Sunday, May 22, 2005

A Rollback of the Classical Mormon Perspective on Humanity's Origin and Destiny?

While the evidence is mixed, certain recent statements by President Gordon B. Hinckley can be read as hinting at a distancing of the current public stance of the Church from classical Mormon ideas on the origin and destiny of humanity. This hinges on an oft-underappreciated distinction between two very different ways of understanding God's role in the creation of human beings. And it may represent a humble and courageous willingness to open oneself beyond dogma.

By "the classical Mormon perspective on the origin and destiny of man," I mean notions of God as Literal Father. A comprehensive formulation of these ideas was articulated succinctly, and surprisingly recently, by a President of the Church in a formal setting. In the April 1977 General Conference, President Spencer W. Kimball gave a talk entitled Our Great Potential, which seemed to endorse each of the following ideas: self-existent, eternal intelligences; divine procreation of spirit bodies to clothe these intelligences; divine procreation of Adam and Eve; and the capacity to procreate both spirit and body as the destiny of the faithful in eternity. Here I mention three features of President Kimball's talk that illustrate some of these ideas. Quoting Brigham Young, President Kimball stated:
Millions of us have contributed toward the creation and the development of a spirit, but “the germ of this, God has placed within us. And when our spirits receive our bodies, and through our faithfulness we are worthy to be crowned, we will then receive authority to produce both spirit and body. But these keys we cannot receive in the flesh.” (JD, 15:137.)
In addition, President Lorenzo Snow's couplet “As man is, God once was; and as God is, man may become” was quoted in this talk---not once, but twice. To close the talk, President Kimball read the words to the hymn O My Father, penned by Eliza R. Snow (sister of President Snow), which refers to both a Father and a Mother in heaven.

Restricting themselves to metaphorical interpretations of the fatherhood of God, mainstream Christians are likely to conceptualize God's role in the creation of humanity in a very different way: God as Engineer. Perhaps Mormons have not always perceived an incompatibility here, but it doesn't take much reflection to see that procreation (what a literal "Father" does) and design (what an "Engineer" does) are distinct, mutually exclusive activities. One is the unleashing of an automatic biological process; the other is a more direct, deliberate, and ongoing "hands on" arrangement of raw materials into a desired form.

Perhaps surprisingly in light of classical Mormon ideas, some statements by President Hinckley seem to be more sympathetic to and compatible with the perspective of God as Engineer. In the following quote from a First Presidency Message in the Ensign (originally given as a student fireside at BYU), note the use of the word "design," as well as the phrase "eternal spirits," which may negate the notion that spirit bodies had a beginning (and hence a "birth"):
Look at your finger. The most skillful attempt to reproduce it mechanically has brought only a crude approximation. The next time you use your finger, look at it, and sense the wonder of it....

I believe the human body to be the creation of Divinity. George Gallup once observed, “I could prove God statistically. Take the human body alone—the chance that all the functions of the individual would just happen is a statistical monstrosity.” Our bodies were designed by our Eternal Father to be the tabernacle of our eternal spirits. (August 1992)
Regarding the Lorenzo Snow statement, it is reported that in three interviews in 1997, President Hinckley seemed to minimize its importance. (I'm not excited about linking this source, but the original news outlets probably don't have these quotations online.) He seems to hedge on the certainty with which we know it would entail something as specific as the divine procreation contemplated by the classical Mormon perspective; he prefers to refer instead to a more generic "eternal progression" whose nature is unspecified. Asked by the San Francisco Chronicle if God was once a man, he replied
I wouldn't say that. There was a little couplet coined, 'As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.' Now that's more of a couplet than anything else. That gets into some pretty deep theology that we don't know very much about.... Well, as God is, man may become. We believe in eternal progression. Very strongly. (April 13)
On PBS, regarding the possibility of becoming gods in the afterlife:
Well, they can achieve to a godly status, yes, of course they can, eternal progression. We believe in the progression of the human soul. … We believe in the eternity and the infinity of the human soul, and its great possibilities. (July 18)
To Time, again regarding whether God was once a man:
I don't know that we teach it. I don't know that we emphasize it … I understand the philosophical background behind it, but I don't know a lot about it, and I don't think others know a lot about it. (August 4)
To be sure, there are factors mitigating against a putative change in doctrinal direction. For example, sensitivity to audience and the vagaries of quote selection need to be taken into account in assessing these statements in the press, as President Hinckley himself observed in the November 1997 General Conference:
I personally have been much quoted, and in a few instances misquoted and misunderstood. I think that’s to be expected. None of you need worry because you read something that was incompletely reported. You need not worry that I do not understand some matters of doctrine. I think I understand them thoroughly, and it is unfortunate that the reporting may not make this clear. I hope you will never look to the public press as the authority on the doctrines of the Church.
In addition, in a General Womens' Meeting in 1991 he noted (with a tone that possibly hints of reluctance) that as a matter of history the idea of a Mother in Heaven was "not corrected" by Joseph Smith, that her existence is suggested by "logic and reason," and that the doctrine "rests well" with him (even if prayer to her does not). One may ask, then, why he would think logic and reason suggest a Mother in Heaven if divine procreation were not part of the picture; are male and female needed to be "joint engineers" or something?

When it comes to the status of the classical Mormon view of divine procreation, what are we to make of this mixed bag?

Someone interested in a reconciliation with evolution might be tempted to make the following argument: God as Literal Father and God as Engineer are mutually exclusive; President Hinckley argued for God as Engineer in 1992; President Hinckley was not President of the Church in 1992, and as a counselor he would never dream of unilaterally overturning doctrine; therefore, God as Literal Father must never have been doctrine. (And as a corollary, because God as Literal Father was taught by President Kimball in General Conference, it must be that being taught by a President of the Church in Conference is not sufficient to make something doctrine.)

It may be that the truth is not yet clear, but the reality is likely to be much murkier than this clean argument suggests. For one thing, perhaps the argument is simply wrong: President Hinckley may not perceive an incompatibility between God as Literal Father and God as Engineer, either because he's smarter than me (not unlikely) or because he hasn't thought about it carefully in this way (not impossible).

But beyond this is the fact that all such simple arguments are at best simplifications of the complexities of the real world. One might marvel at the somewhat inchoate cluster of ideas represented by the above quotations in comparison with the relative clarity of the formulations of, say, President Kimball's talk cited above, or Elder McConkie's systematizations; perhaps it represents the growing pains associated with a desire to be less dogmatic, born of a sensitivity to the realities of data not previously given adequate consideration. We then witness the buffeting that results from a release of one's death-grip on dogma, arising from a challenging set of diverse circumstances with sometimes-conflicting requirements: a desire to motivate belief in an unbelieving world (August 1992); the public relations needs of a global missionary Church (April, July, August 1997); the need to assure members of doctrinal purity, consistency, and (perhaps most importantly) continuity (1991, November 1997); and the necessity of reigning in aberrant ideas and practices (1991). All this, in the presence of the overarching perennial problem: The lack of clear, unmistakable revelation on the nature of cosmic realities.

[This is cross-posted from Mormon Evolution: A Quest for Reconciliation. Please go to the original post to comment.]