by Russ Peterson:
Note: This is the full installment of this week's multi-part post. Parts 1, 2, 3 & 4 here, here, here and here.
I first stumbled across the MMM website only recently. As an inherently visual creature, I was immediately struck by the graphic of the man holding the baby bottle. I saw someone who—although tired of trying to calm his fussy little one—was nevertheless glad for the opportunity to escape the mundane and collect his thoughts while allowing his child the freedom to wander semi-supervised in the church foyer. I reflected on the internal dialog I’d entertained many times in similar settings. I saw myself.
To me the image represented the resignation I’d felt when my life was on autopilot. I had the nice home, the decent marriage, and the steady job—albeit the kind that slowly robs a man of his pride, confidence, and independence. It was when life couldn’t have been any better that I sometimes wondered if it could get any worse.
I had been tamed.1
In retrospect it had happened so gradually I hadn’t even been aware it had happened at all. Childhood had set the stage perfectly. My parents had a high conflict relationship, and their arguments frequently centered on church activity and attendance. My father was LDS but not active, and I grew up swayed to my mother’s view that his “unrighteousness” was the cause of all the problems at home. Hence I determined at an early age to remain active in the Church and to avoid conflict at all costs. Anger was not an option.
My perspective on anger was heavily reinforced through years of church activity. I learned to equate anger with sin. Anger was associated with all sorts of evil: unrighteous dominion, the spirit of contention, and a host of other ills imputed to the “natural man.” Furthermore, I understood that the “natural man is an enemy to God,” and that his base impulses had to be put off, overcome, and subjugated to the governance of the spirit. Consider for example this counsel given during the priesthood session of the October 2009 General Conference:
“I ask, is it possible to feel the Spirit of our Heavenly Father when we are angry? I know of no instance where such would be the case.I wish to tread lightly here. In context, this speaker was talking about the many instances where anger gives rise to abuse, oppression, and other unrighteousness. Unfortunately we know that such is often the case, even among the men of the Church to whom this leader was speaking. This vast problem needs to be identified and corrected, and this leader was forthrightly doing so.
To be angry is to yield to the influence of Satan. No one can make us angry. It is our choice. If we desire to have a proper spirit with us at all times, we must choose to refrain from becoming angry. I testify that such is possible.”
But I always struggle when anger is equated with sin, because I can’t reconcile that view with the scriptures. I can’t imagine Jesus in a pleasant mood when He took a whip and drove the moneychangers from the temple. He was angry, and He used His anger to accomplish a righteous purpose. The same was true when Jesus was known as Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament. He was frequently angry with individuals and nations—sometimes so much so that He destroyed them. The “wrath of God” (scriptural phrase) is kindled when His children disobey Him. This is God we’re talking about—the being in whose image we are made and on whom we are to pattern our lives.
War on Masculinity
Whence cometh, then, the war on anger? I’d like to examine this in context of a larger cultural war on men and masculinity. With the rise of feminism has come a much needed recognition of oppression and abuse of power; usually this has involved men wielding anger as a primary instrument whereby they have accomplished their designs. We all know the saying: “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Further, we are instructed doctrinally that:
“…it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion” (D&C 121:39).Men (who have traditionally been in positions of power) have so often failed to exercise that power with restraint and to the benefit of humanity that in Western society we have become largely suspicious of men exercising power of any kind. Anger—so often a tool of oppression—has become particularly vilified by association. Thus in Western society especially, men aren’t supposed to be angry; we are supposed to be tame.
But anger isn’t the problem. Anger is an emotion that enables us to recognize injustice. The Savior’s action against the temple moneychangers provides the perfect example: He was incensed that His Father’s house had become a “den of thieves” and He drove out the offenders with a whip.
I could go on giving countless examples of how great men and women throughout history have used anger not only to identify injustice, but as the driving force behind their actions to correct it. If we suppose that anger is evil, we must conclude that God is evil, because in the scriptures He is frequently angry. The primary difference between God and man here is not the presence or absence of anger. Rather, it is that whereas God always governs His anger perfectly and employs it in the service of righteousness, man does not.
There are several other principles that—incorrectly understood and applied—also cause us in LDS culture to inadvertently participate in the war on men and masculinity.
