(I spit this out pretty quickly. Some of it is awkward, I know. I would appreciate any constructive comments. I have about 1000 words left, so I could address things that are missing.)
The idea of mankind being the children of God is not a new one. Yet, many take this idea metaphorically. One of the unique aspects of Mormonism is found in how literally many members take the parent/child relationship between God and man, and how many members take this relationship literally.
This general idea does not come out of thin air. Several scriptures speak of God as being the Father of mankind. Paul speaks of being in subjection to the Father of spirits, and draws a parallel between the fathers of the flesh and the Father of spirits (Heb. 12:9) Christ taught us to pray to our Father, and included us in a brotherhood relationship with his description of ascending to ‘My God and your God, my Father and your Father’.
The teachings of the church also seem to suggest a literal parent/child relationship as well. The ‘Proclamation on the Family’ describes mankind as being the begotten sons and daughters of heavenly parents. The book ‘True to the Faith’ states that we are begotten spirit children of Heavenly Father. The key term in these statements, as it relates to spirit birth, is the term ‘begotten’. These sources are modern sources, and so the current definition of ‘begotten’ should suffice. Dictionaries define ‘begotten’ as to father or to sire. One need only take this term as it is currently defined, and take the statement literally, and one arrives at the idea of spirit birth. The Proclamation even goes so far as to state that gender is an essential part of our eternal identity and purpose. It is hard to think of gender in any way other than how it relates to procreative reproduction. How else shall we take purposeful eternal gender?
The purpose of this paper is not to provide detailed research about the historical development of the idea of spirit birth in the Mormon church. Nor is it the purpose to provide a thorough scriptural exegesis of this topic (although either topic would make for a fascinating read). The purpose here is to examine the philosophical advantages and disadvantages of a literal belief in spirit birth, and I hope to persuade the reader that spirit birth is a powerful and sound (although speculative) idea within Mormonism.
Spirit Birth Defined
It may be helpful to propose a definition of spirit birth before I proceed. The definition I would propose is that the premortal spirit bodies of all mankind are the literal (non-metaphorical) procreative offspring of God.
The idea of spirit birth, and particularly the details associated with it, are somewhat speculative. Because of this it is reasonable to ask what the philosophical advantages and disadvantages of such a belief are. I will start with what I see as some of the advantages.
1 – A sense of God’s love for mankind. It would be difficult for me to conceive of any other idea that would promote a greater sense of God’s love than the parent/child relationship that one gets with spirit birth. Truman Madsen offers that all of us crave an infinite, certain, ultimate, rich, abiding, undergirding, trustworthy love. What greater sense of love could there be than that of one who believes in Divine parenthood? (Eternal Man, chapter 3).
2 – Promoting man’s love for God. A belief in spirit birth can help us cultivate a deep love for our Heavenly Father. With this idea, God is not some distant, different ‘other’. Instead, he is a loving Father who may exhibit all of the positive aspects associated with ideal fatherhood.
3 – Motivating man’s love for man. A doctrine of spirit birth suggests that all mankind are literal spirit brothers and sisters. This is true regardless of race, nationality, social status, etc. Again, it is difficult to conceive of an alternative view that would motivate such love so directly and so well.
4 – Promoting moral and ethical behavior. Kant suggested that moral behavior is what good theology is all about (Story of Philosophy, Durant). Most of us can strongly relate to the feeling of wanting to please our parents – or at least not disappoint them. These feelings can powerfully promote the desire of pleasing our Heavenly Father by moral behavior through keeping His commandments. The feeling will be intensified by a literal belief in being a child of God. ‘Be ye therefor perfect, even as your Father who is in heaven is perfect’ (Matt. 5:48) This instruction seems more meaningful and possible when combined with literal spirit birth. This verse also contains that pesky word ‘Father’ again.
5 – Exaltation and eternal families. There are beautiful beliefs that many Mormons have regarding the nature and meaning of exaltation and eternal families. The continuation of family relationships throughout the eternities has more meaning and purpose when one considers the idea of spirit birth. Much of what members of the church believe and hope for in the Celestial Kingdom is connected to what they believe about their premortal life, and spirit birth is an important part of that.
