Zelophehad’s Daughters

Some Thoughts Sparked by Taylor Petrey’s “Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology”

Posted by Lynnette

At a conference earlier this year, I presented a brief (and admittedly self-serving) paper suggesting some of the reasons why Mormons need theology. I listed several areas where I saw a need for theological work, and I noted that one of the most pressing of these was our lack of queer theology. After my presentation, several people enthusiastically asked me exactly how one might go about doing queer theology, and I had to admit that I was only pointing to the need for it; I was still working out how one might actually do it. For this reason, and others, I was excited to see Taylor Petrey’s recent Dialogue article—a thoughtful approach to a topic about which most discussion produces more heat than light. I am still thinking this through, but I would like to play with some of the ideas that Taylor brings up.

Taylor points out that we have competing narratives about our premortal origins—one which describes a spirit birth which is comparable to the kind of birth we have in mortality, and one which emphasizes eternal intelligences. The first, he argues, is problematic, both in its assumptions about the continuities between mortal and spiritual reproduction (are we seriously positing a Heavenly Mother who has a menstrual cycle?), and in the problem of glorified bodies which for some strange reason give birth to spirit bodies. Taylor proposes that we can instead imagine models in which “biological reproduction is not needed to explain celestial parentage,” noting, for example, that resurrection, which might also described as a kind of birth, does not get described in terms of biological reproduction.

I wonder whether this might be connected to Taylor’s later discussion of kinship—which, he argues, trumps biology. Could this paradigm also apply to our relation to God?  I am thinking of the King Follett God who “finds himself in the midst of spirits and glory,” and then, “because he was more intelligent, saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself.” God, in other words, establishes a particular kind of relationship with us—one which might make more sense in a kinship model than one of literal mortal-style procreation. In any case, I agree with Taylor that we have little evidence that sexual reproduction as we know it here is necessary to create life in the eternities, which calls into question one of the common assumptions about why heterosexual relationships are privileged.

Taylor also proposes that we cannot reduce relationships, whether heterosexual or homosexual, to sexuality, as this is “inconsistent with our own understanding of the salvific character of relationships per se.” I would like to think more about this point. In LDS theology, what exactly is it about relationships that is salvific? And if heterosexual relationships are deemed salvific while homosexual ones are not, what is the soteriological difference between them? Taylor describes three reasons why LDS raise concerns: the issue of celestial reproduction (as just discussed), the practice of sealing, and the issue of eternal gender. He notes that “gender” in LDS discourse refers to at least three aspects of human existence: “the morphological bodies of males and females,” “an ‘identity’ that males and females are supposed to possess,” and “differing ‘roles,’ purposes, and responsibilities.”

I would add to this another issue, which is perhaps already implicit in a discussion of differing gender roles—that of complementarity. The church document “The Divine Institution of Marriage” quotes sociologist David Popenoe:

. . . The complementarity of male and female parenting styles is striking and of enormous importance to a child’s overall development. It is sometimes said that fathers express more concern for the child’s longer-term development, while mothers focus on the child’s immediate well-being (which, of course, in its own way has everything to do with a child’s long-term well-being). What is clear is that children have dual needs that must be met: one for independence and the other for relatedness, one for challenge and the other for support.

Setting aside the credibility of this particular argument (“it is sometimes said”?), I think this is an important element of LDS resistance to homosexual relationships: the belief that there is a complementarity which exists exclusively in heterosexual relationships. Taylor observes that one of the objections to same-sex marriage is that it means that one partner is not fulfilling their correct gender role. In contemporary church discourse about gender differences and gender roles, it can be ridiculously difficult to pin down exactly what those differences and roles are. Men “preside,” but no one knows quite what that means, and notably women can preside in the absence of a man (see Dallin Oaks’ story about how his mother presided after the death of his father), which means it cannot be tied to some exclusively masculine trait. Women “nurture,” but again, the meaning of this is less than clear—and the whole thing is complicated by the language of equal partners. While heterosexual couples must figure out how to pull an “equal partners” rabbit out of a “preside” hat, Taylor notes that homosexual partners have the reverse problem: “in homosexual relationships, the question of who presides is much more important than the fact that there is an equal partnership.”

