The Most Radical Idea in Christianity is Hidden in Mormonism’s Weirdest Belief
There is such a thing as American Christianity. It is a combinations of capitalism, the “you can be anything you want”-dogma of success and the radical rejection of European feudalism — and it was invented by Joesph Smith.
This is an excerpt from “Losing My Religion: Why I Love and Left My Mormon Faith” by Eric T. Hansen, a book-length essay about the positive and negative aspects of Mormonism.
Mormonism — my former faith — is broadly ridiculed for all kinds of reasons, but for none bigger than the belief that all men can, in the afterlife, can become Gods.
The idea is so strange and new to most people raised in traditional Christianity that they think Mormons are megalomaniacs. The feeling is mutual: Mormons tend to think of traditional Christians as subservient and unimaginative. But if you overcome the initial unfamiliarity of the idea and take it seriously, what you see is not only the most radical theological argument since Martin Luther, but also the American idea in Christianity.
What is a “Child of God”?
Most Christian churches use the term “Children of God,” but they seldom think about the implications. For Joseph Smith, the 19th-century founder of Mormonism, it was more than metaphor, it meant that God is literally our “Father in Heaven.”
Then he took the implication to its ultimate conclusion: Mormons don’t merely want to return to God the Father and live with him as his children, they want to become like him.
Part of the definition of “child” is the idea that you will eventually grow up to be like Mom and Dad. You may not become a television repairman if your father repairs televisions, but you will follow the general trajectory of his life:
You will have some other career, you will fall in love and found a family, you will raise your children just as your parents did and watch as they grow up. And they will do the same.
No parent would ever expect their children to remain children and live all their lives at home. The family dog does that — when a puppy “grows up,” it doesn’t move out, find a job and buy a pet of its own. It remains the family dog all its life. But children are expected to become adults in the same way their parents did.
If we on earth have divine parentage, that means we, too, will eventually grow up to be like our Father in Heaven. If father is a god, we can also develop into gods.
This is how it works: If you are obedient, go to the temple and remain worthy, after death you will enter into the highest of the three kingdoms, where you will be given the opportunity to give birth to spirit children. For children to develop further, you will send them to live on a planet you have created for them, where they will experience a physical, mortal life and learn the valuable lessons that are only possible there. When your children return to you, you will give them the opportunity to develop in the same way you did, by becoming gods themselves and creating worlds for their children.
That implies something about God’s past as well: He, too, must have been a spirit child at one point, with a divine father who sent him to live a mortal life on a planet somewhere, just as we are doing now. Joseph Smith said, “God Himself was once as we are now.” Later, another church president developed the idea further: “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be.”
European Christianity vs. American Christianity
Joseph Smith was not the first to have the idea: Some Orthodox and early Christian mystics kicked around a similar idea for a while, called “theosis” or “deification,” but Europe quickly stamped out that kind of talk and today the idea is just plain weird. But its only weird because it conflicts with the European tradition.
European Christianity was born in feudalism and it is still informed by feudal ideas. European Christians think of God as sitting upon a throne wearing a crown: God as a divine monarch. Think about that. In feudalism, a monarch can never become a serf because he was born to be a monarch. Likewise, his serfs are born into their subservient positions and cannot rise above. Thus it is with the European God: He was always God, he did not earn that position; likewise, his creations, mankind, will forever remain subservient to him and can never rise above their stations.
Americans rejected feudalism because they saw no reason why a peasant could not eventually become as rich and powerful as a king. Joseph Smith simply applied American meritocracy to Christianity and said: If I am God’s child, there’s no reason why I can’t grow up to become like him.
Earth Life as Preparation for Godhood
Mormons see life on earth as preparation for Godhood, much like college is preparation for a career. Here on earth, when we complete our education, we enter a new phase full of new responsibilities and challenges.
Most importantly, this new phase requires that we use the knowledge and skills we acquired in school: If we studied business management, we get a job in which we can apply what we learned. Likewise, the experience of earth life gives us skills and experiences we will later need to meet the challenges of being gods.
Traditional Christians don’t see it like that: Nothing we learn on earth is useful in our lives in eternity. As far as I can tell, European Christian theology sees us all, in the afterlife, gathering at God’s feet and happily singing his praises for all eternity. You don’t need to go to college for that.
Think about that. To eternally sing praises to God, all you need is a voice. You don’t need to have gone through any of the things we experience here on earth — the love and loss, the longing and disappointment, the striving, success and failure, the happiness and grief, the development of our moral personalities. In the European version of Christianity, the experience of earth life has no lasting consequences other than to determine whether we will go to heaven or hell.
So you have Einstein, the Beatles, Michelangelo, da Vinci, Churchill and Gandhi and all kinds of great human beings doing all sorts of great things here on earth — but once they get to heaven, someone sticks a lyre in their hands and tells them to start singing. On earth they showed the rest of mankind how great a child of God can be — but in heaven, they are expected to repeat one simple-minded task again and again and again. Why would God go through the trouble of creating a Picasso just to take away his paintbrush?
And it’s not just the greats — it’s all of us. We all went through weird adventures, we all faced difficult moral dilemmas, hardship and tragedy, we all did our best to contribute to a family or to the world; we built a personality, a life, a little universe within each of us; we took our time on earth and made of it a unique story, a living artwork.
Yet, none of that appears to impress God, our Creator, in the least. In fact, God seems so unimpressed with his creations that he plans to completely erase everything we’ve become.
The Difference Between a Pet and A Child of God
Granted, in the traditional version of eternity we would at least be happy. But it’s a mindless kind of happiness, like a dog is happy at the foot of his master. The dog doesn’t mind eating the same food every day, going for the same walk every day, facing no real challenges, never changing. It’s as if God put in a lot of e ort creating man, then realized what he really wanted was several billion pets.
To Mormons, earth life is the unique gift of individuality. This is where we develop a conscience and a personality and learn what love is. It is not only a testing ground, it is where we discover who we really are, and it lays the foundation for all the phases of our lives yet to come. The Mormon vision of eternity is a vision of the eternal self. It recognizes the human being as a divine work that each of us helps creates in our lifetime, a thing worth preserving and continuing, a thing God loves so much he cannot let it disappear.
In the endlessness that is eternity, traditional Christians are meant to be able to look back on earth life and say, “I’m glad that’s over.” Mormons will look back and say: “You know, it was tough, but sometimes I think those were the best years of our lives.”
Eric T. Hansen is an American writer of nearly a dozen fiction and non-fiction books in German. He left the Mormon church 25 years ago and today and lives in Berlin. “Losing My Religion,” published by Hula Ink, is his first book in his mother tongue. (www.hulaink.com)