Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Doctrine of Exaltation, Part 1: Its Content and Controversy

In an earlier post, I mentioned that, now that the producers of Big Love have shown a small snippet of their version of the endowment in the episode "Outer Darkness," it seemed likely that we would see other depictions of the LDS temple ceremonies; I suggested that it would be worthwhile for Latter-day Saints to be prepared for discussions of the temple ceremonies as these would inevitably arise with their non-LDS acquaintances. However, this is not the only controversial area that the Saints will need to be prepared to discuss, in this post-"Outer Darkness"-era. Another issue that is likely to arise in the future involves an important LDS doctrine underlying the temple ceremonies: the doctrine that, under certain circumstances, after this life, human beings can become divine--that is, the doctrine that men and women may become gods. This is the doctrine of exaltation

Today, I open a series of posts on the doctrine of exaltation. Over the course of the series, I shall consider the following:
  • the content of this doctrine

  • the reason that this doctrine is considered controversial in the majority Christian world

  • why I think that this doctrine will arise with increasing frequency in future public discussions of the LDS faith

  • the basis for stating that this is authentic LDS doctrine

  • the basis for stating that this doctrine is authentically Christian

  • how to discuss this doctrine with members of the general public

The Doctrine of Exaltation: What It Says

Underlying the doctrine of exaltation is the idea that, as the literal children of God, we are meant to obtain the same status as our Heavenly Father. Thus, if we prove ourselves worthy, we are to 'inherit all that the Father has,' including all the divine capacities. Those who attain godhood shall still be subordinate to the Father, but they shall be empowered to have spiritual children and create and populate worlds, as the Father has done.

Why the Doctrine of Exaltation is Controversial

The doctrine of exaltation is controversial because it highlights a fundamental difference between the LDS and other ways of understanding the relationship between God and humanity. The majority Christian understanding of God is deeply influenced by certain currents in ancient Greek philosophy (particularly neo-Platonism). In these forms of Greek philosophy, there is a deep conceptual divide between the realm of the divine (which is entirely spiritual) and the realm of the human (which is basically material). The notion of human beings becoming gods is inconceivable in this kind of philosophy.

The majority Christian churches do not understand the LDS doctrine of exaltation. (For example, they do not understand that only the pure become gods, and that the pure do so only after a lifetime of obedience in this world, followed by a process of training and growth in the next world.) Lacking this understanding, the majority Christian world lumps together the LDS doctrine of deification with the type of polytheistic beliefs seen in the ancient world, such as the traditional popular Greek religion, with its Pantheon of gods. (The popular Greek religion thus had a notion of the divine that was very different from the ideas of the neo-Platonic Greek philosophers.) The gods and goddesses of the ancient Greek Pantheon were basically like regular people given immense power, with all the major human failings--pettiness, jealousy, hunger for control, murderous rage, immorality--writ very large.

Because the majority Christian churches falsely equate the LDS doctrine of exaltation with the ancient Greek notion of polytheism, the majority Christian world is scandalized by the LDS doctrine of exaltation, perhaps more so than by any other LDS doctrine or practice. Sensing this negative reaction, it seems that many Latter-day Saints have responded by simply avoiding this doctrine altogether, in discussion with non-LDS people.

There are several problems with this approach. First, it appears duplicitous to others; it looks as if we preach one set of doctrines to the world outside the Church, and another set within the Church. Second, it leaves the Saints unprepared to discuss the doctrine when it comes up in discussion with non-LDS people. These problems become especially important when we realize that discussions of this doctrine have now become inevitable, and will become a part of our interchanges with the non-LDS world with increasing frequency.

In Part II: Why discussions of this doctrine will become increasingly frequent in the future.

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