Revisiting the Impossible Question – Part II

By April 6, 2012

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.?

Article filed under Cultural History Gender Intellectual History Reflective Posts Theology


  1. Thanks for the posts, Rachael. I have to admit that in the past I have taken the more conservative position similar to what Flake appears to be taking for a couple of reasons. Primarily, because there is no information about eternal sex, we are left with analogical reasoning based on our current situation. And what is to say that the projections you outline in this post are any more correct than ideas of the eternal sexual reproduction of spirit children? As a believer, I also tend to take a more JS-era approach to existence. I’d be interested in your thoughts regarding your conceptions of eternal sex as it relates to uncreated spirits.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 7, 2012 @ 9:20 am

  2. Rachael, In the conclusion to your post, you write, “On a personal level, such dissonance would erode the integrity of both my faith and my academic pursuits.” I don’t want to derail the discussion of your comments on gender, sex, and masculinity/feminity, but I find your admission intriguing. In fact, I wonder if it’s not a confession shared, in one way or another, by many other posters here: The extent to which one’s own faith beliefs affect, or may affect, one’s academic interests, pursuits, and conclusions. I’d be interested in your and others’ comments on how your/their faith beliefs may influence both “positively” and also possibly “negatively” your/their scholarly work. In other words, how does your/their faith aid and/or constrain or limit your scholarship? If this question risks derailing the original post, please don’t hesitate to ignore it. Thank you.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — April 7, 2012 @ 11:51 am

  3. Gary,
    Thanks for your question. I never object to tangents 🙂 though perhaps it can warrant a future post for fuller discussion. In short, I frankly embrace the fact that my faith beliefs affect my academic interests and pursuits. I am interested in gender, religion, and rationality because I am an intellectual religious woman. I think there is growing acceptance for fronting these biases, and even acknowledging the benefits of them (empathetic viewpoints, intimacy with subject matter, creates more diversity of subject matter, etc.). Whether my beliefs will affect my conclusions is a different matter. I think what you might be asking is if my personal beliefs would potentially blind me to disagreeable conclusions (that are not compatible with my faith) or make me stretch conclusions to substantiate my beliefs. I don’t think that will happen for me– primarily because I believe a faith worth having will ultimately stand the test of any scrutiny and any conclusion, (and Mormonism’s open canon (technically?) and the ever-changing nature of academia give me quite a lot of incompatibility- breathing space). Secondly, because Mormonism, to me, as rich, expansive, and true as I believe it to be, is packaged by human hands; from scriptures, prophets, and to my own ears, Mormon beliefs have no seamless journey. So rushing to bend my academic conclusions to mirror or substantiate my religious beliefs could be a bad idea simply because my own understanding of my beliefs will not be perfect. There’s much more to be said about this, but that’s a start.

    Comment by Rachael — April 7, 2012 @ 1:50 pm

  4. J. Stapley, thanks for the provocative question.
    I am not very familiar with JS-era beliefs about spiritual reproduction. I know the Pratts had a very literal bent, and even calculated gestational periods and heavenly mothers to produce celestial populations…but besides their ideas (which I see as zealous opinions and not doctrine) I have not come across much material on eternal sexual reproduction of children. I don’t transpose mortal sex to celestial sex for a couple reasons:
    Mormonism has two interesting ideas about the afterlife that are in tension: we hold that the same sociality that exists here will also exist there. We also think that the nature of celestial life transcends any possible stretch of the imagination [1 Cor 2:9 “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard…and DC 76:89 And thus we saw, in the heavenly vision, the glory of the telestial, which surpasses all understanding]. I think there is a tendency to transpose our mortal experiences and relationships directly to the afterlife without really keeping in mind the notion that we really can’t imagine what it will be like. I think some people try to resolve that by simply amplifying, rather than transforming, mortal experiences (I have heard someone claim Mormonism for the belief in eternal sex, for example…) and I simply don’t find that compelling. It seems unimaginative, for one thing 🙂
    Secondly, I don’t think we have firm doctrine on how heavenly parents (God) beget spirit children. We know we (our “intelligence”–whatever that means) are eternal beings; we are not created. I think we are “born” of heavenly parents in the way the BM talks of us being “born of Christ”– mutually voluntary adoption. (Sam Brown has discussed this, I think, and so does Terryl Givens in his forthcoming volumes on Mormon theology)

    Comment by Rachael — April 7, 2012 @ 2:06 pm

  5. That adoption material sounds interesting.

    I think I was perhaps obtuse in my earlier comment. Though I do appreciate your intelligent response. I’m not sure that “doctrine” is a useful concept for what you are trying to do here (perhaps because I’m not sure what it means in this context). More specifically I’m interested in what you are using to evaluate the fitness of a particular idea. That is, what are your epistemological constraints?

