Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The Patriarchal Order as a Good Thing

In the many years of being involved in discussions about women's issues (particularly in the context of the Mormon Church), I've found that there are a few terms that make feminists' hairs stand up on end. Patriarchy is one of them.

It's understandable, of course. There are brands of patriarchy that are oppressive and potentially very awful. There are cultures where men see women more as possessions than people and lord over them in various ways.

But that isn't the model of patriarchy in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And yet, too me, it feels like sometimes the emotional and mental reactions to the word prevent open and meaningful discussion about what we mean when we talk about patriarchy (or, better said, imo, the patriarchal order) in LDS doctrine.

Now, of course, I can only share my perspective on this, as I have no authority whatsoever to declare doctrine, but I want to suggest that we consider carefully what our doctrine teaches about the purpose of life, about the nature of God, about the purpose of the temple, and about the value of women (and men, of course) in the whole of God's work.

When women's issues are discussed, a lot of focus is often given to Church structure and function. "Well," some assert, "Since women don't hold priesthood office and thus don't hold many of the leadership callings" (even though they do have many opportunities to lead and teach...a topic for another day) "it therefore follows that women are less valued to God and to the Church."

But God's plan involves so much more than just who does what in the Church. I think it's ever-important to realize that the Church exists as a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. What is the end?

In Doctrine and Covenants 131, we read:

“In the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees;

“And in order to obtain the highest, a man must enter into this order of the priesthood [meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage];

“And if he does not, he cannot obtain it.

“He may enter into the other, but that is the end of his kingdom; he cannot have an increase” (D&C 131:1–4).

Elder Cree L. Kofford said this about the scripture:

Many people reading this section of the Doctrine and Covenants do not grasp its full import. ... The gospel, which is called “the new and everlasting covenant,” includes many specific covenants, one being called “the new and everlasting covenant of marriage.” This title, or name, is simply another way of saying “patriarchal order.” Thus, that portion of section 131 could read: “And in order to obtain the highest, a man must enter into the patriarchal order of the priesthood.”
In short, to me the patriarchal order is a good thing (understatement), because it's about an eternal marriage partnership -- about the greatest blessings God has for His children that are sealed on a married couple. The patriarchal order is about a man and woman joined together and, through the sealing of the Holy Spirit of Promise to be enabled to "...inherit thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers, dominions, all heights and depths...and they shall pass by the angels, and the gods, which are set there, to their exaltation and glory in all things, as hath been sealed upon their heads, which glory shall be a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever" (D&C 132:19, emphasis added).

25 comments:

jendoop said...

I haven't heard such a good and succinct description before. Thanks!

Kristine said...

um, the patriarchal order described in Section 132 is explicitly tied to polygamy, with virgins being awarded to men for righteousness and taken away for unrighteousness. You sure you want to go _there_ for your definition of patriarchy as beneficent and empowering?

There's a reason the word evokes strong reactions among Mormon women, and it has very little to do with secular feminism having tainted the word.

JNS said...

m&m, this is as clear and straightforward a statement of your often-articulated position as I've seen. Thanks for the very clarifying post.

It strikes me that the scriptures you discuss do leave a little bit lacking in terms of women's roles in the gospel, though, don't you think? For example, note that the section you quote is phrased in terms of what a man must do to achieve exaltation!

m_and_m said...

Kristine,

I disagree with your assertion that D&C 132 is only about polygamy -- prophets have talked about that section often in terms of the covenants we make today in terms of monogamous marriage as well.

Those promises in my mind are tied to temple ordinances; I have no problem reflecting on those scriptures in terms of the blessings of eternal marriage, and I think it's unfortunate when people reject the powerful truths in that section that are applicable to us today.

m_and_m said...

JNS, thanks for your comment. Our comments crossed and I've been out and about all day.

The verses that I find particularly striking in D&C 132 actually speak about the blessings on the couple, using plural pronouns.

