I’m going to continue a series on the LDS Gospel Topics Essays that I started a year ago (see here and here), with reference to varioius chapters in the book The LDS Gospel Topics Series: A Scholarly Engagement (Signature Books, 2020). Today, I’ll look at Chapter 2, “Becoming Like God: A Critique,” by Richard Sherlock, a Catholic (previously LDS) professor of philosophy emeritus at USU. Sherlock reviews the LDS essay “Becoming Like God.”

But First, Some Reflections

For the most part, the Essays continue to be largely ignored by official LDS sources. They don’t get referred to in Conference. There aren’t posts at the LDS.org site that highlight them or betray their existence. There are no articles in the Ensign that talk about them. They are more or less hidden in plain sight. Few mainstream members would ever stumble across them unless they already knew they existed and went looking for them, which is plainly how LDS leadership wants it to be. Personally, I’m a little surprised the Essays are even still posted at LDS.org. I strongly suspect the LDS leadership sees the Essays as a dead end, a failed initiative.

The original intention of publishing the Essays, based on my recollection of public statements at the time, seemed to be to put helpful official (as opposed to unofficial apologetic) LDS responses to controversial issues out there, to help particular members troubled by particular issues by giving them such an official discussion, and to help local leaders faced with questions on these issues from their members. I don’t know that any of these goals have been met in a satisfactory manner. It doesn’t seem like the Church has received much credit for the attempt to respond to tough issues. It doesn’t seem like the Essays have really helped many doubting or troubled members, and they seem to have spurred doubts and questions in those mainstream LDS who happen to encounter and read them. And I don’t know that many bishops have found them helpful. The only people who are really “into” the Essays are people like you and me, people who are interested enough in LDS doctrine and history to read books and articles, blog authors and readers.

I Want My Own Planet

Who doesn’t? I would populate my planet with elves, dwarves, humans, hobbits, and, because there must be opposition in all things, orcs and some rebellious Southrons. Running my own planet seems to be heavenly work on the right scale. “Helping run the Universe” seems a little too ambitious, and besides, the Universe seems to run on its own, subject to the physical laws that guide it, quite nicely. Running my own little village is just not enough to keep me busy. So running a planet seems just right. Some of you may want an entire planetary system, along with the responsibility of not letting comets and asteroids smash into your populated planets. On second thought, that has happened rather frequently on Planet Earth, so maybe nudging a big hunk of rock out of a collision trajectory is against the rules. Or some of you more modest folks might be content with just one continent among many. You can play planetary Risk with the other continental divinities (hint: take Australia).

Okay, I’m being a little tongue in cheek in that last paragraph. But there’s nothing particularly objectionable about the LDS view of heaven, reuniting with (some) family members and doing productive work at this or that divinely sanctioned task. The best defense of the LDS view is to consider the standard Christian view of the afterlife, which for those not burning in Hell amounts to playing harps, singing hymns, and endlessly staring at the Most Holy God with awe and reverence. In formal Christian theology, it’s called the beatific vision of God and is presented to believers as perfect happiness, a sort of Christian nirvana. I could do that for maybe a few hours. If you are at the pearly gates with two doors, one labelled “Mormon heaven” and one labelled “Christian heaven,” which would you choose? I’ll take Mormon Heaven for $200, Alex.

That Darn Couplet

The LDS “I am going to be a god and get my own planet” doctrine is rooted in Joseph Smith’s King Follett Discourse. Most LDS have heard the term but haven’t read the discourse. In fact, there is no discourse in the sense of a text written, proofed, and published by Joseph Smith. There is no canonized text of the discourse. There were four individuals in the audience hearing Joseph speak that day who took notes, but real-time note taking was a pretty dodgy practice back in the day. The texts of the discourse you have read (if you have actually read it) are expansions on one of those note records or an amalgamation of several or all of the note records. So there’s a real problem with using the discourse as a basis for such a high visibility doctrine. There is simply no assurance that Joseph Smith actually spoke the particular words or conveyed the recounted ideas that one reads in various texts of the King Follett Discourse. And there is no assurance that if there was an exact transcript of Joseph’s words, or if he had prepared a written text of the discourse that was the basis of his oral sermon that day, that Joseph would have wanted to publish or canonize that text.

The basis for modern Mormon attachment to the “I am going to be a god and get my own planet” doctrine is the Lorenzo Snow couplet. I know you’ve heard it before. “As man now is, God once was. As God now is, man may become.” Like the King Follett Discourse, the couplet was never canonized. It’s not long enough to be a revelation as LDS generally use the term. Lorenzo Snow was not an apostle when he had a flash of poetic insight and penned those words. When he was President of the Church, he did not, to my knowledge, attempt to canonize the couplet or get it inserted in LDS scripture. So, as with the discourse, there’s a real problem using this couplet as the basis for the “I am going to be a God and get my own planet” doctrine. It’s even more problematic as a basis for claiming that God was once a mortal human-like being on some distant planet.

