Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The Sociology of Knowledge & Religious Ideology vis-à-vis Homosexuality

So, I've been reading about the work of Peter Berger on the sociology of knowledge, and it's got me thinking about Zizek's Sublime Object of Ideology as it relates to current LDS official and lay 'knowledge' about homosexuality, especially since Elder Packer gave a talk to seminary students recently wherein he said that homosexuality is against the standards of the Church and, "that will not change." This essay may lead some to think that I’m an apostate. Hardly. My testimony is as it ever was.

This post might sound critical of individuals, groups, the Church, and even gays, but this is merely my wondering about something deep that troubles me deeply (including the conclusion I reach at the end of this post), and I invite dialogue from all sides in the discussion, even people who don't like me or the ideas I'm considering.

Peter Berger calls the sociology of knowledge part of our construction of reality. We inhabit a society with roles that we perform and 'knowledge' about them that we obtain from various observations and sources. Over time these roles become institutionalized as others take on the same roles, and this gives them meaning, lending credence to the belief that reality is a social construction because it allows us to imbue actions and events with meaning and interpretations of the knowledge that comes from the understood meaning of our reality.

For example, a Christian man hears voices in his head and knows that God speaks to him, or in another iteration, this same Christian man hears voices in his head and knows that he is possessed by a demon, and in yet another iteration this same Christian man hears voices in his head and knows that he is psychotic and needs to see a physician. All three of those 'knowledges' derive their meaning from the social construction of reality that each of the men inhabits. Berger's opinion is that while the conditions might be the same or might be different (spiritual events being impossible to qualify scientifically), there are consequences to the 'knowledge' known in the reality of each individual. The first iteration can be benevolent or malevolent, the second one will probably be malevolent, and third one will seek help before allowing the condition to influence decisions in reality (society).

We can apply this to any type of knowledge, and not just ones of mental sanity. A gay person 'knows' that he was born that way, another one 'knows' that she is flawed because of her temptations which she cannot resist, and another gay person 'knows' that self-denial their entire life despite their temptations (about which I'm neither approving of nor disapproving of) is the only way to obtain salvation from their Creator. What are the consequences of each of these kinds of knowledge? They are legion and unknowable, but certainly some can be predicted without too much conjecture. The first instance might find the person openly gay, but tolerant of those who disapprove. Or, openly gay and antagonistic towards those who disapprove. Or, openly gay and violently opposed to those who disapprove. The purpose of this thread isn't to analyze all possible outcomes (again, unknowable), but to wonder about the ideology of 'knowing' something and the consequences of ideology.

Right now, in the Church, the official doctrine/policy/standard is that 'we know' that homosexual acts are abominations and unholy acts against chastity and grievous sins in the sight of God. The Church's ideology is such that we have been forewarned that allowing homosexuals to legally marry will disintegrate the traditional family and bring about the calamities foretold by prophets of old (and new). The very existence of our country going forward is said to be jeopardized by the allowance of matrimony between two individuals of the same gender. I don't have the inclination to dig around right now for quotes from sources, but I think that the above description is a reasonable description of the Church's 'official' ideology about homosexuality in the 21st Century. The lay ideology is far too broad and varied to try and contain inside of one single whole, but I would argue that a significant majority of members in the US who are active and hold a temple recommend and are over age 35 are pretty much in lockstep with the official ideology of the Church, because they:

  1. 'Know the Church is true'
  2. 'Know that Thomas S. Monson is a prophet.
  3. 'Know that the Q12 are prophets, seers, and revelators
  4. 'Know that the prophet will not lead the Church astray'
  5. and
  6. 'Know that they have their agency'


Gays who oppose the Church's ideology have their own. They 'know' that:

  1. they never chose to be attracted to the same sex
  2. religious freedom shouldn't allow the Church to impose its morals on them
  3. the Constitution should protect them from laws that prevent their right to marriage
  4. the Church is hypocritical given its own history concerning non-traditional marriages
  5. and
  6. the LDS leadership causes gay LDS members to loathe themselves so much that they kill themselves. This then becomes a case of them 'knowing' that people like Boyd K. Packer are 'abusers' in the psychological sense.

