McMurrin Mormon Theology Reading 2: The Nature of Reality — Being vs. Becoming

January 4, 2006    By: Geoff J @ 5:30 pm   Category: McMurrin Reading,Theology

In this second post of this reading club I will cover pages 11-13 in Sterling McMurrin’s 1965 book The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion. (The original plan was to cover pages 11-18 like Clark did in his reading club but the post got too long.) I think this series might be helpful to lay the groundwork for the philosophical terms that become required as we discuss Mormon theology here at the Thang. I’m hoping I can refer back to this series of posts when discussing theology in the future. But beyond that, I think these subjects are interesting and worthy of discussing in their own right as well.

On Being and Becoming

McMurrin points out that an important question in metaphysics (the nature of reality) is whether reality is essentially “static and changeless or dynamic and in process”. It is the being vs. becoming debate that has reportedly been raging for thousands of years. Heraclitus was a champion of the becoming camp, saying things like “Everything is on the move.” The idea is that everything we can discern can only be discerned because it is in some kind of changing state. McMurrin cites Parmenides as a champion for the being camp (and notes that Plato was strongly influenced by Parmenides). Regarding the being camp, McMurrin notes:

It is important to see that when reality is described as absolute, static, and changeless it is regarded as timeless, and if it is described as dynamic and moving, it is held to be temporal. … There cannot be time without motion or motion without time.

So in the being camp atemporal (timeless) “eternity” is reality and all this temporal motion we perceive around us is an illusion. In such “eternal” states there is no time and thus no motion or progress. In the becoming camp there is no such thing as atemporal existence and everything (including God) is and always has been temporal.

McMurrin was of the opinion that Mormonism is firmly in the becoming camp and I agree with him:

Now from its beginning Mormonism has laid much stress on the dynamic character of reality. This is evident in many connections, as in the occasional tendency to think of matter as being in some way active rather than entirely inert, or in the intense emphasis on freedom of choice and action in opposition to determinism. Nowhere, however, is the Mormon metaphysic of becoming more in evidence than in the idea that God himself is a temporal being with a past, present, and future… The common Mormon idea that man participates with God in an endless and progressive creative process is dependent on the concept of the temporality of God.

I find it interesting that 40 years later the idea of a timeless God has made such inroads into common Mormon thinking, with many Mormons clinging today to the notion of a timeless God. I agree with McMurrin that timelessness and progress are incompatible with each other.

He goes on to remind us that the word “eternal” has classically meant “timeless” but that in Mormon jargon it has come to mean “unbegun and endless time”. This is an important distinction that certainly still causes confusion between Mormons and others that use the word “eternal”.

As a concluding thought to this section McMurrin says:

… Mormon thought is oriented to a grand conception of cosmic process in an infinite time and space in which human freedom plays a fundamental and crucial role.

In other words, in the debate between being and becoming, Mormons are firmly in the becoming camp. That means timelessness has to go. Further, in the debate between causal determinism and free will, free will wins in Mormonism (a post on that is in the works).

What do you think? If either timelessness or progress must be jettisoned, is there any question that timelessness ought to go?

[Associated song: ABC – Be Near Me]


  1. Of course I think you (and McMurrin) are right. But it’s a bit of a shame; timelessness makes fitting omniscience and freedom together a lot easier.

    Comment by RoastedTomatoes — January 4, 2006 @ 6:09 pm

  2. I hate to go all Star Trek on you, but hey, Phasers set to kill…

    Anyway, Progress and Timelessness xan be compatible if you take the theory of relativity the extra step… After all, as something progresses forward faster and faster, relativity would indicate that to that thing time and space would contract, and as it reached the speed of light, all time would become now and all space here. If that were the case, and all time was now, then then would be now as well, and God would have become Timeless via progress, by achieving the speed of light. I am not a Physicist, so this may be bad science, but I’ll eave that up to all you online geniuses…

    Comment by Matt Witten — January 4, 2006 @ 8:14 pm

  3. if you take the theory of relativity the extra step…

    Ha! Well that extra step is unfortunately a step into the absurd I think, Matt. Further, I’m not sure what theological problems God traveling faster than light or visiting/seeing a fixed future would solve to begin with… What am I missing? (What you are proposing is different than the classical atemporal “eternities” after all).

