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.