The Mormon Philosophy of Sexuality

From an Ensign article by Brother Brent Barlow (from 1986!):

Several years ago when I was a young missionary and had just received a new companion, we met a Protestant minister who invited us in out of the cold. After exchanging points of view on various topics, he asked us, “And what is the Mormon attitude towards sexuality?”

I choked on my cup of hot chocolate, but my new companion seemed unmoved. “Well,” said the minister after a moment of silence, “could you please tell me the Mormon philosophy toward sexuality?” I was tongue-tied and believed my new companion knew next to nothing on the matter. However, when my companion realized that I didn’t have an answer, he finally said, “Sir, we believe in it.”

After reading the above article, and lamenting on how I felt like the Church doesn’t seem to push it’s Sex-positive theology to the front very well, I decided to do an experiment and see how easy it is to find such positive views on the Church’s website,  So, I did what any curious Young Man/Young Woman would do… hop on the official LDS website and search for “sex.”  (more…)

Changing Doctrine

Doctrine is a tricky word to define in an LDS context.  There are many ways it can be defined. Some define it as anything said by a General Authority; or said in conference or published in the Ensign, or in Mormon Doctrine, or published by an LDS owned company, or available at Deseret Book, or….  etc.  More recently, it’s been described as things which are consistently taught by the presiding Elders of the Church.  However, the best definition I’ve come across is that the Church’s Doctrine are those teachings which are binding upon the church… that is, the 4 standard works of the church.  Anything above and beyond that is to be judged based on those standard works. They have been presented to the body of the church and accepted by common consent.

The trouble really starts when people start talking about doctrine being unchanging.  If you accept most of the definitions listed above, you run into trouble when you find that Church leaders once were consistently proclaiming that Adam was God our Father, or that black skin was a curse for being less valiant in the pre-existence; two “doctrines” that have now been labeled as false by the living prophets.  However, you really still have issues of calling doctrine “unchanging” if you just limit yourself to the standard works… I mean, doctrine was changing rapidly at the beginning of the restoration as Joseph was adding to the cannon.  If D&C 132 wasn’t a change, I don’t know what could possibly qualify.

So, how do we separate in our minds the difference between truth, doctrine, practice, teachings of the Apostles and prophets?  I put together the little diagram below trying to better picture all this in my own head.


Above, we see the first broad distinction, between those things which are true vs false. From there, I think it’s simplest to start in the center, and work your way out.   At the heart of it all is Christ’s Doctrine.  Note this is a subset of the larger box of Church Doctrine.  This is because Christ Himself defined His Doctrine:

“This is my doctrine, and it is the doctrine which the Father hath given unto me… and I bear record that the Father commandeth all men, everywhere, to repent and believe in me.

“And whoso believeth in me, and is baptized, the same shall be saved; and they are they who shall inherit the kingdom of God. And whoso believeth not in me, and is not baptized, shall be damned… Verily, verily, I say unto you, that this is my doctrine (3 Nephi 11).

Moving out from this center of the gospel, Christ’s Doctrine, we move into other important parts of the gospel, but which are “appendages” of the gospel, rather than it’s core.  These “appendages” are also important, and true, and are contained within the 4 standard works; such items as the sacrament, meeting together oft, serving others, etc would fall into this category. Notably, however, these are not simply concentric rings, and there are some things which are found within the standard works, which most members would agree are not true principles: for example, that adulterers should be executed, or that appropriate punishment for raping a girl is to pay her father some money and marry her. In another box, we find items in scripture which are not true (in my opinion), yet many are actually taught by General Authorities (current or recent past), including the idea that polygamy is not only OK, but will be required of all who enter the Celestial Kingdom, or that God views white skin as the best.

Interestingly, there are also items which are found in the scriptures, that I’d argue are actually true, yet they aren’t included in the box of things taught by the General Authorities.  A couple of examples are listed, including  how to pay an appropriate tithing (10% of surplus), or that the Word of Wisdom actually gives the OK to beer (aka mild barley drinks).

Moving further out, we find the teachings of the General authorities.  This will include lots of teachings on the Doctrine of Christ, many good teachings about the Scriptures, and many other ventures into other opinions and interpretations, both true and false.

