Last post, I offered some musings about the supposedly “impossible question” I posed to Kathleen Flake at the Methodist-Mormon conference back in February, regarding the definition of femininity and masculinity. At the time, neither the question nor the answer seemed to satisfy either of us, so Dr. Flake kindly offered to follow up with me later to continue the conversation. It was a thought-provoking conversation, and after giving it more thought, I’ve come back to the drawing board with more questions and ideas.
By way of quick summary, I had asked Kathleen Flake to define masculinity and femininity in a way that
a) did not reduce them to mere sexual characteristics or biological difference (which, on its own, seems void of real significance, and furthermore, seems difficult to untangle from temporal causes like evolutionary strategies, which don’t seem to be necessary in a pre or post mortal existence)
b) did not reduce them to character attributes (which seem to boil down to characteristics that should ultimately be universally shunned [coarseness, aggression, emotional neediness, etc.], or universally cultivated [compassion, gentleness, creativity, reason])
c) explains the necessary synthesis of a male and female counterpart for the state of exaltation (as prescribed by doctrines regarding the necessity of temple marriage sealings as we now understand them: monogamous, male-female spousal units)
Her response, in essence, was that it’s an impossible question. In the follow-up, she explained why—with some interesting tangents and side notes:
(with some of my parentheticals scattered throughout; needless to say, I am paraphrasing, and run the risk of having misunderstood or misquoted her; I did my best to get the gist of what she was saying):
According to Flake per our follow-up conversation, gender is a cultural product that is historically situated and negotiated over time. Gender refers to socially designated roles and characteristics that have traditionally originated in anatomical sexual differences. The Church, lacking a nuanced vocabulary, conflates gender and sex in its efforts to rationalize the roles they have assigned to men and women based solely on their sexual characteristics. Gender is essentially just a discourse of power. Sex, on the other hand, is more complicated—or at least, enigmatic; Mormons don’t believe in a Cartesian split, but rather, believe that the body and spirit united together constitute a fully glorified being, and only through that body can we be saved (I assume she meant through the physical ordinances required—even of our dead). What sex will mean in the eternities, however, is a mystery.
She also stressed that one hang up Mormons have in dealing with gender is the erroneous definition of priesthood as a possession—and one inherently linked to males. Priesthood is not a thing; it is access to the powers of heaven in the name of service, done in love and meekness. There are different callings associated with the priesthood, but all are patterned after the Son of God (the name of the fullest priesthood being originally “the Priesthood after the Order of the Son of God”) and therefore men and women share the same authority. The offices are simply an arrangement of callings adapted to the particular needs of each generation. But both women and men call upon the priesthood, that access to heaven’s power, to serve and bless. Women currently do this only privately in the temple, in their homes, and with other women via visiting teaching; men currently do this through administrative duties and public offices. But it is not about possessing power or authority; it is about being given callings to perform. This departure from the power discourse is critical to a proper understanding of priesthood, and therefore, of men and women’s relationship to priesthood. An additional idea she raised, though did not expound on, was how the characterization of God in terms of his generativity, not his power, could influence the gender debate for the better.
In conclusion, she believes answers will not come from the prophet—nor should one expected them to. Nor can answers come from the mutually reinforcing blend of science and religion, or in other words, academia and religion. Science and religion are essentially incompatible—academic tools will not produce religious answers, and religious paradigms will not explain scientific phenomenon. The only thing we can do is maximize both by benefitting from the questions they raise and patch together what works for us. Prophets act as witnesses, bearing testimony of their knowledge of Christ; academics, meanwhile, try to figure out the answers and explanations behind the fragmented understandings bequeathed by scripture, science, psychology, and the whole lot.
Well, what do I make of all this?
This is already lengthy, so I’ll comment briefly on her insights.
To her understanding of the priesthood, I give a hearty “AMEN!”—and add that these arrangements might be more about compensating for social and biological handicaps than differentiated according to worthiness. (To be specific: society has not generally granted a space for men to be nurturing or sacrificing, as it has for women, and the arrangement of priesthood callings, in which men have the heavier, more public share, may simply be compensating for what society denies them: the opportunity to serve and sacrifice. As social norms shift and men are given greater opportunities to develop nurturing and sacrificial attitudes,( as seems to be the trend judging from the cultural emphasis on hands-on fatherhood, as one example) the priesthood arrangement may very well change again, perhaps to a former order as shown in the Old and New Testaments (with female judges, prophetesses, apostles [see Dale Martin’s Yale course on the New Testament, or Romans 16:7]) or the early church (female healers, etc.), or to a new one altogether.
As for her other insights, I must disagree in many respects. To read my objections, see part 2.