Monday, January 26, 2009

Does Being in a Gay Relationship Make One Happy? Does Gay Love Qualify as Love?

I just finished reading Ty Mansfield's essay in the North Star newsletter, "Happiness and the Art of Loving." I encourage all to read it. Gay or straight, Mormon or not, there's much there to think about and be blessed by.

It's odd because just this morning, after my alarm clock went off and as I was shaking sleep out of my head in preparation for a new day, a scriptural text was jangling around in my brain: "Adam fell that men might be; and men are that they might have joy." Coincidentally or not, I was still pondering how I might use this Book of Mormon text (from 2 Nephi 2:25) to illustrate to my American Religious History students a fundamental difference between Mormon theology and Nicene Christian theology, when I happened upon Ty's essay, which is essentially his own wrestling with the implications of this text for gay Mormons.

Ty is right that there are plenty of cultural counterfeits of happiness and love. America will sell you for any price all kinds of shiny junk -- from toothpaste to automobiles to psychic readings to cures for baldness to weight loss plans to "e-Harmony" matches -- which it claims will make you happy, but in fact mostly only leave you feeling cheated. And nobody with a reasonable amount of sense can deny the existence of abundant Hollywood-inspired confusion of sex and love. At the same time, it should be pointed out that most of the quotes Ty amassed to suggest that true happiness and love are not for those in same-sex committed relationships, were written by straight people to people for whom straight relationships were taken for granted.

In other words, a straight person can fall into the trap of seeking happiness in urge fulfillment and love in sex in the context of a straight relationship. In other words, isn't it possible that the Gospel calls all of us -- gay and straight -- into a deeper understanding of just what "joy" and "love" are without assuming that celibacy is necessary in order to obtain either? I hasten to add, if celibacy is not necessary to obtain joy and love, neither is intimate relationship necessary. But intimate relationship is an important framework -- if not the only framework! -- within which ordinary human beings wrestle with the painful (and joyful!) life lessons that help us sort out exactly what true joy and true love are.

This has certainly been the case in my relationship with Göran, and it has been vividly illustrated to me again and again in connection with raising a teenage son. A teenage boy is just coming into a full experience of the million hungers that tug at the human creature; and the million temptations in a society where counterfeit moralities are a dime a dozen. Things that seem self-evident to me, a 45-year-old man with at least three decades of hindsight on the whole teenage-hood thing, seem crazy to our son. I find myself giving the same speeches my father gave me. Speeches on what does and does not make for joy; what is or is not true love. Things I have learned within the framework of a same-sex relationship!

The Mormon understanding of "joy" embroidered into that 2 Nephi text about the fall of Adam (and into so many other texts of the Restoration) is powerful precisely because it rejects the dominant Western Christian view of incarnation and embodiment as a kind of temporary prison from which the Christian should seek to escape. Joy in this Mormon understanding is not found apart from that perfect union of spirit and body; a joy in which physical joy is not at odds with but a fundamental component of perfect spiritual joy.

So Ty's argument boils down to the contention that homosexuality is a violation of God's commandments. Ergo, a gay relationship can only offer counterfeits of joy and love. The Moho blogging community expends much more energy than it should bickering over that contention, and it's not my intention here to bicker with Ty. One way to look at our lives as gay Mormons is to see them as various attempts to test the truth or falsehood of that contention, from differing perspectives. Some of us test it in mixed orientation marriages; some of us test it in celibacy; some of us test it in the always risky attempt to find some sort of lasting same-sex love.

This essay -- and other essays I've read in the Moho blogging world lately on the subject of "happiness" -- seem to be a wrestling with the evidence of these experiments. If "wickedness never was happiness" (Alma 41:10), what do we make of the seeming happiness of gay-ly married couples? Of the seeming unhappiness of straight couples?

Though I've been celibate for a good part of my life, I've never been married to a woman, so I can't compare the joy of hetero-marriage to the joy of my homo-marriage. I can't be in somebody else's skin, I can't really walk in someone else's moccasins for a mile, much less one footstep. So is L's happiness in marriage better than mine? I'm not sure I can ever know unless eternity holds the possibility of a different kind of communion than is available to us here in this life. But part of me is not sure that kind of communion will ever be possible. Part of me is not sure that my happiness is for anybody but me to know; that L's happiness is for anybody but him to know.

