Mormonism

What the general public doesn't know about 'The American Religion' could fill a book

Simon Critchley • New York Times News Service /

Published Sep 23, 2012 at 05:00AM

I’ve spent what is rapidly becoming nine years in New York City. It’s been a total blast. But as a transplanted Englishman one thing to which I’ve become rather sensitive in that time is which prejudices New Yorkers are permitted to express in public. Among my horribly overeducated and hugely liberal friends, expressions of racism are completely out of the question, Islamophobia is greeted with a slow shaking of the head and anti-Semitism is a memory associated with distant places that one sometimes visits — like France.

But anti-Mormonism is another matter. It’s really fine to say totally uninformed things about Mormonism in public, at dinner parties or wherever. “It’s a cult,” says one. “With 13 million followers and counting?” I reply. “Polygamy is disgusting,” says another. “It was made illegal in Utah and banned by the church in 1890, wasn’t it?” I counter. And so on. This is a casual prejudice that is not like the visceral hatred that plagued the early decades of Mormonism — lest it be forgotten, Joseph Smith was shot to death on June 27, 1844, by an angry mob who broke into a jail where he was detained — but a symptom of a thoughtless incuriousness.

There is just something weird about Mormonism, and the very mention of the Book of Mormon invites smirks and giggles, which is why choosing it as the name for Broadway’s most hard-to-get-into show was a smart move. As a scholar of Mormonism once remarked, one does not need to read the Book of Mormon in order to have an opinion about it.

But every now and then during one of those New York soirées, when anti-Mormon prejudice is persistently pressed and expressed, and I perhaps feel momentarily and un-Mormonly emboldened by wine, I begin to try and share my slim understanding of Joseph Smith and my fascination with the Latter-day Saints. After about 45 seconds, sometimes less, it becomes apparent that the prejudice is based on sheer ignorance of the peculiar splendors of Mormon theology.

“They are all Republicans anyway,” they add in conclusion, “I mean, just look at that Mitbot Romney. He’s an alien.” As an alien myself, I find this thoughtless anti-Mormon sentiment a little bewildering.

This is mainly because my experience with Mormonism was somewhat different. Very early on in my philosophical travels, near the Italian city of Perugia to be precise, I met Mormon philosophers and got to know them quite well. They were from Brigham Young University and they were some of the kindest, most self-effacing and honest people I have ever met. They were also funny, warm, genuine, completely open-minded, smart and terribly well-read. We became friends.

There was still suspicion, of course, perhaps even more so back then. I remember being pulled aside late at night by an American friend and told, “You know that guy from BYU. They say he’s a bishop and conducts secret services.” “Does he eat babies too?” I wondered out loud.

‘American gods, no less’

Thereby hangs a story. Because of my convivial contact with these philosophers from BYU, I was invited in 1994 to give a series of lectures. I stayed for more than a week in Provo, Utah. My topic was romanticism, and the argument kicked off from the idea that the extraordinary burst of creative energy that we associate with romantic poetry comes out of a disappointment with a religious, specifically Christian, worldview. Poetry becomes secular scripture. In other words, romantic art announces the death of God, an idea that catches fire in the later 19th century. It’s a familiar story.

Right at the end of the final lecture, something peculiar happened. A member of the audience asked me a question. He said, “What you have been telling us this week about romanticism and the death of God where religion becomes art is premised on a certain understanding of God, namely that God is unitary and infinite. Would you agree?” “Sure,” I said, “At least two of the predicates of the divinity are that he/she/it is unitary and infinite.”

“But what if,” he went on, “God were plural and finite?”

Concealing my slight shock, I simply said “Pray, tell.” Everyone in the room laughed, somewhat knowingly. And with that the chairman closed the session. I went straight up to my questioner and pleaded, “Tell me more.” Thirty minutes later, over a caffeine-free Diet Coke in the university cafeteria, he explained what lay behind his question.

