Sunday, April 10, 2011

Worlds Without End

The world’s major religions all came into existence when human understanding of the natural world was sorely limited. In the pre-scientific ancient world mythology, superstition, emotionalism and baseless speculation were the rule, not the exception, in formulating theories regarding the nature of the universe.

The earth was seen as a flat table top. The sky was seen as a great domed ceiling, supported by high mountain ranges (called “The Pillars of Heaven”) that stood at the edges of the earth. In the sky—thought to be, quite literally a dome or vaulted ceiling--there were gates through which rain fell from a great sea above know as “the firmament above the earth.” Beneath the flat earth was another great body of water (“the firmament beneath”) which feed the earths rivers, streams, seas and oceans. It was assumed that the sun, moon and stars quite literally “rose” in the east, traveled across the sky above the earth, and then “set” in the West.

From the subjective view of mankind at that time, the earth itself was assumed to be the center of existence.

This was the view of most ancient cultures, including the Israelite culture that gave the Bible to the world. Indeed, the above view of natural world—now called “The Flat Earth Theory”—is found throughout the Bible, and was accepted universally by the world’s great monotheistic religions until just five hundred years ago.

Scientists such as Galileo were considered heretics for suggesting that the earth moved around the sun, and was not the center of the universe. Christopher Columbus was one of the first European explorers to operate on the then-startling and “unproved theory” that the earth was round. When the first English ships sail to Virginia in 1607, navigating by the stars was still just as immersed in superstition and mysticism as it was in any sort of objective science or technology.

Ignorant of basic facts regarding the shape of the earth and its relationship to the sun, moon and stars, it is understandable that religions with ancient origins would have come up with complete erroneous ideas regarding the universe. Even many enlightened Christians, Jews and Muslims who embrace what modern science has revealed regarding the galaxies, may still, on an emotional level, cling to the ancient idea that the earth and life on it are, in some sense, the very center of the cosmos as far as Deity is concerned.

Mormonism came into existence at the beginning of the modern scientific age. While dictating “The Book of Mormon” Joseph Smith included the following: “…surely it is the earth that moveth and not the sun.” (Helaman 12:15) While this was common knowledge in 1829, the Bible’s ancient authors (and Christian theologians until just a few centuries previously) believed just the opposite.

“The Book of Mormon” also contains references to planets. (One example is found in Alma 30:44.) While the world “planet” was coined anciently by the Greeks, it was used to refer to any heavenly body; the Greeks considered the sun and stars to be planets.

In June 1830 when Joseph began dictating new versions of Genesis’s first two chapters, he began incorporating into his new scriptures the evolving 19th century scientific understanding of planets and planetary systems. “The Book of Moses” refers to there being “worlds without number” beyond earth and our solar systems. (See Moses 1:33, in “The Pearl of Great Price.”)

Joseph also declared that the first chapters of Genesis contained “only an account of this earth, and the inhabitants thereof,” explaining that previously “many worlds that have passed away…. And there are many that now stand, and innumerable are they unto man.” (Moses 1:33)

So it was that in the first months of its inception, Mormonism put forth a view of endless planets and planetary systems being organized and passing away. The organization of new galaxies was a continuing, eternal process. The earth was not the center of the universe, nor did it come into existence at some imagined “beginning” of all existence. Galaxies had formed and passed away eons before our solar system formed.

(Above: The room in which Joseph Smith and Sydney Rigdon dictated a vision of eternity that involved the existence of other worlds with inhabitants.)

On February 16, 1832, when dictating a vision of eternity, Joseph Smith and Sydney Rigdon referred to other “worlds” not as empty, lifeless places but as planets filled with intelligent life—“inhabitants” who “are begotten sons and daughters unto God.” (See Doctrine & Covenants 76: 24)

Less than two years after Mormonism’s emergence as a religious movement, it was teaching a then-radical theological concept—one at odds with traditional monotheism: intelligent life as found earth was not a unique phenomenon

On December 27 and 28, 1832, and on January 3,1833, Joseph Smith dictated another revelation (Doctrine & Covenants 88) in which he laid out his evolving view of the universe—a revelation he felt was so important that he described it as a “olive leaf’ … plucked from the Tree of Paradise.”

The revelation begins by celebrating the powers and forces that govern the earth, the moon, sun, stars, and celestial bodies beyond.

A complex but orderly universe is envisioned in which each thing that exists is governed by a system of laws tied to its nature. Everything which exists does so with boundaries and limits—within the “certain bounds and conditions” determined by these laws. (See Doctrine & Covenants 88:38

Joseph declared: “Verily I say unto you, that which is governed by law is also preserved by law and perfected and sanctified by the same,” Joseph taught. (Doctrine & Covenants 88:34)

Joseph did not use the Biblically-inspired concepts of being “preserved, perfected and sanctified” in the way Christian ministers of his time did. Other ministers used these concepts to refer to the process by which an individual was forgiven for his sins, saved from damnation in hell, grew spiritually and finally entered heaven. Rather than “going to heaven,” Joseph was more concerned with things “fulfilling the measure of their creation”—meaning the process by which something can “be all that its capable of being,” or progressing to the maximum extent of its nature.

Joseph applied the concepts “preserved, perfected and sanctified” to all things that existed within nature—including planets and planetary systems. He taught that the earth itself was governed by a law, and because it “transgresseth not the law…it shall be sanctified; yea, not withstanding it shall die…” (Doctrine & Covenants 88: 25-26)
Joseph symbolically called each system of law governing something “a kingdom”—co-opting another popular Biblically-inspired Christian phraseology of his day.

Joseph’s revelation (Doctrine & Covenants 88) not only envisioned existence as orderly but as dense—with no sustainable complete vacuums at any level. Joseph declared “And there are many kingdoms; for there is no space in which there is no kingdom; and there is no kingdom in which there is no space, either a greater or a lesser kingdom.” (Doctrine and Covenant 88:37)

The endless planetary systems existed within the boundaries of laws “by which they move in their times and seasons; and their courses are fixed…and they give light unto each other in their times and seasons, in their minutes, in their hours, in their days, in their weeks, in their months, in their years…” (Doctrine & Covenants 88:42-44)

In 1835, in “The Book of Abraham,” Joseph expounded further on his vision of the endless planetary systems found throughout the universe. Inspired by contemporary theories based on those first advanced by Isaac Newton, Joseph taught that time could be measured differently from one planetary system to another, based on that planetary system’s location and other things such as the gravitational pull of neighboring planets, stars and other celestial bodies and phenomenon.

By the late-1830’s a distinct Mormon cosmology had emerged that was at odds not only with the views of ancient religions but also with the view of the Enlightened Christianity (Christianity that rejected Biblical fundamentalism, and embraced science and reason.) Mormon Cosmology was radically pluralistic—going so far as to embrace an endless number of planetary systems (many of them filled with intelligent life) but also an endless number of Gods—each existing within the boundaries set by the laws governing time and space.

A new phrase entered into Mormon religious dialogue: “Worlds without end.”

The phrase “world without end” had been used for centuries in Christian liturgy—both Catholic and Protestant—to convey the idea that the earth would endure throughout eternity. The phrase “without end” had reference to time.

Joseph Smith was familiar with phrase since it was used by all the Protestant churches he had dealings when he was in his late teens and early twenty. At age 17, Joseph Smith had been very involved in the Methodist congregation in Palymra, and had applied for membership in the Harmony, Pennsylvania Methodist congregation in 1825. In their worship services, Methodists ended their singing of the Doxology with the phrase, “World without end, Amen, Amen.”

Joseph took this traditional Christian phrase, added one letter to it and changed its context altogether. The singular “world” became the plural “worlds.” The new Mormon phrase “worlds without end” did not refer to time but to the number of planets found throughout the reaches of space.

Mormonism’s expansive, pluralistic view of the cosmos was captured by the mid-19th century Mormon writer, W.W. Phelps, in his classic Mormon hymn, “If You Could Hie to Kolob.” Below are Phelps' lyrics, inspired by the teachings of Joseph Smith:

“If you could hie to Kolob in the twinkling of an eye,
And then continue onward with that same speed to fly,
Do you think that you could ever through all eternity,
Find out the generation where Gods began to be?

Or see the grand beginning where space did not extend?
Or view the last creation where Gods and matter end?
Methinks the Spirit whispers, “No man has found ‘pure space,’
Nor seen the outside curtains where nothing has a place.”

The works of God continue, and worlds and lives abound;
Improvement and progression have one eternal round.
There is no end to matter; there is no end to space;
There is no end to spirit; There is no end to race.
There is no end to virtue; There is no end to might;
There is no end to wisdom; There is no end to light.

There is no end to union; There is no end to youth;
There is no end to priesthood; There is no end to truth.
There is no end to glory; There is no end to love;
There is no end to being; There is no death above.”

(Note: In a vision of the universe laid out in “The Book of Abraham,” the star closest to the throne of Abraham’s God is called Kolob.)

Below is a performance of the hymn by the (LDS)Mormon Tabernacle Choir:

And here is a music video of a contemporary pop version of the hymn...