Strangers in Paradox
by Margaret & Paul Toscano
Holiness to the Lord
[p.29] Some years ago two of our friends told us of their intention to leave the Mormon church for a Protestant group. This was a big step. Why, we wondered, were they doing this? They told us they were leaving Mormonism because they could no longer accept Joseph Smith. He was offensive to them. Not only did he not fit the ideal of a pious, consistent man of God, but his doctrines appeared to them to be heretical. Our friends claimed that his biggest mistakes were his teachings on polytheism and his involvement in polygamy and magic.
Like many Mormons our friends had grown up believing that Mormonism was an ideal religion, that it provided answers to the major questions of life, and that it promised certainty where other religions created confusion. It was perfectly understandable our friends believed these things. As a church we promote this view in our manuals, our visitor centers, our public relations messages, and through our missionaries. For the modern church perfection is static, righteousness can be recognized in fixed categories of behavior, goodness is respectable, good people will always speak and act consistently and acceptably, the revealed voice of God will always be clear and distinguishable from other voices, God will not call prophets who are flawed or embarrassing, his chosen ones will not be allowed to err in significant ways, we can know with certainty good from evil, truth from error, light from darkness, and the church’s motives will always be pure and its actions defensible.
But as many of us dig into our sacred texts and our history, we discover how difficult, inconsistent, murky, troubling, and sometimes embarrassing our religion can be. This awareness can be traumatic, especially for those who do not suspect that complications lurk behind the appealing simplicity of popular teachings. What we seem to want is an ideal religion. What we have is a human religion and a God who [p.30] is holy. This difference between the expectation of the ideal and the reality of the human and the holy is a source of constant discomfort and disillusionment.
In our view idealized expectations are arrived at not through revelation or experience but through reason. The ideal God is a projection of our own concepts of perfection. Ideal doctrines are a creation of our own sense of what is true. And the ideal ethic is an invention of our own notions of right and wrong. An ideal religion is burdened with our limitations and must inevitably fail or disappoint us.
In contrast holiness is not so much a concept as an attribute of God understood through mystical experience. We do not arrive at holiness by conscious thought but by contact with the divine. A religion which is holy is not simply the projection of human ideas of truth but the revelation of divine truths we could never have suspected. Holiness is goodness as God sees goodness, righteousness as God sees righteousness. It is God as God is, not as we wish God to be. For this reason holiness is paradoxical, unpredictable, unsettling, and often seems undesirable. It may contradict our commonsense notions of what the universe should be like.
In a 31 August 1842 sermon to the women’s Relief Society of Nauvoo, Joseph Smith said: “Do you think that even Jesus, if he were here would be without fault in your eyes?” (WJS, 130). Because we tend to idealize and inflate our expectations of God, Joseph Smith warned, we might be offended and disheartened by the reality of God. He apparently could see that Mormons no less than others might reject revelations not consonant with ideal theological and ethical predispositions. Latter-day Saints too could be threatened by new and unfamiliar ideas. We too want God to give us certainty and stability and are frustrated when God gives us revelations and experiences that challenge the status quo. Perhaps this is why we would rather serve than think and why we are more concerned with being “active” than being “devout.” Joseph Smith commented on this problem: “But their has been a great difficulty in getting anything into the heads of this generation it has been like splitting hemlock knots with a Corn doger for a wedge & a pumpkin for a beetle, Even the Saints are slow to understand I have tried for a number of years to get the minds of the Saints prepared to receive the things of God, but we frequently see some of them after suffering all they have for the work of God will fly to peaces like glass as soon as anything Comes that is Contrary to their traditions, they Cannot stand the fire at all” (ibid., 319).
