I’ve been thinking of late about immortality and Mormonism. My question is whether or not you can be a Good Mormon and a Good Homeric Hero. I am unclear on the answer, but Moroni and John Taylor seem to suggest that for at least one Good Mormon being a Homeric Hero was just fine.
What do I mean? It seems that we have (at least) three concepts of immorality, which for simplicity I will call the Christian concept, the Hebraic concept, and the Greek concept. When Mormons talk about immortality, I think that we are generally talking about Christian immortality. We think about the resurrection of the dead and endless life in the hereafter. Immortality is about the triumph over death through the eternity of the soul and miracle of Christ’s atonement.
What I call the Hebraic concept goes back to the promise made to Abraham that his seed would be as numerous as the sands of the sea. My understanding is that basically the ancient Israelites didn’t have much of a concept of the hereafter or the immortality of the soul. I don’t want to make this claim too strongly, and obviously Mormonism teaches that history since Adam on has been punctuated by God revealing greater light and truth to various prophets, separated by long periods of apostasy. On the other hand, it seems that the primary way in which the Old Testament (especially Genesis) conceptualizes immortality is about the propagation and continuation of posterity. We are immortal because our decedents (and thus some part of us) will continue in the world after we are gone to the dust.
For the Greek concept, I think of the heros of Homer. In the Iliad, Achilles or Hector achieve immortality because they do deeds of such greatness that their names will always be remembered by the poets. While the Greeks had some notion of the continuation of the soul after death, what really seems to have mattered was whether one’s life was sufficiently superb to merit a continuing memory. Of course, the Greek poets get in on this as well. Homer, like his heros, is remembered because his poem is a great and immortal deed. In the prologue to the Theogyny Hesiod explicitly states that his ambition is to write a poem that will insure the immortality of his memory.
So what does Mormonism do with these differing kinds of immortality? First, it seems that we embrace a kind of Christian immortality on steroids. Not only do our souls continue forever forward it time, they are also co-eternal with God in the past. Thus we have Christian immortality in both directions. We also embrace the Hebraic conception of immortality and integrate it with the Christian concept of immortality in our doctrines of sealing and eternal increase. In a sense, Hebraic immortality (the extension and continuation of family) becomes the justification for Christian immortality.
Which brings us to the Greeks. Mormons tend to not like Greek ideas. We get all suspicious about apostasy and the philosophies of men mingled with scripture. I am not so sure. On the first night that he appeared to Joseph Smith, Moroni told him that his name would be known for good and for evil among all nations. After their murders, John Taylor wrote of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, “They lived for glory; they died for glory; and glory is their eternal reward. From age to age shall their names go down to posterity as gems for the sanctified.” (D&C 135:6) All of this sounds Homeric and Greek to me.
Here is where I think Joseph restored to us something of Greek religion. Homer’s heros are theomorphic. “The godlike Achilles” is a man who can battle with gods and (at least against lesser gods) come off victor. For a good two and half millennia, monotheists have been smugly berating the Greeks for having such pathetically human gods. What is often forgotten is that they also believed in godlike human beings. Mormonism also offers us a vision of godlike humanity, although it is a vision that integrates both Christian and Hebraic ideas.
Now I have yet to figure out how we are supposed to dare for Greek immortality while at the same time exercising the Christian virtues of humility and meekness, to say nothing of the Mormon virtues of primary commitment to home and family. Still the possibility is tantalizing.