As I was pondering the subject of this paper, I heard on the radio a feature on the popular British singer Rumer.  The artist surprised the interviewer somewhat with her frank confession of her Christian beliefs, and the feature included a song with these lyrics:

Is there a place where all that I've lost
will be returned to me?
And is there a day the souls that I pray to
Are coming back for me?
Don't tell me it's alright, It'll never be alright
Why don't you come, why don't you come back…
Leaving aside the question to whom we should pray, I note simply that the young artist imagines heaven first and foremost as a home, a place where all one has lost will be returned, that is, first and foremost, where one will be reunited with loved ones.  And it turns out that Rumer is not at all alone in her conception of heaven.  As the authors of Heaven: A History report, most Americans still believe in life after death and in the eternal significance of love, and conceive heaven as a reunion with their families. [1]   And the anecdotal evidence from the experience of Mormon missionaries is that this belief, this familial conception of heaven, though perhaps “exotic” from the standpoint of traditional Christian theology, is by no means an exclusively American or Mormon phenomenon. 

A core teaching of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that Rumer’s intuition regarding the promise of heaven is precisely correct.  There are families in heaven.  Heaven is in fact all about families.  This conviction lies at the core of “Mormon” belief.  Elder Hugh B. Brown in fact went so far as to say that “our very concept of heaven itself is the projection of the home into eternity.” [2] And now I have delivered to you the essence of the LDS understanding of a family-centered eternity, and have said no more than you could have been told by any passably instructed LDS child over six years of age. 

I wish to explore the implications of this teaching and to begin to articulate how this belief operates in the lives of Latter-day Saints (or “Mormons”), how this idea of transcendence, of another world, appeals to the minds and hearts of believers and how it informs and structures their lives, how it “works” as a core belief in a way of life that, it is fair to say (whatever you may think of these beliefs), has demonstrated a certain consistency and efficacy in forming relatively healthy individuals and communities that function effectively in an increasingly atomistic modern society without being wholly absorbed or dissolved into it. Rather than describe in more detail the features of this Mormon familial eternity, or the specific religious practices and ordinances that attach to it in Mormonism, I want here to attempt to bring out what is distinctive and engaging in the Mormon teaching on the family by situating this conception of heaven in comparison with leading alternatives available in the Western philosophical and religious traditions.  In particular I propose to examine comparatively the status of “eros,” or human longing for some elusive fulfillment, in Mormonism and in more prominent Western philosophical and religious understandings.  This comparison is necessarily very broad and schematic, passing over a myriad of important details, variations and exceptions in order to frame the question of what the Mormon idea of heaven means and how it works. 

The Same and the Other: Western Configurations of Transcendence
The principle behind my comparative framework may be stated as follows: every understanding of heaven, and, more generally, every conception of transcendence, involves some mingling of what we can call “the same” and “the other.”   Heaven must be other than ordinary experience, or it would not be transcendent, and would not offer the hope of some condition free of the burdens, the difficulties, the tensions, or the simple boredom of our mundane existence.  “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” (I Cor 2:9)  At the same time, the goods of heaven, or of any conceivable figure of transcendence, cannot be simply and wholly other from our actual experience, or the promise of such goods would have no meaning or attraction for us.  What our eyes have not seen nor our ears heard we must somehow be able to imagine, or, if not adequately to imagine, at least to project as a fulfillment and extension of known goods.  If there were no continuity between actual experiences and possible goods, then the promise of transcendence would have no meaning for us.  The promise of a heaven absolutely other than any enjoyments we have experienced in this life would have no meaning for us; in fact it could not be a promise addressed to beings such as ourselves, but only to a wholly other sort of being in whom we could have no stake.

For the promise of heaven (or of any figure of the “highest good,” or of the meaning of a divine and supremely fulfilling existence) to matter to us, then, this heaven must at once be other than or beyond our mortal experience and continuous with that experience.  More precisely: the promise of heaven must highlight and build upon features of our actual experience that seem to rise above our ordinary and defective mortality and articulate these features into a some conception of higher state of existence, of another, better world. 

