Saturday, 15 September 2012

This is eternal lives

So. Let's talk about the doctrine of Multiple Mortal Probations - or reincarnation as it is commonly referred to. It's something that I've been thinking a lot about recently, so I wanted to do a post exploring the issue, despite it being something of an outlier in that it was never really widely accepted and taught, and it's dubious as to whether it was ever clearly and publicly taught at all.

Now, before I start, I need to make an important distinction between the theory that when we achieve exaltation, we return to a mortal world to make physical bodies for our spirit babies (essentially the Adam-God theory) and the doctrine of Multiple Mortal Probations, which is the idea that before we achieve exaltation, we go through mortality several times in order to become more righteous and holy.

Ok. Let's get stuck in. "When the elements in their organised form do not fill the end of their creation, they are thrown back again, like Brother Kimball's old pottery ware, to be ground up and made over again" [1].
Now, it is far from clear as to exactly what this delightful little quote from Brigham Young means. One interpretation is certainly consistent with Multiple Mortal Probations - if we do not attain the standard of righteousness required in this life, we will be reincarnated, either on this planet or another, to be purified further, and that this process will continue until we attain Godhood. However, this is far from the only way to interpret this quote. "The elements in their organised form" could simply refer to the physical universe, however it is unclear, if God is in control, when the physical elements would ever "not fill the end of their creation", so I think that this interpretation is unlikely. A third position would be to say that "the elements in their organised form" refers to spirit bodies. This would imply that those who deny the Holy Ghost and become Sons of Perdition are esentially 'recycled' - not only their physical body, but also their spirit body is taken from them and recycled to make spirit bodies for other intelligences. This quote has certainly been interpreted that way before, and I think it is definitely a valid interpretation, although most mainstream Mormons probably aren't too familiar with the idea of recycling Sons of Perdition.

Another interesting pearl from the Journal of Discourses is this statement by Heber C Kimball: "If you do not cultivate yourselves, and cultivate your spirits in this state of existence, it is just as true as there is a God that liveth, you will have to go into another state of existence, and bring your spirits into subjection there. Now you may reflect upon it, you never will obtain your resurrected bodies, until you bring your spirits into subjection. I am not talking to this earthly house of mine, neither am I talking to your bodies, but I am speaking to your spirits. I am not talking as to people who are not in the house. Are not your spirits in the house? Are not your bodies your houses, your tabernacles or temples, and places for your spirits? Look at it; reflect upon it. If you keep your spirits trained according to the wisdom and fear of God, you will attain to the salvation of both body and spirit. I ask, then, if it is your spirits that must be brought into subjection? It is; and if you do not do that in these bodies, you will have to go into another estate to do it. You have got to train yourselves according to the law of God, or you will never obtain your resurrected bodies. Mark it!"[2].
One of the biggest disadvantages to statements in the Journal of Discourses is that they often have the feel of communicating a message of great importance without being all too clear about what exactly that message is. This statement is no exception. While this could certainly be interpreted as an example of the doctrine of Multiple Mortal Probations, this is by no means the only interpretation. It could very well simply be teaching the rather standard, mainstream Mormon doctrine that we continue to progress in the Spirit World after this life (although the implication in the second-to-last sentence that we need to earn our resurrected bodies is clearly in conflict with modern LDS teachings). For example, the only thing that this quote unequivocally declares is that if we do not "cultivate [our] spirits" in this state of existence, we will have to do so in another state of existence, with no clear indication of what that state of existence is. However, he seems to imply that the state of existence he refers to is one where our spirit is combined with a body of some kind when he states: "If you do not do that in these bodies, you will have to go into another estate to do it", and he does explicitly say: "I am not talking as to people who are not in the house [ie. disembodied spirits]". So, all in all, I would suggest that, reading this quote with a completely open mind, the most likely interpretation is that this is indeed an example of Heber C Kimball teaching the doctrine of Multiple Mortal Probations, with the recognition that this is by no means the only possible interpretation, merely the most obvious and the most likely.

So, what have we got so far? Two rather mysterious passages from the Journal of Discourses, one which most likely teaches the doctrine of Multiple Mortal Probations, and one which is far less explicit. Let us see if there is anything else lurking around somewhere in the junkyard of discarded Mormon theology that might support this intriguing and fascinating doctrine.

