Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Women in Eternity, Women of Zion by Sorensen and Cassler

Imagine, if you will, that a stalwart member of the Church approached you with some concerns about the theological underpinnings of the Word of Wisdom. What might you do? Castigate him as a rebellious secularizer? Remind her that questioning was the fast road to apostasy?

I doubt it. You’d probably sit down and walk through the scriptures, teachings of the prophets, and your own thoughts and experiences concerning the Word of Wisdom.

So why, then, when someone (man or woman) starts asking questions about the role of women in the Church is it assumed that that person is suspect? Contrast the attitude of the authors of Women in Eternity, Women of Zion:

The secret pain of some orthodox and believing Latter-day Saint women, only recently beginning to emerge, must not be allowed to fester without the rest of the Church community actively striving to receive and impart the divine balm of understanding that will bind up these wounds. We are commanded to ‘mourn with those who mourn; and comfort those who stand in need of comfort’ (Mosiah 18:9). To deny that any orthodox and believing Latter-day Saint woman could also feel some pain and confusion about these matters, or to refuse to succor those who do feel pain and confusion, is to refuse to love our neighbor as Christ would wish us to love her.

Novel, eh?

Seriously, though, if you wanted to direct a Saint who had questions about gender issues to a source that thoroughly and faithfully explored some of the big issues, where would you send her or him? Especially for a topic like polygamy, there just isn’t much out there. The burgeoning LDS apologetics industry seems to focus more on defending the doctrine to outsiders than justifying the practices to insiders. So, above all else, we should be grateful to Sorensen and Cassler for taking a stab at some tough issues.

However, there are several serious weaknesses in this book:

(1) Many typos, poor editing, and odd citation practices (such as replacing periods in a quotation with exclamation marks and then noting in the citation ‘emphasis added’) make the book seem unprofessional. In a departure from the usual practice in LDS writing, they confine (almost) all GA quotes to the endnotes. This makes the text look as if they are advancing their own interpretations (and, in some cases, they are), but in many cases, the endnote reveals that they are simply stating the position taken by a Church leader. I wonder why they chose to write this way; it comes off as pretty disjointed.

(2) Several issues that are likely to come up for someone questioning the role of women in the Church are never mentioned. This would include, most notably, the issue of mothers working (especially interesting here since Sister Cassler looks a little too young to have sequenced her six children and her career as a BYU professor and foreign policy expert). They also specifically define equality so that it allows for different roles. Because this is a sticking point for many people, it is a topic (by their own standard) worthy of exploration. But they don’t investigate it.

(3) Their overarching thesis is thus: women ‘preside’ over the entrance to mortal life (i.e., as mothers and –although this is never fleshed out–in the preexistence) while men preside over the entrance to postmortal life (through priesthood ordinances that help us return to the presence of God). Thus, gender parity is created and all earthly inequities can easily be swept aside as paralleling women’s pre-existent preeminence, I have a hard time with this theory. First, what we do know of the role women play in the entrance of souls into mortality is that it is a physical act not related to righteousness. Obviously, the inverse is true for male priesthood roles. This makes it hard for me to find a reasonable parity. And, basically, all they’ve done is shined up the old motherhood-is-equivalent-to-priesthood argument that dissatisfies most women I know. More importantly, they are speculating that women have a more prominent role than men in the preexistence. Not only am I uncomfortable in general with any notion that departs too far (as I think this does) from the teachings of prophets and apostles, but I can think of several items taught in the Temple that would seem to undercut this idea (please refrain from specifics about the Temple if you comment on this).

(4) Another pillar of their argument is that scriptures about equality in Zion include gender equality. Needless to say, I find this idea compelling. But I also find it hard to support based strictly on scriptural evidence. When Mosiah teaches the people that “there should be an equality among all men,” I am inclined to think that, given their historical circumstance, ‘men’ meant ‘males.’

