On My Creeping Universalism

January 28, 2009    By: Geoff J @ 8:20 pm   Category: Bloggernacle,Eternal Progression,Life,Theology,Universalism

Questions like this one don’t create any anxiety for me these days. I blame it on my creeping universalism.

By creeping universalism I mean this: I just can’t bring myself to believe in permanent divine punishment anymore. I know some people believe in it and I don’t begrudge them their beliefs — I just think they are wrong. Don’t misunderstand — I believe in divine justice. That is largely why I don’t believe in permanent punishment. If our souls are eternal I just don’t think there is anything we could do in 70 years here that would warrant infinite punishment. So I think people pay in some fashion for every sin they refuse to repent of; I just think that process won’t take forever. So when someone asks if I will end up in the highest kingdom of heaven (whatever that means) I feel confident in saying “yup”. I just think y’all will end up in the same condition too. (Heck, I now vaguely suspect we may have always been in that condition before our sojourn here on this planet as well…) That is what I mean by my creeping universalism.

Now for the bad parts about universalism. It can be really bad for motivation. People who think they can procrastinate being good (and by being good I basically mean loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves) pretty much do procrastinate being good. We humans are generally more motivated by sticks than carrots; more motivated by fear of pain than hope for joy/peace. So universalism tends to take the fear out of being an awful, selfish, unloving person. Now this can be mitigated by believing in the temporary hell of Mormonism (aka spirit prison) but for whatever reason the prospects of a millennium suffering for our own sins doesn’t have the same motivational power for a lot of people as the prospects of eternal damnation. So even if my suspicions about universalism are true, it may be that God knows that not everything that is true is useful in the end (and not everything that is useful is true). In fact I suspect we have evidence of that in our scriptures.

Now for the good parts of universalism. There is really something to be said for lightening up, mellowing out, and simply enjoying our lives and relationships and the simple joys of life here on earth. As my personal leanings toward universalism increase the less judgmental I feel about my fellow travelers here on earth. While my creeping universalism is not particularly helpful to my missionary zeal, it seems that I can appreciate people better now regardless of their beliefs. It turns out that when you are no longer worried that someone is going to permanent hell for his/her choices it makes a real friendship a lot more natural.

One of my favorite movie characters ever is Crush, the sea turtle in Finding Nemo. I want to be more like Crush. There is something really right about his attitude toward life. I think my creeping universalism is making me more like Crush — more mellow, more accepting, more loving, less anxious in general. I think that is a good thing so I am not fighting it these days.

61 Comments »

  1. Some time ago I thumbed through and read parts of If Grace Is True, Why God Will Save Every Person (here’s an evangelical review http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/15025.htm
    I cannot recall in detail the argument of the two Quaker authors, but my recollection is that it had some Mormon tinges–i.e., that God’s grace and love can (and will) draw people to Him after death at some point in the eternities.

    I agree with the title of the book, although I would qualify it by saying God will save everyone (but only if everyone wants to be saved). And by saved, I mean receiving the highest most meaningful blessings God bestows (which in Mormon theology means exaltation). As far as I can tell, every person I have become acquainted with wants to do good and to be happy and at peace, in their heart of hearts.

    Some of us, though, must, for whatever reason, learn what is evil through our own experience (and hitting bottom) so that we can learn (and begin to desire) to do good. Thus, I do not see earth life so much as an final exam to grade, in an eternal sense, all of us on a bell curve, but I see it as a place and time (including the spirit world) for us to learn (and begin to love) to do good.

    Comment by DavidH — January 28, 2009 @ 9:50 pm

  2. “I just don’t think there is anything we could do in 70 years here that would warrant infinite punishment.”

    True, but the choices we make in our 70 years here will influence who we are in the next 70 years, and the choices we make in the next 70 years will influence our character/choices for the following 70 years…

    Comment by rp — January 28, 2009 @ 10:32 pm

  3. I’m not sure I’ve ever done (or not done) something out of fear of eternal punishment.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 28, 2009 @ 11:15 pm

  4. DavidH: for us to learn (and begin to love) to do good.

    We certainly can do good and love here. But I find it inconceivable that we didn’t do those things very well prior to arriving here as well.

    rp: True, but the choices we make in our 70 years here will influence who we are in the next 70 years

    Maybe. But can we say the choices we made in the 70 years prior to our birth here had any discernible influence on who we are here? I doubt it. Veils/amnesia tend to mess that up. So when we remember who we were for the infinity of time before we got here how influential will our choices as an amnesiac really be on us?

    Jacob: I’m not sure I’ve ever done (or not done) something out of fear of eternal punishment.

    I’d say you are a very unusual Mormon and Christian then. Whether it is conscious or not, I think fear of eternal punishment is a very effective motivator in the lives of most religionists, including us Christians. See here.

    Comment by Geoff J — January 29, 2009 @ 12:23 am

  5. Geoff, I say this with a smile, but I’m also shaking my head.

    You’re weird.

    Why is it that most of the time when a Mormon gets serious about putting together a coherent theology, he ends up in left field… fringe?

