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.
Phenomenal piece, Andrew. As per usual.
My only response would be to say that the Incarnation is more important to this discussion from an orthodox Christian viewpoint than you have let on here. You mentioned it, of course, but it’s an issue of emphasis. Orthodox trinitarian Christians don;t think about our unembodied, amorphous God. We think about our completely embodied God, the man Jesus. That’s central to our faith, not an esoteric aside. The story of the author who became part of the story *is* the story of Christianity.
You raise questions about Jesus’s maleness that are interesting, though. And it leaves me wrestling. On the one hand, the particularity of Jesus’s incarnation is one of it’s features: Jesus didn’t become a generalized human, he became a particular human, with a sex/gender, an ethnicity, a social class, a sexuality, (maybe not a “race” as we think of it now, given the history of race as a social construct), and a particular context in time and space. On the other hand, we believe Jesus became fully human. Does that mean that only first century Semitic males are fully human, or does it mean there is something deeper to Jesus’s humanity than those identities? The latter has to be the answer.
“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.” I agree that the claim has merit. It doesn’t help that we avoid grouping ourselves with other divisions of Christianity. Robert Millet said, “Although we have many things in common with different denominations, we are not a part of Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant Christianity. Instead, we claim that ours is an entirely different expression of original Christianity—restored Christianity.”
I think a major part of apologetics today is attempting to find historical evidence that biblical Jews and biblical Christians had beliefs about embodied and/or gendered deity. Margaret Barker is especially popular with her work on Asherah. For many Mormons, these ideas lend legitimacy to our claims.
Right, I think I should have emphasized the incarnation more in the original post — but I also think that’s something I would really like to hear more from traditional Christians, especially about the relationship with Jesus’s particular body, as you yourself address in your comment.
I am definitely sure that the answer would be that humanity is something more than sex/gender, ethnicity, etc., etc., etc., but I don’t think that each of those things is seen as irrelevant to one’s humanity. Like, I could have written another post about this, but I think somehow Mormons get the idea that traditional Christians are anti-body (through things like the fall narrative), and that Mormonism restores the value of the embodied human…but this isn’t really true. Really, the Gnostics were the ones saying that the spiritual was to be preferred over the physical, whereas the Christians had always been saying that humanity requires the appropriate integration and ordering of all elements (body, spirit, soul).
Ultimately, even if the great apostasy narrative is found to be in any sense correct, Mormons probably shouldn’t be arguing, “We’re Christians too.” Whether Mormonism is an innovation to Christianity or is a restoration of an original Christianity that everyone else so fully departed from, Mormonism stands apart. The thing about Millet’s quote that intrigues me is how much he (and I think, many Mormons) really wants to have that Christian label, even if he accepts that it’s not the same as what Catholics, Orthodox, or Protestants are using. But for me, I wonder: what really is the point then?
I think the lack of precision in describing the non-LDS God is a huge benefit. If God is some sort of mysterious entity, then we can say that images of God are just representations of an unknowable ideal. I’ve seen God, Jesus, and Mary depicted in the many countries I’ve travelled to, and they are generally depicted according to local ethnicity. African God is Black, Vietnamese God is Asian, Mexican God is Mexican, and so forth.
There is that bit about being “created in His image” so I maybe that’s why white people started picturing God as white. I think Mary Ann blamed white God, Jesus, and Mary on the Italian Renaissance. I grew up in a mostly white culture, I have to admit that the first time I saw a black Jesus (on black velvet) in a flea market, I did a double take This was many decades ago, and it was considered pretty radical at the time.
Personally, since I was raised as a non-Mormon, once I reached maturity, I stopped trying to visualize God as a physical reality. He’s more of an ideal or a concept, and I have no visual image of him (that includes race and gender). I consider images such as the Sistine Chapel and John Huston in “The Bible” just to be relatable representations to make the abstract visible.
Now, the traditional Christian representation is still problematic. When talking to Mary Ann on the other referenced post, I looked up “trinity doctrine” on wiki to see if I could make sense of it (nope!). I long ago stopped trying. It was gobblety-gook when I first got the sales job in Sunday school at a tender age, and it’s still gobblety-gook on wiki. So I’m content to just let it float around in there and not think about it much.
All that being said, I have even *more* problems with Mormon cosmology where everything is physically real. There are the racial and gender issues, logical paradoxes, and logistical problems that arise when things go from abstract to literally real. You’ve covered that side pretty well, I think. I think my preference for the abstract has a lot to do with how I practice religion as an individual. I decided long ago that religion isn’t factual, logical, and scientific. So when I go to church, I just shut off that side of my brain and try to experience whatever’s left over (along with whatever moral message there is in the sermon). Personally, I find value in letting go like that, so that’s why I go to church every week.
