Thursday, August 21, 2008

Beware the Flawed Doctrine of Universalism

I felt I ought to finally post on a subject of a more doctrinal/philosophical nature. Maybe I'm overemphasizing this growing problem, but since some guy brought it up in Sunday School last week, and since I read where someone tried to push this doctrine on an AML blog, and since some might misconstrue that this doctrine is also supported by a new book by Alonzo Gaskill called, Odds Are You're Going to Be Exhalted, I felt it was worth bringing up.

"Universalism" is the doctrine that eventually, whether it may take billions of years, ALL of our Heavenly Father's children will be exalted in the Celestial Kingdom. The idea is that even though many on earth will inherit the telestial kingdom, or the lowest of the three degrees of glory, over time they will have the opportunity to progress to higher kingdoms. Usually this doctrine is couched with the emotional philosophy that a loving Heavenly Father could NEVER introduce a plan of salvation wherein only a portion of His children would receive exhaltation and be permanently reunited into His presence.

The idea that souls can progress from kingdom to kingdom, over time, was batted around by various Church figures in the late 1800's and early 20th Century. But the concept was sent to the trash heap with a great deal of dramatic flourish by Elder Bruce R. McConkie in the early 1980's with a popular talk that he gave entitled, "The Seven Deadly Heresies." One of these "deadly heresies" was the notion that souls could progress from kingdom to kingdom.

It's easy to fall into this error. Our mortal understanding of fairness and compassion is lulled and comforted by the idea that God could NEVER condemn ANYONE to a state less than their full potential. Gaskill, in his book, points out the doctrine that many general authorities have espoused that children who die before the age of accountability, the mentally handicapped, and several other prominent categories of souls are assured exhaltation because of their station in life. It even references a little known doctrine taught by Joseph Smith and others that celestialized parents who have wayward children in mortality will, through their own faith and determination, have the power to influence a child to change their attitude in the afterlife and eventually rejoin them in an eternally exalted family. Gaskill is not immune from the emotionalism inherent in our mortal understanding as he writes on page 17 of his book, "The thought that God would promote something that would ensure that the vast majority of His children would never again be able to dwell in His presence is incomprehensible. And the assumption that our mother in heaven would idly sit back and allow such a guaranteed flop to eternally strip her of any interaction with her spirit offspring is equally unfathomable. Such could not-and did not-happen!”

Yup. Based on our mortal understanding of the eternities, Gaskill's argument has a gut reaction that is quite pursuasive. Our earthly comprehension of "fairness" seems to scream out to the carnal mind that this MUST be the case. But the fact is, we have no revealed doctrine that supports this. It is a supposition based on the logic of mortals. And we have so little understanding of anything about our Mother in heaven that assuming any state of mind for this sacred figure might actually be inappropriate. Whatever else it may be, the interpretation that Gaskill presents is a doctrinal stretch.

To give Gaskill his due, his book mostly tries to highlight the fact that we are saved by the grace of the atonement of Jesus Christ. This is certainly true, and oft forgotten by Latter-day Saints who are sometimes overprone to bouts of guilt and (mental) self flagellation. But if one seeks comfort by gaining a full understanding of the overwhelming power of the Atonement, I would much more heartily recommend Robinson's book, Believing Christ. Gaskill's book, though seemingly innocent in its motives, and though he tries to support his argument with many scripural and GA resources , is too easily interpreted to support the notion of "Universalism." Or in other words, to support the idea that God does not punish anyone. That there are no eternal consequences for choices made in mortality. And that very few will ever be condemned to live in the eternities in any permanent state that would keep them cut off from the presence of God the Father.

As I already mentioned, Bruce R. McConkie specifically condemned such ideas in his talk "The Seven Deadly Heresies." In this talk, he states that the belief of eternal progression from kingdom to kingdom "... lulls men into a state of carnal security. It causes them to say, "God is so merciful; surely he will save us all eventually; if we do not gain the celestial kingdom now, eventually we will; so why worry?"

He then enlists some powerful scriptures. Of those in the telestial world it is written:
"And they shall be servants of the Most High, but where God and Christ dwell they cannot come, worlds without end" (D&C 76:112).

Of those who had the opportunity to enter into the new and everlasting covenant of marriage in this life and who did not do it the revelation says: "Therefore, when they are out of the world they neither marry nor are given in marriage; but are appointed angels in heaven; which angels are ministering servants, to minister for those who are worthy of a far more, and an exceeding, and an eternal weight of glory. For these angels did not abide my law; therefore, they cannot be enlarged, but remain separately and singly, without exaltation, in their saved condition, to all etemity; and from henceforth are not gods, but are angels of God forever and ever. [D&C 132:16-17]

To the mortal mind this just seems unfair, right? If God really loves us, how could it be true?

