Home » Eastern Orthodoxy » Does non-literal Mormonism lose its “punch?”

Does non-literal Mormonism lose its “punch?”

temple marriageThe title of this post might seem either trivially true or too vague to be useful, so let me unpack it a bit and then use an example to see if it’s more clear.  I have found that a lot of “Cafeteria” or “Middle-Way” Mormons (maybe the “StayLDS” or John Dehlin crowd) compartmentalize some of the more troublesome doctrines of the LDS church by sort of mythologizing them.  However, I wonder if this renders Mormonism less coherent as a result.

Here’s an example:  Celestial, or Eternal, Marriage.  Now if we take the literalist/traditionalist view in Mormonism, there are those who believe that the point of Eternal Marriage is that exalted men and women become literally like Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother, and have literal spirit children and dominions just as Heavenly Father does.  Gender is an eternal principle, and the male-female pair is necessary for the production of spirit children, and thus, a married couple is the fundamental building block of Godhood, and eternal families are just that.

Now I’m not saying that’s official church doctrine today, just that it seems that the traditionalists in the church defend this concept, and I believe that the early church leaders that shaped things like temple marriage, polygamy, and sealings were operating on that paradigm.  Someone could argue with me on that, probably, but let’s just go with it.

Now a Middle-Way Mormon might argue that perhaps we don’t have to accept the whole Gods/spirit babies/dominions thing in order to accept temple sealings.  Their line of thinking might be something like: instead of seeing the eternal couple as a literal spirit baby-making machine, we might take a more moderate view and see celestial marriage as simply a bonding together of two people of complementary genders.  On this view, a husband and wife in eternity are simply a “node” in the eternal family.  I would venture to say that in the modern LDS church, especially among the young faithful, this is a dominant view – if not dominant, then a strong competitor.

They might still argue that this concept is better than the traditional Christian concept, because instead of “till death do you part,” and instead of getting to heaven and seeing everyone as the same, we will still view our spouses “as our spouses.”  For instance, on the PBS documentary series The Mormons, LDS apostle Jeffrey R. Holland said this:

We believe that marriage is eternal. One of the fundamental premises of this church is that family is forever. I know, in my life, that it won’t be heaven without my wife, and it will not be heaven without my children, because that’s true, and if that’s some eternal principle, and if there’s something eternally splendid about that, then God in his goodness must have some way to let everybody share in as much of that as possible. And I believe that our doctrine points toward that.

So there seems to be this strong idea that “it wouldn’t be heaven without [our families]” as our families, and not as another being in heaven.

However, I wonder if removing the literal view (that spouses are required to produce eternal spirit children) robs the doctrine of its coherence.  To illustrate what I mean, let’s imagine a conversation between a hypothetical Mormon and an Orthodox interlocutor.

Mormon:  Temple sealings and eternal marriages are crucial to us, because we believe that it wouldn’t be heaven without our families.

Orthodox:  But we also believe that we will be in heaven with our families, if our families are saved and enter into the Kingdom with us.  I’ll be there, and my husband will be there, and my children will be there.  What’s the difference?

Mormon:  Ah, but the difference is that you won’t see your husband as your husband, you will merely see him as another person in heaven.

Orthodox:  But wait, on my view, in heaven we will still retain our memories, right?

Mormon:  I’ll grant you that, but on the Christian view, you will no longer view your husband as a husband.  You will see him “merely” as a brother, like any other person on the planet, including your children.

Orthodox:  So my husband will be there, and I’ll be there, and I’ll still have my memories of my husband in heaven.  Isn’t it up to me how I see him?  Couldn’t I still consider him my husband, or something similar, in heaven?  Our love is not something that was imposed from the outside – it was something that was generated within each of us for the other.  As long as our memories of each other aren’t erased, we could still hold a special place for each other in our hearts, and share the same relationship we have now, minus the physical procreation which will be unnecessary.

Mormon:  But on our view, the temple creates a “special” bond that goes beyond a mere relationship and it lasts through the eternities.  I don’t know what it is, but there is something more to marriage in the eternities than just all of us being disconnected spirit children of God.

