Thoughts on God and Man

August 12, 2009    By: Matt W. @ 6:31 am   Category: Life,Theology

I originally wrote this with the intention that it would be my first post in my Gospel Principles series, but it is not quite what I wanted to say, so I am going to rewrite. Still, consider this draft 1, and come back around January for Draft 2.

Before thoroughly discussing who our Heavenly Father is, it is essential to understand a few basic concepts that are fundamental to LDS theology. The first of these is the eternal nature of matter, and thus, by implication, the eternal nature of the reality we exist in. Thus it can be said our faith “holds strictly to the conception of a material universe.” [1] Also, eternal laws bind this universe, and these laws bind anything within this universe. [2] [3]

Also within reality are the eternal spirits of man. While it has been the subject of debate what state these spirits have always been in [4], we are bound by scriptural mandate to refer to our spirits as eternal, meaning they “have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after”. [5] To take a leap, I’d assert this also implies another important feature of LDS belief, being that mankind’s will has always been independent and free.

So basically, we have reality set up as this always-existent space, infinitely large, and infinitely full of material stuff, which is ruled by consistent laws of cause and effect and is full of eternal spirit beings.

This gets us to a beginning of sorts [6] with our Heavenly Father. Regarding LDS Cosmology, we may say that we have a correct idea of his character in that we trusted our Father in Heaven’s knowledge and understanding of the eternal laws by which we are bound so much that we chose to be adopted by Him, to follow His plan, and to be His family. [7] God, seeing we lacked some essential characteristics He had [8] which somehow rendered us less than and other from Him, instituted a method of our being able to over come those deficiencies and improve, as He is. [9]

Further, Heavenly Father’s interest is in our improvement, indeed our scriptures assert him stating this very thing to be so important to him that he has committed it to being the of his “work and …glory”. This is because, as the Bible states, “God is love.“ [10] [*]

So we have faith that God is superior to us in some fundamental way, but that He has the capacity and desire to help us to improve to become like Him. We also have faith that His method is correct and beyond reproach, in that God’s plan is in alignment with the universal, unbreakable laws of reality and thus cannot fail. God has a perfect understanding of these laws and their unchangeableness, as well as a perfect knowledge of us, His children. Lastly we know that our Father in Heaven chose to be called our Father, signifying not only his role as mentor, but the deep abiding and intimate interest He has in each of us, His children, and His commitment to help each of us individually as well as collectively. We believe this help is available to us now through various means, and that we can call out to our Father and receive His help via prayer. Not to over do it, but perhaps most radically, we believe God truly wants to help us by any means He can. [11] These things are fundamental and arguably universal in the LDS faith.

Other characteristics of our Father in Heaven have been discussed, but are subject to either further development later, or are speculative and debatable within the scope of LDS theology [12] While some may say with certainty they know more details than this about their Heavenly Father, I can not. I can say I believe in him, and I believe in His plan and in His love. It warms and strengthens me when I am weary and despondent. It gives me hope and purpose when I am lost in the throws of despair and apathy. I profess my faith and love for Him and declare his divinity. It is only fair; as my Father’s love and faith in me are anchors I have available to me to shore me up every moment of the day. They are infinite pools of joy and peace from which I insatiably draw light and life. I do not know how I ever got by without them. [13]

[1]- A Rational Theology- John Widtsoe Chapter 3

[2] By Universe, I mean the whole of reality, and am not limiting to any subset thereof, I am not denying a multiverse per se, just simply being precise in that I aim to not only refering to the expanse of space and time generated by the big bang, but am thinking of space and time in terms of infinities.

[3] This would includeGod

[4] To get a sense of the debate, try here and here and here

[5] Abr 3:18

[6] Yes I know, no beginning, and all that, but Joseph Smith taught a beginning even for the God Head;

“An Everlasting covenant was made between three personages before the organization of this earth and relates to their dispensation of things to men on the earth. These personages according to Abraham’s record are called God the first, the Creator; God the second, the Redeemer; and God the third, the Witness or Testator”

[Extracts from Wm Clayton's Private Book, 10-11, Nuttall collection, BYU Library].

[7] How this adoption works is another subject that is often debated.

[8] One such common characteristic we gained in this life is a physical body. Latter-day Scripture boldly differentiates itself from its Christian contemporaries in teaching the essential nature of God’s body to his perfection and glory, and by extension as a critical component in man’s search for happiness.

[9] For more detail on this, see where I’ve covered this before.