It is uncontroversial, I think, to say that Christian theology was decisively conditioned in its origins and throughout its history by its inheriting and adaptation of key elements of Greco-Roman philosophy.  In fact we can see that essential features of a traditional Christian view of God emerge already in the political theology that Plato proposes in Book III of The Republic.  To provide a good model for the education of the guardians of the best city (who eventually will be shown to be philosopher-kings), God must be depicted as the cause of good things but not bad.  He must be perfectly good and therefore in need of nothing and unchangeable – for why would a perfect and perfectly self-sufficient being ever change?  Such changeless perfection and self-sufficiency, we learn further on, implies immateriality: Divinity must be conceived as wholly exempt from the mutability, the corruptibility of the material realm. 

Any conception of transcendence, of some higher state of existence, I have proposed, must be grafted upon some actual experience.  What are the experiential sources of the Platonic (or, more generally, the Platonic-Aristotelian) conception of divinity as self-sufficient and changeless immateriality?  We must note at the outset that the original context for this conception is plainly political: the attributes of divinity are set forth plainly with a view to their political function, an indispensable function, to be sure, in the fashioning of a civilized existence.  Those who are to rule over the passions of others must first rule their own passions in view of a higher Good far above material desires. 

We begin to see already, then, that the Greek idea of transcendence, without which the tradition of Christian theology would be unthinkable, was rooted in certain experiences and concerns of the Greek polis.  The deeply political roots of Greek philosophical transcendence are nowhere more acutely discerned than in Thomas Pangle’s Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham. [3]   Just as Pangle thought Biblical piety is rooted in the patriarchal family, so he also argued philosophy springs from the city’s “radical subordination of many or most individual goods that are ordinarily associated with happiness,” a purification of “preoccupation with corporeal, familial, and mundane needs.”  The call beyond family introduces the prospect of “passionate” male friendship, which itself “is ultimately transcended, in and by an ascent toward the divine spiritual self-sufficiency that is the dimly beheld highest aspiration of the life of the city.” (62-3) The very idea of divine self-sufficiency appears then to be an extension of the city’s virtue and of virtuous friendship, and thus an inherently politically conditioned interpretation of transcendence or of human possibility.  This is to say that the goods of family, those “corporeal, familial, and mundane needs” are sacrificed, first in the name of the city and its idea of manly nobility, and then, in the next higher level of refinement, in view of the goods of male (and possibly homosexual) friendship, and then, in a final stage of ascent, in the name of the philosopher’s “divine” self-sufficiency.  The city’s aspiration towards self-sufficiency is said to be realized only in the purely intellectual satisfactions of the philosopher, whose mind at its best participates in the self-sufficiency of a purely intellectual and impassive God (Aristotle’s “self-thinking thought”).  As Pangle’s teacher, Allan Bloom, has written, “The subjection of the family to the ends of both the city and the intellect is a primary task of classical political philosophy.” [4]

However, the Bible parts company with Plato’s Republic, going in a completely opposite direction to resolve the tension between the family and city, as scholars such as Allan Bloom observed.  Moral norms are rooted in the requirements of the family, and love of family is finally subsumed in love of God.  The Bible teaches an “intense but severely limited eroticism” … limited by the requirements of familial order, but the Greeks teach us to question the family for sake of eros, “which in turn metamorphoses into the passion for free self-discovery.” (Bloom apparently takes the Greek idea of divine intellectual self-sufficiency to be a figure of “free self-discovery.”) 

While the Greeks demote the family and use the city as a stepping-stone to an intellectual divinity, the Bible ignores the city and takes the family as a stepping-stone to divinity, interpreting God (at least in the Old Testament) as a devoted but also commanding father.

