A Public Conversation about Mormonism
We have theologies, but they don't have the resonance that they have for some other churches.
Nevertheless, Mormons believe, as Simon points out, that there was a council of the Gods before the creation of the world. (See Abraham 4 and 5.) That's not only a consequence of Joseph Smith's interpretation of "In the beginning" in Genesis 1:1. It is also, and more importantly, a consequence of a series of revelations or translations that Smith received, the Book of Abraham.
But in that book it isn't clear that the council of the Gods includes any more than the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost along with, perhaps, various angels associated with this creation. Some of Smith's uncanonized later sermons suggest more, and more was certainly taught from the 19th century into the 20th. But Mormon scripture doesn't demand that one subscribe to all of that "more," nor does Mormon history or ecclesiastical authority.
Simon made only one glaring error. He said that women cannot be priests, and that is true. Mormon women do not have the priesthood. But Simon added to that a denial that women cannot aspire to divinity, which isn't true.
Neither women nor men who have not been "sealed" in an LDS temple (something available either in this life or by proxy in the life to come) can aspire to divinity. Divinity is granted only to male-female couples. Indeed, we have a hymn, "O My Father," which speaks of our Heavenly Father and our Heavenly Mother.
Mormon feminists are not satisfied with the current state of our acknowledgment of Heavenly Mother, but even the most conservative, patriarchal Mormon man would not deny that there is such a being or that women as well as men can be divinized. The multiplicity of God for Mormons is more than Simon has imagined, though he has seen a good deal of that multiplicity in our thought.
Let me add a point about Mormon theology that Simon overlooked but that I think would have added weight to his claim about Mormon theological uniqueness: Mormon heaven excludes almost no one. Even murderers and rapists receive a "glory." Heaven has degrees, but the highest degree is available to anyone who wants it, and most Mormons believe that there is some sense in which we will choose the level of salvation with which we are happiest.
I suppose that Simon's reference to Joseph Smith's work as delusional and "from the same climate as Whitman, if not enjoying quite the same air quality" (italics added) should be overlooked. Perhaps it isn't an instance of the very condescension that he reacted against in the beginning of the essay.
However, whatever the case with that, Simon raises a challenge at the end of his column that gets to the heart of his point and reveals what I take to be the importance of his essay: Joseph Smith's writings and ideas are theologically, poetically, and politically audacious; yet regrettably few within or without Mormonism have explored that audacity and its contemporary implications.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.