Tuesday, August 02, 2005


In response to the last lesson (which explored how the concept of time is related to forming values and morals), Mick, a Reform Mormon (non-LDS) from Germany writes:

“Yes, the article gives reason why our existence of aging, illness and mortality might have some higher purpose. But I am not sure whether the author’s premise (if we never experienced the limitations of time, we would feel no necessity to engage with the various aspects of existence, - just hanging around in an eternity perceived to be utterly boring) is really that much self-evident as he appears to think. (To be honest: I am very much unsure whether my Para phrasal interpretation of his opinion is correct.)
If we were able to think in terms of infinity (I think we are not), - would we then not also necessarily - or at least possibly - experience infinite curiosity and interest in countless matters?
It is understandable that we all wish to attribute some deeper meaning to our suffering in the limitations of time and space (and we certainly all suffer to a greater or lesser extent), - but is it really more than wishful thinking?
I mean, 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?
Until now, I am unable to figure that out. May be there are some enlightening comments turning up soon.”

Because Mick makes some great points and asks questions that should not be ignored by Reform Mormons, I will devote the next several Gospel Doctrine lessons to the ideas in his letter.

I encourage all readers to join in the discussion by emailing their thoughts to: Reformmormons@aol.com.

I think that every point in Mick’s letter can be addressed by looking at two topics which will serve as the focus of the next few lesson. We will approach these two topics through the prism of Mormon history, and refer to the teachings of Joseph Smith as we explore possible answers.

The two topics we will examine are:




Why consider these two topics? Because they directly relate to two questions that Mike asks:

1. “… is there any, at least tiny evidence for the basic Reform Mormon concept of infinite individual existence? [This refers to Joseph Smith’s teaching that the spirit is uncreated, existing before one’s birth and surviving one’s death.] 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? “

2. Isn’t our wish to attribute some deeper meaning to our suffering in the limitations of time and space really no more than wishful thinking?

I’ll begin by offering an answer to the second question and then, over the course the next few lessons, explain how it relates to the first.


“Isn’t our wish to attribute some deeper meaning to our suffering in the limitations of time and space really no more than wishful thinking?”

My answer to this question is an emphatic, “Yes.” The idea that there is a higher purpose to the conditions of life on earth is indeed nothing more than wishful thinking.

From my reflections on the Mormonism’s New Paradigm (the distinct theology that Joseph Smith developed later in his life), I reject the very idea that there is a “higher purpose” to life, and I do it for this reason: implicit in the idea of “higher purpose to life” is the idea that there is something “higher than life.” The idea that there is a “higher purpose to existence” implies that there must be an existence of greater value than this one.

I am convinced that a careful study of Joseph Smith’s writings and teachings (in chronological order) indicates that as he matured in his understanding of things, he began laying down principles that would eventually undermine the “wishful thinking” regarding a supposed “higher purpose.”


Human beings are creative. Taking the elements around him, primitive man organized them into weapons, tools, clothing, housing, art objects,--and eventually he created communities, governments and laws. Realizing that society was the product of their creativity, primitive people looked at the natural world and assumed that the natural order--like the social order--was created by intelligent beings like themselves.

The time into which Joseph Smith was born (1805) and during which Mormonism was introduced, was unique in the annals of recorded history.

For hundreds of years, philosophers, artists and scientists had been questioning the basic assumptions of traditional religion. Not only specific religions, but the very concept of an all-powerful God who created and controlled all existence was itself being not only questioned, by also rejected. The rise of science and the valuing of rational thought over faith and mere belief threatened the basic premises of traditional religions.

Throughout all of recorded history, priests and prophets has taught that society would only prosper, that human life could only be preserved, if people put their faith in God and obeyed without question His commands.

But as the Dark Ages (an age of faith) gave way to the religious skepticism and scientific methods of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment (“The Age of Reason”), just the opposite took place: societies became more stable, people became more productive and prosperous, while human life not only increased in length but also improved in quality. The ancient Greek concept of democracy and the ideals of the ancient Roman republic were revived and joined with a radical new concept: the Natural Rights of the individual. One result of this philosophic revolution was the formation of free, representative republics--such as the United States.

Joseph Smith was a first generation American. (Both of his parents were born before the American colonies declared its independence from England and therefore had technically been subjects of the British crown.)

During Joseph’s youth, American society was in the middle of a huge philosophic shift.

