Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The God of Joseph Smith.

In this post, we will examine two questions. First, how is the God of Joseph Smith theologically consistent with the existence of evil? Second, what is the function and value of theology in a universe ruled by the God of Joseph Smith? Our discussion on these two questions will be adapted from a paper I wrote for a Philosophy of Religion class taught by Dr. David L. Paulsen.

Joseph Smith and the problem of evil:

The problem of evil is threefold:  the problems are are logical, soteriological, and practical.  The logical problem of evil asks how it is even possible for there to be a God who is omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and who created all things absolutely (that is, ex nihilo, or out of nothing), given that the universe over which he allegedly rules is one consisting of countless evils.  The theology of Joseph Smith’s teachings answers this question simply by defining God differently.  While God is indeed omnipotent, he cannot bring about any state of affairs whatsoever (or even any logically possible state of affairs); while God is indeed omniscient, he does not know things that are inherently unknowable (he knows all knowledge, but “knowledge” by definition is limited to that which is and can be known); while God is indeed omnibenevolent, he is not thereby required to prevent all evils whatsoever.  Lastly (and perhaps most importantly), while God is indeed the “Creator,” he did not create all things ex nihilo.  Instead, Joseph teaches, “God’s creative activity consists of bringing order out of disorder, of organizing a cosmos out of chaos, not of the production of something out of nothing” (David Paulsen, Joseph Smith and the Problem of Evil, 58, emphasis added).  If Joseph Smith’s God is God, then the existence of evil ceases to be a logical problem.  The God of Joseph Smith is co-eternal with other self-existent realities, like laws (or “principles”), time and space, matter, and our very intelligences (or what most would call our “souls”).  This implies that omnipotence need be redefined as “the power to bring about any state of affairs consistent with the natures of eternal existences” (B. H. Roberts, The Seventy’s Course in Theology, as referenced in Paulsen, 59).  Therefore, God is not impossible given evil, nor is God omniresponsible for evil.  All evils that occur are therefore 1) unpreventable absolutely, 2) unpreventable by God (but not by us, given our moral freedom), or 3) “unpreventable by God without thereby preventing some greater good or causing some greater evil” (Paulsen, 60).

Second, the soteriological problem of evil asks a question not about mortal, temporary evils (like sins or earthly suffering), but asks instead about a much more significant evil, namely eternal damnation.  The question is this:  Given that millions of God’s children have lived and died without ever hearing of Christ, how could God (who is perfectly loving and therefore desires that all of his children be saved) possibly require acceptance of Christ as a universal and irrevocable condition for salvation?  Most Christian philosophers attempt to answer this question either with “universalism” (a universalist will claim the eventual salvation of all mankind, thereby maintaining God’s infinite love but denying the scriptural indications that acceptance of Christ is absolutely essential for salvation) or “exclusivism” (an exclusivist will tell you that a woman born in Kenya  4000 years ago, who never heard of Christ at all, will go to Hell:  thereby the exclusivist puts God’s infinite love in severe doubt, emphatically affirming the validity of the divine mandate to accept Christ or be damned).  Meanwhile, Joseph Smith’s teachings allow for an entirely different (and infinitely more satisfactory) answer to the problem:  assert that those who live and die without having a chance to accept Christ will be given that chance in the spirit world.  With this doctrine, the Prophet Joseph provides complete liberation from a truly vexing paradox.  In Latter-Day Saint theology, the conditions for salvation remain intact and authoritative, yet accessible to everyone—thus both the infinite justice and the infinite love of God are preserved.  Dr. Paulsen concludes, and I vigorously agree:  “Thank God for Joseph Smith!” (62)

Third, the practical problem of evil asks us how we can deal with “the personal challenge of living trustingly and faithfully in the face of what seems to be overwhelmingly evil” (Paulsen, 62).  The Prophet Joseph was tarred and feathered, lost children, was betrayed, suffered sicknesses, danger, and all sorts of persecution; through it all, he “found meaning in his suffering, maintained hope, trusted God, [and] kept the faith” (64), despite extreme tribulations and evils.  Smith believed the Lord’s instruction that “all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good,” and took to heart the message behind the immediately subsequent rhetorical question:  “The Son of Man hath descended below them all.  Art thou greater than he?” (Doctrine and Covenants 122:7-8)

I believe we will find difficulty finding a response to the practical problem of evil that is more appropriate, beneficial, and constructive than that of Joseph Smith.  If we do not personally respond to evils as Joseph did, then the worth of our logical and soteriological answers to the problems of evil diminish significantly.  If I attached a bowling ball to the ceiling with a rope, then held the ball up to my nose and released, I would know because of the laws of physics that it would not hit me on its return swing—however, if I flinch anyway, that theoretical knowledge does me no practical good.  Likewise, we can philosophize all day about the solutions to the logical and soteriological problems of evil, but until we are unflinchingly committed to our ideas, those ideas are worth very little.