[10] Please forgive my not sighting what I think of as basic scriptures. If you are unfamiliar with them, just use the LDS scriptures search on lds.org

[11] For an idea of how radical this is, read Givens’ beautiful essay on dialogic revelation here

[12] Examples include God’s foreknowledge, God’s sexuality, whether God is of the same “kind” as man, Whether God is a single entity, a representative of a body of such beings, or is in fact a multiplicity of beings (Elohim does mean “Gods” after all) Whether God has a female counterpart, whether Heavenly Father is in actuality the combination of a female and male divine being, and whether God went through a life as man does now.

[13] Obligatory link to conversion story here.

[*]- I removed the word entirety from this line, due to it being a possible overstatement of my position. Thanks A. Davis

31 Comments »

  1. Matt, while you know I agree with you, I’m interested in the concept of our souls always having agency prior to our pre-mortal council. I think many people may believe that our agency was given to us in the pre-mortal world at some time. Got any quotes by Brother Joseph on this one little leap?

    I think this is a great foundation for Mormon cosmology and you have included everything I would have included.

    Comment by Kent (MC) — August 12, 2009 @ 8:46 am

  2. Good, you have a new series starting up. I will be excited to stay tuned.

    Comment by Joseph Smidt — August 12, 2009 @ 8:47 am

  3. I was looking forward to this post, Matt. I’m glad I didn’t have to wait until January. As far as I’m concerned, you hit a grand slam with that last paragraph. Great post!

    Comment by Clean Cut — August 12, 2009 @ 10:00 am

  4. Kent: Good catch. The best I can get from JS at the moment is his KFD statement that God never had the power to create the mind of man. This to me infers some form of free will. We do have other instances where it is noted that Agency was given to man (D&C 101), but I think this implies a specific form of Moral Agency (and even says moral agency). Often I hear apostles or prophets speaking of moral agency, and their definition typical is something other than LFW, imo. I think this leaves room to say that we’ve always had the ability to choose, but not moral agency, since perhaps pre-mortally our choices ultimately were meaningless prior to our interaction with the father. That’s all ad hoc of course, and I can understand someone taking a different point of view.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 12, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

  5. Joseph and Spencer:

    Thanks

    Comment by Matt W. — August 12, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

  6. Just out of curiosity…

    Is testimony the right/intended word for the post title?

    I am not sure how to feel about discussing a testimony.

    Anyway, well put. Is this a record number of footnotes for a post?

    Comment by Eric Nielson — August 12, 2009 @ 4:08 pm

  7. Kent,

    I would point to D&C 93 for that. I know the meaning of this section is far from obvious, but these verses seem to convey the idea pretty directly:

    29 Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.
    30 All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.
    31 Behold, here is the agency of man

    Mankind was with God from the beginning.
    Intelligence cannot be created or made.
    All intelligence is independent and can act for itself.
    This is the agency of mankind.

    I’m not sure how to reasonably square those with the idea that we existed before but didn’t have agency.

    Comment by Jacob J — August 12, 2009 @ 5:40 pm

  8. Good and persuasive Jacob. Thanks!

    Comment by Kent (MC) — August 12, 2009 @ 7:35 pm

  9. Further, Heavenly Father’s interest is in our improvement, indeed our scriptures assert him stating this very thing to be so important to him that he has committed it to being the entirety of his “work and …glory”.

    I would take exception that all that our Father in Heaven does directly relates to us – that we encompass the “entirety” of his work and glory.

    For example, he probably does spend some time with his wife(s) that may not be directly child related.

    If we assume a model in which he has peers, he probably spends some time with them from time to time in cooperative endeavors of a celestial society that may not involve sons and daughters or nieces and nephews.

    Maybe none of these non-children-involving activities might be “works”, nonetheless, the extra adjective in Moses 1:39 suggesting totality is a stretch I think. One might interpret it that way, but it isn’t required to do so.

    For me personally, I am inclined to think that he does indeed have other works and glories, though we are his primary one.

    Comment by A. Davis — August 13, 2009 @ 6:57 am

  10. I offer a different interpretation of that verse that Jacob J. He ties it to verses 29 and 30. Grammatically, the verse is tied to the remained of the verse.

    Behold, here is the agency of man, and here is the condemnation of man; because that which was from the beginning is plainly manifest unto them, and they receive not the light. (D&C 93:31)

    That is, we have moral agency because we have knowledge – knowledge that is plainly manifest to us. The verse speaks of moral agency because it directly couples it with the ability to receive condemnation and not merely the ability to act. And it is by no means clear that we have had moral agency for all of our infinite past. Indeed, I would suggest such to not be the case.

    And how do we have that knowledge? I interpret it to say that we have moral agency because the light of Christ is given/plainly manifest to all men.

