“Like every other being, I am a splinter of the infinite deity, but I cannot contrast myself with any animal, any plant or any stone.“
Mormon artist Caitlin Connolly's work deserves far more attention; she's a gifted artist who draws on Mormonism's distinctive theology of a feminine divine, a Heavenly Mother, co-equal with the masculine divine or Heavenly Father.
Her piece “In Their Image” in particular (the credited header image to this post; check out the full image at the hyperlink) really captures what I believe is the central message of Mormonism: symbolically or analogically speaking, an existential Mother and Father melting into one another, as if one singular being; pouring from themselves, made from out of their very bodies, existence and all its complex contents. This includes you and me; the chair beneath you, or the phone in your hand; the environment you're in, your immediate and distant surroundings; the people around you or on your mind; the breath in your lungs, the marrow in your bones; the sounds in your ears, the sights traveling your optic nerves; your past, your future—everything.
At least to me, Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother, in Mormonism, name that fountain from which all this pours and that space in which all this appears.
Jesus, in Mormonism, is the one who learned to truly, wholly rest as this space in which all this appears. Christ names that capacity, thus he is Jesus the Christ. To be Mormon is to ritually, textually, and communally seek to evoke from ourselves and one another that Christ-like capacity that we might call, in a word, love or even grace.
Of all religions and philosophies I've had the privilege of studying, I think Mormonism is one which, to me, has taken most seriously one of the Hebrew Bible's first and most fundamental tenets: every human is in the image of this singular Unity, God, with all that entails. The message of Mormonism is thus an invitation to learn to rest as that space in which the contents of consciousness appear, as God—our common root, our existential covenant, our creative fount—rests as the space in which all actuality appears.
For an instance of what I believe was Joseph Smith’s tentative panentheism, I recommend reading this brief blog post by Mormon historian Brent Metcaffe, “Newly Discovered Copies of JS’s Adamic Q&A.” The post is brief and enlightening, but here's the main thrust of it from a sermon delivered by the apostle Orson Pratt in 1855 to the Mormons in Utah:
"There is one revelation that this people are not generally acquainted with. I think it has never been published, but probably it will be in the Church History. It is given in questions and answers. The first question is, 'What is the name of God in the pure language?' The answer says, 'Ahman.' 'What is the name of the Son of God?' Answer, 'Son Ahman—the greatest of the parts of God excepting Ahman.' 'What is the name of men?' 'Sons Ahman,' is the answer. What is the name of angels in the pure language?' 'Anglo-man.'
"This revelation goes on to say that Sons Ahman are the greatest of all the parts of God excepting Son Ahman and Ahman, and that Anglo-man are the greatest of all the parts of God excepting Sons Ahman, Son Ahman, and Ahman, showing that the angels are a little lower than man. What is the conclusion to be drawn from this? It is, that these intelligent beings are all parts of God, and that those who have the most of the parts of God are the greatest, or next to God, and those who have the next greatest portions of the parts of God, are the next greatest, or nearest to the fulness of God; and so we might go on to trace the scale of intelligences from the highest to the lowest, tracing the [p. 343] parts and portions of God so far as we are made acquainted with them. Hence we see that wherever a great amount of this intelligent Spirit exists, there is a great amount or proportion of God, which may grow and increase until there is a fulness of the Spirit, and then there is a fulness of God."
— Orson Pratt, “The Holy Spirit and the Godhead,” February 18, 1855, Journals of Discourses, vol. 2 (Liverpool: F. D. Richards, 1855), 342–43.]
Setting aside for the moment the esotericism of a "pure language" going back to a mythic Adam, I think this is one of the more interesting visions of God from Joseph Smith. Though the manuscript sources only go back to about March 1832, the fact that Pratt is quoting this as late as 1855 (and likely as a protest against Brigham Young's Adam-God theology) seems to me to suggest its viability, even after Smith's Nauvoo-era theology. On a personal note, I really like the idea.
