Zelophehad’s Daughters

Theory and Practice

Posted by Kiskilili

“I know it works in practice,” a French scholar (steeped in a tradition emphasizing Cartesian rationalism) is reported to have said, “but does it work in theory?”

Certain churches may be the only institutions in this country that are more sexist in theory than they are in practice, as Mark Chaves suggests in his study Ordaining Women. For example, not infrequently women are officially barred from ordination at the same time they are allowed to engage in activities that, strictly speaking, belong to the exclusive province of “priests.” Women may be formally subordinated to their male leaders but tacitly permitted relative autonomy.

Of course, a conceptual separation between “theory” and “practice” is undeniably artificial, and however they’re defined, the two intersect and exert mutual influence over each other in complicated ways. Nevertheless, I think this vocabulary provides a useful model for exploring some of the disconnects in Mormon thought and behavior. Especially in Mormonism, where it strikes me that there’s a tendency to deliberately decouple policy from ideology, it might thus be helpful to introduce “policy” (formal, codified regulations determining the nature of men’s and women’s ecclesial participation) into the mix as yet a third category. We have relatively rigid policies determined at the highest levels of Church organization,  somewhat rigid practices in response to them, and relatively fluid explanations for those policies flourishing on the popular level.

Let’s examine two not unrelated complexes of policy, theory, and practice: male-only priesthood and domestic patriarchy.

Official policy prohibits women from being ordained to priesthood office. However, the exercise of priesthood seemingly centers primarily around (a) the administration of ordinances and (b) presiding in ecclesial contexts, both of which activities women are permitted (required, actually) to fulfill in certain situations. The fact that at one time women could give blessings and that at another time women couldn’t pray in sacrament meeting only further illustrates the shifting boundaries around what constitutes priesthood activity. So the policy is that women have never been officially ordained, or certainly not in the way men are. The practice is that women have always nevertheless participated in supposedly sacerdotal activities, although the range of such activities is narrowly circumscribed. 

(As a sidenote, given both these shifting boundaries around priesthood and the insistence that women are barred from it, one can make a good case that “priesthood” has in fact come to mean specifically those ecclesial activities in which women are not allowed to participate. Notice that men are also denied certain, less extensive or significant, ecclesial opportunities, but no corresponding term inscribes this fact in our discourse. In any case, if we accept this definition, then labeling priesthood policy “sexist” is tautological.) 

What about our attitudes toward male-only ordination? Frequently, deliberately anti-misogynistic theories have been advanced as rationales for sexist practices (in, I believe, a bizarrely misguided attempt to compensate for such structural imbalances). Restricting priesthood office on the basis of sex, one popular theory holds, stems not from women’s definciencies but from men’s. Women’s putative spiritual superiority obviates any need for growth, and thus for ecclesial opportunities. In this case, a sexist theory basically discriminates in the opposite direction from a sexist practice, perhaps in an effort to create balance. (Of course, other popular theories abound, the most prominent being that motherhood and priesthood are somehow in opposition.)

Let’s look now at domestic patriarchy. Although Mormon liturgy requires women to submit formally to their husbands, in practice spouses (particularly of a certain generation) often share power equally in their relationships. In the ritual sphere, lip service is paid to an unequivocally patriarchal model where on the mundane level egalitarianism tends to be taken for granted. And our discourse reflects both attitudes: egalitarianism and patriarchalism vie with each other for prominence. The formal policy as encoded in our ritual advocates subordination, where the practice and attitudes of members all the way up the pipe seemingly tends toward egalitarianism (with a good dose of patriarchy folded in).

In sum, in different ways the Church is pledging allegiance to patriarchy, equality, and women’s superiority while restricting women’s opportunities in church settings, ritually subordinating women in their relationships to their husbands, and yet in non-ritual (less official) contexts encouraging equal partnership in marriage. The situation is fairly complicated, especially by the unacknowledged discrepancy between patriarchy and equality and the madcap swing toward extravagant anti-misogyny in some of our attitudes (which fit our policies rather clumsily). Nevertheless, in important respects the Church is considerably more sexist in its top-down, formal policies than it is in its attitudes or, to a lesser degree, its practices. Policy and ritual are the most sexist where attitudes are the least sexist (at least toward women). This makes sense given that official policy and ritual have to overcome enormous inertia to change, where attitudes shift with the wind.

Obviously this map of the current landscape sketches only bare silhouettes of its complexities. But here’s my question for you, and yes, it’s a devil’s bargain:

If you couldn’t have everything, would you rather belong to a church that was more sexist in policy, in attitude, or in practice? Would you prefer to worship in a structure that formally denies women opportunities but lavishes them with affirming rhetoric and unofficial opportunities, or would you find the reverse more appealing–a structure and set of formal policies that makes official provision for women’s inclusion at every level, but popular practices and attitudes hostile to women’s participation? Would you be more comfortable in a church requiring women to submit to their husbands’ authority with a husband who chooses to treat you as a peer, or in a church that proclaims equal marital status with an authoritarian husband? And why?  

Personally, if I had to choose, I would opt for egalitarian policies and rituals affirming women’s status before God at the cost of sexist popular attitudes and informal practices restricting women’s opportunities. I would choose theory–specifically, policy and ritual–over practice, attitudes, or individuals’ behavior on the ground. Maybe it would be a mistake. But I would choose the domineering husband and the egalitarian liturgy.

Patriarchy results in all sorts of concrete negative effects in particular women’s lives, and I have no desire to trivialize those very real, personal issues. But, to frame it in an overly simplistic and unnuanced way, when our policies and practices are out of sync, the policies structure our relationships with God while the practices structure our relationships with each other (meaning, for women: with men). In a system that officially affirms women, one would have recourse, even if it were no more than intellectual recourse, to that set of ideals that construes the behavior of domineering men as unacceptable; one’s relationship to men might suffer but one’s relationship to God would likely remain intact. In a system that officially subordinates women, on the other hand, women’s opportunities–although provision might be made for them–invariably rest on the sufferance of men. In this case, it’s one’s relationship to God that is in danger of deteriorating. 

Here’s the thing.  I don’t want to be a bishop. I don’t want to attend extra meetings. I’m not that interested even in giving blessings, and I won’t be heartbroken if I never pass the sacrament. I don’t actually want power, even spiritual power (although perhaps I should). What I want is to believe in a God who believes in me.  

No doubt others have had different experiences, but I don’t personally find Mormon men oppressive, in general or in particular. What I find oppressive is the system itself–not necessarily in practice, but in theory. It’s not domineering men that worry me most, but domineering terms–words like “preside” and “hearken.” 

Over and over I’ve been told that men in the Church are taught to treat women with the utmost respect. That I needn’t worry that I’ll marry someone who will lord over me or take advantage of his position as presider, provider, and priesthood holder. That patriarchy is justified by men’s commitment to righteousness and obedience to God. 

That’s just not enough for me.

A husband who treats me as a full partner isn’t enough. A bishop who values my input and respects my opinion isn’t enough. More than either of those, I want a God who treats me as a full human individual.

Patriarchy might work in practice. But it doesn’t work in theory.

86 Responses to “Theory and Practice”

  1. 1.

    Excellent work, this is great. Very insightful.

    I think I prefer egalitarian practice with a sexist theory. First, I think an institution is more fundamentally defined by its practices than by its theory. Second, I can’t very well ignore practices which would affect me directly in my life and relationships, whereas, I can easily ignore theory if I think it is unfounded and wrong.

    However, I can see your point. Theory serves to capture our ideals even when we do not live up to them in practice. The constitution had the ideals laid out, even when we held slaves in this country. I definitely see the danger of a messed up ideal even when the practice may be better than the theory.

  2. 2.

    Thanks, Jacob–there’s definitely a case to be made for egalitarian practice with sexist theory. Maybe that’s especially the case in a non-religious setting? Religion, on the other hand, already places value on the metaphysical, so it’s hard then to say that ideals are inconsequential.

  3. 3.

    Fabulous post. I really like how you’ve articulated the ways in which theoretical patriarchy is troubling even if it’s not much practiced. This is probably just echoing what you said, but I think a definite benefit of the “sexist in practice but egalitarian in theory” model is that you at least have a language, a model, to critique troubling practices. But on what basis do you critique troubling theory, especially if it’s presented as the divine ideal? I guess what I’m saying is that the appeal to practice as a source for evaluating the merits of theory seems shakier to me than the reverse.

    Maybe another (oversimplistic) way of putting this is to say that theology matters. (Which admittedly I’m predisposed to believe.) And I realize there’s this dialectic in which theology and praxis shape one another, so to some extent you can’t talk about them separately (as you said). But I’m thinking that if one half of the dialectic is problematic, the other half is inevitably going to be problematic as well–precisely because of the fact that you can’t ultimately separate them. Which is a big reason why I’m skeptical when I hear that certain teachings don’t really matter, because no one actually lives that way.

    But I still have to think about which of your choices I’d opt for. I probably lean toward egalitarian theory, especially given my tendency to focus on theory over practice–but I’m not entirely sure. This is my concern: I’m thinking that if everyone in my life treated me as a second-class citizen, even if that weren’t held up as the ideal, I think that would also negatively impact my relationship with God, simply because my sense of that relationship is inevitably shaped by my relationships with others. In other words, I might have intellectual confidence in God’s egalitarianism, but it might be difficult for me to believe that on an experiential level. Hmm. I think I’m trying to wriggle out of your devil’s bargain.

