Mormon Literalism and the Body

Mormon Literalism and the Body March 18, 2008

Recently, Terryl Givens has celebrated one of the Mormon “heresies” (his term) of “literalism.” He argues that Mormonism has eschewed the modern movement towards metaphorical understandings of religion, insisting upon its “literal” relationship to certain “facts,” such as the First Vision, the materiality of the Book of Mormon, and even literalized heaven by making it material. This literalism, however, is distinct from fundamentalist Christianity which insists on a different kind of biblical literalism and historical accuracy, in which areas Mormons have been more flexible. What I think is important to note here is that literalism is always selective, always partial. Some things are always chosen to be taken literally, and others ignored. The question is never whether or not literalism is the operative paradigm, but what things are taken as literal and why.

This basic insight into the distinctiveness of Mormon literalism is fascinating, and I think that Givens rightly celebrates aspects of this insistence, and rightly acknowledges why certain attempts to see Mormonism more metaphorically tend to fail. I would like to raise some questions, however, about some aspects of this literalism when it comes to the body.

The materiality of the body has led many to think of it as somehow irreducible, somehow outside of language and culture. Mormons, I think, have tended to think of the body in this way. Our mortal bodies are somehow an expression of an eternal identity. If I have red hair, or black skin, or certain sex organs, these are somehow representative of the “true self.” My spirit resembles my body. While anomalies are acknowledged, such as those with birth “defects,” they are explained away as incongrous with the true self. Thus, there is a tension between how we imagine our eternal selves as reflected in our bodies, yet we recognize the contingency of our bodily manifestations. Such a tension is clearly manifest with the advent of genetic science.

One problem, of course, is that the body is temporal. Not only am I the product of a particular genetic cocktail, but also the product of nutrition, exercise, and age. Which of my many bodies is the “true me”? Thus, we often project certain cultural assumptions about the ideal body (20’s, thin, attractive, etc) as the resurrected body. The resurrected body is the true self, which is only ever approximated in the mortal body.

Recent feminist studies, most notably the work of Judith Butler, have demonstrated convincingly that the body is always already interpreted. It is materialized in discourse. What we think of when we think of the “body” are particular ways of constructing that body. The Mormon imagination of the eternal self and its relationship to the body thus becomes a perfect site for investigating the norms that we produce around bodies.

One of the “irreducible” aspects of Mormon bodies centers around sexual difference. We tend to imagine sexual difference (maleness and femaleness) as irreducible (despite the fact that these categories are our own productions). Generally, this irreducibility is manifest in the body, especially the sexual organs. We imagine that our spirits have sexual organs and that our resurrected bodies will have them as well.

Here, Mormon literalism literally incorporates a certain mode of sexual differentiation in the eternal self. This literalism, however, raises a certain set of questions. Can pre-mortal spirits experience sexual arousal? What does it mean to say that “sex” is pre-existent? What aspects of “sex” are meant? Do resurrected bodies gestate for 9 months? Do they have periods? Noctural emmissions? Though Joseph Smith taught that our spirits are eternal, Brigham Young popularized a view of “spirit birth” which enables LDSs to claim that we are “literally” sons and daughters of God. How exactly do we imagine literal spirit birth taking place? Does Heavenly Mother birth a litter of “intelligences”?

We return to the question of what things are taken to be “literal”. When we imagine our resurrected or premortal bodies within a certain framework of literalism, how far to do go and why? What do these ways of “materialization” of these imaginary bodies tell us about our own cultural standards and expectations?

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