On the incarnation… this is just my personal take, and it might not be the official theological position:
Stuff about the trinity was pretty vague in my mind, growing up. The Apostle’s Creed (or Nicene Creed) that I recited said Jesus was the same “substance” as God and came into existence at the same time as God. On the other hand, it says “begotten not made” so, somehow Jesus was the same as God, but also born of God. But not created by God. Further on, it says Jesus was born to Mary and given a human body… just so he could be crucified. You can see how a feller would be confused by all that.
From a practical perspective, the thing that was emphasized around Christmas time was that Jesus was born of Mary and given a physical body. All the preachers said this was so Jesus could die for our sins (that part has never quite made sense to me either). Anyway, that was the gist of “incarnation” theology from the pulpit.
Basically, thinking about it makes my head hurt. So I don’t think about it.
Too bad, anon, because there’s incredible depth, satisfaction and delight to be found in the Trinity and the Incarnation.
Anon, that pic of a white Jesus I shared awhile back was from 425 A.D. I just blame early European Christians.
Kullervoo, “Jesus didn’t become a generalized human, he became a particular human, with a sex/gender, an ethnicity, a social class, a sexuality, (maybe not a “race” as we think of it now, given the history of race as a social construct), and a particular context in time and space.” Isn’t this where Christian saints of various denominations kind of fill the void? Women can trust that Mary understands particular female trials, so she’s a good intercessory for them. Saints associated with certain locations would also feel like avenues of divine aid tailored to specific mortal challenges.
“Isn’t this where Christian saints of various denominations kind of fill the void? Women can trust that Mary understands particular female trials, so she’s a good intercessory for them. Saints associated with certain locations would also feel like avenues of divine aid tailored to specific mortal challenges.”
One thing I’ll say about the trinity doctrine is that at least when I was growing up in the LDS church, I was taught a fairly distorted view of the trinity — and I think it was to try to distinguish it from Mormonism. This could, again, make an entire post on its own (XD, so I’ll probably have to do that).
For me, I was taught that in Mormonism, the Godhead is Heavenly Father, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost, who are all definitely different persons committed to the same goals. That makes sense, right?
So, then, what was the Trinity? Well, since I was taught that Mormonism’s unique take was that Heavenly Father, Jesus, and the HG are all definitely separate, then I had the impression that in traditional Christianity’s trinity of “three in one” that maybe there was just one person in the trinity, and that it just had different states? I thought of like different roles “God as father…but a father is also a son to another…and a son is a husband to another”…or as states of matter (water, ice, vapor).
It was only after disaffecting from Mormonism that I learned that no — all of those are examples of heretical, non-trinitarian explanations (e.g., modalism).
So, what was the Trinity’s three in one thing really? Well, from looking at the Trinity Shield, I saw something that seemed to me to be very Mormon. Heavenly Father is God. Jesus is God. The Holy Spirit is God. But each is a separate person from the other.
I can’t say I’m an expert on the trinity (I mean, there’s a reason the term “mystery” is used…), but it seems to me that Mormonism actually doesn’t really disagree with that aspect of the trinity, and that’s not the tricky aspect of the Trinity. To the contrary, it’s a bunch of the other philosophical setup that seems difficult to comprehend (things like divine simplicity, being the ‘same substance’ [as you mention in your comment], and so on…I can understand the basic idea that certain traits don’t work with an eternal, necessary being [e.g., being material doesn’t work], but some of the other stuff is still over my head).
But as you have said in this thread and on others, because Mormonism’s theology is a bit more tangible, there’s more stuff to really grasp onto and critique.
I think what I appreciate more and more about traditional Christianity is that even though there is that mystery and experiential component, there is also the attempt to ground it rigorously in logic. In other words, even if divine simplicity and all of that stuff is difficult for me to track, there’s something to be said that that’s stuff that’s been logically thought through for hundreds of years. Like, I wince at the phrase “shut off that side of my brain” — I definitely get the idea of “living into” religion, getting away from all the head stuff and into the heart stuff (as Dan Wotherspoon of Mormon Matters would say), but I think that Christianity definitely has strong intellectual traditions for it.
“Women can trust that Mary understands particular female trials, so she’s a good intercessory for them. Saints associated with certain locations would also feel like avenues of divine aid tailored to specific mortal challenges.”
That is *exactly* my experience of the Catholic faith, particularly outside the United States. I think that some polytheistic cultures used saints as a bridge to christendom or maybe as a way of practicing their polytheistic religion on the sly. I have no problem with that. For a fictional depiction of this dynamic, read “Aztec” by Gary Jennings.