As far as my research has suggested, it seems to me that perhaps one of the clearest, most prominent sources for the doctrine of Multiple Mortal Probations is Heber C Kimball. So far, he has provided us with what is by far the clearer of the two quotes regarding this doctrine that we have come across so far, and he is also the author of what is perhaps the clearest, most explicit teaching of the doctrine to be found in the Journal of Discourses: "What I do not today, when the sun goes down, I lay down to sleep, which is typical of death; and in the morning I rise and commence my work where I left it yesterday. That course is typical of the probations we take. But suppose that I do not improve my time today, I wake up tomorrow and find myself in the rear; and then, if I do not improve upon that day, and again lay down to sleep, on awaking, I find myself still in the rear. This day's work is typical of this probation, and the sleep of every night is typical of death, and rising in the morning is typical of the resurrection. They are days' labours, and it is for us to be faithful today, tomorrow and every day. Brethren, this is the course we have to take; it is a progressive work from one day to another, and from one week to another; and if we advance this year, we are so far advanced in preparation to better go through the next year. If I have one thousand bushels of wheat laid up this year, can you not understand that I am better qualified to lay up two thousand bushels during the next year? And then in the succeeding year I am better prepared to add four thousand bushels to my amount on hand, and then eight thousand, and so on"[3]. I challenge anyone to read that and not have an overwhelming impression of Multiple Mortal Probations. Kimball uses the analogy of going down to sleep as being symbolic of death, and rising again as representing a return to life. What is most interesting is that he does this in the form of the parable. He tells a hypothetical story: "I do not improve my time today, I wake up tomorrow and find myself in the rear; and then, if I do not upon that day, and again lay down to sleep, on awaking, I find myself still in the rear", and then he goes on to explain the parable, by identifying the symbolism present in the parable. Because, in the hypothetical story (the parable), we lay down to sleep more than once, and arise more than once, I would argue that the most probable interpretation of what Heber is trying to illustrate here is that he is teaching the doctrine of Multiple Mortal Probations. This is further reinforced by the fact that straight after explaining that what he means by a 'day' is a mortal probation, ending with death and then commencing anew again, he goes on to say: "They are days' [note the plural] labour, and it is for us to be faithful today, tomorrow and every day". The "every day" concept certainly implies more mortal probations than just "today" and "tomorrow". Of course, in both of the examples I have used of Heber teaching Multiple Mortal Probations, one difficult issue to explain is the references he makes to resurrection and resurrected bodies, which is something I hope to grapple with later in this post. However, I still believe that these statements by Heber C Kimball, if read with a completely open mind, are most accurately interpreted as examples of Heber teaching the doctrine of Multiple Mortal Probations.

It gets better. Consider this entry in the diary of Orson F Whitney: "3 June 1889: This evening I heard that Pres. Woodruff, in a meeting at Manti, a few days ago, publicly declared that the doctrine of reincarnation, that is one spirit having several bodies, to be false; that he was Wilford Woodruff and no one else, &c &c. Alright, bro. Woodruff, if you really said it, it is between you and the Lord. I believe it to be a true doctrine, & have for the last [word cut out of entry] years"[4]. From this entry, it is fairly clear that the doctrine of Multiple Mortal Probations (or reincarnation as it is referred to here) was firmly believed for a number of years by at least one General Authority of the Church, and the fact that President Woodruff felt the need to publicly declare the doctrine false also suggests that it was believed by a number of people.

By the way, we can substantiate the claim that Wilford Woodruff preached against the doctrine of Multiple Mortal Probations. It is likely that the denunciation that Whitney refers to is the one recorded in the Deseret New Weekly: "I have heard that in Zion there are some men who entertain the idea that they inherit the body and spirit of Moses, or Abraham, or David, or Noah, or somebody other than themselves. I hope none of you here indulge in anything of this kind, because it is a most foolish, nonsensical and false doctrine. You gaze upon a man who professes to have inherited the body or spirit of Moses, or any of those I have named, and I think you will conclude that his appearance does not indicate that such is the case; at any rate, it certainly has not improved him. Brother Woodruff, Brother Cannon, Brother Smith, Brother Lorenzo Snow, or any of the brethren, will never inherit anyone's body or spirit but their own, in time or in eternity, unless the devil gets into them. It is Satan who inspires men to believe in such absurd things. He delights in having any of the brethren entertain false ideas, no matter what they are. I tell you that whoever sees me in time or in eternity will see Wilford Woodruff, not Noah, nor Abraham, nor Enoch. Every man has his own identity, and he will never lose that identity. Therefore, when you hear such doctrine as that advanced, do not believe it. There are a good many things Satan would like us to believe; but we must guard against these" [5]. Now, Wilford Woodruff here seems to conflate and confuse a fair number of quite different doctrines. However, I think it can be quite clearly concluded that somewhere in this rant President Kimball unequivocally denounces the doctrine of Multiple Mortal Probations, as well as a few other related theories.

