“Ye are gods”: Thoughts on “Radical Universalism”

December 6, 2009    By: Geoff J @ 9:03 am   Category: King Follett Discourse,spirit birth,Theology,Universalism

Among the most radical teachings of Joseph Smith was his flat rejection of creatio ex nihilo — the idea that a beginningless God created all else that exists out of nothing. By rejecting creatio ex nihilo Joseph opened a world of theological and cosmological possibilities that are precluded from the creedal Christians who accept creation out of nothing as a foundational believe. One of the the theoretical possibilities is an idea I am labeling “radical universalism”.

Here are some of the theological assumptions that would underlie a radically universalistic cosmology:

A. God is beginningless

The scriptures that support the idea of a beginningless God plentiful so one might think that this is an uncontroversial assumption. However in some of our past discussions Mark D. and others have argued that while the rudimentary parts of God are beginningless it is possible that there was a time before there was a fully formed God. While I entertained this idea in the past I currently believe the scriptural support for the claim there never was a time before God is stronger.

B. The One God is a union of multiple divine persons

This assumption is fairly universally accepted around these parts. The primary point of debate is whether there is a single divine person in charge of the One God (Godhead) or if the Godhead is a union of true equals. Blake argues for the single monarch model while I and others prefer a union of equals model. The other point of debate is how many divine persons actually make up the One God. The scriptures specifically mention only three but if more than three have always been possible then it is hard to logically argue against more than three being currently part of the One God.

C. The mind of man is beginningless and co-eternal with God

Joseph Smith expressly taught this idea. While most of the Mormon theological thinkers I know accept it there is some debate about how much of the “mind of man” is beginningless. The spirit atomism fans argue that in reality only the seeds of our minds are beginningless, not our minds in any sense we might recognize. While I leaned toward the spirit atomism idea in times past, I don’t any longer.

D. There is no ontological gap between God and humankind

This assumption is generally accepted in our past discussions on the topic here with the exception of the obscure theory that holds that there is a race of Gods separate from the race of man.

A rough sketch of a Radical Universalism model

First, I need to be clear that nobody I know of preaches this radical universalism model as if it were the truth. In fact I entirely invented the following version of the model as a logical extension of the assumptions above. Having said that, I do think there are some appealing things about the basic idea. Here are some components I envision in the model:

-A massive but finite number of discrete, indestructible, irreducible minds/intelligences/spirits exist and have always existed
-All of our minds/intelligences/spirits are among these
-These minds/intelligences/spirits have always been unified and constitute the One God
-Every spirit that comes here to become mortal condescends from the One God to do so and returns to the unity of the One God after this life (thus title “radical universalism”)
-The purpose of life on this world, like the purpose of life on the innumerable inhabited planets before this one, is to provide joy and variety to eternal minds/intelligences/spirits
-Eternal minds/intelligences/spirits voluntarily condescend to experience innumerable mortalities over the eternities

Some texts to consider through a radical universalism lens

Note: I am NOT suggesting any of these texts can be used as proof texts for this completely speculative model. I just point them out because when they are read more literally than normal they are at least compatible with the model.

33 The Jews answered him, saying, For a good work we stone thee not; but for blasphemy; and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God.
34 Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods? (John 10: 33-34)

40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
• • •
45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. (Matt. 25: 40, 45)

17 And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God. (Mosiah 2: 17)

Reasons to completely reject this model

1. Even if it were true it may not be good theology.
2. Universalism and motivation to do good don’t always mix well. That is a problem.
3. If this cosmological model were true it would render massive amounts of our religion (like the whole “plan of salvation” thing) largely moot or at least mislabeled. That is a major problem.
4. Loads of scripture would have to be ignored or at least re-interpreted to accept such a cosmology.
5. You might find such a cosmological model depressing. As in: “This is it!??” (I don’t feel that way, but you might…)
6. If for some reason you completely reject one of the underlying assumptions it makes sense to also reject this model.
7. Etc

