Following up to my first post on why homosexuality is a theological problem for Mormons—and the stark question of whether gays can be seen as fully human in LDS teachings—I would like suggest a few avenues for theological thought which may yield more encouraging results.
1. One possibility is to conceptualize the image of God in a different way. In my first post, I noted that the standard LDS read is to see it as a statement that humans are literally the children of God and have the potential to become like him—an assertion which is generally tied to gender, as God is understood as literally (and not only metaphorically) male. This is also linked to the scriptural context in which this notion appears in the first place: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” (Genesis 1:27)
Growing up with the standard LDS beliefs on this issue, I actually found it challenging to imagine other interpretations of this passage; it seemed quite straightforward to me. Humans are in the image of God because humans have a literally divine potential. So I was fascinated when I first asked my mainstream Christian friends about the issue, and they pointed out that “image” can mean many things, and that it does not necessarily mean something which has the potential to develop into something else. A painting, for example, is an image. Humans might reflect God’s nature as personal, or as having an autonomous will, or as capable of love.
The image of God, then, can be read as something other than the LDS belief in the literal divine nature of humans—and notably, there is no reason why Latter-day Saints cannot play with other interpretations. Significantly, in other reads, gender does not have to play the same essential role. This may seem like a minor issue, but I see it as a useful starting point.
Note: much of this is taken from a post I wrote a few years ago.
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 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. While LDS theological anthropology is obviously not grounded in a trinitarian understanding of God, I think a relational view of God is nonetheless not foreign to the tradition—notably, not only intelligences, but also relationships, are eternal.
Bringing this into the context of homosexuality, a key question is this: do we see eternal gender, or eternal relationality, as primary? In other words, is a heterosexual 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?
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 Salvation, then, has to do with completeness—a completeness we cannot achieve on our own. It is something we attain through relationships of difference. Any relationship, be it same-sex or opposite-sex, is going to pose the challenge of negotiating similarity and difference.
Is this compatible with LDS teachings? I think the dynamic of relationships of similarity and difference fits nicely into the LDS view of a relational eternity. Whether or not same-sex relationships are qualitatively different than opposite-sex ones, and can achieve this just as well, is of course the elephant in the room, and I will get to that shortly. But in this model, the drive for homosexual bonding cannot be lightly dismissed as defective based on a premise that it does not take difference seriously.
Additionally, in such a worldview gays are not lacking the relational orientation—a positive aspect, even a characteristic of what it means to be divine—common to all humans. Coming from this viewpoint, I think there is a case for hesitancy when it comes to labeling that that drive as defective when it is found in homosexuals. Rather than describe homosexuality as an imperfect version of heterosexuality, might it be possible to drop the language of a burden to be borne, and find ways to talk about homosexuality as an expression of the divinely given drive for completeness? This could be a way, I think, to move away from the all-too-common language of homosexuality as a kind of addiction to be challenged, or a basic flaw in one’s humanity.
3. The obvious obstacle to any theology of homosexuality is the teaching that gender is eternal. The problem here, as I just mentioned, is the implication that same-sex relationships are always going to be fundamentally different (and presumably lesser) than opposite-sex relationships. The notion that God is actually a heterosexually married couple, and that exaltation requires being in such a relationship, reinforces this. Does this inevitably mean that despite whatever theological tricks I might manage to come up with, in the end, homosexuality is going to have to be seen as a defect to be overcome?
These lines from the Proclamation on the Family are doubtless familiar to you:
All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.
Two points. First, I don’t know what it means to say that gender is an essential characteristic of eternal identity and purpose, and I find it telling that despite this repeated declaration, no one seems to be able to articulate any clear characteristics that apply to only one gender (that go beyond the obvious biological differences.) This isn’t to say, well, then this phrase is meaningless—but I think its ambiguity should make us cautious in asserting that we know what it means.
Secondly, I propose that the second line of this paragraph, that each human is a beloved child of heavenly parents, is more basic than the third. It has far more basis in both scripture and tradition.3 I do not see any question about which of these assertions should play a more prominent role in our theology—and I think this is a useful litmus test. I do not mean to elide the very real tensions here. But I do think that it is because of this most basic idea that we are all beloved children of God that it is worth questioning those teachings which in any way undermine that. In all the excitement about gender, I think it is easy to forget that this comes first.
As a final observation, I think we should keep in mind just how recent and fast-moving this entire discussion has been. In the course of a few decades, as a church we have largely moved from the language of abomination to that of same-sex attraction as an affliction. Given this, I think there is no reason to be overly attached to any particular narrative. Things are simply changing too quickly to be overly dogmatic about any of this.
- 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. [↩]
- Ibid., 277. 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. [↩]
- Notably, the proposal of a sort of gender essentialism is a very recent addition, and this document is not either canonized or described as official revelation. [↩]