In trying to sort out this topic, I have wondered whether it might be useful to bring in relational theology. One of the most prominent shifts of theological thinking in the last half-century is the move from a substance ontology to a relational one, meaning that the self does not first exist as an autonomous entity which then enters into relationships, but is inherently relational from the beginning. In traditional Christian theology, this has been closely tied to the trinitarian nature of God. If God is constitutively relational, goes the argument, then humans, as imago dei, are also constitutively relational. The image of God, in other words, is not found in an autonomous will or intellect, but in the relational orientation of human beings. This is an important background, I think, to any discussion of sexuality. For Mormons, a key question is this: in talking about eternal heterosexual marriage, do we see eternal gender, or eternal relationality, as primary? In other words, is the relationship something secondary which is constructed by two eternally opposite-gendered beings—or is it something primary which happens to get expressed in sexually differentiated beings? If the former is true, one cannot talk coherently about an eternal same-sex marriage, because a marital relationship is contingent on the gender of those involved; but if the latter, there is no clear reason why inherent relationality could not be expressed in same-sex pairings.

Theologian Stanley Grenz makes an argument that Mormons might find particularly interesting. He looks at possible connections between two elements of the Genesis creation narratives: first, humans as created in the image of God, and second, humans created as “sexually differentiated and hence relational creatures.”1 But while Mormons cite this as evidence of a sexually differentiated God, Grenz goes in a different direction: This does not imply some kind of divine sexuality, he says—rather, “in the creation of humans as sexually differentiated we see the character of human existence as something which “entails a fundamental incompleteness or, stated positively, an innate yearning for completeness.”2 This produces a drive for bonding, and it is on this basic dynamic of bonding that community is based. Salvation, then, has to do with completeness—a completeness we cannot achieve on our own. It is something we attain through relationships of difference.

The question at stake in this particular discussion is whether such completeness can only be found in heterosexual relationships. The gender complementarians would likely argue yes, that male and female complement each other in a way that two persons of the same sex cannot do. There is perhaps an appealing tidiness about this model. But in the messiness of everyday life, it is a difficult claim to verify. There is enough variety within the sexes that it is not difficult to see how two men or two women might also bring very different strengths to a relationship.3 Any relationship, be it same-sex or opposite-sex, is going to pose the challenge of negotiating similarity and difference. The only way I can see to make the case that opposite-sex couples are somehow qualitatively different from same-sex ones is to propose that men and women are qualitatively different—an assertion which causes far more problems than it solves.4 And appeals to innate gender differences are dicey, given that such differences frequently turn out to be so mysterious and ineffable that no one can articulate what they are. (I am not arguing that such differences might not exist; I am simply questioning whether an appeal to their existence is in itself sufficient rationale for privileging opposite-sex relationships.) In the Garden of Eden, one might argue that the important point is not the sexual differentiation of Adam and Eve, but the statement that it is not good for [a human being] to be alone. Even perhaps (!) a gay human being.

I also wonder about our relationships to each other in different phases of existence. I am struck by their fluidity. In the premortal life, as the children of God (however you interpret that), we are all in some sense spirit siblings. But here on earth those relationships get re-formed—we who used to be siblings now become spouses and parents and children, and we do not seem overly perturbed that our relationships have rearranged themselves in this way. I think this lends weight to the idea that relationality itself is more crucial than the particular form it takes in any given sphere of existence.

In re-reading various church statements on the topic of same-sex marriage, I have been interested to see how much of it is along the lines of, “but what about the children?” But in LDS teachings, while procreation and child-rearing are crucial, relationships themselves are seen as salvific—intriguingly, having children is not a requirement for exaltation. And even if it were, Taylor has made a strong case that procreation in the eternities may well be very different from mortal procreation, and that the obligation to raise children in a righteous way is not contingent on procreative ability. In addition, I would note, same-sex couples can decide to assign roles as a way to divide labor (much as opposite-sex couples do), usually consist of two people with a clear gender identity, and will inevitably require those in them to grapple with difference. What, then, is it that heterosexual couples have, theologically speaking, that homosexual ones lack? I am still having a hard time articulating an answer, at least in part because I am still trying to pin down precisely what aspects of relationships are salvific, and whether this is tied to gender.

