Sunday, October 17, 2004
In a eulogy delivered on April 7, 1845 (just weeks before his murder), the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith declared:
“I have another subject to dwell upon…that is, the soul, the mind of man, the immortal spirit. All men say God created it in the beginning. The very idea lessens man in my estimation. I do not believe the doctrine; I know better. Hear it all ye ends of the world, for God has told me so. Before I get through, I will make a man appear a fool if he doesn't believe it. I am going to tell of things more noble.”
Few of Joseph’s critics (then or now) as well as a sizeable portion of those who revered him as a prophet (then and now) were entirely comfortable with the “things more noble” that he taught that day. His critics have labeled his ideas blasphemy, while the majority of Mormons worldwide have either rejected his concepts outright or have attempted to water them down.
Joseph’s teachings regarding a plurality of Gods who were once human beings was indeed heretical and blasphemous by Christian standards. Attempts by some modern Mormons to reconcile this notion with the writings of such orthodox Christians as C.S. Lewis or early church fathers ring hollow, demonstrating ignorance or disregard of Christianity’s central doctrine: the existence of one God and one God only.
But history is filled with heresies regarding the existence and nature of the Divine. What set Joseph Smith apart from all others before him were his teachings on the nature of man.
THE UNCREATED MIND/ THE ETERNAL INDIVIDUAL
Traditional western religion has taught that all existence is the production of a divine creation; that existence had a beginning, with God as the First Cause.
Towards the end of his prophetic career, Joseph Smith rejected this doctrine outright, declaring that existence was eternal and uncreated; that the world in which we lived was “organized” by the Gods from existing matter. (See “The Book of Abraham.”) In other words, existence itself is omnipotent. God, who is also eternal, exists and can only be understood within the greater context of existence as a whole.
This laid the groundwork for Joseph’s most radical and far-reaching teaching on the nature of man:
“We say that God himself is a self-existing God. Who told you so? It is correct enough, but how did it get into your heads? Who told you that man did not exist in like manner upon the same principles?….
The mind of man is as immortal as God himself…. Is it logic to say that a spirit is immortal and yet has a beginning? Because if a spirit has a beginning, it will have an end. That is good logic. I want to reason further on the spirit of man, for I am dwelling on the spirit and body of man--on the subject of the dead. I take my ring from my finger and liken it unto the mind of man, the immortal spirit, because it has no beginning. Suppose I cut it in two; as the Lord lives, because it has a beginning, it would have an end. All the fools and learned and wise men from the beginning of creation who say that man had a beginning prove that he must have an end. If that were so, the doctrine of annihilation would be true. But if I am right, I might with boldness proclaim from the house tops that God never did have power to create the spirit of man at all. God himself could not create himself. Intelligence exists upon a self-existent principle; it is a spirit from age to age, and there is no creation about it. Moreover, all the spirits that God ever sent into the world are susceptible to enlargement.
The first principles of man are self-existent with God. God found himself in the midst of spirits and glory, and because he was greater, he saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have the privilege of advancing like himself--that they might have one glory upon another and all the knowledge, power, and glory necessary to save the world of spirits. I know that when I tell you these words of eternal life that are given to me, you taste them, and I know you believe them. You say honey is sweet, and so do I. I can also taste the spirit of eternal life; I know it is good. And when I tell you of these things that were given me by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, you are bound to receive them as sweet, and I rejoice more and more.”
THE ETERNAL MIND, THE FREE MIND
Joseph Smith taught that not only was our spirit/mind eternal and uncreated, it was also by nature free. In May 1833, Joseph declared:
“Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence or the light of truth was not created or made, neither indeed can be. All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.” (Doctrine & Covenants 93:29-30)
Being free by nature, each spirit may pursue what he or she values. The result is that each spirit is by nature truly an individual, with each progressing at his or her own rate, developing his or her abilities and talents to different, in different ways. While all share the same nature, that very nature ensures that each is a unique individual. Not having been created by God and being by nature free, each individual creates his or her own character.
