God as Codependent

January 19, 2008
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If there is something truly unique about Mormon doctrine, it is the image of God. I agree with Sterling McMurrin, that its not always easy to tell these days what the mainstream LDS church really teaches, or at least how much it actually resembles the church Joseph Smith founded. Nevertheless, there was a time in our past when leaders were much more willing to voice their opinions and theories, especially Joseph himself. The nature of God was no exception.

Lately in General Conference, I get the impression that the canonized First Vision is the official standard for the nature of God. If that account is accurate, it tells a little about what God looks like, or at least what form He took when talking to Joseph Smith, but it doesn’t say much about the nature, or character, of God. But this was definitely not a silent issue for Joseph Smith.

The opening paragraph of James Fowler’s Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian : Adult Development and Christian Faith begins:

The shorter Westminster Catechism begins with this question: “What is the chief end of man?” Its answer, learned by twenty generations of the theological heirs of John Calvin, states: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”

To the best of my knowledge, this concept of God is not strictly Calvinist, but is actually quite common across many denominations and into other faiths. It is a picture of God as both a sort of cosmic zoologist, and a bottomless void of need for man’s worship. This image of God as the Ultimate Codependent defines the purpose of human existence to be for God’s amusement and self-gratification.

I don’t buy it. My resistance to that image is not just out of my own admittedly peculiar sensibilities, but it was also completely dissolved by Joseph Smith. It is Joseph’s revolutionary concept of God that I personally feel was his greatest contribution to humanity.

In the King Follett Discourse, Joseph Smith re-painted God as a being much more consistent with the character of charity and unconditional love that Jesus demonstrated in His life. A Christian has to be able to reconcile the character of Jesus Christ with the God they worship from the Old Testament, since Jesus himself said that He could only do what He had seen the Father do. This reconciliation becomes even more necessary if you believe that Jesus is the Father incarnate. Why suffer so much, why teach us so much about loving each other, if our whole purpose is just to worship and glorify God?

We could split hairs about how Joseph explains that as we are saved and exalted we glorify God. Something he says later demonstrates that there is more to God’s motive than simply to be glorified. I interpret it that God’s glorification is a bi-product of His actions in pursuit of His primary motive. The primary motive being our glorification, not His. In Joseph’s words:

The relationship we have with God places us in a situation to advance in knowledge. God Himself found Himself in the midst of spirits and glory. Because He was greater He saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest, who were less in intelligence, could have a privilege to advance like Himself and be exalted with Him, so that they might have one glory upon another in all that knowledge, power, and glory. So He took in hand to save the world of spirits.

Its odd, considering the other heretical views I hold, that I take such comfort in that statement. Here is a God that my logical mind can understand and love. I am no longer a pet or a hobby or worse. God’s interest in man makes much more sense and at the same time provides an ethical standard by which to we can judge other teachings attributed to Him. When someone claims that a principle is from God, does it contribute to our advancement? Perhaps this sounds humanistic to some, but in my view I more completely love a God whose entire work is His love for me, rather than a god whose work is making me love him.

For behold, this is my work and my glory – to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. (Moses 1:39)

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14 Responses to God as Codependent

  1. Chris W.
    January 19, 2008 at 12:22 am

    For some reason, this reminds me of Fight Club:

    What you have to understand, is your father was your model for God. If you’re male and you’re Christian and living in America, your father is your model for God. And if you never know your father, if your father bails out and dies or is never at home, what do you believe about God?

    What you end up doing is you spend your life searching for your father and God.

    I also hold a lot of “unorthodox” views, but this concept of God (and the corresponding idea of eternal progression) ring very true to me. I can’t separate my perspective from my mormon upbringing, of course, and my christian friends think that it’s heretical. But I like it!

  2. January 19, 2008 at 2:00 am

    Clay, excellent, excellent post. Amen to what you’ve said, and I couldn’t have said it better myself.

    This reminds me of a comment-exchange I had with a gentleman who visited our blog at Burning Bosom who, in response to my question about how we reconcile the idea of a loving God with what we read in the Old Testament about God ordering the deaths of women, children, etc., told me that we just need to understand that our only real purpose is to glorify God, so we need to just deal with our pain and suffering by knowing we are pawns in his game of self-glorification. That idea is so repugnant to me and defies common sense.