6 – A Mother in Heaven. The idea of spirit birth opens up an eternal role for a Mother in Heaven. The idea of a Mother in Heaven is not new to Mormonism as evidenced by the lyrics to the beloved hymn ‘O My Father’, and by a short story by William Phelps called ‘Paracletes’ recently analyzed by Samuel Brown.
7 – Spirit bodies in human form. There is some evidence to suggest that premortal spirit bodies are in human form. The vision of Christ that was experienced by the brother of Jared, the experience of Nephi receiving the interpretive vision of the tree of life, and the teaching of Joseph Smith that the Holy Ghost is in the form of a man, all provide evidence of this human form of spirit bodies. Spirit bodies being the offspring of glorified, resurrected beings – also of human form, provide some basis for the notion that spirit bodies are of human form.
A literal belief in spirit birth does not solve every problem, nor answer every question. I will therefore attempt to provide some of the philosophical disadvantages of such a belief. I will also attempt a very brief explanation addressing these disadvantages.
1 – Joseph Smith taught that spirits are eternal, and that there is no ‘creation’ about them (KFD). This teaching might appear to some to be a clear contradiction with a belief in spirit birth, which can be seen as a creative point in time where a spirit would have a beginning.
The standard explanation seems to be that of B. H. Roberts expressed in his essay ‘Immortal Man’ and included in then notes of the King Follet Discourse in ‘The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith’. The explanation is that Joseph Smith used the terms like ‘spirit’, ‘mind’, ‘soul’, and ‘intelligence’ interchangeably, and that he did not do this because the terms are synonyms, but because there is a lack of precise definitions for these terms. I might claim that there continues to be a lack of precise definitions for these terms which continues to be a problem. Many philosophical arguments happen because of a lack of agreement on definitions and terms, and this is no exception.
2 – Why would resurrected beings, with bodies of flesh and bones, give birth to spirit bodies?
This is a difficult question, which may cause us to question the very nature of the resurrection. The only explanation I provide here, is that if spirit bodies are the result of some reproductive process, then it may be that spirit bodies are doing the reproducing. And perhaps there is something about the nature of the resurrection which allows this to happen.
3 – Is there not something irreverent about considering the idea of Heavenly Parents having sexual intercourse, and a Heavenly Mother giving viviporous spirit birth to spirit body offspring?
This is an understandable objection. Many of us do not even like thinking about this regarding our earthly parents – even though we know this is the case. Yet it is central to all of Christianity to believe that Jesus Christ was a literal, begotten son of God. If we can believe that God the Father, somehow transmitted his attributes to Christ, through a pregnancy and birth by Mary, can we not conceive of Him also transmitting his divine attributes through a spirit birth? If we can accept God the Father, as the literal father of the mortal Christ through some process, could we not consider a literal parent/child relationship between God and spirit children through a similar process – regardless of what the details of this process may be?
4 – Giving spirit birth to countless spirit offspring would take a lot of time.
We are eternal beings, we have all the time we need. It would make no different if giving spirit birth took 9 months, 9 seconds, or 9 years.
5 – If we are eternal, why would it take so much time for us to progress to the state we are currently in?
This is an objection that is common to any theology that includes an eternal past, and is not specific to spirit birth.
6 – The scriptures teach that we become the children of Christ through living his gospel (see Mosiah 5:17 for example). If we can use the same language to describe this relationship between mankind and Christ, could we not assume the same type of relationship between mankind and God the Father?
Of course we could, and many do. And without the revealed details regarding spirit birth, some might prefer just such a metaphorical parent/child relationship. We do, however, lose some of the philosophical advantages of literal spirit birth with this idea.
The idea of spirit birth has a rich tradition in Mormon history, and some scriptural evidence as well. And given statements in the ‘Proclamation on the Family’ and ‘True to the Faith’ seems to be the current teachings of the church. Some might dismiss the idea of literal spirit birth as something of an inferior idea resulting from unnecessary cultural over-belief within Mormonism. For the reasons I have presented here, I believe that literal spirit birth is a powerful philosophical idea with many advantages, in addition to the scriptural and historical evidences for such a belief. While the details regarding the process of spirit birth are speculative, we should not simply dismiss this powerful idea without carefully considering what is lost within Mormonism as a result.