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Friday, August 19, 2011

Patriarchy Guest Post #2: On Reluctant Patriarchy

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Abraham the reluctant patriarch is a conglomeration of personal experiences and disparate identities. His creator, J., intellectually hails from graduate programs in philosophy and religion, and geographically from Utah and California. Should there be sufficient interest, Abraham will likely submit more posts on reluctant patriarchy in the future.

As you can see by my name, I am a patriarch. Of the reluctant variety. (Abraham is, inconveniently, not my real name). I'll contrast reluctant patriarchs to Eager Patriarchs. Eager Patriarchs like being patriarchs. Being a patriarch makes their lives meaningful. Patriarchy is a crucial component of their identity as men; patriarchy removes the anxiety of trying to decide what it means to be a man or even having to live up to what it means to be a man. In an important way patriarchy removes the struggle for maleness. Instead, it hands it to them--as a "gift," if you will, an unearned grace, but because unearned entirely misunderstood and misapplied. Now they are men. Real men. Now they can go on with their lives and do manly things without the worry that such things might not be manly. Gone is the necessity to create what it means to be a man; gone is the necessity, really, to create anything at all.

I know this because I was at one time an Eager Patriarch, secure in my manhood, certain in my answers (and Eager Patriarchs are certain. Oh, they are all too certain of everything). My story begins as a newly married young man, in college studying for a future career in the healthcare industry. Life was good: it was Patriarchal (though I didn't know it at the time).

My wife and I attended Institute together one night. I loved Institute. I was, I must admit, one of the "brighter" students in the class (certainly the most vocal). I responded to every question, had multiple answers for everything. Institute instructors loved me. (Or they despised me if I stole their thunder).

(Now, I read my scriptures, of course. More importantly, I read commentary on the scriptures. Every commentary I could find. Bruce R. McConkie, Daniel Ludlow, Robert Millet, all the FARMS stuff, you name it. Commentary from multiple sources came to mind much more easily than the scriptures themselves. And it was dynamite in a class. There is no better way to make Mormons swoon in Institute than to recite from memory what McConkie, Joseph Fielding Smith, Ludlow, and Neal A. Maxwell all have to say about 1 Nephi 3:7).

My wife and I had arrived in separate cars. She was going to visit her sister after the class and I was headed to the library to study. I had just inserted the key into the driver's side door of my ancient Corolla when I heard a voice: "Abraham." I turned around to see a friend of mine whom I hadn't seen in 4 years. I'll call him David. He had left for graduate school at Brown 4 years prior. For a PhD in Humanities. Of all the worthless degrees, I had thought. One step above a degree in Theology. David was really excited. He had just joined a discussion group at the university. The group discussed mainly Mormon doctrine and he said the discussions were amazing. Would I like to come? I was intrigued so I agreed.

The group consisted of 7 guys and 1 girl (the girlfriend of one of the guys who was also visiting for the first time). I was put off immediately. Yes, Mormon doctrine was the topic. But doused with heavy doses of philosophy, theology, feminism--in short, the philosophies of men. But I had a great retort to one particular question. It was a doozy of a McConkie/Joseph F. Smith combo, seasoned with a little 2 Nephi 2. Home run, I thought. Next topic. Bring it.


The response (by a guy seated directly across from me) was not at all what I was expecting. My comment was completely ignored (looking back I feel fortunate I was not yelled at or ridiculed). He calmly but confidently quoted 3 philosophers, whom I would later learn were Martin Heidegger, Paul Ricoeur, and Luce Irigaray (Belgian feminist), and then tied the quotes to an absolute stunner (and might I add faith-enriching) interpretation of 2 Nephi 2, one I still find to be highly persuasive. I was completely tongue-tied the rest of the discussion. And my entire world had gone supernova. It was like the star that had kept it in orbit and gave it life had imploded, but out of the ashes a new world had been born, hot and pulsating with young life and potential, and a newer, bigger, brighter star had taken the place of the old. It was truly a transcendental, even spiritual experience, perhaps the most intense spiritual experience I'd ever had. So intense, in fact, that I can only describe it as a death and a resurrection. Within the span of an hour I felt like I had been completely reborn.

