Thursday, August 12, 2010

Church, Priesthood, and the Gay/Lesbian Journey toward Spiritual Maturity

Here's a copy of the talk I presented at the Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake, on August 7, 2010.  This is really kind of a distillation of my understanding of the challenges faced by gay and lesbian Saints at this time in history.  An audio recording of the entire session, including the questions and answers, should be available at the Sunstone web site. 

The parenthetical scripture citations are offered not as proof texts, but as illustrations and expansions.
On Spiritual Maturity
Scripture references the notion of spiritual maturity in the Pauline teaching that there is spiritual milk available to those who are not ready to digest spiritual meat (1 Corinthians 3: 2). There's also the story of the City of Enoch in the Book of Moses, where an entire people became so spiritually mature that the boundaries between earth and heaven were no longer meaningful, and they were taken up into Heaven (Moses 7). There's the account of primitive Christianity in the Book of Acts, where members of the Church had all things in common and there were no poor among them (Acts 4: 22). There's the Book of Mormon description of 200 years of peace following the establishment of the Church by Christ (3 Nephi 26: 19; 4 Nephi 1). There's the early Church's striving to establish the United Order, and its failure (D&C section 119).

Spiritual maturity, as scripturally defined, implies a certain readiness to accept “hard teachings.” The teachings are hard because they require willingness to sacrifice for a larger good. D&C section 121 describes the kind of spiritual maturity required in order exercise the priesthood as comprising an understanding that
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile (vss. 41-42)
In other words, spiritual maturity implies a commitment to labor in the service of others without seeking to aggrandize oneself.

These are the characteristics of godhood. In the Gospels, in Pauline texts, and in the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price, Christ is the model of spiritual maturity. Among other Christ-like traits that are considered hallmarks of spiritual maturity are trust in and submission to the will of God, and pure love.

Spiritual immaturity is also described in Scripture. It includes, among other things, a legalistic mentality that insists on outward rules and observances, on being told exactly what is right and what is wrong (Mosiah 13:29-30). It includes a failure to understand the difference between legalism and obedience to God (Mark 2: 24-28). It includes a desire to be “compelled in all things” (D&C 58:26). It includes an unwillingness to go to the Lord and ask when we need answers to difficult questions. When Laman and Lemuel complained that they could not understand the teachings of their father, Nephi asked them, “Have ye inquired of the Lord?” And they answered, “We have not; for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us” (1 Nephi 15: 7-9). This is why wickedness is so often described in scripture as a state of insensitivity, of “blindness” or “deafness” (for example, Matthew 13:15 or 2 Nephi 9: 31-32). It is an unwillingness to be awake, to be aware, to be spiritually alive, to be sensitive to the needs of those around us, to bring our questions to the Lord, to listen, and to act in response to what we hear.

There is a paradox defining the boundary between spiritual immaturity and spiritual maturity. The spiritually immature do good because they expect to be rewarded. The way this is most commonly formulated in Mormonism is in the obedience/blessings trope. We emphasize how we will be blessed when we obey the Lord. But to the spiritually mature, to “those who have ears to hear,” Christ taught, “Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it” (Luke 17:33). Somehow spiritual maturity involves freeing oneself of concern with rewards or even with self-preservation, and instead understanding the role that one has to play in accomplishing some larger good, and committing oneself to play that role regardless of the personal cost. I imagine that as a commitment to good for good's sake. I see that as the kind of concern God has for us, since the love of God involved God in going below all creation and in dying for creation, out of love for creation. So to become god-like is to involve ourselves in that type of commitment, that type of love.

Finally, I think a scriptural understanding of spiritual maturity includes the notion that it is not something we can judge from outward appearances. (See 1 Samuel 16: 7; Isaiah 11: 3-4 / 2 Nephi 21: 3-4; 2 Corinthians 10: 7; Matthew 23: 27-28). It is simply not something that we can judge at all, either in ourself or in others. We are not the judge of us. Spiritual maturity is an interior state which ultimately God alone can see and judge. Sometimes true spiritual maturity will look immature to others; it may require us to act in ways that others will judge harshly. To the spiritually mature, this shouldn't matter, because in the spiritually mature soul, the outward appearance of the self and the worldly loss or gain that comes from appearing righteous should not rate as highly as virtues like submission to God, and the service and love that flow from such submission.

The path to spiritual maturity requires humility because we currently dwell in a probationary sphere in which our knowledge is imperfect (1 Corinthians 13: 12), where “there must needs be opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 1: 11), where we define ourselves by making choices, by “acting and being acted upon” (v. 14). Jacob, in the book of 2 Nephi, describes the resurrection as a state “like unto us in the flesh, save it be that our knowledge shall be perfect” (9: 13). In that state of perfect knowledge, the full, true nature of all our choices will be revealed to us, making it painfully clear to us the extent to which we acted out of love or to which we failed to love. That is when some will “shrink with awful fear” as they “remember [their] awful guilt in perfectness” (2 Nephi 9: 46). That is when Christ will remind the goats, “I was an hungered, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not” (Matthew 25: 42-43).

