The Hipness of Divine Society

June 17, 2004 | 10 comments
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The idea of “social construction” is really hip in the social sciences and the humanities, or at least it was really hip a decade or two ago. Generally the concept gets invoked with another idea, namely “essentialism.” Here is how the game works. We take some quality – say race – and then we argue about its nature. If we are essentialists (and it is pretty unhip to be essentialist about anything), then we would argue that race is somehow an inherent, natural, biological quality. If we are social constructivists (and being the hip, smart people that we are, we are, of course, social constructionists), then we argue that there is nothing inherent about race. All of the characteristics we associate with this concept are actually social creations that are not contingent on nature, essence, or anything else. The distinction gets deployed in normative discussions as well. That which is essential supposedly provides us with a sure foundation for ethical judgments. On the other hand, that which is merely socially constructed is open to revision and reconstruction according to . . . something (socially constructed or otherwise). This particular duo of concepts pops up in discussions Mormon from time to time, and I am skeptical that it is as useful as we hip thinkers think that it is. Indeed, Mormonism may be even hipper than we have thought.

The social construction/essentialism paradigm has produced the most heat (light is another matter) in discussions of gender. When the Proclamation on the Family declares that gender is an essential and eternal characteristic we are supposed to get very upset. The reason is that gender is taken as the paradigmatically socially constructed characteristic. Indeed, those who haunt the halls of women’s studies have even created a specialized vocabulary around the distinction. Gender refers to that which is socially constructed – think everything from nurturing motherhood to the missionary position – while sex refers strictly to biology, which is taken as essential (subject to the obligatory kibbitzing about hermaphadites). Hence, the Proclamation, by associating things like nurturing and traditional gender roles with eternity has committed the heresy of essentialism. What are we to do?

Thus far, I have seen basically two responses by Mormon intellectuals. First, there are embarassed mea culpas by some, who reluctantly admit that, yes, the Proclamation is a horribly reactionary document containing an indefensible claim of gender essentialism. Efforts at “damage control” generally consist of demoting the Proclamation from “important prophetic doctrinal announcement” to “politically motivated press release.” Second, there are those Mormons who pound their fists on the table and insist that some things really are essential and immutable, dang it!

The caricatures above are set up so that I can propose a third way (you knew they were, didn’t you?): the Mormon deconstruction of the essentialism/socially constructed dichotomy. Traditionally, God is the ultimate in non-socially constructedness. Divinity and eternity are the great realm of essence, where things exist not as a matter of convention but rather in their true form as what they really are. The concept, of course, is Platonic, and you can find the original statement in The Republic, where Plato has Socrates describe the realm of the forms.

Despite any Mormon attempts at ecumenicalism, we ultimately reject this model of divinity. According to one strand of Mormonism, we reject it in a way that radically undermines the essentialism/socially constructed categories. It all comes down to how you interpret D&C 93:29, which states, “Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.” Some of our theologians, including Brigham Young and B.H. Roberts, have taken this to mean that discrete, individual agents are co-eternal with God. Put another way, society is eternal and God himself is inescapably socially situated. Now this is a fun concept to take for a joy ride. Perhaps it is social construction all the way down. Divinity itself may not be an essential category. Indeed, one way of understanding the doctrine of sealings is that we are personally and concretely involved in the social construction of God. At the very least, it means that the identification of eternity with essence and God-talk with essentialism becomes problematic.

Now I have to confess that I don’t really have any idea of what I am to make of arguments about gender in this context. It seems that we are in uncharted and perhaps even unimagined country here. That, of course, is what makes it so fun. It does mean, however, that Mormonism is going to problematize the neat categories of contemporary academic feminism. We are going to have to put down Aristotle and Simone de Beavoir long enough to make room for the Brigham and B.H. Roberts in our discussions.

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10 Responses to The Hipness of Divine Society

  1. Russell Arben Fox on June 17, 2004 at 5:07 pm

    “Hipness” only has one p, Nate. (Spelling: socially constructed, yet normative all the same.)

  2. lyle on June 17, 2004 at 5:08 pm

    Nate: It get’s even more fun once you apply this to International Relations (Constructivist) & Sociology (English School) because it is _essentially_ a third way to theorize.

    I’m not a good explainer like you; and don’t have the knowledge that Brayden does on this subject (even though I think he rejects most of it). However…it is fun & a good stepping stone towards creating that distinctive Mormon Doctrine/Theology/Stepping Stone.

    LDS phil has recently been skirting around a few similar topics…

  3. William Morris on June 17, 2004 at 5:22 pm

    Is there a point at which the socially-constructed could become essential?

    Could that be a way to understand the Mormon take on gender? So were all intelligences and we progress in our intelligence via interaction in society. As a result of those experiences we develop certain characteristics and preferences (perhaps tendencies would be better word to use). Because of those tendencies, when we are born as spirit children, we manifest a certain gender. It’s probably a roughly determined kind of assignment because we aren’t all 100% masculine or feminine essences to begin with. This manifestation then carries over into the physical, temporal world — with the understanding that there are situations where the carry-over doesn’t work all the way.

    Part of the struggle of these levels in our development (spirit children, then earthly beings) is to both fulfill and transcend the specific duties of those genders. Ultimately, to become like god, we have to acquire all his characterstics in a perfect (fully-finished and realized) way.

