Thursday, September 22, 2016

Priesthood Power

(Artist: Paul C. Swift)

A few years ago I acquired a 1954 vintage copy of “Priesthood and Church Government,” by John Widtsoe. I devoured it. Despite its flaws it’s a fascinating book.

I could easily sum up the book in one word: patriarchy.  I don’t mean that facetiously. I mean that literally. Patriarchy, as in a system of government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it. There are copious passages illustrating the exclusion of women.

The book even contains a brief section referencing the ordained patriarchal order of family dynamics. It’s one of the few references of women in the entire book.

“Wives and children should be taught to feel that the patriarchal order in the Kingdom of God has been established for a wise and beneficent purpose, and should sustain the head of the household and encourage him in the discharge of his duties, and do all in their power to aid him in the exercise of the rights and privileges which God has bestowed upon the head of the home. This patriarchal order has its divine spirit and purpose, and those who disregard it under one pretext or another are out of harmony with the spirit of God’s law as they are ordained for recognition in the home. It is not merely a question of who is perhaps the best qualified. Neither is it wholly a question of who is living the most worthy life.” (Priesthood and Church Government, p.83)

According to this, women are not disqualified from ordination due to worthiness and lack of qualification, but simply because patriarchy is God’s ordained law. No matter what I do, how I act, or how worthily I live my life, the message is God doesn’t trust women with “His” power. I was born female and that was more eternally damning than any sin a man could commit and repent of.

Widtsoe continues by asserting that motherhood is a gift God has bestowed upon women, making motherhood tantamount to priesthood authority. He states:

“That grave responsibility [of motherhood] belongs, by right of sex, to the women who bear and nurture the whole race. Surely no right thinking woman could crave more responsibility nor greater proof of innate powers than that! Such power entrusted to women proves conclusively that they have been recognized and trusted.” (Priesthood and Church Government, p.85)

Sadly, he completely neglects the responsibility of fatherhood as an equal compliment to motherhood, and that parenthood may be one small aspect of a person’s life and identity. He also neglects women who are unable to conceive, nor does he mention that in order for a woman to conceive she is still dependent upon a male, while a male priesthood holder requires no such female dependency to exercise his priesthood.

It’s not difficult to see why some women with fertility difficulties also struggle with a sense of self worth. If creating an offspring is her highest priesthood calling and, through no fault of her own, she can’t, one could easily begin to believe God simply didn’t trust her with her priesthood power. I understand counter arguments of women having perfected bodies capable of child bearing in an afterlife are common rebuttals, but I think we can do better than empty promises that are contingent upon a woman dying to be able to exercise her priesthood power. Dead women with perfected bodies bound to eternal pregnancy hardly seems like a logical, compassionate, or thoughtful response. I trust godly creation and reproduction would be far more rational and efficient.

Sadly, the teachings printed in this book written over half a century ago still linger in our ever evolving policies and practices. I have not only been taught these things from family and friends, they are still explicitly and implicitly taught in our meeting houses and temples.

The present implementation of priesthood authority is perfectly logical when taking into account the LDS Church’s history of polygamy, correlation, and the imperative to exclusive priesthood authority in relation to other Mormon sects. In context, it’s easy to see how we got to this point and why “Priesthood and Church Government” was even written.

Is the priesthood simply a man-made tool to further exercise his dominance over women? Is it one more way men define their religion as more legitimate than another? Is it just another attempt to subjugate women and confine them to patriarchal control? Some feminists have reached such conclusions, and frankly, I don’t blame them. I, too, am highly skeptical of any authority I am blatantly excluded from on account of my gender. Any power that is used to prohibit worthy women from participation in religious rituals doesn’t resemble the power of God that inspires me as a Mormon, and hardly exemplifies a God I would worship or aspire toward. If that’s priesthood power, count me out.

However, conflating priesthood power solely with church governance is a narrow approach to what could be a powerful, inspiring, and sublime tool for all humanity. I believe it is possible to approach priesthood power beyond patriarchy, asinine exclusivity, and superstition.

So what does priesthood power look like independent of patriarchal governance?

The priesthood power is the knowledge of God, the power by which the universe is governed, and is the authority to act in the name of God. Doctrine and Covenants 84:19 states “This greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God.”