Andrew, the piece you’re missing from your read of the shield of the trinity that makes it irreconcilably different from the Mormon Godhood is that each of Father, Son and Holy Ghost is completely and fully God, but there’s only one God. They’re not three parts of a God (that’s another heresy–tritheism). Each one of them, all by himself, is God, but there is only one God. God’s what-ness (one) is independent of his who-ness (three).
By contrast, the complete fullness of the Mormon Godhead does not reside in the Mormon Jesus.
Eh…I don’t know if Mormons would say Heavenly Father, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost are three Gods (even if their not doing so is not logically coherent), so I don’t see being able to appeal to Mormonism as being different from the Trinity on that point. In other words, on the point of the Trinity, Mormons would agree, “Each of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost is completely and fully God, but there is only one God”. I think your follow-up comment on Godhead has a point, but, I dunno. (I think most Mormons are probably not going to think about things rigorously. I know it took me a long time to consider a difference between “person” and “being”.)
I think the bigger issue for Mormonism is things like suggesting that God is the same species as us (and thus, we can just learn more to become gods — and since we wouldn’t be part of that trinity, that very much would be multiple gods), or to suggest that there were other folks like Heavenly Father to progress to his state who have their own universes (and thus, they would be different Gods). But again, you can get at this criticism a loooot easier than to say “Mormons don’t believe in the Trinity” (which instead makes Mormons focus on the who-ness, because Mormons aren’t focusing on the particular of the what-ness).
For Jesus to be God, the Father to be God and the Holy Ghost to be God, but there to be only one God, you either have to be equivocating (which is what I think Mormons are doing) or you have to have some kind of holy mystery. That’s why I (and the creeds and confessions) make the point about the fullness of God. Jesus isn’t fully God the way that my black t-shirt is fully black. Jesus is fully God in the sense that the fullness of God resides within Jesus. Son by himself is the same amount of God as Son + Father or Son + Father + Holy Ghost. When Jesus stands before you, the entirety of God is standing before you.
This definitely is getting more into the territory of things that make my head spin, but I guess that’s what mysteries are for.
I think I did want to go back to one thing from an earlier comment — I would very much like to know more about the mindset behind Mary and various Saints in Catholicism. Like, I know those aren’t considered in any way to be equivalent or comparable to Jesus, but I would probably want more than a “lol nope” on their roles in appealing to people of diverse backgrounds and makeups.
Andrew, good post. I think its important to distinguish that Mormonism’s God is not “embodied” but anthropomorphic. There is no overarching Great Spirit embodying Heavenly Father, other than His personal Spirit (not the Holy Ghost) which is eternally connected to His body, same as 0ur spirits are connected to our bodies. He has other God ancestors like we have our own ancestors, and those God ancestors all have their own personal spirits.
You ponder whether the LDS conception of God is more or less approachable than a traditional Spirit God. I would say yes and no. An anthropomorphic God is very imaginable, and His role as father is literal rather than figurative. Mormons envision God as a Father waiting with open arms for them to return home. But an anthropomorphic God is also separate. You can never be “one” with such a God in any kind of literal way. The closest you can get is hugging.
But a traditional God can dwell in your heart, can be in you, around you, above and beneath you, bearing you up with His literal person. The role of Spirit-God is played by the Holy Ghost in LDS culture. But Mormons don’t cultivate a “relationship” with the Holy Ghost. They pray to God and God responds through the Holy Ghost almost like a kind of divine language. The true embodied God, Jesus, is also off-limits to pray to. Jesus is everything to Mormons, but they can’t even pray to him. They have to talk to God, who returns His love via the Holy Ghost, and Mormons imagine the whole thing as somehow connected to Jesus. All this separateness could possibly be seen as diluting the intimacy and approachability one has with God.
A traditional God is not separate from Jesus and the Holy Ghost. You can pray to Jesus or God or the Holy Ghost. You can even pray to Mary, the “theotokos” or God-bearer, who exists as a way to put some kind of distance between us and God, because God can be TOO intimate, God in us, eating the flesh of Christ in the eucharist. Mary is literally “God in us” so she is a way of thinking about God coming into the world with a little bit of materiality to create some distance and perspective. Saints are also ways of creating distance from too intimate a God. We are too vulnerable, too weak, to fearful, and we need Saints who can bear the intimacy of God’s incredible love when we can’t bear it ourselves.
Nate, these are good points — and they seem to make sense given the differences in the theologies.
Your explanation of Saints seems plausible, but I would love to be able to hear from more people on if that’s their experience/motivation there.
Perhaps the limitations of the embodied God you have addressed are some of the reasons for:
“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth”
We have been told that male and female were created in the image of God, but God seems much more interested in our understanding the attributes of love, mercy, compassion, etc. than the physical features that are in artistic (mis)representations.