    Comment by A. Davis — August 13, 2009 @ 7:05 am

  11. Eek! Proof reading fun. Good thing I’m not an editor.

    Comment by A. Davis — August 13, 2009 @ 7:06 am

  12. A. Davis: good catch on #9- since we don’t know what we don’t know, I’ll get rid of the word entirety in the original post.

    Regarding Moral Agency, again I would argue that Moral Agency is different that Libertarian Free Will. I will have to do a post on that at some point. In fact, I think there is a Gospel Principles chapter relating to agency.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 13, 2009 @ 7:35 am

  13. nieces and nephews

    Since I believe the scriptures when they say there is One God I personally no longer buy the idea that God has “nieces and nephews”. (Of course I don’t think the One God is one person but a unified collection of persons…) And I also don’t buy the idea that there is polygyny in heaven either but that is a different topic.

    Comment by Geoff J — August 13, 2009 @ 8:42 am

  14. Matt: I would argue that Moral Agency is different that Libertarian Free Will

    How could an agent be morally responsible without LFW? I occasionally hear rumors that people have theories on this but I have yet to hear one that is remotely compelling.

    Comment by Geoff J — August 13, 2009 @ 8:43 am

  15. Geoff: (#14)

    I don’t think an agent can be morally responsible without LFW, I think it is possible to have LFW without being morally responsible. For example, if a person makes a choice without any knowledge of potential consequences, there is a different sense to how responsible they are for their actions. It could be the difference between murder and an accident, for example. So when D&C 101 says God gave us Moral Agency, I take that to mean something other than LFW, which we already had. I think apostles have also taught this notion that Moral Agency is more than LFW, but that may be me wresting the prophets, as it were.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 13, 2009 @ 9:00 am

  16. Geoff: #13- I did try to leave room for such a point of view in my footnote #12. As you know, I prefer leave this ambiguous, but I do want to address it more in the future.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 13, 2009 @ 9:03 am

  17. Yeah, I don’t know if there is polygyny in exalted society. I haven’t ruled it out either.

    Likewise, I hedged on the nieces and nephews comment with “If we assume a model in which he has peers”. Though it is a model I assume, I recognize that others don’t. I’m still figuring out how to accommodate an infinite past and our secular observables with a finite past and then I’ll have some footing to discuss the concept of divine peers I think.

    Comment by A. Davis — August 13, 2009 @ 9:04 am

  18. A. Davis,

    You are right that I cut off the end of verse 31 which, as you say, grammatically ties the beginning of the sentence about agency to the concept of condemnation due to rejecting the light. I wasn’t trying to pull a fast one, it just takes more analysis to consider more verses and I didn’t want to get too long winded without a cause.

    I agree with Matt W in #15 that moral agency is LFW plus more. The way I read the verse it is saying that the preceding verses (29-30) are the basis of *both* choice and accountability. I think it is saying that the independence is intrinsic to intelligence (mankind is intelligent and has been from the beginning) and that if an intelligent person rejects the truth when it is plainly manifest to them then they are thereby condemned.

    So, I don’t see anything in your comment that I disagree with, but I also don’t see anything there which argues against my original point that this verse speaks of mankind as always having had agency (fundamental independence and autonomy).

    Just to be clear about the context, in the post Matt claimed “that mankind’s will has always been independent and free” which Kent questioned in #1 asking for what backup can be found for that idea. It was in this context I suggested D&C 93:29-31.

    Comment by Jacob J — August 13, 2009 @ 9:24 am

  19. Eric #6-
    Is testimony the right/intended word for the post title? I am not sure how to feel about discussing a testimony.

    This post is what I believe. I don’t know how else to respond to your inquiry.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 13, 2009 @ 9:43 am

  20. Ah, we do seem to be largely in agreement.

    vs 29 and 30 supports some form of causation (act for itself)
    vs 31 supports moral agency (which most of us here seem to believe requires LFW)

    Semantic messiness got in the way. I guess I tend to correlate the looser terms of agency and will and even (libertarian) free will with the more precise term of moral agency.

    That is to say, I would reword the first sentence of Matt W.’s post #15 to say, “I don’t think an agent can be morally responsible without libertarianism, I think it is possible to have libertarian causation and not have free will / moral responsibility.”

    Yet, I’ll bend my semantic quirks to the community.

    Comment by A. Davis — August 13, 2009 @ 9:55 am

  21. Re: Temporality of agency. If you make a distinction between agency and free will as I do, the problem goes away.

    Free will is the ability to intend and act in a manner not wholly determined by prior antecedents.

    Freedom is the ability to exercise free will in a relatively unrestricted manner.

