Reconciliation among different Mormon ideas of eternal progress

Is it enough alone to know
That we must follow him below,
While trav’ling thru this vale of tears?
No, this extends to holier spheres.

We must the onward path pursue
As wider fields expand to view,
And follow him unceasingly,
Whate’er our lot or sphere may be.

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January 2018, as we sang this song opening our fast and testimony meeting, it caught me odd that before we share our faith, hope, and knowledge (with that ever-present phrase “I know”) we would sing a song about how spiritual knowledge is not enough (Come, Follow Me, hymn #116). I got up and shared my own thoughts and impressions on this. What does that hymn mean that it is not enough alone to know? I talked about how testimony or what we know isn’t enough; we also need the courage to act and do as we respond to one another “While trav’ling thru this vale of tears”. This truth was impressed on me then in a recent experience I had just days prior.

It was Christmas day, 2017. After the kids, presents, pictures, excitement, visitors, music, decorations, food, etc. I was on the phone with my brother. I could tell in his voice that he was not doing well.

Just weeks after our father passed away due to cancer, my mother was spending Christmas with him and his family in California when she suddenly suffered some kind of cardiac episode. They were able to ambulate her to a nearby hospital where she laid, intubated, in the ICU. She was stable, barely, and he and his wife had spent the last 24 hours, in the ICU with her. It was clear that she would have a long road to recovery ahead of her. I booked a flight right away to be there the next day until she was out of the ICU and on a clear path to recovery.

Things were a bit of a blur. My mother was tired, wondering if she was being called to be with dad – we were wondering that too. Communicating was difficult with thumbs up/down and some words drawn, shakily, with a finger on an iPad, doctors coming and going, decisions, surgeries, contingencies, what-ifs, no guarantees, sleepless nights where doctors covered me in lead blankets as I was too tired to leave the room while they used an x-ray machine they brought into the room, etc. When we understood how serious and longer-term the circumstance was my aunt volunteered to come down and help.

I love my aunt. Her resilient, no-nonsense, grit and determination is a gift. Whether she’s ministering to people in a long-term care facility or going toe-to-toe with priesthood leadership to tell them they are wrong for postponing a baptism because of a scheduled basketball pickup game, her stories of fearlessness in how she serves in life and in the church are wonderful and inspiring. “If all women had been, and were, and ever would be, like unto her, behold, the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men.” (Alma 48:17). She was a godsend and helped us to continue onwards and help my mother have the courage and support to further stabilize.

In the long hours of nervous silence felt in hospitals her and I took the time to catch up an reflect on the situation, my father’s death still fresh in our minds. The questions of “What does this mean?” or “What was the cause of this?” came up. My aunt saw divine providence in the cause and meaning surrounding this, I saw mostly a random, unfortunate circumstance. Don’t get me wrong, I find we can create and find deep meaning which draws us to God, but my Mormonism has changed such that I do not find comfort in a God who is behind everything. We discussed this, not finding much common ground.

After some time discussing faith in the long, quiet moments in the hospital the topic of ultimate salvation came up (eschatology). Again, here there were strong differences of opinion. I believe in a model of eternal progression that extends beyond this life and includes even the possibility of progress between Mormon notions of kingdoms of heaven. I believe that as long as intelligence exists it is capable of growth. I believe that removing an intelligence’s ability to progress spiritually or morally, definitionally, makes it no longer an intelligence. My aunt sees that as heretical. Not much common ground on this one.

I can see why my aunt thinks that. The topic of progress between kingdoms is hotly debated in Mormonism. Recently this year the temperature on the debate has risen. Early Mormon notions of eternal progress tended towards the idea of progress between kingdoms. But with rapid growth in the mid-20th century, the LDS church put an emphasis on standardizing and centralizing programs, doctrines, policies, governance, etc. to manage the growth. As it would turn out, those in charge at that time strongly favored the no-progress between kingdoms paradigm and standardized that. This is very much our inherited legacy, and I honor that and those who believe that way.