Even those individuals who knew Christ personally did not recognize him after the resurrection, but most I assume most Christians would expect to recognize Christ by appearance based on the similarities of the drawings/paintings/sculptures they have been exposed to. My personal feeling is that God would want us to learn to recognize him in anyone who shares his character (independent of race, gender, age, or any other limitation we choose), rather than judging by the outward appearance.
Sorry, Andrew, my “lol nope” was not directed at the idea that Mary and other saints could appeal to people of diverse backgrounds and makeups, but at Mary Ann’s notion that prayer to saints is a feature of Christianity generally. Praying to saints is generally limited to Roman Catholicism, eastern Orthodoxy and some Anglo-Catholics. Reformation-heritage Protestants have soundly rejected it as a violation of the First Commandment. We have one advocate with the Father–Jesus Christ.
Prayer to saints covers 90%+ of all Christians.
Discussion of how we all perceive God (similar to our characteristics whether racial, etc.) brings me to question our perception outside of sight , hearing, smell, touch etc. How did the blind man perceive Jesus before he could see? Will we have a similar experience when we die/become resurrected? Are there other senses available to us only after mortality? Does God have other senses? Thanks for the inspiration to consider these ideas.
Are there other senses available to us only after mortality?
Well, bees can see polarized and UV light. Sharks can see electric fields. Homing pigeons can sense magnetic fields. We’d need something like that, because looking at God is fatal, apparently: “And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.” — Exodus 33:20
Andrew, just an interesting aside: check out Orthodox icons of Jesus on the Cross. There’s a reason He’s depicted with that strangely female-ish hourglass shape. This is to universalize His body to both genders. It’s also my understanding that he is depicted with a cloth around his genitals, not out of modesty (and He was almost certainly naked when crucified) but to ensure that His body was not depicted as TOO male. Icons are depictions of theology, not historical accuracy, and this is one of the starker examples.
“This is to universalize His body to both genders. ”
Well, except for the beard and mustache…. 😉
I think that’s a very interesting perspective, that I hadn’t heard before (and…unfortunately, haven’t really seen in any other quick googles).
In contrast, I did find an article that justified the male-only priesthood based on the maleness of Jesus’s incarnation (which means that Ikons of Christ — referring to priests — must also be male).
And I mean, I can appreciate that people would still draw meaning and theological significance from the choice of God to incarnate in the male form, but that really does not speak well for the universality there.
Andrew, that argument about maleness and priesthood is the standard Orthodox view (in my observation). There is a minority opinion (that Jesus’s maleness isn’t essential to who He was) but it’s a very small minority I think.
Yeah, it seems to me that it’s more historical and theologically sound to say that Christianity is not egalitarian, and is heteronormative. In this, I mean that I doubt — even though I would prefer it — that more progressive denominations are making theologically correct moves to have female priests or be LGBT-affirming.
But that’s still a deal breaker to me.
Yes, I think you’d be standing on reasonable ground to say that traditional Christianity as interpreted by the major Catholic/Orthodox/Coptic tradition is neither egalitarian as we define it these days and is also heteronormative. I’m not as much of a hardliner as you on whether this is a feature rather than something less essential though. I think when looking at social realities you might be right, but not theological ones (liberal Christian denominations seem to dissipate over time for sociological reasons rather than theological ones in my opinion).
And now that I think of it (right after I click post comment), one difference between Mormonism and other churches is the lived experience of non-egalitarianism. So for instance, in Orthodoxy only men can be priests. But the priest occupies a much more subdued and largely liturgical role in Orthodoxy than, say, a Bishop in Mormonism. Women can give blessings, be confessors, and even in some cases baptize if necessary. Church leaders don’t really make massive decisions that have large-scale effects – the Church just kind of plugs along like it always has.
The situation for LGBT is much, much worse though and unfortunately this doesn’t seem like it’s changing anytime soon. And unfortunately, I went from a church where I had some social capital to try to effect change in this area, to a church (Orthodoxy) where I have much less social capital. It’s a bummer for me.
Since you asked for perspectives on the intercession of the saints and different saints appeal to different people.
My favorite saint is St. Thomas More. I think this is because his martyrdom was all about the intellect: He could not sign the document that would have saved his life, because it would have involved a falsehood. He would have been professing to believe something that he did not in fact believe. In a sense he laid down his life for the truth. Since I live life largely inside my head, this appeals to me.
Yet he was well known for not living life only within his head, but was also kind and gracious towards people from all walks of life, when he served a judge. For these reasons he’s a very appealing role model for me, as an example of, yes, the importance of reason, and that words and ideas mean things, and what they mean is essential since they express truth — or not. And yet, knowing the truth without acting on it is like faith without works.
So I look to him with great respect and admiration, but also enter into a relationship of sorts with him, in that I know I can pray to him — the very man himself — for his intercession, that I might receive the grace to emulate what I admire in him.