Spirit of Contention
The first of these is the spirit of contention. This is among the most frequently misunderstood doctrines in the Church today. Members of the Church often interpret the Savior’s counsel in 3 Nephi 11 to mean that anger and conflict are evil, and that if one is willing to fight for something he is “of the devil.”
On further examination, however, this isn’t what the Savior is saying at all. Let’s take a closer look:
“And according as I have commanded you thus shall ye baptize. And there shall be no disputations among you, as there have hitherto been; neither shall there be disputations among you concerning the points of my doctrine, as there have hitherto been.The Savior’s doctrine regarding contention has often been misinterpreted as a command to avoid conflict in every circumstance and at all costs. However, it is critical to note the context. The Savior was speaking principally of contention among members of the Church regarding points of doctrine. Conflict cannot give rise to revelation or doctrinal clarity; these are obtained through different means entirely.
For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another” (3 Nephi 11:28-29).
There are, however, numerous instances in scripture where righteous men were called to contend against sin and error and/or defend the cause of truth. They entered into conflict and in some cases were rejected because they avoided it. Consider a different take on the scriptural passage whereby the Lord calls Samuel, and Eli instructs him to say, “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth.” That’s where we usually stop, but let’s keep reading:
And the Lord said to Samuel, Behold, I will do a thing in Israel, at which both the ears of every one that heareth it shall tingle.What was Eli’s sin? He knew of his sons’ iniquity but failed to confront and correct them. Why? We can only imagine, but suffice it to say that confrontation requires energy—energy parents are sometimes unwilling to expend. As a young men’s leader I routinely encountered parents who wouldn’t require their sons to attend Sunday meetings because they didn’t want them to grow up resenting the Church. More than once I asked them how often they excused these same sons from mowing the lawn for fear they would resent the grass. When we fail to provide instruction or correction to our children in the name of conflict avoidance, are we failing in the discharge of parental duty?
In that day I will perform against Eli all things which I have spoken concerning his house: when I begin, I will also make an end.
For I have told him that I will judge his house for ever for the iniquity which he knoweth; because his sons made themselves vile, and he restrained them not (1 Samuel 3:11-13).
In the Book of Mormon, Captain Moroni exemplified the perfect balance between engagement and conflict avoidance. After he had defeated an army of the Lamanites he commanded his men to stop shedding their blood and entreated their leader to peace:
Behold, Zerahemnah, that we do not desire to be men of blood. Ye know that ye are in our hands, yet we do not desire to slay you (Alma 44:1).But when Zerahemnah refused the proffered olive branch, Moroni was unyielding in his determination to conquer, commanding his people to “fall upon them and slay them” (Alma 44:17).
Later on we encounter a verse which articulates Moroni’s proclivities even more clearly:
But behold, this [slaying of Lamanites] was not the desire of Moroni; he did not delight in murder or bloodshed, but he delighted in the saving of his people from destruction (Alma 55:19).Captain Moroni’s example helps us understand the Savior’s counsel in 3 Nephi when he teaches against the “spirit of contention.” Contention is often necessary in a fallen world but, like Captain Moroni, we don’t have to like it. Indeed, the “spirit of contention” is defined not by engagement in conflict, but rather by the pursuit of or desire for the same. Certainly we can engage in conflict when necessary without possessing an appetite for it. Furthermore, when duty sometimes calls us to engage in conflict, failure to do so can constitute sin. It is in this light that we understand the Savior’s declaration:
“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34).Avoiding necessary conflict and invoking 3 Nephi 11 as our reason for doing so is not righteousness; it’s laziness. It calls to mind the Lord’s pronouncement:
“So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:16).Unrighteous Dominion
A second major assault on men and masculinity—particularly with regard to the leadership men are called to render on behalf of the Church—stems from the misunderstanding and misapplication of the doctrine of unrighteous dominion. As previously discussed, men have so often failed to exercise power with restraint and to the benefit of humanity that in Western society we have become generally uncomfortable with men exercising authority of any kind. This uncomfortability is particularly evident in the Church, where we see men habitually shrink from confident leadership for fear of exercising unrighteous dominion. Let’s take a closer look at the concept as it’s discussed in scripture. In the Doctrine and Covenants we read:
We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.I have waded through many a priesthood lesson where these verses were interpreted to mean that the only legitimate exercise of leadership by men was “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned” and that to do otherwise was to exercise unrighteous dominion.