Church and Priesthood
The Church plays a central if complex role in the cultivation of spiritual maturity. For the spiritually immature, the Church plays the role of lawgiver and a schoolmaster (Galatians 3: 24-25). It teaches us patterns of knowing and behaving that prepare us for ever fuller, more complete expressions of submission and love. As we grow more spiritually mature, the Church becomes the primary vehicle through which we realize Zion, the pure in heart. Because submission and love are the hallmarks of spiritual maturity, there never comes a point where we grow beyond the need for the Church. Like Christ, we eventually become willing to give our lives for the Church, for the benefit of our sisters and brothers (Ephesians 5:25).

The Church is imperfect in the sense that it is composed of individual members in varying degrees of spiritual maturity who are all still working out our salvation. The Church is also imperfect in the sense that collectively it can lack important knowledge or fail significant tests of submission or love or both. The process by which the Church is perfected is a historical process in which God is the primary actor (Jacob 5). Throughout history both the leaders and members of the Church have at different times had to be held accountable by the Lord for their failures to model the perfect submission and love that Christ modeled. (See, for example, D&C section 3.) The Church is chastised when it falls into pride, and prospers when it humbles itself and more perfectly expresses divine love. God's insistence on keeping us collectively accountable is, I think, the central significance of priesthood covenants.

The Church is perfect in the sense that it is designed to teach each of us the lessons that each of us need to learn (1 Corinthians 12: 12-31). Since a central role of the Church is to teach us humility, love and mutual submission, the ultimate goal of which is to create the perfect expression of the love of God here on earth, the imperfections of its individual members actually help it to fulfill that role. The Church also holds the keys of the priesthood (D&C 27: 5-18; D&C 132: 7). Honoring those keys and the Lord's anointed who hold them is an important test of our humility and our faith. The Church is also perfect in the sense that it is redeemed by Christ (Ephesians 5: 25), and Jesus Christ is at its helm (D&C 115: 4). So long as we listen to the Spirit and trust God as the head of the Church, the Church will come to embody the perfect love and submission that God intends for it to embody (D&C 88: 1-6).

A spiritually immature understanding of the role of the Church and priesthood, I believe, insists on a kind of assurance, on a kind of premature knowledge that denies the possibility of collective error or lack of knowledge. Ironically, spiritual immaturity is implicated both in an insistence on an infallible priesthood hierarchy, and in the insistence that if we find any error at all in the Church, it must mean that the Church is false. The spiritually mature accept the need for faith as a prerequisite for ultimate assurance. They accept error as a natural and expected constituent of the human condition, and commit to foster growth both personally and collectively. And they won't abandon the covenant or fail in trust that God can save us, on account of human failings.

This wrestling with the problem of human error, and the doubts it can raise about the truthfulness of the Gospel or the Church or our salvation is related to a more fundamental problem in the journey toward spiritual maturity. At it's root, it is the classic problem framed in a Latter-day Saint context as faith versus knowledge. At its rawest, most existential level this becomes the question: How can I know that I am saved? Do I rely on what Church leaders and parents and others tell me? Or do I trust my own instincts, listen to my heart? Can God show me the way? Wrestling with these questions is at the foundation of every great religion, from Abraham's wanderings, to Moses' exile, to the Buddha's quest for Enlightenment, to Mohammed's refuge in a cave of Mount Hira, to Martin Luther's anguished search for God's love, to Joseph's prayer in the sacred grove.

The Gay/Lesbian Journey
Gay and lesbian Latter-day Saints are no different from anyone in needing to wrestle with the grand problems of knowledge and human fallibility, though our journeys are uniquely shaped by the specifics of our sexuality and of the cultures we live in. Generations of gay Saints grew up being taught that their hunger to connect with a person of the same-sex was a sign of moral depravity. Because the hunger for love and intimacy is so profound and so deeply rooted in us, in every aspect of us that matters, in spirit, mind and body, it is impossible to hate that part of ourselves without hating ourselves. And it is normal to grow up trusting what parents, teachers and leaders say over ourselves, our own instincts. So our trust in spiritual authority can easily become imbricated in self-hate, and it creates a profound conflict that some find it impossible to resolve any other way than through suicide or other forms of self-destruction.

