Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Thought on Polygamy

No scripture this time, just a thought. I am hardly alone in my occasional discomfort over the historical association between Mormonism and polygamy, and so I think it's worthwhile to share the latest thing I've told myself about it.

Most religious traditions, at key points in their histories, are confronted with questions over the role of marriage and sexuality in spiritual life. Some (Theravada Buddhism, Catholicism, Shakerism, etc.) see sex as leading away from God and treat asceticism and celibacy as an ideal. Other groups (ancient Judaism, Islam, some Reformation-era Anabaptists, etc.) endorse marriage, even in plural forms, as spiritually healthy. A few groups (Tantrism, Jacob Frank's sect, etc.) have gone as far as to teach free love or other forms of extramarital sexuality as having spiritual utility.

Luckily for us, historical forces have shaped the world in such a way that monogamy is a more common moral ideal today than any other system. While their priests still don't marry, for example, the contemporary Catholic Church is extremely supportive of the married couples who form the core of most Catholic communities. Jews in medieval Europe dropped plural marriage so as not to offend their neighbors and have continued to hold to monogamy since; Mormons abandoned our limited practice of plural marriage after less than fifty years of practicing it and are now devoutly monogamous.

Of course, growing up Mormon outside of Utah, you're still going to get ridiculed, probably frequently, over polygamy. And growing up Mormon anywhere, you're going to have to come to terms with the history of polygamy in the Church. Since monogamy is so much nicer, that can be tough.

Lately, though, coming to terms with our plural marriage history seems much easier than coming to terms with a religious heritage/history of idealized celibacy would be. I would rather deal with the legacy of a Joseph Smith, who felt that marriage, sexuality, and family were so spiritually significant that plural marriage deserved restoration than with the legacy of a figure like Buddha who felt compelled, as a part of his search for spiritual answers, to leave his marriage permanently and who preached celibacy for the spiritually serious.

Sure, Buddha's celibacy is a lot less controversial in our culture than Joseph's marriages--but I'd rather agree with Joseph that marriage is part of God's plan and deal with the strange baggage of plural marriage than have to disagree with my religion's history on the question of whether family life (including marital sex) is ideal or not.

1 comment:

  1. My biological children have Mormon, Sikh, and Navajo polygamous ancestors. When you say that polygamy was controversial in our culture, it's good to keep in mind that historically and across cultures, it's been pretty common.




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