Reasons you might like this idea anyway

1. The model is internally consistent and coherent as far as I can tell. (Don’t underestimate that — it is not common)
2. With this model, I believe we might have a real fighting chance at really dealing with the problem of evil. (This point is extremely important I think and surely warrants some completely separate posts which I may get around to writing later)
3. While universalism might lack a certain “fear of God” motivational element, if we believe that following the instructions of God in this life will lead to joy and prosperity here we still could have ample incentive to obey God.
4. You know those people you love who have died? If this model were true you will be together forever for sure. Plus the whole “little children who die are automatically celestial” scripture would make a lot more sense.
5. It at least accounts for what we have been doing for all eternity in the past and what we might be doing in the eternities to come.
6. Such a worldview might help us slow down and really enjoy our lives and fellow beings here and now.

Anyhow, discuss away.

41 Comments »

  1. What is the afterlife result of wickedness in this model?

    Comment by Eric Russell — December 6, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

  2. Well my assumption is simply that justice is served over time Eric.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 6, 2009 @ 4:16 pm

  3. Tons of ideas here and I don’t know what I want to address first. While I believe that we have all condescended and emptied ourselves of glory to come to this earth, I don’t believe that novelty is as important as we as mortals assume it is. As I’ve been reading “Stumbling on Happiness”, I’ve been more aware of the fallacies that are inherent in having a mortal mind. I think that the idea of a “boring” existence is derived from the way our brains habituate experience; and I don’t think that the concept of habituation is necessarily more than biological (considering we can only adequately direct our full attention to one thing at a time). That is to say, every time I take the first bite of my favorite food (carne asada burritos at a taco stand in Baja California) I feel incredible joy and pleasure related to my experience. Obviously, the 40th bite isn’t as pleasurable as the first bite as my brain “gets used to” the stimuli I repeatedly experience. I don’t see why that must hold true for Gods who appear to me to be fully present with all creation and also are able to focus full attention on an infinite amount of stimuli. I don’t think the gap between God and man could be greater than when I consider just that one limitation I experience in only being able to focus on one thing at a time.

    So, I’m also not a big fan of the idea of a finite number of anything. I’m not sure that there really is an irreducible anything and I’m open to the idea of self-awareness (by intellegences) as being an emergent quality that arises as intelligences combine with other intelligences. In such a world, with God not truly creating such creatures, intelligences may be becoming self-aware through no direct act of God, but rather through emergence as these elements combine to achieve some type of critical mass.

    Anyway, I understand the need to extrapolate using the experiences we have as mortals (how can we imagine the flavor of a fruit we have never tasted?), yet I question many underlying assumptions that lead to the idea of radical universalism. This is a great exercise by the way, keep up the good work!

    Comment by Kent (MC) — December 6, 2009 @ 4:38 pm

  4. “These minds/intelligences/spirits have always been unified and constitute the One God”

    What do you mean by “unified” here?

    We are clearly not equals, even before we condescend to earth. At least that is how I read Abraham 3.

    We are clearly not completely harmonious in our decision making, purposes, or designs. At least that is if we accept the concept of Lucifer and the War in Heaven.

    And if unity is neither equality or harmony of purpose and it encompasses everybody, does the term “unity” cease to be a functional descriptor?

    Stemming from that we might ask how this relates to our definition of “One God” but that response, I suppose, will depend on the response to my unity inquiries.

    PS: I quite like the preview option!

    Comment by A. Davis — December 6, 2009 @ 4:43 pm

  5. Kent: I don’t believe that novelty is as important as we as mortals assume it is

    I actually was thinking of our temple liturgy regarding God’s interest in “variety”.

    I’m also not a big fan of the idea of a finite number of anything.

    I am — mostly because our scriptures preach of a God that is finite in several ways.

    I’m not sure that there really is an irreducible anything

    I’m not sure I follow you here. If matter is uncreated and eternal there has to be some aspects of it that are irreducible.

