The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently backpedaled on a key tenet of Mormon theology: that after death, righteous Mormons will become gods, with the capacity to create planets of their own. But while press coverage of the walk-back has focused on the “Mormons get their own planets” doctrine, already ridiculed on Broadway and TV, what’s remarkable is what the LDS church left in.
Indeed, the church doubled down on the core Mormon teaching that God had a physical/human body, and that, in turn, we will have spiritual/divine ones. In other words, that we are just like God and will later be “exalted” to God’s divine state. This despite a half-century of attempting to become more and more Christian, and less and less weird.
That campaign is why the former standard-bearer of polygamy, a practice the church argued all the way to the Supreme Court on several occasions, has stood up as the defender of “traditional marriage” by funding anti-gay marriage campaigns in California and across the country. And why a formerly segregated church, which until 1978 barred African-Americans from the priesthood and still has in its scripture the teaching that people with black skin are “stained” that way because of sin, has now launched a multicultural ad campaign and waffled on what those verses really mean.
Unfortunately, rather like Scientology’s efforts to rebrand itself as an alternative form of psychotherapy, the LDS church’s doctrinal whitewashing has been undermined by fractious ex-believers, pranksters just out to tease (or defame), and the Internet. The wackiest of Mormon teachings—many unknown to practicing Mormons today—have been dredged up and held to ridicule.
But unlike Scientology, Mormonism also has a hit musical to contend with.
Indeed, some believe the latest “Well, Not Really” letter from the LDS leadership is in response to the song “I Believe” from The Book of Mormon, which includes the lines:
I believe that God has a plan for all of us
I believe that plan involves me getting my own planet
And I believe that the current President of the Church, Thomas Monson, speaks directly to God
I am a Mormon
And dangit, a Mormon just believes
I believe that in 1978 God changed His mind about black people…
I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob
I believe that Jesus has His own planet as well
And I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri
Yes, all of these claims have been made by authoritative Mormons over the years. And yes, Mormonism does place an exceptionally high value on belief. You can be a pretty good Jew and still doubt that God flooded the world in 2034 B.C. But you can’t be a good Mormon if you don’t believe that ancient Jews sailed to America and founded a civilization here.
Yet the wackier doctrines in “I Believe” are not as central as the satire suggests. The planet Kolob, for example, appears not in the Book of Mormon itself but in a text published (or “translated”) by Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. (SF geeks may also recall that it appears in Battlestar Galactica, written by a Mormon.)
Still, the criticisms have stung, particularly in the age of post-Mitt Romney Mormon mainstreaming. And so we have the church’s recent backpedaling encyclical, “Becoming Like God,” and its ilk. On the subject of special planets, the text says it’s all just a metaphor:
“A cloud and harp are hardly a satisfying image for eternal joy, although most Christians would agree that inspired music can be a tiny foretaste of the joy of eternal salvation. Likewise, while few Latter-day Saints would identify with caricatures of having their own planet, most would agree that the awe inspired by creation hints at our creative potential in the eternities.”
That view is quite different, though, from what Brigham Young said in 1874—and in many other texts as well—that after death:
“We shall go on from one step to another, reaching forth into the eternities until we become like the Gods, and shall be able to frame for ourselves, by the behest and command of the Almighty. All those who are counted worthy to be exalted and to become Gods, even the sons of God, will go forth and have earths and worlds like those who framed this and millions on millions of others.”
That is not a metaphor. After death, the “Saints”—i.e., righteous Mormons—will become Gods with the ability to “frame” new worlds and will indeed have them to themselves, just as God has this one.
The de-literalization of this belief is a significant “correction” in Mormon dogma. But rather than hedge on the core Mormon teaching that we are just like God and will later be “exalted” to God’s divine state, “Becoming Like God” doubles down. It argues that some passages in the Bible “intimate that humans can become like God,” and that these are amplified by early church fathers such as Irenaeus and pseudo-Dionysius. Not like God in the sense of attributes—like God in the sense of, like God. “[H]uman beings are actually God’s children,” the text says.
One reason today’s leaders couldn’t get away from this view is that, unlike Planet Kolob, it has been central for more than 100 years and reaffirmed quite recently. In 1994, Mormon president Gordon Hinckley affirmed that “as God now is, man may become!” Let’s look at the whole passage from the 1994 speech:
“[T]he whole design of the gospel is to lead us onward and upward to greater achievement, even, eventually, to godhood. This great possibility was enunciated by the Prophet Joseph Smith in the King Follet sermon (see Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 342—62; and emphasized by President Lorenzo Snow. It is this grand and incomparable concept: As God now is, man may become! (See The Teachings of Lorenzo Snow, comp. Clyde J. Williams, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1984, p. 1.)
“Our enemies have criticized us for believing in this. Our reply is that this lofty concept in no way diminishes God the Eternal Father. He is the Almighty. He is the Creator and Governor of the universe. He is the greatest of all and will always be so. But just as any earthly father wishes for his sons and daughters every success in life, so I believe our Father in Heaven wishes for his children that they might approach him in stature and stand beside him resplendent in godly strength and wisdom.”
Special planets are just the tip of the galactic iceberg. The real doctrine here, affirmed rather than rejected by “Becoming Like God,” is that Joan Osborne was right: God was one of us, not merely through the Incarnation, but in essence. God was a dude who became a God—just like you.
That was not really a Mormon innovation. Mormon theology developed in the 19th century, under the strong influence of Western Esoteric doctrines such as those of Freemasonry. This family of doctrines held that human beings had the potential to attain immortality through their own agency. They also understood the world in material, albeit magical, terms. If God exists, then God has (or had) a body and a dwelling place. If the Temple in Jerusalem was Divine, then it had certain physical properties (architecture, materials) that were quasi-technological in nature. The “spirit world” was a real world.
Today is a very different time. Post-Darwin, Post-Hubble telescope, religions these days confine themselves to the “spiritual,” but in quite another sense: not some parallel dimension, but a plane defined by its immateriality. The spiritual is basically the imaginary. Thus the interpenetration of the spiritual and the physical, once central to esoteric teachings including early Mormonism, is now seen as bizarre.
Likewise, while we live in a more religiously pluralistic society than ever before, our band of tolerance is really quite narrow. Wearing special underwear is one thing, but making planets? The more exotic Mormonism appears, the less Christian it seems to believers, and the less reasonable it seems to skeptics. Ironically, conservative evangelicals and secular liberals are likely in agreement here.
Perhaps, then, “Becoming Like God” was the perfect fudge. It got headlines for jettisoning the wacky detail, but beneath our collective notice, it reaffirmed the far more important, and more radical, tenet of the faith: that human beings can become Gods.