On a somewhat tangential note, I am also interested in the sources upon which church leaders draw in discussing this subject. Notably, unlike in many other Christian settings, scriptures from Leviticus and Paul rarely come into play. This does not surprise me, given that Mormons do not seem to feel particularly bound to either source. Instead, from what I can see, church leaders cite the creation of Adam and Eve, the historical tradition of heterosexual marriage, the Proclamation on the Family, and contemporary social science. The PotF has always struck me as a surprisingly weak argument against gay marriage, which is not even explicitly addressed in the document; there are several steps between “gender is eternal” and “gay marriage is wrong” (especially once you differentiate between gender identity and sexual orientation, a distinction that has unfortunately been blurred in many LDS writings)—and the statement that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God can be read as just that, as opposed to a condemnation of any other kind of marriage. The same holds true, I think, of the Genesis account. Contemporary social science seems like an odd place to go (especially given the existence of those social scientists who are finding no difference between children raised by opposite-sex and same-sex parents). And history and tradition are not insurmountable obstacles to a church which believes in continuing revelation. I am not disputing that the church currently has a strong stance on the subject, but I do wonder whether it is as ironclad as it often seems to appear.

In any case, I have only mentioned some of the questions raised by Taylor’s thought-provoking article. If you haven’t yet, you should totally go read it.

  1. Stanley J. Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 269. []
  2. Ibid., 277 []
  3. I would also note that no pair, whether same-sex or different-sex, is going to perfectly complete one another—I thus like Grenz’s idea that we should not stop at pair bonding, but see differences as a way to drive us toward community. []
  4. There are already enough difficult teachings and practices in the church that raise questions about whether women are in fact full persons. In addition, this would undermine any christology in which a male savior can comprehend the experience of women. []

20 Responses to “Some Thoughts Sparked by Taylor Petrey’s “Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology””

  1. 1.

    I would mostly take issue with your second paragraph (predictably). Eternal intelligences and spirit birth do not necessarily compete at all. You are also forcing unnecessary assumptions on to spirit birth to discredit it. I also think resurrection is more of a refining rather than reproductinve event.

    There is something of a which comes first – existance or relationship (at least some specifics of existence like gender). It is difficult for me to think of relationships coming before existence. This assumes gender as a fundamental part of existence I suppose.

  2. 2.

    Eric, I agree that there are some straw man arguments that get built around eternal gender. This is true, in my opinion, in Taylor’s paper, as wel.

    As for resurrection, the question is what is the distinction between a “refining” and a “reproductive” event? Taylor talks about the existence of a multi-step progression—eternal intelligence to spirit to mortal body to immortal body. No one (that I’m aware of) argues that resurrection happens the same way as mortal birth, requiring biologically sexually compatible partners. So, why do many of us suppose that the transition from intelligence to spirit requires partners with compatible gender? The notion that spirit birth has this sexual characteristic is also odd for level-of-progression reasons—why would mortal bodies give birth to equally mortal bodies but perfected bodies give birth to spirit bodies that are two steps “behind” in their progression?

  3. 3.

    Lynnette, thanks for introducing relational theology into the discussion. LIke Eric, I find it hard to wrap my mind around it, but I usually find that’s a good thing, since it stretches my brain. I’ll be back if the stretching yields any interesting thoughts.

  4. 4.

    Hi, Eric. And no, I’m not surprised. Though I’m not sure that I’m up for another long bloggernacle debate about spirit birth. ;) I think our knowledge and evidence is so limited that it’s unlikely that, barring new revelation, we’re going to reach a definitive conclusion on the matter. But for purposes of this argument, which Taylor describes as a thought experiment, I think the relevant point is that it’s possible in the context of Mormonism to construct a scenario in which heterosexual activity is not required in the eternities for reproduction. And I think Taylor’s been successful on that point (whether or not you agree with his conclusions).

    I’m also not sure that the spirit birth issue is all that central–as I noted, you can be exalted without having children, but not without being married–which leads me to believe that there’s something salvific about that marital relationship itself, though I’m still trying to figure out what that something is (and whether it applies exclusively to heterosexual couples). And I’m not convinced that it’s the ability to biologically procreate–even on earth, we’ve found ways to do that without heterosexual activity. I don’t think we’d question the legitimacy of a heterosexual relationship in which the children weren’t conceived by the usual means.

    It is difficult for me to think of relationships coming before existence.