    Thinking about this more, it also occurs to me that sexist liturgy might be the worst of both worlds, because of the ways in which it combines theory and practice. In that, I think it might be more problematic than either of the two considered separately–because it doesn’t leave you with either cognitive or experiential resources to articulate objections.

  4. 4.

    Kiskilili: The situation is fairly complicated

    You can say that again. It seems to me that the what we are dealing with is a group endeavor here where one of the primary concerns is completely upsetting the apple cart. So we the people here on earth slowly change and the One God (which consists of who knows how many divine persons) works with us as we meander through the decades. It seems to me that much of this is a collaborative work in process actually.

    Maybe it would be a mistake. But I would choose the domineering husband and the egalitarian liturgy.

    This sort of sounds like crazy talk to me. I suppose it could make sense if you are assuming it wold be easier to change the behavior of a jerk husband than the policies of the church. But if your husband remained a total domineering jerk and you remained with him this would be crazy talk in my opinion.

    when our policies and practices are out of sync, the policies structure our relationships with God while the practices structure our relationships with each other

    I remain baffled by Kiskilili-isms like this (as I have been for years as you know). What does the church organization have to do with your private and personal relationship with God? Nothing in my opinion. That’s because the relationship on some very important levels is just that — private and personal. You don’t need the church at all to have a relationship with God. Joseph Smith proved that in 1820 right?

    I want a God who treats me as a full human individual.

    See above. If God didn’t treat us as full humans he wouldn’t be willing to have private and personal relationships with us all — he would make us deal with his lackeys and middle management instead of directly and personally with him. (And since I am partial to a Divine Chorus version of the One God I use the term “him” loosely)

  5. 5.

    What does the church organization have to do with your private and personal relationship with God? Nothing in my opinion.

    And thus we are all baffled (I kinda like that word), because this Geoff-ism is one that baffles me. I have a hard time seeing how religious experience could ever be independent of a social and cultural context, and not be shaped by it to some degree. I don’t think we can somehow step out of our culture into a vacuum to encounter the divine. Even Joseph Smith, I would argue, made sense of his vision in the religious language available to him (it’s interesting that his early accounts very much follow a classic narrative of seeking and receiving forgiveness of sins, and are not dissimilar to other contemporary visionary accounts). I don’t think that in any way undermines the authenticity of his vision–I just see that as an inevitable element of religious experience.

    Put another way, I don’t see how it’s all that far-fetched to suggest that what your church teaches about God might have some impact on your relationship with him. I’m open to the possibility that there are those who do manage to completely compartmentalize the two. But in my own life, I can’t make that separation–my relation to God and my relation to the church aren’t the same thing, but they’re so deeply intertwined that I can’t pull them apart. I imagine God in a very Mormon way; I make sense of my religious experience by drawing on a very Mormon worldview.

    (And since I am partial to a Divine Chorus version of the One God I use the term “him” loosely)

    Lol. I know what you’re getting at, but the image that’s coming to mind is of a God who appears eerily similar to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

  6. 6.

    Lynnette: I don’t think we can somehow step out of our culture into a vacuum to encounter the divine.

    I don’t disagree. But perhaps we can agree that even a child raised by wolves could develop a personal relationship with God — particularly if God helped things along.

    At some point we there has to be real divine people involved on the other side of the veil or none of these beliefs are real right? Those real divine persons exist independently of the various churches and cultures here on earth (including ours). So my point is that church policies don’t in themselves structure our relationships with those divine persons, contra what K said. Our real experiences (or lack thereof) with those real divine persons structure our relationship with them and those experiences trump the policies of any and every church in the end. (There I go using the T word again… feels like old times!)

    PS — See a “divine chorus” post here.

  7. 7.

    Geoff – I don’t think K is arguing that a woman cannot have a personal relationship with God. Women are encouraged to pray directly to God and (reportedly) do receive answers to their prayers.

    Similarly, I may have a close, personal relationship with my father, but this close, personal relationship with my father will not change the fact that my father prefers his sons over his daughters and administers family matters in accordance with his preference.

  8. 8.

    I think given egalitarian practices, egalitarian theory would naturally follow. I can’t think of a historical example of women having practical power in a system that is ideologically misogynistic (I’m talking system-wide, not Queen Elizabeth I – like exceptions to the rule). So I can’t be certain that theory would follow practice based on precedence. But I’m willing to bet it would.

    Women can abuse power too, though, so I don’t think if women had been in men’s place of power throughout history that the world would necessarily be a better place (well, maybe a little better!). I know that’s not what you’re advocating, K, I’m just thinking out loud. Ideally, couples would be called as bishops and prophets, not just the men. I think that’s how the eternities will operate. But for now, individuals disagree in even the best of marriages, and how could anyone raise kids in a church with lay ministers with both marriage partners involved to such an extent. So I guess that’s why it’s delegated to the men? But I do wish mothers could also give blessings, and that women could speak as authoritatively as men do in General Conference, and I think some women would make great mission presidents.

    I’m rambling now. Better stop.

  9. 9.

    Wow this is something new to think about.

    My instinct is to agree with you, that having the language or theory of the religion be egalitarian would feel somehow like it would justify individual (or at least my own) struggles, even if they were magnified. But, like Lynette says, I don’t know if I can wholly separate my relationship with God from my relationship with others. I just keep thinking of that question the faithful ask “when saw we the a stranger?” I know that personally my relationship to potential divine is shaped by all three: “official” teachings, my own individual experiences, and my relationship with other people. Perhaps most by the last one. As much as I like to believe I’m an individual and acting of my own accord, my experiences and perspectives are truly shaped by others.

    What is liturgy, technically, or at least in this context? Ritualized statements and actions?

    I feel a little intimidated to participate on this forum, because everyone is so thoughtful and well-written, but I am just so captivated by all of the ideas shared here…

  10. 10.

    ECS,

    K said “the policies structure our relationships with God”. My point is that relationships with God can and do exist independent of any church policies.

    but this close, personal relationship with my father will not change the fact that my father prefers his sons over his daughters

    True. And if it is true that God prefers his sons over his daughters then no earthly church policy will change that. But God’s actual opinion about his sons and daughters is obviously in dispute because I don’t believe God prefers sons to daughters.

  11. 11.

    I totally prefer my daughters over my sons—or anyone else’s sons. In fact, I never even speak to or look at my sons.

    Interesting post. I am partial to Geoff’s counterargument, but have nothing to add—just following the discussion.

  12. 12.

    Lynnette, But on what basis do you critique troubling theory, especially if it’s presented as the divine ideal?

    If I’m not mistaken the suggestion is that our current church organization is egalitarian in practice but not theory. (Of course, this is only partially true even if it is true in some respects.) But, it seems that we find basis and language to critique the church in this manner without a big problem. Don’t we?

    I think the reason is that although our religious beliefs and institutional structure affect our understanding of God and morality, it is still true that our sense of morality exists independent of those things. Born again atheists are always reminding us that when they abandoned their belief in God they did not give up their sense of morality. This is not really surprising because our sense of right and wrong (which is the basis for our demanding the equal status of women) is innate and ultimately deeper than our belief in God. It is on this basis that we critique troubling theory, even if it is presented as the divine ideal.

  13. 13.

    Fascinating question, Kiskilili. Here’s my question: Under which circumstance do you think a person opposed to the sexism (whether in theory or practice) would get a fairer hearing? I’m thinking that as the Church stands–more sexist in theory than in practice–then those who complain are often told, “But look how non-sexist our practice is!” So if you had your preferred option (of the two), do you think that pointing out the sexist practice would be met with a better reception? Or would people just say, “Well our doctrine is completely non-sexist. Your experience of discrimination must be false.”? I don’t have a good answer–this just seemed like an interesting question.

    Emily (#8) I would hope that practice would follow from theory too, but I suspect the link between them is often looser than we imagine. Just like lots of research on how individuals make decisions suggests that we sometimes decide first and come up with reasons second, it seems like institutions are prone to the same mis-ordering of theory and practice. So we have the practice of denying women the priesthood, and as Kiskilili points out, because this wasn’t really based on any theory, we end up coming up with all kinds of random ad hoc justifications for it.

  14. 14.

    Geoff writes:

    This sort of sounds like crazy talk to me. I suppose it could make sense if you are assuming it wold be easier to change the behavior of a jerk husband than the policies of the church. But if your husband remained a total domineering jerk and you remained with him this would be crazy talk in my opinion.

    But that’s the thing–I could get a new husband. But where do you go to get a new God? (I know, it’s not like we can really be sure of what God thinks, blah blah blah.) As clarification: I’m not saying I would accept an abusive husband, as I don’t think the Church has ever taught that outright abuse is acceptable–that’s off the table. I’m thinking of a benevolently patriarchal husband.

    What does the church organization have to do with your private and personal relationship with God? Nothing in my opinion.

    I don’t disagree that we can have a relationship with the divine regardless of what the Church says. But ordinances formally structure our relationship with God (and other people). That over and above how our doctrine shapes our understanding of God, and thus our relationship with him.

  15. 15.

