This is the second in our current series of lessons exploring the Reform Mormon approach to morality and ethics. In this lesson we will compare the Mormon doctrine of Deity to the doctrine embraced by traditional monotheistic faiths and explore how these doctrines shape one’s approach to morality and ethics.
MORALITY BY COMMAND
Anciently codes of ethics and morals were enforced by command. Whether the command came from a tribal leader, from a king, from a god or through a priest, the impression made upon the minds of the people was the same: right and wrong were not up to debate, were not subject to discussion. A higher authority decided what was moral and immoral, and one had no right to do anything but obey. Understanding the principles behind the command was not important; only obedience.
As many Evangelicals and fundamentalists often say, “God gave us the Ten Commandments, not the Ten Suggestions.” LDS Mormons express the same sentiment somewhat differently when they teach, “Obedience is the first law of heaven.”
Traditionally when an individual has had trouble understanding or accepting a particular commandment, they have often been taught that they need to exercise faith in God or in the source from which the command was issued. In such circumstances, faith means a non-critical, non-thinking, non-judgmental acceptance of the commandment; in short, turning off one’s mind and merely doing as one is told. Thus many traditional religions praise the concept of “faith”--by which they mean accepting an idea without any evidence to support it. In the absence of any real understanding of the principle being advanced, faith--in and of itself--is presented as a virtue and a moral value.
“I WAS MERELY FOLLOWING ORDERS” IS NO EXCUSE FOF IMMORALITY
Such “faith” is nothing more than accepting an idea blindly; it is nothing more than admitting that one is acting in total ignorance. In fact, far from serving as a foundation for morality, this type of “faith” is actually an attempt to avoid personal moral responsibility. (To take personal responsibility for one’s morals, one would have to ask questions, challenge commandments when they are issued and harbor doubts.)
Those who committed war crimes during World War II later defended themselves by explaining that they were merely obeying the laws of the governments under which they lived; that they were “merely following orders,” and that it was the dictators who ruled them who were morally responsible for the atrocities committed.
Such a defense rang hollow then , and it still does today. We live in a world in which the concept of the individual is widely accepted. Most western societies are based on a rational understanding of human nature and individual responsibility.
Yet religions have traditionally envisioned a God who is divine by virtue of His absolute power. The Bible was the product of ancient peoples whose societies were ruled by kings and lords who exerted total control. It was only natural that these people envisioned God primarily in terms of power, control and kingly glory. Often these people attempted to exterminate the citizens of various cities or the worshippers of various gods because their God--who they worshipped as absolute ruler of heaven and earth--had commanded them to do so.
Through the Bible and other ancient scripture, modern men and women have inherited the ancient phrases that these people used in reference to God: “King of Kings,” “Lord of Lords,’ “Ruler of Heaven and Earth.” But modern men and women no longer reverence kings, lords and absolute rulers. In fact, those who rule with absolute power are viewed with suspicion; they are feared, if not hated.
“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This saying is accepted by many as true. Yet a great number of these same people revere God as one who rules the cosmos with absolute power.
If one believes that absolute power corrupts, how does one justify venerating a God on the basis of His supposed absolute power?
If those who blindly follow the commands of human dictators are held morally responsible as individuals for their actions, how should those who blindly follow the commandment of their God viewed?
“BUT GOD IS DIFFERENT FROM MAN,”
REJECTING THE NATURAL WORLD
Followers of traditional monotheism would most likely say that the above questions are groundless because God is different from man; His nature is completely unlike ours. In fact, many theologians would say that God has no nature as the concept is commonly understood.
The word “nature” applies to those things that are not created, that are not made, but simply exist or occur on their own. But traditional monotheism teaches that one all-powerful God created existence. In fact, it could be argued that monotheism completely rejects the concept of nature altogether. Because God created all things, He is the “First Cause”; nothing exists independently of Him; nothing evolves or “just happens” on its own. As the creator of all existence, God alone holds ultimate power; He alone has the right to determine what is moral or immoral. Humans, being but mere creatures whose existence is dependent on God’s will, have no right to question, doubt or disobey whatever commands issue from the mouth of God. When God speaks, the thinking has been done.
“AS MAN NOW IS, GOD ONCE WAS”
orACCEPTING THE SUPREMACY OF NATURE
In the 1840’s the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith began teaching a radically new concept of God that had traditional religionists denouncing him as a heretic, a blasphemer and even an atheist. Yet this new Mormon doctrine of deity laid the groundwork for a new approach to morality and ethics.
The Mormon doctrine of God has been summed up as follows:
“As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may become.”
Contrary to traditional monotheism, God and man are not two separate kinds of being: God was once human; humans may become Gods.
Mormonism teaches that nature (existence itself) was not created by God; nature simply exists on its own. Thus Mormonism accepts the basic premise behind rationalism and scientific thought. Concerning the nature of existence, Mormon scriptures declare: "The elements are eternal." (D&C 93:34)
The world as we know it was not created by God from nothing, but was organized by the Gods from naturally existing elements. In Mormon scripture‘s “creation story,” God says to His fellow Gods:
We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth... (Abraham 3:24)
Mormonism teaches that God is not omnipotent; it is nature alone (existence itself ) and the laws of nature that are omnipotent. In Mormon theology truth is defined as a knowledge of existence. In the 1840’s Mormon theologian Parley P. Pratt wrote:
"The laws of truth are omnipotent and unalterable--no power in heaven or earth can break them in the least degree."
Mormonism teaches that God became God by acquiring knowledge of the truth (a knowledge of things as they were, as they are and as they will be). Contrary to other religions, within Mormonism God does not decide what is true and false, but like other intelligent beings, He must act in harmony with the facts of existence; God's righteous and morality were acquired character traits.
Humans, too, if they are to progress, must also come to terms to with the facts of existence; they, too must acquired righteousness and morality as personal character traits.
“YOU MUST LEARN TO BE GODS YOURSELVES”
YOU MUST LEARN MORALITY ON YOUR OWN
Joseph Smith taught, “You must learn to be Gods yourselves, the same as all Gods before you have done.”
Mormonism envisions God as moral, as righteous, and invites humans to partake of this same morality and righteousness. This is state of being is not something that can be given by God to us as a reward for having obeyed commandments or having followed some divinely predetermined program or pattern of behavior. A moral, godly character must be cultivated by the individual alone.
Joseph smith taught that the being we revernce as God was once a human who was born, lived and died on an earth similiar to our own. Thus learning to “become Gods” ourselves, means starting upon the same path that God once trod--embracing life on earth, living fully and in accordance with our nature, and learning in the process. The individual must think for him or herself, must make his or her own decisions, take action and bear the full responsibility for actions taken.
In short, morality is founded upon actively thinking for one’s self, not blindly obeying dictates and “commands from on high.” In moral issues what matters the most is not, “what saith the Lord God, but “what do you say?” and, even more importantly, what will you do. Just as war criminals can’t hide behind the skirts of dictators, so the individual can not hide behind the skirts of an all-powerful God. Each of us is, in fact, our own person.
And so when it comes to morality, one finds oneself where God began: an individual with Free Agency (free will) standing before the natural world and asking, “What do I think of all of this? What am I to make of it? What will I value, and how will my values effect the choices I will make and the things I will do?”
REFORM MORMON THOUGHT FOR THE WEEK
“You must learn to be Gods yourselves, the same as all Gods before you have done…” Joseph Smith
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