A Public Conversation about Mormonism

A good person and a good friend, Simon Critchley, wrote a piece for last Sunday's New York Times, "Why I Love Mormonism."

Almost as soon as I got home from church, I started hearing about it from other Latter-day Saints. We like to be liked, just like anyone slightly neurotic about their social status. In America, Mormons are still teenagers anxiously waiting to see if we can fit in at the party and at the same time, knowing ourselves, convinced that the answer will be "Not really." But from all of the recent talk about Mormons, in response largely to Mitt Romney's candidacy, it looks like we at least got invited.

Simon first blasted the unthinking prejudice that is often acceptable when people in the arts and the academy speak of Mormons or similar minority religions. Remarks that would never be allowed in reference to Jews or Muslims or Hopis go completely unremarked. In that context, for a Mormon to take offense at the hostility of prejudice pointed his way would itself be an offense. Simon's column brings the prejudice of those remarks into public view in a way no Mormon could.

But that's the occasion for Simon's opinion piece rather than its substance. The substance of the essay consists in an overview of Mormon theology and, by way of conclusion, an interesting question or challenge.

Simon did a much better job of explaining Mormon theology—in all its uniqueness—than most people do. That's partly what Mormon readers found so pleasing. It wasn't just that he paid attention to us, but that when he did he went out of his way to get it right, though not without a misstep or two.

He gets quite right one thing that is probably universally held by Mormons, namely that God the Father is an incarnate being. One of the most important reasons for earthly life is so that we, like him, can become incarnate. It may or may not be turtles all the way down when it comes to Gods, but it is turtles all the way down when it comes to physical existence. There is nothing metaphysical or immaterial lurking behind the entities of the world.

Incarnation, human fleshly being, doesn't mean changing from an immaterial state of being to a material one. There is nothing that isn't material (D&C 131:7). We need the kind of materiality that is proper to divine life, and we begin to gain that by becoming human, moving from one dimension of materiality to another. Incarnation means becoming more like God. Attaining to divine life includes fleshly, literal resurrection, but we are material from eternity to eternity.

That's what is behind the speculation about whether God has a father, whether we can come to be like him in the sense that we, too, will create and populate worlds, and so on—stuff that is, to my mind, increasingly understood as 19th-century speculation on the earlier claim. Behind such speculation stands the belief in divine incarnation that is central to Mormonism. (See the sermon on this topic by a contemporary LDS Apostle, Jeffrey R. Holland.)

Simon also gets right that each person has something in him or her that is uncreated, "something that precedes God and is [in embryo] divine." (For more about that, see here.) These two beliefs, that there is a sense in which God and human beings are the same ontologically, and that some aspect of every person has existed forever, are among the most widely held beliefs in Mormonism, and they have practical consequences, consequences I'll take up when I take up Simon's question / challenge.

Nevertheless, there were, as I said, a few brush strokes that weren't quite right. So let me see if I can touch up Simon's sketch of Mormon belief before I respond to the challenge that he points to.

Many Mormons do believe that God was once a human being like ourselves and that we can become like him. That doctrine was widespread during the 19th century and remains popular, but most Mormons don't think much about it today. If they do think about it, there is a variety of responses. Some Mormons don't believe all of what that teaching entailed (see here, for example, and here), and a few Mormons don't believe any of it.

12/2/2022 9:09:21 PM
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    About James Faulconer
    James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.