Infinite time is a headache-inducing concept. No matter how far back we can conceive of an event happening there is always an infinite amount of time that preceded it. Philosophers have wrestled with this issue of infinite time and beginninglessness for thousands of years. Since Mormonism rejects creation ex nihilo we don’t even have the luxury of believing that only God is beginningless; we also must try to wrap our minds around the idea that all matter (including spirit matter) has no beginning.
Joseph famously commented on beginnings and endings in the April 1844 funeral sermon known as the King Follet Discourse (KFD). Here are a few accounts of those comments:
The learned says God made it in the beginning, but it is not so, I know better God has told me so… God was a self exhisting being, man exhists upon the same principle. God made a tabernacle & put a spirit in it and it became a Human soul, man exhisted in spirit & mind coequal with God himself, … I am dwelling on the immutibility of the spirit of man, is it logic to say the spirit of man had 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, God himself could not create himself. Intelligence is Eternal & it is self exhisting
(Wilford Woodruff Diary)
the mind of manâ€”the mind of man is as immortal as God himself … the SP of man I take my ring from my finger and liken it unto the mind of man, the im[mor]t. Sp. bec. it has no beging. Suppose you cut it into but as the D[evil] lives there wod. be an end all the fools & wise men from the beging. of creation who say that man had beginâ€”they must have an end & then the doc of annihilitn. wod. be trueâ€”but if I am right I mit. with boldness proclaim from the housetop that God never had power to create the Sp of Man at allâ€”it is ne God himself cod. not create himselfâ€”intelligence is self existent it is a sp. from age to end & there is no creatn abt. it
(Thomas Bullock Report)
We say that God was selfâ€”existant who told you so? It’s correct enough but how did it get into your headsâ€”who told you that man did not exist upon the same principle (refer to the bible) …The mind of manâ€”the intelligent part is coequal with God himself. I know that my testimony is true. … Is it logic to say that a spirit is immortal and yet have a beginning because if a spirit have a beginning it will have an endâ€”good logicâ€”illustrated by his ring. All the fools learned & wise men that comes and tells that man has a beginning proves that he must have an end and if that doctrine is true then the doctrine of annihilation is true. But if I am right then I might be bold to say that God never did have power to create the spirit of man at all. He could not create himselfâ€”Intelligence exists upon a selfexistent principle â€”is a spirit from age to age & no creation about it
(William Clayton Report)
Now lest you think this was an anomalous comment by Joseph in 1844, he made a very similar comment three years earlier:
The elements are eternal. That which has a beginning will surely have an end. Take a ring, it is without beginning or end; cut it for a beginning place, and at the same time you will have an ending place.
(5 January 1841- William Clayton’s Private Book)
The concept is very clear and quite simple: Anything that has a beginning must have an end.
The problem is that most Mormons just don’t believe Joseph on this one. We have good reasons to object to this teaching though: Our marriages and families here on earth have beginnings so if Joseph is correct then they must one day end as well. That doesn’t jibe well with our concept of eternal families.
The standard way to deal with this tension among most members of the church who are aware of this teaching of Joseph is to simply dismiss the ring example as an analogy gone awry. “Surely”, members tell themselves, “Joseph didn’t really mean that”. But what if he really did mean it?
The basic idea of eternal recursion or eternal return has been around for many thousands of years and in found in various forms in places ranging from ancient Egypt and ancient Greece to most Dharmic religions (the image to the right is of the Ouroboros). The wiki entry on eternal return says this:
Eternal return (also known as “eternal recurrence”) is a concept which posits that the universe has been recurring, and will continue to recur in the exact same self-similar form an incomprehensible and unfathomable number of times. The concept has roots in ancient Egypt, and was subsequently taken up by the Pythagoreans and Stoics. With the decline of antiquity and the spread of Christianity, the concept fell into disuse, though Friedrich Nietzsche briefly resurrected it.
In addition, the philosophical concept of eternal recurrence was addressed by Arthur Schopenhauer. It is a purely physical concept, involving no “reincarnation,” but the return of beings in the same bodies. Time is viewed as being not linear but cyclical.
The basic premise is that the universe is limited in extent and contains a finite amount of matter, while time is viewed as being infinite. The universe has no starting or ending state, while the matter comprising it is constantly changing its state. The number of possible changes is finite, and so sooner or later the same state will recur.
I won’t go into great detail in this post on the concept of eternal recursion but will say that this concept that Joseph was teaching with his ring analogy is found all over the world and could very well predate Abraham. In other words, this is no new-fangled concept that Joseph was teaching for the last several years of his life.
But there are a few questions that are open for debate still. Among them are these:
1. Did Joseph mean it when he implicitly taught this idea of eternal recursion?
Joseph was no philosopher so perhaps he did not know what the implications of his preaching and ring analogy really were. Then again, Joseph was a thinker and it is no stretch to argue that he knew just what the implications were. I am leaning toward the latter right now.
2. Does the idea of eternal recursion even make sense — particularly in the context of Mormon theology?
This is certainly open for debate too but I would argue that the answer to this question it yes. Here are some reasons why:
Joseph taught consistently that the mind of man = the spirit of man = the intelligence of man. He emphatically preached that our mind/spirit/intelligence is beginningless. This creates all sorts of difficult problems I think; I posted on them here. But if some form of eternal recursion holds true then I can see a model that makes sense. The basic idea is that at some point even divine persons can and do choose to empty themselves and return to lower forms of existence. Lest you think this is unfounded, this concept does resonate with the well documented(1) notion of Michael condescending to become Adam on this earth — especially since Adam became Adam and Eve and represents all of us us in the narratives.
So how would you answer my questions 1 and 2 and why?
(1) Here is just one example of this concept being taught: “The first man placed upon the earth was a perfect being, a son of God. He was Michael, the Archangel, who had reached great distinction and power before he ever came to this earth; and who helped to frame this earth while he was yet a spirit, just as our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was a spirit before he was born in Bethlehem.” (Doctrines of Salvation, vol. 1, pg 90)