This is the second in a series of Gospel Doctrine lessons exploring the Mormon concept of the individual as uncreated and eternal. Many thanks to Mick in Germany, whose thoughtful email laid the groundwork for these lessons.
Our last lesson traced the evolution of Joseph Smith’s theology and concluded:
Joseph evolved from a village seer whose claims were steeped in the mystical and supernatural, into a theologian/philosopher who presented argued rationally in defense of the new ideas he taught. He evolved from someone who tried to reconcile the natural world to a pre-existing idea of a supernatural Supreme Being into someone who in essence insisted that one’s beliefs and one’s ideas regarding God must be consistent with the reality of the natural world.
In this lesson, we will explore what Joseph had to say about…
THE ETERNAL NATURE OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT
IS THERE ANY PROOF….?
Let’s begin by looking at the questions that Mick asked concerning this idea:
“… is there any, at least tiny evidence for the basic Reform Mormon concept of infinite individual existence? If the stream of memories, valuations and intentions that we all agree to call our individual `self´ is nothing more than the physiological and biochemical interplay of some billions of neurons (for which there is considerable scientific evidence as far as I know it), then why should there be reason to believe in a pre-conception and post-mortem individual existence? “
The honest answer to this is a resounding, “No.” People may believe with all their hearts--they may claim to know beyond the shadow of a doubt--that the individual “lives on” past death (and, in a Mormon context, that “one lived with God before being born”) but there is no indisputable objective proof or evidence with which they could convince a non-believer.
This being the case, a good question that one might ask is this: Does the nature of what you believe to be true contradict the nature of those things you know to be true?
If the nature of what you believe (without any poof) to exist doesn’t contradict the nature of those things you know exist, then you are fine. If, however, you maintain a firm belief in something that, by its very nature, contradicts what you know to be the nature of reality--well, you’re in a quandary. To maintain your belief, you may have to turn your back on reality.
The point of this lesson will be to determine if what Joseph Smith taught regarding the nature of man’s eternal spirit/intelligence is consistent with the nature of reality as we know it.
We will also explore the concept of an “infinite individual existence” as taught by traditional religions (which is that one’s spirit is the essence of one’s personality--with memories, emotions, character traits, etc.) and try to determine if, in fact, the new theology taught by Joseph Smith supports or undermines this wide-held belief.
WHAT IS SPIRIT?
Before we can consider the eternity of the individual human spirit, we must first define what it is exactly we’re talking about when we say “spirit.”
Traditionally the spirit (that which is believed to survive death and--within Mormonism, to exist before birth) is believed to be an immaterial entity--something that is not composed of matter, is not bound by physical existence, something which by nature is the opposite of the physical.
Joseph Smith rejected this doctrine completely. Instead, Joseph Smith (as well as Parley P. Pratt, Orson Pratt and other early Mormon theologians) taught:
“There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.” (Doctrine & Covenants 131:7-8)1
For a religion, this concept is extraordinary. Mormon theology embraces materialism. As the foundation for its unique theology, Mormonism accepts that which is foundation of scientific thought and rationalism: the primacy of physical existence. This means that it is the natural world itself--not a supernatural being or force, or some alternative existence or world--that is omnipotent.
Regarding the existence of the spirit, Joseph Smith was saying this: For something to exist, it must, in fact, exist; it must have a material existence; it must be composed of elements. You needn’t be able to see it with your naked eye; the evidence of its existence might be at what we today would call the chemical, atomic or sub-atomic level--but the thing’s nature must be consistent with what we know about the reality and nature of existence itself.
The belief in a supernatural, immaterial “spirit” was--according to the Mormon theology of the early 1840‘s--pure fantasy. In his missionary tracts and pamphlets, Mormon Apostle Parley P. Pratt compared the traditional religious concept of an immaterial spirit to a belief in fairies.
