Mormon Literalism and the Body

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?

9 Replies to “Mormon Literalism and the Body”

  1. I tend to take these things quite literally myself. There are statements in the proclamation that underscore gender as an eternal identity. I have had some fun making posts about being literal children of God here, and here

    I think this literalness is important not only for how we view our relationship to Heavenly Father (or Heavenly Parents), but also our view of what exaltation and eternal families means. For these reasons I take this literalism……..all the way?.

  2. You bring up questions that I have felt brimming in my own mind, and you have expressed them so well.

    My branch president in the MTC told us that he looked forward to using his procreative powers in the Celestial Kingdom. That never really sat well with me. I have a sense that sexual drive may be something that is very much a temporal/mortal experience. It definitely has its place in mortality, but for my wife’s sake I pray that there are no 9 month gestations or periods.

  3. Your post brings up another question about rampant “likening” among Mormons in which everything must function as a type of something else and where there is a resemblance, it is carried to minute detail. As you’ve described, just because familial and gender relationships are given as a type of heavenly relationships may not mean that they resemble each other in fine detail. “Likening” often happens in regards to the early Christians, as well. If “we believe in the same organization that existed in the primitive church,” many Mormons believe that organization should resemble the modern church in every detail, stake presidents and all. Such thinking ignores that even within this dispensation church organization has sometimes changed dramatically.

    However, I would be apprehensive to criticize the Mormon concept of gender based on Judith Butler’s thought. While I think Butler accurately describes many of the mores that surround how gender functions in society, she fails to persuade that these mores have produced “gender.” Two distinguishable phenotypes of reproductive organs, and their common interface, seem to be evidence enough of binary gender. But even if it is just a construct, as Butler says, the construct seems remarkably easy to extend to reproductive processes in other species than humans. In other words, it is a paradigm that, for an artificial discourse, too accurately describes reproduction in contexts in which it did not develop.

  4. Eric: Is there no way we can be literal children of Heavenly parents without being produced by the sexual means TT has laid out? Perhaps [binary] gender is an eternal truth, but does it function the same way in the eternal worlds as it does here? The Proclamation contains no clarifying information, and any further thought on the matter cannot hope to transcend speculation.

    On the other hand, little has been revealed for us to think otherwise, and so any recoiling from a literal understanding of celestial reproduction stems from our own presuppositions about godhood.

  5. Jondh:

    The proclamation is clarifying. It may not give the birds and the bees detail, but it does paint a reasonably clear picture with literal sounding words. There are also a handful of scriptures that use the same language. Yes, the details are speculative, but the general picture seems clear. Being literal offspring of God, and being of the same type and ‘species’ is important to me and many Mormons.

  6. The body gender is literal, what most of us fail to realize, which I have learned in my studies from the Jewish rabbis, is that God is both male and female (Hebrew – zakar unekevah), hence their teaching Adam originally was androgynous, that is both male and female at once. The Zohar seeks to discuss this extensively, which I won’t get into right now. Perhaps from our LDS perspective we could say the male portion is relfective of God the Father, while the female aspect is reflective of God our Mother, and that they are one, exactly as Adam and Eve became one, as husband and wife.

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