Orthodox:  But unless you can tell me, concretely, what exactly that “special” bond does to a marriage that I don’t already have internally for my husband, I’m not sure why I need a Celestial Marriage.  What’s the real difference?  What’s the “special sauce” that makes temple marriage different?

Mormon:  I can’t say exactly, but I have faith that there will be a difference, and I know that families are forever.

End of discussion.  The idea here is that if the literal procreative element is gone from the LDS doctrine of temple marriage, it becomes very unclear what exactly a temple marriage imparts to a relationship that traditional Christians don’t already believe will exist.  There’s this myth among the Mormons that Christian doctrine teaches that families who are all together in heaven will somehow get this weird amnesia where they will no longer regard each other with the love that they have on Earth now – that their children and spouses will be reduced to something like strangers.  But I don’t know any Christian doctrine that teaches that, nor any Christians who believe that.  For most Christians including the Orthodox, families will still love each other absolutely when they reach heaven, they will simply lack the physical and temporal procreative elements that are necessary to build families here on Earth (sex, babies, growing children, keeping a house together, etc.).  At most, the traditional view is that the Earthly family is simply a microcosm of the heavenly family – that our family love here on Earth will expand to include all of God’s children, not just the few that we were born around!


11 thoughts on “Does non-literal Mormonism lose its “punch?”

  1. I’ve thought about this many times. With the sealing of children to parents, parents to their parents, etc, It seems as if what many LDS imagine as an “eternal family”, like an eternal nuclear family, ends up being very similar to how traditional Christians view Heaven anyway. If I’m sealed to my parents and siblings, then I become sealed to my wife and children, and my wife is sealed to her parents and siblings, who will we all be with? It’ll all be one big family in Heaven, and we definitely won’t have any amnesia over who we were, who we loved, etc, while here in this life.

  2. Exactly. So I think that the “traditional” Mormon view saves the coherence of the eternal marriage concept by introducing the idea that there is actually a function of man-woman pairs in the afterlife. But if you reject that view on other grounds (as I do), then I don’t think the coherence can be saved.

  3. I do not know, is there a similar concept of pairing of man and wife, as an actual unit, in Christian thought outside of the LDS Church? I am a fan of the nebulous explanation, because I am pretty sure we could never get an actual explanation correct even were we to try, but I have not seen any theological principle that would state that the union itself is clearly different as opposed to being in Heaven with a spouse.

    I also think this is tied to the LDS conception of Heaven, which is more like a continuing, progressing, existence (again I do not think specifics are necessary or possible) rather than as a destination unto itself.

    Personally I like that idea, that an afterlife is more to come, rather than a finish line, and the concept of eternal marriage is as tied to that concept as it is to the union itself.

  4. There is not necessarily a similar concept of “pairing” of man and wife as an “actual” unit (though there are some Orthodox who privately hold that opinion, since marriage is a sacrament), but I guess my point is that without exactly stating what an “actual” unit is, as in, what you mean by “actual,” it does not seem very different than what I’d experience on the Christian heaven.

    And the “continuing, progressing” Heaven idea is thoroughly Orthodox. This is the heart of theosis. The question is how exactly Mormonism improves on the original concept. It still seems like all Mormonism adds is to nebulously state that men and women will be “actual” units. I’m just not sure what that means or how that’s concretely different.

  5. The Orthodox believe that God is active in our lives. It is He who joins a man and a woman in a relationship of mutual love. The Sacrament of Marriage bears witness to His action. They enter into a new relationship with each other, God, and the Church. According to Orthodox teachings, Marriage is not simply a social institution, it is an eternal vocation of the kingdom. A husband and a wife are called by the Holy Spirit not only to live together but also to share their Christian life together so that each, with the aid of the other, may grow closer to God and become the persons they are meant to be. Why would this then end in Heaven?

  6. I’ve studied theosis, but it always seemed to be less…solid is the only way I can explain my perception, but that is not the right word. The LDS conception is innately tied to marriage, and I am rather fond of my wife, so I like the idea of maintaining that relationship into the future.

  7. Okay. I don’t really have a way of measuring “solidness” of a doctrine so I guess you’re entitled to that. But theosis is eternal progression, on its face (we eternally gain knowledge, attributes, and union with God, and this process is never-ending because there is always more to know about God).