    I’m open to the idea of self-awareness (by intellegences) as being an emergent quality that arises as intelligences combine with other intelligences

    Sounds like a variation on the spirit atomism theme. This is a popular school of thought. The problem I see with it is that it doesn’t jibe well with what Joseph Smith actually taught about beginningless minds. But we have debated that general subject at length here in the past.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 6, 2009 @ 4:57 pm

  6. A. Davis,

    The model assumes we were all equals. It further assumes the Lucifer story is entirely allegorical (representing the temptations and challenges presented by “the flesh”). Basically the model assumes we all were part of the Godhead and always have been and presumably always will be. Thus the name “radical universalism”.

    See #3 on my list of reasons to reject the model. Such a model requires invoking the “section 19 principle” on a ton of traditional interpretations of our scriptures. No doubt that alone would be a deal breaker for most people.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 6, 2009 @ 5:08 pm

  7. Every spirit that comes here to become mortal condescends from the One God

    This as always is a major sticking point for me. Also the fact that this theology would make the Temple (Why have vicarious work for the dead at all?) and the atonement (needless suffering of Christ, because hey, we were God before and thus have to go back to the status quo)completely pointless.

    Comment by Matt W. — December 6, 2009 @ 8:53 pm

  8. Well Matt, it would certainly shift the actual purpose of the temple. If this model were true the temple would end up being a place to school people in communicating with God. Also, a substitutionary atonement theory would not make sense but a moral exemplar theory would. As for needless suffering, nearly all people experience that to one degree or another — it’s part of mortality.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 6, 2009 @ 9:11 pm

  9. Why would people need to know how to communicate with God? They would be God.

    The Moral Exemplar theory requires that Christ is showing us how to do something for a purpose. What would the purpose be?

    Comment by Matt W. — December 6, 2009 @ 9:40 pm

  10. People would need to know how to communicate with God because they live here on earth and God is willing to help people be happy and prosperous here. However that heavenly help is often contingent on asking (properly). It is an error to assume the only reason to communicate with God is to attain to reward after this life.

    Likewise, Christ’s example shows us how to be close to God and communicate with God so we can have joy and prosperity here.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 6, 2009 @ 9:50 pm

  11. Another thought on novelty of experience: if a person is God (one in the chorus) then he would necessarily know experientially the lives of others. This would obviate the need to condescend to mortality on a personal level to alleviate the boredom since novelty would be inherent in the experience of Godhood.

    Variety is the spice of life, but it seems to me that variety is God’s experience now and forever as He lives His life in us and with us.

    Comment by Kent (MC) — December 6, 2009 @ 10:35 pm

  12. Kent,

    That may be the case but it makes quite an assumption about the vicarious “experience” members of the Godhead have. Seems to me that there would be a substantial difference between the fears, joys, and whatnot we experience versus what they experience simply because we really don’t know if this life is all there is or not. They would know. It is sort of like the difference between watching a game live versus watching a recording of a game when you know the final score already.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 6, 2009 @ 10:46 pm

  13. Geoff: Finite is fine in quality (God can be limited in some respects), I’m just talking about quantity (His works are endless). Also, with regards to irreducible elements, I guess I’m arguing from silence here because there really is no way of determining if elements are simple at some level. When we can understand the atom better, maybe we will find the smallest possible piece; I just don’t think we can or ever will. Infinite regress is a possibility I’m open to in this one respect (probably due to watching Men in Black with universes sitting in the jewel of a cat’s collar).

    Comment by Kent (MC) — December 6, 2009 @ 10:52 pm

  14. Geoff, I agree that there is a small distinction in that God knows that the experience of fear is coming from “out there” rather than from their own mind (identity is still preserved); however, I believe that it is fundamentally the only difference. God does experience our lives as we do with that small difference. How could He be compassionate and aware without that ability? I believe that both you and I can imagine a possible world where gods get bored because their minds become habituated to their daily existence. I believe that we can also imagine a possible world where gods have an endless amount of variety and joyful and painful experiences living with and through all of creation because habituation is simply the result of a mortal and limited human brain. Can you imagine that every bite could taste as good as the first bite? That is the possible world that God experiences which I’m arguing for.

