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Chapter 2: Our Heavenly Family

First a word of apology. Apparently, I spoke too soon earlier when I noted that Heavenly Mother had been expunged completely from the new manual.

Chapter 2 begins by quoting Joseph F. Smith:

Man, as a spirit, was begotten and born of heavenly parents, and reared to maturity in the eternal mansions of the Father, prior to coming upon the earth in a temporal body.

So there it is, if you look closely enough, squint a little, and think about it, “heavenly parents” at least implies the existence of God the Mother.

(Interestingly, the unattributed curriculum committee members choose this point in the text to address the teacher and say: “You do not need to teach everything in each chapter.”)

The good

I really love the idea that in Mormon theology each individual is, in some sense, co-eternal with God. When we add to that the notion of a family-like connection that binds us to God and one another, Mormonism really takes off in my mind. What fantastic potential! We share a common source, we are intimately connected with one another, we come into this world “trailing clouds of glory“!

The Mormon conception of God is blessedly lacking the megalomania comes through in the ways that some portray God’s motives for creation. In the Mormon creation myth (which begins far before the creation of the world), God called our intelligences out of some cosmic pool of unorganized spirit-stuff and set us on a course that — in accordance with Eternal Law — would exalt us all. Contrast this to some other views of a god who finds himself in need of creatures to worship him and sets them down a path that he knows will lead (at least some) to their torment and eternal misery. The way some tell it, he does this only to contrast them against his more elect creatures so that he can “make his power known” (at least that is my understanding of how some read these verses).

The Bad

Unfortunately, some have read ugly implications into this beautiful story. I am speaking of course about the unfortunate history of theologically-reinforced racism in the Church. In a prime example of reading assumptions into doctrine, surely Brigham Young and perhaps Joseph Smith himself (despite the latter’s seemingly more enlightened views) bought into a pernicious theory about racial hierarchy and the origin of racial distinctions that was common in their day.

In some ways, it is understandable how they could reach these terrible conclusions about race and the premortal existence. There is a principle in statistics called Cromwell’s Rule, which says, basically, that if we are sure that a thing is true (our Bayesian prior is either 1 or 0), no amount of evidence to the contrary can persuade us. In the very natural impulse to fill in the gaps in the revelatory experience, they could see no other explanation.

And so we return to Mormon Doctrine. I don’t want to pick on Bruce McConkie too much, but he embodies for me a certainty of thought that is a large part of the problem, I believe, with popular understandings of Mormon teachings. By calcifying the ‘truth’ into one particular and peculiar understanding, McConkie and his ilk have done a great deal of damage (see the blow-back from the recent Randy Bott controversy). At least for me, this kind of rigid theology was alluring when I was growing up in the Church. Certainty feels good — and McConkie could deliver that certainty in powerful ways. But it is also brittle, and there came a point in my faith journey when it shattered.

As with so many things, I think that we actually know a great deal less about this premortal realm than we sometimes suppose. I want to return to this theme later, but the premortal existence in the popular imagination of the church provides a great case-study of the problems associated with assuming too much. Part of the problem stems from popularized depictions such as Nephi Anderson‘s Added Upon and its more modern adaptations, Saturday’s Warrior and My Turn on Earth. Church produced films — with images of premortal realms adorned with fluted columns and marble floors populated by throngs of white-skinned, white-robed people in soft focus — surely aren’t helping.

What we all need, I think, is a large dose of intellectual-spiritual humility. I love the idea that “we see through a glass darkly,” and we should always be wary of those who claim differently (or interpreting their words in a way that suggests certainty).

Post-script: The Indifferent

One of the implications of a set of “heavenly parents” and eternal increase is the ever titillating implication of eternal, heavenly sex. In my teenage years, this was (and I don’t think I was alone in this) the best reason to hope for a spot in the celestial kingdom (I wasn’t much concerned then about the logical consequence for my lucky eternal bride… eternal pregnancy doesn’t appeal to everyone apparently). As I’ve matured (a little) since then, the absurdity of this kind of speculation about the actual mechanics of divine increase is almost laughable.

There was a very interesting discussion on Mormon Matters about the possibility of a post-heterosexual Mormon theology. If you are at all interested in these kinds of things, I highly recommend taking some time and listening to the discussion. The Dialogue article that inspired the podcast is also worth a read.

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