Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Deeper than men vs. women: for self or for others

I fully recognize that I am setting myself up for an attack by all sorts of "progressive" and "liberal" ideologies by blogging about Elder Oaks. But I would hope that someone doesn't think that I am anti-women's rights because I liked his talk. I think if we looked into his talk deeper than the issue of women's rights in the church and the possibility of expanding the ordination of the priesthood we would find some fascinating stances taken by the church on what it means to be human.

So now that I've lost all the readers who don't want to hear some conservative BS and those who could care less about human ontology, I begin. Many of the conservative praise addressed towards Elder Oaks' talk on The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood revolved around his phrase: "Whoever exercises priesthood authority should forget about their rights and concentrate on their responsibilities." Rather than debate to the extent that this applies to men and women, I would like to create a dialogue on how we can understand our own human nature through the lens that, I feel, the LDS church generally adopts.

Last year I had the opportunity to do a contextual analysis (that is far from being scientific, but it was a class project) of a number of LDS General Conference talks and analyze how the leaders of the LDS church treated men vs. women. While studying, I was impressed by the leaders' avoidance of talking about natural ability or innate distinctions between men and women. (And yes, I do know that the Proclamation to the World on Family does mention that gender is an essential characteristic. However, it later emphasizes that gender is essential in relation to its responsibilities not its proclivities.)

My research focused mainly on men and women and how they were supposed to parent. The most common phrase that was used in both was "roles". In his talk Mothers and Daughters (2010), Elder Ballard declared that mothering and having children was a "[divine designation]" rather than a biological necessity. Elder Tanner in 1973 said that the mother had the role/obligation to "bring God's spirit children into the world" and use her talents to nurture and strengthen her children. I noticed that Elder Tanner did not say "nurturing talents", but that mothers could use a variety of talents for nurturing. The way these Elders talked about mothering wasn't as if women are inherently better or more equipped to take a nurturing role, but it seems to be more of a spiritual responsibility that they must fill.

The same language came in regards to Priesthood and Fathering roles that are given to men. According to President Benson, fathers have assignments and roles that are "eternal, and [their] importance transcends time". Elder Perry said, akin to how it was described by Elder Ballard towards women, that fathers preside by "divine design", not by an innate ability.

It seems that these leaders are less concerned with what we are biologically supposed to do or even what we have a right to do. Instead, God calls us to fulfill duties and responsibilities. (Yes, I will allow you to argue that these responsibilities have been wrongly designated to be divided by gender, but this is not the point I am trying to make.) This understanding of humanity, as a group of kin called upon by God to act in certain ways regardless of our natural tendencies is positing a moralistic ontology. We are moral beings oriented relationally in some way towards our God and one another. Our actions, regardless of notions of equality and rights, are instead directed to connecting with God or those surrounding us.

I argue that this theoretical stance is important in the discussion that people are having with science, human rights, and religion. Science bonded with the notions of human rights argue that since men and women have equal capabilities (to a large extent, because let's face it, my dad did not give birth to me), they should by default have right to the same responsibilities.

Religion, at least the LDS religion, is far less concerned with our orientation in regards to rights and privileges. For this group, it matters not where you are stationed in the Gospel. The ordinances and blessings that are given towards men and women are the same. Anyone who has been through the temple knows that there is differentiation between what a man receives and what a woman receives. A prophet will get the same reward as a deacon if they are faithful. Again, the focus is on being responsible rather than the right to a certain responsibility. It is concerned with our standing towards God rather than the amount of power and freedom we have from Him.

Elder Oaks stated, "There is no 'up or down' in the service of the Lord. There is only 'forward or backward' and that difference depends on how we accept and act upon our releases and our callings." As humans, what will bring us closer to the Lord is not the priesthood. It is the way in which we respond to the call of the
Lord. He then voiced his concern that this insistence on "rights" and "privileges" is far too pervasive in modern culture. We have become less concerned with how we are in relation to God and helping others and more focused on how we "measure up" and how we can keep up with the Jones' or with the men or with the heterosexuals or with the whites, etc.

I hope no one reads into this thinking that I am condoning discrimination and that those in powerless positions should just "deal with it". I am quite sympathetic to many causes of discrimination.

However, I do feel we aren't acting towards who we could be and who we are fundamentally when we insist for rights and forget our responsibilities. Levinas, a famous French philosopher, posited that we are naturally "called toward the other". Upon meeting and seeing another person, our very being is "called" or "sought out" to help the other in whatever way possible. Our human life is oriented towards serving those around us.

Let us accept this as the true nature of humans (which I like to think is close to the truth). Using this foundation, what does an insistence upon rights and respect and individuality do to the human spirit and our nature? What consequences could that have on our very being? If our focus turns from others to ourselves, what have we done to humanity? I think these may be some of the most important questions rather than what rights do I have compared to others.

If we did act according to our true nature and being responsible for others, would we even be in this predicament about affording women the "rights of the priesthood"? No. Because we A) wouldn't be focused on ourselves and B) if it were the case that women should have the priesthood, it would have already been given. (I know you could now argue that maybe the leaders of the church aren't acting with a focus on "the other", but I am not going to argue what the social orientation of the prophets are without talking to them. However, based on their talks, they seem to preach that we should be outward focused.)

This is far too long already. But I would urge people to consider that maybe the problems that are facing this country are less about who has all the rights (although I do agree this is an issue), but that we should be concerned more with if we are fulfilling our responsibilities designated by God. Are we the people who God wants us to be? Even those who are outside of believing in God can be better focused towards responding to the needs of those around us. For Levinas, transcendence in humanity resulted from taking on more responsibility towards those we come in contact with. It did not come from liberating oneself from social/political strains and advancing any cause of freedom. In fact, it was the opposite: answering the social pulls from all our friends, family, and contacts. Freedom came from being called upon to act for others not for oneself. (For an unfortunately dense, but interesting, look at Levinas check out Stanford's Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

Ok, I really am done now. Please, let me know your thoughts, for or against. But remember, this is less a discussion of women's rights in the church and more an ethical argument towards human nature.