Strangers in Paradox
by Margaret & Paul Toscano
The God of Flesh and Glory
[p.37] Most Mormons if asked what orthodox Christians believe about God would say: Orthodox Christians believe in a God without body, parts, or passions. A God who is absolute, who exists beyond time, space, and matter. A God who is omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. A God who is all-understanding but cannot be understood. A cause without a cause. A beginning without an antecedent. An end without a sequel. A being who is beyond imagination, beyond description, and beyond reach.
If asked what Mormons believe, most orthodox Christians would probably say: Mormons believe in a God who is merely a superior man. A being with a body of flesh and bones, who exists in time and space and who is still learning and developing. A being who is finite and law bound. A being who is sovereign but not supreme, superior but not sublime, eternal but not primal. A being too similar to trust and too proximate to worship.
Though in some respects accurate, these descriptions are incomplete. They arise out of misunderstandings and serve more as caricatures than as real portraits of belief. The fact is that neither orthodox Christianity nor Mormonism has taken positions as extreme as these descriptions would suggest.
Orthodox Christian theology has always availed itself of the Bible’s language to describe God as capable of love, knowledge, anger, and other human attributes. And there has always been an element of finitism in this language. On a popular level, lay Christians inevitably think and talk about God in a personal way. Even if orthodox Christians believe the theological proposition that God is beyond all categories of thought, it is nevertheless true that those same Christians spend a great deal of time thinking about God anyway. Many orthodox Christian [p.38] theologians, undoubtedly aware of this fact, have tried to reconcile the God of orthodox theology with the God Christians encounter in their worship. This reconciliation usually involves making a distinction between the two ways in which God relates to creation. Transcendence refers to the concept that God is over, above, beyond, and more than the creation, that the divine power is not exhausted by creation, and that God is the source and “ground of all being.” In contrast immanence refers to the nearness of God, to the idea that God dwells in each of us and throughout all creation and that God’s presence sustains and preserves all life. Orthodox Christianity has usually claimed that God is both transcendent and immanent. In this way it has sought to avoid the extremes of deism on the one side and pantheism on the other. Deism is a belief system that insists God stands apart or outside creation and does not guide it or interfere. Pantheism equates God with nature.
In spite of this quest for balance, at various times one or the other of these concepts has dominated. Today liberal Protestantism emphasizes the immanence of God and shuns metaphysical speculations. In doing this liberal Protestants emphasize human problems and the ethical nature of the gospel. As a reaction to this view, Protestant neo-orthodox or neo-reformers have emphasized the transcendence and holiness of God, the sinfulness and powerlessness of humanity, and humanity’s dependence on the divine. The see-saw effect caused by the failure to balance such concerns has happened in other arenas of the intellectual tradition of the West. The excesses of one age have more than once triggered countervailing excesses in the next age. Thus the formal rigidity of Neoclassicism was followed by the emotionalism of Romanticism, which was in turn followed by the verisimilitude of Realism, which was then followed by the subjectivism of Expressionism.
The question is whether the Mormon view of God represents an extreme or a balance of extremes. Were Joseph Smith’s statements on God’s finitude meant to be an utter rejection of God’s transcendence or merely a corrective to the over-idealization of God common in the nineteenth century?1
[p.39] It may seem contradictory to be obsessed with balance, but we are. We believe it is not only unnecessary but positively harmful to be required to choose between the extremes of a totally finite and a totally infinite God. A balanced perspective more closely fits the descriptions of God in the revelations and sacred texts of our Judeo-Christian tradition. In our view the God of Mormon scripture is personal, embodied, approachable, and knowable but also a God of transcendent glory, wisdom, power, and goodness.
Perhaps Joseph Smith’s most startling theological claim was that God is an anthropomorphic being: “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit” (D&C 130:22). Joseph Smith’s tangible God also emerges from descriptions found in other Mormon scripture. In the Book of Abraham we read: “Thus, I, Abraham talked with the Lord, face to face, as one man talketh with another; and he told me of the works which his hands had made” (Abr. 3:11). Similarly Moses relates his theophany: “And he [Moses] saw God face to face and he talked with him, and the glory of God was upon Moses; therefore Moses could endure his presence” (Moses 1:2). In the Book of Mormon, Moroni recounts a similar experience: “And then shall ye know that I have seen Jesus, and that he hath talked with me face to face, and that he told me in plain humility, even as a man telleth another in my own language, concerning these things” (Eth. 12:39).
Examples could be multiplied, but none of these Mormon scriptural assertions is radically different from similar statements found in the Old and New Testaments, where anthropomorphism also abounds. In spite of this most scholars believe that texts attributing human characteristics to God are either remnants of a primitive mindset or metaphors for the immediacy of the experience of God (Concise Sacramentum Mundi, 14).
The incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ, however, presents a serious problem to those denying the anthropomorphism of God. Because God appeared as man, we are led to ask: What is the meaning of God’s revelation of himself in human form? And what is the meaning of the resurrection of Christ? Are we to take this event literally or figuratively? Such questions are today fiercely debated.
[p.40] Though there is a general trend among Christian scholars toward figurative interpretations, the centrality of Jesus as the revelation of God keeps them from entirely rejecting a personal God with human attributes (Richardson). For example, the Roman Catholic Encyclopedia of Theology states: “In a fully developed theological anthropology, however, man appears as the manifestation and revelation of God—as that which God becomes when he expresses himself in a medium other than himself…. The mystery of the incarnation is the supreme justification of anthropomorphism” (13-14).
In spite of statements like this, the concept of a fully anthropomorphic God remains for most Christian thinkers naive, primitive, idolatrous. For this reason Christianity has tended to shun or deny God’s humanity, a fact which in itself raises some important questions: What is the point of depicting God as anthropomorphic, if he is not? Is this mere rhetoric to make God seem more accessible, real, and personal? But if God is none of these things, why talk as if he is? Why not say he is beyond us and will ever be beyond us? And why is the idea of an anthropomorphic God inherently inferior to the concept of an abstract God? What is it that makes people reject an embodied God? Are we ashamed of our own bodies? Are we afraid we have made God in our own image, that he is not real?2 Are we afraid such a God would be limited or powerless?
In contrast, Joseph Smith expressed a view that linked power with embodiment. For Joseph that which has no physical existence has no existence at all (WJS, 60). He further explained that having a body adds happiness and power: “The great principle of happiness consists in having a body. The Devil has no body, and herein is his punishment. He is pleased when he can obtain the tabernacle of men and when cast out by the Savior he asked to go into the herd of swine showing that he would prefer a swines body to having none. All beings who have bodies have power over those who have not” (ibid., 60). On another occasion, Joseph stated: “before foundation of the Earth in the Grand Counsel that the Spirits of all Men ware subject to oppression & the express purpose of God in Giveing it a tabernicle was to arm it against the power of Darkness” (ibid., 62; cf. 2 Ne. 9:8).
[p.41] Rather than see an embodied God and a God of great power as contradictions, Joseph Smith taught that a body of flesh and bones extends the power of God. It gives God direct access to and experience with the physical as well as spiritual worlds. For Joseph, both of these realms are equally real.
Joseph Smith’s God, however, is not just a human on a slightly higher level of progression or existence. God is also a God of glory. In Mormon scripture “glory” does not refer merely to honor or dignity but to spirit, power, comprehension (D&C 93:36; 84:45-46; 29:31; cf. 1 Pet. 4:1). It is a synonym for the light of Christ (D&C 88: 5), the power of the Holy Ghost (Moro. 10:4), the power of the priesthood (D&C 121: 36-37), and light and truth (93:36).
The exact metaphysical nature of God’s glory is open to debate. But according to Joseph Smith, whatever it is, God’s glory is not totally other. Joseph taught: “All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter”(131:7-8). The glory of God then is something real, tangible, and in part knowable. Section 93 of the Doctrine and Covenants equates glory with God’s intelligence (93:36). In the King Follett funeral sermon, Joseph Smith stated that glory is the everlasting burnings of the celestial kingdom (TPJS, 347-48). Joseph Smith taught that glory dwells to some extent throughout the universe (ibid., 353). Section 88 of the Doctrine and Covenants states that the various types of glory can be imparted to us in various degrees or portions: “Ye who are quickened by a portion of the celestial glory shall then [in the resurrection] receive of the same, even a fulness. And they who are quickened by a portion of the terrestrial glory shall then [in the resurrection] receive of the same, even a fulness. And also they who are quickened by a portion of the telestial glory shall then [in the resurrection] receive of the same, even a fulness” (v. 29).
This same revelation also informs us that God’s glory is in the sun, the moon, the earth, and the stars. It is the same light that quickens our understandings (D&C 88:7-11). Human perfection consists in obtaining the fullness of celestial glory (50:24-27). If our eye is single to the glory of God, our bodies will be filled with divine light, and there will be no darkness in us. We will comprehend all things (88:67). Benjamin F. Johnson, a Nauvoo contemporary of Joseph Smith, stated that:
[p.42] [Joseph Smith was] the first to teach in this age “substantialism,” the eternity of matter, that no part or particle of the great universe could become annihilated or destroyed; that light and life and spirit were one; that all light and heat are the “glory of God,” which is His power, that fills the “immensity of space,” and is the life of all things, and permeates with latent life, and heat, every particle of which all worlds are composed; that light or spirit, and gross matter, are the two first great primary principles of the universe, or of being; that they are self-existent, co-existent, indestructible, and eternal, and from these two elements both our spirits and our bodies were formulated (Andrus 1974, 95).
