Saturday, January 29, 2011

An Expression of the Divine

The title of this post comes from a statement written by artist and writer Wes Hempel, about whom I wrote a few days ago.  He had used this phrase in a discussion of President Boyd K. Packer’s recent General Conference remarks: “If homosexuality is not a choice but is instead intrinsic, the inescapable conclusion is that homosexuality is not ‘impure’ or ‘unnatural.’  Rather, it must be just another aspect of God’s creation ... [which] alongside heterosexuality … must be an expression of the divine.” 

I would like to use Wes’ words to frame an articulation of some thoughts I have had since publishing my guest post last Saturday on The Narrow Gate, entitled Exodus: A Gay Man’s Journey out of Marriage and Orthodox Mormonism.  Not surprisingly, my frank comments concerning my current attitude toward the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which, for the benefit of non-Mormons who may read this, is often referred to as the Mormon Church, and which I will hereafter simply refer to as the “Church”) generated some responses.  As a clarification and amplification of what I wrote last week, I have prepared this post.

I should first of all say that I was not born into the Church.  I encountered Mormonism shortly after I graduated from college at a time when I was searching for meaning and direction in my life.  I had been raised in the Catholic Church, but had joined a mainline Protestant church when a senior in high school. Later, I had a brief but satisfying affair with the Episcopal Church.  By the time I met the missionaries, I was flirting with going back to the Catholic Church.

In college, I took a number of religion and philosophy courses which both challenged and enriched the belief structure I had been raised with and which I had later added to and modified.  I guess you could say that I was somewhat unusual for someone my age, in that I had devoted a lot of thought, time and effort to the study of organized religion in an effort to find my place in the world.

I feel that this belief structure prepared me, when I was introduced to Mormonism, to be able to recognize and embrace what I considered at the time to be a number of sublime doctrines, unlike anything I had theretofore heard.  These included the following:

The eternal nature of man.  Unlike any other religion or belief system, Mormonism taught that each human being is an eternal person, that before being clothed in a mortal body, my spirit had existed in a “pre-existent” state and that, furthermore, my spirit had in that state been clothed in a spiritual body.  "All spirit is matter,” wrote the Prophet Joseph Smith, “but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes … This spirit element has always existed; it is co-eternal with God.”  Furthermore, Mormonism taught that, prior to being organized by God into my spirit body, the “essence” that is me existed as intelligence.  “We know,” wrote Joseph Fielding Smith, “that there is something called intelligence which always existed. It is the real eternal part of man, which was not created nor made. This intelligence combined with the spirit constitutes a spiritual identity or individual.”

The godlike nature of man.  Closely connected with the Mormon teaching that we are spirit children of God is the belief that, because of this heritage, we possess attributes of God within our very spirits.  “Our spirit birth gave us godlike capabilities,” wrote President Lorenzo Snow. “We were born in the image of God our Father; He begot us like unto Himself. There is the nature of deity in the composition of our spiritual organization; in our spiritual birth our Father transmitted to us the capabilities, powers and faculties which He Himself possessed -- as much so as the child on its mother's bosom possesses, although in an undeveloped state, the faculties, powers, and susceptibilities of its parent.”

The dual nature of mortal man.  Mormonism also simply cut through the Gordian knot when it came to the age-old debate among philosophers as to the true nature of man:  was the body merely a corrupting force of our “true” selves, our “spirit”, and thus something to be despised?  No, answered Mormonism.  We were sent here to this earth so that our spirits could be clothed in a mortal body which the spirit would, during the resurrection, reclaim and which would then be made immortal and glorified to a degree that would bring each of us eternal happiness and joy.

The purpose of life.  Far from proclaiming mortality to be a vale of tears, Mormon scripture shouted the truth that “Adam fell that men might be, and men are that they might have joy”! (Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 2:29)

The destiny of man.  Mormonism also rejected the false dichotomy of heaven vs. hell.  In a blaze of light and revelation, Joseph Smith’s vision of the degrees of glory, an account of which appears in Section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants (Mormon scripture), consigned the traditional Christian view of heaven and hell to the dustbin of history.  Except for “sons of perdition” (which I will not address), all will be resurrected and eventually inherit a degree of glory in the eternities that is commensurate with and designed to give ultimate joy to each of God’s children. 

