When I look at the mortal religious scene here on earth, I think one of the adversary’s masterstrokes has been to split apart two key streams of understanding of God’s full truth. These two streams are 1) humankind’s divine origins and potential and (2) the need for a Savior and his atonement.
If you look at most pagan religions, the pagans often have very interesting, true-ish ideas about where humans came from and where we are going, but they totally lack knowledge of the need for a Savior to get us out of our current mortal dilemma. (I use the term pagan to mean non-Christian religions, even though it more correctly means polytheistic religions, but in reality those two aspects often go together. I don’t consider Mormons polytheistic because we worship only one god, although of course we acknowledge the existence of countless gods. I’m not sure where Islam fits in this… monotheistic non-Christian?)
By the same token, if you look at Christian religions, they enjoy an abundance of understanding and faith about the Savior and his New Testament gospel, but they have lost nearly all the truth about humankind’s origins and potential—in other words, about our true nature. There’s a tunnel-vision focus in Christianity on Jesus as an end in of himself rather than as a means to an end, which in Mormonism we understand to be exaltation for God’s children who pass the test. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that Christianity undervalues humanity and overdoes Jesus, if that’s possible.
Christianity understands the how but not the why. Paganism (or some of it, anyway) understands the why but not the how. So the masterstroke of Mormonism, to me, is that it restores these two key areas of understanding back into one belief system. We understand both the how and the why in a way that I don’t think any other religion does (correct me if I’m wrong).
I served my mission in Australia, and even the pagan Australian Aborigines have some true-ish beliefs about premortality. During what Aborigines call the Dreamtime, which could be another word for premortality, creative beings formed the land’s physical features, and some of those beings became human to safeguard the creation. Many Aborigines believe that spirit children wait at certain fertility sites for a suitable opportunity to enter a womb. In one group, spirit children are small, dark-skinned personages who have always existed. When one of them wishes to become human, it enters a camp and whispers to a sleeping man, requesting to be escorted to his wife. All this is quite breath-taking for me from a Mormon point of view.
The Greek mystics believed that the spiritual nature of man descended from the Milky Way into material existence. Socrates wrote, “Our souls must also have existed without bodies before they were in the form of man, and must have had intelligence.” Egyptian mystic Hermes Trismegistus taught, “We must not shrink from saying that a man on earth is a mortal god, and that God in heaven is an immortal man.” In a sense, the Hindus believe that humans are gods who have always existed and have forgotten who they really are.
Even some of the early Christians believed in the doctrine of premortality. The third-century Christian writer Origen of Alexandria believed that human spirits were judged for their premortal conduct before coming to earth. He wrote, “The concrete and individual human mind descended into the body from the choir of aerial souls, having lived earlier lives and bringing with it the qualities and a nature which it had acquired by its conduct.”
However, in A.D. 543 the Roman Catholic pope officially outlawed belief in premortality as too speculative, unscriptural, and pagan. So the concept was essentially lost to mainstream Christianity, and no one else has restored it like Joseph Smith finally did. Even as late as 1329, however, a monk was excommunicated for teaching that the human soul is uncreated and uncreatable.
And of course, terrestrial-kingdom-level Christianity sees Mormonism’s understanding of humankind’s godly potential as equally blasphemous. That’s why I love Mormonism as a belief system, because not only do we totally embrace the Savior but also we comprehend the celestial-kingdom-level “fullness of the father.” (At least, most of us do—I’ve been dismayed to see some Mormons drift into “mere Christianity,” even President Hinckley at times when he was doing P.R.)
This thrilling big-picture kind of stuff is one of the main reasons I stay in Mormonism even though I don’t personally much enjoy the culture or lifestyle. I’m just totally sold on the worldview. I honestly don’t know if anything I’ve said or how I’ve said it is strikingly original or not; I may have read it all or been taught it all before somewhere. All the same, any enhancements or push-backs on this outlook?