Do Mormons believe in Universals? (McMurrin reading part 3)

January 5, 2006    By: Geoff J @ 1:39 pm   Category: McMurrin Reading,Theology

In this installment of my reading club for Sterling McMurrin’s 1965 book The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion I’ll cover pages 13-18. By doing so I am only 18 months behind Clark and Dave who did the same thing in the summer of ’04.

On Universals and Particulars

In my last post I noted that McMurrin places the Mormon concept of reality firmly in the ever-moving becoming camp (as opposed to the static, timeless being camp). In the next section of the book he asks whether there is place in Mormonism for “anything that is genuinely stable and unchanging”. His answer is yes. But he notes that the unchanging absolutes in Mormonism are principles or ideas. For instance, he suggests that the moral will of God or his divine purpose is considered absolute in Mormonism. He also mentions that in Mormonism natural laws “are at least stable if not absolute”.

In defining “particulars” and “universals”, McMurrin provides some useful comments:

A just act is a particular, but justice is a universal. A true proposition is a particular, but truth is a universal. A good act is a particular, but goodness is a universal, and so forth

He notes that the notion that such universals as Truth and Justice have some kind of objective reality independent of any true or just acts might have been Plato’s most important idea and even maybe the most important of all philosophic ideas. Plato called such universals Ideas (with a capital “I”) and traditional Christianity under the guidance of Augustine melded Plato’s universals with the Hebrew God and made these desirable universals all part of God’s mind.

As for Mormon theology and universals, McMurrin writes:

The reality of universals is taken for granted in typical Mormon theology … Mormon writers often use such words as “laws” or “principles” to indicate such universals. But the point is – and it is a decisive one – that at least some of the universals are commonly regarded as existing independently of God, their status being remarkably like that assigned them by early Platonism – impersonal absolutes that are the foundation of reality. Indeed, some Mormon theologians even account for God’s status in terms of his relationship to the universals, where in his divinity he is in a sense subject to them rather than they subject to him.

This is very true of the theology of Widtsoe. In the most extreme case, Orson Pratt suggested that the universals such as Truth and Justice were in fact the ultimate God and as such the ultimate God is not a person at all. It should be noted that Brigham Young vehemently disagreed with this particular theory of Orson Pratt’s and the First Presidency officially denounced it.

A fine example of Mormonism’s tendency toward believing in universals is the last few verses of the hymn If you could Hie to Kolob:

4. There is no end to virtue; There is no end to might;
There is no end to wisdom; There is no end to light.
There is no end to union; There is no end to youth;
There is no end to priesthood; There is no end to truth.
5. There is no end to glory; There is no end to love;
There is no end to being; There is no death above.
There is no end to glory; There is no end to love;
There is no end to being; There is no death above.

But lest you think the tendency in Mormonism is firmly in favor of universals as opposed to particulars, McMurrin concedes that we tend to want to be in both camps:

On the other hand, there is evidence in Mormonism on rather strong tendencies in the direction of nominalism, the view that only particulars are real, particular events or objects, and that so-called universal are but names, or at best useful concepts

He goes on to point to our insistence on the individuality and separateness of the members of the Godhead as an example of this.

Even so, I tend to think that the Mormon tendency toward universals beats out our desire for nominalism when push comes to shove. So that leaves me with a view of Mormonism where all reality is about motion and becoming, yet our progress is guided by “True North” principles/universals like Truth, Goodness, Justice, and Love which are beginningless and exist independently of us or God. Others will argue that things like truth and justice are not universals but rather social contracts established between us all either here or prior to this earth.

What do you think?

[Associated song: de la soul – the magic number. (Yeah it’s a bit of a stretch but this is post number 3 in the series and I like the song ok?)]


  1. I think acceptance of real universals (although not necessarily Platonic universals) is natural in Mormon theology. I’d note though that most of the “significant” theological movements of the 20th century, especially the JFS/BRM school, tend to be very nominalistical. So I don’t think they accept universals as such. At least from my memory and without looking it up. Others may argue. And its been a while since I last read them with that in mind – although to be frank they simply are too philosophically naive to necessarily have a consistent position in this regard. (By naive meaning aware of these categories and issues)

    Comment by Clark — January 5, 2006 @ 7:18 pm

  2. Good point Clark. It is an interesting question: What would those in the neo-orthodox camp of Mormon theology (BRM/JFS) say about universals like Truth and Justice and Love being independent of God? I suspect they would try to avoid the subject because they possibly would want to make them subject to God (or originating from God) but statments by previous brethren (like Widstoe) and scriptures would make that a hard position to defend.

