Margaret Merrill Toscano’s Theology: An Appreciation

One of the most frustrating, perplexing, bewildering, thought-provoking, and finally powerful books on Mormon theology that I have ever read is Strangers in Paradox: Explorations in Mormon Theology by Margaret Merrill Toscano and her husband, Paul Toscano. In celebration of Margaret Toscano’s recent guest post at Feminist Mormon Housewives, and also as an opportunity to express the exhilarations and frustrations that are my subjective response to her work, I would like to offer a brief appreciation of her contributions to Mormon theology. In my view, Toscano is one of the most important Mormon theological writers of our generation. She, more than perhaps anyone else currently writing, asks the right questions and offers fascinating, challenging, and sometimes flabbergasting responses. I am hard-pressed to think of any other recent writer who has done more creative work with the theological symbols of Mormonism.

Toscano’s approach to Mormon theology is one that has often cut against the grain for many readers. This may be in part for reasons connected with her personal history; as most readers will know, she was excommunicated as part of the spate of church disciplinary actions against Mormon intellectuals during the first half of the 1990s. Yet this should not be an obstacle to our ability to read and engage with her ideas. The LDS church excommunicates people, not publications. I am, of course, ill-equipped to determine what, if any, effect Toscano’s excommunication may have for her own spiritual life. Whether that effect is large or small, positive or negative, we ought to set aside our ideas about it when thinking about her work. When we read a book, we engage a text, and the author is present only through her chosen words and crafted ideas.

A second obstacle for many Mormon readers is Toscano’s chosen mode of intellectual endeavor. History is almost certainly the dominant intellectual mode among Mormons, yet Toscano does not write history, and indeed calls on history only to provide moments of inspiration, clarification, or illustration for theological ideas. Rather, Toscano works directly with theological ideas and images; she is a crafter of myth. In her words,

History is often characterized as the opposite of myth because history deals in the scientific discovery of verifiable facts and events, while myth is seen merely as the product of imagination. The modern, objectivist world prefers history and often denigrates myth. But each contributes interdependently to our culture and our understanding of the world. Where history attempts to reconstruct the past fact by fact, myth attempts to see the meaning of the facts as they relate to one another, and to the whole fabric of human knowledge and human experience–past, present, and future. History deals largely with cause and effect; myth deals primarily with modes of understanding…. Objective fact is not unimportant. On the contrary, it is extremely important that hypotheses and theories be tied to reality–to actual experience–lest we construct worldviews of delusion that lead people to deny their real feelings and experience. Myth, then, is not white-washed or fanciful history but an acknowledgment that facts, like salamanders, are slippery things, that objectivity is also a point of view, and that data is usually determined by what individuals perceive. (“Beyond Matriarchy, Beyond Patriarchy,” pgs. 32-33)

For the intellectual accustomed to historical arguments based on close readings of primary source texts, or on disputes regarding the relative credibility of competing narratives, this mythic approach is often unfamiliar and, perhaps, challenging. Even for Mormon theologians, however, Toscano’s work may be challenging and somewhat unfamiliar in its intellectual methodology. In comparison with such theologians as Sterling McMurrin or Blake Ostler, Toscano is far less interested in linking European analytic philosophy with Mormon thought. In comparison with scriptural exegetes, she is less prone to privilege original authors’ intended meanings for sacred texts. While these attributes are in many ways a departure from Mormon theological custom, they are intellectual moves that place Toscano squarely in the newer tradition of feminist theology. Feminist theology refuses to recognize a distinction between the objective and the subjective, instead insisting that personal experience must and should play a central role in how believers understand the object of their belief. In Toscano’s very Mormon words,

The point is that we must rely upon our own experience to understand the meaning of scriptural tradition in our own lives. In a sense, we are each like Joseph in the grove, who realized he must approach God for himself, since the teachers of religion “understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible” (JS-H 2:12). (ibid, pg. 35)

Toscano’s work in bringing this subjectivist, experiential approach to bear in thinking about Mormon theology is a major contribution, and one of the reasons I regard her as a great and probably lasting voice in Mormon religious thought. Yet what she has done with these intellectual tools is at least equally important.

