Giving Up On The Feminine Divine

2013 03 25 Asherah TreeNot long ago I wrote a piece about mommy blogs, feminism, and the publishing industry. My basic thesis was that if you believe in the reality of historical oppression of women, you ought to be deeply skeptical of the current trend to define gender equality as equal representation of men and women in institutions which are inextricably connected to the historical oppression. To the extent that women have to conform to the expectations of those institutions, our haste to create a better world for women may in some cases be doing the exact opposite. I realize that part of the argument is often that the institutions need to change, but in practice the benchmark one hears is simply “how many women CEOs are there?” and not “how successfully have we reformed corporate culture to be accepting of women?” The benchmarks don’t matter if they aren’t measuring the right thing.

It turns out that there’s some solid research to back the theory that looking for equal representation in all institutions may actually be anti-feminist. In a paper for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers conducting a cross-cultural study of 55 nations found that:

Overall, higher levels of human development–including long and healthy life, equal access to knowledge and education, and economic wealth–were the main nation-level predictors of larger sex differences in personality.

The researchers proposed that this “unintuitive result” could be explained by “personality traits of men and women being less constrained and more able to naturally diverge in developed nations.” In other words, given access to greater freedom, men and women differentiate more rather than less. (The entire article is fascinating, and I found a full-text pdf here.)

This research should not be confused as a defense of the status quo. That there are very real problems of gender equality is beyond reasonable dispute. (My wife, a PhD student in computer science, sent me yet another depressing example this weekend.) What it emphasizes is the extent to which equal representation is not an intrinsically legitimate goal. Free to follow their own inclinations, men and women make systematically different choices. This means that in a truly free society, we would not expect to find a 50/50 male/female split across the board.

When it comes to secular institutions, the most troubling realization is that the greater the focus on women’s equality (as opposed to gender equality generally), the more harm may be done to women. For example: I hear quite a lot about the dearth of women in engineering or science fields, but much less about the need to get men into elementary education. (Note: not “nothing”, but “much less”.) Thus, the reflexive desire for a 50/50 representation can inadvertently result in attempts to masculinize women, or at least to hold women’s success hostage to masculine expectations.

This is not, in and of itself, an argument against ordaining women. For starters, the Church is not a secular, man-made institution. In addition, the fact that some gender disparities are the result of free choice doesn’t imply that all of them are. But when it comes to ordaining women to the Priesthood, I have two specific concerns.

The first is that a logical endpoint would be a substantial reduction in the meaningfulness of gender within Mormon theology and culture. This problem is not necessarily insurmountable. If the priesthood became truly gender-neutral, then perhaps a male equivalent to the Relief Society could be formed. The priesthood would be shared, and each gender would retain an individual institution.

The second problem is, to me, much deeper. Implicit in the word “priesthood” is maleness. It strikes me as very strange indeed that those who seek to ordain women are looking for access to the priesthood instead of a priestesshood. In this, the parallel to the secular mistakes of gender equality are manifest: the hasty search for equal outcome privileges masculinity at the expense of the feminine.

An Asherah figurine.

An Asherah figurine.

I think a clear-eyed approach to the question must acknowledge that the maleness of the priesthood may have to do with its source: Jesus Christ and ultimately Heavenly Father. The Priesthood is sometimes defined as the power to act in His name. Why would women seek that out, instead of a power to act in Her name?

According to the Mormon conception of priesthood authority, every Mormon priesthood holder can trace his priesthood lineage (in theory if not in practice) back to the source. And that source is male. It seems to me that seeking this authority for women may necessarily involve turning their backs on Heavenly Mother.

Of course this is easier said than done. We have so very little revealed about Heavenly Mother, and the access to the Priesthood seems so tantalizingly close. It’s right there. I don’t know why we know so little about our Heavenly Mother (although I have some ideas), and I’m troubled by it, but I don’t think the reaction can be to simply forget Her entirely because she is presently more distant.

This attitude is also reflected, in my mind, in the way that motherhood is casually equated with fatherhood as though the grammatical parallel necessarily implied some deep, metaphysical equality. It does not. The intimate biological connection between mother and child–a truly marvelous and deeply costly miracle–starts at conception and continues after birth. It is an intimate mingling of bodies and selves, the equivalent of which no man can ever know. Its effects are profound, far outlasting the nursing stages of young childhood: No young man, dying of his wounds on a foreign battlefield, cries out for his father. In our deepest pain we always seek out our mothers.

(In fact, I wonder if one reason for the relative remoteness of our Heavenly Mother is that Her proximity might counteract the Veil. Home is where mother is, after all, and if leaving home is essential to this phase of our existence, a temporarily diminished relationship to our Heavenly Mother may be an unavoidable aspect of it.)

2013 03 25 Advanced Technology

A light example of the supremacy of motherhood over fatherhood.

That the supremacy of motherhood over fatherhood is based in biology should not be debasing if, as Alma told Korihor, “all things” testify of God, “even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it.” On the contrary, as Valerie Hudson argues, biology is prior to priesthood. The grand purpose of the Church, after all, is to unite all human beings into one unbroken chain of family relationships. From that perspective, it is the role of mothers that is central, and the role of the formal Church—including the priesthood—that is auxiliary.