Hence many are called, but few are chosen.
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned (D&C 121:39-41).
It is this interpretation that gives rise to the conclusion that anger is always evil and never justified. But in so doing we fail to reckon with the righteous anger of Captain Moroni, Joseph Smith,2 and the Savior Himself—among countless others.
Upon closer examination, the phrase which sets unrighteous dominion apart from other exercises of authority is “by virtue of the priesthood.” That is, a man cannot legitimately claim priesthood as the authority by which he exercises leadership when he does so outside defined parameters of “persuasion, …long-suffering, …gentleness and meekness, and …love unfeigned.” Why not? Because doing so violates the order of heaven observed by God Himself. Even when He is angry with His children, God doesn’t invoke priesthood authority as the reason for his anger. Rather, He references a broken law and the curses and penalties that come because of it. God isn’t some kind of ultimate “He-Man” proclaiming “I have the power!” with lightning and a sword (even though, ironically, He is the only one who could legitimately make such a claim). It’s just not who He is.
Armed with a correct understanding of unrighteous dominion, we can differentiate it from the many legitimate exercises of authority that have nothing to do with priesthood whatsoever. Among these are parental authority, civil and military authority, and authority derived from common sense and guilt.
Let’s briefly consider parental authority, which flows from the commandment to “Honor thy father and thy mother.” Parental authority is not only codified by the 5th commandment; it is common to the entire human race. It is not related to priesthood authority, nor is it really even contingent on parental behavior. The commandment isn’t to “honor thy father and thy mother if they are righteous.” It is to honor them, period.
A man may be harsh or unwise in his exercise of parental authority, but according to the scriptural definition it doesn’t necessarily constitute “unrighteous dominion” unless he invokes his priesthood as the reason for which he expects to be obeyed. Furthermore, there are many situations that call for the kind of forthright correction that could be seen as a father’s duty. Remember that the Lord clearly expected Eli to correct his sons. As with many in modern times, Eli may have wished to avoid contention (or “unrighteous dominion,” as it is sometimes misidentified today), but in so doing Eli committed a far greater sin in withholding the correction that was his fatherly duty. Eli’s softness didn’t magnify his priesthood; it called it into question.
Why is parental authority so often confused with priesthood authority by members of the Church? Perhaps it’s because we have a lay ministry in which men are regularly ordained to the priesthood. But in failing to discern between the two separate sources of authority, we run the risk of holding back with one at the expense of risking offense to the other. Men need not fear that priesthood authority limits the exercise of parental duty; they function in two related but separate domains.
It is beyond our purpose to examine each kind of authority in detail. Suffice it to say that some kinds (e.g., civil authority) derive from the consent of the governed and some (e.g., parental or military authority) derive from hierarchical relationships. Each is necessary in its sphere, and each calls for a different manner by which authority is exercised. When correction is administered—whatever the source of authority—we sometimes mistake the emotion or energy with which it is issued as evidence of “unrighteous dominion.” But, as with the Savior when He took a whip to the moneychangers, unrighteous dominion is defined less by the methods of one in authority and more by his motives. If one’s motives are right, they will usually be reflected by his methods. But even then, we cannot automatically equate anger with unrighteous dominion, lest by so doing we accuse the Savior of sin.
What is the point? Smooth and gentle words may indicate tame behavior, but they aren’t necessarily evidence of righteousness, any more than anger is automatically evidence of wickedness. It’s just not that simple.
Gender Equality versus Gender Sameness
For our purposes, the “taming” of the modern man refers to a growing expectation that men should refrain from traditionally masculine behavior. It includes the expectation—whether realized or merely perceived—that a man must hold back from exercising leadership or authority for fear of being seen as a “male oppressor.” But the issue far transcends LDS concerns of “unrighteous dominion” as we have discussed it. In larger Western culture, we are so sensitized to the historical imbalance of power between men and women that we have moved beyond seeking gender equality to insisting on gender sameness.
