Editor’s Note: This is the eleventh article in a twelve-part series on the restored doctrine of The Parental God—a belief which separates our theology from that of any other religion. Access the first ten articles HERE.
Author’s Note: The central thrust and thesis of this series is that our belief in literal Heavenly Parents changes everything and is the most pivotal and distinctive teaching of the Restoration from which all other key theology stems. If we are the spiritual children of Heavenly Parents then of course we lived with Them pre-mortally, of course They have a plan for our happiness, and of course we must prioritize our family like They prioritize Theirs. This series seeks to organize what we know from prophetic and official Church sources in a way that prompts personal pondering and prayer about our Parental God and perhaps draws us closer even as it influences how we think and how we live our lives, particularly within our families. This is important to me because, while I am not a theologian or a religious authority, I am one who believes deeply in eternal families and who has written and spoken about family topics around the world for more than four decades—and I believe that the ultimate example of marriage and parenting is our Heavenly Parents.
In these two concluding articles examine how belief in a parental God can lie at the center of our testimonies and tie-together all of our other beliefs about salvation, exaltation, and eternity; and discuss how our faith in Heavenly Parents can not only strengthen and clarify many of our other beliefs and positions but aid us in explaining them to others.
Questions We’ve all Faced
“Why is your Church so pro-life and anti-choice?” “How come your Family Proclamation makes such a big deal about gender?” “Why are you against gay marriage?”
These questions often come with a degree of animosity and a tinge of distrust. How can you be so unprogressive, so old-fashioned, so politically incorrect, so exclusive, so unloving?
Trying to deal with these questions and not have them negatively affect our relationships can be impossible when they are thought of as political positions or social issues. Only when others understand at least a little about our theology—about the eternal doctrines we believe—can we hope that they will be able to accept and perhaps to begin to understand why we feel as we do.
And the key doctrine they (and we) have to understand is that we believe in a Parental God.
Again, to stress the President Oaks quote that has become the underlying foundation of this whole series, “Our theology begins with Heavenly Parents.”
It is impossible for others to even begin to grasp why we take the positions we do on certain issues that they think of as political until they understand (or at least respect) what we believe about the nature of God and about our pre and post mortal relationship with Heavenly Parents.
Just this morning as I was finishing this article, I paused for a moment to read emails, one of which was the daily meditation I like to follow from Father Richard Rohr which said, “Your image of God creates you. This is why it is important that we see God as loving and benevolent and why good theology still matters. One mistaken image of God that keeps us from receiving grace is the idea that God is a cruel tyrant. People who have been raised in an atmosphere of threats of punishment and promises of reward are programmed to operate with this cheap image of a punitive God. It usually becomes their entire view of the universe”.
I would add that our image of God also creates our views and our perspectives and even our positions on societal and political issues. Interestingly and a bit ironically, telling others about “the beginning of our theology”—about our foundational belief in Heavenly Parents—is not only the most important thing we can do to differentiate our faith, but also the most effective way we can explain our political positions. And to those who really consider it, it may also be the most appealing belief that we have.
As Father Rohr suggests, a faith in a loving God is more comforting and reassuring than faith in a Sovereign or arbitrary or vindictive god. And we would add that faith in a Parental God helps us draw down and assimilate and even emulate the greatest love in the universe.
In a nutshell, how we think about abortion, about gender, about marriage, and about ourselves must branch out from and connect to who and what we believe God is. If God is really our parent(s) and if we all lived as His sons and daughters before this world, then we must respect the procreational gift He has given us to bring others of our spiritual siblings into this world; and our institutions and our principles, political and otherwise, must respect this faith and follow the model, the pattern, and the example that God himself has set for us.
Few will agree with and adopt this faith, but many will respect it and better understand why we take the positions we do.
But let’s go deeper on these connections, and try to more fully internalize and understand them within ourselves.
Most parents understand the concept of “tough love” wherein we love our children completely and unconditionally—but are motivated by that love to set strict boundaries and to lay down guidelines and to expect a certain level of obedience and respect.
In other words, we love each of our children fully and deeply, but we do not always love what they do—we draw on our own experience and wisdom to ask them to do what we know will ultimately make them happy, and to dissuade them from behavior that we feel will bring unhappiness and limit their progress and potential.
Said another way, we differentiate between who we love and what we condone.
