Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

On Mormon theologoumena

Over at Gnosis and Noesis, a post on the Latter-day Saint (Mormon) concept of God caught my eye. It points out what used to be common knowledge, that "God" is a couple. Mormon cosmology says that the world was created by God (I leave suspended the question as to whether this means this planet, or some section of the universe, or the entire "observable universe", or the whole universe that originated in the Big Bang--assuming there was such a Bang). But this creation was not ex nihilo-- rather, it was out of pre-existent matter. God is a couple, a divine male/female pair, who "organized" (this is the term the LDS tend to use) the matter into a world, for their spiritual offspring to inhabit. The notion is that these offspring (that's you and me) would go through certain necessary experiences only available in embodied mortal existence--the primary one being embodiment itself--before returning to the presence of God (male & female). These experiences are tests of faith and perseverance, of character-building and ethical spiritual purification; they also include certain ritual experiences that must be had in mortal form, though one can experience them either oneself or by having them performed by proxy (this is the basis for the much-debated performance of Mormon Temple services on behalf of the dead). The virtue of these experiences is somehow tied both to physical embodiment, to free agency (a term upon which LDS thought places much stress), and to the mortal condition of not-knowing (or not remembering) our ultimate origin (a condition Mormon theology speaks of by invoking a "veil" said to exist between our world and the former/next world, a veil which also is held to be symbolized by the veil in the Hebrew (and Mormon) Temple). Those of us who pass muster--who fulfill the ritual ordinances and keep moral purity (an impossible task without the atoning sacrifice of Christ, Mormons will remind us), will be exalted and become, in turn, gods themselves. Marriage is one of the ordinances in question, and this is why god is held to be male and female--because it requires a pair, male and female, to attain the fullness of human potential (which is divinity).

Where did our divine parents come from? Why, from a world like our own, of course, in which they ascended by passing the same sorts of tests to which we are now subject. Presumably there was also a Christ-analogue in the history of that world, but I know of no official pronouncement to that effect, nor even any speculation from the days when Mormon theology got good and speculative, back in the days when Brigham Young would refute Orson Pratt from the pulpit. Things have settled down since then, alas. But the doctrine that the couple who fashioned of this world were once mortals on a similar world made by a similar couple, and so on and so on, is generally accepted. The chain extends infinitely into the past and will extend infinitely into the future.

Do these worlds exist in our own space-time or is our entire universe the handiwork of our heavenly parents? Mormons debate this, though generally not publicly. But there is no speculation, let alone any answer, to the question of why this cosmic mortal/divine, caterpillar/butterfly cycle should obtain. (Not even a pseudo-Thomist sounding formula such as "it is its own cause".) This prompted one of my friends to observe that Mormonism is a form of agnosticism.

More interesting to me is the nature of Godhood itself as conceptualized in Mormon cosmology. Mormonism is often (and accurately) viewed as an intensely hierarchical religion, with its ascending ranks of priesthood (Aaronic and Melchizedek), its levels of quasi-Masonic initiation, and so on. "The priesthood" itself is not just a sociological category nor yet a vocation; it is conceived by Mormons to be a spiritual power in itself. One may hold "office" in the priesthood according to one's rank, by virtue of having been ordained, in a manner which bears some comparison to a dharma transmission, though probably the better analogy would be the Biblical anecdote in which Elisha petitions Elijah for "a double portion" of his spirit upon the latter's ascent in the fiery chariot. The point is that priesthood for Mormons is a kind of authority or power as well as a ranking of offices (deacon, teacher, priest, elder, etc.), but above all it is the constituting power of the universe itself. Though I can't chase down chapter and verse at this moment, God is not infrequently said in LDS parlance to have created the world "by" the priesthood. In this respect, though I emphasize that this is not by any stretch an explicit or even "esoteric" official Mormon doctrine (I have never heard anyone speculate along these lines), it has often struck me that "god" (as divine married couple organizing matter into worlds and populating them) is simply the highest office in the Mormon priesthood; while the priesthood itself is the closest analogue in Mormonism to what is traditionally meant by "God" (though some would say it's closer still to "the Force" in the Star Wars saga). The Mormon scripture Doctrine and Convenants declares of "intelligence:"
Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be. (D&C 93:29)
This doubtless stands behind certain speculation of the early Mormon apostle Orson Pratt, probably the most monistic-tending of the early Latter-day Saints, who waxed eloquent on the plurality (indeed the infinity) of gods, but also described Truth itself as God, in the singular. (See, e.g., The Seer I 2, p 24) Since LDS scripture also uses the terms "Intelligence" and "intelligences," one is tempted to think that there is an incipient cosmology here which Pratt was trying to spell out. The late, great Sterling McMurrin, still the godfather of serious Mormon theological studies, has some thoughts along these lines in this paper.


  1. Hi Skholiast. You might enjoy this: http://www.new-god-argument.com

  2. Fascinating -- I had no idea. I'd always dismissed Mormonism as an Americanized legalistic variant of Judeo-Christianity.

