I am finally getting around to reading Sterling McMurrin’s 1965 book called “The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion“. Clark already sponsored a reading club for this book about 18 months ago so in this post I will pick up on that long-dead discussion and follow Clark’s outline. Both Clark and Dave started by posting on the topics covered in the first eleven pages.
Before diving in let me first say I have enjoyed this book. McMurrin is a philosopher and seems mostly interested in comparing Mormonism to the rest of Christianity to point out the theological similarities and differences. While he uses way too much technical jargon I found the overall information quite useful. Part of what I appreciate as a reader 40 years later is learning what he considered to be the dominant Mormon position on all sorts of sticky theological issues. I think McMurrin probably does us a disservice by blithely describing “the Mormon view” on unsettled theological issues though. I think he would have been better served referring to the dominant position or “a popular Mormon view” since these views remain open for us until there is revelation through the proper channels on these subjects.
So on to the issues! (I’ll only highlight the parts that interested me most)
On Naturalism and Supernaturalism
McMurrin states that Mormons are essentially naturalistic and humanistic theists (believers in God), and that we largely deny the supernatural. In a strict sense this is true I suppose. Brigham Young and lots of other church leaders taught that miracles are simply miracles from our limted perspective, but that God works within the laws of nature to accomplish them. This is a sort of naturalism, but certainly not the sort that an atheist would approve of since we simply replace faith in supernatural miracles with faith in a God that knows how to manipulate the Universe in ways we have not discovered yet.
He further states:
The [naturalism] continuity is attested especially by the rejection of the traditional Christian concept of eternity, which is essentially Greek in origin, where eternity means timelessness, the denial of temporality. Mormonism conceives of God as a being within both time and space.
I found it interesting that in 1965 (at least in the eyes of McMurrin) the “Mormon” conception of God was that he lives within time. While I think the view that God lives within time is accurate, I’m not so sure that is the majority view among Mormons in 2005. Based on some of the discussions we have had here it appears the timeless God of Greek philosophy has become the version of God many Mormons want to worship nowadays.
On Necessity and Contingency
This section is on what things are necessary, which in this context means what things are uncreated and beginningless, and what things are contingent, meaning the things that are created or that have a beginning. The point is that in most of traditional Christianity, only God is without beginning and all else was created by God out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo). McMurrin points out that in Mormonism all matter is uncreated and even spirits are made up of matter.
…whatever is ultimate and essential in the human soul is self existent. … By “necessary” being is meant the being of whatever could not not exist. Anything has contingent being if its being is not necessary, that is if it could not exist.
The question of whether spirits are necessary or contingent is not covered in this section, though it is discussed a bit in later sections. The Book of Mormon notions of “the destruction of the soul” and the idea that God could “cease to be God” surely must factor into this question what is necessary and what is contingent though.
“There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes”.
But calling Mormons strict materialists is somewhat misleading because materialism is traditionally the foundation of strict causal determinism. Basically causal determinism is the notion that every action is a reaction to prior causes. The problem is that Mormons are generally devoted believers in libertarian free will or free agency and that mean we believe that (at least some of) our actions are not caused by forces outside of us but are self caused.
So in a sense Mormonism claims a middle ground between the dualism the most of Christianity inherited from Plato, where there is spirits are strictly immaterial; and strict scientific materialism which doesn’t buy the idea of “spirit matter”. Basically Mormons are materialists that functionally act like dualists.
Interestingly, the Third century theologian Tertullian held a belief similar to Mormons. Apparently Tertullian refuted Plato’s idea that the soul was immaterial though he did buy notion that the soul was “simple” rather than made up of constituent parts. McMurrin says:
The Mormon view, agreeing with Tertullian’s materialism and with Plato’s belief in the preexistence and uncreatedness of the soul, disagrees with both in holding that the soul is a compound of constituent parts
Again, I find it interesting that in 1965 the notion that the soul (spirit) is made up constituent (and “necessary” rather than “contingent”) parts was deemed by McMurrin to be “The Mormon view”. While I agree with this view, if my recent conversations in the bloggernacle are any indication, this view is not nearly as dominant anymore with many believing that human spirits are “simple” or “necessary, or as I like to call it, “cut from whole cloth”.
On Monism and Pluralism
This section talks about whether one believes that when everything that exists is reduced to its simple and necessary parts it is made up of one kind of stuff (monism) or that there are many kinds of fundamental stuff (pluralism). McMurrin concludes that Mormons are “thoroughgoing pluralists”.
The pluralistic character of the Mormon view of reality can be seen at many levels: the tendency to think of the spirit as a compound of entities rather than as simple, in itself is a major departure from classical Christian metaphysics; the clear conception that in its original nature the world is composed of independently real intelligences and material elements; the rigorous distinction between man and God or God and the world; or the tritheistic conception of the Godhead, where the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are described as three ontologically separate beings.
This has become a long post and might be a lot to digest so I will stop here; but I thought it would be useful to lay a foundation for future theological discussions here at the Thang. What do you think of McMurrin’s 40 year old take on the “Mormon view” of the nature of reality?
I want to know how so many Mormons started believing (incorrectly in my opinion) that God lives outside of time and that spirits are simple and irreducible rather than made up of constituent parts since this book was written… Must be a sign of the times ;-)