Freedom, God, and Man
In other articles I have pointed out the long-term theological dangers of the true gospel and church establishing too cozy of a relationship with the political powers that be. There is almost always some kind of "state religion" in place, whether recognized or not, which has as its very purpose and goal the dismantling or co-opting of any competing ideology, specifically that of the Christian church, and that dismantling and skewing of the Christian church can be both subtle and powerful. A further difficulty arises when one group of Christians has fully accepted and absorbed the most important anti-freedom aspect of that political state religion, and then goes on the offensive, on behalf of the state religion, to mock and malign those remaining Christians who have not yet fully incorporated the aspects of the state religion that seek to belittle men in a theological framework to make them more pliable and obedient to the political powers that seek to control and exploit them, in other words, to take away their freedom.
To help illustrate this process of conflict of Christian sects on the issue of the nature of God and man, we should notice that in May 2016, Richard J. Mouw, president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary, obviously a Protestant institution, published an article entitled "Mormons Approaching Orthodoxy" in First Things, an influential print and online journal of religion and public life.1 This article apparently caused quite a stir at the time, and it was fairly easy to find two articles which seek to rebut his claims in great detail.2 There are likely to be many verbal and written responses to his article, and there is apparently quite a long history of related discussion, but these two articles, combined with Mouw's, seem to cover the logical territory quite well.
At issue is whether the Mormons still believe and teach the concept encapsulated in Lorenzo Snow's couplet “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be.”
Mouw asserts that the Mormons are downplaying this old couplet nearly to the point where they don't really accept it anymore. The consequence of that change would be that Mormon theology becomes only marginally different from orthodox Protestant and Catholic theology. Perhaps "helpfully" striving to maintain the greatest possible distinction between orthodox Christianity and the Mormons, so the Mormons can be better vilified, those non-Mormons and perhaps even anti-Mormons writing rebuttals demonstrate that the contents of Lorenzo Snow's couplet are still widely accepted and used by Mormons as a group.
I don't intend to offer an exhaustive study of thought and practice among the Mormon leaders and members on this point, to try to determine the exact practical status of this teaching in the real world of Mormonism, but I do wish to make clear the logical issue itself and the theological consequences to Mormons if Mouw is right or eventually becomes right. As I see it, just being able reasonably and plausibly to call into question the import of Lorenzo Snow's couplet is a major theological setback for Mormons.
As a practical matter, it should raise many questions when we say that we can become as God is, in an exalted state with a continuation of the family and "of the lives," etc., as we do probably every week in various church meetings and publications, and hear continued promises about it, and then to separately hear a message from leaders that might sound something like this:
But we really have no idea whether this sort of thing has ever happened before in the history of this or any other universe, or whether it is part of the settled gospel or not. In fact, we have no idea where our God came from or how he received his current exalted status. It looks like we may be the first to try this "exalted man" thing, and we have no idea how it is going to turn out. It may work or it may not, but we suggest you act as though it will work out anyway, a kind of very specialized LDS form of Pascal's Wager. It's not something we know enough about to have any significant faith in, but it still sounds like an interesting idea to us, and we hope for the best.
Actually, although we have descriptions of the various heavens in the D&C, we really don't know if that is accurate or not. Maybe the Protestants have the right idea of heaven and man's nature after all. Our heaven might be just a combination of Universalism (universal salvation for all) and the old heaven and hell idea, which at least offers more than one level for heaven.
My logic on this point is that either man is an eternal being granted extreme levels of freedom to learn and form opinions and act on those opinions and suffer or gain the consequences, bad or good, or he is not. If he is not extremely free, then he can never have the experiences and gain the wisdom (often by becoming an expert by first making all the mistakes) so that he can, through that track record, possibly earn the trust of those who hold the power in the heavens so that he can be said to largely "deserve" the powers and responsibilities and opportunities that are held out to be part of the state of exaltation. If he is not eternally endowed with that extreme freedom and those extreme opportunities, and instead is something much less, then the gospel of Christ is essentially meaningless and pointless, and the concepts of justice and mercy are also meaningless, and the whole complicated gospel theological superstructure collapses down to standard Protestantism.
Most man-made religions assert that man is a creation of God, so that man is inherently much less than God and is subject to every imaginable whim of God in that creation ex nihilo process, and any kind of limitations may apply. This is a very handy teaching for man-made religions, which I call "warlord religions," because it tells men, millions of times over, during their often miserable lives, that they are meaningless in the universe, to God and to earthly leaders, and so any earthly leader, naturally taking upon himself the title of the Viceroy of God, can abuse or enslave or kill men and it has little or no meaning or consequence since man himself is meaningless. Whether the religion happens to be some form of Calvinism or some form of Buddhism, the result is approximately the same – man is no more important than a grasshopper. The main difference is that with Calvinism, there is only one time through the system before reaching the end, where with Buddhism, an individual may be caught in a nearly endless reincarnation loop before reaching some endpoint.