    It appears to me that you are working in the realm of analogy (and please forgive me if I have misunderstood what you are doing). But once we enter the realm of analogy outside of our typical frameworks of knowing, it is hard for me to see anything with which to privilege one analogy over another.

    So, we both agree that the idea that resurrected women will be eternally and constantly gestating isn’t particularly attractive. But how do we differentiate that from some of the ideas which you outline in this post? How are we knowing any differently than the process used to get there?

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 7, 2012 @ 3:30 pm

  6. “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?”

    I think this is a useful idea.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — April 8, 2012 @ 8:46 pm

  7. JStapley, Thanks for clarifying. If I understand you, you’re asking what privileges one analogy above another, or what criteria I use to claim one explanation is more appropriate than another. I evaluate for scriptural consistency, doctrinal consistency, and harmony with my intuitive sense of goodness or wrongness (which I think is entirely appropriate, based on Moroni 7 and D&C 88:13). Of course all this epistemological multiplicity(as Matt Bowman discussed in his Dialogue article on Dissent) makes for a messy evaluation process, and this post wasn’t meant to “prove” one idea or the other as much as show one option I find to be most compelling.

    Comment by Rachael — April 9, 2012 @ 9:03 am

  8. Thanks Rachael. That actually helps me appreciate much better what you are doing here.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 9, 2012 @ 12:43 pm

  9. Rock on, girl. John Milton’s my man on the question of gender and unity, and I have wholeheartedly adopted my reading of him into my personal theology (especially into my interpretation of the gendered theology of the temple). Milton’s construction of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost is primarily epistemological, as you have ultimately suggested gender differentiation to be. Milton shows that each has a different orientation to and understanding of the world before the fall that precludes them from engaging with one another in any form of meaningful union. The fall teaches them that they are incomplete without one another and that they must achieve unity with God, which they do through procreation. Therein lies the generative aspect of Godly personhood you mention and that acts as a template (in the Mormon scheme of things) for how humans are to be perfectly yoked in Godhood. I think you’re spot on (but perhaps I only say that because I already agree with you). 🙂

    Comment by Liz — April 11, 2012 @ 12:47 pm

  10. Rachael –

    I didn’t respond to your post right away, because I struggled with what to say. Although I can understand why as a Mormon you might want to argue that there are biological differences between the sexes beyond the obvious ones in secondary sex characteristics, those ideas become notoriously hard to pin down. There is a long standing tradition among feminists of pointing out the mislaid assumptions behind much of the science on gender differences. The first work in this area was done by Thomas Laqueur who demonstrated that differences between male and female skeletons in anatomy textbooks were largely based on assumptions about the ideal man and woman rather than actual difference. Women’s skeletons that were small and slender were designated more feminine and thus, more representative, than those that were taller and more bulky. More, recently, women like Cordelia Fine, Rebecca M. Jordan-Young, and Anne Fausto-Sterling have tried to show the politics in recent attempts to sex the body and the brain. As a result of their work, I am skeptical of attempts to show innate differences between men and women. Attempts by scientists to do so often fail to separate culture from the body. Fine’s section on clinical trials using infants is particularly interesting. Their work does not demonstrate that there are no differences between male and female brains BUT that so far none have been demonstrated conclusively. They also urge us to be careful when trying to naturalize any character trait as the result of gender.

    It may well be that there ARE eternal differences between male and female, but what they are no one can pinpoint. Any attempt to do so is pure speculation. That I think is part of what makes this question unanswerable. In asking it, you ask respondents to move beyond the realm of what is known and to make guesses about what might be eternally male and female.

    Comment by Amanda — April 12, 2012 @ 7:37 am

  11. Amanda, I think that’s why we move into the region of poetry and theology to try to answer this insoluble question, and I don’t think it’s an invalid path for religion to take; even though such speculations may not be demonstrable, does that make them any less useful, especially if the science of the body is ever culturally inscribed?

    Comment by Liz — April 12, 2012 @ 11:07 am

  12. Liz, I don’t have a problem with poetry and theology talking about eternal gender, but Rachael does say in her post that the social sciences are moving away from separating gender and sex and are doing so because of biological reasons. I find the attempt to ground these things in biology troubling. I actually don’t think it’s possible to separate culture from our theological or poetic responses either. We see God through our cultural eyes and our view of God is always partial, which is precisely why we can’t define the nature of eternal gender. We simply can’t untangle our assumptions about femininity and masculinity enough to decide what is culturally contingent and what is permanent. In the end, I think there is a void at the center of questions about what eternal gender would be. We simply don’t and cannot know. We can guess and muse and speculate, and I think that’s ultimately what poetry and theology are – guesses, muses, and speculations — and that’s okay and somewhat beautiful but it’s still not certainty or necessarily an accurate version of eternity.

