A Letter to the Editor: Joe Spencer responds to Taylor Petrey

December 12, 2011

To the editor:
Let me begin by outlining what does and does not motivate me in writing a response to Taylor Petrey’s carefully executed, unmistakably informed, rightly concerned, and entirely productive essay, “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon theology.”
I’m not particularly exercised—theologically or ethically—by the issue of homosexuality and the Church. I have read with interest most of the major publications on the question, but my interest has been and is driven by what most would call ancillary concerns. That said, I share Petrey’s project in many ways—especially if his project is kept within the bounds set by the title of his piece. If the task is to get clear about divine embodiment, to sort out what’s at stake in Joseph Smith’s beautiful vision of sociality coupled with immortal glory, to determine what can be meant by the relatively recent idea of eternal gender, and to do all this by critiquing every crippling limitation of these concepts to a post-war American nuclear family life that has as often masked infidelity, abuse, and boredom as it has been the locus of genuine joy (post-heterosexual in that sense), then I couldn’t be happier to take up with Petrey in the theological battle he announces in the article.
However, for all Petrey says about theologically envisioning the possibility of sealed homosexual relationships, he doesn’t do any actual work on constructing a Mormon queer theory in his essay. He takes as his task, rather, just to clear the theological ground for the possibility of a Mormon queer theory, and that’s worth doing—though for me that clearing of the ground serves other purposes. Of course, I’d be interested to see a well-done Mormon queer theory, but I’ve got no inclinations for or against it in advance. I’m just not particularly exercised by these questions. So what exercises me? The Restoration—nailing down what’s at stake in what I wish we wouldn’t hesitate to call the truth of Mormonism. If that truth is—I would say: has always been—post-heterosexual (as I suspect it is and has been), then our theological work should reflect it. And so I welcome Petrey’s work. But I want also to offer a point or two of criticism.
There is a crucial tension in Petrey’s essay, one that threatens—but only threatens—to unsettle the whole undertaking. This tension is most clearly on display in the essay’s conclusion:

The possibility of creating theological space within Mormonism for homosexual relationships rests not on the abandonment of any central doctrine of the Church, but rather on the revival of past concepts, the recovery of embedded theological resources, and the rearticulation of existing ideas in more expansive terms in order to rethink the possibilities of celestial relationships. (p. 128)

My heart beats to the rhythm of these words. But then Petrey goes on:

The numerous critiques of the category of gender in recent years cannot be ignored, even if Latter-day Saints opt for a continued emphasis on binary sexual difference. Whether from the critique of gender roles, gender essentialist notions of innate characteristics, or even the notion of biological difference itself, LDS theology faces serious credibility issues by continuing to hold to precritical assumptions about sexual difference. At the same time, however, there is nothing preventing Latter-day Saints from moving past these assumptions in order to more clearly focus on Mormonism’s distinctive teachings about kinship and salvation, which does not require an appeal to the suspect category of gender at all. (p. 129)

The rhythm seems suddenly off here. Petrey is unquestionably right that the category of gender as usually understood by Latter-day Saints is suspect, but to call for an abandonment of the idea of eternal gender is, quite precisely, to claim that there is need to abandon a central doctrine of the Church. This tension is crucial to critiquing “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology.” Is there a way to sort out the question of gender without simply “moving past” it? Are there “past concepts,” “embedded theological resources,” or “existing ideas” that can be drawn on to counter the “gender trouble” Petrey quite rightly identifies?
Reproduction and Sealing
Petrey’s article comes in three parts, each associated with one aspect of “the theological objection to homosexual relationships . . . in current LDS understandings of the afterlife and the kinds of relationships that will exist there” (p. 108). The first section of the article tackles the question of “celestial reproduction,” the second that of “sealings as kinship,” the third that of “eternal gender.” Before coming to gender, I want to say something about the first two sections of the essay, the sections where I think Petrey’s work not only succeeds but shines.
The strategy Petrey employs in “Celestial Reproduction” is to produce a doctrinal reductio ad absurdum. He does this in two ways. First, he makes clear that there is no official account of the idea and that the several unofficial accounts are at best problematic (and at worst incoherent). Second and more provocatively, he turns to actually official sources (principally scripture) to show that there are accounts of divine creation, production, and even reproduction that provide an anything-but-heterosexually-reproductive picture of divine creation. Everything Petrey does here is brilliant, and it is all something that has been needed for a long time—whether it is subsequently to be employed in constructing a Mormon queer theory, or whether it is simply to be used to clarify what is at stake in divine embodiment and the basics of Mormon theology.
The strategy in “Sealings as Kinship” is different. Here Petrey takes up the role, not of the doctrinal student of scripture, but of the historian. In a kind of Foucauldian gesture, he shows that the way Latter-day Saints currently think about the meaning of the sealing ordinance is anything but the only way it has been thought about in the relatively short history of Mormonism. He argues that current attitudes about the nuclear family derive from distinctly twentieth-century sources (sources most Latter-day Saints would cringe at!), and then goes on to describe how earlier generations of Latter-day Saints—with prophets leading the way—have conceived of what is at the heart of the sealing ordinances. Drawing on these historical sources, Petrey shows that the current interpretation prevailing in Mormon discourse is a remarkably narrow conception that misses the richness of Restoration—the richness that folks like Kathleen Flake, Jonathan Stapley, and Sam Brown have been talking about in settings too far removed from everyday Mormons to receive the attention they deserve. Here, again, everything Petrey does is brilliant and revealing.
So far, then, so good. Everything in the first two parts of the essay see Petrey modeling precisely what he talks about in the beautiful words from his conclusion: “the revival of past concepts, the recovery of embedded theological resources, and the rearticulation of existing ideas in more expansive terms in order to rethink the possibilities of celestial relationships.” This is clearly what Petrey aims to do—even, I believe, in the last part of the essay, where the tension I’ve already mentioned begins to be felt.
Eternal Gender
Petrey starts out, I think, quite well in the third part of his essay. He points out that Latter-day Saints—at least in official publications—use the word “gender” in a lazy way. The consequence is that it is used to refer to three distinct things all at once: “the morphological bodies of males and females,” “an ‘identity’ that males and females are supposed to possess,” and “different ‘roles,’ purposes, and responsibilities that some Church leaders understand to be assigned to males and females” (p. 121). That’s right. And Petrey is more than right to suggest that this is problematic. He’s right also when he goes on to point out: “When one adds the idea of gender as an eternal characteristic, these three definitions become even more complicated” (ibid). Even more complicated? Yes. But is that complication a bad thing, as it seems to me Petrey goes on to imply? No. Or that, at any rate, is what I want to argue.
Now, before I take up my quibble, I want to make sure I’m not misunderstood. In arguing on behalf of eternal gender, I do not mean to suggest that there is nothing problematic with the way Latter-day Saints talk about gender. I entirely agree with Petrey that “LDS theology faces serious credibility issues by continuing to hold to precritical assumptions about sexual difference.” I offer no defense of natural or inherent sexual identity. My argument is rather that the theological gesture, made in the Proclamation on the family, concerning eternal gender can be utilized as a theological resource against naturalism or inherentism, rather than interpreted as an attempt at securing naturalism or inherentism. And I want to claim further that the fully faithful tone Petrey strikes in the first two parts of his essay might only be sustainable in a critique of gender if eternal gender is taken as an existing idea to be rearticulated in more expansive terms and not as a theological faux pax to be abandoned.
Now, Petrey’s discussion of gender in the third part of essay remains, it seems to me, within a classic polarity. Gender is either essential or constructed. He aligns the Latter-day Saint position—taken, he says, from the “semi-canonical 1995 document ‘The Family: A Proclamation to the World’” (p. 120)—with essentialism, and he positions himself on the side of constructivism. That wouldn’t necessarily spell trouble in itself, except that Petrey goes on to claim, more implicitly than explicitly, that essentialism is always precritical. That simply isn’t the case. There are sophisticated, critical essentialist positions (the work of Luce Irigaray comes naturally to mind), and it is more than possible—and perhaps worthwhile—to explore the compatibility of Mormon theology with such positions. Consequently, Petrey comes across as believing that constructivism, particularly as articulated by Judith Butler, has had the last—and only critical—say on gender. That, too, simply isn’t the case.
It isn’t the case in part because there are sophisticated and perhaps defensible essentialist positions. But it also isn’t the case because there are positions one can take that break with the essentialist/constructivist polarity, something Petrey fails to acknowledge. I’ll cite just one name: Alain Badiou. Whatever one thinks of Badiou’s work, he has unquestionably provided a position on gender that is neither essentialist nor constructivist, and I for one am convinced that it deserves the attention of Mormon theologians. In particular, I think Badiou’s take on sexual difference deserves attention because it argues for a strong notion of eternal gender without falling into any of the confusions Petrey associates with the essentialist position. Taking the Badiouian road in thinking about gender, one can affirm what has become a central Mormon doctrine (the eternal nature of gender) without having to argue problematically that gender is inherent or natural. In other words, Badiou points up a way of embracing claims about eternal gender without falling into the difficulty Petrey rightly assigns to most Mormon thinking about gender: “gender ‘identity’ cannot be both inherent and taught” (p. 124).
Thus, while it’s crucial for Latter-day Saint theologians to move past precritical notions of gender—on this point Petrey is absolutely right, and he has my thanks for putting this point in print—to do so is not necessarily to move past gender essentialism, as Petrey seems to suggest, nor is it necessarily to settle into gender constructivism, as Petrey also seems to suggest.
My concern here is not that Petrey is a gender constructivist—though I’d certainly like to debate the merits of Butler and Badiou when he and I have some time to do so. My concern is rather that his way of staging his predilection for gender constructivism ends up introducing the tension I discussed earlier into his work. It is quite as important in this third stretch of the post-heterosexual theological road as in the previous two stretches to sustain an unmistakably faithful tone. I worry, in other words, about Petrey’s discussion of gender because it is there—and there alone—that one might accuse him of a kind of unfaithfulness. I don’t want Petrey to be accusable of such a thing, not only because I’m convinced that his motivations are indeed faithful, but also because I’m convinced that real headway on Mormonism’s truth can only be made when the theologian’s faithfulness can’t be missed. (I’m thinking here of Elder Maxwell’s comment about Hugh Nibley in the documentary Faith of an Observer: “His commitment is so visible and has been so pronounced and so repetitively stated that that’s not even the issue. So we get on to ‘What is Hugh saying?’”)
Concluding Thoughts
I believe, then, that I can travel the whole of Petrey’s road with him, though I think I have a few animated words to share during the last leg of the journey—optimistic words, words in the spirit of his own instructive words during the first two legs of the journey. But at the end of “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology,” we come to a crossroad. I’m happy to see Petrey travel down the path of imagining positive possibilities for homosexual relationships within Mormon theology. Indeed, I’m eager to see what he discovers as he travels that way, and I hope he writes me with news. My own journey, driven by other theological concerns, takes me down a different path, onto which I should hurry.
In the meanwhile, though, I’m more than happy to have had the company. And hopefully Petrey has been happy to have had mine as well.
Joseph M. Spencer
University of New Mexico