Mormons have several quite distinctive views of God, but do most Mormons realize it? In almost every theological area, ranging from the nature of God as Creator (creating “from nothing” or as organizer of eternal element?) to the four major “omnis”—omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and omnipresent—Mormons have a take that is often quite different from traditional Judeo-Christian theism. Yet, even though Mormon theology takes these angles, we often find them forgotten by those “in the pews.” Other than when speaking about Mormonism’s minority position among Christians that God has a tangible body, most Latter-day Saints sound more like mainstream Christians when talking about God’s power and foreknowledge and the nature of eternity than they do Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, the Pratt brothers, or almost all other Mormon theologians. Why? And would it be to their (and the wider community’s) benefit if we showed more consistency in LDS theological positions about God?
In this episode, panelists Charley Harrell, Jim McLachlan, and Lorie Winder Stromberg join Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon for an in-depth discussion of Mormonism’s God. The focus ends up on the subjects mentioned above, with the topic of God’s physical embodiment, including being gendered, postponed to a future discussion.
Please listen and then share your takes in the comments section below!
James McLachlan, “For Time and All Eternity: God and Others in Mormonism and Heterodox Christianity,” Sunstone, July 2008
“James McLachlan–Compelling Mormonism,” Mormon Stories podcast interview, November 2011
Dan, Charley, Jim, and Lorie, great podcast and great discussion. Listening to this has given me a lot to think about.
It seems to me that the church has drifted away from many of its unique (and maybe fundamental) teachings about God and moved toward a more evangelical view. Or, maybe the church is just emphasizing those aspects of our God views that tend to be more evangelical. Either way, I can’t help but wonder if that has been done in order to cultivate relationships with the Christian community or to combat arguments that the religion is not a “Christian” religion. But in abandoning those unique views the picture of who God is has been watered down to the point where it has become boring and it is boring to discuss in church meeting because all of the answers are absolutes. (It is very difficult to openly argue against an unlimited God and all of those “Omnis.”)
What was the 1826 Universalist document Charley Harrell quoted from?
The quotation comes from an editorial titled “What is Truth?” in The Candid Examiner 2 (November 6, 1826): 86. It reads: “We are not bound to believe that all things were created out of nothing lest this should presuppose that all will return to nothing again in the final end, as we may safely believe that anything which has a beginning of existence . . . can never have eternity connected with it.”
Dan–I love your podcast. I minor complaint – the levels of the speakers are not consistent. For example, listen to the current podcast starting at 54:05 for about 10 seconds. Lori is barely audible, then when you come in we can hear you loud and clear. I have to crank the volume in my car to hear some people, then hurry to turn the volume down so that I don’t burst an eardrum when somebody else is speaking. I think you have important messages to share, so hopefully there’s some easy way to tweak the audio prior to publishing.
Thanks for writing about this. Definitely a problem, and far worse on this episode than most. My software records the panelists on the same track, so any changes to volume levels of the guests have to be universal. I wish I had noticed it more while recording was going on and could have tried to get Lorie to speak up more. I sure did notice in post-production! Perhaps I should have bumped all of them up to a higher level. They still would have been uneven with each other, but at least you could have had a better bottom level with Lorie.
Hey Dan, I don’t know what kind of software you have but if you run the audio through a compressor plugin you can bring up the quieter bits without raising the volume of the peaks at all. It’s really useful when you have varying levels in one track.
I’m looking forward to listening to this podcast, it’s one of my favorite topics. Thanks for all you do!
A friend pointed out to me this excerpt from a talk given by B.H. Roberts:
“This Light then, the Light of Truth and named for us men “the Light of Christ” is also God, even the Spirit of God, or of the Gods, for it proceeds forth or vibrates, or radiates from all the Gods from all who have partaken of the One Divine Nature hence “The God of all other Gods” mentioned by our Prophet of the New Dispensation, “The God of Gods,” “The Lord of Lords,” proceeding forth from them, to extend the one God into all space that He might be in and through all things; bearing all the powers and attributes of God, creating power in earth and sun and stars; world-sustaining power and guiding force.
