Zelophehad’s Daughters

The Problem of Gays in LDS Theology, Part II

Posted by Lynnette

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.

2. Relationality

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.

  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. 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. []
  3. 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. []

14 Responses to “The Problem of Gays in LDS Theology, Part II”

  1. 1.

    Lynnette – I love everything you’ve written that I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. These two posts are no exception. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and ideas. Brilliant. Beautiful.

  2. 2.

    Lynnette, these posts are so thought-provoking and wonderful. I especially like this:

    “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?”

  3. 3.

    Great thoughts, Lynnette. I particularly like your excellent concluding point about the pace of change. Particularly for a church that prides itself in not changing at all, this much change in a few decades is a dizzying pace. I know that’s little comfort for those who continue to be injured by its failure to change even more quickly, but it does give me hope that there is more change to come.

  4. 4.

    When it comes to relationships, what about all creatures of our God and King? Consider the Wolf of Gubbio.

    There is an idea that what gave our wimpy human ancestors the time and energy to expand their potentialities, was entering into partnerships with animals.
    Becoming dog whisperers and horse whispers, not only lightened the workload, but helped shaped our ability to nurture. And the ability to make peace with our enemies.
    Not only is God the good shepherd, but we can become good shepherds.
    What is important is not who we have relationships with, but the nature of the relationships.

  5. 5.

    If the appeals fail and gay marriage becomes legal in Utah it could be that the paper above will be useful in explaining how there is not a problem anymore.

    Do you all expect the brethren, if gay marriage becomes legal, to stop talking about it, say “we believe in honouring, obeying, and sustaining, the law”, and quietly move on?

    Was this what happened with inter racial marriage?

    What is the appeals process and how long might it take?

  6. 6.

    Geoff-A, the political issue is an interesting one. I don’t think gay marriage will stop being talked about by the brethren, but I think it will slowly fade away. I’m convinced that the current stance is a long-term losing proposition–the Mormon teenagers in our area all know kids who are gay and they have a strong sense that civil laws prohibiting gay marriage are unjust. The Church’s continuing stance is alienating these kids, and I suspect that before long the Church will back off, or at least let their current position fade. But maybe that’s just my wishful thinking. I just hate seeing these kids being alienated from the Church (to say nothing of the gay Mormon kids whose despair with the status quo must be terrible).

  7. 7.

    The last paragraph is my favorite – hard to explain to people that my position on SSA is that we don’t know, and I’m not attached to any one teaching on it.

  8. 8.

    I’m not well versed (or at all versed) in theology, but if I’m understanding what you and Grenz are saying, I think it lends itself very well to the LDS notion of Zion and even the law of consecration. I wonder if our puritan attitudes towards sex (that seem to be getting more puritan from the pulpit rather than less) have us focusing on procreation (mother and father raising children) rather than community (love one another, the golden rule). Something that will hopefully change as culture shifts.

  9. 9.

    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?

    I see what you’re trying to do here, but I think there are a couple of basic problems with it. First off, our relationships may be eternal and “date back,” if you will, to the pre-existence. Joseph Smith may have hint at something of the sort. But I think that drawing the kind of conclusion from it that this writer may be trying for is problematic for a Latter-day Saint who isn’t buying the fundamental trinitarian underpinning. In addition, modern “theology” of this nature frequently occurs without any reference to Scripture, which (although I certainly value our ability to reason) has the potential to derail us. You’re in a better position than I to judge as to whether that’s true of Grenz’s work or not.

    Finally, and not insignificantly, the quote above could certainly foster the notion that we all have a “soulmate,” and I think that concept frequently does more harm than good. If you’re married to someone and things aren’t going well, and then that certain someone comes along, it would be easy to convince yourself that s/he’s the one you had the relationship with before the world began.

  10. 10.

    New Iconoclast, it looks like I wasn’t clear about a couple of things. What I’m doing is using a particular philosophical understanding of the self: namely, that the self is inherently relational. So it’s not so much that our relationships date back; it’s the nature of what it means to be a person/intelligence in the first place. I think this is compatible with LDS thought (though I certainly don’t think it’s required by it).