So, in my mind, I'm gradually building up a picture of where some of the General Authorities of the 19th Century stood on this issue. Brigham Young: possibly believed and taught it, although this is a very big maybe. He made a couple of statements that might lead one to suspect that he was implying some form of Multiple Mortal Probations, but he also made several statements that appear to be completely incompatible with such a doctrine. I defy anyone to state with certainty what Brigham actually believed about anything; he both taught as doctrine and refuted as heresy pretty much every possible theological concept you can think of throughout his presidency. Heber C Kimball: most likely believed and taught it. Again, it's difficult to be certain, but a couple of his sermons would indicate such a stance. Orson F Whitney: definitely believed it. Wilford Woodruff: certainly did not believe and publicly preached against it.

The Church during the 19th Century, similar to the early centuries of the Christian Church, was a Church racked with doctrinal controversy and debate. And one of the favourite ways of adding an extra stamp of authority on to your particular theological idea was to say it originated with Joseph Smith. Multiple Mortal Probations is no exception. A mere five days after the above entry, Orson F Whitney writes: "8 June 1889: During our talks he [Lorenzo Snow] told me that his sister, the late Eliza R. Snow Smith was a firm believer in the principle of reincarnation and that she claimed to have received it from Joseph the Prophet, her husband. He said he [Lorenzo Snow] saw nothing unreasonable in it, and could believe it, if it came to him from the Lord or His oracle." [6]. This is very interesting indeed. Similar to the Adam-God theory, which Brigham Young claimed he first heard from Joseph Smith, there is no way of either confirming or falsifying Eliza's claim. Joseph was certainly teaching a lot of new and astounding doctrines, both in private and in public, during the Nauvoo period, but if he ever did teach it, we have no record of it besides Eliza's word. What this entry does prove, however, is that both Eliza and her brother Lorenzo Snow were believers in the doctrine of Multiple Mortal Probations. So we can add them to the growing list of believers amongst the 19th Century Church leadership.


One issue that we must grapple with regarding a fair few of these teachings by prominent early Church leaders revolves around the fact that many of them speak of Multiple Mortal Probations and the resurrection (or, in Heber C Kimball's case resurrections) in the same breath. Which leads us to the question does resurrection fit into all this? Most of us will be familiar with the analogy of the glove, taught to Primary children and investigators: at birth, our spirit (represented by a hand) is placed into our body (represented by a glove). Then, at death, our spirit and body are separated (our hand is removed from the glove), and at the resurrection, our spirit is reunited with this body, which is transformed into a perfect state (represented by the hand once more being placed into the glove). This resurrection will take place at the Second Coming of the Saviour.
So how can Multiple Mortal Probations be reconciled with resurrection? Early Church leaders had fairly diverse beliefs regarding the nature of the resurrection, as is evidenced by this entry in the journal of William Clayton: "It was finally moved and carried viva voce [by word of mouth], that the doctrine of the Resurrection be the subject to commence with, and the following Brethren expressed their views in regard to it viz. Charles Smith, Jesse Turpin, George Mayer, James Park, David Wilkin, Edward Stevenson, and Edward Bunker. The views of these Brethren seemed to vary materially on the subject, and there was very little or no light manifested by any one. It appears that the great difference in the views, is in regard to what is commonly called the baby resurrection, which idea is, that instead of the bodies being raised out of the ground &c. we shall again be born of a woman, as we were when we came into this world. Brother James Park agreed very strongly in favor of this kind of doctrine. This was a matter of astonishment to me, as I had never before heard of such a doctrine to understand it"[7]. This would seem to indicate that closely tied up with the doctrine of Multiple Mortal Probations was a model of resurrection that simply saw resurrection as the union of a spirit and a body - and not necessarily the same body that one's spirit inhabited previously. In light of this concept of the resurrection, Heber C Kimball's analogy of going to sleep and waking up to continue your work where you left it yesterday makes perfect sense, as does his implication of multiple 'resurrections'. In that framing, each time we begin another mortal probation, we are essentially 'resurrected'.
Of course, Heber C Kimball's statement: "You have got to train yourselves according to the law of God, or you will never obtain your resurrected bodies" becomes somewhat problematic if resurrection is seen as merely the reunion of body and spirit, and if Heber's discourse from which this quote is taken is read as a sermon on Multiple Mortal Probations. However, one possible explanation of this would be the possibility that what Heber meant by a resurrected body was not in fact just another mortal body, but rather an immortal one - a glorified, perfected, restored, exalted body of flesh and bones, of the same variety of the Father's.


There is no denying that Multiple Mortal Probations was believed and taught by some Church leaders in the 19th century. But does the idea have any scriptural support? Moses 1 is a key text when it comes to exploring these issues. In fact, it is something of a goldmine for deep speculative theology. It would take too long to quote the entire chapter here (though I am tempted to do so), so instead I'll just say you should all go read it and spend a good deal of time seriously considering it, and quote the most pertinent part: "4 And, behold, thou art my son; wherefore look, and I will show thee the workmanship of mine hands; but not all, for my works are without end, and also my words, for they never cease..33 And worlds without number have I created; and I also created them for mine own purpose; and by the Son I created them, which is mine Only Begotten...35 But only an account of this earth, and the inhabitants thereof, give I unto you. For behold, there are many worlds that have passed away by the word of my power. And there are many that now stand, and innumerable are they unto man; but all things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them...37 And the Lord God spake unto Moses, saying: The heavens, they are many, and they cannot be numbered unto man; but they are numbered unto me, for they are mine. 38 And as one earth shall pass away, and the heavens thereof even so shall another come; and there is no end to my works, neither to my words. 39 For behold, this is my work and my glory - to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man." Now, there is nothing in this entire chapter that explicitly teaches Multiple Mortal Probations. The way these verses are traditionally interpreted is something along these lines: God has a whole lot of children. God sends some to one planet, some to another, and some to another, and so on etc. His work and His glory is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of every single one of His children on every single one of His innumerable inhabited planets.
That is a perfectly valid interpretation of Moses 1. However, another interpretation which is consistent with Multiple Mortal Probations centres around the assertion that "as one earth shall pass away...even so shall another come". One way of reading this would be that, in God's efforts to give us ample opportunity to become exalted, He sends us to earth in order to learn and grow from the specific trials we experience here. Then, when we have learned all we can on this earth and grown all we can, we die and are reborn on a new earth, with new trials and adversity to experience to act as a catalyst for further growth, learning and development. Thus, "as one earth shall pass away...even so shall another come" all in order for God to bring about His work and glory - "to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man".
Another reason I quite like the Multiple Mortal Probations concept is that it strikes a resonant chord with LDS beliefs about eternal progression. According to traditional LDS theology, there are two primary reasons that we chose to come to earth: firstly, to gain a physical body, and secondly, to learn and grow. The fact that the second reason is necessary is demonstrated by the fact that we do not die as soon as we have gained a physical body. Therefore, if we had to experience the trials, tribulations and adversity of mortality in order to learn and grow (the traditional Irenaean theodicy espoused by the LDS Church), this would imply that learning, growth and progression is only possible in a state of mortality. If this is so, then the implication is that we would cease to learn and grow upon our death - "that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your bodies in that eternal world", except that spirit will be essentially stuck eternally at a spiritual plateau. With none of the trials, tribulations and adversities of mortal life, they will never be able to continue growing and learning. This flies in the face of the whole concept of eternal progression. If this is true, then in order to become Gods we must be perfect by the time of our death. Since I don't think anyone completely attains perfection in this mortal probation, we must face the fact that without Multiple Mortal Probations, it is unlikely that anyone will ever attain perfection and become exalted except the Saviour (who is a bit of an outlier anyway, since He was already exalted before He came to the earth). This conclusion is extremely uncomfortable for me, as it clashes with the entire King Follet Discourse, not to mention several passages from the Doctrine and Covenants (such as Section 132), Book of Mormon (such as 3 Nephi 12), Old Testament (such as Psalm 82), Pearl of Great Price (such as Moses 1) and New Testament (such as John 10), and hence I choose to embrace the concept of Multiple Mortal Probations.


We can most assuredly conclude that Multiple Mortal Probations was a doctrine taught and believed by at least some early Church members, including a fair few prominent Church leaders. What seems less clear is whether or not we experience these Multiple Mortal Probations on the same planet/level of existence, or whether we progress to higher planes of existence with each successive probation (or, alternatively, when we attain a level of spiritual health and righteousness that is sufficient and appropriate for the lessons we have learned throughout our life/lives on this planet or level of existence and we become ready for new opportunities for growth and development in 'holier spheres'). This is an issue that doesn't seem to be clearly spelled out by early Church leaders. I personally feel that the second possibility is more in line with the central Mormon principles of eternal progression and an infinitely graded cosmology, although this is a conclusion that is far from clear in the writings and sermons of early Church leaders.
Ultimately, I think the doctrine of Multiple Mortal Probations, while clearly at odds with a lot of LDS Scripture and clearly denounced by a number of Church leaders as foulest heresy, nevertheless makes much more sense and feels a lot fairer than the idea that God will refuse the earnest seeker after righteousness the opportunity to return to mortality for more 'soul-making' and opportunities for spiritual growth. Which brings up another question - are we perhaps given the choice to undergo another Mortal Probation? This would certainly be more in keeping with a theology that radically prizes agency and choice as possibly one of the most important and fundamental things when it comes to morality.
All things considered, I quite like the idea of Multiple Mortal Probations. I regret that the Church has so vehemently denounced it, although of course I can understand why they would do so - it is, after all, radically at odds with the vast majority of LDS scripture. When all is said and done, I have enjoyed the experience of delving into Multiple Mortal Probations, and regardless of whether or not it has a place in modern Mormonism, I have found the experience of studying its history and considering its implications within a Mormon framework to be both illuminating and intriguing, and it has certainly provided me with some food for further thought!


