Friday, June 11, 2010
Mormon theology and philosophy is founded upon a particular concept of what it means for something to be eternal.
Joseph Smith—the First Mormon—taught that if something had a beginning, then it could have an end; if something was created from nothing, then it could potentially be annihilated—it could cease to exist.
Joseph used a ring—a circle—to illustrate his understanding of what makes a thing eternal. Like a circle, something which is eternal must be without beginning or end; it must simply exist; it must be self-existent, depending on no one or no thing for its existence.
Traditionally the religions of the world have taught that only God (whether envisioned as a personal being or an impersonal force) is without beginning or end. In this way, the religions of the world envision God as “the First Cause” of existence itself; God is that before which nothing existed, and without which nothing could exist. In short religions almost universally teach that the existence of all things depends upon the existence of God.
Joseph Smith broke with all known religions on this idea. While he did envision God as being eternal—without beginning or end—he taught that other things were eternal in the very same way.
Joseph Smith lived at the dawn of the modern scientific age. In the same decades in which Joseph brought forth his new theology, Charles Darwin was studying the various species of animal life, and developing the Theory of Evolution. Others were exploring the material world and nature of the elements from which all things are composed. The emerging scientific theories would challenge many of the faith-based ideas that mankind had unquestioningly accepted for thousands of years.
When Joseph laid out the foundations of his new theology, he did not begin by exploring the largest things imaginable; instead he began by dealing with the smallest things: the basic building blocks of all things which exist in the natural world: the elements.
Science has shown that all things known to exist are composed from some combination of 118 known naturally occurring elements. Each of the 118 elements is distinct in nature from the others. An element can not be broken down into something simpler. An element simply is what it is. Period.
The various religions of the world teach that God—being the only thing that is eternal, without beginning or end—created the elements, either from nothing, or from some other pre-existing substance or supernatural element. But there is not evidence that such an idea is true—and such a notion contradicts the essential facts about the elements: an element can not be broken down into something simpler; an element simply is what it is.
Joseph Smith sensed this contradiction, and so he taught as the doctrinal foundation of his theology a concept which no other religion has embraced:
“The elements are eternal.” (Doctrine & Covenants 93:33)
This was—and still is—a revolutionary concept in religion. Joseph Smith was proclaiming that the known elements (the ones listed on the Periodic Table found in school science classes worldwide) are without beginning and without end. The elements themselves—the building blocks of all things which exist—have the very same nature that the world’s religions have ascribed only to God!
This new doctrine—astounding, if not heretical and blasphemous in light of traditional religious thought—when carried to its logical extreme, turns all traditional religious concepts of God, man and the nature of the universe on their heads.
Further astounding the religious world, Joseph Smith not only taught that God did not create the elements; he went so far as to teach that God COULD NOT create the elements.
If the elements are eternal—self-existing, without beginning and without end—then God could not be envisioned as the actual “Creator” or “The First Cause” of all existence.
If the elements are eternal, then existence itself is not dependent on God or some other force or entity. Existence itself simply is.
Our next lesson: "Organized--Not Created".”
Sunday, March 28, 2010
Over 2,700 years ago a Judean poet known as Koheleth wrote:
“Utter futility! All is futile!
What real value is there for a man
In all the gains he makes…?
One generation goes, another comes,
But the earth remains forever.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3—the New JPS Translation)
The author of Ecclesiastes delves into ideas that have been universal to the human family since time immemorial. Against the seemingly endless cycles of the natural world, individuals are born, they live (often lives of great accomplishment) and they die. With the passage of time, the names and accomplishments of even the greatest individuals are forgotten. In the face of death, the author of Ecclesiastes laments that human life seems meaningless, while human endeavors, struggles and accomplishments seem futile.
What human being, aware of his or her mortality, has not, at some point in life, even only momentarily, thought these same things?
It has been said that religion and theology came about because of the human race’s awareness of its own mortality. How can human intelligence—the very faculty from which springs all human memories, hopes, aspirations and accomplishments; which manifests itself most profoundly in the values, loves, sorrows, fears, joys and personal relationships of the individual—how can such a thing flare into existence, have such an amazing influence on the earth and then simply cease to exist at death?
Human intelligence itself—being able to imagine almost anything except non-existence—seems to rebel at the very notion that it can be annihilated.
