I was born the ninth child in a fifth-generation Mormon family. Mormons have some beliefs about family life that are not shared by other Christians. (Yes, Mormons believe in Christ.) They believe that as long as everyone in the family remains worthy, they will dwell together after death. When I was young, we referred to what followed death as the “afterlife,” but Church leaders decided that implied too much—that our individual existence ceased with death. In order to clarify that we continue to be ourselves beyond the grave, the “afterlife” was given the somewhat cumbersome name of the “post-mortal existence.”
Mormon families who live together in the post-mortal existence don’t dwell just anywhere. They will live in the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom, in the physical presence of God. Exactly how they will be housed there is a bit unclear, but we do know this: When a man and woman marry in a Mormon temple here on earth, they are sealed together for “time and all eternity.” Once sealed to a man, a woman joins her husband’s family. Should the family she was born into also achieve the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom in the post-mortal existence, she will not live with it. She will live with her husband’s family, just as her own male children will remain part of the family she has joined, but her female children, once married, will not. They will belong to their men.
My particular Mormon family will undoubtedly not arrive in the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom intact. My father died in the early 1990s, at the age of 83. During his lifetime he was married in the Mormon temple three times to women who all outlived him. He was divorced civilly from two of his wives, although he was never civilly married to more than one wife at any given time, and he remained married (civilly) to the third wife until his death. He practiced what anthropologists call “serial monogamy.” As far as the Church is concerned, though, because he took no action to dissolve his temple marriages while he was here on earth, my father remains wed to all three spouses in the post-mortal existence. Should they all be worthy—and it is fairly certain that my own mother, who, like me, became an atheist, will wear her unworthiness on her bosom like a brightly emblazoned “A”—he would have a leg up on most of his contemporaries. All three women would end up in the same post-mortal household, having joined the Larkin family. My father has therefore already succeeded in achieving potential post-mortal polygamy (which the Church refers to as “plural marriage”), even though polygamy is against the laws of the United States here on earth. God, incidentally, has no problem with that.
But one of the reasons my family is unlikely to arrive in the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom intact is me. I was excommunicated from the Church in the late 1970s, at my own request, after being charged with, and found guilty of, apostasy, defined as “denial of the Holy Ghost.” I left the Church for many reasons, some of which I hope to explore through this blog, but at the moment I will say only this: The housing situation in which I found myself as a child struck me as less than inspired by a perfect being, otherwise known as God.
I was grateful to leave behind what I saw as the closed-mindedness of my upbringing (the failures of our household, for example, could not be openly discussed and therefore dealt with), but I missed its warmth and support. In fact, it took me several years to admit, but I missed church. I missed association with people who seemed to have a purpose beyond themselves. I missed people striving for perfection, no matter how far short of it they fell. I missed a forum that provided the chance to give back to the community some of what had been given to me. And I solved that loss by doing what made sense—I returned to church.
I did not go back to the Mormon Church, however. I do not believe Church members would have welcomed an atheist in their midst. I am told that my father, who made peace with me before his death, prayed every night he was alive that “the devil” would leave me. But I have found several places here in New York City that have provided just the sort of community and support I needed. I have been a soup kitchen cook at St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Greenwich Village since February of 1983 (that’s 27 years and counting). I sang in the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church choir for 13 years. I currently attend the Church of the Holy Apostles (Episcopal) in Chelsea (it runs the City’s largest church-sponsored soup kitchen). And I feel at home there.
Why? Because it is a thinking, caring community that puts into action the things it preaches, and it does so in as non-discriminatory a way as I have come across. In the meantime, the church, which was rebuilt after a fire, provides an environment that embraces beauty, love, good music, fellowship, and service to the poor. When they speak from the pulpit of Christ-like ideals, do I know what they’re talking about? You bet I do. Do I endorse them? All of them that make sense to me. Does it provide a space within which to yearn for the good, the best that can be achieved by all of us? Absolutely. Can I even say, “Praise be to God!” along with them? Yes, because the ability to praise—the creation of a life that warrants praise—is what we all need. The closer we get to it, the more godlike we will become, whether we dwell in God’s house in the next world or not.