    Personally, I’m torn about the nature of gender. Instinctually, I identify as female and don’t think that my femaleness will disappear in the afterlife. Intellectually, I can’t point to what that femaleness is. There isn’t a single characteristic I have except physical ones (i.e., I have a vagina, a uterus, etc.) that men don’t also have. I am nurturing, but so is my husband. I am gossipy, but so are many of my male friends. I should also say there is a part of me that rebels against the idea that men and women are complementary and necessary to each other (but I think this is because I’m not Mormon).

    Comment by Amanda HK — April 12, 2012 @ 11:40 am

  13. Thanks Liz! You articulated that idea well, of epistemological differentiation and union with God. I’m so glad you pointed out Milton– I’ve started Paradise Lost again this morning for a closer read.

    Amanda, I think you might have misunderstood what I was saying in my recent posts. In fact, in part 1, I specifically asked Kathleen Flake to define masculinity and femininity that did not rely on only biological differences (because we don’t know how meaningful or even how relevant [if they are present at all] those are or will be in the after life– or were before this life)or socially influenced/constructed gender attributes. I agree that attempts to find eternal, innate differences between men and women, which involves separating out factors of evolution, biology, psychology, sociology, etc etc., is a mammoth task, and very well might be impossible to achieve. I even stated that prescriptive attempts at gender roles can be more harmful than good; I see them as more descriptive. That is why I stated that the more fruitful question would be–not what is masculinity or femininity, but what is it about that particular synthesis, that relationality of a man and woman together, that enables godhood and exaltation. My very point is that pinpointing eternal differences between male and female, in my opinion at least, comes down to simply Otherness, a differentiation or gap that enables eternal creation. So while Kathleen Flake finds gender, because of its checkered history, to be only a construct and sex a mystery not worth asking about, I believe that is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Sex/gender still matter enormously to Mormonism. I believe they are fundamental to our theology. You don’t throw out the idea because the contents of the concept are hard to pin down. The concept–of differentiation and synthesis, still stands. I am suggesting that we seek to understand patterns of tension and union in male/female relationships, roles, and identities here in mortality, to potentially explain the concept of exaltation and godhood–not that we try to pin point prescriptive roles for men and women, or identify “natural” differences in the individuals.

    Comment by Rachael — April 12, 2012 @ 12:42 pm

  14. Amanda, I just saw your comment after posting mine. I identify with your dilemma- and I think the idea of men and women being complementary and necessary to each other deserves its own post. I’ll work on that next round, unless you beat me to it 🙂

    Comment by Rachael — April 12, 2012 @ 12:44 pm

  15. Rachael — Thanks for clarifying. 🙂 I guess I read too much into what was a throwaway comment.

    “(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.”

    Quick question: do you think the idea of eternal gender only has utility for Mormonism, or do you think that the idea can be fruitful in other theological traditions?

    Comment by Amanda HK — April 12, 2012 @ 12:59 pm

  16. Yes, that was meant as more of a “Look, even some areas of academia are rethinking the supposedly only-a-social-construct model of gender” more than irrefutable evidence for my argument.

    I most certainly think the idea of eternal gender can be fruitful in other theological traditions– and I intend to find out how in the next stage of my studies. My first post mentioned Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Cady Stanton as non-Mormon Christians who disagreed with Wollstonecraft’s belief in a non-gendered afterlife, because they believed that masculinity and femininity were necessary to the balance of the cosmos, and fulfilling one’s individual potential. I think Mormonism, from what I know, has formally expressed more on the topic , but I am sure it has been and continues to be a vital topic for many other theological traditions.

    Comment by Rachael — April 12, 2012 @ 1:09 pm

  17. Rachael — Interesting. Part of the reason why I ask is that Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Cady Stanton both existed on the margins of Christianity. Fuller was never fully comfortable with her Unitarian faith, and Stanton rejected organized Christianity, which she believed was oppressive for women.

    The other reason I asked is the scripture that is quoted most often in my church (Methodist) regarding gender is Galatians 3:28, which says there is no male nor female in Christ. I am guessing, though, that the more conservative evangelical churches might have a more gendered view of the afterlife. They would have to in order to justify the restrictions they place on women’s participation in church, including not allowing women to be pastors and their emphasis upon male headship.

    Comment by Amanda — April 12, 2012 @ 1:27 pm


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