    But I guess my point here about marriage is that without any specifics, I don’t see why I couldn’t “maintain that relationship” with my wife in regular Christian heaven, especially Orthodox heaven. I don’t know what more there is to a Mormon sealing than there already is in Orthodox theosis/heaven. If Mormon sealings are abstract/nebulous/unknowable in mortality, then to me that’s the least “solid” you can get – and not really that big of an improvement. In my opinion.

    And @James: yes, I have seen and had conversations with several Orthodox who do believe marriage continues in heaven. So even that doctrine is not closed off to the Orthodox.

  8. In the Orthodox view, a marriage is supposed to become a heavenly relationship, bringing both people involved into heavenly union with each other through Christ. It doesn’t make sense to then say this relationship would be diminished in any way in the Kingdom (which by the way is an ever present thing, not just after death). Your relationship with your spouse can only be further elevated in the Kingdom and brought closer to Christ. Just because we are all together and loving one another doesn’t mean we all share in the same relationships. I can be as close with my mother as with my sisters, but the relationships are still distinct. I can also be close with someone I am very different from through understanding, and I can expand my own knowledge and understanding of Truth through understanding that person. In this way I am elevating a friendship, which is distinct from a marital relationship. Ideally, we would use every relationship to bring us closer to God, and in this way we are brothers and sisters striving together toward Christ. However, this does not eliminate the possibility for diversity in those relationships. God is the source of our diversity. Would you say that because we are all called to be like God, we can have no individuality? No–it is the opposite; God is all encompassing, and so all personalities can grow towards God if they choose to do so. Our relationships can be viewed in much the same way. God blesses marriages through a Holy Sacrament, which means that the marriage becomes heavenly. If it is heavenly, why would it be denied to us in Heaven?

  9. For me, this issue resolves itself by asking – what exactly does it mean to love like God loves? I say I love my wife and kids infinitely, but do I? What does it mean to love infinitely? I’m a finite creature and love my wife and kids, but I’d be lying if I said that I love my neighbor as much as I love my family. Yet, we’re called to love even our enemies and our neighbor as ourselves. God loves equally and indiscriminately, a blazing, homogenous, intensity. Is there any more or less here? I can’t see how that can be. It seems we’re called to love others in the same way, i.e, the way we love our spouses and kids. This seems unfair to our families, doesn’t it? “But we’re you’re family! Your relationship with us is supposed to be more special, more loving than your other relationships, even in the next life.” Try telling your wife that in the hereafter you’ll love strangers just as intensely as you love her. But isn’t that just how God loves? We feel this way about our families because we’re finite beings and our love has limits, i.e., it’s quantifiable. We only have so much love to go around. In such considerations, it seems we project our emotional states and dispositions onto the nature of the next world. We transfer our finite nature here to what we imagine existence will be like there, forgetting that only those who are divinized and remade in the likeness of God will actually ‘make it’ there. Only those who love like God loves will be there in His presence. “Strait is the way and narrow is the gate…and few there be that find it.” All of our loves will be transformed. We think we can’t love our families more than we already do. But aren’t we mistaken about this? Remade in the likeness of God, our love for our family, and their love for us, will be perfected. The intensity of that love will surpass our wildest imagination, finite, sinful beings that we are. There will be no more or less in our love for each other and for our neighbor. It seems to me that all will love all infinitely and therefore equally. All relationships will be eternal and all will be sealed to all. What do the earthly terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ mean in that context? It’s certain that we’ll retain our memories, but surely what those terms mean after our hoped-for divinization will no longer be the same.

  10. Put another way, if I love my wife and kids “more” than I love others, then to an extent I’m excluding others from the fulness of who and what I am. My family gets the entire “me” (for better or for worse!). When love is perfected, anyone I love receives that fulness. There is no longer any room for “more or less”. My love for my family will be elevated and perfected, but so will my love for everyone else. I will have a perfect love for everyone. Family, neighbor, stranger, and enemy. St. Issac the Syrian wrote about this kind of love, the love of the eternal realm and those who dwell there:

    “What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation. For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God.”

  11. Pingback: Top 11 Things Every Mormon Should Know About Eastern Orthodoxy

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