What I do know is that yesterday, my husband and my son attended church with me in my ward for the first time ever, and their presence there was blessed with an unprecedented outpouring of the Spirit. Last night and this morning again, I found myself on my knees weeping for pure joy. With King Benjamin, I found myself confessing once again to my Heavenly Father that I am hopelessly, utterly dependent on him, unable ever to say I stand on my own two feet apart from him, because every time I try to thank him with more obedience, he over-blesses me again. Again and again, I encounter new days where the joy seems like it could never be surpassed, until more comes along.

That ever-increasing perfection of joy has come in large part because I have listened to the Spirit and obeyed its admonitions to walk in a path of faith and repentance with the Church -- even as the Church seems unable to embrace me or to know what to make of me. It has come in acknowledging the demands of the spirit (and the Spirit) as well as the flesh.

What does that mean to anybody else but me? I don't know. But I wish you joy and love in the journey.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Why I Bowed My Head with Rick Warren on Tuesday

Like millions of other Americans, my eyes were glued to a television screen yesterday around 11:40 a.m. Eastern Time. A large crowd of employees at the law firm where I work gathered in the lunchroom to watch Barack Hussein Obama be inaugurated 44th president of the United States of America.

It was a bit odd then, in this secular work setting, to experience prayer, even through the circumscribed medium of television. Having grown up Mormon in "the mission field," and having participated my whole life in General Conference via radio and television, I am accustomed to praying with someone in this way. Though not with co-workers.

For just a moment, as the announcer presented Rick Warren, I wondered how I would participate in this prayer, not just because of the awkwardness of this setting, but because of the mixed emotions raised by the "controversy" surrounding a key Prop 8 supporter being invited to ask God's blessings on the new president. The hesitation lasted only a moment. I knew that I had to pray with this man. I realized that I wanted to pray with him. Not because I think he was right about Prop 8, but precisely because I think he was wrong about it.

Perhaps Obama's choice of Rick Warren was a mis-step. Perhaps Obama didn't realize what he was doing when he asked Rick Warren to give the opening prayer at his inauguration. But given what I know about Obama, about the care and deliberation he gives to everything he does, from the words he gives at a campaign speech, to the manner of choosing a cabinet minister, I know he never acts impulsively. There are always compelling reasons -- whether you agree with them or not -- for what he does.

And Obama has made a conscious effort to send Americans a clear message since the night the votes were first counted and everybody knew he was going to be the next president. He deliberately spoke of his admiration for Doris Kearn Goodwin's book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. He deliberately made cabinet choices of people with diverse and even conflicting views and personalities. The message was: We need to work together as a people, across our differences.

Some people try to build consensus by appealing to "moderates." They think that by excluding those at the polar edges of a debate that they will somehow be able to appeal to everybody. But I believe this approach to consensus-building is fundamentally flawed, and Obama's approach is right on. Instead of convening a coalition of moderates, the way to build true consensus is to bring everybody in, from all ends of the debate. Have a real conversation across real difference, not some mamby pamby, lukewarm, "moderate" love fest.

Obama could have picked somebody to say the opening prayer at his inauguration who would have offended no one. He had probably thousands of choices in that department. He deliberately did not.

Leaders of the gay community need to stop acting as if they have somehow been snubbed by Obama, as if we've somehow "lost" because Rick Warren said a prayer on the steps of the Capitol. We need to stop whining about how the Right Reverend Eugene Robinson was shunted off to some sideshow event where the sound didn't even work properly and that *gasp* wasn't even aired by HBO! We need to stop taking offense at every perceived symbolic slight, because every time we do that we are acting like second class citizens. We need to step to the plate. We need to be grown-ups now and try to understand exactly what Obama is trying to do, and be a part of the team, not whine and bemoan our supposed exclusion. Because I believe he truly wants us to be a part of the team and wants an America where we are fully enfranchised just like everybody else. And I truly believe that if we do our part, we need have no fear. Our time will come. We will achieve the equality we rightly hunger for.

Even if Obama has issues with the gay community, we need to understand that America is a land guided by the light of the principle of equality, where the forces of injustice and inequality have only gradually been driven back. There was no more tangible, visible reminder of that than the celebration of the inauguration of America's first black president in a nation where blacks still live in a state of economic and social inequality. The election of Obama was a huge step forward, literally and symbolically. But mostly symbolically. We still have a long way to go.