    Comment by Geoff J — January 5, 2006 @ 8:12 pm

  3. They wouldn’t say they are independent of any being, from what I can see. Interestingly Pratt moves in that direction. His atoms and spiritual aether are a way to have these universals without them being real universals. They are instead attributes and dispositions in terms of this fluid and thus particulars. They aren’t mind independent. I think both JFS and BRM would embrace a view like that. I think their absolutism would entail these things for God. I’d add that I think BY clearly didn’t like the idea of universals independent of God, or at least focusing in on them.

    Comment by Clark — January 5, 2006 @ 8:36 pm

  4. Interesting. I hadn’t seen that in the Pratt I’ve read (though I might have just not been looking for it.) But clearly Widtsoe preached the existence of real universals. His conception was that God became God by adherance and mastery of pre-extisting universal laws and principles. That seems to still be a major theme in the church today (though clearly not a unanimous sentiment). In any case, that is currently my preferred take on the subject as well.

    Comment by Geoff J — January 5, 2006 @ 10:44 pm

  5. I love the idea of universals, but I think it is a bit hard to reconcile that with reality. Truth, Justice? What truth? Post-manifesto polygamy truth? Justice according to what law?

    I used to be anti-divine command ethics…I’m not so sure anymore.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 5, 2006 @ 11:18 pm

  6. I can’t remember the exact quote, but somewhere in TOPJS, he is talking about How God Says “Thou Shalt not Kill” as a universal, and later, gives the Israelite Armies the orders “Thou shalt utterly destroy”. At first I thought this was very indicative of situational ethics, but deeper yet is the Universal: Obey God. Trust God. Love God.

    Comment by Matt Witten — January 5, 2006 @ 11:42 pm

  7. I haven’t read Widstoe much, but given his science, I can understand why he’d be inclined towards realism.

    Justin, when you say universals are hard to reconcile to reality, what do you mean? When you say, “what truth?” what do you mean? It seems like you are trying to reconcile universals to a way of thinking that denies them. (I see that in your comment about law and justice — if it is justice as a universal then by definition it isn’t according to a law)

    Comment by Clark — January 6, 2006 @ 12:28 am

  8. As much as I understand what you’re talking about, I answer yes. I’m a Mormon and I believe what I think you’re talking about.

    Comment by annegb — January 6, 2006 @ 12:57 am

  9. I suppose I am a believer in the universals camp. I am actually having a hard time even thinking about or understanding nominalism in a mormon context. Could someone provide me an example of this? If BRM and JFS were in this camp is there an example of their opinions?

    Does 2 Nephi 2 (the best chapter in scripture here.) defend universals where if you say there is no sin then there is no God. Does this not say that universals exist and that even God is subject to them?

    Comment by Eric — January 6, 2006 @ 6:46 am

  10. Is being “too philosophically naive” fatal in answering questions like this, or can it at least be partially made up for by inspiration and/or revelation?

    Comment by C Jones — January 6, 2006 @ 9:08 am

  11. J: What truth? Post-manifesto polygamy truth?

    I think you are simply not reducing the issue to one of truth with this. There could still be universal Truth and simply a misunderstanding of it. Some prior to the manifesto thought polygamy was required for exaltation. The truth is that they were wrong. That has little to do with the existence of truth as a universal — rather it is about discerning truth accurately.

    – We shouldn’t confuse all commandments with universals. Commandments are built on the rock of universals, but they are not always eternal in nature (we have lots of examples of that currently — polygamy, WoW, etc)

    Clark – (J stands for Jonathan, not Justin, BTW). I think your question to J is a good one.

    Anne – We don’t know what we’re talking about either. But you seems to have the idea as well as any of us.

