222–223: Becoming Like God

Human and Divine GloryThe most recent entry in the Gospel Topics series at lds.org, “Becoming Like God,” represents the LDS church’s newest attempt to help clarify (for members, media, and those with other interests in Mormonism) often misunderstood or difficult gospel teachings or practices. It, like all the essays in the series, is well-crafted with many scriptural and academic citations that display engagement with scholarship even as it seeks to also maintain a devotional tone.

After a short introduction that grounds the shared idea among many Christians of our being in some way “children of God” as well as the idea that Latter-day Saints see this in far more literal ways than many other faiths, the essay presents several Old and New Testament scriptures and  statements from early Christian leaders that use strong familial terms when talking about the relationship between God and humans, as well as places that they identify the human potential to be “like” God. In presenting these texts, the statement acknowledges that all of these are contested among Christians in terms of the authors’ views about whether or not humans might one day become “Gods,” but then claims that “by viewing them through the clarifying lens of revelations received by Joseph Smith, Latter-day Saints see these scriptures as straightforward expressions of humanity’s divine nature and potential.” The statement then describes the ways that teachings about this potential were introduced to and grew to be understood by the Saints, as well as how these teachings are viewed today.

In this episode, panelists Charles Harrell, James McLachlan, and Richard Livingston, join Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon for a thorough overview of the statement, maintaining throughout an overarching interest in questions about whether or not this statement represents a shift in previously held teachings, and, if so, to what degree. Are the sources cited fairly presented? What seems to be the overarching concerns of the church in preparing this statement and in the final form it took? The panel also discusses early reactions among members as well as outside critics to the statement, and the reasons for disappointment that many feel. Has this statement really clarified the matter, or has it simply glossed over how central this teaching had once been and seems now more geared toward outsiders who have caricatured Mormon ideas, attempting to make LDS views sound less sensational and more in line with mainline Christian views?

Further framing the discussion are questions about LDS assumption of doctrinal uniformity throughout time (the persistent idea that even ancient prophets fully understood the teachings that emerged from Joseph Smith) and the problems that assumption poses whenever we find what seem to be definite shifts. Does this statement represent a healthy way to manage changes in church teachings and emphases? Are there alternative approaches that might better match the historical record and lead toward less disorientation and fragility of faith among LDS members when they are confronted with evidences of changing doctrines?

Please listen and then share your thoughts in the comments section below!

__________

Links:

“Becoming Like God”, lds.org “Gospel Topics” statement posted March 2014.

Richard Livingston, “Doctrinal Disparity and Fragile Faith,” blogpost, Peculiar People, 10 March 2014

Charles R. Harrell, This Is My Doctrine: The Development of Mormon Theology, Greg Kofford Books, 2011

Blake T. Ostler, Exploring Mormon Thought: Vol. 3, Of God and Gods, Greg Kofford Books, 2008

 

 

Comments

comments

23 comments for “222–223: Becoming Like God

  1. Paula
    April 11, 2014 at 9:44 am

    Thank you for your willingness to tackle the tension the Gospel Topics essays are bringing to the surface. While I am grateful for the panel’s acknowledgement that these tensions exist, I’m still troubled by the implicit (albeit respectful) assertion that if I just mature enough on my spiritual path, these contradictions will be less disorienting for me. My own experience with personal revelation is at worst, non existent, and at best, really unclear and filled with confirmation bias. These experiences have led me to conclude that I am one of those to whom it is “NOT given to know, but to believe on the words of others”. In light of this, it can be very disorienting when those “words” or doctrines or theories or policies change…particularly when one has based significant life choices on those words. I am referencing a part of the podcast where Richard brings up “Sarah’s” comment to the blogpost called “Lying for the Lord”. I’m 54 and I’m not sure that that level spiritual maturity is within my grasp, so I, like Sarah, am left to do my best with my own reasoning. My own reasoning leads me to a place similar to Sarah’s…too many contradictions, and too many mental gymnastics for the words to be useful.

