A person I really like and respect in our local ward recently gave the priesthood lesson on Lorenzo Snow’s “infamous couplet.” While Snow’s little snippet isn’t the primary source of the unique Mormon doctrine of exaltation, it is definitely a sort of crystallization of it – a concrete yet succinct view of what some might call the “traditional” view in Mormonism.
As man now is, God once was:
As God now is, man may be.
Now I have mentioned before some problems I have with this doctrine in Mormonism. For instance, I don’t think there can be more than one God. I think having multiple contingent gods renders reality inexplicable, and turns morality into a subjective free-for-all. I think the LDS church has done a great job at completely watering down, deflecting, and abandoning in practice that doctrine, but a lot of its practices and teachings seem to rest on it in some way (For instance, in what sense is God our “literal father” if He was not like us and we cannot be just like Him? That’s what being a father literally means. If that is not what Mormons mean by saying God is our “literal father” then they are equivocating on what it means to be a “literal” father.).
But I also think that the more Mormonism distances itself from this and other unique doctrines that set it apart from mainstream Christianity, the more it renders itself pointless. So it’s a Catch-22 for the LDS church – Mormon exaltation creates scores of logical problems, but denying it makes Mormonism seem like a quirky version of plain Protestant Christianity. The doctrinal limbo of this teaching has resulted in a large church full of Mormons who can’t seem to agree on whether it’s true, true-with-qualifications, non-canonical, false, dangerous, or essential to their faith.
But in this priesthood lesson, my friend started the lesson out by rehashing what I think is a very cheap and disappointing Mormon talking point. “In conversations with your Christian friends, what do they believe happens when you die?”
The responses from the quorum: “You sit on a cloud playing a harp for eternity.” “You stand around praising God all the time.” Etc.
First of all, those are cartoon versions of Christian doctrine. They’re not at all accurate – no serious Christian philosopher, theologian, or leader has said that we actually sit on a cloud playing a harp in the eternities. Similarly, standing around praising God in this mundane yet humiliating fashion is a distortion of what Christians teach as well. Nevertheless, the teacher responded:
“Is that appealing to you?”
Very soon after this, a nursery worker showed up at the door with my kid and I thankfully took a leave of absence from the rest of the class. It was nice to take a walk with my son out in the trees around the church.
I’m glad that I got out of that class – this is a major problem doctrine for me, and the class started off on the wrong foot. The funny thing is that my friend teaching the class is anything but a conservative true believer – he’s a pretty spiritual, historically minded, universalistic cultural Mormon who is not to my knowledge a literal believer in Mormonism. So perhaps starting the class off this way was a sort of pandering to the crowd in a lesson he wasn’t really wanting to teach in the first place, and I can understand that (being a teacher in the church myself).
Recently, I have been practicing my prayers in a way that is more consistent with Orthodox teaching. A priest who is a friend of mine has given me a prayer rule that I have been using at night, and another friend gave me an icon of Jesus and an icon of the Theotokos with Jesus to use as I pray. I have already experienced very positive benefits from that prayer. I knew through psychology research that there are cognitive and emotional benefits to mindful prayer, and so I have been incorporating a mindful component in the prayers I’ve been doing as well. It has not been easy for me. I have tried to stick to a full 20 minutes as I pray, including a large silent meditation component, and for the first week or so I was just fighting boredom and wanting to leave. However, as I continued to pray I’ve begun to completely immerse myself in a mindful world of beauty (the icons and candle), and seeking to feel the presence of God in the room.
One night I went in to pray, and after lighting my candle and setting everything up, I knelt down and immediately got the feeling that I was “back again,” as if the previous 24 hours had been a small distraction from what was now my new reality – a timeless reality in the presence of God. It was like a smash cut from the night before to that night. It was as if there was a second dimension in my life that I could step into, and the more I step into that world the less the “real world” seems real at all.
And since I have temporarily shelved the idea that God is a physical, contingent being in time and space, and started viewing him as Aquinas did – as the unchanging fountainhead of existence, and the immanent yet transcendent sustainer of everything around me and myself as well – it has resulted in a spiritual outpouring. I feel that God is ever-present and I feel so much more gratitude for Him than I ever did when I saw him as a physical being who is not responsible for reality and lives elsewhere in the cosmos. It is a gratitude for causing everything to exist moment-by-moment.
So when my friend rhetorically asked our priesthood group if the idea of standing around worshiping God was “appealing” to us, my immediate, silent answer was, “If it’s anything like my nightly prayers, then yes.”