Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Religious Discussions

I have been meaning to write about religious faith (well I did once a long time ago) for some time because one, religion means so much in my life, but two I seem to spend far more time writing about politics. The problem, for me, though is that religious conversation does not work as well on the web. I have been wanting to explore why and how I personally handle my own spiritual life in more depth on a blog post as kind of a companion article to this one.

But then someone on my facebook feed posted this Natasha Helfer Parker criticism of an article found in March 2014 Ensign on morality. What's interesting to me is that, even though Parker was pretty critical of Ensign article, I found myself agreeing with both articles. I think as I dive into the two, I will be able to get at some of the topics I've been wanting write about. So, what I'll do here is quote from each article, Elder Callister's point, Natasha Parker's counter-point and then provide my own commentary on why I think they are both right. Let's see how it goes.

So it is with God our Father—He needs to speak only once on the issue of morality, and that one declaration trumps all the opinions of the lower courts, whether uttered by psychologists, counselors, politicians, friends, par­ents, or would­ be moralists of the day.
The problem with this approach, of course (discussed in General Conference by Uchtdorf), is that God’s “declarations” have been communicated and interpreted by fallible men – Callister included. This is why it is so important to rely not only on prophetic teachings but also such doctrinal principles as personal revelation, intellectual study, spiritual study, and the influence of healthy approaches from therapists, parents, loved ones and others who would have our best interests in mind when coming to conclusions on such an important and sacred topic as sexual morality.
While I agree with Parker here, I think her point is mostly relevant when the issue is personal. Elder Callister is talking about standards here. Standards set by the church, which are set high on purpose. This is a tricky distinction and I'm not sure I will make it well. Religious faith serves many purposes, but its primary purpose is to try to bring each of us closer to God. It's that relationship that is so important. We strengthen that relationship through personal prayer, scripture study and fasting, but we also have to strive to live a more holy, sanctified life. If religion is to mean anything for us, it has to be transformative, and Christ is the model we are trying to follow.

I think Parker is speaking from her role as a therapist which is valid. And there are many people who struggle with addiction, depression, and anxiety sometimes made worse when trying for an ideal that seems impossible to achieve, especially given the temptations we all endure. Thank goodness for therapists to help us make sense of these contradictions and provide us with practical tools to help navigate them.

However, should we rely solely on science or psychology or popular opinion? If so, then we don't need religion. Is our own personal revelation sufficient? If so, than we don't need religious institutions or religious leaders. The point of religious leadership, I think, is to recognize that there are certain people among us who have been blessed with certain spiritual gifts and have by virtue of these gifts, been able to lead a more sanctified path and by virtue of that, have been called into spiritual leadership where they stand as special messengers and spiritual leaders for the rest of us to follow.

Does that make them infallible? No. Should we also test what they say with our own thoughtful prayer, analysis and intuition? Yes. But we should listen and consider what they have to say. I think that is what Elder Callister is saying here, but even more than that. He is making what I think is an obvious point, that God knows more than all of us. And as we try to tap into God's word and will, it should preempt anything we get from other sources. Of course, we don't blindly assume everything a person says comes from God. We have to get a confirmation for ourselves, but we definitely should be mindful of our own limitations and be willing to set aside our own opinions when they contradict our spiritual confirmations of God's word.

The Lord con­demns self­-abuse. Self­-abuse is the act of stimulating the procreative power of one’s own body. President Boyd K. Packer, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said: “Do not be guilty of tampering or playing with this sacred power of creation. . . . It is not pleasing to the Lord, nor is it pleasing to you. It does not make you feel worthy or clean."
Callister refers to masturbation as “self-abuse.” This is not an appropriate clinical term. Self-abuse is a term currently used to describe unhealthy coping behaviors people use in order to manage overwhelming depression and anxiety (i.e. ritualistic cutting of the skin, pulling of hair, picking of scabs, burning of skin, etc.). If you’re going to take a stand either for or against masturbation – please call it masturbation. Also, to refer to masturbation as self-abuse shames a natural developmental process that begins in the womb and hinders an important relationship with self that needs to be developed in a shame-free environment in order to facilitate the transition into healthy marital sexuality.
Her first criticism is one of vocabulary and I won't step on that. I take Parker's point and I wish we could be more straight-forward with the vocabulary and call it what it is, masturbation. "Self-abuse" does not even seem to accurately portray the experience anyway.