As I understand it, the ideal of gender equality recognizes complementary differences between genders but equally values both. On the other hand, gender sameness (my term) pursues equality of the sexes by ignoring or attempting to eliminate the differences between the two. Gender equality may be difficult to assess or achieve when men and women assume different roles; if so, gender sameness proposes a solution: rather than organizing men and women according to different roles, we can pretend they are the same.
For a frame of reference, consider three examples that illustrate the degree of shift in societal thinking about gender during recent decades:
- Women in combat. As the US military has struggled with its pursuit of gender equality, it has become increasingly apparent that combat experience is directly related to opportunity for advancement. Those in command have had to (in some cases forcibly) abandon long-held notions that men are better suited for combat.
- Gay marriage. Advocates of traditional (opposite sex) marriage held that the two different genders formed a complementary unit. Arguments about equality aside, gay marriage advocates have downplayed the importance of gender in marriage, contending that gender should not factor into marriage privileges.
- Ordaining women. As women have asserted their right to lead congregations, many protestant denominations have started to ordain women to the priesthood along with the men.
Honorable as it may seem in the pursuit of gender equality, gender sameness is not without problems, the first of which is biology.
For all of our high minded theories, gender sameness flies in the face of human biology. We might have noble reasons for discounting or ignoring gender in industry, on the battlefield, or elsewhere, but these intentions don’t keep sex or gender from being among the very first things we notice about a person when meeting him or her for the first time. Gender has its roots in biology, and ignoring it is unwise, perhaps precisely because it is impossible.3
Case in point: women in combat. For purposes of our discussion, let’s set aside the differences in physical strength or emotional constitution between men and women. We’ll further take it as a given that regardless of circumstance, men must always take responsibility for their own sexual advances and behavior. All of which begs the question: if the entire purpose for which we have a standing military is to fight and win wars, is it wise to introduce into combat—already one of the most stressful and chaotic experiences known to humankind—an element of sexual tension such as will inevitably be present when men and women are fighting in the trenches together? Would doing so be setting our military up for success, or would it divert resources from its most essential purpose? If you think this is merely an academic concern, you might wander on a US military installation and see how far you can go without seeing a poster outlining the basics of the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) protocol.
Into this discussion—and in light of all of the above—we insert a doctrine peculiar in our time. In The Family: A Proclamation to the World, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve have taught that “gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” The Church teaches that gender is a defining and valued characteristic of each individual, essential to both identity and purpose. Far from being discounted or ignored, gender differences should be respected and appreciated as part of our physical and spiritual DNA. Peculiar doctrine indeed.
What are the ramifications? They are many and varied, but here I will focus on those that pertain to our previously introduced war on masculinity and the taming of the modern Mormon man. Contrary to society’s current insistence on gender sameness, I take the Proclamation’s teaching on gender to mean that gender differences are created by God and that they should be valued and respected equally by His children. If the Church is to be a light to the world in the latter days, this is certainly one of the defining differences by which the Church will be that light as the world increasingly departs from principles and practices that have undergirded human society for millennia.
Pursuant to the larger war on masculinity, we earlier defined the “taming” of the modern man as the growing expectation that men should refrain from traditionally masculine behavior, to include holding back from the exercise of leadership or authority. Fair enough, but what did men do before they were tamed?
Before addressing that question, let me provide a brief introduction to the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement, which, for purposes of our discussion, I will simply refer to as the “men’s movement.”
A detailed history of the men’s movement is beyond the scope of our discussion. Suffice it to say that the movement arose partly in response to the cultural war on masculinity and the subsequent push for gender sameness. As envisioned by those that framed and defined the movement, men and masculinity weren’t the problem. Rather, problems increased with the arrival of Industrial Revolution due to the loss of traditions, rites, and institutions by which grounded and mature masculinity had always been passed from one generation to the next. The movement further makes a compelling case for what men have to offer the world when they are grounded in culture and history and have been prepared to act for the benefit of humankind.
One book in particular is so fundamental to the men’s movement that it bears particular mention. King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine (long title) is derived from Jungian psychology, but it discusses roles traditionally fulfilled by men throughout history. The book—like the movement it helped define—examines both the reasons why men often go awry with the power they possess, as well as the contributions men stand to make when they aren’t afraid to act like men.
In their book the authors develop a historical and literary framework to discuss the archetypes of mature masculinity. They speak of the man as king (leader), warrior (protector), magician (spiritual guide), and lover (husband). In defining these roles, the authors assert that masculinity can and should exert itself as a force for good in the world; of course that can only happen when we stop maligning it as the cause of all the world’s ills.
In LDS culture and tradition we see congruence with many of the principles espoused by the men’s movement. Consider, for instance, the example of King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon. He was the epitome of mature masculinity in the discharge of his duties as king of the Nephites. A great leader, teacher, and prophet, he worked with his own hands to avoid imposing taxes on his people. His example serves as a powerful illustration of how one man can serve and lead people in the way of truth.
Much of the men’s movement focuses on recapturing the energy of the noble warrior. Our modern culture has been so focused on war that we may forget that, in history and literature, the warrior served his community principally by defending women and children. Nowhere do we have a greater departure from the values and conventions of traditional masculinity than in the abrogation of this protective role. Let me provide an example.
I recall a discussion I had with a friend who is not of our faith. As we were becoming acquainted, I inquired about his position on abortion. He seemed hesitant to answer, but when he did, he said that although he thought abortion was wrong, it was not his place to tell a woman what to do. This has become the default position of the majority of men in our generation. Many years of professional counseling have taught me, however, that if unwanted pregnancy victimizes a woman once, abortion will victimize her twice as the woman is most often left without the resources to deal with the profound emotional and psychological consequences that accompany the termination of human life. With regard to abortion, the tame men of our generation—instead of protecting women and children—fail both, ironically in the name of not being (or being seen as) male oppressors. Men have few problems setting boundaries and limits with other men, but standing up for (or to) women is something they are not generally prepared to do.
For all the supposed progress in the “taming” of modern men, would we be surprised to find that most women are unhappy with the end result? As it turns out, many women appreciate strength and principled leadership in men—to the point that they are put off when they see men as passive, weak, or indecisive. Thus men get a double message: they aren’t supposed to act like men, but neither do they generate respect when they are tame.
Wild and Untamed
Can a man be wild and untamed and a follower of Christ? Can he be wild and untamed and be a faithful member of the Church in good standing?
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, these were questions posed to me during childhood as I read C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. When Lucy, one of the principal characters, first learns that Aslan is really a lion, she asks her friend, Mr. Beaver about him:
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.By the time I read that, I had figured out that Aslan was C.S. Lewis’s literary symbol of Christ, but I was stymied by the description of Aslan as someone/something not 100% “safe.” Such was not in line with my childhood perceptions. Jesus was gentle, meek, and mild. Or at least that’s all I knew. But as I kept reading, I encountered other passages whereby Lewis further developed this concept. In the last chapter, after a victorious outcome, the narrator records:
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King I tell you” (Lewis, 80).4
But amid all these rejoicings Aslan himself quietly slipped away. And when the Kings and Queens noticed that he wasn’t there they said nothing about it. For Mr. Beaver had warned them, ‘He’ll be coming and going’ he had said. ‘One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down—and of course he has other countries to attend to. It’s quite all right. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild you know. Not like a tame lion’ (Lewis, 182).4C.S. Lewis knew something about Christ with which I had yet to reckon: that there is a difference between being “tame” and “good.” I had always equated the two, but Lewis knew they are not synonymous. Lewis beheld the Christ who forgave the woman taken in adultery and who drove the moneychangers from the temple. Lewis’s Christ was/is not tame, nor is he safe. But He is good.
As I have pondered the subject since, I have come to understand that “wild” in the best sense has several meanings: Christ was wild in the sense that He was unpredictable, meting out justice and mercy in accordance with the unobserved feelings and desires of those who met Him, some of whom desired to follow and worship Him, and some of whom were plotting to kill Him. He was fiercely loyal to His Father, and His behavior was not governed by custom, nor did He live to please anyone but His Father. Finally, Christ was capable of irrational behavior in the service of righteousness. I’ll come back to that later on.
That the 1999 movie Fight Club could become a cult classic is testament to the growing sense that men want something other than the tame existence that has been prescribed for them. Countless other films and books have explored essentially the same theme: What else is there? How can I escape the mundane? How do I live life to the fullest?