    • DP
      April 14, 2014 at 1:41 pm

      I wanted to respond to Sarah’s comments too. I’m not so sure her difficulty was with the change along. But more with the way the Church has been handling these issues. As she said, they effectively throw good standing and believing church members under the bus. As Paula points out… they teach one way and say we need to follow them etc. Then they effectively discredit their own teachings and say it wasn’t really a doctrine, just a caricature, simply a theory and speculation. Well… that makes those who trusted them feel like they trusted in something that is no longer trustworthy.

      I can’t figure out why the Church just doesn’t stand on it’s strongest leg, which is continuing revelation means our understanding and our doctrines are bound to change. And *that* is a beautiful thing.

      The Church’s need to seem unchanging is going to make them look dishonest and tricksy. spinning and spinning. More concerned about image and perception then about truth.

      • Blake
        April 15, 2014 at 9:18 am

        Paula and DP: Joseph Smith had the same problem when members became attached to one expression of the gospel and then, when further revelation came along, complained that they had been taught something different. One of the hallmarks of the Church is continuing revelation. Our understanding changes due to further revelations — especially in the case of Joseph Smith. Later changes often come from continuing reflection on the revelations received and coming to different (sometimes even better) grasp of what was said. Take for instance the Fifth Lecture on Faith that teaches that the Father is “a personage of Spirit.” It seems to me it is quite easily explained by the fact that it had not yet been revealed to Joseph Smith that the Father had once had a mortal experience and had a resurrected body. It reflects an exegesis of Mosiah 15-16 and D&C 93 primarily and looks to the scriptures and revelations to understand God. The Nephites did not have a complete revelation and Joseph Smith still had further revelations to receive on the issue.

        That said, I disagree with Charles on a number of issues regarding the development of Mormon doctrines. For instance, he maintains that the Book of Mormon and Book of Moses teach modalism — the Father and the Son are just one divine individual and not two distinct individuals. I believe that his analysis is not well-informed on this issues and fails to account for the relevant evidence. The idea in the Book of Mormon is that there are two quite distinct divine persons having two distinct wills, but the Son completely subordinates His will to that of the Father and so in his life, though his will is distinct, only one will is always manifest — that is the Father’s will. In this sense when Jesus acts he always acts as both Father and Son because his life perfectly reflects the will of the Father.

        So I think that Charles sometimes overstates and misunderstands the changes on the issue of God’s identity and characteristics as divine person(s).

        DP: I am confused. How is the Church not doing exactly what you suggest? Doesn’t it stand on continuing revelation to explain the growing understanding? I fail to see how the Church has ever said doctrinal understanding never changes. Perhaps you could give me some examples.

      • J L
        April 18, 2014 at 2:44 am

        DP I can see your view in that its the only way to save the church in some respects in that it doctrine evolves and is progressive. On the other hand, we are a church that is different from all other religions in that its lead by a prophet seer and revelator who speaks to God which many believe he does this face to face. So why doesn’t the prophet explain it to us! Can you see in your theory how that makes it scary to believe in a God that is maturing along with us so his doctrine changes as well! Either God is God and his doctrine is solid and eternal he speaks clearly to his prophets or its kind of a silly game in which we think he talks to us but its unclear and we have to have apologists and theologians make it palatable for us to stay

    • Carey
      April 18, 2014 at 11:22 am

      Personally I think the truths that the gospel reveals requires confirmation bias by design. The seed that Alma speaks of must be planted with in us. In other words you must be personally involved in its development. Is it a good seed? Does it enlarge your soul? etc…. These are questions that require personal experience and result in subjective truths not external object ones.

  2. Michael
    April 12, 2014 at 12:50 am

    I have a question regarding the assertion that Joseph Smith never taught that we are begotten spirit children of God the Father. Didn’t Joseph Smith teach this in D&C section 76:22-24?

    • C. Harrell
      April 12, 2014 at 5:11 pm

      Good question, Michael. The common misunderstanding that JS was teaching premortal spirit birth in D&C 76:24 is the result of a common misreading of the verse itself. It is testifying of Christ’s universal creative and redemptive works proclaiming “that by him, and through him, and of him; the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God.”

