In the comments to Hawkgrrrl’s post on New Mormonism was an interesting discussion about the physicality of Mormonism’s God. This reminded me of a quick sketch I saw from an LDS artist friend that was posted over the past General Conference weekend featuring Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother. It was a good sketch, so I don’t want to post that picture for people to criticize it (any images in this post are not that sketch, obviously), but I will say that there was something that struck me about it: it was just so white.
I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with being white. But it struck me that Mormonism appeals to an embodied God to point out that there are certain features of body that matter. Certainly, Mormonism wants gender (as exemplified by physical sex) to matter — hence, Heavenly Father is most assuredly a man, and that is not just a metaphor. As Mary Ann discussed, Mormons officially have a theology of a Heavenly Mother, although there are caveats to how far that theology can go with how little has been said about Her.
And of course, Mormonism has had a difficult history with whether race matters. At the very least, Mormonism’s legacy of a racialized priesthood ban allows for the possibility of thinking that God has a race, and that race matters.
My impression (and this is what I feel, whether informally or formally, I was taught to believe when I attended church) is that Mormons believe that the embodied God is an improvement on the body-less God of traditional Christianity (and indeed, this came out in the comments section to Hawkgrrrl’s post…although non-Mormon commenters predictably had different thoughts). I grew up with the impression that the divine mystery of the Trinity as espoused by non-LDS Christians should be seen as an amorphous, unapproachable, nonsensical being. In contrast, Mormonism’s Heavenly Father was tangible, so — somehow — Mormon theology was more tangible, more real.
To be fair, there are big differences between LDS Christian theology about God and non-LDS Christian theology about God, and I can see how one can compare and contrast the two. What Mormons call amorphous and unapproachable, traditional Trinitarian Christians would emphasize as being the central sacred mystery of the Christian faith…and they would also emphasize that the ontological difference between God as creator and humans as creature would mean that yes, in some sense God is not “approachable” — except through His Grace and mercy by which he continually approaches us, even though we did nothing to earn it and nothing to deserve it.
This made me wonder…whose God can best appeal to our Human Experience?
Mormonism’s Embodied God
At least theoretically, Mormonism’s embodied God is meant to appeal to our experience as embodied humans. Our mortal struggles are given meaning as part of the mortal test, but we are told that God went through the same, too.
We can talk about the Priesthood as power to act in God’s authority, and the church can defend the Priesthood as being for men by appealing to Heavenly Father’s male gender and sex.
At the same time, at least theoretically, women should not be excluded, because they have a Heavenly Mother to serve as their ultimate guide.
The interaction of Heavenly Father and Mother also gives us the possibility to sacralize various aspects of mortality — we need not think of marriage as simply some sort of metaphor for a relationship God has, but we can think of it as something that our divine parents actually do. We need not think of sexuality (at least, heterosexuality) as being some product of mortality, but we can theorize about how it is a tool used throughout heaven by our divine parents (in some way, shape, or fashion).
…to me, though, I’m not clear if this resolves everything. There are plenty of issues with the theology of Heavenly Mother, as Mary Ann’s post outlines. One big issue is that we simply don’t know a lot about Heavenly Mother, and Heavenly Mother isn’t discussed much in lessons and scriptures. So, if the idea of Heavenly Mother was meant to address some sort of alienation or limitation in the male Heavenly Father’s ability to represent His female-identifying children, then Heavenly Mother as a solution does not seem equitable when we speak of the Father, pray to the Father, preach about the Father, and so on.
But…additionally, an embodied God places other limits. An embodied God where gender and sex matters presents limitations there — Heavenly Father cannot represent men, women, and anyone who identifies otherwise because He is presented as solely and wholly male.
And, as the sketch on twitter suggested to me, there are big questions on whether a canonically white God can represent people of color. I don’t want to make everything about race, but it’s very hard when the church has not had the best track record on race. All of a sudden, it’s unclear as to whether various racial elements within Mormonism represent merely cultural biases…of if they are simply logical conclusions of an embodied God.
Traditional Christianity’s Unembodied God
As I’ve been disaffected from Mormonism, I’ve found that reading more about non-LDS Christianity has given me a lot to think about. In this case, looking at traditional Christianity’s God — which is not bodied precisely because embodiment is seen as contingent in a way that an eternal God cannot be — has made me wonder about the supposed superiority of an embodied God.
Traditional Christianity may not have a Heavenly Mother, for example, but it also doesn’t need one, because it’s understood that God is neither male or female. In a traditional Christian context, referring to God with male pronouns is for linguistic, grammatical, or metaphorical simplicity, rather than an attempt at defining and limiting God.
…Yet, it seems we humans crave some sort of bodily connection with the divine. So, I wonder if that explains some of the popularity of Jesus as fully God and fully human — a merging of the spiritually unembodied divinity with our fully bodied human frailty?
At the same time, I have wondered…can people who do not match the physical description of Jesus of Nazareth fully identify with His body? As I’ve thought of this, I’ve thought about the Catholic veneration of Mary. Is this a way to recognize the importance and vitality of the female body?
So often, I see people look askance at the Catholic veneration of Mary, or the Catholic veneration of the saints, but to me, this seems to be a way of reconciling an unembodied God with the desire to have humans who looked like us, who lived like us, who were and are like us…as people to respect.
The classic view of God is that He (there’s that grammatical simplificiation, again) is without body, parts, or passions. Yet, for those like Terryl and Fiona Givens (the latter of whom formerly was Catholic, and thus formerly was taught much about said impassible God), part of the beauty of Mormonism is precisely that Mormonism’s God is a God who weeps.
But embodiment vs the lack thereof also springs reverberations throughout the rest of theology. For the Givens, God’s vulnerability is key to His ability to appeal to us, but to others, such vulnerability speaks against His power. The God of traditional Christianity is much grander, but the cost of such grandness may be that many cannot directly relate to such a being.
However, regardless of what one believes about which is preferable (although I would love to hear your thoughts), after learning more about the differences in God’s attributes in Mormonism vs traditional Christianity, I’ve begun to understand better why non-LDS Christians may argue that Mormonism believes in “another Jesus” or is not Christian. At the end of the day, the same claim that Mormons make (that Mormons are restoring lost truths about the nature of God) can be used against Mormons to point out that they believe in something that is fundamentally and foundationally different from the God of the rest of Christianity.