[p.31] In Joseph Smith’s time and in ours, the penchant of people in and out of the church for the ideal and their distaste for the holy and the human has been manifest by a stubborn insistence on an idealistic picture of God. It is hard to say exactly where this idealized God concept comes from. The early Greeks, for example, did not have it. Their gods were sexual, anthropomorphic, and unpredictable. But as philosophy came into prominence, this ancient religion faded. By the fifth century B.C., Greek intellectuals, if they believed in God at all, believed in a supreme ideal. This same process occurred in the Jewish tradition. Yahweh was first presented as personal, anthropomorphic, and tribal but was later idealized by rabbinical teachings influenced by Hellenistic thought.
In Christianity Jesus was first accepted as a real individual with body, parts, and passions. But he too was later idealized. Jesus so offended common sense, philosophical wisdom, the deeply rooted sense of bodily shame, and the lofty aspirations of the intellect and reason that the early church fathers were compelled to depersonify, disembody, and unsex him. Of course, such idealized views did not prevail unopposed through the Christian era. Efforts had to be made constantly to enforce orthodoxy. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Christians began slipping into polytheism through the worship of saints and angels. Magic appeared in the worship of relics. Sexuality re-emerged in the person of Mary the Virgin.
The Protestant Reformation was in part a reaction to this slippage. It reasserted the grip of Christendom on idealism by emphasizing sin and guilt and allegorizing those scriptures dealing with the immanent attributes of God. Protestantism is the Christianity of the Enlightenment. It tended to de-emphasize the mystical and exalt reason. It was often hard on ritual and exhibited a preference for the humanistic elements of religion: emphasis on the Bible, authentic texts, linguistic scholarship. Even conversion was usually predicated upon literacy and one’s ability to rightly understand holy writ. Though early Protestants claimed to reject the pope, they did not reject his claim to temporal authority (which they often claimed for themselves or their political supporters). Rather, they rejected the pope’s claim to spiritual and mystical authority and replaced it with the more controllable and reasonable authority of scriptural texts. Still within Protestantism there have always been attempts such as the Protestant charismatic movements, Pentecostalism, and fundamentalism to counteract this emphasis on strict rationalism. Of course complete rejection of the rational leads to [p.32] extremism, anti-intellectualism, and bigotry. We are not putting forth the concept of the holy here as a rejection of reason and the intellect, but as a means of balancing the tendency in our culture to view perfection in static and ideal terms.
Every religion struggles with this tension between the holy and the ideal. Mormonism was revealed as antidote both to the Greek idealism embodied in Catholicism and the idealism of the Enlightenment as preserved in Protestantism. Joseph Smith’s teachings on the nature of God reaffirmed the holiness of God and contradicted God as a philosophical ideal. Although many orthodox Christians deplore this revelation of an anthropomorphic God with gender and sexuality and of a female divinity in the Godhead, nevertheless, these teachings make possible the concept of the divine marriage, the doctrine of the Eternal Father and the Eternal Mother, mystically, emotionally, intellectually, and sexually united as The Eternal One.
This notion is enough to make the most charitable orthodox Christians shudder. The very idea seems to them to be an affront to God. Others, more deeply offended, damn the notion as heretical and blasphemous and feel certain that Mormons are not Christians at all. But this conclusion is inevitable to those who do not distinguish between the ideal and the holy and who find unpalatable the notion that the Most High could possess in perfect form characteristics which in imperfect form have caused mortals so much shame, consternation, and confusion. Our bodies, our sexuality, our specificity, all lie dangerously beyond complete understanding and complete control. This God concept, though unacceptable to some, is not unscriptural. Many passages of the Old Testament are troubling to Christians because they suggest that God is holy but not ideal. Yahweh walked in Eden with Adam and Eve. God sat with Abraham in the plains of Mamre and bargained over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. God put Moses in a “clift of a rock” and then showed him the divine “back parts.” God is portrayed as a deity of anger, jealousy, love, and boundless mercy. God is a war lord with a remorseless sense of justice, but he is also meek and merciful, willing to mourn freely for the sins of his children. God can be approached and coaxed to change his mind.