All that being said, he’s nothing like Jesus. I know that we both in common look to Jesus as the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end of everything. If I admire and respect what St. Thomas did, I also know that he only did it for Christ’s sake, and by his gracious assistance. If St. Thomas died for truth, Jesus IS the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Not sure if that’s what you were looking for … : )
That’s really spot on for what I was looking for. It’s really intriguing. The concepts of things like patron saints, etc., Is very interesting to me, although maybe that’s partially because it’s so very different to me.
That difference in the practical roles for priesthood is pretty interesting, I think. It just goes to show that differences move beyond just theology and beliefs into institutional sorts of differences as well.
About praying to saints….
I grew up protestant, but I’ve been going to a catholic church since getting married. All churches work for me. 🙂 Anyway, my elderly mother-in-law lived with us for a few years, and she’s from the “old country” (don’t want to be specific so as to give away my identity). She’s a very conservative catholic. I was kind of surprised that she wanted religious icons in every room of the house. Every room had a crucifix (always the highest object on the wall), some rooms had little altars with votive candles, and there were pictures and statues of various saints along with Mary, Joseph and Jesus in almost every room. Also rosaries draped over stuff. By contrast, in a protestant household, we *might* have had one Jesus picture or possibly a cross, but that was all.
At church, there was a patron saint for that church and there was a statue of that saint that people prayed to and touched as they entered. There were also statues of Mary and Joseph in little alcoves in front of the church to each side of the large, fairly elaborate crucifixion scene in the middle. This is very unlike a typically sparse protestant sanctuary. I think that older folks, especially, seemed to revere the different saints and especially Mary. I remember Mom would constantly be saying Hail Mary under her breath all day long. She also made my wife chant prayers for quite a long time most evenings. Basically, the catholic devotion to religious icons and personages was much more fervent and frequent than I was used to, coming from a protestant background. I never got into all that stuff, but you don’t really have to in order to attend a catholic church.
I already mentioned Gary Jennings’s book “Aztec”. I read it several decades ago, but I remember liking it very much: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aztec_(novel) I recommend it here because I remember it gives some awesome insights into the catholic religion, including how saints are viewed, from the perspective of an outsider. It also talks about the interaction between a people practicing a polytheistic religion with the Spaniards who converted them to Catholicism.
One more thing. My mother in law was very big on chanting Hail Mary and other prayers for specific things. For example, if somebody were going for a job interview or taking a big exam in school, Mom might chant or pray to a saint for that particular event. In contrast, protestant prayers, in my experience, were much more general.
Take all this with a grain of salt. I am not an “expert” catholic, so I might not be describing everything right. 😉
By the way if you haven’t seen “A Man for All Seasons” (about Thomas More) I highly recommend it. It’s truly the kind of mass market movie that isn’t made any more. It won Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for 1966.
“My mother in law was very big on chanting Hail Mary and other prayers for specific things. For example, if somebody were going for a job interview or taking a big exam in school, Mom might chant or pray to a saint for that particular event.”
There is definitely an element of the saints accompanying you in your daily life. I always not only pray to God for a specific thing, but also think to myself who would be the most appropriate saint to ask intercession from in a given situation; sort of a “leave no stone unturned” attitude I suppose. If my own prayers do me any good, then why shouldn’t theirs do as much good if not more?
Of course it’s important to recall that you’re not asking the saint himself to grant your petition, but rather, you’re asking him to pray for the same thing you’re praying for, which is what we call seeking his intercession.
Regarding referring to God as “He” in traditional Christianity, I believe it’s more than just “for linguistic, grammatical, or metaphorical simplicity”. The Church is referred to as a “she”, as “Holy Mother Church”, as well as “the Bride of Christ”, Christ then being the Bridegroom.
Somebody — I can’t recall the source — said that “in relation to God, we’re all female. ” That is, we’re the receptive partners in the man-God relationship, whereas God is the giving partner. Putting it perhaps too graphically, he comes into us, we don’t go into him.
In biblical times people thought of procreation as a male-initiated thing, the man being the active partner in the process, the female the passive partner. The seed goes out of the man into the woman, not the other way around. Looked at from a purely natural, bodily standpoint, this is perhaps the essential thing differentiating the sexes.
So maybe Christ being male was not just an arbitrary choice, or the result of a coin toss: “he had to be one or the other so he may as well have been male”. Maybe it meant something. And if so then the all-male priesthood might share in that same meaning. After all an earthly priest is only a sharer in Christ’s priesthood.
