Mormons must appreciate Richard Mouw’s good faith effort to find common ground between us and “orthodox” Christians, as well as First Things’s according him the space to publish this effort. I reply in the same spirit, hoping both correctly to identify common ground and to explain differences in such a way as to contribute to both sides’ approaching the truth concerning God and humanity.
The Lorenzo Snow couplet (As man now is, God once was; As God now is, man may be) is a fair starting point for discussion, and Mouw is right, we think, to judge that Mormons are more attached to the second half of the couplet than to the first. That is, after all, the “operational” half, the idea that most directly informs practical life. And it is undeniable that Mormon religious practice is in important respects oriented towards the promise of deification. Becoming like God, sharing in the fullness of the divine life, is a hope that is meant to inform and often enough really does inform the Sunday worship, the still more sacred temple ordinances, and the daily life of Latter-day saints. Pres. Hinckley’s somewhat hesitant public statements on the first half of the couplet were not experienced by the Mormon faithful as signaling some significant “marginalization,” since the pursuit of a divine life through Christ’s redemption has always been the point, certainly in the sixty years of thoroughly Mormon experience I can remember. In fact, there is ample precedent for Pres. Hinckley’s minimalism in a brief public statement in a now canonical letter from Joseph Smith himself. When asked in 1842 by a newspaper for a statement of Mormon belief, here was the sum and substance of his statement of the Mormon doctrine of divinity: “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.” This is the first article of faith that I learned in Sunday School class in the 1950s, and the one that is still taught today.
To be sure, the speculative élan expressed in Joseph Smith’s daring King Follett Address (available to us only as the composite of various transcriptions) has had its resonance in discourses by such eminent Mormons as Parley Pratt and Brigham Young in the nineteenth century, and by Joseph F. Smith and B.H. Roberts in the first half of the twentieth century, but even in those periods the practical significance of such venturesome theological propositions has lain in their intended purpose, namely, to support the Mormon quest for participation in God’s perfection.
Mouw is hopeful that Mormons will emphasize the second half of the couplet—the promise of divinization or “theosis” -—and I believe I speak for many Mormons, and will disappoint few, in happily obliging. But then of course the whole question between us Mormons and Christian orthodoxy turns on just how becoming God-like is interpreted. Mouw insists on the “orthodox” view that there is an “absolute ontological difference” between God and man. And here we come to the real obstacle to his wish that Mormons might slip or be nudged towards creedal conformity. The good news and at the same time the bad news for creedal Christians who hope Mormons will edge closer to them is that such talk of ontological absolutes is for Mormons an absolutely foreign language. Mouw might see this as good news, because it means that, when Mormons talk about becoming gods, they’re not talking about overcoming this ontological difference, and themselves becoming absolute, self-sufficient, and impassible beings. But the bad news from his point of view is that Mormons do not talk about God that way either. As far as Mormons have an implicit ontology, it is indeed best represented in the saying that human beings and angels and God are all “of the same species.” And an important part of this implicit ontology of Mormon Christianity that distinguishes it from the particular orthodoxy Mouw is eager to defend is the pronounced rejection of divine impassibility in favor of the being Terryl and Fiona Givens have eloquently presented as The God who Weeps.
If orthodox ontology seems to preclude the acceptance of such a caring God, we Mormons are in fact obliged to note that the Bible itself is conspicuously lacking in any absolute ontological teaching. Surely there are Biblical statements concerning God’s greatness that, interpreted within the frame of reference of Greek philosophy, might suggest such an ontology, which might then yield the highly speculative Trinitarian doctrine central to Mouw’s orthodoxy. But the problem is that these ontological ambitions lead directly to the great “incomprehensibles” proclaimed in the Athanasian creed and inseparable from Mouw’s absolute ontological gap between God and man.
The question of “incomprehensibility” was addressed, very directly and quite authoritatively by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in General Conference, October 2007:
We agree with our critics on at least that point—that such a formulation for divinity is truly incomprehensible. With such a confusing definition of God being imposed upon the church, little wonder that a fourth-century monk cried out, “Woe is me! They have taken my God away from me. . . . and I know not whom to adore or to address.” How are we to trust, love, worship, to say nothing of strive to be like, One who is incomprehensible and unknowable? What of Jesus’s prayer to His Father in Heaven that “this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent”?
It is not our purpose to demean any person’s belief nor the doctrine of any religion. We extend to all the same respect for their doctrine that we are asking for ours. (That, too, is an article of our faith.) But if one says we are not Christians because we do not hold a fourth- or fifth-century view of the Godhead, then what of those first Christian Saints, many of whom were eyewitnesses of the living Christ, who did not hold such a view either?
While we sympathize, then, with Mouw’s readiness to emphasize the second part of Snow’s couplet, it by no means follows that we share his hope that Mormons might prove “capable of self-reformation” in the sense of embracing the “absolute ontological difference” between God and man. Though we appreciate the gesture of welcoming “serious conversation” between Creedal Christians and Mormons, we do not find the assumption that any such conversation must go in the direction of Mormons’ “greater conformity with the orthodox Christian consensus” a very encouraging starting point.
We do not wish to disappoint Dr. Mouw in his quest for fruitful conversation with Mormons, but we must alert him to the fact that any tendency he may observe among Mormons to downplay speculation on God’s origin has nothing at all to do with some orthodoxy-envy on our part. Incomprehensible absolute otherness is going to be a hard sell for us.
A more promising line of thought is Mouw’s focus on the actual practice of worship and the religious life in general among Latter-day Saints. “A person’s actual trust in Christ is not the same as his theological account of what goes into a proper trust in Christ.” To be sure. But then the question is, what “theological account” best supports such trust in Christ, and more generally, a complete life of service, strong family bonds, and the effort to live a moral life befitting of a son or daughter of God redeemed by Christ’s atonement? And from this point of view, it is far from obvious that the absolutist orthodoxy is more effectually true than the “heresy” of Mormonism.
Beyond the basic belief in God the Father, in the Holy Ghost, in Jesus Christ and his atoning sacrifice, there are no tenets of speculative theology required to be a Mormon in good standing, and church leaders are not trained in any theological system. Of course shared beliefs are essential to religious practice and community, but Mormons rely on resources other than systematic philosophical theology to guide individuals and to bind communities together. These include, not only sacred scripture both ancient and modern, but also sacramental and ritual practices, including temple ordinances sealing families together for eternity, and guidance by a living prophet and twelve apostles authorized to receive continuing revelation for the Church as a whole. Mouw is worried that Mormons will be blown about by every wind of doctrine, but we Mormons might well answer that our beliefs, anchored in covenantal practice and bolstered by prophetic authority, provide more solid resistance against unholy winds than an inherited orthodoxy of absolute difference.
We Mormons indeed mean what we say when, in the words of the Book of Mormon, “we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ.” (2 Nephi 25:26). And we are able to mean it as we strive daily to practice our faith because we live our lives in a perspective of eternity grounded in the worship and emulation of a God who is truly a loving Father, and who sent His Son to redeem mankind. Richard Mouw and other Christians beholden to a systematic theology of incomprehensible otherness and impassibility foreign to Mormonism will have to decide for themselves whether our lack of interest in such a system makes it impossible for the orthodox to regard us as “Christians.”
Ralph Hancock is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University.