Last time I checked, our amazingly calm and constructive thread about that Los Angeles Times feature on basic Mormon doctrines was at 100-plus comments and still growing. Go for it.
However, let me step in here with a rare double-shot blast of shameless promotion for two online items linked to this topic. One is my Scripps Howard News Service column for this week, which focuses on (cue: drumroll) the controversial subject of the doctrine of “exaltation” in contemporary Mormon theology.
The other is a column by Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher, which ran in The Dallas Morning News. Dreher set out to say some blunt things in a kind way. He opened with some journalistic fireworks, underneath the headline “Mormons aren’t Christians … and other thoughts on religion and politics sure to get your blood boiling.”
Herewith, my views on religion and the politics of the present moment, with something to offend just about everyone:
1. Mormons aren’t Christians. I don’t mean that as a criticism, only as a descriptive phrase. When Mormons claim Jesus Christ as their savior, there’s no reason to doubt their sincerity and good will, or even to deny that they are in some way followers of Christ. Yet Mormonism rejects foundational doctrines of traditional Christian orthodoxy, such that it is impossible to reconcile with normative Christianity.
2. Anyway, the Latter-day Saints church teaches that all other Christian churches are apostate. A heretic is someone who rejects one or more doctrines of religion, but an apostate is someone who has rejected the religion entirely. How is it, exactly, that you can get mad when people you regard as apostates consider you to be … apostate? How does that work?
Meanwhile, my new Scripps Howard piece is based on some materials from my own files, but seen through the lens of an interview with Dr. Robert Millet of Brigham Young University, a major figure in dialogues between Mormons and evangelical Protestants. He was very kind and generous with his time, especially during finals week on his campus.
Here is how that column begins:
Few religious leaders on earth have as much power and authority as the “prophet, seer and revelator” who leads the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But this life, on this world, is just the beginning. Consider this glimpse into eternity, drawn from a funeral eulogy for President Spencer W. Kimball in 1985.
“In the Colorado Rockies, I asked President Kimball a searching question,” recalled Barbara B. Smith, the 10th general president of the church’s Relief Society. “‘When you create a world of your own, what will you have in it?’ He looked around at those mountains for a few minutes before he answered and then he said, ‘I’ll have everything just like this world because I love this world and everything in it.’”
After all, added Smith: “What is our greatest potential? Is it not to achieve godhood ourselves?”
This is the question that will not die when Mormons face the leaders of traditional Christian groups to discuss that blunt question: “Are Mormons Christians?”
A fussy feud over doctrinal details? Ask Mitt Romney about that.
This concept of devout Mormons achieving godhood and creating worlds “is not an idea that would be foreign to Mormons today, but it is also not a concept we hear a lot about,” said religion professor Robert Millet of Brigham Young University, a veteran of many interfaith dialogues.
Still, it’s clear that this belief — called “exaltation” — is something that remains “conceivable to Mormons, while it is absolutely inconceivable to traditional Christians.” But for modern Mormons, he stressed, there is little or no difference between talking about “exaltation” and talking about salvation and “eternal life.”
The column also includes a quote from one of the top leaders in the Mormon faith, focusing on whether it is accurate to use the word “polytheism” when describing the church’s view of the God of this world and the gods of other worlds that will be created by dedicated Mormons who achieve divine status.
I once made a reference, here at GetReligion, to this interview during my days at the Rocky Mountain News. However, this time I dug way back into the files and found my transcript. So here is the key quote from that discussion:
“I think ‘polytheism’ is used … to describe the multiple gods of, say, the Greeks and the Romans,” Boyd K. Packer, now acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, told me in a 1986 interview. “We are talking about something entirely different, and that word conjures up ideas that are not accurate.
“I suppose that technically, it means ‘many gods.’ Technically, the word is all right. … It carries a lot of baggage.”
In other words, the word is technically accurate, to describe a version of eternity that contains many gods, yet not a word that Mormons would like to use. Millet said that, if asked about the accuracy of the word “polytheism,” he would have answered in precisely this manner.
The key, Millet explained to me, is that Mormon doctrines on this matter have not changed or been abandoned. However, they are being clarified and the trend in recent decades has been toward a more “Christocentric” approach to faith that is more rooted in the Old and New Testaments, as well as in the unique Mormon scriptures. Interesting, to say the least.