that, though I was initially skeptical, has proven true again and again. In the most normal kinds of sexuality, the man's desire for the woman is a sign that he needs to incorporate the feminine into his mind, as is true with women and the masculine. But it is more comprehensive than this.

The book I just quoted from gives the interesting example of a man that could only make love to a woman by first kissing her feet. He naturally thought that he was perverted in some way, but when he went to a therapist he eventually discovered that he looked down on women as if he were superior to them. The act of kissing the woman's feet was his mind's way of letting him know that he needed to treat women with more value, for it caused him to act subserviently to a woman, almost as if he were worshiping her.

There are other examples of this principle: one woman who had rape fantasies realized that she was too controlling, and a man who fantasized about becoming a woman realized that he was not using his potential for empathy as fully as he could have. You can imagine many more examples, I'm sure.

But the key point here is that your fantasies tell you where you need to go. By harnessing that strongest of all energies, they forcefully point us in the right direction, even if we can't understand it at the time.

By all means, this should work for gay people, too. Though it would be a gross oversimplification to say that all gay people have their desires for the same reason, in each case it seems true that their desires and fantasies should point them symbolically where they need to go. I don't know what these directions are, by any means.  But I have seen to much to suppose that our innate sexualities are accidents.

However, I'm not saying that gay people should give into their sexual desires in a physical way. That goes against the principles of the sexual sacrament I mentioned above, for sex should primarily be a symbolic conveyance of complementary spiritual realities. What I am saying is that you should pay close attention to your fantasies and heed where they symbolically point you.

You see, nothing in our sexuality should be regarded as perverted or evil. While we aren't permitted to physically embody all of our fantasies, they can all teach you about your mind, your soul, and your life. Likewise, the sensations and energy of sexual hunger can give your purpose, energy, and resolve where other things wouldn't have. So don't feel like you need a sexual outlet in order to be happy--many people before you have gotten along very happily without one. 

But in any case, don't feel like your sexuality is a curse. It is a blessing, whatever it is. You just need faith that it will bear fruit (a lack of chastity is, after all, a sexual lack of faith). Have faith that, if you cleave unto God and His gospel, he will lead you to His kingdom, a place where all the deficiencies that contribute to your hunger will be filled, so that you will be whole.

That's that, then. You may not like my answers, but they are from my heart, and I intend them to help whoever reads them. 

Take care,

1 comment:

  1. Christian, your mind is a wonder... I appreciate your intelligent study and careful explanation of this sensitive topic.