Margaret Toscano has, for decades now, boldly and consistently forced her readers to confront the increasingly muddled state of Mormon thought about the place of women in the Kingdom of God, on Earth and in Heaven. In her work on the feminine and the divine, as well as on women’s proper place in the church, Toscano has offered a wide range of images, myths, and reinterpretations that move Christian and Mormon ideas from the domain of patriarchy into a new realm in which the masculine and the feminine have the potential to be mutually reinforcing and perhaps even, in a word I will misappropriate from Joseph Smith, “co-equal.” Toscano has given us (in the Dialogue article linked above) Eve as a mother goddess, Jesus as the mortal insult to patriarchy, the Second Coming as a literal marriage and revelation of the divine feminine. In “The Missing Rib: The Forgotten Place of Queens and Priestesses in the Establishment of Zion”, she reminds us that women become priestesses through the highest temple ceremonies, that they act with ritual authority to initiate other women into temple rites, and that they are the agents in performing the final steps in the highest mortal ordinance. Thus, in priesthood as in other things,

…in God’s plan men and women possess balanced responsibilities. For while males are intended to initiate, females are intended to complete and bring to fruition.

In the provocatively titled, “If Mormon Women Have Had the Priesthood Since 1843, Why Aren’t They Using It?”, Toscano confronts the paradox that, although women receive the priesthood through temple ordinances (either the endowment, as Toscano, Quinn, and others argue, or the second anointing as many, including BCC’s own J. Stapley, assert), they are not visibly using it in the modern church. Yet, this is in part because we fail to recognize the moments when women do exercise priesthood:

This is evident in the lives of faithful women of all dispensations from Sarah the princess of peace to Huldah the prophetess, from Eliza R. Snow the high priestess to Cheiko Okazaki the healer.

Yet, she reminds us, more could and should be done. Many women do not prepare for priesthood power because they believe that God denies it to them. Others abstain because they do not want to join a hierarchical system of authority. These obstacles are not, for Toscano, inevitable or permanent; she concludes with an invitation for us to find ways of rebuilding God’s kingdom along lines of love, persuasion, and equality — ways that would invite both women and men to fully develop all spiritual gifts. A powerful recapitulation of all these themes can be found in Toscano’s contribution to the seminal edited volume, “Women and Authority: Reemerging Mormon Feminism.”

In the book that I regard as both her and her husband’s masterpiece (at least to date), Strangers in Paradox, Toscano invites us to explore how areas in Mormon scripture and Mormon prophecy that most regard as difficulties or even obstacles to faith may offer resolutions to the problems of patriarchy and matriarchy, male and female, sexism, authority and individualism, and grace and works. Rather than finessing such issues as the apparent differences between the Book of Mormon’s view of the Godhead and modern Mormon conceptions, or Brigham Young’s repeated and adamant teaching of Adam-God theories, the Toscanos embrace such concepts. The Adam-God teaching proves particularly fertile; if Adam was an exalted being made mortal, so perhaps was Eve. Perhaps, for Mormons, Eve truly was a mother goddess, in a literal sense inaccessible to other Christians. Such a position, which builds on statements by Brigham Young and other 19th-century Mormon leaders, gives us an incarnation of feminine divinity and makes us all created in Her image as well as His. In addition to these thoughts about the Godhead, the book offers provocative insights — or insightful provocations — regarding priesthood, redemption, marriage, and the temple. The scope, breadth, depth, and intelligence of this text are, in my view, without peer in the Mormon theological writing of my lifetime.

Last, but far from least, we may consider Toscano’s more recent work. Internet versions are available for two recent papers or articles: “Is There a Place for Heavenly Mother in Mormon Theology? An Investigation into Discourses of Power” and “Are Boys More Important than Girls? The Conflict of Gender Difference and Equality in Mormonism.” The first is a fascinating, and perhaps one-of-a-kind, exploration into the power dynamics behind the creation of legitimate Mormon theological discourse. The second is a thorough and rhetorically powerful exploration of gender inequality and gender identity in current official Mormon discourse and practice. Allow me a heartbreaking anecdote from the introduction to the paper:

“Are boys more important than girls?” This question was asked by an 8-year old Mormon boy who had been left behind with his mother and sisters while his father and older brother attended the October 2004 priesthood session of general conference. When the boy’s mother answered that boys and girls are indeed equally important, this eight-year old contradicted her with bracing candor: “I think,” he said “that boys are more important because Jesus and Heavenly Father are boys, and boys get the priesthood and girls don’t.”