    Comment by Geoff J — January 4, 2006 @ 9:07 pm

  4. Thanks again for a thoughtful post for the rest of us. Some of the regulars may think that your inclusion of basic definitions for these terms may seem a bit condesending perhaps, but for someone like me who has got by on ‘sunday school answers’ most of my life and now seeks to go beyond that it is very helpful.

    I agree that of the two ideas (progress or timelessness) timelessness is the thing that must go. I do agree that the becoming is what the gospel teaches both directly and indirectly. I believe this applies to God as well as us. Widtsoe in Rational Theology seem to agree with this as well.

    Comment by Eric — January 5, 2006 @ 7:00 am

  5. as it reached the speed of light, all time would become now and all space here.

    According to Star Trek Voyager (hey, you invoked it first), this actually occurs at Warp 10, not Warp 1. Although the scale is arbitrary, I think the idea that the phenomenon occurs as one exceeds the speed of light, rather than as one approaches the speed of light, is correct. Incidentally, the book the Physics of Star Trek treats the prospect of faster-than-light travel as one of the less implausible features of show.

    Comment by Last Lemming — January 5, 2006 @ 7:42 am

  6. I was once taught that an alternative translation of “I AM THAT I AM” was “I am becoming what I am becoming.”

    Wish I knew where I got that. Sorry.

    Comment by britain — January 5, 2006 @ 8:15 am

  7. Eric,

    I’m glad you find the definitions useful. Only a short time ago I would read bloggernacle posts and have almost no idea what some of those philosophical terms used meant — I figured I would try to make life easier for my readers. My hope is that adding short definitions is simply superfluous for readers that are well-versed in philosophical terms (rather than coming across as condescending) but at the same time it will make the concepts these technical terms describe accessible to all the rest of us.

    And yes, Widstoe was clearly in the progress/becoming camp. I found myself nodding in agreement with the vast majority of his theology. (I mention him in the next post in this series on Universal vs Particulars).

    Comment by Geoff J — January 5, 2006 @ 9:17 am

  8. Perhaps I am implying that is the atemporal eternities as classically seen which need to be re-evaluated. By the way, My source on this is the D & C Institute Manual. I’ll see If i can find a link on it later.

    Comment by matt witten — January 5, 2006 @ 9:36 am

  9. Yeah, there are plenty of people in the church (including many in CES) that buy the timeless God idea in recent decades. The problem with that, is that it is incorrect doctrine, IMO. Timelessness and progress are just not compatible. But we are allowed to believe false speculations in this church — it is mostly the basics we need to get right.

    Comment by Geoff J — January 5, 2006 @ 10:27 am

  10. Here is the whole quote from the D & C institute Manual:
    D&C 130:4-7. The Relativity of Time
    Several scriptures suggest that the way we perceive time on earth may not be the way time really is throughout the universe. Alma 40:8 suggests that only men measure time and that to God all time is as one day. Other scriptures suggest that all things are present before the Lord (see D&C 38:2; Moses 1:6). Verses 4-7 in section 130 suggest a similar concept, namely that past, present, and future are continually before the Lord and that time is relative to the planet on which one resides.

    In the twentieth century, the field of physics began to speak about time and space in a way that may help explain these revelatory statements. Albert Einstein, in the early part of this century, developed what is known as the theory of relativity. Einstein postulated that what men had assumed were absolutes in the physical world-space, gravity, speed, motion, time-were not absolutes at all but were interrelated with each other. That is why the theory was called the theory of relativity. Physicists now agree that a person’s time reference will vary depending on his relative position in space.

    According to Einstein’s theory, if a body moves at very fast speeds (those approaching the speed of light, which is 186,000 miles per second), that body’s time slows down in relation to the time of a body that is on earth; and for the body in motion, space contracts or shrinks. In other words, time and space are not two separate things but are interrelated. Physicists refer to this as the space-time continuum. If an astronaut were to journey out into space at speeds approaching the speed of light, though to himself all would seem perfectly normal, to someone on earth it would appear as though his clock were ticking slower, his heart were beating slower, his metabolism operating slower, and so on. He would actually age more slowly than would a person who remained on the earth. Though the finite mind tends to reject such concepts, Einstein’s theory suggests that reality to us is a product of our relative position in the space-time continuum.