If we survive this profound crisis, it is because we gradually achieve a level of self-knowledge, of trust in ourselves, that permits us to begin to grapple more maturely with the great existential problems. The interrelatedness of sexuality, sociality, emotionality, spirituality and physicality, incidentally, is the reason the current distinction between same-sex orientation or “attraction” and same-sex “behavior” (i.e. “acting on our attractions”) doesn't really solve the fundamental problem created by associating same-sex sexuality with moral depravity. Our sexuality is related to our capacity to connect intimately and non-sexually, to our senses and sensitivities, to our ways of perceiving and experiencing a broad range of social relationships. We can be told that it isn't connected to our identity, but that is not how we experience it. This is why healthy self-love as a gay man or lesbian requires that we embrace our gayness, not reject it as an affliction or as a mortal “condition.” This is why I know gay men who have been married to women for twenty years or more, and who remain committed to their marriages with their wives, who have found that they could not live with a healthy level of self-love or self-acceptance until they accepted their gayness as a core part of who they are.

Coming to know ourselves includes coming to understand how desire and the capacity for pleasure and intimacy is connected to our sense of well being, to self-love, to love of others and to the creation of the kinds of primary bonds that make family possible. It is to come to see ourselves as having the capacity for love, and the capacity for good that flows from love. It is to come to understand sexuality as both a gift and a stewardship, since intimacy in a primary relationship can help ground us and strengthen us for service in the larger world. Coming to know ourselves is to come to accept that our capacity for love of others is expanded as we love ourselves; we literally “love our neighbor as ourselves.” It is to see ourselves as fully empowered and enabled children of God, despite what the world may tell us about ourselves.

So the moment we begin to acquire this kind of self-knowledge, gay and lesbian Saints are faced with an existential quandary that in fundamental ways is no different from the existential quandary faced by anybody else. Because the fundamental question is: How do I know what I know? Who and what can I trust to give me an accurate appraisal of the world I live in? What is a trustworthy guide to moral action in the world? These are questions we all have to answer. But to the gay or lesbian Saint, the problem is more acute and less easy to avoid, because our internal guides are so much at odds with approved Church teaching and with what our families always assumed about us and with our own internal desire to please and be externally compliant with Church and family. We are literally torn in two, trying to be faithful to the Church, and trying to be attentive to some of the most profound, urgent promptings of our own souls.

The spiritual crisis of gay and lesbian Saints becomes a spiritual crisis for the Church as a whole. Those who are unwilling to wrestle along side us, to bear our burdens with us, would tell us that our only way forward is to suppress hard-won self-knowledge. They would eliminate the conflict by taking refuge in an infallible priesthood, by denying what we know about ourselves and attributing it to the world and to the devil. Gay and lesbian Saints, on the other hand, are at a similarly painful crossroads as the rest of the Church. The temptation is to resolve the crisis by withdrawing from the Church. We would eliminate the conflict by denying the role that Church and priesthood play in the achievement of spiritual maturity, and by rejecting the Church as corrupt. But the solution to our problems collectively is not to be found in either form of denial, it is to be found in listening, in work, in patience and in faith.

My Testimony
I think to most active Latter-day Saints, I look damned. I am an openly gay man, married to another man. I am excommunicated from the Church, and have been stripped of priesthood and temple blessings.

I think I was damned. I was angry at the Church and at God. I was deaf to the voice of the Spirit. Everything I saw, I saw only outwardly, what it is on the surface, only what it is in the physical, material sense. I was blessed with life, a life-partner, a family and friends, with material well being. But I wasn't sufficiently grateful for those things, and in many ways I behaved like a man determined to lose them. I hungered for a good world, a better world, for Zion. But I had no idea how to even begin to achieve it, either for myself personally or for the larger human family. I lived day to day, without hope.

God took pity on me. I don't feel I did anything special to deserve it, but here at the Sunstone Symposium in 2005, the Spirit spoke to me in a way that I couldn't deny, testifying to me of the existence of God, and of his love for me, and of his desire to have me back in his fold. The Spirit pushed me to start attending Church again, to pray and read the scriptures daily and to start living the Word of Wisdom again. The Spirit helped me to realize how precious my relationship with my husband is, what a precious gift our life together and our love is, and started to show me what I needed to do to nurture and cultivate that gift, through the Law of Chastity, and through listening and kindness and consideration. The Spirit taught me the importance of consecrating myself to the way of Christ's love by living the Law of Tithing, even if I cannot give my tithes to the Church right now. When the Spirit opened up to me a vision of what I could have, of the kind of fellowship I could have with God, if I could only be attentive and obey, I knew that I wanted it more than I wanted anything else in life. I wanted the waters of everlasting life welling up in my heart (John 4: 14; D&C 63: 23).

