Jana Riess: On oaks (and Oaks), LGBTQ issues and the exclusive Latter-day Saint heaven

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jana Riess speaks while recording the 100th episode of the "Mormon Land" podcast Oct. 4, 2019.

One of my favorite Robert Frost poems, “Reluctance,” explores how difficult it is to let go of that which we have cherished. I won’t quote it here because I don’t want the Frost estate to sue the pants off me, but there’s an especially poignant moment in which the poet uses the image of an oak tree to reflect upon human beings’ natural aversion to change.

In the backyard of the house where I used to live, there was a stalwart, beautiful oak tree that helped me to understand the botanical grounding of Frost’s imagery. Each autumn, the oak leaves would turn golden along with the leaves from the maple and other trees. Then those other trees’ dead leaves would fall to the ground to be raked or trampled, while the oak would still be clinging to its withered, browning foliage. There the dead leaves would remain through the winter until buds of fresh growth crowded them out in the early spring.

Frost’s poem, and the memories of that tree, stayed with me throughout President Dallin Oaks’s second talk in last weekend’s General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am not a believer in theories of nominative determinism, but I do find the image of the change-resistant oak tree helpful as I think about LGBTQ issues and President Oaks.

Parts of his talk, “Two Great Commandments,” were difficult to listen to. What I think Oaks was trying to communicate is that it is our task as Latter-day Saints to balance the love of neighbor with the love of God, which he equated with obedience to God’s commandments. But from the third sentence of the talk onward, it was clear that the explicit focus would be the ways in which LGBTQ persons are not following God’s commandments or keeping his laws. While Oaks stressed several times the importance of civility and kindness to all (are you listening, Twitter trolls?), his own passion defaulted to the side of obedience:

“Our zeal to keep [the second commandment, to love our neighbors as ourselves] must not cause us to forget the first, to love God with all our heart, soul and mind. We show that love by keeping his commandments.”

(Rick Bowmer | The Associated Press) President Russell M. Nelson, right, raises his hand during a sustaining vote with his counselor, Dallin H. Oaks, left, during The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' twice-annual church conference Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in Salt Lake City.

All human beings are going to fall on one side or the other of this equation; I’ve yet to meet a single person I believed was consistently balancing the love of God with the love of neighbor, or perfectly inhabiting both justice and mercy. That’s why we need both kinds of people to build a living church.

But I am frustrated by the single-mindedness of many of Oaks’ recent talks and remarks. He has singled out marriage, gender, and sexuality as a trifecta of potential dangers, and some of his comments are singularly unhelpful to anyone who does not fit within the tiny fraction of humans who will be married for time and eternity in a Latter-day Saint temple to someone of the opposite sex.

Implicit in this particular talk is the notion that there is no Celestial Kingdom — the highest heaven in Mormonism — possible for LGBTQ saints who do not renounce this core part of their identity. He quoted from church President Russell Nelson in saying that the church was formed so that families could be sealed eternally, then noted that this has “important implications” for LGBTQ persons.

He continued:

“That highest destiny is possible only through marriage for eternity. Eternal life includes the creative powers inherent in the combination of male and female — what modern revelation describes as the ‘continuation of the seeds forever and ever.’

“. . . Modern revelation teaches that God has provided a plan for a mortal experience in which all can choose obedience to seek his highest blessings or make choices that lead to one of the less glorious kingdoms. Because of God’s great love for all of his children, those lesser kingdoms are still more wonderful than mortals can comprehend.”

It’s hardly new doctrine for a church leader to state that the highest level of the Celestial Kingdom is reserved for those who are married in the temple. And it’s not new doctrine to claim that “eternal life” (or exaltation, which is more than mere immortality) involves some kind of procreative possibility.

Why, then, has Oaks’ talk been such a source of pain for so many Latter-day Saints?

In part, I believe, it is because he is next in line to become the prophet, and people are projecting their own fear of what a Dallin Oaks administration might emphasize, such as a possible canonization of the family proclamation. But the hurt is also because of how frankly discordant his single-minded approach feels within the church today. During General Conference, we heard talks about a wide range of Christian questions and experiences:

And that’s just a sampling. Within that range, Oaks’ preoccupation with sexuality and gender feels narrow and less focused on Christ than it is on preserving a certain strain of 20th-century culture. It is like a theological version of marcescence, the botanical phenomenon whereby some oak trees tenaciously cling to dead leaves.

His sermon on “Two Great Commandments” was supposed to be a talk about love, and yet it felt like a refortification of boundaries against LGBTQ people. Again.

I realize that how we consider questions about sexual identity has changed enormously since Oaks was a young man. It must seem a bewildering world. Friday, for example, is “National Coming Out Day.” Last month, Mattel introduced a new line of gender-neutral dolls. And right now the Supreme Court is considering a case that would make it legal for sexual orientation to be a fire-able offense in certain circumstances — a position the church has, through its law firm, filed an amicus brief to support.

So here’s my take and my promise. I do not believe, as Oaks said, that our ultimate concern in life is to make it to the Celestial Kingdom. We are Christians, and our ultimate concern should be to follow the teachings and example of Christ. My own exaltation is not of great importance to anyone else except to me and my family . . . and that’s a lot of eternal focus on “me” and “my” that Jesus never spoke about in the scriptures.

If I am so fortunate as to return to be with my Heavenly Parents and their son for all of eternity, that would be great cause for rejoicing. But it would be hollow and incomplete without the company of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters who have been knocked down, misunderstood and consigned to second-class status.

If they don’t get to sit at the front of the bus to the Celestial Kingdom, I’ll gladly hang out with them in the Terrestrial. Or wherever else. And that, to me, is the gospel.

The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.