    Where are the thoughtful champions of traditional, mainstream Mormonism? They’re so hard to find.

    Take care,

    Aaron

    PS It seems most Mormons I talk to say that D&C 19 is only ascribing a temporary duration to the spirit prison, not to outer darkness. Any thoughts on this?

    Comment by Aaron — January 29, 2009 @ 2:08 am

  6. I too am nearly universalist (as I think you already know). Welcome to the dark side!

    Aaron,
    What does traditional Mormonism have to say on this matter? I know the three kingdoms and all that, but does it ever indicate the relative size of the three kingdoms?

    Comment by John C. — January 29, 2009 @ 4:59 am

  7. I’m getting more universalist also. I think the three degrees doctrine makes us borderline universalists as is – all but the sons of perdition will be saved from death and hell.

    I am not sure that whatever separation there will be in the eternities will be the natural result of free will and not an active punishment from God.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — January 29, 2009 @ 5:09 am

  8. Geoff, welcome.

    Comment by Ronan — January 29, 2009 @ 6:40 am

  9. I’m with Jacob on this. Since I’ve been a member, the Church has been mostly universalist in it’s teachings, what with the doctrines of the Temple, and with the idea of eternal progression, coupled with the concept of our own work being a key factor in our eternal happiness.

    Further, the plan has been Ballard’s “Plan for Happiness” for over twenty years now. A major factor in this is the idea that the whole plan is to make us more happy and joyful than we were before. (I do believe, unlike Geoff, it does increase our capacity for Joy)

    Also, perhaps Truman Madsen was introduced to me early on as a member, but BH Roberts advocacy of eternal natural law and order in the universe has always been part of the Mormonism I am a member of.

    Geoff is not on the left fringe with the idea of near universalism.

    Universalism doesn’t mean the Church isn’t true or the Great Plan of Happiness doesn’t work.

    Comment by Matt W. — January 29, 2009 @ 7:16 am

  10. Geoff: Being a “near” universalist is not the same as being a universalist. God saves all who choose to be saved. He exalts all to his kingdom who choose to be in his kingdom. The thing about free will is that they might not choose it. They might. Granted that it is stupid not to choose the greatest joy possible and that is what God’s plan is all about. It is just that God honors all of choices — all of them. It is just possible that some or even all will choose to reject God.

    Now because God is the most persuasive being possible and completely loving with absolute commitment and resolve, it seems quite likely that he’ll eventually get to all of us. But the point of persuasion rather than coercion is that it is finally up to us and not to God.

    What do you say of the possibility of rejecting God once we have achieved exaltation? Given an eternity, does it seem to you that if we once choose to be exalted and then have an eternity to make a different decision that it is inevitable that we will all choose to reject the exaltation once received? Note that exaltation isn’t a destination but a continuing process of growth to further exaltations so that the process never stops. Having once achieved one exaltation, there are infinitely greater possibilities to achieve. So what does it mean to finally be exalted on such a view?

    Comment by Blake — January 29, 2009 @ 7:33 am

  11. Aaron,

    I think what Blake describes is a very traditional Mormon view concerning the afterlife (although there is certainly a no-progression-between-kingdoms crowd as well). The fact that we retain our free will is what makes it all “near” universalism. As he noted, the retention of free will is the thing that makes even outer darkness potentially temporary based on free choices. The beauty of this near-Univeralism doctrine is that it protects us from turning into Christian-in-name but clearly unChristian-in-practice whack-job jihadists-against-other-religions like most of the anti-Mormon crowd you like to hang with.

    All,

    I think the difference for me lately regarding this universalism subject has more to do with our premortal existence than our post mortal existence. I have had this growing sneaking suspicion that if spirits/minds are beginningless then perhaps we were all already part of the divine chorus/council/concert that makes up the unified one God even before arriving here — and even eternally so perhaps. (See here and here) That suspicion is decidedly not traditional (and of course it certainly could be dead wrong).

    Comment by Geoff J — January 29, 2009 @ 8:37 am

  12. Blake said:
    What do you say of the possibility of rejecting God once we have achieved exaltation? Given an eternity, does it seem to you that if we once choose to be exalted and then have an eternity to make a different decision that it is inevitable that we will all choose to reject the exaltation once received?

    I want to try to answer that. While I would agree that exaltation is continued progression, I lean toward the view that those who are exalted have arrived at a rationality that ensures continual communion and dedication to God. I am not speaking of a loss of agency but of a solidity of character that makes rejecting God not impossible but absolutely impractical.
    Your question seemed to be geared toward requiring near-universalists (such as myself and it seems most posters here) to acknowledge that with freedom and infinite time, exalted humans in some cases would choose to then reject God. However, it would seem to me that YOUR arguments as to how we know God, (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) will stay united, loving, and … while being free could apply here.
    Charity, TOm

    Comment by TOm Rosson — January 29, 2009 @ 9:08 am

  13. Welcome home Geoff.

    DavidH – The same two guys also wrote “If God is Love?” I enjoyed that one also.

    Hans Urs Von Balthasas’ book “Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?” is another good one.