But I don't think Elder Callister's larger point is wrong and I believe Callister is condemning a narrower set of behaviors than what Parker is describing. Touching your genitals for comfort (say in the womb) is not masturbation at least not in the way Callister describes it. Rather his specific words are significant, the act of stimulating the procreative power and that is what is prohibited. I think there is a distinction here.

The second point is one of shame and sexual sin seems to carry with it more taboo and shame than other kinds of sin especially in our church culture. But most people are guilty of crossing the lines in one way or another for nearly every kind of sin. The trick as always is how can we seek holiness and sanctification even as we fall short daily.

Elder Callister:
Now I share some danger signals that precede some of the sins I have mentioned. In some regards, Satan is like an octopus trying to capture us. If one tentacle does not work, he will try another and another until he finds one that takes hold. Following are some of the tentacles of the evil one designed to cause us to break God’s standard of morality.
Callister uses fear-based language and overall approach that is inconducive to healthy sexual education. Although there is correct principle behind understanding the gravity of sexual responsibility towards others and self – using a fear-based approach to get this point across is not effective and usually contributes to problems rather than solving them.
This is a tough one. I agree with Parker that the over-use of the addiction paradigm to address pornography and sexual sin is sometimes psychologically not appropriate. Addiction has a very specific psychological definition and we tend to over-apply it, especially when pornography is the issue.

And there is danger in using over-the-top fear based analogies to describe the temptations that surround us and that can cause unnecessary anxiety and especially shame for those who struggle - and we all struggle.

But fear is a legitimate emotion and often a useful one, especially when there are dangers lurking. I think there there are legitimate reasons to be afraid, especially with the way sexuality is used and abused in our society. There are some people whose lives are ruined by sexual or drug addiction. Pornography is rife with abuse, where some of the participants are participating under force, and pornography exposure does affect the brain and can damage a person's ability to have healthy sexual relationships with another actual person. I think, or at least I'd hope, Parker would agree with all of this.

But our society is saturated by it and many good people fall into it. So, care and sensitivity is appropriate. And we can certainly exaggerate the danger and create far too much guilt for the behavior than is warranted. And this guilt can cause hopelessness which can be counter-productive to our ultimate goal of sanctification and a closer more loving relationship with God.

We cannot avoid seeing every improper billboard or immodestly dressed person, but we can drive out the improper thought once it arises. The sin is not in involuntarily see­ing something improper; the sin is in entertaining the thought once it comes. The scrip­tures tell us, “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he”
(Proverbs 23:7).
Callister allows for no level of arousal or sexual thought outside of a spouse as a natural part of being a mortal human. He speaks of avoiding material that is “pornographic in ANY way.” For many of my OCD clients this becomes an impossible feat (because it is defined rigidly) – they cannot enjoy a museum where fine art depicts the human body, they cannot go to work where there exists “walking pornography” through what is considered immodest dress, they cannot develop any tolerance to the sexual nature of the human experience.
Again, I think both are correct here. But Callister is talking in terms of an ideal to strive for and Parker is dealing with the human condition as it actually is. It's an impossible standard to go through life without a single lustful though, but this is the standard Jesus himself set forth. And again, the goal of this life is get to that point, to direct all of our sexual yearnings solely toward our spouse, the one place where sex can deepen and strengthen the intimacy and power of an extremely important relationship. If we can succeed at that, we can see every person we encounter as more than a body, we will have a greater capacity to recognize the precious spirit that each of us have, allowing us to treat every person as the children of God we all are.

