And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. (John 17:3)
This scripture appears to be a straightforward invitation. Yet, Christian theologians throughout history seem to have doubted our ability to know the only true God.
In mainstream Christian thinking, God is not actually related to us. He made us out of nothing; therefore we share no genetic material with Him. Through conversion we can be adopted into His family, but we have nothing in common with Him. Christian theologians have historically taught that we are “completely other” from God.
God transcends all normal categories, so we cannot really say or think anything about him at all. “Indeed the incomprehensible One cannot be reached by any use of reason. Nor can any words match the unspeakable Good, this One, this source of all unity, this Being beyond existence.” (Hill, p. 104 with quote from Pseudo-Dionysius)
This is the mystical view of God.
Aquinas presents us with a very impersonal, abstract notion of God. He is existence itself, infinite and perfect, unlimited, beyond time. This is the “classical” Christian doctrine of God, and it might be thought to bear little relation to the dynamic and interesting God of the Old Testament or the loving Father of the New. (Hill, p. 159)
What is clear in mainline Christianity is that there is a vast chasm between what we are and what God is. There is a gulf between where we live and where He lives.
Judaism and Christianity have been united in their insistence that the Creator and the creation—including God’s human creatures—are divided by an unbridgeable ‘being’ gap. God is the totaliter aliter, the ‘Wholly Other,’ who is in a realm of existence that’s radically distinct from the creation that the triune God called into existence out of nothing by a sovereign decree. (Mouw, 2012, p. 54)
This understanding of God leads inevitably to this conclusion:
It would be hard to have a two-way conversation with Transcendent Existence. But for Aquinas, prayer is really a matter of mystical contemplation, not conversation. (Hill, p. 159)
These views are certainly not the way all mainline Christians think of God. I am not suggesting that all Christians understand God the same way or agree with the viewpoints of philosophers and theologians. My point is that through history, key shapers of Christian thought began to teach that God is incomprehensible, “wholly other,” and divided from us by an unbridgeable gap. This image wandered far from an understanding of a Heavenly Father who is personal, available, knowable, and redemptive.
A Paradigm Shift
The latter-day dispensation was launched with a visitation by the Father and the Son to an obscure but earnest boy. Consider what that says about the foundation of the Restoration. God is intimately involved in our lives! He hears and responds to the prayers of 14-year-old boys—and our prayers. He is willing to connect with all those who seek Him. He is not just the end of our journey but our companion along the way. In fact, Jesus says that He stands at the door and knocks, waiting to be admitted into our lives (Revelation 3:20).
Latter-day Saints understand that God is the father of our spirits (Hebrews 12:9). We are literally His children. Not only are we graven upon the palms of His hands (Isaiah 49:16) but His DNA (or whatever transmits divine characteristics) is part of our natures. This understanding invites a loving and intimate relationship with God. Elder Holland told about that intimacy in the relationship between the Son and the Father:
In that most burdensome moment of all human history, with blood appearing at every pore and an anguished cry upon His lips, Christ sought Him whom He had always sought—His Father. “Abba,” He cried, “Papa,” or from the lips of a younger child, “Daddy.” (The Hands of the Fathers by Jeffrey R. Holland, April 1999 General Conference)
All of us are invited to approach the Father with such warmth and tenderness.
One of the great stories in Mormon literature is told by Melvin J. Ballard. His experience offers an understanding of our relationship to God that is fundamental to the Restoration.
I found myself one evening in the dreams of the night in that sacred building, the temple. After a season of prayer and rejoicing I was informed that I should have the privilege of entering into one of those rooms, to meet a glorious Personage, and, as I entered the door, I saw, seated on a raised platform, the most glorious Being my eyes have ever beheld or that I ever conceived existed in all the eternal worlds. As I approached to be introduced, he arose and stepped towards me with extended arms, and he smiled as he softly spoke my name. If I shall live to be a million years old, I shall never forget that smile. He took me into his arms and kissed me, pressed me to his bosom, and blessed me, until the marrow of my bones seemed to melt! When he had finished, I knelt at his feet, and, as I bathed them with my tears and kisses, I saw the prints of the nails in the feet of the Redeemer of the world. The feeling that I had in the presence of him who hath all things in his hands, to have his love, his affection, and his blessing was such that if I ever can receive that of which I had but a foretaste, I would give all that I am, all that I ever hope to be, to feel what I then felt.
(Bryant S. Hinckley, Sermons and Missionary Service of Melvin J. Ballard, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1949, pp. 155-56)
There is no sense of “otherness” in this sacred embrace—only closeness, tenderness, and delight. While many earnest believers in all faiths might love Elder Ballard’s experience, it is the Latter-day Saints who proclaim boldly that He yearns to embrace us both as we journey through mortality and also in that great embrace that welcomes us to His eternal presence.
Brilliant Terryl Givens has described the latter-day revolution pertaining to our relationship with God:
Central to Joseph Smith’s thought is the collapse of the sacred distance that consigns man and God to existentially and ontologically separate spheres. (2007, p. 46, emphasis added).
Because of the Restoration we know that there is no vast chasm between God and man. All barriers have collapsed. We, His children, can enter into a personal relationship with a loving Heavenly Father who is available to help us as we struggle our way back to God who is our home.
And we are not solely dependent upon ancient revelation as our only source of guidance. No—God whispers in our minds and hearts. He accompanies us every step of the way.
I will go before your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up. (D&C 84:88)
While theologians and philosophers move God to an incomprehensible distance, the Restoration returns Him squarely to the middle of our daily lives. We can accept the Savior’s invitation to know the only true God as our literal Father and Friend. If we truly understand the wonderfully personal God at the core of the Restoration, we will enjoy a more vibrant and personal faith. We will feel the Father’s loving embrace.
Thanks to Barbara Keil for her insight and sensitivity in editing this article.
Givens, T. L. (2007). People of paradox. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hill, J. (2003). The history of Christian thought. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Mouw, R. J. (2012). Talking with Mormons. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing.