Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Circling the Wagons: Celestial Glory Shall Be Mine

“Celestial glory shall be mine if I can but endure.”

Is there a place for gay Mormons in the "afterlife"?  Today’s post focuses on some discussions around this issue at this past weekend's Circling the Wagons Conference here in Salt Lake City, specifically during Friday afternoon's workshop featuring Carol Lynn Pearson and Bill Bradshaw and during the panel discussion on Saturday.

In response to this question, I have decided to republish, with some modifications, a post I originally wrote last May entitled “Celestial Glory Shall Be Mine.”  Perhaps no other consideration provokes more angst in the mind of a gay Mormon who loves the (LDS) Church and believes in the Gospel than that of where he fits into the Mormon concept of eternity, or in other words, does allowing himself to be true to his homosexual nature lock him out of Heavenly Father’s presence in the afterlife.  (Though this essay is written from the perspective of a gay man, the same principles apply to lesbian Mormons.)

Exaltation:  Moving the Goalposts

One of the very first songs a Mormon child learns to sing is “I Am a Child of God,” a very sweet little song that contains within its simple melody and honeyed phrases the essence of Mormon theology.  At a tender age, children learn that they are children of God, that they lived somewhere else in God’s presence before they came here to earth, that they have been sent from that place to this earth, and that their goal is to return to Heavenly Father some day.

The song teaches a number of other principles, some of which I hope to return to; but for this post, I want to focus on the fourth verse, which contains the summum bonum of Mormon theology:

I am a Child of God. 
His promises are sure;
Celestial glory shall be mine
If I can but endure.

For faithful Mormons, merely being “saved” is not enough; the goal of life is nothing short of “exaltation.”  Former apostle Bruce R. McConkie explained the significance of this doctrine in his classic, Mormon Doctrine

“Exaltation grows out of the eternal union of a man and his wife. Of those whose marriage endures in eternity, the Lord says, ‘Then shall they be gods’ (D&C 132:20); that is, each of them, the man and the woman, will be a god. As such they will rule over their dominions forever …

“Marriages performed in the temples for time and eternity [unite] … the participating parties [as] husband and wife in this mortal life, and if after their marriage they keep all the terms and conditions of this order of the priesthood, they continue on as husband and wife in the celestial kingdom of God. If the family unit continues, then by virtue of that fact the members of the family have gained eternal life (exaltation) … 

“Mortal persons who overcome all things and gain an ultimate exaltation will live eternally in the family unit and have spirit children, thus becoming Eternal Fathers and Eternal Mothers … becoming gods in their own right” (Mormon Doctrine, pp. 117, 129, 613).

It is perhaps difficult for non-Mormons to understand the centrality to Mormon theology of these beliefs and teachings.  For most Christians, “salvation” is a post-mortal reward that results – in essence – from living a good moral life, from following the teachings of Jesus Christ and from believing that He can atone for mortal shortcomings. 

Mormon theology, however, has moved the goalposts way past the concept of mere “salvation.”  Though faithful Mormons believe that in God’s house “are many mansions” [which, in Mormon-speak, means kingdoms or degrees of glory] which may be perfectly fine for other people, they believe that – for them - salvation is basically an “all or nothing” concept:  either one obtains exaltation (with all that this term implies – see Bruce R., above) or just forget it.  No lower “degree of glory” is acceptable. 

This concept is taught from a very young age and is reflected in the above-quoted passage from the 4th verse of “I Am a Child of God”:  “Celestial glory shall be mine - IF I can but endure” [emphasis added].  This verse also reflects another, companion, precept that is of paramount importance in Mormon theology:  obedience. Obtaining celestial glory is contingent upon “enduring to the end,” obeying all of God’s commandments (especially remaining “temple worthy”) and doing all that is required to reach that goal.

The Centrality of the Temple

Paradoxically, and as an aside, a modern-day Christian might more easily relate to the teachings of the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, rather than current teachings.  Joseph declared that “the fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it" (emphasis added; TPJS, p. 121).  He also declared that the first principle of the Gospel to be “Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” 

In today’s Mormon Church, however, it is arguable that the cluster of doctrine surrounding eternal/celestial/temple marriage constitutes the “fundamental principles of our religion … and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it”; furthermore, perhaps not surprisingly, the “first law of heaven” has in practical terms arguably supplanted the first principle of the gospel.  “Obedience is the first law of heaven,” wrote Elder Bruce R. McConkie, “the cornerstone upon which all righteousness and progression rest.”  And this first law of heaven has been correlated and woven through much of what one currently finds in instruction manuals, conference talks and church magazine articles.

But I digress.

The point is that this “all or nothing” concept is at the root of much of what produces angst, self-hatred, deceit and heartache in Mormon men and women who have the extreme misfortune of having been born anything but heterosexual.