He bearing all the mind and spiritual attributes of God into the immensity of space,becoming God everywhere present OMNIPRESENT; and everywhere present with power OMNIPOTENT; extending everywhere the power of God; also All-Knowing, All-Seeing, All Hearing OMNISCIENT! Bearing forth in fact all the attributes of Deity; Knowledge, Wisdom, Judgment, Truth, Holiness, Mercy every characteristic or quality of all Divine Intelligences since they are ONE; and this Divine Essence or Spirit becoming “the Light which is in all things, that giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed,even the POWER OF GOD, who sitteth upon His throne, who is the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things.”United in this Divine Essence or Spirit is the mind of all Gods; and all the Gods being INCARNATIONS of this Spirit, become God in unity;and by the incarnation of this Spirit in Divine personages,
they become the Divine Brotherhood of the Universe, the ONE GOD,though made of MANY”
Ex nihilo creation of human beings makes the problem of evil unsolvable. An it is logically inconsistent with human freedom– but Divine omniscience is not inconsistent with agency. If I watch you do something, does it follow that I caused you to do it? Clearly not. Likewise, if God has a standpoint from which he can observe the future, it does not follow that he controls our choices in the future. He just knows ahead of time what we will freely choose. So the question is, could there be a position from which God could fully observe the unfolding of time. That becomes very possible if we posit an extra dimension to reality. The book Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions can give some idea of how this might work. And is there any reason why we should assume that a Being like God must be confined to our three spatial and one temporal dimensions, that He (and our Heavenly Mother) cannot stand outside of our four dimensions and fully observe them? I think not. And if we are willing to posit extra dimensions, it becomes possible for God to be temporally involved in our space/time at every point and yet, in some other dimension of reality, be a temporal being in our sense of temporality experiencing a time that unfolds for Them sequentially as ours time does for us. Thus we can have and eat the twin cakes of agency and perfect Divine foreknowledge if we are willing to imagine that reality may have more than the four dimensions we observe, an assumption that is easily made if we think about it. The bottom line is that one can preserve most of the Omnis, and certainly Divine omniscience, while also preserving human agency. We just need to assume at a minimum, one additional dimension of reality. And there is no particular reason to assume only one. With still other dimensions, we can also explain how we can have only one God and Creator while God himself is a created being. God may have fully created our four dimensional reality (though not us since intelligence is not created or made) and have a fully omniscient and omnipotent relationship with this reality while still being subordinate to another creator in other dimensions and while being subject to the natural laws that govern those dimensions and thus make it possible, as Alma affirms, for Him and Her to cease to be the Elohim if they transgress the eternal laws of those extra dimensions.
Thanks for jumping in, Val! I think your position works, and it is certainly possible. And I also agree that foreknowledge in the sense you speak of it is not incompatible with human freedom. My main response is more personal than hardcore philosophical/theological. I guess that once I began to seriously entertain questions like this, I have just never found the strong sense of omniscience to be something so important to defend that I’ve felt the need to posit an extra, timeless dimension. Perhaps its a bit of Occam and not wanting to multiply factors/realms unnecessarily, but mostly I just don’t think I can relate to the God you suggest quite as readily as I can one who is truly “in the fray” with us, one with whom we are really co-creators and shapers of all that happens. Scripture that suggests strong omniscience doesn’t ring true (or helpful) to me, so I don’t go there. On omniscience I am where Jim seems to be: that God can understand the main lines of development, the trends, and is a good predictor (as well as has the wisdom of God’s own experience to know where various choices lead), and might somehow communicate that to humans. What humans write down about their own experience that become through various processes “scripture” (or more often what those years later put down as they try to make sense of things and increase faith in the God they want to promote) are great thinking partners, but I don’t feel compelled to accept their views about this any more than I do their understanding of cosmology or God’s involvement in weather patterns or natural disasters.
Great podcast. Your podcasts always get me thinking and pull me back towards a mormonism I could feel connected to even as I go through my own faith transition. This one finally pushed me enough to become a monthly subscriber.
I don’t know what comment triggered it, but it something said in the podcast made wonder Mormonism’s ideas about God relate our ideas about the necessity for a savior. Our conception of God seems to work independent of our doctrines about Christ.
At the same time, if anything convinces me to be a Christian, it is the passage of Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus. That he wept reveals a God who exists in time and doesn’t shame us into having more of an “eternal perspective” about suffering.
Thanks, Jesse! (For the new subscription, but also for this suggestion!) I think a good discussion on Mormon views of Christ is definitely something we should do. I’ll get thinking about who to invite for that.