In the New Testament Jesus Christ is presented as the incarnation of God. In Jesus, the God-Man, we see more clearly how divine holiness contradicts human expectations of the ideal. In Christ we learn that God is personal, anthropomorphic, approachable, knowable, and [p.33] sexual. The incarnation of God in Jesus Christ “points toward the immanence of the divine in human life, [and] makes little sense if the process of human generation is not sanctified and if purity is associated with abstinence from fleshy passion” (Phipps 1970, 190). It seems impossible to us that the very sexual desires and processes that are intrinsic to the generation of life should be divorced from the life-affirming mission of Jesus, the well-spring of eternal life. It seems far more probable to us that the God who wept for the dead, who gave life to the dead, who gives life to the dead, should be a God of gender, sexuality, and desire.
The sexuality of Jesus is for us confirmed in his marriage. Such an event is not accepted by orthodox Christianity, but as biblical scholar William E. Phipps (1970) points out, good evidence for it exists. In Jesus’ day Jews considered marriage a positive good and a requirement for a rabbi. It is unlikely Jesus could have preached publicly without criticism from his detractors had he been unmarried. The New Testament depicts a close relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, the first resurrection witness, as well as between Mary and Martha, whose domestic and household affairs involved Jesus.1 Also, Jesus assumed the appellation “bridegroom,” which suggests that he did not exclude himself from marriage.
A married Jesus favors the holy over the ideal. We cannot agree with the suggestion that connecting God with sexuality simply limits and confines him. The orthodox God can be just as limited because of God’s exclusion from such realms. Perhaps it is presumptuous to specify what God cannot be and do. Moreover, the orthodox reaction to the God concept in Mormonism tends to ignore the damage caused by the idealized view such as the unhealthy dualism that tends to favor male over female, spirit over matter, and mind over body, and that encourages a belief in God the Father to the exclusion of God the Mother. Defenders of the ideal view of God argue that an emphasis on God’s immanent attributes tends to desacralize rather than make God holy, to trivialize Christ rather than exalt him. We agree. It is unfortunate that modern Mormonism tends to cast him in the role of an earthly rather than a heavenly parent. But Mormon scriptures do not do this. [p.34] They affirm divine immanence, while simultaneously affirming divine transcendence. In Mormon scripture, God is both our enthroned sovereign and our common bread and cup.
Because Joseph Smith described the Godhead in anthropomorphic, sexual, and personal terms, the way was paved for additional teachings distinguishing Mormon Christianity from orthodox Christianity, such as his teachings on the holiness of human sexuality, of certain forms of magic, and of monolatry, which is a form of polytheism.
Orthodox Christianity has often taught that approaching God requires the repudiation of one’s sexuality, especially if one is a woman. Instead Joseph Smith taught that God is approached through marriage and sexuality, an idea perhaps comparable to certain kabbalistic teachings that the longing for God is similar to sexual “desire.” Whereas ideal religion denies, represses, or punishes the expressions of sexual desire, religions emphasizing the holy are inclined to accept these desires as godly and to create forms for their full legitimate expression.
Idealized religion also tends to persecute manifestations of magic, while religions emphasizing the holy see certain aspects of magic as part of the religious experience. The scriptures themselves rather unabashedly accept what we would call magic as a peripheral manifestation of both Judaism and Christianity. We read of Moses’ staff, Aaron’s strange garb, the Urim and Thummim, Joseph’s cup of divination, dream interpretation, rhapsodic trances of members of the later prophetic schools, the witch of Endor’s conjuring of the spirit of Samuel, the competitive exhibition conducted between Elijah and the priests of Baal, and the strange method Elijah employed to raise from the dead the widow’s son. Such examples suggest the close connection between magic and religion.