Men and women can look sharp and be fashionable, yet they can also be modest. Women particularly can dress modestly and in the process contribute to their own self­ respect and to the moral purity of men. In the end, most women get the type of man they dress for.
Callister’s statements on modest dress are sexist and offensive to both men and women.  First of all “modesty” is only talked about in the context of clothing and it is only addressed to women.  He participates in classic “rape culture” ideology where the woman is responsible for the man’s sexual thoughts and actions. 
Of all of the parts of Callister's article, this is possibly the most difficult for me to defend, mostly because I realize a lot of feminists are deeply troubled and offended by the church's teaching on modesty and I'm not totally sure why. Our family has accepted the modesty teachings mostly on faith, but having three daughters I probably need to ramp up on this issue.

Just a couple of thoughts. I hope it's obvious that men and women are different in terms of sexual desire. Men are more quickly aroused then women and visual stimulation seems to be more powerful for me, generally speaking. Men are definitely responsible to keep that desire in check, but it seems sensible to me that both genders should make an effort at modest dress and that it's likely that it's more important for women to be mindful of this than men, based purely on their differences. Take that for what it's worth.

Two oft ­repeated rationalizations are used to support moral transgression. The first is “I loved her.” Satan is the great counterfeiter. He tries to palm off lust as love. There is a simple test to detect the difference. Love is motivated by self­-control, obe­dience to God’s moral laws, respect for others, and unselfishness. On the other hand, lust is motivated by disobedience, self­-gratification, and lack of discipline.

Secondly, there are many more complicated issues that contribute to sexual choices than “selfish lust”: past sexual, physical or emotional abuse, personality traits or disorders, mental health diagnoses (i.e. bipolar disorder), trauma of any kind – just to name a few. A very typical scenario I see is that of young women or men who have been sexually abused in their childhood: they are now dealing with complex and confusing dynamics as they try and navigate their own developing sexuality as teens and young adults.
Parker gets a bit picky over linguistics again in the section right before the quote above. Is sexual desire for your spouse lust or love? Who knows, but there is certainly a distinction between it and the desire one feels when looking at an attractive stranger dressed provocatively.

But Parker's larger point is spot on and it's why, especially in today's climate, it's very difficult to generalize about sexual issues. There's so much complexity around it especially considering the highly sexualized culture we are trying to navigate our lives through. I think the standards are clear and everyone should strive to live up to them. But compassion and consideration is required when dealing with someone who has struggled with past abuse or mental health issues. Again, thank goodness for therapists.

Those with same ­gender tendencies have a duty to (1) abstain from immoral relationships and (2) do all within their power to avail themselves of the refining, perfecting powers of the Atonement. In the interim, however, those who have same­ gender tendencies but do not act on them are worthy to hold Church positions and receive a temple recommend.
Callister speaks to the LGBTQ community where a life of celibacy and singleness is the expectation as a condition to worthy participation in the service of the Lord. It is my strong position that this is not a healthy stance for any human who naturally craves and needs the communion of partnership.
This is another tough one that I'm not qualified to take on. But I will say that Callister is simply repeating the official doctrine of the church and it's important that the church be clear on what their official position is. I will say that a life-time (or large portion of a lifetime) of singleness is something that does happen to some people, gay or straight. And navigating decades of a single life while maintaining complete celibacy is a challenge, and we should have compassion and understanding for those who fail. Again, the way of holiness and sanctification is not easy and nobody lives up to it fully and mostly we're just trying to grow and evolve over our lives.

Having said that, it's one thing to have the hope of an eventual marriage always before you even if that hope is never satisfied, and quite another to have it removed completely. There should be even more understanding and compassion given to those within the LGBTQ community having to face that kind of choice, especially for those who find themselves within a Mormon culture that gives them very little space for a full and fulfilling life. I hope, we as a church culture, can make more room for these precious brothers and sisters who can and should enrich our lives with their presence within it - even if lifelong celibacy just is not practical for them.

I don't have much experience in this area, but I feel like there should be room even for gay couples. Callister only excludes Church positions and temple recommends, but this exclusion is not really that wide. They are still free to attend services, participate in activities, perform service, and be a part of the community if they choose to do so. Of course, there is a broader issue within church culture that might make this difficult for many and I hope this is resolved and Mormons learn true Christ-like compassion for those who choose not to or cannot live up to these or other standards.

