October 9, 2005
WISHFUL THINKING & MONOTHEISM
All of us at some point---if only momentarily-- wish that existence could be more simple. Life offers us so many choices, and often events seem random and purposeless. Life would be so much easier, would require so much less of us, if only some one or something was in control of it all.
Thus, the appeal of monotheism--the belief that there is but one God or Divine Power that created all things, infuses all things and ultimately controls all things.
Of course, such a belief is difficult to maintain and justify--not only in the face of human suffering and the forces of nature (disease, natural disasters, etc.), but also in light of humanity’s increased understanding of the laws of nature. For instance some may object to the theory of evolution all they like, but our increased understanding of biology and genetics continues to support Darwin’s theory while casting serious doubts upon the theory that all existence was created a mere six thousand years ago and that Lord literally formed man from the dust of the earth like “an adobe brick” (as Brigham Young often joked).
At this point in our history, the case could be made that the central human conflict seems to be between those who are willing to accept the complexity of the universe and those who wish to find comfort in the belief this complexity is merely an illusion; that behind it all, there is one central power--one God--who is pulling all the strings.
MORMONISM, POLYTHEISM & PROGRESS
In the 1840’s, Joseph Smith--the founder of Mormonism--began teaching a new theology that completely undermined such simplistic wishful thinking.
Joseph rejected the doctrine of creationism outright. He taught that nature was uncreated and eternal. All intelligent beings existed within nature. Each possessed Free Agency (free will) and by virtue of their self-directed actions, they could gain knowledge, and increase eternally in intelligence and power, consistent with their nature. He taught the radical and--according to most--heretical doctrine that the beings which religions presents as Gods are merely exalted humans, representing what each of us can aspire to become.
By teaching “the plurality of Gods,” and the Primacy of Existence (the idea that nature is uncreated and eternal), Joseph Smith was recognizing the fact that the universe is a mixture of distinct materials, energies and intelligences that are in a state of eternal interaction; that existence is so complex and the natural world is filled with such diversity, that it is impossible for one central power, authority or God to govern and control all things.
Over the next 160 years, the majority of the world’s Mormons would retreat from Joseph’s new theology.
Reform Mormons do not. Not only do Reform Mormons accept the fact that the universe is complex, we also accept the fact that human nature is complex, and that as humanity increases its knowledge of the universe, they will become increasingly complex. Where other religions may look upon this as bad and pine for a more simple existence, Reform Mormonism teaches that humanity’s increased complexity is a good thing. Indeed, increased complexity is the very purpose of human existence, for it lays the foundation for a deeper, more complex experience of joy.
No Mormon theologian wrote more eloquently about this than LDS Mormon Apostle John A. Widtsoe. What follows below is a chapter from his 1915 Mormon classic, “Rational Theology.”
Even though this book was originally published by the LDS Church as its first Melchezedek Priesthood study manual, over the next 90 years LDS officials renounced many of the work’s central tenants. Reading this outstanding work today, current LDS Church members might be astounded (and troubled) by the teachings of Apostle Widtsoe. His values and philosophy in many cases are the polar opposite of current LDS authorities.
Reform Mormons, however, are more likely to appreciate Apostle Widtsoe’s work--which takes as its foundation the later theology of Joseph Smith.
(Note: Modern readers of “Rational Theology” may also be impressed with the high quality of early twentieth century LDS Church educational material when compared to those of the past forty years. No LDS Priesthood study manual of the past fifty years begins to equal “Rational Theology” in the quality of its writing, or in its intellectual integrity and in its respect for the intelligence of its readers.)
THE GREAT LAW
By John A. Widtsoe
From “Rational Theology”
“The innumerable interactions of the matter, energy and intelligences of the universe, must be held together by some great law. This universal law to which all lesser laws contribute, must be of real concern to the man who seeks a true philosophy of life.”
INCREASING COMPLEXITY OF THE UNIVERSE
“It has already been said that a universe controlled by intelligence and under the reign of the law of cause and effect cannot be conceived to be in confusion. Man is absolutely certain, if his knowledge is rational, that, whether it be yesterday, today or tomorrow, the same act, under the same conditions, will produce the same result. Under a set of given conditions, a ray of sunshine passed through a glass prism will always be broken into the same spectrum, or a straight stick standing in water will always appear crooked. Whether in the physical, mental or moral world, the law of cause and effect reigns supreme.
“Quiescence [absolute peace, inactivity and stillness] in the universe can not be conceived, for then there would be no universe. Constant action or movement characterizes the universe. The multiplicity of actions upon each other, of the various forms of matter, energy and intelligence, composing the universe, must cause an equal multiplicity of effects. Moreover, increasing intelligent wills, acting upon matter and energy, must and do produce an increasing series of reactions among the forces of the universe.
“Moreover, each new set of effects becomes the cause of still other effects. Thus, in our universe, as we conceive it to be constituted, increasing complexity would seem to be the great resultant law of the operation of universal forces. This is the great law of nature, to which every living thing must conform, if it is to be in harmony with all other things. In a universe controlled by intelligence, it is only natural to find everything within the universe moving along towards one increasing purpose. As new light has come to man, the certainty of this law as a controlling one, has become more and more emphatic.”
MAN & THE GREAT LAW
“The law of increasing complexity is fundamental. Since man is constantly being acted upon and acting upon matter and energy, he must himself be brought under the subjection of the great law. That is, under normal conditions, he will be increasing in complexity. As man observes phenomena and reasons upon them and applies them, he grows in knowledge. Where he formerly has one fact to use, he now has many. This is the essence of his complexity. A carpenter with one tool does less and poorer work than does one with a full kit of modern tools. Likewise, man, as he gathers experience, becomes more powerful in using the forces of nature in the accomplishment of his purposes. With this thought in mind, the great law becomes a law of increasing power, of progressive mastery over the universe. For that reason, the law expressing the resultant of the activities of universal forces is often called the law of progression.
“The degree of man’s growth or progression will depend upon the degree his will is exercised, intelligently, upon the things about him. It is even conceivable that by the misuse of will, man may lose some of his acquired powers. In any case, the operation of the will, under normal conditions, adds power to man; and by the use of the intelligent will in a world of matter and energy, the increasingly complex man grows in strength towards perfection, in an increasingly interesting world. Those who do not conform to the law of progression are abnormal and do not exert their powers, to the requisite degree, in the right direction.
Nature is inexhaustible in the possible number of inter-relations among matter, energy and intelligence. It follows, therefore, that man will forever be able to add knowledge unto knowledge, power unto power, or progress unto progress. This law of progression is the great law of the universe, without beginning and without end, to which all other laws contribute. By adherence to this law, the willing, intelligent beings have risen to their present splendid state of manhood, and by further compliance with this law they will advance to a future Godlike state of perfection. The supreme intelligence and perfected will of the universe, God, has attained His position by an obedient recognition of the conditions of the law of progression.
“The law of progression gives hope and purpose to those who accept the Gospel [Mormonism]. The feeling of security that comes from the knowledge that the elements of the universe are eternal, is made living by the hope established by the great law that there is purpose in all the operations of the universe. Whatever man may do, whatever his life may bring, provided all his faculties are working actively among the things and forces about him, he is acquiring knowledge, thereby power, and, under the law of progression, he is being moved onward to a more advanced position than he now occupies, in which he may do mightier work. Men, discouraged by their failure to accomplish exactly what they desire, often speak of their lives as purposeless, but it is idle talk, for, in fact, no intelligent life which concerns itself vigorously with the things about it, can be said to be purposeless. Such a life adheres, automatically, to the law of progression, and is therefore moving on to the great destiny of supreme power and accompanying joys. The only purposeless life is the one that do not use its faculties. It matters little what tasks men do in life, if only they do them well and with all their strength. In an infinite universe, one cannot possibly learn all or do all, at once. A beginning must be made somewhere, and corner by corner, department by department, space by space, all will be known and conquered. In the end, all must be explored, and whether one begins in the east or the west cannot matter much. The big concern is to what extent a man offer himself, mind and body, to his work. Upon that will growth depend.
THE LAW OF DEVELOLPMENT
“The law of progression is then a law of endless development of all the powers of man in the midst of a universe becoming increasingly complex. No more hopeful principle can be incorporated into a philosophy of life.”
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