I am not actually suggesting that motherhood is the equivalent of the priesthood and therefore there’s no reason for change. I think it’s obvious that motherhood is not the equivalent to fatherhood, but I am not at all certain that it could be the equivalent to priesthood. In our current understanding of the terms, it doesn’t seem to be. What I’m suggesting is that our search for equality ought to involve a reconsideration of the terms and institutions available to use as opposed to merely a reapportionment of what we have before us. It also ought to embrace the reality of sexual dimorphism in God’s creation. Viktor Frankl said this about human individuals:

If all men were perfect, then every individual would be replaceable by anyone else. From the very imperfection of men follows the indispensability and inexchangeability of each individual

The logic could apply to gender as well, however. Rather than perfection of imperfection of individuals, it could be the complementarity (that is, the existence of differences) of genders from which each derives its independent and equal value. A world of complementary equality (which is not the world we live in today) seems more theologically and psychologically satisfying to me than a world of exchangeable sameness, and ordaining women to the priesthood does not seem to move us in that direction.

57 comments for “Giving Up On The Feminine Divine

  1. “Implicit in the word “priesthood” is maleness.”

    But that doesn’t mean that the priesthood itself is necessarily masculine. It could simply be an androgynous power that has been given a masculine name because it was historically associated with very patriarchal societies which would not have accepted recognizing the feminine aspect of that power. To bless and heal have long been the work of women, even if they have been accused of witchcraft for such practices. I like the idea of a complimentary rather than a unisex priesthood, and I’m fine with the term “priestesshood.”

  2. So I realize that your cross-cultural study was mostly just throat-clearing for the rest of your essay, which was intriguing and certainly food for thought. But I’d rather talk about the cross-cultural study.

    Now, if its true that the more developed the nation, the greater the sex differences in personality, is it necessarily the case the its due to greater choice and therefore greater authenticity in self-expression? Not necessarily.

    It could also be the case that more marked gender roles leads to prosperity. I’m betting that at certain developmental points one could make a case for that, but its probably not true in any straightforward way. For one thing, most prosperous nations are ones that took advantage of the labor force expansion of moving women into the workforce (and the accompanying drop in childbirths, which meant a temporary demographic dividend: an outsize increase in the ratio of labor-force participants to dependents, which meant GDP). And while that demographic dividend has to paid for as the population ages and smaller youth age cohorts become smaller working-age cohorts, we’re not quite there yet.

    It could also be that there’s a mating-market explanation. In less prosperous circumstances, perhaps temporal concerns drive marriage decisions, so there’s less pressure on personality. But in prosperous countries, coupling is more financially optional, so relationship concerns drive mating–which means there would be more pressure on personality to be masculine or feminine.

    Finally, my guess is that for biological and psychological reasons, even for spiritual reasons, people have a need to be male or female as part of their make-up. So, paradoxically, those countries where temporal gender roles have most broken down are the ones where personality gender roles have most been embraced.

    Assuming the study is accurate, of course.

  3. One implication is that any effort for a unisex priesthood could only succeed formally. In practice, men and women would take steps to differentiate the way they do it.

  4. “A world of complementary equality (which is not the world we live in today) seems more theologically and psychologically satisfying to me than a world of exchangeable sameness, and ordaining women to the priesthood does not seem to move us in that direction.”

    Nathaniel, I believe that many priesthood holders would agree with you. Our wives (within the marriage covenant) and other women (within our religious community) complement us in so many ways. Thanks for your articulate and intelligent analysis of this issue. I will be thinking about this piece for some time. And best of luck to your wife in her PhD studies.

  5. It just seems the cleanest to go for a heavenly mother complete with a higher level of priesthood for women than any currently available for men. It avoids unisex. It has a certain meek will inherit the Earth felling to it. It potentially provides for some new keys. It is much easier to deal with the old ways by just exceeding and transcending them.

  6. Nathaniel, I think your assertions about the inferiority of fatherhood to motherhood are misguided. From my observations of my husband, he has been as transcendently affected by fatherhood as I have been by motherhood. I watched his “birth” as a father when he held each of our two children just moments after birth, and I have watched him through the years as he has loved, guided, and nurtured them. Whatever inherent “advantage” I may have had with my ability to birth and breastfeed our babies, he has made up for in the relationship he has built with them. I believe my children would be as apt to call out to him in their utmost extremity as they would to me. And I view the fatherhood of my Heavenly Father (which is the role in which he has chosen to stand toward us, not “Chief Priesthood Bearer” or anything else) with equal reverence to the motherhood of my Heavenly Mother. Motherhood is much more than pregnancy and childbirth, and I believe that my dear friends with adopted children are also able to nurture and bond with their children as well as I am, even without the “intimate mingling of bodies and selves” that pregnancy entails. Fatherhood and motherhood are equally noble roles. Parenthood is a shared task, and the role of *parents* is central.

  7. Thanks for taking up a conversation of the where-is-my-Heavenly-Mother question, which I’ve been posing around the Mormon Archipelago, for example here in Times and Seasons in prior postings, e.g.

    I’m still absorbing this and reading the links and hope to come back to it when I can to comment.

