I could have called this post “Same-sex marriage: The Belgian perspective,” but it includes more. “The perversity of orthodoxy” – that’s how one of the members in our Belgian ward identified the broader issues which triggered this post. He called me on Sunday afternoon, upset by a Sacrament meeting talk that same morning and in need to vent frustration. Perhaps “perversity” was too strong a word. Maybe “perfidy”? Probably too weighty a word, too. At least “the insensitivity of some who defend orthodoxy” or “the indelicacy of some church statements in the US in relation to the international church”? Difficult choice. I just wanted to convey the intensity of his reaction, hence the title of this post.
There had been two talks that morning, and the contrast was telling.
Sarah, around thirty, had given the first talk. A little nervous, soft-spoken, she had her talk all written out, the result of days, perhaps weeks, of toiling on it. Her topic was “How to find God.” It was her personal reflection on fifteen years of searching for God, not as an investigator, but as a member who had grown up in the church amidst people with certainties, people who can say that they just pray, get answers from God, and feel God’s daily presence in their lives. Since her teenage years, Sarah had wondered why she did not see, feel, and hear what others in the church claimed to experience. She felt caught in a net without an opening toward God. Why did God only look after the others? What did she do wrong? Sarah told us how well-meaning members answered her concerns: she had to try harder, her desires weren’t strong enough, she wasn’t sincere or not worthy enough.
Sarah kept struggling to obtain the certainties others seemed to have, but she did not get them. For several years she expanded her search into other philosophies and religions to see how people elsewhere tried to find God. A long journey ripened her insights. One day she read Deepak Chopra’s How to Know God. One of his suggestions is to look less for an external divine reality, but first at yourself. Start by looking in the mirror and search for your own deepest self. One way is to focus on yourself as one of God’s children. Sarah said:
If indeed I had a divine origin and was – both physically and spiritually – created in God’s image, then it would be logical that God was indirectly about me. I realized that I needed my own experiences, senses, and brain to “see” Him and get to know Him. It did not mean that I wanted to see God as a commentary on myself. But because I was the one seeking, God could only be seen and would let Himself be seen in a manner that had to be meaningful to me.
Sarah found that both Paul and Alma phrase this process with different imagery. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (13:11–12). Sure, Sarah said, we can understand this text as referring to the limitations of our earthly existence. But the mirror and the reflection can also point to self-reflection and self-insight. Whoever is searching for God, will sooner or later be confronted with oneself. So, why not make good use of what is in us to grow in understanding?
Sarah found the same in Alma – starting with the little seed into oneself: “… it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed … ” (32:28). But bringing it to full fruition, according to Alma, will take much care, diligence, and patience.
Sarah experienced this fragile understanding of her God-related self as a “tiny hole in the net” allowing her to catch a glimpse of God. “Not more than a glimpse, but I had never thought that I could let God – in a symbolic way – tell His story by looking at myself.” Sarah expressed gratitude for the process she passed through and for the discovery of alternative ways when immediate certainty is not available.
She left us these words “not only in my own name, but, I hope, also in the name of God.” Her unconditional sincerity had weighed every word.
The second talk was by brother P., the visiting stake high councilor. A man deeply dedicated to the Church, of GA stature and style, brother P. belongs to those people able to speak during any allotted time, and beyond, based on a few items noted on a tiny piece of paper.
For this talk, the notes on his paper must have been:
- menacing world = great oppression
- but 15 men, FP and Q12, all prophets, speak to us in GC
- 1st GC theme: marriage = between man & woman
- 2nd GC theme: religious freedom threatened
- the 15 are unanimous = will of the Lord = follow them = certainty
Between a man and a woman
All went well for the first seven minutes of the talk. But a shiver rippled through quite a few in the audience when brother P. uttered that marriage is “between a man and a woman.” He said the words with enough emphasis that it was instantly understood as a judgment on homosexual couples in general, also outside of the church. One person, a former bishop, stood up and left the chapel. Others cringed, burying their head. A few turned to their iPad as a quiet sign of protest. I know the same happens in US wards, as blogs and Facebook discussions tell us weekly. But how to view it in the Belgian perspective?
First, same-sex marriage is a non-issue in Belgium: it has been legal since 2003 and is an accepted part of the social fabric (pertaining to only 2.5% of marriages). The law was never controversial and passed easily with sufficient support of members of the Christian wing. Politicians understood from the onset it would drain energy and funds to fight against a basically righteous cause, a cause vital for the emotional fulfillment and legal rights of LGBT couples, but as such a trivial issue, and which would win at the end. Same-sex marriage is also a non-issue for churches in Belgium because none is compelled to celebrate same-sex weddings. A reproof of same-sex marriage (or its perfidious euphemism that marriage is only between a man and a woman) is considered hurtful and stigmatizing, thus not done. Conversely, outsiders do not attack churches for maintaining their inequality stances, such as not wedding same-sex couples or restricting priesthood to men. In Belgium, a complex little country thriving on compromises and cooperation, tolerance and acceptance of diversity are political, ethical, and educational priorities. Churches are expected to contribute to this public peace, even as they can establish rules for their own flock. If brother P. still wanted to stir the pot, he could have toned it down by quietly stating that in our church marriage is between a man and a woman. But why be provocative and create ill-feelings over a non-issue? Everyone knows the church’s standpoint.