Everywhere the positive fruits of the scientific approach to reality, of reason and individualism were evident. Only a small minority of Americans were officially affiliated with a church or religious organization, and many in this minority felt that their faith was threatened by rise of science and secular thought. The “rugged individualism” that was necessary to survive and prosper on the American frontier was often at odds with the communitarian values of traditional religion. Those who seemed to prosper the most in the new nation were those who relied on their own understanding of things, who tended to be skeptical of traditional religion, who were willing to “do it themselves” rather than pray for God to do it for them. In the American cities and on the frontier, a new type of character was emerging (a character that was often described as “rough,” “un-hewed,” and “uniquely American“), and while the majority of people who embodied this new character type were un-churched, they were still deeply devoted to the idea of God--though the nature of this God began to change into a Deity more in keeping with the demands of human survival in the natural world.

Those who remained devoted to traditional religious concepts (the forefathers of current Christian evangelicalism and fundamentalism), began to view secular thought, scientific enquiry and material prosperity as threats to faith--which, indeed, they were. To counteract their influence, Christian revivalism began--resulting in the frenzied, emotion-laden Camp Meetings to which young Joseph Smith was taken by his devout mother, Lucy.

A popular theme of these meetings was that “worldly” learning (education) and prosperity, individual industry and accomplishments were essentially meaningless unless they were used in the service of God. Indeed, education, prosperity and individual accomplishment could lead to pride, to the “dangerous” idea that one was master of one’s own fate, with no need to rely on God or the “grace and mercies of Christ.” Accomplishment could easily led to sin and damnation unless it was used in the service of a “higher good.”

Joseph Smith’s family was deeply divided. A growing majority of scholars and historians are now of the opinion that his mother was bipolar and that her mood swings and debilitating bouts of depression (which profoundly effected her family) were made worse by her obsession with religion and her worries regarding “the salvation of her eternal soul.”

Joseph’s father (Joseph Smith, Sr.) was irreligious. Raised by a religious skeptic who often quoted Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, Joseph Smith Sr. nevertheless took an interest in folk-magic, which he approached as a pseudo-science. On top of this, the man also exhibited all the symptoms of alcoholism--which was a much more wide-spread problem in early 19th century America than commonly believed. He refused to attend religious meetings with his wife, and was deeply critical of the local clergy men in which she put her trust.

The philosophic divide between Joseph’s parents echoed the philosophic divide in American society at the time. Joseph Smith’s career as a theologian was born of a desire to reconcile the skepticism and rationalism of the new century to orthodox faith of the past. The result was The Book of Mormon, which as a theological document is in harmony with traditional Christianity--mostly--but here are a few important exceptions. In the last sections of the book that Joseph dictated (II Nephi), some radical new concepts are laid down that actually undermine traditional Christianity--chief among these, is the doctrine that the so-called “Fall” of Adam and Eve was, in actuality, a good thing. This doctrine, laid out in chapter two of II Nephi, turns the Christian view of the natural world on its head.

In essence, Joseph Smith taught that Adam “fell upwards,” that eating the Fruit of the Knowledge resulted in human progress--not damnation in Hell. He taught that the universe was by nature complex, that in the natural order there was “opposition in all things,” and that Adam and Eve’s eyes had to be opened (by eating the Fruit of Knowledge) so that they could discern the nature of things and the opposition. Only in this way could Adam and Eve make choices, therefore effecting their own destiny as God intended,

This seemingly simply reinterpretation of the Adam and Eve myth set the groundwork for Joseph’s eventual rejection of not only ever major tenant of orthodox Christianity, but also of monotheism itself.

At the beginning of his career, Joseph publicized his ideas by resorting to a device used in the Camp Meetings: he claimed to have seen visions, to have been visited by angels, to have had ideas revealed to him by supernatural means. The ploy worked--but only for a time. The earliest converts to Mormonism were more attracted by the claims of supernatural activity and Christian certainty than by the new theology Joseph was revealing. In the first years of Mormon history, converts often rose up in defiance of Joseph, claiming their own revelations by the same means he originally employed: dreams, visions, the use of seer-stones and magical instruments. The result of these conflicting claims was confusion, and sometimes--this being frontier society--the confusion threatened to break out into violence.

For the first few years, Joseph combated the confusion in the only way he knew how: he simply claimed to have had another supernatural revelation that trumped the claims of his adversaries. Perhaps he would have continued down this road if --as his detractors then and now assert--his objective was to set himself up as absolute dictator of a church.

But Joseph’s life is evidence of another objective altogether. Joseph’s most direct influence in American history (indeed, the influence of 19th century Mormonism itself in American history) was as a colonizer, as a builder of cities. In Kirtland, Ohio and Independence, Missouri, his attempts at city building failed; but in creating the city of Nauvoo, Illinois, he succeeded.

What had changed between the early days of Ohio and Missouri Mormonism and the later days of Illinois Mormonism?

What had changed was Joseph’s approach to understanding the nature of reality and his way of presenting and defending his ideas.

In Ohio and Missouri, fresh from his supernatural claims regarding The Book of Mormon, Joseph taught solely by revelation. There may have been some reasoning in the revelations he dictated to his scribes, but what gave them a sense of authority was the phrase, “Thus saith the Lord…” The message was clear: this was not Joseph speaking by virtue of his own reasoning, but God issuing commands.

In all of recorded history there is no objective evidence that a God ever built a city, ran a business, or established a school (not even a seminary or school of theology).

But this is exactly what Joseph and the Mormons were doing. They were colonizers, frontier people and city-builders. These activities are human endeavors, the success of which demand rational thought, “worldly knowledge,“ and political maneuvering rather than absolute declarations of Divine will.

In Kirtland, Joseph Smith began to educate himself--first through private tutoring under the renowned frontier evangelist ,Sydney Rigdon ,who, along with his congregation of several hundred Ohioans, had converted to Mormonism--giving the infant movement its first major jolt in growth. A Mormon seminary called The School of the Prophets, and modeled after those of mainstream Protestant denominations, was founded in Kirtland, Ohio. Joseph and the Mormon elders were instructed by non-Mormons in Hebrew and ancient languages, as well as the basics of contemporary Biblical criticism. Joseph even hired a Jewish rabbi to instruct him and the Mormon elders.

Because Joseph had already (in The Book of Mormon) rejected the idea that the Bible (or any other book of scripture) was infallible, he enthusiastically embraced what might be called the “higher Biblical criticism” of his day. He began approaching theological issues by examining the social and historical context of Biblical texts, by exploring the various shades of meaning a particular word might have in Hebrew and Greek. He began to think more like a scholar--or at least, a serious student.

During the last years of his life in Nauvoo, Illinois, he only resorted to dictating revelations (“Thus saith the Lord..”) when he and his followers were at logger-heads (as in the case of polygamy and his liberal views on human sexuality and “non-traditional families”). In his King Follett Discourse (which laid out his radical new theology), Joseph speaks as a philosopher, staking his claims to being a true prophet on his ability to reason soundly.

Of the 134 sections in The Doctrine & Covenants (the most read volume of Joseph’s post-Book of Mormon teachings), the vast majority were dictated in the early years of Mormonism, between 1828 and 1835. Nearly all of these contain the phrase “Thus saith the Lord,” and have to do with the day to day affairs of governing small church. Of The Doctrines & Covenant’s 134 sections, only nine were dictated during Smith‘s five years in Nauvoo. It is in these sections that one finds Mormonism‘s most profound theological innovations, and nearly all of these sections are extracts from Joseph’s journals, letters and sermons, rather than “Thus saith the Lord” revelations.

Joseph evolved from a village seer whose claims were steeped in the mystical and supernatural, into theologian/philosopher who presented his ideas as his own and argued rationally in their defense. He evolved from someone who tried to reconcile the natural world to pre-existing idea of a supernatural Supreme Being into someone who finally insisted that one’s beliefs and one’s ideas regarding God must be consistent with the reality of the natural world.

In short, he evolved from a religious fraud into an authentic prophet.


What does any of this have to do with the subject of this lesson?

Plenty. As I pointed out earlier, the idea of “a higher purpose” to life implies that there is something of higher value than life. Traditional religions of both the East and West accept this notion, which is why so often religious fundamentalism results on a devaluing of human life and violence in the service of some “higher purpose.”

Joseph Smith taught “men are that they might have joy.” (II Nephi 2:25) He also wrote, “Happiness is the object of our creation.”

What this simple teaching in effect states is that human life is an end in itself. This resonates with the secular idea that humans by nature have certain inherent rights--the first being a right to their own life and person, and a right to pursue their own happiness. (This, of course, is in opposition to the idea that one is born indebted to God or whatever powers may be, due to Original Sin or bad Karma.)

If human life is an end in itself, if “happiness is the object of our existence,” then there is no need for a higher purpose.

Morality is not related to the dictates of a higher power or being, is not bound up in hopes for some future existence in an ethereal “afterlife,“ (what early Mormon Parley P. Pratt called “an immaterial fairyland” ). Instead, morality becomes the rational means of preserving human life on earth, and uses existence as we now know and experience it as its point of reference. Ultimate Truth within Mormonism has nothing to do with “a higher purpose” or “the way things should be.” Instead “Truth is a knowledge of things as they were, as they are and as they will be.”


What could be the negative results of believing that life on earth must serve some higher purpose?

What theological and philosophical concepts are implied when one speaks of a “higher purpose” to life, to existence?

What could be the positive results of viewing each human life as an end in itself, of accepting Joseph Smith’s idea that “happiness is the object of our creation?”

How has the idea of “a higher purpose” effected your thinking, your actions and the quality of your life--positively and negatively?

Join in the discussion by emailing your thoughts to: reformmormons@aol.com