John Taylor comments that the Priesthood “governs all things—it directs all things—it sustains all things—and has to do with all things that God and truth are associated with. It is the Power of God delegated to intelligences in the heavens…and on the earth.” (Millennial Star, Volume 9, p.321)

Brigham Young declared: “If anybody wants to know what the priesthood is, it is the Law by which the worlds are, were and will continue forever and ever. It is that system which brings worlds into existence and peoples them, gives them their revolutions, their days, weeks, months, years, their seasons and times and by which they go into a higher state of existence.” (Discourse of Brigham Young, p.130)

“Priesthood is the authority…to act officially in the accomplishment of the Plan of Salvation.” (Priesthood and Church Government, p.35) “Priesthood implies purpose. The purpose of the Plan, made clear in modern revelation, is the eternal, progressive welfare of human beings.” (Program of the Church, John Widtsoe, p.127)

Priesthood power is God’s work, and that work is clearly illustrated in Moses 1:39, “For behold, this is my work and my glory to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” I’m confident that includes women too.

As stated in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, “It is the power by which mortal bodies will be resurrected immortal, to be possessed forever by the spirits who dwelt in them, glorified by God according to their works while in mortality. It is the power by which eternal joy may be attained, but always and only through obedience to the laws and principles of righteousness as exemplified and taught by the Savior.” (Encyclopedia of Mormonism: Priesthood, 1992) Here we are encouraged to follow the example of Jesus Christ when exercising priesthood authority. Alma 13:8-9 suggests those that are ordained take upon them the high priesthood, becoming high priests forever after the order of Jesus Christ without beginning or end, “who is full of grace, equity, and truth.” If God’s priesthood power is exemplified through the example of Jesus, the priesthood power mandates the equal opportunity for participation, as we have all been invited to be one in Christ.

Mormons are firm believers that “faith without works is dead,” and by modern revelation it will be according to our works in mortality whether or not we will be successful. Cosmoforming, terraforming, resurrection, and immortality are lofty goals; and I trust humanity would benefit from the equal participation of women.

Doctrine and Covenants prophesies the earth “may be prepared for the celestial glory…that bodies who are of the celestial kingdom may possess it forever and ever.” The celestial kingdom is prophesied to be right here if we choose to exercise our priesthood power to bring about the transcendence of the human condition.

This is the priesthood power that inspires me. This represents a godly power worth magnifying. I will continue to seek after all priesthood power including ordination. As Joseph Smith taught, “I advise all to go on in perfection, and search deeper and deeper into the mysteries of godliness.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p.364)

If the priesthood is reduced to little more than a tool of patriarchy to assert authority over others with unnecessary exclusions, then indeed a woman’s desire for ordination would be unrighteous in such context. However, if the priesthood is the power and authority to act in the name of God to participate in the work of creation, organization, immortality, and resurrection, I can find no fault in a woman’s desire to be more fully involved in priesthood responsibilities and religious rituals that motivate actions toward those goals.

I’ll respectfully disagree with Widtsoe’s comment that “surely no right thinking woman could crave more responsibility.” I am a right thinking woman and I do crave more responsibility. I know I’m in the minority, but being in the minority doesn’t make a person wrong. Anyone with vision who ever dared to question, divert, or protest was once in the minority, including Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith.

If the priesthood is what they say it is, we should encourage every human being on the planet to participate in the work of God. If the priesthood is what they say it is, shouldn’t all who desire to act in God’s name to bring about the immortality of humanity be commended and ordained? If the priesthood is what they say it is, I can reach no other conclusion by my Mormon upbringing that to desire to be a priesthood representative of the Almighty is exactly what God would want me to do—in all capacities, not just in capacities outlined by patriarchal authority. If the priesthood is what they say it is, am I not an heir of God too?

Monday, September 19, 2016

Life is Not Static

(Artist: Mariam Soliman)

I lie on my back staring at the canopy of color, listening to the sounds of the earth. The birds. The breeze. The leaves. The insects. The stream. My heart pleads, "Stay. Make this moment last a little longer." But the moment is gone. The sting of impermanence left its mark.

Why must the leaves change so quickly? If fall is death, why is it so beautiful? Perhaps it is only beautiful, because life will emerge again. Perhaps it is not death, but simply change.