    It’s so much simpler to me to think that on earth we are following the heavenly pattern. I’m helping my children grow up to become like me, and God is helping me grow up to become like him. My glory is seeing my children grow up the right way, and God’s glory is seeing his children grow up the right way.

  3. Bruce Nielson
    January 19, 2008 at 8:56 am

    Excellent post, Clay. I’ve thought long as this very subject and hold the same views.

  4. Doc
    January 19, 2008 at 10:01 am

    Amen brother,
    To me this is what we have uniquely to offer the World. More than anything, this rings true even as other denominations have their stomachs churned by very idea that God could have us in mind, and see a purpose and relationship with us so many just can’t or won’t comprehend.

  5. Bruce Nielson
    January 19, 2008 at 11:11 am

    >>> I get the impression that the canonized First Vision is the official standard for the nature of God. If that account is accurate, it tells a little about what God looks like, or at least what form He took when talking to Joseph Smith, but it doesn’t say much about the nature, or character, of God.

    Clay, I agree with you on this. I feel the Church emphasizes the physical nature of God way too much when what really matters is His character. I see a big difference between the lectures on faith here and modern thinking.

  6. TJM
    January 19, 2008 at 12:23 pm


    I interpret it that God’s glorification is a bi-product of His actions in pursuit of His primary motive. The primary motive being our glorification, not His.


    God’s interest in man makes much more sense and at the same time provides an ethical standard by which to we can judge other teachings attributed to Him.


    When someone claims that a principle is from God, does it contribute to our advancement?


    I more completely love a God whose entire work is His love for me, rather than a god whose work is making me love him.

    These are excellent points. Great Post!

  7. John Nilsson
    January 19, 2008 at 2:41 pm

    Clay,

    You have expressed beautifully a teaching which most express crudely in our church. Your test of religious principles is also very commendable. By it’s logic, much of what is currently taught in the Church may need to be refined and understood better from a higher vantage point. I think especially of certain analogies of the Atonement taught in CES and elsewhere which to me are not conducive to advancing humanity, but rather placing us in a servile relationship to a harsh, arbitrary deity.

    Have you used your understanding of God’s primary motive to reconcile the Old Testament God with Jesus Christ? I think this remains a difficult task, whether one is LDS or a Westminsterite.

  8. January 19, 2008 at 7:07 pm

    Clay,

    Fantastic post. Karen Armstrong’s book called “The History of God” seems to generally conclude that the idea of an ethereal God is the “best”. This leads to all sorts of paradoxical ideas displayed, in my mind, in Kabbalah, where God is simultaneously good and evil.

    This view on God can lead to all sorts of misinterpretations and corruptions about the peronality of God.

    Although an ethereal/undefinable God is easy to reconsile when one becomes agnostically drawn after finding out about the discrepencies in Mormon doctrine and history….ultimately an anthropomorphic God is one I cling on to with all my heart and mind.

    Margaret Barker has done fantastic work in showing that Christians do not have to compromise their beliefs with the twisted and corrupted books in the Old Testament. She shows that Christianity caught on so fast because it restored what was lost and that ultimately we had the “wrong” Old Testament that replaced the “right” one when corrupt elites such as Josiah came into power.

    Again Clay…FANTASTIC POST…we really do need to realize why God wants us to glorify him and unfortunately I academics are trying to compare him to Kim Jong Il…the eternal dictator of North Korea. Although humorous and interesting perspectively, it forgets the things that you have highlighted.

    Thank you for your post.

  9. January 19, 2008 at 7:48 pm

    A fact about the Old Testament that I have never heard spoken of in church is that it previously only existed as separate books, and not even actual books. Its actually pretty odd that we nitpick so much over the possible meaning of Old Testament phrasing and narrative when the stories, in their current state, exist largely out of oral legend. That is to say, in the memories of each passing generation who would maintain history by telling the stories to their children. At some point the stories started to be written down, and then some version (as no doubt there were many versions floating around) became “canonized” by the Jews.

