Thursday, October 25, 2012

Mormon Monism

A few weeks ago I received an email from someone I love who has been troubled by a doctrine central to the restored gospel of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When Joseph Smith received the first vision that called him as a prophet, he saw "two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other--This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!" (Joseph Smith History 1:17). Through this experience Joseph learned that God the "Father has a body of flesh and bone as tangible as man's; the Son also" (D&C 130:22). While most Christians I know imagine an anthropomorphic God (ie, one that looks like us), the God they imagine is incompatible with the deity described by the Westminster Confession and other important Christian creeds, "a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions." By insisting that God possesses a physical body, the Mormon doctrine of divine embodiment diverges radically from Christian precedent.

[Note: for the rest of this post, I'll be contrasting "Mormon" and "Christian" views as though those two positions were incompatible. I do this for convenience to highlight one doctrinal divergence, NOT to imply that Mormons do not believe in Jesus Christ or that Mormons are not Christians.]

This disagreement over the doctrine of divine embodiment is only one manifestation of a larger doctrinal difference between Mormons and the broader Christian community. Almost every Christian sect with which I am familiar subscribes to the notion of dualism--a belief that there is an irreconcilable divide between the physical and spiritual world. Mainstream Christian theology posits that flesh and spirit are mutually incompatible, drawing on Paul's teachings that "they that are in the flesh cannot please God. But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you" (Romans 8:8-9). This Pauline (mainstream Christian) reading of the New Testament actually rejects the notion that Jesus Christ possessed a physical body, replacing John's insistence that "the Word was made flesh" (John 1:14) with Paul's claim that God sent "his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh" (Romans 8:3; my emphasis). Mainstream Christianity posits that flesh--and the physical world more generally--is inherently corrupt and sinful, incompatible with the pure spirit of God, that Jesus Christ only seemed to possess a body of flesh and bones.

Mormons, on the other hand, subscribe to monism--a belief that the physical and spiritual exist side by side on a single continuum.  Whereas dualism posits a great divide (think the Grand Canyon) between physical matter and spirit, Mormon monism views matter and spirit as two possible points on the same scale. The best metaphor may be that of a ladder where physical matter exists at the ladder's base and spirit exists at the ladder's apex: from bottom to top, matter becomes more and more refined until it becomes what we think of as spirit, but there is no fundamental divide between these two positions, no categorical difference between the two concepts. Illustrative of this belief is the inspired "translation" Joseph Smith made of the verses from Romans that I quoted earlier (Joseph's changes in bold): "they that are after the flesh cannot please God. But ye are not after the flesh, but after the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you" (JST Romans 8:8-9). This alteration of the Pauline position shifts from an irrevocable disjunction between deity and flesh--anything "in the flesh cannot please God"--to God's displeasure when we lean to the wrong side of the flesh/spirit continuum--yearning "after the flesh cannot please God."

Whereas mainstream Christianity often figures the resurrection as a raising of the spirit, Mormon doctrine insists on the raising of the body and a reunion of (perfected) flesh and spirit. We believe that the possession of a body is central to happiness and, ultimately, exaltation: "spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy; and when separated, man cannot receive a fulness of joy" (D&C 93:33-34). According to Mormon theology, the absence of a body is, in fact, one of the central sources of Satan's misery and hate towards men; he, with his angels, looks upon the "absence of your spirits from bodies to be a bondage" (D&C 45:17), and Mormons read New Testament accounts of demonic possession as indicative of devils' eagerness to possess bodies, even those of swine (Matthew 8:31).

Although this distinction between spirit and element, with an accompanying insistence that spirit and element must be joined by the resurrection in order to make eternal happiness possible seems to highlight the difference between flesh (element) and spirit, Mormon scripture insists that this difference is one of degrees rather than one of kind. Joseph Smith revealed, "There is no such thing as immaterial matter"--or, I would add immaterial spirit. "All spirit is matter but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by pure eyes; we cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter" (D&C 131:7-8).

While this insistence on the materiality of immaterial things--spirit--would have been seen as heretical by mainstream Christians in the nineteenth century, it actually accords rather well with modern understandings of the universe. For example, light seems to be an "immaterial" manifestation of the sun's power and one strongly associated with the Christian concept of God; Jesus Christ proclaimed, "I am the light of the world" (John 8:12). In the nineteenth century, this association with light might have seemed to bolster the Pauline teaching that Jesus Christ is an immaterial being, but scientific understandings of light confirm that light behaves as a particle (possesses materiality) even as it simultaneously behaves as a wave (in an immaterial way). My understanding of physics--limited though that may be--reaffirms my testimony in the doctrine of monism as revealed to Joseph Smith.

When we say that God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, have bodies, we do not mean that they have bodies of exactly the same type as our own; I firmly believe that the matter comprising their bodies is "more fine or pure" and may allow their material bodies to behave in what we think of as immaterial processes, just as light retains the properties of both material (particle) and "immaterial" (wave) substances. I'm excited (someday) to learn more about the science behind these teachings, but for now I am content to declare that I believe in a resurrected, embodied Savior and His perfect, embodied Father. They live!


Alana said...

I learned a new word just now. Good explanation Hun.

Jake said...

Taking a hiatus or is there a new blog I don't know about?