    Jacob makes a good point that we do seem to have theory from which to critique current practice, and I think this is especially true living in a country in which women are regarded as people and not property–we tend to take that for granted. But I actually do really like Lynnette’s point that you could perhaps use egalitarian theory to critique sexist practice, and that would be one potential advantage to such an arrangement. It certainly would be a concern, though, that experiences of patriarchy in religious settings would strain one’s relationship with God in spite of professed egalitarian ideals–in certain ways this is what we have: a patriarchal structure professing the value of egalitarianism.

    Everything is of course complicated by the fact that “theory” and “practice” often don’t seem to fit well together at all, let alone logically follow each other.

    Thanks for your comment, Newt. Don’t be intimidated–I wrote this in the middle of the night and have very little idea what I’m talking about. ;) I’m not sure all the disparate points I’m making have been integrated coherently together. (I’m using “liturgy” in this context as code basically for “temple.”)

    Anyway, I absolutely agree with you that one’s relationship with God is shaped by all three factors–other people, especially the church community, personal revelation, and Church teachings and ceremony.

  16. 16.

    But that’s the thing–I could get a new husband.

    Shenanigans! The rules of the devil’s bargain were that you can’t have it both ways.

  17. 17.

    K: But that’s the thing–I could get a new husband.

    Oh, I didn’t know that was allowed in your thought experiment. Well then to be fair; if you assume in your thought experiment that you could easily dismiss a husband you don’t like why not assume you can even more easily dismiss a policy you don’t believe? (Dismissing a policy is a lot less messy than a divorce after all).

  18. 18.

    By the way, I think that as this discussions evolves, we see that a the hypothetical you asked us to consider in the post has raised a couple of separate issues which we should call out more directly. It is one thing to ask if you would rather live under sexist theory or sexist practice. It is another thing to wonder which situation is mostly likely to work itself toward an ideal, or under which system one could most effectively change the sexist side of things (either theory or practice). In the post, I thought you were asking about which we would rather live under, but the discussion seems to be focusing more on which system is most amenable to correction.

  19. 19.

    The rules of the devil’s bargain were that you can’t have it both ways.

    Hehe. ‘Zackly.

    No cheating K.

  20. 20.

    Hi, Emily! I hope this is helpful background to my post:

    It’s been a few years since I read Chaves’s (very good) book, but he separates the theory (of ordaining women) from actual practice, and my interest in which is to be preferred stems basically from reading his book. The stimulus for his writing it, he says, was his discovery that Methodists and Presbyterians both started ordaining women in 1956–in the ’50s!–at a time when approximately zero women in these communities showed any interest in being ordained. One of the things he does is compare how some denominations switched their policy early to signal their commitment to gender egalitarianism (like these two), but in actual practice don’t happen to allow women “access to key leadership positions,” where on the other hand other churches have resisted women’s ordination at the same time in practice they’re allowing women to perform duties of priests!

    The Roman Catholic church, for example, famously does not permit female priests. At the same time, however, its clergy shortage has generated an acute need for someone to do the day-to-day work of running parishes. As a result, most of the three hundred priestless Roman Catholic parishes in the United States are “pastored” by women. (p. 5)

    A formal rule or policy only loosely connected to actual organizational practice is very likely a rule functioning more as a signal to the environment than as a regulation governing internal operations. (p. 5)

  21. 21.

    Heh–that’s a fair point. We’ll say, for the purpose of our hypothetical, that if I choose sexist practice and egalitarian theory, I could get a new husband, but every possible husband is going to have a patriarchal attitude. There are no other options.

  22. 22.

    Also, you will be your husband’s sixth wife.

  23. 23.

    As I think about this more, in Church governance I would definitely choose egalitarian theory and sexist practice. It wouldn’t bother me to have my opportunities restricted in practice in the Church hierarchy.

    In the domestic sphere, it would be a lot harder choice. I’m not sure I could deal with a husband making all of my decisions for me. Maybe in domestic patriarchy giving up on God in order to be treated as a person by other people would be the better of the two options. Maybe I would accept the sexist theory so I could live my life.

    However, if we’re thinking about this in a context of current American culture, opting out of either marriage or religion would be possible. So if my church engaged in actual sexist marriage practices but professed egalitarian ideals, I could choose to remain single. And if singlehood were still an option, I would choose egalitarian domestic theory with patriarchal practice, and just opt out of marriage entirely.

  24. 24.

    Now there’s a fun twist! Would you choose polygamous ideals (say, polygamy will be universally practiced in heaven) and monogamous practice, or polygamous practice with monogamous ideals?

  25. 25.

    Shenanigans! The rules of the devil’s bargain were that you can’t have it both ways.

    Where else could I, a nerdy, angst-ridden, feminist, trying-to-be-faithful-but-filled-with-questions LDS woman, find such a fabulous, fascinating niche as Zelophehad’s Daughters, and come across a comment like this that can make me spit my milk out right through my nose?

    *sighing in anonymous, blog-lurking bliss*

  26. 26.

    Jacob J, in comment #12, you said,

    If I’m not mistaken the suggestion is that our current church organization is egalitarian in practice but not theory. (Of course, this is only partially true even if it is true in some respects.) But, it seems that we find basis and language to critique the church in this manner without a big problem. Don’t we?

    My reponse to this is that I wouldn’t have a language from which to critique the church without feminism. This may be different for others, but it wasn’t until I encountered feminism that I was able to say “oh! that’s why church sometimes makes me upset!” But, ideally, shouldn’t I not have to rely on feminism to make sense of my religious beliefs, the nature of God, etc.?

  27. 27.

    It wouldn’t bother me to have my opportunities restricted in practice in the Church hierarchy.

    I wish I could have this too…

  28. 28.

    Seraphine,

    Of course you are right that ideally you wouldn’t need feminism to make sense of your religious beliefs. I’m not challenging that. I am only arguing that our sense of morality is deeper than our religious beliefs and is therefore always available as a basis to critique an institution when it’s theory is sexist or racist or whatever else. Really, it is not feminism per se that gives you a basis to critique the church institution. Within feminism you found people who articulated points and those points resonated with you because of your innate sense of right and wrong. So, I am arguing that it is your sense of morality that truly serves as the basis for the critique. It is worth noting that in a similar fashion, I find some critiques of feminism to be cogent and persuasive. I don’t think there is any institution or movement or school of thought that is immune from criticism, so this just gets us back to the oft observed truism that it is unfair and unrealistic to expect any organization run by humans to be perfect.

  29. 29.

    Geoff said,

    (There I go using the T word again… feels like old times!)

    That occurred to me as well. Is there something about the month of April that inspires the denizens of ZD and NCT to engage in long discussions about gender in the church?

    But perhaps we can agree that even a child raised by wolves could develop a personal relationship with God — particularly if God helped things along.

    I would probably agree. But I would add that I strongly suspect this hypothetical child of ours would imagine God as a wolf, or at least as having wolf-like qualities. Perhaps God could directly appear and straightforwardly disabuse her of that notion, but for some reason, God doesn’t seem to do that kind of thing often.

    Maybe this will clarify what I’m trying to say. When abused/neglected children are placed in the homes of loving parents, they don’t have a positive experience with the parents and then immediately make the shift to being able to trust people. It’s a long, slow process, and it’s possible that the effects might never be completely overcome in this life. Even though such positive relationships can be tremendously helpful and healing, they don’t zap out the damage done—and the fact that such relationships are possible as a way to mitigate some of the negative effects certainly wouldn’t lead us to propose that we shouldn’t worry about the abuse/neglect.

    Or maybe this is a better example, as I’m not intending to spark an argument about whether patriarchy is in fact comparable to abuse. A common problem in the LDS church (though I’m sure not unique to it) is that of people unable to accept God’s forgiveness, to continue to berate themselves for sin. Is this because they haven’t ever had any personal encounters with God? I highly doubt it. But if their model of God is based on a kind of works righteousness in which forgiveness has to be earned or deserved, it’s probably a lot harder to hear a message of love and forgiveness–even if it’s the one that God is trying to communicate.

    My point is that the possibility of personal revelation doesn’t mean that doctrine/practice don’t strongly influence one’s relationship to God. They have the potential to be damaging in ways that can be quite challenging to overcome. And what I hear you saying (probably oversimplifying your position), is something like, why let sexist teachings or practices bother you? You can get a personal revelation that will tell you they’re wrong. But I don’t think it’s that simple, because those teachings may well have already influenced you in ways that have bearing on your relationship with God, and even your ability to hear personal revelation. That’s why, even though I absolutely believe in a personal relationship to God as a way to help with this stuff, I’m still acutely bothered by the existence of what I see as problematic doctrines.

  30. 30.

    Jacob said,

    It is one thing to ask if you would rather live under sexist theory or sexist practice. It is another thing to wonder which situation is mostly likely to work itself toward an ideal, or under which system one could most effectively change the sexist side of things (either theory or practice).

    I think that’s a useful distinction. I might prefer the egalitarian practice as an environment in which to live, but still opt for the theory because I thought it would allow for a greater possibility of change. I’ll have to think about that more.

    This is not really surprising because our sense of right and wrong (which is the basis for our demanding the equal status of women) is innate and ultimately deeper than our belief in God. It is on this basis that we critique troubling theory, even if it is presented as the divine ideal.