    A knowledge of this aspect of the Old Testament makes it more akin to something like the Journal of Discourses, and perhaps with an even lower likelihood of accuracy. We generally think its the word of God because it feels like blasphemy to say otherwise. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying its either the word of God or its garbage. I believe it has some great value and one could certainly pray to find out if it is a holy book, and it could be confirmed as such without it being literal or even historically accurate. Personally, I don’t think historical accuracy is the point of any scripture, which is a good thing, because historicity is generally a weakness of scripture.

  10. January 19, 2008 at 9:01 pm

    To the best of my knowledge, this concept of God is not strictly Calvinist, but is actually quite common across many denominations and into other faiths. It is a picture of God as both a sort of cosmic zoologist, and a bottomless void of need for man’s worship. This image of God as the Ultimate Codependent defines the purpose of human existence to be for God’s amusement and self-gratification.

    I completely agree, Clay. To me, human deification is perhaps the most beautiful doctrine Mormonism has to offer. I don’t particularly believe in an individual, personal deity these days, but if there was one, I can only imagine that deity being worthy of worship if this concept of deification were true. The idea of an individual deity who created mankind for no other purpose than praising him throughout eternity is entirely repugnant to me. Such a being would be entirely self-centered, egotistical, and needy.

  11. Stephen Marsh
    January 19, 2008 at 9:10 pm

    A knowledge of this aspect of the Old Testament makes it more akin to something like the Journal of Discourses, and perhaps with an even lower likelihood of accuracy.

    You’ve been talking to Jewish scholars again ….

  12. January 23, 2008 at 3:05 pm

    That was actually a draw for me in my conversion. I didn’t care the common Christian teaching I grew up with that our purpose was to praise and worship God forever and ever, amen.

    It’s akin to growing up, moving out of the house and calling one’s parents daily and telling them how great they are and everything one does is only to reflect their parents’ awesomeness. I would think one’s parents would get a little creeped out and say “Get a life! We gave you wings to *use* them. Fly, be free!”

  13. Jeff Spector
    January 23, 2008 at 3:38 pm

    “A knowledge of this aspect of the Old Testament makes it more akin to something like the Journal of Discourses, and perhaps with an even lower likelihood of accuracy.”

    The Talmud and Mishnah are actually more akin to the JofD because it is strictly commentary. But, if you can imagine a group of GAs arguing doctrine and writing it all down.

  14. January 31, 2008 at 1:51 pm

    This actually brings up a few interesting points, and I really think that more people should be aware of this. The Lectures on Faith really did point this out: we can’t understand our own nature until we understand the nature of God.

    I think the physical nature of God is just a beginning, but we don’t really have enough information beyond [body, bones, Father, Son] to understand the physical nature so we really should be focused on the character of God, and motivation really is the one character trait that can make everything else make sense. I think C.S Lewis had it right but then moved away from it in the Screwtape Letters (I’ll mess up the reference, and there are so many issues, but I think he uses a similar analogy in Mere Christianity) when he talks about God wanting to make people better. Lewis was on the right path, but I think rejected theosis because of its implications (I doubt he was truly ignorant of the LDS church). It is, after, commonly seen as the ultimate blasphemy. Self-theosis, after all, is essentially the great sin of Lucifer. Lucifer just wanted two things: to supplant the Father and to remove agency. That this was unacceptable tells us a number of things: first, the Father values (I think necessarily) agency and that self-theosis is anathemic to the character of God. That being the case, then, we can guess that Moses 1:39 is really at the heart of things: we really are the focus of the Father’s attention.

    I think that we only gain theosis through the exercise of agency, however. I think those things are absolutely linked, which is why mortality is an essential step at some point. It may be also why mortality is a step that is essentially ‘free’ to some–they’ve already exercised their agency pretty thoroughly prior to this, having made difficult decisions in a condition where there are few decisions to be made (I suspect).

    God is worthy of respect and love, then for the reasons you say–because he loves us and wants us to be happy and is working very actively to make that happen. Sounds somewhat like a marriage partner…the happiest marriages are the ones where both partners are working hard to be worthy of love and respect.

    Oh, and “we believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly”. Which is to say, generally speaking, it isn’t. And it is far from complete. My dad spoke Hebrew, and I wish I had learned. My aunt lives in Israel, so let’s just say my exposure to some rather critical thinking about the Bible is there…

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