For all the intellectual importance and social and spiritual value that I see in much of this work, I remain frustrated. Three problems, in particular, remain unresolved. The first is an experiential problem of my own. My experience of God is that divinity is most accessible to me when my ideas are the simplest. Yet the egalitarian force of Toscano’s theological ideas comes from their complexities. I admire the power she develops from Adam-God conceptions, yet I find such concepts difficult to embrace; they seem to demand a cosmology of numerous mortal rebirths and of a multiplicity of divine incarnations, a cosmology that stretches far beyond my simpler faith. Toscano’s work convinces me that there must be more than I understand, that women must not be absent from the realm of heavenly action. Yet her solutions to this problem are rather too baroque for my more austere experience of the divine.

Second, I worry that, in celebrating the role of the feminine in God’s plan above and below, Toscano risks reifying, even deifying, gender conceptions that are mortal, transient, contingent, and perhaps even unjust. If the “feminine” is something other than women, then exalting the feminine may paradoxically serve to trap individual women (and men) in roles they would not choose and are not, perhaps, suited for. In resisting sexist conceptions that place women below men, I hope we can make progress without essentializing culturally-specific theories of gender traits and roles that often underpin sexism in the first place.

Third, I worry that a renewed emphasis on the complementarity of men and women, and on the union between Heavenly Father and Mother deities, risks further marginalizing gays and lesbians within the Mormon community. If God is, in the fullest sense, a union of exalted man and exalted woman, then a gay man who has no desire for a female partner is fundamentally less like God than a straight, married man. This theological move seems to have the potential to enhance the position of straight women in Mormon theology and myth, while simultaneously pushing other currently subordinated groups even further from the Mormon limelight.

Comments

  1. Let’s see…she was wont to abuse primary sources and invent theology that defies all historical precedent. I don’t find the theology engaging. I don’t really care if it cuts across my grain or not, it ultimately isn’t particularly relevant. You are correct that she isn’t interested in scholarship or philosophy, she is engaged in making a new faith tradition.

    I don’t know Margaret and I understand that her ejection from the community of Saints was painful. I don’t propose that we ostracize anyone. But this hagiography is fairly baseless. RT, what you praise is far overshadowed by what there is to criticize. Tascono is no harbinger of a new Mormon era. These works are not seminal.

  2. I confess I haven’t read Margaret Toscano’s work enough to really respond to what you have to say, JNS, but I do think that you’re somewhat incorrect when you say “When we read a book, we engage a text, and the author is present only through her chosen words and crafted ideas.” We don’t read in a vacuum, and there’s no use pretending that we do.

  3. JNS, please don’t tell me you just described Women and Authority (of all books!) with an adjective derived directly from male reproductive physiology.

    “Germinal” . . . the word you’re looking for is “germinal.”

  4. Since I haven’t read the book I probably should just ignore the post (like I ignored the book), but I’ll go ahead and guess that my view of it would be much like J’s. It is not obvious to me from what I’ve heard that she recognizes the Church’s ordained leadershiip as having any substantive authority. At which point, I don’t know what she’s creating but it ain’t Mormonism.

    I also agree completely with Steve. It _is_ relevant that this line of thinking was likely related to her excommunication and, if it was, that could not be more relevant to evaluating the book’s contribution to the world and the gospel. That seems obvious.

    Also, the title of her word uses the word paradox, and if there is a single thing most annoying to me about the humanities it is the desire to try to label everything a paradox. Bad Toscano.

  5. I think your problem #3, JNS, is a serious problem. By finding a stronger place for straight women in heaven, this theology continues to alienate gay women (and gay men, of course). I wonder if she’s thought about that.

    Brother Stapley,
    You have a very positivist view of theology. This is wholly legitimate, but it’s also legitimate to make theology rather than simply deduce it from an “objective” reading of historical “facts.” Frank’s question is important in this regard. Is it Mormon to “create” theology? It’s certainly Smithian. Frank captures an orthodox view of things, of course: Smith (and his successors) are authorised to create theology. Toscano isn’t. That’s why her work is perceived as dangerous.

  6. Well, the question is really whether Smith was “making” theology or was revealing it. I would think that orthodox believers tend to the latter and reject the idea “making” theology at all (i.e., “making” theology is what the scholastics and doctors were doing that got the Christian tradition away from pure doctrine).

  7. Right.

    One other point: I hear a great deal of “invented” theology in Sunday School, Sacrament Meeting, among missionaries and members, and right here on the ol’ interwebs. Even esteemed LDS academics and leaders have fallen prone to a bit of scripture-philosophy mingling from time to time. None of it agitates me that much mostly because I realise that I do it too.