    I think there is such a thing as pure evil. Whether or not the same people stay evil or if others take there place over time, I am not sure. But it is hard to imagine someone staying evil, in the presence of pure love, forever.

    Comment by CEF — January 29, 2009 @ 9:36 am

  14. Aaron,

    PS It seems most Mormons I talk to say that D&C 19 is only ascribing a temporary duration to the spirit prison, not to outer darkness. Any thoughts on this?

    I’ve been a member for quite some time now and read a fair number of books on Mormon theology and scripture. We have discussed D&C 19 at length here with people who disagree as to its meaning. I can’t remember hearing this interpretation before, although it certainly sounds plausible that someone might advance it. Do you know of any publication (book, article, whatever) where a Mormon has advanced this view or is it just the people who swing by your blog? I’d be interested to find out if I’ve missed out on a prevalent interpretation.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 29, 2009 @ 10:03 am

  15. I thought Aaron was just mentioning a standard view of spirit prison and outer darkness there Jacob — that the former is temporary and the latter is permanent. That can’t be a new idea to you… what am I missing?

    Comment by Geoff J — January 29, 2009 @ 8:33 pm

  16. I don’t think God actively punishes people except as a matter of deterrence. He just leaves them alone, to suffer the natural consequences of their own actions.

    Joseph Smith said “that the punishment of hell was to go with that society who have obeyed not his commands”. That doesn’t sound like a major drain on the heavenly economy to me.

    Finally, it is worth noting that D&C 29 strongly hints that a plan may be made for the possible redemption of sons of perdition. The important principle here is there is no redemption, no salvation worth speaking of without repentance. If you don’t repent the general tenor of the scriptures implies you will indeed remain in an unsaved state until you do.

    The idea that there is any salvation worth speaking of for the unrepentant is the closest thing to false doctrine I can think of. Salvation is only possible because of repentance.

    Comment by Mark D. — January 29, 2009 @ 9:25 pm

  17. Gotta agree with Geoff — it is pretty standard doctrine that the spirit prison is emptied at the second resurrection and only “outer darkness” or perdition is said to be eternal in Section 76. But of course we have to ask what “eternal” means in this particular context.

    Comment by Blake — January 29, 2009 @ 10:47 pm

  18. Blake: It is standard doctrine all right, standard doctrine that the scriptures contradict in dozens of places.

    Comment by Mark D. — January 29, 2009 @ 11:01 pm

  19. Aww gee Geoff… and to think I remember you from all the way back in 2004 when you were still channeling Bruce R. McConkie…

    Comment by Seth R. — January 29, 2009 @ 11:30 pm

  20. Hehe. You must be thinking of some other guy Seth. (Of course the evidence is all here at the blog if I ever actually did channel BRM — I just don’t think you’d have much luck supporting that claim…)

    Comment by Geoff J — January 29, 2009 @ 11:40 pm

  21. Seth R: I don’t know whether he was the originator of the idea, but I think the contemporary secondary definition of salvation that includes the unrepentant scum of the earth is a first class perversion.

    Ultimately, the scriptures have to make sense, and if they don’t make sense the conflicts should be resolved in a way so that they do. This definition both leads people to believe that they have a free ride to heaven whether they repent or not, and leads others to believe that the lower two degrees of glory are slightly upgraded versions of hell.

    I think the most consistent reading of the scriptures is that telestial glory roughly corresponds to what we tend to think the lowest degree of the celestial is like. Baptism, repentance, and all the rest. If it isn’t I would say that the plan of salvation would not be worth the paper it is printed on, so to speak.

    Comment by Mark D. — January 30, 2009 @ 12:35 am

  22. Mark,

    I think you are absolutely right that there is no salvation without repentance. However, I think you are discounting the idea that everyone will repent in the next life (except the SofP).

    Comment by Kent (MC) — January 30, 2009 @ 9:12 am

  23. Kent, I believe that the plan of salvation is indeed designed to lead to the eventual repentance of virtually everybody. That is what makes it a plan of salvation.

    Comment by Mark D. — January 30, 2009 @ 11:24 am

  24. Great, another thread that preemptively concludes due to universal agreement. Is anyone not a universalist?

    Comment by Kent (MC) — January 30, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

  25. Kent,

    Here’s an anti-universalism post. But as usual this guy mostly attacks the “free-ride” straw man version of Universalism. That is much easier to attack that the free choice version of it.

    But there is plenty of Mormon opposition to universalism in the progression between kingdoms debate. See here and here and here for a couple of those debates.

    Comment by Geoff J — January 30, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

  26. I also have to agree with Geoff. Spiritual punishment goes on in the spirit prison. We will suffer completely for any sins we refuse to repent completely of. And as with Alma, our punishment will be extremely intense, until we finally are humbled enough to repent and be released from that punishment.

    That must be the reason Alma told the poor that they were humbled because they were compelled, but more blessed are those who humble themselves without being compelled (Alma 32).

    Personally, I cannot seem to dismiss the idea that progression occurs, at least in the kingdoms of glory. There has to be a reason for angels to descend from higher kingdoms to minister to those in the lower kingdoms (D&C 76). If not to help them progress to a higher kingdom, then what?