For commentators such as Pangle, Biblical transcendence is finally incoherent, it seems, because obedience to the commands of the Biblical God does not finally make sense.  Pangle examines this problem through a very searching reading of the story of the akeda, that is, Abraham’s binding of Isaac.  Either Abraham knew that God would somehow avert or reverse Abraham’s sacrifice (as Paul suggests in Hebrews 11), and so it was not really a sacrifice, or Abraham was ready to sacrifice all his hopes to a God whose command therefore becomes wholly unintelligible.  It seems Biblical obedience must either be purely calculating and thus not at all ennobling, or else it is simply mad and humanly meaningless. 

It seems difficult to fault the logic of Pangle’s analysis, but Leon Kass’s reading of the akeda reveals another possibility, though one not easily reduced to logic or calculation:

God does not finally require that men choose between the love of your own and godliness. Though it took a horrible episode to demonstrate this fact, harmonization is possible between a reverence for God (who loves righteousness) and the love of one's family or nation, rightly understood. God, the awesome and transcendent power, wants not the transcendence of life but rather its sanctification--in all the mundane activities and relations of everyday life. Thus, God displays Himself to be exactly the sort of god whom one could not only fear-and-revere, but even come to love--"with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might. [5]

Pangle’s logic or, more precisely, his rational teleology cannot account for the intrinsically relational character of Biblical transcendence.  In a word, he cannot account for love as a good that enriches the lover only when he releases his rational hold on it, his claim of secure possession.  Biblical sacrifice does not leave behind “the mundane activities and relations of everyday life,” but redeems and sanctifies them.

The dynamism of mainstream Christian theology may be said to derive from the infinite task of holding together these Greek and Biblical understandings of transcendence.  Nowhere are the magnificent travails of this project more visible than in the writings of the greatest of Christian Platonists, Augustine of Hippo.  There is no more poignant moment in The City of God than that when Augustine must confront the Christian limits of his Platonism as concerns the questions of time, the body, and interpersonal love.

Augustine cannot ignore Paul’s warnings against “useless” and “misleading” philosophy, but he straightforwardly exempts the Platonists from such warnings.  “These philosophers have been raised above the rest by a glorious reputation they so thoroughly deserve; and they recognized that no material object can be God … that nothing changeable can be the supreme God … that in every mutable being the form which determines its being can only come from him who truly is, because he exists immutably.  For him … life is [not] something other than intelligence…”  In fact he goes so far as to suggest that the mysterious name for himself God gives to Moses, “I am that I am,” is the source of the Platonic notion of pure intelligible Being.  But further on he must confront the Platonist contempt for the body, on which basis they proudly dismiss central Christian doctrines of Incarnation and Resurrection.  

The superiority of Christianity over Platonism, he argues, lies in its universality.

This is the religion which contains the universal way for the liberation of the soul, since no soul can be freed by any other way… How could [Platonism] be a genuine philosophy if it did not offer this way?  For what is a universal way for the liberation of the soul, if it is not a way by which all souls are liberated, and therefore the only way for any soul? (X.32)
Any true way to the liberation of the human soul, Augustine is convinced, must be a universal way, that is, it must, at least in principle, be available to human beings as such, and not only to a few philosophers.  Clearly the force of this argument is not a matter of logic, for there can be no logical objection to the proposition that only certain superior human beings can be raised above the limitations of the human condition.  The force of the argument lies rather in a sense that there is something of eternal significance in human existence itself, and not only in the perfection of the rational faculty, but something that must have some eternal significance and destiny.  Human beings have a spiritual dignity that does not depend on their being philosophers.  There is something in all human beings, that is, in each and every particular individual human being, and not only in the activity of philosophical reflection, that transcends the limitations of the human condition.  Thus the deep meaning of Augustine’s “universality” is not confined to the inclusion of all human beings; this quantitative universality stems from a qualitative universality, a sense of the wholeness of the human person:  Christian salvation, Augustine writes “purifies the whole man, not just the intellectual part… the Savior took upon himself the man in his entirety.”