    According to this theory, if a being achieved the speed of light, to that being all space would contract to the point that it would be “here” for him, and all time would slow down until it became “now” for him. The theory of relativity thus may suggest how, for a being of light and glory like God, all space and all time could be present. As difficult as such a concept is to understand, increasingly sophisticated experiments continue to substantiate Einstein’s theoretical description of the realities of the universe.

    Lael Woodbury, dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communications at Brigham Young University, talked about man’s perception of time and God’s perception of time in an address sponsored by the Church Educational System:

    “The evidence suggests that God . . . perceives time as we perceive space. That’s why ‘all things are before him, and all things are round about him; and he is above all things, and in all things, and is through all things, and is round about all things’ [D&C 88:41]. Time, like space, is ‘continually before the Lord.’ . . .

    “. . . Right now we perceive music in time as a blind man perceives form in space-sequentially. He explores with his fingers, noting form, texture, contours, rhythms. He holds each perception in his mind, one by one, carefully adding one to the other, until he synthesizes his concept of what that space object must be like. You and I don’t do that. We perceive a space object immediately. We simply look at it, and to a certain degree we ‘know it. We do [not] go through a one-by-one, sequential, additive process. We perceive that it is, and we are able to distinguish it from any other object.

    “I’m suggesting that God perceives time as instantaneously as we perceive space. For us, time is difficult. Lacking higher facility, we are as blind about time as a sightless man is about space. We perceive time in the same way that we perceive music-sequentially. We explore rhythm, pitch, amplitude, texture, theme, harmonies, parallels, and contrasts. And from our perceptions we synthesize our concept of the object or event-the musical artwork-that existed in its entirety before we began our examination of it.

    “Equally complete now is each of our lives before the Lord. We explore them sequentially because we are time-blind. But the Lord, perceiving time as space, sees us as we are, not as we are becoming. We are, for him, beings without time. We are continually before him-the totality of our psyches, personalities, bodies, choices, and behaviors.” (Continually before the Lord, Commissioner’s Lecture Series [Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1974], pp. 5-6.)

    Einstein’s theory is only a theory, although it is being substantiated again and again as a valid representation of reality. How God operates through the vastness of space and the eternity of time has not been revealed in specific detail, but what information man has been given can be harmonized with what physicists are discovering about the interrelationship of space and time.

    Comment by Matt Witten — January 5, 2006 @ 5:53 pm

  11. Here are some other fun quotes:

    “The Great Jehovah contemplated the whole of the events connected with the earth, pertaining to the plan of salvation, before it rolled into existence, or ever “the morning stars sang togethor” for joy; the past, the present, and the future were and are, with Him, one eternal “now”.”
    – Joseph Smith TOPJS pg 220

    “God does not live in the dimiension of time as we do. We are not only hampered by our finiteness (experiential and intellectual) but also by being in the dimension of time. Moreover, God, since “All things are present” with Him, is not simply predicting based solely on the past. In ways that are not clear to us, He sees, rather than foresees the fututre, because all things are at once present before him.”
    – Neal A. Maxwell, source not currently known

    Now I feel like Gary :) I’ll stop now. (No offense Gary.)

    Comment by Matt Witten — January 5, 2006 @ 6:05 pm

  12. Thanks Matt. I’m familiar with that passage in the D&C manual. As I said, some CES folks are so desperate to find a way to explain how God can have exhaustive foreknowledge (without wanting to accept casual determinism) that they have taken Einstein’s theories and stretched them too far to try to fit a misunderstanding of a few passages of scripture. (I mean it quotes the dean of the fine arts college fer cryin’ out loud!) There are plenty of scriptures that indicate God is a temporal being with a past present and future too. Plus there a verses that talk about the how God’s time is simply measured differently than ours — not that he lives outside of time.

    The JS quotes are more interesting, but I think they are representative of the recurring script of the Great Play (even if it is improvised by us actors) that takes place on every inhabitted planet.

    Comment by Geoff J — January 5, 2006 @ 8:29 pm

  13. I don’t know why I am enjoying being obtuse on this but I think Alma 40:8 is part of why I get stuck on this…

    “…all is as one day with God, and time only is measured unto men.”

