Strangers in Paradox
by Margaret & Paul Toscano
[p.3]We believe Joseph Smith was referring to the concept of paradox in his 5 June 1844 letter to L. Daniel Rupp, author of An Original History of the Religious Denominations At Present Existing in the United States. After praising Rupp for letting each sect tell its own story, Joseph stated that “by proving contraries, truth is made manifest” (HC 6:428). In other words by examining various, even contrary views, new truths may be revealed.
The gospels, as we know, contain many paradoxical statements of Jesus: “Whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted” (Matt. 23:12). “He that is greatest among you shall be your servant” (v. 11). “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (10:39). “Blessed are the meek; for they shall inherit the earth” (5:5). These phrases are so familiar that we sometimes fail to appreciate their basic internal contrariness.
How can we be exalted by being abased? Or find our lives by losing them? Or expect through meekness to triumph? Reason and ordinary human experience tell us that those who abase themselves will usually find that others stand ready to abase them even further. The greatest have usually served no one but themselves, while those who seek their lives go on living and those who lose their lives go on dying. As for the meek, the lyrics of a song cynically remind us that it is not the earth they inherit but “the dirt.” And when the meek do inherit anything, they either fritter it away forthwith or they make an abrupt break with meekness.
In spite of all this, many of us still accept the paradoxes of Jesus as statements of profound spiritual insight rather than nonsensical rubbish. We do this because we are willing to accept that there is more to [p.4]the world than what is visible to our senses and understandable to the human mind, that there is a place, unlike this earth, where the loving, the selfless, and the sacrificing are blessed. If we accept the larger paradox that the universe is made up of a spiritual world and a temporal one, then the smaller paradoxes make sense. It becomes clear why the meek of the earth may inherit the glories of heaven or how the humble here may be exalted hereafter.
This suggests that paradox is a device which invites us to change our perception of reality. When we first perceive a paradox, its contrary elements seem utterly incompatible. We are tempted to think that either one or the other element is false or that both are false. It is not easy to see how both can be true. However, if we accept the truth of both propositions and change our frame of reference, the rival statements of the paradox may suddenly appear to be compatible truths which tend to validate our new found perspective. This process encourages us to sacrifice traditional concepts, to take risks, to make leaps into the dark, to reassess our assumptions. It encourages not just a change of mind but a change of heart, which is repentance in its most basic form.
In order to grow spiritually, we must be willing to change our views again and again so that our understanding of the world and of God will mature. One of the basic premises of this book is our belief that by accepting as true the contradictions manifest in the person, the story, and the teachings of Jesus Christ, the highest and holiest truths may be revealed to us.
The Paradox of Jesus: God and Man—Male and Female
Nearly every symbol, ritual, teaching, and text of the Judeo-Christian tradition can be interpreted either from a legalistic perspective or a spiritual one. In this book we take a decidedly non-legalistic view. For us God is not inflexible and demanding but loving, humble, and willing to sacrifice to save us. Paradoxically God is also fiercely passionate and possesses an unpredictable holiness. God’s love is sometimes terrifying and exacting. Nevertheless we do not see religion primarily in terms of moral commandments but of spiritual birth and growth. Instead of seeing the teachings of Christ as dogmas, we see them as touchstones for the further expansion of our beliefs. For us genuine religious community cannot be dominated by a hierarchical power structure of competitive, ecclesiastical athletes. It must be a body [p.5]of interdependent believers of whom the greatest of all is the servant of all. Rather than seeing the religious life in terms of meetings or fund raising or institutional management, we see it as love, hope, art, imagination, religious feeling, and contact with the divine. This view, we believe, is mandated by the revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ.
Undoubtedly the most fundamental assumption of this book is that Jesus Christ is God and the initial truth of our religion. For us Christ is the way, the truth, and the life—the principal historical revelation to us of the divine nature. His cross is the linchpin of our salvation, the cosmic bridge that connects the human with the divine.
But we must say at once that Christ, as the revelation of God, is a paradox—the supreme paradox. Rather than reinforce our fantasies, our philosophies, and our formalisms, Christ calls us to leave the confines of our human limitations and enter into a new and marvelous country replete with the unexpected and the unforeseen. The religion of Jesus calls us to accept the paradox lying at the heart of nature, supernature, and divine nature. It calls us to accept as truth what seems at first to be foolishness or error.