History

It’s important to know a bit of history on this. The only official statement on this from a church First Presidency, delivered by the then Secretary to the First Presidency (Joseph Anderson) stakes an agnostic position on the matter:

“The brethren direct me to say that the Church has never announced a definite doctrine upon this point. Some of the brethren have held the view that it was possible in the course of progression to advance from one glory to another, invoking the principle of eternal progression; others of the brethren have taken the opposite view. But as stated, the Church has never announced a definite doctrine on this point.” (Issued in a official 1952 First Presidency letter; and later re-issued in 1965 – cited in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. XV, No. 1, Spring 1982, p.181-183)

Outside that, different church leaders have stated opinions on either side on this (some on both sides). Here is a small sample of church leaders across this debate:

Statements of no progress between kingdoms:

  • James E. Talmage (Quorum of the Twelve) – (Conference Report, April 1930, p.96) * previously taught that it was possible
  • Joseph Fielding Smith (Quorum of the Twelve) – (Doctrines of Salvation, 2:31-32)
  • George Albert Smith (President) – (Conference Report, October 1945, p.172)
  • —— First Presidency Letter stating no opinion (1952 & 1965) ——
  • Spence W. Kimball (Quorum of the Twelve) – (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p.50; The Miracle of Forgiveness, p.243-244, 1969)
  • Bruce R. McConkie (Quorum of the Twelve) – (“The Seven Deadly Heresies,” Classic Speeches, Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, 1994, pp. 175-176)

Statements of progress between kingdoms:

  • Franklin D. Richards (Later called to the Twelve in 1849) – (From a sermon transcribed by Franklin D. Richards in Words of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pg. 24, 1 August 1843)
  • Franklin D. Richards (Quorum of the Twelve) – (Journal of Discourses Vol. 25:236, 17 May 1884)
  • Wilford Woodruff (Quorum of the Twelve) – (Journal of Wilford Woodruff, 5 Aug 1855)
  • B.H. Roberts (Presidency of the Seventy) – (New Witnesses for God, 1:391-392, 1895)
  • James E. Talmage (Quorum of the Twelve) – (Articles of Faith, (1899 edition), p.420-421) * later changed his position
  • Joseph F. Smith (President) – (Improvement Era 14:87, November 1910)
  • —— Letter stating no opinion (1952 & later 1965) ——
  • J. Reuben Clark, Jr. (First Presidency) – (Church News, p. 3 , 23 April 1960)

And outside of official general authority statements, there’s the famous exchange between Eugene England and Bruce R. McConkie on the nature of eternal progress itself which relates to the assumptions which underpin this debate. That exchange can be read here.

Today

I understand why some think an idea of eternal progression between kingdoms could be dangerous. I think for some people it may be: leading them away from a desire to repent. But I also have seen how an overly strict idea of eternal progress can also be dangerous. Indeed, I’ve seen it senselessly tear families and individuals apart here and now as it led people to uncharitable actions based on fear. But, given the only official church position on the matter is agnostic and leaders have been on both sides of this issue, individuals and families have ample freedom to seek their own revelation on the matter while being generous towards others who may disagree.

Dieter F. Uchtdorf gave a General Conference Talk in April 2017 that touched on some of the dangers when fear motivates our gospel living:

It is true that fear can have a powerful influence over our actions and behavior. But that influence tends to be temporary and shallow. Fear rarely has the power to change our hearts, and it will never transform us into people who love what is right and who want to obey Heavenly Father. People who are fearful may say and do the right things, but they do not feel the right things. They often feel helpless and resentful, even angry. Over time these feelings lead to mistrust, defiance, even rebellion.

Recently, the current church president, Russel M. Nelson, gave a talk in the April 2019 General Conference that, while not explicitly stating an opinion on this debate, it did assume one. He frames a judgment as involving a question about family unity:

In that coming day when you will complete your mortal probation and enter the spirit world, you will be brought face-to-face with that heart-wrenching question: “Where is my family?””… the Savior Himself has made it abundantly clear that while His Resurrection assures that every person who ever lived will indeed be resurrected and live forever, much more is required if we want to have the high privilege of exaltation. Salvation is an individual matter, but exaltation is a family matter.

And continuing on about those who live good lives but do not accept Jesus:

The anguish of my heart is that many people whom I love, whom I admire, and whom I respect decline His invitation. They ignore the pleadings of Jesus Christ when He beckons, “Come, follow me.” I understand why God weeps. I also weep for such friends and relatives. They are wonderful men and women, devoted to their family and civic responsibilities. They give generously of their time, energy, and resources. And the world is better for their efforts. But they have chosen not to make covenants with God. They have not received the ordinances that will exalt them with their families and bind them together forever.

