(This continues a series of posts about reconstructing the Mormon/Christian narrative. Please read this introductory post first, if you haven’t already, before continuing.)
The God we are referring to is often known in Mormonism (and more generally in Christianity) as “God the Father,” “Heavenly Father,” or just “the Father.” He is the highest God, and this God is referred to predominantly as a “he” or male figure, although it is also taught occasionally that he is married to a wife (“Heavenly Mother”) and they jointly occupy that highest position of God. As a man or couple, God is portrayed literally as a human being, with a human body of flesh and bones, albeit resurrected (immortal), glorified, and exalted. God is said to be the governor of the universe, and the father of humanity. Humans are made in the image of God, are God’s literal offspring, which is why we too have a human body of flesh and bones. God is a personal being, who hears and answers prayers. It is taught that our goal in life is to become like God the Father, to be a God and live in heaven for eternity. We do this by following God’s commandments, his laws.
I perceive that there is much truth in this description, but I think the common interpretation is failing or has already failed many people. Some may ask, if it has truth then why does it matter how we interpret it? I think it matters because when the interpretation fails, when it no longer makes sense to people, then the truth in it no longer has power or force. The failing interpretation no longer points our minds towards the truth, and so we no longer seek that truth or have faith in it. It no longer leads us towards experiencing it, or orienting our life towards it. It no longer holds meaning for us, or is life-sustaining. And so I think the truth must be reinterpreted, we have to change our perspective and consider it in a new way.
The Traditional Interpretation’s Failure
I think the primary quality of God as described in Mormonism that has become problematic is specifically this: God has a human body, that God is essentially a person, a human being, a man, a much more advanced human, but a human nonetheless. God is thought of as a male, usually with a beard, dressed in a white robe, with a body like ours. He lives in a particular place, or location, just as we do. He speaks with a mouth, hears with ears, has arms, legs, hands, and all other body parts. God is literally human.
Our modern-day understanding of the nature of the Earth, the solar system, universe, biology, and particularly evolution has disrupted this perspective substantially, yet it is still taught today. For many people it is not plausible anymore to think that God is literally a human being, a Homo sapiens, who has a home out in the universe somewhere, or perhaps outside the universe, who governs the universe, who orchestrated the creation of the universe including this solar system and Earth, and was the father of humanity giving birth to us in any literal way. We now know that humans evolved here on planet Earth from other forms, through a long and gradual process of change through natural selection over billions of years, as have all other living things around us. We have only arrived at this particular “anatomically modern human” form within the last couple hundred thousand years, a mere last blip of Earth’s history. Prior to this, our distant ancestors looked far different.
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And we are not done changing. We have not arrived at the pinnacle or peak of evolution, the current human form being the end of what we are. No. We are still evolving, still changing, still progressing to ever greater complexity, albeit ever so imperceptibly from generation to generation. Homo sapiens are not the end of evolution. We are the form that our line of life has taken in the present over billions of years of change, and we will continue to change into the future (if we don’t go extinct, as more than 99% of all other species on Earth have).
A key point to consider here is that there is no reason to think that the form that we now have was inevitable or is supreme in any way. The evolution of life on Earth did not have to produce humans, or any other particular life form on Earth today. We are the result of the particular circumstances, events, and environments that unfolded naturally in the past. For example, if a meteor had not struck Earth 65 million years ago, then mammals would not have evolved as they have, and there would likely be some form of more evolved dinosaurs still on the Earth today. Humans would not be here. That chance meteor impact caused the dinosaurs to go extinct (as well as 75% of all species on Earth), which opened up the way for mammals to diversify into a wide variety of forms, including horses, bats, and primates. Those primates eventually evolved to include us humans. There are likely innumerable events and conditions such as this that happened in the past that contributed to the arrival of the human form as we know it today. Any one of those events could have caused present-day lifeforms to look far different, perhaps not including anything like modern-day humans.
