Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Power of Naming

In one of my course lectures, I was discussing the fact that only 7% of Americans identify as "atheist or agnostic." I compared those statistics with other countries like, for instance, Sweden, where atheism/agnosticism is in the 70-80% range, and Mexico or Cuba, where atheism/agnosticism is in the 7-8% range. Departing from my lecture notes, I made the following statement:

"In terms of its theism, the United States resembles the Third World more than it resembles other Western, industrialized countries."

One of my students is from Cuba. She raised her hand and said, "When you used that term 'Third World,' it was like taking a sharp knife and plunging it into my heart."

Ouch. It's hard to describe how mortified I felt in that particular moment. Anyone who knows my views on theism knows that I hardly considered this particular comparison between the U.S., Mexico and Cuba unfavorable. And anyone who knows me, would know how far it was from my desire to plunge a metaphorical knife into anyone's heart. It was not the content of what I was saying nor what I intended that hurt. It was the words I used.

My student was right to call my attention to this, because words have a power to structure reality far beyond their mere denotations. The words "Third World" speak of a particular relationship between the United States and the nations of Latin America, a relationship which is not pretty.

Recently, Ty Mansfield published an essay in the North Star Newsletter entitled "Beyond Gay. Beyond Straight. Beyond Mormon" about the power of labels. He discussed the fact that we use labels at various times in our lives to empower and free ourselves, but that those same labels can eventually come to have limiting, oppressive aspects as well. The only labels, ultimately, that he claims at this time in his life are "Saint" and "son of God."

Some would say this is naive. Any Minnesotan knows that refusing to use words like "freezing cold" doesn't turn our fair state into a tropical paradise in February (or even March!). The words simply describe meteorological reality, and remind us to put on an extra layer or two when we go outdoors. And yet, I have observed that some Minnesotans use the terms "freezing cold" with much greater frequency than others, and that those who use the words more often seem to obsess more with the negative aspects of the meteorological reality they purport to objectively describe. It is true that words structure our relationships to things, and those relationships can be positive or negative. Words are never neutral.

Ty didn't explicitly draw a comparison between his thoughts on "labels" and the words of Paul, but I immediately did. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus," Paul wrote in Galatians 3:8. Paul also wrote: "Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; and have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him: where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all" (Colossians 3:9-11).

Here Paul speaks to all those lines that divide us into oppressor and oppressed, lines between the "industrialized world" and the "third world," lines between men and women, lines between those who are economically powerful and free, and those who are not. And, significantly, between those who claim "circumcision," those who find themselves blessed and pure within the framework of organized religion, and those who are "uncircumcised," those who for whatever reason find themselves outside the bounds of ritual, organized religious purity. There is only one true reality that should structure all our relationships, says Paul: Christ who "is all, and in all." To speak those other realities, and to cling to the inequities that underlie them, says Paul, is to speak (and to live) lies.

My relationship with my partner is not defined by our "gayness." It is defined by our love. Love is the word I claim. The love between us is built on a larger foundation of love, on our Heavenly Parents' boundless love for each of us. If it is not, it cannot possibly last, because if I do not let an understanding of God's love for him structure how I behave in relation to him, I risk becoming trapped in self, letting my own ego become the guide to our relationship. Out of the love that we share with each other, which is but one facet of a multifaceted divine love, love extends to others, to our foster son, to neighbors, friends and family that we love and serve in the world around us. Love restructures the world around us into a community of Saints, a community of Holy Ones who know their natures as Children of God, and who build their lives in the new reality which is God's kingdom.

May we speak those invisible realities, and so begin to live them!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Sense of History

My life these past months has been full and beautiful. Our relationship with our foster son continues to grow in surprising and interesting ways (about which I plan to blog more in coming weeks). I love my teaching and my students. I find myself entering a new stage of spiritual growth, where I am consolidating and working out more and more of the gritty details of being both gay and partnered and a testimony-bearing Latter-day Saint.

I've also had to be more efficient and disciplined than I've ever been before in my life in order to be a good foster dad, a partner, a provider, and a teacher. My workload at the law firm has gradually been increasing, which has made it more challenging to accomplish everything I need to accomplish there and not end up working a lot of overtime that would erode my time with my family. And every single spare moment that I am not at work, at church, or spending time with my family, I am doing class work: preparing lecture notes, reading, grading papers. This hasn't left much time for anything else, and my blog and other writing projects have unfortunately had to take a back seat. I'm rewarding myself today with some blog time, because -- due to "Reading Week" at the seminary and "Holy Week" this coming week -- I have two weeks off from teaching, and have managed to work ahead a couple of weeks. (I plan to be back in full force after my course is done in early May.)

In the meantime, I wanted to share some of the questions I have been wrestling with as part of the work of teaching a course on American Religious History. It has been important to me, in my teaching about the history of the different faiths that have shaped American life, to make some effort to represent each faith tradition as members of that faith tradition would like to be represented. This is always a challenge, something that, as I have told my students, cannot be approached without "prayer and fasting" (i.e., lot's of humility). In a few weeks I will be faced with another, slightly different challenge: representing my own faith tradition.

I have chosen to focus on the concept of Restoration as the organizing theme for looking at Mormonism. I first want to look at dissident Christian groups throughout the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and the American Great Awakenings who hungered for a restoration of primitive Christianity, as it was taught and practiced by Christ himself. Then I want to discuss LDS Church history within that context, as a group of people who gathered around the prophet Joseph because they saw his theophanies and revelations as proof of the kind of restoration that Christians had longed for for centuries. More importantly, Joseph's followers experienced theophanies and received revelations of their own confirming the truthfulness of Joseph's experience. They experienced the power of God in startling ways in the Church Joseph established, and saw this as proof indeed that the Heavens had once again been opened.

I believe this focus on restoration and modern-day revelation reflects the central categories in which most Latter-day Saints today understand their faith, and is also true to the best historical scholarship available in Mormon studies.

I do not plan to focus a lot of attention on one of my major concerns, homosexuality and Mormonism. I will address it somewhat as I discuss Mormon beliefs about the family (as I will also address issues related to women and the Church). But I have also told my students that I believe true learning requires us to "get personal," to acknowledge how our life experience has shaped our perspectives, and I have made it clear that my students are welcome to ask me any questions they want about my perspectives as a gay man and as a believing Mormon. So I suspect it will come up.

I would love to hear what you think about how I plan to frame my discussion of Mormon history. I've posted a draft of my lecture notes, and welcome thoughts or feedback. Do you agree with my approach? What themes would you focus on if you were presented with the task of teaching a group of people about your faith?