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An Analysis of Joe O’s “Marriage” Part II

July 16, 2010

The second part of Joe O’s “Marriage” at Thinking in a Marrow Bone seems simple and easy to summarize. It is about the charity cultivated within marriage (and the role of that charity — even [or especially] within disagreements — to socialize children to expect such charity from different individuals). But again, it doesn’t necessarily exclude gay marriage in any direct way.

Part III continues the message by forming a ritual from difference. It provides a novel interpretation for the Biblical idea of knowledge by suggesting that married people must have an understanding of each other, physiologically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Joe’s relies on and emphasizes the differences between men and women first. He does not claim to know where the extent of these differences are (so in this way, he isn’t necessarily making sexually repressive and oppressive commentary), and in addition, he stresses the complementary nature of the genders to highlight their shared importance.

His emphasis on the physiological difference could possibly create a case for heterosexual marriage, but Joe’s main point, I think, is about the further differences. As he writes:

When we come together to know one another, we engage in a ritual of difference. I and my spouse are naked. By naked, I do mean literally; but I also mean figuratively – as in, we are emotionally and spiritually (soul-fully) exposed, vulnerable before one another. And in our nakedness our differences are revealed. That is, in knowing one another, we are confronted with the alterity of the other who is our spouse. This confrontation begins physically, and the physical then represents the other differences that are part of our relationship and of our knowing one another.

As we engage repeatedly in this ritual, it should become clear to us (if we are humble enough to see the truth) how deep our relationship is. We can learn reverence before our spouse – because only our spouse could reveal the depth through revealing his or her difference. In other words, in this our ritual of difference, we confront eternity – the eternity that is our spouse; the eternity that is our marriage.

The thing I get from this excerpt, once again, is that there doesn’t seem to be any reason why gay couples can not have this kind of soul-full exposing and emotional nakedness. Joe (and in fact, many of the other TMB writers) refer to Emmanuel Levinas’ concepts frequently, such as alterity here, and I admit I haven’t read up on Levinas, but as far as I can tell, I wouldn’t suppose that he would say the Other can only be the opposite gender. I wouldn’t suppose that he would say we can only cultivate I-Thou (err, I guess in Levinas, that should be “infinity,” rather than “totality”?) relationships with the opposite gender.

While I’m relatively sure that Joe’s reference to ‘eternity’ is a reference to Levinas’ infinity, what also occurs to me is that in describing marriage as eternity, he connects things to the unique LDS context. Since I don’t see anything that precludes this argument from also working for gay marriages (at this time, someone could attempt to raise a procreation argument, I guess…but that may not work anymore in LDS discourse, as Alan addresses in an article he’s been working on), this opens up a possibility for…*gasp*…eternal gay marriage. (Note the counterarguments…they generally object because of the impossibility or implausibility of procreation.)

Joe describes other rituals of difference, such as the conflict from part II (which is completely possible, once again, in a gay relationship.)

In fact, I think the major “thinking” point here is what these kinds of rituals inculcate within us.

…through our faithfulness to the one, the truly humble will learn from marriage that infinity characterizes us all, that reverence is due to us all, and feel compelled to treat all others with the same reverence.

So, clearly, this isn’t just about men to women or women to men. It is about something that we must develop for everyone. I think, then, that marriage becomes a practical door to becoming aware of this ethical obligation. But in this, once again, there is nothing that suggests that we cannot learn to revere all from, say, gay marriage.

In fact, it seems to me that with such a framework of marriage, mechanisms like physical and sexual attraction cease to be anywhere near central in importance. These mechanisms can be understood in such an “infinity-understanding” framework as being tools to encourage people to “open up” and “expose themselves.” Certainly, some people just want to get physically naked, but love allows people — for the first time — to ever consider getting emotionally naked. (Similarly, to play off of Joe’s interpretation of “knowledge,” some people want to “know” others in purely a carnal way…as the Sodom and Gomorrah story suggests [but Joe will address that in Part IV, hehe]…but perhaps their error [and sin?] is NOT to whom they are directing their knowledge-seeking, but the shallowness of their knowledge-seeking and their failure to seek the infinite.)

But supposing that falling in love allows one to consider emotional nakedness and pursuit of infinite knowledge rather than simply physical nakedness and physical knowledge and union, then shouldn’t we support this desire when it arises, because it — wherever it is found — can set someone on the path to understanding the infinity of every person?


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  1. I think there’s a way in which men have been stereotyped as sexual animals that are tamed by the “emotionality” of women within a marriage. This could not be further from the truth, as many men want nothing other than to please their wives sexually, and many newlyweds find sex awkward rather than something the man just jumps into, frothing at the mouth, and the woman puts up with. Still, arguments against gay marriage take forms like “two men are naturally non-monogamous because they’re men and interested in sex” and lesbians are “like men in their non-monogamy and interest in sex”… gender stereotypes that aren’t even consistent. I think the way Mormons think about gender makes them especially prone to gender stereotyping and living within gendered norms. This overlays onto “eternal marriage.” One is seen as “not whole,” until one reaches gender complementarity with one’s spouse. But what exactly is this “emotional nakedness” and “infinite knowledge” found with one’s spouse, and why can’t it be found through other means?