    – The point about BRM/JFS is that they seemed to agree with Augustine that universals were created by God and exist because of him rather than independently and co-eternally with him. It is a question of which came first I think. Widstoe would say that God rose to his current stature by obedience to and mastery of beginningless universals (like Truth, Justice, Love, Goodness, and even Priesthood) whereas the neo-orthodox camp would probably want to argue that these things have beginningless existence in God and not independent of him. I just think the latter idea is shot down by what Joseph taught late in his life in sermons like the King Follet discourse (others work very hard to try to interpret that sermon differently though.)

    And yes, I think that 2 Nephi 2 makes a strong case for universals. Plus Alma’s teachings to his sons back the idea. (For instance, opposition in all things sounds like a partial description of Justice to me… and the notion of God ceasing to be God by breaking universal laws is strong eveidence of their existence as well I think). So an important question is whether Justice exists because God willed it to be or does Justice exist independently of God (like we do, according to Joseph). I think it is probably the latter. (Still others will question if Justice exists at all or if it is just an agreement/contract between intelligences).

    C Jones – I think Clark’s point was not a criticism of these brethren. Rather an acknowledgement that they probably never reduced the issue to the point philospohers have. With Clark, I don’t think BRM or JFS ever specifically preached on whether universals exist independently of God. But as I hinted before, I think they might have avoided the subject because they would be in opposition to previous brethren like Widtsoe if they rejected the idea and they would have to limbo around scriptures like those we’ve mentioned already here.

    Comment by Geoff J — January 6, 2006 @ 10:25 am

  12. Geoff- I can see that my comment was too terse- my strategy of: fewest possible words=less giving away my ignorance- has backfired!
    I was actually asking with myself in mind.

    Comment by C Jones — January 6, 2006 @ 10:38 am

  13. One should note that universals need not be exemplified the same way. Thus two completely different acts can still be just. There is a tendency to think of universals in a static Platonic way where they are always the same. Something can be a universals but not be the same in all its manifestations.

    Geoff, universals for Augustine weren’t “created” by God the way we think of create. Rather they are one with his nature. I honestly don’t know how BRM would treat the issue. As I said, I don’t think he was familiar with the philosophical issues. My sense would be (and this is just a guess) that justice would be determined in terms of what is necessary to bring about his desires. i.e. by a form of consequentialism. But it would be the Good because of God’s omnipotence and omniscience which entails a knowledge of everything. Thus the Good would be determined by particulars, which is nominalistic.

    I’m certainly not criticizing BRM or JFS. I think their views are a dominant way in the Church of thinking about the issues and can’t be neglected.

    Comment by Clark — January 6, 2006 @ 11:51 am

  14. Whoops. Sorry Jonathan about the name bit. I’m going on lot of lack of sleep this week. (Meant to put that in my prior message)

    Comment by Clark — January 6, 2006 @ 5:04 pm

  15. Then, I guess I fundementally don’t understand what universals are. What is Justice that God is independent of it or not? Now I see Truth as equal to reality, which exists or it doesn’t…as I believe that it does in fact exist then truth exists; but how does that effect God?

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 6, 2006 @ 11:30 pm

  16. …and I have just grown to accept that you call me Justin, Clark. Kind of like how my mom calls me my siblings names.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 6, 2006 @ 11:31 pm

  17. I don’t think truth and reality are the same thing, for the record. I think there are several senses of truth, of course. But I can’t imagine any of the senses that are equivalent to reality. Afterall there can be some things that are true, but not real. It is true that Sherlock Holmes lived on 221b Baker Street but it is not a reality that Sherlock Holmes lived there.

    I’d also say that truth is tied to a knowledge of reality but that implies a distinction of reality.

    Comment by Clark — January 10, 2006 @ 4:28 pm

  18. I’ll admit that I am not fluent with the philosophical road that you are taking, to make that statement, Clark. Outside of the fictional narrative, I don’t accept the truth claim of Sherlock Holmes abode. Do you? One could state that In the stories of his escapeds, Sherlock Holmes lived on 332b Baker Street. The statement is true, because it reflects reality, No?

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 10, 2006 @ 4:51 pm

  19. J: What is Justice that God is independent of it or not?

    I may not have this exactly right either, but I think the idea is that even in the absense of God or any just acts, the universal, “Justice”, would still exists and be real. I think the corrolary to that is that just acts all are just because they approach or partake in the universal and unchanging “Justice”.