To affirm the dignity of particular individuals in their whole selves is to embrace the eternal significance of the body and of temporality.   The Platonist identification of perfection with immutability implies that nothing important can really change.   Time must be considered as cyclical, and any embodied soul that goes up must eventually come down.  There can be no radical temporal rupture in the order of reality.

Augustine thus confronts the necessity of a sharp break with the most basic premises of Platonist intellectualism, although he is never able fully to question the Platonic origins of his own conception of God as immutable and impassive self-sufficiency.  But Christianity insists that there can be something radically new under the sun, that “Christ died once for all for our sins . . . [and] we shall be with the Lord forever.”  The Incarnation breaks through the eternal cycle of reality and produces a linear history of the soul leading to an everlasting salvation.  Augustine recognizes the logical force of the Platonist insistence on the immutability of the structure of reality, but he does not believe human beings can live by such a “truth.”  Platonists measure God by the standard of human reason, he argues, but “our faith laughs at this [‘rational’] walking in circles.”  The cyclic theory implies that “our misery should never have an end. …  If it were true it would be more prudent to suppress the truth, nay, wiser to be in ignorance - I am trying to find the words to express what I feel.”  (XII, 14,15,17) That is, philosophy as a way of life cannot stand up; the attitude of resignation to impersonal necessity, of life as a learning to die (and never to live again) is not viable in practice. 

This critique of the cyclical view of time strikes at heart of Platonism.  And it implies a distinctly non-Platonist understanding of the body as essentially base and corruptible.  Against this view Augustine argues that the body is not a prison or a punishment, but a gift or a blessing. (XII.2)  Whereas for the Platonists the ideas of body and corruption are inseparable, Augustine maintains that the problem is not the body itself, but “corruptible body.”  Turning the tables on the Platonists, he argues that they are “carnal” in their rejection of the body; that is, that what separates us from God is not our corporeality but the very pride of reason.

In these passages on time, the body and the salvation of the whole person, Augustine reaches his most intense awareness of his distance from the core assumptions of Platonism.  He is too intellectually invested in Platonism, however, to complete the rupture; he continues for the most part to think in essentially Platonic categories.  Most notably, God remains immaterial, immutable and impassive. 

To summarize, eros evokes an elusive but meaningful longing for some fulfillment, some completion in a better world or some rest in the soul’s true home.  In (Thomas Pangle’s) Platonism this eros is best understood as directed towards a fulfillment in the philosopher’s comprehensive self-knowledge which is at the same time a knowledge of the whole, or of the home of the self, at least insofar as the self is a soul and has a home; such knowledge requires a radical abandonment of ordinary human hopes pertaining to love and family.  In Leon Kass’s reading of the Jewish Bible, on the contrary, the longing for divine righteousness is reconciled through sacrifice with the ordinary goods of family and posterity. 

The founders of Christian theology, including, notably, Augustine, made the momentous choice (already arguable indicated by John the evangelist’s identification of the Lord with the logos) of grafting the personal understanding of divinity and thus of salvation onto a Greek philosophic conception of eros as directed towards a purely intellectual good.  Inevitably, then, mainstream Christianity has found itself tasked with challenge of holding together this Greek understanding with the Biblical elevation of familial affections and duties to a high status in the righteous life.  The difficulty of this challenge is immediately apparent in the institution of celibacy as a blessed exception to familial duties of ordinary Christians, even while these duties were held up as central to the Christian vocation for all those who were not covered by the exception.  (This perceived inconsistency was of course among the major complaints of the Protestant Reformers.)