The atheistic evolutionists say essentially the same thing, but just leave out any mention of a God, meaning man has no divine spark at all, but this is only a minor step down from the theology that man is a nearly meaningless plaything of God. In the atheist view, he just becomes "completely meaningless," instead of being "nearly meaningless." Such teaching, if believed, makes men into better physical and mental slaves, easier to govern and exploit. This, of course, is Satan's ideal world.
Luckily, it seems that most Protestants do not actually believe their own theology, and never have, since they are, and have been, the most consistent advocates of all forms of political freedom, and are responsible for the very existence of freedom in the Western world and especially in the United States. In fact, this makes the Protestants better advocates of the Lorenzo Snow couplet than are the Mormons these days, bringing up the "Are Christians Mormons?" issue examined by David L. Paulsen and others.3 The LDS church headquarters stopped being an advocate of scriptural Christian political freedom at least 80 years ago, so, on that scale, the LDS church is indeed less Christian than the Protestants, and that alone is a huge and nearly dispositive point in favor of Mouw's argument that the Mormons don't actually believe any longer in the idea that a man can and should become a God. They may say that in Sunday school, but they are unwilling to act on it or even mention it in the real world.
If the LDS church, by mistake or indirection or forgetfulness or spur-of-the-moment public relations policy, joins with all man-made religions in making man as small and unimportant and meaningless as possible, and concedes that any heavenly exaltation and power and continuing responsibility is unlikely, or that our likely status in heaven is unknown or ambiguous, then the LDS church will have become one of those thousands of man-made religions and is no longer unique in any meaningful way. The shape of our steeples may be all that is really left to distinguish us from all others.
While, in the moment, it may seem like good public relations or business policy to downplay this potentially unique and politically and religiously irritating feature of LDS theology, which puts men potentially equal with God, it appears that the church leaders actually have no idea of the catastrophic damage they are doing to the entire prophesied gospel mission when they waffle and claim lack of knowledge or understanding of this most important of all issues in LDS theology. The Book of Mormon may be the "keystone of our religion" as far as how the ideal religious teaching process goes, but the real keystone of the actual theology underlying the Book of Mormon is the nature of God and man -- the astounding claim that the two are of the same species and have the same possibilities. Quibbles about how and when to baptize a person pale in comparison.
I believe that Richard Mouw is to be commended for his diligent and objective research in uncovering and highlighting this LDS theological keystone, so to speak. His researches have caused quite a stir, as well they ought to. This is not a small point. Instead, it is the point on which hangs almost the entire uniqueness of the LDS gospel. When we find church leaders avoiding this topic or pretending they don't know anything about it, they are actually saying a great deal more than they probably mean to say. Their efforts at clever public relations tactics designed to smooth over public controversy about unusual LDS theology actually raises very many important questions, although those questions rarely seem to be clearly articulated, and so are left dangling, incompletely addressed. It is one thing to try not to draw embarrassingly personal attention to an issue such as LDS "magic underwear," but it is quite a different thing to not be sure whether we believe some of our own teachings about the hereafter, which teachings are required in order for our theology concerning heaven to be internally consistent, or to not be sure whether we are orthodox Protestants or not.
Are Mormons Christians (as to their concept of man)?
There is a related line of reasoning we need to understand which involves some serious obfuscation which needs to be clarified. It is common to hear partisan Protestant preachers saying that Mormons are not Christians. Typically I believe that such a claim is quite baffling to most Mormons. We might answer that we certainly believe in Christ, and we even have the name of Christ embedded in the name of our church. But such an answer is really a logical non sequitur, of no help at all to the real debate which is going on. We are arguing past each other and expressing frustration since neither side actually knows what the other is thinking when they make these broad general statements about being or not being Christians.
If the Protestant preacher were attempting to state his claim as clearly as possible, instead of consciously using deception to demean and flummox the uninformed Mormons, he would simply say that the Mormons are not orthodox Protestants. But that is merely an unremarkable truism which would have no anti-Mormon impact in the marketplace of ideas. Of course Mormons are not orthodox Protestants. That is what both sides are saying.
What the preacher is really saying when he argues that Mormons are not Christians is that he is taking at face value our statement that we believe in the Lorenzo Snow couplet which means that we are saying that we believe man is of the same species as God, something which orthodox Christians completely deny. And, conversely, when we insist that we ARE Christians, to the carefully tuned Protestant theological ear we are claiming that we don't believe in the Lorenzo Snow couplet. In other words, we are talking past each other, with usually neither side understanding what the real issue is or even what their own statements mean to the other. Again, Richard Mouw should be applauded for his avoidance of polemics and getting to the heart of the matter. It is not the nature of Christ and our belief in him that we are arguing about, but rather the nature of man.