“You see,” my questioner said, “in his late sermons, Joseph Smith developed some really radical ideas. For a start, God did not create space and time, but is subject to them and therefore a finite being. The Mormon God is somewhat hedged in by the universe, and not master of it. The text to look at here is an amazing sermon called ‘King Follett,’ which was named after an elder who had just died and was delivered in Nauvoo, Ill., a few months before the prophet was murdered. He asks repeatedly, ‘What kind of being is God?’ And his reply is that God himself was once as we are now.”

He leaned in closer to me and continued in a lower voice, “If you were to see God right now, Smith says, right now, you would see a being just like you, the very form of a man. The great secret is that, through heroic effort and striving, God was a man who became exalted and now sits enthroned in the heavens. You see, God was not God from all eternity, but became God. Now, the flip side of this claim is that if God is an exalted man, then we, too, can become exalted. ... One of our early leaders summarized the King Follett sermon with the words, ‘As man now is, God once was. As God now is, man may be.’”

“So, dear Simon,” my new friend concluded, “we, too, can become gods, American gods, no less.” He chuckled. I was astonished.

I read the King Follett sermon and anything else I could find, particularly a very late sermon by Smith on the plurality of gods, given around 10 days before the prophet’s murder. They totally blew me away. I also stole a copy of the Book of Mormon from the Marriott hotel in Chicago and waded through as much of it as I could. To be honest, it’s somewhat tedious.

Of course, I knew that what the audience member told me was heresy. Christianity is premised on the fact of the incarnation. But that doesn’t mean that anyone can go around claiming divinity. There was only one incarnation. God became man, was crucified and resurrected and we’re still waiting for him to come back.

In order to explain the consubstantiality of God and man in the person of Christ, third and fourth century Christian Fathers, including Saint Augustine, built up the wonderful theological edifice of the Trinity. The three persons of the Trinity — the Father, Son and Holy Ghost — are distinct but participate in the same substance. Three in one is one in three. It is a heretical act of arrogance to arrogate divinity for oneself or to claim multiple incarnations. God is indeed unitary and infinite.

Joseph Smith believed none of that. He taught that God the Father and the Son were separate substances, both of them material. Speaking directly of the Trinity, Smith remarked, “I say that is a strange God,” and goes on, in a line that must have got big laughs back in 1844, “It would make the biggest god in the world. He would be a wonderfully big god — he would be a giant or a monster,” Not only is the Mormon God not as big as the Christian God, there are any number of gods within Mormonism. In the late sermons, Smith repeatedly talks about a council of the gods that was meant to take place sometime before the Book of Genesis begins. This is based on a rather windy interpretation of various Hebrew words, which concludes with the claim, “The head God called together the gods and sat in grand council to bring forth the world.”

The Father of the Father

Smith accepts that Jesus Christ had a father, namely God, but goes on, “You may suppose that He had a Father,” adding, “Was there ever a son without a father?” Common sense would answer no, but Christians must answer “Yes, there was.” Namely that God created all creatures, but was himself uncreated. God is causa sui, a self-caused cause. Smith explicitly rejects this idea, saying “I might with boldness proclaim from the house-tops that God never had the power to create the spirit of man at all. God himself could not create himself.” God is not an uncaused cause, but himself part of the chain of causation.

For Joseph Smith, there is an endless regress of gods which beget one another, but which do not beget the universe. That is, creation is not ex nihilo, as it is in Christianity, where God created heaven and Earth. Rather,  matter precedes creation. This makes the Mormon God like the Demiurge in Plato’s pagan creation myth in the Timeaus. The Mormon God does not create matter. He simply organizes it.

Incarnation doctrine

The great thing about Mormonism is that Mormons take very seriously the doctrine of incarnation. So seriously, indeed, that they have succeeded in partially democratizing it. For Christians, incarnation is a one-time, long distance ski jump from the divine to the human. But for Joseph Smith, incarnation is more of a two-way street, and potentially a rather congested thoroughfare. If God becomes man, then man can become God. And the word “man” has to be understood literally here. Women cannot be priests or prophets or aspire to an exclusively masculine divinity, which seems petty, a pity and rather silly to me.