For many religious people of the past, magic and ritual bore the same relationship to religion as do modern science and technology today. It was perceived as another means of discovering the secrets of the universe and controlling the environment. Magic was also a form of ritual for sacralizing life, for connecting the natural with the supernatural world, for finding God in the ordinary occurrences of life. Ritual was mythology in motion. Of course magic and ritual do have a dark side. But the evangelists testified through their accounts of Jesus the “miracle worker” that there is also a proper place for elements of magic in a Christian context.
[p.35] We moderns are usually put off by anything contradicting or threatening our comfortably rational categories. For this reason many have been irritated to learn of Joseph Smith’s involvement with ritual, myth, and magic. We find it difficult to admit that such teachings may help us to accept the mysterious, to correct our prejudices against the shadowy world of intuition, and to balance our preference for the bright, clear world of rational thought.
The same may be said of Joseph Smith’s teaching that humans, if they are faithful to God, will become gods themselves. From this some have concluded that Mormons are polytheistic. This is wrong. What we believe in is monolatry—the worship of one God and the simultaneous acknowledgment of the existence of other gods, whom we do not worship. The perception of God varies among Mormons as it does among other Christians, but it is a rare Mormon indeed who believes we worship many gods. Some historians of religion have argued that the early Hebrews held a similar view: “Israel’s earliest beliefs were monolatrous, i.e., other gods were acknowledged to exist but they were all subject to the God of Israel who reigned over them in the divine ‘council of the gods …. ‘ This belief was eventually modified into extreme monotheism, or the belief in only one God” (Kirkland, 78-79). Monolatry is not contradicted by the first commandment. The words, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” allow for the existence of other gods but insist upon the sovereignty of the One. Strict monotheism is not consistently supported by the scriptures, which speak of the Elohim (“the gods”) and of angels, spirits, and weak local divinities. The New Testament, of course, presents the concept not of one God but of a godhead— Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—attended by angels, saints, spirits, and other supernatural beings including demons and fallen angels.
The attraction which monotheism holds for ideal religions is its simplicity, its elegance, and its reasonability. Monotheism provides us with a very straightforward model of the cosmos. Unfortunately, it can also lead to the deistic view that God is a solitary, detached, and remote Supreme Being and that we humans live our lives disengaged from the supernatural. How different life is for those who see gods and spirits everywhere, for whom no aspect of life is free from divine intervention, for whom every action is pregnant with mystery and every day is the day of reckoning.
Joseph Smith’s monolatrous teachings are paradoxical. For him there [p.36] was but one God, male and female, in whose image and likeness we were created.2 But Joseph also taught that in the universe there were many individuals whom God had transformed into gods. Many of these beings have lived on this earth. They bring messages to and watch over the people of the earth. Christ is the tree of life, and these other beings are like birds resting in his branches. We, too, are part of this vision, this paradox of nature and supernature, in which there is no escape from God. Each of us is a child of God. Each of us may become a god. Even now we are either growing closer to or further away from the realization of that potential.
Though these Mormon ideas are repugnant to the staid categories of philosophy and deeply disturbing to those who prize parsimony in their theological speculations, they do have the redeeming virtue of affording us the freshness of holiness while avoiding the drabness of idealism.
In sum, Mormonism is not a smooth religion; it is a rough one. It partakes of the human and the divine. It is full of contradictions and conundrums. But it is also full of beauty and peace. In it one can find substance for ridicule and for admiration. It is at once of the spirit spiritual and of the earth earthy. It is both ironic and sentimental. It comforts and chastises. It is a revelation of power and of weakness. In it the glory of God and the foolishness of humanity walk hand in hand toward a destiny that is as dim to us as it is clear to God. It is not a religion of philosophical fastidiousness; nor does it prize a foolish consistency. Those who desire an exemplary religion must look elsewhere. For in Mormonism the watchword is not idealism for humanity, but holiness to the Lord.
1. Early Mormon leaders such as Orson Hyde, Jedediah M. Grant, and Brigham Young taught that Jesus was a polygamist (JD 1:345-346; 2:79-83, 210; 4:259-260). Phipps acknowledges but rejects this notion (9-10).