[1] - Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Volume 1, pp 275-276
[2] - Heber C Kimball, Journal of Discourses, Volume 1, p 356
[3] - Heber C Kimball, Journal of Discourses, Volume 4, p 329
[4] - Diary of Orson F Whitney, 3 June 1889 entry
[5] - Deseret News Weekly, 38:822-24, Collected Discourses, 1:262-263
[6] - Diary of Orson F Whitney, 8 June 1889 entry
[7] - An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton, pp 429-430, edited by George D Smith

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Mormon Ethics

"Adam fell that men might be, and men are that they might have joy". - 2 Nephi 2:25
"Every principle proceeding from God is eternal and any principle which is not eternal is of the devil. . . . The first step in the salvation of man is the laws of eternal and self-existent principles.” - Joseph Smith
"Thus did Alma teach his people, that every man should love his neighbour as himself, that there should be no contention among them". - Mosiah 23:15

Mormonism is generally fairly clear about what's right and what's wrong. In other words, it has a rather clear moral position on most issues. What is less clear is the underlying framework, what it is that makes actions moral or immoral - the ethics of Mormonism.

I wish to examine three specific ethical systems and how they relate to Mormonism - Mill and Bentham's Utilitarianism, Aristotle and Aquinas' Natural Law, and Fletcher's Situation Ethics.

Firstly, Utilitarianism is the concept that the only objectively, inherently and intrinsically good thing is happiness. Thus, actions are good, right, moral, proper and ethical only to the extent that they serve to promote human happiness, and are bad, wrong, immoral, improper and unethical only to the extent that they serve to diminish human happiness.
There are two main branches of Utilitarianism - Act Utilitarianism and Rule Utilitarianism. Act Utilitarianism has the simplest ethical philosophy - do whatever will bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number in any given situation. Rule Utilitarianism is a little more complex. It argues that we can construct general ethical rules, based on how society's general happiness would be affected if everybody acted in a particular way, which then apply in all circumstances, regardless of the specifics.

Secondly, Natural Law is an ethical theory, primarily developed by Thomas Aquinas, which borrows heavily from Aristotle's theory of final causes. As defined by Aristotle, a final cause is the purpose behind something's creation, the intent with which it is made. For Aquinas, morality lies in something fulfilling its final cause. So, a 'good' coat is one which keeps the wearer warm, because that is the purpose behind its creation. A 'good' pen is one that writes well, because that is the reason it was created.
These things all have final causes that can be easily determined, because they were created by humans, so we know the purpose behind their creation. Things become somewhat more complicated when we apply this to things which only God can know the final cause of with any degree of certainty. For example, one of the most controversial issues in religious ethics is sexuality. It's all well and good asserting that an ethical sexual relationship is one which fulfils its final cause, but the question then becomes: what is the final cause of sexual intercourse? Why did God create it?
Aquinas answers that because God created nature, we can determine the final cause of these things by looking to nature. So, Aquinas concludes (as is the official position of the Catholic Church today) that the final cause of sexual intercourse is reproduction. Thus, masturbation, pornography, birth control and any sex position that makes conception impossible are all collectively immoral, because they cause sexual arousal without fulfilling the purpose of sexual arousal - conception.

Finally, Situation Ethics is a system of ethics developed by Joseph Fletcher, based on the New Testament's emphasis on love. It teaches that in any situation, one should act with the most love possible. Pretty simple. Of course, this raises the question - how can we define 'love'? Jesus said: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for hsi friends". Thus, perhaps the definition of the New Testament's use of the word 'love' can best be summarised as an overwhelming concern for the happiness and well-being of others, even at the expense of one's own happiness and well-being.

So - which one of these is most similar to 'Mormon Ethics'? Where does Mormonism fall on this spectrum and these questions?

These ethical theories all differ on one fundamental question: what is objectively good? What is objectively right? What is objectively moral? What is objectively ethical? To Utilitarians, it is human happiness, to Aquinas and those who follow him it is obedience to final causes, and to Situation Ethicists it is love. So, perhaps we should approach Mormon ethics by investigating where Mormonism stands on this key issue - what does Mormonism teach about what the objective standard for 'goodness' is?
I propose that Mormonism embraces an ethical standard of goodness that can best be defined as 'joy' - in other words, on this key question, Mormonism agrees with Utilitarianism. This concept - of the primary importance of human happiness in ethics - is reiterated throughout Mormon scripture, perhaps most prominently in 2 Nephi 2:25. However, one key passage that is often overlooked is Doctrine and Covenants 136:29 - "If thou art sorrowful, call on the Lord thy God with supplication, that your souls may be joyful" (emphasis mine). Here is one of the few places in the scripture where God explains the why of the commandments He gives. He tells us what is right, and then expands on why it is right - because it will bring about a greater abundance of human happiness.