  8. Are men and women different? YES. Are men and women the same? YES. Think of two bell curves that are partially overlapping and partially non-overlapping based on traits. The hetero overlaps produce some reverse role marriages an exception the church has much difficulty conceptualizing, accepting and embracing and the non-overlap delights church conservatives because it clearly demonstrates traditional eternal(?) roles. The homo variables seem to boggle the collective brethren well beyond any comprehension at all even given animal examples. The whole argument becomes ridiculous when viewed with just a little nuance instead of traditionalist’s black and white thinking.

    If women were the same as men there would be no advantage to the body of the church to include them in governance and ordinances since it would change nothing at all. It is their difference that offers something to the church in general and it is LDS men’s sense of entitlement, indifference, subconscious chauvinism and lack of experience knowing large numbers of women in any significant depth that screams for change! If you doubt their callousness in this area consider forgetting to invite women to pray in General Conference for a mere 182 years!

    Priesthood? Priestesshood? Who cares what it’s called it’s all God’s power. What women need is a meaningful voice in church governance and a workable structure will emerge, priesthood or priestesshood will be required to get there.

  9. Sarah Familia, I am curious as to whether you view pregnancy and childbirth having any significance, beyond biological cause and effect?
    Also, I don’t think Nathaniel is trying to reduce motherhood to pregnancy and childbirth (or that co-parenting is not essential); but I think the implications of what he is saying compels those who equate fatherhood and motherhood to explain that additional element.

  10. Following in the vein of G.K. Chesterton – who noted that people who cannot see the use of a thing are the last people who should be allowed to reform it – I’m going to simply point out that patriarchy exists and has existed for a reason. And the reason cannot be boiled down to simple-minded blathering about how the “boys decided to keep all the toys to themselves.”

    Patriarchy exists in human society for a simple reason – a method for keeping men involved in human society when, biologically, they have little motivation to do so.

    Just look at the species from a purely biological standpoint and dismiss all these sentient notions of morality or fairness or what-have-you for a second and just look at the brute human animal.

    Societies are advantageous to human beings in the aggregate, but that doesn’t mean that creation of the society is immediately advantageous to human individuals – especially if the creation of that society creates a lot of work and bother when you could be out hunting deer, or eating nuts and berries. Biologically, the woman automatically has a reason to want society. She’s going to have kids, that means a safe nest, that means protection from predators for offspring who literally couldn’t run from a predator to save their lives. Offspring who won’t be able to fend for themselves for nearly twelve years or more – unlike that horse over there who is ready to do that at age one. So the woman automatically wants society as part of her biological mandate.

    No morals here – just plain old brute science and Darwin and all that.

    Now, to get that society, the woman will have to band together with other adults. But here’s the kicker, the only adults who have an incentive to band together with her are other women protecting their nests as well. So you have a big commune of women, swell… but now what about sex, more children, and the biological mandate to continue the species? We need to get the men interested in this project somehow.

    Well, we could lure them in with sex. After all, they have a biological drive for that. But that doesn’t make them stick around. The man could just come in and have sex with what women he wants in the community (we might call it rape, depending on his approach), and then move on to somewhere else. Or if he were more inclined to take the long view, he might claim a group of women for his needs, and kill or maim all the competing males in the neighborhood. Guess that could work. Kind of sucks for all the other males though – not to mention providing a pretty bleak future for the male children in the new society.

    The reasoning goes on like this, but you get the idea. You’ve got to figure out a stable method of getting males who have no innate biological mandate for protecting offspring and nurturing a society where they can grow, to stick around and do their fair share in social participation – instead of going off wandering, scrounging, raping and fighting, like they’d rather do. How do you do that?

    The answer was the patriarchal system.

    Men gave up free range of action in exchange for a measure of control over the system. Involvement in the system.

    Now, I’m not talking approvingly or disapprovingly here. I’m stating these as neutral data points about sex-relations. But these things do have to be accounted for when we talk about re-writing gender relationships.

    What incentives do we give men to stay involved in society and family, once we take away the patriarchal reward system? What replacement are men getting?

    This can have real social and religious consequences. It wouldn’t be hard for me to dig up articles on the exodus of men from religious participation. I think there is a reason for that. There is currently no established reward for men to be involved in these social structures. So they’ve just decided to take off and do their own thing.

    The social trend in the last 30 years has been for women to take over the instruments of authority in society and the positions of responsibility and control. The men have, in aggregate, responded to this trend as might be expected. They see “oh look – the women are having the kids, and the women are ALSO taking charge of the family system! You go girl! And see you later!”

    And off they go. There’s a reason so many of our children today are being raised by “empowered”, do-it-all single mothers. The men have fewer incentives to stay – so they don’t stay. Lament it if you want – but there it is. What’s in it for the guys?

    I’ll just propose that there is probably a REASON that the LDS Church has probably the highest rate of male participation of any major American religion, while the rest of religious America has become largely a landscape dotted by empowered females, and a distinct lack of men in the picture.

    Now, none of this is meant as an argument for NOT equalizing the genders or putting women in authority, or whatnot.