    In practical terms this is mostly useful in combatting relativism I think. But that can be done even if universals exist in the mind of God. So in theological terms it is a question of whether they are independent of God or not (assuming they exist of course).

    Comment by Geoff J — January 10, 2006 @ 5:50 pm

  20. Perhaps this is a metter of language, Geoff. I associate Just and Justice with law. You seem to be associating them with right and righteousness, which are the french words we derived Just/justice from.

    How can you have justice without law?

    I can imagine something that is “right” independantly of God, however, you yourself have repeatedly claimed that God can trump every claim to right or wrong.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 10, 2006 @ 6:22 pm

  21. That is one way to attempt to reconcile it Jonathan. But not everyone will take that route. The issue of truth in fiction ends up being somewhat complex. I’ll not bore you with all the details. The point I was trying to make is simply that the set of truths might exceed the set of true statements about reality. Clearly not everyone will agree. So don’t think I’m poo-pooing your position. Just suggesting that things may not be as simple as they appear at first.

    I do think though that the issue of truth as reality is problematic. It at a minimum for most senses of truth confuses the property of sentences or propositions with what the sentences refer to. The most popular theory of truth is that it is the correspondence of propositions to reality. Thus it can’t be reality, although clearly it would be related. (For the record I reject the correspondence theory of truth, but it’s a very popular theory)

    Geoff, I don’t think you need universals to combat relativism. Consequentialists (the good or justice is in terms of the consequences of an act) often reject universals. (Not always, but often) I don’t think many really take relativism seriously. Typically, I think, the burden of proof is on the relativist and they often have a hard time meeting it. (IMO)

    Jonathan, one way to consider the relationship between law and justice is to ask what makes a law just. If justice is in terms of laws, then why pick the laws we do. And if justice is in terms of laws, does it make any sense to speak of an unjust law?

    Comment by Clark — January 10, 2006 @ 11:12 pm

  22. hmmm…would you have any suggested reading on Truth theories?

    regarding laws, if we are assigning a defination to just that you do in the final sentence, i.e., an “unjust law.” That seems to me to be a definition of fairness. It would seem that this definition disintegrates if there is only one person living in the world or no people. Is reality just? I don’t think so, I think that it simply is. The laws of nature simply are, they are neither just nor unjust. Governments can be just or unjust inasmuch as they balance the competeing interest of indaviduals.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 10, 2006 @ 11:30 pm

  23. Forgive me if this is way off track, or lacking intellectual depth, you all are tough to keep up with.

    I agree about universals but I think it is beyond our definitions of the beginning-less universals that are somewhat synonymous with philosophical values (Truth, Justice, Love, Goodness…).

    It seems as thought there were two conflicting ideals, but a universal foundation, and God had a choice when we were presented the plan at the council of heaven. He chose one law, and that seems to be what binds him, and creation.

    D&C seems to also suggest that both truth and intelligence are independent in its sphere to act on its own according to the law, or as I always understood it, the measure of creation. Tht the chaotic matter and intelligence of the universe was “organized” to fill the measure of its creation.

    All truth is independent in its sphere. It seems that right/wrong, good/bad, truth/lies, is dependent on God’s definition for that sphere. But what would you call the essence of eternal reality and consistency, because if you loose that essence you cease? Well, truth is good, but still depends on a parameter, so D&C calls it the light of truth. The light of, or quintessence, foundation, standard, core, etc. Kind of like the essence of a real thing as it is defined itself. How does one emanate that?

    For me on my simple terms, that is what made God who He is, the whole nature of the creation resting on the truth relative to the intelligences in their sphere. Since I don’t speak His language, I go off of what JS put in the D&C. That it was His honor that was His power, the power Lucifer wanted. Honor being defined as well, a good reputation, (the ultimate, really), the ability to act freely in God’s name and command His creations unimpeded. Using that reputation is a great stamp of approval, and Christ used it to do God’s will. So, as it was His purpose, Satan chose the easiest way to try to get both done, and 1/3 the host liked his idea. The great lie was that we could get something out of it.

