"Latter-day Saints' doctrine of exaltation is often … reduced in media to a cartoonish image of people receiving their own planets," says the essay. "… While few Latter-day Saints would identify with caricatures of having their own planet, most would agree that the awe inspired by creation hints at our creative potential in the eternities."
Richard Bushman an LDS historian and author of "Rough Stone Rolling," a critically acclaimed biography of Mormon founder Joseph Smith says the posting skillfully navigates dense theological turf.
"It defines a boundary of what we truly believe and also tries to make it as appealing as possible," Bushman says. "It sort of puts the caricature of the Mormons owning their own planet in perspective. In a way, it dismisses it, but it goes on to say this is a respect for the mighty powers of God and creation, and suggests that we may have a part in it."
Fiona Givens, an LDS scholar and co-author with her husband, Terryl, of "The God Who Weeps," says so-called exaltation, including humanity's divine potential, is "a very, very Mormon concept" a view that distinguished Smith at a time of fiery sermons about man's inevitable fall.
In Smith's era, "that's radical," she says. "And it's also radical in its universalism. Most Christians [at the time] would agree that some people would go to heaven and inherit eternal life, but they were either preordained or there were very few of them. Most of us, quite frankly, would go to hell."
So where do Mormons go? A popular understanding and a misunderstanding, according to LDS leaders is that the Utah-based faith teaches followers that they one day populate their own planet, as God did Earth, as sort-of afterlife astronauts. In "The Book of Mormon" musical's showstopping song, for instance, a lead character sings, "I believe that God has a plan for all of us. I believe that plan involves me getting my own planet."
The LDS Church's essay compares that simplistic image to harp players lounging atop clouds a characterization of heavenly habitation that many Christians would dismiss.
Bushman was taken with the essay's words about exalted life, that it is imagined "through the lens of the sacred in mortal experience."
Jan Shipps, a retired American religion scholar who describes herself as "the non-Mormon Mormon expert," says exaltation has not been the public-relations headache it once was for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, when "The God Makers" book and film painted Mormons as hungering to eternally rule a planet.
"What [this essay] does is clarify the difference," Shipps says. "There's a difference between people who will become God and people who will become like God. I think it's very wise."
Reinforcing a theme from his book, Terryl Givens says the posting makes clear that afterlife is "more about infinite vulnerability than infinite power. And that's a sobering idea, I think, rather than one that appeals to aggrandizement."
Becoming godlike, he says, is choosing to feel the pain and suffering of all creations in the way that God does for us.
The possibility of exaltation does not make Mormons polytheistic, the essay insists. Divinity is possible for all, it explains, but "God's children will always worship Him. Our progression will never change His identity as our Father and our God."
The church also contends that the belief in every person's divine potential is rooted in the Bible and consistent with the understanding of many early Christians. A centurieslong emphasis on "the depravity of humankind and the immense distance between Creator and creature" caused such thinking to wane.
The essay acknowledges that what the early church fathers meant is "open to interpretation," and Terryl Givens says it's likely that their views weren't equivalent to how Mormons interpret humanity's divine potential.
Many Mormons are too quick to draw parallels, he says, and "in doing so we misread the past and hang our theology on too fragile a branch."
The LDS Church draws one parallel itself, calling deification a "central tenet" of Eastern Orthodoxy. Shipps points out that the Eastern Orthodox belief that the body becomes spiritually close to Christ does not approach the Mormon vision of exaltation.
The essay also "sort of takes a position" on Smith's disputed King Follett sermon, Bushman says. In it, shortly before his own death at the hands of a mob in Carthage, Ill., the Mormon founder exclaimed at the namesake's funeral that God "was once as one of us." Bushman says it's noteworthy that the piece quoted the speech, but with the caveat that the "surviving sermon text is not canonized and should not be treated as a doctrinal standard in and of itself."
A footnote says that "wind on the day of the sermon" limits the reliability of the transcripts.
The "Becoming Like God" essay comes on the heels of other recent postings designed to help Mormons and others better understand sometimes-sticky theological or historical issues in Mormonism. Other essays include explorations of the faith's former ban on blacks from entering its all-male priesthood and its long-discarded practice of plural marriage.