Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Confronting What We Don't Know

Have you ever stopped to consider the enormity of what you don’t know?  Or what about the things that you don’t even know you don’t know?  Overwhelming, right?  There’s a certain amount of comfort that comes with believing I know much more than I actually do, in being able to wrap difficult and complex issues up into neat and tidy little packages.  Our minds often tend to gravitate away from ambiguity and towards resolution.  What happens though, when we move towards resolution too quickly, before we’ve allowed ourselves to more fully explore something?  What truths do we end up missing out on by not remaining suspended in a space filled with the tension of two opposing ideas, not knowing, asking questions, as opposed to immediately gravitating towards one side, towards resolution?  And how can a failure to patiently hold and consider the tension of two opposing ideas lead to breakdowns in conversations with those who see things differently?
Historian James Harvey Robinson said, “Partisanship is our great curse.  We too readily assume that everything has two sides and that it is our duty to be on one or the other.”  What happens if instead we allow ourselves to remain suspended between perceived sides, drinking in what good we are able to find in each one?  What if we approach our conversations with others less like a zero sum game of winner takes all and more like a process of discovery?  How can our mutual willingness to question and explore together rather than merely state our opinions as facts lead to greater truth and understanding?
Dieter Uchtdorf of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints expressed the value of this questioning and exploratory state in a talk he gave at a recent leadership training conference:
Brothers and sisters, as good as our previous experience may be, if we stop asking questions, stop thinking, stop pondering, we can thwart the revelations of the Spirit.  Remember, it was the questions young Joseph asked that opened the door for the restoration of all things.  We can block the growth and knowledge our Heavenly Father intends for us.  How often has the Holy Spirit tried to tell us something we needed to know but couldn’t get past the massive iron gate of what we thought we already knew?
In a recent post, I made brief mention of some scriptures in the Doctrine and Covenants about studying things out in our minds and also about not being compelled in all things, but acting.  I talked about how we have to proactively go out on our own spiritual journeys, much like Joseph Smith did, and seek truth.
It occurs to me again and again that the reconciliation of homosexuality with spirituality and our conversations about that process is one of many areas that could benefit from an approach of openness, patience, humility, courage and thoughtfulness that comes through in the scriptures and quotes I’ve mentioned above.  Taylor Petrey is someone who has contributed in such a way to this reconciliation conversation and process.  Petrey is assistant professor of religion at Kalamazoo College and recently gave the keynote address at the Compassionate Cause symposium that was held last month at the University of Washington.
In his keynote address, Petrey laid out a pretty thorough exploration of the LDS Church’s approach to and perception of homosexuality throughout its history, with a more specific focus on the past 50 to 60 years.  His remarks seemed important to me because I think we often assume that current attitudes and approaches are as they always have been.  We too easily forget where we’ve been, how that has contributed to wounds and divides that exist today and how we’ve evolved.  Historical context is important to more fully understand what we’re faced with today as we study these things out in our minds.  You can read his remarks, or if you’re more the type that likes to watch and listen, you can do that here. (Or you can knock yourself out and do all of the above at the same time!)
Petrey also wrote a very thoughtful paper for the Winter 2011 edition of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thoughtentitled “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology.”  As he says at the beginning of the paper, it’s meant to be a thought experiment and not a statement of church doctrine or even a suggestion of what church doctrine should be.  As I was reading it, it felt very much like he was loosening and tilling the hardened soil of what we think we know about not just sexuality, but also about gender, gender roles, procreation, the purpose of relationships, etc.  Sometimes we project the way we experience our mortal lives onto the heavens and eternity, instead of seeking to inform and enrich our mortal experiences with instruction from heaven or the divine.
We live in a fallen world, don’t we?  Is it possible that we don’t understand all there is to know about gender and its eternal role?  Is how we experience attraction in our limited physical bodies an accurate representation of how we’ll experience it as glorified and perfected celestial beings?  And what role will that play in how we experience relationships with others?  What physical characteristics will follow us to the next life?  Will women be in a constant cycle of gestating spiritual baby after spiritual baby every nine months?  To how many women does that sound appealing?
As you can see, the questions begin to mount.  I know, I know, just put them on a shelf and trust in God.  How long is that a viable and effective strategy though?  What are we missing out on by not allowing ourselves to wrestle with these questions?  Can we expect God to just hand us the answers if we’re not willing to wrestle with these questions ourselves and together?
Again, if you’re more of the listening type as opposed to the reading type, you can also listen to a discussion of Petrey’s paper on this podcast from Mormon Matters.  The host, Don Wotherspoon, moderates a discussion of the paper with Petrey and Kristine Haglund, Dialogue editor.
This excerpt from a recent press release from the LDS Newsroom also sums up beautifully how we can not only benefit from exploring and wrestling with the realities faced by those who are gay and Mormon, but also how it is incumbent upon us to do so:
Mormons welcome truth from whatever source and take the pragmatic view that where religion and science seem to clash, it is simply because there are insufficient data to reconcile the two. Latter-day Saints approach such tensions as challenges to learn, not contradictions to avoid.
This productive tension can enrich both mind and heart. All understanding, whether spiritual or rational, is worked out in constant questioning and discovery. The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “By proving contraries, truth is made manifest.”  Latter-day Saints do not expect God to simply hand down information. He expects us to wrestle with the complications of life through prayerful searching and sound thinking. “You must study it out in your mind,” Mormon scripture teaches, and then answers will come. This pattern of inquiry opens Mormons to expanding spiritual possibilities.
I’m convinced that there is more knowledge and understanding to be had with regards to these important topics that will come to us if we will allow ourselves to sit with the seemingly dissonant identities of being gay and being Mormon.  If we sit with the tension with a spirit of humility and curiosity, instead of jumping quickly to conclusions, I believe our conversations will improve and the knowledge and understanding will begin to flow more easily.  We just need to be willing to thoughtfully hold and listen to our own as well as each other’s stories and experiences and carefully explore and talk about the reconciliation between sexuality and spirituality with open hearts, well tilled soil and iron gates thrown wide open.


  1. Hi, Jon. It's your second cousin, Koko. Just wanted to let you know that I thoroughly enjoy your writing and insights.

  2. Hi KoKo! Thank you! It's great to hear from you!

  3. You are such a wise soul. I'm posting this blog entry on my FB page right now. Right now!