Thus, from the perspective of paradox, it was no mistake that the creator stepped into his creation. Through God’s incarnation, we are called to accept as eternal realities the paradoxical elements of the spirit and the flesh. Nor was it a mistake that God was revealed to us as a white, Jewish male. These very specifics of his incarnation challenge our egocentricity and our arrogance, our inability to accept God in terms other than those we dictate. If we reject Jesus because he was white, are we not racist? If we reject him because he was a Jew, are we not anti-semitic? If we reject him because he was male, are we not sexist? And by the same token, if we accept him only because he was a white Jewish male, or because he meets our definition of God in some other way, are we not narrow-minded or elitist? The paradox of Jesus calls us to transcend the particularities of his incarnation without obliterating them. It not only requires us to see that we can be made in God’s image without being white, Jewish, or male, it also asks us to see that we cannot relate to God as a person unless we accept the revelation of God’s personal characteristics. Thus, in his incarnation, Jesus calls us to love him unconditionally even as we wish to be loved unconditionally by him.
From the perspective of paradox, it was no mistake that God was revealed as a person. Divine personhood reinforces the eternal reality [p.6]of human personhood; divine materiality, human materiality; divine sex and sexuality, human sex and sexuality. In these ways we are summoned to accept the interconnectedness of human and divine, male and female, and to acknowledge that God needs humanity as much as God is needed by humanity.
From the perspective of paradox, it was no mistake that Jesus preached only to the Israelites and then sent his gospel to Gentiles and pagans. In this he showed us that, although God may be best experienced through the specific myths and rituals of a given religious tradition, such a tradition, whatever it is, should not serve as a basis for a narcissistic denial of the validity or holiness of other traditions.
From the perspective of paradox, it was no mistake that God became man or that the Father made of himself a son. In this way the transcendent was made accessible to us. Nor was it a mistake that God is described as both beginning and end, author and finisher, creator and creation, or that the temporal is the womb of the eternal, or that the eternal is the seed of the temporal. Nor was it a mistake that the alpha and omega is also the everlasting, or that the living God is the dying God, or that the greatest of all should become the servant of servants.
Perhaps the chief paradox of Christianity, however, is that Jesus, as the manifestation of the one God, beckons us to worship not only the Father, but to receive the Son and the Holy Ghost as new god figures. Christ, by repeatedly comparing himself to a bridegroom in many of his sayings, also suggests the existence of a female counterpart that is to be joined to him. By this usage, he opens the way for the revelation of a female divinity of equal stature with the other members of the Christian godhead. This suggestion resolves a problem many find troubling: the absence in Christian theology of a female divinity.
Of course, this void has been partially filled in Catholicism by the Virgin Mary, who is seen as the Queen of Heaven, and in Mormonism by the tradition of Heavenly Mother as the counterpart to Heavenly Father, both of whom are distinct, personal deities yet mystically united. Though such concepts are promising, they are unsatisfying for at least two reasons. First, the male divinity was manifest to us in the light of history in the person of Jesus, while the female divinity is available to us principally in the shadowy and more unfamiliar realm of myth. Second, the scriptures in both content and language are heavily biased in favor of the male God. To correct this imbalance we must retrieve, retell, and reevaluate in terms of the Christian revelation the myths of the [p.7]Great Goddess, while simultaneously reinterpreting the scriptures to eliminate, wherever possible, the masculine bias. Part of the work of this book is dedicated to these ends.
The Paradox of Male and Female
This leads to another of our principal assumptions. We see the sexes as necessary opposites of equal dignity and value. For this reason we believe that women are the spiritual equals of men and ought to have full access to all of the privileges, keys, rights, offices, callings, and gifts that have been available to men in the church. This idea echoes the teachings of Joseph Smith, who was the initiator of Mormonism and enunciator of its deepest and most enduring doctrines—doctrines which have given Mormonism its shape and character, doctrines which were forged into the foundational texts and early history of the church. Imbedded among these is the idea of religious and political equality for women.