I am particularly moved by verse 19 (emphasis added):

"...and it shall be said unto them—Ye shall come forth in the first resurrection; and if it be after the first resurrection, in the next resurrection; and shall inherit thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers, dominions, all heights and depths...it shall be done unto them in all things whatsoever my servant hath put upon them, in time, and through all eternity; and shall be of full force when they are out of the world; and they shall pass by the angels, and the gods, which are set there, to their exaltation and glory in all things, as hath been sealed upon their heads, which glory shall be a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever."

Kristine said...

I didn't say that it's _exclusively_ about polygamy, but that it is _explicitly_ about polygamy. It's certainly true that the church leadership has tried hard to rehabilitate Section 132 for contemporary use. I don't doubt that there could be principles in it that have application to monogamously-married couples. Nonetheless, there are inescapably horrifying passages in this section--there just isn't any way to parse "And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified" in a way that is not deeply and disturbingly misogynistic. There is no way to get around this in describing a benign Mormon patriarchal order, as opposed to secular patriarchies that are somehow more oppressive (?) Either God gives virgins as prizes to men, or He makes his daughters equal partners in marriage with their husbands, but it really can't be both, and that's why I think your gloss of these sections is either naively or willfully simplistic and over-cheerful.

m_and_m said...

Kristine,

I can understand questions and concerns about some of the passages in the section, but I think a lot depends on what we do with those questions. I don't agree with the intense negativity and the either/or thinking I feel from you on this topic. If it seems naive and simplistic to you, I can't do much to change your point of view about me or these things. But your analysis and assertions are very far from my own answers and what I feel is true...and those answers have come with the same scriptures and teachings before me.

So, I think we'll just have to agree to disagree.

Kristine said...

It's not my analysis or my negativity--I simply quoted the scripture. What do you do with those words? Do you really think that is a message that is benign towards women and supportive of egalitarian marriage? I don't mind agreeing to disagree, but you haven't even disagreed yet.

m_and_m said...

Actually, I think I have disagreed about some things: with the notion that this is all an either/or thing, on what the patriarchal order means (and whether it's a positive or a negative) -- particularly for women.

I think we also disagree on what to do with verses like these. You ask me what I do with words like these.

I let them go. You probably think that is naive. If so, we disagree there, too.

Why do I let them go?
1) They are not relevant to my life right now.
2) This is something that I don't think we have the context or current revelation to understand (we aren't being asked to embrace polygamy, and so I don't worry about it -- if anything, we are asked NOT to focus on it -- it makes it harder for us and for others outside the Church to focus on the powerful core truths of the gospel).
3) Prophets point us to what I feel we need to focus on and this is definitely not something on the radar screen. If anything, they are encouraging us to stop trying to explain or explain away polygamy and other topics that distract from the core message of the gospel -- Christ and the plan of salvation and other fundamental truths that we hear often.
4) The answers that I have gotten over my lifetime help me choose what to focus on. Verses like this don't fall into that category for me. I focus on what I do know and build on that, rather than trying to understand things that we don't understand.

I think faith can be as much about knowing when to let go of things that we don't yet understand and not insisting that they all have to make sense according to our (very) limited mortal constructs. To me, trusting in the answers I have received and in what prophets teach and in what I see in and feel about the plan of salvation is sufficient for me.

m_and_m said...

One more thought:

Kristine says:

"Nonetheless, there are inescapably horrifying passages in this section--there just isn't any way to parse "And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified" in a way that is not deeply and disturbingly misogynistic."

I think it's important to leave space for the fact that there really may be other ways to parse scriptures like this. While of course I see why verses like this can be disturbing or why it can feel like there is no other interpretation but a negative one, there's also plenty else I have seen that doesn't compute with my mortal ways of thinking, so I'm fine with putting this one on a shelf rather that predeciding it's all to be rejected because it doesn't fit with current cultural comfort zones.

Quite frankly, I'm not as comfortable dismissing polygamy or teachings surrounding it as nothing but "inescapably horrifying" even as I can't explain it all. But that's the thing, I guess. I don't expect to be able to explain or understand (or even like) it all, and I think such expectations create a lot of unnecessary pain and problems for people.

Kristine said...