Long story somewhat shorter, within 2 weeks I had quit my healthcare program and switched to philosophy. My new self could not have stood the paradigms and predispositions of the old self. My wife (to say nothing of my family) was stunned. I told her I wanted to teach. That I had always felt I had it in me to be a teacher. But philosophy? Why philosophy? I told her about the discussion. She was very upset with me for having attended. And she didn't agree at all with the comment I found to be so persuasive. But, she began to support it after we prayed and fasted about the decision. After graduation I entered graduate school (again, in philosophy) where I am today.

I am a reluctant patriarch mainly because of my wife. She's never been interested in my new studies. That's fine; I have my interests and she has interests that I'm not the least curious about. But she's not just uninterested, she's often antagonistic when I try to bring up something I learned in a class or read about in a book. Feminism in particular she cannot abide. She thinks feminism is anti-mother, and anti-woman in the way God intended women to be. I've tried to show her this is not the case, and that feminist ideals promote the best in both men and women, but she remains unconvinced. Gradually, I came to believe that my wife (just as I had previously done) was supporting her own subjection. I wouldn't say oppression; she does not feel oppressed and would be angered at being told she was. (And who am I to define her experience for her, anyway)? I think oppression is too strong a word in any case. But she does unconsciously support inequality between men and women in the church (not that she would agree with that either).

Ok, so she doesn't agree with certain views I've come to be persuaded by. So what? Every marriage has disagreements. Here's the so-what: I've become quite unsettled regarding the roles that men and women are ideally supposed to play within the Church. I use "unsettled" purposefully; I haven't figured out myself exactly what those roles should be. My thoughts on gender inequality in the Church are anything but settled. Yes, I agree that on many levels men and women are different, and that this is a good thing, but I find myself also agreeing that there should be more institutional equality for women. Most of my friends and colleagues in graduate school are in full support of women holding the priesthood, thereby granting them more opportunities to hold positions of serious leadership. A smaller number see such a move as having an overall detrimental effect on church membership and are for a middle of the road solution which leaves men with the priesthood and women with increasing decision-making power through councils and the like. I see pros and cons for both views. One thing I am settled on is that the status quo is becoming increasingly unsatisfying and ineffective for larger and larger numbers of Saints.

Anyway, not even my wife knows I feel this way. She's very traditional, very conservative. She insists I lead out in the home with prayer and scripture study only because I hold the priesthood. Now, I'm for prayer and scriptures as much as the next Latter-day Saint, but when I try and say things like, "Honey, why don't you have a turn deciding who will pray," she interprets it as me shirking priesthood responsibility. Then we get in a fight about how my education has changed me--not for the better. So I reluctantly (there's the key word) always take the lead on family prayer and scripture time.

I can handle doing this because it preserves the peace in our marriage. Besides, she really does lead out on so many other things in our family, this seems like a pretty token compromise. But what is much more difficult to swallow is when she insists I have the final say on important family decisions, again because I am the man and I hold the priesthood. She would be shocked to hear this, but when she insists on my final word, as if what I say matters more than what she might say simply because I am a man, I feel like I'm driving a stake into her humanity and she is the one forcing me to murder her own humaneness without realizing it. Instead, she believes (as I did once) that she as a woman and mother is inherently superior and that priesthood must be given to men in order to equalize the sexes, (which it ultimately doesn't do because women are always more spiritual but it's the best men can hope for). This is horribly contradictory for me emotionally and logically. And I know it sounds melodramatic, but for me a lot is at stake with how Patriarchal we are as a people, and therefore how Patriarchal my marriage is. And the fights that have resulted from my refusal...Look, I love her with all my heart. It's because of my love for her that I try not to make these things an issue. I firmly believe that our marriage is more important than my personal views, no matter how strongly I hold them. And I understand that because of my studies and chosen profession I am coming from a place that she is not, and therefore she cannot be expected to develop the same views in the same ways. At the same time, I don't want to abandon my studies and chosen profession. I owe much of my development as a human being to what I've learned and the people I've associated with as a result, and I also know I can be successful in my chosen field. Leaving all that behind wouldn't change what I think and feel in any case. But it's taking a terrible toll on me personally. I could go on at length about what an Eager Patriarch is and why I find Patriarchy to be just as bad for men as for women--maybe in another post. I've gone on too long. Am I alone? Are there any other reluctant patriarchs out there?

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