Second, most Mormons in Belgium are keenly aware that they form a tiny minority, frequently misrepresented in the media: cultish, insular, secretive, weird, polygamist, and racist. A media-fed perception ties the church to an extreme and intolerant American Christian right. Relentlessly church PR tries to change that image. So it does not help when a local church leader, in a sacrament meeting talk with investigators present, implicitly proclaims that the church is against the Belgian law of 2003 and that it wants gays and lesbians to be discriminated against, also outside the church. As a tiny minority the church needs protection and basic rights to function. How can it expect those rights if it wants to deny such rights to others?
Third, for heterosexuals, the perception of homosexuality can be very dissimilar. There are those who seem to directly focus on sex and its “unnatural” or “disgusting” nature. At the other end are those who personally know and (have learned to) appreciate gays and lesbians, as friends, colleagues, or family. In Belgium, nearly everyone belongs to the second category. No one with a bit of decency would ever utter a sentence that could be understood as demeaning towards LGBT. Moreover, as people get to know LGBT couples, some with children, respect increases for their efforts to form stable families. Of course, “the church will continue to teach and promote marriage between a man and a woman as a central part of our doctrine and practice.” Faithful Mormons will continue to accept that doctrine. But in talks and lessons in our wards in Belgium, it is needlessly offensive to repeat it – especially when done with an insistence that could be perceived as perverse in its attempt to hurt LGBT and their children.
In summary, the negative reaction of those listening to brother P.’s “a man and a woman” was not to reject the Church’s marital doctrine, but to express disapproval that the national consensus of respect for diversity was being breached, to convey apprehension that visitors might perceive Mormonism as prone to discrimination even of non-members, and to show empathy toward LGBT brothers and sisters who had to endure another sting.
The second theme brother P. broached was religious freedom as being “under pressure.” He decried the “shrinking tolerance toward believers” and a “lack of respect for the faithful.” In this he simply echoed US church rhetoric, tied to specific situations in the United States. But what sense does this make for a non-American audience? The idea that a baker or a photographer should be allowed to deny service to a gay couple as a form of “religious freedom,” is simply unconceivable. In Belgium, not even Catholic universities, schools, or youth organizations would think of raising questions on sexual orientation or same-sex relationships when it comes to admission, employment, leadership, or services. No, the Belgian Catholic church did not change its stance on man-woman marriage, but tries to define it as non-confrontational, within a framework of inclusiveness for all, as Catholic bishop Johan Bonny said:
This relationship [between a man and a woman] will continue to retain its own particular sacramental character and liturgical form, but this particularity does not have to be exclusive nor does it have to close the door on a diversity of relationships whose inner qualities the church can acknowledge.
This wise, conciliatory approach not only reduces the risk of a painful and needless polarization within the church, but also discourages zealots to display infantile defiance in the public square as an expression of religious freedom.
There was a time, however, when the Belgian Catholic church had a different view on religious freedom and used it, for example, to deny service to Mormons. Catholics, indeed, had the God-mandated duty to stop heresy. Older Latter-day Saints in Belgium still remember the years when the Catholic church tried to obstruct Mormon inroads and Catholic priests told their parishioners not to rent to Mormon missionaries. From the 1960s on, however, heaven-sent secularization broke this religious power to discriminate. What brother P. was implying, at least in the eyes of some, was a return to the past – the right of a church to set its standards for everyone and the right of believers to display disapproval of other people’s lawful conduct.
In another perspective, matters of religious freedom have become very sensitive since the cult-scare of the last decades of the twentieth century – Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, the Solar Temple –, followed by 9/11 and Muslim radicalization. To claim preponderance of “laws of God” over local civil laws is now viewed with suspicion. The Belgian judiciary monitors sects and preachers that have a reputation of overstepping the mark in the name of their god. There is no problem when a religion requires of its own members peculiar, but harmless behavior. But matters change once a god is evoked who edicts universal decrees, treats outsiders as sinners, and threatens them with his wrath and foretold calamities. Even if only meant as Scriptural rhetoric, whether from the Bible or the Qur’an, it could be considered misuse of religious freedom when it entices adherents to antisocial behavior.
Unanimity and certainty
Finally, brother P. emphasized the unanimity of the fifteen men at the church helm, each of them a prophet receiving revelation, and the certainty and safety they provide when we just follow them. Certainly a church-sanctioned message. But the contrast with Sarah’s talk stood out. Sarah, in her own case, had experienced the inadequacy of imported certainties and of patronizing answers. She found growth in doubt, in searching, and in discovering a glimpse of God through herself. Brother P.’s tenet implied the inappropriateness of hesitation and the duty to follow the top. His was a straightforward talk to strengthen the stalwarts.
But for those on winding trails, wouldn’t it be comforting to know that even the Brethren may not always be unanimous? That they too may be looking in the mirror and like Paul only “know in part”? That some may have doubts about the strategies to deal with same-sex marriage? That some disagree on the exact status of the family proclamation and parts of its wording? There is no reason to think that the present differs from the past – over Adam-God, blood atonement, polygamy, the origin of man, the Great Apostasy, civil rights, or the priesthood ban. And it should not trouble us, on the contrary, to know that receiving revelation is often a searching process.
Those were some of the thoughts in the conversation with the brother who called me Sunday afternoon.
* I assume “Belgium” and “Belgian” can be replaced with the name of many other democratic countries in the world.