    So, when is it worthy of being agitating?

  8. Kristine says:

    “Since I haven’t read the book I probably should just ignore the post”

    Thou hast said…

  9. as most readers will know, she was excommunicated as part of the spate of church disciplinary actions against Mormon intellectuals during the first half of the 1990s

    She was excommunicated not because she (or any of the others ) were intellectuals. There were and are likely hundreds or thousands (do intellectuals do a census to keep count of themselves?) who were not excommunicated at that time, or any time since.

  10. Problem #3 only becomes an issue of paradigm. What if, instead of “man” and “woman” we substitute “masculine” and “feminine.” Many traditions describe the divine masculine and feminine, the yin and yang, and the yin/yang symbol, divided in half, show graphically what we all understand intuitively — that no person is wholly masculine or feminine but contains elements of each. In finding an appropriate complement, one searches for those elements that are missing in oneself. Perhaps it is our definitions of man and woman that limit our understanding of the wholeness of godhood.

  11. Matt W. says:

    I don’t appreciate Toscano. I can tell you that just from reading the linked article at FMH…

  12. Steve Evans says:

    Frank (#4): “I also agree completely with Steve. It _is_ relevant that this line of thinking was likely related to her excommunication…”

    hold on there, smokey, that’s not quite what I was saying. I was just addressing the general notion that the author herself doesn’t affect what the text means. I don’t know how far to go in the other direction just yet. I think it’s certainly relevant to remember what happened to Margaret Toscano, but in what way? As a cautionary tale? As a story that should move us to pathos? I guess I just haven’t decided yet, and I don’t know that there’s any definitive answer on that point. But I am pretty sure that I’m not yet ready to make the leap to saying that she was excommunicated because of “this line of thinking,” and that therefore all that she has to say must be ignored….

  13. Yet this should not be an obstacle to our ability to read and engage with her ideas. The LDS church excommunicates people, not publications.

    Maybe, but people are often excommunicated because of their publications, and that should present some sort of obstacle, or at least a marginally more critical eye, to a believing Mormon.

  14. Steve,

    I think its hard to say exactly what caused her ex. If I remember right it was in 2000 7 years after the September 6. We will never really know because we will only hear from her side of the story. Not from the SP or GA involved.

    Speaking of the september 6 I really do have sympathy Quinn. He divulged stories esp about polygamy that my family lived and had to deal with into the 1970’s. They were the stories that families like mine whispered about and tried to hide from others. I suspect that he would have been dealt with differently in 2007. How would Bushman have fared with RSR in the early 1990’s?

  15. Folks, I appreciate that excommunication is a hot-button issue. I think that discussion of how excommunication should relate to our approach to reading Toscano’s work is entirely appropriate in this thread, but comments about the reasons behind — or process leading up to — Toscano’s excommunication are not on topic. Further remarks on that track will be edited or moderated, to avoid a flame war. Thanks.

  16. bbell,
    That’s the thing about the excommunications that really sticks in my craw. It all just seems so arbitrary. I have no theoretical objection to discipline taken against public apostasy, but as the implementation of such a policy varies wildly, it all seems so terribly unfair.

  17. Ah. Apologies, JNS.

  18. I agree that we should not reject Toscano’s ideas simply because of her contraversial reputation or excommunicated status. We should evaluate the ideas on their own merits, and if we reject them, it should be because they are bad ideas. I suppose a supposedly wayward believer could still have valid religious insights. Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t completely wrong about everything, and even the devils from New Testament stories seem to have known that Jesus was the Son of God.

  19. Pardon the tongue-in-cheek–I don’t mean to equate Toscano with a JW or a devil. And I know how to spell “controversial,” too.

  20. Sorry Steve, I was agreeing that the author matters and then embarking on my own thoughts. I was not trying to rope you into my whole comment. Although that might be fun to try. Maybe from now on I’ll start every comment with, “I agree with Steve…”

    -“I agree with Steve, Ronan really is insane.”
    -“I agree with Steve, No way is Captain America coming back to life, he’s dead for good.”

    Kristine: “Thou hast said…”

    I thought you’d appreciate that. But hey, aren’t you the bloggernaccle’s mostly “sorely missed”? How can I miss you if you won’t go away? :)

    Ronan: “So, when is it worthy of being agitated?”

