Tuesday, July 25, 2017

A profound and inseparable connection

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Priesthood Session of the October 1976 Conference.
We read the Priesthood Session this week, and one of the talks was Elder Boyd K. Packer's "A Message to Young Men." The text of the talk wasn't on the church website, but the video was, so I watched it instead of reading it. I don't know why they decided not to publish the text, but I did read somewhere that the talk was "widely mocked" and had generated controversy (of course) and I decided I didn't want to write about it because I hate getting caught up in that sort of thing. (And now here I am [sigh] so here's one article if you're interested.)

But when I went to write this post I couldn't seem to think about anything else. (Why does that always happen?) So here are my thoughts. Elder Packer is speaking to the young men about chastity and masturbation and homosexual behavior and other "sensitive" topics. I don't know if it would have been embarrassing to the young men listening. It didn't seem so to me, but I know sex education has gotten more extensive in the years since then. I do know it was pretty easy for me to listen and pick out which things he was saying would make people now complain about how "old-fashioned" and "unenlightened" the brethren were back then. But it was also easy for me to detect the love and concern and anxiousness to teach truth with which Elder Packer was saying those things.

I guess we're pretty smug, these days, regarding what we know about human sexuality. Most of us compare our own views favorably with the "repression" and "shame" we ascribe to earlier times. I've read plenty of people even within the church talking about this, and lamenting how far "church culture" still has to go in that area. And I'm sure there is good that has come from our relative openness and increased education. But I also thought, listening to this talk full of "old-fashioned" wording and "old-fashioned" reticence, that we (and by "we" I mean "modern thought, even some Mormon modern thought," I guess) know a lot less than we think we do. Because there is a spirit-body connection that is still not fully understood, even by the "latest research" of which we're so proud. But it is very real:
People often nurture the fantasy that sex can mean whatever we want it to. This fantasy involves an unrealistic and strange sort of mind-body split, a kind of dualism. People mistakenly believe that the mind, the sovereign will, is in complete control. The body is just a tool, a sort of appendage, detached from the mind. So, if the mind decides that sex means nothing, the body must obey. If the mind decides that it wants sex to be violent and domineering today, but warm and tender tomorrow, the body must just obey. 
But the mind and the body do not work that way. There is no such mind-body split. Rather, the medical and psychological sciences are increasingly demonstrating that there is a profound and inseparable connection between mind and body. And the body—not just the mind—is obviously involved in sexual encounters. The body has its own laws and its own logic; the body has its own wisdom, and it operates on its own terms. The human body must obey the laws of biology, of neuroscience, and of human psychology. And when we push against these, the body will inevitably push back.
That quote is from Aaron Kheriaty, MD, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Program in Medical Ethics at the University of California Irvine School of Medicine (and not a Mormon, as far as I know). He wrote that in 2015. But it echoes Elder Packer's insistence in 1976 that there are real consequences to what we do with our bodies and with the sexual feelings that go with them:
This physical power will influence you emotionally and spiritually as well. It begins to shape and fit you to look, and feel, and to be what you need to be as a father. Ambition, courage, physical and emotional and spiritual strength become part of you because you are a man. … This power of creation affects your life several years before you should express it fully. You must always guard the power…You must wait until the time of your marriage to use it.
Elder Packer also talked about the real, measurable effects of fasting, which is another thing derided in some circles these days as woefully inadequate and outdated as a "cure" for anything. And yes, addictions and other trials may not be banished forever simply because we fast and pray about them. But Elder Packer didn't say they would be. He just pointed out that intentional, righteous self-denial—a purposeful tying-together of the physical and the spiritual—can bring power:
At times of special temptation skip a meal or two. We call that fasting, you know. It has a powerful effect upon you physically. It diverts some of that physical energy to more ordinary needs. It tempers desire and reduces the temptation. Fasting will help you greatly. 
Again, it turns out this idea is not some old-fashioned invention of Elder Packer's. Here's what Dietrich Bonhoeffer said about something as simple as physically making the sign of the cross:
“I’ve found that following Luther’s instruction to ‘make the sign of the cross’ at our morning and evening prayers is…most useful,” [Bonhoeffer] said in one letter. “There is something objective about it…”
The Christian writer who quoted Bonhoeffer above comments further on why this is:
To begin with, signing oneself is more than mere symbolism. It is, as Bonhoeffer said, “objective.” There is something tangible and actual about tracing the points of the cross over one’s body. It goes back to something covered in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. Christians, the senior demon informs the junior, “can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers, for they constantly forget . . . that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.”
What we do physically affects us spiritually. Whether it’s lowering our gaze, raising our hands, bending our knee, or crossing ourselves, physical actions have a qualitative, spiritual effect.
Making the sign of the cross is something which we Latter-day Saints might find foreign, but I was thinking about how it is not unlike many of our physical covenant actions such as raising our hands to sustain someone, taking the sacrament, and other ritual actions we perform in the temple. And, of course, fasting! Our physical actions, both simple and complex, sexual and non-sexual, really DO affect our spirits!