    If you object to the use of philosophy here, obviously you’re going to object to this. But if it helps clarify things, I understand theology as a dialogue between contemporary thought and the tradition, which includes secular disciplines on the one side, and scripture, prophetic teachings, etc. on the other.

    I very much agree with you about the problems with a doctrine of soulmates.

  11. 11.

    Wow–that’s really nice of you to say, Melody. (I’m blushing.) Thank you.

    Thanks, Mike C. and Ziff!

    Kristine A, exactly. We’ve only even been talking about the subject for a few decades, so everything seems so tentative. (Before anyone jumps on me about this, I’m not talking about homosexual activity, but about sexuality as an orientation.)

    Enna, I really like the community aspect of this as well, and I agree that it meshes nicely with the LDS notion of Zion (though I hadn’t considered that, so thanks!). A bit tangentially, one of the things I really like in LDS thought is the interest in sealing together (and thus saving) the whole human race–there’s definitely an impulse there that goes far beyond the linking of couples.

  12. 12.

    that the self is inherently relational. So it’s not so much that our relationships date back; it’s the nature of what it means to be a person/intelligence in the first place.

    Ah, OK, that does clarify. Thanks! Those sentences actually make references to eternal personhood in relation to our sealing or sealed potential make more sense to me. Would it be fair for me to postulate that in some sense, it’s a form of “opposition in all things,” that we all, in some sense, define and understand ourselves by our relationships with others (“I’m like her, but not like him; I understand X about him, but Y about her baffles me;” etc.)?

    I don’t necessarily object to philosophy; I simply think (and realize that others think differently) that when we think about God, or philosophize about him (which is a fair jack-leg definition of “theology”), the scriptures are a good place to start. I’m wary of thinking up stuff about God on my own; I suspect that’s how the sectarian world got where it is in the first place. As I said, I haven’t read Grenz, so I don’t know to what extent he uses scripture to fuel his thinking.

    Thought-provoking post, and very well-written; I like your stuff.

  13. 13.

    Oh – and one of my favorite Calvin Grondahl cartoons shows an average, somewhat frumpy woman talking to an average, somewhat frumpy man in the waiting line in the pre-existence while they’re waiting for their bodies. She’s saying, “Now here’s the plan – we meet at BYU after your mission…” – and he’s eyeballing the very shapely blonde just down the row. ;)

  14. 14.

    Ah, OK, that does clarify. Thanks! Those sentences actually make references to eternal personhood in relation to our sealing or sealed potential make more sense to me. Would it be fair for me to postulate that in some sense, it’s a form of “opposition in all things,” that we all, in some sense, define and understand ourselves by our relationships with others (“I’m like her, but not like him; I understand X about him, but Y about her baffles me;” etc.)?

    Glad it made more sense this time around! I hadn’t thought of the opposition in all things angle; that’s an interesting take on it.

    I don’t necessarily object to philosophy; I simply think (and realize that others think differently) that when we think about God, or philosophize about him (which is a fair jack-leg definition of “theology”), the scriptures are a good place to start. I’m wary of thinking up stuff about God on my own; I suspect that’s how the sectarian world got where it is in the first place.

    Ahh, but I would say that’s a caricature of theology. People simply thinking up stuff on their own certainly happens (Gospel Doctrine, anyone?), but that’s not what’s happening in formal theological work. Theology, I would argue, is always grounded in a tradition of some kind—if not, we’re talking about philosophy of religion (and I’d be wary of dismissing that too quickly, either). So I don’t disagree with the point that scripture plays an essential role in theological work. But I also don’t think you’re being fair to the “sectarian world” (if you mean by that, other Christian traditions).

    Thanks for the kind words! Now I’m going to be obnoxious and tell you that I’d be wary of lauding a sexist cartoon on a feminist blog. (I’m not sure if you’re baiting me, but I’ll take the bait! ;) ) I usually like Grondahl’s stuff, and I have no problem with cartoons that say, make fun of feminists—but this one is a problem. For one thing, it’s poking fun at the man in a light-hearted way, while implicitly ridiculing the woman in a mean-spirited way. And it’s objectifying both women. The problem isn’t just that this is happening; it’s that it’s happening unconsciously. Not good.

    (And thus we see my feminist claws in action.)

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