THE ELEMENTS ARE ETERNAL
Regarding the nature of matter, Joseph Smith taught: “The elements are eternal.” ( Doctrine & Covenants 93:33)
Joseph rejected the idea that God--or anyone else--created existence. Joseph Smith--on theological grounds--came out against the traditional doctrine of “creationism” :
“Now I ask all who hear me why the learned men who are preaching salvation say that God created the heavens and the earth out of nothing. The reason is they are unlearned. They account it blasphemy to contradict the idea; they will call you a fool....The word ‘create’ [in the Biblical book of Genesis] came from the [Hebrew] word ‘baurau‘; it does not mean to create out of nothing; it means to organize, the same as a man would organize materials to build a ship. Hence we infer that God had materials to organize the world out of chaos--chaotic matter, which is element, and in which dwells all the glory. Element had an existence from the time He [God] had. The pure principles of element are principles that can never be destroyed; they may be organized and reorganized but not destroyed. “ (Joseph Smith, The King Follett Discourse.)
Joseph’s theology was in agreement with science. Existence itself is eternal, and everything which exists has been organized from or has evolved from pre-existing, elements.
THE ETERNAL INTELLIGENCE OF MAN
Joseph Smith taught that because the elements are eternal, the spirit/intelligence (which is composed of matter) is also eternal. Like the universe itself, the intelligence/spirit of the individual is self-existent--though it is in a constant state of evolution and progression. No God or higher power created this individual mind/spirit
“Man was also in the beginning with God; intelligence, or light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.” (Doctrine &Covenants 93:29)
Joseph Smith taught:
"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….I take my ring from my finger and liken it unto the mind of man, the immortal spirit, because it has no beginning…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." (Joseph Smith, The King Follett Discourse)
What do we call something that which is not made or created, but simply exists on its own?
We call such a thing “natural.”
In essence, Joseph Smith--on theological grounds--taught that the human spirit was natural; that because it had a material existence and was composed of eternal elements, the spirit/intelligence of the individual was something found within nature.
“GOD FOUND HIMSELF IN THE MIDST OF SPIRITS…”
Listen now to the creation myth told by Joseph Smith (perhaps, “Organization Myth” would be more accurate):
“…I am going to tell you the designs of God for the human race and why he interferes with the affairs of man…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…Thus the head God brought forth the Gods in the grand council. …The grand councilors sat in yonder heavens and contemplated the creation of the worlds that were created at that time…”
I find Joseph’s wording compelling. He doesn’t say that God created our spirits, or that He called them forth or gave birth to them. He said that “God found himself in the midst of spirits.” The sentence brings to mind the image of a man hiking through nature and then happening upon some natural phenomenon.
God, finding himself surrounded by naturally occurring entities called spirits, saw that they, by their nature, had the potential to progress, grow and evolve into a highly-intelligent being like Himself. The means by which this could happen would be through their acquiring knowledge--by evolving, progressing and somehow growing so as to become thinking entities--and by acquiring power--by evolving, progressing and somehow growing so as to become independent entities, each with its own will and each free to determine its own thoughts and actions.
Thus this story lays the groundwork for the high regard with which Reform Mormonism holds Knowledge and Free Agency. Joseph taught that Knowledge and self-direction (Free Agency) would facilitate one’s progress:
“Knowledge saves a man, and in the world of spirits a man cannot be exalted except by knowledge…you have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves--to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done--by going from a small degree to another, from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation..”
THE PARADIGM OF PROGRESS
Traditionally when religions refer to an afterlife or to an existence prior to life on earth, the spirit of the individual (that which is eternal) is imagined to be a fully realized personality with thoughts, feelings and memories. Certainly such ideas have taken root within the various Mormon traditions that have accepted Joseph Smith’s theology of the so-called “Pre-existence”--meaning the existence of the spirit/intelligence before birth.
But when one examines the story that Joseph told, one doesn’t find much evidence for the belief that before our birth, we were fully formed personalities with thoughts, feelings and emotions; that, as LDS Mormons tend to believe, we were fully realized individuals who “chose to leave the presence of Our Heavenly Parents in order to come down to earth and get a body.”
This “Children’s Sunday School” interpretation of what Joseph Smith taught actually undermines the central idea that was the foundation of Joseph’s new theology: progression.
