I want to ask a question that perhaps only an analytic philosopher would ask. But it is a very important question for Mormon philosophical theology: Is God essentially embodied? Another way of stating this rather technical logical point is: Could God choose not to have a body? Another way of stating it is as follows: Is it the case that God is a body or does God merely possess a body? In other words, could God fail to have a body and yet continue to exist?
There is another very technical question about God’s embodiment assuming that “God must be embodied” is true: could God fail to have a body and still be God? This is a technical logical question: God necessarily embodied de re or de dicto? Here is the difference. If God is necessarily embodied de re, it means that God must have a body to be God; but God does not require a body to be the person he is. For example, the mayor of Boston, Larry Jones, must be at least 30 years old because that is the law; but Larry Jones need not be at least 30 to be Larry Jones. So it is necessary de re that the Mayor of Boston is at least 30 years old. If God has a body in this sense, then the person Yahweh who holds the office of God may have to have a body to hold the office of God; but if Yahweh chose not to be embodied he would still be Yahweh but in that case Yahweh would not be God. That is the de re reading of “God is essentially embodied”. If, on the other hand, it is necessary de dicto that “God must be embodied,” then Yahweh cannot cease to have a body and cannot cease to be God. In that case embodiment is not essential to the role of God, but essential to the being who is God.
There are number of related questions. Must a being have a body in order to be God or be divine? It is often thought that L.D.S. thought requires that in order to become a god one must first have a resurrected body. However, the Holy Spirit seems to be a specific counter-example to this requirement. In fact, the pre-mortal Jesus Christ who revealed himself as the bearer of the name Yahweh is another counter-example to that requirement. The pre-mortal Christ who is fully divine did not have a resurrected body but merely a spiritual body that is in the image of the physical and mortal body that he would take upon himself in the incarnation according to Ether 3.
So it seems that a being need not have a resurrected body to be either God or divine or “a god”. However, even then D&C 130 suggests that even the spiritual body of Christ was a form of matter that was more pure and refined than matter as we know it. In fact, even resurrected bodies must be quite different than the material bodies we have. John 20: is careful to note that on one occasion when the resurrected Christ appeared to the eleven, they were assembled “when the doors were shut”. The implication is clear: the resurrected Christ went right through the walls to enter the closed room. However, his physical nature is also emphasized by showing the marks in his hands and feet. The same physical nature of the resurrected body is emphasized again in Luke 24:39: “Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.” So the resurrected Christ had a physical and tangible body that can go through walls. Is the message that Christ has a body that can be transformed from course physicality that can be touched and seen to a fine spirituality that can pass through walls?
I would also point out that there are other indications of God’s physical nature. We are made in his image and likeness of God according to Gen. 1:26-27 — and it is rather clear that image and likeness means “looks like” in the Hebrew (See e.g., Gen 5:1-3 where Adam begets Seth in his own likeness and image showing that genetic resemblance is intended). Humans look like God. In addition, there is a continuity in the Old Testament visions of God that when he appears he has the appearance of a human form. Moses’s visions of God face to face are one example. The vision of Ezekiel is very descriptive: “and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it.” (Ez. 1:26)
I suspect that Joseph Smith concluded that God has a body because he saw God in bodily form on more than one occasion. However, I hasten to add that seeing God in bodily form is not enough to establish that God either is or essentially possesses a body. It is possible that God could choose to appear that way sometimes and yet have the capacity to change forms and not appear in bodily form — as God sometimes does. So visions of God cannot establish whether God just is essentially a body or merely possesses a body and can choose not to have a body. Could Joseph Smith have read too much into his visions and assumed that God must have a body when it is merely that case that God can appear in bodily form but doesn’t have to be embodied? Did Joseph commit the fallacy of inductive reasoning that if something sometimes appears in one way that it must always appear that way? It is like asserting that since the 150 crows that I have seen are all black, therefore all crows must be black. That may turn out to be false (and in fact it appears to be falsifiable by an albino crow — but it could be true).
It seems to me that we must remain open as to whether God must be embodied. Perhaps God doesn’t have to have a body in order to be God. Perhaps even the resurrected Christ could “slough off” the physical qualities of a resurrected body and merely be a non-physical mind or something like that. Is such a view giving up something essential to Mormonism?