5/22/2005

A Rollback of the Classical Mormon Perspective on Humanity's Origin and Destiny?

While the evidence is mixed, certain recent statements by President Gordon B. Hinckley can be read as hinting at a distancing of the current public stance of the Church from classical Mormon ideas on the origin and destiny of humanity. This hinges on an oft-underappreciated distinction between two very different ways of understanding God's role in the creation of human beings. And it may represent a humble and courageous willingness to open oneself beyond dogma.

By "the classical Mormon perspective on the origin and destiny of man," I mean notions of God as Literal Father. A comprehensive formulation of these ideas was articulated succinctly, and surprisingly recently, by a President of the Church in a formal setting. In the April 1977 General Conference, President Spencer W. Kimball gave a talk entitled Our Great Potential, which seemed to endorse each of the following ideas: self-existent, eternal intelligences; divine procreation of spirit bodies to clothe these intelligences; divine procreation of Adam and Eve; and the capacity to procreate both spirit and body as the destiny of the faithful in eternity. Here I mention three features of President Kimball's talk that illustrate some of these ideas. Quoting Brigham Young, President Kimball stated:
Millions of us have contributed toward the creation and the development of a spirit, but “the germ of this, God has placed within us. And when our spirits receive our bodies, and through our faithfulness we are worthy to be crowned, we will then receive authority to produce both spirit and body. But these keys we cannot receive in the flesh.” (JD, 15:137.)
In addition, President Lorenzo Snow's couplet “As man is, God once was; and as God is, man may become” was quoted in this talk---not once, but twice. To close the talk, President Kimball read the words to the hymn O My Father, penned by Eliza R. Snow (sister of President Snow), which refers to both a Father and a Mother in heaven.

Restricting themselves to metaphorical interpretations of the fatherhood of God, mainstream Christians are likely to conceptualize God's role in the creation of humanity in a very different way: God as Engineer. Perhaps Mormons have not always perceived an incompatibility here, but it doesn't take much reflection to see that procreation (what a literal "Father" does) and design (what an "Engineer" does) are distinct, mutually exclusive activities. One is the unleashing of an automatic biological process; the other is a more direct, deliberate, and ongoing "hands on" arrangement of raw materials into a desired form.

Perhaps surprisingly in light of classical Mormon ideas, some statements by President Hinckley seem to be more sympathetic to and compatible with the perspective of God as Engineer. In the following quote from a First Presidency Message in the Ensign (originally given as a student fireside at BYU), note the use of the word "design," as well as the phrase "eternal spirits," which may negate the notion that spirit bodies had a beginning (and hence a "birth"):
Look at your finger. The most skillful attempt to reproduce it mechanically has brought only a crude approximation. The next time you use your finger, look at it, and sense the wonder of it....

I believe the human body to be the creation of Divinity. George Gallup once observed, “I could prove God statistically. Take the human body alone—the chance that all the functions of the individual would just happen is a statistical monstrosity.” Our bodies were designed by our Eternal Father to be the tabernacle of our eternal spirits. (August 1992)
Regarding the Lorenzo Snow statement, it is reported that in three interviews in 1997, President Hinckley seemed to minimize its importance. (I'm not excited about linking this source, but the original news outlets probably don't have these quotations online.) He seems to hedge on the certainty with which we know it would entail something as specific as the divine procreation contemplated by the classical Mormon perspective; he prefers to refer instead to a more generic "eternal progression" whose nature is unspecified. Asked by the San Francisco Chronicle if God was once a man, he replied
I wouldn't say that. There was a little couplet coined, 'As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.' Now that's more of a couplet than anything else. That gets into some pretty deep theology that we don't know very much about.... Well, as God is, man may become. We believe in eternal progression. Very strongly. (April 13)
On PBS, regarding the possibility of becoming gods in the afterlife:
Well, they can achieve to a godly status, yes, of course they can, eternal progression. We believe in the progression of the human soul. … We believe in the eternity and the infinity of the human soul, and its great possibilities. (July 18)
To Time, again regarding whether God was once a man:
I don't know that we teach it. I don't know that we emphasize it … I understand the philosophical background behind it, but I don't know a lot about it, and I don't think others know a lot about it. (August 4)
To be sure, there are factors mitigating against a putative change in doctrinal direction. For example, sensitivity to audience and the vagaries of quote selection need to be taken into account in assessing these statements in the press, as President Hinckley himself observed in the November 1997 General Conference:
I personally have been much quoted, and in a few instances misquoted and misunderstood. I think that’s to be expected. None of you need worry because you read something that was incompletely reported. You need not worry that I do not understand some matters of doctrine. I think I understand them thoroughly, and it is unfortunate that the reporting may not make this clear. I hope you will never look to the public press as the authority on the doctrines of the Church.
In addition, in a General Womens' Meeting in 1991 he noted (with a tone that possibly hints of reluctance) that as a matter of history the idea of a Mother in Heaven was "not corrected" by Joseph Smith, that her existence is suggested by "logic and reason," and that the doctrine "rests well" with him (even if prayer to her does not). One may ask, then, why he would think logic and reason suggest a Mother in Heaven if divine procreation were not part of the picture; are male and female needed to be "joint engineers" or something?

When it comes to the status of the classical Mormon view of divine procreation, what are we to make of this mixed bag?

Someone interested in a reconciliation with evolution might be tempted to make the following argument: God as Literal Father and God as Engineer are mutually exclusive; President Hinckley argued for God as Engineer in 1992; President Hinckley was not President of the Church in 1992, and as a counselor he would never dream of unilaterally overturning doctrine; therefore, God as Literal Father must never have been doctrine. (And as a corollary, because God as Literal Father was taught by President Kimball in General Conference, it must be that being taught by a President of the Church in Conference is not sufficient to make something doctrine.)

It may be that the truth is not yet clear, but the reality is likely to be much murkier than this clean argument suggests. For one thing, perhaps the argument is simply wrong: President Hinckley may not perceive an incompatibility between God as Literal Father and God as Engineer, either because he's smarter than me (not unlikely) or because he hasn't thought about it carefully in this way (not impossible).

But beyond this is the fact that all such simple arguments are at best simplifications of the complexities of the real world. One might marvel at the somewhat inchoate cluster of ideas represented by the above quotations in comparison with the relative clarity of the formulations of, say, President Kimball's talk cited above, or Elder McConkie's systematizations; perhaps it represents the growing pains associated with a desire to be less dogmatic, born of a sensitivity to the realities of data not previously given adequate consideration. We then witness the buffeting that results from a release of one's death-grip on dogma, arising from a challenging set of diverse circumstances with sometimes-conflicting requirements: a desire to motivate belief in an unbelieving world (August 1992); the public relations needs of a global missionary Church (April, July, August 1997); the need to assure members of doctrinal purity, consistency, and (perhaps most importantly) continuity (1991, November 1997); and the necessity of reigning in aberrant ideas and practices (1991). All this, in the presence of the overarching perennial problem: The lack of clear, unmistakable revelation on the nature of cosmic realities.

11 Comments:

Just as it is possible to over interpret scripture as the ancient Jews were wont to do, it is possible to over interpret the utterances of the Latter-day Prophets. Knowing when to accept the immediatly apparent meaing of a passage, and when to dissect it for intent and motivation is a matter of judgment, and that judgment must be inspired or it will inevitably fail. Just as the scriptures cannot be understood correctly except by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, so the utterances of the modern prophets cannot be understood correctly except by that same means.

Just how clear and unmistakable does a revelation have to be? Without divine inspiration the things of God are incomprehensible to man. But with such inspiraton, even such seemingly cryptic revelations as those of Isaiah or John's Revelation can be clear and unmistakable.

I suspect that President Hinckley and the prophets before him have been clear for some, and unclear for others.

In the present case, truth cannot contradict truth. If President Kimball spoke truly, and if President Hinckley also knows the truth, then however their manner of expressing that truth may differ, their understanding is the same.

I don't believe that the lack of clear, unmistakable revelation is the "overarching perennial problem."
The perennial problem is uninspired understanding. 

Posted by John W. Redelfs

5/22/2005 11:06:00 PM  

John, when it comes to the creation of Adam's physical body, in your view does President Hinckley have a strong conviction about whether God was acting as "Literal Father" (i.e. he employed procreation) or "Engineer" (i.e. he used design and organization of raw materials in some other way)? If he does have a strong conviction, which of these options does he believe in? 

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall

5/23/2005 08:28:00 AM  

Christian,

It seems that the question is whether the example the Pres. Hinckley uses here is because he wants to emphasize the Designer  role (an by your inference de-emphasize the Literal Father role), or because he is describing something commonplace (like the function of a finger) and then using the word "designer" (a word which describes one of God's many roles) because it fits the example. The inference may be a stretch given the singleness of the example.

I think as interesting is the Lorenzo Snow quote which Pres. Hinckley evades. I don't know where I initiall heard the following concept, but it rings true to me (no, I haven't prayed about it).

Elohim is an individual, but Eloarch is the group of "the Gods" which created the world (universe etc.)This Elohim was the Savior of His world (thereby giving literal truth to the statements by Christ that all he did he saw the Father do), and those involved in creating, designing, and peopling this earth were those who were exalted by Him on that prior world.