    Certainly it is no easy feat to “judge righteous judgment”. But we stumble on…

    CE,

    I think the point is that _if_ MT were excommunicated for her ideas, this would, to those who take an orthodox view of authority, be strong evidence that those ideas are apostate. And, in fact, that evidence would probably be more important than the academic arguments we had about the theology in the book.

    Of course, as JNS and bbell have rightly pointed out, we don’t know why she got disciplined. Suppose I, subjectively, think there is a 50-50 shot that it was because of her writings. Well then that is a pretty strong signal that the writings are wrong. Once again, this is predicated on believing an LDS orthodox theory of authority, which I do. If you have a more Toscano-like approach to authority then the excommunication would matter not at all. In fact it might be a positive sign!

  21. Frank M.:

    …and if there is a single thing most annoying to me about the humanities it is the desire to try to label everything a paradox.

    I hear you, brotherman. Academic thechno-jargon bugs me too. I used to take classes from guys who could drone on for hours about regressions and random walks and specialixation of labor. I could take a nap, and when I woke up they were still at it, talking about elastic something or other. :-)

  22. Oh Mark, I can live with jargon, it really is the paradox obsession that bugs me.

    “I could take a nap, and when I woke up they were still at it, talking about elastic something or other. :-)”

    Sounds like heaven…

  23. I think it should be obvious that for a believing Mormon the fact that an author was excommunicated should affect how they read the author’s work, especially if the book’s publication and excommunication were close in time. Some of us have absorbed a lot of indoctrination to the contrary (about evaluating ideas without thinking of the people), and so it has become less than obvious, but it still should be. Caution, at least, is clearly in order.

    That said,, I am really surprised that we have gotten this far into the comments of a blog with a readership as intelligent as this, with so little substantive discussion of Margaret Toscano’s work!

    Frank raised a fundamental question. I think if we re-phrase it, we can see that it is actually legitimate. Suppose Frank had said, “RT, you are telling me Toscano’s theology is worth reading. But from what I understand, she doesn’t accept that the current church leadership have any substantive authority. If so, we disagree on such a fundamental point that it is hard for me to believe there is any point in reading it. Are you still telling me I should?”

    Then it seems there are two main lines of response RT might take:
    (i) Actually you are wrong; she does recognize the authority of current leaders.
    (ii) Actually you’re right about her take on authority, but no, that shouldn’t diminish your interest (because x and y . . .)

    RT, do either of these lines of response seem appropriate?

  24. I read the Dialogue piece some years after it came out. I will agree with JNS that she raises issues and opens up questions that don’t receive much attention and might be significant to some people. But in the end, the feeling I had about her work is illustrated by JNS’s chiasmus:

    the book offers provocative insights — or insightful provocations

    There is a world of difference between these two, and I would describe the work which I’ve read as the latter. It consisted of interesting examples and questions but they don’t appear to come to any conclusions. The level of subjectivity she uses as the standard for truth allows for creative thinking, but it strikes me as impractical to the point where I’m not sure it’s theology. But maybe I’m too accustomed to more traditional texts and she’s too ‘new-fangled’ for me. But I found more provocation than insight.

    While faith and authority might sometimes be in conflict, the complete rejection of one over the other–either way–doesn’t help me with my faith. This isn’t about just happening to disagree with the leaders–it’s about methodology.

  25. Ben, thanks for the comments. In fact, Toscano’s excommunication does not follow closely on the heels of the publication of any particular major piece of work. We obviously bring ideas about her excommunication to reading anything she wrote — but if her ideas are wrong, we should be able to explain why in terms of the ideas.

    Regarding the substantive question, I simply find it difficult to respond. Does Toscano respect the substantive authority of current church leaders? I don’t know. Current leaders do very little theology, so there is surprisingly little overlap. Toscano’s published work certainly does contain some criticisms of statements by some current church leaders, although this is in fact not a central theme in most of her work. But — after all — many faithful Mormon scholars sometimes criticize some specific leaders. From my position, I find it simply impossible to answer whether Toscano respects leaders’ authority — or for that matter whether Frank does. Such respect is primarily a personal matter that is hard to measure in intellectual work.

    Response number two would be appropriate to me if it were to be established that Toscano does not, in the relevant sense, respect current authority. Even for people who disagree profoundly, as I occasionally do (see my three critiques at the end of the post), Toscano’s ideas are provocative and intelligent enough to be worth serious consideration. Like flint and steel, rubbing yourself against very smart people who are quite different can produce the sparks of new insight or ideas, sometimes even ideas diametrically opposed to the desired message of the author, but produced by the interaction with her nonetheless.

