Sunday, April 30, 2006

Sex Attitudes and Teaching our Youth

From the time we are young, Mormons are raised with a dual message about our bodies. On the one hand, the Restoration informs us that our bodies are good, beautiful things that were given us by our Heavenly Father. They are to be used to accomplish many great works. They are temples that must be kept clean and holy. On top of everything else, we are taught that our Father in Heaven has a body, too.

On the other hand, bodies are the cause of much temptation. Young Men, aged 12 to 17, are told not to touch themselves or to look at the sweet-spirited sisters of the ward (and I mean the girls of the same age group). The Young Women are taught not to wear revealing clothes and are forced to wear jeans or sweats on the hottest day of the year, rather than tempt a boy with her sexy ankles.

The Young Men and Women of each ward are given lectures every Sunday, are encouraged to read pamphlets and books about how sex is bad, and even watch films put out by the church with catchy but simplistic messages like “fire can warm, fire can burn.”

Yup, it sure can.

What is that? Does anyone else remember that video? It talked about what true love is and had some nice messages, but I don’t think it’s possible for the church to put out a more cheesy video. Independent films like Saturday’s Warrior don’t count; the church didn’t make that one (and the doctrine is all speculative).

Don’t get me wrong. I think morality and abstaining before marriage are wonderful things. A purely forged marriage can bring greater closeness and trust to a young couple. However, there must be a reality check.

Many young Mormons, after a lifetime of being told that sex is bad, get married and suddenly, sex is good, even encouraged. Gotta start procreating, after all! But how is this fair? Is it really giving the right message?

I know the intention is to tell the youth of the church that sex outside of marriage is wrong, but the message gets lost amidst the scare tactics:

You might get sexually transmitted diseases.

You are sinning against God.

You (or the young girl you sleep with) might get pregnant.

All these things are potentially true. But the Lord helps those who do make a mistake to repent. I have known many young men and women who have grown up in a morally ambiguous society, made a mistake or two, and yet, somehow, turned out just fine? Does that mean the scare tactics were wrong? Well, no. But the gospel of Jesus Christ is about repentance, not about punishment. Sure, there will be a punishment, for those who do not repent, but that is not the emphasis. In fact, I would say that the leaders that try to scare the youth of the church are misplacing their emphasis, in the attempt to keep their kids on the straight and narrow.

I am not recommending that leaders encourage their youth to experiment and sin so they can experience the repentance process. But they need to know that the option is there, so that when they make mistakes, they will know what to do. I didn’t say “if” they make mistakes, but “when.” Everyone makes mistakes, no matter how hard they try. I make mistakes constantly. Some are more serious than others, but all need repenting of for me to progress in this life and the next.

When teaching about sexual relations, parents, leaders and teachers should teach a balanced view. They need to be taught that bodies are sacred. They need to be taught that sex is meant to be between a married man and women. They even need to be taught the consequences of not following God’s laws. All of these elements are important. Those who instead limit their message to “sex is bad,” only help generate the next generation of neurotic members of the church. It is no wonder to me that the church has a huge number of closet perverts. I’ve read of statistics that the Provo area has one of the highest Pay Per View sex movie purchase rates in the country. This is telling of the message and attitude passed from one generation to the next.

A balanced message about sex might help youth to develop a healthy attitude about sexy, instead of an intense curiosity. By always restricting discussions about sex, youth begin to experiment, on themselves, on others. Sometimes of the same gender, sometimes of the other gender. The very thing leaders are fighting against is happening, in part because of their teachings.

Adolescents are known for rebelling; it just happens. Every one of them does it. Rebelling is part of the process of becoming an independent adult. In simplistic terms, the more restrictive and punitive the moral system, the stronger the rebellion. A hypothetical illustration of my point: if a young man is told that sex is bad and is never allowed to even talk about it in an open manner with his parents, he will get more and more curious, wanting to know what they are hiding. As soon as he decides to establish his independence, he will seek out that forbidden knowledge. He may use the internet, movies, books, magazines, girls, boys, whatever, but he will learn about it. Many sad mistakes may be made. He may get a disease, he may get a girl pregnant, he may get addicted to pornography, who knows? But if that same young man were allowed to ask questions, and saw that sex in the Lord’s preferred environment (i.e. marriage) is a healthy and pleasant thing, he may just start to think differently. His friends will still have their own message to give him, but he might think for himself.

There are no guarantees, though. All a parent or leader can do is the best he or she can, and seek the spirit to guide. However, arming one’s self with a little knowledge can’t hurt. Having a game plan that won’t make them more interested in sex may also be wise.