    Comment by Rameumptom — January 30, 2009 @ 1:40 pm

  27. Yeah Rameumptom, when Mormons vigorously oppose univeralism they normally do so on two front:

    1. They oppose the idea that those in outer darkness could ever choose God and eventually be exalted
    2. They oppose the notion of progression between kingdoms and thus insist that while most people will be saved, only a relative handful will be exalted.

    Comment by Geoff J — January 30, 2009 @ 2:15 pm

  28. Geoff: There is a distinction to be made between a prediction of how many will be exalted, how many can be exalted, and whether there is a deadline.

    One might reasonably hold the position that a relatively small number are likely to be exalted, but that there isn’t anything permanently preventing the others from rising to such a state.

    Comment by Mark D. — January 30, 2009 @ 6:57 pm

  29. I wouldn’t have a problem with anyone holding that position Mark. However I do think that it is hard to explain why a rational person with the capacity for maximal joy and freedom to choose such would not end end up choosing it over an infinite amount of time though.

    Comment by Geoff J — January 30, 2009 @ 7:19 pm

  30. One reason might be that exaltation requires more effort than they care to engage in. However, I don’t have a strong position either way, other than to say that participation in a divine concert seems to be a rather more easily achievable goal than singular omnipotence. On that count, I probably fall into the more rather than less category.

    Comment by Mark D. — January 30, 2009 @ 7:47 pm

  31. We humans are generally more motivated by sticks than carrots; more motivated by fear of pain than hope for joy/peace.

    If that’s true–and forever true—then I can’t see anyone ever being exalted (with or without universalism). But I don’t think it’s true.

    While my creeping universalism is not particularly helpful to my missionary zeal, it seems that I can appreciate people better now regardless of their beliefs.

    I can’t help but think that makes you a better missionary: less zealous, more loving.

    Comment by BrianJ — February 1, 2009 @ 4:31 am

  32. Well be “we humans” I mean the mammal, earthly, mortal version of us. I don’t have the studies but I suspect that the pain avoidance thing being a better overall all motivator than pleasure/happiness seeking is demonstrable (though there is obviously some overlap between the two).

    Comment by Geoff J — February 1, 2009 @ 9:08 am

  33. Okay, so you agree that if eternal beings are always more motivated by pain than pleasure then no one will ever be exalted?

    And are you also implying that mortals are more responsive to pain whereas resurrected beings are not?

    It’s sort of off-topic, but the reason I disputed the pleasure/pain comment is that pain as the major motivator doesn’t explain martyrs, addiction, altruism, daily excercise (especially running, blech!), etc.; i.e., a whole host of common behaviors where desire for pleasure overcomes pain aversion. The difficulty in the religious context may be that it’s hard to really articulate what kind of pleasure heaven is.

    Comment by BrianJ — February 1, 2009 @ 6:05 pm

  34. BrianJ: are you also implying that mortals are more responsive to pain whereas resurrected beings are not

    I don’t know enough about spirits or resurrected beings to compare them with mortal humans. I only am saying that humans are generally more powerfully motivated by pain aversion than by pleasure seeking.

    you agree that if eternal beings are always more motivated by pain than pleasure then no one will ever be exalted

    I haven’t heard any compelling arguments to lead me to believe that.

    Again, I do think that rational beings would seek the least pain and most joy. I suspect that spirits and resurrected beings are more rational than mortal humans.

    pain as the major motivator doesn’t explain martyrs, addiction, altruism, daily excercise (especially running, blech!)

    This is where the gray areas come in. If someone would find it more painful (emotionally or physically) to be fat/unhealthy than to exercise then we could call daily exercise pain aversion too.

    But look at it this way: Let’s say someone wanted you to run a marathon in less than 4 hours by next Fall. What would be a better motivator for you:

    1) A billion tax free dollars if you did it (big carrot — pleasure seeking motivation)
    2) The threat of having one of your children permanently taken away from you (big stick — pain aversion motivation)

    If you say anything but 2) there is something very odd about you.

    Comment by Geoff J — February 1, 2009 @ 6:25 pm

  35. If you say anything but 2) there is something very odd about you.

    Nah, they’d both be sufficiently motivating that there’s no comparison. FWIW, I cycle daily and every day it hurts, but I do it in spite of the pain. Running is just so…terrestrial.

    always more motivated by pain than pleasure then no one will ever be exalted

    I’m going to do a terrible job explaining (let alone defending) my thoughts, but here goes: Exaltation seems to require fully giving oneself over to love of others (including God)—”deny yourself” and all that. God can’t make me love him; I have to make that leap. I can see how fear will drive someone toward God, but the last bit—the exalted bit—has to be out of love. If pain/fear is what drives us into oneness with God, wouldn’t that also be what keeps us there? So the Godhead (or divine chorus, etc.) is held together not by charity, but by fear?

    (Sorry, probably lots of logical leaps there. But if I’m wrong I’d “love” to be shown why.)

    Comment by BrianJ — February 2, 2009 @ 9:20 am

  36. I don’t doubt that they both would be sufficiently motivating, but that wasn’t the question. The question was which would be more motivating.

