I talked last time about the problems of a too literal reading of many scriptural stories. The only straightforward way to read this chapter is that the anonymous authors disagree with my take. We are treated in chapter 5 to an account of an actual historical Adam and Eve who had premortal counterparts. I’m not sure why we insist on so much literalism.
I’ve made the case for a less literal reading several times before in the short while I’ve been blogging this manual, but as often as they make these silly assumptions, I feel compelled to point them out. Let’s see where a truly literal reading of the Garden story gets us (or at least where it got one preeminent Mormon thinker, and perennial straw-man-of-the-blog).
In his famous “Seven Deadly Heresies” talk delivered at BYU, Bruce McConkie said the following in connection with Heresy #2 (evolution):
My reasoning causes me to conclude that if death has always prevailed in the world [a necessary precondition for evolution], then there was no fall of Adam that brought death to all forms of life; that if Adam did not fall, there is no need for an atonement; that if there was no atonement, there is no salvation, no resurrection, and no eternal life; and that if there was no atonement, there is nothing in all of the glorious promises that the Lord has given us. I believe that the Fall affects man, all forms of life, and the earth itself, and that the Atonement affects man, all forms of life, and the earth itself.
There is so much that I see wrong with this statement that I don’t really know where to begin. In McConkie’s highly literal reading of the text, we cannot accept the evolution of life because it would lead us inevitably to abandon the rest of the gospel message. He has reasoned himself into a corner that forces him to ignore the overwhelming weight of evidence against his case. This is a classic example of the problem of building “up” rather than “out” with respect to religious “knowledge” (for more, see this post specifically and the whole “Mormon in the Cheap Seats” series over at Doves and Serpents). McConkie has constructed for himself a towering edifice of religious knowledge, but it comes at the cost of rigidity and (if my own flirtation with McConkie-ism is any guide) fragility.
Again, I do not want to be seen as ragging too much on McConkie-ite Mormonism. It is powerful stuff, and I think it really works for some people. McConkie was not a “bad guy” from anything that I have seen. Although I do believe his teachings have done some real harm, he seemed very willing to apologize for and recant some of his more damaging ideas. I really do believe he was (even if seemingly chronically misguided) a well-intentioned person.
Back to the story
Leaving aside my annoyance with the literal reading of the story, Mormons seem to have dodged a theological bullet in their more generous interpretation of the events in the Garden. Thankfully, we do not subscribe to the ugly doctrine of original sin. Our more enlightened reading also allows us to avoid some of the more misogynist implications of Eve’s part in the story.
That is all to the good, but do we really have to believe that there was an actual person named Adam? And, more incredibly, that he was the first person to walk the earth? I think Mormons are fine with a symbolic reading of Satan as the serpent, and I don’t think most Mormons would really believe that Eve was created out of Adam’s rib, but I’m really not sure (it turns out to be a difficult question to ask without sparking some defensiveness on the part of the ask-ee). What would we lose by letting go of the overly literal readings of these old myths?
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.”)
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).
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.
Once we allow for the possibility of the divine, it is only natural to try to understand just what it is we are talking about.
I don’t think it is entirely controversial to say that we Mormons don’t do mystery very well. In fact, I have sat in many Sunday School and early-morning seminary classes where the very idea that Truth could be mysterious was ridiculed. One of the founding principles of the faith was that many “plain and precious” had been lost. Mormons talk about the “Great Apostasy” — the period of time from shortly after the death of Christ and his original disciples up until 1820 and Joseph Smith’s divine encounter — as a time when evil and designing (or perhaps well-intentioned but Satanically influenced) men twisted the meaning of simple gospel truths and transmogrified them into something mysterious and incomprehensible (for a more charitable discussion of the relationship between Mormonism and the creeds of the wider Christian world, see this).
This is a compelling narrative (and would have been perhaps especially resonant with the virulent anti-Catholicism of Joseph’s day), but I think it is at least possible that the pendulum has swung too far away from the mysterious.
The manual’s very brief discussion of the nature of God first makes the point that man was created in the image of God, and therefore, to quote its anonymous authors, “[God’s] eternal spirit”–like ours–“is housed in a tangible body of flesh and bones.” This straightforward, but radical, reading of Genesis seems to shock and scandalize the broader Christian community (do a google search for Lorenzo Snow’s famous couplet for a taste of the controversy).
I really love some of the implications of this heretical theology. Terryl Givens enunciates this well, “That God has a heart that beats in sympathy with ours is the truth that catalyzes millions—that he feels real sorrow, rejoices with real gladness, and weeps real tears. This, as Enoch learned, is an awful, terrible, yet infinitely comforting truth” (from this article).
But I think we sometimes take this to ridiculous extremes.
On one hand, it is
sometimes often used as a way to deny the empirically demonstrable reality of human evolution (ask yourself if you really believe that God has nostrils — lungs? lower intestines? For that matter, is God fully equipped with vestigial organs?).
This also sometimes takes us to places that would really be better left un-speculated upon. For some reason, it was very important to Bruce McConkie’s worldview that God was in the most literal sense the father of Jesus Christ. Now, McConkie was fantastically, spectacularly, and utterly wrong on many, many occasions (you really have to admire the ballsy-ness that led him to publish Mormon Doctrine in the first place), and it is perhaps unfair to trot out some of his sillier ideas. But no one ever accused bloggers of being fair. I won’t delve any further into the lurid details here, but it should be sufficient to say that I think this kind of “doctrine” is entirely unhelpful.
Most seriously however, I think there is a real danger in having a god that is too familiar. Perhaps only because it is fresh on my mind, let me appeal to the mystics once again. Armstrong discusses mysticism as a way of combating the idolatrous impulse–the desire to create god in our image. It seems to me that one of the great advantages of leaving a little mystery in God’s nature is that it restores some of the “divine distance” (to borrow from Givens again) that Joseph Smith enthusiastically closed wherever possible. The mystic traditions acknowledge that God is too big for any one person to hold in his or her imagination. The cocksure pronouncements of Mormons (pest personified in my mind my Elder McConkie) have a tendency to quickly slide into arrogance, and we might do well to back off from overconfidence in the face of the divine.
One of the things that I find most engaging about god in the mystical tradition is the vastness that I find there. It is analogous to what I find great about poetry — by jarring us out of our normal ways of thinking, it hints at transcendent truth. Similarly with the mystical. If we too readily assume that we know what Joseph was talking about when he said that God is “an exalted man” who “sits enthroned in yonder heavens,” we risk closing the door on truths that cannot be spoken.
A masculine god?
A final problem… in the short 11 sentences in this section, I count no less than 11 masculine pronouns with reference to God.
One of the great tragedies of the “mainstreaming” of Mormonism is the way in which we seem intent on erasing some of the most beautiful elements of our theology. I am not the first to comment on the absence of the divine feminine from the most recent edition of the manual. In past editions of the manual, one could find Her between the lines in references to “heavenly parents,” but even those have been removed in the 2011 version.
Others have made the case for a more prominent role for a feminine counterpart to the traditional image of god, and I feel like any attempt by me to add to what has already been said on the topic would be inadequate.
The God that I believe in is far bigger than the parochial, white-bearded kingly father-figure that we have foisted upon us at times.