It would be nice if the First Presidency would write a short letter to LDS leaders both general and local setting this whole issue aside. Here’s a quick draft: “After further review of the questionable doctrine that God was once a mere man and the dubious claim that most members of the Church believe they will someday get their own planet in the hereafter, we have determined that the documentary basis for these beliefs is at best questionable. The authors of the relevant documents did not produce definitive texts of their statements and made no attempt to canonize or otherwise bestow official recognition of their statements as doctrine when in a position to do so. Consequently, we counsel and direct all LDS leaders, both general and local, to cease any reference to these claimed doctrines and to avoid discussion of them whenever possible. We affirm salvation and exaltation as taught in the doctrines of the Church and avoid speculation on other matters relating to the hereafter.”

For more on the couplet, read the following posts, which also shed some light on the whole “becoming like God” topic:

Becoming Like God

Now that there’s an official essay “Becoming Like God” posted at LDS.org, I don’t know that the Church can easily back away from the doctrine or at least continued discussion about it. The essay doesn’t really meet the issue head on. It talks about a few Bible verses (hand waving), discusses the early Christian doctrine of deification (more hand waving). Then it quotes from D&C 132 (“Then shall they be gods, because they have no end”) and the King Follett Discourse (“God was once as one of us” and “You have got to learn how to be a god yourself”) to basically admit that yes, we taught that and still teach it. It’s hard to say you don’t teach that anymore when it’s spelled out with supporting quotations from the D&C and from Joseph Smith in an official essay titled “Becoming Like God” posted in the 21st century, not the 19th century.

Here is a paragraph from later in the essay that tries to walk back the earlier admission.

Since that sermon, known as the King Follett discourse, the doctrine that humans can progress to exaltation and godliness has been taught within the Church. Lorenzo Snow, the Church’s fifth President, coined a well-known couplet: “As man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may be.”43 Little has been revealed about the first half of this couplet, and consequently little is taught. When asked about this topic, Church President Gordon B. Hinckley told a reporter in 1997, “That gets into some pretty deep theology that we don’t know very much about.” When asked about the belief in humans’ divine potential, President Hinckley responded, “Well, as God is, man may become. We believe in eternal progression. Very strongly.”

A better response would have been, “We strive to follow God and acquire the divine attributes like faith, hope, love, mercy, kindness, patience, and so forth. In that sense, we seek to become like God.”

Then there is this paragraph near the end of the LDS essay:

A cloud and harp are hardly a satisfying image for eternal joy, although most Christians would agree that inspired music can be a tiny foretaste of the joy of eternal salvation. Likewise, while few Latter-day Saints would identify with caricatures of having their own planet, most would agree that the awe inspired by creation hints at our creative potential in the eternities.

I’d agree with the first sentence, as noted above. However, I think the claim that “few Latter-day Saints would identify with caricatures of having their own planet” is disingenuous. That claim gets kicked around in class regularly. Every Latter-day Saint has heard of it. Maybe they ought to just own it. There are something like 100 billion stars in the Milky Way. Do the math: there are plenty of stars and planets to go around. Okay, there I go again, being lighthearted on such a serious topic as the hereafter. But consider the idea that God would at some distant time call you and a few of your family members aside and say, “I’m calling you on a one-thousand-year mission to the Vega system. Look after those planets. Nurture life as it appears. If you need more time, take a few thousand years extra. Good luck.” A thoroughly Mormon scenario. It beats playing harps and staring in bliss at God and His Angels for the next thousand years.

The Sherlock Essay

Here is where I would talk about Sherlock’s essay in the book. Well, it turns out I already discussed Sherlock’s essay in my earlier post in this series, “Are Mormon Christian?” Go read my earlier discussion, which I don’t think I can improve on. Also, go buy the book and read Sherlock’s essay for yourself. Remember the LDS scripture: “The glory of God is intelligence, in other words reading books, writing blog posts, reading them, and making comments.” Something like that.

What do you think? Pick one of the following.

  • I’m looking forward to getting my own planet someday. Better than learning to play the harp.
  • I think it’s wrong to speculate on what we’ll be doing in the hereafter. Stick to the basics.
  • I’m looking forward to achieving full godhood someday, although I’ll always be a junior god compared to God the Father and the other members of the LDS Godhead.
  • I think the best way to think about “becoming like God” is to stress the “like” part. We should emulate divine virtues, which is a better way to talk about the whole topic.
  • I’m headed for the Terrestrial Kingdom — at best — so I’m not really worried about godhood and planetary design. I’ll settle for a few books, a galactic Internet connection, and occasional visits from god-like relatives living on a higher plane.