To me, the poetry of religion is found in the paradox, which provides the perspective for pondering beyond that which is merely logical.
We have spent some serious time on this blog discussing how unsatisfying our jobs are, how they fail to challenge us in the ways we desire or how they stand as an impediment to our other pursuits in life, such as family and church service. My work is difficult, especially these days, but I am happier than ever with my job. Can we have a conversation about the things we LIKE about our chosen careers? I’ll go first.
I’m way behind on my life — so behind that I’m only now getting around to reading that most precious of texts, the latest issue of Sunstone. I’m actually even more behind than that because I am going to borrow ideas from a panel discussion at last year’s Sunstone Symposium that is printed in the issue. Holly Welker’s introduction to the panel, "Doing Things that Change Us: Mormonism as Praxis," relates a conversation between Karen Amstrong, a former Catholic nun who was writing a documentary series on Saint Paul, and a Jewish scholar Armstrong consulted, Hyam Maccoby.
Maccoby contests the New Testament description of the Pharisees and argues that Jesus could himself have been a follower of Rabbi Hillel, a Pharisee, because Jesus taught a version of Hillel’s Golden Rule. He shares the following with Armstrong: "Some pagans came to Hillel and told him that they would convert to his faith if he could recite the whole of Jewish teaching while he stood on one leg. So Hillel obligingly stood on one leg like a stork and said, ‘Do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you. That is the Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn it.’"
This past Sunday, during my brief interlude back home from a deposition marathon in Steve’s hometown of Calgary, we had our monthly meeting of the "Radmos" (Radical Mormon Women). The topic of discussion was a look at some versions of the Judeo-Christian creation myth, including the classical Christian, the LDS, some Gnostic views and the Lilith myth. But, as usual, our discussion soon evolved (devolved?) into an inquiry into whether and where our modern-day Eves exist in LDS culture and life. As a group we all seemed to be striving for LDS women in public discourse who provide examples of an exemplary life lived, a model to emulate, a beacon of wisdom. We don’t seem to have any.
Ever since I was a philosophy/religious studies major in college exploring Christian theologies (don’t worry, I am merely an amateur, and therefore not a terribly deep thinker) and reading Sterling McMurrin’s The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion, I have appreciated the clean, simple lines of Mormon theology. Our anthropomorphic, positivistic approach is easy to relate to (by definition) and, well, fun to explore. I find consonance in our doctrines of salvation, eternal progress, the atonement, and the fall (if you can even call the Mormon version of it that). We have a wonderfully progressive view of our human relationship with and access to the divine. We even, at least as the party line, encourage our members to ponder, reach for and believe in God on our own terms. But there is something I don’t relate to and lately have concluded I just don’t believe in.
The cover article in the New York Times magazine this weekend was about a family in New York in which the two parents are gay women who have raised to now young adulthood two daughters (each conceived through male sperm donors and borne by the mothers, one each). I was particularly interested in the article because I worked for one of the mothers, Sandy Russo, when I was at Legal Services one summer. The thrust of the article was as follows: there is political cachet on each side of the debate over gay marriage and gay couples raising children as to the sexual orientation of those children as youths/adults. The body of social science research performed on families like this is small, as the possible sample size is still very small. However, there have been studies, as one might expect given the cultural issues at stake, coming down on both sides of the debate over the welfare of children raised in gay unions. Some evidence exists that the children of these unions are as or better socially well-adjusted as children of other unions on all the typical indicators for these things. Let’s take it as a given that gay unions turn out happy, productive members of society. What I am interested is the question, as articulated by the subjects of the article and exemplified by these two daughers: do openly gay parents who raise their children affect their children’s sexual development in such a way that those children are more likely to question their sexual orientation, act on homosexual impulses and/or identify as homosexual? In the Russo-Young family, one daughter is gay; the other is straight.
After reading the article, my conclusion was that these kids are influenced in their sexual development by their parents’ homosexuality. First of all, kids are influenced by everything their parents do; whether we adopt our parents’ attitudes, activities, or politics is something every one of us struggles with in the process of defining self and growing to adulthood. It is only sensible to me that sexual orientation is just like any of these other things. I also believe that our sexuality has both innate and cultural aspects, and, controversial as this is, I think women’s sexuality is probably more malleable than men’s. Given these assumptions together, gay parents’ sexual orientation will surely affect their children’s orientation, most likely insofar as those children struggle more consciously with sexuality as a choice between homosexuality as the norm and heterosexuality as the alternative. This was certainly expressed by the children profiled in the article.