We have a lot of problems to face as a nation. Not just inequality, but war and poverty, illiteracy and illness, not to mention an economy that's currently in a state of cardiac arrest. The really tough stuff -- the tough decisions and the tough political wrangling -- has not even begun yet. And we're going to get all into a tizzy now, before the president's hands are even dirty with the task of actually solving some of these problems?

When I bowed my head and closed my eyes in prayer Tuesday morning, I realized I had a choice. I could hold back. In my heart and in my mind, I could leave this event and go join Eugene Robinson over at the sideshow and sulk with everybody else in my "tribe." I could refuse to take a moment to turn my spirit to God with a man I disagree with.

Or I could do something else. I could pray with Rick Warren and for Rick Warren. Because I need God's help and he needs God's help, and so does the rest of this pain-stricken, uncertain nation.

May God make a true nation of us. That's my prayer.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Theological Delights (and Disappointments) of Battlestar Galactica

If you haven't yet seen the first episode of the second part of Battlestar Galactica, season 4, and you don't want any of the surprises to be spoiled, don't read this essay, which gives it all away. And, by the way, the anticlimactic (non-)revelation that Ellen Tigh is the "final Cylon" is not the biggest, or most important revelation of this episode!

The reason I love the original Battlestar Galactica series is not because I was charmed by the fatherly Lorne Greene as commander Adama, nor because of the drama (it had some truly amazing dramatic moments, but was highly inconsistent and generally B-rated), nor the cheesy villainy of John Colicos as Baltar, nor the coolness of the clinkety clankety Cylon centurians and their deliciously demonic robotic overlords ("by your command!"). The reason I love the original series is because of the not-so-subtle references to Mormon theology scattered throughout by the series' Mormon creator Glen A. Larson. The original series includes, among other things, the not-so-veiled allusion to Kolob (the sun closest to the planet where God resides) and Mormon beliefs about the twelve tribes of Israel, as well as references to "eternal marriage," the downfall and career of Satan (played in an over-the-top performance by Patrick Macnee of The Avengers), and the belief that "as man is, God once was; as God is, man may become."

The new, Sci-Fi-channel-produced update of the old series (with much higher production values) seemed to have purged the series of most of its old Mormonisms, despite the fact that the original series' producer was kept on as a consultant. But the series did not lose its quirky spiritual and theological undertones, something that kept me coming back for more, even as the plot seemed to be fraying in the third and fourth seasons. My main beef with the series was the same that I have with so much of American television. If the series supposedly portrays the struggle of the entire human race for survival, then why does the human race look mostly like white, middle class Americans and a few racial minority tokens? It actually makes things worse that "the black planet" (Geminon) also happens to be the most religious planet. That having been said, I have generally enjoyed the series and found the latest installment, the 74th episode where "all was revealed," generally satisfying. I am actually looking forward to re-watching the series again from the beginning (I've purchased all the DVD's), having seen something of where the end is going.

Here, in a nutshell, is my take on the theological framework of the new Battlestar Galactica. The humans created the Cylons. The Cylons evolved to become so similar to the humans in every way -- physically, emotionally, and spiritually -- that they became virtually indistinguishable from them. The Cylons were still different in significant ways -- they appear to have trouble reproducing in the same way as humans. And they also can't seem to emulate the endless genetic diversity of humanity which makes every human a unique individual, completely different from every other human. There are only twelve Cylon-humanoid "models" which are, as it were, endlessly cloned off of each other.

The Cylons "have a plan," which initially the humans in the series (and we the viewers) believe has to do with annihilating the human race. The humans, making a desperate plea for survival, head for Earth, the location of the lost "13th tribe." When they arrive at earth, they discover the remains of a nuclear holocaust that has destroyed all sentient life on the planet. But among the remains, they discover proof that (and here's the big reveal...!) the "13th tribe" consisted not of humans, but of Cylons.

So... This presents the intriguing notion that we the residents of Earth are not in fact true humans, but merely copies of humans that have been programmed to believe we are human. This is, in other words, an interesting reiteration of the old gnostic concept of humanity as "image" of the divine. The plot notion that a Cylon colony on earth evolved to become like their human creators is also interesting compared to the Mormon concept of humanity evolving into godhood, though again has more gnostic overtones, given that the Mormon conception includes the notion that humans are literal off-spring of God, not clumsy "images" or "creations" hacked off by lesser divinities.