I may be neglecting to make something clear, which is, in Catholic theology, the central thing about Christ is his priesthood. His suffering and death for the sins of mankind is an act of sacrifice, offered by the only priest worthy of making such an offering (being at the same time the only worthy victim of the sacrifice). He is the priest from whom all other priests derive their priesthood. When an earthly priest offers the sacrifice of the Mass, he is only standing in Christ’s place, for the sake of the people present. The real offerer of the sacrifice is Christ himself; otherwise the Mass would be powerless, and would do no one any good.
So, if Christ was male for a reason, and Christ’s central role is that of a priest, then perhaps a priest, as a stand-in for Christ, is also male for a reason.
Agellius: Edward Feser holds the theory (and I’m not sure how strongly he holds it, but he’s stated it at least once) that God is a “He” rather than a “She” in order to distinguish his mode of creation from pagan modes of creation. So “Mother Goddess” pagan traditions imply or explicitly state that God created the Universe out of herself, using the materials of her body, and god as male contrasts from this. I’m not 100% sure I buy this but I think it definitely serves to augment Feser’s main points.
You touch on an interesting point here Andrew. When man does not fully understand God, he often tends to alter God to suit what is comfortable and understandable to him. Case in point the Holy Mother, whether that be the Mormon version or Mary – there is no Biblical or rational basis for the belief that God, all powerful and therefore capable of creating anything He wants, needs a female to assist Him in creating anything. He made them male and female in His image. So His image includes what is imprinted on both men and women, though He clearly identifies Himself as Himself.
But that is hard for man to relate to — we cannot relate as we are not creators in ourselves and women have a hard time relating to a male God since His male people have done some very bad things to his female children. So limited man decides that all powerful creator God needs a wife, which would make them polytheists though they deny polytheism, or that the perfect Savior Jesus, the sole mediator between God and man needs help mediating and adds in a co-mediator in Mary to make approaching God more cozy to them.
But making God comfortable always takes away from God. In the case of Holy Mother of Mormonism, you have made God one of four gods explicitly – Father, Son, Holy Spirit (though I don’t recall exactly where he stands with Mormonism) and Holy Mother and changed creation from a sole work of God to simply a different picture of what we already can do. In the case of Mary, you say that God does not care about His people like He says He does and Jesus needs His mommy to help Him be the Savior of humanity. I am simplifying, but the point is when we put God in a box we create for Him because of our issues, we end up with an idol of our creation rather than God. It is the old question of big God versus little God.
part of the beauty of Mormonism is precisely that Mormonism’s God is a God who weeps.
Everyone knows the shortest verse in the Bible – Jesus wept. Jesus is God, the exact representation of His being per Hebrews. Jesus weeps over Lazarus and over Jerusalem not because He somehow was changed by the incarnation — His incarnation itself and every action He took was expressing the great love of God for the world. Jesus shows us what God is like when He comes as a man, He fully a member of the trinity as He is weeping, as He is taking pity on people and as He is loving people.
It is exactly because He is fully God and one with the Father that we can understand God the Father’s character and go boldly to the throne of grace. The mystery of the Trinity is in how exactly it works that way, not in the nature of God which He has revealed to us through His word and His Son.
Interesting. I’m a big fan of Feser’s. I’m not sure I buy this theory either, but if he endorses it then I assume I’m missing something.
Agellius: Yes, Feser was really instrumental for me converting to Orthodoxy (from Mormonism). I wish I had a reference for you but I don’t remember where I heard him say that. I *think* I can visualize that it was part of a multi-part presentation he gave in a classroom, from YouTube, and it was part of the Q&A session.
I realize that I’m very late to the discussion, but I thought I’d respond about Mary & the saints. Actually, I had quite a bit typed out about Mary & saved in my notes, because I so often come across harsh anti-Catholic accusations & objections from many flavors of Protestants…
Catholics use a method of scripture reading that encompasses the entire Bible, where each passage is read in context of the entire chapter, book, and whole canon (Old Testament and New). We also understand “Typology” which is the way the Apostles understood the Gospel. A deeper and fuller look into the scriptures reveals a whole lot more about Mary, and God’s plan for her in Salvation History!
“The New Testament is concealed in the Old, and the Old Testament is revealed and fulfilled in the New.” ~ St. Augustine of Hippo
Of course, Mary needed a Savior too; we believe that God saved Mary with prevenient grace, and prepared her to become the New Ark whom would be the pure vessel for our Lord. Analogy: you can save someone by preventing them from falling into a ditch, or you can save them by pulling them out of the ditch, after they’ve already fallen in.
Mary still followed all the Jewish laws out of obedience & humility, rather than rebelling against them.
Scripture reveals that Mary is the New Ark of the Covenant. It’s important to note that the old Ark of the Covenant had to be made of the finest, most pure and undefiled materials, and no sinful man could touch it and live (Uzzah touched the Ark with his bare hands while trying to prevent it from falling to the ground, and he was struck dead). The Ark was venerated by the Israelites because it was so Holy and sacred.
