Tag Archive | premortal existence

Chapter 3: Jesus Christ, Our Chosen Lord and Savior

Chapter 3 begins by outlining the traditional understanding of the “Council in Heaven.” As I mentioned before, I think we assume too much about this premortal conference.

I want to talk in more detail later about the problems I have with the “ransom” and “penal-substitution” models of atonement that shine clearly through the manual’s description of the way God apparently framed the plan of salvation, but I think that should wait for a future post. For now, let’s focus on the War in Heaven.

According to the manual,

Because our Heavenly Father chose Jesus Christ to be our Savior, Satan became angry and rebelled. There was war in heaven. Satan and his followers fought against Jesus Christ and His followers. The Savior’s followers “overcame [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony” (Revelation 12:11).

When I was younger, I got really excited by thinking about the war in heaven. This was encouraged by well-meaning leaders who would remind us that — as evidenced by our birth into the True Church — we were a chosen generation, reserved to come forth in the final, wrapping up scenes of history. We had been particularly valiant — file leaders and generals — in that great conflict in heaven, and God knew that we were up to the challenges that would face the faithful in the Last Days.

Wars — especially cosmic, heavenly ones — require villains, and who could be more villainous than the Father of Lies, the Great Deceiver, or (as he is referred to a few verses earlier in Revelation 12) the Dragon? In my mind’s eye, the battles that followed must have been awesome. I was inclined toward fantasy novels, and I had plenty of good imagery to draw from.

Of course, I don’t believe any of this now. War imagery is, I think, particularly inappropriate in religious settings. There is already a temptation to divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them,’ ‘in’ and ‘out.’ When we add rhetoric about enemies, soldiers, war, battle, etc., I think we risk ramping up our inborn capacity to divide the world into groups to unhealthy, feverish heights.

Mormons would do well to seriously consider the provenance of the Book of Revelation. I think we have inherited a great many assumptions about its meaning from our more traditional Christian cousins (see this review for an excellent run-down), and the further we can get away from the Left Behind-esque superstitions that surround this rather suspect part of the canon, the better.

The problem of Satan

As a younger man, when I wasn’t fantasizing about kicking some serious demonic @$$, I was often troubled by the idea of Satan and his seemingly essential role in the Plan. It seemed fundamentally unfair that if there had to be opposition in all things and Satan was the source of that opposition he should be cast as the ultimate Bad Guy.

Jorge Luis Borges’s meditation in The Three Versions of Judas reflects my thinking in more elegant terms. In Borges’s telling, Judas is the real hero for betraying Jesus. To quote Borges,

Judas’ betrayal was not a random act, but predetermined, with its own mysterious place in the economy of redemption…. The Word, when it was made Flesh, passed from omnipresence into space, from eternity into history, from unlimited joy and happiness into mutability and death; to repay that sacrifice, it was needful that a man (in representation of all mankind) make a sacrifice of equal worth. Judas Iscariot was that man. Alone among the apostles, Judas sensed Jesus’ secret divinity and His terrible purpose. The Word had stooped to become mortal; Judas, a disciple of the Word, would stoop to become an informer (the most heinous crime that infamy will bear) and to dwell amid inextinguishable flames…. Judas sought hell because joy in the Lord was enough for him.”

Judas, from this perspective, made an equal or perhaps even more noble sacrifice than Christ. Willing to give up his name and to be remembered in derision throughout time by Christians and even to give himself over to eternal torment, he stepped up to become the essential catalyst of salvation. Where Christ’s agony was temporary and ultimately rewarded with a seat on the right-hand of God, Judas’s disgrace is infinite.

This presents us with a tangled theological knot indeed. It seems that if Satan was really so intent on thwarting God’s plan, his best course of action would be to protest the whole thing. By his simple refusal to be a co-conspirator at all, some popular understandings of the Plan would unravel entirely.

While I am well aware of scriptural injunctions (such as this one) against succumbing to the devil’s lies about his own non-existence (and if I am honest, they nag at the edges of my doubting mind), I still do not see how Satan fits into the whole picture. Perhaps it is useful in some settings to personify the pull that we all feel toward our baser instincts, but these drives have better naturalistic explanations than the devil-on-the-shoulder image that we sometimes concoct.

Allegorical Interpretation

For me, it is most helpful to think of the war in heaven and accompanying doctrines as entirely symbolic. I like the idea of a God who persuades and respects agency at all stages in our halting development. In this way, Mormon theology offers compelling ways of dealing with some of the more troublesome parts of the traditional Christian worldview (theodicy anyone?). Since we chose in some sense to enter this mortal coil, we bear collective responsibility for the suffering and evil that exists in the world. We can’t so easily shove it off on some supernatural beings with horns and a tail. As children of God, it is our responsibility to clean up our own messes, not simply wait out our time until the triumphal return of the conquering Christ (but that is a subject for another day).

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.