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A Taoist Reading of "The Family—A Proclamation to the World": Extremes and Their Resolution
In 1995, Gordon B. Hinkley, then president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, issued “The Family—A Proclamation to the World.” A strongly worded directive in support of family life, the Proclamation has engendered a mixed response. Does it help or hinder how we understand ourselves as women and men in the 21st century? And does eternal life become possible because of or in spite of the strict gender roles it lays out? On these topics, some have found the Proclamation inspiring while others have found it dispiriting.
My purpose here is not to criticize the Proclamation but to inquire about its current meaning for our culture. How can we understand the uneasiness that many of us feel about some or all of the topics it raises? I include myself as someone who only recently came to understand both its divisiveness and our need for its guidance. I can only hope that the same spirit that led me to undertake this study will help you grasp what I have come to appreciate about this controversial directive.1
My approach will be unusual. I will use a Taoist hermeneutic (rather than a Taoist perspective per se) to read the Proclamation. The Taoist principles of ji (極) and wuji (無極)—extreme and no-extreme—provide a frame for interpretation. I will show how the Proclamation’s presentation of gender also asserts extremes (ji) and encourages their resolution (wuji). I invite you to wonder with me. Is this back-and-forth between sharpening and weakening distinctions intended as a rhetorical strategy? Or did this dialectic arise from the nature of the topics being addressed?
The Proclamation sometimes stresses and sometimes downplays differences between women and men. “Human beings” are “male and female;” yet all are similarly created in “the image of God.” “Each is a . . . son or daughter;” yet each has a common “divine nature and destiny.” In dialectical fashion, the Proclamation attempts to clarify the sometimes confusing ways we have come to understand gender, sexuality, and our relation to the sacred.2
The Taoist schema I hope to employ is also dialectical. While many may not be familiar with the ji/wuji model, most Latter-day Saints will recognize the similar notion of “opposition in all things.” We read in 2 Nephi 2:11 that without the push and pull of opposites nothing happens. Indeed, without extremes the very purpose of creation remains unfulfilled. Without wickedness, there is no righteousness; and if there is no righteousness, there is no God.3
As Christians, we believe that opposition is inevitable and necessary, but we do not seek conflict for its own sake. In fact, we are sympathetic with the Taoist model that resolves opposition. In essence, we are to progress beyond the extreme differences that challenge and separate us, dealing with extremes in order to overcome them. We are to reach a state of wuji, or what the Proclamation repeatedly calls an “eternal” state.
This term “eternal” is used eight times in this nine-paragraph text, yet its meaning is not clearly defined. If there exists an assumed agreement about what heaven is, the wide range of responses to the Proclamation suggests that the wuji of Mormondom requires further definition. We do not share a common understanding of eternal life, and so our pursuit of it is confused. This has always been a challenge of Christian thought. What Jesus meant by perfection has always been a mystery.
Translated into Taoist parlance, our eternal goal is a lack of extremes (wuji). In this no-longer-polarized condition, all things are present but in a balanced way, which is only to say that the sharp distinctions that marked and enabled our progress to this point of equilibrium come to be de-emphasized rather than stressed. (The character for ji is 極, which signifies the ridge pole of a roof. So wuji, 無極, literally means “without a ridge pole,” suggesting a house with no highest point.) Eternal life is non-polar, no longer marked by the antagonisms of division and hierarchy. The house of the Lord rightly has no steeple.
For those who seek the Tao, our experience with extremes initiates our journey through life. We begin with stereotypes in order to do away with them. Our “child mind” requires their simplicity. Our “adult mind” depends on how they yield to complexity. The transition from the first to the second mind is the story of the first woman and the first man.
Eve and Adam lived innocently in the Garden of Eden. But into paradise came beguilement, and Eve ate. Adam refused. In this moment of crisis, the attempted resolution left both naked and ashamed. At Lucifer’s suggestion, Eve and Adam clothed themselves and hid from God. Putting on the same aprons of green, they saw each other in a new way.
Why this covering? Especially when the commandment to replenish the earth requires nakedness? To help us understand the oppositional relationship shared by Eve and Adam, the Taoist diagram depicts two swirls interacting with each other. These two (ji) extremes of yin and yang are in polar opposition to each other—dark and light, female and male, wet and dry, cool and warm, and so on. Importantly, these extremes are not static but constantly in motion since repulsion against and attraction for the Other is constantly at work. From the very start, there is some yang in yin, and vice-versa.
For us who dwell East of Eden, these dueling forces of antipathy and affinity animate our every action. Was Adam angry to leave paradise? Or did he willingly go because he loved Eve? As we learn in the temple, their lot was to disobey in order to obey, to learn how to resolve all things, including the opposition of women and men.
This, too, is our lot. There is no other way.
As shown in the diagram above, the non-polar state of wuji is located in the exact center of the swirling field of yin and yang. Its middle position indicates a perfect balance. Here opposition is harmonized. In this still point of the eternal, yin and yang extremes surround us but no longer define us as they once did. Once in this resolved center, we know how to act rather than simply be acted upon.4
Resolution, then, is a perfection of extremes, such that maleness and femaleness still exist but no longer as oppositional, hierarchical forces of becoming. Our extreme differences are resolved in and by what we Latter-day Saints understand to be eternal progression, where women and men become perfectly, but no longer purely, women and men. As opposites without opposition, we find rest in intimacy.
The wide knowledge of extremes that we gain along the way enables the resolution of all things. We might be tempted to begin our journey at a point closer to the center, at a more enlightened, progressively realistic position. But this would severely limit the area of learning available to us.