The answer to this is simple: In the end, as we receive our eternal estate, none will ultimately view themselves as being "punished." This is God's eternal mercy at work. We exist in the eternities because of our choices. In essence, we choose our kingdom of glory. It is not given to us as punishment. I emphasize the word "glory". These lower kingdoms are never referred to in the scriptures as states of sorrow and anguish. There's an old axiom that states that if men could see the glory of the telestial kingdom, they might readily commit suicide just to obtain it because of how glorious it really is. Ever since I joined the Church in 1981 this has been a popular axiom, thought I have not found a particular statement from the scriptures, or from a GA, that might be the axiom's source material.

Personally, I've reconciled all of our understandings about the "fairness" and mercy of God without, I believe, changing basic LDS doctrine. In essence, we must assume that our lack of understanding regarding "fairness" (such as the "luck" of children born with certain physical limitations, or who die as infants and getting automatic exhaltation, and our own lack of "luck" that we did NOT die as infants) might be resolved with a great "Oh, duh!" if we could simply remember our pre-mortality. We would then fully comprehend the whys and wherefores of things that occur in mortality and utterly eliminate any thoughts of unfairness regarding opportunities and consequences while residing on planet earth in its mortal probation.

Once again, what if telestial glory is actually total and complete bliss for those who inherit it? I believe we receive our kingdoms by choice as a result of our actions. It is a consequence based more on principles of math and physics than on any kind of punishments. Such preserves the basic doctrine of the Church without introducing "universalism."

Have we ever considered that maybe there are those who don't WANT to return to God's presence? That it's not necessarily high on everyone's priority list? Getting back to the presence of the Father and Mother of our spirits sounds very attractive in principle, but the reality may not be nearly as attractive as the abstraction. Many mortal parents have children who ultimately feel ambivalent about them. Or even resentful. And maybe those who obtain lower kingdoms that will lack the interaction of our Father and Mother in heaven are just happier in that state of existence. No doubt this may be heartbreaking for the parents, but heartbreak and sorrow for the "world" and for decisions made by our offspring is plainly defined as a characteristic of God. For all we know, inheritance of the Celestial Kingdom assumes an incredible amount of responsibility and action from the inheritors that many souls simply do not want to undertake. Creating worlds? Let's face it, some folks in mortality choose to not even hold down a job.

So what about "billions and gazillions of years" that make up the fabric of eternity? Just what are those who inherit telestial glory going to be doing ten gazillion years from now if not attempting to progress to a higher kingdom? Well, again, this logic, assumes way too much based upon our mortal understanding of time. The same flawed arguemnt could be placed upon the past as well as the future. If we have "always" existed, why did it take so doggone long to even get to the point of coming into mortality? See the problem? Again, we are trapped by our lack of eternal understanding. The "veil" is hindering our comprehension. As the scriptures often hint, "God's time is not our time." And it may be that time itself is a "thing" created strictly for mortality. Deep stuff, and totally beyond our comprehension. But that's the whole point. "Universalism" is a doctrine born of that lack of understanding. It's a doctrine born of a lack of faith. And born of grave impatience.

Here's the clincher: "Universalism" really DOES make me want to go out and do any darn thing I please. It makes me feel okay about sin. The scriptures say there are consequences??? "Universalism" makes me say "Whatever!" As a carnal, self-serving human being I am prone to respond, "I'll worry about consequences later and seek out all my self-gratifications now" or to paraphrase the scriptures, "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!" This notion really is reenergized in my psyche if I were to accept "universalism" or any doctrine like unto it.

So I feel to resolve this argument we must go back to the Book of Mormon (paraphrasing Mor. 7: 16-17) : "That which pursuades men to do good and believe in Christ is of God. That which pursuades NOT to do good is NOT of God." Such puts universalism squarely in the trashheap of the "doctrines of men." Though I am sorely tempted by the carnal comfort I receive from the concept of "universalism," I cannot ignore that such comfort is essentially laziness and does not contribute to our Spirit-driven desire to repent and do better day by day.

