“Do Mormons believe they can become Gods” is a question that requires much more than a yes or no answer, to be sure. If members of the Church are reluctant to answer with a simple “yes” or “no”, they seem to be trying to hide something, or to be unversed on the subject. This circumstance is reflected in an oft-cited response President Hinckley gave to various public interviews. I’ve seen it on facebook, I’ve seen it on message boards, I’ve seen it on blogs and in various columns. Hopefully this post can help clarify.
Pres. Hinckley has been accused of being dishonest or evasive on the subject of deification–whether humans can become gods. He is depicted as saying something to the effect of “we don’t know anything about that.” I believe a closer look at the respective interviews suggests that Pres. Hinckley was more specifically saying Mormons don’t know much about God’s past, rather than humanity’s future. Here’s the selection from a 1997 interview in the San Francisco Chronicle, wherein Pres. Hinckley affirms the divine potential of women and men:
Q: There are some significant differences in your beliefs. For instance, don’t Mormons believe that God was once a man?
A: I wouldn’t say that. There was a little couplet coined, “As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.” Now that’s more of a couplet than anything else. That gets into some pretty deep theology that we don’t know very much about.
Q: So you’re saying the church is still struggling to understand this?
A: Well, as God is, man may become. We believe in eternal progression. Very strongly. We believe that the glory of God is intelligence and whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the Resurrection. Knowledge, learning, is an eternal thing. And for that reason, we stress education. We’re trying to do all we can to make of our people the ablest, best, brightest people that we can.1
Note that the question directly involved whether God was once a man. The topic also came up in a 2001 TIME article. The interview transcript and article itself makes it clear that Pres. Hinckley’s stumbling response was in regards to God’s past, not humanity’s future:
Q: Just another related question that comes up is the statements in the King Follet discourse by the Prophet.
Q: … about that, God the Father was once a man as we were. This is something that Christian writers are always addressing. Is this the teaching of the church today, that God the Father was once a man like we are?
A: I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it. I haven’t heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse. I don’t know. I don’t know all the circumstances under which that statement was made. I understand the philosophical background behind it. But I don’t know a lot about it and I don’t know that others know a lot about it.2
Of course, Joseph Smith clearly taught God “was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!”, a fact which appeared in the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church manual approved under Hinckley’s presidency.3 In his own public comments, though, Pres. Hinckley focused on the second, not the first, part of the couplet, that humans can become like God.4
I agree with Pres. Hinckley that Mormons don’t generally broach the topic of God once being a man, with all the sticky theological questions it raises. Divine embodiment, more than questions of sin, seems paramount. Aside from questions about the overall place of Lorenzo Snow’s famous couplet as a point of emphasis within Mormonism over time, it seems to me Pres. Hinckley himself was claiming Mormons don’t know/talk much about God’s past, rather than humanity’s future. As for that future, he directly affirmed the teaching that Mormons do believe they can become gods.
2. Transcript from the interview of David van Biema, reported in “Kingdom Come,” TIME Magazine (4 August 1997): 56, ellipsis in original.
3. See “Chapter 2: God the Eternal Father,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (2007), 36–44.
4. For instance, see his “Don’t Drop the Ball,” Ensign, Nov 1994, 46.