So, my question is, what does it matter? As members of this church, we are taught that our sexuality should only be expressed in heterosexual marriage. But this standard doesn’t jibe with the reality of many people’s experience, particularly for those who don’t identify as heterosexual. I’ve heard more progressive members of the church say that given the assumption that our sexuality has both innate and acquired attributes, we should be accepting of homosexuality but not encourage it. Would that then mean that we love and support our homosexual friends but don’t encourage them to raise children.? I don’t think this is a tenable approach. At bottom it still marginalizes gays, lesbians and transgendered people because it still assumes that these modes of sexuality are wrong (and denies them basic human freedoms).
What is the church’s stance? Is it correct?
I am a skeptic, I have a difficult time with faith, and there aren’t many things I believe wholeheartedly that I can’t judge based on my own experience, whether spiritual or temporal. There are some truths I hold to, nonetheless, and one of them is the mutability of human nature. I believe we have the ability, perhaps particularly so in this mortal life, to change who we are fundamentally, for better and for worse – and often both at the same time. I also believe that we can help each other change, in fact, those two things together sum up a good portion of what we are here on earth to do, and what we are most fulfilled by doing, as I see it: 1) work to grow ourselves and, 2) help each other grow.
Here is my problem:
What happens when we are dealing with people who are so mired in their circumstances that our experiences together don’t seem to help? I’ll give a few examples of what I am thinking about. I’ve worked with children and youth in high risk situations on and off for several years. One thing that is very difficult to break through is the depression in children and teenagers who know that their chances of making much of themselves in life are slim to none. Granted, some people can come through even exceptionally bad circumstances and make a life that is happy and fulfilling. Many, however, do not. Teenagers in low socioeconomic areas, particularly in high-gang activity areas, know this. I remember working with one kid who had been doing pretty well through his junior high school years. But in his second year of high school he just lost it. He stopped playing sports, his grades plummeted, he pretty much dropped out of life. After many attempts to get through to him, I once had an open, honest talk with him in which he told me that he just didn’t see the point in making much effort any more, because everyone else in his life had dropped out too. His brothers and cousins and friends were in gangs, some of them had been killed, many were in jail or clearly headed in that direction. He couldn’t see, despite some serious adult intervention on his behalf, how he could be different. This wasn’t laziness, it was an acknowledgement of reality.
Another example from yesterday, which is what got me thinking about this issue again: my husband and I know a family that has difficulties with their younger son, who has been in and out of high school for several years, and now he is nearly 21 and still has not finished. In the last 2 years, in particular, he has become severely depressed and nonresponsive to life. He wanders the streets and doesn’t go to the few classes he needs to get his GED. We have known this family a few years, we have seen the son go in and out of the hospital, talked with him, given him blessings, given his mother blessings. His mother is at a point where she doesn’t feel like she can take it any more – she can’t get her son to take care of his basic human needs, and she is tired of doing these things for him, but she doesn’t want to put him out on the street.
What do we do? My question is not, whom should we help? Nor is it, how can we judge who needs our time and energy? We are fallible, we can’t judge where someone is in life, and we probably all have experiences in which we know people who didn’t appear to be getting their lives in order who later on will change and testify to the love and support that sustained them in their difficult times. We all need help, we all deserve it, because life is struggle. My question is, what do we do for those who seem to have given up, especially young people? How do we get them engaged in life? Is it just a problem of brain chemistry – are some people depressed and therefore the best help is medicine? (full disclosure: I have siblings and other relatives with chronic depression, and in no way do I mean to diminish the force of it, and I acknowledge that brain chemistry matters a great deal in who we are and become).
What do we do when it seems we can’t help each other grow/change/deal with problems?
I recently read an address given by the Reverend Canon Dr. Lauren Artress in which she discusses the work of the twelfth-century abbess, Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard had been pledged to the Church as a young child and served as a nun the remainder of her life, but it was not until she suffered a severe and prolonged illness in her 40’s that she developed a deep relationship with God, began to see visions and to tap into her wellspring of creativity.