And so we have a problem in Mormon theology. How could God have been a human being at the beginning of the universe, long before the Earth formed, long before any of those particular set of circumstances came together to form humans as they are today? Such a human being could not have been born or developed on a different planet in the universe, because the circumstances and environment there would have been different than they were here, evolving different kinds of lifeforms. If we think God is outside this universe, and was created before it perhaps in a different universe, he would have had to evolve on a planet essentially identical to ours, including all our particular planetary history, in order to have a body just like ours today. If God was born on this planet, as a modern human within the last 200,000 years, how did he create the planet (or govern its creation)? How does a God that is in the form of a human being, located in a single place, create or govern the whole cosmos? There are a host of difficulties with this perspective, this interpretation of what God is, of what God looks like, of God’s form and nature as a human.
So if God the Father cannot simply be a human being, in human form, with “flesh and bones,” just as we are today, as it seems Joseph Smith taught he was, then in what way does his teachings contain truth? In what way may Joseph’s teachings be reinterpreted to point towards Truth?
I think Joseph was trying to point to and describe the same “Father” God that other spiritual traditions have also tried to describe and have given many different names throughout history. These include Brahman, the supreme Being of Hinduism, the highest “Universal Principle” or “Ultimate Reality” in Hindu philosophy. It includes the Dharmakaya, the “body of reality itself,” in Mahayana Buddhism, the absolute basis of reality from which all things emanate. It includes Allah, the indivisible, omnipotent, all-knowing ruler of the universe and creator of all things in Islam. It includes YHWH (Yahweh or Jehovah) and Elohim, the absolute one, the highest ultimate cause of all things and the incomparable being in Judaism. It includes the Tao, the absolute principle that underlies the the universe, the underlying natural order of all things, in Chinese philosophy and religion. It includes all of these, and a host more, of the highest, most ultimate, most essential, greatest, most powerful, most all-encompassing of metaphysical realities. Sometimes this is called simply Truth, or the Good, or Love, or Being, or the Ground of Being, or Reality, or Source, or Absolute, or One. It is also known as Logos (to ancient Greeks), the Unmoved Mover (in Aristotle’s thought), Nirvana (in Theravada Buddhism), Ein Sof (in Kabbalah Judaism), Tian (in Chinese folk religion), Monad (in Gnosticism), and the Great Spirit (in Native American spirituality). I’m not saying that these all have the very same description within all of these traditions—they are described with many different terms—yet they all do seem to be pointing to a superlative, a highest, an absolute, the top of a hierarchy of being, the greatest of all things that are. And if there is a highest in reality, then they may all be pointing to that very same reality, describing it in a multiplicity of ways.
It might be insightful to note that the Native American name for this highest reality, the “Great Spirit,” is mentioned several times in the Book of Mormon (perhaps because the book was, in my interpretation, partly an unconscious mythologization by Joseph Smith of the origins and history of the Native Americans). This “Great Spirit” is said to be analogous to “God” as known by other people.
And now when Aaron heard this, his heart began to rejoice, and he said: Behold, assuredly as thou livest, O king, there is a God.
And the king said: Is God that Great Spirit that brought our fathers out of the land of Jerusalem?
And Aaron said unto him: Yea, he is that Great Spirit, and he created all things both in heaven and in earth. (Alma 22:8-10; see also Alma 18:2-5; Alma 19:25, 27)
In a similar way, there are many other names by which “God,” the “Great Spirit,” the “Father,” may be known, and has been named by different people all around the world throughout human history. Not one of these names or labels is the best, or most true, or the correct identifier. The particular word used is simply a placeholder, a symbol, an abstract representation, a signifier, used to point towards that highest being or reality within each tradition. The particular word used is not what matters, rather it is that to which it points.
A New Interpretation
As you may have noticed, most of these words do not seem to be referring to a human being at all, but to a more abstract, formless, unmanifest, transcendent, universal, ultimate Principle, a highest Good, the greatest of all Being, the most True, the Source or origin of the universe, that from which all of Reality emerges or emanates. It is exceedingly difficult to talk about, describe, label, or define this Highest of all realities, because anything that can be said about it only seems to limit it, constrain it, put boundaries around it. Because of the dualistic nature of language, by saying it is any particular thing, we seem to be saying it is not any other thing. Clothing it in language in this way seems to profane it, or make it not what it is, which is why some traditions refuse to talk much about it, refer to it, or name it at all. They won’t even speak it. It seems to transcend anything we could say about it, because our language is inherently limited and finite, and it is limitless and infinite. It includes all things within it.