  3. It is that, practically speaking-- all the hallmarks of protestant work-ethic and guilt and (in the worst cases) a facile "happiness" are there. At least in its Utah valley varieties (the kind I know best), it combines this legalism (a valorization of "obedience" swathed in caveats about "mercy") with an unabashed American manifest-destiny doctrine. Outside Utah it tends to be far more mellow on this score. It's also a lot more mainline-protestant looking from the outside.

    None of this is to say that "really" Mormonism is a cult, or that beneath its white-bread facade is a bunch of magico-sci-fi craziness. (Remember that I myself practice a religion which affirms a bodily resurrection of the Messiah and, in some manner, the ritualized cannibalism of God, not to mention, what is even weirder, that "all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.") While I have little patience for the crueler or more anti-intellectual aspects of LDS practice, I know many Mormons who have exactly this same impatience. The sociology of the LDS really is not very different from that of most middle-American Christians. They have worked hard to assimilate since Utah gained statehood.

    On the other hand, the mythology (and that is not a swear-word for me) of humans molting into gods via moral bildung and initiatory ceremony is very much alive and well in Mormonism. I say this not as an exposé but just as a simple declaration. What is fascinating to me is the way in which diverse cosmologies can still support the basic liberal bourgeois story and values. All the ferment of early 19th-c. magic, freemasony and puritan/nonconformist theology which went into early Mormonism turns out to have a practical side very much like that of Bible-belt born-againism, which of course counts LDS theology as a tissue of deviltry.

    If you want to know what pop Mormonism believes (in the US), see Saturday's Warrior. It won't give you the speculative stuff I've touched on here (which derives from an earlier era in LDS history) but it shows the basic outiline of the cosmology and its practical upshot as far as "this world" goes. A briefer, more schematic presentation of the basic cosmology is in Man's Search for Happiness, which used to be shown at LDS visitors' centers. Good sources for speculative LDS theology are Dialogue and Sunstone. There are also a dozen or so good online discussions; I lurk here sometimes. Naturally none of these are "official" and Sunstone in particular has had a hard time of it from the LDS authorities. They seem to take it in stride.

    Of course I haven't even touched on the Book of Mormon and the Lamanites, because all that is a matter of purely historical happenstance and presumably Mormons, to the extent that they ever speculate about "other worlds", do not think of that narrative as having ontological or cosmological import, however salvific it may be for them.

  4. I've recently been made aware of the eastern orthodox doctrine of theosis, which sounds quite a bit like the Mormon position on becoming-gods that you reference. This teaching is already present in the Pauline letters, and even in Genesis 1. I'm not sure why Catholics and Protestants have stepped away from this doctrine: maybe it's too "prideful" a la Genesis 3.

    When I was in college a friend and I invited two Mormon missionaries to give us the multi-installment orientation. My friend was a practicing Catholic; I was a devout agnostic. It was clear that the missionaries were more intent on converting my already-Christian friend than on dealing with my issues.

    I'll be back later to track down some of the links you thoughtfully posted about LDSism.

  5. Yes, I have often thought that the Orthodox teaching on deification is not unlike the LDS doctrine in some respects. There's a literalism about Mormonism, and the cosmological setting is not quite different, but there remains an analogy.

  6. I remember once reading a description of Joseph Smith describing Eternity itself and it sounded very much just like the refined and unrefined matter concept of Mormon Cosmology. I read his statement as a kid when I was trying to find out just where did the organized matter itself spring from. He said it was like a ring, on the ring you cannot find the beginning or the end.

    The one thing that must be kept in mind when discussing what Mormons believe is that the theology was something of a work in progress before its founder was killed at quite a young age. There was supposed to be a clause for continued revelation on the matter. Article 11 of the declaration states in paraphrase 'and many things will yet be revealed pertaining to the Kingdom of God' These revelations were to be forthcoming from what Mormon's believed God to be (A Super-Human as this author has pointed out.) after the founders assassination this clause was never exercised theologically but rather in more bureaucratic matters such as revoking policies or making statements. Therefore in my opinion deeper questions about the nature of reality the truth what have you. Even the details of God, his nature, functions, Mind ect...remain unanswered and in all likelihood will always remain that way. On record.

    There is one actually doctrinal 'out' for the seeker, you are entitled to receive personal revelation on these questions directly through God through (again in Mormonism extremely enigmatically explained) his mediator the Holy Spirit. However whatever you find out you are asked to please keep politely to yourself. This 'out' in my experience has created some extremely Holy Men within their rather immense system as well as at extremes infamous men such as Brian David Mitchell whom I met one day in SLC dressed up as Jesus. And who after he was caught I had learned had gone so far as to author an extensive manifesto on the mysteries he had discovered. How one receives revelation on theology or (and this is really a living practice) even extremely mundane affairs like which computer to buy to the all important one of ones choice for their divine pairing is through the Holy Spirit but I presume from our end the connection is through the medium of the priesthood. Even women must receive their 'gift' of speaking to the Holy Spirit from a Man who holds the priesthood usually called God's Power by Mormons. And Skoliast your description of the implications of this concept of priesthood in the Mormons belief structure was the most fascinating aspect of the blog. Thank you for your thoughts.. anything definitive about it is up to each member to come to terms with if they choose to stress themselves out with thinking deeply on it at all. Mormonism will never have an accepted Aquinas that much I am 99% sure of.