Two weeks passed due, but better late than never.
I think this lesson is quite poorly named. Our Heavenly Family. I don’t think it summarizes very well the material inside. Or put another way, I don’t think the material inside really addresses our Heavenly Family. Arguably half of the lesson is about that (the other half is about the Council in Heaven, which I think would probably be a better title), but even the half about our Heavenly Family isn’t really about that.
The most glaring problem is that the text never uses the word Mother – as in, the Heavenly Mother.
This is glaring rhetorically, philosophically, theologically, and even just logically from the surrounding text. It is the proverbial “elephant in the corner. The very title itself calls for Her mention. Our Heavenly Family. A lesson about a family that only mentions the Father and the children. Where is Mother? (Again, Her lack is part of the reason I think the lesson is mislabelled.)
Her lack is even more glaring because the text relies both explicitly and implicitly on Her existence. Explicitly in the Joseph F. Smith quote, which is from a Proclamation by the First Presidency, where it talks about heavenly parents. One of those parents is presumably the Father that is mentioned repeated. Presumably the other parent is the Mother. She is mentioned exactly zero times. The text relies upon her existence again in discussing the gendered nature of pre-mortal spirits – male and female – who are the sons and daughters of – again the term is used - heavenly parents. But again, no reference to the other parent. To the degree this lesson is to teach us about our Heavenly Family, the picture represents a single-parent home. Given the Church’s emphasis on both our families here on earth and our eternal families in the future, I remain somewhat bewildered by Her lack.
The first recorded reference to a Mother in Heaven is from 1839, when Joseph Smith taught it to Zina Huntington, telling her that in addition to seeing her deceased mother again some day she would also meet again her “eternal Mother, the wife of [her] Father in Heaven”. In 1844, W.W. Phelps wrote a hymn for the dedication of the Seventies Hall in Nauvoo that includes the lines “Come to me; here’s the myst’ry that man hath not seen; Here’s our Father in heaven, and Mother, the Queen;”. This hymn was included in LDS hymnbooks until the 1948 revision. One year later Eliza R. Snow wrote the well known “Oh, My Father” (originally entitled “My Father in Heaven”, and also sometimes “Invocation, or The Eternal Father and Mother”) which includes both the line “Truth is reason; truth eternal; Tells me I’ve a mother there” and then invokes both Father and Mother in imploring “When I lay this mortal by, Father, Mother, may I meet you in your royal courts on high?”. Eliza said that Joseph taught her the doctrine and President Wilford Woodruff declared the hymn a revelation. The Heavenly Mother would be reference occasionally in subsequent years, including in two Proclamations; the one referenced about in 1909 and in the 1995 Proclamation on the Family. President Hinckley opined in 1991 that the doctrine of a Mother in Heaven sits well with him.
On the one hand what strikes me is that 171 years (at a minimum) after Joseph Smith first re-revealed Her existence, we remain without any formal knowledge of Her. We even seem to be unable or unwilling to actually acknowledge Her – despite doing so. By acknowledge, I mean actually use the words Heavenly Mother. If we’re going to produce a lesson entitled Our Heavenly Family, include a reference to heavenly parents, why are we unwilling to actually say the words “Heavenly Mother” - particularly when our first prophet was able to do so. We seem fine with relying on Her for our theology, just not with including Her in our theology. As I said, I find it somewhat bewildering, and the choice of titles for the lesson emphasizes the lack to me.
Before addressing two other items that stuck out to me in the first half, I want to emphasize that I believe that the pre-mortal existence idea, the Council in Heaven, and the “children/family of God” ideas are deeply important and meaningful to me. So when I raise the questions below, it is within that context.
First, on the pre-mortal existence and the veil of forgetfulness. If I existed in the pre-mortal realm in a manner similar to, if not exactly like, the way I exist now – meaning I was clearly me, others of you were clearly you, we were clearly individuals, and we had existence, relationships, history, etc. – and existed for eons of time; and if when I came into this world with veil that blocks out that existence, how should I understand that life and this life and the next life.
Meaning, when we die, or in the spirit world, or at the resurrection (the time doesn’t matter, just the action), will the veil be removed at some point? Will I remember eons of existence before this life? The manual says God remembers who we were, so will we?
If the answer is no, then am I really that person in any meaningful way? Would we not say that that person spiritually died at my birth, never to live again? Or that I am not really that person?
Indeed, the veil begs the question of whether I’m really that person anyway. Sure, my talents, abilities, nature, etc., might come from that person, but if I don’t remember that person, am I me? If I suddenly got amnesia, would I still be me? At least in that case, I’d still have those around me who remember. But in the case of the veil, you’ve all forgotten too.
Yet if the answer is yes, then am I really the person I am now. If I existed for hundreds, thousand, millions, billions – whatever number doesn’t matter – years before this life, and if at some point I will remember all those years – am I really me, the temporally existing person who has been alive for a few decades? Certainly my relationships with my parents, siblings, wife, children, and friends are all deeply meaningful – I cherish them more than anything. They are my sweetest relationships and most cherished memories and my greatest hopes for the future. But who did I love, cherish, enjoy the company of in the pre-mortal world. Will not this life seem like a passing dream in comparison?
Either way, the dis-continuity of identity is troubling. Brigham Young taught that salvation was the maintaining of identity. If we lost our identities when we came to earth, we’re we being damned? And if we get back those identities at some point, how will they united/meld with the identities that I’ve forged here.
I don’t know the answer to these questions – but it does seem to me that there may be much more importance to getting these bodies than we give them credit for. Perhaps we were not nearly so “real”, or as “organized”, or as “free” as we are now). None of those are the right words, but perhaps my sense will come through. (Joseph taught at one point that pre-mortal spirits with more power bore down on those with lesser power, implying perhaps that our bodies here help to “even the playing field” or somehow provide help to weaker spirits). Because if that life is essentially the same as this, except that my body was purer and finer, than I’m not sure how the century at best we can spend here can influence our natures/personalities in any degree of comparison with the time implied by a pre-mortal life.
Finally, on spirit birth. In the King Follett discourse, Joseph’s last General Conference talk (and/or the subsequent Sermon in the Grove, his last sermon ever - I can’t recall which one) taught two important ideas. That which has a beginning also has an end, and that we, as spirits, are co-eternal with God. The latter idea specifically is supported by a number of scriptures, including D&C 93 and Abraham 3. He seems to teach that we are eternal beings. Yet we also teach that we a spirit children of God. I think the most common understanding is the B.H. Roberts synthesis, which is the tripartite model of intelligence, spirit, body. We were eternal intelligences, we were born as spirits and then we were born as physical people. Some believe the intelligences had individual identities (the original “you”, so to speak), while others maintain that intelligence is the eternal spiritual building blocks from which God created spirit bodies. I wonder though, if Joseph didn’t literal mean that our spirits were eternal, and if D&C 93, when it says “in the beginning with God”, does not also mean “eternally, just like God”. And if our “birth” to our Heavenly Parents was not more akin to our “birth” as children of Christ, as referred to in King Benjamin’s sermon. To tie us back to the start of my post, this could of course be a way to get rid of Heavenly Mother, and say that Heavenly Father “adopted” us eternally existing spirits all by Himself (I know a number of Mormon thinkers who think this way).
In sum, I find the lack of acknowledgement and formal teaching about a Mother in Heaven puzzling within the church as a whole and within the lesson specifically. I believe we are eternal and existed before this life, but I’m not sure what all the implications of that belief are, and I don’t know what it means to have eternal existence, to be born spiritually. Most of all, it’s probably a good think I don’t write these manuals. But the gospel has lots of food for thought.
And I didn't even talk about foreordination, the Council in Heaven, or the plan of salvation.