And…the objections :
Firstly, her claim that gender is nothing but a construct based on a discourse of power, and sex is but a mysterious part of our eternal identity, leaves nothing clearly meaningful in the concepts of maleness and femaleness. This approach seems to elide differences, as others from the Mexican nun Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, to Mary Wollstonecraft, have attempted to do. To me, it is clear that Mormon doctrine is fully committed to the concept of differentiation, and the idea that being male or female is an eternal part of our identity (or in other words, that sex and gender are inextricably linked, if not the same thing). Our doctrine of Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father, the temple narrative that is so grounded in the crowning union of male and female and the creation-wide participation in procreation and regeneration*, the creation narrative steeped in organizing matter and creating order by separation, differentiation, opposition, and the underlying narrative of the plan of salvation that begins and ends with a family of male and female parents?not to mention the explicit Proclamation on the Family?confirm this binary. But if, as Flake and others say, gender is constructed, and sexual differentiation is evolutionary, what is the binary on which creation, exaltation, and eternal marriage are constructed, and which persists through the eternities as an element in our identity? With such a paradigm, are we left with anything at all?
Well, not much. And that I find to be intuitively dissatisfying and theologically incompatible. One problem I see is that the very conflation Kathleen Flake and others criticize might be a deliberate product of distinctive Mormon theology of the body that weds it inextricably to our souls; we believe that the resurrection will resolve dissonances that arises in this life between our body and our soul *, whatever form that reconciliation takes. While gender, or the way we act based on our sex characteristics, might very well be negotiated in this life through history and cultural context, that does not necessarily mean that our identity in the eternities be void of any differentiation, or femaleness and maleness?whether you call that sex or gender. It will simply be that there is no dissonance between our sex and our identity. Gender and sex may very well be collapsed, not because of coercion or prescription, but because the union of the spiritual and physical will be complete and seamless. (On a side note, gender and sex only became differentiated about fifty years ago, and there is already a collapse reoccurring in the social sciences again. See this interesting study that argues that gender indeed has biological foundations, and that only the social science theories of gender are incapable of seeing this universal [humans and non-humans alike] binary effect. [and the author?s intriguing claims that his goal ?is not to create happiness, but to fulfill our most worthy ideals for humanity??now that?s something for a future post..]) The Proclamation says nothing about our identities and roles in the eternities, and I think there is no reason to believe that they will be negotiated through anything but our desires for joy and growth. So in a sense, I agree that merely prescriptive approaches to gender roles and characteristics might be unnecessary, if our focus is to become Christ-like. Gender is simply a lens through which our identity, and those traits, can refract the light we acquire. The doctrine we now have claims it as a given; no prescription, then, should be necessary (and can, in fact, be harmful)?differences will simply emerge. The study I just cited articulates this well: ?gender-neutral opportunity structures will produce gendered responses and therefore gendered societies,? on the whole. (More succinctly, there is a possibility that ?gender norms are consequences, not causes, of sex differences.?)**
Am I dismissing the Proclamation?s supposedly prescriptive tone, that does, as some people argue, impose a Victorian template on our eternal identities? I simply don?t think it is necessary prescriptive; I think a descriptive reading is possible. Maleness and Femaleness are eternal parts of our identity. No need to worry about what that means or how we can be a male or a female?we simply are. The Proclamation states that this sexual binary is eternal and characteristic of our species, Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother included. The part that seems to trouble most people?prescribing roles for men as providers, and women as at-home nurturers, could simply be descriptive rather than prescriptive in two ways.
Several eighteenth century Spanish ilustrados that I have studied interpreted the Genesis story in this way?descriptively, not prescriptively. Josefa Amar y Borbon believed that God set a particular calling on Adam and Eve for their transgression, but provided blessings so that they could fulfill the calling given them. Adam, called to labor and toil, was blessed with physical strength. Eve, ordained to childbirth, was blessed with emotional perceptiveness. The spiritual equality (but not sameness; the otherness was critical to Adam and Eve?s happiness and growth, for ?it is not good for man to be alone? )is primary; the roles are secondary; select different capacities are tertiary. So perhaps the line about ?divine design? is not meant to make eternal those roles that were a result of a mortal, fallen state in the first place; perhaps it simply means that a divine design equipped men and women with capacities that roughly correspond to their callings?not callings that correspond to their capacities.