So powerful is this glory that a person cannot look upon God and live unless the person is first transformed by this power. This was Moses’ experience as recorded in the Pearl of Great Price. And even after God departed from him, Moses fell and lay upon the earth for several hours before he received “his natural strength” again. Then Moses exclaimed: “Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed. But now mine own eyes have beheld God; but not my natural, but my spiritual eyes, for my natural eyes could not have beheld; for I should have withered and died in his presence; but his glory was upon me; and I beheld his face, for I was transfigured before him” (Moses 1:10-11).
In Section 88 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the word “glory” is used as a synonym for “truth and light.” This revelation states that God in his glory “comprehendeth all things; and all things are before him, and all things are round about him; and he is above all things, and in all things, and is through all things; and all things are by him, and of him, even God, forever and ever”(v. 41).
These verses, because they dwell upon the glorious or transcendent characteristics of deity, accord with descriptions of God favored by orthodox Christianity: God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, in and through all things. Both the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants contain superlative language to describe God’s “infinite goodness” or “infinite mercy” (2 Ne. 1:10; Mos. 5:3, 28:4; He. 12:1; Moro. 8:3) and portray God as having “all power” and “all wisdom” or knowledge (see Jac. 2:5; Mos. 4:9, 29:19; Al. 12:15, 26:35; 44:5; Eth. 3:4; D&C 61:1, 84:28, 88:41, 100:1, 132:20). Section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants speaks of God as “the glorious Majesty on high” and bears testimony to his greatness: “By these things we know that there is a God in heaven, who is infinite and eternal, from [p.43] everlasting to everlasting the same unchangeable God, the framer of heaven and earth, and all things which are in them” (vv. 16-17; TPJS, 56).
Another example of usage common to both orthodoxy and Mormonism is found in the Book of Mosiah. There Jesus Christ is referred to as the “Lord Omnipotent,” who has all power, knowledge, and goodness. The text admonishes us to “Believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and earth; believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all things which the Lord can comprehend” (4:9; 3:5, 8, 17, 18, 21; 4:2, 5, 6, 11, 12, 19; 5:2, 3, 15).
We cite these verses to demonstrate that Mormon scriptural texts clearly and often depict God in transcendent terms. Of course an argument could be (and undoubtedly has been) made that none of these scriptures should be used in constructing a Mormon theology of the divine nature. According to this view, such references come from the early 1830s and reflect Joseph Smith’s earlier doctrinal views, which were influenced by Protestantism but which he later rejected. Though undoubtedly Joseph’s views matured over time, no evidence suggests he rejected God’s transcendence in favor of God’s immanence. Rather Joseph refined, expanded, and balanced these ideas. Joseph never stopped using exalted language to describe God. For example, in a written prayer dated 23 August 1842, Joseph Smith exclaimed: “O, thou who seeth, and knoweth the hearts of all men; thou eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent Jehovah, God; thou Elohem, that sitteth, as saith the psalmist, enthroned in heaven; look down upon thy servant Joseph, at this time; and let faith in the name of thy Son Jesus Christ, to a greater degree than thy servant ever yet has enjoined, be conferred upon him” (PWJS, 536). Even in the King Follett discourse, Mormonism’s primary text for a progressing, finite God, Joseph Smith still spoke of God as “the Almighty” and said that we can know nothing about the character of God without “the inspiration of the Almighty” (WJS, 344, 348-49). He also used the phrase “all things which God of his inf[inite] reason has seen fit to reveal to us in our mortal state” (ibid., 352). In this same discourse Joseph spoke of human progress as going from “grace to grace,” “from a small to great capacity,” “from exaltation to exaltation,” until we are able to “dwell in everlasting burning & everlasting power” as God does (ibid., 341, 344-45, 350, 355, 357).
Though Joseph taught that the “God that sits enthroned is a man [p.44] like one of yourselves,” he also said: “If the veil was rent to day & the great God who holds this world in its sphere or its orbit—the planets—if you were to see him to day, you would see him in all the person image, very form of man, For Adam was created in the very fashion of God. Adam received instruction walked talked as one man with another” (WJS, 357). This controversial statement was not meant to deny the majesty or power of God (for in the very same breath Joseph referred to the “great God who holds this world in its sphere”), but to emphasize that God is an actual person, an embodied being to whom we can relate. An important support for our view is found in Joseph’s 9 July 1843 answer to the question “How is it that you Mormons hold that God is an omnipresent being at the same time that he is a personage of tabernacle?” He replied, “What part of God is omnipresent read the 37 chap of Ezekel. It is the Spirit of god which proceeds from him consequently God is in the four winds of Heaven and when man receives inteligence is it not by the spirit of God” (ibid., 230).
