Monday, September 20, 2004

JOSEPH SMITH’S FIRST VISION: The Virtue of Objectifying God

Sunday, September 19, 2004


Religions the world over vary in many ways. The rituals used, the scriptures revered, the organizational structures that are perpetuated, the taboos that are enshrined--all of these may vary from denomination to denomination and from one religion to another. One can increase one’s understanding and appreciation of any faith by studying any of these things. But the quickest way to understand a religion--along with its values and ideals--is to understand what it worships, what it holds most holy and sacred--in short, its God.

Some religions worship a personal God--that is, a God that is a individual personality with a mind, will and emotions. Some religions envision God as an immaterial spiritual being. Others have envisioned a God in human form. Some religions, such as Orthodox Christianity, believe that God is a mixture of these things--as demonstrated in the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Anciently some cultures worshipped personal Gods who were in the image of animals; others were an imaginative hybrid of a particular animal and a human. Still others gods were symbolized by something in found in nature--such as the sun or moon, or a particular river or tree.

Some religions worship a non-personal God. In these cases, God may be thought of as the sum-total of everything that exists, or as a power or essence that can be found within everything that exists. Other religions may be even more vague, declaring that God is that which is eternal and unknown.

Discussion Questions:

How might one’s concept of God effect the way one views the world in which we live?

How might one’s concept of God effect one’s view of human nature?

Consider two people: one worships a personal God, the other worships God as an essence that is found in all things. How might these people differ in their views of the environment? How might they differ in the value they attach to human life, animal life, plant life?


Regardless of the differences in how they envision Deity, most religions agree when it comes to certain attributes of God. Most teach that God is eternal, unchanging and All-powerful--that God, being responsible for existence, has ultimate power and control over everything. Most religions teach that God is good--the perfect representation of all which is praise-worthy, holy and virtuous.

Attempts to reconcile these two attributes have caused endless debates and schisms among theologians and philosophers. For instance, if God is All-powerful and All-Good, why did God create--or why does God allow--evil to exist? Most of the world’s greatest religious thinkers have spent a great deal of time trying to answer this one simple question.

Discussion Questions:

If it is wrong for one to perpetrate an evil act, or to allow an evil act to occur when one could easily prevent it, how could an All-powerful God be considered good and virtuous when evil exists?

When someone truly loves another, one usually does all in one’s power to relieve any pain or misery that person might suffer. How could an All-powerful God love humanity and yet at the same time allow human suffering?


Theologians and philosophers have admitted that the above questions have no easy answers. Most have taught that God’s ways are not our ways; that God’s love and righteousness either transcends human’s understanding, or that God’s love and righteous are completely different in nature from human love and righteous. Most conclude that God is a mystery, that the human mind is incapable of understanding God‘s nature.

In the end what is taught is that God, while being worshipped as the embodiment and source of all righteousness, is not bound by any human conception of righteousness. With regards to morality, a double standard is set up.

Discussion Questions:

If one believes that God is not bound by human concepts of righteousness (that God operates by a different set of standards), how might this effect one’s behavior--especially if one believes that one is obligated to carry out God’s will?

Most religions teach that God is the source and perfect embodiment of all that is righteous, virtuous and good. Most also teach that God is beyond human comprehension. How might these two concept effect our attempts to cultivate personal righteousness, virtue and goodness?

If God is Love, and yet God is also beyond human comprehension, what could this imply about the nature of love--or any other virtue which God embodies? Would this not mean that love and godly virtues are beyond human comprehension?

If Godliness is beyond human comprehension, how can a human develop godliness? What power does one have to cultivate godliness, if the creeds and doctrines of a religion insist that God and God’s attributes are incomprehensible?

How could a religious system abuse the doctrine that God is incomprehensible?


The story of Joseph Smith’s First Vision has become the foundational myth for the Mormon concept of God. According to this story, young Joseph Smith, bothered by the denominational strife brought about by the religious revivals that rocked his village, went to a grove near his home and prayed to God for knowledge and wisdom. In answer to his prayer, Joseph claimed that…

“I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me…When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him! My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)—and which I should join. I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that…they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.” He again forbade me to join with any of them; and many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time. When I came to myself again, I found myself lying on my back, looking up into heaven. When the light had departed, I had no strength; but soon recovering in some degree, I went home.” (Joseph Smith--History 1:16-20 )

Joseph Smith’s last retelling of his “First Vision” experience contains within it elements of his most radical doctrines--all of which have to do with the nature of God and the nature of man.
By envisioning God as a person (and as person who is distinct and separate from Christ), Joseph broke completely with not only Christianity, but with the Western Monotheist tradition of the past two thousand years.

While traditional monotheism--indeed, all theistic religions--teach that God is the All-powerful creator of all existence, Joseph Smith taught that existence and matter are eternal, without beginning or end--that there was never “creation of the universe” as traditionally believed. Humanity’s God had at one time been human himself. By acquiring knowledge of existence and by cultivating virtue and righteous, he progressed and eventually became a God. Contrary to most religions, Joseph taught that God was subject to the moral code as human beings. Human love and Divine love, human justice and Divine justice, human virtue and Divine virtue were of the same essence, had the same nature.

Whereas some religions teach that if one wishes to better understand God, one must first understand one’s self, Joseph taught that one could not understand human nature until one began to grasp the nature and character of God. God became the template against which human nature could eventually be understood. This understanding would, in turn, led to human progress and growth.

Many Christians in Joseph’s day taught that God dwelt in the human heart. This idea was especially stressed during religious revivals. The subjective emotions that one might feel during a revival (the stirrings within one’s heart) were viewed as the workings of God’s Holy Spirit. Subjective emotions became the foundation of all religious discourse.

In contrast, Joseph completely objectified God and Christ:

“When the Savior shall appear, we shall see him as he is. We shall see that he is a man like ourselves…the idea that the Father and the Son dwell in a man’s heart is an old sectarian notion, and is false….The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also..” (Doctrine & Covenants 130:1, 3, 22)


The early Mormons did not stop at objectifying God as a man---the proverbial “man with a white beard sitting on a cloud” decried by most traditional religions. Mormon poet and prophetess, Eliza R, Snow also introduced to Mormonism the concept of God as an Eternal Mother. In her poem--which served as the basis for the Mormon Hymn “O My Father”-- Snow wrote:

“In the heavens are parents single?
No, the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason, Truth eternal
Tell me I’ve a mother there.
When I leave this frail existence,
When I lay this mortal by,
Father, Mother, may I join you
In your royal courts on high?”

When Snow showed her poem to Joseph Smith, he declared that the doctrine of a divine Heavenly Mother was true and had been given to her by revelation. So it was that Mormonism restored the concept of the Divine as feminine.


As long as God was presented as living within the human heart (traditionally thought of as the seat of human emotions), subjective emotions could be made the basis not only for understanding the Divine but also for constructing a code of morality. Thus, despite the Biblical fundamentalism of many sects, traditional notions of God could serve as the basis for moral subjectivity and relativism.

By objectifying the Divine as a fully integrated human being (a glorified resurrected human whose body and mind/spirit were inseparably, eternally connected), Mormonism laid the groundwork for objective existence and a non-contradictory understanding of human nature as the foundation of religion and morality.

Human nature was no longer a depraved, sinful condition to be overcome, but that which we have in common with the Divine. Human nature was not something to be denied but something that had to be acknowledged, embraced and perfected--for despite the assertions of traditional creeds and doctrines, human beings in their natural state possessed the power to cultivate within them godliness. As Mormon scholar, Terryl L. Givens, has noted, the Mormon objectification of God “collapsed the distance” between the human and the Divine that had been imposed by two thousand years of traditional monotheism.

Whereas traditional religions undermined confidence in human understanding by insisting that God was a mystery, never to be comprehended, Joseph Smith taught:

“…the day shall come when you shall comprehend even God, being quickened in him and by him.” (Doctrine & Covenants 88:49)

To begin to comprehend God, is to begin to comprehend the virtues and qualities of Godliness. Comprehending Godliness is the first step in developing within one’s self the virtues and qualities revered as Divine.


The idea that God was once human and that humans can progress and attain Godhood is one of Mormonism’s greatest--and most controversial--contributions to religious thought.
Reform Mormonism loves this concept, despite the fact that the rest of the world considers it heretical. Other Mormon denominations don’t embrace this concept with much enthusiasm, but the idea of eternal progression, applied equally to God and man, is one of the things that makes Reform Mormonism its own tradition.

Reform Mormons realize that objectifying the Divine in human form can help individuals understand themselves and thus progress.

Reform Mormons may visualize, worship or address God in prayer as either “Heavenly Father” or “Heavenly Mother.” For instance, the Reform Mormon Sacrament prayer may be addressed to “God the Eternal Father ,” “God the Eternal Mother,” or “God, the Eternal Parents.” Some Reform Mormons may find other less traditional objectifications useful. Still others may decide to avoid objectifications altogether. What is important within Reform Mormonism is that individuals realize that they have the seeds of Godhood within themselves, that the power of Godliness is available to every human being.

Therefore despite the fact that objectifying God can help one cultivate virtue and godliness, Reform Mormons acknowledge that God is greater than any objectification that one may use. Regardless of how far humanity might progress, regardless of how much knowledge, understanding and wisdom we might gain, regardless of how much virtue and godliness we might cultivate--God will always be ahead of us, assuring us that there is still much more we have yet to understand, and still more virtue that we have yet to attain.


As now I am, God once was; as God now is, I may become. I have within myself the power to comprehend and cultivate Godliness. Objectifying God is a tool to aid in my progression. I am free to address God as my Heavenly Father or my Heavenly Mother. I’m free to use whatever objectification of God inspires me to cultivate within myself those qualities that I revere and hold as sacred.

To respond to some of the questions raised in this Gospel Doctrine session, or to make a comment or ask a question,


Your comments may be posted here throughout the coming week or shared at the Reform Mormonism Discussion Group--which you are welcome to join. If you are a member there, you may post your comment directly to the discussion group at


From Nancy Halverson:

"I just read this week's lesson. At first, I was worried because you mentioned God as a spirit, a former human, a tree, a presence in the heart....where was the Goddess? And then I scrolled down to the section on our Heavenly Mother. Alright, now we're talking! The Universe is not just a Father/Son operation (although they've gotton all the good press for the last two thousand years). The Divine as feminine is real, at least to me. For I feel her presence surely as strong as I feel Heavenly Father's. I never thought I could openly admit to such "kookiness", but I cannot pretend to be someone I am not.The holiday season (Christmas) will be here before we know it, and this time of year triggers such deep emotions in me. I love Christmas and everything it stands for. But I have learned to listen to an older voice also.....a voice that whispered long before that precious baby was born in a stable...

"...they are forever bound, the male and the female. Life needs BOTH. Many religions reject this, and it seems so illogical to me. You know the old saying that "behind every great man, there is a woman"? Well, there you have it. The Great Mother can be content to remain quietly in the background, she's had her day in the past.

"Perhaps it is because I AM a woman, who has brought five little girls into this world, that I am more comfortable with the Divine as feminine, than perhaps a man would be. I can certainly understand that...I have no expectations of any of the men I know accepting the existance of the Goddess. At least Mormons are on the right track. And your lessons each week are doing more than you can imagine. You are opening minds. I wish more LDS could read the lessons...It would bring them CLOSER to the original church, NOT away from it."

From Bill:

"I read this lesson in conjuction with the Book of Michael (BoM) on which I think it draws.

"As I understand the BoM, the suggestion is made that God exists in an eternal realm beyond the veil. The eternal realm is not constrained by time and space which are seen as creations of God. God can penetrate the veil at any time or any place. That suggests of course that the future is already mapped out and that we are all playing out an already written script.We cannot understand God in his eternal realm, but if he enters time and space it must be as an objectification.

"The gospel doctine lesson suggests to me that we can objectify God any way we please. Joseph's objectification of God in the First Vision evolved over time. In his last recounting of the First Vision, God was present as the Father and the Son. In the King Follett discourse, God is "an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!" If you prefer God as a heavenly mother, that is OK too. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

"...I cannot figure out why God created this realm of time and space. If we existed with God in eternity, what do we have to gain by coming here? Apparantly in eternity, we are with God and share all that he has. What has this "vale of tears" got going for it? As slick os the BoM speculation is, I believe it opts for the god of the philosophers and not the God of Mormonism. And in the process, it loses much of the strength of the Mormon position.

"The Mormon God is finite and is caught up in time and space with the rest of us. Though he has mastered our physical realm, he continues to progress "worlds without end." His omnicompetance is relative to us as the BoM suggests. A theodicy (the justification of God in the face of evil) is a straightforward exercise with a finite God.

"What do I believe? I believe my heavenly Father is an exalted man. I believe I have a heavenly Mother who is an exalted woman. I believe I have the potential to be like my heavenly Father. I believe the future is not yet written and that the choices I make are not imaginary but real and have real consequences for my future happiness."

Related to this week’s lesson

“The Pearl of Great Price” Joseph Smith--History 1

Doctrine & Covenants 88: 40-50,49,67#6

Doctrine & Covenants 130

“The King Follett Discourse.” Joseph Smith last and greatest sermon, explaining the Mormon conceptions of God and humanity’s divine potential

“Rational Theology” by John Widstoe

“The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion” by Sterling M. Mc Murrin

Websites dealing with “O’ My Father” by Eliza R. Snow

“God the Mother in Mormonism” by Amber Satterwhite


The Sacred Grove (reported site of Joseph Smith’s First Vision)

Reform Mormon writings on the nature of God and the objectification of the Divine:

“God as Objectification”

“Mormonism’s New Paradigm”

The Reform Mormon Sacrament Prayer

Currently Reform Mormon practice is a home-based. This link presents a way in which Reform Mormons can celebrate the Sabbath, and also administer and partake of the Sacrament within their own households--either alone or with family and friends.

The first in a series of lessons exploring Mormon concepts regarding the relationship of the mind/spirit with the body.