Sunday, October 22, 2006


Recently the front page of “USA Today” featured the following story on the results of a new Gallup survey:

“Forget denominational brands or doctrines or even once-salient terms
like ‘Religious Right.’ Even the oft-used ‘Evangelical’ appears to
be losing ground….Believers just don't see themselves the way the media and
politicians — or even their pastors — do, according to the national
survey of 1,721 Americans, by far the most comprehensive national
religion survey to date.

‘Written and analyzed by sociologists from Baylor University's
Institute for Studies of Religion, in Waco, Texas, and conducted by
Gallup, the survey asked 77 questions with nearly 400 answer choices
that burrowed deeply into beliefs, practices and religious ties and
turned up some surprising findings:

“Though 91.8% say they believe in God, a higher power or a cosmic
force, they had four distinct views of God's personality and
engagement in human affairs. These Four Gods — dubbed by researchers
Authoritarian, Benevolent, Critical or Distant — tell more about
people's social, moral and political views and personal piety than
the familiar categories of Protestant/Catholic/Jew or even red
state/blue state…Sociologist Paul Froese says the survey finds the stereotype that
conservatives are religious and liberals are secular is ‘simply not
true. Political liberals and conservative are both religious. They
just have different religious views.’

“’…The Four Gods breakdown is helpful if you are trying to understand
religion's impact on society by how people see themselves from the
inside, not by observations from outsiders,’ says John Green, a
senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

“…says Baylor's Christopher Bader, "you learn more about
people's moral and political behavior if you know their image of God
than almost any other measure. It turns out to be more powerful a
predictor of social and political views than the usual markers of
church attendance or belief in the Bible."

It should come as no surprise that a person’s image of God could serve as a key to understanding their character. For most people, their conception of God not only symbolizes their highest ideals, virtues and aspirations, but also plays a foundational role in their undesrtanding of existence itself—including their own nature.

In his King Follett Discourse, Joseph Smith—the first Mormon—laid out a radically new (and by the standards of traditional monotheism, completely blasphemous) vision of Deity. Though he admitted that this vision of Deity might cause controversy, he insisted that his purpose in presenting it, was to bring understanding to people---not merely an understanding of God, but more importantly of themselves:

“If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.” (Joseph Smith, April 1844)

This is a very interesting statement given certain popular religious traditions. Common among these is the idea that God lives in one’s heart and that if one looks within one’s self one will find God. In other words, understand yourself and you will come to understand God—at least to the degree possible for human beings.

But Joseph taught just the opposite. Toward the end of his life, he rejected the above idea completely. In “The Doctrine & Covenants,” he wrote that the idea of a God who lived in one’s heart was an old sectarian notion and was false.

It seems as if Joseph, perhaps on an intuitive level, realized that if one referred to God as the basis for one’s understanding of existence, nature, the world and one’s own self—then one had to first understand exactly what one meant when using the word “God.” One’s definition of God could affect one’s view of everything else. It would also have a great influence on one’s understanding of one’s own nature, on what is ethical and unethical, and on the expectations that one has of one’s self.

For instance, if one believed that God was a powerful, supernatural being or force that created existence out of nothing, then one would view existence and the natural world quite differently from someone who envisioned God in a different ways.

If one was a Pantheist, believing that God existed in nature, then one might have a very different view of human technology (which often alters the natural environment of a particular place) from one who believes that humans are created in the image of God, with a Divine charge to “subdue the earth.”

If one was a monotheist, believing in one all-powerful Deity, one might have a very different view of a single centralized governmental power than a polytheist might have, who views existence as being divided into different spheres ruled by different gods. History itself seems to prove that this is true. Over the past two thousand years, monotheism has given the world church/states in which a single king or political entity ruled by divine right. On the other hand, ancient Greek polytheism—with it’s pantheon of gods ruling the various aspects of nature—gave the world democracy. Indeed, modern democracies and representative republics came into being when the polytheistic “pagan” philosophy and aesthetics of ancient Greece were rediscovered by theologians, philosophers and artists of the late Middle Ages.

It seems perfectly rational then to conclude with Joseph Smith, that “if men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.” For this purpose, Joseph Smith delivered his famous King Follett Discourse.

The problem with “understanding God,” is that according to most religions, this was a human impossibility. God was nearly universally conceived as “the Creator of all things,” as “the First Cause.” God was viewed solely in terms of power, might, grandeur and mystery. With regard to humanity and nature, God was completely “other.” The human mind, being the creation of God, was, by its very nature, no more capable of comprehending the character and nature of God than a piece of pottery would be capable of comprehending the nature of the potter who made it. The very notion that a mere mortal could “comprehend” the Divine was itself decried as blasphemous.

And yet, Mormonism itself (even in its earliest years, when it was still an evangelical movement that mingled Christian doctrine with folk-magic and spiritualism) was born from the desire of individuals to somehow comprehend the nature of God, and to reconcile many of the values of the Christian past and the Enlightenment with the more rational, secular world of early 19th century America.

The desire to “know” rather than merely “believe” was the impetus for the growth and progress of early Mormonism. In the 1830’s that desire to “know” took on a decidedly fundamentalist bent: revelations opening with the words “Thus saith the Lord” were plentiful and were given on the most mundane subjects, from keeping church records to selling property.

But over its first decade, Mormonism changed radically. The desire to “know” became linked with ancient and archaic schools of belief, such as Jewish mysticism. Finally during the Nauvoo period, Joseph Smith, Parley and Orson Pratt and other Mormon leader began drifting toward philosophy, modern Biblical scholarship, rational thought and science for their “knowledge.”

Since Joseph Smith was murdered within weeks of delivering the King Follett Discourse, that sermon could be viewed as the crowning achievement of his quest to “know” and to “comprehend the character of God.”

The sermon became controversial (and remains controversial to this day) for many reasons; chief among them the very notion that human beings could actually “comprehend the character of God.” For Christians, Jews and Muslims, this is utter blasphemy. For many modern Mormons (perhaps for the majority) it is—if not blasphemous—at least unsettling to their religious sensibilities, which tend to be like those of their Evangelical and fundamentalist neighbors.

Yet one has only to turn to Mormon scriptures—for instance, to “The Doctrine & Covenants” 93:28, which promises that people could eventually “know all things.” Even more explicit in other sections of this same book was the promise that the day would come when people would comprehend even God.

As the recent gallop survey shows, regardless of whether people think that they actually comprehend God completely, most do have very definite ideas and beliefs concerning the nature of God, and these ideas and beliefs influence they way they see the world and the way in which they see themselves.

It is this last item that is of most importance. If human beings do not understand themselves, if they are ignorant of or clueless regarding their nature and their relationship to the world in which they live, then their lives may very well become jeopardized. How accessible is human happiness, if humans either remain ignorant of their nature or base their understanding of themselves on ideas derived from irrelevant traditions or superstitions?

Even in “The Book of Mormon,” Joseph Smith railed against those who lived in blind obedience to “the foolish traditions of their fathers.” In the King Follett Discourse, Joseph examined that central concepts of traditional monotheism—the doctrines on the nature of God—and lumped them in with these same “foolish traditions.” As he went on to demonstrate, the “foolish traditions” regarding the nature of God, were blinding the human race to the reality of human nature and undermining human progress.


How have your ideas on the nature of God changed in your life time?

What events and experiences contributed to these changes?

How did these changes in your ideas concerning the nature of God effect your later decisions and actions?

Share your thoughts, opinions and insights with our readers, by emailing them
All views of welcomed.

Since the concepts found in the King Follett Discourse serve as the foundation for much of Reform Mormonism, the next series of lesson will explore this sermon from beginning to end.