    That’s an interesting point. (And a very Mormon one, I think–it goes with both the “light of Christ” teaching, and with the notion that intelligences are self-existent and therefore potentially have access to a sense of morality independent of God.) At some level I think it probably is my own basis for critiquing patriarchy. And yet I still struggle with the question of to what extent my conscience (if that’s the best term for this sense) is influenced by the moral norms of my particular culture. I do think there’s more to it, but it’s not easy to spell out what.

    And one of the real dangers of religion, is that at its worst, I think it can send the message that you shouldn’t trust your innate moral sense of right and wrong (especially if it contradicts the teachings of the religion), which is a pretty confusing situation to be in. (Hmm, I seem to be religion-bashing a bit today; maybe I’m feeling grumpy. So I’ll add that I also think religion can be tremendously positive in giving you a language in which to express this sense, and providing ways to develop it, and calling you to be a better person, and so forth.)

    Umm, I’m not really sure what this had to do with your original point. Maybe where I’m going, in a roundabout way, is that it’s difficult to use this basic moral sense to critique theory if the theory is in some way calling it into question. Not impossible; just more complicated.

  31. 31.

    I totally agree that it is complicated and in some ways recursive. The origin and nature of conscience is disputed and I readily acknowledge that I bring to the table certain assumptions about conscience which guide my thinking on this. I mentioned those who convert from theism to atheism because I think they provide a concrete example of what it looks like to untangle one’s religious views from one’s moral views. I find the vast majority of atheists who succeed in excising their religious views do so without abandoning the majority of their moral views. This appears to me a concrete argument for my claim that our moral views are deeper than our religious views. But, I think you’re right that such a process of excising religious views would inevitably impact one’s moral views in some ways.

  32. 32.

    Is there something about the month of April that inspires the denizens of ZD and NCT to engage in long discussions about gender in the church?

    If so I will start looking forward to April each year. FWIW, I like this one better than the one last year.

  33. 33.

    Hey Newt!

    As much as I like to believe I’m an individual and acting of my own accord, my experiences and perspectives are truly shaped by others.

    I’m with you there; I tend to think that the autonomous self is actually not all that autonomous. (In fact, I see a bit of irony in that the ideal of a self which is autonomous is very much a Western cultural ideal–in other words, our notion that we are autonomous selves might itself be socially shaped.)

    And I’m glad you chimed in. We might be a bit verbose, but as often as not, I feel like I’m just free associating and making things up as I go along. (This may be self-evident, I realize).

    jane, your comment made me smile. I’m clearly finding this conversation way too entertaining as well, because I’m supposed to be dissertating today and not blogging. And thus we see how a semingly innocent thing like a blog post can quickly lead the children of women astray . . .

    But before I go, I want to add a quick caveat to my #29. I do think the dynamic I’m describing is real—and I would say that the fact that a significant number of LDS women (and some men) find that particular LDS doctrines/practices regarding gender cause them to question God’s goodness, and therefore to some degree impair their spirituality, is evidence of the potential for these doctrines to be deeply harmful, even with the possibility of personal revelation. At the same time, I’m aware that it doesn’t always happen that way; that there are those who find particular doctrines problematic, but simply dismiss them as clearly wrong. (Those who don’t have trouble with the doctrine in the first place are obviously in a different category altogether). I’m making this sound too black-and-white; I suspect it’s more of a spectrum than an either/or. But I don’t entirely know what to make of that variation. Does it have to do with native temperament? the way in which we individually appropriate church doctrine? the multi-vocality of church doctrine? the individual ways we interact with God? And if a person doesn’t have much trouble letting go of teachings that don’t match her experience, is this a sign of spiritual health, or of stubborn rebelliousness?

    Okay, the fact that I’m arguing with my own comment probably means it’s time for me to get offline.

  34. 34.

    Lynnette: But I would add that I strongly suspect this hypothetical child of ours would imagine God as a wolf, or at least as having wolf-like qualities.

    Oooh — interesting speculation. I can see your point.

    Interestingly, I suspect your point works against the point K was making earlier though. That is, our hypothetical wolf-girl is so influenced by her culture to assume God is at least wolf-like. Yet let’s assume that God isn’t really wolf-like in when hanging out in celestial glory with the celestial peeps. If that is the case the wolf-girl would be just wrong if she insisted that God is eternally wolf like. Now let’s replace wolf-girl with a group of 19th century frontier folks. They would be equally influenced by their culture and biases, no? So perhaps they assume a strictly patriarchal God and incorporate those assumptions into their liturgy. So maybe God isn’t really all that wolf-like or all that into patriarchy.

    Now I must admit I am quite confused by your abusive parents analogy. If you are saying “some people really hate some of our liturgy and don’t tell us not to be upset about it” my response is I don’t begrudge anyone being upset about stuff like that. If wolf-girl started a church and hundreds of years later some of its born-in-the-church members were upset about the wolf-like God they had been taught about in church I wouldn’t begrudge them that either. I might say the same thing to them though: “If God is real God can tell you personally how wolf-like he really is so ask him. If he says he’s not really all that wolf-like then ignore that stuff because you’ll know better”.

    I was about to post and then I read your #33 and you bring up some interesting points. I am obviously advocating for simply rejecting doctrines you don’t believe are true based on your own internal moral compass. This is related to what Jacob is talking about with the talk of our own sense of morality. Frankly it is largely what I mean when I talk about personal revelation and trumps. We can call it The Light of Christ, of our conscience, or many things. I have no problem simply dumping doctrines that don’t jibe with that compass inside of me. Maybe I’m arrogant that way but I figure it is my soul and I’ll gladly answer to God for my approach when we meet. Anyhow, maybe it is a temperament thing as you say. Maybe some people in the church can’t bring themselves to trust their own gut over the details of some of our liturgy. I suppose that would be a really uncomfortable problem to have.

  35. 35.

    wolf-girl, lol

  36. 36.

    I think it’s fascinating that the women here would prefer egalitarian theory but discriminatory practice. I think I would go the other way, as Jacob commented. I wonder whether that’s a preference that falls along gendered lines?

    I think partly it’s a matter of being more comfortable with the devil I know than the one I don’t know. And partly it’s a matter of being more concerned about egalitarianism as it actually affects me in my day to day life than in distant theory.

  37. 37.

    This has been a fascinating discussion, with great comments on both sides.

    I think I’ll sign up for on-the-ground egalitarianism, with distressing unequal theology lurking in the background. That’s our current situation, and although I’m not thrilled with the status quo, I think I would find the proposed alternative to be even worse.

    My reasons:

    1 – Under the current circumstances, I can, sometimes, for a while, push the theoretical, theological concerns to the back of my mind, and enjoy my pleasant, liberated, 21st century American life. Constant, daily interactions with a domineering, sexist husband and other ward members would be, I think, a much more obnoxious, in-your-face sexism, with very painful, real-world consequences for me and a lot of other women.

    2 – Currently, I have the hope that the problematic theology is wrong. I’m not sure, but I hope that the offending scriptures, temple language, church hierarchy, etc., are just remnants of a sexist human culture, not really a reflection of God’s perspective or will. So right now, at least when I’m able to convince myself of that, I get the best of both worlds: a happy, egalitarian marriage, and the hope for a loving, non-sexist God and for a joyful eternal destiny.

    3 – I value my relationship with my husband a lot. He’s my best friend, and a huge support to me. i love God, to. I’ve experienced several moments where I’ve felt His love for me – those have been incredibly powerful and important to me. But He also seems to leaves me on my own a lot, and in all the rest of the moments (i.e. the great majority of the time), it’s sure nice to have a non-sexist, kind, loving, flesh-and-blood buddy around to talk with and be with. I’m not sure that the trade you’re proposing (give up happy friendship with spouse in favor of more positive relationship with God) is necessarily a great deal. They say God frequently blesses us through others, and my greatest blessing is my fabulous husband; I’d be loathe to give that up. I feel embarrassed and blasphemous to admit that my husband brings more daily comfort to my life than does the spirit, but currently, I think it’s probably the truth.

    4 – I’m not sure how much better my relationship with God would be, anyway. Sure, I have doubts and angst and I agonize and cry and yell at God and read blogs and vent to friends and hubby over my feminist concerns. But once in a while, when He does make His presence felt, it’s an incredible, beautiful sensation. Could He relate to me any more lovingly in the context of a non-sexist church? I don’t really think so. My revelations have rarely cleared up doctrine for me; for the most part, I’ve just felt flooded with love and peace. I imagine those divine interactions would be similar if the church completely renounced all of its most problematic teachings.

    5 – I’m not sure that your hypothetical situation would lead to faster change than we’re currently undergoing. I see a trend, in which we (church members) have gradually adopted the more egalitarian notions of our broader culture, and changes in church rhetoric, rituals, and practices have followed. I see this as a very hopeful development, and I anticipate even more of this type of change in the future. Church leaders are obviously influenced by their cultural milieu, and their own ideas and attitudes contribute to the kinds of questions they pose to God. I don’t know that (in your hypothetical proposal) unenlightened church leaders, despite the presence of enlightened doctrine, would seek the types of revelation or implement the types of changes that we’re hoping for.

  38. 38.

    Where’s the edit button when you need one? Embarrassing typos… oh, well.

  39. 39.

