Wednesday, April 7, 2010

People of Paradox

Terryl Givens describes Latter-day Saints as "people of paradox," because he sees Mormon culture straddling numerous irreconcilable contradictions, such as authoritarianism and individualism, intellectual certitude and intellectual insatiability, the sacred and the mundane, and exile and integration.

To illustrate one such Mormon paradox, Bro. Givens offers a couple of quotes by Brigham Young:
I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful that they settle down in a state of blind self security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwa[r]t the purposes of God. (Journal of Discourses 9: 150)
Yet that same Brigham Young who insisted that the purposes of God would be thwarted by too great a confidence in one's spiritual leaders, also once wrote, after wrestling with doubts about the Prophet Joseph's financial dealings,
Though I [knew] that Joseph was a human being and subject to err, still it was none of my business to look after his faults.... It was not my prerogative to call him in question with regard to any act of his life. He was God's servant, not mine. (Journal of Discourses 4: 297-298)

Givens points out that critics as well as adherents(!) of Mormonism all too frequently focus on one side of a Mormon paradox to the exclusion of the other side. For instance, disgruntled anti-Mormons would eagerly seize on the latter Brigham Young quote as proof that Mormons believe in mindlessly and blindly following their leaders. But to do so would fail to take into account the totality of Mormon faith, which includes an uncompromising commitment to individual freedom of conscience and the Mormon sense of obligation to work one's salvation out for oneself. Both seemingly irreconcilable tendencies -- the authoritarian and the individualistic -- are profoundly Mormon.

That's also why it is no better to focus on the first Brigham Young quote to the exclusion of the latter. Yes, Latter-day Saints are called to wrestle to find truth on their own, and to test and prove all things. Yes, it is our prerogative to question our leaders if called upon by conscience to do so. But we also need to learn to exercise faith, to sometimes walk without knowing, and to sustain and trust the Lord's anointed. Both sides of the paradox are what makes Mormon faith. And a commitment to take both sides of the paradox seriously is what makes Mormons. When do we insist on freedom of conscience, and when do we accept the surrender of faith? There is no easy answer to that question.

In reading Givens' analysis of what it means to be a Mormon, I find myself simultaneously anguished and comforted. Because to be gay and Mormon is to find oneself not merely straddling the various Mormon paradoxes, but to be literally torn apart by them. Perhaps that is the greatest source of discomfort for straight Latter-day Saints when confronting their gay sisters and brothers: because our flesh and bones and the spirits that reside in them are painful, tangible reminders that there's no comfortable resolution of the contradictions at the heart of their faith. We are the embarrassing reminder that -- just when they thought they could settle on a nice, easy, pat answer -- the big questions are still waiting at the threshold, with maws open wide to swallow it up.

I am anguished by Givens, because to read his account of Mormonism is to be reminded of all the sources of my greatest pain. But I am comforted by him, because to know that is also to realize that I stand where I need to stand. Not on one pat side or the other, but at the center where all the great truths that define us as a people messily collide. Sometimes I am so full of light and joy and hope, I know nothing will ever be able to touch me. But sometimes I feel so heartbroken I wonder how it is possible to take one more step forward. And I also find Givens comforting because he helps me to understand how both experiences of the paradox of my existence are not only possible but inevitable. And how that is a good thing.

So what are the paradoxes of being a gay Saint?

The Saints are a body-affirming people! Through modern-day revelation we understand that acquiring bodies so that we could become more like our embodied Heavenly Parents is a major if not the major purpose of creation; that in the union of spirit and matter is the fullness of joy! Latter-day Saints understand the sex-drive within this framework as having a divine purpose: to unite individuals within family organizations that will play an eternal role in the creation of worlds and the everlasting expansion of God's dominions and glories! Yet, gay saints are told the opposite. Our gay bodies don't have a role to play in the kingdom; we are told we must abstain from everything that Latter-day Saint kingdom building is about. Our bodies must become "dry trees" (Isaiah 56:3).

So in a religious culture that celebrates the bond between body and spirit, we find body and spirit caught in a war, a conflict, a place where there can be no earthly rest, where we are told there can be no resolution in this life, only in a life to come when God supposedly restores our proper heterosexual bodies to us, instead of these faulty gay bodies we have.

We are told that there is eternal gender, and that our eternal gender requires men to bond with women and women with men for all eternity. But we recognize that it's not just our bodies that don't seem to fit that paradigm. Because we experience all the spiritual aspects of love for members of the same sex. It is not just in bodily lust we experience our sexual orientation. It is in our spirits as well. If there is an eternal gender, we're not sure that ours is what we are told it must be.

So we are caught in Givens' "individualism" vs. "authority" paradox with double force. Do we prioritize the self-knowledge that wells up from our spirits, from our souls, from the intersection of body and spirit? Or do we prioritize the messages about us that are given us by the culture, by the doctrines we are taught, by our leaders, which don't seem to speak to us, to the condition we know so well because it is in between our joints, in the marrow of our bones?

