Saturday, March 1, 2014

Becoming "like" God, or becoming Gods?

At least to much local acclaim, the "Gospel Topics" section of the official website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, lds.org, has recently featured an essay entitled "Becoming Like God." Apparently this article was posted in an effort to explain the odd Mormon take on what Christians, especially Eastern Christians, have traditionally called "deification." The purpose of the essay is to debunk caricatures of LDS belief on this matter. Without a doubt, there are crude caricatures of this belief. Nonetheless, the piece strikes me as more than a bit disingenuous. As I hope to briefly show, the disingenuous nature of the essay arises from placing the emphasis on becoming "like" God rather than on the the traditional LDS emphasis of becoming as God "is," or a "god" in your right. As anyone who has ever made even a cursory study of informal logic knows, analogy and identity sit pretty far apart.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
Since our knowledge of God is limited, our language about him is equally so. We can name God only by taking creatures as our starting point, and in accordance with our limited human ways of knowing and thinking.

All creatures bear a certain resemblance to God, most especially man, created in the image and likeness of God. the manifold perfections of creatures - their truth, their goodness, their beauty all reflect the infinite perfection of God. Consequently we can name God by taking his creatures" perfections as our starting point, "for from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator."

God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, imagebound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God --"the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable"-- with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God (par. 40-42)
This is precisely what makes the Incarnation so cosmos-shattering, or, as the authors of Paul's New Moment put it- "this Event of God becoming human is so earth-shattering that it enacts something akin to the psychoanalytic concept of trauma..."

It is important to mention up-front that Latter-day Saints clearly and explicitly reject the dogma of the triune God, perhaps best and most succinctly summarized as "one God in three in divine persons." In fact, as recently as January this year, a LDS General Authority, Gérald Caussé, who serves as second counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, speaking to LDS mission presidents, reminded them of something that it seems to me the LDS frequently try to gloss over: "Among the critical elements of the doctrine of the Church that are an essential contribution of the Restoration are a correct knowledge of the identity of God, that God and Jesus Christ are separate and distinct, each with a body of flesh and bone." This teaching arises directly from LDS scripture, particularly from the Doctrine and Covenants, which book is comprised almost exclusively of a series of revelations Smith claimed to have received directly from God. In the Doctrine and Covenants we find, "The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s" (130:22). It is for reasons surrounding this that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, back in 2001, definitively concluded, answering a dubium, or question, formally posed several years prior, that LDS baptism is not sacramentally valid. The LDS, however, refuting their own claim to be Christians "like we are Christians," baptize everyone and anyone who joins the LDS Church regardless of any prior baptism.

Perhaps the best summary of this distinctive LDS belief, and if not the best, at least the most famous, is something known as the "Lorenzo Snow couplet." Lorenzo Snow was the fifth president of the LDS Church. Latter-day Saints believe their president, along with the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, is a "prophet, seer, and revelator," a belief much more robust than the Catholic belief in papal infallibility. Snow served as president from 1898 until his death in 1901. His couplet states, "As man is God once was, as God is man may become." This is perfectly coherent with what is taught in LDS scripture, particularly the third chapter of the Book of Abraham and sections 130-132 of the Doctrine and Covenants. In addressing the couplet, the essay insists that not much is known by way of revelation with regard to the first half of the couplet. At least to me, it does not seem on its face to be terribly abstruse. I take it to mean that at one point God was like we are now. Brigham Young, Joseph Smith, Jr.'s successor as LDS prophet, took it that way too. Young went so far as to assert during a General Conference in 1852 something he insisted he was taught by Smith, namely that Adam is "our Father and our God, and the only God with whom we have to do." This is known as the "Adam-God" theory or doctrine.

Book of Abraham Facsimile 1

In addition to revealing passages from the Doctrine and Covenants, the Book of Abraham, which can be found in the Pearl of Great Price, which, along with the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and the Bible, is one of the books revered by Latter-day Saints as scripture, we find that there actually is a fair amount revealed about both halves of couplet. In fact, it's fair to say that the couplet arises from what is written here. Of course, as with all theology, doctrinal statements require correlating what is claimed to be revealed with the claimed sources of revelation.

While on the subject of claimed sources of revelation, it bears noting that Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of the LDS Church, claims to have translated the Book of Abraham from some papyrus scrolls that he acquired by purchasing an Egyptian mummy from a carnival man. Smith made the purchase and claims to have translated the scrolls prior to the deciphering of the ancient Egyptian language, which resulted from decoding the Rosetta Stone. It became clear after the decoding of the Rosetta Stone that the scrolls, facsimiles of which have long been published as part of the Pearl of Great Price, Smith claims to have translated as the Book of Abraham were, in fact, copies of the Egyptian book of the dead.

It is in the third chapter of the Book of Abraham that the key to understanding where LDS theology fundamentally diverges from historic Christianity can be found (this is where the essay strikes me as disingenuous). It is this chapter that seeks to show that everyone, you, me, God the Father, God the Son, etc., has always existed. The official summary of Abraham 3 states, "The Lord reveals to him [Abraham] the eternal nature of spirits." This "eternal nature of spirits," it seems, is precisely what obliterates the most obvious ontological barrier between God and His creatures: being eternal, that is, self-subsistent, or uncreated. In other words, according to LDS belief, we have all always existed.

The progression, according to the LDS "Plan of Salvation" (see graphic below), works something like this: you first and eternally exist as an uncreated "intelligence," then you are born into a pre-earth, or pre-mortal existence, a "spiritual," yet embodied,state (Doctrine and Covenants 131:7-8: "All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter"); from this pre-mortal existence, you are born into mortality, which is a period of testing, then, after the resurrection (there is a temporary, "spiritual", abode between the death and the resurrection, a place- must be a place because you are still material- where righteous LDS people proseltyze others in a last ditch effort- this is why they perform baptisms for the dead- for you to accept Mormonism between your death and the resurrection); should you enter the highest level of the highest kingdom, called exaltation (see Doctrine and Covenants 131:1-4), sticking with Snow's couplet, you become "as God is." For those who obtain exaltation, which requires being married (see Doctrine and Covenants 131:2),
Then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from everlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall they be above all, because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be gods, because they have call power, and the angels are subject unto them (Doctrine and Covenants 132:20)
Most telling is this passage, also found in Doctrine and Covenants 132, referring to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, states, "because they did none other things than that which they were commanded, they have entered into their exaltation, according to the promises, and sit upon thrones, and are not angels but are gods" (132:37).



In addition to the vast expanse stretching between "like" and "is," the problem I see with the essay is that there is no effort connect the dots of what the LDS Church claims to have been revealed by God about God and man, even claiming ignorance where there is evidence. Hence, there is no attempt to show how that "revelation" bears on man's eternal destiny, but an effort to obscure what seems, based on the evidence, pretty clear. At root, because of the belief that we, like God, have existed eternally, beginning as uncreated intelligences, the main ontological barrier that Jews, Christians, and Muslims discern as existing between God and humanity is done away with, thus clearing the way for human beings to become "as God is," which is just what former Catholic priest, now Mormon, Jordan Vajda, insisted in his relatively famous master's degree thesis "Partakers of the Divine Nature." Along these lines, see my post from a few years ago- "Is Israel's God Glenn Beck's god?" That is much different than becoming as much "like" God as you can become, given the ontological difference between Creator and creature.

If I am not mistaken, the original (more precisely, the "ancestral") sin consisted mainly in the rejection of creaturliness, preferring instead to usurp God. It looks like March roared in like a lion here on Καθολικός διάκονος!

Servant of God Cora Louise Evans, pray for us.

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