      Grammatically speaking, the preposition “unto” in this verse is dative, making God the indirect object or beneficiary of the birth mentioned. It would require the genitive preposition “of” to make God the one who is giving birth. Similar language is used elsewhere in scripture when a birth occurs for someone else’s benefit. For example: “unto us a child is born” (Isa. 9:6); “his brother shall . . .raise up seed unto his brother” (Matt. 22:24); “if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me” (Jacob 2:30).

      The implied meaning of D&C 76:24 is that just as the worlds were created “by” Christ, so also are the inhabitants thereof begotten unto God “by” or “through” Christ. That is, the birth spoken of is what we commonly refer to as spiritual rebirth through Christ. This is also the explanation given in the section heading of D&C 76, which states that the “inhabitants of many worlds are begotten sons and daughters unto God through the atonement of Jesus Christ.”

      In Joseph Smith’s day this interpretation can be found in W. W. Phelps’ poetic rendition of D&C 76 published in the Feb 1843 Times and Seasons (82-83), which states,

      And I heard a great voice bearing record from heav’n,
      He’s the Saviour and only begotten of God;
      By him, of him, and through him, the worlds were all made,
      Even all that career in the heavens so broad.
      [i.e., his creative works]

      Whose inhabitants, too, from the first to the last,
      Are sav’d by the very same Saviour of ours;
      And, of course, are begotten God’s daughters and sons
      By the very same truths and the very same powers.
      [i.e., his redemptive works]

      As a note of interest, a recent apparent use of D&C 76:24 as a proof text for spirit birth can be found in Elder Packer’s April 2014 Conference talk. At the conclusion of his remarks he unconsciously misquotes this verse using the word “of” instead of “unto” (see https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2014/04/the-witness?lang=eng#watch=video). This slip of the tongue is symptomatic of the way this verse is popularly understood.

      • Michael
        April 12, 2014 at 8:58 pm

        That’s very interesting. Thanks a lot.

  3. James
    April 16, 2014 at 4:42 am

    Question regarding doctrinal changes and, per Dan’s request, I am posting to the podcast and not Facebook.

    The second part of this really great podcast discussed doctrinal changes as continuing revelation and that members should not be afraid of new revelation that shines a different light on a gospel subject. This type of change ( IMO) is an addition to a point of truth. And, I can live with such change.

    The change represented in the new article on becoming God (and blacks and the priesthood) does not appear to add to a point of truth. Instead those articles change the foundational points of truth. For example, I thought about your discussion regarding the location of god in space and time. There is an answer. Perhaps he is everywhere, or somewhere in the present, or a different dimension, or perhaps the real answer is too difficult to express with our limited understanding. Whatever the truth is, there must be an explanation that is consistent throughout time. Even if the truth is that he is everything at once, that is okay because at least it is true. I’m okay with that. BUT, I’m not okay with a church whose prophets say that they speak for God, that they know the truth, and their voice is the same as God, who teach (hypothetically) that God has a body and lives on a planet and that you can trust me; and then later the same church, under different leaders who also speak for god and who we can also trust, teach that God does not live on a planet and does not have a body. Both teachings cannot be true.

    So, my question is regarding the second type of change ( if there is a type two). Do you believe there are facts about God and doctrine that are set, that cannot be changed, that represent true expressions of the way things really are? If so, then if those foundational truths are changed by current church leaders, can any of you trust that what is being taught today is true about anything?

    Or, do you believe there are no facts about God and doctrine? No facts that represent real, unchanging, reliable truth that one can trust. If so, then why does any membership in any church matter (assuming the point of any religion is to be taught truth)? And, if so isn’t every great thinkers opinion ( and I think all of you are in the category of great thinkers) just a philosophy of a man to be considered but not relied upon as unchanging truth?

    What I am trying to say is that I want a truth from God that represents the way things really are. TRUTH. Where do you find real truth?