Christ is the ultimate example of this distinction.
As Elder Jeffery R. Holland, in his recent address to the BYU community put it, “As near as I can tell, Christ never once withheld his love from anyone, but he also never once said to anyone, ‘Because I love you, you are exempt from keeping my commandments.’ We are tasked with trying to strike that same sensitive, demanding balance in our lives.”
One example Elder Holland gave of differentiating between who we love and what we condone was gay marriage, at least in the eternal sense.
This balance and differentiation, along with the special uniqueness of BYU and how we must preserve that uniqueness even if we have to stand alone, should be what this talk is remembered for—along with Elder Holland’s call for unity and his warning of “a house divided.”
But instead, critics have been quick to label it as an anti-diversity talk, and suggested that his use of Elder Maxwell’s “musket and trowel” metaphor for defending and building the Church suggested some kind of attack on the LGBTQ community.
One friend who read the speech posed a blunt question, “How can the Church love and accept gay people but not love or accept gay marriage?” I thought that was the very question Elder Holland was trying to answer, but it did not resonate with this friend. I suggested to him that our belief in a Parental God—in a Heavenly Father and Mother whom we should seek to emulate—makes it very hard, at least in a spiritual or eternal context, to condone a marriage that is unlike Theirs.
Perhaps the second-best answer to the question of why we define marriage as between a man and a woman is:
“Because that is what God tells us through His prophets.”
But the first-best answer may be:
“Because that is what God is.”
In other words, emulating our Heavenly Parents causes us both to love all of our fellow men (and women) more because each is our spiritual sibling. But it also causes us to stand firm on who and what we believe God is.
Abortion, the Proclamation, and other Related Issues
Belief in God as the Heavenly Parents of all spirits both here and in the premortal life also helps with explaining other positions which, outside of this paradigm, can seem narrow and judgmental. I remember one sincere acquaintance who knew little about the Church and was highly critical of my concerns about abortion. “How can you pass judgement,” she said, “on what I do with my own body?” At that point I simply told her of our belief in Heavenly Parents and in a premortal existence from where we all came—and from where come our spiritual siblings when children are born. I don’t think I changed her beliefs or her position on abortion, but from that moment on she respected and understood my position and its connection to my beliefs.
The Church, of course, recognizes certain circumstances that may make abortion a necessary course, just as it tries to avoid extreme and polarizing positions on most issues, but in the broader perspective, given our view of the Parental God and our relationship to Him, of course we must be generally pro-life (which to us has a deeper, eternal meaning) and against pro-choice (which to many seems wrongly named because the time for choice may have been earlier.)
For 25 years, I have loved the Church’s Proclamation on the Family, and found it remarkable how the things it advocates have been backed up by data. Societally, children fortunate enough to be raised by both of their parents achieve more educationally and professionally, are less likely to suffer a whole host of problems, and more likely to have successful marriages and families of their own. Economically, married persons produce more, earn more, and save more than singles. Culturally, in public opinion polls, in-tact families report more satisfaction and less anxiety and depression. Statistically, those with higher marriage rates and birth rates create stronger and more sustainable work forces and communities. But the Proclamation’s wording is balanced and when it suggests generalities about gender roles it advocates equal partnership and acknowledges that every couple and every family is unique and must seek their own path.
But the balanced wording and the practical results don’t stop the judgment and misunderstanding.
For example, another friend who had read the Proclamation called it the most sexist and chauvinistic thing he had ever read and wondered how I could belong to a Church that produced such a homophobic and xenophobic document. It was only after I explained my belief in Heavenly Parents and our pre-mortal existence and God’s plan for us to become more like Him (Them) that he began to see, in that context, why the Proclamation says what it does.
In other words, telling people about our faith in a Parental God who has a Plan for our Happiness and Salvation is more than a testimony, and more than a missionary approach, it is the only hope we have for others to understand why we have the viewpoints and take the positions we do.
Salvation and Exaltation
If there are any questions or criticisms that are harder (or more important) to answer or explain than political and cultural ones, it may be direct religious questions about salvation and about the nature of God. “Is it true that you think only those who are married in your temples can go to the highest heaven?” “Do you really believe in multiple gods rather than just one?” “What about this thing of God once being like we are and us becoming like Him?”