    If pain/fear is what drives us into oneness with God, wouldn’t that also be what keeps us there?

    Again we are dealing with the problem of this being two sides of the same coin in the end. For instance my greatest earthly joy is derived from my loving relationships with my family and friends. Losing those relationships would cause me unimaginable pain. So do I nurture my relationships out of fear of pain (which would result if I damage/destroy those relationships) or desire for joy (which results from me nurturing those relationships)? Answer: Yes. They are one in the same.

    Comment by Geoff J — February 2, 2009 @ 10:35 am

  37. Geoff (#15), Thanks, I was misreading Aaron’s question about D&C 19.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 2, 2009 @ 12:43 pm

  38. Geoff, I can see what you mean about pain/pleasure being sides of a coin, but I’m not sure I see that applying to entering into a relationship with God. Do you love your wife because you are afraid of being alone, or because you think she’s awesome? Do you run to her or run away from bachelorhood? A man who loves his wife because he is a afraid of losing her isn’t really interested in her—he might one day find someone he likes more and run to her. Sorry if I’m being obtuse.

    I don’t doubt that they both would be sufficiently motivating, but that wasn’t the question. The question was which would be more motivating.

    The problem is that they are both more-than-sufficient. Which will kill you deader: five bullets or being dismembered by sharks?

    Comment by BrianJ — February 2, 2009 @ 12:53 pm

  39. Brian: The problem is that they are both more-than-sufficient.

    Alright, since you seem intent on dancing around the question, let’s get to the heart of it: Would you sell one of your children (in the sense you would permanently lose contact with her) for a billion dollars? If not then we have our answer about which is more motivating.

    I’m not sure I see that applying to entering into a relationship with God

    This assumes there was a time before we had any relationship with God at all. I doubt that there ever was such a time. (Despite the fact that we may have forgotten that ongoing relationship upon arriving here).

    Comment by Geoff J — February 2, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

  40. Geoff,

    If you haven’t already, read James Fowler’s book, The Stages of Faith, and you will see why you are experiencing “creeping universalism”.

    Comment by Bill B. — October 27, 2009 @ 10:43 am

  41. Interesting reference Bill B. Thanks for stopping by.

    Comment by Geoff J — October 27, 2009 @ 9:17 pm

  42. Oh. Don’t be converted by Fowler Geoff. Please. (I hate Fowler’s The Stages of Faith)

    Comment by Clark — October 28, 2009 @ 10:11 pm

  43. Clark,

    Why do you hate Fowler’s book?

    Comment by Bill B. — October 29, 2009 @ 5:26 am

  44. I was already aware of the Fowler stages of faith Clark (though Bill’s note prompted me to refresh my memory). The problem I see with them is that they come off as “just-so” pronouncements and they simply proclaim universalism to be the highest and most enlightened kind of faith. Since Fowler is surely a universalist himself it is hard to take such pronouncements too seriously. However, because of that I took Bill’s comment as a compliment and left it at that.

    Comment by Geoff J — October 29, 2009 @ 9:48 am

  45. Geoff,

    It’s fine if you disagree with Fowler. And he probably is a universalist. However, I don’t think you should discount his model for spiritual development without a solid reason. I say this for a couple of reasons. First, he developed his model after a lot of research (359 interviews with people about their beliefs and views of life) and identified from this data the trends he saw. It’s hard to argue with data–something we in the church are often sorely lacking in our discussions of doctrine. However, I agree that the interpretation of data can be skewed by bias. Second, I seem to have personally experienced some of the stages he talked about in the order he described. So, they ring true with me. (So, I may be biased also.) Third, his book contains some very good insight about what motivates people to think and act the way they do. For example, his ideas explain a lot of the friction we see in the church between the group who don’t want to hear any speculation about doctrine and those who want to be free to think. I also see in his conclusions the trend I see in the scriptures that as we progress spiritually we are motivated less by fear and more by love. There are a number of other reasons why I think Fowler has at least a partly valid model of spiritual development. (No model is completely valid.) However, I acknowledge that Fowler may simply be describing spiritual development in the direction that he recognizes as improvement, while discounting other directions that may be more the direction that God wants it to go. And spiritual development probably is more multidimensional than Fowler is able describe. However, I have trouble seeing why he has not identified more or less the general direction in which God is leading the masses of humanity (as opposed to just those in the church) in our spiritual progression. Perhaps you can help me Geoff?

    Comment by Bill B. — October 29, 2009 @ 11:33 am

  46. Bill, the biggest problem is that he considers this akin to Piaget’s developmental stages. (And clearly he’s significantly influenced by Piaget) However if there are truth claims then the kind of universalism he postulates are intrinsically problematic. Further by using the idea of progression he explicitly promotes his Stage 5 as the “highest” or “most developed” stage. That is there is an implicit valuation at work. There are also many critiques of how he reads Piaget. Piaget’s work is less problematic precisely becaue he sees the stages as natural part of biological maturation. Fowler’s use (or abuse) of this implies that proper faith maturation should reach his stage 5 and one could argue that this is natural. This becomes highly problematic.

