by Michael Haehnel
We have all heard it in some form—there are absolutes that will never change. To some, being Mormon equals believing in absolutes. Relativism is a vulgar word in the mainstream Mormon lexicon.
I identify as queer and Mormon. I could not strike a balance between those two identities and be an absolutist. I don’t think I am alone in that. I think many members of the LDS LGBTQIAP+/Ally community find that they need to let go of absolutism in order to move in both worlds. However, I do not see that as a sacrifice or compromise.
I don’t believe that absolutism—as deeply embedded in Mormon culture as it is—has scriptural roots. Just the opposite appears to be the case.
When I encountered my own queerness, I also encountered teachings from Church leaders that God would not create anyone with homosexual or transgender desires and feelings. I believed the Church was true and that its leaders were inspired of God. I also believed that my queerness was not a choice on my part. At an early age, I entered the squishy zone of having two personal truths that were not compatible with each other. Goodbye absolutism. As I have studied the scriptures over the last forty-five years, they have not challenged my relativistic approach to truth. Not at all. They have corroborated it, in fact.
I would like to cite three scriptural examples that clearly support a relativistic approach to truth: Elijah’s visit to the widow of Zeraphath, Captain Moroni’s letter to Pahoran, and God’s take on endless punishment.
I have commanded a widow woman there to sustain thee
When God brought famine upon the land of Israel, Elijah depended at first on kindly ravens and a trickling brook to survive. When the drought eventually depleted those resources, God said to Elijah, “Arise, get thee to Zarephath, which belongeth to Zidon, and dwell there: behold, I have commanded a widow woman there to sustain thee” (1 Kings 17:9).
When Elijah finds the widow woman, she does not recognize him, says nothing about hearing from God on the matter, and raises a few down-to-earth reasons why she cannot possibly help him. She does not behave as someone whom God has commanded to be a source of sustenance. From an absolutist point of view, either God or the widow is lying.
As a relativist, however, I don’t doubt the veracity of any of the players in this story. What it tells me is that a spiritual truth does not always correspond to a temporal truth. In temporal terms, a commandment is a clear statement of direction. In spiritual terms, a commandment can be the aggregate of pre-mortal and mortal experiences that result in a certain predisposition. That works for me.
From the scriptural evidence, it appears that relativism works for Elijah as well. We don’t hear him saying, “Wait, God: I thought You spoke to this woman,” or, “Lady, didn’t you get the memo?”
Ye know ye do transgress
A frustrated Captain Moroni writes to Chief Judge Pahoran to complain about the lack of troops and supplies to support the war effort. He says at one point in his diatribe, “Ye know that ye do transgress the laws of God, and ye do know that ye do trample them under your feet. Behold, the Lord saith unto me: If those whom ye have appointed your governors do not repent of their sins and iniquities, ye shall go up to battle against them” (Alma 60:33).
Moroni does not mince words: he says, “Behold, the Lord saith unto me.” To put it into latter-day parlance, he is bearing witness that he is speaking in the name of God. But he has gotten it wrong. Pahoran is not the bad guy. He is not a transgressor or trampler of God’s laws. Pahoran’s reply makes that perfectly clear: “I, Pahoran, do not seek for power, save only to retain my judgment-seat that I may preserve the rights and the liberty of my people” (Alma 61:9).
An absolutist might contend that in some sense Pahoran did transgress God’s laws (by not being an assertive enough leader, for example), but that is a stretch. As a relativist, I see something quite different: an example of absolutism gone awry.
It appears that Moroni interprets the prompting that someone is transgressing and trampling on God’s laws to mean that Pahoran is at fault. The prompting is right, but Moroni’s extrapolation of the prompting is wrong. That says to me that just because a person can feel the Spirit does not mean that they will always correctly interpret what the Spirit is saying. That is an important caution for me as I seek revelation from God. That is also an important filter as I listen to others who claim to have the Spirit’s guidance. I can believe that they have indeed felt the Spirit and at the same time question the conclusions they have reached.
Endless does not equal “no end”
In a stunning revelation that turns the notion of fire-and-brimstone Christianity on its head, God says to Joseph Smith, “Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment” (Doctrine and Covenants 19:6). This opens the door to a later revelation that makes it clear that the torment of hell does not last forever (Doctrine and Covenants 76:106). Section 19 goes on to say that endless punishment is shorthand for God’s punishment, “For Endless is my name” (v. 10).
In the course of this explanation, God says a curious thing: “It is written eternal damnation; wherefore it is more express than other scriptures, that is might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my name’s glory” (v. 7).
This sounds like a trick. It sounds like a parent saying to a child, “If you don’t come with me right now, I’m going to leave you behind,” when of course, the parent means to do no such thing. If God does not mean to damn the sinners forever, then why allow wording that suggests an infinitude of torment?
I’m not sure what an absolutist does with this scripture. Even to me as a relativist, it is unsettling: God is admitting to purposely using strong language in a misleading way in order to motivate good behavior. That sounds sketchy.
However, I have come across another passage of scripture that puts this into a context that I can live with.
We in the queer community often hear the following as a clobber scripture, telling us that any deviation from heteronormativity is catastrophic: “Know ye not, my son, that these things are…most abominable about all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost?” (Alma 39:5). A careful reading reveals that the “these things” that Alma is referring to are activities that “lead away the hearts of many people unto destruction” (v. 12), not sexual sin. Nevertheless, it is easy to see why many people would interpret this passage of scripture as a severe condemnation of sexual immorality. Hmm, why would God allow such confusion in what Joseph called “the most correct of any book”?
For the same reason that Jesus taught in parables: we get from them what we bring to them. If we are predisposed to respond to strictness and severity, we can find them in “sexual sin being second only to murder” and in “hell being interminable.” If we are more inclined to respond to mercy and reasonableness, we can find them in God’s chief concern being the impact we have on one another’s faith; we find God’s mercy and reasonableness in some degree of eventual salvation for all. God does not trick us to try to motivate us. He allows us to believe what we are ready to believe and works with us from there.
Speaking of parables, they also serve as evidence that God favors relativism over absolutism: “Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He answered and said unto them…for whosoever hath, to him shall be given” (Matthew 13:10-12).
General Conference time
As we come to the time of General Conference, we may hear some speak in terms of absolutes. It appears that God allows people to believe that way if they are so inclined. It is unfortunate that absolutists do not treat relativists with deference. But as a relativist, I do not return the favor and spurn absolutists. Instead, I feel a little sorry for them, because I think they miss the richness that side-by-side, dissonant truths bring to my gospel experience.
In any case, absolutists in and of themselves don’t bother me; they can have their absolutism for what it’s worth. I’ll stick with my interesting and varied collection of truth.
Of course, absolutists don’t exist “in and of themselves.” As we come to the time of General Conference, we relativists need to listen carefully for those knife-edged messages that can slice the hearts of those most fragile among us and be vocal in saying, “I don’t think so.”
Recently a gay man started taking discussions and attending church. He knows I am also queer. I said to him, “I’m going to go with you to Gospel Essentials class. I’m feeling protective of you.” And so I sit in class, and when the absolutists get to flailing with their swords of truth, I hold up a shield of faith in a kinder, gentler God and say, “Let’s look at that a little differently.”