So, what then, are the consequences of this knowledge/ideology? Well, ideologies are difficult to navigate because, like Berger says, they form a reality to us that can be difficult to see through. Someone in an ideology can be shown evidence that disproves their 'knowledge' and they will actually use that information in an ideological way to strengthen their position in the reality of the knowledge they claim to have. We've all known a mumpsimus or two.

As it relates to this issue, I think it's important to try and view the issue of the Brethren's criticisms of homosexuality through an objective post-ideological view. If we merely try to view the qualities of homosexuals as they are, a 'reality' as it were, inside of LDS ideology, then we might find that some of our unconscious prejudices are magically confirmed by further rationalizations. If we view the issue through the ideology of gays, then again, we might find that some of the Church's actions and stances are downright pathologically paranoid constructions, as we also might equally perceive the stances against the Church of gays who play (again in an ideological view) the 'victim card.'

I think it's far healthier to remove ourselves from the ideologies of both sides (in as much as that's possible) and view the LDS ideological view of homosexuals and homosexual sex as an attempt to patch up the inconsistency of our own ideological system. What does that mean? We have a conundrum. If we have agency, if we are children of our Heavenly Father--created in his image, and if we are created with temptations that make us feel flawed for life, how then can a just God expect us to obey all of the commandments and yet find happiness in this life? How does our ideology address the children born with ambiguous genitalia, with both sets of genitalia, and those who have ovaries inside but a penis and no vagina? We're reminded of Packer's famous now-redacted conference question of "Why would a loving God make them that way?" The consequences of this hole in our ideology, this unanswerable question in the face of the prophetic declaration that "gender is eternal," demonstrate an inconsistency, and therefore, we're left with an ideology that doesn't ultimately provide a logical answer to the knowledge that it lacks--and the consequences that stem from that absence of knowledge.

So, despite my goal of remaining outside of ideology, I arrive at this conclusion, which sounds like a new ideology:

Until the LDS ideology can justify the existence and acceptance of these people as whole and natural children of our Heavenly Father, then the ideology for most members will continue to function thusly:

MEMBER:"I have several homosexual friends. They have adopted children and are loving parents, faithful companions, and great neighbors. I don't know why the Brethren are always saying that the calamities foretold by prophets will come about because of these people."


Certainly, there are lots of things that seem to contradict ideologies, but the most successful ones are those that adapt to new actions/realities. For example, I do not believe that the Church ideology of the 1970's would've had them show public support for gay rights against discrimination in Utah. This new action shows a change in ideology, even though the underlying bedrock remains mostly unaltered.

If the Church were to suddenly allow homosexuals to marry and be sealed I can speak about what the consequences of that future potential might be, but I cannot speculate unless my ideology claims to "know" that that's going to happen, which it doesn't.

Speaking outside of this framework though, I see a schism arising in the Church while the baby boomers are alive if this were to happen. With Elder Bednar being so young and likely prophet for a long time, I don't see this ever happening in my lifetime. The consequences of that knowledge are that I probably will not agitate as much as I would if I felt that my actions in this reality would have any effect. Presently, I feel stifled as a member, with no voice in church governance. With each year I find my ideology becoming a type of secularization from within. I'm more concerned with being like Jesus than I am with the opinions of old men in suits about my life choices. But, there's always that Book of Mormon testimony and my belief that something happened to Joseph Smith when he was young that makes me not mind wading (usually) through all the competing paranoid pathological ideologies (on all sides of this issue) that I encounter along the way.