    Comment by Kent (MC) — December 6, 2009 @ 11:01 pm

  15. Geoff J, As you know I agree with many of the principles you describe here. As far as presidency goes, I think it is entirely likely that there is a first presidency in heaven that presides over all others. I seriously doubt any one of them has an unconditional right to the position, however.

    My bigger disagreement has to do with the fallibility of man and the enormous unlikelihood of there being so much as civilization in the first place, simply due to our natural failings.

    Paradoxes of infinity notwithstanding, I can only understand the gospel in terms of net forward progress from darkness and confusion to peace and happiness, and to the attainment of every other worthy and desirable thing.

    Comment by Mark D. — December 7, 2009 @ 12:31 am

  16. Aside from the I’m curious what elements this radical universalism Geoff considers as “Mormon”. As he notes in point #3, if this model was accepted, many doctrines taught currently in the Church would probably need to be radically altered. Without thinking much on it at all a short list that comes to mind:

    Plan of Salvation, Atonement, Temple Work, Saving Ordinances, Fall, Premortal Life, Judgment, Resurrection, Immortality…

    Comment by A. Davis — December 7, 2009 @ 7:40 am

  17. Geoff:

    Vicarious work for the dead is a major aspect of Mormon Temple theology. Radical Universalism makes it pointless. While yes, prayer is important for being happy here and now, it seems odd that we would take a step away from eternal Godhood for variety (reminds me of that southpark episode where our earth is the only chaotic place in the universe, and the rest of the universe watches it for reality tv), but then give ourselves such a complex safety net.

    re the atonement and moral exemplar theory. We’ve gone through this before. Exemplar theory isn’t enough to hit the criteria of the scriptural record and also seems logically incoherent given the facts. Christ suffered to bleeding from every pore to be our example, yet we have such a limited record of him, such a limited understanding, and such a limited subset of children of God even know about him, that moral exemplar seems to fail to be exemplary to most. Why suffer to bleeding at all, and especially why suffer to bleeding with limited to no witnesses?

    Comment by Matt W. — December 7, 2009 @ 7:50 am

  18. Mark D: Paradoxes of infinity notwithstanding, I can only understand the gospel in terms of net forward progress

    Yes, this captures the opposing pressures nicely. This model I have described is in large part a response to the paradoxes of infinity you describe. The difference between us is that an eternity without net forward progress is not objectionable at all to me. In fact I find evidence of it in other places with Joseph Smith. But I don’t begrudge you your preferences on this at all.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 7, 2009 @ 8:39 am

  19. Matt: it seems odd that

    Yes, well there is a lot about our mysterious existence in the universe that seems odd.

    Regarding your other comments, the word radical is used here intentionally. Because this is a radical idea it has radical consequences. See my #3 in the reasons to reject this model.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 7, 2009 @ 8:45 am

  20. Geoff: true that bro. I want to say I really enjoyed the way you put forth the idea here. It shows a certain “doctrinal humility” that I think makes your idea much more accessible. With that in mind, my comments, if anything, are nitpicks at your #1 under “reasons to like this idea”. Otherwise, this is perhaps the best write up yet on MMP I’ve read from you.

    Comment by Matt W. — December 7, 2009 @ 9:09 am

  21. Thanks Matt. But I must note that this isn’t a write up on MMP. Although a variation on MMP is assumed in the model it is not the central point here.

    Also, it seems to me that you haven’t nitpicked my reason #1 to like this model. Rather you have just agreed with reason #3 on my list of reasons to reject the model. The model is internal consistent I think — it just may not be true.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 7, 2009 @ 9:38 am

  22. It’s the “and coherent” part that I guess I am throwing darts at, given the issues we can agree are associated with scriptural/doctrinal issues.

    And you are right, this is not just plain vanilla MMP, I guess I just see it as an off-shoot there of, since it requires a form of MMP within it’s cosmology.

