Man is an individual but he is not self-sufficing. The law of his nature is love, a harmonious relation of life to life in obedience to the divine centre and source of his life. This law is violated when man seeks to make himself the centre and source of his own life.”
So wrote Reinhold Niebuhr in 1941.
One way to characterize the master vision of Joseph Smith is found in his redefining of heaven as consisting of eternal relations that extend horizontally as well as vertically: life to life, and back again to the divine center. A view of the eternities that takes seriously the proposition that love here and hereafter is the essence and end of Christian striving. Zion-building on the model of Enoch is the ultimate measure of taking seriously the concept of Christian community, as ideal and “consummation devoutly to be wished,” rather than brotherly duty. But a theology that can do no more than inspire a wish “to be re-united with her in bliss who now hears not when he calls” as the 17th century widower Phineas Hodson prayed, is but a shadow of a saving faith.
In one radio interview, I was asked by a Jewish host why Mormons baptize his dead ancestors. “Because,” I replied, “we have a vision of a vast marriage banquet to take place at the last day, where our Father wants no empty places. Think of our practice as an attempt to put everyone’s name on the guest list. Not everyone will come—but we think all should be invited.”
Mormonism cannot fit within Christian theology—for its ambition far exceeds recuperation of an Edenic condition. Its story begins long before Adam, and continues far beyond a final judgment. And the sweep of salvation it proclaims goes beyond anything the creeds of Christendom envision. I think of Joseph’s great work as having three seminal moments. On a fall night in 1823, a seventeen-year old youth hears cryptic words quoted to him by an angel, promising him that the prophet Elijah would yet reveal the priesthood and turns children’s and parents’ hearts to each other. Then more than a dozen years later, at the time of the 1836 Kirtland temple dedication, the awaited messenger appears and tells Joseph, “the time has fully come” for the promise’s fulfillment. And finally, mere months before his martyrdom, Joseph has absorbed the significance of Elijah’s keys, put the final pieces in place, and brings to fruition that mysterious prophecy of his youth. To an audience of thousands gathered in the grove at Nauvoo, he now presents to the church the full import of a new and everlasting covenant. With the temple ordinances at last restored, and the principal of vicarious work for the world’s teeming billions implemented, Joseph’s essential work is complete.
The gospel [is] to be established the Saints of God gathered Zion built up, & the Saints to Come up as Saviors on mount Zion. But how are they to become Saviors on Mount Zion? By building their temples erecting their Baptismal fonts & going forth & receiving all the ordinances, Baptisms, Confirmations, washings anointings ordinations & sealing powers upon our heads in behalf of all our Progenitors who are dead & redeem them that they may Come forth in the first resurrection & be exalted to thrones of glory with us, & herein is the chain that binds the hearts of the fathers to the Children, and the Children to the Fathers which fulfills the mission of Elijah.
It took the radio host’s reply to my analogy for me to appreciate the radical resonance of it all. He responded with generous humor: “What a beautiful idea. How do I get my name on your list?”