In mystical theologies there are both cataphatic traditions, which try to describe it, and apophatic traditions, which try to describe what it is not. Both have been used extensively throughout religious history, and even together, both affirming and denying the same expressions, to try to help people conceptualize what this highest reality may be, and to lead human minds to the edge of what can be thought. In the end, most have concluded that it is beyond what our limited human minds can ever grasp. We can’t imagine it, think of it, or otherwise hold it in the intellectual space of our mind. It is not something thought, but something experienced. When we reach the limits of our intellect, the mind may surrender itself in a transcendent experience that goes far beyond intellect, to have an indescribable vision of infinite awe, wonder, mystery, love, beauty, unity, ultimate meaning, and the highest reality seems to be realized in That.
So how did this highest Reality come to be known in Mormonism (and more generally in Christianity) as “God the Father”? It has a long history through Christianity, which took it from Judaism, and further back to the Israelites and Hebrews who first began to call God “Father” in the Abrahamic traditions, which could be interesting for those who want to trace the history. But I don’t think we need to examine that history necessarily here. Historians can do that better than me. What I am most interested in is sharing some ideas of how I think this highest Reality can be related to those qualities which Joseph Smith attributed to it, interpreting them in new ways which are perhaps more plausible today than the traditional interpretation that developed in Joseph’s mind and in Mormon history.
The highest reality may be a “father” in the sense that all things have their origin in it; it “fathered” all things that are. It is their source, or ultimate metaphysical “parent,” similar to how our bodies come from a human father/parent. All things emerge or emanate or are manifest from this highest reality. They are created from it, from out of it. God gives all living things life and being. It is the ultimate authority, the highest power, all the laws of nature being in it, as a human father may have power over his child. It could be said to be related to the initial singularity, which is thought to be the source and beginning of the universe. Or it may be related to pure consciousness, from which and in which we have all our conscious experience of ourselves and the universe. It could be the totality of all the energy in the universe, from which all particles arise, including the particles that make up our bodies. It could be the theorized unified field that pervades all spacetime, from which all other fields emerge, and in which particles are said to be excitations. It could be the hidden undivided wholeness of the implicate order of physicist David Bohm’s theories, from which the perceived explicate order unfolds. The use of the term “father” I think is meant to suggest that the highest reality is somehow more ultimate than each of our particular individual selves, in our common everyday consciousness and perceptions, the source of our individual being, that from which we’ve come, that to which we look for the highest meaning of who and what we are, that which is the ultimate law-bearer, that from which all of the universe and nature and living things have emerged and have evolved. As I’ll note next, I think “Mother” may equally be used to refer to this “parental” highest reality.
The masculine nature of the highest reality seems to have come from ancient patriarchal and monarchical traditions in the Abrahamic line which considered the male gender primary and dominant in society, and therefore in heaven. Kings were male, and therefore so was their “heavenly King,” and vice versa. But this seems to not have any fundamental truth, but is a consequence of human culture and the misogynist history of particular civilizations, how they ruled and ordered their hierarchies. I would suggest that God may be both male and female, and yet neither. The highest reality includes both male and female, both the masculine and the feminine, but cannot be identified as either one exclusively or independently from the other. God may not have a gender, but is all genders, since God is the source of all gendered beings, and beings without gender. Gender is not primary, but the way all of nature unfolds in a dualistic fashion, with polarities and opposites.
