Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Sex and Salvation

On Times and Seasons, Nate Oman cuts right to the chase. He argues that Latter-day defenders of gay marriage have failed to engage Mormon theology. General Christian arguments are insufficient justifications, according to Oman, because they do not consider Doctrine and Covenants sections 131 and 132. Sections 131 and 132 define salvation in terms of a union between male and female. That is no small matter. After all, salvation is the ultimate end of Christian theologies.

For the sake of argument, I shall suspend my doubts about section 132 and assume it to be an authoritative text.

In that case, it’s important to be precise. Oman is right that the new and everlasting covenant is about males and females. It is not about the traditional family. It’s about polygamy. The definition of eternal marriage in verses 15-32 is sandwiched between passages about polygamous Old Testament patriarchs and kings. Hence it is clear that eternal marriage or the new and everlasting covenant is polygamous, a fact that has encouraging implications for gay marriage.

Typically though not exclusively, Mormon polygamy was polygynous, which means that one man was married to several women. Hence the new and everlasting covenant can include lesbians as long as their relationship is mediated by the inclusion of a man.

More importantly, Latter-day Saints do not practice the new and everlasting covenant in its original form any longer. Under legal pressure, President Wilford Woodruff declared in 1890 that polygamous eternal marriages were suspended.

Hence no Latter-day Saint are unable to enter into the new and everlasting covenant in its original form. Notice, Woodruff’s Official Declaration does not lay claim to prophesy or revelation. It merely announces a policy change with the authority of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. The Official Declaration does not redefine the requirements of salvation but assures that LDS authorities will not tolerate new polygamous marriages.

As none of us can live polygamy, that policy change would amount to our damnation if one were to rely on D&C 132 only. Unless one assumes that section 132 is ambiguous or needs to be supplemented with other texts, contemporary Mormon practice becomes absurd. The LDS Church would be left without the ability to provide for the salvation of our generation.

It is not my place to determine how far the flexibility will stretch. In the context of Buckley Jeppson’s case, extending temple marriage to gays and lesbians is not on the agenda.

We know, however, that homosexuality is a natural phenomenon and as such a part of the creation. Christians, especially Mormons, believe that the atonement can safe every child of heavenly. It seems to me then that any notion of salvation needs to include those children of Heavenly Father that happen to be homosexual. Otherwise our soteriology will remain not only incomplete but mired in contradiction.

In the meanwhile, it is in the public interest to have a space for believing Mormons to pursue their sexuality in a responsible and safe manner. The best way to obtain that is in a committed, legally sanctioned, monogamous relationship. That does not require theological change. It only requires realism and a little bit of tolerance.


Anonymous Nate Oman said...

A nice post as far as it goes Hellmut. I think that the most common Latter-day Saint interpretation of section 132 would go something like this:

It is true that the new and everlasting covenant described in 132 is polygamous. However, polygamy has been done away with, but eternal sealings, which continue to contain the same promises, have not been done away with. Furthermore, Joseph Smith taught the eternity of the marriage covenant prior to and independent of the idea of polygamy. Accordingly, we interpret the new and everlasting covenant to refer to marriage. In other words, we take polygamy to be an accidental rather than an essential characteristic of the covenant. Given that the promises associated with the new and everlasting covenant in 132 are premised not on plurality but on heterosexual fecundity (ie continuation of seed for ever, etc.) such an interpretation reconciles 132 with the abandonment of polygamy without rejecting the basic soteriology contained in the revelation.

The question for any would-be theology of gay marriage is whether heterosexuality is an essential or accidental characteristic of the soteriological marriage covenant described in section 132. You have not offered any arguments one way or another on this point.

I agree that there are many issues of current church practice that could be changed without having to work out answers to this basic theological conundrum. I am just skipping ahead to what I see as the more interesting and fundamental question.

Blogger Hellmut said...

That's a fair reading both of the consensus opinion and my post, Nate. Ultimately, I am not too concerned about D&C 132 because its relevance is demonstratively limited. It cannot be the last word in Mormon soteriology.

I am, however, very much concerned about the attitudes that you are describing accurately. Thanks for opening an important discussion, Nate. Exploring the boundaries of orthodoxy is a task that is easily misunderstood and thus a thankless task that requires courage.

If 132 were that essential then one cannot justify the politic surrender of polygamy. After all, one needs to obey God more than people. The fact that we were able to accomodate government either indicates that polygamy, an element of 132, was not essential or that the FLDS Church got it right.

