Distinctly Mormon doctrines relating the physical appearance of humanity to God’s own “preferred” form grew gradually in early Restoration history rather than springing forth in full. Although there are references in the Book of Mormon to the Brother of Jared seeing the “finger” and then the full vision of Christ (the earliest recorded of Joseph Smith’s prophetic writings), even the earliest published accounts of the First Vision do not feature descriptions of two personages appearing as does the “official” version eventually recorded several years after formation of the church. This doesn’t mean that later descriptions were contradictory to the first version; it does suggest that certain features of the encounter took on greater significance in light of subsequent experience.
The emphasis on the “physicality of God” even in the spiritual realm grew in concert with notions of the Eternal Family and its role and function in achieving and living in Celestial Glory. The elaboration of this theology was natural as the early church leadership began to push, even if at first secretly, new forms of marriage and family life, but it was not an inevitable evolution of the theology of the 1830 Restoration. For example, no one in the Community of Christ expects that the afterlife is about progressing to populate new worlds with our own spiritual offspring, as Heavenly Father populated our own world. In one denomination, it is the Heavenly Father; in the other it is Heavenly Father, with the seldom spoken inference that there may be Heavenly Mother lurking in the theology as well.
Today, because of this history, Mormons have a well-integrated belief system about how and why the Divine interacts with the physical universe that, nevertheless, is very different from its “prairie cousins”, let alone in comparison to more distantly related Christian denominations. As a prairie cousin with an abiding interest in the theological role of the physical, this fascinates me. LDS theology raises questions about the limits of acceptable definitions of “children of God”, and what God might do to see His children come out on top that would never occur to me in CofChrist theology. These are the kinds of questions I’d like to ask openly in this post.
Let’s look at extreme cases first, and then try to focus in on cases closer to home.
We know that the universe is a violent place. Creation is violent itself, and often involves destruction on scales we can barely comprehend. My favorite example is the “Death Star Galaxy”. We have in that example a small galaxy – a mere few billion stars is small – that has wandered into a radiation jet being emitted by a larger galaxy. The jet is obliterating thousands of solar systems, and any life there, as we watch by telescope.
What does that tell us? Are planets with life so rare that God can let planets be destroyed wholesale without moral consequences? Or perhaps there are not moral consequences because the life there is not human and thus has no spirits? Either way, would God be able to “write off” a great deal of reality under LDS theology because His “children” weren’t involved? He just has to watch over those special few worlds ideal for humanity. The worlds with just the right size, at just the right distance from stars of the proper temperature and age, with the proper orbital stability and a big brother planet like Jupiter nearby to protect against too frequent impacts from comets. The list of requirements is lengthy, but with infinite space to play around in, they’re bound to pop up here and there even if God doesn’t directly favor them with a helping hand.
Or perhaps God has to actively “weed out” competition for his favored species. You could interpret the evidence that way, too. Consider the destruction of the dinosaurian ecosystems 65 million years ago, or the even more catastrophic Permian extinction scores of millions of years still earlier. Our existence and physical forms today depend in complex, but critical, ways on details of those events. For example, the locations within their general orbits of all the inner planets of our solar system, including the earth, are known to be chaotic on only the order of 5 million years. Start out an orbital simulation with the earth relocated by as little as a millimeter, and in 5 million years, the earth could be on the other side of the sun. A “miracle” performed a hundred million years ago that protects humanity from destruction by asteroid strike or clears the world of big reptilians so mammals (and man) can take over could be too small to notice. Far easier than Moses calling on God to make the sun stand still during battle or parting the Red Sea.
What LDS theology would define to be human gets tougher to distinguish as we get closer to humanity. How close? Well, within the last few weeks, evidence has been published on the results of sequencing Neanderthal DNA. The evidence, first reported in Science, but more accessible here at Science News, shows that modern humans whose lines remained in Africa do not share Neandertal DNA. However, all of the rest of us get one to four percent of our genes from interbreeding with Neandertals that occurred after leaving Africa 45,000 or so years ago. We don’t carry Neandertal body types, but we do seem to carry something important from that population in our internal chemistry and in our brains. Eternal Family reunions might be more surprising than our expectations.
So, did the Neandertals die out because our body type was a little more divine than theirs? Or were the ones who bred with Homo sapiens the more righteous ones? Or do we extend the moral capability and need for redemption to an extinct species at all? Do we instead decide that we are all descended from ancestors who practiced bestiality? Were physical specimens of humans who had no Spirits walking around contemporaneously with Adam?
Look closer now as we get to Biblical or Jaredite times. Now we picture God as acting in detail to favor one nation over another, one individual over another. We try to point to specific reasons for that favoritism in terms of justice, mercy, or obedience in this life or in preexistence, and we can often convince ourselves that such reasons exist. I could argue a very good case, for example, that slaughter of entire Canaanite cities down to the last child might actually produce fewer casualties in the long run.
But the more uncomfortable I become unless I make the case in such terms, the more I realize that tying God’s plan of salvation to things other than intelligence, or justice, or mercy, or obedience – properties that have little to do with the shape or functions of my body – raises doubts. Wouldn’t exalted beings give up such narrow notions of the boundaries of humanity as part of the progression toward exaltation itself?
So I look at the criteria with which we define relationships with God through their physical manifestations – species, race, gender, diet, clothes – and I wonder. Is God really concerned about those things when He decides to claim His children. Or are we just engaging in a very destructive and provincial form of sibling rivalry?
In my Father’s house are many mansions. Maybe some reefs and rookeries, too. Maybe some hives for natural clones or collective minds.
And if that’s true, then certainly there are places for Homo sapiens with same-sex attraction, or childless couples, or singles – every form of Eternal Family we might imagine from the occurrence of those forms here on earth.