Exploring Mormon Thought – The Problems of Theism and the Love of God

March 21, 2006    By: Geoff J @ 11:58 pm   Category: Ostler Reading,Theology

One of the benefits of attending the SMPT conference last week was that I was able to pick up a copy of the second volume in Blake Ostler’s series on Mormon theology: Exploring Mormon Thought (Volume 2) – The Problems of Theism and the Love of God. It was supposed to come out about this time last year so it was a welcome sight sitting on the table in the lobby (even if mine came sans the dust jacket). This post will be in the first in my series covering the book. If I can stay focused I will post on the entire book over the next several weeks.

Any theology that begins with metaphysical postulates make it difficult to speak of God in interpersonal terms. (pg.1)

The first thing Blake does is set the stage to speak of God in a different manner than the usual omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence terms. The purpose of chapter 1 is to speak of God as a person with whom we should have a relationship. He paints God as one who does the old “set them free and if they return they truly love you” routine with us here on earth.

Joseph Smith’s most breath-taking and frankly audacious insight is that God seeks a peer relationship with us! … God is not after the relationship of master-to-slave, of a designer-to-the-designed, of a human to a lower species of life; rather, he seeks our love in response to his. (pg. 3)

This view brings our relationship with God to something akin to toddler and parent it seems. Interestingly, while such a close proximity to God is uniquely Mormon (most of Christianity considers such talk blasphemy) it is even too much for many Mormons, some of whom have told me they prefer a parent to zygote analogy if we must be of the same kind. The problem with that notion is that parents don’t have relationships with embryos – they have relationships with children.

Ostler supports this point by reminding readers of the uncreated and beginningless nature of human spirits that Joseph Smith preached about and how these uncreated spirits have free will to choose with whom they will have relationships.

On this view, salvation is not a status one obtains but one that arises from enjoying a loving relationship with God; and conversely sin is not an evil status but an alienation from and breaching of this relationship. (pg. 4)

Well that is a new set of goggles to see the universe through isn’t it? I like it. Salvation is entirely a result of who we know (God). Sin is only sin because of the breach in our personal relationship with God it causes. But does that mean anything that does not breach our relationship with God is not a sin?

Blake goes on to explain that only through choosing to enter a relationship with God do we remain free and that remaining in a personal relationship with God is an ongoing choice. He explains that if don’t choose a personal relationship with God (and thus heed his instructions) we end up choosing Satan (or at least the natural man and the world I presume) and thus loose freedom:

The basic understanding is that, if we hold on to the past by refusing to forgive and be forgiven, then we are captive to our past and not really free. We can become stuck in our history and habits and addictions that remain in our flesh. (pg. 7)

Of course Blake still defends libertarian free will (which he calls libertarian free agency in this volume for some reason) and goes on to point out that “A relationship is “genuine” only when it is freely chosen in the sense that it could be rejected”. (pg.8)

In pages 9-15 he cites work by Vincent Brummer and a game theory thought experiment. My only complaint here is that while he refers to our choosing to love God a “win-win” scenario he call our choosing to reject God a “win-lose” scenario. I would think that our choosing to reject God would more aptly be called a “lose-lose” scenario – or at least just “lose” since God would hardly call our rejecting him a “win”. (Hey, I know my Coveyisms)

One might complain that there is a lot of talk of personal relationships with God but no instructions on how to enter and maintain such a relationship. But it appears that Chapter 2 is all about prayer so let’s hope Blake gives readers a little how-to instruction as well.

What do you think? Any “amens”, questions, or complaints so far? I think I’m buyin’ what Blake is sellin’ up to this point in the book.

Next post: The rest of Chapter 1


  1. Geoff,
    I think he calls it a lose-win relationship because we win in the sense that God has chosen to love us first and so no matter how you look at it that’s a win for us. We can always choose to reciprocate God’s love, so we’re always in a position to win. I’m guessing that’s how Blake is using the idea of lose-win. But I’ll admit I was a little confused when he said that as well.

    Comment by Craig Atkinson — March 22, 2006 @ 7:20 am

  2. Hmmm… that is quite as stretch on the lose-win theme Craig. We all know what a win-win is. A win-lose is usually when we stick it to someone and win at their expense. A lose-win is usually when we roll over and let someone walk on us. A lose-lose is when we are intent on the other losing even if we go down in the process too. It seems to me that our rejecting the graceful offer of a relationship with God would either have to be a lose-lose or a “no deal” (in which we miss out on the opportunity).

    Comment by Geoff J — March 22, 2006 @ 9:26 am

  3. You are starting to convince me to buy Blakes book. It does seem he is off to a good start.

    Comment by Eric — March 23, 2006 @ 9:57 am

  4. If a person rejects God and still gets a “lose-win relationship”, how is the relationship between God and Satan described?

    Comment by ed — March 25, 2006 @ 3:55 pm

  5. You mentioned Blake’s idea of our remaining free only as long as we choose to do what God wants us to do. As our country slips closer to being a police state, I can’t help but ask myself what freedom is. So, what exactly do you (or does Blake) mean by freedom? Is it the freedom to choose the lesser of two distasteful options. Is it the freedom to choose to do what we would really like to do within the realm of the possible? Is it the freedom to do what we want as long as we don’t interfere with someone else’s freedom? If we are only free as long as we choose to do what God wants, are we really free?

    Take an every day example. I remain free as long as I pay my taxes. If I don’t like how my tax money is being spent, so I don’t pay my taxes, I theoretically go to jail. So, am I free to not pay my taxes? Am I really? At what level of coersion to pay my taxes, would you say that I am no longer free to not pay my taxes? Is there any level of coersion at which I am no longer free to not pay my taxes? If I am not free to not pay my taxes, do I have “partial freedom”? Is “partial freedom” freedom?

    It seems to me that we are operating with a merky definition of freedom–just as we in this country have always, to my knowledge, operated with a merky definition of democracy. What definiton of freedom are you (or is Blake) using?

    Comment by Bill B — March 31, 2006 @ 1:12 pm

  6. Bill,

    You are talking about political freedoms while Blake was discussing the philosphical doctrine of free will. The idea is that one can have very little political liberty but still be free to choose thoughts words and deeds because of adherence to God’s laws; while one with tremendous political freedom can become a slave to appetites or his or her past.

    Comment by Geoff J — March 31, 2006 @ 10:25 pm

  7. Perhaps it is just because this is where I am in Blake’s book, but another aspect of how loving God makes us free is that our turning to God allows us to let go of something that Blake seems to argue is a “trap” associated with the natural man.
    We all desire to think of ourselves as good. We do things so we can think we are good, we rationalize, we impute upon others causes for our failings, and … As soon as we develop sufficient cognition to reflect upon our lives, we discover where we have failed to love. We begin to justify this. This becomes something that loosely could be viewed as an addictive or at least self-reinforcing behavior.

    His example is while he was writing his book, his wife asked him to help put the children to bed. His initial desire was to continue work on the book, but part of him knew that his book was a thing and his wife and children were people (or sacred “thou’s” in Buber’s language). A book on the “love of God” is important. His wife should be able to do this and if she was adequate she could. His attempt to justify his neglect could ultimately create a wedge between him and his wife as she picked up on his thoughts and in turn tried to justify herself.

    When we turn to God and find that His love is offered us because we are uniquely who we are, we experience a freedom to see ourselves as we are. In the warmth of God’s love we can let go of our self-deceptions and experience freedom to change in ways that our desire to be “good” would not previously allow.

    Anyway, I probably like Blake’s positions too much, but here you go.
    Charity, TOm

    Comment by TOm — April 6, 2006 @ 7:52 am

  8. Thanks TOm. Good points. What chapter is that example in? I am reading rather slowly and methodically…

    Comment by Geoff J — April 6, 2006 @ 9:14 pm

  9. Geoff,

    It’s in chapter 5. He must recognize the memerablity of his examples because his book has an example section in the index.

    I am prolly reading too fast, but I enjoy his thoughts and agree all too often.

    Charity, TOm

    Comment by TOm — April 7, 2006 @ 2:36 pm