These doctrines lie at the heart of what Mormons alternately call “The Restoration”, the “Gospel” or the “Restored Gospel.” Each term refers to truths that are eternal but which, Mormons believe, had been lost for centuries due to apostasy within the Christian world.  These doctrines, among others, are what have led thousands, including myself, to join the Church.  They are transcendent, resplendent, sublime. 

I think it could be said that these concepts should rightfully earn Joseph Smith a place among the great thinkers of the western tradition. This, however, has not happened.  And, in point of fact, these sublime doctrines are given only passing reference in the Church today.  To the extent they are considered or referred to, whether “in the trenches” (in ward sacrament meetings or Sunday School lessons) or from the pulpit of General Conference, they typically serve as backdrop to what in my view has become the all-important, all-consuming Doctrine of today’s Church:  The Family. 

The Church’s emphasis on “the Family” colors and drives every activity in and aspect of the Church, from Family Home Evening to Proposition 8.  It is this emphasis that, I submit, has led to the Church’s historically harsh position with respect to homosexuality and its involvement with several initiatives to fight gay marriage. 

I believe it is also this emphasis, coupled with the Church’s (commendable) emphasis on meeting the temporal needs of God’s children through practical service and humanitarian work, along with its corporate approach to missionary work and temple “work”, that has led to the “pedestrian-ization” of the Gospel, particularly as the Church continues to seek to be accepted into the North American mainstream.  (I hasten to point out that the Church does much good in the world through its humanitarian outreach, and I am not critical of this – not at all.  What I do lament, however, is that the great transcendent doctrines of the restoration have become lost and given short shrift in the process.)

Even though I have become disaffected with orthodox Mormonism and the mainstream church, I still believe in the doctrines I have described above.  I still believe that these doctrines are like rich veins of precious philosophical ore, waiting to be explored and mined.  I feel this is particularly true with respect to how these doctrines relate to the concept of homosexuality. 

I don’t pretend to be a philosopher or theologian or scriptorian.  But I know that there are great minds out there in the ranks of Church members, particularly in academia.  Who knows what they might produce in the way of thought-provoking and mind-expanding literature if some of these persons directed their intellect and spiritual insight toward the subject of homosexuality in light of these transcendent doctrines? 

For example, I’d like to issue a challenge to some great Mormon philosophers (that’s not an oxy-mormon is it?) to consider this question:  If one is born gay (which I very definitely believe is the case), and if one accepts the premise that homosexuality is not some sort of biological abnormality such as Down Syndrome but rather a reflection of one’s pre-mortal identity (which I believe), then what implications do these postulations have concerning the nature of God, a gay pre-mortal identity (and how such an identity was acquired) and (perhaps most importantly) a post-mortal gay identity?  Now, there would be many Mormons who would say, “The Lord hasn’t revealed anything about that.”  To which I would say, “Does that mean we can’t or shouldn’t even think about it and write about it.”  (Obviously, for me, the answer to that question is a resounding NO.)

For my part, intellectual and spiritual pygmy that I am, until I receive further light and knowledge on the matter, I wish to simply adopt Wes Hempel’s statement as an expression of my own personal creed:  I was born gay, and this is not only a part of my eternal identity, but also an expression of the Divine.  In this regard, I also wish to adopt these plain and direct sentiments of Alice Walker as my own because, to me, they express plain, common sense:

“I am an expression of the divine, just like a peach is, just like a fish is. I have a right to be this way...I can't apologize for that, nor can I change it, nor do I want to... We will never have to be other than who we are in order to be successful...We realize that we are - as ourselves - unlimited and our experiences valid. It is for the rest of the world to recognize this, if they choose.”


  1. I love your description of the "sublime truths" of the Restored Gospel.

    But faith is not a "philosophy." Faith is a relationship with the divine. These statements about the nature of humanity and our divine destiny are at best verbal approximations of a truth that we must experience first hand in an encounter with God. They are "mysteries" that the Church can't, cart before horse style, emphasize over first gospel principles.

    We don't become God-like by reminding ourselves that we are gods. Hitler's grand experiment also was (and other similar experiments have also been) a sort of grasping at godhood. I'm wondering if American civilization isn't also reaching a kind of terminus that was well described in Book of Mormon prophecy... ("At that day when the Gentiles shall sin against my gospel, and shall reject the fulness of my gospel, and shall be lifted up in the pride of their hearts above all nations, and above all the people of the whole earth, and shall be filled with all manner of lyings, and of deceits, and of mischiefs...")

    We approach God -- we open ourselves to the "sublime truths" of the gospel through faith and repentance. And I think the Church is still the only real vehicle through which it is possible for us to take that path toward divinity...

  2. Invictus, what can I add? You have a wonderful way of writing what my heart feels. That (and your pictures) is the reason I enjoy starting each day with your blog post.

  3. J G-W, you are confusing means and ends. Faith, repentance, and revelation are the means by which each individual comes to know God. The "sublime truths" that Pilgrim outlined are the ends--the answers to the Great Questions.

    While the Church may be the primary vehicle through its saving ordinances by which man may become deity, as Pilgrim has rightly stated, the Church's energy and focus today has little to do with helping us understand deity or our divine nature for that matter.

  4. @ J G-W - Thank you for your comments, thoughts and expressions of belief. I understand your points. My post was not intended to be about faith, however, but rather about belief. In our Mormon tradition, particularly, faith connotes action; doing something. My post was about belief, which to me connotes mental and spiritual contemplation, exertion and synthesis. Some would posit that belief is the soil from which faith springs, but the purpose of my post was not to examine the subject of faith.

    I suppose one could frame my comments about the "pedestrian-ization" of the Gospel in these terms, i.e., in terms of faith and belief. My personal view is that I would like to see more emphasis on thinking and pondering and contemplating in the Church, rather than "doing." I am reminded of Hugh Nibley's excellent essay, "Zeal Without Knowledge."

    To reiterate what I was trying to say, which of course is my personal viewpoint, we in Mormonism have these sublime truths, but not much is being done with them, no pondering, no contemplating, no (if you will) philosophizing - which, in my view, is at the heart of what makes us human. And, of course, my main point is that nothing is being done with them in the context of the whole subject of homosexuality.

    I appreciate your view about the Church being the only vehicle. I'm sure you also appreciate that others do not, or no longer, share that view.

    @Clive - I am, sir, your humble servant. :)

  5. I have to say, that I don't believe that any church reveals truths. First of all, I don't believe in absolute truths in that I believe that Life and people are diverse and that there isn't ONE way. I believe that we have many ways in which to become fulfilled with the people we are and become in this life and through the discovery of many "truths" along Life's path.

    I also think that thinking and pondering are good, but without aligning thought with action, it's abstract. That again, points me in the direction of not believing in a church because each individual has their own way of understanding and aligning abstract to concrete.

    Thinking is essential, don't get me wrong. I believe that man is to be in eternal revolt as Camus wrote about in his book "The Rebel" (I hate the translated name in English. His point is that one must question one's beliefs and causes, especially when the means that are used (putting one's thoughts into actions) cancel the goodness of the objective. I'll let you think about that: but his main argument of the time was against the Communists who supported communism despite the torture camps in Russia. In the name of communism they were oppressing others. In the name of a church, who is being oppressed?

    I don't think that the church will do anything with regards to homosexuality because it doesn't fit with their absolutes (I wrote about this on your Exodus post)... it would threaten the very foundation of their beliefs and their prophets, their power ...

    Each one of us, however, in the name of God, Life or goodness can be lights of tolerance, support and generosity to others.