I recently had occasion to make a business trip, and one of the things I took with me to read on the plane was the current issue of Sunstone. Most readers of this blog will be familiar with this publication, but for those who are not, Sunstone is the closest thing there is to a “liberal” Mormon journal. It explores issues that everyone knows are there (in the Church), but are rarely if ever discussed in official circles or publications, and it certainly addresses these issues in a way and from a point of view that one would never find in an official church publication.
There were several stories and articles in the current issue of this journal that I found interesting and meaningful. I thought I’d share and write about a few of them in this and subsequent posts.
One of the highlights of the current issue was the inclusion of the complete script from Eric Samuelsen’s play Borderlands. In his introduction to the script, Samuelson shared some of the thoughts that went into the writing of this landmark play:
“We Mormons,” Samuelsen wrote, “face tremendous pressure to conform, to fit in, to obey, to define ourselves in certain quite limited ways. It is, for many, a religious culture of public orthodoxy and quietly whispered rebellion. And so we carve out spaces for ourselves, and we meet in those spaces [borderlands], and we come out to each other … So I wrote a play about coming out … about death and God and sexual desire. And a space … where we dare to tell ourselves the truth and where we are appalled to find how little it sets us free” [emphasis added].
There were many things about this statement that struck me, the first being Samuelsen’s comment that we as Mormons face tremendous pressure to “define ourselves in certain quite limited ways.” One of the most damaging aspects of cultural Mormonism, I think, even beyond the feeling that one has to conform to a prescribed imposed code of conduct, is the feeling that one must define oneself in accordance with this external code, through an external lens through which one not only sees oneself, but also portrays (but not reveal) oneself to the world.
It occurs to me that this is one of the primary reasons that gay Mormons have such difficulty in coming to terms with their sexuality: they are taught from a young age to look to the Church and to their parents and family for a sense of personal identity. They define who they are by reference to an idealized code of conduct that is taught to them from infancy – a code that imposes, particularly in the case of gay Mormons, a built-in conflict.
Gay Mormons are conditioned to look to others for approval, for affirmation, for identity - but never to look inward, or even to God (because He himself is defined through the lens of the Church, which also defines the self). They rarely are able to gain a strong sense of self in the face of this external definition process, and are thus unable to muster the strength to acknowledge, let alone accept, who they really are. In fact, they often have no sense of self apart from this external definition process.
In the words of Rev. James Alison, the gay Catholic priest and theologian about whom I have recently written, we are “spoken into being” by this external definition process, and it takes a concerted effort to look into ourselves:
“Just remember that we are all spoken into being by those who are other than us. The 'I' of every one of us is a multiplicity of voices, more or less stably held together, but sometimes we can hear little faint echoes, can't we, of the voices of our fathers or our mothers or schoolteachers or politicians, speaking through us. And part of the life of prayer is sitting in a place where we sift through, not being run by those voices any longer, and find that God our Father is able to talk a new 'I' into being.”
I very much like Alison’s image of prayer being a process of sifting through voices, looking for and ultimately finding God’s voice, a voice that affirms who we truly are: the Self He loves with an intensity that can sometimes frighten but, if embraced, releases the divinity in us and thus ennobles and sets us free.
This brings me to the other phrase in Samuelsen’s quote that struck me: of being “appalled to find how little [the truth] sets us free.” I would like an opportunity to ask Professor Samuelsen what he meant when he used this phrase.
What I think Samuelsen may have meant, at least in part, is that, even when we allow ourselves to go into the Borderlands to look for and to speak truth, we cannot take (at least not without great difficulty and pain) that truth back out of the Borderlands into the “Church”: it does not set us free. Rather, it can even further enslave and conflict us if we try to live in the Church by the truth we find in the Borderlands. A realization of this appalls us, demoralizes us, depresses us. Once one has come to see and acknowledge that the emperor is wearing no clothes, one can never quite look at the emperor in the same way again.