In our view Joseph Smith was also the initiator of Mormon feminism. It was he who gave the stamp of approval to the organization of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo. It was he who told its earliest members that he intended to make of that society “a kingdom of priests” (WJS, 110). It was he who defended women’s right to heal the sick and cast out devils (ibid., 115-17) and the promise that they would come into possession of all the privileges enjoyed by male priesthood holders (ibid., 117-19).
Since those days Mormon feminism has fended for itself, living on its own within the culture of the Latter-day Saints, most often surviving in obscurity in the hearts of certain activists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and, more recently, in the hearts of some modern Mormons as well. The resurgence of Mormon feminism has occurred, we believe, in response to certain troubling conditions in the modern church, including the disenfranchisement of women from church governance and the exclusion of women from the exercise of spiritual gifts. It must be noted, however, that the negative effects of patriarchal authoritarianism have not only led to the oppression of women but to a larger and growing spiritual malaise, marked by a lack of inner life, by a sense that we have somehow strayed from our religious mission, that we have borrowed too much from the male world of business and commerce, that we have become too narrow, too self-righteous, too legalistic and judgmental. The paradox of male and [p.8]female demands that we respond to these concerns. But this demand is much more than a claim for equality within Mormon culture or for power within the ecclesiastical or priestly hierarchy. It is more than a plea for cultural and social change. It is a call for the fundamental spiritual revitalization of our entire religion. Because the paradox of male and female lies at the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the feminist theme forms one of the recurring motifs of this book.
By stressing these concerns, we wish to emphasize that the central gospel message is that God’s love is without bounds or conditions, that God is no respecter of persons, that the sexes, the families, the races, and the nations are one through the blood of Christ, and that men and women are in God’s sight equal in value and dignity. For us Mormon feminism is but another form of the call to accept the fullness of God’s grace—a call to all Mormons, male and female, to reject the primacy of male-dominated institutional power and to embrace instead the powers of the spirit under conditions where men and women share equal responsibility for the welfare and governance of the church.
In stressing this point we are not attempting to create a new gospel but rather to point up ideas that resist the institutional tendency to move away from the spiritual and egalitarian teachings of the restored gospel and toward the materialism, corporatism, and elitism of the modern world. In this book we attempt to reexamine and reevaluate our traditional interpretation of Mormonism, to see where we may have become entangled in cultural biases. At times we introduce new perspectives on the revelations with the aim of providing an alternative to the views of those who see our scriptures as authorizations for oppression rather than for liberation.
Though some of our discussions emphasize the problems and suffering of women, our ultimate concerns extend beyond this focal point to embrace ideas that tend both to reform and reaffirm important aspects of our religion. As Mormons we must recognize the concept of a democratized priesthood in which members are valued as much for their God-given spiritual gifts as for their ecclesiastical offices. We believe in a true lay priesthood composed of both men and women joined together as equals in a general assembly of priesthood-holding believers. We argue that God is not a single male person but a duality: God the Female and God the Male. We accept the concept that the Bridegroom is not without the Bride, that the feminine is an integral part of the Christian revelation of God, and that the essential equality and mutual interdependence of male and female in the priesthood is a [p.9]revelation of the true image of God as the union of the divine female and male.
The godhead seen in this way makes possible a redefinition of priesthood, not as an earthly structure of individual or corporate power but as the spiritual power of God bestowed by grace in equal dignity upon males and females alike. In this light it is possible to assert that the revelation of the fullness of the priesthood to males and females was Joseph Smith’s crowning revelation to the church.
The Paradox of History and Myth
Another of our chief assumptions grows out of the paradox of history and myth. In our view the mythical approach to understanding religious ideas is as useful and valuable as the historical method. We enjoy reading history and admire the work of religious historians. However, the methodology we employ here is not principally historical, though we employ historical data in some chapters. We are more interested in theology, ritual, symbolism, and myth. This book reflects that orientation.
Because Mormon historians have held center stage in our intellectual community for almost three decades, their influence is now so strong that any writing failing to treat Mormonism from a strictly historical and empirical perspective runs the risk of receiving a second-class welcome. For this reason we wish to justify our approach.
