Several months ago I wrote a post titled “Are we eternal or is it just our parts that are eternal?” (Also see follow up posts here and here.) The basic question had to do with the nature of our Intelligences/spirits/souls. There are many in the church who believe that human spirits are simple and irreducible and beginningless. In other words, they assume that each of our spirits have existed as they are now forever. I like to call this the “whole cloth” model of spirits. This idea comes from an understandable reading of both modern scriptures and of sermons from late in the life of Joseph Smith (like the King Follet discourse). But others in the church have read the same sources and concluded that our spirits are actually made up of particles of intelligence that cleave unto each other and that while those particles are beginningless and irreducible, the new whole that is us has a beginning. This idea, often called “spiritual atomism” was first championed in the church by apostle Orson Pratt.
After giving the subject quite a bit of thought, I have concluded that there are obstacles for “whole cloth” model that render it unacceptable and inconsistent with the whole of modern revelation.
Time and Progression
The first thing that needs to be addressed is the subject of time. I have posted on the idea that God always has and always will live within time several times here already. The same thing must also apply to us for several reasons. One is that we are made of matter and matter takes space and space is inextricably connected with time. Even our spirits are made of matter according to modern scripture. Another major issue is that without time there can be no motion or progress or change. I like the way Sterling McMurrin put it:
There cannot be time without motion or motion without time.
Therefore, if the Mormon concept of eternal progression is a true doctrine then we and God always have and will live within time (even if we don’t all measure time in exactly the same way).
Infinity Plus One?
So if we have always lived within time and our spirits are beginningless as human spirits we face a paradox… We have already lived forever and have not progressed to become like God. Therefore, it makes no sense that more time could be required or even useful. We have already lived an infinite amount of time in that scheme after all. It is not like “infinity plus one” makes any sense. In other words, it seems logically impossible for us to progress to something more than human spirits (godhood) in the “whole cloth” model. If we have not progressed, over all eternity, to our current level from below; then how is it logical that we can somehow progress above our current level? Answer: It is not.
The spiritual atomism model solves this paradox and allows for eternal progression. It says that while our “spiritual atoms” are beginningless, we — who we are now — do have a beginning. We are emerging and constantly changing. We started well below where we are now and have potential to end up far beyond this point; but the point is that we had a start.
All things that have a beginning must have an end
One objection to the idea that we have a beginning is that Joseph used his ring as an analogy and stated that anything with a beginning must also have an end.
I am dwelling on the immutibility of the spirit of man, is it logic to say the spirit of man had a beginning & yet had no end, it does not have a begining & yet had no end, it does not have a begining or end, my ring is like the Exhistanc of man it has no begining or end, if cut into their would be a begining & end, so with man if it had a begining it will have an end, if I am right I might say God never had power to create the spirit of man (Ehat & Cook’s Words of Joseph Smith 346)
One way to look at this idea is the way Paul described progress by using a seed as an analogy. His point seems to be that when we plant a seed, that seed dies and has an end, but in its place something better arises. So likewise, he tells us, is our resurrection — one thing ends and a better thing replaces it. So likewise is all of our spiritual progress (or retrogression) I think. The old me is constantly ending and being replaced by the new/current me. Since we will always be in time then I think we can safely assume this will always be the case.
So here is the challenge to those of you that insist on the “whole cloth” model of spirits. How is the notion of beginningless human spirits as human spirits even logically possible without jettisoning eternal progression?
[Associated radio.blog song: All the Things You Are (as performed by Gerry Mulligan and Paul Desmond). It is in honor of all the different things you have been and will be over the eternities.]