In reaching out to these people he pleads:

They need to understand that while there is a place for them hereafter—with wonderful men and women who also chose not to make covenants with God—that is not the place where families will be reunited and be given the privilege to live and progress forever. That is not the kingdom where they will experience the fulness of joy—of never-ending progression and happiness. Those consummate blessings can come only by living in an exalted celestial realm with God, our Eternal Father; His Son, Jesus Christ; and our wonderful, worthy, and qualified family members.

That last part is where the implication on this open debate is strongest. One could place his talk here on the “no progress” side of the issue. And while Dieter F. Uchtdorf and Russell M. Nelson were not staking direct claims on this debate, they were exploring its contours. This debate goes on.

As I stated before, there are pros and cons to either side of this debate. I’ve seen the “no progress” perspective inspire people to urgent, heartfelt outreach and service in seeking to redeem and repair relationships. That is wonderful. I’ve also seen the “no progress” perspective lead to harsh attitudes, judgmental behavior, and insensitive words and actions which have condemned and frayed relationships. That is tragic. We need to seek personal revelation (another urging of both Dieter F. Uchtdorf and Russell M. Nelson) in how we live the gospel and what we believe. I think we need to seek personal revelation centered on charity when we read and apply their words.

Russell M. Nelson, while speaking about his meeting with Pope Francis, spoke about the need for unity amidst doctrinal differences. I think his wisdom applies not just ecumenically but within our own faith and its own varieties of doctrine:

The differences in doctrine are real and they’re important, but they’re not nearly as important as the things we have in common… And the importance of building bridges of friendship instead of building walls of segregation. (source)

 

Reconciliation

My aunt and I were sitting in this tension – both secure on either side of this debate. And while my giving a very short overview of the history of this debate helped to ease tension, it was our circumstances and shared goal that melted that tension away. What were we doing while we realized we do not see eye to eye on this? We were together administering to my mother’s broken body: encouraging her to fight, to just try breathing on her own for a little bit longer, we were working with doctors and nurses, administering oil (both religious and medicinal) to soothe her body and soul, being there as she awoke from anesthesia after major surgery, massaging her restless legs to keep them still to avoid injury post-surgery, helping her feel safe in the chaos of another patient coming off a hard drug overdose, and helping her eat to gain her strength. In this sacred work of answering the Savior’s call to follow Him and be charitable healers, these heated theological or eschatological debates simply don’t matter much.

Doctrinal certainties to “know” are the blunt instruments in the toolbox of faith. And while they serve a purpose, they aren’t very good at addressing the specific, intimate evils and pains we all grapple with in life. Greater power is found in “holier spheres” in the finer instruments of grace we all have access to: a kind word, an open home, a heartfelt apology, a shared meal, a comforting hug, a listening ear, shoulders that prop others up, serving hands, and familiar faces in hospitals. It is in these finer instruments of grace that the power to live the gospel and respond and overcome pain and suffering in this world is found.

I think Mormonism and the LDS church are big enough to encompass all of this: to include people who believe progress finalizes in this life as well as those who believe eternal progress extends after this life, those who see a random universe and those who see God acting in everything, and more. While Mormonism has derived strength is its doctrinal certitudes, in many ways these certitudes are also backfiring as increasing populations of rising generations cite them as reasons for a loss of faith (I’ve written more on that here). I think Jesus calls us to “holier spheres” and “wider fields” when He invites us to “come, follow me.” And while what we know and what motivates us to answer that call is important, it is ultimately what we do when we answer that call that matters most.

 

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“Come, follow me,” the Savior said.
Then let us in his footsteps tread,
For thus alone can we be one
With God’s own loved, begotten Son.

“Come, follow me,” a simple phrase,
Yet truth’s sublime, effulgent rays
Are in these simple words combined
To urge, inspire the human mind.

Is it enough alone to know
That we must follow him below,
While trav’ling thru this vale of tears?
No, this extends to holier spheres.

Not only shall we emulate
His course while in this earthly state,
But when we’re freed from present cares,
If with our Lord we would be heirs.

We must the onward path pursue
As wider fields expand to view,
And follow him unceasingly,
Whate’er our lot or sphere may be.

For thrones, dominions, kingdoms, pow’rs,
And glory great and bliss are ours,
If we, throughout eternity,
Obey his words, “Come, follow me.”