Like the Saints in history, we're in a kind of exile. Exiles within exiles. We sit in the same pews, we serve and worship the same God. But our own brothers, our own sisters, our own mothers, our own fathers do not know us. They do not know the silent anguish we experience. They do not know why we cry in Sacrament Meeting.

We so often have to choose between being in silent exile, experiencing the ultimate kinds of loneliness. Or "coming out of the closet" (coming out of Babylon?) only to be exiled again by Saints who don't or won't understand us.

We want knowledge, we want understanding. We begin by struggling to know ourselves, know who we are, why we are the way we are, what grand purpose it serves. That's why we are killing ourselves. For lack of knowledge, for lack of purpose. Without vision, the people perish, and we have been without vision too long.

Yet we are told we can't know. So we wrestle angels and demons in the darkness between not-knowing and knowing.

Sometimes it seems that the Gospel doesn't work for us. It doesn't speak to us. And yet it does... It speaks to us who are lost more profoundly, more urgently, more truthfully than it does to those who are "found," to those who are comfortable, to those who have all the answers they need.


Anonymous said...
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Justin said...

I really like this post, too. "Seemingly irreconcilable tendencies...are profoundly Mormon," yet they touch us so deeply that we can but--wrestle--and grow.


J G-W said...

Justin! That's a supremely Mormon way of looking at it. That's one thing I love about the Mormon understanding of the Gospel. Everything bad that life can throw at us is just grist for the mill of eternal progression. There's nothing we can't learn from, nothing that won't strengthen us for the work of the kingdom in some way.

Sean said...


I LOVE this post it certainly does hit some very interesting points.

Incidentally, you need to post this on OM. which btw, i recently joined.

aka: loyalist

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J G-W said...

Sean - thanks!

me - I was technically excommunicated, though it was as a result of requesting that my name be removed from the records of the Church. Some things folks have told me since have raised questions in my mind about whether my case was handled properly -- whether I should have been excommunicated, or whether my name should just have been removed as an administrative procedure.

At the time, I was not guilty of any excommunicable offense. Nor did I -- at the time -- have any intention or desire to act on my feelings of same-sex attraction. It was not until some years after leaving the LDS Church, as a result of prayer, fasting and searching that I have described elsewhere, that I opened myself up to the possibility of a relationship with a man.

Shortly before requesting that my name be removed from the records, I suffered from extreme feelings of worthlessness/unworthiness. Some of that had to do with the fact that I had been disciplined by my BYU bishop for admitting that I masturbated (he told me I could not take the Sacrament, hold any callings, or go to the temple until I had been masturbation-free for 4 months). At some point before requesting to have my name removed from the Church records, because of my feelings of unworthiness, I stopped wearing my temple garments.

I've also described elsewhere -- and I know some have regarded this with extreme skepticism -- that I felt prompted by the Spirit to leave the Church. That was why I asked to have my name removed from the records.

I believe now that I was prompted to do this for my own protection. I had only very recently -- within the preceding month -- almost committed suicide, partly because of the extreme feelings of unworthiness that spurred severe depression. I think the Spirit prompted me to leave the Church because I needed some time away to rebuild my sense of self-esteem. When I was in a place of greater strength and self-understanding, the Spirit came back and told me it was time for me to come back to the Church again.

And here I am... Excommunicated and living as faithfully as I can.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your answer, J-G-W. I appreciate you taking the time to do so.

Andrew S said...

What an interestingly timely post, John.

I'm still not quite so sure what people get out of all this tension/paradox stuff, though. I do see it often times mentioned by some of the high Mormon thinkers and bloggers as if it's the end-all be-all of stuff.

J G-W said...

Andrew - I don't know if I see the "paradox" model of Mormonism as the "be all and end all," but I do see it as explaining a lot.

In the example I described here, for instance, Mormonism is described as both committed to a kind of radical individualistic approach that requires each individual to know truth for themselves, AND committed to a kind of authoritarianism in which individuals are expected to walk by faith. You can find plenty of examples in Mormon faith and culture that support both extreme positions (such as the two B.Y. quotes cited from Givens' book).

The two tendencies existing simultaneously within the same community is paradoxical, because either tendency would exclude the other tendency as a possible mode of behavior. So individual Mormons are caught between two conflicting demands, and therefore must work out some resolution in tension between these two demands.

Interestingly, this type of paradox/tension seems to be built into Mormon theology in a way that it's not built into the theologies of other Christian churches. For example, most Christian churches see the fall of Adam and Eve as bad, wrong, evil, unfortunate and something that required redemption by Christ. Mormons see Adam and Eve as being caught between two mutually exclusive commandments from God ("multiply and replenish the earth," which they could not do before the fall, and "do not partake of the tree" which would allow them to obey the former commandment). Mormons consequently see the fall as both unfortunate as well as necessary and even good. Or another example is Nephi wrestling with the moral problem of killing Laban. Or Abraham and Isaac... As far as I know, Mormons are the only people I know who believe in a God who may place simultaneous, conflicting demands on us, forcing us to choose which demands we follow, and which demands we break.