    I’ll have to Wiki theory of relativity and get back with you.

    At any rate, I think even without theory of relativity, there is enough material to support timelessness and progression, even though the two may seem diametrically opposed.

    Comment by Matt Witten — January 5, 2006 @ 11:37 pm

  14. Sorry for digging up old stuff, but I just found this site today.

    I think I’m going to have to buy McMurrin’s book. The topic is fascinating and those are concepts I have been feeling extremely strong leanings towards without ANY exposure to formal philosophy education or even a knowledge that prominent LDS leaders shared those theories. Personally, after reading the King Follett Discourse ([check out the “newly amlgamated text”] which I accept as being reliable as a teaching of Joseph Smith), I think it is made clear that Joseph didn’t believe in a timeless God in the definition that I think is in use in this thread.

    So if timelessness is out, the next question for me would be omniscience; especially in the foretelling of the future (prophecy) which is done many times throughout scripture. If you accept that scripture is true, and accept that certain interpretations that some prophecies have been fulfilled, it implies that God could “see the future” and communicate it to prophets. That idea seems in opposition to the idea of agency. God knew that Joseph Smith would be the vehicle for restoration and communicated it in Genesis, but what if Joseph chose a different path? Surely he had that choice, right? Well, how about this for a theory: perhaps God’s omniscience is actually measured in how deeply He knows us, rather than in a sense of time. Think of how you get to know how your own children react to things and how you can actually start to predict what they will do. Magnify that by the glory of God and imagine how God, who is infinitely more experienced and intelligent than we are, can know us so well that he knows exactly what our choices will be even though we approach each choice with complete and unmolestable agency.

    mmmmmmmmmm, speculation. yum.

    Of course, I must follow up with my confession that while I live with a fierce thirst for theological knowledge, I am still perfectly happy subjugating myself to the possibility that I could be wrong. I would be willing to accept that the answer that seems rationally implausible could be correct, and also that there could be some third answer that my mind is just not developed enough to understand yet. That intellectual patience is a bi-product of my faith in a benevolent and personal God. Because the God of my belief loves me and actually makes me happier every day, it doesn’t even feel uncomfortable to submit to Him. Its an act of empowerment on my part. A gift to Him, rather than the result of me losing a battle with Him.

    Comment by Clay — January 17, 2006 @ 3:54 pm

  15. Hey Clay,

    Here are all of my posts related to the questions of God’s foreknowledge (or not). Perhaps you also saw the current discussion at T&S where I am guest posting this week.

    Comment by Geoff J — January 17, 2006 @ 5:36 pm

  16. Yes, I see that now. Looks like I need to do [a lot] more homework before opening my mouth [keyboard]. :-0

    Comment by Clay — January 18, 2006 @ 8:38 am

  17. From #6: I was once taught that an alternative translation of “I AM THAT I AM” was “I am becoming what I am becoming.” Wish I knew where I got that. Sorry.

    You could have read it in many places, because it goes back to the meaning of the verb “haya” (Strong #1961) which the KJV translates as “am”. Without going to more elaborate lexicons, let me give you the beginning of the definition in Strong’s own abbreviated lexicon. It reads “[Q] to be, become, happen; [N] to be done, happen; the common verb of being, referring to state of being, change of state, and the occurance or change of state, existence, and the occurring of events, or even possession…
    I am sure other lexicons would show the same variations.

    Comment by Lorin — January 30, 2006 @ 11:37 pm

  18. Nice pull Lorin. Thanks!

    Comment by Geoff J — January 30, 2006 @ 11:49 pm

  19. Are you going to continue your reading of McMurrin? I’d like to get in on this.

    Comment by Craig Atkinson — January 31, 2006 @ 8:10 am

  20. Hey Craig,

    Yes, I plan to keep slowly working through the whole McMurrin book. The book is pretty short so feel free to join in here. Maybe I’ll get the next installment up this week.

    Comment by Geoff J — January 31, 2006 @ 9:19 am

  21. I’ve read the book several times, but it’s been a while so I should probably go back and re-read. I think this book does a great job of sparking discussion.

    Comment by Craig Atkinson — January 31, 2006 @ 11:15 am