I’m not going to attempt a direct answer to these questions. Suffice it to say that this is not likely to be the subject of a lesson in the standard Elder’s Quorum curriculum any time soon. Amid the countless lessons on unrighteous dominion and overcoming the natural man, the Church preaches that men must be tame—or at least that is a common theme. The rest of this discussion is for those who wonder if there isn’t something more.
How does a man discover wildness and become/remain a disciple of Christ? I’m not sure there’s one right answer to that question, but I will recall some personal experiences as I explored this question. I will be introducing the reader to a particular organization that has facilitated my search for more. As I do so, be it known that I have no financial ties to this organization, nor do I stand to profit in any way by referring men to it.
Earlier I briefly referenced the men’s movement and one of its formative books. The movement has a central metaphor developed by Robert Bly in his book, Iron John. Based on the Grimm’s Fairy Tale “Iron Hans,”5 Iron John recounts the fairy tale and relates it to the modern man’s search for essential wildness—the capacity for something more.
“Iron Hans” is old, foundational literature, and recommended reading. It is the story of a king’s son who is properly socialized and “tamed” in the royal court, but who could never harness or summon true strength until he discovered a “wild man” who taught him everything that civilized society couldn’t—or wouldn’t. As the boy grows and becomes a man, he learns that the wounds he received on his journey (of which he was initially ashamed) can provide him with wisdom and power necessary to conquer his foes. He learns to draw strength from the dark and wild parts of his nature, whereupon he employs that power in service of the greater good.
The men’s movement has spawned a number of organizations dedicated to helping men reclaim an elemental wildness that is fundamental to grounded and mature masculinity. All of the groups with which I am familiar have something to offer, but the experience which has been by far the most meaningful to me has been the New Warrior Training Adventure, sponsored by the ManKind Project (MKP).6
In addition to being well versed in the work of Robert Bly and other literary luminaries, the founders of the ManKind Project were acutely aware of the aforementioned loss of traditions by which mature masculinity had always been passed from one generation to another. For example, prior to the Industrial Revolution, it was commonplace for fathers to apprentice sons in their respective trades. Native Americans had the “vision quest,” by which young men found their place among the men of their tribe. Most cultures had rites of initiation, passage, or ascension through which young men attained status as men and after which they were expected to share the responsibilities of manhood with respect to the rest of the community.
These traditions and rites having been lost to modern society, young men have been left to find their own way in the world of men. To add insult to injury, many boys grow up in fatherless homes devoid of grounded and mature male role models. The results have been devastating for the rising generation of boys. They wonder how to socialize purposefully and respectfully with the opposite sex; they even struggle to navigate the world of men, especially as it is increasingly dysfunctional in its values and expectations. They often feel isolated and alone, and their failures manifest in violence, crime, and suicide.
MKP seeks to address these problems simultaneously by building a community of men into which men can be properly initiated. Borrowing from history, tradition, literature, and metaphor, the New Warrior Training Adventure (NWTA)7 consists of a weekend of rites and exercises by which men are both challenged and supported in creating connection and accountability to other men. They are challenged to identify and face their greatest fears, and they learn community as they watch others do the same. The whole process is one by which men are called to access wild and primitive forces that have long been dormant within them, and which, once properly awakened, can bestow to each man uncommon strength and vitality.
My initiation weekend was perhaps the single greatest personal revelation of my life. Not only did it create an authentic brotherhood I had long sought, but it did indeed awaken deep and primitive voices that I had always thought necessary to suppress. Furthermore, and more importantly, it affirmed my faith and provided insight into the divine I scarcely could have anticipated.
As a boy my view of Jesus was incomplete. I saw Jesus as the meek and humble man who would never be angry, but I never integrated that man with the Jesus who could use anger as an instrument of righteousness such as we have previously discussed. In my mind these existed as two separate beings.
My initiation weekend changed that. As with every participant, I was challenged to face my “shadow,” the dark parts of my psyche from which I had always turned away in fear or shame. I was challenged to bring these into the light for rigorous examination and, paradoxically, for the strength they could provide.