    The easiest way to see this is to replace religion by science in the analysis. Would a stage 5 version of science make any sense? Effectively the analysis works only if truth claims are irrelevant. But because his universalist end point demands broad universal ethical truths his analysis undermines itself.

    Comment by Clark — October 29, 2009 @ 11:49 am

  47. Bill B. I have limited experience with Fowler, but something I have not seen from him is any sort of predictive modeling which would show, for example, causal methods for moving from one stage to another. ie- There is nothing there which allows me to say that since stage 3 is better than stage 2, all I need do is allow a person in stage 2 to do X,Y,and Z and they will move to stage 3.

    Comment by Matt W. — October 29, 2009 @ 11:49 am

  48. Oh I didn’t say I disagree with Fowler Bill. I am agnostic on the subject. I can say the stages make some intuitive sense to me. But of course coming to the conclusion that some variety of universalism is true does not make some form of universalism true so it is a bit presumptuous of Fowler to claim universalism is “more enlightened” than the alternatives.

    Comment by Geoff J — October 29, 2009 @ 12:15 pm

  49. Clark, thanks for the response. I didn’t really understand all your arguments; I need to spend some more time thinking about them. However, I think I can respond to one. Fowler identifies six stages of faith. He does not say there are only six, only that he had data to support six. (Perhaps there is a seventh stage or more, but he interviewed no one in a stage after stage six.) He apparently was able to order the stages by noticing which faith stages lead to which other faith stages in the individuals he interviewed. (I assume this is Piaget what did with reasoning ability, but I haven’t read much of his writings, so I’m not positive.) Since one would assume that the trend for people in general is to progress in understanding (and hence faith?) over a lifetime, this would lead logically to the conclusion that the later stages are more advanced than the earlier stages. However I understand your point that just because people seem to be progressing in one direction does not mean that that is necessarily the best direction—or more advanced. Maybe people are actually decreasing in faith over a lifetime, which would make Fowler’s conclusions wrong. Also, in his book Fowler freely admits that he has trouble indentifying stage 5 and does not have enough data to adequately define stage 6—which should lessen Geoff’s “just so” objection. People who quote Fowler on the internet tend to make him sound more sure of himself than he appears to be in his book. Also, there may be some confusion because Fowler’s definition of faith is not the one that most religious people use. He doesn’t care what you believe (he calls that faith “content”, not faith); he only cares how you arrive at what you believe. Do you simply adopt some authority’s word for it without questioning the qualifications of the authority (Stage 3)? Do you figure it out for yourself (Stage 4)? Do you reach the point where you have to admit to yourself that you are intellectually incapable of identifying the truth for yourself, at which point you understand that you need help from “something else” (Stage 5)? And so on… He also freely admits that he is oversimplifying the stages, because not everyone seems to follow the stages exactly, and because he doesn’t have enough data to come to a better conclusion than he has come to.

    Matt, I don’t think Fowler can with an absolute surety identify a causal relationship. Based on the data, he can only attempt to identify what is. I don’t think this means that his observations have no value. But, yes, it would be nice to know how one progresses from one stage to the next. My speculation—based to some extent on my own experiences—is that we progress from one stage to the next when we realize that we are never going to get what we want and when we become willing to accept that. For example, to transition from Stage 2 to Stage 3, I speculate that a child must realize that he has to follow the rules of society. He can’t be “a law unto himself”. In other words, humility is the real key. And I think a different level of humility is required to transition to each stage. Perhaps that’s why Christ seems to emphasize humility above everything else? Just a guess.

    Comment by Bill B. — October 29, 2009 @ 4:04 pm

  50. I don’t think Fowler can with an absolute surety identify a causal relationship

    A lot of people would say that it is impossible with an absolute surety to identify any causal relationship. Causation, like many things epistemological, ultimately requires a bit of faith.

    Comment by Mark D. — October 29, 2009 @ 10:51 pm

  51. My stages would start out a little different…

    Stage 1 of faith: You convince yourself that life is not a dream.

    Stage 2: You understand that other people out there feel much the same way you do.

    Stage 3: You accept that causation is real, that the universe is governed by law, that the world is more than a theater of the absurd.

    Stage 4: You accept the reality of some sort of substantive ethics.

    Stage 5: You gain a belief in the reality of spiritual things, and a sort of “higher power”

    et seq.

    The stages Fowler focuses on seem to be more sociological and ecclesiastical than philosophical or theological – some people (e.g. without an religious upbringing) might skip many of them completely.

    Comment by Mark D. — October 29, 2009 @ 11:04 pm

  52. Mark,
    I agree with the people who say it is impossible to identify a causal relationship with absolute surety. I should have said that I get from Fowler’s book that he doesn’t have a high confidence that he understands the causality involved, especially with the “higher” stages. By the way, saying that I agree with people who say it is impossible to identify a causal relationship with absolute surety, means that I don’t believe it is ever possible to know anything. My feeling is that knowledge requires infallibility. This means that, according to my belief, anyone who stands up in fast-and-testimony meeting and says he knows the church is true is making an incorrect statement. He does not know the church is true, he only believes he does. However, I never argue with anyone about whether they know, because I am incapable of knowing whether they know. Also, Fowler focuses on what he calls faith the way he does because he is a developmental psychologist, not a philosopher or theologian.