And lest there are some who believe that this rejection could only be born of a universal power struggle, a desire to stomp upon my fellow man and declare some to be superior to others, or born of an essential lack of compassion for humankind, I declare that this is not an accurate representation of what I feel. We see through the veil darkly. Human logic does not replace the eternal light of revelation. So until the Lord reveals more (or finds us humble enough to receive more) I think it's much safer ground to remain rooted to the understanding about repentence and living the commandments that we have been given by our Church leaders since our days in Primary.

Chris Heimerdinger

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Friday, August 8, 2008

Passage DVD Update

At last the numbers are starting to roll in, and to our relief and joy, that landscape looks very positive and reassuring.

This week was the annual LDS Bookseller's convention that takes place at the South Towne Expo Mart in Sandy, Utah. Mostly, I was at this event to publicize the release of my newest novel Eddie Fantastic. (Technically, this is a re-release of Eddie since the original version of this novel was published in the early '90s. But the newest version is so different and improved from the older version, it's hard not to think of it as a new release.) In any case, the story of the day seemed to be Passage to Zarahemla. At this convention, LDS retailers from around the world (but mostly in the US) gather for a week to rub shoulders with LDS publishers and artists. And the picture presented through various reports from my distributor and from LDS retailers were very positive indeed, and seem to indicate that the movie is performing better in their stores than any LDS-themed movie that has been released since 2004. (There is one exception that had a budget seven times as large as ours, but with all the advertising spent, and eventual blowback (units returned) on that title, the perception is that this "exception" film was a disappointment for retailers.) What I received from LDS retailers was a heart-felt "thank you." And one was so bold as to say "Thanks for making us a lot of money this slow summer!" Generally I am somewhat skeptical of praise that comes to me in person. Not many people are so brazen as to tell a writer/director to his face that his movie sucks (unlike anonymous lurkers who don't hesitate to do so on the web). But when such reports enthusiastically mention specifics from the film, I might accept their comments more readily.

I realize that some might wonder who would even care about this kind of aggrandizing update, but I get so many emails from fans asking me how the movie is "doing"--perhaps as a result of the obsession that so many Americans feel for "box office"--that I felt some kind of a report on the DVD's retail journey was warrented. Yes, we're tooting our own horn. And proudly.

For the last 10 weeks the Passage DVD has been the top-selling movie for Deseret Book (check out their website!) and Seagull, as might be expected, but we also got a glowing report from Wal-Mart, who expressed sincere pleasure with the performance of the DVD in the approximately 40-50 outlets that sell the product in Utah. Though the initial placement was light, (it is the off-season, after all, and what with uncertainly about the economy, etc., etc.) our re-orders seem to be brisk from independent LDS retailers. Several major outlets have also sold through most of their stock and are expected to reorder. Also, certain vendors who were skeptical in the beginning have now started to get into the act, including Hollywood Video. Prior to this, the DVD was only available for rent at Blockbuster. And we personally started receiving many complaints--that's right; customers were complaining to us, the filmmakers!--that the DVD never seemed to be on the rental shelves. No worries. Hollywood Video will jump in the fray as early as next week. (For a while we'll likely avoid Redbox. I know, I know. Many of us have grown addicted to one dollar rentals. But we need to wait for a while, as the producers of Singles Second Ward did, so we don't undermine our other retailers who frankly offer a better wholesale cost.)

The result of all this for us, the producers, has been a collective sigh of relief. It seemed so odd and curious at the very outset of the DVD's release that there were numerous bad and so-so reveiws from various bloggers. Though I'm sure many of these were from genuine, honest-hearted saints who simply thought the movie stank, many others seemed to be from "fringe" Mormons, or anti-Mormons, who viscerally wanted to believe that there was no such thing as a "good" LDS film, never would be, and that all LDS filmmakers should give up the quest. Some of the initial condemnation from such reviewers might have been expected for a movie that unapologetically celebrates LDS doctrine, but in the end, sincere appreciation seems to have won out and the number of positive reviews now seems to far outnumber the negatives. I'll offers some links. Unfortunately, links to some of my favorite reviews are no longer working. Oh well. Here's some samples:

So what does all this mean??? Nuthin' much. Just that the movie has been worthwhile to certain viewers. Now, by focusing only on the positive, some bloggers love to point out arrogance and overconfidence. So I'll also admit that there are reviews you can find that focus on "cheesiness" or "too much violence" or "plotholes." I believe all of those things are in this movie for many viewers. But we hope as time passes that we are most recognized for the sheer achievement. Namely, the most ambitious LDS movie to date on several levels, and a hearty attempt to introduce fantasy and adventure to the LDS consumers.

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