Again, setting aside the words themselves, which are more likely glossolalia than they are a primordial language, the structure of the idea is intriguing. To call it "Adamic," or primordial and thus fundamental, is to say we're talking "big magic," the stuff at the soil of existence from which everything else derives.
We begin with "Awman," or "God," which is "the being who made all things in all his parts." This reminds me of God in John Milton's Paradise Lost and De Doctrina Christiana, who creates the universe from his very body; the late Stephen Webb, Catholic theologian, once remarked similarly in a Q/A after his presentation at the 2015 FairMormon Conference, God being in some sense physical, sharing in the universe's materiality, and thus our own, even gifting us our materiality from his own body. To "ma[k]e all things in all [one's] parts" may describe formulating all Being from oneself; Awman is, therefore, that common thread which unifies all apparently separate things and beings. We might compare it to Hildegard of Bingen's description of prayer as "the inhaling and exhaling of the singular breath of the universe." Awman is the universe's common breath and blood, the electric charge holding its proverbial atoms together—its covenant.
It may be a bit too casual to call this view pantheism (universe = God) if for no other reason than that Smith's view is hierarchical, something which pantheism tends to lack. We might use an Israelite image, derived from Solomon's temple and Moses' tabernacle: a three-tiered structure, symbolizing the whole of creation; the outside being the world of chaos, the inner tier being the garden of Eden, and the innermost tier (the holy of holies, a golden cube) symbolizing God, heaven, etc. However, notice that in the temple's architecture, God/heaven are not placed outside the temple (and thus entirely separate from "this world") nor even elevated above the rest of the temple (and thus entirely above "this world") but is placed at the very center of the temple. Neil Douglas-Klotz, an Aramaic scholar, points out in his own work that, unlike the modern West, the ancient Middle East considered God/heaven not as separate from or above the world, but immanent to the world as breath is to the body or vibration is to a tuning fork. God/heaven is not above or beyond, but *within* all things and everything.
It would seem that "Awman," fashioning existence from "all his parts," may be described similarly. Further, all beings, according to Smith's sample, hold this "Awman" in common, down to their very nomenclature: everyone, from Christ ("Son-awman"), to humans ("Sons-awman"), to angels/servants/ministers ("Awman's Anglo-men"), which are oddly presented as *beneath* humans rather than as between them and the divine. In other words, there is a piece of "Awman," and thus inherent divinity, in all distinct things and beings. The degree of divinity a thing or being constitutes is, therefore, directly proportional to how much of "Awman" (how many of Awman's "parts," we might say) one holds together. Christ, "Son Awman ... the greatest of all the parts of Awman," seems to hold all things together within himself (cf. Ephesians 1:10).
I'm reminded of the Tibetan Buddhist practice of Dzogchen, wherein a meditator must realize non-duality: there is no "I" and the rest of the world, but only one. The meditator becomes a container which holds all things they perceive, rejecting nothing that enters their senses or mind. In a neuroscientific framework, everything one experiences is a model constructed within the brain from sensory data, aggregated, collated, and combined into a seamless "reality." Thus, anything one experiences (sees, tastes, hears, feels, etc.) is already "within" them, so to speak. Dzogchen is a practice seeking to cultivate openness to what enters a person's senses, rejecting none of it, but holding it in the same way (to bring things back to Mormonism) that "Awman" holds all existence, and Christ holds "the greatest of all the parts of Awman," within themselves.
Humans, or "Sons-awman," are lower than "Son-awman," or Christ; and yet, as signified by their shared name, they may expand and grow to the same level as "Son-awman." We are presently lower than Christ in the same way a novitiate may be lower than a master practitioner of Dzogchen in Tibetan Buddhism. We bear very little of the world flooding our senses (cf. D&C 50:40, 78:18), rejecting some parts while feverishly clinging to others; Christ embraces all existence or "Awman," going so far as to bear all human evils, suffering, and even death (cf. D&C 88:6).