Without actually demonstrating sex within marriage (which would be gross and wrong), how do parents show that sex within marriage can be a healthy thing? By demonstrating their affection for one another. Perhaps by talking about it in healthy ways, rather than trying to pathologize any interest in sex. By showing healthy affection to each of the children. By teaching in a consistent way what the gospel says about sex, the good and the bad. By answering questions. By normalizing this topic, not trivializing it.

This is very difficult to do, and I hope my wife and I are successful when our children reach that curious age. Only with guidance from the spirit will we be successful.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Priesthood and the Female Believer

I started writing an essay about the priesthood, as understood by Latter-day Saints, a couple weeks ago. I did not finish the essay at that time, but was surprised how much the talks given in General Conference fit what I wrote. This essay is a combination of what I wrote before and a reaction to the talks I listened to this weekend.

My Priesthood Experiences
I have held the priesthood for most of my life. When I was twelve, I was ordained by my father as a Deacon. When I turned 14, my father was there to ordain me as a Teacher. In fact, at 16, he ordained me as a Priest, and at 19, an elder. I began home teaching with my father when I was pretty young, I think when I was 12. I served in various offices, including president and secretary of the various quorums to which I belonged. As a missionary, I exercised my priesthood and my faith to serve and bring others unto Christ. As a father, I have been called to preside over my family and serve them in righteousness (although I couldn’t and wouldn’t want to do this without my beautiful wife beside me). I have given father’s blessings and healing blessings. I have baptized and given the gift of the Holy Ghost. I have cast out demons. I have seen and done amazing things through the priesthood. I say these, not to boast, but to explain.

Even before I could hold the priesthood myself, I felt its influence in my life. Because I was born in the church, I have been enjoyed the blessing of the priesthood from the beginning. My parents were sealed in a temple (Salt Lake, to be exact) and all their children were born within the covenant. Although I cannot state for sure this happened, I have no doubt (knowing my parents) that my mother was blessed before I was born that the birth would go well. I know from church records that I was given a name and a blessing a month or so after I was born. I have received numerous father’s blessing and healing blessings from my father. At eight, my father took me into a baptismal font and baptized me in the name of Jesus Christ. Although I didn’t completely understand, I knew something important had just happened.

The Magnitude of the Priesthood
Most of these things may not seem like very noteworthy events to someone who grew up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Yet, when one truly thinks about what Latter-day Saints purport the priesthood to be, these things are remarkable indeed. The right to act in the name of God? A heavy responsibility, indeed.

Having the priesthood does not grant carte blanche authority over others. In fact, the Lord’s pattern is for those who are in higher positions of authority so serve in greater capacities. Although in practice, this does not always work out perfectly, there is something beautiful about this structure. Nowhere else in the human world is this idea actually practice, although lip-service may be given by politicians. In practice, this sadly does not happen anywhere. Instead, many men will rule over others, including the women around them, with little regard for the needs of others.

But the priesthood is about serving. Several times, I have felt this divine call to serve, as a young man, as a missionary, in various callings, and especially as a husband and father. My life has been enriched and I have been blessed by the my usage of and the exercise by others of the priesthood on my behalf. This is a great and wonderful blessing the Lord has given His children.

Why Men?
I am someone who is not necessarily comfortable with authority. I don’t care for leadership positions and prefer to be on the sidelines. A part of me has often pondered, why men? I suppose that many have wondered, perhaps rightly so, why only men have the priesthood. I am not sure if there is an easy answer.

Regardless of why, men have been given the great and dreadful responsibility of bearing the priesthood in the Church. Why do I call this responsibility dreadful? Because the burden of responsibility is sometimes very great. While not a bad thing, it is and can be a difficult thing. One is obligated to keep the commandments and stay clean in spirit. One is obligated to serve others and put their needs before one’s own needs. The punishments are greater for one who sins while holding the priesthood than those who do not. One is put in the spotlight in a way that makes at least me uncomfortable. And incidentally, those who seek out that spotlight of leadership are generally the ones I trust the least to exercise their priesthood in righteousness (see D&C 121:39-42).

Despite the magnitude of the priesthood burden, there are many humble men who accept the commission of the Lord. While I make no claims to being humble, I try to do my part. Notwithstanding the many blessings, a part of me sometimes wishes I did not have the priesthood. Now, I would not give this right and privilege up, because I believe the Lord considers it important. I keep doing what He wants because I believe. But I can’t help but continue wondering.

The Lord has not made it known whether women will one day bear that burden alongside their husbands and brothers, but in the old days, women certainly had a portion of this. There are tales of women receiving the priesthood in the temple during Joseph Smith’s day, and of women giving blessings to their children while on the plains and their husbands were not around. (see this site for some idea of this history, but don't expect a pro-Mormon view). I actually believe there may be some truth to this, but would not dream of teaching this as official doctrine. There are many things that are true that are not currently taught, for whatever reasons, and that is fine by me.