Finally, in the outer edges, you could list endless statements which are not particularly related to the gospel, such as the mass of a proton, the mode of transmission of Zika virus. I listed Evolution largely in this category, with a small corner poking into the GA box, as you can find teachings accepting of evolution, though you’ll find many times more statements adamantly against it, which could go in a different box.


Language is tricky, and communication is hard.  It is harder when we use the same word to mean different things at different times, but pretend there is only one way to use it. “Doctrine”, is typically used by members of the church to mean either the official position of the Church leaders on something, or to mean whatever is actually true.  Those two are not synonymous.  And defining doctrine as unchanging makes one of them impossible. I can see only two ways of seeing doctrine as unchanging.

  1. Doctrine = Truth… but then the word doctrine loses its utility… if you’re telling me the church position can change on something, but not on those things which are true, you’re not giving me any information I can use.  How do I know which of the “teachings” are actually doctrine vs not.
  2. Doctrine = Christ’s Doctrine: Here, we do finally have something which doesn’t change.  Faith, repentance and baptism.  It’s that simple, and in its simplicity it doesn’t change.

Instead, I think the more useful definition is to see doctrine as those teachings accepted by the body of the Church as binding… mostly true, but surely containing some misconceptions and misunderstandings, which will be corrected line upon line.

Seers seeing

Mosiah 8:15-16

15 And the king said that a seer is greater than a prophet.

16 And Ammon said that a seer is a revelator and a prophet also; and a gift which is greater can no man have, except he should possess the power of God, which no man can; yet a man may have great power given him from God.

joseph_smith_jr-_portrait_owned_by_joseph_smith_iiiA few weeks ago in Sunday school, we the teacher led the class in a rather routine discussion about what a Seer is (relative to a Prophet or Revelator). It was interesting to me that she focussed on how a Seer has (not just can) seen everything from the beginning to the end of time) However, the class took a turn into the teacher asking for specific examples from the modern Seers leading the Church.  Below is the list of specific items the class came up with:

  1. President Hinkley predicting the dot-com bubble popping
  2. Hinkley saying Y2K wouldn’t be the end of the world.
  3. The Proclamation on the Family
  4. The Gay’s are coming! (see #3)
  5. The feminists are coming! (see #3)

Aside from raising my hackles with all the anti-gay, anti-feminist discussion and ignorant comments, what was most striking to me was watching a room full of saints grabbing at anything they could to try and find evidence of seership.

Lets take a look at these one by one.

1 – In July-Aug of 1998, the stock market took a huge tumble, after a long period of rapid growth (dot-com bubble).  The market soon came back up and continued climbing, but the swing prompted President Hinkley to address part of his October remarks to his desire for all of us to get out of debt, due to the unstable nature of the economy.  He discussed the problems with debt, and the freedom and relief that comes by being free of it.


Prophets gone astray

7. Jonah was a prophet, tried to run away,
But he later learned to listen and obey.
When we really try, the Lord won’t let us fail:
That’s what Jonah learned deep down inside the whale.

Certainly my least favorite song in the Children’s Song Book (to the point that I refused to play it at all during my last stint in primary), but the story of Jonah has been going through my mind a lot for the last week or so.

I recently listened to a great podcast episode discussing the Assyrians and Nineveh which put it fresh in my memory.  When you look at the book of Jonah, the first chapter contains almost everything we all remember about Jonah: He was called to preach to Nineveh, runs away, gets thrown overboard, then eaten by a whale, where he stays for 3 days/nights.

However, if you continue on, Chapter 2 is his prayer of thanksgiving for having survived. Things start getting interesting in Ch. 3 (for our purposes at least).  After he’s on dry land, the Lord commands him to go cry repentance to Nineveh (and boy did they need it – see the Hardcore History episode above if you want details), and threaten them with destruction.  When the people hear his dire prophecy, they actually repent, and God stays His hand and doesn’t destroy the city.

Here’s where it gets interesting: Instead of expressing joy like your typical missionary, Jonah then gets MAD! He’s upset that God didn’t punish those darn evil people like He said He would.  The rest of Chapters 3 and 4 go on to show God teaching Jonah how he loves EVERYONE. (more…)

Protecting the Children (from Cognitive Dissonance)

My response to the recent policy change as well as the subsequent “clarification” has been one of surprise, sadness, and disappointment.

