Mormonism: Monastic or Pragmatic?By: Nate
Kate Kelly and John Dehlin (if excommunicated) may lose some of their notoriety and influence. But the questions that drove them to the brink (female inequality and homosexuality) are not going away and will be burning brighter than ever in the coming years. In my last post I attempted to reframe these questions within the context of the church as an imperfect “bride of Christ.” Today I’d like to present the same argument from a different perspective: Is the church monastic or pragmatic? I believe that understanding this could help us more effectively answer the difficult questions posed by female inequality and homosexuality.
Monastic traditions are characterized by their peculiarities. Members willingly submit to practices which separate them from the world, making them a peculiar people, saints, “a chosen generation.” Examples include the Sabbath Day, Temple ritual, prayer, meditation, baptism, sacrament, etc. Having an all male priesthood is another monastic element which sets us apart from the pragmatic and egalitarian ideals of the world.
Within monastic traditions, practices and commandments may vary, from Old Testament circumcision, to New Testament celibacy, to Mormon polygamy. The details of these practices are not necessarily as important as the humility and faith the participant demonstrates by submitting themselves to the peculiarities of the order as revealed by God to the prophet for the order. From the outside, some of the practices may seem unnatural or pointless. But 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 monastic, “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.
In a pragmatic religion, participants obey commandments and engage in practices which they believe are specifically designed to make their lives more fulfilling and protect them from the evils of the world. The purpose of all these commandments is to promote 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
There is perhaps no more troublesome issue in the church today than homosexuality. One’s approach to it depends upon whether one views Mormonism pragmatically or monastically. A pragmatic Mormon asks “How could homosexuality be inborn? Our loving Father would never do such a thing to His children.” Heavenly Father pragmatically designed the commandments to bring us happiness. Homosexuality is wickedness, and wickedness never was happiness. Commandments against homosexuality are saving people with same gender attraction from a lifetime of misery. By repenting and coming to Christ, one can overcome homosexuality 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 “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. It doesn’t bother a monastic Mormon that homosexuals were perhaps “born that way.” An arbitrary God who creates 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 judge homosexuals 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 pragmatic Mormons, will insist that Homosexuals who want to be fully participate in the LDS church must 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.
Transcending the Purely Pragmatic
I think some Mormons view their religion a bit too pragmatically. A pragmatic view works fine when everything seems to be in order, when you are keeping commandments and being blessed for it. But we all face times when our pragmatic views will be challenged: when we face trails that seem unnecessarily destructive, when we confront contradictions in church history, or when we see the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer.
In church we talk about the extraordinary sacrifices expected of saints in former dispensations and try a bit awkwardly to “liken scriptures to ourselves.” We talk about “trying to become like Jesus” but without considering the question Jesus asked Peter: “Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of?” When it comes to life in the modern world, we expect that obedience to our set list of commandments will make everyone happy and successful.
Confronting the reality of irreversible or inborn homosexuality offers us 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.
- Is Mormonism more monastic or pragmatic?
- Can a monastic perspective help us to appreciate the eccentricities of LDS faith, our view of homosexuality and female inequality?