These eternal differences in abilities, knowledge and character are referenced in the creation myth as laid out by Joseph Smith in his “Book of Abraham”:
“…if there be two spirits, and one shall be more intelligent than the other, yet these two spirits, notwithstanding one is more intelligent than the other, have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after, for they are gnolaum, or eternal. And the Lord said unto me: These two facts do exist, that there are two spirits, one being more intelligent than the other; there shall be another more intelligent than they; I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all…
“Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligence that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones; And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good.” (Abraham 3: 18-19, 22-23)
James E. Talmage wrote:
“So far as we can peer into the past by the aid of revealed light we can see that there was always a gradation of intelligence, and consequently of ability, among spirits…Individualism is an attribute of the soul, and as truly eternal as the soul itself.”
WHY DID GOD MAKE HIM THAT WAY?
INDIVIDUALISM & PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY
INDIVIDUALISM & PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY
One idea that traditional western religion has spawned is the concept of that God, being the creator of all, bears ultimate responsibility for “the way someone is.” In short, many have shouldered God with responsibility for character traits that they have found less than admirable. This has the interesting result of not only relieving individuals of responsibility for certain aspects of their characters, but also giving these aspects the stamp of divine approval.
It is difficult to reconcile such traditional notions with the Mormon scheme of things as laid out by Joseph Smith.
It is difficult to reconcile such traditional notions with the Mormon scheme of things as laid out by Joseph Smith.
Mormon theologian, B.H. Roberts wrote:
“The conception of the existence of uncreated, self-existent intelligences, who by the inherent nature of them are of various intelligences, who by the inherent nature of them are of various degrees on intelligence, and moral quality, differing from each other in many ways, yet alike in their eternity and their freedom…relieves God of the responsibility of the nature and moral status of intelligences in all stages of their development.”
True individuality and freedom means personal responsibility.
How could the doctrine that God created each of us as we are be comforting at times? What is the price of such comfort?
How could the idea that we are eternal, uncreated, free agents be uncomfortable and disturbing at times? Considering your own character, situation and progress, what strength, solace and comfort can be found by accepting this idea?
ARE OUR SPIRITS THE LITERAL OFFSPRING OF GOD?
Interestingly enough, Joseph Smith’s teaching that the spirit of man is uncreated comes into conflict with what is probably the most widely believed doctrine among LDS Mormons: that our spirits were literally begotten by a heavenly father and a heavenly mother.
Yet, as Mormon scholar Dan Hale has pointed out, the origin of this particular doctrine
“…has remained somewhat obscure…there are no clear statements of the doctrine in any of the [LDS] church’s four standard work.”
The idea that spirits were sexually begotten was introduced not by Joseph Smith but by early Mormon Apostle Orson Pratt. In a letter dated February 14, 1842, Pratt--while serving as a missionary in England--wrote to an Elder Walker:
“When I write to you I feel to let my imagination rove…let us indulge our follies at this time and wander into the field of imagination. Some thirteen thousand years ago in Heaven or in Paradise (say) we came into existences or in other words received a spiritual organization according to the laws that govern spiritual births in eternity. We were there and then (say) born in the express images and likeness of him by whom we received our spiritual birth.”
Orson Pratt made it quite clear in this letter that the above idea was mere speculation on his part. Indeed, his notion that thirteen thousand years ago our spirits “came into existence or in other words received a spiritual organization” seems to contradict Joseph Smith’s teaching that “Intelligence exists upon a self-existent principle; it is a spirit from age to age, and there is no creation about it.”
It wasn’t until after the murder of Joseph Smith that Pratt made public his concept of our spirits having been begotten by heavenly parents, publishing it under the heading “The Mormon Creed” in his work “Prophetic Almanac for 1845.” At the 1845 General Conference, Brigham Young endorsed the concept as doctrine.
Why did the Mormon Apostles so eagerly embrace Pratt’s doctrine?
