Saturday, January 9, 2010

Our Heavenly Father: Lesson 1

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of posts on the book Gospel Principles. It is not a lesson guide, but my thoughts on the lesson in question.

This lesson has 3 main points.

1) There is a God
2) The Nature of God
3) Coming to Know God

Point one's basic message appears to be a) there is a God, which we know because the world exists; b) God lives in Heaven and created the Earth through His Son (I have to admit that the way the text is written leaves the strong impression that the Son is not God, which is unfortunate given that the primary message of the Books of Mormon is that the Son is God.... I'm going to resist the urge to look ahead and just wait till we get to that section); and c) God, the Ruler of the Universe, is the being we worship.

As we have just started to study the Old Testament in Gospel Doctrine, I'm struck by how "modern" point one is. It presents one side of an either-or proposition. Either there is a God or there is not and taking the position that there is. It is interesting because so much of the Old Testament is written not within the context of "is there or is there not a God", but the active affirmation that Yahweh/Jehovah is the God of the whole earth. Indeed, in its current form it argues that Jehovah is the only God, though one can still see clear undercurrents of Israel's early polytheism, including Jehovah's one-time position as the god that El, the Most High God, had appointed as god of the nation of Israel (and the idea that the other 70 nations were appointed other gods), to the merging of El and Jehovah, and to the elimination of other gods from 'godhood'. The main point being, as we see with Moses in Egypt, with Elijah and the priests of Baal, with the various invasions from Assyria and Babylon, the testimony that Jehovah is God. Not Baal, not Amon-Ra, not Ahura Mazda, not any of the gods of the Gentiles.

Interestingly enough, however, while most of the Book of Mormon covers an "Old Testament" timeline, it does not really contain that concern - the concern that Jehovah or Christ (given its Christocentric nature) be recognized as the God - but rather reflect the more modern concern about whether there is or is not a God at all. Granted, this is not entirely true - part of the question is whether or not Christ is God. There is not, however, the suggestion anywhere I can think of that their might be another gods other than Jehovah or Christ who might be worthy of worship. And one is left to wonder why, though I can think of at least 3 possible ones of the top of my head.

It is interesting to consider how much changed via the adoption of Christianity by the late Roman Empire, the abolishment of paganism by Imperial dictate, and the successful if frequently forced conversion of European pagans over the course of a little over 1000 years (I recently re-read a book on the Conversion of Europe from 350-750 AD). The Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Nordic, Slavic, Celtic gods were almost entirely erased. And Islam managed to get rid of North African, Arabic, and Persia gods as well (despite the tenacity of Ahura Mazda). The Hindu, Chinese, and Japanese gods remain, but the dominance of the West means that we don't actually take their gods as serious rivals for our God. Islam and Judaism both being considered followers of the same god as Christianity (at least, part of the same god).

Instead, having vanquished all the other gods within our civilization, we now find ourselves fighting the rear guard - those who a generation ago would have been our coreligionists (it's fascinating to read diplomatic reports from WWII with their casual statements regarding our Christian civilization being under attack) are now quickly becoming secular, either completely or at least functionally atheist (if they do believe in God, that belief does not direct their lives.)

Point 2 is interesting. It contains three basic ideas as well. These are a) God has a body like ours in form but unlike ours in that it is perfect and glorious; b) God is perfect, embodying a variety of good virtues, having all power, all knowledge, and being full of goodness; and c) all good things come from God and that everything he does is for our salvation and exaltation.

This section returns my mind to the question of what type of -theism is Mormonism. Christianity ran afoul of both its Judaism before it and Islam after it. It claimed to be a monotheism, but both the Jews and the Muslims accused it of being polytheistic. Indeed, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost does become problematic if you are going to ascribe godhood to each of them. The Christian answer became the Trinity - three-in-one. It's looks like polytheism but it's really monotheism. The first few church councils, the first major schisms, and much mutual accusation of heresy came out of the debates on whether Jesus was god, man, both, fully both, etc.

Most Mormons prefer to think of themselves as monotheists, if only because polytheists sounds like a dirty word. We clearly believe each of the three members of the Godhead to be separate beings. We have some vague idea about there being a Mother in Heaven who maybe makes a fourth god(dess). We've got our whole notion of exaltation. And we've got Joseph Smith boldly proclaiming that he and the Elders of the church have been teaching a plurality of Gods since the beginning.

Of course, this is also contrasted with the Book of Mormon's simple statement that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God. And as we normally put it, they might be separate, but their perfectly united, so they are one. Therefore, we're monotheists.

Some Mormons have suggested Max Muller's term henotheism, which is the worship of one god while acknowledging the possibility that other gods might exist. However, Muller's idea was explicitly created for equality; the humble sense that "I worship my god, but I accept that the god that you worship may actually exist and be worthy of worship".

Julius Wellhausen first used the term monolatry, which is the worship of one god while recognizing (actually or potentially) the existence of other gods who are not worthy of worship. This term has been used to describe early Israelite beliefs, as I referenced above. This one almost works for Mormons, except that we typically say we're fine with worship Christ too (though not praying to him; and this despite examples of prayers to Christ in the Book of Mormon; I don't know if an LDS leader has ever commenting on worshipping the Holy Ghost).

Karl Krause coined the term panentheism, which takes the idea of pantheism (that everything in the Universe together makes up God, or the Whole is God) and flips its slightly to say that Gos is in, but more than, the whole). Thus God includes the whole of the Universe, but is greater than or transcends the whole. While this term is not perfect, it begins to feel a bit better to me. It does allow that God can be more than a single entity - God could be the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, as well as all of creation - but it still doesn't seem enough.

Since I don't actually know Greek and don't plan on trying to coin a new term, I have decided that Mormon theology - at least, The Ignorant Sage's version of Mormon theology - can best be described as a pluralistic monotheism. In essence, God is an group of beings who together form a single Godhead or Godhood, or as the Book of Abraham has it, the Gods. The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, as Joseph Smith and Brigham Young taught, form the Presidency of the Gods. Put another way, the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Ghost is God, and the Gods are God, and they are One God. I just don't think it is right to call that Monotheism.

Point 3 is about coming to know God, including the classic verse that to know the only true God and his Son Jesus Christ is eternal life. It recommends the classic Sunday School answers of pray, study the scriptures, and keep the commandments as the method by which we do this, as well as the start point of believe in God's existence and his love for us. And since I don't have any more time, I'm just going to have to leave this post with the idea that all of those things are definitely good things to do.

Have an enjoyable Priesthood or Relief Society Meeting.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

I always enjoying seeing things from your point of view. You really do have a brilliant mind.