Wednesday, 19 December 2012

What do we DO in Heaven/ Paradise? The Mormon answer


For Christians, Salvation leads to eternal life in Heaven, and Heaven is beyond our power to imagine since after resurrection we dwell there with purified minds in perfected bodies, adopted by God as Sons of God, and in the presence of the divine.

There is nothing in any other religion that can remotely compare with the Christian Heaven.

But for plain people, for those unable to think in terms of abstractions; the usual descriptions of Heaven are lacking in precision when it comes to the description of what we will do there.

Not least because our earthly minds always need to do something - we cannot imagine just being or just worshipping: this kind of explanation of Heaven seems indescribably dull and tedious.  


By contrast, the Paradise of some other religions is depicted in terms of the best imaginable kind of earthly life, lacking all earthly pains and including all earthly delights; going-on at the highest pitch of ecstasy, for all time.

If you think about this for a while, you will recognize what a false promise it is - and how, to be tolerable and not to be an horrific fate, it would entail something like recurrent oblivion of memory, so that we could just live in the blissful present without awareness of endless duration.

But at the first level of analysis, Paradise sounds a lot better than life on earth, and it is perfectly clear what we would actually do there: eat wonderful foods, drink wonderful drinks, make love, appreciate the beauties and so on.


By contrast, because we will live in Christian Heaven as purified and perfected beings, it is hard to state exactly what we will do there: most answers seems woefully inadequate to our feeble earthly imaginations.

So that, while it is factually correct that to live in the presence of God and the Heavenly beings would be a greater bliss than we can imagine; that is the problem - it is a greater bliss than we can imagine (unless we are already advanced in theosis).


This is another respect in which it seems that the concreteness of Mormonism is an advantage: above Salvation, the highest level of Heaven is called Exaltation, and is the destiny of a married couple:

Exaltation is the greatest of all the gifts and attainments possible. It is available only in the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom and is reserved for members of the Church of the Firstborn. This exalted status, called eternal life, is available to be received by a man and wife. It means not only living in God's presence, but receiving power to do as God does, including the power to bear children after the resurrection.

Here is a thing to do that is worthy of Heaven, and of Sons of God; a difficult, long term, but one could imagine deeply rewarding and endlessly interesting job.


This doctrine of exaltation has (at least) two elements: one is new to Mormonism -  that this destiny is available only jointly, to a man and wife. This puts a novel perspective on the highest Heaven, as it becomes a place we go to in company.

The other is a making concrete the mainstream Christian abstraction of what it actually means to be adopted as Sons of God: Mormonism say that it means we ourselves 'bear children' to populate a new world, a new Earth (as it were) with mortal men, and to do for them what God does for us.


As I say, in Mormonism all this is made very concrete and definite in a way that does not happen in mainstream Christianity - at least it does not happen in the kind of professionally-written systematic theology to which people refer in defining Christian beliefs.

However, what the mass of actual (real, devout, usually simple) Christians who now live and ever have lived believe in their own hearts and minds is another matter altogether - and I suspect that this is much closer to Mormonism that would be supposed from official theology.

I therefore take the Mormon doctrine of exaltation as a reasonable explanation of what we will actually do when we become Sons of God.


To the concrete mind, it seems obvious that being adopted as Sons of God must mean that we do something different from, something more than, 'merely' worship God and live with him in happiness and without pain; since that is possible to angels without the need for incarnate earthly life, indeed earthly life would seem to be a hazard and a distraction.

Whereas Mormons can explain earthly life as a preparation for doing the job of a Son of God.

That explanation makes sense, and satisfies the curiosity, in a very straightforward and immediate fashion. It addresses the question and what lies behind the question. Most mainstream Christian explanations of the work of Heaven do neither; and come across as merely vague, or else evasive - perhaps even dishonest.


Therefore it may be possible for mainstream Christians to believe that the Mormon description is a reasonable answer to a question (what do we do in Heaven?) that for many people demands an answer; and for which people will supply their own answer - if a comprehensible one is not forthcoming from the official sources.

It is utterly inappropriate to apply the logic and rigour of professional systematic theology to a necessarily simplified and concrete explanation of an complex and abstract phenomenon - which must be understood and taught to their families by an 'amateur' priesthood of all men in good standing (whatever their intelligence and knowledge may be).

It is inappropriate to use 'Gotcha!' arguments, such as that by this doctrine Mormons are revealed as Polytheists or Pagans - since the Bible often refers to gods in the plural, and it is normal Christian understanding that Men will become in some sense gods. Any explanation of this (essential) aspect of scripture must either be too abstract for most people to follow, or open to being misunderstood as polytheistic.

(After all, many Protestants have regarded Roman and Orthodox Catholics as very obviously polytheists.)


Usually this matter is explained in terms of complex abstractness that simply have no meaning to most people; but in Mormonism there is an extra layer of explanation, that is able to answer obvious questions of a kind which get asked by the plain and simple person.

Perhaps these are indeed the most important questions? - and ones where comprehensible answers ought to be given? Even when these answers are necessarily selective, brief, simple, unsystematic...


Now although (in this instance, and in other instances) the concrete and clear Mormon answer can satisfy most of the obvious questions, and in a way which is comprehensible to almost anyone; it does break down when pushed further in terms of deep philosophical coherence, or when matched up against mainstream Christian systematic theology.

Putting a microscope onto Mormon theology, it is as rather if we were to go to an extremely saintly and utterly simple Orthodox Babushka from Holy Russia, and set her to debate with a Professor of Thomistic Systematic theology from Notre Dame - who may not actually be a Christian believer.

If we asked the Babushka for a description of her beliefs they would be concrete, anthropomorphic, perhaps idiosyncratic and almost certainly heretical (by official criteria) - utterly unsystematic but utterly relevant to her everyday spiritual needs.

For her to have the relationship with God which she does (and for which all Christians strive), God must be a person, and to be a person he must be concrete and not abstract.


What the Babushka and devout Mormonism share is that concreteness and actually and literal explicitness which potentially brings religion very close for many people (not only for an expert elite of intellectuals or monastics); brings into juxtaposition the spiritual realm with everyday earthly life.  

What then is Christianity, and how can it be distinguished from real, dangerous heresy?

What is 'Mere' Christianity - Christianity that is real, but not denominational?

Clearly we are not going to give a theological answer; nor can it be a complex answer. The best answer is surely the one from John's gospel that Christ is our (personal) Lord and Saviour.


Correctness of understanding what this actually means cannot (for reasons given above) be done on theological grounds, but must (in the end) be a personal and experiential matter.

But this personal and experiential justification is not a possible basis for a church. Much more is needed for a viable church. A church must be objective, public, shared.

Mere Christianity is not, therefore, autonomous - and it needs denominations.

All real Christian denominations (including Mormonism) contain part of the truth. But all real Christian denominations are partial, incomplete, distorted, and have particular strengths and weaknesses - there is always a trade off at work: monasticism may go higher, but has greater hazards; abstraction is more complete and coherent, but less relevant. And so on.


But the point of this post is that Christianity provokes plain people (including children) to ask certain obvious questions - such as what do we actually do in Heaven.

The question implicitly means what do we do in Heaven that we cannot do on earth, that is different from anything that could be done on earth, but which sounds like a task or job which is difficult and interesting enough to take-up eternity' (which is being understood as 'a very long time').

Considered in this fashion, it may be possible for mainstream Christians to acknowledge that Mormonism has provided a good answer; an answer that - while it is not perfect, and is less than coherent in terns of systematic theology - is motivating and inspiring at an everyday, experiential level: and perhaps mainstream Christians are prone to neglect that level - which may be the most important of all.


NOTE: I am not interested in publishing comments (although I will read them) that are purely critical of the Mormon doctrine of exaltation; any such comment must be backed-up by a similarly short, clear, comprehensible and relevant alternative answer to the question of what Christians do in Heaven. Ideally, this alternative should also be at least as appealing and appropriately-motivating as the Mormon answer.