It turns out that the Cylon plan all along might not after all have been to annihilate humanity, but rather to shatter human complacency, to force humans to embark in a joint quest to find planet Earth, where a full amalgamation of creators with created might take place; to force their creators to acknowledge the joint destiny that rightfully unites creators and created...

I'm intrigued.

Monday, January 19, 2009

"They Were Just Doing the Best They Knew How"

Yesterday there was an amazing outpouring of the Spirit at Church. It began before Church, as I prayed in the morning, asking for Heavenly Father's help. I said I didn't feel worthy, but the Spirit rebuked me and reminded me that I am not the one to determine who is worthy and who is not, and that I am in need of repentance and should continue to search my heart as always, but that I am of infinite worth. It was with those tender thoughts still echoing in my heart that I listened to the Sacrament prayer, and pledged myself to keep those promises, even though I couldn't partake of the bread and water; and the sweet presence of the Spirit continued to grow. Then came the sweet talks and testimonies of Sis. and Bro. L., bearing witness to the importance of prayerfully "searching the scriptures." The Holy Spirit was present in a most powerful way, bearing witness to me of the truthfulness not only of what they were saying, but of the whole Gospel and of the Church.

After Sacrament meeting, my friend Sis. J. came up, full of life, with big smiles, and asked me how I was doing. Things have been well, I told her, though still difficult in relation to the Church. Göran still seems to view my attendance at the LDS Church as some kind of competition; as if he "loses" every time I go. We spoke heart-to-heart about my aspirations for my family, and for Glen. The tears started to flow freely. Sis. J. reassured me. It was a blessing. Such a blessing to be surrounded by and upheld by the Saints.

Then we proceeded to Sunday School. We talked about the Great Apostasy and the Restoration. People made thoughtful comments about what those events indicated about the destiny of the human family; and about the role and calling of Joseph Smith. There seemed to be agreement that Joseph was not the first nor the last to cry out to God for light; but he was chosen by God to be the instrument through which the priesthood authority was restored. The Spirit began to make its presence felt in the room; there was just a humble, sweet spirit as individuals one by one commented on what the Restoration meant to them. Then Bro. W., an African American brother and high priest raised his hand. He bore his testimony, he talked about what the Restoration meant to him. And then, his voice cracking and tears flowing down his face, he said, "They were just doing the best they knew how."

Now I'm not entirely certain what he meant by that, but I think I know. As we all know, the Church has a history as far as our African American brothers and sisters are concerned. And this brother is old enough to clearly remember a time when some pretty ugly, racist attitudes were very common among many of the Saints. And he's been a member of the Church long enough, I am sure, to have had his faith challenged, and to have to answer the question, "Why would you want anything to do with that church." And here he was, bearing solemn witness to the reality of the Restoration and the truthfulness of Joseph Smith's calling, something he knows in the marrow of his bones and something he's known since the missionaries first brought the gospel to his home. And to some it might seem a huge, insuperable contradiction for an African American man to bear such witness to a Church and a priesthood authority that had once shut him out of the temple. But his simple statement was, "They were just doing the best they knew how."

Well, those words of witness, and humility and love and forgiveness just finished me. The Spirit had already placed a wedge in my heart, and it was as if Bro. W. just took a mallet to it. The tears pretty much didn't stop for me after that.

We watched a movie about Wilford Woodruff's conversion story. And the part that killed me was the story of Robert Mason, a man who had a vision in which he sought the fruit of the tree of life. He had the fruit in his hands, but he could not partake of it. And he bore witness to Wilford Woodruff that there was no true church on the earth at that time, but that he knew it would be restored in Wilford's life time... I sometimes feel like Bro. Mason. The fruit of the tree is there, but I can't partake of it yet.

But I feel every bit as hopeful and full of gratitude as Robert Mason did. The tears flowing down my face were tears of gratitude. I do have a testimony of the truthfulness of the Gospel. The whole truth of it; of the blessings of modern day scripture and prophets; of the restored authority to act in God's name. It's all true, every bit of it. So I'm grateful to know what I know. That testimony is of infinite worth. It is the most precious gift I have. But I am also grateful that I am not abandoned by God. I am not without hope. The Spirit was sweetly there, reminding me of what I had been reminded in prayer first thing that morning: I am of infinite worth. And I am doing exactly what my Heavenly Father wants me to do; I am bearing witness in the way He needs me to bear it. I am being faithful in the way He needs me to be faithful.

I am doing the best I know how. And so are they.