So, can we become Gods? I think that is so clearly stated in our theology that we must say yes. However, I don't believe that it is an independent existance, but that we will be exalted and operate in the sphere of Christ's creations, being joint heirs with Him in doing those same things done those exalted by our Heavenly Father during His "turn on earth."

Just a thought. 

Posted by Mike Wilson

5/23/2005 01:06:00 PM  

I have been asked what President Hinckley thinks about the nature of God, particularly whether he thinks of God as Engineer or Literal Father. Of course, because I cannot read minds, all I know about President Hinckley is what he has said, and he has said repeatedly that the Church is true and is led by true prophets. Since throughout the history of the Church these true prophets have plainly taught that God is the Literal Father, I assume that is what President Hinckley believes. If he has seemed to use Protestant language and referred to God as a Protestant might, that of God as a designer, if he has seemed to equivocate when asked about whether or not God was once a man, I assume it is because he is choosing to deempasize our doctrinal differences with traditional Christianity. Why he would want to do that, I do not know. But I strongly suspect that is what he is doing.

5/23/2005 08:38:00 PM  

Mike,  the organization of the heavens you describe sounds like a reasonable possibility. But I'm curious whether President Hinckley believes the "eternal progression" he referred to includes procreation of spirit bodies. Now that I think about it, is "eternal progression" even a scriptural phrase?

Sounds like both John and Mike agree that the "design" quote is not enough to preclude belief on President Hinckley's part that God procreated Adam's physical body. I guess it's good I hedged with a question mark in the title, and opened by saying that the evidence is mixed...  

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall

5/25/2005 05:48:00 AM  

OK, I don't see the contradiction. Heres why. The statements on God as literal  father seem to rarely spell out the how of that. Why would engineering not potentially be a form of procreation? Tons of sci-fi lit has robots and androids consider their creators literal fathers.

Second, it seems clear that President Hinckley on other occasions has clearly called God our litteral Father- but it seemed clearly to be our litteral spiritual father. (Proclomation on the family seems to be a good example.)

So... we have a litteral Father and Mother in heaven who are both the parents of our spirits. The body of Adam was created by God from the dust of the earth.
We don't have much to go on beyond that. There are statements attributed to Brigham Young- but they 1. May or may not be his and 2. Seem clearly to be his explanation of how things are based on the revelation we do have and what he felt was common sense. 

Posted by Mike

5/26/2005 11:24:00 PM  

Mike, I agree that one might use the term "father" metaphorically (e.g. Jesus is the "father" of our being "born again"). But I prefer the terms "literal father" and "procreation" to be reserved to indicate sexual reproduction.

It could indeed be that God is the literal father of our spirits and only a designer or metaphorical father of Adam's physical body; but one of the points of this post was that God as literal father of Adam's physical body is not just Brigham's common sense, but an idea seemingly affirmed by President Kimball in General Conference in 1977. 

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall

5/28/2005 05:10:00 AM  

The feeling I have gotten is that the church as of late wants to emphasize that while our bodies are probably 'designed' our spirits are definitely 'born'. While Hinckley said "eternal spirits" I doubt that he meant it in the way I want him to. I don't think that he is pushing too hard to the design doctrine either. I imagine that he feels it to more compatible with evolution and science, which is probably true. 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

5/28/2005 08:08:00 AM  

I don't think it's man's origin or destiny that is in question, but the backstory on God. 

Posted by Johnna

5/31/2005 08:49:00 AM  

Johnna, I'd love for you to expand on that thought. My initial response to your statement is that because Mormons traditionally see themselves as "gods in embryo," the origin and destiny of humanity is extricably linked with the "backstory on God." 

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall

5/31/2005 10:24:00 AM  

First, engineer vs. parent is a false dichotomy. An engineer may think he designs his project in minute detail, but he usually discovers that he didn't understand the parts and their interactions nearly as well as he thought. And once the product is actually released, well, many successful engineers have commented on how a product or project went any direction but the one intended. Often they will admit appreciation and even gratitude for the way things don't generally go as planned.

Marking too clean a division between procreation and creation isn't really necessary, and probably does more to harm a discussion of the attributes of our Heavenly Parent(s) than aid understanding.

As far as God being once as man is now, Jesus was. But we don't think that's what we are talking about.

But if we say Elohim were, it would put a past tense on events that did not occur in our temporal context. The allegory is faulty, but it might help: when you have two lines (in n dimensions) which intersect at one point, and two points, one on each line, but neither being a point of intersection, it can be difficult to assign a precedence between the two points, even though it might be possible to assign a precedence between either point and the point of intersection.

JDZ
 

Posted by Joseph Daniel Zukiger

6/16/2005 09:19:00 PM  

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