Taylor Petrey and the Boundaries of a Generous Orthodoxy

Through the wonders of the Mormon blog world I came across Taylor Petrey.  Taylor has recently landed a job at Harvard.  It is something like a visiting professor and research associate of Women’s Studies in Religion.  It really is a wonderful opportunity to have a fellow Mormon in such a position.

I would hope that someone in such a position would in many ways follow the example of one of my heroes, Truman Madsen.  Brother Madsen had serious Philosophical chops, yet I never felt that Brother Madsen was trying to steer the church in some new direction.  He seemed to take Mormonism as-is, and express its’ powerful ideas in positive ways.  I would hope that Brother Petrey would follow in such footsteps.

Yet after reviewing a couple of recent papers by Petrey, I am afraid that this may not be the case.  His articles, ‘Toward a Post Heterosexual Mormon Theology’, and ‘Rethinking Mormonism’s Heavenly Mother’ are the stuff of advocating fundamental change to Mormonism’s doctrines and teachings.

In the first article, Petrey’s basic argument is:

P1  Heavenly Father does not need to have sexual intercourse to create spirit bodies.  (Edit-a way of saying spirit bodies are not offspring of eternal parents.)

P2  We already seal same-sex people together in our temples (fathers to sons for example)

P3. Gender is not an eternal purpose or characteristic

C.  There is no reason we cannot seal and exalt homosexuals as homosexuals

I feel that the basic argument is unsound and invalid since I do not accept any premise, and because the conclusion is not demanded by them even if they were accepted.

The second article seems to me to not be so much of an argument, as a call to action, since previous discussion on Heavenly Mother has not been inclusive enough for feminists and the LGBT community.

In the second article, Petrey expresses a desire to further the discussion within ‘the boundaries of a generous orthodoxy’.  This phrase seems to be an absurd paradox to me, and is likely the stuff of positive spin.  What one calls a generous orthoxy, another may call making stuff up to advance your cause.

I am sincere when I feel like congratulating Brother Petrey on his new gig.  It really is an amazing opportunity and an admirable accomplishment.  I hope that we can look back someday and see that Taylor has had a positive influence on the world.  But I do have a concern about what appears to me to be advocating for fundamental changes in the church, and drawing something of a following after himself.  Some people would suggest a term for that type of thing, and it is not ‘generous orthodoxy’.


14 Responses to “Taylor Petrey and the Boundaries of a Generous Orthodoxy”

  1. 1 David Y. September 11, 2016 at 11:41 pm

    “Some people would suggest a term for that type of thing”

    C’mon, Eric. Just be straightforward. If you are accusing Taylor of something, have the guts to say it.

  2. 2 Eric Nielson September 12, 2016 at 6:44 am

    I am being completely straight forward, and painfully obvious. I do not desire to compromise my clever conclusion. Anyone reading this will know exactly my concern. In fairness, I am concerned about the trajectory, and potential destination.

  3. 3 Clark Goble September 12, 2016 at 3:55 pm

    I think P1 is the issue. While in the Utah period the idea that there was something analogous to sex was essential for creating spirits, I have to confess there’s not a lot of evidence for it in Joseph Smith’s recorded sermons. It is interesting that Orson Pratt and Brigham Young who differ on so much agreed upon that point (as did many others). However if we ask what the source is for it then we’re in a hard spot. Is it speculation? Is it revealed? Given how much of Pratt and Young’s innovations we’ve rejected I don’t think that a small thing.

    The problem I see with the alternative is going from what we don’t know into making speculative theology that attempts to be more than that. That is these theologies aren’t merely “here’s a possible interpretation among a wide range of possibilities.” Rather there’s a certain political thrust behind it that I find problematic for various reasons.

    In saying that I recognize there have been other figures who’ve put forward theologies that often are themselves tied to rethinking Nauvoo and often rejecting a lot of early Utah teachings. (Blake’s excellent work comes immediately to mind) However my sense (perhaps wrong) is that Blake is far more tentative in his work. That said it is interesting that in some key points Blake makes a moral argument for why at least some of his key theological views are correct. For Blake that’s the idea that God can’t know the future because that logically entails a type of determinism he sees as incompatible with God justly punishing people. For Petrey and other it’s a different logic tied more to being fair to gender here on earth. Yet in some ways the moves are similar in drive even if they differ significantly in the particulars.

  4. 4 Eric Nielson September 12, 2016 at 7:12 pm

    I think those are fair points Clark. But I see Blake basing things much more on scripture and teachings of modern prophets, while Petrey relies a lot more on Social Scientists and excommunicated intellectuals. I see Blake being much more similar to Truman Madsen than to someone like Margaret Toscono for example.

    • 5 Chris Henrichsen September 12, 2016 at 8:21 pm

      Actually Taylor is disagreeing with Toscano. I think the article is Taylor primarily disagreeing with how feminists have used the concept of Heavenly mother.

      • 6 Clark Goble September 13, 2016 at 11:00 am

        He’s disagreeing with her and some similar writers yet in a certain point he’s adopting a similar hermeneutic approach which tends to raise the value of socially situated ethical aims in the here and now with what must be in a very different context. I don’t think there’s anything wrong thinking through those issues but I worry about evidence.