    I think I come down on the side of sexist theory + egalitarian practice.
    I would think it is because the theory is all very, well, theoretical. I care more that my husband respects me as his peer daily than that ritual X makes me out to be inferior.
    I also think that it is much easier to set boundaries with the theory than with the practice. I think one could extract the Temple Ceremony from her mind far more easily than she could extract growing up with a dad who treated her as if she were a servant for her brothers.
    That and I have an allergic reaction to patronization. I could handle my husband saying “well, you know, I am technically supposed to be in charge” much better than him saying “now don’t you worry your cute little head about that. It’ll give you wrinkles!”

  40. 40.

    So perhaps they assume a strictly patriarchal God and incorporate those assumptions into their liturgy. So maybe God isn’t really all that wolf-like or all that into patriarchy.

    What I wonder is when does God draw the line for what is an acceptable form for him to be worshipped in? I’m sure he answers the prayers of the wolf-girl and accepts her offerings of sincere devotion. There are amazingly devout members of religions that include heinous practices, which I don’t think could be acceptable. But it doesn’t seem like God steps in to correct religious practices even when they are humble and righteous unless it is absolutely necessary. The ordinances that are available in the LDS church are necessary, but our religion is obviously not perfect. So if God doesn’t feel the need to provide a vision to wolf-girl of his absolutely true nature, is it possible that he doesn’t feel the need to reveal the perfect system to us and just let us try to do the best we can with what we have? And doesn’t that make us rely more on him personally than otherwise, knowing there are flaws and so pushing to discover for ourselves what is true?

  41. 41.

    I, for one, would prefer an egalitarian ritual, with a chauvenistic practice, since I would feel justified in my dislike of it, and there would be more room to enforce punishment and change. It would be a lot less psychologically damaging to have an egalitarian model of eternity, and be able to work toward that as a perfect model, than to have to sexist model to get to “work toward.” *shudder*

  42. 42.

    I would definitely choose a theory I don’t like coupled with a practice that I do like.
    My choice is a very Mormon one – our church is set up around Jesus’ axiom “By their fruits ye shall know them”, which I see as a polar opposite to your French scholar’s perspective. We don’t spend any significant time in church deeply analyzing theology or the theoretical underpinnings of our beliefs, and when we even bring up theology, it’s subservient to practical application of that theology in our everyday lives.

    We kick our missionaries out of monkhood after a short span, because monks lack a practical understanding – for all their theoretical understanding, they never learn how to be a latter-day Saint (ie, transcendantly holy person) when surrounded by screaming children, answering to a demanding boss, and immersed in the culture of a fallen world. This is what the Church calls us to do, and necessarily it’s a calling fraught with practicality.

    If one struggles with a particular aspect of the Church’s many difficult doctrines, instead of sitting down to straighten out your theoretical underpinnings with careful reasoning and citations of various important theology papers, your bishop is likely to say “Forget yourself and go to work” in the service of other people. Because that’s how the church works. Understanding of the theories of the church is presumed to follow practical application of the theories.

    After a lifetime in the Church, I can’t imagine things otherwise. The strength of the church to me is its praxis, not its theory. Obviously they influence each other, but I love being part of a church where practical issues dominate. When I was on my mission, I could honestly tell people that I was out preaching the Gospel in order to help people in very practical ways, rather than just promulgate some random theory about God.

    I have faith that over time, the church’s collective understanding of its doctrines will follow its practical application of eternal truths, which mirrors my own personal spiritual path. I wouldn’t have it the other way around.

  43. 43.

    Thanks for the thoughtful responses. Maybe this is what informs my choice: given the prospect of a sexist husband (practice), I would opt out of marriage, and given the prospect of a sexist God (theory), I would opt out of religion. I guess I’m not very accommodating! I can imagine it would be hard to give up on a husband, but having never been married, I can only really understand in the abstract what that loss mean. But I understand in a personal way what it means to lose a relationship with God. Maybe simply because that’s the loss I’ve actually experienced, that’s the rupture I would choose to mend with my preferred hypothetical.

    Another issue is that in a sexist-practice paradigm the problem would be construed as the system. If you took issue with it, even privately, intellectually, you would be vindicated. But in a sexist-theory paradigm the problem is likely to be construed as the individual.

  44. 44.

    RecessionCone, I appreciate your perspective, and I think you can certainly make a case that religion in general changes from the bottom up (people’s practice and attitudes on the ground lead the theory). But while it may be true that Mormons as a whole are less likely to engage in theological inquiry, at the most basic level, “theory” is belief, and I think it’s difficult to argue that the content of those beliefs is virtually insignificant viewed beside the enormous weight placed on behavior. After all, I don’t need God in order to serve other people. But religion purports to provide something more than a service club–that something being metaphysical benefits and communion with the divine. If the possibility of receiving those intangible benefits is seriously called into question, religion’s raison d’être has been largely sapped.

    So I guess I disagree with you that (to the degree they can usefully be separated) praxis matters in a way doctrine doesn’t, especially considering the stark, universal truth claims Mormonism advances and the insistence on the need for a Restoration. If we decide that the essence of the gospel is service, or charity, the Restoration’s significance has been completely undercut.

  45. 45.

    Also, if we wanted to be especially strict (and I’m not arguing we have to be–I’m enjoying reading all of the possibilities and rationales :) ): if it’s cheating to take the sexist practice on the assumption that you would have the option of wriggling out of the offending practice, we could say that it’s equally cheating to take the sexist theory on the assumption that you would just refuse to believe the theory. Just for fun, let’s imagine that in the sexist-theory/egalitarian-practice hypothetical, the terms were that you actually subscribed intellectually to the theory. That you literally accepted, for example, that (if female) you were in fact less human in God’s view than a man, and that your value was contingent on your husband’s value. That you could leave the religion if you wanted but you couldn’t give up the belief, any more than I, if I chose sexist practice, could find an egalitarian-minded husband. I wonder whether that would change things.

  46. 46.

    Hmmm… I don’t think my move was cheating K. As I understand the set up our choices were:

    A. The church officially teaches sexism but the people practice egalitarianism
    B. The church officially teaches egalitarianism but the people practice sexism

    No where in the experiment is there mention of God’s perspective on it. So my move would be to assume God is egalitarian and recommend “A” for very practical and obvious reasons.

    If the game has changed and we had to choose between a sexist God or not the non-sexist God is a no-brainer of a choice.

    I think I’ll pass on your latest narrower game because it seems to imply you don’t have free will at all to work and when free will must be suspended it becomes a sort of useless thought experiment to me. (Since not having free will would be a problem that completely dwarfs our present subject)

  47. 47.

    Kiskilili,

    I choose to defer my answer. Here’s why.

    When considered against centuries of practice in both religion and marriage, this question is brand new. Even 100 years ago we couldn’t have articulated this question, because it would have been almost impossible for us to even imagine it.

    It is true that for many of us, practice has sprinted out ahead of theory. But that just signifies how much easier it is for individuals to change than it is for institutions, which have all their history and inertia to deal with and reconcile. It is clear (to me at least) that the institution is slowly applying the rudder, so while the pace of change is frustrating, I’m happy with the direction.

    I’m quite confident that 100 years from now this hypothetical will seem quaint and out of date. Ask me then. :-)

  48. 48.

    I think I’ll pass on your latest narrower game because it seems to imply you don’t have free will at all

    It’s true by its very nature the thought experiment is restricting free will at the outset, or there would be way more than two possibilities. In the exact same way that I’m restricting, in one hypothetical, your options for worshiping an egalitarian God through sexist doctrine, you’re restricting, in another hypothetical, my husband’s option to behave in an egalitarian manner toward me. But within the experiment free will isn’t any more restricted than usual: we’re just accepting a priori assumptions that people will have chosen to behave this or that particular way, for the purpose of discussion.

  49. 49.

    Here is the real problem I have with the latest:

    you couldn’t give up the belief

    That scuttles it for me because if we don’t have free will we are determined and any “choice” is not real to begin with — just an illusion.

  50. 50.

    I’m not convinced belief is entirely volitional, actually, but let’s set that aside for the moment. In our little thought experiment, either way people’s free will is restricted with regard both to action and to belief: let’s say that on the one hand people have to behave in a sexist manner and have to believe in an egalitarian God, and on the other people have to behave in an egalitarian manner and have to believe in a sexist God. I fail to see how free will is restricted more in one scenario than in the other.

    If free will is still wide open, why restrict our choices to either (a) or (b) at all? Why couldn’t people just choose to worship a God who was a triple-horned transvestite in a church allowing them to marry a pig and live in a pen? The thought experiment artificially creates restrictions on free will; the point is to explore what we’d choose within that artificial bubble in which much of our free will has been imagined away.

  51. 51.

    Well perhaps I misunderstood your intent. I thought you were talking about choosing between two possible worlds very similar to ours wherein free will was intact and we didn’t know the actual opinion of God. (See my A and B in #46)

    If you were proposing two worlds where and there is no robust free will in either then it all seems moot to me for the reasons I mentioned in #49.

  52. 52.

    Yeah, well, it’s true in my stricter version I guess I’m restricting not just the individual’s environment (which limits our options regardless), but also the individual’s response to it, so I am limiting free will in a qualitatively different way. :)

    Still, within those confines, people would still have free will–whether to worship God or not, whether to participate in the system or not and how, etc.

  53. 53.