How then, do we reconcile this emphasis on the primary importance of human happiness with the scriptures' emphasis on the primary importance of love? What are we to make of Alma 38:12? This passage is one of the only other places in the scriptures where a reason is given attached to a commandment: "Use boldness, but not overbearance; and also see that ye bridle all your passions, that ye may be filled with love; see that ye refrain from idleness." (emphasis mine). Here we have two seemingly conflicting passages of scripture, each offering different explanations for why it is right to do certain things - D&C 136 says it's because it leads to a greater abundance of human happiness, while Alma 38 says it's because it leads to a greater abundance of love.

I would propose a reconciliation of these two apparently contradictory themes that we find throughout LDS scripture. The only fundamentally, objectively 'good' thing is joy - classic 2 Nephi 2. But, we should behave in all situations with the greatest amount of love possible. Let me expand on this.

What I am proposing is fundamentally that Mormonism's ethics (if it has one) is closest to a system of Rule Utilitarianism. The most desirable thing in all situations, the most fundamentally 'good' thing, is an abundance of joy, not an abundance of love (although the two are by no means mutually exclusive). But in order to achieve that abundance of joy, we can formulate one ethical rule that will, without fail, lead to this abundance of joy if everyone were to obey it - love one another. Always be prepared to lay down your life for your friends. Always be willing to sacrifice your own well-being, no matter how great, for the well-being of others, no matter how small. While following this rule may not lead to the greatest happiness of the greatest number in each particular circumstance, if everyone were to follow this rule, the result would be a society that is perfectly happy and joyful, which is the only standard of objective morality. In short, by following this law of "love thy neighbour" in every situation, regardless of the consequences to personal happiness, we can establish Zion.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The road goes ever on

I watched The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers the other day. I have seen it many times, and I should point out before I go any further that I am a huge fan of the Lord of the Rings. Hence, I have read and dearly love the books that the films are based on. Anyway, watching it reminded me of one of my favourite poems found in various forms throughout The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It is called The road goes ever on. This is how it is written in its original incarnation in The Hobbit:

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.
So why do I care about this poem, and why am I writing about it on a blog that is primarily intended for a discussion of mormon issues? Well, I got thinking about this poem, and I was struck by how mormon it felt to me. It struck a chord with me, with all its references to an endless path that we have in front of us to follow and progress along, and the idea that though this road leads through "fire and sword" and "horror in the halls of stone", we will eventually "Look at last on meadows green / And trees and hills [we] long have known". While I certainly do not believe Tolkien was contemplating eternal progression and the pre-existence while writing this poem (he objected to referring to any of his work as overtly Christian, let alone mormon), I was struck by how prevalent these ideas seem to be in the poem, and I certainly find it a moving and poetic expression of these doctrines.

The poem makes a slightly modified appearance in the very first chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

In this I read the beautiful concept of following the path that God calls us to tread, trusting in His wisdom, and having faith that we are playing an important role in "some larger way / Where many paths and errands meet".  This concept is further reiterated in Frodo's recollections of Bilbo's thoughts on the Road: "He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. 'It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,' he used to say. 'You step onto the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.'".

Of course, the variant that appears in The Return of the King seems to conflict with eternal progression if we assume that 'the Road' is our eternal journey, however that can also be meaningful and profound from a mormon perspective if we use an interpretation of 'the Road' as our time spent in mortality and our efforts to further God's plan for His children while in mortality.

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

However, I am not finished. There is more poetry for us to gleefully tear out of context and apply to a mormon worldview. In the second stanza of 'Upon the hearth the fire is red', a song first sung in The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien poetically talks about the dizzying heights our journey may lead to:

Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though we pass them by today,
Tomorrow we may come this way
And take the hidden paths that run
Towards the Moon or to the Sun.

This concept of hidden paths that, if followed, will lead travellers to the sun or the moon is even further amplified in the second version of this song, in The Return of the King:

Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.

In this version, the final destination is not only the moon and the sun, but "west of the moon" and "east of the sun". For those of you who don't know your fairy-tale lore, "east of the sun and west of the moon" is a phrase traditionally used to refer to a different world or realm that is extraordinarily difficult to reach or enter. If we are going to apply this poem to a mormon framework, then this verse expresses an unshakeable faith that one day we will attain exaltation, no matter how difficult or unlikely or far-fetched it may seem at times.