There is beauty in the angst of impermanence, because it is a consequence of love and longing. There is beauty in suffering. Not all suffering, but some. I certainly don't advocate for apathy toward suffering, however, if there is no suffering or pain, there is no love or joy. The only way to end suffering is to end life. All becomes meaningless in the absence of opposition. 

Although, the beauty of pain and suffering would be overshadowed by the beauty of life emerging. Reemerging. Not all beauty is equal. Perhaps I'm young and naïve, limited by my embodiment and finite logic, but I would like to behold the beauty of eternal life. Eternal progression inspires me and begets my actions toward greater goals in an ongoing process of becoming. Life is not static, and I do not see how eternal life could be static. There is endless potential within humanity, but it requires impermanence, suffering, and love.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

An Atheist in Relief Society

(Artist: Lonely Speck)

In Relief Society, we recently studied Lesson 16: Marriage—An Eternal Partnership. First, I want to commend the instructor for not making any comments about traditional marriage being under attack. The lesson could have easily been swayed in that direction, but she focused on more inspiring topics and gave a wonderful presentation.

However, the lesson placed a heavy emphasis on a marriage being secondary to God, or rather, your relationship with God is more important than your relationship with your spouse.

The lesson manual read, “Marriage is often referred to as a partnership with God. This is not just a figure of speech. If this partnership remains strong and active, the man and woman will love each other as they love God.”

The instructor then drew an equilateral triangle on the white board with the top angle labeled “God”, and the bottom two angles labeled “husband” and “wife”. It is a common illustration used in LDS Mormonism to enforce the idea that God is just as important, or perhaps more important than your spouse.

As illustrated in the lesson:

“An eternal marriage will be composed of a worthy man and a worthy woman, both of whom have been individually baptized with water and with the Spirit; who have individually gone to the temple to receive their own endowments; who have individually pledged their fidelity to God and to their partner in the marriage covenant; and who have individually kept their covenants, doing all that God expected of them. Living the principles of the gospel makes a happy marriage.”

But what if all the promised happiness that comes from obedience to religious regulations doesn’t provide happiness, but instead sadness, frustration and pain? What if your spouse loses their faith in God entirely?

My mind left the Relief Society room and drifted to a distant memory.

It was roughly three years ago. Our family was in the car driving through the Utah desert during the night. Our children were peacefully sleeping in their car seats while Drew focused on the dusty road ahead. We had at least another three hours on the road.

Despite the peaceful silence of the drive my heart was pounding and my palms were sweating. This was the moment. I have to tell him I don’t believe in God. I had waited long enough. If there was ever a right time it was now. We still had a long drive ahead, so no one could get angry and leave the car. We also had the children sleeping soundly in the back, so no one could lose their temper and yell. God or no God, there are certain universal truths that must be accepted—you never wake a sleeping child was something we could always agree on.

I struggled with how to begin and awkwardly blurted out, “What if God wasn’t leading any of the religions? What if religion was all made up?”

My comment to him was so absurd he smiled and laughed, “What are you talking about?”

I realized I needed to start off slower. I began, “What I meant to say was, there is a lot of good to be found in religion. When you served your mission in Rome, you met a lot of wonderful Catholics. Do you think God was influencing the Catholic Church?”

Drew responded, “Of course I believe that. There is truth to be found in all religions, and God is helping all of them. He’s just influencing us more, because we have the true church.”

I exhaled and continued, “Hypothetically, what if that weren’t the case? Let’s pretend God is helping all the religions equally.”

He replied, “Yeah, but he’s helping ours a little more than others, right?”

His question was clearly rhetorical.

I continued, “Why would He do that? Why favor us over any other religion? Do you honestly think that if you were a native of India you would still be Mormon? No. You would likely be a Hindu—a wonderful Hindu man who was dedicated to his faith and family, but mostly likely a Hindu.”

He paused, “Maybe, but don’t you think someone like me would find the Gospel and convert?”

I replied, “I find that highly unlikely. You were born Mormon and that’s why you’re Mormon. If you were born Jewish, you would probably stay Jewish.”

He said, “I suppose you might be right, but everyone will get the chance to accept the Gospel when they die. I would accept it then.”

I responded, “But how do you know? Because you prayed about it and got a good feeling? I can’t live like that. People get good feelings about all sorts of things, and some of them are quite terrible. Prayers and feelings aren’t reliable.”

Drew became slightly defensive, “What are you saying?”

