The inspiration for Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony came when Mahler attended the funeral of his friend and colleague Hans Von Bulow. During the funeral the choir sang: “Rise again, yes, you shall rise again my dust!” and Mahler later wrote of that moment, “It struck me like lightning…and everything was revealed to me clear and plain.” Mahler used the choral text he heard at the funeral in his new symphony and added these words of his own:
O believe, my heart, O believe:
Nothing to you is lost!
Yours is, yes yours, is what you desired
Yours, what you have loved
What you have fought for!
I love the words nothing to you is lost! That is the essence of the resurrection: the repudiation of loss. All that we have desired, fought for, dreamed of, will be ours in an eternal resurrection. Friends long dead shall be eternal companions, youth and vigour shall return, home and family shall be ours forever. It is the deepest and truest of all human desires. And Mahler, as skeptical and doubtful as he was about religion in general, was drawn to this belief with a strange power and to his death never lost his hope in a resurrection.
Mormons, more than any other religion I can think of, celebrate this particular vision of the afterlife. In other Christian theologies, heaven is a foreign place, with “no marriage or giving in marriage.” But in LDS theology, life in heaven is just like life on earth, only “coupled with eternal glory.” The title of Samuel Morris Brown’s book In Heaven as it is On Earth perfectly expresses the essence of LDS theology: the celebration of earthly as eternal.
Yet in addition to the restoration of our mortal frame, we are also promised “all that the Father hath” and a glory greater than “eye hath seen or ear heard.” For me, this a paradox. How can “all that the Father hath” be contained within the singularity of one resurrected body? How is it that we are content to return to the narrow impositions of this life when we are promised an infinite abundance? Our life on earth is a grain of sand in the endless expanse of eternity, yet the parents we are given and the genetic traits we are randomly assigned become the defining factors for the rest of eternity?
The Resurrection as Metaphor for Abundance
The LDS theology of eternal families comes from D&C 132, the very section that also gives us our worst nightmare: polygamy. Collectively, we reject the polygamy part of the revelation and extract the eternal marriage part. Sans polygamy, eternal marriage seems designed by a loving Heavenly Father to provide a way for us to stay together forever. But this was not the spirit of the original doctrine. Even though we all abhor polygamy, let us consider its application in this particular scripture:
…and I will bless him and multiply him and give unto him an hundred-fold in this world, of fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, houses and lands, wives and children, and crowns of eternal lives in the eternal worlds.”
This afterlife vision is not simply a restoration of our deepest loves in life, but a vision of abundance: mothers, brother, sisters, houses, lands, wives, children, crowns. Polygamy, for all of its drawbacks, is a metaphor for abundance, the abundance of wives, along with the abundance of every other facet of life: lands, houses, crowns, etc. What if the essence of the scripture is not polygamy, but abundance and multiplication? What if God is trying to expand our narrow expectations for existence and put them on an infinite plane? Perhaps we can only understand the concept of expansion by expanding the temporal: wife becomes wives, land becomes lands, house becomes houses. And ultimately, perhaps these are simply metaphors that we use to understand something infinite. Scientists already posit something similar in the “Many Worlds Theory” where an infinite number of universes parallel to our own already exist, and that carbon copies of ourselves exist in these universes too.
The Resurrection as a Metaphor for God’s Love
Directly related to the paradox of resurrection is paradoxical nature of God, who is both the infinite creator of the universe, and a resurrected being housed in a small frame of flesh and bone. Joseph Smith mocked the Trinitarian God without parts or passions that fills the universe: “He would be a wonderfully big God—he would be a giant or a monster.” Yet for most other Christians, the LDS God is monstrous. Can the Almighty be constrained within a narrow human frame? It’s easy to believe in a mysterious Universal Force which guides the cosmos. That’s almost scientific. But that this Universal Force happens to be in the form of a homo erectus, a primate from our tiny planet?
While this paradox has long perplexed me, I have no reason to doubt Joseph Smith and his First Vision. In the movie Contact, Jodi Foster makes contact with an alien species so foreign to her understandings that it would have been impossible for her to relate to them. So to communicate with her, the alien downloads her thoughts and takes on the form of her dead father. The alien embraces Jodi, weeps with her, calls her by her pet name. The intimacy is astounding and beautiful. What if God is similar? He loves the world so much that He takes upon Himself our flesh, not just in Christ, but in all His manifestations with mankind? It would be a way of showing His love, of trying to relate to us in our mortal state. God’s anthropomorphic nature could be the dimension He uses to communicate with us, but there might be other dimensions of His being as well.
When we think about heaven, terms like “infinite,” or “all that the Father hath,” are simply too abstract for us to wrap our minds around. So God takes the tiniest slice of that heaven, a little slice we care deeply about: the restoration of what we had on earth, and this is what He advertises heaven to be like. You probably know the Christmas story,The Littlest Angel. A little angel, newly arrived from his life on earth doesn’t adapt very well to the new rules in heaven. But when the time comes for him to present a gift to the Christ child, he gives Christ what was most precious to him, a small wooden box containing his humble treasures from his life on earth. Like the littlest angel, LDS doctrine takes our wooden boxes of earthly treasures, and makes a heaven out of it.
Transcending the Resurrection
The idea of a Resurrection was not universal among the Israelites in the Bible. The New Testament recounts the tensions between the Pharisees, who believed in the resurrection and the Sadducees who did not. When we read Ecclesiastes, we also get a sense that the resurrection did not figure in the author’s worldview. Solomon writes:
Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works. Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment…Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.
The Book of Ecclesiastes is a meditation on word “vanity.” Vanity here does not mean superficiality, but is used to express the transient nature of life on earth. By embracing life’s vanity and enjoying it only for what it is in the moment, one can find transcendence and overcome covetousness, learning to trust God as Job: “the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” Ecclesiastes is not so popular among Mormons. My wife quoted the above scripture for a “spiritual thought” when she was a temple worker, and her choice of scripture was met with some scepticism among her supervisors. She tried to explain: “It says, ‘let thy garments be white,’ so I thought it would be perfect for the temple!”
Yet there is joy to be found in transience and temporality. There is transcendence to be found in trust and love for God without thought of reward. As the ancient Spanish monk wrote: “Even if there were no heaven, I would love thee. Even if there were no hell, I would fear thee.” God’s love is greater than all the things which we have set our heart upon in this life.
In the end, I can’t decide which religious philosophy I prefer. I love Mahler’s vision of an earthly triumph through resurrection, and I love Solomon’s sweet renunciation of earthly life’s vanity. How they both relate to a literal afterlife, I don’t know. But I think they both present metaphors of God’s love. Mahler celebrates God’s loving condescension towards us by replicating our earth life for eternity because it is what we love. And Solomon celebrates man’s ascent to God and his renunciation of earth life to trust in a love greater than anything on earth.
- Which brings more peace, embracing life’s transience and trusting a God that giveth and taketh, or knowing that what you love will be yours for eternity?
- Are you bothered by the paradox of a resurrection that is both infinite and anthropomorphic?
- Do you think that polygamy could be interpreted as a metaphor for abundance, rather than a literal depiction of afterlife relationships?
* Take ten minutes and listen to the clip of Bernstein conducting the finale of the Resurrection Symphony at the Edinburgh Festival. It’s one of the most thrilling moments in all of music history and it just might change your life. It did mine.