Monday, April 24, 2006

READERS RESPOND: The Triumph of Values Over Morality

Mark Gollaher writes:

"Great lesson Rob. I'm not sure however that I completely agree with the premise that if a being is not created by God but is independent and self existent, that it necessarily follows that God cannot have power over that being or that right and wrong for that being can only be determined subjectively by the being itself independent of the rest of existence.

"I may be co-equal with another man but if he is bigger and stronger or has more social power in the form of others who agree to follow him, he has power over me in many ways and can have a profound effect on my life that I have almost no control over. There is no logic that makes it impossible for God to have power over other beings just because their essential essences were not created by Him.

"The doctrine as I understand it, suggests that although all intelligence was not created by God but is co-equal with Him, God created the path and means for progression, perfection and exaltation and even though the intelligences all took part in the creation process it was through the power of God (Priesthood) and through entering a partnership and agreement with God to abide by the rules that founded the creation of the universe that make participation in that progression possible. Put simply, God created the system, if we want the advantages the system offers, we have to agree to principals or laws that make the system work. Right and wrong are based on those principals, and are more concerned with how we interrelate within the system more than purely how we relate to ourselves independent of the rest of creation. therefore, there can be an objective right and wrong outside of the individual's narrow single-self perspective. Submission to those laws that creation was founded on is necessary to remain part of that creation and especially to partake of all the advantages the system of creation has to offer. This is the way God can have power over us and there can be an objective right and wrong."

Rob writes:

You bring up some great points. Here are some of my thoughts:

The power you seem to be talking about is the power to persuade others and the power of brute force (God can force you to do something by virtue of his being stronger than you.) But I see no evidence in existence that there is a God that operates in this way--unless, like primitive cultures, I think that natural forces (earthquakes, disease, floods, etc.) are the works of God Himself. Of course, I don't think this at all because those type of things seems completely explainable by studying the nature of weather, geology, etc.

You mentioned that God created the path by which we can reach exaltation. While that is certainly the current LDS belief, I can actually find nothing in Joseph Smith's teachings that say that the path to exaltation was original with God. In fact, it seems to me that the opposite is true--because God was once a human and tread the same path we now tread--as did all Gods before Him. The path to reaching exaltation seems to be eternal, uncreated, without beginning and without end.

You mentioned the Priesthood. This is something that I have been contemplating for decades--ever since I converted to the LDS Church as a teen. Since converting to Reform Mormonism several years ago, I've been giving the entire concept of Priesthood further thought--since the Reform Mormon doctrine of Priesthood is so different from the LDS doctrine.

Many aspects of the LDS doctrine of Priesthood don't hold up because of historical facts:there were noArronic and Melchezdek Priesthoods or offices in the first years of the church's existence--and the stories of John the Baptist, Peter, James and John bestowing these Priesthoods upon Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdrey prior to the church's organization were invented in the mid-1830's to support the authority of church officers against the charges of apostates. All of the references to these Priesthood in the first third of the revelations now found in "The Doctrine and Covenants" were added after the mid-1830's, in the second printing of the revelations. (If one looks at the original manuscripts of these revelations, or at their first appearance in print--in "The Book of Commandments"--one sees that all verses and references to Priesthood are missing.) The majority of the witnesses of the Golden Plates left the church over the issue of the Priesthood: they knew that earlier revelations were being rewritten to support the doctrine--which they thought Joseph Smith had accepted because of Sydney Rigdon's influence.

That much said, I've given a lot of thought to the concept of Priesthood--since the concepts of authority and of God's power have played such a major part in the development of Mormon theology.

I've come to view the natural order as the Order of the Priesthood. It is by being born into the natural order that our progress is initiated. "The Book of Mormon" talks about Priesthood (in Alma--the only place in the book where a Priesthood Order is discussed) as being without beginning of days or end of years, without a father. Later writings of Joseph talk about nature (the planetary systems, stars, worlds, intelligent life forms) as being eternal and uncreated. In "The Book of Mormon" this eternal, uncreated Priesthood that existed "before the foundation of the world" is called "The Order of the Son of God." LDS and Community of Christ Mormons interpret this name as referring to Jesus Christ.

Reform Mormonism, however, teaches that Priesthood (the power and authority to act in the Name of God, to approach God, to become a God) is inherent in the individual by virtue of their human nature. All humans by nature are "Gods--even Sons of Gods" (to quote a phrase used by Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball and others).

So I think the title "The Order of the Son of God" refers to the natural order into which we are all born, become living souls (beings of spirit and body) in the literal image of God; by birth we become Sons and Daughters of God. "The Son of God" in the title refers to me, to you, to any human being. (Granted the language is patriarchal, harkening as it does to Biblical imagery. To be inclusive in my imagery, I would called the Priesthood "The Order of the Child of God"--the Child be any man or woman born.)

As a Reform Mormon, I reject outright the entire concept of "creation" and "creationism." This is the most radical doctrine that Joseph Smith taught--and one that divided the Mormon leadership of his time into two warring camps, just as assuredly as did his teachings on polygamy. The doctrine of God as the creator is the basis of all monotheistic religions; it established the Primacy of Consciousness (God's Consciousness) over the Primacy of Existence.

In the last months of his life, Joseph established the Primacy of Existence as the foundation of his theology. Since the Primacy of Existence is also the foundation of scientific methodology, of rationalism, of humanism and of secularism, Joseph Smith's later theology was brought into line with these things. Because of this, Brigham Young, a decade later, could boast that ALL truth--be it religious, philosophic, artistic or scientific--were part of Mormonism.

Earlier in his career, Joseph Smith had also defined truth as "a knowledge of things as they were, as they are and as they will be." In other words, a knowledge concerning the nature of what actually exists is how Truth would defined.

It is the reality of existence that serves as the basis of morality. The one thing that all intelligent living things share is a tendency to value their own existence. The value of life is the basis for human ethics.

This seems to be in keeping with the Mormon interpretation of the Garden of Eden story: when humanity's eyes were opened and they realized that they were subject to death, life took on meaning and they began to think conceptually in terms of good and evil; they realized that they had to take actions in order to sustain their own lives ("by the sweat of your brow" you will work to raise food); they became morally responsible; they became Free Agents.

Throughout Mormon scriptures (particularly in the Bible), when the concept of ethics is reduced to its most basic premise, it is by contrasting the concepts of life and death. "Choose life"...."I put before you the choice of life and death"..."therefore chose life."....these phrases are found in the Old Testament. And in the New Testament, Christ says he has come to bring "Life" and to bring it more "abundantly." Human life is both the foundation and reward for ethical behavior.

Since life is universal to all living things, many of the most important concepts of right and wrong are universal and objective; they can be understood by an appeal to reason and with reference to nature--without having to resort to faith or doctrinal speculations about the Divine. In this way, both the believer and the atheist can embrace and abide by the same general code of ethics.

Traditions. mores and "commandments" (such as keeping the Sabbath, having no other Gods before the God of Israel, etc.) lack an ethical component for anyone other than those who believe in a particular religion. Even those believers would probably concede that while they would certainly think one should be jailed or punished for theft or murder, they would not jail or punish someone for breaking the Sabbath or embracing a religion which worships a God other than theirs. They may think these things are unethical or immoral, but they recognize a difference in this type of "immorality" as opposed to that of actions which physical harm people or endanger human life. In recognizing this difference, even someone of a Fundamentalist bent is acknowledging that the value of human life is the foundation for their morality.

So responsibility for discovering what is ethical seems to be completely in the hands of the individual.

There's also Joseph's summation of the purpose of human life: "And you have got to learn to be Gods yourselves, the same as all Gods before you, by going from a small degree to a greater..." etc., etc. To my mind this seems to indicate that one's ethical sense is developed in degrees through the choosing of values, through acting on those values, through suffering the consequences of those actions, etc. This seems to put the work of "achieving exaltation" squarely in the hands of the individual. Joseph also taught "Knowledge is what saves a man"--which, of course, is very different than saying "God saves a man."

Mark Gollaher responds:

You bring up some great points too. I tend to agree with the idea that God would not result to brute force to control but I think many (maybe most) people believe God would do just that: use brute force in righteous anger if there were anyone who could threaten "the plan." In fact, that is many people's idea of the last stand off of Armageddon--God finally using brute force to conquer Satan and the wicked to bring about the millennium.

In another view, Whether the being we worship as our "Father in Heaven" is the author of it or not, in agreeing to participate in the system of the path of exaltation, we submit to the laws that govern and create that system part of which would include consequences for righteous and unrighteous actions. Since we attribute the laws of the system as "God's will" because as an exalted being Himself, His will is in perfect harmony with those laws, we are in effect under his power with respect to our mortal bodies at least. This suggests that mortal life or the holding together of our spirit and temporal selves is dependant on God. So even if our spirits are co-equal with God, life as we experience here (according to the doctrine) would be completely due to His mercy. All of this creates a right and wrong beyond individual desires because anytime you are participating in an organized system, there are actions witch are in harmony with the rest of the system and actions which are not. As a kind of short-hand I suppose, the laws of the system are called God's will because it is through revelation fro Him that we come to an understanding of those laws.

All of this I recognize is dependant on whether you believe completely that God reveals his will or these laws of right and wrong through someone other than yourself--like a prophet which is something I personally have a difficult time with. In the end, even if all this doctrinal analysis is correct, I trust my own personal feelings and "revelations" from God more than I do those of any other regardless of their status or calling. So I end up being in agreement with the idea that the individual is the only person who ultimately can determine what is right and wrong for them. I guess we have churches and religious leaders because so often it seems people are making decisions based not on what they feel is truly right or wrong for the long term and the whole, but for personal gratification and power in the short term.