Things were getting intense. I looked back to make sure our children were still asleep and reminded us both to keep our voices down. I continued whispering, “I’m saying I don’t believe God is leading Mormonism more than any other religion. I don’t believe God would favor such a small portion of people.”

He conceded, “Ok. I can see that. You’re saying God is leading all the religions equally. I can live with that.”

I paused and apprehensively pressed forward, “Well, not exactly. Now that we have established God is leading all the religions equally, let’s pretend God is not leading any of the religions equally. Let’s say all churches and religions are equally wading on their own without divine help. What if there is no God?”

Drew furrowed his brow, “What?”

I breathed, “I’m saying I don’t believe anymore. I have lost all desire to put faith in Heavenly Father.”

If it is possible for a person to yell while whispering, that is exactly what Drew did, “What are you saying!? You want to just stop going to church? You don’t want to baptize the kids or send them on missions? You already stopped wearing your garments. You refuse to go to the temple, and now this? What does this mean!?”

I searched for something positive to say. My heart started pounding again. I was crushing him. His whole worldview was being deconstructed and worst of all I was the angst of his discomfort. Nothing in the world meant more to him than us being together forever as a happy family in the Celestial Kingdom. It really wasn’t an unreasonable request. I agreed to it when we were married. Even though it seemed nothing more than fiction to me, it was very real to him. But perceptions of reality and fantasy collide and there was no going back.

I recalled horror stories of spouses that left their marriage once they learned their partner had lost their faith—spouses taking the children away, threatening to refuse visitation—I was mortified by the thought. Drew was clearly the better parent of the two of us. I always tried my best, I certainly was a good parent, but I couldn’t compare to Drew. What if he took the kids and left? He would never do something like that. Even worse, what if he would be happier with another woman that wasn’t me? Would I love him enough to let him go and have a happy life with someone else? My eyes began to well up at the thought of not being together over something as stupid as God. My love for Drew was far stronger than my hate toward any god.

The words came pouring out of my mouth, “I know this is hard. I’m not saying we have to leave the Church. I’m not even saying I’m leaving the Church. If you asked me to, I would live it for you. I will be the Primary President (which I was). I will be the perfect wife of the Elders Quorum President (which he was). I will even go to the temple and send our children on missions. Mormons are good people. I just…I just needed you to know the truth. I only wanted to be honest with you.”

All my love, fear, pain, and passion overflowed, and I allowed a few tears to escape my eyes and roll down my hot cheeks.

We sat in silence. I felt like we were two strangers in car driving down a road with an unknown destination. Have I finally pushed him past the breaking point? Why do I always feel this compulsive need to be so goddamn honest!?

I scrambled for something to say, but he broke the silence first.

He softly whispered, “Don’t be ridiculous.”

I regained my composure, “What?”

He repeated himself, “Don’t be ridiculous. I would never ask you to live a lie for me. It wouldn’t be you.”

I awkwardly smiled, “I know you wouldn’t, but my offer is still sincere. I would do almost anything for you.”

He replied, “I know. That’s why it’s easy to love you.”

His calm presence was reassuring, but it was clear I deeply injured him. I wanted to make it better, but I didn’t want to lie. I hated being the source of his conflicting pain and joy. The only comforting thing I could say to him was, “I’m still the woman you loved yesterday. You just know me a little better today.”

He silently reached across the divide and gently held my hand. Words ran dry, but with the touch of our hands we were in agreement. We both knew this was not something that would be solved over night in a single conversation, but we were committed to figuring it out together. Any God that did or didn’t exist was just going to have to make its peace with the fact that we put our marriage before our perceptions of God and religion. Right now was more important.

The voice of the Relief Society instructor interrupted my memory. I was back in the fluorescent lit room sitting in an outdated upholstered chair with my legs crossed and arms folded reverently.

I raised my hand and respectfully said, “I wanted to add that I can imagine situations in which putting your marriage before God is the right thing to do. I was an atheist and I will be forever grateful that my husband loved me more than his God. It was also vital to our marriage that I loved him more than God, because I did not love God at all, in fact, I hated masculine projections of god. Life is complicated, and I trust the God I worship now is really ok with the fact that we loved each other more than our perceptions of God, religion, heaven and an afterlife. Our love transcended those differences, and ironically, it was quite godly.”

*Published at Rational Faiths on Wednesday, September 7, 2016