I recently read an article by Catholic ethicist Christine Gudorf which made some thought-provoking points about the expectations which get placed on families as a result of our late modern, highly mobile lifestyle. Because people are less likely to have communities and extended kinship networks to turn to, she observes, the immediate family ends up having to bear a great deal of weight: people are forced “to concentrate all their intimacy demands within the nuclear family, especially the sexual relationship.” The sexual relationship therefore becomes particularly definitive: “the cultural trend we see in late modern societies is not only the restriction of intimacy to sexual relationships, but also an understanding of sexual intimacy as the key to self-knowledge and sense of selfhood, and as the glue that bonds people together.”
Gudorf sees this as potentially problematic, noting that it “puts a terrible burden both on sexual relationships–for this one relationship to fill all relational needs for the partners–and on those who do not have sexual relationships, who thus often lack outlets for intimacy.” To counter such problems, she advocates that “churches should stress the importance of friendship.” She notes that a majority of men and a significant minority of women in our society report that they have no close relationships outside of their sexual relationship. The Catholic church, she observes, has been reluctant to advocate friendship, due to both fear of homosexuality and fear that “outside friendships for the married may undercut loyalty to the marriage and even support adultery.” However, she argues, sacrificing friendship is simply too high a price to pay, as “both the married and the celibate need close friendships.”
Reading this caused me to reflect on how this dynamic might play out in in the LDS church. I think Gudorf makes a valid point that restricting intimacy exclusively to a marital/sexual relationship has the unfortunate effect of both placing unreasonably heavy demands on that relationship, which becomes the only place for a person to meet all her relational needs, and of leaving singles out in the cold. I can actually see a number of ways in which LDS practices attempt to counter this trend. We emphasize the importance of involvement in and interaction with our local ward communities. Ideally, the isolation which is a consequence of high mobility is somewhat mitigated by the fact that when you move to a new place, you do not have to start from scratch in building new networks of relationships, but can “plug in” to the local LDS community, so to speak. Things like the visiting teaching and home teaching programs aim to provide people with broader social networks, and give people resources for support outside of their immediate families.
In many ways, then, we have structures in place which are meant to prevent immediate family relationships from becoming overwhelmed, or having to bear too much weight. Theologically, however, we give family relationships, particularly the husband-wife relationship, a weight which goes beyond anything described by Gudorf. It is only within such a relationship, after all, that a person can be exalted; it is therefore invested with profound eternal significance. And arguably, this teaching has similar effects to those described above: the relationship carries a heavy load (it may not be the only place where one can find intimacy, but it is the only place where one can achieve divinization), and singles are in a difficult position.
I have often wondered about the role of friendship in LDS theology. Clearly we are encouraged to befriend one another. But these relationships are not given any kind of eternal import. If the reason we seal families is because otherwise such relationships would only be “till death do us part,” does this imply that friendships in mortality, by virtue of being unsealed, are limited to mortality? I remember being warned as a teenager about spending too much time with one’s friends and neglecting one’s family, because the former relationships were ephemeral while the latter were eternal. I have a hard time with that viewpoint. It’s not that I think friendship should come at the cost of family relationships. But I find it difficult to believe that close friendships will not continue into the world to come.
One of the LDS teachings which I most deeply appreciate is the teaching that our relationships with other human beings really matter; we don’t believe, for example, that we’ll be so busy worshiping God in the next life that we’ll no longer be all that interested in each other. My hope is that this teaching does not apply exclusively to kinship connections. In fact, I sometimes wonder whether the ultimate purpose of sealing might be not so much about connecting isolated individuals together here and there, but bringing us all into an extended network in which there no longer exists a substantive distinction between “friend” and “family.” LDS teachings, after all, indicate that we were all family in the premortal life long before we developed friendships in this one.
(quotes come from Christine E. Gudorf, “Gender and Human Relationality,” in Health and Human Flourishing (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2006), p. 197 and 199.)