The God of Joseph Smith is a God of fairness, who provides for people to overcome their evils through Jesus Christ, either in this life or in the next, depending on circumstance and opportunity.  As we embrace these truths, we will understand the existence and purpose of evil, and hopefully we can have a greater capacity to “endure it well” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:8).

The Value of Theology:

Our next question addresses what the fundamental relationship is between theology and religion.  What is the function and value of theology (for instance, that done by Dr. Paulsen in the article discussed above, or by Sterling M. McMurrin in The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion) in the LDS religious community, which professes to be led by living prophets and apostles?

I believe that theology and religion relate to each other in a symbiotic fashion, similarly to how faith and works are related.  As faith is dead without works (James 2:14-26), theology is dead without religion (we’ve discussed above how logical and soteriological ideas are worth little without practical application).  On the other hand, works without faith are also, in a different way, dead (Pharisaical piety is not the same as sincere virtue); likewise, it’s possible that religion without theology is somewhat incomplete.

By this statement I in no way intend to demean the devoted faith of disciples whose understanding of theology is limited.  Faith is faith, and there is something positive to be said of religious zeal of any kind.  However, I submit that religion is of most use when it is backed by solid theological ideas.  Not all men are (or need to be) philosophers, but I believe that all religious men have a responsibility to examine their faith from a logical perspective.  We need not have all the answers (indeed, faith is by definition to not have all the answers, as Hebrews 11:1 and Alma 32:21 point out), but in efforts to keep our faith from being blind, perhaps we should seek as many answers as we can.

A possible counterargument:  to say “religionists ought to be theologians” is not to say that religious leaders need to be theological leaders.  I readily agree with this point.  It is true that in the LDS community, the examination and explanation of theological ideas is not the main purpose of apostles and prophets.  Apostles and prophets are to bear special witness of the Christ, encouraging heartfelt faith, humble repentance and religious fervor in the congregations they address.  This is their primary role.  However, I contend that occasional publications written by Church authorities on important questions and theological topics are quite appropriate and beneficial.  B. H. Roberts, James E. Talmage, and Jeffrey R. Holland are some examples of theologically minded LDS leaders, and their insights are always welcome.  However, when it comes to theological investigation, I think the burden of intellectual responsibility lies mostly on the shoulders of individual believers rather than on those of the teachers and leaders.  If one is to espouse any given creed, one ought first to thoughtfully consider the theological implications of that creed’s claims.  Any Mormon who testifies that Joseph Smith was a prophet ought to examine and analyze Smith’s teachings (and their implications) with a sense of delighted scrutiny.  I believe this investigation will lead to a newfound appreciation for the glorious truths revealed in recent centuries by Joseph and other prophets.  The scriptures teach that spiritual communication happens both in the heart and in the mind (Doctrine and Covenants 8:2), and one cannot expect to learn much with a closed and lazy mind.

Another counterargument my opponents would bring against my symbiotic model of theology’s relationship with religion is that not all knowledge is “pertinent to our salvation,” and an understanding of metaphysics, for example, is not necessarily required of us by divine decree.  I respond that an understanding of metaphysics, while admittedly not divinely required, is nevertheless not without use.  In fact, it could be argued that no knowledge is without use, for God has all knowledge, and he expects his children to endeavor to become like him.  In one sense of the word, “salvation” means to be saved from all our enemies (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 305), and if ignorance is our enemy, then is it unfair to conclude that a complete knowledge of all things is prerequisite for a complete salvation?  God (who in a sense is the most saved being), for example, certainly understands metaphysics.  Why shouldn’t we?

Jesus says that he not only teaches the truth, or believes the truth, but he, in a sense, is the truth (John 14:6).  We learn here that the relationship between Deity and truth is one of perfect unity:  God is a God of truth; and therefore as we seek truth, we seek God.  Theology is a way to seek truth, as is any kind of philosophy.  Therefore, the role of theology in an LDS religious community ought to be considerable.  The meaning of evil, of the Atonement, of Godhood, of faith, and of other important religious ideas ought to permeate our minds.  For truly, if we do not know who or what we worship, we may as well be worshiping the Athenian “UNKNOWN GOD” that Paul mentioned on Mars’ hill (Acts 17:16-31).

Thanks to the Restoration through Joseph Smith, we know much of who God is.  He speaks, he answers questions, and his theology is perfect.  His ways are higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8), but I believe that he does want us to understand him on a logical, theological, and spiritual level.  Our God is not unknown.  So let us know him.