Again, the tone of these questions can often be condescending or perhaps a bit baffled that we can be so out of step with traditional Christianity and even so downright heretical.
And once again, for anyone to understand—indeed for we ourselves to understand—we need to start from our pivotal belief in a Parental God in the form of the literal Father and Mother of our eternal spirits. We each need to personally explore this belief and its ramifications on our feelings and our faith.
A good place to start that exploration is with the examination of two key words “salvation” and “exaltation.”
What does “salvation” mean to the Christian world? And what does it mean in the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ? And how does salvation differ from exaltation?
It is interesting how the definitions sharpen as we move from secular general reference sources to Christian sources and then finally to our own doctrinal sources.
If we begin where most searches start these days—by Googling “salvation.” The top result is the on-line dictionary which defines salvation as:
“preservation or deliverance from harm, ruin, or loss.”
A second definition follows:
“In Christianity, union or friendship with God and deliverance from original sin and damnation.”
Then comes Wikipedia which says:
“Salvation may also be called “deliverance” or “redemption” from sin and its effects. Salvation is considered to be caused either by the grace of a deity, by free will and personal efforts through prayer and asceticism, or by some combination of the two.”
In the Christian Bible Reference1 we read:
“Salvation means being saved from the power of sin and from hell, the eternal penalty of that sin. Through the process of salvation, we are freed from everything that could prevent us from enjoying the eternal life with God. Other common terms for salvation are being saved, going to heaven, eternal life, everlasting life, the kingdom of God, and the kingdom of heaven.”
The Restoration clarifies these definitions, and adds the additional dimension of Exaltation. Quoting now from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism:
“The Latter-day Saint concept of salvation derives from the teachings of Jesus Christ and the revelations given to ancient and latter-day prophets. It is evident from such teachings that there are different degrees or levels of salvation in the afterlife.”
“Exaltation is salvation in the ultimate sense. Latter-day Saints believe that all mankind (except the sons of perdition) will receive varying degrees of (salvation and) glory in the afterlife. Exaltation is the greatest of all the gifts and attainments possible. It is available only in the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom. This exalted status, called eternal life, is available to be received by a man and wife. It means not only living in God’s presence, but receiving power to do as God does.”
It is interesting that when we go back to Wikipedia and look up Exaltation, the only reference is attributed to Mormonism,
So, exaltation is our word—the word of the Restoration. We are unique in the Christian world in our belief that there are many levels of Salvation. We believe in the universal resurrection and salvation promised in the Bible and given to all mankind by the Atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ. “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” But we do not believe that salvation is the same for all men, irrespective of their faith and their deeds.
Note that for each Christian definition, the Restoration adds detail and clarification. In other words, the truth of the Holy Bible is re-affirmed and expanded by the Restored Gospel.
The Bible speaks of the “Resurrection of the Just,” but it is the Restoration that tells us what that means. Christ’s teachings in the Bible tell us that “In my father’s house are many mansions,” but it is the Restoration that explains those mansions—those different levels or degrees or kingdoms of salvation and of exaltation.
A person can achieve salvation and go to heaven as an individual, but Exaltation and “Eternal Lives” in the highest glory where Christ and God the Father dwell—where continued progression toward God’s perfection is possible—can come only to Eternally married, covenant-keeping couples, as it is they who are following the model and the pattern of our Heavenly Parents to whom we seek to return.
It could not be expressed more clearly than President Nelson’s statement, “Salvation is an individual matter, but Exaltation is a family matter.”
I am aware that some feel it is not “politically correct,” in a Church where half of our adult members are single, to talk about eternal marriage as a condition of Exaltation. But in truth, that is exactly why we need to talk about it more, because eternal families should be the goal for all, and we know that all will have this opportunity, if not in this life then in the spirit world and the millennium to come.
Ecumenical or Exceptional? Tolerant or Stand-alone Strong?
There is so much that unites our Church with other faiths, and so much that unites us as Church members with other believers throughout the world. The simple shared belief in God, or in any Supreme Being gives us more in common with other believers than all of our differences combined. We should view other churches, other faiths, other religions as allies, not adversaries, and should seek any kind of ecumenical connections that allow us to do good together and to participate together in all that we agree is God’s work. And of course, loving all and loving equally is the most God-like and Christ-like emulation possible.
But at the same time, we should not confuse that love with the accommodation of just everything or the condoning of just anything.