    All I’m saying is that there is a reason the patriarchy exists, and if you take it away there WILL be consequences – this is not just about what we can do for Mormon women. It has to also be about what we can do for Mormon MEN, or you are just asking for trouble.

    What will keep the men in the LDS Church when they are no longer special, or even, quite frankly, needed at all? Do you have a plan for this? Don’t knock over a fence until you know why it’s there in the first place. Once you know why it’s there, you may be in a good position to knock it down.

    Anyway, it bears some thought.

  11. It took me quite awhile to reconcile to myself that I did not experience the “intimate biological connection between mother and child–a truly marvelous and deeply costly miracle–[that] starts at conception and continues after birth”. I fully expected to, seeing as this was Motherhood we’re talking about, and knowing how we talk about Motherhood. It was very confusing and disappointing to me, to be honest. I love my four children deeply, but I honestly don’t think it is in a different way than my husband loves them. He has been a completely involved parent at every step of the way, and like Sarah Familia I think they would be equally likely to call out for him as for me. I acknowledge that many women feel that special biological bond, and I was as surprised as anyone that I really didn’t. I felt both deficient and robbed for awhile, then I just got over it and accepted my love for and devotion to my children for what it is. So my response to Rachael’s question (#9) based on my lived experience would probably lean towards cause and effect. (And I recognize that makes me sound rather callous and unmotherlike, which underlines what a loaded question it is.)

  12. One more thing I wanted to note – men themselves have also been the victims of the patriarchal system as well – not just women.

    Women have been cloistered, pedestaled and dismissed from decision-making, coerced and all that. But they haven’t been drafted to go have their arms hacked off in battle either. Throughout history, being a male has usually been a high-risk proposition. High mortality rates and a high degree of risk-taking. Men have been exploited by the powerful as much as anyone. Furthermore, it can even be argued that certain systems of patriarchy have brutalized men and emotionally harmed them as well.

    I tend to feel more sympathy for the rape victim in most instances. But keep in mind the rapist himself has often been brutalized and harmed in the past as well.

    The patriarchal system – as it has been enacted – can be said to have brutalized both men and women in large amounts. I do think a revolutionary new paradigm is needed.

    I’m just not confident that “hey guys – give us girls our fair share of the status quo” is the right answer.

  13. SethR – That kind of throws out Matriarchal societies where men were used as protectors, but not commodities or baby material. Your reasoning also says any woman who works should expect to have her marriage break up, because her husband won’t feel necessary any more.

    There probably were good reasons for establishing patriarchy in the heirarchy of the Church, and I suspect many of those reasons had to do with what the majority of leaders (and people) were used to, rather than the other models seen in other religions and begun with the original organizing of the Relief Society (quorum or Priestesses, and all that).

    To make a parallel, there was a good reason for limiting the Israelites to the Aaronic Priesthood, but those reasons did not mean it should stay that way forever.

  14. I think those matriarchal societies were rather anomalous when you view the broad sweep of human trends. Also, it does no good to raise them examples without looking in depth at how they treated men and women in them. Some matriarchal systems actually weren’t as matriarchal as they are popularly advertised, for instance.

    Your remark about “any woman who works” is off the mark. Because you are trying to narrow things down to the individual level of “any woman.” I wasn’t talking about individuals. I was talking about society as an aggregate.

    It may be perfectly true for you to state “well, I wouldn’t leave my wife or neglect the relationship just because she was working.” Neither would I.

    But you and I are not the margins of the equation either. The margin may be some high school dropout in Tuscaloosa.

    Let me give you an unrelated example. SPAM emails. Just about everyone reading this blog is probably smart enough not to wire money to some stranded tourist in Nigeria. Or click on that link to “enlarge your manhood.”

    Yet SPAM email continues to flow. Why?

    Because AT THE MARGINS people are responding, and responding in large enough numbers to make it profitable.

    Never use yourself and your own scruples as an example of what will or will not happen at the macro level of society.

    These decisions will have impacts – even if you or I simply “cannot imagine” behaving in such a way.

  15. Seth R.,
    Thank you for the review of conservative political philosophy with a little anthropology thrown in complete with trickle down benefit theory! OMG it’s the end of men! Let’s all feel sorry for the end of privileged white men! So what of Maslow and his hierarchy? Shall women be held back from achieving self-actualization so that lazy privileged white men can continue to muddle through and tell themselves they’re doing something meaningful by presiding?

  16. “I don’t know why we know so little about our Heavenly Mother (although I have some ideas), and I’m troubled by it, …”

    It’s understandable if you feel the following question is a threadjack, and if so, say so, but I’m curious to know what your ideas are on why we know so little about Heavenly Mother.

    “… it is… the role of the formal Church—including the priesthood—that is auxiliary.”

    My Mission President, as I recall, once responded to the question of women being ordained to the Priesthood (and this was way back in 1975 or thereabouts) by saying that being a Priesthood holder was mainly about dealing with a bunch of boring adminstrative questions and problems, and why would a woman want THAT?

  17. I was adopted. My sister was not. She thinks I’m the favorite, biological bond or no. Personally, I honestly think (as the bio mom of all six of my kids) that childbirth has very little to do with the bond. I think it’s time and sacrifice. Since I’m a stay-at-home mom, I spend far more time with my kids than my husband can and I know them extremely well because of that investment.

    Mark N., (#16) may I please refer you to dumb reasons for exclusively male preiesthood.

  18. Well Howard, at least you are unapologetic in your bigotry – I’ll give you that much.

  19. Seth R.
    Thanks for your sacrifice to society allowing the less fortunate to enjoy some of what you spill.

  20. If it’s fine with everyone else, I’m going to be ignoring Howard from this point – since he’s obviously determined to turn this into a personal spitting contest.

  21. Nothing personal Seth I was just mirroring back how some of your philosophy works but without the gloss. Peace.

  22. Interestingly, some feminists have argued that the historical developments of patriarchy and sexual differentiation are inherently linked, pointing to less technologically advanced cultures that have more egalitarian gender/sex arrangements (that’s not to say *interchangeable* sex roles – more often than not they are very distinct) and arguing that the rise of agriculture and urbanization favored men’s monopolizing of power. These proponents would not be surprised by the findings you bring up; more technology means more opportunity for differentiation.

  23. Michael, that actually makes some sense. In a tribal hunter-gatherer society, people do seem to be more in proximity to each others’ work. Whereas in a more complex social model, it’s easier for different classes of people to be cut off from each other and have less interaction. It’s easier to dismiss the work of someone you don’t encounter much in your own work.

    Which might mean the different professions, or skill sets would have less interaction with each other. The more complex the society gets, the more potential for contempt of those outside your skill set.

  24. “I tend to feel more sympathy for the rape victim in most instances. But keep in mind the rapist himself has often been brutalized and harmed in the past as well.” –Seth R.

    You’re freaking joking me, right? First of all, I have no idea what this comment is even doing in the context of this discussion (or, for that matter, ANY discussion). Second of all, just…what the hell?

    “Most instances?”???? Enlighten me on which instances a rape victim doesn’t deserve more sympathy than the rapist.

    I have no more words. At least not any more words that are appropriate for a church blog.

  25. OK – all instances. Sorry. I don’t always convey my meaning the way I want. It happens with typing.

    But yes, rapists themselves were often abused in their own pasts. Are you telling me I shouldn’t feel sorry for that?

  26. Someone with “a rape victim” for a screen name may not be able to transcend their personal experience and outrage of rape with enough forgiveness to comprehend that the abusers society wants to punish so badly today were earlier in their life often the abused society feels so sorry for. A rapist, an abuser generally has a psychological problem they did not cause and often were the victim of abuse themselves. So when rape or abuse takes place there are often two victims not just one.

  27. In addition it is *possible* for a rape or abuse victim to be as psychologically dysfunctional or even more dysfunctional than their attacker/abuser in that prior early childhood abuse trained them them to subconsciously crave and seek abuse.

  28. Another great post. I agree, Nathaniel, that the concern for equal representation can mask structural problems that require reform (see Susan Pinker’s “The Sexual Paradox”), but a practical answer would be that reform isn’t likely until more women are in positions, like corporate governance, to help demand or put pressure on institutions to become more than just a gentleman’s club. In fact, your research example seems to bear that out–as more opportunities are available to men and women, they tend to become more distinct. But you sometimes can’t get more opportunities for everyone unless some start within the cultural parameters available to them.

    This could extend to your point about the male-source of the priesthood. You are right that a unisex priesthood under the authority of a patriarchal God seems out of sorts, but perhaps the only way to expand the theology of the female divine is to begin from the bottom up, as it were, with female ordination?

    In regards to biology, any induction from how things “work” will always be tendentious. Even if everything testifies of God’s existence, that doesn’t mean we can draw clear conclusions about what that means (existence is its own form of testimony). The power to bear children is enormous, but how far do we want to take that? Is our relationship with our heavenly parents eternally imbalanced? The “just-so” stories that Seth wants to tell are at the extreme end of the problem: thanks for letting me know that evolution “intended” for me to be an absent father, but I’ll go ahead and ignore those impulses. For a church that calls for putting off the natural man, we can’t seem to put it back on fast enough when gender comes up.

  29. I hope the “threadjacking troll” title hasn’t been bestowed on me, here. Bethany doesn’t really specify. I frequently post on this blog under my own name. Obviously, in this situation, I am unwilling to do that, but I wasn’t about to let such an offensive comment fly by without responding to it. So, if you think I am threadjacking, just skip this comment and move along. This response is written as a response to a couple of individuals, not as a response to the post.

    I just think this “poor men under the patriarchal system” argument is nonsense, especially if you are going as far as to extend sympathy to men who are *choosing* to commit crimes and harm women (and, yes, there are women who rape men, but statistically that is not the norm). Yes, there are rapists who have been abused and who have rough backgrounds. I can “transcend my own rape experience” enough to say it is sad when any individual is abused in any situation. However, blaming these individual’s actions on the damage they receive under the patriarchal system minimizes individual responsibility and is extremely demeaning for the victim (me, in this case), as is the statement that the victim probably has psychological damage that caused them to walk into a rape situation in the first place. I am always amazed and disheartened at these sorts of attitudes toward victims. In this context, it is particularly infuriating to me.