The old Ark was overshadowed by the Shekinah Glory ( Holy Spirit).
The New Ark (Mary) was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35)
The old Ark contained:
* The Word of God (written on stone tablets)
* The Miraculous Bread of Heaven (Manna)
* The Rod of Aaron (sign of the ancestral priesthood)
The New Ark (Mary) contained in her womb:
*The Word of God made flesh (Jesus)
*The Living Bread of Life from heaven (Jesus)
*The Eternal High Priest after the order of Melchizedek (Jesus)
– The Old Ark was taken into hill country, where it remained for three months. David arose and went to the hill country to bring up from there the Ark of God.(2 Samuel 6:2)
The New Ark (Mary) arose and went into the hill country of Judah, to visit Elizbeth, and remained there for three months. (Luke 1:39)
– David said, “How can the Ark of the Lord come unto me?” (2 Samuel 6:9)
Elizabeth (inspired by the Holy Spirit) said, “How is it that the mother of my Lord shall come unto me?”(Luke 1:43)
– David leaped and danced in the presence of the Lord (before the Ark). (2 Samuel 6:14)
John the Baptist leaped in his mother’s womb (in the presence of the Lord in Mary’s womb, & upon hearing Mary’s voice). (Luke 1:41)
– The Old Ark:
On the day of the dedication of the Temple built by Solomon, there were 120 priests present (2 Chron. 11), the Ark of the Covenant was brought into the temple (2 Chron. 7), and Fire came down to consume the burnt offering (2 Chron. 7).
The New Ark:
On the day of Pentecost, a company of 120 disciples were gathered, the mother of Christ (Ark of the New Covenant) was present (Acts 1:14), and the Holy Spirit came down as tongues of fire.
Scripture also reveals Jesus as the “New Adam,” and Mary as the “New Eve”:
– Virgin Eve takes her flesh from Adam
Virgin Mary gives her flesh to Jesus
– Virgin Eve listened to a “bad angel,” distrusted God, and through her disobedience, sin and death were birthed to the world.
Virgin Mary listened to a “good angel” (Gabriel), trusted God, and through her faith and obedience, hope and salvation were birthed to the world.
– Eve prompted Adam to commit his first “sinful act.” (disobeying God).
Mary prompted Jesus to perform His first “glorious act.” (Changing water to wine at the wedding of Cana).
– Adam names Eve “Woman” prior to her sinful fall.
Jesus (the “New Adam”) calls Mary “Woman” at the Wedding of Cana, not to denigrate her, but to hearken back to Genesis, and reveal Mary’s role alongside Him as the “New Eve.” This title “Woman” also points forward to Revelation 12, which describes Mary as the “Woman at war with the dragon.”
– Eve is the “Mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20)
Mary is the “Mother of all living in Christ keeping His commandments (Revelation 12:17). At the foot of the Cross (the tree of Life), Jesus gives His mother to His beloved disciple John. This is symbolic of her becoming the spiritual mother to all His disciples (Christians) and the Church (John 19:17).
– Enmity is put between Eve and Satan (Genesis 3:15)
There is enmity between Mary and Satan (Revelation 12). Genesis 3:15 is also seen as the “protoevangelium,” fortelling of Mary and Jesus and Jesus’ eventual triumph over satan.
“And thus also, it was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the Virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the Virgin Mary set free through faith.” (St. Iraneaus, ca. A.D. 180)
So, the belief that Mary is the “Ark of the New Covenant” (the old Ark of the Covenant was constructed with the most pure materials & was considered to be very holy), & the belief that she is “the New Eve” (both Adam & Eve were conceived without original sin, as was Jesus whom is referred to as the “New Adam”) leads us to believe that Mary was conceived without original sin in preparation to carry God incarnate in her womb.
Also, when the angel Gabriel visited Mary with the message that she would conceive, he said, “chaire kecharitomene,” which rightly translates to “Hail, full of grace” or “hail, one who has been perfected by grace.” He greeted her with “hail,” which is an unusual greeting for an ordinary person, usually it’s only used to address royalty or nobility. Then, he didn’t call her Mary; he addressed her as “kecharitomene” (full of grace), as if that was her name. If one is “full of grace,” then technically, they don’t have any sin in them. So this, along with Biblical evidence to believe that Mary is both the “Ark of the New Covenant,” and the “New Eve,” leads us to believe that God saved her with prevenient grace, preserving her from the stain of original sin, in preparation to be the Ark which would carry the Word of God incarnate (in her womb), and to be the Mother of Jesus.
Mary is referred to as the “Mother of God” because she is the mother of Jesus, whom is God. She gave birth to the whole person of Jesus, not just His human nature. We do not believe that she is a “goddess” or that she came before God.
When Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth, Elizabeth was moved by the Holy Spirit and proclaimed “How is it that the mother of my Lord shall come to me?” Elizabeth could only have been referring to God when she said “Lord,” because Mary was a virgin and could neither be the mother of Elizabeth’s husband or King Herod, who might have also been referred to as “lord.”
Mary is also recognized by the “Queen of Heaven,” because Jesus is the “King of Kings”, descending from David. In Ancient Israel, the mother of the King had the title and role of being the “Queen” of the kingdom. The “queen mother” was known as an advocate for the people of the kingdom and would often intercede on their behalf.
Everything that we believe and proclaim about the Blessed Virgin Mary, is really Christocentric – it all points to Jesus, and reveals and affirms who He is. And we honor her because she is the mother of Jesus, whom kept the law perfectly and honored His Father & mother, and we are called to imitate Him. We love her as our own mother, because she is the “mother of the Church,” and whoever will not receive Mary as their mother, does not truly receive Jesus as their “brother.” We venerate her as the Ark of the New Covenant, just as the Israelites venerated the ark, and we understand her important role as the “New Eve” in Salvation History alongside her Son. She is the perfect example of a Christian disciple, who trusted God, and said “Yes” to Him, when she said”Let it be done to me according to Thy word.” And she always points us to Jesus, as she says “do whatever He tells you.” Mary is like the moon that reflects the light of the sun (the Son, Jesus), and she doesn’t detract from God, her soul MAGNIFIES the Lord.
Catholics, as well as Orthodox Christians, still practice the Apostolic faith and believe in the Communion of Saints – a belief that was held by all Christians for at least the first 1500 years since the very beginning of Christianity. There’s even archaeological evidence that the earliest Christians believed in praying to the saints and martyrs – there are inscriptions on the tombs and in the catacombs that say “pray for us.”
Prayer does not equate to worship. “To pray” means “to ask.” Just as we’d ask our fellow brethren on earth to pray for us, we ask the saints and angels in heaven. We do not believe that the saints who’ve passed are dead. They are more alive in the Body of Christ in heaven than we are on earth, and the saints in heaven have been purified and made perfect and are in perfect communion with God – sharing in His beatific vision. We believe that the saints and angels pray with us and for us, Which is only possible through Christ; they can only hear our prayers because God has allowed them to, as they have no special powers in & of themselves. Also those existing in heaven are outside the boundaries of space/time, so they do not have the same limitations that we do.
And in Revelation, we see our prayers being offered to God by those already in heaven:
“When He had taken the book, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” (Revelation 5:8)
“Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a golden censer; and much incense was given to him, so that he might add it to the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up before God out of the angel’s hand.…”(Revelation 8:3-4)
There is no shortage of prayers directly to God (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) from Catholics, but we often call upon our brothers and sisters (both here on earth and in heaven) to join us in prayer as well, plus the prayers of the righteous are very efficacious, and those already perfectly sanctified in heaven are more righteous than we are.
Mary is the saint given the highest honor, and is more closely in communion with God than any other saint. She has a special relationship with the Triune God – daughter of the Father, mother of the Son, and spouse of the Holy Spirit. And as “spiritual mother” of the Church, she intercedes for her “children.” During the wedding at Cana, Mary was the first to notice the needs of the people and “interceded” by asking Jesus do do something about the wine.
Jesus also modeled His Kingdom after that of King David’s, which prefigured it. As mentioned before, in the Davidic Kingdom, the mother of the King had the title and role of being the Queen of the kingdom, and would intercede and petition her son (the king) on behalf of the members of the kingdom.
Another reason to believe that Mary has been lifted to the highest honor, is that she was the most humble in her earthly life, and God lifts up the lowly. Mary is still God’s humble servant, serving God from heaven – she has often been His messenger in much the same way that God has sent the Angels as messengers (there are many approved apparitions & revelations from the Blessed Mother, although they do not become Church teaching, and no Catholic is obligated to believe in them). Mary magnifies the Lord, and always points us to her Son.
Devotion to Mary and the saints do not deflect or detract away from God – by honoring God’s saints, we give greater glory and honor to God. And we look to the saints who followed Christ and lived out the Christian life fully, as inspiration, example, and encouragement. We also think of them as family (the Church is a great big heavenly family) and the images are reminders of them and their lives which they lived out for God. The images/relics/statues of the saints are not idols. An idol is something other than God that is worshiped as god(s). No Catholic believes that inanimate objects or that the saints are gods (or that they are even close to being on the same level as God) and no Catholic “worships” them as gods. Veneration means giving honor and respect to whom the images or relics represent, and in recognition to the saints, we are really directing honor and glory to God.