I was having a discussion with a friend about whether Mormonism truly brings any theological innovation to the table of the world’s religions. I think that there are some good arguments that it does, but my friend suggested that Mormonism’s primary contribution is its unique way of exalting the immediate Earthly family. In other words, in Mormonism, the immediate Earthly family is given an eternal primacy and is not just the fundamental building block of Earthly society, it is also the building block of Heavenly society.
I have been thinking about it, and I don’t think that this is indeed as wonderful as it first appears. In Richard Beck’s book Unclean, he notes that our allegiance to familial ties is the source of our opposition to outsiders. Evolution has given us a strong sense of altruism and kinship with those related to us by blood – but the extension of this is that people who are not kin are second class in our minds.
This even shows up in language – the words “kin,” “kind” (as in type), and “kind” (as in nice) all come from the same root. Therefore, we are kind (nice) to people who are our kind (type), or our kin.
The traditional Christian view, in opposition to the Mormon view, is that the Earthly family is a temporary analogue to our Heavenly family, aimed at creating good Earthly societies and helping children come into the world. So we are organized into our families so that we can learn something about the Kingdom of God.
But our families are the same race as us. The same skin color. Similar habits, likes and dislikes, appearance, health issues, location, etc. Not identical, but similar. Jesus, of course, pointed out that it’s easy to love people who love you, and I would add that it’s easy to love people who are like you. However, the Kingdom will (and does) include people of different tribes, races, sexes, nations, languages, ancestries, personalities, etc. The Kingdom has impatient people, rude people, loud people, people who come from collectivist societies, people who come from individualistic societies, and people we really, really disagree with here on Earth. Overcoming the blinders of our evolutionary affinity towards those of our tribe, and loving those who are so different they are barely tolerable to us here on Earth, is the essence of Heaven.
That lesson isn’t directly taught from the Mormon view of the family in the afterlife. At best, the Mormon view does not give center stage to this feature of Heaven, at worst, it discourages us from thinking about it. While the Mormon view might be more immediately satisfying (it is hard not to be emotionally moved by the idea of children sitting on Dad’s knee in a heavenly living room while Mom gives a child a hug in the afterlife), it fails to teach us what should be the ultimate lesson of life – that we should eventually love/respect/treat everyone as though they were in our immediate family. Our immediate family is just a test run for Heaven. This view is hinted at by David Dunn recently in this post. But this doctrine is very hard to teach to Mormons, because any afterlife where family members are not glued together with the same kinds of bonds as in life sounds like a diminishing of the role of family here on Earth.
But there are a couple of things about that view. First, my relationship with, say, my Mother is not something that is imposed from outside. I love my Mother dearly and our relationship is very close. So if any being (even a Divine being) suddenly told me one day, “Okay, stop loving your Mother as a mother,” that would be a very puzzling pronouncement. Don’t I decide how I view another person? Certainly if I were born to a different woman, my relationship with my current mother would be different, but now that I’ve been born to her and have all my memories of her, that doesn’t seem like something an outside agent could change. So if my mother and I both go to the Telestial Kingdom, how exactly will that change my relationship to her? Will God erase my memory of her? Will He snip some imaginary cable that binds our spirits together?
And secondly, as I’ve grown up, my relationship with my Mother has changed. I no longer see her as my sole source of protection, nourishment, and love. Once I started having my own kids and got my own wife, my relationship with my Mother changed into more of a respectful, loving, peer relationship. So if Heaven is about loving my Mother as I did as a child, that does not seem like a progression, but rather, a regression. But if seeing my Mother as a mother can progress and change, then why is it so offensive and horrifying to think that it will continue to change into the Eternities into something different?
This is all separate from the fuzziness I believe exists in the Mormon view of the afterlife (the fact that you need physical bodies to make spirit children, the strange issue of whether we become like God and His Wife, what relationship my Earthly children will have to my spirit children, etc. – stuff I’ll address in other posts). I simply think that putting a primacy on the Earthly family causes us to miss one of the best lessons that Heaven can teach us – the Earthly family “points to” the Heavenly family – which is the human race. There is an old Confucian saying: “When the wise man points to the moon, the fool looks at the finger.” It seems like the Mormon view of the immediate family is looking at the finger. That was not an easy change in thinking for me.