By so doing, I gained a supernal insight into the nature and majesty of God, who does something very similar to what I was learning to do. Does God have a “shadow” that represents hidden elements of darkness? Definitely not, for the scriptures speak of God as a being “in whom there is no darkness at all.” Nor does God have anything to fear, for He is the embodiment of love, which “casteth out all fear.” That is not to say, however, that God doesn’t have a perfect understanding of both darkness and fear, because He does, and He uses both to accomplish His righteous purposes.
The scriptures are replete with examples of God’s capacity to comprehend darkness and manipulate it according to His will. During the war in heaven, Satan was cast out, and where was he sent? To earth, where he would later (not knowing the mind of God) tempt Adam and Eve, thus becoming an instrument whereby the conditions of mortality and its necessary probationary period were created.
The scriptures are likewise replete with examples of the wicked destroying the wicked. When the house of Israel is to be punished for disobedience, Isaiah describes God’s punishment as shaving “with a razor that is hired” (Isaiah 7:20). In other words, God turns one wicked people against another. Recall, for example, His punishment of the Nephites in the Book of Mormon. Apparently God didn’t like to destroy the Nephites, so He usually got the Lamanites to do it instead.
While the righteous are called to unite under a single banner, there is no organizing principle or saving covenant around which the wicked can gather. Indeed, the ultimate end of the wicked is described in Ether 13:25, where “every man [was] with his band fighting for that which he desired.” The wicked may gain power for a time, but ultimately the Lord will turn them against each other. He is master of both light and darkness.
Finally, God is capable of irrational behavior in the service of righteousness, and in nothing is His “wildness” more evident. I’m speaking of the incomprehensible gift of the atonement, whereby God sacrificed a sinless Son to save children that were under the curse of a broken law and therefore did not deserve saving. Thus we see that God is not a being devoid of “body, parts, or passions”; rather He is a being perfectly possessed of all three. And it is precisely those passions that cause Him to act to save His children. Not only does He live, but He is alive and untamed. When He breathed the breath of life into the man Adam, it is clear that the body He had provided was after His own image, perfectly endowed not only with the intelligence of spirit, but also with the passions of the physical body. We learn in scripture that these two, combined, experience a fullness of joy and that without [that combination] there cannot be a fullness of joy (see D&C 93:33-34).
It has never been clearer that the doctrines of the Church regarding gender and related matters are provided for our instruction and salvation, especially as the world veers toward a future where gender is supposed to become irrelevant. But God doesn’t ignore gender; He treasures it as a fundamental part of individual identity and purpose. The scriptures teach that “justice exerciseth all his demands, and also mercy claimeth all which is her own,”8 and that “…neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:11). This pattern neither had its origin in mortality, nor will it cease in the hereafter. It is fundamental to physical and spiritual life, and its essence has been captured by every major spiritual tradition since the beginning.
What of those who wrestle with same-sex attraction, gender identity conflict, and related challenges? We love them and want them to journey with us toward Zion. We seek to bear their burdens as they have frequently been saddled with ours. Most importantly, we pursue discipleship as we balance compassion and mercy for the individual with the justice and safety inherent in the law. This was considered in a previous article, “Gender Incongruence and the LDS Church: Frontier of Understanding.”
Essential Wildness and Eternal Potential
I conclude by invoking a metaphor to illustrate the connection between essential wildness and eternal potential.
Those who know horses understand that if a horse’s will must be broken before it can be useful, it will ever after be useful only as a service animal. The utility of a horse is found in its capacity for obedience, but its magnificence is found in its spirit—in its indomitable will.
Horse “breaking,” therefore, proceeds according to two vastly different paradigms. Some trainers have as their goal the establishment of dominance over the animal, and when this is the case there are few practices they will not employ in service of that goal. Training is complete when the animal, by virtue of its broken will, becomes unvaryingly obedient. At that point it has been “tamed.”
The best horse trainers take a different approach: they may demonstrate dominance, but they build the trust of the animal such that the horse can submit to its master of its own volition, thus retaining its essential wildness, including a capacity for dominion in due course. The horse thus trained is able to demonstrate obedience, but the obedience comes from a different place and for entirely different reasons than the horse whose will is purposely and externally broken.