I came away from listening to Elder Packer's talk feeling a sort of amazement about the many truths God makes available to us, if we will only accept them. Of course there are many things where our language and our understandings evolve over time, and that's how it should be. But there's also so much about modern thought that lets us down. I sometimes feel so discouraged about how inevitably and subtly the ideas of the world influence me in ways I'm not even aware of. But while we must each swim in the currents of our times, Heavenly Father doesn't leave us to flounder helplessly in them. He provides channels of truth and safety (or maps? or guides? or boats? Ha, this metaphor is beginning to falter…) and if we bravely stay within those—even when they seem counterintuitive or awkward or unenlightened—they will help us find happiness. Because no matter how much people insist that our sexual behaviors are our own business and "consent" or "lack of shame" is the only thing that matters, the fact is that God's ways of thinking about and using His creative power are the only ways that ultimately bring joy. And we knew that, through prophets, before any psychiatric research backed it up. From the same article above, here is Dr. Kheriaty's conclusion:
Before making decisions about our sexual behaviors, we need to ask ourselves some questions about what we want to be doing to our brain and our body—what kind of neural tracks and networks do we want to be reinforcing through these behaviors? Do we want to be fusing sex and love? Sex and security? Sex and attachment or commitment? Sex and fidelity? Sex and trust? Sex and unselfishness? Or do we want to be fusing in our brain and in our experiences sex and violence? Sex and dominance? Sex and submission? Sex and control? We shape our brain by our choices. And we develop increasingly automatic and ingrained habits by our repeated choices. But the initial choice of which path we embark upon is up to us. 
There is so much we (or I) don't understand about our physical bodies: why, exactly, they are necessary for exaltation; how they relate to our spirits; how they relate to God's perfected-but-also-somehow-real-and-tangible body of "flesh and bone." But we do know that they matter. What we do with them matters—and, as that quote above points out, we can choose, not everything about our bodies, but a significant portion of how they will develop and respond to our spirits. And most of all, we know that these physical bodies are the instruments through which many significant spiritual blessings and powers come. Mormons, of ALL people, know this through our doctrines and our temple ordinances. And how can we reach greater understanding unless we trust the revelations given to our prophets about how we should treat these sacred, "objective" and physical conduits?

Other posts in this series:

6 comments:

  1. Elder Packer's talk was printed up as a little booklet, which we read with our teenage boys at various times. He leaves little doubt about the sacredness of our bodies and what we should and should not do with them. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and the other quotes.

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  2. I love Elder Packer for not fearing political correctness or ridicule. And that Lewis quote was great. I love thinking about our mind/body/spirit connection. It makes me want to be more aware of everything I do with my physical body. I've noticed a theme in near death accounts I've read. So often they'll be so amazed at the lack of restriction in thought, etc that they wrongly assume our bodies were a cage of sorts. I always think "oh no no! If you'd died long enough (haha) you would have begun to see and realize that ultimately you neee both -- this new expanded mental capacity AND a body. You'd have begun to miss and long for your body". And I wish I knew and understood everything about what a body will mean for us eternally and why it was so so important.

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    1. Yes, I've thought that about near-death accounts too! Like the ones where people's spirits were still reaching for their addictions even though they had no bodies to grasp them with. And it's so mysterious (WHY the body matters so much) to me still. Whenever I read D&C 89, I think, "there is something really significant here!" And I think the same thing in the temple. But I just haven't made all the connections, I guess. But talks like this one give me that same sense, that there is real-life application to be found in these principles.

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  3. I appreciate you posting these personal essays about apostolic messages. I enjoyed reading your thoughts and I especially enjoyed the CS Lewis quote. I'll be remembering that for a long time. I've got a passel of teen daughters right now, and helping them understand the mind/body connection is a big deal to me. Some of them are fighting it, but I hope they come to understanding and joy!

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    1. Thank you! I have three younger daughters right now, and I wonder all the time what they and I are going to struggle with through their teenage years. And I am always looking for mom's of girls that age and trying to see what they can teach me! So...feel free to share what you're learning! :)

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  4. I love this! And, I think the temple is such an important place where we can gain greater insights into the spirit/body connections. It is remarkable to me how much the spirit is affected by things we do to the body and the body by how we worship/believe spiritually.

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