I would like to take some time to evaluate how Widtsoe’s teachings have held up over time and what we can learn today from his “rational theology”. I thought it would be fun to see how my conceptions of the book evolve while I read through, this being my first full introduction to Widtsoe. This post will review Chapters 1-4 for those interested in turning to the source. Six years after writing this Church Manual, John A. Widtsoe was ordained an apostle.
Epistemology– After briefly introducing the purpose of his work, Widtsoe goes into a brief explanation of “How Knowledge is Gained” which acts both as an epistemology as well as an explanation of the methodology used to derive the contents which follow in the book. Widtsoe’s exposition is fairly simple: We rely on our senses, but without assistance, this would limit us to a very small part of the universe. This assistance or â€œsixth senseâ€ exists and can be received. In Widtsoe’s own words â€œBy Proper preparation and exertion he may intercept messages from out of the directly unknown, as complete as this may be done by man-made instruments.
Widtsoe notes the importance of learning as much as we can of what our predecessors have learned, to which we might add whatever new information we can discover. Building a “safe” science or religion comes from first gathering all the already known information, rather than in attempting to start fresh. By safe, I think Widtsoe means as accurate and true as we can possibly make it. Widtsoe later goes on to clarify that no single man can know all the details of all currently available information, and thus we must derive the general principles from the multitude of facts available to us. All information should then be examined in the “light of reason” to discern what knowledge is true knowledge and what is false.
Perhaps the most interesting statement in Widtsoe’s “epistemology” is this:
The Gospel does not claim possession of ultimate knowledge man is ordinarily allowed to work out for himself the truths of the universe and to organize them into systems of thought which he may follow profitably. Knowledge is given directly by [God] only when it becomes indispensable to do so. The distinguishing feature of the Gospel is that it possesses the key to the true philosophy of life. In outline it offers the entire plan if life in the universe.
Ultimately, for Widtsoe, it all comes down to our own ability to reason as the final stopping point in deciding what is and isn’t truth. All truth should be then accepted and no truth should be rejected.
Mainly, Widtsoe’s epistemology is a success up to this point in that it takes such a high level view, and does not get into the problem fighting out a method to determine what exactly is and isn’t true.
This makes the next section entitled “fundamental certainty” a bit more challenging, however for the modern critical reader. What Widtsoe says is true enough, that a religion (which he terms the more generic and accurate “philosophy of life”) needs to be “based on irrevocable truth. That which is true must always remain true, though the application may change from generation to generation.” In a modern age and arena where we all have doubts, it is hard to accept that our ability to reason can give us things we can be fundamentally certain are absolutely true. He is correct though, that the absence of confidence is what leads people to either continually search for a satisfying philosophy or to reject their old philosophies.
At this point (and in the middle of chapter 3), Widtsoe transitions from how we know what is true to begin talking about the truths of our religion. He begins his discussion by enumerating those things which we hold to have always existed. This is very important to Mormonism, as the LDS church rejects ex nihilo creation. The first point that Widtsoe wants to make in teaching the truth of the LDS gospel is that it â€œholds strictly to the conception of a material universe.â€ By this it means that even God exists within the material universe and there is no going beyond the material universe. (Whether this excludes the concept of a multiverse is debatable, I would think.) Widtsoe evokes the harmony of science and Mormonism by noting that the essence of matter is without beginning or end. Perhaps he means the bits that make up quarks? He goes beyond this by acknowledge the next logical step, that energy is also eternal and thus indestructible. This is a new concept to me, and I am interested in itâ€™s implications. Sadly, while I am still trying to figure out what it means that energy is eternal, Widtsoe moves on quickly to where he sees our religion going beyond this scientific premise. This is where he moves into discussing the eternal intelligence.
It is also interesting to see which of the models of pre-existence Widtsoe follows, because he offers a second alternative (or at least a better wording) to the BH Roberts model that also creates a harmony between Young and Smith’s models.
Widtsoe uses Intelligence in a very different way than Roberts, possibly relating it his understanding of Young and Pratt. He builds from his explanation of the eternal nature of energy, saying:
The Gospel teaches that, associated with the universal energy that vivifies universal matter, and possibly identified with it, is universal intelligence, a force which is felt wherever matter and energy are found, which is everywhere. The forces of the universe do not act blindly, but are expressions of a universal intelligence. That a degree of intelligence is possessed by every particle of energized matter cannot be said; nor is it important. All the products of nature are the products of intelligence. We may even conceive that energy is only a form of intelligence.
Thus Widtsoe seems to be lining himself up between Pratt and Young in their models, except it turns out this intelligence he is speaking is not necessarily just pre-mortal spirits. After the above quote, Widtsoe immediately clarifies: Personal man also is eternal. Every other intelligence in the universe , visible or invisible, is eternalâ€¦ He goes on to say that matter, energy, and intelligence- the fundamental elements of the universe- are all acting upon one another, and that there is order to things, being that the same cause will bring about the same effect when all other conditions are the same. Thus this “law of cause and effect” implies the eternal nature of the plan of salvation, being that the way man may gain his salvation has always been the same.
So how does Widtsoe create a harmony of the models of Young and Smith, without hitting the road blocks that so many see in the works of Roberts? My answer would be that he does so beautifully.
Man has eternally “possessed distinct individuality impossible of confusion with any other individuality among the hosts of intelligent beings. Through endless ages, man has risen by slow degrees to his present state.” Widtsoe, in just 29 words, has harmonized Smith and Young.
Widtsoe says speculation on the early stages in man’s development, while “most interesting”, is profitless. However, he says some things are fairly certain. Man always possessed intelligence. In other words, he was always externally aware, always able to learn, and had “an independent and individual will”. In the “primeval condition” it was through the exercise of this will that man grew, remained passive, or retrograded. (Thus Widtsoe harmonizes the disintegration of spirits supported by Young.)
These primeval beings, having will, exercised their will upon the universe. Widtsoe says:
By the use of this will upon the contents of the universe, man must have become what he now is. The above doctrine involves the idea of self-effort. It is only when the will is exercised in a certain direction that the support of other forces may be secured so that progress in that direction may be acceleratedâ€¦ The culture, training and use of the will, for good or evil, determine primarily the direction of an individual life.
Other observations of Chapters 1-4:
1. Widtsoe gets himself in a bit of metaphorical trouble by first setting up the concept of items then discussing matters contextually by using the term “In the beginning” in quotes, so to mean there is no beginning, but he has to use some sort of contextual term. The problem arises in that in many instances, the quotes are forgotten where they are obviously intended and thus there does come a little confusion from the mixing of metaphors.
2. In Going through the four chapters, Widtsoe has barely even mentioned God in his theology. I get the impression, though I may be incorrect, that among the eternal intelligences, in the Primeval state, Widtsoe considered God “just one of the guys.”