Obviously, in practice I do let these things go, or I wouldn't be a committed, practicing Mormon. I think there's a huge difference, though, between "letting them go" and writing a post defending the patriarchal order as "a good thing."

Kristine said...

Also, for the record, I did not say anything generally about polygamy--I said that these particular verses, in which virgins are described as rewards given to men for righteousness, are horrifying. I'm being quite specific, and it might help the discussion if you didn't broaden my comments.

I'm not talking about "current cultural comfort zones," either, I'm speaking strictly in terms of Mormon theology--it's not a problem for feminism to deal with these scriptures; a secular feminist perspective would just reject them. They *are* a problem for Mormon theology, because we elsewhere have a god who is "no respecter of persons" and in whom "there is neither male nor female", etc. It is inaccurate to frame the issue as me somehow approaching the scripture from a different (and, by implication, less Mormon)perspective--it's a problem exactly because I'm approaching it from a thoroughly Mormon perspective. The God of Section 132 is a serious problem for current *Mormon* comfort zones, not any other "cultural" ones.

m_and_m said...

I think there's a huge difference, though, between "letting them go" and writing a post defending the patriarchal order as "a good thing."

Well, then, there we disagree, too.

I'm being quite specific, and it might help the discussion if you didn't broaden my comments.

Since you brought up polygamy in your first comment, it seemed that there was something more on your mind than these particularly verses. But, if that isn't the case, then sorry for misunderstanding that. So, I'll just say that I think you are making too big a deal out of those verses, then. If you want to reject them, fine, but these fall into my 'shelf' category. I'm fine waiting it out to see how and if these fit into it all.

The God of Section 132 is a serious problem for current *Mormon* comfort zones, not any other "cultural" ones.

(There you go referring to the whole section, btw.) I think your statement is only true if you are certain that your interpretation and understanding of those verses is accurate. I'm not willing to agree that it is. It's like you have already decided it doesn't or can't work with how God is; I've decided that I'll shelve this one for the day when I believe we'll understand things better and I'll know better what to do with those verses. I get it that you think there is a problem now; I don't, what I know about God and His plan is sufficient for me to still rejoice in what I believe the patriarchal order is all about. And I think there is plenty of prophetic teaching to back up the principles I share in this post, so I'm very comfortable with what have said, and it's all been confirmed to me pretty strongly in other ways since writing the post.

I respect the fact that you may see it all differently, but, then, as I said before, we probably should, then, just agree to disagree.

m_and_m said...

One other thought -- I think it should be understood why I wrote this post -- it's for the very fact that I see people missing the JOY of the plan because of verses such as those Kristine pointed out. I think we too easily let things we don't understand get in the way of the good things we already know and can know and have a conviction of.

Seraphine said...

m&m, the problem is not lack of understanding. I (and Kristine and others) *do* understand those verses--God and/or Joseph Smith are talking about women as commodities. We're not reading some kind of hidden agenda into those verses--we're merely paraphrasing the words that are *actually there*. So I don't buy any assertion about our lack of understanding of those verses.

Now, if you're going to try and argue that there's some deeper *spiritual* understanding that we are just not faithful/spiritual enough to see, I obviously can't prove you wrong (I can't really assert my own spiritual authority). But I will say that if God wants me to find spiritual truth in women being commodities, then I want no part of that kind of God. And every single Mormon fiber of my being tells me this (because every single Mormon fiber of my being tells me that no one should be a commodity). Luckily, most of the personal interactions I've had with God indicates that He agrees with me. My Mormon self still does not like section 132, however.

m_and_m said...

Seraphine,

Thanks for stopping by.

m&m, the problem is not lack of understanding. I (and Kristine and others) *do* understand those verses--God and/or Joseph Smith are talking about women as commodities.

No, you are interpreting those verses to mean that. I can understand that reading, of course, but at some point, I think we have to go to the core of what we know "with every fiber of our being." You said it yourself. God doesn't see us as commodities.

And I agree.