    The reason I want to push back a little against the choice of sexist doctrine and ritual with egalitarian practice, but with a personal belief in egalitarian doctrine, is that my impression is everyone here accepts that other people’s individual behavior (the sexist practice model) will have an effect on us. But it sounds like there’s a sense that institutional behavior (the sexist theory model) doesn’t have any effect on us. I’m dubious that that’s really the case.

  54. 54.

    Going back to the issue of conscience discussed earlier in the thread, the scenario that haunts me when I grapple with this topic is that of a person who rejected the 1978 revelation because they deeply felt that it was morally wrong, that it violated their most basic sense of rightness. I realize that was far from the norm, that most people appreciated the revelation for the very reason that it resonated with what they already believed, and was therefore an occasion for celebration (at least from what I’ve heard; I was only three years old at the time). But what would I think of the person in the first situation? Would I admire their moral courage, their willingness to follow their own conscience even in defiance of the church? Thinking about that at least gives me pause when I want to say, clearly I’m on the right side of this. And yet as I mentioned earlier, I have to admit that ultimately my problem with female subordination is that it goes against my deepest sense of what is morally right. It’s a bit of a conundrum.

    Jacob (re #31), I think your observation about atheists maintaining the same basic moral principles is a useful one. Though I can see another possible explanation: if the moral principles in question come from the culture at large, rather than the specific faith tradition, that would also explain the continuity. Unless, of course, the moral principles retained by the convert to atheism were peculiar to her/his former religion. I suppose another avenue of inquiry could be to look for similarities across religions and cultures–though I have to admit I’m somewhat wary of such attempts, given the way they’ve been historically carried out, and the problem that in such research it’s all too easy to find what you’re looking for.

  55. 55.

    I’ve enjoyed the thoughtful comments made by those who would opt for egalitarian practice and sexist theory–you’ve given me a lot to consider. One (probably obvious) point that occurred to me in reading them is that it’s somewhat more clear-cut, at least on the domestic front, for me as a single woman. I can choose a non-existent sexist husband and an egalitarian ideal, or a non-existent egalitarian husband and a sexist ideal. It’s not really a difficult choice (though it might be cheating–does our devil’s bargain include the option of being single?).

    Caroline’s recent post at the Exponent might also have some bearing on this, as it includes accounts from people who were less bothered by this as a theoretical ideal which didn’t really affect their lives (before marriage), but it became more disturbing when it became more concrete. I think it also touches on the issue Kiskilili mentioned in #53–is it really possible to have sexist theory and egalitarian practice and not have the former in some ways affect the latter?

    I also think maybe two things are being conflated in this discussion–theory which is sexist, and a God who is sexist. Those who are opting for sexist theory, I’m noticing, seem to be working on the assumption that God isn’t actually sexist, but rather the theory is flawed (and it will eventually catch up to the practice). And that does sound to me like the preferable situation: egalitarian practice, and sexist theory for which you have some available means of critique.

    But what if the question were framed differently, because I’m guessing this gets closer to Kiskilili’s concern (correct me if I’m wrong, K)–would you rather deal with a sexist God, or sexist humans? I’m actually thinking that the answer is perhaps not as clear-cut as I might have originally assumed–I thought jane’s point (3) was particularly thought-provoking. God doesn’t always seem to be around (at least in a direct way), whereas other people unavoidably are. Put another way, to what extent is a sexist God actually going to be enforcing patriarchy in my daily life–especially if he’s limited to working through people who have been brainwashed by 21st century Western ideals of egalitarianism? ;)

  56. 56.

    Okay, now for the real fun. Let’s get back to our wolf-girl.

    Geoff said,

    Now I must admit I am quite confused by your abusive parents analogy. If you are saying “some people really hate some of our liturgy and don’t tell us not to be upset about it” my response is I don’t begrudge anyone being upset about stuff like that. If wolf-girl started a church and hundreds of years later some of its born-in-the-church members were upset about the wolf-like God they had been taught about in church I wouldn’t begrudge them that either.

    To some extent, I am saying just that, and so I genuinely appreciate your lack-of-begrudgement. At this point I don’t know how much I’m personally worried about whether God is a wolf (well, maybe depending on the day), but I’m nonetheless passionate about this topic–partly because the continuing existence of the teaching leaves me with some nagging doubts, and also just because it makes me crazy to see the pain that it’s caused for so many of my sisters in the church (not to mention my flesh-and-blood sisters). Also because I think such teachings inevitably impact the ways in which we relate to each other, regardless of whether they are in fact of divine origin.

    I might say the same thing to them though: “If God is real God can tell you personally how wolf-like he really is so ask him. If he says he’s not really all that wolf-like then ignore that stuff because you’ll know better”.

    I certainly think that’s a legitimate response, but I still have this question: how will God tell you that in an unambiguous way? What if the situation has been complicated by the fact that all you speak is wolf?—and God, at least according to Nephi, speaks to us according to our language and our understanding. What I’m trying to get at is that if you are raised with the image of God as a wolf, and it’s continually reinforced in church, it might be harder for God to communicate his non-wolf-like nature—not because of his limitations, but because of yours. (For one thing, if you have an extreme aversion to wolves, it’s going to be tough to even get to the point of asking him the question.) To bring this back to the original post, that’s where I think theory really has a (potentially negative) impact.

    I have no problem simply dumping doctrines that don’t jibe with that compass inside of me. Maybe I’m arrogant that way but I figure it is my soul and I’ll gladly answer to God for my approach when we meet. Anyhow, maybe it is a temperament thing as you say. Maybe some people in the church can’t bring themselves to trust their own gut over the details of some of our liturgy. I suppose that would be a really uncomfortable problem to have.

    Well, as I said, whether it’s a virtue or a vice to trust your own judgment over particular church teachings depends on your point of view. (I notice that I don’t hear many stories in Conference applauding those who ignore those doctrines which don’t resonate with them.) I have to admit I’m inclined in that direction myself—it’s how I’ve maintained what spiritual sanity I still have—but I do sometimes wonder at my own audacity in doing so.

  57. 57.

    beth said,

    But it doesn’t seem like God steps in to correct religious practices even when they are humble and righteous unless it is absolutely necessary. The ordinances that are available in the LDS church are necessary, but our religion is obviously not perfect. So if God doesn’t feel the need to provide a vision to wolf-girl of his absolutely true nature, is it possible that he doesn’t feel the need to reveal the perfect system to us and just let us try to do the best we can with what we have?

    That’s a fair point, I think; in a lot of ways, God seems strikingly hands-off. As far as I can tell, he’s unlikely to challenge our various cultural assumptions too much; he works with us in our limited context, only occasionally intervening to implement a course correction. I think what I find troubling in this—though I agree that it may be the most plausible explanation we have—is that women getting the message that they aren’t full human beings apparently isn’t troubling enough to God for him to do anything about it (at least on the institutional level, in terms of the religious organization which he is running).

    And doesn’t that make us rely more on him personally than otherwise, knowing there are flaws and so pushing to discover for ourselves what is true?

    I can see that as a potentially positive result, that the flaws in the system might encourage us to go directly to God for answers and not simply rely on what they’ve been told. My concern is that this might also go the other direction, that particular teachings might have the result of making it harder for people to trust God.

  58. 58.

    Lynnette: I notice that I don’t hear many stories in Conference applauding those who ignore those doctrines which don’t resonate with them.

    I can think of one glaring exception to this though — the story of the First Vision. We hear a lot in Conference about that young man following his gut and ignoring those doctrines which don’t resonate with him. Of course one person’s freedom fighter is another person’s traitor right?

    In the end we all have to answer to God for our own choices so I don’t think it is all that audacious to do what we think is right based on our internal moral compass (or maybe we can call it The Spirit, or the light of Christ, or revelation, or whatever.)

  59. 59.

    BTW Lynnette — I can’t help but think this topic is beginning to overlap the universalism discussion we had recently. Those who aren’t that worried about a vengeful God are probably less worried about following their internal moral compass and explaining it all to God later…

  60. 60.

    I’m with Geoff in #46 as to my understanding of the hypothetical. I re-read the OP just to make sure I was not crazy. K says:

    Personally, if I had to choose, I would opt for egalitarian policies and rituals affirming women’s status before God at the cost of sexist popular attitudes and informal practices restricting women’s opportunities. I would choose theory–specifically, policy and ritual–over practice, attitudes, or individuals’ behavior on the ground. Maybe it would be a mistake. But I would choose the domineering husband and the egalitarian liturgy.

    Clearly, this is not talking about choosing between a sexist God and sexist people, but between sexist institutional theory and sexist informal and cultural behaviors/attitudes.

    Given this, I think choosing to remain single is perfectly within the bounds of the hypothetical (Lynnette #55), just as choosing to believe something in opposition to sexist policy/liturgy is within bounds. This is not to say (see K’s #53) that the institutional theory has no effect on us. It would have an effect, in a variety of ways, but I am weighing those against the effects of the alternative when I make my evaluation. It seems like everyone has been clear that this was what they were doing as opposed to suggesting that institutional behavior has no effect on us.