So, basically, the Lord of the Rings should be canonised because it clearly contains the fulness of the restored gospel and JRR Tolkien must have been a divinely inspired prophet of God.  That was a joke, by the way, in case you didn't pick that up. But in all seriousness, I love Tolkien's poetry, and have always loved his books. It was just a pleasant surprise to discover that some of his work could be interpreted in a way that illustrated some of the most beautiful concepts in mormon thought, and made me value and appreciate it all the more.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Small is beautiful: a latter-day saint endorsement of distributism

"Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists."

So writes the legendary Catholic writer G K Chesterton in his 1921 book The Uses of Diversity. He proceeds to explain this quote in terms of what it means to be a capitalist. For Chesterton, being a capitalist involves owning your own resources, owning private property, owning your own portion of the means of production.

Chesterton sees very little difference between free-market capitalism and state socialism - after all, both involve very large shares of the world's resources being concentrated in the hands and under the control of a very small group of people, whether that group is made up of the CEOs of a handful of multinational corporations or the handful of government ministers who control the national economy. For Chesterton, this is the root of the problem faced by every economic system - too many resources concentrated in the hands of too few people. In other words, "too few capitalists".

I have come to personally appreciate and embrace distributism as an economic philosophy. Distributism was the economic theory developed by Chesterton and his friend Hilaire Belloc to try and solve this problem faced by both socialism and capitalism. Distributism proposes that the means of production be decentralised and distributed as widely as possibly among the general population rather than being concentrated in the hands of the government or a handful of CEOs. This would mean, in effect, an economy composed of a large number of small businesses.

The reason I am so attracted to distributism from a latter-day saint perspective is its emphasis on self-sufficiency and independence. When the community's resources are concentrated in the hands of the government, you are entirely dependent upon the government for your employment and livelihood. When the resources are concentrated in the hands of mutinational corporations, you are dependent upon them for your employment and livelihood. Under a distributist system, you own a small share of the resources yourself, and are thus dependent only upon yourself for your employment and livelihood.

This is attractive to me because where there is no dependence there is no coercion. As Belloc put it: "A family possessed of the means of production—the simplest form of which is the possession of land and of the implements and capital for working the land—cannot be controlled by others. Of course, various producers specialize, and through exchange one with the other they become more or less interdependent, but still, each one can live “on his own”: each one can stand out, if necessary, from pressure exercised against him by another. He can say: “If you will not take my surplus as against your surplus I shall be the poorer; but at least I can live.”

This economy of freedom and independence is central to the mormon understanding of agency. Agency is central to latter-day saint belief. This belief has influenced our views on suffering
(see my previous post), the purpose of life and, for a good deal of our history, politics. Because of our belief in agency, we have a long history of supporting democracy and the constitution. I feel that it is about time we applied our belief in agency to the economic realm.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Compatibilist free agency

Ok, so for my first post, I decided to plunge right in the deep end and tackle a rather deep and complex issue in mormonism: that of free agency.  In doing so, I will first need to outline some key fundamental philosophical concepts in the debate over free will. Let me apologise in advance for the length!

So. In the philosophy of free will, there are two main important questions. Firstly, is determinism true (by which I mean, is everything that happens caused by something else; are all our actions determined by a specific, or many specific, cause/s; do we live in a universe of cause and effect)? Secondly, do we, as human beings, have free will?

These two questions create four possible quadrants. Those who believe that determinism is false, and that we have free will, are called metaphysical libertarians. Those who believe that determinism is false, and yet also believe that for some reason we do not have free will, are called hard indeterminists. Those who believe in determinism and thus believe that we do not have free will, are called hard determinists. Those (like myself) who believe that we live in a deterministic universe, but nevertheless affirm that we have a form of agency or free will, are known as compatibilists.

Ok, now that I have briefly tried to explain some key terminology, let me try and justify my viewpoint. Let me start with why I believe in determinism. Firstly, we have the findings of neuroscience. Neuroscientists have been able to determine what choice a person will make, by looking at their brain activity, in some cases up to ten seconds before they become consciously aware of making that decision. This strongly implies that our thoughts and decisions are caused by neural activity in the brain, not the other way around. Now one may argue that this does not threaten a religious viewpoint, because it could be argued that our spirit makes a decision, which then causes our brain to respond in a certain way, which then causes us to perceive these thoughts as if they were a conscious decision. This would be perfectly valid, except for the fact that it's not true.

Our brain is simply a conglomeration of cells. Cells are not directed by immaterial entities; such a possibility would completely violate the laws of physics. Cells are directed and controlled by the DNA in the cell's nucleus, and brain cells are no exception to this rule. What this means is that a chain of causation can be drawn: at conception, our DNA is determined by the DNA of our parents; this DNA determines how our neurons will behave in every possible situation; this neural behaviour determines which thoughts we think and which decisions we make in any given situation.