    I may not have explained this clearly, but that’s not what I’m arguing. I’m saying that there is no existence without relationality. In our development in mortality, it’s worth noting, our earliest knowledge of ourselves is in relation to the significant others in our life–individuation is something that develops later.

  5. 5.

    Thom G, thanks for the comment. It’s quite possible that I’m using straw men, since these are very preliminary thoughts. So it would actually be helpful if you’d mention what they are.

    So, why do many of us suppose that the transition from intelligence to spirit requires partners with compatible gender?

    Yes, that’s definitely one of the things I’m wondering. In the various transitions throughout the Plan of Salvation, which ones require heterosexual activity? I don’t see any clear answers there. And I’m glad you appreciated the relationality bit, even if it is hard to wrap one’s head around.

  6. 6.

    Thank you for the thoughtful and productive engagement with the article! I am so thankful for your careful attention here!

    I think that your point about complimentarianism is worth taking very seriously. Most importantly, I think that you have framed the question fantastically: ” in talking about eternal heterosexual marriage, do we see eternal gender, or eternal relationality, as primary?”

    My answer is that we should think of the relationship as primary, as you suggest as well. Specifically, I think that our theology of kinship is the real innovation and insight to thinking about the divine realm, much more so than a stale complimentarianism, with its (I think) unavoidable hierarchy. Perhaps it is the specific relationship of kinship that provides the key to unlocking what about relationality is primary. It may also be that kinship is the relationship that transcends the premortal, mortal, and postmortal spheres, providing continuity rather than discontinuity between them.

  7. 7.

    Proponents of complementarianism run into some hard questions very quickly. In Mormon heaven, everybody has a fullness of all good things. What, then, is there to complement?

  8. 8.

    Hi, Taylor! Thanks for dropping by.

    It may also be that kinship is the relationship that transcends the premortal, mortal, and postmortal spheres, providing continuity rather than discontinuity between them.

    That question about continuity is one that I’ve also frequently wrestled with. Is there a way to posit a continuous self if one rejects dualism (or whatever you would call it when there are even more layers than two—what I refer to as the Russian doll theory of human existence)? What is it that survives the transition from a premortal to a mortal to a postmortal life? I’ve wondered whether relationality might be the key, specifically our relationship to God, which holds steady through all these realms. We could thus say that God is the ground of human existence—not in a creatio ex nihilo way, but in a relational one.

    But in your discussion of kinship, I think you’re making this broader, and I’m trying to sort out how this might connect with what I’m saying about relational theology. I’m talking about the idea that humans are inherently relational, that we come to understand ourselves through relationship, and as I understand it, you’re talking about a practice that ritually establishes a particular kind of relationship. Drawing on both of those, I wonder whether one way to conceptualize the different realms of the Plan of Salvation is to see them as bringing us into ever closer relationship with both God and one another. We, like God, initially “find ourselves” in the midst of spirits and glory (and I think this language supports the argument for relationality being primary). In working toward our progression, God establishes a relationship of kinship with us. And in this mortal realm, we can similarly establish relationships of kinship with each other—the ultimate aim being a human family that is bound together much more tightly than where we started. One critique of relational theology is that in its celebration of relationship it does not always take into account that relationships can also be toxic—which is one reason why I see the aim of kinship, and not just relationship (which is an inevitable aspect of our existence), as valuable.

    Mark Brown, that’s an excellent question, and I think gets to the heart of many of the gender debates. Can we name any divine attributes that are exclusive to one gender?

  9. 9.

    Fascinating post, Lynnette! I’ll have to go read Taylor’s article.

    Relational theology is new to me, and I’m really intrigued. I’ll have to check out Grenz as well.

  10. 10.

    In the Garden of Eden, one might argue that the important point is not the sexual differentiation of Adam and Eve, but the statement that it is not good for [a human being] to be alone. Even perhaps (!) a gay human being.

    In my opinion and experience, this citation has for me always been the heart of the LDS understanding of relationships as salvic. In fact, I was tickled pink to read Taylor’s point that “both desires and practices obscure relationships as a dimension of homosexual experiences” just after I’d made my own attempt at a similar point to my sister, who has relied heavily on the LDS distinction between “homosexual desires and sexual practices” to reject me and my current same-sex relationship, saying, “you still do not believe that homosexuality *actually* exists, at least not experientially. Sort of like it exists as a “freak of nature,” a tendency to dress or talk a certain way, something you can even point out in a stranger on the street, but to you the heart of these rather cosmetic symptoms– as an actual relational experience similar to your own– does not exist.”