    Comment by Matt W. — December 7, 2009 @ 10:04 am

  23. Well coherent doesn’t mean true or even defensible. It just means that it works based on the underlying assumptions. Because of conflicting information we have to work with, something always has to give in order to come up with a coherent and consistent theological model. This model is more radical that most because it requires discarding more than most.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 7, 2009 @ 10:13 am

  24. It seems that radical universalism would also negate the need for repentance. D&C 19 has Christ begging us to repent, so we wouldn’t have to suffer as he did. Alma 36 shows Alma suffering intensely over his past sins in a Spirit-World like Near Death Experience. All of this would be senseless and fruitless if all are to be saved.

    Why call anyone to repentance, if atonement is not needed? And if we are here just for variety, then 2 Nephi 2′s explanation of the necessity of opposition and atonement would be rendered of no effect. Why would Christ’s atonement give us agency to act, if his atonement was just an example?

    For that matter, why have any religion beyond a basic premise that there is a unified God out there somewhere? Why a veil of forgetfulness, when we could basically experience most things here and still retain our memory? Why have specific rules of engagement (re: prayer), just so you could get some assistance? And why should some prayers work, while others are not answered?

    And given the idea that we could keep returning to mortality for new experiences/variety, would suggest reincarnation, not resurrection.

    Seems to me that not only would Satan and Christ become allegorical, but so would we….

    Comment by Rameumptom — December 7, 2009 @ 10:18 am

  25. It all makes my head spin. The way I approach this kind of knowledge is the same way I clean out my garage: Did I use it this week / month / year? Nope. Will I use it next week / month / year? Nope. Then you don’t need it.

    Comment by AYdUbYA — December 7, 2009 @ 10:46 am

  26. Rameumptom,

    Sounds like you are going with reason #3 to reject the model. A solid pick I’d say.

    In answer to your questions:

    Repentance is NOT only about rewards in the next life. Rather repentance is the way we change and live happier, more joyful and prosperous lives here in this life. So there would be ample reason to repent in such a model. As Lehi said, men are that they might have joy.

    Opposition in all things goes hand in hand with the variety issue. Mortals who pass through veils face opposition that true immortals never face. That would be part of the appeal of mortalities in the model.

    And why should some prayers work, while others are not answered?

    This is the question of the ages. It is at the heart of the problem of evil. I plan to post someday on why a model like radical universalism is better equipped to deal with this question than other models.

    Yes, the model assumes innumerable reincarnations over the eternities on innumerable inhabited planets. Part of the purpose of the model is to account for what we have been doing for all eternity past and what we will be doing in the eternities to come.

    While Satan is mostly allegorical in the model, Jesus and all the rest of us are decidedly not allegorical.

    Last, the word radical is used for a reason in the description.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 7, 2009 @ 10:49 am

  27. Sounds like a prudent approach for you to take AYdUbYA.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 7, 2009 @ 10:51 am

  28. It sure keeps it simple. But I understand that doesn’t work for everybody. Some people really need those answers. Great post.

    AW

    Comment by AYdUbYA — December 7, 2009 @ 11:21 am

  29. I should note that all the recent talk about the priesthood ban was part of the reason I decided to write this post this week. I have been mulling the model for some time and it seems to me that if a model similar to this proved to be accurate it would be a great deal easier to explain God’s actions or inaction with regard to things like blacks and the priesthood.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 7, 2009 @ 9:17 pm

  30. Geoff,

    This crazy theory reminds me more and more of Greek mythology. Gods roaming around amusing themselves by acting like mischievous humans.

    It seems like the big ticket items on your “positives” list are internal consistency and tractable theodicy. Another model that provides those benefits is atheism, which I’d probably sign up for before I signed up for this. Atheism has a decent case to be made on “positives” 3-6 as well.

    This theory rejects the basic thrust of everything God has told us about the purpose of earth and his overall plan. Ultimately, it rejects those things based on perceived philosophical/theological problems and paradoxes. In place of the ideas it rejects, it constructs an entirely new edifice with a few of the old ideas thrown in for good measure. I have to wonder though, is it plausible that we can come up with the truth about God’s plan and existence by thinking about philosophical problems and looking for internal consistency? Thus, I base my rejection on “negatives” 3,4 and 6.