    Lynnette (#54),

    re 1978: You’ve certainly raised this point in the past and I agree with the concern, but I think it gives us a reason for caution, not a requirement to accept everything taught by the scriptures or the church. If a person thought the 1978 revelation went against their most basic sense of rightness, I would expect them to hold fast to their morality, but also to spend some time in deep introspection and prayer with respect to the 1978 policy change. I think such a person would find that there most basic feelings of rightness were not actually at issue given that human equality and fairness speak in favor of the change. However, let’s suppose (to let your hypothetical play out) that the person decides after genuine introspection and prayer that they really feel the removal of the ban is immoral. I think such a person would be justified in sticking to that belief. Even if, as you suggest, the origin of this “morality” was actually cultural conditioning (as some of our moral sense surely is), it is still the only thing we can really go on. The trick, I believe, is that we need to be prepared to stand before God and be held accountable to what we decided to believe and how we acted on those beliefs. The person who was sincerely and thoughtfully wrong (as I expect to be on many counts) will do okay on judgment day, I believe. I think this view is supported by the scriptures which stress our innate knowledge of goodness and judgment based on the intentions of our hearts.

  61. 61.

    That’s an interesting point, Geoff, about the relation of this discussion to the one on universalism. Though I’m thinking this is maybe a bit more along the lines not of, will salvation be accessible to all, but rather, will that salvation be worth having? But I can certainly see how one’s premises regarding that question might relate to one’s willingness to follow one’s conscience.

    Jacob,

    I re-read the OP just to make sure I was not crazy.

    Clearly, this is not talking about choosing between a sexist God and sexist people, but between sexist institutional theory and sexist informal and cultural behaviors/attitudes.

    No, you’re not crazy (well, as far as I know . . .)—I was trying to tease out what I thought might be an underlying concern here. Though I also might be reading something into the post that wasn’t actually there. (And I do find the sexist God vs. sexist humans a kind of interesting thought experiment.)

    Going back to the criteria for evaluating these models, I’m realizing that for some reason I came at this with the very narrow question of, which of these scenarios would be more destructive to your relationship with God? I’m still not sure what I think on that particular issue. But if I were thinking of costs/benefits of these competing systems in other spheres, I might likely have a very different take on the whole thing.

    re 1978: You’ve certainly raised this point in the past and I agree with the concern, but I think it gives us a reason for caution, not a requirement to accept everything taught by the scriptures or the church.

    Lol, have I? I’d forgotten, or I would have at least come up with a different example. ;) Apologies if I’m just repeating the same concerns over and over. (On the other hand, if we didn’t do that, what would we have to blog about?) I do think in the end I’d go with your answer—we’re ultimately responsible to God for following our own conscience (or not), despite the ways in which it might have been distorted because of the limitations of mortality.

    I’ve doubtless already said this too, but what I’m still trying to get a handle on is what it means to really put your personal worldview in dialogue with the teachings of your religion. Because it seems to me that religion should challenge you to think in new ways, or what’s the point? Is the purpose of revelation to confirm what you already know at some level—or to transform it? Which is related to another theological issue that I’m kind of on the fence about: is salvation something that allows you to be who you most truly are, or that causes you to become an entirely new creature? But maybe the two aren’t mutually exclusive. (Though I think I’m wandering off on yet another threadjack.)

  62. 62.

    BCC is currently discussing the way the Church deals with illegal immigration. I’m thinking that this might be relevant to this conversation, because it’s perhaps an instance where the theory is one thing (an insistence on absolute honesty, the 12th Article of Faith), and the practice (baptizing illegal immigrants and even sending them on missions) is another. And in this instance, I have to admit that I think this situation is preferable to the reverse.

  63. 63.

    A follow-up to the first paragraph in my #56—upon re-reading it I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m saying that I’m an enlightened soul who’s managed to reject the “God is a wolf” teaching, and now I’m just worried about the less-enlightened snoofs who haven’t gotten that far. ;) I’ve gotten to my current position to some degree by becoming a lot more skeptical about a lot of religious claims, and I honestly don’t know that that’s necessarily an admirable move.

    And here’s another random thought. The scriptures indicate that some have the gift of knowledge, and some instead have the gift of belief. This usually comes up in the endlessly debated question of what it means to “know” the Church is true, but I’m thinking it might have some applicability to this context as well. I really, truly don’t believe God is sexist, that he sees women as lesser beings. But I don’t know with some kind of confident certainty that the patriarchal order isn’t eternal. I hear what Church leaders have to say, I hear people’s testimonies affirming patriarchy, and it leaves me wondering whether I’m totally off base. To be honest, if I were more personally certain that I was right, I might be less touchy about the subject. If someone preached over the pulpit that left-handers such as myself would all be on the left hand of God, I doubt I’d get mad; I’d just laugh, because it would sound so ridiculous. The teachings on gender, though, are much harder for me.

  64. 64.

    It would have an effect, in a variety of ways, but I am weighing those against the effects of the alternative when I make my evaluation. It seems like everyone has been clear that this was what they were doing as opposed to suggesting that institutional behavior has no effect on us.

    How about this quote from comment #6?

    So my point is that church policies don’t in themselves structure our relationships with those divine persons, contra what K said. Our real experiences (or lack thereof) with those real divine persons structure our relationship with them and those experiences trump the policies of any and every church in the end.

    I read this as asserting that theory, doctrine, and institutional structure are essentially irrelevant to our relationship with the divine. Isn’t this basically the same thing as saying theory doesn’t affect us? Or is the idea that the Church affects us, just not in religious matters, where we’re only influenced by God? I’m confused.

    Out of curiosity, if everyone does accept that institutional behavior affects us, what do you think those effects are specifically? How do you think that belonging to an institution that supports patriarchy, minimally in theory, affects your life, for example? Or, to frame it in terms of our hypothetical, what specifically do you see as the costs of choosing egalitarian practice and sexist theory? Are there any? Or can we always just go to God and he’ll unmistakably reveal that patriarchy is abhorrent and entirely contrary to his will, so doctrine, ritual, and scripture are of very little significance?

  65. 65.

    Well since you were quoting me in #64 K, it is not my position that institutional behavior has no effect on us. Rather, my point was that our relationship with the divine is certainly not entirely structured or determined by the policies/teachings of whatever church we grow up in (as I feared you were implying).

    In answer to your question in the second paragraph, I suspect that the more God directly reveals things to us the less the organization dominates our thinking about God. (See the Joseph Smith example again). I suppose the natural corollary to that would be that the less God reveals to a person directly the more than person must rely on indirect revelations and organizational norms.

    what specifically do you see as the costs of choosing egalitarian practice and sexist theory?

    Well obviously it makes some people extremely upset so that is a real cost.

  66. 66.

    Thanks, Geoff. That makes sense. I think we’re probably in agreement to some degree–I agree with you that the institution certainly does not entirely constrain our religious understanding. (Although I do think even our religious experiences end up being framed in human terms embedded in human constructs and culture.)

    A side issue that’s fairly peripheral to this discussion is how we make religious sense of the “variety of religious experience”–the fact that God (reportedly) reveals to some people that patriarchy is divine and to others that it’s nonsense, for example. For my own life I have to trust my own experience and my own conscience, which is confusing enough in itself, but as a community, I’m honestly not sure how we arbitrate between conflicting religious impressions, or what it means to my relationship to the institution if I feel what God is revealing to me goes directly against what the magisterium says God is revealing to them.

  67. 67.

    Hi, RecessionCone (#42). Nice to see you commenting here!

    If one struggles with a particular aspect of the Church’s many difficult doctrines, instead of sitting down to straighten out your theoretical underpinnings with careful reasoning and citations of various important theology papers, your bishop is likely to say “Forget yourself and go to work” in the service of other people. Because that’s how the church works. Understanding of the theories of the church is presumed to follow practical application of the theories.

    If I didn’t know better, I might think you were devaluing the oh-so-important work of theologians, who are capable of writing extended treatises on the value of charity without ever actually bothering to practice it. ;)

    More seriously, I think I can see your point, and I definitely agree that the Church tends to be praxis-oriented. I see a lot of positives arising from that, not least of which is that I think it perhaps leaves more room for a wide variety of beliefs. If you show up at church and do your home teaching, people are likely not going to care much that you believe you’ve identified the location of Kolob.

    On the other hand, I’m thinking that when we talk about what Mormonism has to contribute that doesn’t already exist in Christianity generally (or even in religion generally), we tend to focus on unique doctrines, which is probably just repeating Kiskilili’s point.

    And I’m now going to do something you thought you may never see on this blog, and quote Boyd K. Packer:

    True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior.

    Okay, I realize that his point is that one kind of theory (the study of doctrine) is more effective than another (the study of behavior). But it does sound like he’s assuming that if you change the theory, the behavior will follow. I would hazard a guess that the Church’s self-understanding (as most often articulated by its leaders, at least) is generally that practice is altered through correct theory. In other words, the theory is that theory is the crucial piece.

  68. 68.

    [...] Some said that result B obviously meant that the doctrine could not be doctrine A.  Others said tha….  Of course everyone’s framing and narrative interjected a great deal into the discussion. [...]

  69. 69.

    Lynnette, sorry if I came across wrong, I didn’t mean to suggest you are repeating yourself. Mea culpa.

    I do think that revelation is generally there to transform rather than affirm what we know. Anything which challenges our current worldview takes some wrestling with to find it a home. Sometimes I reject doctrines simply because I can’t find a place for them in my belief system (for example, Orson Pratt’s ideas about vegetable spirits). That’s just because it doesn’t make sense to me. If I decide the revelation flat out contradicts my sense of morality (for example, penal substitution as the basis for the atonement) then I feel even more comfortable rejecting some particular dogma.