    It seems that before it all, God had a choice in how to define the terms, then the terms made him God, and then, an opportunity for ceasing to have honor, or change the terms would exist, and so he could cease to be God. This seems to be independent of Him. He could compel every creation to follow without choice and meet the terms, as Lucifer presented, and never experience self-determination. Or, give them a choice, and that opportunity might, to cease to be God, be to let disobedient, imperfect beings, receive glory, while glory was supposed to be for those obedient. So, an agreement would need to be made, that beings satisfying the terms of Atonement, Christ’s presentation, could be glorified, the ones that don’t, can’t. Maybe that is not the universal, but the solution, because I think God enjoys agency as much as any of us. He has the trump power, but I think that is only when dealing in the spheres of influence. There is a lot of room when brining about eternal purposes. But no room to sway, either to the right or the left, lest you lose honor and justice be offended. The idea that God could cease (whatever that is) suggests a bigger fundamental nature.

    Comment by undefined — January 11, 2006 @ 12:25 am

  24. Jonathan, the SEP is always the best source for these things, assuming the relevant article has been submitted. They have several discussions on each of the main theories of truth. The wiki on truth is quite good as well, although considerably more brief. I wrote on Heidegger’s view of truth a few months back as well. (And that’s roughly my own view)

    Comment by Clark — January 11, 2006 @ 9:45 am

  25. I feel comfortable with the idea of some universals being independent from God. I don’t view that as blasphemous at all, mainly because I don’t worship God because I think He is omnipotent, but because I think He loves me and has given me all that I have.
    Consider this Joseph Smith quote from the King Follett Discourse:

    Intelligence is eternal and exists upon a self-existent principle. It is a spirit from age to age and there is no creation about it. The first principles of man are self-existent with God. […] God Himself found Himself in the midst of spirits and glory. Because He was greater He saw proper to institue laws whereby the rest, who were less in intelligence, could have a privilege to advance like Himself and be exalted with Him, so that they might have one glory upon another in all that knowledge, power, and glory. So He took hand to save the world of spirits.

    Joseph speaks of two different kinds of laws, both those he calls principles which are self-existent with God and not created by God or any other agent; as well as those which were created by God for the express purpose of elevating us to His stature. I’m not sure if you’d call the God-created laws universals or particulars, because for us they might as well be universals. Although our intelligences are as eternal as God’s, the orginization of our spirits and bodies from eternal materials is the work of God and thus we would not have our current state of existence without His laws to go along with it. Perhaps the neo-orthodox brethren understood this too and many of the conflicts are only semantic.

    The overall point Joseph makes is where I come back to my first point. God is worth worshipping not because He is THE source of ALL things (which if you believe Joseph, clearly He is not), but because He was greater and yet cared to bring us to Him. Save the world of spirits, as it were. He could have just left me behind and relished His superiority, but He didn’t. Thus, I worship Him.

    p.s. The King Follett Discourse gets undue shelving in the modern church, probably for ecumenical reasons. Joseph’s teachings that day were revolutionary, both scientificly and theologically. Personally, I have my testimony of Joseph’s rightness, and not so absolutely of successive authorities (how could I with so many conflicts?), so I think Joseph trumps them all.

    Comment by Clay — January 18, 2006 @ 9:59 am

  26. Another big question is: is Agency one of those self-existent principles (universal) or is it one of the laws God created to save us?

    I know I’ve been believing in it as a universal which God is bound by for some time, although I can’t remember where I got the idea. Nowadays I’m not so comfortable with that practice.

    Comment by Clay — January 18, 2006 @ 10:02 am

  27. I think about this a lot. I believe the Universe is universal (is that ironic or what?), and Intelligences (the particles filling the immensity of space) are also, but that Gods (and angels and humans) are ever changing (or ever-increasing, as I like to put it for exalted beings), as animals, and other objects are also ever changing.

    This is fundamental to MY idea of Mormon Theology. I think the early Christians may have had too vocal of an idea of what The Universe was, and it got comingled with What God is, and resulted in the nonsense God of “orthodoxy”, but the Universe principle is important, and is taught by Joseph Smith in his teachings on the immortality of the spirit, intelligences, and all spirit being pure matter.

    Comment by Jeff Day — May 27, 2006 @ 1:23 am