Some later Mormon traditions developed a myth of “A Council in Heaven,” in which the spirits of all humans (presented as thinking, rational beings) voted on whether or not they would accept God’s plan of life on earth.
But in Joseph’s original story, the council is a Council of Gods who meet to determine how best to organize things so that the spirits (that God found himself in the midst of) might grow and progress in knowledge, intelligence, power and glory. In Joseph’s original story the spirits that God found have no voice at all and play not part whatsoever in the Council of the Gods.
In fact, if one searches through the scriptures that Joseph produced (such as The Book of Abraham), though he taught that the spirits of human beings were present in the Council of Gods, no where does he write that they, in fact, took any action. In all of Joseph’s accounts, it is the Gods who confer, debate and take action.
Could it be that the spirits did nothing because they were, at that point in their progress, not capable of doing anything? Could it be that spirits at that time only had the potential of becoming rational, self-directed individual personalities; that perhaps the entire purpose of life on earth was to place a spirit/intelligence in situation in which it could progress and develop into what we would now recognize as an individual personality.
If life on earth is a step forward in one’s Eternal Progress, couldn’t it be that the eternal spirit at that time was just one element---just one aspect of that composite thing which we now recognize as an individual personality? Just as a two year old child s a more developed individual personality that a two day old infant, could it not be that a newborn infant--with no experiences, no frame of reference, no defined opinions, thoughts or emotions--might be a more defined personality than the “pre-existent” spirit described by Joseph Smith?
Wouldn’t this view of things be more consistent with human nature as we know it and with the Mormon paradigm of Eternal Progression--the idea that we are always progressing from a more simplistic, chaotic state to a more complex, ordered and “Exalted” state?
THE SPIRIT/INTELLIGENCE: JUST ONE PART OF THE WHOLE
In his email, Mick points out:
“…the stream of memories, valuations and intentions that we all agree to call our individual `self´ is nothing more than the physiological and biochemical interplay of some billions of neurons…”
Traditionally most Western religions have taught that the spirit is the soul of a human being, that the spirit is the most important and essential aspect of one’s makeup; that, in fact, the spirit is one’s personality. Thus, there exists the common belief that one’s personality as we experience it in this life survives death and, according to popular interpretations of Mormon theology, exists prior to birth.
But Joseph Smith rejected the doctrine that the spirit is the soul of man--though, as was common in Christian circles, at the beginning of his career, he often used the words “soul” and “spirit” interchangeably.
But as his understanding of things progressed, he taught the following:
“The spirit and the body are the soul of man.” (Doctrine & Covenants 88:19)
Joseph teaching here is in total agreement with the scientific theory to which Mick refers. The biochemical and psychological interplay of billions of neurons, the chemicals which the body produces, the nervous system, brain cells--in short, every single organ and function of the body is part of one’s soul. Without the body, without its systems and chemicals, one would not have a soul. The body as well as the spirit is part of the essence of being an individual soul.
The spirit/intelligence--which Joseph taught was a material--is just one of the many things which, when combined, make up the soul of the individual.
What appears to be a radical new redefinition of the concept of “the soul” actually resonates with the original Israelite concept that is still found in the first chapters of the Hebrew Bible:
“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life [‘breath’’ and ‘spirit’ are the same word in Hebrew] and man became a living soul.” (Genesis 2:7)
Joseph taught that to exist as a soul, to think and progress, to feel the full range of human emotions, the material spirit/intelligence must be joined with that complex organism we call the human body:
“…spirit and element, inseparably connected receive a fullness of joy; and when separated, man cannot receive a fullness of joy.” (Doctrine & Covenants 93:33-34)
Because of this theology, the concept of the Resurrection of the body was of great importance to early Mormons, and became central to Mormon cosmology. It was through a future Resurrection of the Dead (the joining of the spirit with the body, never again to be parted) that physical death would be conquered and the individual living soul would be restored:
“Now, verily I say unto you, that through the redemption which is made for you is brought to pass the resurrection from the dead. And the spirit and the body are the soul of man. And the resurrection from the dead is the redemption of the soul.” (Doctrine & Covenants 88:14-16)
So it was that it became part of Mormon funeral traditions, to refer to the body being laid to rest “in the hope of a glorious resurrection.”
Joseph Smith rejected that idea that the essence of one’s individuality--one’s soul--survived death as a purely spiritual entity that went off to live eternally in a heavenly kingdom of pure spirit. As stated before, one of Joseph’s closest disciples, Parley P. Pratt ridiculed this traditional belief as being nothing more than a fairy tale.
The survival of one’s soul could only be brought about by a resurrection of the body. Exactly how this Resurrection would be brought about was open to speculation and debate.
The traditional Christian belief was that at the Second Coming of Christ, all who ever lived would be suddenly and miraculously resurrected. Though he used traditional Christian literary symbols of angels sounding trumpets in his writings, Joseph Smith may have had other ideas altogether--which is evidenced in the fact that after his murder, his inner circle of disciples, while each claiming fidelity to Joseph’s teaching, put forth contrasting theories.
For instance, Orson Pratt insisted that all that was needed to resurrect the body of anyone who had ever lived was one “particle” of their remains; that from this one particle, an exact replica of their body could be formed. Eliza R. Snow (who was married Joseph Smith) said that a resurrected body could only be produced by a woman carrying it through a full-term pregnancy. (Brigham Young, who was never known for his imagination, at one time or another threatened to excommunicate both Pratt and Snow for their teachings on the resurrection.)
Looking at Pratt’s and Snow’s speculations, one might think of current debates on cloning. We’d be foolish to think that Pratt and Snow has any notion of cloning; they were speculating, using what has been called “religious-making imagination.” But what is impressive with these early Mormon thinkers, is that their religious imaginations were kept in check by what they perceived to be the limits of physical existence. They were attempting to reconcile religious ideas with the facts of known reality. When traditional religious ideas failed to fit into what seemed natural, those ideas were either redefined, altered or thrown out altogether.
In short, these Mormons--these rustic frontier theologians--were trying create a rational theology.
THE ETERNAL PART OF MAN: REASONING LIKE A PIONEER MORMON
Which brings us back to our original question: “Is there any, at least tiny evidence for the basic Reform Mormon concept of infinite individual existence?”
If one means the pre-birth and post-death existence of a fully formed, fully aware, personality of spirit--the answer is, of course, “No.”
But as demonstrated here, the theology that Joseph Smith developed later in his life (the theology which Reform Mormonism takes as its starting point) doesn’t actually teach this traditional concept.
In fact, when explored fully, Joseph Smith’s later theology seemed to challenge the concept of infinite individual existence because the individual personality (the soul) is a combination of things--the physical body and a material spirit/intelligence. All Joseph Smith taught was that an eternal, uncreated [naturally occurring] material that he called “spirit” or “intelligence” had the potential, when joined with a physical body, of progressing and growing into an individual human personality--and then onward into what we would now consider to be a God.
Adjusting to this particular theology, the question might be phrased: “Is there any evidence for the existence of a spirit/intelligence that exists before birth and survives death?”
To answer this question, I will turn to Joseph Smith’s teachings to find out what exactly he had to say on the subject. I’ll then attempt to reason like a pioneer-era Mormon theologian, cross-referencing Joseph’s other teachings on the subject; then I’ll look to see if anything can be found in nature that bears some resemblance to what it is he describes.
I admit at the start that I’m approaching this little exercise as something of a game. I don’t for an instant believe that this simplistic approach will convince anyone in the reality of “the pre-existence” or “life after death.” However, I do intend to make a point about the Mormon Paradigm.
Joseph Smith taught:
“Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence or the light of truth was not created or made, neither indeed can be.” (Doctrine & Covenants 93:29)
The aspect of man that was “in the beginning with God” was his “intelligence“--which Joseph also calls “the light of truth.”
Elsewhere Joseph taught, “…whatsoever is light is spirit.” (Doctrine & Covenants 84:45).
Joseph used the words “light” and “spirit” interchangeably, and by these he referred to something that was material--something that was composed of what he called “fine” matter. (Doctrine & Covenants 131:7-8)
Joseph calls “intelligence” a “light of truth.” How did Joseph define “truth” in his theology?
“Truth is a knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come.” (Doctrine & Covenants 93:24)
So what is it that Joseph is actually talking about here? What does he mean by describing “Intelligence” as “light [spirit] of truth?”
Taking into consideration the definitions that he gives to his words and phrases, one comes up with something like this: Intelligence is a fine matter containing knowledge of what is, what was and what will be as it relates to an individual human.
Is the existence of such a thing possible?
Is there in nature any “fine matter” (any physical substance, cell, molecule, etc.) that contains knowledge--a record--of the past, present and future as it relates to an individual human being?
DNA come to mind. DNA contains “the blueprint” for an individual. One’s DNA survives one’s death. One’s DNA has an existence before one’s conception in the genetic material found in one’s ancestors--and humanity’s ancestral line disappears in the fog of earth’s past, stretching back to the unknown beginning of life itself--if, in fact, life itself ever had a beginning. Perhaps, like existence itself, life is without a beginning.
Of course, DNA is currently the inspiration for science fictions--but then critics have always maintained that the most unique aspects of Mormon theological speculations bear an amusing resemblance to science fiction.
Am I saying that Joseph Smith was talking in code about DNA when he spoke of an individual’s intelligence as something that was uncreated, that existed before conception and somehow survives death?
Of course not.
What I am attempting to show is that Joseph’s theology was coming from a sense of life--a view of existence--that was extremely rational; that he was redefining traditional religious concepts like “spirit” and “soul,” endowing them with a nature that was consistent with the natural world. This definition of intelligence drawn from his teaching does correspond to a known aspect of nature.
After his death, the majority of his followers either rejected his later theology completely or tried (unsuccessfully) to reconcile it with his earlier Christian theology. The result was the many and distinct denominations and sects within worldwide Mormonism.
By accepting Joseph’s later teachings and by completely distancing itself from traditional Christian theology, Reform Mormonism teaches some concepts that can not be proven, that one can only believe or not believe. But because Reform Mormonism is built on the truth that Nature itself as supreme (the entire basis of Joseph’s later theology), Reform Mormonism does not ask anyone to believe in something that flies in the face of what is known about nature.
This is true regarding Reform Mormonism’s teaching that there is something eternal and uncreated about the individual--something that existed before this life, and will exist when this life is over.
READERS' LETTERS & DISCUSSION
From Mick in Germany:
What a beautiful surprise to read about the last two Gospel Doctrine lessons you have posted meanwhile in response to my last mail. (Yes, my small EGO felt considerably uplifted!)
The question whether or not our consciousness might survive our physical death is a tricky one. I think, we indeed do have some good reasons to hope for immortality - at least in the very near future of human progress. How´s that?
The basic question is about the true essence of our mind or consciousness. And there are only two possibilities about the basic nature of consciousness which both imply the possibility of mind surviving the physical death.
The first possibility implies that there is indeed nothing more about consciousness than the on-off activity on neuronal synapses in our brains. If so, then we should be confident that this might be simulated (or better imitated) by computational devices
in the very near future. We all might then be able to get our biological brains supported by (probably implanted) computer chips. Our consciousness then would only partially be determined by our natural brain. Our mental capacity would - more and more - rest on the connection with computational devices in- or outside our bodies. After some time, we would probably not even be able to tell the difference between our `natural´ and our `computational´ mind. All mental information could then be stored or downloaded independently from the mortal body. Then we were in fact immortal!!!
Remember: This is only the case IF (a great IF!) our basic premise (mind is nothing but the on-off activity of the interplay of neuronal synapses) is in fact true. Until now, we don´t know that for sure.
But if this is nothing but science fiction? Well, then there must necessarily be more about our consciousness than the synaptic interplay of neurons. Something that is probably independent from our mortal body and therefore not bound to dissolve into nothingness after the death of the body. Then, our faith in the possibility of immortal consciousness should be even stronger. What do you think?
Send your thoughts to: Reformmormons@aol.com