But please note that nowhere am I suggesting otherwise, or insisting that you believe otherwise. So trying to convince me that that is truth is wasted energy (and sort of strawmanish) -- we agree on that point. :)

That I see truths within D&C 132 that actually validate that reality within section 132 might be something you take issue with, but hey, to each her own. I'm not telling you you have to like that section, ok? I'm not telling you you are evil if you don't. I understand not liking it. But don't shoot me for sharing some of the reasons I do!

One last thought: Pres Benson once said that if we put God first, everything else will either fall into place or fall out of our lives. I believe that about truth, too. I believe if we put the core principles of the gospel at the core of our lives and our study, everything else will either fall into place or fall out of the picture, particularly as we gain more light and knowledge...I believe in those promises, too, that someday we'll understand it all. I believe that includes understanding what to do with these verses.

But in the meantime, I love looking for threads of foundational truths throughout the standard works. To find more and more that validates the eternal purposes of marriage, the worth of souls, the reality of eternal promises that we can receive all that God has, etc. to me is exciting. It reinforces what I feel in my heart about how God feels about women, too.

ECS said...

m&m, your approach requires that we ignore the text of the scriptures, however. Can you tell me the "foundational truths" about eternal marriage you find in this?:

"And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified"

Seraphine said...

No, you are interpreting those verses to mean that.

No, I'm actually not. There is a difference between "paraphrase" and "interpretation." When you paraphrase something, you are merely restating the original passage in your own words but you are keeping the essential meaning of the passage the same. I was paraphrasing the passage, substituting the word "reward" for "commodity." Here are definitions of the words that make me think they are interchangeable in this situation:

commodity = item/good that is traded and takes part of a commercial transaction

reward = something you give someone in return for something that they do (earn, merit, etc.)

But if this substitution troubles you, I'll use the language of the passage itself. Women ("virgins") are a "reward" (a thing) "given" to "men", and they "belong" to these men. Here is what the verse actually says (this is a mix of paraphrase and quotation): virgins are a reward given to men, and these virgins belong to men.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that Kristine and I are paraphrasing, *not* interpreting. If we were interpreting, we would be moving beyond the text and looking at the deeper significance. For example, if we said that "this passage reveals that God *only* views women as commodities," I can understand why you might take issue with our interpretation--this goes beyond what the text actually says, and you could bring up contradictory evidence, etc.

Which brings me to part II of my response. While I think that there are multiple interpretations of this passage, I think that there are interpretations that are "better" than others (I always tell my students that there are generally no "right" or "wrong" arguments--instead, there are "better" and "worse" arguments). For example, a "worse" interpretation of the text would be "God likes dogs" because no one is talking about dogs.

And here's where we come to our actual disagreement with you. I can totally understand your desire to focus on positive messages in scriptures--I do the same thing. But to me, arguing "patriarchy is good" and using a chapter that has verses that say "women belong to men" in support of your argument that patriarchy is good, is a "worse" argument. I think that in order to make an argument that "patriarchy is good" in this context, you have to address the contradictory evidence and explain why it doesn't actually contradict your argument (which you haven't done).

m_and_m said...

m&m, your approach requires that we ignore the text of the scriptures, however.

There is a difference between ignoring and shelving verses or concepts in my view. I've explained that already, though.

I think that in order to make an argument that "patriarchy is good" in this context, you have to address the contradictory evidence and explain why it doesn't actually contradict your argument (which you haven't done).

The context I'm working from is bigger than D&C 132. I'm not here to convince you of my perspective, but neither do I feel that I HAVE to explain verses that don't seem to jive with that perspective.

Besides, I have no authority to do anything with those verses but wait on the Lord for more info on what to do with them. And no one *with* authority has explained them, so again, I shelve them and focus on what I DO know and what they HAVE said and what I see in the big picture.

I'm fine with waiting.

And since now I keep saying the same thing over and over, I think we need to be done...we're going around in circles.

Kristine said...