Grace and works
Having gotten this far into this theological thicket, it seems useful to bring up another related troublesome issue. The theological issue of the effects of grace versus works in the process of achieving salvation is also something which seems to divide the Mormons from the orthodox Protestants, and apparently involves the same kind of confusion about the nature of man and heaven. As I see it, if a person's version of heaven is simply that they will be given a harp to play and a cloud to sit on, then an uncomplicated gift of grace is perfectly adequate. However, if part of being in heaven means that an individual could be given enormous powers and enormous responsibilities, perhaps for the orderly advancement of millions or billions of people as they live out the various segments of their eternal lives, then works could have some real meaning. One does not want to bestow power and responsibility on someone, especially responsibility for other individuals, unless that person is well prepared and has proven himself. For example, a person does not usually advance to become the CEO of a company simply by doing a good job of working on the loading dock for a few decades. A great deal more training and experience and wisdom is expected of someone who has the power to make or break a business organization. Of course, orthodox Protestants do not have to worry about this kind of situation where good works would be required to achieve salvation or exaltation, since they can only imagine their being parked on a cloud somewhere and not interacting with anyone else.
Investing in freedom
Today we sometimes hear the phrase "paying forward" as a means for idealistic persons to take some action now which is considered an investment in a better future for themselves and others. Teaching convincingly about a heaven which involves great personal freedom and responsibility, which is an integral part of the Mormon concept of heaven and exaltation, is made a great deal more difficult to teach and to be understood if no one can find any examples in life, or even in any real-world history, that shows the great benefits of living one's life in freedom and being able to accomplish marvelous things through the use of that freedom. If everyone everywhere is in chains, how do you teach that chains are not the natural condition of man? It could make a Mormon Sunday school (if even permitted in an unfree land) just too theoretical to be accepted as a real possibility. Of course, people will always feel the need for more freedom when they are actually being oppressed, but, apparently, even those longings for freedom can eventually be confused and suppressed if enough propaganda and punishment is applied.
In other words, in order to be able to teach the correct gospel about what heaven is like, and therefore what life should be like here, and the rules we should live by, one should be actually living in a mostly free state, or at least be able to see vivid examples of where freedom is or has been available. The point here is to say that the gospel organization should always be teaching freedom as the first principle of the gospel and of heaven and of life here on earth. To fail to do that puts at risk the ability for anyone and everyone to even understand the gospel and its heaven.
We have the difficult situation today where the leaders of the LDS church decided at least 40 years ago, and perhaps as long as 80 or even 100 years ago, that teaching political freedom would not be part of their curriculum. They have obviously done that to make the church less objectionable to all the approximately 200 Caesar's who rule over the people of the Earth. But, in doing so, they have greatly muddied the content of the gospel while also making it much harder to teach in its clarity and fullness.
As it is, today's church leaders happily benefit from using all the advantages of being an American church and operating from an American base, which, at least at the moment, allows a great deal of political and religious freedom. But they apparently take that freedom as a permanent given, an entitlement, for which they need to offer nothing in return. They apparently see no need to invest in freedom or to "pay it forward" to make sure that they and all others in our nation can maintain that freedom against the constant incursions upon it by the forces of tyranny.
The church leaders often seem to be saying that this is not really an American church, which seems to be code for saying that even though we are from America, we do not actively support traditional American ideas of freedom. At the same time, the church seems to be claiming the right to operate outside the legal ideology and control of the political entity in which its headquarters resides. For example, although the LDS Scriptures incorporate the U.S. Constitution by reference, the church headquarters does not seem to believe that any of those constitutional principles apply to its own operations. It seems at times to pretend to be either multinational or supranational or non-national as far as ideologies and allegiances and political duties are concerned.
But I don't think the church can really fairly and reasonably have it both ways on a long-term basis – exploiting all the advantages of a free America while denigrating the importance of that country and its freedoms and refusing to defend and extend those freedoms internally and externally.
Political freedom is the eternal quest of man, as illustrated by the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, speaking and writing in the context of French society before the French Revolution of 1789. The opening lines of his 1762 book The Social Contract are legendary:
"Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are."
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his dramatic opening lines to his immensely powerful treatise "The Social Contract," wrote that man was naturally good but becomes corrupted by the pernicious influence of human society and institutions.4
I consider it scandalous that the gospel organization on earth would not take a vigorous role in this greatest and grandest issue of the universe and of all time, the freedom of mankind.
2. Robert M. Bowman Jr., "Are Mormons Approaching Orthodoxy? A Response to Richard Mouw"
Ronald V. Huggins, "Lorenzo Snow's Couplet: "As Man Now Is, God Once Was; As God Now Is, Man May Be": No Functioning Place in Present-Day Mormon Doctrine?" A Response to Richard Mouw."
3. David L. Paulsen, "Are Christians Mormon? Reassessing Joseph Smith’s Theology in His Bicentennial," BYU Studies 45, no. 1 (2006). pp 35-128.
David L. Paulsen, Hal R. Boyd, Are Christians Mormon? (Routledge, May, 2017)