It should be remembered that it was the secret practice of polygamy that ultimately set in to motion the events that led to Joseph Smith’s arrest and murder by a mob. Joseph’s sudden death sent the church into chaos. The Apostles saw it as their calling to maintain order in the church by denying accusations of polygamy while at the same time secretly maintaining the practice. Eager to move the church our of the United States to Mexican territory where, free from U.S. law, they could practice polygamy openly, the Apostle began to lay a theological grounding for the doctrine. Pratt’s doctrine that the spirit was sexually generated by heavenly parents elevated human reproduction to a divine level. Since plural marriage allowed a man to have more biological children than he might have in a traditional monogamous marriage, Pratt’s doctrine served as the perfect justification for the practice.
Later Mormon theologians--realizing that this doctrine not only seemed to contradict Joseph Smith’s teaching on the uncreated nature of the spirit, but also that the doctrine was not explicitly laid out anywhere in Mormon scripture--tried to effect a reconciliation of sorts. B.H. Roberts proposed that the “eternal intelligence” of the individual was the matter from which heavenly parents, through sexual union, organized the spirit/mind of the individual. But this proposal overlooks the fact that Joseph Smith made not differentiation between the concepts of “spirit,” “intelligence” and “mind.”
In his study, “The Origin of the Human Spirit in Early Mormon Thought,” Van Hale concludes:
“In tracing the doctrine of spirit birth backward we find hundreds of references to it throughout Mormon literature, and the teaching that spirits originated through premortal procreation seems to have been the prevailing explanation ever since the Nauvoo period. What is surprising, however, is that none of Joseph Smith‘s recorded sermons--including those delivered in Nauvoo--teach the doctrine. In fact, several seem to teach a doctrine logically at odds with the belief that spirits are the literal offspring of God through premortal birth…Smith’s own doctrinal teaching was that the human spirit as a conscious entity is eternal--as eternal as God. It has no beginning and no end. It was not created; it is self-existing. God, being more advanced than the other spirits, organized them and instituted laws to give them the privilege to advance like himself…Smith used the terms ’spirit,’ ’soul,’ intelligence,’ and ’mind’ synonymously to describe the inchoate, indestructible essence of life. This summary is drawn from eight documentary sources--dating from 6 may 1833 to 7 April 1844. None of them suggest that God presides over the spirits because they are his begotten off spring, but because he was more intelligent, more advanced, than they and because he organized them into a premortal council…In conclusion, one of the most cherished doctrines of [LDS] Mormonism, that spirits are the literal offspring of God, has been taught by virtually all [LDS] Mormon leaders. The notable exception is probably Joseph Smith, whose direct statements teach a doctrine contrary to that of his closest associates, men and women who maintain that they were simply perpetuating what he had begun.”
What affect has the doctrine that our spirits are the sexually generated offspring of our Heavenly Parents have upon the way men and women are viewed? What effect might this doctrine have upon a marriage, a family or a romantic relationship?
How has this doctrine been used to foster sexism? How has it been used as a justification for forcing particulars roles upon men and women--regardless of their individual abilities, preferences or circumstances?
How does sexism undermine the concept of individuality?
How might marriages, as well as familial and romantic relationships be strengthened by rejecting the doctrine the spirits are sexually begotten and by embracing Joseph Smith’s teaching that the human mind is by nature eternal, uncreated and free?
A RELIGION OF HUMAN FREEDOM
As serious study of Mormon history and doctrine progresses, Mormons of all stripes are beginning to see the virtue of Joseph Smith’s teachings regarding the eternal, uncreated nature of the human mind. Self-described “Cultural Mormon,” William Call has noted:
“…Momonism’s original ideas concerning the eternal, uncreated nature of the human soul are as pertinent today as they were when first given…At the heart of Joseph Smith’s teachings is the principle that that which is most sacred is the eternal, uncreated intelligence or soul of man and that no God or entity whatsoever has the power to either create, destroy or assume jurisdiction over the individual. This doctrine stands apart from Christian theology. It is the underlying and most essential doctrine of democracy. It is not only thoroughly in accord with the sentiments and attitudes of democratic societies, it provides the fundamental spiritual foundation upon which democracy is built. So long as Mormonism advocates and stands by this doctrine it will prosper…Mormonism, in its new, enlightened state, may lift itself up as the one viable religion remaining in today’s modern democratic world…A world religion…is one that provides the underlying spiritual foundation for the world’s people…A religion that provides the spiritual foundation for the forces of democracy that are spreading themselves over the whole world, which religion Mormonism alone can claim to be, could well become, in the centuries if not the decades to come, the religion of the whole world!”
Looking back over human history, how has the doctrine of creation effected civilization? Have these effects been positive, negative or both? What has been the effect of creationism on science, philosophy, human rights and progress?
What effect have the concepts of individualism and human freedom had upon civilization, science, philosophy, human rights and progress?
How might Joseph Smith’s rejection of creationism and his theology of the eternal, uncreated nature of the human spirit effect civilization, science, philosophy, human rights and progress?
REFORM MORMONISM & THE ETERNAL INDIVIDUAL
Reform Mormonism is unique from other denominations within Mormonism in that it focuses--without any reservations---on the individual. Reform Mormonism does view God as an authority figure who issues commands which humans are duty-bound to obey; therefore it is a non-paternalistic form of Mormonism, that focuses on progression instead of rules. While accepting of all people regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation, Reform Mormonism places ultimate responsibility for one’s personal progress on the individual who is by nature free.
For Reform Mormons these ideas resonate with Joseph Smith’s theology regarding the eternal, uncreated nature of the human spirit. In fact, what sets Reform Mormons apart from other Mormons is their willingness to take even the most radical concepts of Joseph Smith and other early Mormons and explore them openly and rationally, accepting and building upon those concepts that enhance human life, happiness and progress, while rejecting those which are irrational and could serve as foundations for ignorance, superstition and bigotry.
How is my understanding of Mormonism affecting my view of the world, my relationships with others, as well as my progression and personal happiness?
Is my understanding of Mormonism the result of my own study, meditation and prayer, or is it something that I have merely accepted without question?
How has my understanding of Mormonism affected the way in which I view myself? Is my understanding of Mormonism at odds with what I know about myself?
How can I enhance my understanding of Mormonism so that it becomes a greater force for happiness and progress in my life and in the lives of my loved ones?
REFORM MORMON THOUGHT FOR THE WEEK
The human mind, the spirit, the immortal part is eternal, without beginning or end.; there was no creation about it. Man was in the beginning with God. Intelligence was not created, nor indeed can it be. Every intelligence is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself.
JUMP IN & JOIN THE DISCUSSION!
ALL OPINIONS AND VIEWS ARE WELCOMED!
To respond to some of the questions raised in this Gospel Doctrine session,
or to make a comment or ask a question, email:
Your comments may be posted here throughout the coming week or shared at the Reform Mormonism Discussion Group--which you are welcome to join. If you are a member there, you may post your comment directly to the discussion group at http://email@example.com.
LINKS TO SUGGESTED READINGS & MATERIALS
related to this week's lesson
“The Book of Abraham” Chapter 3 (The Pearl of Great Price)
The Doctrine & Covenants, Section 93
“The King Follett Discourse.” Joseph Smith last and greatest sermon, explaining the Mormon conception of the human mind/spirit as uncreated, eternal and coequal with God.
"Line Upon Line: Essays on Mormon Doctrine"(edited by Gary James Bergera).
This excellent volume contains two excellent studies on the eternal uncreated nature of the human spirit: “The Origin of the Human Spirit in Early Mormon Thought” by Van Hale, and “The Idea of Preexistence in Mormon Thought” by Blake T.Ostler.
"The Cultural Revolution: From the Decay of a Dying World Comes the Birth of a New Age" by William Call. A thought-provoking book of essays by a self-described Cultural Mormon.
Mormonism’s New Paradigm”
“In The Beginning, or Let the Insanity Begin.” This essay explores in detail how Joseph Smith’s rejection of creationism positively affects philosophy and concepts of morality.
Reform Mormonism homepage