The modern world for the most part thinks of myth as a false story, the product of a primitive, superstitious mind without the benefit of science to explain how the world works.1 History is often characterized as the opposite of myth because history deals in the scientific discovery of verifiable facts and events while myth is seen merely as the product of imagination. The modern, objectivist world prefers history and often denigrates myth. But we see a relationship between these approaches. Each has an indispensable function, and each has a valuable contribution to make to our culture and our understanding of the world.
History is essentially story-telling. But good history is more than mere narrative in that it relies on documents and artifacts. In a historical [p.10]narrative, people, places, things, and ideas actually existed and are identifiable, demonstrable, and verifiable. It is because history relies upon this type of evidence to tie events to particular sectors within a known chronological framework that we see history as reliable. For most people history is the truth about how the present came to be.
History, however, is not the past. It is a partial retelling of selected pieces of inter-woven incidents whose causes and effects the historian wishes to understand and illuminate. Most past incidents are disregarded because they illuminate and explain nothing: a baby is born, a volcano erupts, a cow moves in its stall. But some of these incidents seem to be important to our story. They are events. Not any baby but Elizabeth Tudor is born. Not any volcano but Mount Vesuvius erupts. Not any cow but Mrs. O’Leary’s cow moves in its stall.
History is not only empirical and selective, it is sequential. The primary arrangement of historical material is that of cause and effect. Facts are seen as causes which lead to effects, which in turn become causes that lead to other effects, and so on. The problem with causation, of course, is determining the proper interpretation of what causes gave rise to what effects. This is particularly difficult in the context of religious history, where historical events are sometimes preceded by claims of supernatural causes. For example, Joseph Smith visits the Shakers and later writes a revelation on economic communalism. What caused this revelation? God? The visit to the Shakers? The creative mind of Joseph Smith? Some of the above? All of the above? None of the above? It is perhaps difficult to say with certainty. The more committed to empiricism a historian is, the more likely she or he will dismiss the supernatural as the cause of historical events. The willingness to seriously admit the supernatural into an historical analysis is perhaps what distinguishes sacred from secular history—neither of which is necessarily unreliable or white-washed history.
In either case, causation lies at the heart of the historian’s task to understand what events influenced later people to say and do what they said and did. It is this feature which gives history its essentially linear shape. When most people think of history, they envision a continuum stretching from the present back into the past. The more sophisticated a person’s historical sense, the more this image becomes cluttered with parallel lines, by-ways, loops, detours, and signposts. This linear paradigm is popular, satisfying, and useful.
But we see equal value in the mythical, symbolic, and theological approach to understanding the past, the present, and the future. Where [p.11]history attempts to reconstruct the past fact by fact, myth attempts to see the meaning of the facts as they relate to one another and to the whole fabric of human knowledge and experience—past, present, and future. To quote William Irwin Thompson: “mythology … is interested in paradoxes, opposites, and transformations—the deep structure of consciousness and not the surface of facts and sensory perceptions” (1978, 120).
This is not to say that objective fact is unimportant. It is extremely important that hypotheses and theories be tied to reality, to actual experience, lest we construct world views of delusion which lead people to deny their real feelings and experience. Myth then is not whitewashed history but an acknowledgment that facts, like salamanders, are slippery things, that objectivity is also a point of view, and that data is usually determined by what individuals perceive.
For us myth is not a false story; nor is it a story that is historically false while remaining emotionally or morally true. For us myth is a story whose truth is set forth symbolically and is so basic it serves as a pattern which enhances our understanding and sometimes calls for emulation. This is why myth can serve as a road map to help us get our bearings on our spiritual journey. The mythical method does not deny the truth or importance of history. It only serves to superimpose on the historical paradigm another pattern. If history is represented by a horizontal line, then myth may be represented by a vertical line bisecting it. Myth is not primarily concerned with the horizontal axis of cause and effect but with the vertical dimension of microcosms and macro-cosms. The mythical approach accepts history but sees it also as a symbol or set of symbols through which the mind may perceive or intuit unknown or dimly perceived truths. Thus from the mythical perspective, the event of Moses leading the people of Israel through the wilderness, through the waters of the Red Sea, and eventually into the promised land may or may not point to a historical Hebrew epic, but it can serve as a symbol of the journey of the soul through the wilderness of sin into the waters of regeneration and out again into the abundant grace of God.