The point is that any number of Mormon men can become God. It’s an intriguing thought.

Human and the divine

There is a potential equality of the human and the divine within Mormonism, at least in the extraordinary theology that Joseph Smith speedily sketched in the King Follett sermon. Divinity is the object of that much admired Mormon striving. Perhaps this is why Mormons are so hardworking.

Smith says, and one gets a clear sense of the persecution that he felt and that indeed engulfed and killed him, “They found fault with Jesus Christ because He said He was the Son of God, and made Himself equal with God. They say of me, like they did of the apostles of old, that I must be put down. What did Jesus say? ‘Is it not written in your law, I said: Ye are gods.’ Why should it be blasphemy that I should say I am the son of God.”

The idea is that within each of us is a spirit or what Smith calls an “intelligence” that is co-equal with God. Smith says in the King Follett sermon, “The first principles of man are self-existent with God.” This intelligence is immortal. Smith goes on, “There never was a time when there were not spirits, for they are co-equal (co-eternal) with our father in heaven.” If God could not create himself, then one might say that each of us has within us something uncreated, something that precedes God and that is itself divine.

Having accepted to be sent into the world, as Mormons sometimes put it, the task is to exalt ourselves such that we, too, can become gods. God the Father was just a stronger, more intelligent god capable of guiding the weaker intelligences, like us. As Smith says in a marvelously gustatory turn of phrase, “This is good doctrine. It tastes good. I can taste the principles of eternal life, and so can you.” Who wouldn’t want a taste of God or to taste what it might be like to be a god oneself?

The heretical vistas of Mormonism, particularly the idea of something uncreated within the human being, excited the self-described Gnostic Jew, Harold Bloom. I read his wonderful 1992 book “The American Religion” shortly after my trip to Utah. Bloom sees Mormonism as the quintessential expression of an American religion and controversially links the idea of the plurality of gods to plural marriage. The argument is very simple: If you are or have the potential to become divine, and divinity is corporeal, then plural marriage is the way to create as much potential saints, prophets and gods as possible.

It makes little sense to say that Mormonism is not Christian. It’s right there in the Mormon articles of faith that were adapted from Smith’s famous Wentworth Letter from 1842. Article 1 reads, “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in his Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.” But, as Bloom makes compellingly clear, Mormonism is not just Christian. The new revelation given to Joseph Smith in his visions and the annual visits of the angel Moroni from 1820 onward, is a new gospel for the new world. Mormonism is an American religion, which beautifully, if fallaciously, understands the native inhabitants of the New World as ancient descendants of inhabitants of the Old World, the scattered tribes of Israel. Article 10 reads, “We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and the restoration of the ten tribes; that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent.”

I don’t know whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has read this article of faith, but it might have some specific consequences for American foreign policy should his close friend and former colleague at the Boston Consulting Group, Mitt Romney, be elected.

Post-Christian principles

Mormonism is properly and powerfully post-Christian, as Islam is post-Christian. Where Islam — which also has a prophet — claims the transcendence of God, Mormonism makes God radically immanent. Where Islam unifies all creatures under one mighty God to whom we must submit, Mormonism pluralizes divinity.

Yet unlike Islam, for whom Muhammad is the last prophet, Mormonism allows for continuing revelation. In a way, it is very democratic, very American. Article 9 reads, “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” In principle, any male saint can add to the stock and neverending story of revelation and thereby become exalted.

Like Bloom, I see Joseph Smith’s apostasy as strong poetry, a gloriously presumptive and delusional creation from the same climate as Walt Whitman. Perhaps Mormonism is not so far from romanticism after all. To claim that it is simply Christian is to fail to grasp its theological, poetic and political audacity. It is much more than mere Christianity.

Why are Mormons so keen to conceal their pearl of the greatest price? Why is no one really talking about this? In the context of you-know-who’s presidential bid, people appear to be endlessly talking about Mormonism, but its true theological challenge is entirely absent from the discussion.