Saturday, February 11, 2017
The Director of the Universe
I hope this post isn’t too sacrilegious, but sometimes you overhear snippets of conversation that are just downright funny. One day last week I wandered past the office of one of my fellow editors and heard one of our student interns say, “I was talking with Steve, the director of the Universe.” I stopped and poked my head in and said, “I’d always wondered what his name was.”
Of course they were talking about BYU’s student newspaper, which changed its name in 2012 when they stopped printing a paper every school day and went to a once-a-week publication. The website masthead still reads “The Daily Universe” and describes itself as “a student-produced media enterprise that publishes a weekly print edition, The Universe, and has online news presence at universe.byu.edu.” But still, our intern’s statement sounded pretty funny out of context.
And that got me thinking. Actually, I think quite a bit about God. I’m not sure the reverse is true, but I have all sorts of questions that no one this side of the veil can apparently answer. That doesn’t stop me from wondering about them, though. As Mormons, we believe in a personal Father in Heaven, who is the epitome of our race, what we are supposed to strive for. Those of you who have read much of my writing might have come across my contention that our God is not the “supreme Governor of the universe,” as our Bible dictionary and quite a few of our highest earthly leaders now claim. If we believe Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and Lorenzo Snow, our Father lived on an earth like this one, went through the trials of mortality, and eventually reached his exalted state like all the gods before him, and like we hope to do also. If this is true, then he wouldn’t be the God of this universe, and neither would his father or his grandfather, and so on. Not unless we believe in the multiverse (a different universe for each god), for which we have no scriptural evidence and no statements from prophets to give it any weight. I’ve suggested that being the God of the Milky Way galaxy would be plenty to worry about and would actually quite comfortably fit the self-description God gives Moses, of having created “worlds without number” (Moses 1:33) that are “innumerable . . . unto man; but all things are numbered unto me” (Moses 1:35). We have only vague estimates of how many billion stars are in our galaxy, and the estimates keep changing. So, yes, the worlds in our galaxy are innumerable unto man.
But if God really did live as a mortal man on a planet like ours, where he worked out his salvation, he would have been given a name by his earthly parents. We don’t know that name. For all we know, it could be Steve. Why not? He also probably had a name given to him by his heavenly parents. We don’t know that one either. It wasn’t Elohim, which Mormons often misconstrue as the name of God. But Elohim isn’t a name. It is a title, of which God has many. This one happens to be a Hebrew term, most often plural, meaning “gods” or “deity.” It isn’t a name like Steve or Ralph or Ethan.
And this got me thinking about our relationship with God. We sometimes get these folksy ideas that we lived with our Heavenly Father in the premortal world, and if we do everything we ought to in this life, we’ll live with him again. Sorry, but I just don’t buy this, at least not as literally as most Mormons. In my recent Dialogue article, which was based on three posts on this blog from the fall of 2015, I gave the full details of a population estimate I did for this earth based on Mormon assumptions (starting with two people at about 4000 BC and winding up with a thousand-year Millennium in which people live to the age of 100 and then get twinkled). In many ways, mine is a rather conservative estimate (I know, you probably don’t think I can be conservative about anything, but this time it’s true), and the final tally for people born on this earth comes to something just north of 200 billion. Add in the obligatory one-third of the hosts of heaven that followed Lucifer, and you get about 317 billion spirit children of God “living with him” in the premortal world. And that’s just for this earth, one of his “innumerable” worlds. In other words, this is not a family that sat round the dining room table for dinner every evening or held family home evening in the cozy family room. No, 300 billion kids is rather a lot. Which means we probably had virtually no face time with our Father, if any at all.