This approach, although employed more in the past, is not unfamiliar. We usually use it to deny the historical reality of some of the supernatural events of the Bible while stressing their significance as representations of theological or ethical propositions. By this means the universal flood, the story of the confounding of language at the tower of Babel, the virgin birth, and the feeding of the five thousand [p.12]may be rejected as history but retained as allegories of moral or spiritual truth. Nowadays most of us tend to segregate our religious symbols from our realities. We can accept, for example, the Garden of Eden as a type more easily than as a real place. Or else we tend to think of commonalities such as the ocean, the mountains, the old oak tree as realities but not as symbols.
Yet what most of the great religions of the world ask us to do is to see both common objects and mundane events as microcosms patterning or revealing a more significant or enduring spiritual reality. Thus a piece of broken bread is no longer a scrap of food but the broken flesh of the dying god. A goblet of wine is not simply to slake our physical thirst but our moral and spiritual thirst for justice, for an answer to the pain and the evil in the world, for the blood which God freely gives in taking responsibility for the shortcomings of creation. The washing of feet, once an ordinary hospitality ritual, becomes the symbol of the imputation to us of God’s divine righteousness which replaces our inferior human righteousness. Religious ritual represents perhaps the clearest and most familiar manifestation of the mythical approach, which transforms the ordinary into the sacred.
For us history and myth are essential elements of a paradox. History helps us understand the causes shaping the present. Myth helps us understand the meaning of the present and its relation to the past, to the future, and to the divine. For the historian life is a chronicle. For the mystic life is a poem. Historians must continue to tell us what happened and how that effected what happened later. But theologians, poets, artists, and mystics should be respected for their attempt to see events as parables and to extract from them the meaning of realities not seen or experienced directly.
To those who are deeply committed to the empirical historical approach, what we have to say may at times be reminiscent of the work of soothsayers studying the entrails of birds to augur the intention of the gods. Nevertheless, we think there is considerable intellectual and spiritual rigor in the theory that the pattern of the eternal is to be found in the temporal and that the structure of the whole is to be found in the patterns displayed in the parts.
One reason for the negative reaction toward myth, in Mormonism, is that it has demonstrated an historical preference for the pragmatic and a distaste for the philosophical or intellectual. As Mormons, we tend to distrust any idea that cannot be directly applied to our daily lives, preferably with immediate and verifiable results. For this reason, [p.13]myths, which deal more with the metaphysical than the practical, usually strike us as obscure, irrelevant, or nonsensical. The most that can be said for them by many people is that they are entertaining.
This, in our view, is an unhealthy sign. It means that we, like other elements in Western culture, cannot readily accept the paradox of the secular and the sacred. We seem to have lost the ability to respond to the world except in a linear and practical way. We tend to secularize every department of life. As secular individuals we shun the transcendent and look for all meaning in the here and now as we create it. We do not readily recognize how our own existence in the modern world fits in with the larger, mystical patterns of creation. By seeing our lives only in terms of probabilities and molecules we have made possible, even probable, the rejection of all meaning. Those who cannot intuit the purpose of life will find no reasons to exist. Such people are all around us. They wander homeless in the streets. They aggregate in gangs to do mischief. They buy up profitable companies, siphon off the assets, and leave the rinds behind. They build cartels to supply the demand for cocaine in all its forms.
Even as we write, great changes are taking place throughout the world as one secular totalitarian government after another falls before the demands of diverse peoples for personal liberty and democracy. How strange that the greatest effect this worldwide shift may have upon the West is to reveal our spiritual bankruptcy. Karl Marx said that religion was the opiate of the people. Ironically, we have come to see, in the late twentieth century, that in the absence of spirituality, opiates become the religion of the people. If we have no myth to live by, there is no reason to say “no” to drugs—no reason to live.
1. The recent attention given to Joseph Campbell’s work through Bill Moyer’s television series, “The Power of Myth,” has done much to reverse this tendency. Of course scholars have recognized the importance of the mythic view for some time. See, for example, Myth: A Symposium (Sebeok 1955) and Sacred Narrative (Dundes 1984).