Time flashback: More on Mormon heaven

J991915 1We have had some lively discussion in the past week on my recent post raising questions about how mainstream reporters should handle, or try to avoid, questions about Mormon doctrines that strike many traditional Christians as wrong or, at the very least, worthy of debate. The spark for the discussions, of course, is a possible Mitt Romney bid for the White House. Click here for a recent Salt Lake Tribune piece linked to this. The key, I believe, is the doctrine called "exaltation." This is linked to the theme commonly expressed with the statement "What man now is, God once was" or similar constructions. The idea is that faithful Mormons can make a leap, in the next life, to the status of gods of their own worlds, spheres, universes or some form of creation.

The most common question seems to be: Is this a belief that Mormons (a) still believe or (b) take literally, as opposed to it being a metaphor for some symbolism of eternal bliss (with families united, heavenly marriages, etc.) that is hard to discuss with nonbelievers. In other words, it's our business. Leave us alone.

I bring this up because of this item in the comment boards:

There's some precedent for Romney. Gordon Hinckley, current prophet/president of the Mormon Church, was asked by the SF Chronicle religion reporter if god was once a man. Hinckley replied: "I wouldn't say that. There was a little couplet coined, 'As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.' Now that's more of a couplet than anything else. That gets into some pretty deep theology that we don't know very much about. (4/13/97)"

It seems that Mormon leaders have been slowly minimizing the teaching within the church and downplaying it as much as possible publicly. I suspect that Romney might take a cue from his Church president.

Posted by John Remy at 10:25 am on October 15, 2006

There are evangelicals who are interested in this issue, since it is directly linked to the very nature of God and the Christian belief in the Trinity. The big question: Is Mormon doctrine evolving or is its discussion merely being muted?

There are journalists who are interested in this question, as well.

Sometimes, their work overlaps -- as in the following discussion on a website linked to the Institute for Religious Research. Yes, Mormons can accurately say that this is a hostile source of information, but it contains interesting correspondence linked to a Time interview with Hinckley -- part of the famous Mormons, Inc. cover story -- that covers similar ground.

This "Mormons in Transition" item by Luke Wilson begins:

President Gordon B. Hinckley seemed to dodge and dissemble in an August 4, 1997, Time cover story when veteran religion writer Richard N. Ostling asked him about the distinctive Mormon teaching that humans can become gods, and that God the Father was once a man. ...

"At first Hinckley seemed to qualify the idea that men could become gods," according to Time, "suggesting that 'it's of course an ideal. It's a hope for a wishful thing,' but later he added, 'yes, of course they can.'"

On whether the LDS Church holds that, "God the Father was once a man, he sounded uncertain, 'I don't know that we teach it. I don't know that we emphasize it ... I understand the philosophical background behind it, but I don't know a lot about it, and I don't think others know a lot about it,'" Hinckley told Time.

But is it possible that President Hinckley is not intimately aware of these distinctive doctrines of Mormonism that trace back all the way to Joseph Smith?

1101970804 400At this point, all kinds of letters are written between leaders at this website, the Mormon leadership (F. Michael Watson in the office of the First Presidency) and, of greatest interest to GetReligion readers, reporters at Time magazine. If the subject still interests you, or if you doubt that there will be people in major GOP primary states interested in the topic, then you need to read the "Transition" post for yourself. The Hinkley interview was conducted by one of the finest religion writers of our age, Richard Ostling, who is himself a skilled researcher of the Mormon faith and culture.

But here is a key part:

In a telephone conversation, (David) Van Biema told us that Time stood by its story as written, and that he had asked Time senior correspondent Richard N. Ostling, who conducted the Hinckley interview, to reply to our letter. Here is the text of Ostling's reply, along with Time's transcript of the relevant part of the recorded interview, which Ostling included (copies of this correspondence is available on request):

Dear Mr. Wilson:

Here's the transcript of my question and President Hinckley's response to me. This came just after a long discussion on whether men can become gods, which the President affirmed. You can judge Mr. Watson's "out of context" assertion for yourself.

Best,

R. N. Ostling

Here is the relevant excerpt from President Hinckley's interview with Time:

Q: Just another related question that comes up is the statements in the King Follet discourse by the Prophet.

A: Yeah

Q: ... about that, God the Father was once a man as we were. This is something that Christian writers are always addressing. Is this the teaching of the church today, that God the Father was once a man like we are?

A: I don't know that we teach it. I don't know that we emphasize it. I haven't heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse. I don't know. I don't know all the circumstances under which that statement was made. I understand the philosophical background behind it. But I don't know a lot about it and I don't know that others know a lot about it.

Again, let me stress that this kind of site is only one side of a debate.

However, its sources are interesting and reporters will find the quotes from Mormon doctrines and correspondence interesting. That is, reporters will find the material interesting if they actually want to take seriously the doctrinal issues that will affect Romney's candidacy in the Bible Belt and, perhaps, elsewhere. If the top leaders of the Mormon church are uncertain how to answer questions about their doctrine of God, it may be hard for a presidential candidate to know what to say.

Here's the hard part: It's easy to find sites online that attack Mormonism on this issue. Where are the best sites that explain the church's current teachings? Where is the official material that states the other side?

Before you click that comment button, please remember that I am raising this as a journalistic issue, not as a doctrinal issue. The question is how journalists can cover this story in a way that represents the voices on each side in a fair and accurate manner.

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