For someone already in the midst of a faith crisis, one of the hardest parts in all of this has been the Church’s response to all this.

  • The fact that it quietly inserted such a drastic policy change into the handbook without any discussion…
  • The fact that they claim their letter was just a clarification and contained nothing new (“there has been no doctrinal change with regard to LGBT issues”). Rather, we’d all just misunderstood the clear wording of the original, or taken it without context (i.e. “has ever lived”).
  • The fact that the earlier video response from Elder Christofferson did nothing to “clarify” the policy, but rather just defended it.  If it was only intended to apply to a tiny subset of those affected by the original wording, why didn’t he “clarify” then?
  • Finally, the fact that this has been represented as simply an effort to protect the children in these households. This is the most outrageous of all.  (see #1 below)

Personally, I feel like the entire policy contains nothing but harmful and hurtful language, and sadly I feel like that was intentional.  In the last week, I have come to an understanding that does make sense as to why the church would move to change the definition of apostasy to include entering a SSM.  The parallel to polygamy initially felt to forced, but now I can see that there is one strong link: Both of these to forms of marriage represent a rather explicit repudiation of the authority of the Brethren over issues of marriage.  That may be due to seeing them as fallen prophets or as stodgy, out-of-touch old men, but the result is the same.  Both acts do represent a deliberate defiance against the leaders in a way that most other sins (fornication, murder, abuse) don’t.  These other sins of passion are seen as “serious transgressions” and may warrant discipline, but these two forms of marriage are somewhat unique. (I’d be curious if anyone ever made the same arguments about inter-racial marriage in the past, when such marriages also flew in the face of counsel from the brethren – see #3,4) (more…)

Untangling Faith and Knowledge

faithI have been working hard lately to understand what to make of doubt.  To see where it fits into proper religious life. I’m not sure what’s going on, as there seems to be a lot of similar effort going around, including a fabulous post over at RationalFaiths, as well as a not-so-stellar article from the Ensign this month. The latter was sent to me by relative trying to help me with my “issues”.  The former I read because I follow the blog closely.  To simplify things, go and read both first, to get us all on the same page.

There… that’s better.  Overall, i really liked Matthew’s take on faith vs doubt, especially his explanation of how we sometimes talk past each other at church by using different definitions.  I also think it’s important for us less orthodox members to remember that most scriptural uses of the terms are more likely to be used in the more “truth-centered” rather than “objective” sense.

However, I find the objective view much more useful, as I find we are rarely, if ever, actually in a position where the absolute truths can rightly actually be assumed. So here, I’ll try to put down exactly how these terms seem to fit together, in my mind. I’ll try and update the post as my understanding evolves over time.

Given a proposition [A], (e.g. Rome is in Europe), a person can take an infinite number of views on the likely veracity of the statement.  However, for simplicity, I think those positions can be lumped into five categories.

  1. I think there is a 95-100% chance that [A] is true. — This is equivalent to certainty or “knowledge” in the positive sense.
    1. I KNOW that Rome is in Europe.
  2. I think there is a 60-95% chance that [A] is true. — This is equivalent to “belief”, or mental assent.
    1. I BELIEVE that Rome is in Europe.
  3. I think there is a 40-60% chance that [A] is true. — This is complete uncertainty or ambivalence.
    1. I have NO IDEA whether or not Rome is in Europe.
  4. I think there is a 5-40% chance that [A] is true. — This is “doubt“.
    1. I doubt (or think it is unlikely) that Rome is in Europe..
  5. I think there is a 0-5% chance that [A] is true. — This is once again certainty or “knowledge” though now in the negative.
    1. I KNOW that Rome is NOT in Europe.


The Opportunity Costs of Temple Work

I want to start off talking a bit about opportunity costs, which can be defined simply as whatever it is we give up when we decide to use resources on one thing rather than on another: i.e. if we decide to invest in real estate, we can’t simultaneously invest that money in the stock market. If we spend our time investing in our health by exercising, we can’t spend that same time volunteering at a soup kitchen.