I will just say that there seems to be evidence that women may have held the priesthood at one point in church history, without holding specific office. For whatever reason, that is not true today. Is it because women have been given the ability to create children, something no man can do? Is it because women are more spiritual and don’t need the priesthood?

Women More Spiritual?
In a previous post (which you can read here), I expressed doubt over the supposed superior spirituality of women. Now I will spend a moment to defend it. I don’t think this is a contradiction on my part, but a defense of first one side, then the other. My purpose is to show that both men and women have spiritual strengths and weaknesses. I may repeat some of the very arguments I refuted before.

First off, I believe women and men have differing spiritual abilities. Neither one is necessarily better than the other. As Latter-day Saints understand the workings of the spirit, we believe it is closely tied to the emotions of an individual (for example, see D&C 9:8-9). Few would argue that men and women feel and experience emotion the same way. I believe they also experience spiritual events in differing ways, as well.

I have to speak in general terms. There is no one-size-fits-all explanation, but I can grossly generalize to make a point. Women tend to be more in tune with their emotions, and consequently, are often more in tune with the spirit. Of course, men are also capable of having spiritual experiences and can do many mighty things in the name of God. Perhaps it is meant to be more subtle with women.

Take a look at the home teaching program. It is a rare month that the elders of a given ward or branch actually complete their assignments. Home teaching has been called a joke, because it is one of the most ignored programs in the church today. Visiting teaching, a program that is performed just by the women of the church and does not even require the priesthood, normally approaches 100% completion every month. It seems that women are more likely to serve than men. Men seem less likely to serve others without a specific calling in the priesthood.

Why no Women Priesthood Leaders?
But what of leadership? Why are men called to the leadership positions and not women? I have a theory. Having men in the leadership roles is something that may have started in ancient days because a weak leader would never be followed. It is common knowledge that in general, men are physically stronger than women, and physical strength is often equated to good leadership. Therefore, one should choose the leader that is more likely to be followed.

Unfortunately, we know that physical and spiritual strength do not equate, both in men or women. Many of the leaders, both in present times and in the past, have exercised unrighteous dominion. Sadly, these leaders have been primarily male. From a position of strength, it is easy to enforce one’s will on others and take away the agency given by God to all. History tells many tales of the ruthless and controlling leaders. Some would argue that the current leadership in the United States is experiencing such control.

Having mentioned the stereotype of men being stronger, I must note that in our more “enlightened” days, we now know that women can be as tough and strong as a man, mentally and even physically. It may not be as socially desirable, for whatever reason, but that’s another essay.

So, What is the Answer? Is there an Answer?
Back to the subject on hand. It has been sad that women are closer to God, especially because they partner with Him to create bodies for the souls of men. This partnership cannot be mimicked or shared by a man, no matter what medical miracles may be developed. This partnership with God may not bring all women to God, but it seems to increase the likelihood of a closer relationship with Him. And this is only one possible reason why women are closer, generally speaking, to God than men.

So, where does this leave us? Because men may (and I stress may) be somewhat deficient, women are to suffer without the priesthood? Of course, not! The Lord loves all of his children, regardless of gender. Sister Julie Beck spoke on Saturday (April 1, 2006) in Conference about this very topic. She stated that none of the blessings of the priesthood are denied to women, even if they cannot perform the ordinances. We are all considered equal in spiritual gifts. I have heard these kinds of statements before in other contexts, but it is interesting that the church felt the need to address this topic again, at a time when more and more feminists are clamoring for equal rights.

Is this the final answer? That women are only ever going to enjoy the blessings of the gospel through their husbands and fathers and home teachers (assuming that latter ever show up? Possibly. I do not claim to know God’s mind, of course. But there is the “joint” holding of the priesthood that occurs in the temple during sealings. There is the fact that women will not be denied the blessings of the priesthood, including all the ordinances.

Maybe, just maybe, there will be a time when women are called to leadership positions outside the Relief Society, Primary and Young Women. Maybe, some day, there will be a return to the days of women giving blessings again. I suspect if such a day ever comes, it would take a lot of adjustment on the part of the members. I neither advocate for nor rally against such a decision. Again, I’m the type of guy who tries to shy away from extra responsibility. And I certainly don’t have all the answers.

But I know this. The priesthood holds the key to the mysteries of God and is required to see His face (see D&C 84:21-22). With the priesthood, angels can minister and repentance can be facilitated (see D&C 84:26-27). These and many more like them are blessings He desires for all his children, regardless of gender. I may not understand all that is done in this life, but I know He will right all inequalities and wrong-doings. He will wipe away all tears and heal all wounds. And He will deny none to come unto Him, who follow the gospel and repent.