On the other hand, you could look at it another way, and it still wouldn?t have that marginalizing or stifling effect of prescriptive roles. As simply a descriptive fact (an d product of evolutionary and/or cultural influences), many men are more inclined towards feeling like a provider (most likely as a result of mortal chemical and hormonal make-up, either by divine design or evolution?does it matter?), and many women are more inclined towards fulfilling the role of a nurturer (likewise). If the primary purpose of the family is to support, love, and provide for each other, then let it be done optimally and efficiently, according to tendencies and capacities already in place. Like any bell curve, there are many outliers. General descriptive statements are not offensive if they exclude outliers. And the Proclamation seems to be a general descriptive statement of gender. Though the authoritative weight might seem prescriptive by default, I don?t think this is necessarily the case. The cultural propensity towards failing to discern between descriptive and prescriptive statements by leaders is not a necessary flaw of the statement itself. Regardless, the increasing emphasis on supporting each other as equal partners, and sharing responsibilities of parenting, homemaking, and even providing, (see my last post) suggests that the emphasis is less on prescribing gender roles than ensuring familial happiness.
Overall, I see that the very tendency to elide differences rather than celebrate them (the difference, I think, between Wollstonecraft and E.C. Stanton /Margaret Fuller) as wrongheaded. Instead of seeing only power struggles in gender roles, and only biological reductionism in sex, why not see instead a type of fruitful tension and complementary union that are echoes of what we will experience in the celestial realm? Then the real question becomes– Not what does it mean to be a man or a woman, but what is it about this particular relationality that is capable of launching us to exaltation?
In essence, (and I?ll visit this more in future posts exploring homosexuality?s place in Mormon doctrine) gender is otherness, which Lehi taught was so crucial to preventing all things from being a compound in one. The pairing of two Others?a male and female?is, I believe, critical to creation, and thus, critical to godhood. Otherness creates the ?spark across the gap,? to use an analogy from the book Speaking into the Air. This interesting history of communication concludes that communication is the ultimate expression of love, but can only exist across a chasm. Between two Others. Not only that, but it is unbridgeable. Because we are infinite beings [here I extrapolate from the author?s conclusion], we will never be able to fully know, understand, or be, that Other. And in that eternal tension, growth, change, and progress will be eternally born. Exaltation, or perfect joy in our creative capacity (which is what I distill exaltation, or godliness, to) requires the dynamic fusion of two different beings, much like the Hegelian model where synthesis can only be produced through the reaction of a thesis with an antithesis. The scriptural narrative we claim starts and ends with the primary differentiation of male and female; communication, love, and ultimately exaltation, seem preconditioned on the very fact of two beings? incommensurability. This, to me, is an eternal tension that will fuel celestial forms of progress, love, and creation. Otherness preserves our perfection, as Aquinas suggested in his interpretation of the Trinity. And is there a reason why a male and female is necessary for this union? I think there is. Do I fully know or understand it? Not yet.
But how are we to get answers for these questions? Must we compartmentalize academia and religion, as Kathleen Flake argues? Such compartmentalization is not an option for me. While she believes we must simply cope with the dissonance that such parallel epistemologies create, I find the idea that ?all truth is circumscribed into one great whole? to be one of the most stabilizing and elegant doctrines of Mormonism. On a personal level, such dissonance would erode the integrity of both my faith and my academic pursuits. I believe that revelation is capable of explaining some of the great mysteries that science exposes, and that science will be ultimately harmonious with whatever truths we will arrive at through a continual?and perhaps very, very lengthy ? process of line upon line, precept upon precept. I believe this scriptural idea establishes doctrinal and spiritual evolution across time. With some peaks and valleys along the way, certainly, for we are all human instruments, as even Elder Christofferson pointedly mentioned; but I believe that we will progressively circumscribe truth into one great whole as we seek with optimism and discernment, until we know ?all the peaceable mysteries of the kingdom?that which bringeth joy, that which bringeth life eternal.?