    There are some problems with patriarchal attitudes as they relate to sex abuse within the church, as well. In my particular case (date-rape, no prior history on my part of any psychological damage, involvement in abusive relationships, promiscuity, immodesty, any of the plethora of things that victims are often blamed for), I was given that lovely quote from that forgiveness book that indicated that I was at fault for not being dead, and then I was required to go through the church disciplinary process over the next six months for my immoral actions. On a side note, my bishop was a lawyer who apparently missed that bishop’s class on the requirement to report abuse and sexual assault, not to mention failing to pay attention to my insistence that I had said NO. The fact that my attacker may or may not have suffered previous abuse should not have impeded his ability to understand basic English. I am glad that the church seems to have improved over the last decade or so in how they deal with victims, but the underlying attitudes that place the blame on the shoulders of the victims still apparently prevail.

    Does a patriarchal system harm men? Maybe. I don’t know. I have my doubts about the whole idea, but I’m not going to get into my thoughts on that. But here’s what I believe a patriarchal system DOES create. It creates a culture where rapists are given sympathy and are made out to be victims. Where they are not held sufficiently responsible for the damage they have done. Anyone can look at recent news reports on the Steubenville case to see that rape culture isn’t something feminists are making up. The system creates men who feel entitled to discuss these “poor rapists” in a blog forum, while simultaneously blaming the victims for the crime and portraying them as people with psychological damage that disqualifies them from analyzing their own experience. And it creates a system where victims don’t press charges, don’t speak out, and don’t post in blog forums under their own names because there are just too many lingering attitudes indicating that they were to blame, that they are somehow less-than. I have to say, it has been MUCH easier for me to forgive my rapist than it is for me to forgive the bystanders who hold attitudes and opinions that preserve the status quo of the system.

    In any case, I hope you will consider this the next time you decide to open this particular can of worms. I hope you will also consider your status (which I am assuming based on basic statistics, forgive me if I am somehow wrong) as men who A) have not been raped, B) will never be raped, and C) could not possibly fathom what it’s like to survive rape and then to hear about how it’s not really the rapist’s fault. There are a lot of great articles and posts out there on acknowledging privilege. You might want to do a google search and go read a couple of those.

    Now, please… There are some very thoughtful gems in this post to discuss and I am enjoying the majority of the other comments on this thread. Please carry on.

  30. arapevictim,
    You may want to rephrase your accusation; the word *probably* was not used by me, if you think it came from me please reread #27 & 28 for the correct meaning. I do not deny the existence of a rape culture. Portraying abusers and rapists as people with psychological damage speaks to the solution without diminishing their victims. Are you arguing they donot have psychological damage? However there are degrees of rape and I would agree that date rape would generally be in a different category than the non date rape that was being discussed.

  31. Actually, I don’t think the patriarchal culture necessarily engenders sympathy for the rapist.

    Sometimes it does. But I’d say half the time, it results in outraged male family members beating the offender to death with crowbars. I’m talking throughout history, of course, not just modern America. I think historically there are examples that go either way.

  32. Seth R.,
    You have a clear perspective on how “the natural man” functions. Do you propose that the Church of God accept natural man tendencies as inevitable?

  33. I don’t think King Benjamin knew enough about evolutionary biology to associate it with the “natural man.” His “natural man” is tied to the story of the Fall and expulsion from Eden, not the selfish behaviors of primates.

    “Natural man” = Bad.
    “Saint” = Good.

    We have both selfish and altruistic impulses rooted in our evolutionary history. Both are “natural” in the biological sense (see Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles, ‘A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution’. Princeton University Press, 2011). To equate the recognition of sex differences (and many of the gender traits we often associate with them) as embracing the “natural man” (1) fundamentally misunderstands King Benjamin by reading modern views of “natural” into the text and (2) adopts a kind of Platonic, anti-materialist view of the body.

    Also, the “poor men under the patriarchal system” isn’t nonsense. Due to personality traits and societal pressure, men put more focus on wealth and status than women, resulting in fewer lasting relationships and increased loneliness. Women suffer from depression more, but men suffer more from loneliness (as demonstrated by the overwhelming amount of male suicides). See psychologist Thomas Joiner’s ‘Lonely at the Top: The High Cost of Men’s Success’. Men suffer plenty under the system, but most just don’t seem to give a damn.

    Yale’s Paul Bloom has a point about men:

    “I have a genetic condition. People like me are prone to violent fantasy and jealous rage; we are over 10 times more likely to commit murder and over 40 times more likely to commit sexual assault. Most prisoners suffer from my condition, and almost everyone on death row has it. Relative to other people, we have an abundance of testosterone, which is associated with dominance and aggression, and a deficit in oxytocin, associated with compassion. My sons share my condition, and so does my father.

    So, yes, I am male.”

    However, this does not justify one’s decision to commit a heinous crime. One may be more empathetic toward the criminal, but this does not excuse their actions. To arapevictim: I’m truly sorry to that something so horrendous and inexpressibly evil happened to you. I hope you had/have the love and support you needed/need to help you through such a traumatizing experience.

  34. It is also “natural” to develop belief in ordered meaning and supernatural agents. See Justin Barrett, ‘Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Beliefs’. Should we deny this as well since it is part of the “natural man”?

