I’m not a historian or sociologist, but I’ve noticed something about civilizations. They always seem to think they are more special than other civilizations. It’s not important to my purpose here to name names, but so many groups have had a superiority complex of one kind or another that I wonder if a need to feel more special is written into human DNA.
There may be biological explanations for why people draw distinctions and make rankings for each other, but I’m going to speculate about a psychological or spiritual one. I wonder if this hunger for superiority stems from a lack of security about one’s value as a human being. The first temptation of Christ started with the words “If thou be the son of God…” and if we are to believe Christ’s temptations were real it means that even Jesus must have, at least momentarily, been able to question his identity. He was tempted to believe the lie that he was not who he knew himself to be. We mere mortals experience that temptation not infrequently, and unlike Jesus, we sometimes succumb to it.
One strategy people have for dealing with insecurities about their identity is to artificially elevate themselves above others. As in, if I’m not special at least I’m more special than (fill in the blank). This has caused so much pain and injustice. And regardless of culture, time, or place, women seem to always be on the losing side of this equation. I remember taking a class in college from political science professors Valerie Hudson and Donna Lee Bowen in which someone asked why women in traditional societies and in poverty seem so particularly oppressed. The reply surprised me. It was, imagine you are a man at the lowest rung of society. You are poor, powerless, and humiliated, but you can at least always feel superior to one person. That person is your wife.
For whatever biological, cultural, sociological, and historical reasons, the lowest position in nearly every society is reserved for a woman. People use race, nationality, genealogy, religion, orientation, education, wealth, and many other things to rank each other. But after those things, there is always one more division that can be made, and that is gender. Which is why feminism is so important to me. I am subject to the common temptation to believe I am less than I know myself to be, and this is compounded by the fact that I am a woman in a patriarchal church.
Which is ironic because in large part the good things I believe about my identity come from my church. The Christian teaching that all are alike unto God is a pillar of my faith, and the Mormon doctrine of eternal progression gives me an expansive view of my potential. But my Mormonism also presents me with things that tempt me to believe the lie that I am less than what I know myself to be. If my husband presides over me, what does that say about me? If temple rituals contain covenants that are asymmetrical with respect to gender, what does that say about women? Am I as fully an inheritor of divine potential as God’s male children? Of course the answer is yes, but each time I’m faced with the Church’s patriarchy I feel I must defend myself against the implicit question “If you be equal to men…” The question is a constant invitation to believe a lie.
There are many things I love about Mormonism. The doctrine laid down in 2 Nephi Chapter 2 about agency and opposition is the best explanation for the theodicy problem I know of. The Mormon idea of God being inside the universe and organizing it rather than being outside of it and creating from nothing seems very true to me – I like that Mormonism embraces the material world. I think Mormons do well at creating caring communities for each other. And I’ve felt small miracles take place in my heart that I think only Jesus could have worked. But I do not love the patriarchy. And in order for my faith to survive constant contact with it, I need feminism.
For some reason Christ’s radical notion that everyone is a person didn’t fully sink into Christianity. And the twentieth century’s radical notion that women are people has not radically changed Mormonism (yet). Brigham Young loved to say Mormonism embraces all truth, and in my mind it does. But until the Church sheds the patriarchy it inherited and still embraces, I will let feminism be my guide in reminding me that in God’s creation no person is more special than another.