I don’t know who I’m going to vote for in November. I’ve made a practice of voting for my dad, and I may do it again this time around. Not because my dad wants to be president, but because electronic voting machines allow me to write in any name I choose. I decided some time ago that I’m going to keep on voting for my dad until someone I think could run the country better shows up on the ballot.
My father taught physics for more than thirty years at a large, private university. When he retired, he kept teaching part-time. When the school told him they couldn’t keep paying him, he kept teaching for free. Last I checked, he’s still teaching.
He wrote the book, literally. My dad and some of his colleagues produced a textbook for introductory physics classes. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students bought this book every year for decades. In an attempt to keep the cost of book down, my dad never accepted any royalties. When the publisher made yet another move to issue a ‘new’ addition with few substantial changes and a terrifically higher sticker price, my dad told them to take his name off the book. Then he posted his version of the book on the internet for free.
When I grow up, I want to be just like my dad.
This sentiment will permeate our culture this weekend, in dime-store greeting cards, church sermons, long-distance telephone calls, rushed email messages, and maybe even a few handwritten letters. I extend to all who say it the faith that they mean it. But this expression—”I want to be just like my dad”—has, perhaps, a peculiar significance to the Mormons who say it.
One of the things that keeps Mormonism weird is its assertion that people can become like God. It’s a bizarre, goofy, even ridiculous idea. But in a world of religious doctrines that includes original sin, burning bushes, three-in-one-in-three trinities, resurrection from the dead, lakes of fire, and the eternal playing of lyres, is it really so outlandish?
On the other hand, what’s the compelling reason to countenance such an idea? If the idea of becoming like God is simply a foolish fancy, we might very well dismiss it—along with similar fancies like hopes in life-after-death and belief in God’s very existence—and get on with living our lives.
But what if an idea is simply beautiful? Let’s set aside truth for a moment and consider the possibility that some religious ideas are just lovely. You put my dad in the oval office, and he’ll have the country running like a clock inside of the first hundred days. Not only am I confident of this proposition, I love this proposition. Like a Caravaggio or a Beckmann, this idea grabs my mind’s eye and turns it around. The idea—truth aside—that my dad could save the world strikes my aesthetic faculties with the splendor and grace of art.
What Sartre said about God’s existence is true about theological doctrines, too. Whether they’re true, on one level, doesn’t matter. We’re still here, facing a life that can be harsh and lonely, a life that demands that we make our choices. Religious notions, like other kinds of art, transform our visions of ourselves and the people around us, and can change the world we live in. And religious ideas can’t be reduced, simplistically, to “comforting fantasies,” as Carl Sagan and others might suggest. Art often does not offer comfort or fantasy. Art often confronts us with the worst that is in us and provokes us to make it different. The best religious doctrines are often challenging and demanding and intemperate.
Mormons aspire to be like their dads, including the being they imagine as a Heavenly Father. The idea the imagination offers of divine perfection charms me. It calls me. The idea that the universe invites me to pursue that same perfection stirs and moves me, inspires my thinking, and shapes me—right now, in the minute to minute life I have to live.
My dad is perfectly good. Perfectly just. Perfectly reasonable. Perfectly capable. When I grow up, I want to be just like that.
David Mason is associate professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. He is the author of “Theatre and Religion on Krishna’s Stage” and “My Mormonism: a primer for non-Mormons and Mormons, alike.”