  26. I actually have read Toscano, and people seem to be talking past each other and would be even if they had read her work. As I read Toscano’s work, she is faced with a problem, the historical mess of patrarchy and the apparent longstanding project of sexual injustice which has left many women uncertain how to connect with the divine in a wide variety of traditions, including Mormonism. For a Mormon woman who is confronting these problems, there are several possible solutions. One is that adopted by my mother, which is to prayerfully ignore the theoretical and theological issues and to press on in full belief in the equality of women while allowing church hierarchy to work on what it will work on. Another is to accept current church teachings (the neo-Victorian family, patriarchal priesthood) and find meaning in them. Another is to say Mormonism is irreparably doomed by its patriarchy and reject the tradition entirely. Another is to accept current church authorities and to work to bring about change within that system, an approach that often draws on resolving institutional racism as its exemplary success. Yet another is what I perceive to be Toscano’s approach, which is to try to draw from the tradition to craft a new one, Mormon-themed but not institutionally Mormon. In a name-calling mode, one would designate this sectarian Mormonism, and though this designation is flawed by its polemic quality, I think it does draw to attention a difference in approach to the definition of Mormonism. Toscano proposes a new vision of essential Mormonism that is in current competition with the institutional church.
    For those who desire to solve the problems of sexual injustice within institutional constraints, Toscano’s approach may be a poor fit. For those who wish to shed those constraints, Toscano’s approach may be an excellent fit.
    Given the relative unpopularity of this middle solution (between entire rejection of Mormonism and maintenance of institutional constraints), I am not certain that Toscano will have a longstanding influence on the course of Mormonism, but I think it’s reasonable to share one’s own attempts to negotiate these tensions.

  27. Frank (4) writes:

    It is not obvious to me from what I’ve heard that she recognizes the Church’s ordained leadershiip as having any substantive authority. At which point, I don’t know what she’s creating but it ain’t Mormonism.

    And by extension: It’s not obvious that Joseph Smith recognized ordained Christian leaders as having any authority. I don’t know what he created, but it ain’t Christianity.

  28. Kaimi, that’s funny, but a bit disingenuous, isn’t it? Authority claims are central to mormonism; they weren’t necessarily so to Christian leaders during Smith’s time. You can have all kinds of Christians without reverting to claims of ordained authority — not so for the LDS.

  29. Matt Thurston says:

    Great post, JNS. I’ve seen many a faithful Mormon have the same glowing response to Strangers in Paradox. I haven’t read it yet, but your post reminds me that I need to.

  30. As I have often stated, I’m absolutly no theology wonk, so I don’t feel qualified really to comment on the content of this post other to say, thank you RT and this is just fascinating.

  31. I agree with Steve. If Toscano is to Mormonism what Joseph Smith was to 19th century Christianity she’d better have some angels or gold plates to back her up.

    JNS, If you really can’t tell the difference in views on authority between me and Toscano, I am pretty sure that we are not going to be able to communicate effectively :)

  32. Frank, that’s strike two. If you agree with me one more time, you will be changed forever into Were-Frank, doomed to walk the earth for 300 years to snark lightweight arguments.

  33. I agree with Steve. If Frank makes one more comment that Steve doesn’t agree with after saying he agreed with Steve’s comment, I say Frank should be drawn and quartered– preferably after being disemboweled with dull spoons.

    Incidentally, “Were” apparently means something like man. So a Were-Frank would be a man that changes into a Frank at the full-moon?

  34. Frank, “were” on its own means man, but in the combined word it refers to a shapeshifter. In your case however I think it could be right — you might just appear to be human until the full moon, at which point you would revert to your Frank form. Buck up — this could be a step in the right direction with you.

  35. Well, I have actually read the Toscanos work and Strangers in Paradox. I reviewed it for Sunstone magazine December 1990 issue. Margaret is definitely a powerful intellect and the Toscanos have forged a fairly solid group of supporters that have been very influenced by their work. I don’t believe that what Toscano does can be called theology — certainly not in the sense it has been used in the West. I would call it mythmaking (story telling about the meaning of symbols) and creating an alternative competitor to the LDS Church — jettisoning its claims to authority (while still arguing that priesthood should be granted to females as a priesthood of all belivers). The book is a straight-forward challenge to reject the Church and adopt a revised gospel that, by their lights, is not as unujust and discriminatory.

