The Josh Weed story continues, as evidenced by the recent ABC News Nightline interview and continuing articles, blog posts, and mushrooming comments. The country is fascinated with this homosexual man with a purportedly happy and [even sexually] fulfilling marriage of over ten years. He has raised interesting questions about the nature of homosexuality, marriage, and self, that I think have done a great deal to deepen and broaden the conversation.
In tackling one of the many elephants in the Mormon room, I am not going to attempt to explain what Mormons believe about gay marriage or homosexuality. My primary purpose in this post is to explore why these discussions can be polarizing and overly binary. Part of the reason could be that some of the language used is employed as self-evident concepts, while conveying different meanings to different people. Words like “authentic,” “love,” “self,” “marriage,” and even “homosexual” are used as hinges in these discussions—but do people agree on what they mean? What might some Mormons, or other Christians, be hearing? (A caveat: religious and civic discussions about gay marriage have different parameters; I will be focusing mostly on the former. Last point: keep in mind that I am trying to show the dialogue is complicated. Not how it can be resolved.)
Let’s take “self.” One of the reasons Josh Weed has been such a lightning rod is because he complicates the idea of being “true to yourself.” Often, proponents of gay marriage argue that homosexuals who do not express their sexuality lead a false life of suppression or denial of who they “really are.” Underlying this assertion is the assumption that there is a cohesive, unitary self that should be freed from cultural, religious, etc., pressures, to be happy. Josh Weed, to some proponents’ horror, claims that he is being true to himself.
The question is, which self? As he has tried to explain in his interviews and posts, Weed finds himself conflicted by competing commitments and desires. This alone makes him no different than the rest of us—what makes him different is the extreme mutual exclusivity he sees in some of the more significant desires and commitments he experiences: his spiritual identity and his sexual identity. While we all make choices that liberate one identity while oppressing the other (choosing to be the “responsible self” over the “fun-loving self,” or the “serviceable self” instead of the “self gratifying self”), the choice between his sexual identity (attracted to men) and his spiritual identity (including the commitment to hetero-monogamous, family-oriented teachings originating in Mormonism’s dualistic, heterosexual divine model) was obviously more poignant.
In his words, “I feel like I am being true to myself and that I have looked at these two components of who I am and for me it was a matter of mutual exclusivity… I simply had to know myself and know what… would be best for my life and best for what I wanted for myself.”
John Dehlin, perhaps like many others, saw this choice as sacrificing an essential part of Weed’s identity for a constructed one: “Using religion or spirituality as a way to manage your sexual orientation…as a way to sort of suppress those feelings, or control yourself, is the most damaging way to cope with your same-sex attraction,” Dehlin said. The difference is clear: here, religion is an instrument, and sexual orientation is the essential identity. Josh Weed, as well as many other Mormons, may beg to differ.
While Mormonism still has much to explore by way of determining what parts of our identity are eternal, or essential, and what parts are ephemeral and constructed, it is not incoherent for Josh Weed to make the choice that his spiritual identity is essential and eternal, and his sexual identity is not, and to act accordingly. This consistency, at the very least, can be respected.
Furthermore, this pluralism of selves is at the heart of the Mormon–and Christian– paradigm. Read Paul’s writings and try to find where his cohesive, unconflicted self is—he may have a thing to say about the dualistic battle between the carnal and spiritual man. Or peruse the Book of Mormon for the Anti-Nephi-Lehites’ opinions about what the atonement means for their rebirth, and the sacrifice of their former familial and cultural identity. Or we could wrestle with what Christ’s paradox of “losing our lives” to “find them.”
“Self” is just one example. If time permitted, I would try to do the same analysis with “love.” Does “love” mean unconditional , comprehensive acceptance? Or does it refer to an enabling esteem and compassionate regard? One Christian might find the commandment to “love one another” to mean we should extend marriage rights regardless of orientation (though perhaps discriminating on number of partners). Another might find that same commandment, and it’s follow up “as I have loved you”, to mean that we treat fellow humans as beings of infinite worth, and to whom unqualified acceptance would be cheap and easy, unlike Christ’s invested and loving devotion (see C.S. Lewis’s “unstoppable surgeon.”)
Or we could do the same with “marriage” (consensual contract between two adults? consensual contract between any adults? consensual contract between two heterosexual adults with the explicit purpose, in principle, at least, to rear children?…) or “homosexual” (unchangeable essentialist identity? biological, chemical, or hormonal condition? preference?…) and the list goes on. Religious discussants on both sides would benefit from sacrificing some sound-bite slogans and pausing to clarify these terms for productive dialogue.