    Comment by Jacob J — December 7, 2009 @ 10:19 pm

  31. Well Jacob I might sign up for atheism too if it weren’t for all of those prayers I have had answered by God throughout my life. (As you said, it is indeed a clean and coherent model with no problem of evil paradoxes.) So with atheism off the table I make do the best I can.

    Negatives 3,4, and 6 are fine reasons to reject this model.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 7, 2009 @ 10:26 pm

  32. Gods roaming around amusing themselves by acting like mischievous humans.

    Well make that “becoming mischievous humans” and I think you are closer to the idea.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 7, 2009 @ 10:28 pm

  33. Right. In Greek mythology they were roaming around acting like mischievous humans. In this model they actually become mischievous humans. A striking resemblance.

    Comment by Jacob J — December 7, 2009 @ 10:55 pm

  34. Yeah. Pretty cool, huh?

    Comment by Geoff J — December 7, 2009 @ 11:05 pm

  35. Another problem I might mention is there are instances of mortal suffering so severe that I don’t think anyone would choose to submit to such suffering or even the relative probability of such suffering, unless there was something of enormous value to be gained thereby. Salvation qualifies, avoiding boredom does not (in my opinion).

    BTW, I don’t think the finite resources maximum forward progress model has any problem with theodicy.

    Comment by Mark D. — December 8, 2009 @ 12:52 am

  36. Mark D.,

    If mortalities were, as Heber C. Kimball suggested, comparable to days then each would be like waking up in the morning and then going to sleep at night. Sure, there would be some bad days but that does not mean we wouldn’t want to ever wake up again.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 8, 2009 @ 11:51 am

  37. The first paragraph of Mark’s #35 is my “negatives number 6″ objection. That is, this boredom aleviation motivation is an underlying assumption I just can’t get on board with. It strikes me as completely untenable that a god would prefer this crappy life to her own godly life. The whole concept of divinity is evicerated if this life is preferable to the divine life. We talked about this in more depth last time you brought this up, but it is worth mentioning here.

    Comment by Jacob J — December 8, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

  38. It dawns on me that I have the makings of a sci-fi novel (or better yet a series of novels!) with this idea. I appreciate y’all helping me clean up my idea before I write the first draft (probably never).

    Anyway, one way to deal with the issue you bring up Jacob is to assume a cartesian dualism with mind and matter. If we do that we could assume that minds are eternal but there is no such thing as eternal bodies because of entropy. That would provide additional motivation to condesend to mortalities even with the risk of things not going well. This is especially true if we buy the idea popular Mormon idea that being embodied is significantly preferable to non-embodied state.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 8, 2009 @ 12:49 pm

  39. Geoff, I’m not sure that “deals with” the issue so much as “defines” the issue. You are suggesting an explanation for why it is better to be corrupt humans that to be glorified gods. The conclusion is the problem, not the lack of an explanation for why the conclusion could be true. As to theorizing that there is no such thing as an eternal body, it seems with every speculation we get farther and farther away from something resembling Mormonism. Is there a point at which a theory stops being a radical version of Mormonism and starts being a different religion?

    Comment by Jacob J — December 8, 2009 @ 5:25 pm

  40. Is there a point at which a theory stops being a radical version of Mormonism and starts being a different religion?

    Yes, I imagine that a codified or creedalized version of something this radical might qualify as a different religion (unless it came from the First Presidency). I don’t know where the exact point of crossover is but surely it exists. Of course if no one openly believes it would it be correct to call it a religion?

    Comment by Geoff J — December 8, 2009 @ 6:08 pm

  41. Geoff J, With regard to the “new day” theory of Heber C. Kimball, to be an accurate analogy, the new days would have to be inevitable. Then there is the issue of consciousness between one lifetime and another.

    If you are awake between one day and the next, it is hard to see how one person can’t remain in the spirit world while others start are born again.

    Finally, I don’t know about Heber Kimball, but many of the advocates of this idea believed in being reborn during the millennium, into a world that was substantially better than the one they left. If you keep on doing that you are making some pretty significant forward progress, and presumably helping others to do the same.

    Comment by Mark D. — December 9, 2009 @ 5:16 am

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