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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Those Mormons and their polytheism

Check out this article from The Wild Hunt--interesting, nay? I've never personally encountered anyone who considered the LDS religion to be a polytheistic (and therefore "pagan" and "non-Christian") one, but it comes up occasionally in articles that I read, and always, without fail, I am taken aback. Of course it never occurred to me while I was in the church to wonder if my religion was a polytheistic one, and once I left, I had other things on my mind. But now I have all the time in the world to consider such things! 

So. Are Mormons polytheists? This is not really the kind of thing that I think matters, but lots of other people do. Generally I feel like if Christ figures into your belief system as a personal and/or universal savior, you are probably a Christian, and by this measuring stick, the LDS church is a Christian one. I have more than once explained this to people, but it didn't occur to me until just now to wonder whether those people were implying that Mormons were pagans when they said that they didn't think the church was a Christian institution. Maybe they were! Maybe everyone thinks Mormons are pagans and I'm just really oblivious! I think, being in the church and worshiping as a Mormon, it doesn't cross most members' minds that they might be polytheists. But then, if it does, I also think it doesn't cross their minds that this automatically makes them not Christian.

The problem for me with this whole conversation is that there is apparently one very narrow definition of Christianity. You could argue, as some do, that Catholics are pagans and polytheists for their veneration of Mary and the various saints. The possibility of Heavenly Mother adds to the perception of the LDS as polytheists (if you know enough about the church to know about possible Heavenly Mothers). Indeed there is a good bit about Mormonism and the history of the LDS church that is quite pagan--Joseph Smith utilized what amounts to fortune-telling and divination methods (and one of his and following prophets' titles is "Seer"); temple architecture and ceremonies take many aspects from Freemasonry, with its mysterious origins and pan-religious membership, and the mere existence of sacred (or secret) temple rituals is somewhat analogous to mystery cults; and an entire new mythology is found in the Book of Mormon. Interestingly enough, Lorenzo Snow's couplet "As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be" is very close in spirit to the popular pagan adage "as above, so below," generally attributed to Hermes Trismegistus but said by nearly ever major figure in modern Western paganism at some point. Imagine that! We're all cribbing from the same sources, folks. These are not small things. They certainly make the LDS church a peculiar one. But are they enough to cancel out Christ as the centerpiece of the religion?

Not for me. I suppose the commandment "Thou shalt have no other gods before Me" is a pretty clear one (then again, so is "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain," and pretty much ONLY Mormons stick to that one), but then you get into all sorts of arguments about who is speaking: it is God the Father? Is it Jehovah-who-will-be-Christ? Does it matter? If Christ is the same figure as God the Father and God the Holy Ghost, why are they demarcated at all? For Mormons, such questions are even stickier, since LDS dogma indicates that the members of the Godhead are distinct figures, that Jehovah of the Old Testament is Christ, not God the Father, and that God the Father was once a physical human man and is the literal as well as spiritual father of humanity. But does that make Mormons true polytheists? I say ye nay, and here's why--henotheists acknowledge the existence of more than one deity, and active polytheists worship more than one god figure. The LDS church does neither and wouldn't dream of it; you aren't even supposed to be praying to Heavenly Mother in the privacy of your own bedroom. Prayers are without fail addressed to God as "Heavenly Father," and ordinances such as baptism are carried out "in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost" much as other Christian churches' rites are. Practically and functionally speaking, there's no polytheism to see here. Theologically speaking...it's a thicket, man. If you consider the LDS doctrine that all humans who reach the celestial kingdom will eventually become deified, well, that's a very un-Christian idea both in concept and in practice--as far as I know--to think that there are a myriad other worlds with their own Heavenly Parents and Saviors. Mormon theology's greatest sin may be that it wants to have its cake and eat it.

Ultimately, for me, the church's emphasis on Christ as the Savior is enough to make it a Christian institution. That isn't the case for everyone, but I very much abhor the idea that Christians must be monotheists. Basically, to Christians who are concerned that voting for Romney means they won't be voting for a "Christian" I would say: have no fear, he and his running mate share all your bigotries.


postmormongirl said...

I remember feeling really shocked when I first heard that argument - I had never thought of that before.

Diana said...

I really don't think it's something that occurs to many members, probably because the LDS conception of the Godhead is laid out over and over again to the point where it just Is. Obviously I had never really interrogated this before, and I'm kinda glad I had a reason to sit down and think about exactly what people might mean when they state that the church "isn't Christian."

Donna Banta said...

Years ago I took an Eastern Religion course at BYU. The teacher spent one lecture making a very good case that Mormonism is a polytheistic religion, but also Christian. Pretty interesting, and shocking at the time.

Diana said...

From an outside perspective now, it doesn't seem that radical to me. And I know there are members who mix overtly pagan elements with their Mormonism, and members who do actively pray to/worship a Heavenly Mother. It would be nice if they could have a voice in the church, but the feeling I get is that the church wants to be as mainstream as possible while still maintaining their peculiar, in-the-world-but-not-of-the-world stance.

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