As noted above, God may include both the masculine and feminine principles, both ends of the spectrum, and everything in-between, which are joined together in a perfect unity. This is what I think is being suggested by God’s eternal “marriage.” It is a coincidentia oppositorum, a unity of opposites, which brings together all opposites into a wholeness, a completion, a fullness (pleroma), a singular Being, which reconciles all those opposites, those polarities, that two-ness in an integral One, all things being realized as the two sides of a single coin. At the highest level of reality there are no longer two things, no more dualities, but Oneness, a Nonduality, from which all dualities emanate into creation, including light/dark, hot/cold, day/night, good/evil, stillness/movement, wave/particle, yin/yang, male/female, large/small, hard/soft, birth/death, etc. God is the at-one-ment of all dualities in an androgynous single unitary One. One of the most transcendent experiences of being human is found in sex, when male and female energies become one flesh, and in that experience the Divine may be known and Present. There is no more masculine and feminine, but One Living Being that includes and transcends both.
The highest reality includes all of our perceived reality within it, and that means us too. God may create reality from out of itself, from within itself, and so all of reality remains in God, and of God. The dualities noted above are how God manifests the world, in nature, and in living things. I suggest that the flesh and bones of our own bodies may be God’s “flesh and bones,” as is all flesh, all living things, all beings, all of creation. It is all included in God, and is God’s “Body.” Saying that God has a “human body” is a symbolic way of suggesting that God is in us, and is expressed through us, through our physical form. We are the “incarnation of God,” the highest reality having taken on materiality, form, substance, being, consciousness, finiteness, as these particular material bodies. God becomes awake within all conscious bodies/brains, especially that seemingly most conscious of living things, humans. God allows itself to “forget itself” and be appear to be divided into these dualities, multiplicities, diversities, so that through consciousness it may come to know itself again in itself and in the “other,” as in a mirror, and have the opportunity to experience the world, and a reunion with the “other,” a coming together, an at-one-ment, of ultimate unity, of Pure Love, realizing its Oneness once again, remembering it is eternally One. As the famous astrophysicist Carl Sagan once said, “we are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”
“Made in God’s Image”
As noted above, we are made in God’s image because God may have created us out of itself, and we remain within God, the manifestation of God. I suggest that when we look at ourselves and others, we may be looking at God’s image. We are created out of Godliness, out of this Reality, this Nature, out of the Universe, but we never become separate from this Reality. We are never made entirely independent or separate from our surroundings. “Adam” has emerged from the dust of the Earth (including air, water, energy), the Hebrew adamah meaning “ground” or “earth,” exchanges matter and energy continually with the same Earth, and returns to the same dust. The Earth is in extension of the condensing elements of the cosmos, elements fused together in the cores of stars which went supernova billions of years ago. And throughout our lives we remain in deep relationship and interdependence on our environment and surroundings, being a living expression of Nature. We may each be like a hologram, which contains the whole of the image within each part. We can cut a hologram into many pieces, but each piece will continue to reflect the whole image as it was before it was cut. Likewise, each of us, and each part of us reflects the Whole of the cosmos, and is inseparable from it. We cannot be detached or isolated from Reality, rather our lives are the flow of Reality itself. This may be a unique quality of reality, of the whole universe, each part being infinitely interconnected and interdependent within itself, just like a hologram. As the poet and mystic William Blake said, “To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower…” We may come to see this universe, this heaven, this wholeness, even the imprint of God within our own being, on our countenances, as the mystics have attested throughout history, including Joseph Smith (Alma 5:14, 19).
If this highest reality is not a human being, how could it ever be personal, intimate, relational? How could it hear and answer our prayers? This is perhaps the hardest quality to consider in a new way, and is why many may not be willing to let go of a “human” God. We want there to be someone out there, like us, with ears who is listening, who will come to our aid, who will save us, who will comfort us, who will teach us, who will heal and protect us, someone who we can emulate, a role model for our own life, the most perfect example of what a human could be. The problem is that we think about God in dualistic terms. We think of God as external to us, a someone “out there.” Yet, as noted above, if God is the highest reality, this reality is nondual, it is not separated into “me here” and “God there,” but rather is all located in the very same place. God is here, now, present, closer to us than we are to ourselves, within us, in this moment. As the Apostle Paul said, in God “we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). We are made of God-stuff, of Godself, and when we look deeply and carefully at ourselves and within ourselves, we find God shining as our very Life, and the Life of all beings. When we pray, we are not talking to a someone living far out in the universe somewhere, but are rather attuning our consciousness towards the deepest essence of our own Being, what we fundamentally are, that which is most essential in the center of our very own nature. The deepest prayers, rather than being discursive, are meditative and contemplative in nature, being silent, peering deep within ourselves to discover our divine nature and there uncovering God consciousness. And this divine nature is not separate from God, but is God in us, our true nature. It is this deepest divine nature that we are searching for, that we desire, that is the greatest comfort, the greatest salvation, the truest role model for our life, the purest being a human can be. It is our true Self, our genuine Self, underneath all the separateness of ego, the “natural man.” We pray from out of our egos, the false psychological self that thinks of itself as separate from God, to that which is Divine within us and all beings, Pure Unified Being. It’s not external and dualistic, but internal and nondualistic and One with us, and when it is found internally, it is recognized in every particle throughout the world as well, in every Face we meet, in every heart we Love.
