Christian – Mormon dialogue

Given where I teach, the question about the relationship between Mormonism and Christianity is something that comes up quite often in my classes and in general religious discussion.  For those interested in that discussion, this article may be of interest.  The author, Richard Mouw, is an evangelical who is very Mormon friendly.  Here he takes up a big sticking point – the LDS claim that man and God are members of the same species.  Perhaps the most famous expression of this LDS belief is the so-called ‘Lorenzo Snow couplet’, which says, “As man now is, God once was; As God is, man may be.”

I think there is no doubt, and Mouw seems to agree, that orthodox Christians simply cannot sign on to the view that human beings and God are members of the same species or that God the Father was, at one point, just as we are now.  A clear ontological difference between Creator and created is basic to orthodox Christianity and indeed orthodox Jewish teaching.  If Mormons believe the Snow couplet on its plain meaning, then Mormonism is a religion fundamentally distinct from the rest of the Christian world.

But Mouw proposes that the LDS church is actually backing away from the more controversial, heterodox (from the point of view of the rest of Christianity) part of the famous/infamous Lorenzo Snow couplet, that “as man is, God once was”.  If he is right, perhaps LDS theology is tracking toward a more conventional and orthodox set of beliefs that would be accepted as ‘Christian’ by the rest of Christianity.

I am frankly not informed enough on internal LDS theological debates and internal decisions about belief within the LDS hierarchy to have a view much worth sharing about where Mormonism is going.  I can, however, say this: in my experience with teaching thousands of LDS students over the last 12 years, my sense is that an overwhelming majority of my LDS students  believe what is contained in the Snow couplet.  Some if not most consider it a central belief (along with other related beliefs: that God is material, etc).  My LDS students who seem the most devout and informed have, in every case I can think of, deeply believed the doctrine contained in the Snow couplet and consider it fundamental to the Mormon faith.  In view of this, it seems odd for Gordon Hinckley to have said, regarding the claim that “God the Father was once a man”, that he was not sure if it was really taught (“I don’t know that we teach it, I don’t know that we emphasize it.”).  Given how widely held those beliefs are among my LDS students, it is hard to believe it is not taught or that it has not been a topic of discussion for some time.

And it is not hard to find echoes of the Snow couplet in popular and contemporary LDS works.  Terryl and Fiona Givens are widely respected scholars and very well regarded by all of the devout Mormons I know.  There are very clear shades of the Snow couplet in their book The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life.  Indeed, that book dedicates most of a chapter to arguing that a wide range of orthodox Christian thinkers (they cite Tertullian, Augustine, Aquinas, Kierkegaard, and Weil) are wrong to think that God is metaphysically “other” than human beings.  Granted, the Givens are not part of the LDS hierarchy and so (a) their views are not authoritative for Mormons and (b) perhaps they have not received the internal memo suggesting that Mormons begin to de-emphasize the point.  But the book was published some 15 years after Gordon Hinckley’s remarks, so it is hard to imagine Mormons of the stature of the Givens would not have received the message.  All of that said, the main point here is that this example of a widely read book of popular LDS theology suggests that, for most of the Mormon world – including some of her intellectuals – the Snow Couplet is not being de-emphasized and re-interpreted.

So if LDS leadership is trying to genuinely back away from the first part of the Snow couplet and the claim that God and man are members of the same species, as well as reframing the second part of the couplet in terms of pretty ordinary Christian doctrines of theosis, then that shift in belief has not yet trickled down to the ordinary Mormon faithful.  And, if that is all so, it is understandable enough.  It takes time for shifts in belief to take hold across a culture.  Or perhaps Mouw’s interpretation of LDS theology and its trajectory is just wrong.

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About Kleiner

Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.
This entry was posted in Catholic thought/religion/culture, Philosophy, USU Catholic Newman Center. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Christian – Mormon dialogue

  1. Jedd says:

    Dr. Kleiner,
    I’d say this is an unintended–or intended–result of the globalization of the church in dialogue with correlation; keep to the basics. I don’t think church leaders have a lot of motivation to go beyond Atonement Theology and a brand of Zionism; the church is definitely a-theological in nature.

    I’m guessing, too, Gordon B. Hinckley was managing tensions in his answer. The church does a careful job managing it’s different-ness from surrounding traditions; it’s missionary success depends on the church being distinct without being weird or cult like. As the Book of Mormon and Word of Wisdom tighten this tension leaders may be unwilling to stretch it much further. (I’d say Temple’s add to this tension but they are more celebrated than investigated, if that makes sense; more like a beacon or patented brand of the church than something that’s dangerously odd.)
    Also, the Givens are keenly aware of this teaching and their writing at least a fore-shadowing of this principle.

    An interesting question might be thus: What moral consequences are there for the LDS tradition and it’s silence regarding this position? Much of the early Mormon world view was founded on this idea and this served as a philosophical basis to instruct members regarding how they should live.
    One example may be the emphasis of the family: God has an eternal family, therefore, we should emulate him and do likewise. This has implications for temple attendance, word of wisdom adherence, tithing…etc. That’s the telos of an eternal family: being like God. (See section 132). Perhaps this is in the background, like we have talked before, regarding the LDS position on homosexuality: if it prevents you from having a family, then it’s obviously (or not so obviously) contrary to the laws of God because this prevents you from being like God in his celestial glory.

    I could, also, be very very wrong. 🙂

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