The topic of same-sex attraction in/and Mormonism is an unsettling one for most Mormons. And it should be unsettling, but not for the usual reasons: lack of understanding, doctrinal and institutional exclusion, willful ignorance, disgust, condescending tolerance. Rather, what should be unsettling are the very faces of those who identify as gay, lesbian, transgender, etc. The gaze of a face (any face) is meant to unsettle us to our core. We should be unsettled when our gazes meet, because the gaze reveals an infinite depth in every person that is mysterious and terrifying. Terrifying because no matter how long we descend into the soul we will never reach bottom; there is no firm foundation to grasp in order to finally declare, “I know you. Every part of you. All of you.” Worlds without end, our knowledge of another person is always already incomplete and partial. Better to get used to some degree of unpredictability and uncertainty where another person is concerned, no matter how intimate our relationship with that person.
I don’t have an intelligent or informed response to the question of the nature of sexuality or its origins, or what constitutes tendencies, preferences, temptations, etc. From what little I understand there seems to be a complex mix of biology/genetics and social environment that determines sexual orientation, neither one nor the other wholly prevailing. Conclusions about origins will be besides the point for my purposes here.
Emmanuel Levinas and the Face of the Other
Consider the philosophy of Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas’ philosophy revolves around a complex phenomenological account of encounter with another person. He has been called, in fact, the philosopher of the Other. The Other is unlike any object or thing in the world. The Other is like me, acts like me, has consciousness like me. But the Other can also address me, can call to me, even without using words or language. The Other is other because she has the ability to summon me.
The encounter with the Other is disruptive. It tears me from my subjective and self-absorbed world and brings me to myself. This summoning disruption creates accountability and responsibility in the “I” (me). Because the Other summons me and brings me to myself we are actually created by the Other. Consequently, for Levinas human beings are intrinsically relational, and the face-to face encounter with the Other is for him the foundation of knowledge, the place where philosophy begins (as opposed to beginning with God or the world). Thus, experience is inherently intersubjective, not objective or subjective. The “I” discovers its own particularity when it is singled out by the gaze of the Other. The human face, he says, has an “interruptive” (one could also say unsettling, disruptive) impact; it interrupts our self-enclosed world and calls to us. We are created and given conscious life under the gaze.
Jean-Luc Marion’s Critique of Levinas: Love as Unsubstitutability
One of Catholic theologian Jean-Luc Marion’s critiques of Levinas is that a Levinasian ethics focuses too intensely on otherness or “the Other” to the point of almost pure abstraction. As Marion says, following Levinas, the other stripping the “I” clear of itself and exposing the “me,” I discover myself obliged to the Other, to feel responsibility for her. “Before being conscious of myself, I am conscious of my obligation [to the Other], the first to come.” This is what is called the injunction, the responsibility I feel toward the other under her gaze. Losing consciousness of myself produces obligation for the Other. Thus, my gaze of intentionality, met precisely by the other’s gaze of injunction, traces a cross or a line by which they recounce their invisibility. I and the Other thus become truly visible to one another for the first time. For Marion, to love, in part, is to “see the definitively invisible aim of my gaze nonetheless exposed by the aim of another invisible gaze; the two gazes invisible forever, expose themselves to each other in the crossing of their reciprocal aims.” Intentionality and injunction come together in the common lived experience. Love is thus the crossed lived experience of invisible gazes.
Marion’s disagreement is not that Levinas is wrong here, but that it doesn’t go far enough. Marion’s question to Levinas is: Can this phenomenon occur with just any other? Does this obligation merely stir in me affection for a universal ethic, and the other’s particularity matter not at all? With regard to ethical responsibility we must answer in the affirmative. The Other (any other) produces in us an ethical responsibility under her gaze. But love is distinct from mere responsibility. In Marion’s phenomenology of love, the Other who is loved becomes unsubstitutable and irreplaceable. This injunction of responsibility, in fact, reaches atomic particularity, requiring haecceity (thisness, this particular thing, that particular other) that passes beyond being. The Other is not just any other but this particular other, with a particular face, name, and history. Haecceity in and through the other is necessary for me in order for the injunction to allow me to experience this particular gaze. The other’s gaze has no weight if it is substitutable for just any gaze. It is up to each one to let herself be fully summoned by another’s gaze and therefore another’s injunction. My own unsubstitutable individuality is due to the other’s intentional gaze and summoned injunction. Love is thus finally defined as “the act of a gaze that renders itself back to another gaze in a common unsubstitutability.”
Gays, Lesbians, and the Mormon Community
In my experience most Mormons I know are not knowingly acquainted with anyone who identifies as gay or lesbian, and therefore the gay or lesbian has no face, no particularity, and thus recedes into the mass of otherness that the Mormon is supposed to feel some sort of an “ethical obligation” toward (hopefully) but which cannot, in fact, produce genuine love and charity. We cannot genuinely love a universal ethic; we can only love a face with a gaze with a particular history, etc. When a Mormon learns that someone she knows and loves is a homosexual or lesbian, this might produce an actual struggle for acceptance, which may at times change her views about the homosexual community because and only because of this particular homosexual who has a face, who is that particular other that she loves, whose own unsubsitutable gaze has made her what she is as an individual. Of course, it also happens that at other times nothing changes and she continues to hold previous beliefs and/or prejudices. But, no longer are these beliefs and prejudices beliefs and prejudices about a faceless other that one can believe just anything about. Now, she is forced to reckon with these beliefs overlayed onto an actual person she loves. As Marion says, before the gaze of the face we are unsettled. Things change when the other has a face, and genuine love is only possible when this occurs, even when the other does not love us back. (This is important; we can love those who we might not have chosen or preferred to love in different circumstances. What counts is that we are confronted with the face, gaze and injunction of a particular other, not that they must love us in return).
Maybe I’m in the minority with my experience with men and women as gays and lesbians. I count a total of 2 people as close friends who are gay (not because I maintain a principle of only heterosexual friends; this is simply how things have worked out so far). There are no gays or lesbians (of which we know, of course) in my family on either side or my wife’s family on either side, constituting hundreds of people between the two families. For all intents and purposes, the majority of my experience is with the homosexual as faceless, and I’m willing to bet that most Mormons are in a similar situation. My argument is that the discourse on homosexuality (and I daresay some of our doctrinal orientations) will change in proportion to gays and lesbians emerging from the faceless mass (toward which we have a mere ethical responsibility to treat fairly as human beings, and therefore are free to fear and not to love) and taking on the faces of those we love. Not all of us will love them simply because this occurs, but some will, and no doubt all of us would be unsettled. That unsettling would change our discourse and rhetoric.
That the gay community is mostly faceless to the average Mormon has, I am arguing, the effect of there being no particularized call, no one to address, no gazes to meet, no injunction to enact. And thus we remain settled and sure in our knowledge, enclosed in ourselves and comfortable in our separate worlds. To the extent that more gays and lesbians become that particular person–sons, daughters, friends, neighbors, with names, faces and gazes, unsettling and breaking our hearts, and destabilizing our preconceptions–is the extent to which unpredictable events will begin to happen, and love and charity will do the work that loose abstract ethical alignment cannot.