I don’t want to write about gay marriage. So let’s talk about linguistics first.
We acquire language in childhood through a long process of listening to and eventually reading the language output of competent speakers of English (or whatever languages prevail in the communities where we grow up). As we are exposed to countless examples of language, we start to build up an internal model of English. We hypothesize about the rules of English and use our hypotheses to generate English statements unlike any we have heard before in response to new situations. Over time, as our hypotheses are confirmed or falsified, we modify the internal set of rules by which we determine what is and is not a well-formed English utterance.
We can’t directly observe the mental structures of language. It’s entirely possible, even likely, that each of us has a somewhat different internal model of English. Even if we had the same set of grammar rules, we might prioritize them in a slightly different order. So there will be some statements that I think are grammatically correct according to my sense of English grammar, while you find them defective according to your internal model, and vice-versa.
I suspect that religious beliefs, including Mormonism, work in a similar way. Over years of listening, reading, and observing, we build up an internal representation of Mormonism by which we classify statements or behaviors as either well-formed or defective with respect to our beliefs, even in the face of novel circumstances. I may not ever have met my new neighbors, but my internal model of moral beliefs tells me that bringing them a pie would be a valid expression of Mormon teaching, while defacing their car would not, even though I have no direct experience with defacing cars or bringing people pie (brownies are my preferred way to say hello).
As with language, though, our internal representations of Mormonism are not exactly alike, and we prioritize its moral imperatives in somewhat different ways, leading to situations where what you think of as a true statement about Mormon belief is defective according to my internal moral grammar, and vice-versa.
Some variation is inevitable and, to a degree, even welcome. You say caramel with three syllables, I say it in two. You see neckties as a distraction at church, I see them as necessary. Vive la différence!
But other constraints are more significant, like the requirement that only transitive verbs can appear in the passive voice. The Book of Mormon was read is OK. But *In the gymnasium was danced just won’t do, at least in English. After too many differences accumulate in the basic rules of syntax and phonetics, we’re no longer speaking the same language.
The subject of gay marriage is one about which predictive statements of acceptable Mormon belief have been contradictory. Such as:
Love is holy and should be sanctified by the church.
Homosexual relations are sinful and must be rejected by the church.
Now that gay marriage is legal, married gay couples are keeping the law of chastity.
Sinful relations cannot be sanctified through marriage.
The church is moving towards accepting gay marriage.
The church has not budged an inch in its rejection of gay marriage.
In this case, the diversity of opinion is a problem for Mormonism, because family and marriage are at the heart of some core teachings and at the pinnacle of its salvific rituals. Fundamentally opposed views on central doctrines can’t co-exist forever.
Unlike human languages, Mormonism has a small set of highly privileged informants about what constitutes a well-formed statement of Mormon belief. I may have an imperfect command of Mormonism, but the prophets and apostles have a unique degree of authority. There is no structure within the church that rivals the apostles. When the apostles act with unanimity—as they have now done in classifying entering into gay marriage as apostasy—that is about as strong of evidence as we can get that gay marriage is not compatible with Mormonism (at least, not without generating a set of statements that break the whole system, like: *The prophets are incapable of guiding the church on important issues today). If I don’t understand why a policy was necessary, I assume it’s because my knowledge of the church’s needs beyond the boundaries of my own home is very limited.
So today a lot of people feel horrible. I’m sorry, and I sympathize. It’s a crummy feeling to think that you understand what your church teaches and to make predictions about the world based on your internal model of those beliefs, only to run into strong evidence that you were wrong, your church is not moving gradually towards what you see as the enlightened view on an issue you care deeply about, and your internal system of belief is not in conformity with church teachings after all.
While I don’t find the new policies as upsetting as other people have, they did surprise me in some ways. Now that I have evidence that some of my hypotheses based on my internal rule-set of Mormonism weren’t entirely correct, how do I need to update my internal model? We prefer parsimonious modifications—the fewest modifications to the existing system and the least amount of conspiracy-theorist thinking. I think all it takes is a few modest changes to how rules are prioritized in order to explain the changes to myself.
(I don’t know what modifications are necessary for you, though, since your internal sense of Mormonism may differ from mine in key ways. I do know that non-parsimonious answers are very unlikely to be correct, and tend to quickly have noxious side effects, so I’m not entertaining any theories, pro or contra, about what the apostles really intended beyond what they say they intended, or about who is really responsible for the changes beyond the apostles and first presidency.)
So what I learn about Mormonism from the new policies is this:
- Gay marriage is a bigger problem for Mormonism as a system of beliefs than I had thought. Some smart people, including some of my esteemed co-bloggers, have suggested ways that Mormonism could be adapted to allow for gay marriage, but the new policies look like an authoritative answer that the two are in fact entirely incompatible. For a church that imagines salvation not as individual grace but as a family affair, but also maintains that same-sex intercourse is a serious sin, the legalization of gay marriages created family units that are beyond reach of the church’s salvific mechanisms. For a church with universal aspirations, that’s a difficult problem.
1a. A corollary to this is that the church sees its teachings on the family as highly disruptive to gay families. This is probably so; it’s hard to see how telling someone that their eternal exaltation requires the dissolution of their current domestic arrangement could be otherwise.
- The church places an even higher value than I had thought on not disrupting family units, no matter how these families are comprised. It was my understanding that the church never counsels divorce, even for polygamous families, either in the U.S. or abroad, who cannot otherwise be baptized, even as these families remain welcome to attend church meetings. The church will teach its doctrine, but it will not encourage the break-up of families of any kind.
So to bring my internal sense of Mormon belief into agreement with the policy changes, I need to raise the priority of two rules. On the one hand, same-sex intercourse ends up as an even more serious sin than before, and entirely incompatible with the sacrament of marriage; on the other, the imperative to strengthen families is also stronger, and encompasses families with gay parents.
Based on my internal sense of what Mormon beliefs permit or require, I will hazard a prediction that the policy on baptism and ordination of children of same-sex couples will sooner rather than later emerge not as a bright-line test but as something more like the Fair Use doctrine, where several different factors are weighed in deciding whether baptism is appropriate or not. That is, at least, what my internal sense of Mormonism predicts, although I’ve been wrong before. I’ll keep updating my internal model of Mormonism as needed.
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