Hands down, favorite companion as an LDS missionary in Taiwan was Sister Daye. She single-handedly taught me how to have an intuitive (rather than intellectual) relationship with the Spirit and Deity. We were together for three transfers and turned our area around from the lowest performing to the highest, won the trust and love of three wards’ worth of members, and laid the foundation for the next several years of success in XinZhu.
One day, we ran into an ABC, or so we thought. His mom was Taiwanese and his father Canadian. He was really attractive, which is -- I’m not afraid to admit -- the bulk of the reason I went along with what happened next. He approached us in the street on our way to the church building and said he was an atheist writing a book about Mormons and wanted to interview some missionaries. I trusted myself not to say anything stupid and he agreed not to publish excerpts from the interview, just to use it as notes. Sister Daye, as noted, went with her gut and just felt like we should talk to this guy. At length.
The next three days were a blur. We met with him for huge chunks of time in the middle of the day, three and four hours end-to-end. It wasn’t exactly traditional missionary work, but in the few months we’d been together Sister Daye and I were well established as non-traditional and didn’t care who knew it. The first day was a bit of a tug of war. But the second day… the second day was pure gold. We’d been through all six missionary lessons, twice. And we were circling back to the top. As a staunch atheist, as he liked to reaffirm to us, he couldn’t quite wrap his head around the concept of God.
I finally asked him: “What was your father like?”
He choked up.
Silence fell for a solid minute. Sister Daye and I didn’t even have to look at each other. We just knew. This was what we were here for.
“He was a druggie. Addicted to heroine. Used to beat me silly.” He didn’t look up, just stared at the table, ashamed of his background. “When I was old enough I left and haven’t looked back.”
We let that hang in the air for just a few beats longer.
“Let’s say, you could start from scratch on what a God -- not a Heavenly Father -- would be like, if a being like that existed. Describe it to me.”
“Hmmm…” he paused, trying to think critically through his tears. “I think it would be like the sun. Consistent. Providing warmth and light, bringing life to the world. Even when it’s dark, you know it’s still there giving those same things to people on the other side of the world.”
“Great! Then, let’s try this. Scrap everything you think you know about God. And, instead, every time you step outside and see the sun, or feel its warmth, I want you to talk to it. Just thank it for being there. If you get real brave, you can ask it to be there tomorrow. Can you do that?”
He cocked an eyebrow at me. “You’re asking me to pray to the sun?”
“Yup. Mormon missionaries just asked you to pray to the sun,” I flirted shamelessly, and raised an eyebrow in response. “Wild enough idea to try?”
“Sure,” he just laughed and agreed to report back to us on his efforts.
The next day, he showed up at our usual time and place. Totally changed. He was excited to see us, almost too excited to get the words out straight. They came tripping off his tongue, like his mouth couldn’t keep up with his brain. Once he’d sorted out his real issue was with his father he first told us he would be finding a therapist in Canada, then he’d be rethinking this book he was writing. He was animated, no longer antagonistic, stoked to try praying again tomorrow. He had so many questions for us! We set up for the next day, to start back at the beginning of the missionary lessons.
We never saw him again.
Sister Daye and I sat down on the back steps of the church building when we realized he wasn’t coming. She said, in that way she always did, “I feel good about this.”
The story of Our Canadian has stuck with me all these years, most notably because it gets at this question central to every doctrine, dogma, and even fleeting wisps of spirituality: what is the nature of deity? More than just the physical, logistical questions of how many gods, or what gender god is, or what’s its relationship with human beings… it’s more like what is God’s personality?
If men [and women] do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves. I want to go back to the beginning, and so lift your minds into more lofty spheres and a more exalted understanding than what the human mind generally aspires to.
I want to ask this congregation, every man, woman and child, to answer the question in their own hearts, what kind of a being God is? Ask yourselves; turn your thoughts into your hearts, and say if any of you have seen, heard, or communed with [God]? This is a question that may occupy your attention for a long time. I again repeat the question—What kind of being is God? Does any man or woman know? Have any of you seen [God], heard [God], or communed with [God]? Here is the question that will, peradventure, from this time henceforth occupy your attention. The scriptures inform us that “this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God..”
--Joseph Smith, King Follett Sermon, 1844
Smith was right, from the moment I was introduced to this question -- what kind of being is God? -- I haven’t been able to shake it from my thoughts. When the to do lists are all checked, when the stars are out and the streets are quiet, that’s the only thing I’m left with. And my answer to it changes with every season of my life, it seems. Sometimes God is male and a father. Sometimes God is female and a creator. Sometimes God is cruel in their justice. Sometimes God is gracious in their mercy. Sometimes God is as ubiquitous as the Nicene Creed makes them out to be. Sometimes God looks like Buddha. Sometimes God looks like my neighbor.
Historically, the first sense of God is that of a force, often a force of nature. From Norsemen to Ancient Greeks to African tribal tradition, the best way to explain natural phenomena larger than life was to personify it. We get gods of the wind, of the sea, of the seasons. We get elaborate creation myths to explain the dynamic between gods and the consequences mere mortals faced as a result. As each ancient culture settled into agrarian lifestyles, or became geographically distant enough from their neighborhood nomads, a set pantheon of gods developed. Some cultures opted for these gods to be wholly other from human beings, a type different and distinct, unattainable by those who carried no divine heritage (think Hercules). Some cultures, though, retained the doctrine of divinity within.
Buddhism, through meditation, asks you to tap into the “Buddha nature” within you in order to reach Nirvana. Various Native American tribes subscribe to interpersonal connections with wildlife via spirit animals who act as both spiritual guides and gods. Even atheism -- my favorite religion -- declares there is nothing outside the self, making mankind the ultimate governor of himself. What it is it, then, about turning inward that puts is in direct communion with the cosmos?
Maybe it’s in the stars…
"Everything we are and everything in the universe and on Earth originated from stardust, and it continually floats through us even today. It directly connects us to the universe, rebuilding our bodies over and again over our lifetimes.
"That was one of the biggest surprises for us in this book. We really didn't realize how impermanent we are, and that our bodies are made of remnants of stars and massive explosions in the galaxies. All the material in our bodies originates with that residual stardust, and it finds its way into plants, and from there into the nutrients that we need for everything we do—think, move, grow. And every few years the bulk of our bodies are newly created. ...
"So most of the material that we're made of comes out of dying stars, or stars that died in explosions. And those stellar explosions continue. We have stuff in us as old as the universe, and then some stuff that landed here maybe only a hundred years ago. And all of that mixes in our bodies. ...
“Very little of our physical bodies lasts for more than a few years. Of course, that's at odds with how we perceive ourselves when we look into the mirror. But we're not fixed at all. We're more like a pattern or a process. And it was the transience of the body and the flow of energy and matter needed to counter that impermanence that led us to explore our interconnectedness with the universe.”
As scientific as that was for a blog about religion, I don’t believe it’s too far off the mark. Especially for Mormons. In order to understand God as creator-- as eternal being --and His cosmic relation with mankind, God uses the Sun, Moon, and Stars as analogy. He points out to Abraham the organization of the stars and planets, then makes direct comparison to Himself and Abraham. The ringer in the following passage, however, is that being “greater” does not equal older. God clearly states degree of progression does not equal moment of creation of any of these intelligences. They all existed before. They have no beginning. They have no end. They are eternal.
And it is given unto thee to know the set time of all the stars that are set to give light, until thou come near unto the throne of God.”
Thus I, Abraham, talked with the Lord, face-to-face, as one man talketh with another. He told me of the works which his hands had made, and he said unto me: “My son, my son (and his hand was stretched out), behold I will show you all these.”
He put his hand upon mine eyes, and I saw those things which his hands had made--which were many-- and they multiplied before mine eyes. I could not see the end thereof.