(5) While I applaud the polygamy chapter for the simple fact of its existence, the theory they posit is not convincing. Working off of D & C 132:36, they suggest that polygamy was akin to the sacrifice of Isaac: a test, involving much suffering and requiring actions contrary to normal laws of God, intended by God to be temporary. (In other words, no mandatory polygamy in the celestial kingdom, because the test would be over by then.) While polygamy might have met the criteria for an Abrahamic test for its first practitioners, it is hard to see how it could be an Abrahamic test for later Saints raised in a milieu where polygamy was regarded not as a deviation from moral law but the preferred form of marriage. (This theory also puts the US government–as the agent responsible for the end of the practice of polygamy–into the odd role of ram in the thicket.)

They also get into the (apparently orthodox, but I don’t think I’ve heard of it) doctrine of transferability of sealings. To wit: I’m sealed to my husband and children. What happens if I decide to pack up and head out for a life of wanton hedonism? Simple! A righteous woman who had no opportunity for marriage and children in mortal life simply steps into my place in my eternal family and my husband and children are transferred to her. Their point: all those polygamous marriages can be undone in the eternities without major problems. It’s like Tetris.

(6) I also appreciate their willingness to work on some of the theological consequences of the idea of a Heavenly Mother. But I dispute their specific conclusions. For instance, they write,

The fact that our Heavenly Mother is the eternal partner of our Heavenly Father means that she possesses all that he possesses just as every one of her exalted daughters possesses all things in relationship with her exalted husband.

While we admittedly don’t know a lot about our Heavenly Mother, we know one thing: She does not possess all things that Heavenly Father does. She does not, for example, possess a prayer relationship with Her children. My point here is not to dispute the Church’s teaching that we not pray to Heavenly Mother–as I agree with it–but rather to suggest that the main thesis of the book (that gender equality in the eternities should be our model for seeking gender equality on earth) is a little more complicated than they would have us believe.

(7) In several instances, I think they veer a little too far into unorthodoxy (or, possibly, just sloppy thinking). For example, in their catalogue of deviations from Zion, they include “Subtype II: The separation of sex from the perpetuation of life for women.” I was wondering how they reconciled this idea with our knowledge that sex is not just for procreation. They don’t address this in the text, but there is a grudging acknowledgment in an endnote that “We recognize there may be righteous reasons to avoid conception or otherwise use such devices for the sake of the health and strength of the woman involved.” But they don’t seem to realize how much this undercuts their argument. On another occasion, they claim that mothers have primary stewardship for (and obligation to be with) children before the age of accountability but equal stewardship with their husbands after the age of accountability. If the Church teaches this, I’ve never heard it. And I just can’t force myself to think about their theory that Mary was artificially inseminated.

Because I don’t agree with many of their arguments, I would hesitate to present this book to someone struggling with gender issues in the Church. How I wish they would have presented a difficult topic and then sketched out several possible ways that a Saint might think about it instead of presenting their own (usually atypical) solutions. That said, I did have a few ‘ah-ha’ moments while reading through their thinking on some issues, particularly their reading of the Fall. I (and others) have been repeatedly criticized for reading everything as if it had to do with gender. And I’ve never been able to articulate my interest/compulsion in doing this as well as Cassler and Sorensen do:

One of the first lessons we learn from the story of Adam and Eve is that gender relations are at the heart of human life. God created only two beings at the dawn of human history–one man and one woman. No male-male or female-female relationship can substitute for the critical importance of male-female relations. Hence, in examining any particular culture, we must train our powers of observation on the male-female relations in that society. (Emphasis in the original.)

Despite–or, perhaps, because of–my misgivings about some of their arguments, this was an enjoyable foray into Mormon feminism. When you are the choir to which a book is preaching, you might enjoy singing along, but you probably won’t be thinking very much. But when you find yourself sifting out ideas that don’t work for you while finding some that really resonate, you’re reading a book that is making you think. And that’s a good thing.

Note: Amazon appears to have the title slightly wrong. On the cover, it reads Women in Eternity, Women of Zion.

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