    BTW Margaret herself states that her Stake Pres. felt that excommunication was warrented because he didn’t want any members to believe what she taught. If I suggested that we ought to jettison the GAs and the Church’s historical vision in favor of a more theologically sound version that rejects the priesthood authority, rejects significant portions of the revelations and relies on the best reasoning theologians we would have a fairly close analogue.

    I didn’t particularly like the book. I didn’t believe that it was well-reasoned and in fact what the Toscanos called paradox seemed to me to be outright contradiction in may ways (although I don’t see how a symbol can be contradictory, the claims as to how it functions and what it entails can be). The combination of attempted reasoning and myth-symbol as evocative basis of truth subjectively filled with any content one wishes, just don’t seem to me to be a sound basis for any theology. However, in the end these symbols may have more emotive power than any theology we can engage. That is why the Toscanos want to re-valuate LDS symbols with their meaning rather than the meaning and history of the LDS Church in which they function.

    That said, it is important to listen to any voice that claims that there is inequality or injustice in the way we treat women. However, bad theology in furtherance of that goal is an injustice to women in my view.

  36. The reason that I find Toscano distasteful and, therefore, the reason that I have neglected and will likely continue to neglect her work is ably displayed in the comments thusfar.

    Although I don’t know if Toscano would apply the term “prophetess” to herself, we have the following comments from the peanut gallery:
    From Sam MB:

    Yet another is what I perceive to be Toscano’s approach, which is to try to draw from the tradition to craft a new one, Mormon-themed but not institutionally Mormon. In a name-calling mode, one would designate this sectarian Mormonism

    From Kaimi:

    And by extension: It’s not obvious that Joseph Smith recognized ordained Christian leaders as having any authority. I don’t know what he created, but it ain’t Christianity.

    Creating a “new” Mormonism is not the sort of work that most members are comfortable allowing a non-ecclesiastical leader to do (and the number of ecclesiastical leaders whom we would allow to do it is very small indeed). That Prof Toscano has taken it upon herself to do this, not solely in the sense of a thought experiment, but seemingly with the intent to produce change along the lines that she suggests, seems to me to be the reason behind the indifference her ideas face outside of a limited circle of admirers.

    If one wishes to transform the church, or more specifically our church, authority matters. Prof Toscano is very intelligent and asks provocative questions, but as to authority, she has none.

  37. Thanks for the candor, Sam MB. My sense is that you are right on in suggesting what Toscano (of course we’re talking about Margaret for now) is really trying to do (in much of her work, anyway) is to construct something new that draws on the Mormon heritage but is not constrained (others might use another word) by the limits of the current institution and leadership. As you might expect, how valuable people find this will vary widely depending on their interest in or commitment to the current institution.

    (Full disclosure: I have read exactly one article (a couple years ago, two versions) by Margaret Toscano. I was on a panel where she presented it and had a few conversations with her around that time (then a second version appeared in Sunstone a few months later). I found her quite charming and enjoyed the discussion at the panel. So I haven’t read much of her work, but I’m not completely oblivious)

    Thanks for the reply, JNS. I completely agree that if someone’s ideas are wrong, we should normally be able to say why; I think you can tell that’s what I had in mind. Of course, we are also dealing with another question that for some will come first: “Are they worth my (considering who I am and what I care about) time?”

    You say that “respect” is a personal matter hard to judge from writing. Maybe so, but I don’t think “respect” in this sense is really what’s at issue here. By contrast, whether an author accepts an authority can often be judged by her work, by the way she refers or does not refer to an authority, and by how what she says fits with what the authority says. If someone says, “As Foucault showed us, XYZ” and then proceeds as though XYZ has been granted, then Foucault is functioning as an authority. If someone says something that is well known to run contrary to what Authority A says, and Authority A is on the radar of the expected audience, and the author either does not note the comparison at all, or says nothing to explain the clash, then Authority A is evidently not functioning as an authority in that work. Audiences for whom Authority A is an authority may find this off-putting.

    In the case of Toscano’s panel presentation, it seemed to me that people like Foucault were functioning as authorities in that text, and church leaders were not. I suspect that’s not the only thing she’s written where this is so. This matters for the question of who will find it valuable.

    JNS, do you find what Blake says surprising? Are there no clear signs of this in Strangers in Paradox?

  38. “Buck up — this could be a step in the right direction with you.”