“Becoming Like God”
We may become “like” this highest reality by realizing the reality that we already are, our deepest, truest, most genuine, most pure, most essential, basic, original nature in this Universe. This divine nature is obscured by ego, by the psychological “self,” by the dualistic separate self that we think we are. The ego, or “natural man,” is the veil which hides our true nature in God, our Godliness, our Saintliness. It is only by piercing through that ego, tearing the veil in half, overcoming the illusion of being a “separate self” in the “carnal mind,” that we come to realize our Oneness in God. We realize at-one-ment. We remember who we really are, the substance of our true Being, which is God, Reality, the Earth, the Universe, Life itself, Love, Love, Love. This is whole/holy, it is perfect, it is complete, it is fulfilled, it is good, it is unified, it is the purest Love. We recognize that all seemingly separate beings are the various reflections, emanations, manifestations, incarnations, “children” of that same One Being. We may come to know this through many different spiritual practices, rituals, actions, behaviors, interactions which are all designed to help us overcome the ego-self, to see through its illusions and delusions, to realize that the “self” is a construction in consciousness, and not substantial to Consciousness itself, to our deepest Being. We “repent,” meaning we have a “change of mind” or of consciousness (see the Greek metanoia). The “self” we thought we were is revealed for the temporal/mortal/transient/ephemeral reality that it truly is, and we see the deeper eternal Reality beneath it which upholds it, which is its foundation. We behold our Christ nature, our Buddha-nature, our Atman, our Oneness in the whole of Reality and the cosmos, never separate from it, but an integral part of it, an expression of it. And we realize that this is the divine nature of every other being as well. In a fundamental sense, the “other” is not separate from me, but is my same divine Being manifesting in another form, and so we treat it as such. We become compassionate, sharing a pure Love for all, knowing that at the end of our mortal life we will return to Being, the same universal Being that we forever and always are underneath all external temporal appearances. Thus, God’s will/law becomes written directly on our mind and heart when we express that which we have come to know most deeply within our true divine Self.
I hope this begins to help see how the qualities that Joseph Smith attributed to God may contain truth, but how our interpretations of those qualities may need major revisions if they are to continue to be spiritually effective pointing towards a realization of our Self in God, and the Truth of Reality. Thinking of God as a human person in outer space somewhere has failed many people in our modern age where science has discovered that humans evolved right here on Earth. We may need to search higher, deeper, wider, and stretch our minds. We may need to look deeply within our own selves, in our minds and consciousness, in our “hearts,” if we want to find and know God, in Truth, in Reality. As the ancient Greeks and Egyptians discovered long ago, and which Joseph Smith seemed to repeat, “know thyself, and thou shalt know the universe and God.”
What are your thoughts about “God the Father”? How do you interpret these words? Has the traditional Mormon interpretation become confusing for you? How so? Where do you resonate with this new interpretation, or where is it problematic for you? Where do you disagree or have questions? What interpretation of God currently works for you in your approach to spirituality and experiencing the Divine, the Transcendent, the Sacred? How do you think about this highest God, Reality, Truth, Being? Let’s discuss it. Please add your thoughts in the comments below or on Facebook.
(See the next post in this series about Jesus/Christ)