    Of course I went on to assert that homosexuality as a complimentary, loving relationship does, in fact, exist, and that the spiritually developmental nature of such a relationship exists just as beautifully and naturally as in your so-called complimentary heterosexual relationships. While this fact seems obvious enough to me, I still see the need to articulate it again and again to theorizing heterosexuals, even of the most sympathetic sort, mainly because it is sometimes difficult for heterosexuals to both imagine and also analyze those qualities of their own relationships, which come so naturally and are so easily affirmed by both religious and secular societies, in a form analogous to homosexual relationships which each may be considered or defined “salvic.”

    In fact, my Mormon homosexual friends and I often stop and ponder how exhilarating it must be for all you straight people to have your loving relationships so often affirmed and glorified. Yes, we agree, that would be incredible. We can see why they are held so dear, but we also wonder at the heterosexual’s common inability to conceive of homosexual relationships as equally exhilarating and fulfilling.

    And in my relationship with my girlfriend, we often pause in wonderment that “nature” or some other “cosmic force” has brought us together– we are, in fact, incredibly complimentary!! And every day I feel my heart and mind growing, expanding and developing in much, if not exactly the same way that I often heard heterosexual marriage and family discussed in the Mormon church. We do it because it is the only way we can learn to love and care for someone, develop humility, empathy, charity, and loving-kindness, I was taught. It is the most basic and exalted way one can practice one’s religion.

    I realize this argument is more emotionally than theoretically driven, but I find much of Mormon thought and cultural practice to be so based, and so I offer my two cents that if there is a salvic quality to heterosexual partnerships in LDS theology then there is no question the same applies to homosexual partnerships, in my experience.

  11. 11.

    We do it because it is the only way we can learn to love and care for someone, develop humility, empathy, charity, and loving-kindness, I was taught.

    Perhaps I should amend that to say “it is one of the best ways we can learn to love and care for someone,” etc. Not the only way, but certainly one of the best, and with that I wholeheartedly agree :)

  12. 12.

    Considering that some species are born pregnant and others have virgin births, perhaps the idea that ” biological reproduction is not needed to explain celestial parentage” should be adopted.
    Popular culture seems to have adopted the idea of metamorphosis. But it appears most envision turning into a butterfly and not a short lived mouthless mayfly.

    So when considering complementarity and completeness, perhaps the model should be everyone’s favorite slime molds–dictyostelid.
    Maybe on earth, humanity are like the social amoebae and in order to progress we need to learn to form a grex.

  13. 13.

    Thanks for that clarification. I understand bettter the point you are making. I am just going on a limb here, but it seems to me that subjectivity and kinship have been linked for people like Freud and Lacan. Perhaps there is something there to chew on.

  14. 14.

    I am reading up on the Joseph Smith Papers the church is publishing online. Revelations Book 2 was just made available. It’s interesting to think about this within the context of his own words. Degree’s of glory seem to have nothing to do with gender, gender identity or gays.

  15. 15.


    Please continue your thoughts and explain how you come to the conclusion that the degrees of glory have nothing to do with gender? I am very interested to hear more.

  16. 16.

    [...] is still alive and well in Utah (despite some resistance). Meanwhile Dialog started a discussion on the theology of gender and relationships. MoHoHawaii argues that gender is a real part of a [...]

  17. 17.

    Good food for thought. I don’t think we can understand eternal life in this life, though, no matter how hard we try.

  18. 18.

    [...] Taylor Petrey’s Dialogue post, Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology, was later addressed by Lynnette at Zelophehad’s Daughters. From her post, here was a selection I really liked:) Theologian Stanley Grenz makes an argument [...]

  19. 19.

    This post and its comments all wrapped up in late 2011. Cassler’s substantial response to Petrey’s article, “Plato’s Son, Augustine’s Heir” was published in summer 2012. I’m looking for some discussion of Cassler’s points. Has any happened at this site? Other sites you know about?

    Here’s Cassler: http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleCasslerPlatosSon.html

  20. 20.

    […] much of this is taken from a post I wrote a few years […]

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