Your mention of Jesus weeping as helping you stay Christian is also something that helps me. Brothers in temperament! Thank you!
Please forgive the typos. I hope some of it still made sense.
Dan, one angle on God that we almost never visit, is the concept of the collective God. That is all of us collectively make up an Infinite/ omnipotent all knowing God. Several scriptures in my view support this “collective” God. Mathew 25 35-45, Mosiah 2 :17.
This in my mind allows for both a finite God, our Father, and an Infinite God who our Father God is a collective part. This should allow for multiple God’s both Male and Female as was discussed whom we may worship that are finite and subject to the Eternal laws of the collective. Fun thoughts to process and to try to exercise in my little Mormon mind.
Dan, thoughts on the sad news about John Dehlin? Does this surprise you? Are you still secure in the safety of your membership?
Great episode, with an informed panel!
Is not a big part of the problem with the consept of a “Mormon” God the lack of Mormon theologians?
A year or two ago, I began creating a series of presentations that address the difference between LDS theology and that of mainstream / classical theological traditions. I took particular note of the concept of creation Ex Nihilo.
Most of the problems with classical dogma can be traced back to the “creation from nothing” assumption. I start out the series explaining that even the concept of free will is undermined by the framework of creatio ex nihilo. The logical details are explained in presentation 1b.
I start out in video 1b with the idea that even IF, choices were entirely random (like random dice) and had nothing to do at all with our created characteristics (or nothing to do with who or what God created us to be), God still determines outcomes by deciding which random cubes would exist, and which would not, …. thus simply by that creation, would determine which “choices” would be made. That is the first part of the argument presented.
(You could even add to that the idea of God’s “middle knowledge” of each individual, saying that God would know which combination would be rolled by each individual on different surfaces – representing different environments)
Then there is the second aspect of the argument. Mark Hausam, a Calvinist, explains why Ex Nihilo results in determinism. There is a particularly interesting insight given by him when he says, “the choices we make are the results of the motivations, desires, loves, values, priorities, beliefs, etc., that constitute who we are, that make up the real essence of our actual being. That is why our choices reveal who we are. If our choices were not produced from the essence of our being, they would not be our choices fundamentally and would not reveal anything about who we are. Therefore, if God were the creator of our being or the essence of who we are, as a logically consistent account of creation ex nihilo would affirm, he would also be the creator and cause, at least indirectly, of the actual choices we make.”
Obviously, the implications of these teachings reflect on the problem of evil and suffering. LDS must try to address why God allows fallible beings of free will to make choices which will result in suffering. However, classical theists must try to explain why fallible beings were created in the first place; why were they created to be 1) ignorant 2) easily deceived, 3) irrational , etc.
Concerning “omnipresence”, Brigham Young put it this way:
“God is considered to be everywhere present at the same moment; and the Psalmist says, ‘Whither shall I flee from thy presence?’ [Psalm 139:7]. He is present with all his creations through his influence, through his government, spirit and power, but he himself is a personage of tabernacle, and we are made after his likeness” (DBY, 24).
The key here is IN WHAT SENSE is God omnipresent? LDS affirm that God is not literally omnipresent. This makes sense scripturally, because, for example, Jesus says after the resurrection, “Hold me not, for I have not yet ascended unto my Father.” If God is literally everywhere, then Jesus would not have to ascend anywhere in order to be in the presence of the Father.
So, in one sense God can be considered everywhere, yet in another sense, God has a true local/bodily presence.
This reminds me of the LDS being at odds with classical theology about God being “one”. In what SENSE is God one? We stand with Jesus, who explains in what sense He is one with the Father in John chapter 17.
During the podcast there is a section where you suggest using gender neutral language when referring to God. I have been moving towards this but struggle when it comes to non-personal prayer. Being raised Mormon I have always used the words “Heavenly Father” to open my prayers. Do you continue to pray in the traditional Mormon way when praying in public or have you changed how you address God?
This is a bit late, but thanks for the podcast, and I just want to post this poem by John Godfrey Saxe which I think is so apt on this topic. I think it’s now public domain, so should be OK to cite the whole thing:
The Blind Men and the Elephant
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
I see, quoth he, the Elephant
Is very like a snake!
The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain, quoth he;
‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: Even the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!?
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
I see, quoth he, the Elephant
Is very like a rope!
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!