    • Dan Wotherspoon
      April 17, 2014 at 8:20 am

      Hi James. So glad you have raised these questions! Within the next couple of weeks, we should be able to get a team together (I’ve extended invitations and have yeses, but we have not yet found a date when all can record) to talk about your later questions especially about trusting others’ words (esp. church leaders), our (any human’s) ability to know objective “facts” about God and existence, and truth in general. Until then, perhaps these few past episodes we’ve done may be good to visit/re-visit. I don’t know if the panel I’m putting together will agree with these past ones, so I don’t think you’ll totally feel like it’s all duplication. Best!

      http://mormonmatters.org/2012/06/20/105-106-mormon-doctrine-and-other-fuzzy-things/

      http://mormonmatters.org/2011/12/07/oh-say-what-is-truth/

      http://mormonmatters.org/2014/02/21/213-214-the-book-of-abraham-as-scripture/ (especially 214–Part 2 of this one)

      http://mormonmatters.org/2011/04/12/27-mormons-and-their-matters/

      http://mormonmatters.org/2013/12/14/206-at-peace-with-human-prophets-personal-journeys/

    • Carey
      April 17, 2014 at 6:18 pm

      I think what your wanting for Truth just isn’t possible and that goes double for theological truths. Which is why of course when people finally realize this they cling even tighter to science which admittedly has the closes equivalence that we can possibly have with TRUTH, but because it requires so much it also consequently leaves out a lot of things like “every proposition or principle related to philosophy, religion, interpersonal relationships, metaphysics, history, art, and so forth.”

      In a recent blog post James Faulkner said “the knowledge we are promised is not theological knowledge so much as knowledge by acquaintance, like the knowledge we have of someone we love.”

      “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6): he is the way to the Father; in him the truth of an alternative to sin is revealed; his life reveals real life, life with God.

      “Jesus has come to break apart the world of sin in which we live. He, not doctrines or principles, is the revelation of the alternative to life in a fallen world. And the promise is that if we will come to him, he will bring us into another world:”

      • Dan Wotherspoon
        April 18, 2014 at 8:54 am

        Great post, Carey! Do you have a link to the Faulconer blog post you’re quoting from in the final section? I’d love to take a look, as the perspectives you’ve shared here really resonates with me. Thanks!

  4. JT
    April 16, 2014 at 2:04 pm

    I just finished reading “Becoming Like God” and before listening to this episode here are my immediate musings.

    1. What is the rhetorical difference between “a” and “like”?

    2. I sensed in this a retreat from modern-day revelation – particularly with the apologetics front loaded with Biblical proof texts and bits of ancient Christian theology. But then “the scholars” did bring it back to Joseph. Still, by the end it felt like a retrenchment, with Joseph the only remaining defeasible Mormon prophet handled gingerly with circumscribed quotations (e.g. D&C 132).

    3. Overall, I was impressed that the scholars stood their ground on deification. Referencing Irenaeas, Clement, and Basil was an effective parry against evangelical Christianity. Touché. This made me wonder who the intended audience was.

    4. A whole lot of proof-texting going on. I found myself suspecting strained interpretations. I’m hoping this is addressed by the panelists.

    5. I am puzzled by the the manner of publication. What does, “The Church acknowledges the contribution of scholars … ; their work is used with permission” mean? Who, or What, constitutes “the Church” when it comes to acknowledging and giving permission? This strikes me as proffering a veneer of authority without actually designating any responsibility. It reminded me of this scene from the movie, “Oh Brother Where Art Thou.” You can decide how loosely the three characters align with “the Church”, the scholars, and the rank-and-file members.

    And now I am off for a nice long podcast listen/walk. Glad I checked in.

  5. J L
    April 18, 2014 at 2:25 am

    Brilliant discussion but I find it hard to believe in an evolving God. A God that gets it wrong in the new testament sort of a serial killer. To one who is prejudiced to one who is racist then amends his ways. Its a great theory but a God who has created multitudes of worlds should be over genocide and bigotry by now and not using this world as a test bed.