There are striking parallels in the gospel context. Those who fail to lay claim on the Savior’s atonement through repentance must suffer even as He did, but to an altogether different effect. Their suffering is mandatory to recompense a broken law. It results not in eternal life, but in subjugation to the law of the kingdom in which the disobedient will eventually serve, and by which they will ultimately be tamed.
The Savior’s suffering and atoning sacrifice couldn’t have been more different; it was not required because of anything He had done wrong. Rather, it was wholly voluntary. In demonstrating submission to His Father’s will, the Savior retained His essential wildness and demonstrated His capacity for all the might, majesty, power, and dominion His Father had to bestow on Him. His was an ultimate and eternal victory, to which we may also lay claim when we voluntarily surrender the one thing God will never take from us: our will. In so doing, we retain essential wildness and are prepared to rule with Christ in His kingdom.
The future God wants for us as His children centers on understanding the kind of life He leads (“eternal” life). As we understand it, this existence includes the organization of the genders into eternal family relationships. We refer to the government of God as a “kingdom,” and we find our place in that kingdom as we learn to live according to the principles He has prescribed for our happiness. Neither the Church nor its leaders have ever represented the government of heaven as a democracy wherein each inhabitant can define or set the parameters of existence. That would be chaos; God’s kingdom is one of unity and order.
The order of heaven is increasingly unfamiliar to the inhabitants of earth. But that hasn’t stopped it from being the law by which the Church—and, we suppose, the universe—is governed. As we seek to make ourselves fit for the kingdom of heaven, let all of us who dwell below bear in mind the following principles:
- Gender is fundamental both to eternal identity and purpose. According to divine design, male and female are meant to complement each other and together form a whole more complete than the sum of the parts.
- Men and women are different. This is true in terms of biology and physiology, emotional constitution, and in terms of the capacities uniquely suited to each sex. This is also true regardless of how much we might ignore it or how much we might wish it wasn’t so.
- For all its intellectual and political appeal, the notion of gender sameness contravenes basic principles of human biology as well as eternal verities.
- The genders don’t have to be at war with each other; the extent to which they are speaks to a thirst for power that is increasingly endemic to society.
- Men have something to offer the world and need not apologize for wanting to lead and protect, especially when their actions are grounded and guided by principle.
- Emotions are shared between God and His children. They aren’t meant to be put off, repressed, or overcome, but governed and subsequently employed in the service of righteousness.
- Conflict is a necessary and eternal part of existence; it is not to be confused with the spirit of contention, which constitutes an appetite or desire for conflict.
- Tame behavior is not necessarily an indication of righteousness, nor is anger an automatic indication of wickedness.
- Submission of one’s own will to Deity does not constitute being “tamed.” It paradoxically preserves an individual’s capacity for wildness.
- The Church is meant to be a light to the world, and nowhere is this more evident or important than in its teachings regarding gender, family, and the sanctity of human life.
I want to be like that.
1 How does a man know he has been tamed? There is no single answer, but common indications include:
1) offering no resistance to being “hen pecked” (continually badgered) by a spouse or significant other
2) being a “yes man” or “nice guy” of whom others continually take advantage
3) ceding/being unwilling to assume leadership roles in the home
4) allowing family member(s) to verbally berate or otherwise abuse him
5) being conflict averse to the point that significant wrongs/issues are ignored
6) neglecting health to the point of not being able to defend the family if needed.
2 Reference the Prophet Joseph Smith’s command: “Silence, ye fiends of the infernal pit…” as recorded in http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Richmond_Jail.
3 Some theorists had proposed that gender is primarily a learned experience; this theory has been widely discredited. For further reading, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Reimer.
4 C.S. Lewis, The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1950).
6 Another venerable institution with roots in the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement is the Minnesota Men’s Conference, established by Robert Bly in 1984. See http://www.minnesotamensconference.com/.
7 See http://mankindproject.org/new-warrior-training-adventure.
8 Alma 42:24.
Russ Peterson grew up in Idaho Falls, Idaho and is an avid outdoorsman with interests ranging from astronomy to wilderness survival. When not camping or backpacking, Russ is a mental health counselor with interests in gender and suicide prevention. He lives in the Intermountain area and enjoys spending time with his five children. Reach him at rhpeterson <at> gmail dot com.