Now I’d like to quote John Dehlin, while explaining his views on ordinances:

And while I acknowledge the beauty and goodness that is experienced by LDS temple workers and participants, I grieve at what I perceive to be the significant expenditure of time, money, and resources involved in performing proxy ordinance work for dead people, while such considerable pain, suffering, disease, and illiteracy persists in the world today.  

What John is describing here, is that he’s uncomfortable with the opportunity costs associated with our focus, energy, time, and money being devoted to proxy work for the dead.

It reminds me a lot of a discussion of global aid priorities by Bjorn Lomberg  in his amazing TED talk. In it, he points out that with our best understanding of the problems of climate change and world hunger/malnutrition/infectious diseases, we would be much better off throwing money on the latter problems. Addressing climate change would produce benefits, but they’d be small, and won’t happen for 100 years, and will benefit a world that is much, much richer than we are today. He says that one day, some Bangladeshi man (who is as rich then as an average American is now) is going to look back and say, “Wow.  Isn’t it strange that they would have cared so much about helping me just a little, when they could have helped my grandfather SO MUCH, when he needed it so much more than I do now.

Now, not to divert into politics, lets return to proxy work. Consider the whole population ever to live on the earth, and the relatively minuscule percent of the population that had access to temple ordinances, which the Church teaches are essential for exaltation.  Now, imagine the small number of active Mormons who are able to perform those ordinances… it becomes quickly apparent that we will in no way be able to get it all done before the second coming.  (I mean, we’re falling farther behind every day).

So essentially, any proxy work we get done is really a small drop in a gigantic bucket.  The vast majority of the work will of necesity get pushed back to the millennium.

Now, consider the cost, in money, time, energy, etc., that goes into building and maintaining temples, performing recommend interviews, and actually performing all those ordinances (2-3hrs/person).  Then think of all the good that the same amount of time, energy, and money could do if applied toward a more urgent, achievable goal.. (Think Liahona Children’s Foundation)

I can see the same scenario playing out.  Some dead Brazilian guy, who died in 1735, getting his temple work done by his great-great-grandson.  Meanwhile, he’s watched their children suffering from malnutrition and dying from vaccine preventable illnesses.  I think he might look back and say, “Wow.  Isn’t it strange that the Church would care so much about helping me just a little (by performing my ordinances now rather than waiting till the millennium), when they could have helped my great-great-great-grand-daughter so much more.”

Opportunity costs are what we give up when we choose to do one thing, when we could have done something else. There are positive benefits in the lives of current members when they perform proxy work.  There are benefits (though small as I see it) to those who are deceased receiving their ordinances a little bit sooner.  I’m just not sure how temple work is ever going to come out positive in the balance of things, until poverty, hunger, and lots of other suffering is eliminated from the world.

What do you think? Is it worth the costs, both direct & in lost opportunities?


Homosexuals and the Church

A relatively small step taken this week by the Church, though I will say I’m happy they’ve done it.  This week, the church came out in support of anti-discrimination legislation that would include protections for the LGBT community, at least as far as housing and employment (at non-church institutions). Like I said – not a giant leap, but at least a small step.

However, what I found most refreshing, was the use of terms such as LGBT, Gay, Lesbian, and homosexuals. I’m so tired of the church’s use of “Same-Gender-attraction” or talk of “So-called homosexuals” – and I think this is the first time I’ve seen those terms used in any semi-official way aside from the MormonsAndGays website put out (quietly) by the church.  The use of these other terms has been quite belittling, de-legitimizing, and I’m excited to see them disappear from our lexicon.

Anyway, line upon line…

Jesus the Prophet, Joseph and the Book of Abraham

I was just browsing the list of reasons people gave for leaving the Church in John Dehlin’s survey, and came across the concern people had about the Book of Abraham. His translation shows no resemblance to the translations of the papyri done by Egyptologists.  Now, one of the most common ways of reconciling this is through the catalyst theory. This theory now enjoys some bit of official sanction given it is now included in the Church’s Gospel Topics essay on the Book of Abraham.

Joseph’s study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings in the life of Abraham, much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible. This view assumes a broader definition of the words translator and translation.33 According to this view, Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri.