Category Archives: Metaphysics

Good and Evil

Today I had a thought about the problem of evil that I wanted to run by you all. In traditional Protestant theology, the Fall contaminates human nature. The Fall explains the problem of evil. Contrast this with some “Gnostic” theologies that explain evil by means of a wicked creator-god who produced a defective world. In these same theologies, human beings have their origin in the upper divine realm, and are fundamentally good. They sin out of ignorance, but by nature human beings are divine. In the first model, God is good, but human beings are bad. In the second, God is bad, but human beings are good. How does this play out in Mormon theology?

For Mormons, it seems that we are committed to both a good God and good human beings (sort of). We explicitly deny the negative view of human nature found in Protestant theology and we certainly believe in the fundamentally goodness of the divine. Does this leave a gap in our ability to account for evil? All sorts of solutions to this problem have been put forth to explain the problem of evil in LDS theology. Some, like finitism, resemble in some sense the Gnostic view of a imperfect creator. The world is not perfect because the cosmos is not perfect. Others emphasize human agency as the source of evil, but this stands in tension with the fundamental goodness of humanity. If humans are fundamentally good, and fundamentally free, why would they choose evil?

Certainly, there is no easy solution, but these typologies of good God/bad humans and bad God/good humans seem durable and resilient in the history of the West. As Latter-day Saints, must we eventually embrace one of these models more fully, or can we continue to claim both the goodness of God and the goodness of humanity without philosophical tension?

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Petitionary Prayer


It is a common introductory problem in theology to think about the purpose of petitionary prayer. If God is all-knowing, what need is there to tell him what you want (Matt 6:8)? Furthermore, if God is perfectly good, then he is already going to do what is in your best interest without your asking. So, the problem of petitionary prayer is that if God is all-knowing and perfectly good, there is no need to ask him. Mormons have taken a different view.

Many traditional Christians have abandoned petitionary prayer as a theologically legitimate practice. Instead, the purpose of prayer is to align one’s will with God’s will (see the LDS Bible Dictionary which uses this sort of language). In such a case, the purpose of prayer is not to ask for what you want, but to discern what God wants. Prayer is a way of transforming the self, not God. Prayer is also about legitimately worshiping God, not just “thanking” him and “asking” him as the LDS prayer formula stipulates, but pondering God’s majesty. Fixed prayers in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are theogically based in this view of God’s relationship to humanity.

Some Latter-day Saint theologians have taken to defending the legitimacy of petitionary prayer. I think that they have done this for two reasons. First, the beginnings of Mormonism are rooted in a petitionary prayer of Joseph Smith. Second, and more theologically, petitionary prayer is seen as a way of causing God to actually intervene in human affairs. Drawing on the LDS depiction of a “finite” God, prayer is seen as a legitimate conversation between God and humans wherein God can be persuaded to act. This kind of prayer is more theurgical than theolatric. The result of this view is a complete abandonment of divine providence. In this view, God can neither have a plan for the world nor is he even actively involved. For some Mormon theologians, God is neither all-knowing, nor (gasp!) perfectly good.

Ultimately, the problem of petitionary prayer is a window onto larger theological debates about the nature of God and the nature of God’s relationship to the world. On one hand, I find something attractive about both models of prayer. On the other hand, both are potentially dangerous. In the traditional model, God’s will is inscrutible and God’s providence must be held accountable for all that happens. In the LDS model, the risk is that there is simply too much freedom for both God and humans. The world seems extremely unstable. Furthermore, God seems to capriciously intervene on what basis? Why does he answer some prayers but not others? Once providence is abandoned, but divine intervention into history is still allowed, God still remains responsible for the prayers that go unanswered. In either model God seems to come off badly.

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Mormonism is a Humanism


Readers may recognize that this title riffs off of Jean-Paul Sartre’s influential essay “Existentialism is a Humanism.” Though the German existentialists might have rejected this association, Sartre’s desire to locate Existentialism within the humanist tradition shows the powerful impact that humanism has in the imagination of the West. It’s influence is so profound that for Sartre, humanism is the genus and existentialism is a species. Can the same be said about Mormonism? Is Mormonism simply an expression of the backbone of the Modern West’s philosophical framework?

What got me thinking about this topic was a recent performance I attended by Julia Sweeney called “Letting Go of God.” Julia was the SNL comedian that is famous for playing the lovable androgynous “Pat.” In it she recounts her failed search for religion and belief in God. (As a side note, there was a long discussion of her encounter with the Mormon missionaries and her reactions to the first discussion. But I’ll save this for another post). Now she considers herself a secular humanist and has even been given awards by humanist societies.

Humanism really traces its roots to modernity and the turn to ethics of and concerning the individual subject. The concept of rights, democracy, the intrinsic worth of humans, and universal rationality are all the products of humanism. Humanism is the philosophical framework behind feminism, civil rights, the end of torture, invasion into Iraq, public schools, and universal health care. There is no one humanist ideology since humanists claim all sorts of competing positions within the same issue. For example, pro-choice and pro-life movements might be suprised to learn that they are both rooted in humanism, though they are configuring its constitutive elements differently.

Mormonism seems to sit squarely in the humanist tradition with its emphasis on the sacred character of each individual, its positive view of the nature of human beings (the rejection of Original Sin was a halmark of modern humanism), and its focus on human progress. Indeed, the Mormon doctrine of God can in some ways be seen as the theological zenith of humanism.

Secular humanists (and religious one’s as well) locate the basis of ethical behavior outside of revealed religion. “Thou shalt not kill” doesn’t really take a revelation to figure out. In fact, one of the most important developments in modernity (esp. Hume and Kant) was to separate ethics from theology. Even most Mormons accept that being a good person can be determined without reference to theological criteria.

All of this is a round about way of asking what Mormonism’s value add is to humanism, even in its secular form. Do we learn anything more about ethics that cannot already be argued from within the humanist tradition? Or, is Mormonism just another expression of the ways in which humanism has already framed our view of the individual subject? If not, then why be a Mormon and not just a humanist?

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Mormonism’s Greek Inheritance: Pre-existence

DMI Dave, one of my favorite bloggers, has recently added a post about how early Christianity wasn’t influenced much by Greek religion. I like Dave, but I disagree with nearly every characterization of Greek religion here, especially the comparison to “fortune cookies,” as well as the thesis that Jews and Christians didn’t participate in Greek culture like drama or the gymnasium (um…Ezekiel the Tragedian? Ps. Phocylides? Theodotus? Philo’s constant references to the gymnasium as well as Paul’s discussion of “shadow boxing” and “crowns” in athletic contests?). Ultimately the only space that he leaves for meaningful contact was in the realm of philosophy. Anyway, my protests in this regard will have to be saved for future posts. For now I want to follow up on my suggestion that Mormonism has inherited several Greek ideas. I recently argued that the Holy Ghost resembles Greek daimons. This is but one aspect.

One of the most interesting overlaps between Mormonism and Greek religio-philosophy is the pre-existence of the soul. Of all of the early Christian writers, only the Platonist Origen is known to have taught the pre-existence of the soul, and he was branded a heretic for it. The reason is that this doctrine is clearly taught by Plato, but one must strain to find evidence of it in either to Old or New Testaments. However, for Mormons we have accepted fully this Platonic doctrine as our own. How do we deal with this inheritance of Greek and not Hebrew or Christian ideas in Mormonism? Does this point to evidence of our willingness to incorporate truth wherever we see it, or does it disrupt the narrative of truth as located solely within the Judeo-Christian heritage?

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Filed under Doctrine, LDS Church History, Metaphysics

A Resurrection of Flesh and Bone?


In 1 Cor 15, Paul declares that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.” This text appears in the larger context of a defense of the resurrection, which seems to create a problem. How can Paul defend the resurrection, but in the very same passage declare that flesh and blood cannot go to heaven?

The difficulty of this passage was debated strenuously in antiquity. Those who defended the “resurrection of the flesh” wrestled mightily with this problem, while those who argued for a more spiritual resurrection relied heavily on this text to prove their point.

Mormons have been bothered by this passage as well not only because we are defenders of a resurrection of the flesh, but also because we have a notion of an embodied God. To my knowledge, our exegetical solution to this problem is unique. We argue that is true that flesh and blood together cannot inherit the KoG, but that the combination of “flesh and bone” can. We simply drop blood out of the equation. In antiquity they wondered about the blood of resurrected beings. Origen argued that Jesus’ blood was not Ichor, the sacred blood of the gods. He never said what it was instead.

So what then do resurrected beings have in thier veins? Is blood the only thing that is missing from the resurrected body? Can a body really be a body without it, or is it something else?

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Filed under Bible, Metaphysics, Speculation