What this suggests is that if we “lived in God’s presence” before this life, a concept that undergirds a good portion of our reasoning behind the “plan of salvation” (we had to leave his presence in order to learn to live by faith, yada, yada, yada), then there wasn’t really much chance to actually spend any time with him, unless you propose something like multidimensional time, an idea I’ve actually explored before (maybe I’ll post that chapter sometime). But, again, we don’t have a lot of evidence for such a condition, nor do we know how it would actually play out. What we can probably surmise about our relationship with God is that it was likely based on some sort of spiritual connection, rather than a lot of face time. We don’t really know what the Spirit is, but it must be some sort of medium through which we were able to be in communication with God without actually being in his immediate presence and having a verbal conversation.
We also believe in a God who is omniscient, whatever that means. Years ago, I wrote an essay for The Religious Educator in which I took the notion of omniscience to its logical extreme. I’d probably dial it back a bit now, but we do believe in a God who can “hear” and “answer” the prayers of billions of children simultaneously, govern the physical elements of his realm, and be aware of not just what is happening everywhere but also of future contingencies (things that might happen). LDS scripture insists that God doesn’t just compute probabilities for the present and future to know what is happening. In some way that we can’t comprehend, he sees it. Jesus describes himself as “the same who knoweth all things, for all things are present before mine eyes” (D&C 38:2). All things. Whatever that means.
One thing it does mean is that God is a being who is very different from us on a fundamental level. We cannot really relate to the sort of experience he has, just as we cannot relate to a computer that is able perform millions of tasks simultaneously. What sort of relationship can you have with a being who is relating to billions of other people at the same time? Well, it probably means that God can never give us his “undivided attention.” Which makes me wonder if we really understand the sort of existence we claim to aspire to. As I put it in a recent Sunstone essay:
Our theology insists that we can become like God. This means we can become omniscient. And omniscience means not only that we will someday understand every living being in the universe with perfect intimacy but also that every other omniscient being will understand us in the same transparent way. Mormon theology thus suggests an existence in which there is no need to communicate, because the race of gods we aspire to join already knows everything that everyone will ever say. Why communicate even telepathically if there is nothing new to share? Is this the end of our quest for perfection? Something like the Q Continuum (from Star Trek), a collection of eternally bored but seemingly omnipotent and omniscient beings?
Mostly what we have is a load of unanswered questions.
I’ve often wondered whether most Mormons really want to be gods someday. I think about members of my ward, who are certainly, on average, better educated and better employed than most Mormons. But how many of them would really enjoy being the CEO of a large corporation, to say nothing of being director of the universe? I know I wouldn’t. After I finished my MBA, I avoided corporate America like the plague. That just wasn’t my idea of fun. I would not enjoy for a moment being the CEO of Exxon or Walmart or even Google. But what I am taught to aspire to is to be a manager on a galactic scale. Not just a father. A manager. We belong to the most corporate of all churches. We must assume that the hereafter is as hyperorganized as the twenty-first-century LDS Church is. So being in charge of even a whole galaxy sounds like something most Mormons wouldn’t sign up for. I mean, we feel sorry for men who get called to be bishop and women who are called to serve as Relief Society president. If they posted a job description for God, I wonder if anyone would apply. What, I wonder, is most Mormons’ idea of the best way to spend eternity?
Which vision of the celestial kingdom is more accurate? We have two, you know. There’s the one in which the celestial kingdom is just a brief way station on the path to “getting my own world” and populating it with hundreds of billions of my own children. Then there’s the other one, in which we spend eternity on this celestialized earth, associating with our parents and children and friends in a perfectly peaceful and blissful society. Forever. If the former is more accurate, then the celestial kingdom will soon be empty, except for those unfortunate souls who never married or whose spouse didn’t measure up. And how would that world be different from the terrestrial kingdom? This is another place where out theology breaks down. When we start asking specific questions, we discover that we really don’t know anything about the hereafter. Are we to become gods, with all that that term implies, or just citizens in a gloriously perfect society? Do we really want to become omniscient, with all the headaches and handicaps that state suggests? Or will we settle for just being really smart and really righteous and willing to let someone else worry about all the details? I have no clue. Maybe I should ask Steve.