    • J L
      April 18, 2014 at 2:26 am

      Sorry should have said the old testament

      • Dan Wotherspoon
        April 18, 2014 at 8:51 am

        Why focus on an “evolving God” versus evolving perspectives about God shared by evolving people? Earlier peoples thought God controlled everything, hence every negative thing was God’s doing as a result of humans doing something wrong; every thing that happened therefore must have been God’s will, including who evolved as leaders of nations, who was born into certain birth lineages, etc. With time, as Nietzsche announced, we as humans proved through our actions that we rejected that God, that that God is dead for us. I’m thrilled with the death of that image of God, and I love the LDS angles on Deity: co-eternal with all other things that exist, all things have agency with God working only through persuasion, God as pure compassion and being “with us” in the fray of life, all soul states are result of choices of ours not of God’s, etc.

        Do you have a beef with the kind of God Latter-day Saints look to (at least in Mormonism’s deepest teachings rather than the much less careful rhetoric of Sunday discourse), or is it the Biblical or older visions only?

    • Carey
      April 18, 2014 at 9:40 am

      One way I think God evolves, at least from our perspective, is the commandments he gives which I believe are dependent on the social culture we inhabit. It doesn’t make sense to have the same unchanging laws regarding almost anything regardless of the society/world we find ourselves in. What maybe permissible in one situation may not be permissible in another for a variety of reasons.

      Example: I was watching The Walking Dead a few weeks ago and they had a powerful episode where the characters had to decide the fate of a young troubled child who had “innocently” murdered her own sister. Because of the situation they found themselves in they had to make a tough decision on what to do with her. In a different set of different circumstances they could have made a different choice, but because of the society they now inhabited there weren’t any options open to them.

      • Dan Wotherspoon
        April 18, 2014 at 11:28 am

        I’m enjoying the conversation, Carey. Thank you!

        A couple of thoughts: First, in the cases you describe, I would not naturally refer to these as examples of God’s evolution, but rather as a consistently, perfectly compassionate God (however God got to that state of being is open, and if we hold open the possibility of the LDS couplet then certainly God has evolved) who is able to respond to any circumstance in a way that best calls humans (and even on an individual level) to more, richer experience. For me, I guess it all comes down to me when I contemplate the phrase “same yesterday and forever” is that God is perfectly and always compassionate, consistently modeling a God’s kind of life and calling us to join in that life and experience level. Anything that doesn’t match with that vision of a perfectly loving Deity or shows Deity’s inconsistency is a result of human misinterpretations and doesn’t really say anything about God qua God.

        On “laws,” I guess I never think of God instituting or changing laws. For instance, when I think about the Joseph Smith (in King Follett discourse) statement about “God himself, finding he was in the midst of spirits and glory, because he was more intelligent, saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have the privilege to advance like himself,” I don’t think of that as “let me design some laws” as much as “let me give these other existing intelligences some steps that worked for me” or, if we don’t embrace the couplet theology, “let me offer some steps that help grow souls.” I guess I see “laws” there more as commandments that “work” to help transform us through giving us tastes of richer, more abundant lives–if the attitudes and behaviors described are internalized, of course. These laws/commandments don’t “work” because God then says “if you follow I will bless you,” they work because they are fundamental laws of relationality among eternal, free beings, and we can’t grow or have more and richer experience unless we enter into deeper relations. God isn’t making anything up as He/She/It/They go along. To me, it’s more along the lines of a Being/Beings who experience at this level saying “Here’s a path if you’re also interested. I hope you are. I/We think it’s the most wonderful kind of experience. But you’re always free to choose the character of your own experiences yourself.”

        • Carey
          April 18, 2014 at 11:56 am

          I think we’re saying that same thing, but where I might be emphasizing it a little differently is that I see the changing of the “rules” along the way as responses to our current circumstances. So I imagine God saying something like “this is what worked for me given this type of situation”, and as we grow and/or find ourselves in different environments then adjustments must be made and new commandments given. Thus the need for continuing revelation isn’t that God is changing his mind, but rather is continually nurturing and growing his children.

  6. Mike S.
    April 19, 2014 at 11:36 pm

    First, thank you, Dan, for the numerous thoughtful discussions you provide on MormonMatters.