After recovering from her illness, the abbess wrote of how the Church had missed out on our spiritual connection to the universe and had developed a doctrine of a Christ as a policeman of small sins rather than a loving God of creation. Reverend Artress interprets Hildegard’s ideas:
The Christian tradition divides sins into two categories, warm sins and cold sins. We pay a great deal of attention to warm sins, sins of the flesh, and we ignore the cold sins, sins of the hardened heart. We covet our excessive resources, greedy and without care for those who have no food or shelter.
Now, I find this to be a criticism of us in the church today as well — and the practice of religion in general through the ages. I think it is much easier to follow rules than to follow our hearts. Thus, we learn as converts to religion and as children raised in the church to follow particular rules and to progress in life through developing obedience to particular commandments. These are the warm sins. Many people operate as if they can be a ticket-holder to the celestial kingdom (whatever that means) by abstaining from coffee, tea, alcohol, cigarettes, sex outside of marriage, by paying tithing, attending church and staying awake for some portion of the meetings. These things are not taught to the exclusion of listening to the spirit and developing deeper meaning in religion. However, I think we are encouraged by our leadership and by our own lack of self knowledge to stop at this level of warm sin and not move on to breaking through our cold sins.
There is a lot of value in not committing warm sins, so don’t mistake this post for a justification for cheating on our taxes or having a sip of wine. My theory on sin is this: many commandments (warm sin ones) give us the guidance we need in order to have open minds and loving hearts. They eliminate unhelpful distractions and place a modicum of responsibility on our shoulders towards our fellow persons. But they don’t go far at all in teaching us how to be truly loving and giving in the way that we must be in order to come to Christ. Of course, it is not meet that we be commanded in all things. Is this just something we have to figure out in our own hearts?
The question I am putting is, not why are there warm sins and cold sins, but why do we care so much about warm sins? I guess I am reacting to the perceived self-righteousness of many “religious” people in this world who may abstain from certain activities associated with warm sins, but whose hearts are cold to the needs of humanity. I don’t like it. Is this a problem, or am I just too much of a Liahona Mormon?
My husband and I had dinner with our home teacher and his family this past Sunday. We enjoyed a lovely meal and after Sis. X and I had thoroughly exhausted the topic of the vagaries of a life spent wearing undergarments designed by a male who clearly had no design experience, we got into the good stuff. [Read more...]
We love to talk about immortality and eternal life in this church, particularly in conjunction with our temple worship. But does anyone ever actually try to contemplate immortality? It makes me ache mentally when I try to wrap my mind around the concept. [Read more...]
That’s right, I want to address the big one: from an LDS doctrinal perspective, what is the purpose of earthly life in the context of the doctrine of immortality? Just what we likely are all pondering on a Monday . . . Here is my understanding of the setup and why I think it is circular. [Read more...]
When I was in law school, I took a course on the history of women in the law (what history, you might ask!), and I got very interested in divorce in the church ranks during the height of polygamy 1860’s – 1880’s. It turns out that divorce was not only pretty high in Utah during this time, in fact, Utah became the Las Vegas of its time because of the ease with which one could obtain a divorce. Interestingly, divorce was not exactly frowned upon as a solution to unhappiness in those days in the church.
I propose that one reason for this acceptance of divorce stems from our earliest church history. As you may all recall, part of Joseph Smith’s introduction of the conception of celestial marriage was that members of the church who were unhappily living in existing marriages at that time could consider themselves “unbound” from each other because marriages sanctioned only by earthly authorities were null in the eyes of God.
I don’t recall how much divorce took place in those first years when only JS and a few others were practicing polygamy, but I do know that the figures rose astronomically as more and more members of the church took part in polygamous marriages. And I think part of the reason for this rise is fundamental to the way that at least Joseph Smith seemed to have taught (viewed?) marriage that was peformed outside the covenant.
I’m not going to get into the progression from polygamy to monogamy, I think we are all familiar with it, but I think the divorce phenomenon highlights yet another way in which our church views on marriage and the primacy of it to the practice of our religion, have changed over time.
Is there a way to reconcile these things besides invoking the idea that revelation is only fitting for each epoch (divorce and polygamy good for Eliza R. Snow and her counterparts but not for us)? And then it just all begs that other question of why marriage itself is so darn important to our current theology.