There's obviously a lot of theological cross-pollination here, but I strongly believe Smith produced the seeds of a worthwhile contemplative Mormonism, or even "Mormon mysticism," we might say. This would reframe salvation, exaltation, atonement, repentance, priesthood, and the rest.
We might compare it to how the late Thomas Keating, Cistercian monk and Catholic, described his own teaching in 3 points: 1) realize there is a God or Other (with a deliberately-capital "O"); 2) try to become the Other; 3) realize there is no "Other," that there never was a divide between you and the Other or God, only that you thought and acted as if there were. "Awman" would thus be Paul's God who is "all in all" (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:6, 15:28) and "in whom we live, and move, and have our very being" (cf. Acts 17:28). Thus, for Keating, and perhaps for Smith as well, divinity or salvation and even exaltation are inseparable from how much of this world (how many "parts" of "Awman") one can bear to hold within themselves in "at-one-ment," with Christ as an ultimate example and goal of discipleship.
As literary critic Harold Bloom puts it, given the absence of an author, we are not capable of readings but only strong (closest) and weak (farthest) misreadings. I can't speak for Orson Pratt, less so for Joseph Smith, but I do think this may be a stronger misreading than others. Something like this, anyway.
Theology has always fascinated me, and within Mormonism, for better or worse, we have always left theology to the people rather than to a trained body of theologians. We at the very least have the seeds of a democratized theology, which could be of tremendous use to us.
The authorities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter LDS Church), the largest denomination of the Latter-day Saint movement, speak (or are at least received) definitively in theological matters (just look at how we have deified Bruce McConkie and Joseph Fielding Smith as unofficial church theologians), but these figures didn't emerge from heaven or an unknown wilderness; they grew from the Mormon culture of their era, then became authorities. Mormon culture produces its own leaders, even if only a few decades down the line. That gives me pause when I speak, or when I consider teaching children my own religion.
I'd love to see the death of the "correlative church" that asks what one believes, and the triumph of the "communal church" that asks what it can do for you and how it can help you to love your neighbor and enemy more richly and authentically. What place has theology in that?
Theology won't go away; to declare oneself "non-theological" is ultimately a theological statement, as saying "philosophy is dead" is a philosophical statement. Religious or spiritual experience is primary; theology is anything we do to make sense of it afterward. That said, theology can stagnate and attempt to take precedence over spiritual experience, hence the "correlative church." But because theology can shape spiritual experience, the former can also enrich the latter, not just suffocate it.
If not a talent, I would at least like to think I have a heart for theology, and I wonder how my own theology would change were I to consciously put it in service of what I've called the "communal church."
I don't want a Mormonism or LDS Church full of people who believe or even act in common. I want to create a community where my LGBTQA+ siblings, my sisters, and my siblings of color—any and all—are welcomed and valued by others as much as they are by our heavenly Parents.
On 4 April 2019, the LDS Church revoked an intensely controversial policy concerning its LGBT members and their children implemented in November 2015, delivering a hint that it can change for the better, while also reminding each of us where precisely we are beginning. There is no other world to which we may flee where the LDS Church is not in the state it is in now. There's tremendous pain in that reality. I value that pain, consider it sacred; I've felt a degree of it myself, as the friend and sibling of LGBTQA+ persons. I believe that pain will trickle to the youth of the LDS Church, who are well aware of the world around them, including their religion, and are unimpressed or even disenchanted.
In my point of view, the matter is not whether but when the Church will grow to meet, rather than merely stand in the shadow of, its own divine ideals. In the meantime, I fault no soul for disassociating from Mormonism. I myself have a complicated relationship with the Church.
I don't know if, how long, or how I may choose to associate with the Church, or with Mormonism, and that uncertainty plants a deep anxiety in my heart. But if I do remain, I will make it my mission to turn my theologizing toward the goal of helping the Church and Mormonism to evolve and exercise greater fidelity to its divine ideal: a community in which the inherent divinity of the individual as such is seen, cultivated, and celebrated in unconditional love, from eternally before one's birth to eternally beyond one's death.
Image: Caitlin Connolly, "In Their Image".