Mormonism: Monastic, or Pragmatic?

The LDS church is very unpopular with homosexuals these days.  I work with several gays and it’s been difficult to find ways to explain my beliefs to them and others who sympathize with the gay agenda.  I myself have also struggled with my own beliefs on the topic.  While there are no easy answers, the following paradigm has helped me to define the issue in a way that offers some perspective:

All religious traditions can be described as having either monastic or pragmatic elements.   The LDS tradition includes both.  Understanding how the two interact can help us to put some of the problematic and complicated elements of our faith into greater perspective.

Monastic

Monastic traditions, in their broadest sense, are characterized by their peculiarities.  A group of participants willingly submit to various commandments and practices that serve to separate them from the world, set them apart, make them a peculiar people, saints, “a chosen generation.”  Monastic traditions are characterized by ritual: practices which may have no specific pragmatic purpose, but allow the participant to demonstrate humility and obedience in return for spiritual benefits.  Examples include the Sabbath Day, Temple ritual, prayer, meditation, baptism, sacrament, etc.

Within monastic traditions, the practices and commandments may vary, from Old Testament circumcision, to New Testament celibacy, to Mormon polygamy.  What the practices are is not necessarily as important as the humility the participant demonstrates by submitting themselves to the peculiarities of the particular order, as revealed by God to the prophet for the order.

The practices may be invigorating and inspiring, but on the surface, they may seem “unnatural,” pointless, or even impossible.  But this doesn’t mater, because the purpose of the monastic tradition is not to promote mortal efficiency and self-fulfillment.  The point is to deliberately separate oneself from the world in order to spiritually attune oneself with the kingdom “not of this world.”

Jesus began his mortal ministry with a call that was purely monastical, “come follow me…leave your nets…let the dead bury the dead.”   It may sound like insanity to some to abandon family and work, but when you hear the voice of God, you follow, no matter where it may lead you or what it might ask of you.

Pragmatic Religion

In a pragmatic religion, participants obey commandments and engage in practices which they believe are specifically designed to make their lives more fulfilling, and that will protect them from the evils of the world.  The purpose of all these commandments and practices is to promote the most basic of all human desires: happiness.  This is the spirit of the Proclamation on the Family: “Happiness in family life is most likely to be achieved when founded upon the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”  The Book of Mormon’s cardinal law is pragmatic: “If you keep my commandments, you shall prosper in the land.

Pragmatic religions claim to be based on universal principles which apply to all mankind.  Prophets of pragmatic religions are not merely prophets for a specific “chosen people” but are prophets for the whole world.

The God of a pragmatic religion is a God of reason and order, who lovingly provides principles and prophets for their protection in a dangerous and uncertain world.  His laws are reasonable, rational, and self-evident.

Mormonism: A Mixture of Pragmatism and Monasticism

Mormonism incorporates elements of both traditions.  Individual commandments can be defined in both ways.  For example, the Word of Wisdom is a “pragmatic” word to the wise, designed to protect the saints from the “evil designs of wicked men in the last days.”  But it also can be interpreted as a sign which sets Mormons apart from the world, and offers a test of humility and obedience to God’s latter day church and his prophets.

Homosexuality in the Pragmatic View

One’s attitude to homosexuality will be entirely different whether you approach your religion pragmatically or monastically.  A completely ideologically pragmatic Mormon will likely consider homosexuality to be unnatural to the reasonable and self-evident order of God.  As Paul described it in the New Testament, it is “against nature…unseemly.”   In the pragmatic view, homosexuals are expected to abandon these unnatural perversions and embrace the universal, natural, and self-evident order of creation: monogamous heterosexuality.  Homosexuality, because it is “against nature,” must have necessarily developed through sin, and therefore, by repenting, and coming to Christ, one can overcome it, and obtain all the wonderful blessings of marriage and family that God so generously offers us all, if not in this life, then the life to come. A Pragmatic Mormon embraces the principles of marriage and family as universal and ordained of God, and cannot conceive of a God that might deliberately create people unfit for heterosexual marriage, or justify some people in forgoing marriage by giving them an incompatible sexual orientation.

Thus a purely pragmatic Mormon finds himself opposed to the scientific and sociological consensus that some homosexuals are indeed, “born that way,” and that homosexuality is sometimes irreversible.  A pragmatic Mormon therefore, must either consider the science to be wrong, or else confront the frightening idea that perhaps his own beliefs are wrong.

Homosexuality in the Monastic View

A monastic Mormon has no such problems.  Already committed to the idea that the “natural man is an enemy to God,” it doesn’t bother a monastic Mormon that homosexuals were perhaps “born that way.”  The arbitrary nature of a God who would create a religion which denies the sexual and emotional fulfillment of marriage to some and not to others, is consistent with the God of a “peculiar people” who demands sacrifice from His saints in uneven ways throughout the ages: martyrdom for some, polygamy for others, tithing for some, complete consecration for others.  Additionally, a monastic Mormon will not see homosexuality as an issue outside of Mormonism, because monastic commandments are peculiar to our particular order, serving to separate us, and do not apply to those outside the order.

Monastic Mormons, like pragmatists, will insist that Homosexuals who want to be fully participate in the LDS church only engage in sex within a heterosexual marriage.  But not because this is the “universal natural order,” but because this is the commandment of God for this particular order of Mormonism.

Concluding Thoughts

I think most Mormons may view their religion a bit too pragmatically, without enough understanding of the monastic element.  A typical Mormon with a profile on mormon.org will claim to be a normal guy, with a wife and kinds, who works hard, plays hard, and finds fulfillment in his church service and the good, honest principles it encourages.   Yet in Gospel Doctrine class, this same man will talk frankly about the extraordinary and unnatural sacrifices expected of saints in former dispensations, trying a bit awkwardly to “liken scriptures to himself.”  He will talk about “trying to become like Jesus” but perhaps without fully considering the question Jesus asked Peter, when Peter said he would follow Him: “Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Which Peter actually did drink of, because he also was crucified.)  He may not have truly considered what it might mean to “deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow me,” because the sacrifices of this dispensation are much more mild than they have been in the past.

Confronting the reality of irreversible or inborn homosexuality offers this typical pragmatically oriented Mormon a chance to confront what it might truly mean to “deny yourself and pick up your cross” in today’s world, a true monastic commitment.  A gay man, trying to be a Mormon is most likely living a sacrifice of Biblical proportions.  If we can perceive this, we can see that God is the same today, yesterday and forever.  For even in our day, He tries his people in sometimes extraordinary and incomprehensible ways.  We can begin to abandon the arrogant assumption that His ways are always self-evident, and instead embrace the truth that His ways are higher than our ways.  As Jacob says in the Book of Mormon:  “How unsearchable are the depths of the mysteries of him; and it is impossible that man should find out all his ways.”

Homosexuality offers us a chance to explore the purely monastic elements of our faith.  As we do, I think we will find greater love and acceptance of our gay brothers and sisters, and appreciate in a profound way the sacrifice they are making to be counted as one with the saints, the peculiar Mormon people.

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