If a young gay man does not marry a woman in the temple and then remain faithful to his temple covenants (i.e., enduring to the end), he automatically knocks himself out of the running for exaltation.  He knows this, of course, and as a faithful Mormon, it causes him no end of worrying which can quickly escalate into depression.  Apart from everything else he feels because he knows he is gay, he feels a deep and dark dense of failure because he knows he’s missed – forever – the brass ring.

“I feel sorry for the man …”

On top of this sense of failure is then piled a layer of guilt because he knows – because he has been told over and over again as a young man advancing toward the day that he receives the Melchizedek priesthood – that he has a sacred duty and obligation toward his Heavenly Father’s daughters to provide one of them an opportunity to go to the temple and be sealed for time and all eternity to a worthy priesthood holder. 

This obligation was echoed in the last spring’s General Conference by Elder Scott when he said,

I feel sorry for any man who hasn’t yet made the choice to seek an eternal companion, and my heart weeps for the sisters who haven’t had the opportunity to marry.”  

Ouch.  Guilt.  And don’t forget President Monson’s talk during Priesthood Session last spring, in which he said the following: 

Now, I have thought a lot lately about you young men who are of an age to marry but who have not yet felt to do so. I see lovely young ladies who desire to be married and to raise families, and yet their opportunities are limited because so many young men are postponing marriage.” 

He then quoted several former presidents of the Church who had said much the same thing.  Again, guilt – but the young gay man knows it’s not because he doesn’t want to; it’s because he can’t.

Because eternal rewards are bound up in the concept of family kingdoms (exaltation of families, not individuals), actions of a family member in mortality are seen as affecting not only that family member’s eternal salvation, but also the salvation of his entire family of origin.  This leads to parents of gay children not only mourning the “loss” of these children, whom they believe have lost their chance to sit in the eternal family circle, leading to the proverbial empty chair (“No Empty Chairs” being a slogan commonly found on walls in Mormon homes); it also often leads to resentment toward this child for putting the exaltation of the entire family in jeopardy.

Beyond all these theological concerns, however, are the (some would say equally important) cultural concerns.  A temple marriage for their children is the fondest hope of many a Mormon parent, particularly in areas where there are large concentrations of Church members.  A temple marriage is a sign to the community in such areas that a child is ok, is doing the right thing, is respectable, is on “the path.”  Failure to marry in the temple, on the other hand, often becomes the subject of speculation and subjects the child’s parents to embarrassment if not outright shame in the their community (which, of course would often pale in significance when compared with the shame of having a gay son).

A Place for Heavenly Father’s Gay Children

So, what is a young gay Mormon to do?  “Teach me all that I must do,” he used to sing in Primary, “to live with Him [Heavenly Father] someday.”  Is there a place for him in Heavenly Father’s home? Why is there so much emphasis in the Church upon exaltation (which, apart from what has been described above, contributes to a culture of fake perfectionism in the Church)?  Why does this have to be the end-all? 

The 131st and 132nd sections of the Doctrine and Covenants are the scriptural sources for the Mormon doctrine of three degrees of glory within the celestial kingdom.  D&C 131:1-4 and D&C 132:16-17 read as follows:

“In the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees; and in order to obtain the highest, a man must enter into this border of the priesthood [meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage]; And if he does not, he cannot obtain it. He may enter into the other, but that is the end of his kingdom; he cannot have an increase … Therefore, when they [i.e., those who are not sealed in the temple] are out of the world they neither marry nor are given in marriage; but are appointed angels in heaven, which angels are ministering servants, to minister for those who are worthy of a far more, and an exceeding, and an eternal weight of glory. For these angels did not abide my law; therefore, they cannot be enlarged, but remain separately and singly, without exaltation, in their saved condition, to all eternity; and from henceforth are not gods, but are angels of God forever and ever.”

Though faithful Mormons have a tendency to focus on the horrible plight of those who have merited (through personal righteousness) the blessing of living in the presence of God for all eternity but, alas, have failed to get married in the temple (who wants to be an “angel” when one could be “worthy of a far more … eternal weight of glory”?), the point remains that these are the only passages in Mormon scripture that describe to any degree the two “lower” degrees of glory within the Celestial Kingdom.

Apart from anything else that could (and has) been said about this section, why has nothing ever been said about the other two degrees of glory (except that the inhabitants thereof cannot have increase, i.e., spirit children)?  Could we – including the Brethren – not stop and, paraphrasing something Dr. Bill Bradshaw said this past weekend, humbly acknowledge the vastness of our ignorance with respect to such matters?

Is there not ample room within Mormon theology to provide a place in the afterlife for Heavenly Father’s gay and lesbian children? 

Did not Jesus himself say that in His father’s house are many mansions?  Why don’t we as Mormons ever talk about those many other mansions?

Couldn’t families (and the whole church membership) benefit from backing away from the all-or-nothing emphasis on exaltation? 

And finally, could not our young gay Mormon, together with those he loves, share celestial glory – the kind he used to sing about as a child? 

I believe he can.

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