Personally, I am more comfortable with traditional ideas about salvation that emphasize the first and second commandment. In light of the abusive characteristics of nineteenth century polygamy such a retrenchment might improve the quality of our theology.

Polygamy was a bad idea. The political troubles it brought down on the Saints were the least of the problem. Much more problematic was how the Saints treated each other to live the new and everlasting covenant. In terms of ideas, D&C 132 is weak. It cannot withstand empirical enquiry, be it from a historical perspective or from a naturalistic reading of gospel principles.

Therefore it will be easy to overcome or adapt 132 if there is the will. In other words, the problem of 132 is not philosophical or theological it's political.

132 is powerful because Latter-day Saints consider it the word of God. The allegiance to 132 is not a function of good ideas but of leadership authority. Once the leadership consents to reinterprete or marginalize 132, our homosexual neighbors and the LDS Church will be fine. Until then there will continue to be suffering.

Anonymous Nate Oman said...

Hellmut: The problem with your "solution" to the problem of 132 is that ultimately it doesn't take the hermeneutic task seriously. It seems to be tantamount to saying, "This whole revelation thing is nonsense. Let's just look at things realistically and politically, and we can work all of these difficulties out." The problem is that most Mormons -- rightly in my opinion -- don't want to take the "this whole revelation thing is nonsense" step. This does not, in my mind, preclude reinterpretation, even radical reinterpretation, but it must be an interpretation that has some continuity and integrity to it.

Blogger Hellmut said...

Actually, I am taking the hermeneutic exercise very seriously, Nate. Determining the meaning of the text within the context of Mormon practice uncovers that this text is not the foundation of Mormon soteriology. The absence of polygamy shows that 132 depends on the authority of Mormon decision makers, not the other way around. Therefore, 132 cannot have foundational meaning.

Beyond hermeneutics, I resume to identify alternative concepts of salvation and to elaborate why they are superior in light of the Mormon experience and gospel principles. That is necessary because Christian theology requires a soteriology.

If one argues that 132 is not it, then one needs to find an alternative. I am saying that this is not a difficult problem as traditional Christianity provides more attractive alternatives.

The political essence of 132, however, is an implication of text. It stems from the First Official Declaration.

In two cases believing Mormons have followed their leadership to reverse practice and doctrine. One of those occassions was about D&C 132.

That event demarcates the border between LDS and FLDS theology. Therefore any interpretation of 132 from an LDS point of view must include the First Official Declaration.

By the way, I am saying that the reevaluation of 132 was providential. It strengthened Mormon theology because its ethics reflected nature better. It served the members by ending a practice that invited abuse.

That's where some believing Mormons would disagree. The dogmatic view would be that polygamy is the superior form of marriage. That's an opinion that is neither compatible with the empirical record nor with contemporary practice.

For the latter reason, a less dogmatic approach to 132 validates Mormon theology better because my view does not have to denigrate the Declaration as a capitulation to power.

Anyways, the difference between your approach and mine is that I attempt to interprete a broader phenomenon. The text only makes sense in the context of its enactment and ought to include at least the First Official Declaration. That kind of analysis is pretty standard hermeneutics.

Anonymous Nate Oman said...

Hellmut: I agree that you have to interpret the text in light of practice. I think, however, that you are reading practice too strongly as a repudiation of the text. There are other elements of practice -- most notably the continuation of temple ordinances and their attendent promises -- that make your claim that the soteriology of 132 has been abandoned quite problematic. I agree with you that the interpretation of the text is always "political" in the sense that the institutional authority of the Church controls the extent of the permissible boundaries of the interpretation of the text and not vice versa.

I think that one should read the Official Decleration as abandoning plural marriage as an essential element of the soteriology of section 131 and section 132. I think it would be a grave mistake to read it as a wholesale abandonment of that soteriology in favor of a more traditional Christian approach.

What I want are interepretations that don't seem to amount to some sort of claim that we ought to give up on the whole Restoration thing and just content ourselves with being Unitarians...

Blogger Hellmut said...

It's certainly a fascinating exercise to explore how to accomodate homosexuality within a Mormon framework.

By the way, I am not going quite as far as you believe. Though I have indicated that alternatives are available, I have not specified what to do with 132. The bottom line of my argument is that Mormon theology would make more sense if one attributed less importance and more flexibility to 132.

Intellectually, it's, of course, more exciting to view 132 as stringent as possible and accomodate homosexuality nonetheless.


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