  35. It should also be pointed out that under many patriarchal systems, it isn’t all men who benefit from it. Usually, it’s only a minority of powerful men who really benefit. The rest of the men without that power in the system are often just as oppressed as the women are.

  36. Walker W.
    Very interesting! You poor man! So exactly how does your genetic condition entitle you to societal privilege? I missed that part.

  37. The genetic condition quote was within the context about the psychological condition of rapists (which are predominantly male). My point was that there are predispositions for certain kinds of behaviors, though acting on these do not justify the actions (Bloom’s quote came from a discussion about free will).

    I missed how that has anything to do with societal privilege.

  38. Unlike the typical male institutions of larger society (the military, sports teams, construction crews, etc.), the priesthood as it functions in the Church is not designed to reinforce the animalistic and aggressive tendencies of men, but rather to tame them and channel them into unselfish, loving self-sacrifice. It does not reinforce the traditional social notion that the rest of the family exists to swerve the desires of the patriarch, but inverts that and teaches that the patriarch finds his true fulfillment and flowering as a servant to his wife and family.

    When we are resurrected and celestialized, we presumably will not have the defects in our personalities that priesthood schools us to control and overcome. And the promise is explicit in the ordinance of eternal marriage that both members of the marriage will be equivalent in priesthood.

    Just as the Church itself is a temporary institution that will be superseded when Christ rules the celestialized earth, the institutional aspects of priesthood that operate primarily through the Church structure will no longer be relevant. To the extent that priesthood continues through the Millenium and the final transformation of the earth, it will be a different kind of priesthood that operates in the context of our extended family relationships. So any priesthood that women have in that eternal context will also be distinct, and not tied to temporary institutions such as quorums, bishoprics, and high councils.

    Should a feminine priesthood be crafted so it is in the image of the mundane, temporal priesthood we experience now, or should the focus be on the eternal core of priesthood that will come to pass as we approach a perfected society in a perfected earth, and then relate that back to how it would be manifested today?

    If what a woman desires is to have the additional connection to God that comes with a priesthood ordination and the entitlement to receive revelation concerning its implementation, isn’t that distinct from the institutional authority of a bishop or stake president? The fact is that the institutional authority is not a dictatorship, but exists alongside many other authoritative roles within Relief Society, Young Women, Primary, and in callings as missionaries and temple workers. There are plenty of elders and high priests who have no institutional authority. Do those women aspiring to hold the priesthood aspire to the transient institutional authority of positions, or the quiet participation in the oath and covenant of the Melchizedek Priesthood? When a couple is called to preside over a mission, or a temple, or to serve together as missionaries, how much difference does the priesthood ordination of the husband make in what they actually accomplish together? Doesn’t priesthood become part of the gift that the husband brings to the marriage, putting it at the service of his wife and children?

  39. Raymond, I’m just worried your suggestion is verging on the “women are more spiritual than men” meme we hear so often in Mormon culture. I personally think it’s BS. I don’t view women as any more spiritual than men or in any less need of heavenly assistance.

  40. I don’t see Raymond’s comment that way Seth. He makes a few valid points that aren’t in the bad excuse category.

  41. Where do you get the idea that Heavenly Mother has some additional power different from Heavenly Father’s? Based on a strictly correlated view (the gospel principles manual) “God is perfect. He is a God of righteousness, with attributes such as love, mercy, charity, truth, power, faith, knowledge, and judgment. He has all power. He knows all things. He is full of goodness.” This suggests that 1) Heavenly Father already has all power, leaving no additional power that can be possessed by a separate deity and 2) Heavenly Father has the qualities typically associated with women such as charity. I’ve always imagined Heavenly Mother with exactly the same attributes of love, power, etc., so I’m curious about whether your ideas of their differences comes from personal experience or some other source?

    Seth R. — At the risk of beating a dead horse, I have to stand up for Darwin. From an evolutionary perspective, an individual’s fitness is measured not in his or her longevity or personal fulfillment but in the number of offspring produced. Therefore, to the extent that a society protects children from being eaten by lions, the society contributes to the fitness of both male and female parents of those children.

  42. Nathaniel and Commenters… these are keen observations, this is a great conversation!

    Here’s what resonates with me:

    Men and women are different: Seeking out that which allows them to complement one another will be most beneficial. I believe that allowing the roles of women and men to blossom without restraint would be exciting.

    The maleness inherent in priesthood is linguistic and by tradition in only certain traditions. There is certainly priestess-hood in other traditions.

    It is most interesting to me that Elder Oaks and now Elder Ballard have stated in general conference that men are not the priesthood. As if to say that God’s power is not in gender, but that it is beyond or prior to gender.

    I think there must be some life force, or power, that is priesthood. A power that both men and women share in and that leads each individual man and woman to fill the measure of their creation in a way that perfectly compliments the other. There is sameness, and there is deference.

    It is important to acknowledge that we have misunderstood the roles of men just as much as we have misunderstood the roles of women. Inasmuch as we seek to change the place of women in society, we need to change the place of men. Change is a positive thing. Men and women influence each other, they compliment each other.