    Agency is the socially recognized and preserved freedom to govern one’s own actions according to a sense of individual responsibility and moral accountability (where the ultimate sense of socially recognized is divinely recognized).

    Sec D&C 101:78.

    Comment by Mark D. — August 13, 2009 @ 10:04 am

  22. By the way, traditionally the distinction between liberty and freedom has been drawn much the way I just described the difference between agency and freedom, except with much less emphasis on accountability.

    Comment by Mark D. — August 13, 2009 @ 10:09 am

  23. A. Davis, thanks, I am happy to bend my semantics as well if it helps us communicate. Good comments.

    Comment by Jacob J — August 13, 2009 @ 10:18 am

  24. Mark D.- re 21- Your definition of Agency here is somewhat confusing to me. Would you then define agency differently than Moral Agency? From looking at Christofferson’s talk I linked to in #15- I’d day his definition of Moral Agency is more along the lines of accountability. Thus my statement regarding choices without knowledge of consequences.

    I just want to make sure I am reading you right.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 13, 2009 @ 10:33 am

  25. No worries Matt. It just had me thinking about the differences between speculations, opinions, thoughs, belief, doctrines, testimony, etc.

    I don’t mind discussing/debating/arguing speculations and opinions, but testimonies? Just doesn’t seem right to … challenge that.

    Probably making to much of the word.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — August 13, 2009 @ 11:41 am

  26. That’s a good point Eric. I’ll change the name of the post. I definitely don’t want to come across as inarguable.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 13, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

  27. Well, I didn’t have to much to argue about, it just seemed rather detailed for a testimony….still trying to sort that out.

    About the only quibble I have is the language about choosing to be adopted on our part, and choosing to be called father on God’s part. As you know I lean toward some type of procreative, begotten offspring relationship. And thus a tripartite type model. But this is not the stuff of testimony for me. Something more along the thoughts/opinions level.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — August 13, 2009 @ 2:11 pm

  28. Matt W., I would say that in a religious context, agency and moral agency are synonymous. It is not just moral accountability – it is the protected realm of personal freedom to act for oneself such that one can be morally accountable.

    Slavery, for example, virtually destroys agency. People can’t be accountable for things they can’t control. The phrase in D&C 58 is “agents unto themselves”. If an agent doesn’t have the power to act, he is not an agent.

    The important point is that agency and free will are not the same thing. “Moral free will”? Does that make any sense. How about God giving you your will? free will? moral free will?

    Comment by Mark D. — August 13, 2009 @ 7:05 pm

  29. I somewhat like this determinist’s definition of free will (he denies free will exists). In response to the question what exactly he means by free will he says,

    GALEN STRAWSON: I mean what nearly everyone means. Almost all human beings believe that they are free to choose what to do in such a way that they can be truly, genuinely responsible for their actions in the strongest possible sense—responsible period, responsible without any qualification, responsible sans phrase, responsible tout court, absolutely, radically, buck-stoppingly responsible; ultimately responsible, in a word—and so ultimately morally responsible when moral matters are at issue. Free will is the thing you have to have if you’re going to be responsible in this all-or-nothing way. That’s what I mean by free will. That’s what I think we haven’t got and can’t have.

    I like philosophers—I love what they do; I love what I do—but they have made a truly unbelievable hash of all this. They’ve tried to make the phrase “free will” mean all sorts of different things, and each of them has told us that what it really means is what he or she has decided it should mean. But they haven’t made the slightest impact on what it really means, or on our old, deep conviction that free will is something we have.

    There are rooms for subtlety… for example we wouldn’t deny that a slave has free will while at the same time suggest that his moral agency has been suppressed. But most of the time I think people conflate free will with moral agency.

    Comment by A. Davis — August 14, 2009 @ 6:36 am

  30. source of quote above

    I think several of you will find it an interesting read.

    Comment by A. Davis — August 14, 2009 @ 6:38 am

  31. Clearly people that are sufficiently mentally impaired lack the sanity to be considered completely morally responsible for their actions. That is one reason why free will should not be defined in terms of responsibility. Most such persons definitely have free will – it is their perception of reality that is in question.

    Second, I think there are lesser circumstances (personally inflicted or otherwise) where the sufficient exercise of free will to maintain full responsibility is like trying to steer a raft being carried swiftly along a raging current. i.e. free will is there, but other factors temporally dominate.

    Ultimately, though, one is on some sort of trajectory, and the ability to change that trajectory to be something other than what is determined by prior antecedents is what constitutes free will (liberum arbitrium) in the traditional sense of the term.

    Comment by Mark D. — August 14, 2009 @ 8:41 am

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