And so it is that throughout the course of recorded history humanity has envisioned an aspect of the individual (call it the spirit, the soul, the life force, etc.) which, once it comes into existence, somehow survives death. As all physical things break down and decay, certain Greek philosophers such as Plato declared that this aspect of man—this spirit, this soul—was immaterial, existing separately from the human body and the material world in which we human live, move and have our physical being. These philosophic theories made their way into Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other religions—spreading from one civilization to another until they became part of the general thinking of much of the human race.
If it is that an awareness of death gave birth to religion and theology, it is somehow fitting that Mormonism’s new religious paradigm was initially made public by Joseph Smith—the First Mormon—in a funeral sermon.
“I address you on the subject of the dead,” said Joseph Smith as he stood before several thousand of his followers gathered at Nauvoo, Illinois in April 1844. “The death of our beloved brother, Elder King Follett…has more immediately led me to that subject. I have been requested to speak by friends and relatives, but inasmuch as there are a great many in this congregation who live in this city as well as elsewhere, who have lost friends, I feel disposed to speak on the subject in general, and offer you my ideas, so far as I have ability, and so far as I shall be inspired by the Holy Spirit to dwell on this subject.”
With this introduction Joseph Smith laid the foundations of a new religion.
BEGINNINGS & ENDS: A NEVER-ENDING LINE
Among most of the world’s religions, it is generally taught that one’s life has a beginning—at birth or conception, or some period in between. It is generally believed that death claims only the physical body; that something essential in each human being survives the death of the body to live on eternally; that once a human life comes into existence, it can never be annihilated.
Likewise it is believed that existence itself had a beginning; that at some point in the past nothing existed, and then universe was created. It is assumed that the universe—that existence itself—is eternal.
One could say that the traditional concept of “eternal” is like that of a straight line which begins at a particular point and then extends onward, forever and ever.
“I TAKE A RING FROM MY FINGER”
This was certainly the concept of “eternal” embraced by most of those who gathered in April1844 to commemorate the passing of Elder King Follett.
But Joseph Smith began the funeral sermon by completely rejecting what could be called a “linear view” of eternity.
“I take my ring from my finger,” he said. “Suppose you cut it in two; then it has a beginning and an end; but join it again, and it continues one eternal round.’
Rather than envisioning eternity as a line, Joseph envisioned it as a circle—without beginning and without end. He reasoned that if something has a beginning, then it can possibly have an end; that if something could be created from nothing, then it could possibly be annihilated.
ONE GOD, WITHOUT BEGINNING OR END
While most Western religions teach that the human soul (or spirit) and the universe will continue on eternally, they also insist that there is one thing and one thing only that is without a beginning: God.
God is usually envisioned as that personal being, power or force that is self-existent; that is “without beginning of days or end of years”; that “is the same—yesterday, today and forever.” God is one thing that existed before anything else existed; the one thing without which nothing else that does exist or could exist. God is envisioned as the “First Cause” (that which caused everything else to exist) and also the only thing that has no cause.
In this way, most religions envision God as being eternal in a way that nothing else can be. All other things had a beginning; they were created. But God, it is believed, is a self-existent being; He simply is.
“We say that God himself is a self-existent being,” said Joseph Smith. “Who told you so? It is correct enough; but how did it get into you heads?”
Joseph accepted this notion that God was self-existent—that God was eternal because He had no beginning.
And then, having accepted as true the idea that something could be self-existent—without a beginning and therefore without an end, like a circle—Joseph took a radical step: he asked the crowd gathered before him why this concept could not be applied to things other than God.
Sunday, January 24, 2010
For the past five months the Best Sellers list in the United States has been dominated by “The Lost Symbol’—Dan Brown’s long awaited sequel to his 2003 best selling novel, “The Da Vinci Code.
As in its widely heralded predecessor, “The Lost Symbol” centers on the character of Robert Langdon—scholar and world-renowned expert on religious symbolism. Called to Washington D.C. to deliver a lecture on the city’s symbolism, Langdon soon finds himself embroiled with Federal Authorities who are trying to discover the whereabouts of Peter Solomon—a prominent Mason, philanthropist and Langdon’s long-time mentor—who has been mysteriously kidnapped. After examining a bloody clue found in the rotunda of the U.S. Capital building, Langdon finds himself plunged into a clandestine world of Masonic, historical and religious secrets that have been hidden in plain view in the popular art and architecture of America’s founding period.