    Great, now I’m a bucking were-Frank. That sounds extremely unpleasant.

  39. Ronan: (#5) You have a very positivist view of theology. This is wholly legitimate, but it’s also legitimate to make theology rather than simply deduce it from an “objective” reading of historical “facts.”

    False dichotomy alert. Surely there are a wide array of positions between positivists on the one hand and a free reading “anything goes” relativism on the other. I don’t think J. Stapley is being positivistic in the least to say that someone abuses primary sources. One can offer creative, even deconstructive readings. However the good sign of scholarship in such cases is a close reading which takes into account the texts in question.

    I’ll hold off debating how badly Toscano does this. It simply has been too long since I last read her writings. But it seems that this critique can’t be discounted so easily as you attempt.

    Is it Mormon to “create” theology? It’s certainly Smithian. Frank captures an orthodox view of things, of course: Smith (and his successors) are authorised to create theology. Toscano isn’t. That’s why her work is perceived as dangerous.

    This is, I think correct. As soon as one stops doing normal scholarship and starts creating independent of the texts then the issue is basically authority. And that’s precisely what Toscano did. (Wasn’t it his stuff on supposed abuse of authority that finally got her husband exed?)

    J. Nelson-Seawright (#25) In fact, Toscano’s excommunication does not follow closely on the heels of the publication of any particular major piece of work

    I suspect everyone is confusing Margaret with her husband Paul. Margaret was exed Nov. 2000 whereas her husband we excommunicated seven years earlier. She apparently wrote about it in Sunstone and (according to the wiki) is available online. I’ve not read it so I’ve no idea about her excommunication. Interestingly she had a short lived blog but it doesn’t mention anything I can see.

  40. I find myself to be a relatively educated woman. I’ve never felt substandard in our religion by not having the priesthood or wondered “am I equal to men?” When I hear people wonder that, I think, what are you crazy? How is that even an issue? In our religion where we tout the humblest among us being the ruler of all, why is being a Stake President such a wonderful thing? Do we fully believe what Christ taught about the least being the greatest? It seems not, from MT’s need to theologize a better Mormonism where women are “equal.” As an official diaper and nose wiper, I fully understand my position as a simple vineyard worker. I think it’s wonderful that my husband has the priesthood and I don’t. His place in our home is not on the wayside, as second mother, but as a father and priesthood holder, which coincidentally when fathers seem to be needed less and less by women that can “do it all,” it is wonderful foresight by our Heavenly Father.
    So to MT and all others who worry about us unequal women, put your fears to rest! I have no doubt about my equality. Let’s all get to work on conquering the basics of the gospel, namely faith in Christ and actions following, and perhaps the General Authorities will be able to enlighten us with more doctrines. It’s us that are holding the heavens back, perhaps we could learn more about our Heavenly Mother and women’s roles, but for now we’re all barely hanging in there to keep the church going and keeping the Spirit in our homes. I think our time would be better spent discussing ways to solve community problems, than trying to intellectualize far out and unapplicable ideas/”doctrines.”
    PS- the idea about the male/female union of God alienating gays isn’t even worth thinking about, we already know their orientation is incorrect and will be corrected in the next life, there’s no room in heaven for homosexual relationships. Pretty sure any gays in the church already are aware of that.

  41. I’ve never felt substandard in our religion by not having the priesthood or wondered “am I equal to men?” When I hear people wonder that, I think, what are you crazy?

    Yes, I am crazy. But it’s all Frank’s fault. He bit me, and now I’m a Were-Feminist.

  42. It may be instructive for us living here in the first few centuries AJS (after Joseph Smith) to consider the processes Christian theology went through in the first few centuries AD. For instance, an allegorical school of exegesis emerged, which in time went way beyond a scripturally-mandated typology to the highly subjective assigning of symbolic meaning to every word and number in scripture. It got pretty extravagant and began to take on a life of its own. Then there was the Antiochene reaction, which sought to reestablish typology proper by stipulating that the literal sense of the text should in no case be entirely abandoned and that there should be a fairly tight correspondence between the historical narrative and the proposed allegorical interpretation — i.e., a balance was sought between personal and general revelation.

    My personal belief is that people and societies progress in a pendulum-like motion, swinging closer and closer (though never reaching) perfect center by flying past the mark in one direction and then the other. It’s the only way to find out where center is.

    All the world’s a stage, and perhaps the Toscanos are only playing their part.

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