…[O]ur Father’s plan is big enough for all His children…
Elder Quentin L. Cook’s talk from the recently concluded General Conference presents a useful and compelling presentation of what might be called a contemporary Mormon account of Christian universalism, a doctrine of how salvation can be extended to all. One of the virtues of the talk is that it is clear enough in its presentation to make its own paradoxical limitations spring vividly to life: what Elder Cook discusses is a universalism with boundaries, a plan big enough to save all God’s children except the ones who are left out. Cook describes his talk as focused specifically on one theme that, in his experience, is particularly difficult for people of a religious disposition: the apparent contrast between the idea that God loves us and “the incorrect doctrine that most of mankind would be doomed to eternal hell.” In his talk, Cook offers three examples of individuals troubled by this tension: his great, great grandfather; the Anglican writer Frederick Farrar; and Lord Alfred Tennyson. I am curious about this list, which is fine enough as far as it goes, yet seems unnecessarily 19th-century, not to mention overwhelmingly miscellaneous, in nature. This is merely an oddity, of course. It seems perfectly clear that Cook could have listed as many 20th- or 21st-century individuals with this particular concern as he desired.
Over against the doctrine that most people will go to hell forever, Cook offers
the marvelous doctrine revealed to the prophet Joseph [which] unveiled to us a plan of salvation that is applicable to all mankind including those who do not hear of Christ in this life, children who die before the age of accountability, and those who have no understanding.
To this claim, of a plan of salvation which applies to everyone, a Calvinist could reply with full justification, “We have one of those, too.” After all, a plan of salvation applies to each person who is subject to its provisions, even if that person is damned because of those provisions. Thus, in a Calvinist world, all people are subject to the plan by which God’s purposes choose some to become the elect and others to be damned. The plan is no less applicable to the damned than to the elect; it’s just a lot less pleasant.
Cook, of course, has something a bit different and more universal in mind than merely a plan that applies to everyone. Instead, his talk reaches for a presentation of Mormon theology as offering a plan of salvation that provides benefits to everyone. Consider the following elaboration of that plan:
[B]ecause of the atonement of Jesus Christ, all spirits blessed by birth will ultimately be resurrected, spirit and body reunited, and inherit kingdoms of glory that are superior to our existence here on earth.
Oh, but the caveats. Note that this statement already has one: anyone who was not born is already outside the borders of God’s universal plan. However, Cook has more caveats to offer. The very next sentence explains,
The exceptions are confined to those who, like Satan and his angels, willfully rebel against God.
Well and good. Who would argue that Satan and his angels deserve eventual salvation? (Actually, some would, possibly including the Christian father Origen.) Yet “willfully rebelling” against God is actually a difficult concept to pin down, and there are substantial resources within the Mormon tradition for constructing an argument that all sin involves such willful rebellion — otherwise, one might claim, the act would merely be transgression and not sin. So are all sinners outside God’s plan of salvation? Surely not, but the boundaries are evidently both real and somewhat underdetermined.
A more specific and, to my mind, discouraging instance of boundary-drawing occurs earlier in Cook’s talk. After a reference to London’s recent bus-side sign warfare regarding the existence of God, Cook states:
Non-believers find it hard to accept the miracles of the Old and New Testament and the Savior’s virgin birth and resurrection. They view these events with the same skepticism as the appearance of God, the Father, and Jesus Christ to the Prophet Joseph Smith. They are not open to the possibility of a heavenly plan presided over by a supreme being. They do not have faith. My principal concern is for the honorable people on the earth who are open to religious faith but have been discouraged or confused by incorrect doctrine.
I am sure that Elder Cook does not mean that those who are non-religious are all outside the boundaries of God’s plan of salvation; this is a statement delimiting the audience for Cook’s talk, not the set of people who will eventually be saved. Nonetheless, it is jarring for a talk about the inclusiveness of God’s plan to begin with such an explicit statement of exclusion. Why are those who currently lack faith not as central in our outreach as those who have faith that simply differs from our own? What are the obstacles to seeing skepticism as a product of discouragement due to incorrect doctrine? Clearly there are some, and a less charitable reading of skepticism has obviously prevailed. This seems a result worthy of some regret.
In the conclusion to his talk, Elder Cook draws on ideas about the bounded universalism of our understanding of the plan of salvation to offer suggestions for how we treat those of other faiths, as well as skeptics and inactive members within our own tradition. We are urged in particular to refrain from criticism of other Christian faiths, which “do much good” and “bless mankind.” I wonder why we should not similarly avoid criticising those faiths outside the Christian tradition that also do good in the world — and especially why Elder Cook himself seems willing to criticize those of no faith tradition as a group, even when some such individuals have certainly acted in ways large and small for the good of the world.
I liked this talk a great deal. I agree with Elder Cook that the elements of inclusiveness in Latter-day Saint understandings of the plan of salvation are worthy of celebration. I resonate to Cook’s call for us to be “loving and kind,” both to people of other faith traditions and to “members of our own faith regardless of their level of commitment and activity.” These are, I think, the messages Elder Cook would have us take from his talk.
But the limits to Elder Cook’s universalistic commitments are at least equally telling. Even when we want to celebrate the inclusiveness of God’s plan, it seems, we can’t stop marking boundaries.