Because, once again, we are bound not only by what we believe God says, but by our belief in who God is.
We can strive to love all people everywhere, and seek to understand who they are and why they are who they are, and look for things we can admire in them and learn from them.
But when there is conflict or irreconcilable difference between following what we believe God is—or following what the world suggests or what is politically correct, we are bound to choose what we know of God. In other words, our beliefs must trump our accommodation.
G.K. Chesterton put it thus, “Tolerance is the favored virtue of those who believe in nothing.”
“Our theology begins with Heavenly Parents. Our highest aspiration is to be like them.”
These two brief sentences from President Oaks, now the well-established theme of this whole series, differentiate us from other faiths in ways so dramatic that they are hard to fully comprehend.
The doctrine of Heavenly Parents separates us instantly from the rest of Christianity. Belief in a Parental God rather than a Sovereign God causes us to view the world and our place in it differently than Catholics and Protestants who might label us as polytheistic—as believing in more than one God.
And our aspiration to become like our Heavenly Parents—to become more like God—reads as heresy to other theologies. To us, the couplet “As man is God once was and as God is man may become” elevates man; but to other Christians, the phase lessens or lowers God.
Some will say, largely because of these two beliefs, that we are not Christians. I think we should say in response that we are a different kind of Christians, united by our faith in Jesus Christ and His Atonement, but differentiated by our belief in Heavenly Parents and by our understanding of ourselves as Their literal spirit children.
But once again, can we not meet the spirit of Elder Holland’s challenge of balance—to love and respect all those of all other faiths, yet still stand firm in differentiating some of our beliefs from some of theirs?
And we might go on to say that this belief in a Parental God strengthens and personalizes our faith in Christ who we worship as a member of the Godhead and our Savior—and also as our perfect eldest Brother and the creator of this Earth.
Let us not think of our unique-in-Christianity faith as a burden, but as a joy that makes all of God’s commandments more natural and more loving. Indeed, our belief in a Parental God allows us to view all of His commandments as “loving council from a wise Father.”
The First Two Great Commandments
I will always treasure a personal hand-written letter from my father which he wrote the day before he died. I was only 15 at the time, and it has taken me a lifetime to understand all of the wisdom he packed into that “last letter.” One of the things he said was that if we really learn to practice love, then everything else takes care of itself. Part of what he was referencing, of course, was the two great commandments that Christ gave when asked which is the great commandment, “Love the Lord thy God”…and “love thy neighbor as thyself.”
If belief in a Parental God makes all of His commandments more natural, more personal and more loving, it is particularly true of the first and great commandments.
The love we might generate for a Sovereign God, for our Maker, for the Master of the Universe—becomes so much deeper, so much more approachable and applicable, when we know Him as our literal Spiritual Father and Them as our Spiritual Parents and when we are able to contemplate and desire to return to Them—still as their Spiritual Children but resurrected into bodies like Theirs and more capable, because of our earth sojourn, of becoming more like Them.
And the love that we might feel for other human beings as fellow travelers on this planet, as colleagues, friends or strangers—becomes intimate and personal within the paradigm of fellow sons and daughters of God, as spiritual siblings who all came from our Heavenly Parents and who can all strive to return to our shared spiritual family.
Thank you for joining me for article 11, and please click HERE to catch up on any of the first 10 that you may have missed. Next week, in the concluding article, we will try to summarize how faith in a Parental God can influence and instruct and intensify our faith in every other aspect of the Restoration, of the Plan of Salvation, and of our personal testimonies of the Gospel, even as it challenges us to model our lives, our parenting, our relationships, and our character after Theirs.
Please feel free to share your inputs and thoughts and questions directly with me by going to https://valuesparenting.com/contact-eyres/. You can also reply there if you would like to reserve a copy of the forthcoming book Our Parental God which is based on these articles.
If you wish to hear further discussion of this latest article, it is the topic of the latest episode of our Podcast “Eyres on the Road” which is available on your favorite podcast app or at https://byuradio.org/eyresontheroad. You are also invited to follow my weekly meditations on Christ on Instagram @RichardLindaEyre.
Richard Eyre is the New York #1 Bestselling Author of more than 50 books, a dozen of which are on parenting and marriage. He believes that the ultimate parenting and marriage example is God.