Ratzinger & the Dilemma of the Personal Logos
This is not the place to attempt a historical review of this problem in Christian Theology but we can examine the contemporary relevance of this tension in the work of the recently resigned Pope Benedict (i.e., Joseph Ratzinger). [6]   Ratzinger acknowledges the debt of Christian theology to the Greek idea of a purely intellectual divinity, but he insists that for Christians “logos” must be understood in personal terms: God is a person, and not simply a mind; in fact, there is no such thing as a pure mind.  In this he resists the Protestant and then modern tendencies to separate personal freedom from logos or an authoritative order.  Unlike the Greek philosophers, however, Ratzinger urges us to understand human transcendence as personal and thus as inherently relational: logos has as much to do with love as with reason.  Thus he urges the faithful to ground their understanding of personal freedom, that is, of free personality, in the concrete realities of our natural being as embodied, reproductive beings. Our natural affections and dependencies are thus understood as a privileged ground for understanding our eternal personhood.   The sacrament of marriage is thus understood as our highest natural link to the personal knowing that lies at the heart of divinity: it is in the intimate fellowship of true Christian marriage that we come closest to the synthesis of knowing and loving that constitutes the divine Trinity.   

Still, for Ratzinger, as for the whole mainstream Christian theological tradition, marriage is of course for this world only.  As John Paul II explained, the resurrection closes the historical dimension of marriage and opens up the eternal perspective of communion with all the saints and with God, a communion that excludes all particularized, familial or marital intimacy.  To be sure, as resurrected beings we will remain sexed beings, but there seems to be no eternal meaning that can be ascribed to our eternal differentiation into male and female.  Thus, despite Ratzinger’s emphasis on our sexual differentiation and familial dependencies as figures of our essentially relational and personal being, in the end the Greeks seem to have the last word for the Christians: like Thomas Aquinas before him, Ratzinger holds that, beyond our sexed and familial natures, it is the mind that most fundamentally defines our eternal being, however “personal.”  Reproduction, notably, is understood finally as an earthly necessity from which we are ultimately liberated by Christian salvation.  Our ultimate end is thus understood as “the loving, relational contemplation of the sexually undifferentiated, personal God.” [7]  

In sum, in this Catholic Christian vision, eros is understood to be orientated finally towards a contemplative fulfillment.  To be sure, this idea of “contemplation” departs from pagan philosophy in insisting on the inherently personal, relational quality of divinity.  But the meaning of “personal” and “relational,” though first grounded in our concrete experience as familial beings, is finally untethered from such experiences and directed towards the contemplative love of an immaterial divinity.  The dilemma or impasse is well expressed by Lawler:  “Our liberation through Christ somehow both is and is not from being a man or a woman. Our liberation both is and is not from being a social (Darwinian, we might say) and political (Aristotelian) being.” [8]

The determination of the meaning of human longing, of eros by the Greek figure of intellectual contemplation remains decisive, but obvously problematic, for the Catholic tradition through Ratzinger.  

De Rougemont: Agape Rescues Eros
A more Protestant strategy for the management of eros can be found in the influential work of Denis de Rougemont, Love in the Western World. [9]   De Rougemont offers an uncompromising critic of eros from the standpoint of the Christian brotherly love of “agape.”

In his analysis of “The Tristan Myth,” de Rougemont depicts eros as an abstract, lawless and finally nihilistic passion.  Tristan and Isolde, on close inspection, do not in fact love each other, or any real person, but are driven by blind passion that finally considers itself more real than the world, beyond the world and thus beyond good and evil.  The lover is finally a mere moment in a vaulting and abstract passion that makes of all that is real (including the lover) an obstacle or obstruction to be overcome in boundless quest that can only end in the decision for death over life; love is the “active passion of darkness.” [10]   Eros can find no stable footing and no satisfying fulfillment in the actual world, and so its essence is fundamentally negative and destructive.

Christian agape must thus rescue pagan eros, and marital love, properly understood, is the most exemplary expression of agape.  Real, constructive love, love in action or “active love,” is neither a passion nor a calculation but a choice--the choice of fidelity or keeping faith, the choice to share one’s life with another.  It is through such fidelity that we become persons, that we freely enter into the particular, finite world into which the Creator has placed us. 