For these reasons, I think the findings of neuroscience present a fairly strong case for a deterministic view of free will. However, I am not any kind of scientist, much less a neuroscientist. I prefer to come at things from a more philosophical/theological perspective. I think that this line of reasoning leads to the conclusion that determinism is true as well.

What is it that makes me decide how I will react in a given situation? Why is it that if you were to put me and another random person in exactly the same situation, we would probably react in very different ways? The fact that I can predict with great accuracy how my brother would react if you were to put him in a specific situation must mean that there is something about him, which I am very familiar with and understand fairly well, which is determining how he will react in that particular situation. Now, if I were to ask most people what that something was, I'm sure most would give an answer something along the lines of "his nature", "his personality" or "his identity". Perhaps some religious people would respond with "his spirit". The fact is, there is something that is causing him to react in that way, and I am familiar enough with it to be able to predict what his reaction will be.

Now, in Mormonism, this idea fits pretty well into our theology. We believe in an omniscient God. Abraham 2:8 says: "My name is Jehovah, and I know the end from the beginning". This means that Jehovah knows how everything will turn out in the end. Now, this poses a difficulty for a faith which also strongly affirms free will. We are faced with the difficulty of reconciling an omniscient God with human agency. If God already knows what we're going to do, how can we be free? Most people would attempt to answer this using something along the lines of St Augustine's reasoning in Chapter 10 of The City of God:  "For a man does not therefore sin because God foreknew that he would sin. Nay, it cannot be doubted but that it is the man himself who sins when he does sin, because He, whose foreknowledge is infallible, foreknew not that fate, or fortune, or something else would sin, but that the man himself would sin, who, if he wills not, sins not. But if he shall not will to sin, even this did God foreknow". In simpler terms, God knows us well enough (in other words, He understands our nature so completely) to be able to predict with certainty how we will act in a given situation. Because of this, He can know how we will act in every situation we will face, because He knows us so infintely well.

This, to my mind, is nevertheless deterministic. There is something, distinctive and individual to all of us, that determines how we react and the decisions we make in any given situation. Neuroscientists refer to that as DNA. Religious folks call it our spirit, our nature, or something similar. I'm going to follow the religious trend from now on, simply because I'm more familiar and comfortable with it. We find that we can once more draw a line of causation. We choose to react in a certain way in a given situation, this decision is determined by our nature, this nature is determined by.......? For Christians who assert that free will is a perfectly valid solution to the problem of evil, their defense falls down at this point. Why? Because they affirm that God created us, that we had a beginning, that only God is eternal and that He created our spirits/natures. Such a belief makes God ultimately responsible for every decision we make. I decide to steal a car (hypothetically, of course), which is caused by my overwhelming desire to possess the car (so overwhelming that it outweighs my desire to do the right thing). This overwhelming covetous desire is caused by my immoral/imperfect nature, which according to most Christians, was created by God. God is the ultimate culprit.

Mormonism solves this problem. The issue Christians face rests on the assumption that God created us. Although Mormonism affirms that God created our spirits, "Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be" (D&C 93:29). By affirming that the essence of our being - our nature, our intelligence - is co-eternal with God, as opposed to being created by Him, it absolves Him of the blame or responsibility for our imperfect nature, and thus for any choices we might make.

For these reasons, I believe that we live in a deterministic universe. Every choice we make is determined by our nature/identity. I will grant that it is perhaps possible to argue that this is not entirely deterministic, because according to mormonism our identity is not determined by anything else. It is eternal, uncreated, and thus undetermined. However, the central issue in free will is not so much about whether an entirely pure form of determinism exists, but rather whether or not our choices are determined by something else. I believe they are, and so I claim the label 'determinist'. However, I also believe in a form of free will. I believe that even though we may not be able to change who we are, and we cannot alter our naure, is such a thing really required for free will to exist? If you were to ask a person on the street for a definition of free will, they would most likely give an answer along the lines of: "the ability to do whatever we want". That is the key: doing whatever we want. And what we want is determined by our nature. Let us consider the alternative, which would be doing what we do not want to do. Is this free will? Even if we did not have any wants at all, if we did not have a nature, that would render us "things to be acted upon", rather than "things that act". To me, the only real, coherent definition of free will that makes sense is one that takes place within a compatibilistic framework. For this reason, I am grateful for a Latter Day Saint theology that encompasses determinism while still upholding agency and absolving God of any responsibility for our actions. 

Friday, 8 June 2012


Greetings, all!

I'm Ryan, better known in the mormon bloggernacle as themormonbrit. I am an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and have started this blog with the intention of sharing my thoughts and observations in the realm of mormonism with others who share my passion for the Latter Day Saint movement.

I look forward to discussing various issues, concerns and news topics as they relate to the Latter Day Saint movement with all of you!