It's not just that you said the patriarchal order is good, m&m, it's that you specifically used the Mormon patriarchy as a counterexample to "bad" patriarchies IN WHICH MEN THINK THEY OWN WOMEN. I pointed to a Mormon text that directly contradicts your point, and you shifted the conversation away from that specific point to talk about the big picture that's so wonderful. I can happily have a discussion about potential benefits of patriarchy, even of polygamy, but not if the grounds for that discussion is the intellectual dishonesty you've engaged in by refusing to acknowledge the plain sense of the text.

I do share your opinion that contemporary Mormon patriarchy is more beneficent in practice than many patriarchal systems. I do think it's a theologically and historically problematic construct, and an understanding of the contemporary interpretation of Sections 131 and 132 cannot proceed without an acknowledgment of those difficulties. I thought, since you were talking about the patriarchal order, and since you referenced those sections, that perhaps that was a discussion you wanted to have. Had I known that what you really wanted was just to spout vague generalities about how inspired the contemporary Church is, I wouldn't have bothered.

m_and_m said...

Sorry you feel it was a "bother" Kristine.

Again, in my mind if we are going to do a "contemporary reading," we have to do it in light of contemporary teachings, which are pretty clear about women not being property. Which means we have to let those verses go since no one with authority has given us any contemporary clarity about them.

I have acknowledged that those verses don't seem to fit into the perspective I share here, but my whole point is that I don't expect them to right now. I look for patterns in our teachings, ordinances, etc.

The flip side of all of this is true. If you reject D&C 132 outright because of verses you don't like, you are ignoring verses that have a lot of contemporary relevance and doctrinal power.

Kristine said...

I wasn't rejecting Section 132; I was just pointing out that it doesn't entirely support your cheerful view of Mormon patriarchy, that, in particular, it explicitly contradicts the assertion you made that LDS patriarchy is better than those that presume women are owned by men. My point was that LDS feminists may, in fact, be troubled by *specifically* LDS patriarchy, not be confused by what "patriarchy" means in the broader culture. That was all.

Kristine said...

Also, my point was that "contemporary teachings" can only be understood in light of the history. I don't know what you mean by "contemporary reading," but what I meant was that the current official stance, which includes soft-pedaling or re-interpreting or not giving "contemporary clarity" about distasteful elements of the foundational teachings on the patriarchal order, cannot possibly be understood without reference to the history. It is silly to just pretend those passages don't exist or have meaning because church officials generally ignore them right now.

In practical matters, I believe you disapprove of "cafeteria Mormonism," but it seems to me that what you're doing here is the intellectual equivalent.

m_and_m said...

Kristine,

So now you are saying the prophets practice cafeteria Mormonism and intellectual dishonesty, too.

And now in your book I have to somehow apologize for being too happy AND for following the prophets' lead on this one.

Fine by me. Accuse me of being like the prophets then. I think that is a bit lofty, but hey, you are entitled to your opinion.

Suffice it to say that I think you are the one being silly, if not just plain foolish.

Sorting through the gospel isn't simply an intellectual exercise to me. I think the big picture is *essential* in processing what patriarchy or any of the other feministy hot button topics mean in God's plan. Whatever God asks or does is or will be made perfect and perfectly fine. "He doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world." Even if that means giving women to men as plural wives or in ways that SEEM to you to be oppressive. If it's from God, it's not oppressive. Until I hear otherwise from authorized sources that these verses are not from God, I assume they have their place in a way we don't yet understand.

That's my view.

If we find out someday that He really doesn't agree with everything in D&C 132, I'll be fine with that, too, but since that hasn't happened, I wait and let there be space for this to fit into the plan of the God I know. Obviously, I don't know which it will be yet, and I don't know how that would work, but I see no reason not to rejoice in my understanding of God and His plan in the meantime.

Neither you nor I has any authority to do anything but let that be part of holy writ right now.

And so I assume out the chute that until prophets of God tell me otherwise, any reading or interpretation that insists that Mormon patriarchy is awful and about "men owning women" in an oppressive sense is a reading that is wrong. Text is not something that exists in a vacuum to me. I believe the prophets help us know what lens to use to engage the text and other elements of our faith.

As I said earlier, we need to agree to disagree.

m_and_m said...

p.s. I'm closing comments on this thread now.