The story of “The Lost Symbol” is based on an intriguing supposition: despite the fact that most traditionalists, religious leaders and politicians insist that the United States is a “Christian Nation” founded on so-called “Biblical principles,” an unbiased and in depth study of the nation’s founding decades reveals that this is not the case at all; that the Founding Fathers (many of whom were Masons and Enlightenment philosophers) rejected orthodox Christian concepts of God and human nature. As Langdon states early on:
“America has a hidden past…America’s intended destiny has been lost to history.” (“The Lost Symbol,” pg. 82)
As the story unfolds that “hidden past” and “intended destiny” are revealed, along with a concept of God and human nature that may seem startling and revolutionary to readers of “The Lost Symbol”—that is, unless those readers are familiar with the later teachings of Joseph Smith, the First Mormon—the man whom Leo Tolstoy called “The American Prophet.”
THE APOTHEOSIS OF GEORGE WASHINGTON
One of the first scenes of “The Lost Symbol” is set in the rotunda of the U.S. Capital building beneath the great painting that has dominated the rotunda’s ceiling since the 19th century. Each year thousands of site-seers pass under the ceiling, look up at the painting and have no idea what they are seeing.
The painting (above)shows George Washington reigning in heaven in the company of Gods and Goddesses. The painting is entitled “The Apotheosis of George Washington.” If the average person studies the painting at length, he or she would probably be unsure of what to make of it considering that the United States is usually thought of as a “Christian Nation.”
But as bizarre as “The Apotheosis of George Washington” may seem to most people, it is nothing compared to the statute (pictured below) that once dominated the room.
Early in the story, Langdon familiarizes Sato (a Federal official) with the statue:
Langdon said, “This Rotunda was once dominated by a massive sculpture of a bare-chested George Washington….depicted as a god. He sat in the same exact pose as Zeus in the Pantheon, bare chest exposed, left hand holding a sword, right hand raised with the thumb and finger extended.”
Sato had apparently found an online image, because Anderson was starting at her Blackberry in shock. “Hold on, that’s George Washington?”
“Yes,” Langdon said. “Depicted as Zeus.”
Langdon goes on to explain the meaning of symbolism found in the art of the Capital’s Rotunda:
“…There are symbols all over this room that reflect a belief in the Ancient Mysteries.”
“Secret wisdom,” Sato said with more than a hint of sarcasm in her voice. "Knowledge lets men acquire godlike powers?"
"That hardly fits with the Christian underpinning of this country."
"So it would seem, but it's true. The transformation of man int God is called apotheosis. Whether or not you're aware of it, this theme--transforming man into god--is the core element of this Rotunda's symbolism...The word apotheosis literally means 'divine transformation'--that of man becoming God. It's from the ancient Greek: apo--'to become'--theos--'god.'...the largest painting in this building is called The Apotheosis of George Washington. And it clearly depicts George Washington being transformed into a god." (pg. 84)
A GOSPEL OF APOTHEOSIS
The concept of humans becoming Gods is, of course, blasphemous not only in orthodox Christianity but in all monotheistic religions (religions which believe in the existence of only one God).
However, there was one American religious leader who late in his life rejected monotheism altogether and taught his followers:
“…you have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done before you, namely, by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you attain to the resurrection of the dead, and are able to dwell in everlasting burnings, and to sit in glory, as do those who sit enthroned in everlasting power. And I want you to know that God, in the last days, while certain individuals are proclaiming his name, is not trifling with you or me.”
The American religious leader who taught this was Joseph Smith— (pictured below)the founder of a religion that has grown into a wide variety of very different denominations and sects which together constitute the religion popularly referred to as “Mormonism.”
In the early 1840’s during the last years of his life, Joseph Smith became deeply immersed in Freemasonry. Influenced by the Enlightenment principles he encountered in Masonry and elsewhere, Joseph Smith began what he referred to as a “reformation” of Mormonism—a reformation which was cut short by his murder by a lynch mob at the age of thirty-eight.
Central to Joseph Smith’s new theology was the concept of apotheosis. Years later a prominent Utah Mormon, Lorenzo Snow, summed up Joseph’s new theology with this statement:
“As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may become.”
Most denominations of Mormonism have either rejected or denied Joseph’s revolutionary new theology, or they watered it down to make it more palpable to traditional Christians.
Reform Mormons are the only denomination within Mormonism who fully embrace Joseph Smith’s theology of apotheosis and continue to build upon it as their foundation.
Joseph Smith’s theology of apotheosis is identical to the religious world view that the character of Robert Langdon uncovers in the novel “The Lost Symbol.”
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
Langdon explains how the most influential of the Founding Fathers embraced a very positive view of human nature and human potential. He says:
"Knowledge is power, and the right knowledge lets man perform miraculous, almost godlike tasks." (pg. 86)
Joseph Smith also taught that knowledge was power. "Knowledge is what saves a man," he taught in his famous 1844 sermon, "The King Follett Discourse." Earlier he taught: "if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come." (Doctrine & Covenants 130:19)
Concerning man’s relationship with God, Joseph Smith taught:
“The relationship we have with God places us in a situation to advance in knowledge. He has power to institute laws to instruct the weaker intelligences, that they may be exalted with himself, so that they might have one glory upon another, and all that knowledge, power, glory, and intelligence…” (“The King Follett Discourse”)
Compare the above with the religious concepts that the character of Langdon discusses with another character—Katharine Solomon—toward the end of “The Lost Symbol”:
"All around the world, we are gazing skyward, waiting for God...never realizing that God is waiting for us." Katherine paused, letting her words soak in. "We are the creators, and yet we naively play the role of 'the created.' We see ourselves as helpless sheep buffeted around by the God who made us. We kneel like frightened children, begging for help, for forgiveness, for good luck. But once we realize that we are truly created in the Creator's image, we will start to understand that we, too, must be Creators. When we realize this fact, the door will burst wide open for human potential."
Langdon recalled a passage that had always stuck with him from the work of philosopher Manly P. Hall: If the infinite had not desired man to be wise, he would not have bestowed upon him the faculty of knowing. Langdon gazed up again at the image of The Apotheosis of George Washington--the symbolic ascent of man to deity. The created...becoming the Creator.
"The most amazing part," Katherine said, "is that as soon as we humans begin to harness our true power, we will have enormous control over our world. We will be able to design reality rather than merely react to it." (pg. 501)
Those who adhere to traditional religion concepts may likely have a problem with the idea of apotheosis because it undermines the foundational concept of all monotheist religions—the concept that there is but one all-powerful, all-knowing God or Power at work in the universe; that all of existence is the creation of that one all-knowing God or Power.
Joseph Smith realized this. While embracing the concept of many Gods, he advised others to examine the Bible in light of the Hebrew language in which the book was originally written:
“I will preach on the plurality of Gods….I wish to declare I have always and in all congregations when I have preached on the subject of Deity, it has been the plurality of Gods…’Berosheit baurau Eloheim ait aushamayeen vehau auraitis,’ rendered by King James’ translators, ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.’….’Eloheim’ is from the word ‘Eloi,’ God, in the singular number; and by adding the word ‘heim,’ it renders it Gods….In the very beginning the Bible shows there is a plurality of Gods beyond the power of refutation. The world ‘Eloheim’ ought to be in the plural all the way through—Gods.” (Joseph Smith, June 16, 1844)
Compare the reasoning of Joseph Smith with that found in the following discussion between the characters of Langdon and Katherine in “The Lost Symbol”:
God is found in the collection of Many...rather than in the One.
"Elohim," Langdon said suddenly, his eyes flying open as he made an unexpected connection.
"I'm sorry?" Katherine was still gazing down at him.
"Elohim," he repeated. "The Hebrew word for God in the Old Testament! I've always wondered about it."
Katherine gave a knowing smile. "Yes. The word is plural."
Exactly! Langdon had never understood why the very first passages of Genesis refered to God as a plural being. Elohim. The Almighty God in Genesis was described not as One...but as Many.
"God is plural," Katherine whispered, "because the minds of man are plural." (pgs. 504--505)
“God is plural because the minds of men are plural.” This idea resonates with Joseph Smith’s teachings on the nature of the human mind:
“The mind or the intelligence which man possesses is co-equal with God himself...”
The radical theology uncovered by character of Langdon in “The Lost Symbol”—a theology built upon a positive view of human nature and humanity’s god-like potential—is the same theology that Joseph Smith taught during his unfinished reformation of Mormonism in 1844.
This is also the theology of Reform Mormonism—a startlingly new religious paradigm against which Reform Mormons view the universe and humanity’s place in it.
In the following months, this blog will publish a series of short lessons—each of them exploring the basic philosophic concepts that Joseph Smith taught as the basis of his unfinished religious reformation.
Because of these concepts Reform Mormonism is a religion that embraces rational thought and intellectual freedom; the arts, sciences and technology; individualism, equality and human progress. It is a religion suited for modern men and women.
The character of Robert Langdon could easily have been thinking of Joseph Smith when, towards the end of “The Lost Symbol”….
...he thought of the words of a great prophet who boldly declared: Nothing is hidden that will not be made known; nothing is secret that will not come to light. (pg.508)
For more information visit: www.reformmormonism.org