I'm not damned any more. I am not angry at God or the Church. I am blessed with the daily, sustaining presence of the Holy Spirit in my life. I am never alone. I see things differently. I see things outwardly, but the Lord blesses me with understanding of inward things too, of things that we can only understand if we have the Spirit as our guide. I am blessed with a husband, and a foster son, and with family and friends, and now I know how precious those blessings are, how blessed I am, and I do not take them for granted. And I have a vision of Zion, and I think I know what I need to get there, what all of us need to get there.

And I'm committed to get there, even though I must stand outside the gates of the temple, even though I sit on the back row at Church and must let the sacrament tray pass me by. I sometimes wonder if I won't break bread or drink of the cup again until that day that Christ himself drinks it new in the Kingdom of God (Mark 14: 25). But I don't doubt my worthiness. I don't doubt that I am a child of God or that I have a rightful place in the Kingdom.

I don't think most members of the Church feel they need me. But I understand that the Church can't progress until the members who wish I would go away collectively understand that they do need me; just as I could not progress until I understood that I need them. I understand that what spiritual maturity ultimately means to me is to be with them of one heart and one mind and to dwell in righteousness with them.

I understand that the path to that spiritual maturity is the path of priesthood power, of “persuasion, ...long-suffering, ...gentleness and meekness, and unfeigned; ...kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile.” It is ever keeping my eye on the path that Christ showed us, of submission and love. I think this is what Sister Janice Allred spoke of Thursday, in her symposium presentation “Whose Wife Will She Be? Marriage, Embodiment and Salvation,” when she spoke about the importance of “being faithful unto the obtaining these two priesthoods” (D&C 84: 33). Like Abraham, I have found that there is greater happiness and peace and rest for me, and I seek the blessings of the fathers (Abraham 1: 2).

Gay and lesbian Saints have been given a gift. First of all, because we are forced to choose between what we know about ourselves, and what the world says we are supposed to be, because the world threatens to take everything away from us if we don't conform, we have a special opportunity to learn what is really true and what is really valuable in life. We are offered an opportunity to learn what it means to serve without hope of reward, since no matter how righteously we live, if we are true to our love and true to our primary relationships, we will be denied this-worldly rewards like respectability and legal marriage, and will be threatened by those who don't understand with otherworldly punishments of eternal damnation. We can learn the value of considering the inward value of things.

We have also been given a gift because at this time and in this place, because of who we are and the way we are viewed by our brothers and sisters, we have an opportunity to learn a kind of love that we can learn no other way than this, and to teach this love to our brothers and sisters. We have been given an opportunity by those who despise us to open a door to Zion if only we can be faithful.


Quiet Song said...

Beautiful. Thank you. The first half of this post will be the basis of next week's family home evening in our household.

The last half is equally touching, though not as relevant for the family members still at home as it would have been a few months ago.

Jennifer said...

I have been reading your blog for a little while now. I feel that your...testimony and activism has helped me understand the gay community a little better. I truly truly sympathize with you and the many others out there who feel they are not equals among men (and women). However, I am confused by one a member of the church, do you feel as though someday the doctrine will change to accept gay/lesbian lifestyles? Or that at some point the church will grant gay men priesthood authority?

I am a member of the church and I know that Jesus Christ loves EVERYONE unconditionally, and as the perfect example..,so should we. Thanks for the words on your blog. While I may not agree with all your personal beliefs, I do appreciate the level of love and understanding for other people that this blog provides for me.

Mister Curie said...

Great talk. I wish I could have been at Sunstone this year.

J G-W said...

Quiet Song -- thank you... I wrote this (as I write almost everything) to myself, to help sort out my thinking on things. It always makes me happy when others find it helpful too!

Mr. Curie - I wish you had been there too! Sunstone was amazing this year, the best I've ever experienced.

Jennifer - As I discuss in the paper, a central challenge in this mortal sphere is the problem of "imperfect knowledge." That's why I stressed the 2 Nephi text (9:13). In the resurrection, our knowledge will be perfect, but right now it is not.

So I know what the Church teaches on this subject. I also know what I experience in my relationship with my husband and in my relationship with God. And those things which I know from personal experience seem to collide or conflict with what I know from Church teaching.

So the usual question from people (and I don't know if that's what you're really asking here!) is Which do you think is right? The only real, honest answer is, I don't know. My knowledge right now is imperfect. As to your questions, Do I think same-sex couples/marriages will some day be accepted in the Church? Do I think that gay men (or even straight women or lesbians) could some day hold the priesthood? The answer is I cannot possibly know.

All I know is that I have conflicting data. I know what the General Authorities have had to say on this subject. And I have a testimony that they are called and inspired by God. But I have also sought guidance about my relationship and feel blessed by the Lord in it, and feel impressed to be as faithful and loving and committed (and married) to my husband as I possibly can be.

I wish this were easier. But then, I wouldn't have learned all the incredible lessons I've learned so far...