    BTW, my guess about the whole gender thing — it’s to guide (even force?) us into spousal relationships where we can learn what it means to love someone fully body, soul and mind and work in union with them as well as to produce children which help us learn Godly attributes as well (again with the understanding that at least in this life not all will be able to experience that relationship or experience it in a productive way).

  4. William Morris on June 17, 2004 at 5:26 pm

    I forgot to add:

    What I’m suggesting is that we are socially-constructed individuals, but at certain points in our development, the nature of our being has to be ‘essentialized’ so that we can progress. Thus the reason why we go through the essentializing processes of birth as spirit beings, birth as human souls (body + spirit), and, finally become resurrected beings.

  5. Jeremy on June 17, 2004 at 5:32 pm

    Nate,

    The verse immediately after the one you cite seems to more or less describe “construction” in the sense we’re using it here:

    “All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.”

    Otherwise there is no existence. Does that mean that “social construction” is, in fact, the only kind of construction there is? That from Mormonism’s rejection of creation ex nihilo derives a rejection of essentialism?

    This, of course, would mean that “deconstruction” is not simply the socially subversive act it is so often made out to be, but simply an inquiry into the way things are, one that presumes no moral judgements about constructions, those that build them, and those that subscribe to them. Many in the social sciences and humanities would agree with this, I think: deconstruction does not equal indictment.

    If this were the case, perhaps the Mormon could argue that sure, this or that is constructed, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t divinely appointed. (I’m not positing this as my own, just recognizing a possible avenue of argument.)

  6. Jason on June 17, 2004 at 8:53 pm

    It’s interesting to note the things that the Proclamation actually commits to wrt the essentialness of gender. All I can find are these two statements:

    “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.

    By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.”

    So, first off, let’s assume they’re using the mundane rather than the loaded sociology versions of “gender” and “essential”. Then the first statement seems primarily aimed at arguments about sexual orientation which rely on the notion that sexual preference is based on [sociology:]gender rather than [sociology:]sex. But even then I’m reading things into the statement — by itself, it seems just to be saying that I was male and will continue to be male through eternity.

    The second statement is hard to nail down, too. What does “primarily” mean, especially in the context of the second sentence about equality (and the following stuff I didn’t quote about individual circumstances)? That providing is 51% or more to be done by the man and 49% or less by the woman? That the mother is the one who makes /decisions/ about who does what nurturing, regardless of how much of the nurturing itself she does?

    I don’t really know. It does seem to /hint/ at our “traditional” western marriage stereotypes (which actually appear to have quite a convoluted history), but leaves lots of wiggle room, too.

  7. Keith on June 18, 2004 at 5:01 am

    Russell wrote: “Hipness” only has one p, Nate.”

    Actually, I think Nate pulled this directly from the Book of Mormon where it talks about the ‘great plan of hipness.’

  8. Last_lemming on June 18, 2004 at 10:45 am

    What if the Proclamation’s use of the term “gender” was not meant to adopt the vocabulary of Womens Studies departments, but instead merely reflected a reluctance to use the word s-e-x in a public document? Would the underlying essentialism still be controversial?

  9. Julie in Austin on June 18, 2004 at 12:54 pm

    Lemming–

    Thank you. I am usually the one to make the point that ‘gender’ means ‘sex-but-we-can’t-say-sex-because-the-deacons-would-rupture-internal-organs-trying-not-to-laugh-at-’sex-is-eternal”

  10. Rob on June 18, 2004 at 3:11 pm

    >Actually, I think Nate pulled this directly from the Book of Mormon where it talks about the ‘great plan of hipness.’

    I have it on good authority that the original manuscript of the BOM has it as the “great plan of hippyness”–which I’ve taken to be a) a prophetic view of the 1960s and b) a divine sanction of beards, long hair, and Birkenstocks.

    But back to the original topic:
    Margaret Barker has a fascinating discussion of the creation where she discusses the creation of “forms” or “likenesses” on the first day of creation in the Hebrew scriptures:
    http://www.marquette.edu/maqom/veil

    Nice to read that and then Hugh Nibley’s discussion of world organization and the Council in Heaven (Figure 6 of Facsimile 2) at:
    http://farms.byu.edu/display.php?table=transcripts&id=70&mp=T

    Just some good food for thought here…I think we are bound by the Book of Abraham to see creation as “organization” of pre-existent intelligences/spirits. At one level it does seem to be “social construction all the way down” (better than turtles, I suppose).

    However, though I think this is a great Mormon addition to the discussion, I’m also interested in how this “social construction” view is also a material, immanent, and personal view of God and creation–rather than the essential or transcendent view of most Christianity.

    My question…is there a way that we can have it both ways? Is God both a particle (personal being) and a wave (Light of Chirst), transcendent (outside of material creation) and immanent (here with us), Essential (Never Changing) and Socially Constructed (Exalted through Atonements, Obedience to Laws, etc.)?

    I’ve always seen Brigham Young and Orson Pratt as arguing from two sides of what might be the same coin. Can an exploration of our socially constructed reality and diety help us find a Grand Unifying Theory (GUT) or quantum mechanical understanding of eternity?