DR’s alternative to eros is beautifully set forth, but its loveliness ought not to conceal from us the sacrifice that it requires.  The author observes that there is something “absurd” and inhuman in the fidelity that grounds marriage as an expression of Christian agape.  We become persons through a free act of belief that cannot be explained in terms of any higher good (such as contemplation), but must be embraced as an expression of obedience: to be in love is not a choice, but a duty.  The Christian’s fidelity to marital bonds is of a piece with his or her acceptance as a created being of the limitations of our finite existence.  “It is on the earth that we must love”; we accept this sacrifice of eros “in obedience to the Eternal.” [11]       

It will be instructive to compare LDS teaching with these representative Catholic and Protestant accounts of eros.  The Catholic teaching tilts decisively towards a Greek contemplative fulfillment of the deepest human longings, despite the insistence on the relational personality of the Christian logos.  The Protestant teaching tends rather to require the suppression of eros in favor of the duty of the embrace of the finite conditions of our created existence.  To be sure, the (Protestant) Christian’s embrace of the actual, particular world of faithful marital personhood through the renunciation of the infinite longings of eros seems to have its inherent attractions, but to resist the appeal of eros it must finally be defended, not as an alternative fulfillment of natural human longings, but as an act of obedience and of faith. 

Against this background of Catholic and Protestant possibilities, the distinctive character and perhaps the power of LDS teachings come clearly into view.  What is most remarkable about LDS teachings is that all conflict or even tension between eros and agape seem ultimately to be resolved, as the intellectualist, contemplative conception of human fulfillment that survived in pre-Reformation Christianity is no longer suppressed in favor of the acceptance of the duties of finitude, but rather is replaced by an erotic cosmology and soteriology that projects creative and pro-creative desires upon an eternity defined by open possibility.   This future is at once radically open-ended and ordered and constrained by laws, covenants, and, most importantly, by an understanding of fulfillment grounded in concrete though imperfect experiences of familial love oriented towards shared projects of eternal significance.  

Transcendence as Familial and Corporeal
Latter-day Saints would thus see themselves as carrying the Augustinian critique of Platonism in view of the salvation of the whole person in his or her corporeality and temporality through to its ultimate conclusion.  The sanctification through sacrifice of the “mundane activities and relations of everyday life” that Leon Kass understood to be the central promise of Biblical piety is elaborately and magnificently “fleshed out” in the Mormon idea of the eternal family.  

I recall the great French intellectual historian Remi Brague’s responding to a question from a young LDS about the eternal significance of the family by saying that he supposed that, since our memories of this earthly existence will be with us in Eternity, then there is a sense in which the precious goods of family endure forever.  This reminded me of a passage in Marilynne Robinson’s exquisite epistolary novel Gilead. [12]   The fictional writer, Reverend Ames, is addressing his very young son who will only be able to understand the letters some years after his father’s death:

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again.  I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us [in heaven], but it is only lovelier for that. There is human beauty in it.  And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that mean the whole world to us.  In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.  Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try. (57)

Further on, Ames’s best friend and fellow minister Boughton offers this reflection on the meaning of “heaven”: “Mainly I just think about the splendors of the world and multiply by two.  I’d multiply by ten or twelve if I had the energy.  But two is much more than sufficient for my purposes.” (173)

Multiplying earthly goods by two is probably about right for Mormons, since these earthly goods of “intelligence and affection” are already bathed in the light of Eternity and secured by sacred covenants and priesthood authority. [13]   For Mormons the “great bright dream of procreating” is integral to eternity, and Mormons have a vivid sense -- as they face the very ordinary trials of daily life, the challenges of living and loving -- of rising to the rank of heroes and heroines, anointed kings and queens, priests and priestesses, in “the epic of the universe” we are writing every day. 