    Regarding the concern over doctrinal changes: one of the main points the panel made was that over the years, general authorities have said or implied that doctrine does not change. But I think there needs to be a qualifier with that statement because I think there is and has always been some ambiguity regarding what “unchangeable” doctrine is. Did Christ change doctrine when He preached a higher law then that taught in the Old Testament? Was there a doctrinal change when, after the resurrection, the gospel was preached not only to Jews, but to Gentiles also? Is there a clear dividing line between church doctrine, church teachings, and church policy?

    I believe a panel member used the removal of the priesthood ban as an example of a change in church doctrine. In that regard, I seem to recall a quote from an early President of the church (Joseph F. Smith?) calling it doctrine. But I also seem to recall a quote from President McKay, probably 25-30 years prior to the church’s removing the ban, calling it a church policy which could change some day. So, which was it? Bruce R. McConkie wrote a book called “Mormon Doctrine”, but was it all Mormon Doctrine? I think most everyone would agree, “Not”.

    I think part of the problem for some (as was mentioned by the panel), is that certain church leaders, in their attempt to be protectors of the faith and church, have created the impression that, while stating prophets/apostles are not infallible, certain pronouncements defined as church doctrine are pretty darn infallible.

    Yet, I think they would also acknowledge that sometimes (or possibly most times) revelation–combined with interpretation of that revelation–can lead to church leader statements that are less-than-perfect. For example, Joseph Smith apparently had certain revelations prior to the King Follett sermon. However, I’m guessing his words, at the time of the sermon, were a combination of those revelations, with some interpretations included. I’m sure, if given the opportunity to come down to earth today, and knowing what he knows today, he’d edit/clarify the words in that sermon somewhat. I think this is the nature of all revelation, whether ours or a general authority’s. I also believe this has occurred in the writing of all our scriptures–including the Book of Mormon. That doesn’t invalidate any of those so-called revelations for me–it just allows for some wiggle room, when there are so-called contradictions.

    One last thought regarding another panel statement. At one point there was a discussion contrasting President Uchtdorf’s recent General Conference talk with President Oaks’ talk. The implication was that while President Uchtdorf, once again, gave hope for possible change to certain church practices and policies, in contrast, President Oaks’ talk suggested, “Don’t expect any change”–specifically regarding women and the priesthood. However, while it may be a stretch on my part, I got the impression he was leaving the door open for some change. Here are a couple quotes from his talk on the Priesthood:

    “Whoever functions in an office or calling received from one who holds priesthood keys exercises priesthood authority in performing her or his assigned duties.”

    “We are not accustomed to speaking of women having the authority of the priesthood in their Church callings, but what other authority can it be?”

    While I think he was pretty clear in stating his belief that there won’t be any women priesthood holders in the near future, I think he left open the door towards additional responsibilities/offices for women in the near future–given to them by those holding the keys. For example, perhaps Sunday School President, more autonomy for the Relief Society (or a return to more autonomy), etc.

    • Dan Wotherspoon
      April 23, 2014 at 11:16 am

      Thanks, Mike S.! Good thoughts here. Nothing I disagree with as I also inhabit a Mormonism with much more fluid lines between doctrines, teachings, policies, and the status of scripture. One of the earliest podcasts we ever did I ended up calling “Mormon ‘Doctrine’ and other Fuzzy Things”!

      I also personally saw Oaks’ talk as an opening more than a closing. I love the idea that Robert Millet once shared with me privately (and I don’t know if he ever has said it in a book or something public, so I’m not sure how he would feel with me attributing it to him–but what else can I do as I think often within this framing?!) about conference talks being akin to what are often called in academia “working papers”–a kind of presentation of “here’s what I’m thinking right now, and I’d love to put this out there for discussion and see what the exchanges out there might help clarify further, but in no way do I see this as the final word on a subject.” To me, that works, and I wish members would view them more that way. Anyway, when I view them this way, it helps me have a decently forgiving attitude toward a lot of what’s said in conference.

  7. Chris Wiren
    April 26, 2014 at 3:56 pm

    I just need to say thank you to all the participants as I enjoyed these two episodes, very much! Also, seems it gave ideas for future episodes… 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *