Writing about the ways in which my understanding of God has changed feels incredibly personal and vulnerable. I’m still not entirely sure why this is, but it feels like there are few things about this change that I’m able to share easily in public. So I share this will the full realization that some people will read this and think I’ve misunderstood Mormonism completely. I’m sure that others will read this and it will be harmful to their faith. I’m not usually bothered by what other people think of my writing, but this topic feels more personal than most. Not a lot of readers are frequenting this blog, so I’ll share it here with the reassurance that you probably didn’t end up here accidentally. Here is the text of the paper I just wrote for one of my classes. Writing this paper helped me clarify more of the problems of Mormon God here. I realize that I am not bringing in lots of resources and the one reference to Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine stands in for a lifetime of indoctrination on the centrality of obedience. So this is not a perfect paper by any stretch, but it does, I think, reflect why it is so difficult for Mormons to hold onto faith in God after a faith transition: our idea of God in Mormonism is not one you want to hold onto, but you don’t really understand that there are better ideas out there.
[The image that goes with this post is Paul Gauguin’s Vision of the Sermon (1888), which is about rural French women in Brittany experiencing a vision of Jacob wrestling with the angel after hearing a sermon on the story. I’m not a fan of Gauguin, but I do love this painting. One summer I worked in the museum where it is housed and spent a lot of time looking at it. Its theme of wrestle and struggle is appropriate to my relationship with God at the moment.]
A Working Theology
My first big breakthrough in spiritual direction in the wake of my faith transition was naming that I had an Old God and a New God. The Old God was the God I had encountered in Mormonism – a perfected man who took on the literal role of an authoritarian father who ruled the world from a distant heaven. Old God demanded perfection and seemed to resent having to forgive people of their sins. Periodically, I felt that I encountered a God whose love was more abundant, but it was hard to reconcile these competing understandings of God. My church leaders insisted on the authoritarian image and it seemed like those leaders had the authority to determine such things. After I left my high-demands fundamentalist church, my belief in Old God crumbled and I was able to insert a kind of place-holder idea of God with the assistance of Robert Mesle’s introduction to process theology. It was difficult for the God of process theology to grow and take root in my faith, as I had no trust in this New God and was feeling wary from previous experiences. At the beginning of this class, my understanding of New God was stunted and under-developed: God as love and God as connection. I could trust these ideas because they resonated with my experiences of God in spiritual practice and in community. It was enough at that time, but spiritual practice is suggesting to me that there is more to discover and that public ministry requires a deeper understanding.
Further developing this idea of God has been emotionally challenging, as I fear that I will adopt ideas that will cause further harm to me or that I will adopt and share ideas that will harm others. The resources for this class are helping me to deepen my understanding of God through the presentation of new ideas. Authors who both describe ideas that are new to me while understanding the problematic concepts of God are the most useful to me in this stage of my developing theology. It is like I am standing in a room that represents my faith, and scattered on the floor is a lot of broken ceramic that used to be my image of Old God. I had previously thought that it was enough to shatter this idol, but there is no room for a new one in a space full of Old God trash. Rowan Williams’ Tokens of Trust has been an important resource because in addition to describing Christian belief, he also names common ideas about God that reflect bad theology. This naming of bad theology has helped me trust Williams as a reader and seeker, drawing important comparisons between bad and immature theology and better developed theology. This essay outlines some key comparisons that he has made that have helped me to reform my idea of God.
I have seen bad theology at work in Old God and can recognize the wisdom of Williams’ insights in my own experience. His comment that bad religion puts forward the idea that one should outwit God (p. 7) resonated with my experience of Old God, whose demands for perfection undermined any concept of grace or love as demonstrated in Jesus. Old God demanded that I reconcile myself to God’s perfection, a task I could not accomplish no matter how hard I tried. It seemed to me that this was either an impossible task or I could pretend that I was becoming more perfect, more god-like, which is the stated goal of Mormon doctrine. I attempted the pretending route, but it did not hold up to any critical self-reflection. Trying to be perfect seems to be the outwitting of God that Williams references. Williams’ naming of bad theology, here and throughout the book, is helping me to sweep up the old and broken pieces and throw them away for good. External validation of the characteristics of bad theology is helping me to spot it more clearly. Williams understands that bad theology is a barrier to progress on our journeys of faith. Clearing out the clutter of bad ideas has created space for me to hear Williams’ message about God’s purpose being reconciliation with humanity (p. 8), which builds on my pre-existing ideas of God-as-love and God-as-connection and matches my experience of God in spiritual practice.
As I see Old God more clearly, I can see that New God is nothing like that idol. This clarity provides some reassurance about this process and I think that I am beginning to trust the process of clearing out the debris of bad theology to make room for better ideas. When Williams named that God is not “a bigger and better version of a human person” (p. 137), this insight hit me and further named and cleared up the broken bits of Old God in the room of my faith. Old God was exactly that – a perfected man who proved that a path to perfection was possible. This particular comment opens up space for God to be a mystery while still holding that God’s purpose is reconciliation with humanity. This mystery is not, in Williams’ words, “an unfathomable alien intelligence” (p. 8), but rather, in the words of Karl Rahner, “the most hidden and least regarded reality, speaking to us by its silence, and even while appearing to be absent, revealings its presence by making us take cognizance of our own limitations” (Johnson p. 37). Rahner speaks to the quietness of God, which only threatens the Old God, whose demands were loud and persistent. New God is not anthropomorphic reality, but something else, a holy other. As the weeks have gone on, I think that even if my trust in New God is not growing quickly, I am gaining confidence in the idea that I can further clarify my understanding of God with ideas that will not cause myself or others harm, because there is no weaponization of God in these ideas.
Where Mormonism proclaims that “obedience is the first law of heaven” (McConkie p. 539), Williams reminds his readers that Christian discipleship is not obedience to a distant divinity, but “participation in the rhythms that sustain the universe” (p. 136). Williams describes a vibrant and dynamic life with God, where Mormonism identifies discipleship in far narrower ways, with steep personal costs and the constant threat of losing one’s place in heaven. Mormonism’s insistence on human obedience runs counter to the idea that God’s purpose is reconciliation, where part of the work is done by God alone. It is not hard to see now that obedience was the first rule of Mormonism and that the concept was manipulated by people seeking power over others.
This centering of the idea of obedience was also present in Mormonism’s concept of the Godhead. The name for Old God was Heavenly Father, and even though Jesus was part of the Godhead, the relationship between Heavenly Father and Jesus was one of obedience – Jesus was perfectly obedient to the will of Heavenly Father, who was a separate being. Each of the members of the Godhead were divine, as though divinity was a rank that one achieved. The Godhead had its own internal hierarchy and honoring that hierarchy was Jesus’ great achievement. I dislike obedience being the foundation of any healthy relationship, but that idea never sat well with me, but I did not encounter better ideas. The Trinity has always seemed too strange and distant to comprehend, but in pulling apart the Godhead, I prefer the ways in which Williams describes the Trinity as a community of reconciled entities. They do not relate to each other through domination and hierarchy, but the parts of the Trinity seek community, reconciliation, and unity with each other across their differences (p. 137). Williams describes the Trinity as “Love, Actually” in chapter 6 (p. 135) and this puts love and reconciliation at the heart of the Trinity (p. 137). I am not sure that I have encountered New God as Trinity in spiritual practice (yet), but I do prefer the trinitarian model of God over the Godhead and it fits with my existing ideas of God as love and God as connection.
In my former faith tradition, I was taught that Old God was easily scared away by my sins, which created temporary separation from Old God. This meant that Old God was always coming and going, punishing me through separation, and leaving me with profound feelings of unworthiness even as I struggled for perfection. I used to joke that if Mormonism was a competition (and now I have a better understanding that it was), I was determined to win it. Today, I understand that this view of sin shows Old God to be fragile, which is why he is lying on the floor of my room of faith in shards. Even after leaving my old tradition, I have been given flimsy explanations of sin as “anything that separates us from God” and that is not something that I can hold or share with others who have also experienced abusive theology. I knew I would be safe at an ELCA seminary because I heard Nadia Bolz-Weber repeat again and again in her sermons, which I listened to online for years, that nothing separates us from God and God’s love. In the hardest parts of my faith transition, I was able to hold onto this idea, but then struggled to understand sin without separation. When Williams described sin as “living in untruth, in self-deceit” (p. 85), I understand that to mean that our self-deceptions and lies disrupt the work of reconciliation to which we are called. God does not separate from us, but we are not reciprocating the effort. Sin is harming relationships with others and with ourselves and that is a definition of sin that I can accept.
Williams has challenged me, through his naming of familiar theological traps of undeveloped theology, to scrutinize my former faith in a more rigorous way than I have previously. In doing so, he has helped me create more space for new-to-me theology. I now see that Old God relied on domination and hierarchies in a way that I have never heard described or articulated myself. Williams’ contrasts between bad and good theology have been helpful in re-framing ideas about God and ideas that are fundamental to Christian belief, like sin. I think that I can now articulate God’s love in a way that feels more defined, solid, and less fluffy. For my first year at seminary, I held the idea of the Trinity at a distance because I just felt like it was too much to take on, but having compared the ideas underlying Old God and New God, I am just about sold on this concept. I can also see that I was fearful of the Trinity because I had no real understanding of it, just as I see others in faith transitions resist the idea of Trinity from a place of fear and lack of understanding.
I have used a lot of story and comparisons in this essay, which I understand sounds more like a reflection than an outline of my working theology. I also realize that the intended aim of the essay might have been to produce a synthesis of the readings in unit one to create that working theology. As someone who was, in September, fearful of taking a class with the words “Triune God” in the title, I have had to do a great deal of remedial and emotional work to get to a place where I can more easily accept new theology and recognize that it is rooted in love and connection rather than domination. I do believe that I now have a stronger basis for my developing theology as a result of this theological remediation and hope and think that I can continue to build on this firmer foundation with more trust in the process, and perhaps in God, than I had prior to this class.
Johnson, Elizabeth A. Quest for the living God: Mapping frontiers in the theology of God. A&C Black, 2007.
McConkie, Bruce R. Mormon Doctrine. Bookcraft, 1966.
Mesle, C. Robert. Process theology: A basic introduction. Chalice Press, 1993.
Williams, Rowan. Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Westminster John Knox Press, 2007.