I think a lot about Mormon culture becomes much more comprehensible when we understand it in this framework.

J G-W said...

I might add, that while I see paradox/tension as a larger factor in Mormon faith than in many other communities, it is present in other communities as well.

Some folks (like Armand Mauss, for instance in THE ANGEL AND THE BEHIVE) have argued that tension encourages growth (and paradox fosters tension). Paradoxes require creativity to resolve, and individuals who have the capacity to hold more than one conflicting perspective at a time will generally also be able to respond more flexibly to stress or crisis. In a sense, someone comfortable with paradox will have more tools in their toolbox than folks who insist on consistency above all, and who constantly strive to eliminate paradox wherever they find it by resolving every dilemma into a clean, pat answer.

MoHoHawaii said...

This is an interesting discussion. I've always been interested in why some people stay in the LDS Church and some people leave. Pinning down the difference between these two groups is often harder than it seems. The easiest, reductionist answer is that one group is good and the other is bad (you can pick your side depending on which group you're in). This isn't my experience. Many people I admire (including you) are staunch believers. I also admire many nonbelievers. It's also not an issue of faithfulness in that conventional sense.

Tolerance for contradiction or denial of contradiction does seem to be a common characteristic of those who stay and just as an intolerance for cognitive or emotional dissonance seems to be a common trait of those who leave. This is probably more pronounced in the LDS tradition because it makes stronger (i.e., potentially more falsifiable) truth claims than many other religions. It does take a particular kind of person to adapt to the incongruities.

I'm interested in the idea that paradox promotes human emotional or spiritual growth. I can understand this and see how it might work for a few people. I'm mulling over how it relates to the idea of integration of the self that is often the goal of psychotherapy.

I'm definitely on the side of integration. Not because that's what I chose, but because I'm just not capable of dealing with cognitive dissonance (although I have no trouble dealing with ambiguity). I think this is a trait of many nonbelievers.

Anyway, thanks for this musing.

Andrew S said...


I guess I definitely agree with how paradox seems to be more integrated into LDS theology than in others (especially with the examples, like the Fall/commandment to be fruitful and multiply.)

And I guess I can see how this becomes a positive for the church -- e.g., this tension requires creativity, and that creativity leads to growth.

I am beginning to wonder...if we drew up a top 10 scriptures list for LDS members (and, no offense, but culled for obvious things from or relating to Jesus), I wonder how high "There must be opposition in all things..." would appear. Or, even if we included scriptures for or relating to the savior, I wonder how well such a sentiment would hold anyway.

Alan Williams said...

A few thoughts on gay Mormon paradoxes. First, from an orthodox perspective, "gay Mormon" is a paradox because you can't be "gay" and "Mormon." Second, from a gay Mormon perspective, one's body/spirit has to be dismissed even though the theology is about their connection. Third, the culture has to treat gays paradoxically, being merciful toward their existence, but wrathful toward their "behavior" AKA existence. I agree that creativity can come out of this setup...I'm writing a paper on it at present, and I'm surprised the connections Mormon discourse has with queer theory. But rather than "paradox" (which is a neutral term, IMO), I'd lean more toward words like "contradiction" or "inconsistency," particularly on the gay issue, since the paradoxes work to exclude gays rather than include them.

J G-W said...

Alan - I prefer being a "paradox" over being a "contradiction." :)

M said...

John - I love your blog. I hestitate to comment often though because I feel outside the conversation or the understanding. If that makes sense. The paradox caught me though; my mother used to tell me that all great truths are wrapped up in paradox - when viewed from one angle they did nothing but knot up but when viewed from the proper angel, they were eternal truths. I find this so frequently in my own faith - the answers are seldom either/or but mostly both/and even though that is a hard concept for us to wrap our brains around.

Secondly, you are a gifted writer. "Sometimes I am so full of light and joy and hope, I know nothing will ever be able to touch me. But sometimes I feel so heartbroken I wonder how it is possible to take one more step forward." I love this. This is very much me and so succintly put. Thank you.

Third, as usual, I am at a loss as to what to add. I think you are in a very difficult position, thorougly emeshed in paradox and conflict. I have puzzled and puzzled over homosexuality and Mormonism and am still have no answers. I agree that it is a paradox and I appreciate the feelings of uncertainty and loss. I guess I just wanted to say that you are loved and appreciated for this difficult path you tread so gracefully; your voice and understandings have effected me deeply and I am so grateful to you for that.

J G-W said...

M - Thank you. I'm particularly feeling some of the anguish of the paradox today, and so am very grateful for your kind words coming at this time.