We begin with our backs pressed against the outer wall because, logically speaking, only the union of two mutually exclusive categories constitutes everything. All other combinations are partial, including the union of A and B and C and D and so on. Nothing but the combined stereotypes of A and not-A gets us to all-ness and, therefore, to the possible resolution of everything that is nothingness. This joining of extremes is the way to wuji, to what Jesus called perfection.
Some of us are precocious. We see the small dot of yang in yin, and yin and yang, and read this hybridity as an excuse to leap quickly to the center. But only beginning at the outer edge expresses a full generosity of spirit. While it is true that stereotypes are reductive, unfair, and thoughtless, only a careful consideration of them allows us to deal with the widest array of possibility.
Jesus, who challenged us to be slapped twice, wants us to know everything. He charges us to grasp more than that which comes easily to our understanding. Thus, this wide inclusiveness is the all of (opposition in) all things. It is the eternal part of eternal life, and the perfection of “be ye therefore perfect.”
Like the Proclamation, the Sermon on the Mount is also dialectical. The pure see God. But the purpose of purity is not to judge evil. The rain of yin and the sun of yang fall on everyone. Without the wet coolness of Eve, the dry warmth of Adam grows nothing. So while those who hunger and thirst after righteousness are filled, loving only those who love us is a misuse of time. “For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?”5
In short, the negative aspects of difference teach us the positive effects of being either female or male. This seems to be what resolution means as an eternal condition of family life. It takes us as we are–female and male–and helps us become who we are as children of the same Heavenly Parents, belonging to the same family, sharing all things, including many permutations of identity.
Our pursuit of eternal, non-polar resolution is a long journey through a clearly (and sometimes fiercely) bi-polar field. We struggle against the centrifugal force that the swirling of yin and yang generates. This force constantly pushes us back toward the outer edge, away from the center. Consequently, we arrive at the middle point of wuji only if a third force appears. In the end, only our resolve to embrace extremes makes their resolution possible. Then Eve said to Adam, “It is better to pass through sorrow that we might know good from evil.”
In essence, this third vector—“the way of faith” or “the Tao,” or “the will of his Holy Spirit”6—helps us move toward the eternal. Tranquility becomes ours when we act in faith as women and men. Forced out of the Garden, we build an altar. Without knowing how or why, we begin worshiping together, praying for the light and knowledge that might guide us back to the middle of Eden.
In our fight against the force that constantly pushes against us, we sometimes forget that yin and yang are generous in combination. Taken together, they present all there is to feel, to think, to consider, to touch, and to love. As challenging and exasperating as constant opposition is, by embracing the Other, we, like Adam, awake to more than we began with. Life in the lone and dreary world qualifies us for eternal life because man has woman, woman has man.
Here, then, I am making a surprising argument for the usefulness of stereotypes. Put simply, the problem with more nuanced thinking is that something always gets left out. I am not arguing that gender roles are desirable substitutes for gendered attributes. In the end, it does not matter if the woman or the man bakes bread. The point of Taoist equilibrium is that somebody is baking.
Only by beginning with stereotypes do we get over stereotypes. As Latter-day Saints, we seek awareness of “every needful thing.”7 In our incomings and outgoings, there must be bakers and bread. Without them, the world starves. Without valuing and including all that the union of stereotypes encompass, our world shrivels for lack of knowledge and care.
Truly, parts becoming whole appears in the Proclamation as an initial tension between yin—“Mothers . . . primarily responsible for the nurture of their children”—and yang “fathers . . . [who] provide the necessities of life and protection.”8 But see how these two extremes find resolution in the non-extreme state of wuji, where “fathers and mothers . . . [are] obligated to help one another as equal partners.” 9
In this way, the Proclamation speaks of differences that lead to sameness, of opposition leading to resolution, of estrangement leading to reconciliation, of sickness leading to health, and of sorrow leading to joy. Sealing opposites to each other meets our deepest need to resolve the antipathy/affinity we feel about ourselves, about our church, and even about our Heavenly Parents.
Of course, this centripetal pushing against the centrifugal forces of opposition is exhausting. Struggling toward wuji, our souls need nourishment. Thus, “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.”10 Perhaps the Taoist Way can offer poetry to balance the prose of the Proclamation, and that together they will help us want the joy of eternal life.
a new england fall— in the lull before the storm comes the hurricane
This is the first in a series of short essays that draw out Taoist themes from the Family Proclamation. Read the second essay here.
Charles Shirō Inouye is Professor of Japanese Literature and Visual Culture at Tufts University and the author of The End of the World, Plan B; zion earth zen sky; and Hymns of Silence (forthcoming from BCC Press).
READ ESSAY 2 IN THE SERIES
A number of people have had a helping hand in this project, including Jay Griffith, David Lazenby, Cort Johnson, Elizabeth Ann Inouye, Melissa Inouye, Paul Dredge, Kevin Keovongsa, Tess Maxwell, Rachel Jardine, Lori Forsyth, and many other readers and editors at Wayfare.
To understand the context that led to the Proclamation, see Gordon B. Hinckley, “Stand Strong against the Wiles of the World.” “With so much of sophistry that is passed off as truth, with so much of deception concerning standards and values, with so much of allurement and enticement to take on the slow stain of the world, we have felt to warn and forewarn. In furtherance of this we of the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles now issue a proclamation to the Church and to the world as a declaration and reaffirmation of standards, doctrines, and practices relative to the family which the prophets, seers, and revelators of this church have repeatedly stated throughout its history. I now take the opportunity of reading to you this proclamation.”
2 Nephi 2:13
2 Nephi 2:26
2 Nephi 2:28
Doctrine and Covenants 88:119
“The Family—A Proclamation to the World.”
“The Family—A Proclamation to the World.”
2 Nephi 2:25