  70. 70.

    No worries, Jacob. For some reason I just had this moment of paranoia that we’d already had this exact same conversation and I’d completely forgotten it, and so was trying to have it again. (Not as implausible a scenario as one might think! ) Anyway, I like what you’re saying about wrestling. I wonder–perhaps that process of wrestling with ideas, of serious engagement, is in some ways more important than the conclusions we end up reaching?

  71. 71.

    My post got bumped by the linkback. I want to repeat that I really enjoyed Jane’s comments, which obviously doesn’t show in the link back, nor does the fact I was taking things in a different direction and found this dialogue here very interesting.

    Ah well, the joys of software ;)

  72. 72.

    Thank you for your nice comments, Lynnette and Stephen.

    If we change the question to sexist God or sexist people, I’ll take sexist people, absolutely. I can endure oppression for the next 50 or 60 years much more happily than for all eternity.

    I had interpreted the original question kind of like this: Assuming we can’t really know the mind of God on this matter, and the only variable we could change was whether or not our religion (as taught and practiced here on earth) included sexist doctrines/practices/rituals or whether all the members held sexist attitudes, which would you prefer? I didn’t think we were really manipulating the eternal reality of these ideas – just how the practice or belief in these ideas affected our mortal lives.

  73. 73.

    That makes a lot of sense to me, jane. To be honest, I’m confused myself about what my original question meant at this point! But I think you certainly read it fairly. The point you make that (to paraphrase, I hope fairly) to a significant degree our relationships with other people in this life are a lot more present than our more ambiguous relationship with the divine is a really good one and brought me up short. If I were married I’d probably see this differently–if to a domineering husband, I’d probably see practice as a more pressing issue, and if to an egalitarian husband, I’d probably be loath to throw that away.

    There are ways in which I think my experience of other people really has profoundly shaped my relationship with the divine, though, so I wonder: if all of my experiences in my hypothetical church were of egalitarianism, in spite of patriarchal teachings, whether I wouldn’t even just subconsciously suppose God was as egalitarian as his community, regardless of what they officially professed. Which is to say, I think, that while sociologists may make useful distinctions between theory and practice, I’m not sure they’re so easy to separate in individuals’ experience.

    Would people be more likely to believe in an egalitarian God given the egalitarian practice or the egalitarian doctrine/policy? I’m not sure.

  74. 74.

    Aw you guys are very nice. I’m going to go say something about that in 10,000 Comments after this…

    I think another implication of this reasoning is that the theory potentially reflects a much greater scope in terms of TIME, like Jane said in #72. If the theory is sexist (and true), but the practice is egalitarian, then we must deal with the sexist theory for a much longer time, possibly eternally, than if the theory were egalitarian and the practical implementation were flawed. I wonder if the strength of an individual’s belief in eternity has any effect on which model s/he would prefer.

  75. 75.

    Lynette # 61

    Is the purpose of revelation to confirm what you already know at some level—or to transform it? Which is related to another theological issue that I’m kind of on the fence about: is salvation something that allows you to be who you most truly are, or that causes you to become an entirely new creature? But maybe the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

    I would hope both.

  76. 76.

    Part of my problem in really wrapping my brain around the thought-provoking original essay was the use of terms like misogynistic and sexist, and that only theory and practice are mentioned without any consideration of factors such as effect.

    The church has never struck me as misogynistic, nor taught that women are “less” in their differentness, but some people do find women to be “less” in effect.

    As far as sexism, I dunno. I know I’ve said this before, but the university where I work is scrupulously non-sexist and as a result is very unfair and damaging to women, in my opinion.

    They do not allow part-time students, except for a few programs designed as such. Thus there is no possibility for a mom to get a college degree part-time while her kids are in their elementary and middle school years, and only really need her after school. At sexist BYU, I had neighbors with part-time scholarships, and I got scholarships for distance learning courses when I was a fulltime parent.

    At my university, they don’t have a policy about stopping the tenure clock when a baby is born.

    They don’t allow volunteer work to be considered when applying for a job, which hurts women disproportionately because women are more likely to have extensive volunteer work and not paid.

    They don’t have a summer program for moms with children to come back and live in a dorm and finish their degrees or recertify.

    So being non-sexist is not something I see as always good for women. We are very different in some areas, such as how childbearing impacts our bodies, and I see no problem in recognizing that.

  77. 77.

    Kiskilili –

    Your last comment (and also Caroline’s recent post at ExII) got me started thinking a little further; I find myself wondering whether my husband and I have really managed to transcend our LDS upbringing to embrace truly egalitarian notions. (This isn’t quite what you asked, but I’m just going off on a little personal tangent for a minute here – I hope you’ll forgive me.).

    Is my husband really, truly egalitarian, or is he just an incredibly nice guy? I think it’s possible that in his own mind, he’s more an ultra-benevolent, laid-back, kindly patriarch than a true egalitarian. He treats me in a way that makes me feel respected, loved, and heard; we make decisions jointly, etc. But I think he’s probably absorbed some of the messages of our broader American culture and our specific LDS culture/doctrine, and I think it’s possible he feels some sense of unique or disproportionate responsibility for the spiritual and temporal well-being of our family. If that’s true, does such an attitude benefit or harm our relationship and family? I think I could argue either side of that one.

    And I’m sure I’ve been influenced by our doctrine, too – even when I consciously reject or question it. Maybe my propensity towards laziness, passiveness, buck-passing, shyness, self-consciousness, indecisiveness, etc. are tied up in a belief system that I’m somehow less of a full agent than men are. Or maybe those personality traits are due to other environmental and genetic factors and my own choices; I might have been very similar regardless of the doctrinal teachings I was exposed to during my life. It’s hard to tease out the causes of our behavior and thoughts. Certainly our exposure to church teachings, our beliefs, our practices, and our relationships with God and each other are all very much intertwined.

    (Man, how awesome to try to pass the buck on my own buck-passing propensity…)

    (And I second Newt’s comment about the niceness of the ZD bloggers. You guys have managed to create a forum that feels respectful, kind, safe, and welcoming, which I really appreciate.)

    (And I like Naismith’s points, too – sometimes I want equality, but often I want special consideration for special circumstances.)

  78. 78.

    jane, you’ll find that many feminists agree that “equality” doesn’t mean “sameness.” Here’s a post I made on the issue:

    http://zelophehadsdaughters.com/2007/01/31/exploring-a-misconception-about-feminism-difference-and-equality/

  79. 79.

    Yes, I suppose that gets to the heart of most gender-related discussions on the bloggernacle. When we see a practice or doctrine in the church that treats men and women differently, how do we judge whether it’s a matter of treating women as lesser beings, or whether it’s a matter of treating women as “equal but different” beings? Every time I feel sure I’m being discriminated against in this church, I can count on certain orthodox, contented Latter-day Saints telling me that I’m not being discriminated against – I’m just being treated differently because I am different.

  80. 80.

    Good questions, jane. I posed similar questions in my follow-up post :)

    http://zelophehadsdaughters.com/2007/02/10/separate-but-equal/

    I think my sense is that while some feminists might take things too far on the “we are not different” side of things, I think the church generally takes things too far on the “separate but equal” side of things.

  81. 81.

    Thanks for the links, Seraphine.

  82. 82.

    As far as sexism, I dunno. I know I’ve said this before, but the university where I work is scrupulously non-sexist and as a result is very unfair and damaging to women, in my opinion.

    Interesting observation Naismith. When the ERA was on the legislative table, I was an ardent supporter until I heard convincing predictions of this very thing.

  83. 83.

    Seraphine, thanks for posting the links. I appreciated them at the time, and think those issues are not brought up near enough in discussions like this.

  84. 84.

    Those are all good questions, jane. I do wonder how patriarchal doctrine shapes our attitudes, as both men and women, even without our awareness.

    You raise some great questions, Naismith. On the one extreme we have people taking the position that any observable difference justifies any difference in treatment (people observe that men and women have different brains and then conclude men should have exclusive access to x, without even making a case based on the particularities of the observed differences!). On the other extreme are those who would claim no observable difference justifies any difference in treatment, which is also untenable (in general, not just with regard to men and women).

    Although I haven’t completely sorted out what I think, I lean toward the idea that (a) not only should women have access to opportunities men are granted, (b) provisions should be made in those opportunities for childcare (which I think is generally the issue for women)–i.e., they should be adapated to women’s needs–but then (c) those provisions for childcare should also be available to men. I think Ziff’s tenure clock might stop if he (and his wife) have a baby, for example, and I’m sure he appreciates it when men’s restrooms have changing tables.

  85. 85.

    kiskilili- can you send me your email? sarasbreadco at gmail

  86. 86.

    Kiskilili: I liked your description:
    how we make religious sense of the “variety of religious experience”–the fact that God (reportedly) reveals to some people that patriarchy is divine and to others that it’s nonsense, for example. For my own life I have to trust my own experience and my own conscience.”
    In the Hebrew Bible, forms of the word faith were commonly described as “bth” or trust. To put your trust in the Lord is to live by your faith and be assured of things hoped for, even against the convictions of others. Psychologist’s would attribute your “hope and trust” as projection, because one tends to project their attributes onto others.

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