Certain Mormon writers have argued that when Joseph Smith used such words as “infinite,” “omnipotent,” and “omnipresent,” he was not employing them in the usual Christian sense and that, therefore, in order to avoid confusion, we Mormons should omit these words from our religious vocabulary. The problem with this view is that it assumes that Mormon theology is totally unique and shares nothing in common with the belief structures of other Christians. It also fails to account for the common scripture, history, and customs which Mormons share with others within the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Though Protestants and Catholics may mean something different than Mormons when they refer, for example, to the “infinite goodness and mercy of God,” we think this is an insufficient reason for Mormons to abandon such expressions. If this logic were taken to its extreme, we would be required to abandon every aspect of our religion which we share in common with others: the story of the incarnation, the passion, the resurrection, the New Testament, the messianic prophecies, etc. It seems more sensible to employ these usages because they are found not only in the scriptural texts we share in common with non-Mormons, but in our own uniquely Mormon texts as well.
Besides how helpful is it to emphasize only the ways in which we differ from other groups? If we want to be viewed as Christians, shouldn’t we emphasize similarities? For example, when Joseph Smith uses the word “omnipotent” to describe God, he undoubtedly meant to use the word to mean that God has all power that is possible to have. But is [p.45] this usage really different from that employed among orthodox Christians? For even Thomas Acquinas pointed out that God can do everything only if we mean by “can” that which is genuinely possible. Though there will be arguments as to what is genuinely possible, there is common ground here for beginning a dialogue, for building bridges of love among various religious communities.
Perhaps in this spirit Joseph Smith made the following conciliatory statement toward other religious traditions:” ‘Wherein do you differ from other in your religious views?’ In reality & essence we do not differ so far in our religious views but that we could all drink into one principle of love One [of] the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive thruth let it come from where it may.— We believe in the great Eloheim who sits in yonder heavens. so do the presbyterians” (WJS, 229). At other times Joseph was quick to point out the narrowness of the “sectarians” and the differences between his outlook and theirs. On 15 October 1843 he said: “I cannot believe in any of the creeds of the different denominations, because they all have some things in them I cannot subscribe to though all of them have some truth. but I want to come up into the presence of God & learn all things but the creeds set up stakes, & say hitherto shalt thou come, & no further.—which I cannot subscribe to” (ibid., 256).
Both orthodox Christianity and Mormonism have tended to “set up stakes,” in other words, to set limits on what God can or cannot be. So orthodox Christians are apt to see God as a being utterly unlike us. And Mormons are just as apt to see God as a being who is just like us. In either case the temptation is to picture God in a comfortable way, whether by putting the divine beyond our reach or totally in our grasp. In our own view, God is best pictured as a being of paradox, a balance of extremes, a being who is immanent to the extent God is with us and like us and transcendent to the extent we are not yet like God. For us, as for many Mormons, God is a paradox of flesh and glory.
Nevertheless, our understanding of the divine reality always remains imperfect. All of our concepts of God are only pictures. And if we insist upon the finality or completeness of any one picture, we “set up stakes” for the Almighty and say “hitherto shalt thou come, & no further.” Of course we need pictures in order to relate to God. But how can we ever know which picture of God is right and which is not? How can we avoid idolatry? Here we must trust in the grace of God. Ann Ulanov puts it well: “it is very much a human impulse to try to picture God and God does come to find us in those very pictures as well as in the [p.46] smashing of them …. Our inability to cross over the gap between our pictures and God’s reality is met by the unbelievable miracle of God crossing over to us” (1986, 4). Finally the love of God must rescue us from our limited vision, from our failure of imagination, from our inadequate and even dangerous pictures of the divine. For this reason the scriptures promise we shall one day see God in the face but in God’s own time, in God’s own way, and according to God’s own will (D&C 88:68).
1. Mormon writers such as Sterling McMurrin, Kent Robson, and Blake Ostler have rightly asserted that the absolute, wholly other deity of orthodox Christianity has not been a part of traditional Mormon discussions. Mormonism has stressed instead the finite characteristics of God: his body of flesh and bones, his existence in time and space, and his progressive and dynamic nature. Moreover, as these writers have also pointed out, the concept of an absolute God was not derived from the Judeo-Christian scriptural texts but rather from the early Church Fathers, who were highly influenced by the ancient Greek philosophers and their concept of an ideal God, who is beyond all categories and description.