Happy 2012, friends! May this be a healthy, happy, and prosperous year for you. It certainly looks to be a busy one, as Mitt Romney is steaming ahead if not to a win in Iowa then almost certainly to the GOP nomination. And if he does, you can bet that questions about unfamiliar Mormon beliefs will claim a chunk of media attention.
A few weeks ago, this question arrived from an old friend now teaching at a liberal arts college in the Northwest. She wrote:
A question came up in my class today: do Mormons believe that people can become gods?
Yes, I was raised to understand that this is Mormon doctrine. But the way it’s taught on any given Sunday sounds more like this:
Mormons believe that we are the children of Heavenly Parents, that our spirits lived with our Heavenly Parents before our mortal lives, and that we came to earth on the plan that we should gain experience through mortality and prepare to return to our Heavenly Parents. Like traditional Christians, Mormons believe that salvation from sin through Jesus Christ is what makes this return possible, but the kind of eternal experience the soul gets to share in and enjoy depends on his or her preparation. And it is a Mormon teaching that souls continue to grow, progress, and experience throughout the eternities, and that part of that expansive experience is to become like our Heavenly Parents.
There is no lounging in the Mormon concept of heaven. No clouds, no wings. Nope. We continue do the most important things that souls are capable of—learning, loving, creating—but on a more sanctified, spiritually generative level. We have families and care for them. Just as our own Heavenly Parents did.
So, yes, as I understand it, it is a traditional Mormon teaching that human beings can become gods, but in the same spirit that children can grow up and become parents without displacing the priority and sovereignty of their own parents.
This doctrine is viewed as heresy by the rest of the Christian world. It’s also one of the boldest claims Mormon doctrine makes, so it has been the subject of a great deal of sensationalism. Anti-Mormon ministries that were most active in the 1980s (but continue to this day) love to sensationalize this idea. The most egregious of the anti-Mormon movies, The Godmakers, focused in on this idea, helping in part to promote the cartoonish sensationalization that Mormons believe in getting our own planets, which I’ve never heard anyone discuss seriously.
Perhaps in response to this sensationalization, LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley appeared to distance himself and the Church from this doctrine in interviews given in 1997 and 1998. This and evidence that the concept of godhood is less frequently addressed in talks by LDS Church leaders than it was a few decades ago have led Mormonism’s most perceptive observers to wonder if the doctrine is being deemphasized. Jana Riess recently wrote in the Christian Century: “Does that mean that Mormons no longer believe that they can become gods? It is difficult to say. Many Mormons no longer think about the topic at all; it has become an insignificant aspect of contemporary theological expression. The idea may someday fade away, just as the church’s encouragement of plural marriage—once a cornerstone not just of Mormon practice but of its belief system—has faded away.”
But it also may be the case that this doctrine is just one that Mormons shy away from discussing openly. I grew up hearing the phrase: “As man is, God once was, as God is, man may become,” lines attributed to the nineteenth-century Mormon leader Lorenzo Snow. And in preparing to write this blog entry, I read again the 1844 Joseph Smith sermon known as the “King Follett Discourse”: “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! … It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God, and to know that we may converse with him as one man converses with another, and that he was once a man like us; yea, that God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ himself did.” Smith continued: “Intelligence is eternal and exists upon a self-existent principle. It is a spirit from age to age and there is no creation about it. All the minds and spirits that God ever sent into the world are susceptible of enlargement.”
Unorthodox Mormon though I may be, I am struck by the beauty of these lines and this idea. It’s one of the most powerful and distinctive elements of traditional Mormon doctrine. It’s one I’m glad to own.
What do you think, Mormon readers, is this doctrine being deemphasized? I’d love to hear from you too, non-Mo folks.
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