    Clark,
    I’m still thinking about your comments. I’m not sure why you say that Fowler’s proposed maturation process in faith (I read his definition of the word faith as having more to do with reasoning ability than the definition of faith that we use) is more problematic than Piaget’s because Piaget sticks to biology. I need to read some more about Piaget’s work.

    Comment by Bill B. — October 30, 2009 @ 5:59 am

  53. Clark,

    Here is my response to the issues you raised earlier with Fowler’s stages of faith development. In talking about the use of genetic epistemology to determine how “science” arrives at answers, Piaget said, “The first principle of genetic epistemology, then, is this – to take psychology seriously. Taking psychology seriously means that, when a question of psychological fact arises, psychological research should be consulted instead of trying to invent a solution through private speculation.” I see Piaget’s and Fowler’s work as similar in the sense that Fowler adopted Piaget’s ways of thinking about the evolution of science (a process that takes place among a group of people) and Piaget’s ways of thinking about how individuals learn. Fowler used these ideas to conduct his own psychological research into the nature of and development of “faith” within one individual at time, and using the data derived from this he tried to define a developmental pattern, or path, that most individuals seem to follow. Fowler utilizes Piaget’s stages of cognitive development in part to help him define his stages of “faith”. Both study the development of children. In fact, the first half of Fowler’s book is devoted to talking about faith development starting in children and progressing to adulthood. From what I can gather, studying the development of children is how the term “biology” enters into Piaget’s work. If that is the case, both Piaget and Fowler’s approach have to do with “biology”. Not being a developmental psychologist myself, I could easily be naive in my views, but I am doing the best I can. Please enlighten me if you see where I am mistaken. Also, have I addressed everything that you had issues with?

    Comment by Bill B. — October 30, 2009 @ 8:12 am

  54. Clark,

    I think I just realized the meaning of your statement, “The easiest way to see this is to replace religion by science in the analysis. Would a stage 5 version of science make any sense? Effectively the analysis works only if truth claims are irrelevant.” Your wording is terse, so I could be wrong, but what I think you are saying is that you mean that science couldn’t operate by assuming that all ideas are equally true. If I understand you correctly, I think you may be misinterpreting what is meant by religious universalism (which a person might use to describe Stage 6, not Stage 5). Universalism does not imply that all ideas are equally true, or that there are no truths, or that truth doesn’t matter. It simply postulates that the more directions you’ve gone in thinking about what is true, and the more data you’ve gathered, the better your chance of being closer to understanding the truth. There are also wrapped up in universalism other harder to understand concepts like the “oneness” of all things, etc., which I don’t think is pertinent to your comment, so I’ll leave it out of my response. As I see it, science isn’t incompatible with the idea that the more data you gather the closer you are to the truth. I think this is precisely how it operates. However, individual scientists are prone to coming to hasty conclusions about the nature of reality based upon the incomplete data that they have at the time. But eventually that incomplete view is overturned (at least in theory) by further evidence. I don’t want to put words in your mouth or misrepresent what you are saying in your objection to religious universalism, but one of your concerns may be (as with many other members of the church) that “we have all the truth that has been revealed, so why should we look elsewhere?” I don’t want to take up for universalists at the expense of our own church, so I won’t try to defend them except to remind you of the 13th article of faith. We should look for truths wherever we can find them, according to Joseph Smith. In that sense universalism is a good thing. I hope I correctly interpreted your meaning and gave you an answer that satisfies you.

    Comment by Bill B. — October 30, 2009 @ 9:22 am

  55. Bill, the problem is distinguishing between Piaget and Fowler. Piaget adopts a much more defensible position even though I think it epistemologically naive to appeal to psychology for knowledge. (Psychology just doesn’t have the tools) Put an other way we have to distinguish between a fact within psychology (i.e. a scientific “fact”) versus a psychological “fact” which is only knowledge under special conditions.

    I think you are saying is that you mean that science couldn’t operate by assuming that all ideas are equally true. If I understand you correctly, I think you may be misinterpreting what is meant by religious universalism (which a person might use to describe Stage 6, not Stage 5). Universalism does not imply that all ideas are equally true, or that there are no truths, or that truth doesn’t matter. It simply postulates that the more directions you’ve gone in thinking about what is true, and the more data you’ve gathered, the better your chance of being closer to understanding the truth.

    Unfortunately that’s just not the way Fowler discusses it. Or, put an other way, if he is discussing it that way then he’s simply taking for granted that most religious claims are false and that the only ones that could be true are very, very vague ethical claims.

    Comment by Clark — October 30, 2009 @ 10:32 am

  56. BTW – the reason Piaget is more defensible is because he’s talking about biological and cognitive ways of thinking. Fowler, despite his attempts to avoid it, gets into a discussion of recognition of facts. But it is those very facts that are in debate. To the degree Fowler is doing epistemology he’s simply assuming that people who believe certain facts are misled epistemologically.

