Monday, January 09, 2006


(Thanks to Troy in Richmond, Virginia whose insights led to this Gospel Doctrine lesson.)

In a recent email, a former LDS Mormon shared some of his frustration with current LDS doctrine and thought. He wrote:

“One of the other problems I have with the current LDS God is the idea that He truly is responsible for nothing. All the evil that happens is because of free agency; if someone is born with a disability, it's nature. He is the creator of all, and omnipotent. None of the bad stuff is his fault, but we have to make sure we give Him credit for all the good. That bothered me."

This current line of thinking is yet more evidence of LDS Mormonism’s distancing itself from Mormonism’s most unique doctrines and returning to traditional Christian theology. The end result of this type of thinking is that humanity is in a “no win situation.” Incapable of doing good on their own (they can only do good when God “works through them”), they are nevertheless held responsible for all evil and injustice.

It is reasonable to hold humanity responsibility for most of the “bad stuff” that plagues society. Who else could we reasonably hold responsible? The devil? The boogey man under the bed?

But it is just as reasonable to give humanity credit for the “good stuff” in the world--ranging from parents who care for their children, people who perform acts of kindness for others, doctors who heal the sick, scientists and inventors who develop technology that enhances the quality of life, and artists who create works that challenge, inspire or simply entertain us.

The debate comes down to the issue of power. Who has it? God or the individual?

The ethics of modern society are based on the value accorded to human life and individual liberty. Wanting to believe in human Free Agency (freewill), LDS Mormons, Christians and other monotheistic thinkers nevertheless want to cling to one central concept: that there is but one God who holds all power over all things.

But to accept the fact that individuals are free to think and act for themselves is to also accept as fact that individuals have power over their own actions. If individuals are controlling their own actions, then God cannot also be controlling those same actions.

Defenders of traditional religious thought use circular reasoning and contradictory thinking in attempts to reconcile two ideas regarding power and responsibility that can not be reconciled.

Either humans are free or else they are mere puppets.

If individuals are not in complete control of all their thoughts, words and actions, then it would be unjust to hold them responsible for these things. If individuals are no more than the vehicles through which God, by virtue of his supposed omnipotent power, works, then it is God--not humanity--who must be held responsible for all things--including such atrocities as the Holocaust, World Wars and acts of terrorism.

If one believes that God holds all power and controls all things, then how can one believe that God is all-good since the existence of evil, violence, pain and suffering is a fact?

Many will disagree with the assessment of things presented here, but the fact remains that either individuals are truly free and, therefore, have power over and ultimate responsibility for all of their actions--both good and bad--or else individual freedom, power and responsibility are mere illusions and God has all power.

Like previous defenders of Christianity and monotheism, Joseph Smith grappled with these questions for years. In his earliest writings and teachings (found in “The Book of Mormon” and “The Lectures on Faith”) he often resorted to the same circular arguments put forth by traditional Christian apologists--attempting to defend the belief in the existence of only one God who was the sole creator of all things and who held all power.

But from the beginning Joseph rejected the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. He taught that “The Fall of Man” was actually was good thing--a progression from a lower state of childlike ignorance, in which no true appreciation of life and experience of joy was possible, to a higher state of existence that included an awareness of the opposition found in nature and the ability to identify things as “good” or “evil.” Joseph also taught a concept of individual Free Agency (Free Will) so radical that it would eventually undermine his allegiance to orthodox Christianity and monotheism altogether.

In painting a picture of Joseph Smith as a prophet, Mormons often over look the fact that he was the product of the 19th century American frontier, and that the “rugged individualism” and attitudes of frontier Americans--ever struggling to make a living from the land and yet somehow managing to remain optimistic--influenced him. (Thus Tolstoy could call Joseph Smith the “American prophet.)

This attitude was comically captured in the classic 1960’s Jimmy Stewart Civil War film, “Shenandoah.” Stewart, playing the patriarch of a farming of family in rural Virginia, feels obliged to begin each meal with a prayer of thanks. Dutifully bowing his head, he says to God, “We plowed the fields ourselves, planted the seeds ourselves, grew and harvested the crops ourselves, cooked all this food and did all the work needed to get it here on this table--but we’ll thank you for it any way.”

Americans learned very quickly that merely having faith and praying doesn’t plant fields, produce crops or accomplish the work needed in order to survive, prosper and achieve some measure of personal happiness. Individual freedom, individual autonomy and personal responsibility were seen as the keys to both survival and achieving personal happiness.

American culture was founded upon the principle that happiness was something that the individual must pursue, and that it was moral and just that the individual be left free to pursue happiness. Joseph Smith himself gave this philosophic idea a religious grounding when, in “The Book of Mormon” he put forth a reverse interpretation of the Garden of Eden story, stating that “Adam fell that men might be, and men are that they might have joy.” (See “The Book of Mormon,” II Nephi, chapter 2) In the last years of his life he would write that “Happiness is the object of our existence.” In his later teachings and in the Endowment ceremonies, he taught that the ultimate goal of human existence was to enjoy the type of life and happiness experienced by God Himself.

This laid the groundwork for an entirely new view of existence, an entirely new religious paradigm. Salvation from Hell and damnation was not the goal of human existence; happiness and joy were the objectives of life, and these objectives were only possible when one gained a correct knowledge of existence (See Doctrine & Covenants 93:24) and took actions accordingly.

Whereas some other religious traditions taught (and still teach) that if one looks within and comes to understand one’s self, one can eventually understand God, Joseph taught the opposite: if we don’t understand the true nature of God first, we can never understand ourselves.

Of course if one embraces the belief in one all-powerful God who created and sustains all things by his might and power, the very idea of a mere human understanding the nature of God can seem blasphemous.

In his last years, Joseph Smith freely admitted this his new doctrines would be labeled blasphemous--even by his own Apostles and followers (and, indeed, they were declared blasphemous by many--both then and now.) “ 'Blasphemy’ would not be the beginning of it,“ he said. This did not deter him in the least.

He declared that the doctrine of Creationism--the foundation of monotheism--was false. He taught instead that matter and spirit (which he described as also being composed of matter, though “refined” and “pure” matter) occurred naturally; that they were eternal, without beginning and without end. God could merely organize and fashion matter into things, the same as a human artist or carpenter might use materials found in nature to fashion their “creations.”

He taught that the human mind was also uncreated; that “God never had the power to create man because God could not create himself.” The mind of man was’ “co-equal with God.” (See “Doctrine & Covenants” 93: 29.)

Finally Joseph Smith taught what orthodox Christians, traditional monotheists, as well as a growing majority of LDS Mormons) consider the ultimate blasphemy: that the God we worship was once a human like ourselves, who lived on a earth such as ours, and who learned to become a God by virtue of his own actions, by gaining knowledge and by progressing from a lower step to a higher step.

This doctrine is so radical, so “blasphemous” by nearly every traditional religious standard, that even Joseph Smith’s most ardent apologists back away from it. For instance, Rodney Turner (LDS Mormon scholar and professor emeritus of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University) in his essay “The Imperative and Unchanging Nature of God” tries to defend Joseph Smith’s teachings while at the same time trying (unsuccessfully in my opinion) to reconcile them with traditional monotheism. For example he writes:

“Law did not create God; God created law. The Almighty did not begin his career as a cosmic Columbus who stumbled upon supposedly self-existing natural laws.”

However, this is the EXACTLY what Joseph Smith did teach: God was once human and that he learned to become God by obedience to the eternal, uncreated laws and principles that govern existence itself.

Elder Turner denies the reality of what Joseph Smith taught because he wants to preserve one of the foundations of monotheism--that God has ultimate power over all things:

“If there was “a great first cause” of all things, he is it.”

One could argue that there is no true “great first cause of all things” because existence itself, being eternal and uncreated, needs no “cause” to explain its existence. “Nature” is that which is uncreated; is that which simply is.

Having set forth an entirely new religious paradigm, Joseph Smith then taught that “you must learn how to become gods yourselves, the same as all gods before you have, mainly by going from one degree to another.”

At the end of his life, Joseph Smith taught that God’s relationship to us was truly like that of a parent to a child. God wants us to grow and become like Him, to enjoy the kind of life that He enjoys. But even He has no power to force us to do achieve these things.

Nor has He the power to deny us these things should we achieve them, for blessings are not given to us directly by God by virtue of His will and power, but come as a result of acting in accordance with principles and laws which even God is unable to revoke. Joseph Smith wrote:

“There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of the world, upon which all laws are predicated; and when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.” ( See “Doctrine & Covenants” 130: 20-21)

Cause and effect are eternal, irrevocable principles of existnce itself. So much for giving God either the credit for the good that we do or the blame for the bad.

Reform Mormonism, by fully accepting Mormonism’s radical doctrine of Free Agency with all of its implications, embraces the complete freedom of the individual--which can not in any way be separated from full responsibility and personal accountability for one’s actions.


1. How has the traditional concept of God holding omnipotent power of all things effected your view of the world? In what ways has this concept influenced your actions and the choices you have made?

2. Can you point to examples of how the concept of God holding ultimate power of all things continues to effect the world today--at both the personal and societal levels?

3. How might the Mormon concept of human Free Agency effect your own views and actions? How might the concept of personal responsibility effect your views and actions? How are these concepts different from traditional beliefs regarding God’s power and human freedom?


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