And he said unto me: “This is Shinehah, which is the sun.”
And he said unto me: “Kokob, which is star.”
And he said unto me: “Olea, which is the moon.”
And he said unto me: “Kokaubeam, which signifies stars, or all the great lights, which were in the firmament of heaven.”
It was in the night time when the Lord spake these words unto me: “I will multiply thee, and thy seed after thee, like unto these. And if thou canst count the number of sands, so shall be the number of thy seeds.”
And the Lord said unto me: “Abraham, I show these things unto thee before ye go into Egypt, that ye may declare all these words. If two things exist, and there be one above the other, there shall be greater things above them; therefore Kolob is the greatest of all the Kokaubeam that thou hast seen, because it is nearest unto me. Now, if there be two things, one above the other, and the moon be above the earth, then it may be that a planet or a star may exist above it. There is nothing that the Lord thy God shall take in his heart to do but what he will do it. Howbeit that he made the greater star? As, also, if there be two spirits and one shall be more intelligent than the other, yet these two spirits (notwithstanding one is more intelligent than the other) have no beginning. They existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after, for they are gnolaum, or eternal.”
And the Lord said unto me: “These two facts do exist, that there are two spirits, one being more intelligent than the other; there shall be another more intelligent than they. I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all. The Lord thy God sent his angel to deliver thee from the hands of the priest of Elkenah. I dwell in the midst of them all; I now, therefore, have come down unto thee to declare unto thee the works which my hands have made, wherein my wisdom excelleth them all, for I rule in the heavens above, and in the earth beneath, in all wisdom and prudence, over all the intelligences thine eyes have seen from the beginning. I came down in the beginning in the midst of all the intelligences thou hast seen.”
Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones. And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: “These I will make my rulers,” for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good. He said unto me: “Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.”
The Book of Abraham, Chapter 3, punctuation updated, emphasis mine
The other notable moment in this dialogue with Abraham, is God draws attention to his own humanity. Nothing God takes into his heart to do…. First, he has agency to take something. Second, he has a heart. That may or may not be a physical heart that pulses consistently the length of a life, delivering oxygen to the remainder of his mortal body… but it is at the very least a metaphysical heart. It’s a personality. It’s a preference.
Back to Joseph Smith…
I will go back to the beginning before the world was, to show what kind of a being God is. What sort of a being was God in the beginning? Open your ears and hear, all ye ends of the earth, for I am going to prove it to you by the Bible, and to tell you the designs of God in relation to the human race, and why He interferes with the affairs of man.
God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret. If the veil were rent today, and the great God who holds this world in its orbit, and who upholds all worlds and all things by His power, was to make himself visible—I say, if you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form—like yourselves in all the person, image, and very form as a man; for Adam was created in the very fashion, image and likeness of God, and received instruction from, and walked, talked and conversed with Him, as one man talks and communes with another.
--Joseph Smith, King Follett Sermon, 1844
Smith continues with his mathematical proof and concludes that God is a pattern for mankind’s divine potential. We are meant to become gods and goddesses, rulers of our own universe to govern justly and mercifully after the lessons we learn on Earth.
Now, whether or not you are Mormon, were Mormon, or even believe in God, the idea of progression and improvement must resonate. The idea of humans as creators, capable of designing the world around them, tapping into a greater potential for a higher purpose… all these are extensions of this singular doctrine. And they show up everywhere. Festivals of light, of harvest, of spring, of birth, of death, of marriage, of the sun, of the moon… every single element of organized religion, deconstructed spirituality, and postmodern pop psychology points this direction. Human beings are a different type of being, greater than the average member of the animal kingdom, infinitely capable, able to perform miracles and impossible feats. We are constantly moving, ever changing. What allows us to do this? Our divinity within. Our cosmic nature. I challenge you to attend your weekly yoga class without stumbling upon something like this idea. Ask yourself… what kind of being is God?
And then, if you dare, what kind of being am I ?