The particularity and temporal determination of our love and of our understanding is not, then, for Mormons, the mark of a defect from the standpoint of eternity, but rather the very stuff of eternity.  Eternity is woven of our particular loves and covenants, our personal histories and sacrifices, our free choices of determinate paths each of which forecloses an infinity of abstract possibilities but opens up a real world of concrete belonging and limitless learning.   Homer’s Odysseus might have lingered forever in the embrace of the divine Calypso, but he felt that he and the mortal Penelope belonged to one another:  "Goddess," replied Ulysses, "do not be angry with me about this. I am quite aware that my wife Penelope is nothing like so tall or so beautiful as yourself. She is only a woman, whereas you are an immortal. Nevertheless, I want to get home, and can think of nothing else.” Mormons are little concerned with the serene and abstract perfection of the Calypso of a Platonic eternity; instead, each willingly embraces the real particularity of his Penelope or her Odysseus in a shared project of “eternal lives”.  

Denis de Rougement observed that “the pledge exchanged in marriage is the very type of a serious act, because it is a pledge given once and for all.  The irrevocable alone is serious.” [14]   “The most majestic wonder of our freedom is that we can make all-time binding decisions, eternal covenants,” Truman Madsen writes. [15]   These covenants are binding, not through some external compulsion or impersonal necessity, but, as Randall Paul has written, through an ever-renewed act of free commitment: “Each instant the choice is made to love again that forever-changing living history and palpable person who is one’s spouse.” [16]

Mormons seem quite comfortable in associating  agape and eros, charity and sexual love.  The fullest statement of this association is perhaps in Jeffery R. Holland’s “Of Souls, Symbols and Sacraments.”  Holland there writes:

[The] sexual union is also, in its own profound way, a very real sacrament of the highest order, a union not only of a man and a woman but very much the union of that man and woman with God. Indeed, if our definition of sacrament is that act of claiming and sharing and exercising God's own inestimable power, then I know of virtually no other divine privilege so routinely given to us all--women or men, ordained or unordained, Latter-day Saint or non-Latter-day Saint--than the miraculous and majestic power of transmitting life, the unspeakable, unfathomable, unbroken power of procreation. … And I submit to you that you will never be more like God at any other time in this life than when you are expressing that particular power. Of all the titles he has chosen for himself, Father is the one he declares, and Creation is his watchword--especially human creation, creation in his image.
It is clear then why, for LDS, marriage is not at all a mere accommodation with earthly necessities but in fact central to our eternal destiny and, in its proper form as consecrated in a temple sealing, the highest and most sacred sacrament or “ordinance” of true Christianity. 

Accordingly, the natural affections central to marriage are not considered as corrupt passions resulting from man’s sinful condition but rather as divinely ordained susceptible of eternal refinement. 

No Mormon author has praised such affections in their eternal significance more eloquently than the early church leader, “the Apostle Paul of Mormonism,” Parley P. Pratt:

It was Joseph Smith who taught me how to prize the endearing relationships of father and mother, husband and wife; of brother and sister, son and daughter.
It was from him that I learned that the wife of my bosom might be secured to me for time and all eternity; and that the refined sympathies and affections which endeared us to each other emanated from the fountain of divine eternal love. . . .

I had loved before, but I knew not why. But now I loved—with a pureness—an intensity of elevated, exalted feeling, which would lift my soul from the transitory things of this grovelling sphere and expand it as the ocean… [17]
Elsewhere Pratt expounded further:

“…our natural affections are planted in us by the Spirit of God, for a wise purpose; and they are the very mainsprings of life and happiness – they are the cement of all virtuous and heavenly society – they are the essence of charity, or love; and therefore never fail, but endure forever.” [18]    
The genius of Mormonism lies in the richly articulated and cosmic grounding it offers for the familial affections that are central to the hopes and dreams of so many human beings.  The goodness of the Mormon heaven (“exaltation in the Celestial Kingdom”) is a goodness that responds at many levels, to the way many people experience the meaning of life.  This response includes but goes beyond the standard Christian history of salvation, a narrative that is embedded in an elaborate and, for many, uniquely satisfying cosmology. 

Of course what I have advanced as a virtue of LDS belief might well be judged a defect:  that is, it may seem that the familial eternity of Mormonism is precisely to familiar, too ordinary, too popular, too tailored to the ordinary wishes of ordinary people, and perhaps indeed to the familial conventions of a certain stage of Western and particularly of American society.