    That’s fine if you have certain views of what is correct religiously. I’d expect, for instance, most liberal Protestants to view Fowler as correct. However effectively all Fowler is doing is sneaking in a theology of religion and pretending he’s doing psychology, anthropology or epistemology by appealing to Piaget. Since many of those he is speaking to agree with him theologically he gets a softer pass than he should.

    Comment by Clark — October 30, 2009 @ 10:42 am

  57. Clark,

    I definitely agree that it is “naive to appeal to psychology for knowledge”. The value that I see in psychology is this. My view of the truth is colored (biased) by how I think. If I can understand how I think (psychology is involved here too, not just epistemology), then I have a better chance of at arriving at the truth. When I am thinking about religion, WHAT I think is very, very colored by HOW I think. So, I’d better understand how I think when I’m thinking about religion. Logic is only part of the picture. We all know that logic based on false assumptions will lead to the wrong answer. The big problem when dealing with religion is that how I think (via my psychological makeup) is the source of my assumptions. I will go so far as to say that when it comes to religion, my assumptions are more a function of who I am and how I think than they are on anything else, including what is true. For example, if I were to ask a basic religious question, “what is the value of human life?” The fact that I am a human and want to believe that I have value colors my assumptions on which I would base my logical process (that is, if I were even to attempt to use logic to get to the answer to this question). And my assumption determines the end result of my logical process. If I was Stalin, and in my mind 50 million humans were in the way of my world domination, my assumption about the value of human life would be far different. Judging by the next part of your comment though, I’m probably stating something you already consider to be obvious.
    I’m a little confused by your statement that Fowler “gets into a discussion of recognition of facts.” It sounds like you are saying that He makes a decision about which of people’s religious beliefs are correct (i.e. the content of their faith). He goes to great pains to circumvent any discussion of veracity of the CONTENT of their faith. As with Piaget, he’s talking about cognitive methods that we use to determine our faith (faith, as he calls it). The other issues he concerns himself with are perspective taking, form of moral judgment, bounds of social awareness, locus of authority, forms of world coherence, and symbolic function. I took these from his summary chart on page 244 and 245 of his book. These are the issues he concerns himself with, not WHAT we believe or the facts that we believe. I don’t see any discussion at all about which type of faith or what beliefs are better than which. For example, he says nothing about whether a Christian view is better than a Buddhist or a Taoist, etc. He does make the claim that religious perspective (as well as a social awareness, locus of authority, and view of the world) broaden over time for an individual. However, he gets this from attempting to assimilate into a coherent whole what people have said in their interviews. If you disagree with the model he puts together from the data he has, this is certainly acceptable. If this is so, then based on the data he presents in his book, what evidence can you offer that he has come to an incorrect conclusion?

    Comment by Bill B. — October 30, 2009 @ 12:34 pm

  58. Regarding Fowler and religious facts, I think the examples he uses for his higher levels are pretty illustrative and demonstrate a bias towards at best liberal protestantism.

    It’s been a few years since I last read him though so you’ll have to excuse me not giving details. Last time I had this discussion I did though. (And I’m too lazy to try and find where I last discussed it)

    Comment by Clark — November 2, 2009 @ 1:04 am

  59. That’s fine, Clark. It seems that I will not be able to change your mind about Fowler. As I said before, his conclusions ring true to me. I think the most important piece of wisdom that I’ve gained from him and a few others is that we should expect to face spiritual crises in our lives. Far from being a sign of spiritual weakness, they are an opportunity for growth. We grow spiritually by not giving into the fear of asking the hard questions as we face each one. Doubts about what we currently believe are normal, and they are an opportunity for growth, if they lead us to look for answers. I think there is a lot of wisdom in that. And I am indebted to James Fowler , Scott Peck, and a few others for that insight.
    The reason I responded to Geoff’s post about his “creeping universalism” is that I think Fowler’s conclusions lead one to see more clearly that as we grow spiritually, we become more willing to allow others to believe what they may while still valuing them as people. I had always wondered why the doctrine that Christ called his doctrine in third Nephi seemed so basic and therefore to me so incomplete. Now I think it is because “oneness”, in the sense that I think he meant it, can come without perfect agreement on every doctrine–if we are willing to have a little humility and recognize that we, and everyone else, are all still learning and growing. What we believe today, is not necessarily what we will believe tomorrow. And that is a good thing, because it means we are learning. This view leads me to believe that God is willing to cut us more slack than we may think, and that he is far, far more accepting of us than we are of each other. Based on this, I would expect to see more people in the Celestial Kingdom than just those that currently call themselves mormons. I would not even be surprised to see universalists there.

    Comment by Bill B. — November 2, 2009 @ 7:26 am

  60. I think we should still value others regardless of their beliefs. Just as I think we should expect to face spiritual crisis. I don’t think we need Fowler for either of those two truths.

    Comment by Clark — November 2, 2009 @ 9:17 am

  61. That’s good. At least we can agree on some things.

    Comment by Bill B. — November 2, 2009 @ 11:10 am

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