The blessings of living a clean and moral life are over­ whelming. Such a life will bring self­ confidence and self ­esteem. It will result in a clear conscience. It will make us eligible for a spouse of like purity and will make the expression of the procreative power in the marriage relationship sweeter and more rewarding because we have reserved it for the time the Lord Himself has endorsed.

Finally, Callister ends by saying that if we follow the advice given in the talk we will be “eligible for a spouse of like purity.” I cannot emphasize enough how damaging it is for members of the church who have sexually explored outside the realms of marriage, then gone through the appropriate repentance steps to still consider themselves as “impure” because of their past actions.
Another tough one. I completely agree with Parker here. In Callister's article, he just finishes talking about repentance and the power of the Atonement to change one's life when mistakes have been made. And I admit it sounds contradictory when he then pivots to living up to the ideal of not making serious mistakes at all. I think it is better to live a life free from serious mistakes, but its tricky, especially as a parent, to help guide your children past major pits while still conveying the message that if they fall into a pit, you will be there, without judgment, to help lift them up and out.

Again, the goal of this life and it's a life-long quest, is complete sanctification. Thoughts that never waver, eyes that never wander and a complete sexual devotion reserved exclusively for the one you've committed you're entire life too. This is the challenge for everyone and it is a high standard. But I'm guessing most of us have fallen short of that and depend on the repentance process, continuously to get back on the path and to continually strive to live up to the standards Christ has set.

And after all, the church's role is to offer hope. Hope to those who are just starting out that they are more capable than they realize and they have can lean on Christ to get the strength and protection to resist temptation. But also hope to those who have already made mistakes, that they can overcome them and also experience the same blessings of a sanctified, pure and holy life as those who never made these same mistakes.

Parker concludes with this:
The way that sexual standards are presented in this type of talk is unrealistic and sets people up for failure. Very few will be able to achieve them at the level of rigidity in which they are communicated.  And if they can, there may be other factors at hand – such as having an asexual response (an entirely different topic altogether).
I hope I've made it clear that sexual standards, but even beyond sex, the standards our church has set is unrealistic and will set up people for failure. This is completely true and I believe intentional. The standard is to become like Christ, but our doctrine teaches that failure is baked into the experience of life. We will fail but that failure should not lead to despair. And that's the other, complementary message of our church. That there is always hope, and that hope is in Christ.

Will high standards cause more anxiety and depression for some driving them as Parker claims to a therapist? Likely, but again, thank goodness for therapists. The way forward is strive ever higher toward a more holy life.

The Book of Mormon teaches
Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world,  yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men,  which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God. And it came to pass that Ether did prophesy great and marvelous things unto the people, which they did not believe, because they saw them not.
That's true, hope and faith give us charity and compassion, both for ourselves and for others, which lead us to abound in good works and to glorify God. We will keep making mistakes, but we will, over time, come closer to God. That is the goal of this life.

I want to finish by quoting from a beautiful essay from Douthat who covers this topic beautifully:
But Gordis is raising an issue that any tradition-minded religious body needs to think through: Namely, how to make its hardest rules seem like aspirations rather than just judgments, and how to deal with the many fine personal gradations that can exist between orthodoxy and apostasy, fidelity and dissent. And I suspect there are many Catholics who would be classified as “liberal” who want something like what he’s describing in Modern Orthodoxy from their church. That is, they want room to dissent from a teaching or fail to live up to it in practice, but they don’t necessarily want the church to change that teaching so that the dissonance or tension they feel simply goes away.
And that is the essence of how we should take Callister's message, that these are aspirations, not judgments and we all have to deal with "many fine personal gradations that can exist between [complete] orthodoxy and apostasy, fidelity and dissent". We all come with our own personal weaknesses, limitations and misunderstandings.

In politics, this should make us more willing to listen to another who may disagree because likely we are wrong and most definitely limited. With religion, it should make us more willing to get down on our knees and listen to God. Either way, humility, compassion, and patience is what will get us through.