    There’s a form of Buddhism — tantric — that I remember learning about that was also interested in gender complementarity. However, the goal was to bring about the “female” within the “male,” and vice versa. The early form of this in ancient India encouraged sex between the genders as a learning process, one that was highly spiritual — passionate enlightenment. In other words, the boundary between carnality and holiness was blurred. Women (who were also spiritual leaders) were sexual beings. Nowadays, I think the sexuality has been replaced with asceticism (eg, Tibetan Buddhism) but there’s still a recognition that gender is fluid rather than essentially given to persons.

    Mormonism, with its notions of gendered souls, a heterosexual God and “natural man as evil” would not be my first choice in framing my gender/sexuality/spirituality.

  2. One is seen as “not whole,” until one reaches gender complementarity with one’s spouse. But what exactly is this “emotional nakedness” and “infinite knowledge” found with one’s spouse, and why can’t it be found through other means?

    Exactly. I mean, as far as I can tell, the entire idea of seeing other people as infinities is that this is something that every other person fits as…so, even if marriage is one way to learn that truth, the very idea suggests that it can be found through other means (because everyone has an infinite aspect to be discovered.) I think the issue is that in the way we are more charitable towards friends (even when we disagree) than we are to our enemies (even when we agree), it’s easier to “put your guard down” around your friends. But this is not limited to one gender reacting with the other.

    The Tantric idea is interesting…but IMO, it still has some…i dunno, issues? For example, referring to gender fluidity while also trying to bring about traits of one gender from within the other seems inconsistent. To bring the “female” about from the “male,” you still have to have some kind of idea about what a female is. Isn’t this “essentially given” to persons?

    It’s still a lot different from the Mormon framework, but still…

  3. For example, referring to gender fluidity while also trying to bring about traits of one gender from within the other seems inconsistent.

    A monk came upon a goddess who had been studying and meditating. The two discussed and debated for some time and the monk was impressed by the goddess’ questions and answers. He asked her (a rather sexist question): “Why do you not change your female sex when you have the power to do so?”

    She replied, “I have looked for the the innate characteristics of the female sex and haven’t been able to find them. How can I change them? Just as a magician creates an illusion of a woman, if someone asks why don’t you change your female sex, what is he asking?”

    The monk replied: “An illusion is without any determinate innate characteristics, so how could it be changed?”

    The goddess said: “Yes, all things are also without any determine innate characteristics, so why did you ask me, ‘why don’t you change your female sex?'” Then the goddess, by supernatural power, changed the monk into a likeness of herself and asked him: “Why don’t you change your female sex?”

    The monk said: “I do not know how I changed, nor how I changed into a female form.”

    Goddess: “Monk, just as you are not really a woman but appear to be female in form, all women also only appear to be female in form but are not really women. The Buddha said all are not really men or women.” The goddess changed him back into his own form. “Where are the female form and innate characteristics now?” she asked.

    The monk said, “The female form and innate characteristics neither exist nor do not exist.”

    From the Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa Sūtra.

  4. Going off on a completely different tangent…what would be the reaction of a group like this to something like transsexualism?

  5. Many (most?) people enter into long-term romantic relationships because they want to. It can entail work and sacrifice, but by and large people stay with it (even when they’re not forced to) because it’s worth it.

    If — in order to convince yourself to get/stay married — you need to rely on some bullshit theory like this one, then u r doing it rong.

    This is one of the points that most pisses me off about the “defenders” of (straight) marriage. The idea that marriage would need this kind of apologetics is an insult to marriage. It’s like going around telling everyone that you need to praise your friend X’s “sweet spirit” because he’s so stupid and ugly that everyone would hate him otherwise. Meanwhile, in reality, X isn’t stupid or ugly at all, and your backhanded insult-as-praise isn’t helping anyone.

  6. I don’t think he’s trying to argue that marriage is mostly unenjoyable, stressful, etc., (Although yes, that is the vibe I get from some people, especially when they argue against gay marriage. They imply, “Hey, man, look, I don’t really like having to deal with my wife and kids either, but that is the way things should be.” It’s baffling.)

    Instead, I think he’s pointing out that, yes, long-term relationships can entail work and sacrifice, but you are willing to get through those times because it IS worth it. These kinds of relationships, however, are just paradigms…so that we can learn to understand that similar relationships are “worth it” for everyone.

    (But, if this is the case, then there should be no problem with gay marriage. So I guess if Joe were here, he might disagree with my interpretation?)

  7. Andrew – in my own thinking and writing about same-sex marriage, this is certainly something I’ve commented on in my observations of what I experience of divinity in my relationship with my partner/husband. It is in the reconciliation of difference and the creation of unity between two people that is incredibly powerful and sacred, and it is one of my main arguments for same-sex marriage. You learn in relationship things you can’t possibly learn any other way… And in a way, we are programmed (through sexual attraction/desire) to seek out opportunities to enter into relationship so we can learn those lessons. So denying same-sex couples the right to marry is to deny the opportunity to learn things that I think we were put here to learn…

  8. John,

    Thanks for articulating what I’ve been trying to say in an extremely concise paragraph; now I’ll never recover from this sense of inadequacy 🙂

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