In our scriptures we are told, “And that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy.” (D&C 130:2 ) The same, only… The genius and the power of the Latter-day Saint idea of eternity, I conclude by suggesting, consists in the power it displays to hold together this “same” and this “only.”  The Mormon idea of heaven is a projection of the most familiar, common, ordinary sweetness of family life, yet it also open up onto promises of glory that are rich enough to appeal to the most adventurous imagination.  The idea of Celestial marriage successfully grafts the most infinite of longings of eros onto the most familiar of affections.

Just this last Sunday I picked up our monthly ward newsletter and noticed a little article in which a new young couple in the ward were asked to introduce themselves.  It was the young wife who was writing.  After describing the unremarkable backgrounds and unremarkable occupations of the two married spouses, sealed in the temple just a couple of months ago, she concluded with these unassuming but at the same time momentous words: “We love hiking and exploring.  We are best friends and have loved being married.  We look forward to being together forever.”  You may hear this as a rather trite and conventional expression of Mormon piety, a newlywed saying what she might be expected to say.  Or you can take it at face value as evidence of the astoundingly effective power in the lives of Latter-day Saints of a certain uniquely robust conception of the links between this life and Eternity.

It is perhaps not contradictory to suggest that we will experience heaven as at once intimately familiar and stunningly new and wonderful.  But then it is no doubt this very conjunction of the familiar and the foreign, of the same and the other, the miraculous and the ordinary, that --at least for those who have all along been living and loving in a perspective of eternal lives -- will itself be … familiar.


[1] Bruce Hafen, Covenant Hearts (Deseret Book 2014) 58-9 [Back to manuscript].

[2] Daniel K. Judd, Guy L. Dorius and David C. Dollahite, “Families and the Great Plan of Happiness,” ch. 1 of Dollahite, ed., Strengthening our Families (Deseret Book 2010), p. 7. [Back to manuscript].

[3] John Hopkins University Press, 2007. [Back to manuscript].

[4] Love and Friendship (Simon & Schuster 1994), p. 441. [Back to manuscript].

[5] The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis  (Simon and Schuster 2003), p. 347. [Back to manuscript].

[6] See the excellent survey by Christopher Roberts, Creation and Covenant (Bloomsbury 2008). [Back to manuscript].

[7] Peter Lawler, “The Personal Logos and the Christian Idea of Marriage,” unpublished paper, p. 23.  The preceeding account of Ratzinger’s thought is drawn from this paper. [Back to manuscript].

[8] Ibid. [Back to manuscript].

[9] Princeton University Press, 1983.  [Back to manuscript].

[10] Ibid., p. 46. [Back to manuscript].

[11] Ibid., p. 311. [Back to manuscript].

[12] Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 2004. [Back to manuscript].

[13] The title of an important pamphlet by Parley P. Pratt.  See Terryl L. Givens and Matthew Grow, Parley P. Pratt: the Apostle Paul of Mormonism (Oxford 2011), pp. 212 ff. [Back to manuscript].

[14] De Rougemont, pp. 290-1. [Back to manuscript].

[15] Truman Madsen, Five Classics (Deseret Book, 2010), p. 60. [Back to manuscript].

[16] Randall Paul, Converting the Saints: an Investigation of Religious Conflict Using a Study of Protestant Missionary Methods in Early 20th Century Engagement with Mormonism (Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Chicago Social Sciences, 2000) vol III p. 61. [Back to manuscript].

[17] Parley P. Pratt, Autobiography (Deseret Book 1985), p. 259. [Back to manuscript].

[18] In Madsen, pp. 93-4. [Back to manuscript].

Full Citation for this Article: Hancock, Ralph C. (2016) "A Familiar Eternity," SquareTwo, Vol. 9 No. 1 (Spring 2016), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleHancockFamiliar Eternity.html, accessed <give access date>.

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