    I’m not sure how the idea to ordain women automatically means we want women to be the same as men. I think it simply means that women want to tap in to God’s power and find meaning for what it means to be women in the same way men can with the priesthood.

    If the priesthood, or power of God, really is beyond gender, then perhaps it will inform and enrich not only our respective masculinity and femininity, but also our individuality. Paradoxically our individuality will be strengthened and so will our interdependence.

    Our biology matters. But there is no way to say fatherhood or motherhood is superior to the other, or that one creates a more powerful connection with children. There is so much going on here. Fathers and Mothers can establish powerful, different, yet similar connections with their children and other family members. Humans connect to one another in powerful ways. Somehow this is part of our biology.

    And yet our biology can surprise us and create ways of connecting that we are not personally familiar with. (Howard’s comment #8). What about transgender, gay, lesbian etc? These things are biological and have a powerful impact on the way we connect to our community–the way we love and the way we are accepted or not. There are things that don’t fit the traditional roles that are legitimate, good, and part of life.

    It is true that fatherhood does not equal motherhood. But they compliment each other… and in church discourse we seem to want to say that while men have priesthood, women have motherhood. Those are not equal as well. Does priesthood compliment motherhood? I don’t think so. Fatherhood does. Priesthood is beyond fatherhood and motherhood–or it is prior to them. Priesthood… the power of God… the power of life… is what brings motherhood and fatherhood into existence as the genesis of new life.

    #10 argues that Patriarchy exists to keep men in the game in a way that they otherwise would not be. I think there is a pure form of patriarchy that doesn’t have to do with the male side of things alone. I’m not sure what the word would be… but it would be paternal-archy or something like that. Where complimentary parents come together in a society. “Patriarchy” has been poisoned linguistically and traditionally to mean that men are the leaders. But that is not what it means to me… at least not what I’ve felt the patriarchal priesthood is about or what the temple teaches (barring the unfortunate exception of women hearkening to the councils of their husbands–which is also due to old and false tradition). I’ve always felt that patriarchal priesthood meant parent priesthood. In my mind and heart it included the man as much as the women, the father as much as the mother. It means that men hearken to the council of their wives as Adam hearkened to Eve’s council in the Garden of Eden, “Eve, I see that this must be.” It means that men give themselves in marriage as much as women do. And they receive each other.

    I’m not sure I’m convinced by #10’s representation of men not needing society. I am a man and I feel deeply the need to belong to a society. I need to be loved and to love. I stick around not just for sex or to feel important. I enjoy the sociality, the love, and the togetherness of my family and most especially my wife. I do believe there is some biology to that. I think I have an innate biology to stick around. So I don’t think patriarchy, falsely developed, is the way to keep men around. I think there is a higher law.

    The current patriarchal system harms men inasmuch as it hinders men and women from filling the measure of their creation. The current patriarchal system is a false tradition and the position and role of men is as misunderstood as the role and position of women. I’m not seeking to excuse anyone in this, but just wanted to point out that we are all in darkness. The good news of the restoration is that we are supposed to be coming out of darkness into further light. I believe this is happening with gender roles.

    I like Raymond’s point (#48) that the priesthood is a gift that the husband brings to the marriage, putting it at the service f his wife and children. That has been true for me. I see no reason why there could be a priestess-hood that would be the same for women. Again, I believe the true priesthood is prior to gender and that men and women share in this power, the power of life. I believe this is more a a paternal-archy than a patriarchy. Men and Women both have gifts to bring to their marriage. That gift is their heart and their whole self. Isn’t priesthood love? Men and women can both give that. It would be cool for us to find ways for young men and young women to be schooled in a similar way where they both have access to the same power that allows them to flower and develop their personal gifts that they then lie on the alter and offer to their partner when they are married.

    Again, the point is that we compliment one another in our difference and come together to be one. That sounds like atonement. That sounds like President Uchtdorf’s comments in priesthood session that the atonement doesn’t make us all the same, rather it allows our differences to flourish and to come together to bless the entire community of saints. I like that. The atonement allows diversity to flourish!

    Thanks again Nathaniel for taking the time for another excellent post.

  43. Edit: Second to last paragraph I meant to say: I see no reason why there could *not* be a priestess-hood.

  44. thank you for the article and meaningful comments. Have read and hear discussions of the subject elsewhere but this particular article and its comments have given me several new insights.

  45. Implicit in the word “priesthood” is maleness.

    What about the word “god,” is maleness implicit in that word, also?

    I ask because the word “goddess” is not found in the canon and in D&C 132 when the text talks of men and women becoming exalted it says they (male and female) will be “gods”. So, exalted men will become gods and exalted women will become gods (not goddesses). How do you explain that?

  46. Re: heavenly mother,

    There is no mention of a heavenly mother in the scriptures. The idea of a heavenly mother does not come from the word of God, but is merely man-made, extra-scriptural, inductive reasoning with no basis in any revelation, whatsoever. The idea is that since we have male and female parents here on earth in mortality, then we must have had male and female parents in the heavens during our pre-mortal existence. If the same society found here existed there, only perfectly, then there must be a heavenly mother. We find this idea in First Presidency statements, Generals Conference talks, church manuals and periodicals, etc., in everything except a single revelation. Just saying…

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