Until the Church's ideology can account for biological mutations that fall outside of the current conceptions of gender (read: normal male and normal female) then it (the Church's ideology) will remain pathologically (in the sense of the suffering/consequences this ideology causes in gays' and their families' lives) opposed to actions that it deems contrary to the 'knowledge' that it currently has about gender, same-sex attraction, and homosexual sex acts. It's not homosexuality being a choice that causes the ideology to balk at change. That's easy enough to justify in the current one. The real rub lies in the ones that you cannot explain away easily (this link is safe for work). The biologically male children with vaginas and clitorises and the biologically female children with penises and the 250,000 kids born with ambiguous genitalia each year. How does the ideology convince them that they're made in the image of God when their gender is female, they're attracted to men, but their penis is going to be there next to their husband's when they go to have sex on their sealing day?

The inability of LDS ideology to grapple with anything that doesn't fit is the reason why the ideology persists as is--it cannot resolve this problem, so it ignores it and focuses on what it can address via the 'knowledge' LDS have about (im)morality.

I don't think I'm being too critical. I feel like most Christian churches, even gay-tolerant ones, wrestle with this issue, but the LDS Church is my church and the one I know best. Then Anglican Church in America and the Episcopalians are headed for a schism because the ideology of some is diverging from previous 'knowledge' about ordaining practicing gay men to the priesthood. I am absolutely asserting that the LDS Church, writ large, could better serve its members by not ignoring sexuality, especially intersex individuals. The cost, in human terms, is too great for me to abide.

The stories of the struggles that intersex people face in religion are tragic, especially when we're talking about Mormons. Imagine having your sexual agency as it relates to the Gospel stripped from you at birth and not being able to ever act upon your urges, ever, without it being considered sinful. It's enough to make you cry out of compassion for these traumatized people. Sex is one of the fundamental wonders of life. To deny it, forever, to someone, is horribly cruel.

I can think of few cases outside of gender issues wherein any possible solution to the underlying 'problem' (even imagined future ones) still leaves you unable, in all cases, of partaking fully of the plan of salvation, the new & everlasting covenant, and exaltation.

Poor people can win the lottery or work their way out of poverty without being denied the fullness of the Gospel. Those without a working body can hold out hope of a healing, a surgery, or some technology to improve their life, but they can always partake of the Gospel (as much of it as they can comprehend if they are mentally retarded). But, those who are intersexed and those who are homosexual have no solution to their problem, especially the intersexed. Imagine the psychological toll that life would take on you if you were really really attracted to women, but the Church said that heterosexual relations were an abomination. Could you really make yourself lust after a man and find fulfillment in homosexual sex? I could not.

Now, imagine that a physician cut you and made you a woman at birth, but you were biologically a heterosexual male. How would it feel to be a woman physically but a man biologically and in your view of yourself, and to lust after women, all while knowing that the Church expected you to be with a man? The whole "gender is eternal" ideology founders in the face of these situations, which is why I think that it pathologically denies homosexuals equality: it cannot square intersex people with itself, so it resists.

LDS ideology’s solution to the intersex problem relies on vindication in the afterlife, but does nothing to comfort those people in this life. LDS ideology works well for heterosexual people. It calls sinful all those who fall outside the norm. It cannot account for them, so it makes them an Other without any solution other than a promise of a better time in the eternities. Theologically, to an intersex person, that could (and probably does) feel almost like God does not love you as much as others, because the ordinances are denied to you for something that you 'know' is not a choice.

The consequences of that 'knowledge' in the homosexual Church member are pathological. They 'know' that they are sinful. They 'know' that others will reject them. They 'know' that their sexuality is forbidden. The pathology of these knowledges causes a lifetime of self-loathing and spiritual despair, leading, I would imagine, the vast majority to leave the Church. Current Church ideology presents the situation as welcoming them back, providing they remain chaste, repent, and only engage in heterosexual relations with their spouse.

We still don't know what causes someone to be homosexual. If it's genetic or environmental in the womb, then calling it a sin robs us of our agency.

The ideology currently denies that this is the case. We've seen the ideology change in the past about other things that were once considered immoral. This one, however, does not appear as simple to resolve given the other theological ramifications for which I can offer no solution.