  5. 7 Eric Nielson September 12, 2016 at 8:43 pm

    You are right about the article Chris. And it is interesting that this is something of a criticism of feminists not being inclusive enough. My comment above does not really have to do with the article, it has to do with my concern about Taylor’s trajectory. He seems like a wonderful person. And while he has his disagreements with Toscano, my worry is that he has more in common with her (in terms of approach and goals) than he does with Madsen (and maybe Ostler).

  6. 8 Mogs September 14, 2016 at 11:48 am

    Hello Eric,

    I don’t recall that you regularly interact with Taylor’s work. Why does this “event” motivate you to make a thinly veiled suggestion that he be disciplined by the church?

  7. 9 Eric Nielson September 14, 2016 at 9:23 pm

    Please understand that my concern is the path. And I am not suggesting that the church should discipline him. I think things are a long way from that, and it would be a terrible mistake. But they have if the agitation is public enough.

    I did write a post back when ‘Toward …’ first came out. Taylor flattered me once when he asked for a copy of my SMPT paper, and we were in the same stake together, even though we have not met.

    The ‘event’ I am assuming is the new job. I am sort of trying to give unsolicited advice to Taylor – which he should not care about. I would like to see him be more positive about what Mormonism is, rather than make a case for what he thinks Mormonism should be. If he wants to advocate for certain groups I would prefer he do so through general Christianity rather than modify Mormonism.

    I am probably to touchy about this. I just think this is a great opportunity for him. I would hope the result is representing Mormonism in a positive way to the world rather than criticizing what he feels the church is lacking..

  8. 10 RG September 15, 2016 at 9:07 am

    His articles, ‘Toward a Post Heterosexual Mormon Theology’, and ‘Rethinking Mormonism’s Heavenly Mother’ are the stuff of advocating fundamental change to Mormonism’s doctrines and teachings.

    From Petrey’s “Post Hetero-Sexual Mormon Theology,” page 107:

    What follows is a thought experiment on the question of how Mormons might imagine different kinds of sealing relationships other than heterosexual marriage. Such an experiment neither constitutes Church doctrine nor intends to advocate itself as Church doctrine. Rather, this essay provides an occasion to think critically about the intellectual and theological problems posed by the reality of alternative relationships outside of heterosexual

    Please understand that my concern is the path. And I am not suggesting that the church should discipline him.

    Then instead of insinuating such, you should actually try engaging his argument.

    I feel that the basic argument is unsound and invalid since I do not accept any premise, and because the conclusion is not demanded by them even if they were accepted.

    You’ve been blogging long enough to know that this does not count as engagement.

  9. 11 Eric Nielson September 15, 2016 at 8:45 pm

    So the quote you pull is Petrey acknowledging that he feels there are theological problems that need solving to make exaltation available for those who are involved in homosexual behavior without repentance of such. I give him credit for admitting that he is making stuff up, but this is still his solution to the problems he sees. If I were to summarize my objections it is that they would result not only in a post heterosexual theology, but a post Mormon theology as well. As in, his solutions leave Mormonism so changed that it becomes something else.

    In Mormonism, spirits are the offspring of heavenly parents, are the same type/species of being, and have the same gendered purposeful destiny. P! removes all of that.

    In temples, spouse sealings are categorically different from sealings of parents to children. P2 dismisses or ignores this.

    The Proclamation on the family states that gender is an essential part of our premortal, mortal, and eternal purpose. P3 simply says that the FP and Q12 are simply wrong and we should instead follow the lead of selected social scientists.

    The argument I feel is incomplete because it ignores the teaching that sexual relations outside of a marriage between a man and a woman is sinful behavior, and without this the conclusion really is not obtained.

    I made a post about this when the article first came out https://smallsimple.wordpress.com/2011/12/13/toward-a-post-____________-mormon-theology/

    I did not engage the arguments here because I feel I already have, and because this post is less about the argument per se, and more about where Petrey might be headed. Where does this lead? The articles seem strategic to me, but to what end? Protests?

  10. 12 John Mansfield September 17, 2016 at 9:02 pm

    Is there any possibility in this decade that Harvard would choose a colleague who takes the LDS church as-is? I ask because your post reminded me of something I wrote in different context: “The LDS church is led by elites who keep the church in its mainstream. They (the apostles, stake presidents, and such) are the kind of elite that Charles Murray wishes America had: people who are more capable than most, live upright lives, and exhort a church full of average and less-than-average people to do likewise. This is unlike the Episcopalians or RLDS, led by a liberal leadership pulling their churches in directions that the Harvard faculty would approve and alienating many of their members.” That’s my stereotype of Harvard, that makes me suppose it wouldn’t be interested in having a 21st Century Truman Madsen.among its faculty.

  11. 14 Jane Tilton May 10, 2017 at 10:51 am

    If one believes that the LDS Church is led by a Prophet and Apostles who are called, ordained and inspired by God, then one must also give them the right to declare doctrine. We recently had a 29-stake meeting at which Elder Dallin H. Oaks spoke. He addressed some of the issues that Petrey advocates very clearly. He simply said that those who advocate those positions (I am quoting) on homosexuality and marriage “do not understand the plan of salvation.”
    If, instead, one doesn’t really believe that those Prophets and Apostles are called, ordained, and inspired by God and are authoritatively declaring His word, then all doctrine is up for grabs.
    The issue is not how we personally feel about the issue (or whether we have a homosexual child or sibling–something that a number of us do, including one of the current Apostles). It is whether or not there is a Prophet and Apostles leading the LDS Church. If one doesn’t believe that to be true, why would he or she want to be a member of a church that so declares?

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